Jesus legitimated what John was doing, saying it's OK to pour water over people and tell them their sins are forgiven. That's revolutionary. Jews were supposed to follow the Law of Holiness in Leviticus, and suddenly John is making it far too easy to get God to love us, to get God to forgive us. God becomes as available as Jordan River water. And, of course, the irony is that the water is in the desert where water isn't supposed to be.
You can find God everywhere, in other words – outside of institutions, official priesthood or formal observance. One wonders if the churches today even catch John's dangerous corrective.
Richard Rohr, from Jesus' Plan for a New World
Sometimes, as Rohr suggests, the churches just don't get it. Especially among churches that think of themselves as pillars of orthodoxy, it seems to be felt that in order to receive God's grace and mercy in Christ, certain technical hoops need to be jumped through. Whether it's requiring submission to church leadership, signing up for some kind of "recovery" programme, or some specific piece of ceremonial, before we can be "restored to fellowship", it's all bollocks, according to John. God's mercy and forgiveness, in Christ, are as freely available as the waters of a great river, flowing in the arid desert of hypocrisy and jobsworthery and lovelessness.
You think I'm uncharacteristically angry, that maybe I shouldn't use words like "bollocks"? Read Matthew 23! Jesus used some pretty immoderate language on just this subject…
Now, I'm not using this passage from Rohr to argue for withdrawing from all organised church life, slamming the door behind us, and shaking off the dust from our feet. This wasn't Francis' way when dealing with a church at the very least as compromised and corrupt and superstitious and rule-ridden as anything we see today. Christ's call to him was to "repair my house" – not to abandon it. His preaching, and even more, his life, and the lives of the sisters and brothers who followed him, called the church to set its own house in order – and it did, in what must count as one of the greatest revivals in its long history.
It may be necessary to step from one stream of the Church (big 'C') to another, in a way that wasn't open to Francis in his own time, but we need to be clear why we are stepping, and we need to make that clear to the both the church we are joining and the church we are leaving. There is no room for prevarication, uncomfortable though that may be. Or else we may be called to remain where we are, but always to be prepared to speak the truth in love, as it says in our own Third Order Principles, "cheerfully facing any scorn or persecution to which this may lead." ((9) – where it applies to any form of social injustice, but see (7))
I am extraordinarily blessed in the church where I'm serving, and none of what I've just said applies there! But I'm very clearly aware of the facts laid out in Dr Barb Orlowski's original research, to name but one source, and of my own past supporting experience.
The Good News of Advent is that Christ is coming with mercy and judgement, and he will set his people free. Free at last! Praise him, praise him, praise Jesus our Redeemer!