The Common Good
May-June 2002

God So Loves This World

by Kari Jo Verhulst | May-June 2002

These
weeks from Easter to Pentecost memorialize the calling forth and sending out of
Jesus' witnesses.

These weeks from Easter to Pentecost memorialize the calling forth and sending out of Jesus' witnesses. At one time considered the "season of the church," the texts give us glimpses into what it means to be brought into the life of God.

The idea of being divinized, or Christed, is still a bit shocking to my Western Protestant ears, and yet it is a basic implication of the Christian gospel. To be justified—to be brought into right relationship with God—means taking on the image and likeness of the God who creates and redeems us. The biblical depiction of this salvation is wonderfully earthy. Despite what sounds to us like an awfully high christology in the gospel of John, or an anti-fleshiness in Paul, these authors assumed that the redeemed state—that eternal life itself—was and is encountered and experienced in the here-and-now.

The change-in-identity this life in Jesus effects, however, will ruin your so-called life. Entrance into the heart of God is entrance into the one who suffers alongside of, and stands with, the crucified and the outcast. It is to feel in marrow and sinew a fractional portion of what God feels toward this world God so loves.

Kari Jo Verhulst, a Sojourners contributing writer, is an M.Div. student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


May 5

Spiral of Love
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit, placed here in John as part of the farewell discourse, conveys both future promise and present reality. Within John's narrative, it comes as assurance to the disciples that Jesus "will not leave them orphaned" (John 14:18), but will send them "another Advocate." Within the life of the post-resurrection Johannine community, it is a kind of theological reflection on their life together in "the Spirit of truth."

The sequence of events within Jesus' words—"If you love me; you will keep my commandments; And I will ask the Father; and he will give you another Advocate" (John 14:15-16)—describes what happens to this community every time it accepts God's initiating love. Thus love of God, obedience to the way of Jesus, and the presence of the life-giving Spirit are inter-dependent realities, mutually causing and affecting one another. Jesus' insistence that "I am in my Father—and you in me—and I in you" underscores the reciprocal dynamic of life-in-love with the living God.

But in order for one to enter into this spiral, love must be encountered in flesh and bone—mediated through our sensory relationships with one another, the world, and ourselves. This makes all faith experiences corporal, no matter how private or mystical they appear.

Luke enlists very different language in his apology of the Christian life. Paul's "Areopagus speech" in Acts 17 uses a form of "natural theology" shared by the Stoic philosophers of Acts 17:18. The "boundaries of the places" (Acts 17:26) testify to a provident and just God who has ordered the world so that life can be sustained. This sense of God's valuing the world was opposed by the Epicureans (the other group mentioned in 17:18), who held that God's perfection by definition made God indifferent to the affairs of mortals. In contrast Luke insists that the one in whom the philosophers of his day said we "live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28) is invested in the here-and-now.

May 12

Catching Up to God
Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Jesus summary of his work on earth is described in John 17:2 as giving "eternal life...to all whom [God has] given him." The creedal definition of orthodox faith that follows, knowledge of "the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (17:3), is not advocating a particular content of belief but the state of being in relationship with God. This is "knowledge" is the biblical sense of intimacy—the same word used to describe sex.

The eternal life that Jesus came to give is not something encountered after death, but is the experience of dying and being resurrected into the life of God in the midst of this mortal life. For John, eternal life is the state of communion with Jesus, whose saving activity comes not only from his death but in the entirety of the incarnation.

The fervency of Jesus' prayer for his beloved is that we who remain "in the world" be protected "in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one" (John 17:11). Our unity, like our salvation, progresses from the life of God in Jesus to us, not the other way around. Our unity stems from God's initiating love, not from our capacity to get along with or agree with one another. This order of causation is particularly significant given the fact that, on the surface, the body of Christ on earth is rather disunited and schismatic. But if our ecumenical overtures assume, as they so often do, that unified confession and theology must come before communion, we mistake our "knowledge" with the reconciling power of God. Perhaps if we tried to live as if the Spirit, not ourselves, makes us one, then our theological reflection would eventually catch up with God's reality.

May 19: Pentecost

Jesus, Wind, and Fire
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b;1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

The Ascension-to-Pentecost story in Acts 1-2 is essentially a succession narrative. Like Elijah-to-Elisha, before being carried off in a cloud Jesus passes his mission on to his disciples, who he says will "be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The men in white who interrupt the disciples' stupor ask them, "Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" (Acts 1:11). Jesus will return "in the same way" he has gone forth from them.

