Day of Pentecost, Year C
Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you.
This is Jesus' promise in the gospel for this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. Some translations render the last clause as "in you," but "among" is grammatically at least as good a translation, and it's one that I think makes much better sense theologically.
After all, what are Jesus' "commandments" in the Gospel According to John? The word "commandment" is used ten times in the Gospel According to John. Once (in John 11:57), it is a "commandment" (or "order") from certain Pharisees to report Jesus' whereabouts that he might be arrested. In John 10:18, 12:49-50, and once of the two times the word appears in John 15:10, the word refers to a command from the Father, in each of these cases a command from the Father to Jesus. So if we want to know what Jesus means in the Gospel According to John when, in John 14, he talks about "my commandments" to be kept by disciples, we should look at the remaining times the word "commandment" appears in John, in the same extended discourse:
John 13:34-35 -- "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
John 15:9-12 -- "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
I have thought often of these words and others like them over the past few years, as painful conflict has led many people in my life and in communities I've worked in to question whether we (and everyone thinks of "we" in different ways, including and excluding different groups) might really be better off making a stand with like-minded others and forgetting about the rest. I'm not talking about blithe disregard for others, but of a position born of some combination of pain and principle -- a position a lot of us find ourselves in, or sometimes think we're in, in which we're struggling honestly with how we can live with integrity and also live with these others.
There are a plethora of reasons we need one another. When I think about God's mission in the world -- the audacious vision of a world transformed by God's love in Christ, a world in which poverty and war are unknown and every child has the chance to live and grow and make use of her or his gifts from God, and world in which God's love finds flesh in every relationship in God's Creation -- I can't imagine saying that anyone's gifts are dispensable for realizing such an encompassing vision.
But this Sunday's gospel makes clear something even more basic than that. It's simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one another -- ALL of us. It's not possible to keep Jesus' command to love others if we're living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love.
Somehow, though, I can't imagine anyone being really inspired to love -- especially to stay in loving relationship with others even when that's difficult or painful* -- by a finger-wagging admonition to OBEY THE COMMANDMENT.
That's not all we've got by a long stretch, though. We've got the Spirit, the person of the Trinity we focus on particularly on the Day of Pentecost.
The Spirit is closely tied not only in John, but also in the Luke/Acts and Paul's writings, with love for one another in Christian community. When I say "love," I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings for people. Take a look at Acts 2, when the Spirit comes upon those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These people didn't even speak the same language; they hardly could have imposed a test of doctrinal or political orthodoxy on one another. But they gathered anyway. We tend all too often to think of the order of things as "we come to agreement, and then the Spirit comes," or at least "we know the Spirit has come among us when we have come to agreement," but that's not how it happens in Acts 2. The Spirit is not hanging out in the heavens saying, "oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I'll go there." The room in which the believers are gathered when the Spirit comes upon the gathering probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel -- and THAT is where the divided tongues of the Spirit unite those gathered in an astonishing reversal of Babel.
Is that so surprising? There were, after all, some important differences between the Christians gathered at Pentecost and the builders at Babel. It may sound odd at first that Babel, where everyone speaks the same language and all are united in a common enterprise, is where humanity is divided, while Pentecost, where people don't speak the same language, let alone think in the same ways, is where the Spirit unites the people. And it certainly sounds odd to many -- especially to some of us Anglicans who value all done 'decently and in order' -- that the effect of the Spirit could lead to such turmoil -- women and slaves and young men speaking up alongside the elders who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture -- that onlookers would think that all were drunk.
And that isn't the half of it. This isn't just a particularly raucous worship service from which everyone goes home scratching their heads and everything resumes as it was in the morning. People are baptized, and as we remember in our Baptismal Covenant, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers," and "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:42-45). Acts 4 makes the tie between the Spirit's work even clearer. I've written both in The Witness and here (among other places) on SarahLaughed.net about the conjunction missing in most English bibles' translation of Acts 4:32-35, which I'm putting in boldface below:
Now the whole group of those who trusted were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
And that's just the kind of turmoil -- that radical change in behavior that makes a radical change in the world -- that characterizes the Spirit's work. That's how people divided at Babel become one in the Spirit. In other words, we experience the power of Jesus' resurrection and great grace when we love one another -- not just by holding hands and singing "Cumbaya," but with deeds showing real love. We all love our children, and none of us would choose to allow our own children to grow up in extreme poverty -- without clean water, sufficient and good food, decent medical care, or the basic education to be able to make their way in the world -- just so we could hold on to an extra one percent of our income. Who could do that to their children and call themselves a loving parent? So I have to ask the question: can we say that we "love one another" as Christians in an increasingly small world when we do that to someone else's child, whether on the next block or another continent? Can we say that if we hold on to our money OR fail to lift our voice when just ONE percent more of the wealthiest countries' wealth would more than eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015? Or let me put it this way:
Personally, I am energized by the vision of a world without extreme poverty; nothing that could happen at Lambeth 2008 excites me as much as thinking about the celebration that could happen at Lambeth 2016 -- the celebrations that could happen all over the world -- in a world in which extreme poverty is history. Think of the power to which we could testify to Jesus' resurrection, the stories we could tell of new life, having engaged in God's compassionate mission and seen such a wonder. Do we want to know Jesus? Do we want to experience the joy and the peace, the freedom from fear and worry, the power of the Spirit that gives us new life and new life to the world? Then we know what to do: we follow Jesus, and love one another as he loves us. I'm just one person, but I am one person who is part of the one Body of Christ. I am one with children in extreme poverty, and I am one with many even more privileged and powerful than I am. And the Spirit who makes us one is calling us to gather -- in all of our diversity of language and culture and thought and experience, in our riches and our poverty -- to love as Jesus loves.
* I want to be absolutely clear: I am NOT talking about someone continuing to live in a setting of domestic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. If you're being abused, please GET OUT and get help as soon as you possibly can; any healing or reconciliation that could happen needs to start with your safety. I'm talking about staying in community when there's serious and painful conflict.
(Click here to return to the reflection.)
May 25, 2007 in Acts, Community, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Holy Spirit, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 16:16-34 Psalm 97 Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 John 17:20-26
In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus asks that "those will believe in me through (the disciples') word" "may all be one." He asks that we may also "be in us" (Jesus and the Father) as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, "so that the world may believe" that the Father sent Jesus.
That seems like a very tall order indeed, doesn't it? It may seem especially so in these days of headlines about schism and ecclesial invasions and traded accusations of heresy. Some use Jesus' words from this Sunday's gospel as a finger-wagging warning -- "Jesus said we were to be 'completely one,' so who are you to step out of line?" I know that when this passage is read, some will sigh. How could Jesus' motley and feuding followers around the world not sigh when thinking about the distance between Jesus' words here and what we see around us?
We forget amidst those sighs that the words of this Sunday's gospel come not as marching orders delivered by Jesus to disciples, but as a prayer of Jesus to the Father. In other words, the unity -- the communion -- that we share is God's gift. Jesus asks God to grant it, not us to create it. If we doubt our own abilities to achieve unity with one another in Christ -- and well we should -- we can be confident that God will answer Jesus' prayer. Unity in Christ is not a medal to be won, nor is it a negotiated settlement achieved by some at the expense of others. It is a gift flowing freely to and through us out of God's grace.
In other words, this is GOOD news, word at which our hearts can leap all the more with wonder when we recognize how deep the brokenness is that God is healing and reconciling in Christ. It's a word that is Good News not just for "my side" or my tribe, but for everyone.
