The Common Good
May-June 2001

The Beginning and the End

by Michaela Bruzzese | May-June 2001

Our churches have attempted to corner the market on grace, to act as society's sole dispensers of salvation.

Almost 800 years ago, Thomas Aquinas confessed that "Every truth without exception—and whoever may utter it—is from the Holy Spirit." He couldn't have anticipated the great wisdom of his words for contemporary Christianity, for he spoke before the Reformation and the splintering of the Christian faith. And yet his words are more relevant and important now than ever.

Pentecost was, paradoxically, both the beginning and end of the church, for the Spirit descended upon individuals, within community. We are thus confronted with the difficult task of forming prophetic communities that encourage and support the gifts of the Spirit, as uniquely expressed by each individual. Within our churches, we struggle with the temptation to isolate spiritual authority in the hands of a few; within our societies, churches struggle against the temptation to declare themselves the only bearers of God's message and salvation. Neither struggle has been very successful.

As the author most focused on the work of the Holy Spirit and its role in the early community, Luke is uniquely qualified to illustrate this beautiful, complicated history. These tensions are not new—the disciples, too, were shocked to discover that God calls all people, even non-Jews, to community! Again and again, it is the most marginalized and the most "sinful" who are able to recognize Jesus, to believe, and to act on their beliefs. Those with the most social and spiritual authority are consistently reluctant, suspicious, and hesitant.

During the past 2,000 years, we have faithfully tried to create prophetic communities, guided by the Holy Spirit and determined to seek and proclaim truth, justice, mercy, and love to a troubled world. In these next eight weeks, may we be privileged to witness the work of the Holy One where we least expect it; may we have the courage to honor and act on the truth, "whoever may utter it."

Michaela Bruzzese, formerly program associate with Call to Renewal, is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

 

May 6

The Gift of Uncertainty

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

This week's readings are at once a historical glimpse of the continued formation of the early Christian community and encouragement and reassurance in a time of transition and uncertainty. Peter's transformation, which began with Jesus' resurrection, continues, and it symbolizes the transformation of the entire early Christian community. Here, his prayer and faith bring new life to Tabitha, such that "many came to believe in the Lord" (Acts 9:42). Peter's faith and the work of the Holy Spirit give him and all the disciples the "authority" to continue Jesus' work—no small feat, considering that they are without Jesus' leadership and under increasing pressure from the state and Jewish community.

Considering these circumstances, the Psalms and Revelation passages reinforce the need for a steadfast faith, one that is not kept hidden, but lived—even and especially through the darkest valleys. If only we have the courage to trust, we are assured that our God will faithfully lead us to "springs of life-giving waters" and "wipe away every tear" (Revelation 7:17). It is only when we are uncertain, and therefore must rely on faith, that the Spirit can act at all. We must live our lives in ways that allow God to move, create, and act, and to guide us on right paths. We, like the disciples, must act with courage, and trust that the Spirit will fill in the blanks.

John, too, warns us against the temptation to seek absolute proof before we live our faith. Like those who demanded that Jesus "tell us plainly" (John 10:24) if he is the Messiah, we may find ourselves paralyzed with fear and uncertainty, waiting for the definitive sign of our discipleship before we act. John, however, assures us we are already known, called, and chosen by God. If Jesus' words and life are truly good news for us, all we need—like the disciples—is the courage to act, trusting that the Spirit will do the rest.

 

May 13

Who Am I to Hinder God?

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

It has been said that what churches need most is the ability to get out of the way and let God be God. This week's readings testify to the difficulty of doing just that. In Acts, we witness the disciples' somewhat shocking discovery that they are not the only ones invited to new life. Indeed, even the Gentiles, the "unclean," are welcomed to the table. As Peter so aptly and humbly observed, "Who was I to be able to hinder God?" (Acts 11:17).

Who indeed? Before we scoff at the disciples' arrogance, we would do well to look within our own faith communities to see the institutionalized ignorance and pride to which we, too, are susceptible. The vast majority of our churches suffer from the disciples' same malaise, having attempted to corner the market on grace and to act as society's sole dispensers of salvation. How many of our church practices exclude, rather than include, others? How many of our communities place spiritual authority in the hands of a few, rather than recognizing the Holy Spirit's free-flowing grace among all?

The Revelation passage also affirms God's open invitation, assuring us that in the new Earth, God will dwell "with the human race" (Revelation 21:3). We are all included! And lest we need more specific instructions for our communities, John explains what Jesus requires of us: "As I have loved you, so you also should love one another" (John 13:34). The depth, breadth, and force of the love we extend to others is the only tool with which we can measure the faithfulness of our actions and institutions.

Today's readings help prepare us for the gift of Pentecost, so that we can welcome it without imposing human limits on its expression. God alone is the source of the Spirit and is prepared to pour it forth upon anyone who asks! When we can welcome and love others as generously as God, surely we will have built this new Earth, and "there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away" (Revelation 21:4).

