The Common Good
February-March 1994

God's Downward Mobility

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | February-March 1994

Prior to Constantine, when the church was outlawed and,
with some regularity, systematically persecuted, the reception
of members was a rigorous and risky proposition.

Prior to Constantine, when the church was outlawed and, with some regularity, systematically persecuted, the reception of members was a rigorous and risky proposition. Those wishing to become "hearers" (catechumens), were brought by sponsors who could vouch for them. Thereupon began a three-year period of prayerful instruction that concluded with intensive examination, with exorcism and fasting.

In an act of solidarity, others would join this fast anticipating the Easter Vigil. From these fasts, accounted variously in different places, the Lenten season of 40 days (echoing Jesus' struggle with the powers of death in the wilderness) was developed.

Lent arose from the confessional rigors of baptismal preparation. In that respect, it's fitting that the Hebrew Bible readings for this year should trace the history of covenant in Israel. Here they inform our own repentance and baptismal covenant. And they serve as a powerful subtext for Jesus' question on the road to Jerusalem: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

BILL WYLIE KELLERMANN, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a United Methodist pastor and the author of Seasons of Faith and Conscience (Orbis, 1991).


February 6: A Day in the Life
Psalm 147:1-11, Job 7:1-7, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

A day in the life of Job is all too familiar. I think immediately of folks who come to the local Catholic Worker soup kitchen, some with Job's chronic sores and parasites. I'd recognize him with my eyes closed - a certain odor attends.

Though misknown for an alleged "patience," Job better typifies a mix of despair and righteous indignation voiced in protestations of innocence. The ones in the soup line could match him curse for complaint. He feels like a slave or hireling, a day laborer, and I think of those lucky enough to be picked early morning in the parking lot, who walk miles and miles putting handbills on the doorknobs of Detroit. And so that day, that endless day of waiting or walking - slaves of time, yearning for night which itself turns endless, tossing on a bed which is no bed.

The psalm echoes God's answer to Job. The one who numbers and names the stars of night (verse 4; see Job 38:4-7), who cares not a whit for military strength (verse 10), here is concerned for the least, binding up the wounds of the brokenhearted (verse 3).

Paul's ministry especially includes the weak (those chosen by God to shame the strong; see 1 Corinthians 1:28). To preach the good news among them, he himself becomes weak. In actuality he moves back and forth over social and cultural boundaries with an adeptness that can only be called a chrism or, as he does, a commission. By this freedom he becomes the slave of all (verse 19). Indeed, he aspires to the mind of one who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but took the form of a slave (Philippians 2:6-7).

Little wonder a day in the life of Jesus shows forth a similar freedom. He moves so easily among the sick and the possessed who press in at the front door. He goes off in search of them bearing the good news.

But more must be said about his freedom to be among them. It includes the freedom to withdraw. Jesus is not in bondage to time or circumstance.

The pattern of his day, set early in Mark's gospel, seems designed to preserve spiritual sanity. There is a rhythm between public and private, between action and contemplation, in which he moves. That solitude of prayer under the morning stars, which Simon and friends take as a disruption of an otherwise busy schedule (Mark makes them famous for misunderstanding the rudiments of discipleship), is the very thing that turns a day of despair into a day of freedom.

February 13: A Place to Come Down From


Psalm 50:1-6, Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

At the end of Epiphany and the threshold of Lent, there is no better vantage point than the mount of transfiguration. A commanding view looks back to the Jordan valley baptism and the Galilean ministry; before us the road to Jerusalem and beyond. In Mark it represents, along with Caesarea Philippi, something of a continental divide. A direction and intent are now manifest. Momentum gathers inexorably. The way of the cross has been invoked.

To a certain extent that way begins in mountain solitude, in a conversation with Moses and Elijah. Yes, the scene is iconic - a triptych of law, prophet, and new covenant; there is much for meditation. But the imagination runs to this conversation (unheard) in the light of glory. What did they talk about? What counsel did the ancients offer? These two had been to some pretty famous mountain tops.

But, more to the moment, they had each faced off with some high-powered authorities, empty-handed but for the promise of God. Do they utter encouragement? We only know his garments go white as a martyr's robe (Revelation 7:13-14).

The disciples, granted the glimpse, remain in a fog. The god of this world, the spirit of the age, the myth of messianic might will not permit them to comprehend at least until the resurrection. Their minds are blinded.

As if to underscore his confusion, Peter blurts out the proposal to construct dwellings. He doesn't get it, but clings to the experience. The moment is not for the sake of frieze or tableau, but for strength to come down the mountain toward confrontation and its cost. It is one thing to see Jerusalem from afar, another to walk there.

We think readily of Martin King as one who had been to the mountain top. He was granted the vision that frees and sustains. But he never imagined the mountain top was his dwelling place. He came down to the streets, to walk with the sanitation workers in Memphis. He came to meet the powers. He knew the movement, at least since Birmingham: A church is a place you go out from. Just so, a mountain is a place you come down from.

Listen. See. Come down. Go out.