Not that it initially appears that way to everyone. We were born into a complicated network of relationships in a broken world, and by action and inaction we continue on as if anything of importance was a zero-sum game: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Good survives and thrives only when evildoers are punished or killed. The news that the oppressed will be liberated can only be bad news for the oppressors; the actors switch roles, but the script stays the same.
In that world, a slave girl's freedom from the powers that enslaved her is bad news for those who benefitted from her enslavement. They demand that Paul and Silas be jailed for "disturbing our city" -- as indeed the two missionaries were doing. What God did through Paul and Silas upended the relationships of slave and master, socially as well as spiritually. But what if the slaveowners had received this change as a gift? What Good News might they have experienced had they received this disruption of the old relationship of slave and master as an opportunity and an invitation to experience a new kind of relationship -- indeed, a new kind of freedom? Paul's and Silas' jailer did, and the night of an earthquake and a prison break became the night that he and his family became sisters and brothers with the former prisoners, breaking bread and rejoicing.
It's a powerful set of stories from Acts we read this Sunday, in which injustice and imprisonment give way to healing, reconciliation, and joy. These came as God's gifts, given freely, as all God's gifts are. Paul and Silas responded to grace by extending grace, freeing the slave girl, singing in their cell, and, when their jailer appeared to be ready to respond to grace as well, receiving him as a brother. Along the way, we witness powerful signs: miraculous liberation from spiritual and literal imprisonment, Baptism, the breaking of bread.
It's a pattern that repeats itself around the world as the Spirit moves among communities: God's grace in healing and reconciling moves a grateful receiver of God's gift to extend that grace to others in turn. We celebrate that grace, remembering God's work among God's people and embracing the identity that is ours in Baptism: one Body of Christ, called to Christ's ministry. God's mission of reconciliation, of making visible and tangible the unity God has given Christ's Body and is giving the world God created, is not something we engage as reluctant employees who grimaced when we got the memo; it is the natural response of those already made sisters and brothers by God's work in Christ.
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
And thanks be to God!
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
That's the collect we pray this Sunday. We ask God to "pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire." It's language of abundance -- such abundance that it can't help but overflow, and powerfully.
It reminds me of the story of the calling of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Poor fishers who were haunted each day by a single question -- Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family and myself? -- meet Jesus, and catch such an abundance of fish that it actually threatens to swamp the boat. In a moment, the guiding question in these fishers' lives has changed from "Will I catch enough fish to survive?" to "Can I gather enough people to help take in this abundance?" That's what it means that in becoming disciples, they became "fishers of people." There is such abundance in God's love for us and God's blessings in our lives that once we see it and begin to understand its limitlessness, our priorities shift quite naturally. If we know Jesus, we know that there is enough of everything we really need -- enough love, enough blessing, enough courage and joy and peace -- that we can't actually take it in if we're stuck in a model of competing with others for the goods; we understand that these overwhelming blessings can only be taken in if we call in everyone whom God calls -- and who isn't in that number?
Luke has this story at the start of Jesus' public ministry; it explains what Jesus' earliest followers experienced that made them not just willing, but eager to leave everything to follow him. John places his version of this story after Jesus' resurrection (John 21:1-19), and this Easter season, it strikes me as an appropriate place to tell it. In Jesus' ministry in Galilee, powerful things were accomplished; the blind saw, those oppressed by powers were freed, the poor received Good News, and the rich were challenged to join in solidarity with these outcasts to experience God's healing, reconciliation, and liberation.
And at this point, I'm reminded of the Passover song: Dayenu, "It would have been sufficient." Jesus' ministry prior to his crucifixion was powerful, astonishing, liberating. When I pause to take in all that meant, I want to say, "It would have been enough." But it was more. Everything sinful about humankind put Jesus on a Roman cross, and even as he suffered that, he was speaking words of forgiveness and blessing. It would have been enough.
But the glory of the Easter season is that this wasn't the end, or anywhere near it. The God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead and set him at God's right hand; we know now that the Jesus who showed us such immeasurable love and forgiveness is the one who will judge us -- and if that isn't a liberating word, I don't know what is. It would have been enough.
And yet there's more, another astonishing, miraculous, immeasurable abundance of blessing to come. Jesus is sending the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, as an ongoing presence to teach us all things. No human being could be such a tutor, but God's Spirit walking with us is, teaching us both to recognize how Jesus gives -- not "as the world," but with limitless generosity, limitless love, and with limitless blessings to impart -- and to empower us to give more and more as Jesus does.
You may have heard the old joke: "She lives for others. You can tell who the others are by the hunted expression on their faces." I've seen something like that a great deal in churches especially -- people who are in pain that they take as a call to martyrdom. They minister out of their pain in ways that spread it; they take the misery they feel as confirmation that they're on the right path, and the misery that others experience as a result (and often send back in the form of anger) as the inevitable persecution of the righteous. But look at the kind of dynamic in our readings for this Sunday.
Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth -- the imperial color, rare and very expensive -- may have thought she was rich before she knew Jesus. God opens her heart, and she knows how rich she really is and what it's for; she "prevails upon" her brothers and sisters in Christ to enjoy her hospitality.
Jesus' Revelation to John gives a vision of the holy city of God's redemption. By conventional reckonings, it would be the poorest of cities -- no temple, no gates keeping invaders out, no aqueducts, no lamps. It is the poorest of cities by conventional measures because those measures are utterly irrelevant in the economy of God's kingdom. God's presence and God's light are everywhere; people bring in not weapons but glory and honor; the very water of life flows from God's throne and from the Lamb through the city.
That's the dynamic of abundance we are called to take in this Sunday, and every day in the life God gives us. When Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," it's not a whiny attempt to guilt people into doing something that they ought to do because there's no joy in the task to motivate them. He is expressing that dynamic of God's abundance: not, "those who love me ought to keep my word, or I'll be really cross and you'll feel even worse," but a declarative statement of how it is to live in Christ: when we love Jesus, we DO keep his word -- and it's worth underscoring that his word, especially in John, is to love one another.
It is, of course more than that -- much more. But the "more" isn't the 'catch' of what otherwise would be an appealing offer; it's the "more" of God's abundance. The journey we're on to learn about that, to take it increasingly in and live it increasingly out, will stretch us. We need to be stretched, as finite creatures learning to live into God's infinite love. I'm not saying that it's all fun and games; such a process of stretching can be painful. But in the light of God's abundant love, that pain is transformed; it becomes the ache one feels after waking up in darkness, barely knowing where you are, and opening the curtains to see that you're in the most gorgeous surroundings and witnessing in a moment the most indescribably gorgeous of sunrises -- something so exquisite that you gasp. Do you know what I mean?
The aches of the world in the context of God's love -- and please believe me, I've felt them -- can become something of astonishing beauty in the context of God's love. That aching moment is a moment of glimpsing redemption -- all the more beautiful for knowing that it is a moment of transformation, not eternal, but showing something of the Eternal nonetheless.
That's the feeling I have when I gasp at a sunrise. It's a feeling I get when I see a moment of transformation in a human life -- of someone who was told by too many for too long that she is worthless finding her voice, her power, and a sense that she is of more worth than human beings can measure; of someone who was told that having made this mistake, he would forever be outside community and beyond grace find his feet and seeking in honest humility to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It's the feeling I have when I look at another human being -- even when I use the imagination and compassion God gave me to put faces and names to statistics in the newspaper -- and am willing to see their suffering and to care about it with God's love, which goes far beyond my ability or even my comprehension.
