The Common Good
May-June 1996

Receive the Holy Spirit

by Jim Douglass, Shelley Douglass | May-June 1996

Reflections on the revised common lectionary, cycle A.

Receive the Holy Spirit and give up your life! These words could summarize our new readings. This is the rounding of the church, of those inebriated people who are moved by the Spirit and who become willing to die for love of Jesus and each other.

Remember how the Spirit outstrips the church in Acts, descending upon all those Gentiles and unbelievers, and bringing the church running along behind-"quick, baptize them!" The church which is made up of us, and many like us over the centuries, is always failing. The miracle is that we keep getting up, being forgiven, going on-and growing in love despite our own reluctance. And that God still loves, still beckons us forward.

We have again alternated the Sundays, this time with Jim doing the first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth, and Shelley the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth.

May 5: A Dangerous Formula
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

To die a martyr is a blessing. That un-American sentiment is the Good News in our first reading, the stoning of Stephen in Acts. Martyrdom for a Christian is a joy because it corresponds to Jesus' death, our way of life.

As Stephen is about to be killed, he says, "Look, I see the heavens opened and the Human Being standing at the right hand of God!" Jesus is standing, not sitting, so as to welcome the dying Stephen into his presence. The crucified Human Being is at the right hand of God, where Stephen will soon join him.

The portrayal of Stephen at his stoning recalls Jesus at his crucifixion in the same author's gospel. Stephen's statement, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," echoes, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46). And his "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" corresponds to Jesus' "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). The way of the cross is revealed in the gospel by the Human Being Jesus, and in Acts by the disciple Stephen-while the persecutor and future disciple Saul watches. Stephen's vision, like his echo of Jesus' words, tells us that the martyr is blessed with the crowning human experience.

Yet isn't it true that only God chooses martyrs?

That we may be able to encourage such a choice by God is suggested uncomfortably by Jesus in our last verse from John: "If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."

Asking in Jesus' name for what Jesus said was our happiness, the cross, sounds like a dangerous formula for getting exactly what God wants.

May 12: To an Unknown God
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Some days I feel like erecting an altar "To an unknown God": when the people I try to serve prove untrustworthy; when my own lack of charity and desire for vengeance overwhelm me; when people I love struggle in a sea of troubles, and I can't help. Then God seems unknown, inscrutable.

My faith is an inner certainty: We do live and move and have our being in love; Jesus is visible to us in each other, especially in the "least." Some days that's not too hard to believe-my guests are cooperative; parish people at Bible study have wonderful insights; I get to dig in the garden.

Hard days come more often than good days. Worst of all are days when I find the grunge of selfishness in my soul. God is still present, but my heart feels hard and alone. When I'm convicted again of bitterness, lack of forgiveness, I wonder how I could hope to know a God who is all love.

As kids we called each other names sometimes. The preferred response was, "Takes one to know one!" Does it take a loving person to know God? Then God is unknown in my soul.

"They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me." I have those commandments; does trying count? "Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them" (John 14:21).

Think of the times when I know God is present: mornings when the house is quiet; moments of closeness with a friend; songs that sing themselves from my heart. God is present.

I need to understand that I do live and move and have my being in God's love, whether I feel it or not. God is not revealed one moment and absent the next. Known or unknown, God remains the Ground of my being.

May 19: He'll Come the Way He Went
Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

"This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).

Thus the way of Jesus' Second Coming is described by the two men in white robes who are suddenly standing by the apostles after the ascension: "He will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

What do they mean?

In spite of Jesus' central teaching on the way of the cross and the confirming event of his actual execution on it, the apostles have continued to think in terms of his "restoring the kingdom to Israel" (only five verses earlier).

Some modern interpreters have carried the apostles' power-obsessed line of thinking even further: Since Jesus left on a cloud, he'll return on a radioactive one-with enough firepower to destroy his enemies.

But in Luke's gospel wasn't Jesus "taken up into heaven"- into God-on the cross? Isn't the same author's symbolism of the ascension a reminder of that primary "taking up"? Are the men in white making a pointed remark about a reality that the apostles, and we, are profoundly reluctant to accept?

The cloud, Luke's sign of God's holiness from the transfiguration to the ascension, is a context for the central reality of the cross that we, like the apostles, don't want to see.

