The Common Good
March-April 1997

Witnessing to the Power of God

by Peter B. Price | March-April 1997

Reflections on the revised common lectionary, cycle B.

Our God is one who acts in history. The power of God is declared in the return of the exile, the freeing of the oppressed, the forgiveness of the guilty. Our God acts in people and among people.

Jesus—through his life and witness, his death and resurrection—declared in a distinctive and unique way the power of God in human affairs. Many of his actions were extraordinary in their ordinariness. Each decision, whether to eat with the outcast or to drive out corruption from the house of God, was born out of a deep commitment to see God’s purposes fulfilled "on Earth as in heaven."

Jesus’ witness to the power of God continues to be seen in those who have accepted the challenge, "You shall be my witnesses." The time of passion and Easter call us to re-evaluate our witness and to turn again to the way of the crucified.

March 2
The Power of God
Psalm 19, Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

Jesus’ act of civil disobedience in making a whip of cords and driving people and animals from the crowded temple precincts, turning over tables piled high with coins, has sent shock waves through history. Just what was this zeal that consumed Jesus?

John sought to convince his Jewish readers that Jesus upheld a deep tradition within the Torah. Theologian Walter Brueggemann reminds us that the Torah is at the center of Jewish spirituality, and "is hardnosed realism about the given norms of our life, about the ethical context of our faith, about the public character of our religion." Jesus restored a wholeness in the understanding of God; God’s love and salvation is inclusive, accessible, free.

Jesus’ call to "stop using my Father’s house as a market" (John 2:16) is not just a localized plea. Scripture carries the idea of God’s house as embracing all creation. The psalmist’s cry that the "heavens declare the glory of God" reminds us that God’s creative power is mirrored in the sun, moon, and stars. The beauty and majesty of creation, the faithful return of days and seasons, mark for the psalmist and for us the "perfect law of the Lord God." When we recognize the immutability of this law, it should lead us to behave appropriately toward creation.

Humanity needs a wholistic ethical code, and in Judeo-Christian tradition such a code is found in the commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). They demand interpretation in our own context, but they are liberating, not oppressive, making possible a truly public faith that honors God as creator, savior, and sustainer, gives dignity to human relationships, and respects creation. When we embrace this with the passion and conviction exemplified by Jesus, we can with integrity address those things that abuse the cosmos, "the house of God."

Reflection and Action

What issues consume you with zeal? Where is Jesus calling you to stop abusing "the house of God"? Do you agree the commandments are not oppressive, but rather liberating? How do they need reinterpreting for today?

March 9
Come Out...Into Light
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

People experiencing oppression need encouragement from others who have similarly suffered and yet have been rescued. Psalm 107 pictures groups of exiles suffering hardship, often for different reasons; some "fools for their rebellious ways," others "sojourners in gloom and shadow dark as death fettered in misery and chains" or oppressed by "the power of their enemies." Out of such misery, poverty, and exile God rescues—whatever the cause of the suffering in the first place.

The psalms of thanksgiving point to the reality of God’s saving power in history. These liturgies cry out against global injustice, poverty, and suffering and offer comfort, gentleness, and joy to the oppressed. David Pleins reveals that the psalms move us "beyond worship as spectator sport towards a worship that has each worshipper engaging in a life and death struggle that gives depth and hue to our entire planet."

Ephesians addresses oppression in terms of "the principles of this world" (2:1-2). The phrase "the world" is more effectively interpreted as "the System." It refers to oppression brought about by political and economic power, racism, sexist and classist attitudes. Involvement in such oppression is death (2:1). The writer describes the "dead" as being complicit in injustice, "living by our own natural inclinations, obeying the commands of human self-indulgence and our own whim" (2:3). The author tells readers that before receiving the gift of salvation, "you were dead." What we are saved from is not simply personal obsessions and selfishnesses, but participation in systems and structures that deny the reality of the power of God to save.

When John’s gospel quotes Jesus saying of himself "through him the world might be saved" (John 3:17), it is addressing Christians who know that the Roman emperor, in whose name they are persecuted, calls himself "Savior." The gospel invites us first to be saved from "the System" and then to make a public declaration or witness against it. Salvation required Nicodemus to "come out into the light" (John 3:21). Salvation demands the same from us.