February 20, First Sunday in Lent: A Sign for All


Psalm 25:1-10, Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

Biblically original and most ancient, the rainbow covenant is with all humanity -indeed with all creation. But first recall that the flood that precedes is God's way of setting a limit to violence (Genesis 6:11) and beginning again. The opening chapters of Genesis are simply an escalating history of human violence: From the blood of Abel crying out from earth to Lemech's pledge of exponential revenge "seventy-sevenfold" (4:24), a mushrooming of violence is set in motion.

So the judgment fits the sin, or is an extension of it: God fights chaos with chaos, the floodwaters rolling in. God's sovereignty restored, the weapon (Lamentations 2:4; Habakkuk 3:9) is hung up for all time. The bow is set aside in glorious plain sight and by its sign all creation is drawn into covenant.

Our own experience, from cruise missiles to the multiplication of handguns (200 million in our country), surpasses, it seems, even the brutality of primordial history. (In the United States, every 14 minutes someone dies from gunfire.) I suppose we ought to cling to the rainbow sign.

Even more so, 1 Peter suggests the baptismal covenant. This, in a letter to a community facing a campaign of state terrorism and its spin-off mob violence. The hymn line, "by the light of burning martyrs," refers specifically to Nero's practice, then current, of lighting his garden parties with human torches - Christians bound aloft. New horrors were being invented.

Hold to your baptism, 1 Peter urges, like a raft in the storm, a passage through chaos. Hold to the knowledge that God in Christ is sovereign over the powers. They have been faced in the wilderness testing, and finally in the cross and resurrection. They are overcome not by further chaos but by nonviolent love.

More is implied. Since Christ overcame all powers, and died for all, baptism signifies not only the unity of the church, but of all humanity. Indeed, this is the sacramental covenant in which all alienation is overcome, where right relationship to the creation itself is restored. Christians live in that reconciliation - a true beginning again. An ancient sign fulfilled.

February 27, Walking in the Presence


Psalm 22:23-31, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

The covenant with Sarah and Abraham is shamelessly particular. In the mystifying concreteness of God's initiative, they are chosen so that "all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (12:3). And apart from the ritual particulars, their part of the deal, according to God, is mainly to "walk in my presence and be blameless" or as the New English Bible translates, to "live always in my presence." The phrase calls to mind the contemplative exercise of a 16th-century monastic: "the practice of the presence of God."

This is a kind of synonym for faith. It is what precedes the law and, in a way, supplants it. To live every moment before God is to be free to stand at any moment before the judgment of God. It is thereby the freedom to die. That is the plain meaning of justification - trusting God and not our own righteousness (which is to say even our own work for justice).

There is, nonetheless, direction to all this. For the disciples to "practice the presence" means sticking with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. They don't like the sound of what's to come (and their fears give voice to his own temptations; see Mark 8:33).

Ched Myers argues cogently that saving or losing one's life has to do with courtroom solidarity under pressure of threat. To be ashamed of Jesus and renounce him may save one's skin, but lose one's life - as it dawns on Peter in the high priest's courtyard. In any event, the topic remains the freedom to die. And trusting God's judgment above all others.

What goes unnoticed, as though Jesus had trailed his sentence off in an afterthought, is the first mention of resurrection in the gospel (8:31). It's like a half-smile breaking through the heavy talk. The presence of God in spite of our practice.

Walk in my presence and I'll show you the impossible, says God. Or at least the ridiculous, Abraham laughs. So does Sarah (18:12). Paul mentions everything but the "laughter." He should have remembered. It's the name of their first descendent, "Isaac."

March 6: Overturning Ideology


Psalm 19, Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

In the Orthodox Jewish accounting of the decalogue, the first commandment is, "I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). This is a command? Yes, in the manner of "Hear, O Israel...." In this case: Know, O Israel, that before your covenantal obligations were ever uttered, God had already acted unilaterally and unconditionally on your behalf, making you a free people. Know that whose you are precedes what you do. Know that grace precedes law.

By that simple preface or commandment, the remainder becomes a sign of faith. And the very form of justice for a community living in freedom.

That form begins with God alone, and with the prohibition against idolatry. I'm reminded of the discipline for the Vietnamese Buddhist order founded by Thich Nhat Hanh during the Vietnam War. It began with a similar impulse: "Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, any theory, any ideology, including Buddhist ones." Including this discipline? Yes. Put it another way: Even the law?

In the history of covenantal faith, there have been contenders aplenty for confusion, seduction, false worship - yet the most subtle has been the law and all its trappings. Certain prophets railed against the legal misdirections of cult. Jeremiah, like Stephen to follow, preached against the idolatry of the temple itself. They paid a price for that.

In John's gospel the temple action by Jesus happens up front - though still at Passover time. The feast of liberation had been all but lost in a bondage of confusion. Jesus overturns the idol of the temple system. He pays a price for that. On the cross he trusts in God alone.

Paul preaches, the letter says, Christ crucified. That remains the final undoing of every idolatry. It is an affront to the intellectual wisdom of Greeks and the expectations of Jews. It is foolishness to every ideology: capitalist and nationalist, Marxist and Jungian, deconstructionist and post-modern - all. It exposes New Age syncretism, liberalism, and of course fundamentalism. But what about radical Christianity? By the cross even its pretensions are overturned.

