Put God’s saving justice first, says Jesus (Matthew 6:33). It is a direct instruction for all would-be followers. God’s saving justice is to be marked by communities of people living lovingly and joyfully, offering their witness in perseverance and hope for a new creation.
To live in such a way is to invite the attention of both the weak and the powerful. The weak will look for the fruits of justice; the powerful will seek to destroy through betrayal, false accusation, oppression, persecution, and ultimately annihilation. The just will have at their disposal only the resources of love, faith, and hope, informed by prayer and a longing for justice to prevail—and of course the wonderment and joy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose witness God vindicated. This is the victory that overcomes the world!
Psalm 98; Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the supreme moment of wonderment and joy in history, when God has "made known his saving power" and "revealed his saving justice for all the world to see," as the psalmist writes. Love is the energy of God’s justice, and joy is its mark. Such love and joy should be the mark of our worship and witness. Sadly, radical witness and the struggle for justice are often marred by a lack of love, of joy, of rejoicing in the gifts of God in creation. Joy marks creation’s response to God.
John’s gospel was written for a sect-like community within the early church. Facing persecution, and dealing with betrayal from within and without, they were in danger of becoming paranoid. Like many such groups they were suspicious of the more institutional churches. John repeats again and again the imperative for love (John 13:34-35; 14:21, 23; 15:10). Perhaps we feel, as Wes Howard-Brook has remarked, "Enough. We get the message!" But alas the problem is that we do not get the message, for if people kept the commandment to love one another, what a different world this would be!
Peter and others were in danger of making the gospel exclusive, until the dream at Joppa and the visit of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48). Once they had put aside their prejudices and accepted the commission, Peter and his community discovered to their surprise that the joy of God, which at Pentecost had burst upon them, should be poured on Gentiles, too. It is love, with the accompaniment of joy, that marks the faith that has overcome the world (1 John 5:1-6).
Reflection and Action
God’s justice is in a continual state of becoming, and it is witnessed to by acts of worship offered daily in faith and hope. Does your worship reflect love and joy and hope in the saving justice of God? How?
Walk on the Knife Edge
Psalm 1; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
The early discipleship community was put at risk by betrayal, and one of the first actions of the fledgling church was to elect an apostle to replace Judas. Betrayal not only jeopardizes the community, it destroys the one who betrays (Acts 1:15-17). The action of the apostles in strengthening their core community with the election of Matthias is a tacit recognition of the nature of the struggle ahead.
John’s gospel likewise pictures Jesus preparing the community for the possibility of betrayal. He prays for unity among the disciples—from whom, he discerns, a betrayer will come (John 18). There is a realism about Jesus’ prayer. The discipleship community still needs to learn how to love (John 15:9-17), because the pressures of the world—the "System"—threaten to engulf the truth.
Such realities are ours today. Many of us who are beneficiaries of the systems that have one way or another provided us with securities know how easy it is to be sucked into supporting injustice and oppression, even if only by doing nothing. An African proverb says that when an elephant puts its foot on the tail of a mouse, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality!
We tend to offer prayer as a last resort; yet in both the gospel and in Acts, prayer is seen as vital preparation for the inevitability of betrayal, conflict, and confrontation with the powers. Jesus prays that his disciples will be sanctified in the truth, in order to empower them in their commission to enter the world (John 17:18). This commitment to right living, to justice, is to be an immersion so complete that it will be "like a tree planted by streams of water" (Psalm 1:3). The stream, or "living water" (John 4:10), is Christ, whose own witness has been validated by "the Spirit, the water, and the blood" (1 John 5:8). We who walk on the "knife edge" of remaining in the world but not being of it need the unity and love for which Jesus prayed—and also the life-giving Spirit given us in baptism.
Reflection and Action
Who among the people you know has experienced betrayal? Where have you experienced pressures to betray or to allow the truth to be compromised? How important to you is your baptism?
May 18 Pentecost
Receive the First Fruits
Psalm 104:24-35; Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4-15
For the Middle Eastern farm worker, Pentecost marks the first harvest of the year. For urban people who live reliantly upon—but often unaware of—agricultural labor, the precariousness of harvest is unknown. For those who till, sow, and reap, first indications of good harvests are a sign of hope. Psalm 104 is a celebration of the fecundity of God’s creation, a poem of praise to a creating God whose continuing creativity in the harvest and much else reminds us of his commitment to renew the face of the Earth.