In those moments, I understand a little more what an Advocate is; I know a little more of the one who walks with me as I seek to follow Jesus. It's such a gift that I can't help but feel grateful, and I can't help but pray to be an instrument of that grace I experience. It's love. It's peace. It's freedom. It's power. And it comes in such abundance that I wonder even now who I could invite that I'm missing, how I could gather community to take in even the smallest fraction of that limitless grace, love, and peace. It seems too much -- but I have an Advocate to help me on the journey.
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
"I give (my sheep) eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can ever snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."
-- John 10:28-30
John 10:30 -- "The Father and I are one" -- gets quoted in isolation from its context a great deal -- and not just by Sunday Schoolers looking for another short verse to memorize after "Jesus wept" (John 11:5). Ripped out of its context in John, "the Father and I are one" gets used in lots of contexts that make it sound like a dogmatic formula on something like a pre-flight checklist for those who want to go to heaven. But really, it's Good News.
Think of it this way, as I'd wager John's earliest readers did: Jesus' saying "the Father and I are one" is saying that if you want to know what God is doing in the world, look at what Jesus does. If you want to know how God treats sinners and outcasts, look at how Jesus treats them.
There is one more dimension to what John is saying in John 10:30, and it's a rather difficult one. I often find reading John uncomfortable. It was written by a community that was experiencing serious and sometimes life-threatening persecution, and it seeks to comfort those who were cast out by their communities, with the cost not only of feeling of alienation, but with the loss of honor and of community itself that left many members of the Johannine community destitute -- if not fearing for their lives from those who would turn them in to to Roman authorities as disturbing the peace. Such circumstances make for a "circle the wagons" mentality -- which makes indications in the Gospel According to John of concern for "the world" all the more remarkable for their rarity.
In other words, something that I think needs to be kept in mind in reading nearly any chapter of the Gospel According to John is that this is the testimony of a community under the pressure of persecution. And under these circumstances in particular, "the Father and I are one" is crucial testimony to the community under persecution -- persecution for behaving as Jesus did -- that they are received by God with grace, love, and rich blessing, even as "the world" tells them that they are abominations behaving abominably.
In other words, we cannot read John 10 without the context of John 9 and John 11.
James Allison has written eloquently about the ways in which John 9's healing of the man born blind shows the Johannine community's revelation of Jesus as one who redefines what it means to be sinful, to be born in sin, or to be marginalized as one assumed to be particularly tainted with sin. What the priestly tradition in scripture condemned as being unworthy to be received in God's presence, the prophetic tradition in scripture affirmed by Jesus proclaims as the beloved recipient of an uncontainable God's grace.
John 11 is about to give us an even stronger image of just how strong, how unyielding God's gift of life in Christ Jesus is -- how it radiates even into the grace. It's an image worth citing now, as the memory of the tragedy of blood shed at Virginia Tech is still fresh in our minds, as we're still asking ourselves where God is in the midst of the loss of innocent life.
Please remember that this question, the question on the hearts of so many after this loss as after so many and so great losses, was live on the minds of those early Christians who wrote what we read today.
Their friends were carted away. Their sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers lost their lives. And still, as our rites of burial call on us to join, they sing even from the grave:
Alleluia. For the Lord is present and the God who created the universe is at work then, and now, and in countless moments to come, as one woman or man or one community of women and men does what Jesus did and declares what Jesus declared.
And while there are religious people in religious attire who will religiously declare that this person, this place, or this situation is beyond God's redemption, God's people will yet sing:
Alleluia -- God is bringing life to every desolate place.
Alleluia -- God calls as prophets even those who would seek to flee over the seas from God's call.
Alleluia -- in the midst of senseless death, on the road to the grave before which Jesus wept, Jesus tells us a truth that should give those of us who hope in him inexhaustible hope, courage, and life:
Jesus and the Father are one.
In other words, the Father -- the God who created the universe, the ultimate patriarch of those who value patriarchal authority as well as the ultimate love of the ultimately loving, motherly presence, is as Jesus is, is doing as Jesus is doing, is bound as Jesus is bound, and liberates as Jesus liberates.
Oh God, may your Church realize the destiny to which that faithful declaration leads!
The Father, the creator of the universe, and Jesus of Nazareth are one. Those who would measure humanity by the measure of God now must now wonder in the utter vulnerability of the Christ who exhorts us all to measure God by the life of God's Christ, God's anointed -- Jesus of Nazareth, who spat in the mud, wept for his friend, forgave the adulteress and pointed to the absence yet did not demand punishment for the adulterer. Jesus of Nazareth, who, to all canonical reports, never in his life refused to break bread with anyone -- prostitute or Pharisee, doubter or stumbling disciple, inquirer or persecutor.
Jesus, who brings new life to those who are dead as well as those who are dying.
Jesus, who will gather multitudes and cleanse them at the last day.
Jesus, from whom no evil force can snatch those who are beloved.
And please, if you are listening and are in any doubt, listen to this:
Jesus and the Father, the God who created the universe, are one.
Jesus, who is one with that God, is calling you and loves you.
There may be people who say that the world isn't made for people like you and is stacked against you. Those people are full of what the King James translators rendered as "manure."
If Jesus and God are one, than God is every bit as indiscriminately loving as Jesus was. Fundamentalists might wave bibles at you all the time. Fine. Read it! Jesus broke bread with, healed, and loved people who were at least as much on the 'outs' in their culture as you are in ours.
If Jesus and God are one, than God doesn't give any more of a rodent's posterior than Jesus did who you parents were, how pure you are, are how well you're esteemed in any number of other measures of a person's worth that our culture might offer.
Jesus cares about something else. God cares about something else.
God, like Jesus, cares about YOU. God, through Christ, has given you gifts through which you can participate in the ultimate destiny of the world -- the saving of the world through the love of God in God's anointed.
God, like Jesus, through Jesus, in Jesus, invites you, anoints you, offers you a life that is part and parcel of the new life of a risen world in the Risen Christ.
Dorcas, God's servant, received it. John, God's visionary, foresaw it. You, God's beloved, can experience it.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I often, and especially on Sundays like this coming one, find myself musing about the practice of Baptizing infants and small children. I'm supportive of families who do choose to Baptize their children; I believe that God often works through the intentions of families and congregations expressed in their preparation for and participation in Baptizing a child. I also think it's remarkable and quite sad that the decision to Baptize a child is so often made at least initially with more thoughts about pretty gowns and celebration with relatives than about the sign of the Cross that will be made on the child's forehead as the child is told, "you are sealed and marked as Christ's own forever."
Baptism is serious stuff.
Take Jesus' baptism, for example. We read about it during worship this week in a manner that mostly isolates that event from the context in which it takes place in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark's wording is particularly striking, as "immediately" after Jesus is baptized by John, Mark says, "the Spirit drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness." The verb Mark uses is ekballo -- the same word used of what happens to demons in exorcism.
Matthew and Luke tone that verb down, but still make clear that Jesus' baptism gives him not only a vision of God declaring him to be a beloved son, but also a vocation -- one that places him in conflict with spiritual adversaries, the powers that seek to enslave us, dividing us from one another and from God, and with very human adversaries, rulers and others who benefit from that oppressive order and fragmentation. And if the gospels present Jesus as in some ways being like the Baptizer but greater, John's execution at Herod's orders indicate the kind of dangers Jesus faces as he steps forward into public ministry empowered by his baptism.