The story jumps suddenly. Now the believers are gathered "all together in one place" for the Feast of Weeks, "from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting" (Acts 2:2). This entrance of the Holy Spirit "from heaven" is Jesus returning "in the same way" he left them, as promised in Acts 1:11. Though this scene has always conjured up images of singed hair and Spirit-slain apostles, the "tongues [that] appear among them" is actually a play on the Greek word glossa, meaning the literal tongue, language, or the capacity to speak. Thus this is the story of being corporately equipped to fulfill the mission to bear witness "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

The Greek word kathiz, translated "rested on each of them" in the NRSV, can also be translated "to sojourn or settle down." The teacher and companion no longer is bound by human contingency to one time and place. Now the risen Jesus has made his dwelling among and within his followers, through and in whom his life's work continues.

John narrates this inhabitation with breath, linking Jesus' post-resurrection appearance to the fourth gospel's prologue. The everlasting Word, there at the beginning breathing over the waters, again breathes life into flesh, bestowing the recreating power of forgiveness upon his followers.

May 26

Three in One?
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

This Sunday's Feast of the Holy Trinity has its origins in 9th century monasticism. Against the hierarchical imagery prevalent in the age of feudalism's ascent and the Carolingian Empire, the communal structure of the monasteries provided a unique model within which the "holy mysteries" of the Christian faith were reflected. The monks' comprehension of life-as-community gave them a particular sensitivity to the communal nature of God, an insight developed and elaborated upon 500 years earlier by the Cappadocians.

In their fourth century effort to explain the relationship of Father-to-Son-to-Spirit, the Cappadocians enlisted the category of person to describe the irreplaceable uniqueness and inherent relationality of the Trinity. Conceiving of God as the communion of persons, utterly unified in their free relationship in love to one another, caused a shift in the philosophical understanding of where one's being is located. Since the life of God is rooted in communing persons, by extension the life of those made in God's "image and likeness" is located in our beingness—that is, beings-in-relationship, not in a disembodied, self-sufficient essence. In other words, we are because we are related.

This insistence upon God-as-communion is as radical today as it was 17 centuries ago. The God who is both our beginning and our end—the being who gives us life and toward which we are always moving—is not a fixed entity who is impassive and self-contained. Rather this God, and therefore God-like-ness, exists as Being in love. The origin, purpose, and goal of our life then is to become persons—to become more and more relational.

More stunning still is that this view of the Trinity implies that because the ascended Jesus remains fully human, even now, in some mysterious way, we as humans have a place within the very being of the Triune God.

June 2

A House Divided
Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24; Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-31; Matthew 7:21-29

Paul's letter to the Romans is a pastoral intervention written to a church in crisis. The Roman house churches were struggling to live as one body amidst tremendous diversity. In theory, male and female, slaves and masters, Jew and Gentile had become a new family—a household of equals reborn in the spirit of the resurrected Jesus. But in reality, the marks of social identity were so deeply internalized that in the face of political, religious, and economic conflict they were dying a much slower death.

Paul sets out to remind and exhort them about how Jesus has changed the means and parameters of entering into God's covenant. The covenant now extends to Jew and Gentile through faith. The "righteousness" or "justice" of God (dikaiosyne in Greek) "revealed through faith for faith" (Romans 1:17) is the state in which God has put all things right. This justifying activity of God, testified to in "the law and the prophets," has become available through Jesus.

As Krister Stendahl notes, the question for which Paul answers "we are justified by faith" was not "How can I be sure of God's grace?" but "How can the Gentiles be children of God?" The Roman Christians are not struggling with depictions of hell, or their inability to make things right with each other or with God. Rather, they are trying to negotiate life together in the face of still-present conflicting identities.

Paul's emphasis on the authority and the capacity of God to extend his covenant is underscored in 3:26. What the NRSV translates "[God] justifies the one who has faith in Jesus" can also be translated "faith of Jesus." The "faith of Jesus" is that into which we enter and participate, not something we possess.

June 9

Guess Whos Coming to Dinner
Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

For Matthew and his audience, the social world was organized by an elaborate system of taboos and purity codes. Foods, places, types of people, and bodily fluids (to name a few categories) were ranked by degrees of purity or potential contaminants.

Jesus' choice of company in Matthew 9 stands in deliberate violation of these codes. In the order of "pollution derived from contact with things" found in Jewish midrash, "impurity contracted from a dead thing is exceeded by that from a menstruant, which is exceeded by bodily issues such as semen, urine, [and] spittle." Jesus is already contaminated when he takes the hand of the dead girl because, on his way to her, he was touched by the perpetually menstruating woman. Jesus not only eats with tax collectors, but also stresses that it is sinners, not the righteous, that he has "come to call." Jesus is not simply interested in healing this cast of characters but has chosen these contaminating agents as his partners in saving work.