 

May 20

‘Do You Want to Be Well?'

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 5:1-9

As we move toward Pentecost, the readings continue to prepare us to function as community without the physical leadership of Jesus. We are invited to participate in our own salvation and to continue to struggle toward a more just and faithful expression of community in Christ.

Luke documents the progress of the early Christian community, here describing the conversion of Lydia, a "faithful woman"; it is the second reading in Acts that features and names a woman. Luke is noted for his inclusion of women in his writings, and here he portrays Lydia with remarkable agency as she chooses to convert and then actively supports the fledgling Christian community.

Agency is a lesson that John reaffirms in his portrayal of a man who is cured on the Sabbath, after Jesus asks him "Do you want to be well?" (John 5:6). The man accepts Jesus' invitation and immediately is freed from physical and spiritual paralysis. The religious leaders in the story, however, do not share his liberation. The Pharisees cling so tightly to the law that they completely miss Jesus' invitation to freedom and remain paralyzed by their own legal restrictions. Worse yet, they also attempt to confine Jesus' actions and to halt the free-flowing, merit-less grace that so threatens them.

Finally, John's vision in Revelation of a new heaven is one that is without a temple or any religious structure or institution, for "its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb" (Revelation 21:22). His vision cautions us that our churches never become ends in themselves but always serve as a means to more fully worship and know God. John's point is not to condemn a certain faith or particular religious leaders, but to warn against the narrow-mindedness to which all organized religions are susceptible. He emphasizes that the Christian mission is defined by our ability to act freely and faithfully, to participate in our own healing and salvation, and, above all, always to be prepared to recognize and join the work of the Spirit.

 

May 27: Ascension Sunday

Burning with Hope

Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Ascension Sunday is one of the many significant celebrations of the Easter season and a defining moment in the history of the church. The Christian community, without the guidance of Jesus, must face two realities. First, if the good news is to be spread, it is up to them alone. It is a daunting task that would understandably create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, but Luke's testimony portrays the disciples as anything but scared. Instead, they "returned to Jerusalem with great joy" where "they were continually in the temple praising God" (Luke 24: 53).

This is the polar opposite of the disciples we saw after Jesus' death. Instead of hiding in fear, they publicly praise God and joyfully begin their life as a community. Their hearts burn with a hope previously unknown, for they have been called by "the Lord the most high, the awesome" who is a "great king over all the Earth" (Psalm 47:2). He is, according to Revelation, "the Alpha and Omega," the merciful one who invites "the one who thirsts come forward and the one who wants it receive the life-giving water" (Revelation 22:13, 17).

Which brings us to the second reality the disciples face without Jesus' leadership. They must decide who is eligible to join them, and how. We glimpse our first answer in the writings of Paul, who never knew Jesus. Paul's discipleship resulted entirely from the invitation of the resurrected Christ, and Paul joyously testifies to "the hope that belongs to his call" (Ephesians 1:18). The call to discipleship is made according to the work of the Spirit, not to earthly status or merit. This openness is also underscored in John, when Jesus prays "for those who will believe in me through their word" (John 17:20).

We are all the products of this miraculous word and Spirit, and of faithful communities that have continuously praised the Lord. May we, too, live our faith as courageously and joyously as the first disciples, so that our words and deeds will more perfectly proclaim the good news to all!

 

June 3: Pentecost

‘Abba, Father!'

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17 (25-27)

Pentecost is considered the birth of the church, the community's commission and authorization to continue the work of Jesus. It also introduced one of the most profound paradoxes of our lived faith: how to live as a church community, as we are called, and how to honor the individual manifestation of the Spirit within each person. The Spirit descended while the apostles "were all in one place together," in community. And yet it sought each person when it "parted and came to rest on each one of them" (Acts 2:1-3). Each one spoke a different tongue and bore a different gift to the outside world. How do we at once maintain our communal church without monopolizing, limiting, or otherwise hindering the gifts of the Spirit as they are expressed in each member?

Paul also rejects the temptation to make spiritual authority hierarchal and insists that no one is privileged by birthright: "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!'" (Romans 8:15). We are all born to this Abba who takes us in regardless of our birthright, race, gender, language, or social status. This Abba adopts us all joyfully and, with our consent, breathes the sacred Spirit upon each one of us, equally commissioning us to be agents of grace, mercy, and love in this world.

Pentecost is a tremendous gift, and as such it is also a tremendous responsibility. How susceptible we are to falling back into fear and trying to limit access to our beloved Abba through complex systems of grace and merit! When we do so, we hinder the Spirit. Like us, without God's Spirit, our churches are merely dust, devoid of life. Our Abba, however, continues faithfully to call us to re-creation through the Holy Spirit. On this Pentecost, let us celebrate our 2000-year-old community and find new ways to honor the work of the Spirit in each person.

 

June 10: Trinity Sunday

Limitless Love

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

In today's readings, God reveals the infinite mystery of God's self through the Trinity, as if to finally defy any attempt we might make to limit the scope or breadth of the One who has called us into being.