It's not just about Jesus' baptism either. The book of Acts links Baptism in the Holy Spirit with great spiritual power, and also makes clear that the Spirit's power comes with conflicts with worldly authorities and worldly values. And yet we choose to Baptize our children, marking them with the otherness that marked Jesus, placing them on the path of the Cross. Indeed, we do it joyfully -- all the more joyfully, I'd argue, when we do it with eyes wide open to the challenges ahead of those who, like the Baptized child, have been set on the way of the Cross. Why?
I believe that joy in a Baptism chosen with eyes and heart wide open comes from being in touch with the audacious vision of God's dream for humanity, in which we participate as Baptized members of the Body of Christ. When we are immersed in and excited about what God is doing in the world, the challenges that arise from those who prefer the world order in which the poor, the sick, and those marked as 'other' stay on the margins can be seen for what they are -- the last gasps of an oppressive order that is passing away.
That's one reason I love the ways in which people of faith have embraced the vision of the Millennium Development Goals. It's a vision that's audacious and ambitious, yet meant to be realized in our hearing, in this generation -- and one I'll definitely be touching on in great depth, as Luke 4 is coming up soon in the lectionary. I hope it will suffice for now to note that when we talk about what it is we take on as our vocation when we are sealed with the weighty sign of Baptism into Christ, it includes taking on participation in Jesus' mission, that when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord (which is the most central confession of Baptism), we are investing our very lives -- body, psyche, and spirit, as well as any resources and gifts we have or will gain to offer -- in the mission of ordering the world God made such that it looks like what we say is true: that Jesus is Lord.
In other words, in Baptism we pledge our whole selves to ordering not only our lives, but to the best of our ability, the world in which we live in harmony with the reign or kingdom of God -- that is, what the world looks like when Jesus' lordship is fully consummated. And what does that look like? This Sunday prompts us to look at Jesus' baptism as a frame through which we might see what that moment might look like through the lens of Christian Baptism.
Jesus' baptism provided him with clarity about his purpose and his message. In Luke's terms, that message is about the realization of Isaiah's prophetic vision -- not in some distant future, not as something to be wished for idly or prayed for in pious passivity, but as present reality. The Good News of the present vindication of the poor, of release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the jubilee year of God's favor is more and more for here and now as "this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). As the apostles live into the ministry of their Baptism, Luke characterizes their ministry similarly. Their testimony to Jesus is validated by their making real among one another what Jesus proclaimed:
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:33-35)
I ache to know what the world would look like if all of Christ's apostles today saw this as the economy -- which, not incidentally, is our adoption of the Greek work oikonomia, or household management -- of the household of God's people. And "apostles" is NOT (especially not in Luke's writings) a word designating twelve guys who lived in Palestine over two thousand years ago; "apostle" means "one sent," and every person Baptized into Christ is sent forth in Christ's name. If you're waiting for the church's permission to function as an apostle and the Baptismal Covenant doesn't seem to be enough, just wait until the end of the service, and a deacon (or someone functioning as one) will commission you as an apostle:
Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
That's said, and you're sent. You and I, the Baptized, are sent forth, designated as apostles of Jesus Christ, sent to proclaim the new life of Christ Jesus not just with empty words, but with power -- with deeds that change lives, with the offering of all that we have and all that we are. That's appropriate enough for the Baptized. When we were Baptized, what part of us was left untouched? None. When we seek to follow Jesus, what part of us is reserved for someone else's cause? None. And when we are following Jesus with all we are, what part of us -- indeed, what part of our world -- will be left untouched and not transformed fully by grace? None.
That, I believe with all my heart, is why it's worth everything that we pledge when we are Baptized, when we Baptize our children, when we reaffirm our Baptismal vows. It's worth it all because it is more than the "all" we humanly thought possible; it is embracing the telos or "end" for which the Word was breathed and all things made in the beginning. It is the imagining that will stretch our imaginations for as long as eternal life lives.
I admit that hear often from a few people that most members of their congregations have no interest in stretching their imaginations in this way, that most are perfectly satisfied with their lives and the world exactly as they are. I have to say that this does not at all match my pastoral experience in the wealthiest, most privileged, most "secure," and most "successful" of congregations any more than it matches my experience in ministry with the homeless. There are a great many people in our culture who are by most measures wealthy, but who are tremendously economically insecure -- in a house that cost far more than they could comfortably afford, but that seemed necessary to buy given how good the schools in that neighborhood were in contrast to the terrible state of public schools in poorer neighborhoods not so far away. They are one paycheck away from disaster, and they know it; if one person in the family gets sick, if there's some unforeseen disaster in a single industry, if the wrong person gets elected or promoted or one rotten stroke of luck, it feels like everything will be ruined. The adults and children feel it almost equally, even if neither ever names or talks about it. And then there are the other kinds of disasters that our culture threatens us with seemingly at every turn. Perhaps it's more a function of child and adolescent literacy than of anything else, but I'm not convinced that's it -- I have never seen more cultural artefacts of anxiety from the young of any culture I've studied than I have when listening to the voices of young people in affluent communities today.
On some level, I think that we all know that the world as our worldly powers have ordered it is not working, is not giving the human family abundant life as we were created and still ache for.
And I believe this is part of the Good News of our Baptism. If some part of you believes that the world as it is on the front page of the newspaper is not the world as it was meant to be, you're not crazy and you're not just a starry-eyed idealist; you are feeling God's call in Baptism. If some part of you wants something more than the chance to achieve enough to feel pressured to achieve more or to defend what you thought you won, you're not just greedy or lazy or odd; you're feeling God's call in Baptism. And if you feel at times that the world and the life you're aching for is more than you could bring into being by your own achievement, even if you wanted it only for yourself and those you care about (and who can restrict caring to just a few?), you haven't run into the thing that makes the dream impossible; you just might be hearing the call of Baptism.
Baptism, after all, is not just about you. Not by a long shot. Luke, after telling us about Jesus' baptism, immediately gives us that most genre of lectionary readings most dreaded by lectors: the geneology. He tells us how Jesus is connected, via saints and sinners (and aren't they all some of both?), via the famous and obscure, to all humanity. And like Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us of the vision Jesus had in Baptism that empowered him to face what he faced in the desert and in the crowds, whether enthusiastic or angry: he heard God's call to intimacy as God's beloved child. There were many things about Jesus that were unique, but Jesus' intimate relationship with God as we hear in this story of his baptism was not one of them; it's something that God has offered to all of God's beloved children from the beginning. It's the call and the promise that Isaiah sang of along with those audacious visions of what the world could be, that in the midst of the world as it is, we could hear God say:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I pray that this Sunday and every day, all those gathered to hear God's word can hear that word, can receive the truth of God's presence to empower us as ones sent to live into the truth of God's reign.
Thanks be to God!
Day of Pentecost, Year B
Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that the phrase "Holy Spirit" for us tends to be something we stitch into sentences to lend them more authority. "Spirit" is for many people a nebulous kind of word denoting a vague feeling of enthusiasm. We "get in the spirit of things" and have "spirit squads" at football games. It's interesting to me also how frequently the word is used in everyday situations in which the speaker is trying to get those listening to conform to an expectation: "where's your team spirit?" for example.
It's often not all that different in the church. The Holy Spirit doesn't get all that much airtime in a lot of pulpits aside from the Day of Pentecost, and when she does, this talk often functions primarily to lend a spiritual authority to a proposed course of action in a way that people find it difficult to contest. Say "I think that this candidate for youth minister is the best fit for the congregation" and people can talk about whether or not that's so; say "as I prayed about this, I sensed that the Spirit is calling this candidate" -- especially if you're wearing a collar -- and a lot of folks will find it difficult to refute, or even to find more evidence to affirm except for similarly vague testimony: "oh yeah ... as soon as I hard you say that, it just resonated with me." I'm sure you can think of examples you've heard in which "this is what the Spirit is doing" translates roughly to "I feel pretty good about this course of action."