Ecological disaster has always threatened humanity, and in our own age human actions have put at risk the fragile eco-systems upon which we all depend for life. Jesus recognized the destructive power of evil in systems that kill and destroy (John 16:1-4). His own life constantly demonstrated the judgment of God. He promised that as his witness on Earth ended, he would "send...from the Father the Spirit of truth" (John 15:26) who "will show the world how wrong it was" (John 16:8).
The gift of the Spirit is set alongside a dramatic, poetic prophecy that speaks of "portents in the sky above, and signs on the Earth below," of the sun turning to darkness and "the moon into blood" (Acts 2:18-20): pictures of the cosmos under threat. But the same prophecy speaks of God pouring the Holy Spirit "on all humanity; your young people shall see visions, your old people dream dreams," and on the slaves and oppressed, too, the liberating Spirit will fall. Our folly is not the last word. Those of us "who have the first fruits of the Spirit" are to act with persevering confidence (Romans 8:25).
Reflection and Action
Share with others a moment in your life when you have wondered at creation. What steps are you taking to become more ecologically aware? How do you celebrate God’s goodness in continuing to provide for your needs?
Come Out Into Light
Psalm 29; Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
"Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" Well, I suppose it depends who is asking! When Isaiah had his vision in the temple, he was in no doubt that the "Lord seated on a high and lofty throne" was asking the questions. The psalmist speaks of God as lord of the storm—there are few things more awesome than a storm—and describes the storm as revealing the creative and saving power of God. This God, the one who continues to act in creation and to seek justice, is the one who calls.
Isaiah and the people of Judah faced political uncertainty. War clouds were gathering. Uzziah, one of the better monarchs, has died. Isaiah knows he is implicated in the sins of his people who have become indifferent to their faith and who have ceased to practice justice. Isaiah experiences what it means to be "born from above" (John 3:7). David Rensberger states that it means "not so much to have a certain experience as to take a certain action with a definite social and communal dimension." Isaiah, and Nicodemus later, are challenged to recognize that "light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19).
John is writing for a community under persecution and threat of annihilation. Their salvation lies in choosing to come out into the light (John 3:21). John reveals how God loved the world: he gave his only Son (3:16). Love must be reciprocated and received, and the communities who experience that gift are called to shine as lights in the world.
Reflection and Action
Have you ever sensed the presence of God? What was it like? Did you feel God wanted a particular response from you? How is God calling you and your faith community to "come out into the light"?
Challenge the Status Quo
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Samuel 3:1-20; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
Hungry people have a right to food. Jesus picks corn on the Sabbath to feed his hungry followers, just as his ancestor David had taken bread from the sacred place. The Pharisees accuse him of a violation of Jewish law. Jesus’ response is scathing: "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath." Jesus’ use of the term Sabbath here connects with the idea of Jubilee, of releasing from debt (see Leviticus 25).
The peasants of Galilee were subject to food regulations by the Pharisees, whose agents told them when they could sow, reap, and harvest as well as where they could sell their goods. Jesus’ act of reaping was not in itself a serious threat to the hegemony of the Pharisees, but rather a powerful demonstration of the rights of all to just conditions and adequate nourishment.
Jesus’ frequent sharing of food is both a protest and a demonstration of solidarity. When Levi the tax collector joins his discipleship group, Jesus hosts a party. The religious lawyers again question, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Mark 2:16).
In the worldview of the Pharisees, sin was tied up with taboos over gender, ethnicity, role, status, and class. Jesus’ option for the sinners and outcast is a clear declaration of God’s love for such people. In another withering retort, he tells his critics, "It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. I came to call not the upright, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). Translated into today’s language, Jesus says in effect, "If you are rich you will think the status quo is healthy, but if you are one of the marginalized, you will find that what I have to say and do is ‘good news.’"
Reflection and Action
Who do you know in your locality who is hungry? How can they be fed? When you give a party, who do you invite?
Bind the Strong Man!
Psalm 138; 1 Samuel 8:4-20; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
Today’s gospel has been one of the defining moments of my life. I remember reading in Sojourners several years ago Ched Myers’ exposition of binding the strong man, and seeing for the first time the real cost of following Jesus. The impact of Jesus’ words and deeds on the crowds was enormous, and often prevented him from even having a meal. His relatives were worried sick, and they thought Jesus was out of his mind.
No longer was Jesus the target of the local preachers only—the elite have come down from Jerusalem prepared to expose Jesus as a servant of Satan. Using the subversive tool of parable, Jesus exposes the true situation: "How can Satan cast out Satan?" he asks. "A divided kingdom cannot stand."