March 13: A Certain Movement


Psalm 137, 2 Chronicles 36:14-23, Ephesians 2:4-10, John 3:14-21

The covenant faith goes unmentioned in the Chronicles text, but is everywhere present as a kind of ache. That which has been neglected and abused becomes suddenly more real in the dislocation of exile. (Psalm 137 conveys that anguish as well as anything in all of scripture.) The covenant is most implied in the bizarre reference to the sabbatical year (36:21) - all those unacknowledged seasons piled up like so much karma. The earth demands its due and rests.

Actually that verse was the original literary punchline of the Chronicles, the exclamation point of the entire historical rehearsal. The saving rescue of Cyrus has been tacked on like a full-blown resurrection account grafted onto a gospel that actually ends abruptly in fear and an empty tomb (Mark 16:8).

As it stands, we hear a hundred years of history in the blinking of an eye. We are put through some sweeping changes in this tightly moving saga. We follow a whole people who suffer death and resurrection.

The literary and theological movement of the Ephesians text has certain parallels. Here, we who were dead under the ruler of the world are now raised with Christ and made to sit in heavenly places. Our life is the pattern of death, resurrection, and ascension (the latter hints at an authority over the powers here and now that we are much too slow to exercise).

John, in his fashion, compresses the movement into a single ironic action: being lifted up (3:14). It's all one for him, a simultaneous mystery: hoisted on the cross and raised in glory. And all of it, beginning to end, is the love of God for this world. The messengers and the movement. The ache and the song. The sending of Christ.

March 20: More Real by Heart


Psalm 51:1-12, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

Jeremiah's most stunning contribution to covenant history and theology is in this word to the community of exiles, a people without access to the trappings of temple and state. It will be different, he says, from the Sinai pact (another time they possessed neither) because it will be "written on their hearts."

One implication is that legal sanctions would become unnecessary, the practice of the covenant being simply inseparable from who they are. This is good news indeed to a people suffering the biggest historical sanction they could imagine. The transforming importance of forgiveness (31:34) is precisely the love which ends that sanction.

The prophet commends something radically incarnational: covenant come in the flesh. And radically egalitarian. This is a covenant fully accessible to all. By heart. It's known and remembered even without the apparatus of instruction, mediated by neither king nor priest. It is in fact the same covenant - "I will be their God and they will be my people" - but pressed to a new level of reality.

The book of Hebrews quotes this text in full (8:8-13) and then cites it yet again in the course of an argument that the new covenant of Christ has replaced the old of temple, cult, and law. There is far more here than some spurious superseding of Jewish by Christian. And it goes in the direction of Jeremiah's offering to the exiles: deeper into life and reality. Today's epistle reading suggests that Jesus is qualified for high priesthood not by levitical genealogy, but by loud cries and tears. By Gethsemane and by the cross. Official priestly authority is subverted and supplanted by life and death, by flesh and blood.

I think of Oscar Romero (who died March 24, 1980). He fulfilled his vocation as priest and bishop not by the trappings of office, but by heart, with loud cries and tears. He followed his episcopal call deeper into reality. Really, really, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

March 27, Passion Sunday: Have This Mind


Psalm 31:9-16, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:1-15:47

The third servant song of Isaiah is always the Hebrew Bible reading for this last Sunday of Lent that begins Holy Week. Thoroughly apt. It bespeaks a fusion of vulnerability and utter intransigence in a way that evokes (and perhaps nourished) the spirit of Jesus in his passage through city and week. Here is one who listens, encourages the weary, who suffers abuse and takes the heat but whose face is set like flint, challenging adversaries. The details of the gospel could be marshaled example by example.

What gives pause is the repeated use of disciple (Isaiah 50:4) in the passage, as in "those who are taught." Are we listening? And the nagging ambiguity of the Servant's identity doesn't help. Cyrus, the scholars say. Or Israel. The prophet or the prophetic community. An eschatological figure. Or, perhaps, the lection coming far too close to home...some nondescript disciple.

Oh, we sigh, that this vulnerable intransigence were not so impossible to generate. Except that it is Yahweh who gives, who wakens, who opens the ear. It is Yahweh who helps and vindicates - before whom we stand.

A disciple named Paul writes a letter from prison. "Have this mind..." he says, quoting a hymn that could rattle some walls. (This too is the lection each year.) It describes the downward mobility of God in Christ. A refusal of every grasping claim to power and domination. A faithfulness in the face of torture and death itself. Have this mind, he says, suggesting that all the qualities of communal solidarity (Philippians 2:1-4) may be predicated upon it.

Today, the Passion account is read in its entirety. Listen as those who are taught. The leper's house and the woman remembered. A plot with an agent at an underground meal. A hymn and a night of prayer. Arrest, assorted hearings, and trials. Abandonment and denial. The torture room and the executioner's technique. Mockery and humiliation. The women with the guts to watch. The awful silence of God.

But above all, or in it all, listen for a certain presence of grace with an edge, of vulnerability and steel intransigence. Dare we have this mind?

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