I don't believe it's quite as nebulous as that, and this Sunday's readings are an excellent starting place (to which I'll add a couple more as we go on) from which to think about discernment of the Holy Spirit's activity, the question of what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and how we can participate in it -- something that I think has some important things to say especially to those of us in the Episcopal Church who are looking toward General Convention this month.
Most of what I have to say boils down to this:
The Holy Spirit is the person who empowers those called by God to participate in God's mission.
That mission is reconciling all the world with one another and with God in Christ. That's the grand arc of what the Spirit is doing -- empowering participation in that mission.
We see it in Isaiah 44 and Acts 2. Isaiah says:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, "I am the LORD's,"
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, "The LORD's,"
and adopt the name of Israel.
Acts 2 describes a community gathered from all nations -- people divided by language and culture brought together on pilgrimage and sent forth in mission. Prior to Acts 2, this assortment of pilgrims were not a people. They gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the Law in the desert, where wandering tribes were formed as one people of Israel. And as we follow the story of these pilgrims of Acts 2 who were gathered, empowered, and scattered to see others of every nation similarly empowered, we see more of what God's mission is.
As I've written about before, we see in Acts 4 in particular that the reconciliation in which these people were to participate was no pious abstraction; it had and has dramatic material consequences for how we live together in the world. Acts 4:34 says directly (in the Greek -- most English bibles are missing a crucial conjunction here) that the apostles' testimony had power, FOR those who had houses and lands sold them to make sure that there was not a needy person left. And lest we think that's just about a local congregation and we have no obligation to others whose faces we haven't seen, the collection for famine-stricken Jerusalem (portrayed in Acts 11:27-30 as well as in St. Paul's writings) shows that all who are Baptized into Christ's Body, all who share Christ's Body in the Eucharist, are bound to care for others around the world as for their own family, their own flesh. As surprising as it was to see that kind of care between people from across the known world in Acts, perhaps it shouldn't have been so very surprising given how prophets such as Isaiah portray the Spirit's activity: in drought that brings famine, the Spirit brings the waters that give life to the land and those who live by it; and among those judged to be no people, beyond the bounds of those for whom one need care, the Spirit testifies to adoption as God's beloved children and our family.
That's what the Spirit does. The Spirit makes us one -- not like people bound to one another and tossed into a sea where their ties to one another paralyze and drown, but brought into relationship with one another that is as free as it is close, that is life-giving air and light. It's a unity that is not, as Paul makes clear, uniformity. Sisters and brothers in Christ have distinct gifts for ministry and mission. Like Peter and Paul in the conflict Paul describes in Galatians 2, they may hold radically different or even mutually exclusive opinions on vitally important issues -- issues all sides hold to be about the very truth of the Gospel and the call of God's people. What Christians may NOT do, however, is treat one another as expendable; they may not leave sisters and brothers hungry, thirsty, bereft of family and of honor.
That's not a "thou shalt not" in a finger-wagging way, or in a "do this or get kicked off Christian island" code; it's a function rather of our very identity. Those immersed in the life of the Spirit are caught up in what the Spirit is doing. And the Spirit is fueling the reconciliation of the whole world with one another and with God in Christ. We can choose to fight it or we can choose to ride it (and those who have done both know very well which option is exhilarating work and which is solely exhausting!), but that's the wave swelling in the world God made and loves.
What does recognizing that mean -- and what does it mean especially for discernment? St. Augustine put it very concisely when he said, "Love God and do what you will." At first glance, that sounds like a recipe for libertine excess. Do WHATEVER I will? But that ignores the first part of the statement: "Love God." Loving God isn't a warm fuzzy feeling, though we may have those feelings at times; it's a choice to be in relationship with God, to align oneself with what God is doing in the world. That's not the same as trying to accomplish on our own steam what we think God wants to happen. I've blogged before about the common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel oneself down the wave, when really it's about finding a spot on the wave and pointing oneself in a direction such that the gravity which pulls you down its face is also moving you parallel to the beach, always to that next section where the wave hasn't yet broken. In that sense, surfing isn't so much about paddling as it is about falling; gravity is the chief force at work, and the wave arranges things such that gravity can take you where you need to go if you point yourself in the right direction. The Spirit is moving; the wave is swelling. Love God: point yourself in the direction the wave is going. The rest is graceful falling.
That's why Jesus could summarize the Law as loving God and loving neighbor -- a statement that Paul echoes in Romans. Paul spent most of his ink trying to help communities figure out what all that implied in practical terms, of course, and communities from before his time to our own time and beyond have disagreed passionately about the specifics. Paul's list of specific was pretty short, if Galatians 5 is any indication: exploiting one another, treating people as objects and objects as God, is out; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are in. There is no law against this fruit of the Spirit. One may as well try to outlaw the tide, for all the luck you'll have enforcing it and all the fun you'll (NOT) have in the attempt.
So how do we experience the Spirit? We look for places in ourselves, in our communities, and in our world in need of reconciliation and we plunge into the healing and wholeness that God in God's grace is bringing into being. We participate in racial reconciliation, in sharing resources and passing laws that narrow the gulf between rich and poor, in looking for signs of that reconciliation happening and fruit of the Spirit growing in those around us and those seemingly unlike us -- because we're not so different in the one thing that matters, in whose children we are and in our call to live more deeply into that reality.
That's be to God!
Seventh Sunday after Easter, Year B
"If we receive human tesitmony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son." That's what the selection from 1 John for this Sunday says. And thanks be to God that the testimony of God is greater -- we have some pretty odd ways of discerning and trying to testify God's will.
Our passages from the Hebrew bible and the book of Acts make an excellent case in point. The role of the Twelve is on one hand so very, very important that it just can't be left to eleven or thirteen, and on the other hand, the person to fill the seat left vacant by Judas Iscariot is chosen by lot. The judgment of Israel is left to a couple of rocks. Sometimes, reading things like this, one has to say to oneself what just might be the ultimate question in life:
"Just what is God thinking??!"
It's a question I've asked myself more than once in my life, and I'm glad to say that it's a question that God fears just about as much as I have the capacity to answer it for myself. I believe that God is calling us to abundant life in a world that welcomes, facilitates, and spreads abundant life, and yet I pick up a newspaper that tells me about deaths in battle, in traffic accidents, in inexplicable illnesses. It's all well and good for John Lennon to encourage us to imagine a world of peace, compassion, and responsibility to further both of those qualities, but imagining it will only get us so far, "so" being a synonim for "not." Imagine all the dreamers, yes -- but imagine what would have happened to their movement had they stuck with what seemed realistic. And if we're really going to take all this stuff Jesus seriously, we might ask what's realistic anyway.
Church unity is a highly desirable goal. Actually, it's more than a goal; it's a description, a word we say when we see people living as God intends, as sisters and brothers with any who will break bread and share resources with them. It's an appealing goal, and so a lot of people get on board with it without pausing to think about how they want to actually build a world, a network of people and resources, to help the Church move toward being truly what God intends for it to be.
And this might sound like something of a "get back to work" speech, but it isn't. The reason lies in Jesus' prayer: that we all might be one as he is one with God. The unity of the church isn't a goal toward which we strive; it is a reality that we live into more deeply as we explore with others in community just what it might mean that we are children of God.