Reflection and Action

How much is your church worship a spectator sport? Where do you continue to be "dead" by your complicity with injustice? How will you "come into the light"?

March 16
I Shall Be Your God
Psalm 51:1-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Deep within the human psyche throughout the ages there has been an almost cosmic cry for help. Psalm 51 reflects that cry. It reveals a despair informed by guilt and a sense of personal responsibility for the way things are, but nevertheless longs for a new beginning.

Jeremiah recognizes this longing among those who have experienced the bitterness of dislocation, persecution, and exile, a longing for a new contract with God for life. But Jeremiah makes clear that the desire for freedom from guilt and oppression is energized not by humanity, but by God. So concerned is God for a fresh start that he offers an agreement, or covenant, making a new ethic to be inscribed on the heart of humanity (Jeremiah 31:33).

Hebrews reminds us of the cost of bringing in this new order: Jesus "learned obedience, son though he was, through his sufferings" (5:7-8). Although there is something profoundly mystical about the fact that Jesus had to learn obedience, it is a deeply comforting thought for those of us who recognize just how hard it is to "hate our life in [the Systems of] this world" (John 12:25).

Jesus indicates that the "wheat grain that falls into the ground" (John 12:24) is not in fact a single seed, but more like a sieve full of seed to make a harvest. Jesus says his death will be followed by many others and will bear fruit. The witness of martyrs always bears fruit. One is reminded of Oscar Romero saying, "If I die, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people." What is required of us is holding on to hope, and an integrity of praying that pleads, "Create in me a clean heart, renew within me a resolute spirit" (Psalm 51:10).

Reflection and Action

Where are the cries for a new start being heard today? Where are you "learning obedience through suffering"? Where are you being called to "bear fruit"?

March 23
Accepting Death
Psalm 31:9-16; Isaiah 50:4-9; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

Real anxiety exists in the mind of the authorities. Jesus is to be arrested, but the timing could scarcely be less fortunate (Mark 14:2). Passover, with its promise of liberation, always caused political unrest in Roman-occupied Palestine.

Jesus as usual eats with the marginalized (Mark 14:3). His meal is interrupted by an unknown woman, possibly a prostitute, who senses the mood and is all too familiar with the ways of power. She anoints Jesus with expensive ointment, despite the protests of those who see it as "waste" (14:4-5). Her action is recognized by Jesus as a genuine gift of the poor, who know both the value of everything and of nothing.

By experiencing reproach she has identified with the servant in Isaiah who, as Daniel Berrigan put it, has "touched the nerve of injustice." Her actions are like the servant’s "disciple’s tongue...[that] give[s] a word of comfort to the weary" (Isaiah 50:4). Jesus criticizes those who are upsetting her, and reminds them that this action, like the action of other women in Mark, "will be told in remembrance of her" (Mark 14:9).

Jesus’ resistance to the powers is here illustrated simply and profoundly. We know how dangerous things were becoming: covert action and bribes on the part of the authorities (Mark 14:10-11); "underground" activities by Jesus to ensure safe participation in the Passover (14:12-16); and the desperate, futile attempt to violently resist the authorities upon Jesus’ arrest (14:47). Right to the end, Jesus emptied himself, "taking the form of a slave...even to accepting death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).

We can only imagine the true state of Jesus’ mind and heart as he approaches the inevitable final confrontation with the powers. But the psalmist offers an insight: "The sheer number of my enemies makes me contemptible, loathsome to my neighbors, and my friends shrink from me in horror." The psalmist continues, "But my trust is in you, Lord; I say every moment of my life is in your hands, rescue me....Save me in your faithful love." It is the prayer and the hope of all who have put the justice of God before their own welfare and safety

Reflection and Action

Who do you know that has "touched the nerve of injustice" or given a word of comfort to the weary? Can you recall any simple steps you have taken, or might take, to resist the powers? Share an example of when you could say, "Every moment of my life is in your hands, Lord."

March 30
Raised to Life
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

A woman’s witness was not valid in a Jewish court of law. Mary Magdalene is called to give evidence to the disciples and Peter that "Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified...has risen, and he is not here" (Mark 16:6). No wonder the women were "scared out of their wits and said nothing to anyone"!