So the young men wearing white-the symbol of martyrdom- put it to us: "This Jesus, who has been taken up from you [on the cross] into heaven [into God] will come in the same way as you saw him go"-on a cross we'd like to forget.

Do I recognize Jesus' coming on the cross now?

Do I see him coming in each suffering sister and brother?

As a would-be disciple, do I see his coming on the cross as my cross?

Gandhi, who said he wasn't a Christian, put Jesus' cross at the center of his life. He said, "Living Christ is a living cross. Without it life is a living death."

May 26: Pentecost Sunday, Tongues of Fire
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

What happens when the Holy Spirit comes upon us? In John, Jesus joins the disciples through a closed door and wishes them peace, breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit. He says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain them, they are retained."

How is the reception of the Holy Spirit linked to forgiveness? How broken we are, we the Body of Christ, we the human race! Our inheritance of sin keeps us locked away from each other, hiding our inmost selves and defending our boundaries. We hurt and persecute each other for every reason, from gender to race to politics to just plain cussedness. The spirit of the Evil One finds easy access to our hearts and minds; even when we speak the same language, our words often sow confusion and division. We will not forgive, or let anyone off the hook of his/her sins. Anyone who sins should suffer the consequences! (Unless, perhaps, it's me.)

What does the risen Jesus do? He walks into a community of failures and sinners-the community that betrayed him, denied him, fled from him, that now huddles fearful in a locked room, and he wishes them peace. Peace! Not recriminations, not excuses, or even explanations-just peace. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. He doesn't even say that he forgives them, he just does. And then he gives them the power that each of us still holds over others: to forgive.

Friends, siblings, married couples know it well. What we forgive is forgiven. What we retain is retained. We bind each other or set each other free. Receive the Holy Spirit, and forgive as I have forgiven you. Tongues of flame, words from the fiery heart of Love.

June 2: Renounce and Enjoy
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Psalm 8's wonder at God's creation has been re-created in English by Francis Patrick Sullivan. His final verses read:

When I see how the sky
moon and stars
flow from Your fingertips,
what are we,
children's children, that You
bring us up,
not as demigods, but
little less,
as those You can honor
and respect,
charged with creation,
its carpet
of beasts, big, small, wild, tame,
birds aloft,
fish below crisscrossing
the sea roads,
God, our God, beautiful,
everywhere!

-Lyric Psalms: Half a Psalter, by Francis Patrick Sullivan

Gandhi in effect united the wonder of Psalm 8 with the most fundamental prayer of his life, the Isha Upanishad. He did so a few hours before his death, in a conversation with Vincent Sheean.

Gandhi told Sheean, citing the Isha Upanishad, "The whole world is the garment of the Lord."

God, our God, beautiful everywhere!

Gandhi added from the same Upanishad, "Renounce it, then, and receive it back as the gift of God."

It is a simple and transforming prayer, the revealed secret of Gandhi's life.

Renounce and enjoy.

June 9: Rain and the Dawn
Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Iget up early and sit in our quiet living room to pray. Most mornings it's dark, and when I sit with my breviary I'm aware of the growing light, the swell of birdsong, sometimes of the rush of rain against the window. "He will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth" (Hosea 6:3).

Hopeful readings! Light and the rain come gently, unobtrusively; they come to all. God, who is merciful, desires mercy. Jesus comes not to the righteous, who don't need him, but to sinners who do. His mercy, like the rain and light, is for everyone. Like rain and light it heals, frees, nourishes, and gives life.

In Matthew we have a healing within a healing. Each one brings new life and hope: to a girl already dead, to a woman who had hemorrhaged for 12 years. Both women, both unclean. Each touched by Jesus or touching him-which would make him in his turn impure. Each healed. Mercy, not righteousness; Jesus is not reported to have purified himself after touching them.

Jesus embodies for us (literally) the radical mercy of God, reaching beyond the boundaries of social sin, disease, even of death, and healing where we are most hurt. Who among us has not felt after years of pain that some wound had healed, some flow of our life's blood stanched? Having felt that, can we deny it to our sisters and brothers? Can we lack hope that the rest of our wounds can be healed?

The earth belongs to God, and God invites us into mercy by extending mercy. We are not ordered to be merciful. We are healed by mercy and left with the light and the rain as our teachers. Be merciful, as God is merciful.