That's not just a fancy theological way of saying "Get back to work" either. What might it mean to us -- to you and me -- if we really took Jesus' prayer in, really believed that God's children are one because God is one, that the unity of Christ's Body is a consequence of Christ, rather than the end goal toward which we strive, but most often fail?
One of the chief consequences of taking that leap of faith, I think, would be that it would demolish a lot of our excuses. Without it, we might full well think that we can treat those around us as we like until such a time as they toe the line and thereby effect the unity for which Jesus prays in this Sunday's gospel. I'll treat that person as a brother or sister the moment s/he behaves!
That way lies madness, as they say. As long as we're waiting for everyone but us to meet some standard before we'll declare ourselves to be of the same Body as they, we're choosing the thankless and joyless task of monitoring those around us, and perhaps the world itself, for signs of dysfunction and misery.
It's a destructive way to live. I've written before about how our mind's "background processes" work. We are constantly on the lookout, making judgments and reevaluating them. The "search requests" we make on our brain most frequently become 'wired' into the brain and the life of our psyche. If we call upon our brains several times a week or a day to figure out what's wrong with those around us and the world in which they work, it's natural for our minds to start performing these tasts in the "background," constantly creating categories and placing people in them. A theology based on that is going to dwell on what's wrong with the world in ways that occupy energy we could devote to participating in God's work of making things -- all things -- right.
In other words, we don't have to struggle to become a member of the Body of Christ; it is a free gift Christ offers, and what we do in response to that gift is up to us. The hard part of that oftentimes is that it places us in the company of people who aren't much like us, and the more differences arise, the more we stress about whether the relationship(s) will fracture. And the more we stress about whether the relationship will fracture, the more likely we are to avoid a sense of loss both of relationship and of control by coming up with reasons that fracture and decay are inevitable. It gets in the way of becoming close with one another and with God.
So what if we took as our starting point that we are members of the Body of Christ, not because we achieved a goal but because of who Christ is and what Christ has done?
It just might give us courage to be honest about our differences, since our connectedness with others is based not on what we think or what we do, but on who and whose we are.
It just might challenge us to search for avenues of compassion toward others; if we are by action of the Creator of the universe one with our sisters and brothers around us, we ought to get used to it, since our fellow members of the Body of Christ will depart from us only when Christ departs (i.e., sometime between "never" and "later than never"), and our central task shifts from trying to find ways to figure out who should matter to us to one of learning to live as joyfully and lovingly with those with whom we are, one way or another, journeying.
And it just might give us what we need to change the world, bring healing to the sick, sufficiency to the destitute, freedom to the captives, because as members of one Body we are called to witness to Christ's presence everywhere it is, and that's throughout a world being made new by grace, and called to respond in extending grace.
Thanks be to God!
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B
Sorry about the delay posting this week -- I had more technological misadventures, but the VERY, very good news of the day is that my beloved PowerBook is at long last back in my hands! I'm no longer reliant on borrowed computers, which should make many things go MUCH more smoothly in the weeks to come.
Remember the "Friends & Family" plan for long-distance telephone service? It was a pretty smart marketing idea -- so smart, in fact, that it's now standard in a variety of other kinds of services, like my cell phone's "In-Network" plan. When I use my cell phone, minutes get counted with most calls; I've bought a certain number of minutes, and that's what I get. But if someone is calling me or I'm calling someone "in-network" -- someone whose service comes from the same company as mine -- the minutes don't get counted, and I don't have to pay for them.
Our readings for this Sunday just might be the earliest recorded "Friends & Family" plan, though it covers far more than cell phone minutes. Some of the most shallow Christian theology makes God sound like the ultimate bean-counter. In this view, God sits in heaven tallying accounts obsessively to make sure that every petty offense is bought and paid for, and when the bill is due, he (God the Heavenly Bean-Counter is invariably presented as male by adherents) will collect the last penny -- even if he has to take it from his own son, and even if doing that will cost his son's life in the worst of ways to lose it. The important thing -- the only thing, really -- in Heavenly Bean-Counter theology is that those books kept with perfect meticulousness balance in the end.
At best, Bean-Counter theology can have an almost paradoxical effect: by dwelling on just how much we'd be shown to owe God if it were measured, we might gain an appreciation of how beyond measure is the grace we experience in Christ, and that in turn might inspire us to cut our neighbors some slack when we're tempted to tally their balance of sins and righteous acts.
Sadly, though, Bean-Counter theology almost never seems to have this effect on its adherents -- in more cases than not, people I've met who most strongly emphasize that each of us have done things that, were there no such thing as redemption, would bring death upon us have not been inspired to say "... and if God can give me the gifts of God's love, of the Spirit, of eternal and joyous life that I don't deserve, surely God's grace will extend to whatever my neighbor does or fails to do," or even "God's the one keeping accounts here, and doesn't need or want me to presume to keep them"; they have rather been inspired to keep more careful accounts than ever of what they perceive as their neighbors' transgressions.
I'll never forget a conversation I had in the office elevator with a co-worker at a tech company. He was a devout Christian who was outraged that Disney would offer health insurance to same-sex domestic partners of employees, and he'd been boycotting Disney because of it. I didn't try to argue with him about the morality of same-sex unions, but I did want to challenge him regarding his assumption that he was doing God's will by trying to force companies to allocate benefits at least in part according to perceived righteousness. "I wish that everyone had health care," I said, "and I don't see how anything Jesus said or did could suggest that we ought to take health care away from someone because we think they're sinning. If anything, it sounds to me like Disney is, however inadvertently or incompletely, serving Jesus, who said that those who care for the sick are caring for him."
I think also of a conversation I imagined the evening of September 11, 2001. I imagined President Bush stepping to the podium to make a statement to the press: "During my campaign for this office, a lot of people chuckled when I said that my favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. I was serious about that, though. As an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' death paid the price for all sin -- for all people, and for all time. And so I believe that Jesus' blood paid the price for the blood shed today, and for that reason I cannot say that today's attacks, as terrible and evil as they were, call for more bloodshed. God bless our enemies as well as our friends, and God bless America."
The conversation with my co-worker happened and changed his mind about punishing Disney; that imaginary press conference didn't happen, and would have provoked outrage if it had. But I still think about it -- how can someone hold that Jesus loves us so much as to pay the price for our sin, and yet still say that evildoers must pay -- especially with blood -- for what they've done?
It happens a lot, though. I know that orthodox Christian belief would see Jesus as sharing the character of God the Father, and I know that there are views of 'substitutionary atonement' that aren't shallow as this 'Bean-Counter' version, but we're talking about a particular and particularly shallow branch of popular theology here that presents God the Father as literally out for blood, while God the Son is happy to give blood but doesn't need it himself. And when we see God the Father as being driven mostly or entirely by the need to "balance the books," it seems almost psychologically inevitable that we would try to imitate our bean-counting deity on that point. I suspect that's one reason we have televangelists on the airwaves after every natural disaster trying to pinpoint just whose and which sins made God decide to play Godzilla (a metaphor I find particularly apt in light of the ways in which Godzilla often appears in films as the way that nuclear weapons or messing up the environment come back to bite us in the proverbial butt).
But that's not the kind of God Jesus proclaims. "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love," Jesus says. Jesus' relationship with God the Creator was not one that included score-keeping. There are no tit-for-tat deals between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity, no bills sent or payments made. One of my favorite theological words is perichoresis -- a word describing relationships of Persons of the Trinity that means 'enveloping,' a whole, completely free and completely full interchange. When Jesus says "as the Father has loved me," that's the kind of relationship he's talking about.