Mark’s original gospel ends on a note of suspense and fear. We have glimpsed the secret, but we do not know whether or not the women will become apostles—those who both witness and declare the resurrection. Right now we are miles away from the almost avuncular Peter talking to Cornelius, recounting not only how they had been witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection, but how they had enjoyed the special relationship of eating and drinking with him "after his resurrection" (Acts 10:41).

Mark has us facing many questions. He challenges us first to decide whether we can break the taboo and accept the witness of women. Then he asks us to face the new reality that the Jesus triumph is summed up not in the description "Nazarene," but as "crucified"; and to ask ourselves, Is "crucified" the only name any disciple can take? In effect, he is asking, "Who won—God or the powers?"

The powers seem to be intact. Yet there is hope, but it is a going-back-to-the-beginning hope—a Galilee hope, a hope that raises the question, Who will follow? No wonder they were afraid! Today, suddenly, becomes very like yesterday; the same challenges, the same questions—yet the possibility is born that if they can speak instead of saying "nothing to anyone," a hope that is beyond hoping becomes possible.

Reflection and Action

Is "crucified" the only name any disciple can take? Where has that experience been truest for you? Whose witness has most impressed you? Where have you consciously borne witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection?

April 6
So I Am Sending You
Psalm 133; Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

The community is in shock, but it is still together. The dispersal of Peter and John "back home" (John 20:10) earlier in the day has given way to a fearful gathering in the upper room. Into a group paralyzed with fear, Jesus offers the gift of peace.

The marks of suffering are shown as evidence that it is Jesus who is with them. These hands are the hands into which God has given all things (John 3:35; 13:3). In the midst of fear and against the impending violence, the meaningful gift of peace is offered. Jesus’ appearance and his peace-giving do not mark the end of discipleship, but rather its beginning. "As the Father sent me, so I am sending you." Jesus transfers the divine authority to the new community.

New authority brings new responsibility. Not only are they to break with sin (1 John 1:8-10) and to keep the commandment of love (1 John 2:3-11), but they are to make the break with the System in every way both personal and social and to be on guard against the Antichrist (1 John 2:12-28).

Their new authority brings a shared relationship with the Holy Spirit. Jesus gives practical examples of forgiveness in the community. "If you let go of someone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you hold on to them, they are retained" (John 20:23).

Given previous failures and imperfections, strategies for forgiveness are essential to build up community. A community claiming to be bearer of "good news for all people" is seen as hypocritical if fear, guilt, and an unforgiving spirit govern its life. The psalmist holds out the dream, "How good, how delightful it is to live as sisters and brothers together." The Acts passage reminds us of the social and economic implications.

Reflection and Action

Where have you most experienced "the gift of peace"? How seriously do you take responsibility to break with sin, keep the commandment of love, break with the System, and be on your guard against denying Christ? Where do you need to practice forgiveness?

April 13
We Are Witnesses
Psalm 4; Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48

In Jesus’ appearance in the upper room, the evidence of real presence is once again rehearsed in ordinary things like touching and eating. The interpretation of all that has happened is reinforced: "This is what I meant when I said...what was destined to be fulfilled...that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that in his name repentance would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem." Jesus reminds them, "You are witnesses to this" (Luke 24:44-48).

The word "witness" here means martyr. Today we usually think of martyrs as those who die for their beliefs and hopes. But a martyr is someone who is willing to die for what they believe, even if death for the cause is not actually demanded.

The awesome realities of crucifixion that the disciples had so recently witnessed reminded them of the true cost of following. We are not told how they responded to the commissioning and the instruction "to stay in the city, then, until you are clothed with the power from on high"—though Luke’s account of the ascension has them returning to the temple "full of joy...and continually praising God" (Luke 24:53).

The temple has lost none of its controversy or focus for confrontation, and having received the power from on high, Peter confronts the authorities with their complicity in the murder of the "prince of life" (Acts 3:15). At the same time, Peter is anxious to open a door to a change of heart: "Now I know that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing" (3:18). Peter reminds his hearers "we are witnesses," a phrase that holds with it the willingness to lay down life for the sake of truth, but also holds out the hope that repentance and turning from sin will follow.