The first reading provides the first challenge of our understanding of the Holy One. Proverb's discourse on Wisdom and Understanding introduces a feminine presence who was "the first born of his ways.... From of old I was poured forth, at the first, before the depth" (Proverbs 8:22-23). She confesses she was with God even before creation and before God created humans in God's image. For the majority of us, this terminology proves somewhat shocking and foreign to our ears. Once again we are confronted with the God who refuses to be confined to the limits of our perceptions or projections.

Our God also resists a singular identity or to be bound to a singular form of relating to us. The God who calls us to community is fundamentally a communal being, consisting of three persons. Some say this is because God, as love, spilled over into other "persons" with whom to relate in love. Thus our triune God is a never-ending being in relationship, creating and recreating in love. It is a beautiful image. It could also be, however, that God so loves us, the ones whom "You have made...little less than the angels, and crowned...with glory and honor" (Psalm 8:5), that God needed multiple ways to relate to us. God did not want to be limited to one expression of love or relationship, one dimension of caring. Instead, God is Parent/Creator, Beloved Son, and ever-present Spirit. There is no way we can avoid this God!

As beloved Abba and Son, God's love "has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Romans 5:5). God is ever creator, the nameless one, beyond our understanding. And yet this God has devised multiple ways to invite us home, and to allow the love with which we're showered to spill over, to be given anew.

 

June 17

Senseless Mercy

1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

This week brings the return of "ordinary time." Far from ordinary, however, is the church's day-to-day struggle with how to live the gospel and the call to discipleship, individually and as community. Free from the drama and passion of extraordinary time, ordinary time brings the opportunity to meet God on different terms and in unexpected ways.

For both the Jewish and Christian traditions, the theme of forgiveness is one of the most difficult. There is a fine line between justice and mercy, and we humans struggle endlessly with how, when, and if to extend each, as if they are mutually exclusive. Fortunately, we worship a God who loves justice and mercy equally, and who lavishes both upon us as we ask and need.

The readings reflect God's interaction with Israel and their struggle to remain faithful to the covenant, despite Israel's continued idolatry and betrayal. Worshipping the false gods of power and lust brings evil to the house of Ahab, Jezebel, and David—in the alternate Old Testament reading (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15)—and God promises justice. When Ahab and David repent, however, God changes his mind and delays punishment. It is as if God can't help but extend mercy, despite the requirements of justice.

In Luke, we witness an even more bountiful and senseless extension of mercy. Once more, Luke's central focus is a woman, who immediately recognizes Jesus as Messiah and does not hesitate to act. Luke does not name the woman's sins, nor does Jesus ask or seem to care. Overwhelmed by the "great love" she has shown, Jesus admonishes the Pharisee who "did not give me a kiss" and "did not anoint my head with oil" (Luke 7:45-47), but stands aloof, judging and analyzing Jesus before he dares to act.

It is nearly impossible for most of us to comprehend a God who forgives without merit, who loves us anyway, who keeps calling us home to the fullness of life that only God can give. During this ordinary time, however, we have the chance to risk great love, instead of standing aloof in judgment. Perhaps we, too, can yield the fruits of forgiveness and know the great love to which we are invited.

 

June 24

What Matters?

1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7), 8-15a, Psalms 42-43, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

The journey through ordinary time continues with the God who accompanies us through every adversity, especially those that emerge from the burden and joy of proclaiming the good news. This week we experience God's presence differently from the passion and drama of the Easter season. Here, on Mt. Horeb where the covenant was first revealed to Moses, God comes not in fire but in a whisper. God ministers to the exhausted Elijah (which means "Yahweh is my God"), strengthening and reassuring him so that he can continue to "fight my fight against a faithless people." It is an utterly draining task to which Elijah is committed only because he trusts, like the psalmist, that "by your gift I will utter praise in the vast assembly; I will fulfill my vows before those who fear him" (Psalm 22:25).

Paul also struggles to share the good news as the Christian community spreads beyond Jerusalem and Jewish communities to largely Gentile ones. Speaking to the Galatians, Paul rejects the notion that converts must first be circumcised before gaining acceptance into the community, emphasizing that faith in Christ is not only sufficient, but renders all equal. Power and pedigree are inconsequential here; only faith in Jesus matters, "for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

Though all are invited to new life in Jesus, Luke shows that not all want to accept the invitation. Again, it is the sinners and outcasts who quickly and easily recognize Jesus; here, the Gerasene demoniac, upon seeing Jesus, immediately demands, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?" (Luke 8:28). Despite Jesus' gift of peace to the tortured man, the townspeople are slow to trust and ultimately reject Jesus and the new life he offers.

In this ordinary time, we have new opportunities to be attentive to the extraordinary ways God will choose to love us, whether in a whisper or a storm. May we recognize the Son of the Most High, and with God cast out the demons of doubt and fear that keep us from wholeness. 

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