The rest of the sentence -- "I have loved you; abide in my love" -- is an invitation to us to share that very quality of relationship in our relationship with him. And that's on reason that Jesus command to "love one another as I have loved you" is so astonishing. We are called and empowered to share with one another the very kind of love that envelops the life of the Trinity.
"Love" is a word that's so often overused and misused in our culture. "I love a good margarita" is, for example, a perfectly fine thing to say. And then there are the ways the word "love" is misused with reference to God. "God loves you" is said all too often in conjunction with the image of the Heavenly Bean-Counter to say that God's "love" looks something like a stalker's -- God really loathes us enough to want to kill us, but has deluded himself into seeing only his son when he looks at us, and therefore has decided to watch us constantly and nag us frequently so we do what he wants. Those who believe that God is like this just might resort to the same mixture of nagging and force on their neighbors that they think God uses on them.
But God's love isn't like that at all. God's love is free, full, powerful, and gentle. Jesus invites us to experience that kind of love through him -- and then we are invited to see all of our relationships transformed in the image of that love -- a love in which no one is anonymous or dispensable, no one is cast aside as irredeemable, and everyone exercises the kind of relaxed and joyful generosity that happens when nobody is keeping score in any arena. That's why the believers in Acts share with fellow Christians on the other side of the world as freely as they'd share with their own mother or daughter. Knowledge of that love demonstrated in caring for one another in this way is the test proposed in 1 John for whether we know God. And Jesus' lengthy "farewell discourse" in the Gospel According to John urges Jesus' followers to abide in that love repeatedly.
It's a love that changed Jesus' followers forever. It's a love that changes us day by day. And it's a love that could change the world, making real Isaiah's vision of peace and plenty. That's Jesus' gift -- and like all true gifts, it's given freely.
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B
On Acts 4, please see my article in The Witness, "The Missing FOR and the Risen Life." There's a fun and illuminating exegetical issue in that passage that the article dicusses: The passage says, "With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, FOR there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold." The NRSV, like most English translations, leaves out that "for," obscuring what for Luke-Acts is a point made repeatedly: that there is a direct causal connection between making sure that no one is needy and the other characteristics of Christ-centered community the passage raises.
In other words, we experience the presence and the power of God's Spirit most fully and we testify to Jesus' resurrection most powerfully when we are caring for the poor such that no one is left in need. That connection isn't intuitive for many of us, especially in the individualistic and introspective West, where we're inclined to see "spiritual" as a word describing an interior and emotional experience rather than as a way of being in the world. But that connection is absolutely core to Jesus' message and God's mission.
Jesus makes that clear as he presents his own "mission statement" in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
And there's another FOR, a "because" we shouldn't miss. Luke reveals that Jesus himself saw his experience of the Spirit as a product of the mission -- God's mission -- for which he was anointed, and it is a mission which leaves no one out. The poor shunted to the margins by their poverty, the prisoners shut out of our communities, the blind left to beg at literal and figurative city gates, are all to be brought safely in to the center of our life together, fully incorporated in community and empowered for ministry and mission.
That mission -- God's mission, for which Jesus was anointed -- is about nothing less than changing the world. So whatever you else you might do with Jesus' message, I beg you not to take it as pious words of comfort for you and your family, a message about working hard and playing by the rules to sleep secure in the knowledge that God loves you as long as you work hard and play by the rules. God wants so much more for us than that!
I've blogged and preached a number of times before about an image that's central to my sense of vocation, one that came up in my parish discernment committee for the ordination process in Los Angeles: namely that of a washing machine. Washing machines don't work if the load is stagnant; without motion, there's no transformation. So the washing machines that I grew up with had something at their center that bounced around to push what's at the center out to the margins and bring what's at the margins in to the center such that the whole load could be transformed.
We call that thing at the center of the washing machine an 'agitator,' and I can think of no better word for what the Spirit does for us. The call of God's Spirit pushes those of us at the center of our world's all-too-concentrated power and wealth out to the margins to welcome the marginalized to the center. If we stay where we are and let the rest of the world stay as it is, we're not fully experiencing the presence and work of the Spirit, and we won't benefit as fully from the transformation that the Spirit is bringing.
That's why Jesus says in Luke, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." But that's Luke. John's gospel is often preached as if its whole message could be boiled down to this: Jesus said that he is God's Son. Everyone who doesn't acknowledge that is going to hell. You need to do two things in response: a) tell God that you understand Jesus to be God's Son and that you want Jesus to save you from hell; and b) tell everyone else that Jesus is God's Son, and if they don't tell God that they accept that proposition, they're going to hell.
That's a serious misreading of John for more reasons than I can sketch in a single lectionary blog entry. What I want to emphasize this week is that John doesn't present Jesus' message and mission as being just about what goes on inside one's head or heart any more than the other canonical gospels do (now the Gospel of Thomas is another story, presenting Jesus' message as being almost entirely about his own spiritual status and the importance of realizing it for one's own spiritual status -- but I digress). This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point.
Jesus' saying "I am the good shepherd" tends to evoke for 21st-century urban and suburban folk an idealized, bucolic scene of rolling green hills and lush meadows, over which the fluffy (and remarkably clean) sheep roam with their serene (if slightly bored) shepherd. It would have evoked a different scene and mood in the first-century Mediterranean world.
For starters, the scene evoked among Jesus' hearers or John's by a reference to shepherding would be less about serenity than about survival. Shepherds had a hard life. To make sure that their sheep had enough food and water, they had to roam far from home, and they paid a heavy price for it. They were exposed to the elements, and suffered from heat during the day and cold during long, sleepless nights guarding the flock from human and animal predators. Their mothers, wives, and daughters were in turn more vulnerable to predators, and that's a major reason that shepherds were generally thought of as dishonorable characters, leaving their families so exposed. If after all that a shepherd lost too many sheep to illness, injury, starvation, or dehydration, the whole family would perish -- the flock's welfare really was the shepherd's own.
And so it might be said that Jesus' metaphor of "the good shepherd" differs from the "washing machine" metaphor primarily in underscoring three things:
- What was at stake: Laundry isn't a matter of life and death, but the shepherd's whole family and community depends on the shepherd's journey to pastures and back home.
- How far that motion from the center to the margins should go: In a washing machine, we're talking about a radius of a couple of feet; for the shepherd, the family's survival depends on journeying as far as it takes to feed the sheep and get home with resources to feed the family.
- What that journey might cost: I suppose I could trip on the basement stairs headed down to the washing machine and sprain my ankle, but a shepherd might literally lay down his life for the sheep when threatened by a thief or a wolf.
I wish that congregations were going to read both Acts 4 and Ezekiel 34 this Sunday. Acts 4 makes the causal connection between caring for the poor and experiencing the Spirit's presence and power that we need to hear, but Ezekiel 34 is a scathing indictment of the extent to which we who claim to follow "the good shepherd" have been doing the opposite of what a good shepherd does:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.
We live in a world that discourages real contact between the rich (by which I mean people like me -- my annual pre-tax income of $28,200 makes me among the top 10% of wage earners worldwide, according to the Global Rich List) and the poor, and so it becomes tempting for me to sit at home -- my home with solid walls and roof, running water, and electricity -- and actually think I'm poor because I don't have every luxury I want. The cities I live and work in divide rich from poor by neighborhood and school such that the vast majority of people I speak with on any given day have similar levels of education as I do and are from a similar social class. And for the most part, the churches in which I worship and work are far less diverse economically, socially, and racially than the zip codes in which they get mail.