Reflection and Action

In what circumstances have you found yourself saying, "We are witnesses"? Have you ever experienced "being clothed with power from on high"? For what task? How did it affect your witness?

April 20
Laying Down Life
Psalm 23; Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:17-24; John 10:11-18

"If you are questioning us about an act of kindness..." (Acts 4:9). It is amazing how this incident of healing in the temple exposes the vulnerability and corruption of the ruling religious elite in Jerusalem. These are "the hired men" who as soon as they see "the wolf coming...run away" (John 10:12). In the war with Rome fought during the A.D. 60s, the religious authorities sought collaboration with the emperor’s forces and left those for whom they had pastoral responsibility to their fate.

Such experiences are not uncommon today, and recent actions by church leaders abandoning their people for the safety of exile continues to mar the church’s witness. Jesus as a good shepherd "lays down his life for his sheep" (John 10:11). His witness to the authorities and their oppressive power is to side with the ones who will always be the victims of imperial power, unless that power is resisted in sacrifice.

Many Jews who had resisted the "appalling abomination" (Matthew 24:15) of the Roman eagle in the temple had laid down their lives, as many of the listening Pharisees knew well. But John wants us to understand something more—that the choice of Jesus to lay down his life is a mark of his intimate understanding of God. God loves Jesus because he lays down his life (John 10:17). Wes Howard-Brook has noted, "This may sound a dissonant note to Christians raised on the idea of God’s unconditional love." The condition of God’s love is a willingness to witness to the faith by giving one’s life for it.

All of this has a profoundly practical and simple application. In the dailyness of life, sacrifice is often made by answering simple questions: "If anyone is well off in worldly possessions and sees his brother or sister in need but closes his heart to them, how can God’s love be remaining in them?" (1 John 3:17). Love must be not just words, but something active and genuine. We discern our own capacity for shepherding or pastoring when we can answer such questions with integrity.

Reflection and Action

What examples can you recall of leaders abandoning their people "when they see the wolf coming"? Is God’s love conditional? Where does your love need to be more than "just words," becoming something "active and genuine"?

April 27
Bear Fruit
Psalm 22:25-31; Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-12

Vineyards symbolize for nomadic people a place of settling down. A well-kept vineyard provided economic security, fruit, and the joy of wine for celebration. John pictures Jesus as the one who gives sustenance and encouragement to the Christian community facing persecution. "I am the vine, you are the branches" (John 15:5), but both rely on God who is "the vine dresser," or grower.

The prophets taught that without God wild grapes would grow, thorns would choke the vine, and the vineyard would be destroyed (Isaiah 5:1-6). Israel is described as the vine (Isaiah 27:2-5). But it did not bear good fruit: "God expected fair judgment, but found injustice; uprightness, but found cries of distress" (Isaiah 5:7).

Jesus emphasizes the need for the new community to be different. Because of persecution it was tempting to be exclusive, but Jesus calls the community to act justly and hear cries of distress. To do this members need to recognize their need of one another. He invites them "to make your home in me as I make mine in you" (John 15:4). Good relationships within the community of disciples are the key to its life and witness.

Pruned trees bear fruit in plenty. Yet the image of pruning is uncomfortable, for branches get cut down and thrown away, and there is destruction in the process. John’s community did face betrayal, and some people were thrown out. This is hard stuff, and it is not always easy to tell fruit bearers from those that are not. Sometimes people’s spiritual lives lie fallow, and then there is an enormous resurgence of life.

This passage from the gospel reminds us of the call of God to ways of living that challenge the accepted norms and resist the pressure to conform. It is simply expressed in the penetrating observation, "Anyone who says ‘I love God’ and hates their brother or sister is a liar, since whoever does not love the brother or sister whom they can see cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:20).

Reflection and Action

What kind of faith community do you want to see? How inclusive do you want it to be? Where are the signs of injustice and distress around you? Does the community you envisage want to do anything about injustice and distress? What? How? n

PETER B. PRICE is general secretary of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, an Anglican mission agency based in London, and practices—with his wife, Dee—a ministry of hospitality.

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