Jesus describes his purpose in disturbing terms; he likens himself to a thief breaking into a house and tying up the occupiers before ransacking the goods. His physical entering of the temple was a symbol of this determination to overthrow the order that keeps people enslaved, disempowered, and excluded through poverty and discrimination. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms were as much acts of witness against the powers as moments of personal liberation.
Reflection and Action
Where are the "strong men" exerting their influence today? Can you recall any example of where you have seen people acting in the name of Jesus, the "stronger one," and liberating others? Do we have the courage to join Jesus?
The Old Order is Gone
Psalm 20; 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to hear the parable of the sower for the first time, particularly if you were a tenant farmer in debt to a landlord. To keep and feed his family, pay his tithes, and buy seed for the next year’s harvest, a six-fold yield on the crop would just about keep the debt collectors away. A 10-fold yield marked a good year. Imagine them hearing about a harvest in which the crop yields were 30-, 60-, even 100-fold (Mark 4:8). Jesus is emphasizing again the theme of Jubilee, a reordering and redistributing of the good things of the Earth so that all humanity is able to live as God intends.
How will this reign of justice be established? Samuel resisted the demands of the people for a king and saw the potential for oppression (1 Samuel 8). Saul fulfilled this prophecy, as did David whose succession promised hopes of change (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Justice can only be established as we refuse to consider anyone by human standards, and to recognize that God’s intervention in the human story, through Jesus, is a message of continuous Jubilee, a perpetual year of favor from the Lord (Luke 4:19).
Today’s psalm is "for the king." If we are to turn it into a prayer for God’s justice, we will need to recognize the implicit critique of power that is articulated in the words, "Some call on chariots, some on horses, but we on the name of the Lord our God" (Psalm 20:7). In the last analysis our only hope for justice is that "in Christ there is a new creation."
Reflection and Action
Who are those that need to benefit from a reordering and redistributing of the wealth of the Earth? How is your church practicing Jubilee?
Psalm 9:9-20; 1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
Crossing boundaries—of gender, race, or culture—is one of the most difficult activities in human experience. Perhaps the most difficult boundary to cross is that between injustice and justice. Mark tells the story of Jesus trying to cross the lake Gennesaret from the Jewish (albeit Galilean) side to the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes (Mark 4:35-41). The boundary in this story is between Jesus as prophet to the Jews, on one side, and to the whole of humanity, as symbolized by the Gentile community across the water. The cosmic forces of opposition are expressed in the wind and the rain; the boat is almost overwhelmed.
Any community that embarks seriously on bringing about reconciliation needs to recognize the potential for shipwreck! Paul, in his letters to Corinth, emphasizes the difficulties Christians face in retaining their integrity, and he speaks from his own experience. This part of Paul’s letter is not a challenge to individuals primarily, but to the whole community—which is in danger of exchanging a commitment to justice, with its attendant risks of persecution, for moral compromise with the governing authorities. The law breaking that Paul has in mind here is the law of God, which requires the pursuit of justice and fidelity.
Reflection and Action
Where are the boundaries that need crossing in your life and community? What keeps you from crossing them? Why are you still frightened? Have you still no faith? Plan some simple boundary-crossing activity.
Cry From the Deep
Psalm 130; 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
Two people cry out in the gospel narrative: the president of the synagogue, Jairus, whose daughter is dying, and the woman who has suffered heavy bleeding for 12 years. Both have to cross boundaries to make their request. The president fell at his feet, recognizing Jesus’ authority, which given previous encounters with Jewish leadership must have been a tough decision. The woman has to break the double taboo of addressing a man in public and risking the contamination of Jesus because of her condition, which was seen as sinful under Jewish religious law. But only the crossing of boundaries empowers Jesus to heal.
A feature of Mark’s story of Jesus is the presence of the crowd, always pressing, always threatening interruption. In the middle of it all, Jesus attends to the woman, and only then proceeds to the home of Jairus. Symbolism is rife in these verses. "Sleep" is a euphemism for lack of faith (Mark 13:36). "Twelve" signifies the number of Israel’s tribes.
In the end this is a story about healing, but not just of individuals. Jesus interrupts his journey to the home of the privileged to heal one of the outcasts who emerges from the crowd. As Ched Myers reminds us, "Only when the outcast is restored to true ‘daughterhood’ can the daughter of the synagogue be restored to life." Today we might say that only when the marginalized have been restored to their rightful place in humanity can the affluent world discover its true vocation.
Reflection and Action
Where does the story of these two women touch your story? Have you experienced being broken or marginalized? Who around you is like this? How can your church or community bring healing?
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. Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in the resource Living the Word, available from Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474).