Jesus, the good shepherd, calls me out of that comfortable home, away from living off of the fat available to me right here and out to the margins, so all might eat good food, drink clean water, and enjoy the privileges I have that give me access to markets and schools and the power that comes with them. He doesn't promise that it will be easy, but he promises that the journey is the way to abundant life. And I know that I will hear the good shepherd's voice and see his face most clearly when I'm living world that lives out the connection all of God's prophets proclaim, and all of God's beloved children can sing with the psalmist, not in hopeful expectation but in celebration of a present reality:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
Jesus was well known -- perhaps even best known, at least in some circles -- for his proclamation of the kingdom of God. "Kingdom" isn't a word that necessarily means all that much, or all that much that's relevant, to those of us who don't live in a monarchy, but I think Jesus himself provided a pretty good translation for that phrase even for us in the prayer he taught his followers, "your kingdom come, [that is,] your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Our imaginations could run wild on that one. What kind of a catalog can you come up with for things that would be different if God's kingdom had come, if God's will were being done on earth as it is in heaven? Heck, what would NOT be different?
Jesus' earliest followers were exposed to a lot of speculation on that point. It was, as far as we know about first-century Judaism, a pretty popular point upon which to exercise imagination -- as one would expect for any not ground into utter despair in occupied territory, when the vast majority of people were shut out of citizenship, out of literacy, out of social mobility. And then there were the people who were shut out even further on account of their illnesses, their dishonored relations, or their honorable family's disowning them. They were lucky if they still felt included enough in any kingdom to dream of God's kingdom.
And so they dreamed. What would be different -- or better yet, what would NOT be different -- if God's kingdom really had broken through to this world?
When Jesus began his ministry of proclaiming God's kingdom, and more vividly and dangerously yet, living that out as reality in healings, exorcisms (driving out the powers of darkness with God's power is bound to get people's hopes up about driving out ALL oppressive powers with God's power), drawing together and building up God's people for the new world dawning. Small wonder that his disciples, given the kinds of hopes Jesus raised, seem often surprised at how much seems NOT to have changed despite Jesus' coming and proclaiming God's kingdom come.
A lot did change, to be sure. Lives changed when people were healed of diseases or freed from spirits that had shut them out of community. Women and men cast out by their families found a new family in the community of Jesus' "mother and sisters and brothers" who heard the word of God and strove to live it out together. And to be fair, eschatology -- speculation about what the end of the old era of injustice and the dawning of God's kingdom -- for many Jews in Jesus' time was focused on the time of the resurrection, when those who were martyred for righteousness were restored to live out the lives so unjustly cut short.
However, a few might have understood how Jesus could proclaim God's kingdom and still anyone could see that so many oppressive forces remained seemingly in power by seeing Jesus' message as being about what God would do in the day of the resurrection of the righteous. Many would have fled -- and did flee -- at Jesus' crucifixion; if they thought that before Jesus' death he would one of these days jump into some first-century equivalent of a phone booth and fly out in a suit with a huge 'M' on his chest (the 'M' being for 'Messiah' -- and props to Scott Bartchy for the image), that hope was dashed when Jesus died. But some might have clung to hope, thinking that at least on the day of resurrection, Jesus would be vindicated, and woe to his enemies on that day! Jesus would come back like Arnold Schwarzeneggar's unstoppable cyborg in The Terminator -- a 'Christinator' before whom all enemies would flee, and then, if not before, NOTHING would be the same.
Well, this Sunday, we see what happens when the first light of the great day of resurrection appears, when God's chosen is vindicated, and here's what the glorious resurrected Son of God does:
He proclaims peace. He tells his followers not to fear. He opens the meaning of the scriptures to his followers, whom he commissions to proclaim freedom from sin and debt. Oh, and he eats some fish.
In other words, as far as people expecting some grand and explosive special effects moment, this is a transformation as anticlimactic as that of Princess Fiona in Shrek. The orchestral score swelled and has gone silent, that blinding burst of light came and went, and the world is still looking like a troll by any conventional reckoning.
And you know, that's why Shrek is still one of my favorite movies about the kingdom of God.
Because it's not about conventional reckoning at all. It never was.
A reader who's been paying careful attention will notice that Luke portrays the risen Jesus as doing precisely what the pre-crucifixion Jesus did. He eats with people. He proclaims peace, even (or especially!) to those caught up in spirals of violence they reckon to be inescapable. He opens the meaning of the scriptures to those who will hear -- precisely as he did at the very beginning of his public ministry in Luke 4.
On this glorious day of Easter (the whole season is Easter, folks -- like the whole twelve days of Christmas are Christmas!), it's worth recalling that from the very beginning of Jesus' ministry among us, he has been proclaiming that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," today is the day in which God's kingdom breaks through to this world, today is the day of the new life we've been waiting for. The people who thought that the "today" of Luke 4 was some kind of funky metaphorical time (much like the stuff people repeat about the various Greek words for time and the very, very special and absolutely distinct dimensions of meaning for each) probably continued to think that Jesus was spouting some kind of barely sensible metaphor or just plain kidding around when he said stuff like, "if it is by God's finger that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20).
But what if Jesus wasn't kidding?
What if Jesus really meant that TODAY is the day of salvation, the glorious day of the Lord, the day of resurrection, the day of the coming of God's kingdom?
I think sometimes that this is half the point of the accounts in the canonical gospels of the risen Jesus' appearances to his followers (or, in the case of Paul, to someone he was calling to be his follower). The day of resurrection, life in the kingdom of God itself, the glorious day we've all been waiting for looks a great deal like any day at all breaking bread with Jesus.
That's not to say that we have nothing left to hope for. Not at all. It's to say that if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that the God of Israel -- of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebeccah, and Leah, of Rahab and of Mary -- the Creator of the world, has raised this same Jesus from the dead, vindicating him and the way he lived among us as finally, ultimately righteous, if Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Christ of God, the anointed agent inaugurating God's kingdom, then we have to believe that the life of the kingdom of God is like Jesus' life:
Healing and freeing the outcast, eating fish with out-of-work fishers and breaking bread with women of any or no reputation or name. Speaking peace, of beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks, because weapons have no use at all in a world in which all are called to bless their persecutors and minister to their enemies. The writer of 1 John wasn't kidding when he said that he spoke of what was said and heard "from the beginning"; for this the world was made, and this is the life Jesus lived, the life Jesus birthed in community with any who would care for it, from the beginning. This was the life Jesus lived to the ending, even to death on a cross from which he did what he always did -- speaking peace to his fearful followers and his tormentors alike with his last breath.
Why should we be surprised, all told, that this is what the risen Jesus does? And for those of us who have experienced even the slightest whiff of the messianic banquet in the fellowship Jesus welcomes us to -- with sinners and saints, with the joyous and the grieving and the bewildered -- why should we be surprised when Jesus' table in the messianic kingdom looks a great deal like the table Jesus set for his followers from the beginning, on the night before he died, on his first days after God raised him from the dead?
And for any who hunger or thirst for a new life, a different world, a peaceable kingdom in which each one of us is welcomed for the beloved child of God we are and is growing into the person in Christ we were meant to be, what kind of sign are you waiting for? There is bread and wine, there are people to journey with, and the life of the risen Christ, of the new world, is here among us, if you're willing to seek it where Jesus did.
Today is the day of resurrection, of the inbreaking of God's kingdom, and no regrets of yesterday or anxieties about tomorrow should keep you from it.
Thanks be to God!