It is a peril of Christian triumphalism to think that we are free of the pitfalls of purity codes. As anthropologists have indicated, every culture lives according to a symbolically ordered set of values. Dirt is a great example. How many of us, after coming to dinner with filthy hands, tried to convince our parents that dirt wasn't, well, dirty? As anthropologist Mary Douglas points out, "[Dirt] is a relative idea. Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining room table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom." We all have lines of safety beyond which we cannot fathom going. The mercy Jesus sends the Pharisees off to learn is a virtue that will stretch even us, if we will let it, beyond that which offends and even repulses us.

June 16

Moved in the Bowels
Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8

There is something uniquely horrible about being lost. Not lost in the way we commonly use the word—having misread the directions or taken a wrong turn on a highway—where we got our selves lost. But lost in the sense of being left behind—like losing your parents in a crowd before you are old enough to remember that you will be found. It's when you notice that your parents are no longer in sight, and not before, that panic seizes and your stomach bottoms out.

That full-bodied sense of lost-ness permeates the crowds around Jesus and he is moved to compassion. "Harassed and helpless" people, "like sheep without a shepherd," elicit in Jesus an emotional surge of scatological proportion. "Compassion," from the Greek splagchnizomai, means "to be moved as to one's bowels." Since to the ancients the bowels were the seat of love and compassion, this belly-driven response is directed not only toward the crowds, but also toward their absentee shepherds—those who, through obstinacy or incompetence, have managed to lose them.

To these "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6), Jesus sends his disciples to "proclaim the good news [that] the kingdom of heaven has come near." Their wandering campaign of teaching and healing is the offspring of that inaugurating act of liberation from Egypt, when God bore the people "on eagles' wings and brought [them] to myself" (Exodus 19:4). Their formation as a people was the direct result of being "found" by God, and their life story rests in the memory of being freed from bondage. Both sides of this lost-and-found equation are critical to this memory. If we forget either side, arrogance or despair will enter in.


June 23

Love Takes Sides
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69:7-18; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

To be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Paul's thinking, is to die to one's previous identity in order to be reborn into the "newness of life" (Romans 6:4). The Greek baptizestai literally means "to drown." It was used in Hellenistic Greek to describe death-by-shipwreck. For Paul, baptism is a far more radical thing than even the "remission of sins," an idea that came from reflecting upon the fact that one cannot be born into any other cluster of beings but that of the sinful human family (call it original, or simply inherited, sin). Though we ritualize this incorporation into the body of Christ at a given moment of dedication, experientially we are forever being drawn more fully into the life of God, which, in turn, draws us more deeply into the world.

This dying-to-live resurrects us into the life of a God who will not even let a sparrow fall outside of her range of vision (Matthew 10:29). Our solidarity with the crucified, risen God means that we live in, and are ambassadors of, the God who still stands with the suffering and crucified of our world. This active solidarity, if it flows from the heart of God, is a reconciling, consoling, and justice-demanding presence.

Theologian Johann-Baptist Metz warns that the task of Christianity "to keep alive the memory of the crucified Lord, this specific memoria passionis, is a dangerous memory of freedom." This is the memory Matthew portrays in the series of warnings and assurances sequenced here. To follow the one who loved unto death is to embody the one whose radical redefinition of who belongs and what matters denounces all previous sets of priorities. To hold up this "dangerous memory" is risky business. By doing so, we are reminded that perfect love takes sides, and that it demands nothing less than our lives.

June 30

Go Forth to Provoke
Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

The last few verses of Matthew 10 conclude the series of teachings organized within Matthew's narrative as commissioning instructions for the disciples. The authority Jesus invests in them is that of his own authoritative work. The only thing he sends them with is that endowment—the capacity to heal and restore, which is also a capacity to disrupt and provoke. They are going out in his name—mendicant preachers who will be welcomed, or rejected, by virtue of their identification with Jesus. The "good news" they proclaim is disruptive. It reorders relationships in terms of proximity to Jesus, thus defying the kinship and social orders through which people best understood themselves.

This seemingly benign "option for the poor," as the liberation theologians call it, calls into question the basic way the disciples' audience—and we—negotiate and order the world. In resting "chosenness" in the sick and demon-possessed, Jesus has moved them from the state of the ones most judged, to the seat of the judge. Without any reassuring disclaimers, Jesus warns that the manner in which one responds to his mediators will testify to the manner in which one receives him. The "reward" one receives is a kind of by-product of one's receptivity to those people and situations that represent the good news of Jesus.

This inseparable bond between the one who sends and the sent suggests that, in our lives as agents of Jesus, the work and words that we offer comes from, and are therefore directed by, the Jesus who commissions us. When we forget the Word from whom our very sense of justice comes, whose indwelling it is that permits us to share in God's saving work, then our efforts inevitably become dictated by our own visions and frustrations. Before we know it, we may become just another petty dictator imposing our vision on the world.

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