June 16: Another Go at the Gospel
Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23)

"Preach as you go saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons" (Matthew 10:7-8).

Jesus' commission to the 12, whom I take as representatives of us all, is in my case a rebuke.

While I have preached that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, I have never had the faith to heal the sick, raise the dead, or cleanse any lepers. Maybe the nearest I have come to casting out demons was to pray uninvited at nuclear weapons bunkers. But again my faith was smaller than a mustard seed. The bombs, and the demonic assumptions behind them, are still there.

Jesus' command that we simply live out our faith, with God doing miracles of healing and exorcism through us, is profoundly disturbing. Jesus says plainly at the heart of the gospels that a nonviolent transformation of reality through a living faith is possible. The reign of God is truly at hand-no farther away than my hand moving this pen, or your hand holding that page. Our faith and our hands equal the means to a new reality.

The best way I have found to bridge Jesus' vision of that reality and my own shallow faith is by Gandhi's "experiments in truth"-or better, "experiments in faith." The truth in question is the faith of the gospel.

One such experiment in faith is to join friends going to Iraq, taking medicines in the hope of saving a few lives and breaking an evil law. If our faith is deep enough, totally reliant on our Loving God, anything is possible-perhaps nothing that we want. Faith exceeds calculation.

Every experiment in faith is another go at realizing what Jesus said is true.

June 23: Walking into the Wall
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69:8-11 (12-17), 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

These are frightening readings. They prepare us for the Holy Spirit and for God's movement, a movement of mercy and compassion that will put us, like Jeremiah, in conflict with our world.

When we have experienced God's mercy and love, we see those around us with God's loving eyes. We are forced to speak words of justice, words of peace. We have to act on those words.

Somewhere in this process we walk smack into a brick wall: our fear, our friends' opinions, our family's security. Something is too important to risk. A choice: We can be silent and feel our very bones burn with the fire of God until we are misshapen, or we can endure the burning of truth in our selves.

These readings are meant to reassure us, but they fail: Who wants to lay down their life? Baptismal death is comfortably symbolic; we'd prefer to leave it that way.

To REALLY lay down our lives, we risk what is most precious to us. It is a real risk. Marriages end, parents and children are estranged, livelihoods are lost or damaged-not to mention jail sentences served, beatings endured, lives lost. Jesus doesn't promise to keep our lives comfortable. He promises just the opposite: We will walk into the wall.

The comfort is not that we won't die, but that if we die for his sake we will live again. Like Jesus we will live a transformed life. We cannot know as we begin to act what the outcome will be. We can only know that as we respond to the mercy shown us by showing mercy, we invite the death of our former selves. And we believe-sometimes barely-that when the dust has settled we will be acknowledged by Jesus, and will regain our lives.

June 30: "When You Need Something, Just Talk to Me"
Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me" (Matthew 10:40).

Clarice South welcomed everyone, and God has welcomed her.

She died last October in Santa Clara, California, at the age of 90. I had known Clarice South since the 1950s, when her daughter Claire and I went together. In my boarding school years, Mrs. South and her family opened their home to me. The warmth of their lives in my young life was a sustaining, enduring presence.

Decades later when I periodically returned to Santa Clara, it was always a gift to wait expectantly at the door of 936 Fremont Street for what I knew would be Mrs. South's warm welcome. I was never disappointed. She knew how to love.

Claire gave the eulogy at her mother's Mass of the Resurrection last fall. She sketched simply, beautifully the portrait of a woman who to the end of her life loved and served others down to the smallest detail in their lives. God then gave her a wisdom of faithful love that she shared with the group of family and friends gathered around her hospital bedside.

Claire recalled: "Mom exhorted us, 'Keep your faith. Stay close to each other.' And then she said, 'From now on, when you need something, just talk to me.'"

Like Mrs. South's always welcoming smile at the door, I shall remember especially, through her daughter's eulogy, those final words echoing Jesus.

Keep your faith.

Stay close to each other.

From now on, when you need something, just talk to me.

JIM DOUGLASS is the author, most recently, of The Nonviolent Coming of God (Orbis, 1991). SHELLEY DOUGLASS, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and works at Mary's House, a Catholic Worker community in Birmingham, Alabama.

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