The Common Good
May-June 2003

Peace Be With You

by Michaela Bruzzese | May-June 2003

Despite Jesus' greeting to the disciples, the weeks following his resurrection are
anything but peaceful for the struggling community.

Despite Jesus' greeting to the disciples, the weeks following his resurrection are anything but peaceful for the struggling community. Instead, the disciples are confronted with the task of forming community without Jesus, deciding who belongs and who doesn't, and struggling with the overwhelming fact of the resurrection. Their only instructions were those we still use: Jesus' greatest commandment, to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12), and Paul's additional plea to "love not in word or speech but in deed and truth" (1 John 3:18).

As we celebrate some of the most beautiful mysteries of our faith, the Trinity, Pentecost, and the ascension, we are invited to look at our lives and communities with new eyes, and to welcome the Spirit that "renew[s] the face of the earth" into the dusty corners of our churches (Psalm 104:30). The Trinity calls us to redefine our expectations of God and to allow the Spirit to reveal new faces of herself. We will wrestle with the concept of the ascension and its implications about the sanctity of our own bodies.

The return of ordinary time brings Mark's revolutionary perspective. He will continue to show us the kingdom of God breaking into the world through Jesus, and the joy of the good news for the oppressed and forgotten. And through the entire season, questions of the depth and strength of our faith will arise again and again: "Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?" (Luke 24:38).

This season we are invited to walk in the footsteps of the early community, to let their questions be ours, and to find ourselves more ready to accept the risen Jesus' first and most important words: "Peace be with you."

Michaela Bruzzese is a freelance writer living in Chile.


May 4

‘Why Are You Amazed?'
Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48

The post-Easter season wastes no time in bringing some of Christianity's key theological issues to the fore. Humanity, divinity, and the power of faith in belief and practice are all on the table. We are privileged to see the physical and spiritual growth of the early Christian community; the gospel of Luke, used this Easter season for its details on the post-resurrection church, reveals one of Jesus' last encounters with the disciples.

As in every gospel, Jesus chooses to appear first to the women disciples, whose testimony is not believed. In Mark and Luke, Jesus also appears to two disciples who were walking in the country. In Jerusalem the male disciples were paralyzed with disbelief. Jesus chastises them, asking, "Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts?" Though the disciples' response is appropriate—even when bodily resurrection is hoped for, it's another thing when it actually happens—Jesus has no time for doubts or fears. The spread of the good news will shortly be in their hands, and Jesus must ensure they're prepared.

In Acts, John and Peter demonstrate how deeply their hearts were opened. Here, the previously doubtful Peter is transformed; it is he who scolds the crowds for their lack of faith after healing a crippled man: "You Israelites, why are you amazed at this?" he asks in disbelief. He is almost unrecognizable as the doubtful, fearful Peter witnessed in the gospels.

Luke's emphasis on Jesus' humanity and physical form demands that our ministry, like Jesus', be fully embodied in the world. We are all invited to be witnesses to the resurrected Jesus—not only in our celebrations of Communion, but by sharing the bread and wine of new life among the most outcast and hopeless in our communities and world.

May 11

Shepherds to the World
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

As the ascension of Jesus approaches, Jesus prepares the disciples (and us) for survival without his physical presence. John likens Jesus' role to that of shepherd, a familiar cultural and religious symbol for the early community. This Good Shepherd will lay down his life with complete free will: "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own" (John 10:18). Combined with the psalm of the Good Shepherd, these words alone are powerful images of a God in whom we find refuge and who "refreshes my soul" (Psalm 23:3).

In John's letter, however, we see that these beautiful words are also dangerous. John makes the connection between Jesus' choice and the choices we make today based on his example: "[T]he way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters" (1 John 3:16). It is our turn, as the body of Christ, to be shepherds to the world. Like all that is mystery, it is impossible to objectively define what this means. Surely there are a thousand different ways to "love not in word or speech but in deed and truth" (1 John 3:18).

Sometimes we're able to recognize it in the lives of others. Judy Sheppard Bierbaum, a therapist in Albuquerque who works with abused children, soon will be spending six months in a federal penitentiary for protesting the U.S. Army School of the Americas—a facility at Fort Benning, Georgia, that trains foreign soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in human rights abuses. Hers is but one example; we must each decide for ourselves how we will love in deed and truth. What is clear is that we can love as fully and deeply as we are capable, that God always invites and not demands, and that those darkest, scariest valleys always come with a guide.

May 18

Bearing Fruit
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

As the nascent church prepares for Jesus' ascension, questions about how and with whom we form community continue to be raised. John's gospel and first letter provide guidance if we are willing to hear and understand.

John's imagery of the vine and branches is nothing new in the Jewish tradition; it was a frequent metaphor in Jewish theology. From Isaiah and the Psalms to Sirach, the metaphor symbolizes the relationship between God and Israel. Here Jesus emphasizes the importance of remaining connected to him, especially following his ascension. "Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Strong words for a difficult mission, as anyone who has tried to translate kingdom values to real life knows. What good thing, indeed, is possible without being profoundly connected to God? It is a connection that requires all of our attention and the pruning of those things that take our energy and focus away from God.

In 1 John, the author reminds us that it is our love for each other that betrays our true connection to God, "for whoever does not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:20). The hard part, as usual, is that the passage refers not to the people we like, but to the people who drive us crazy, the people we fear, the people we hate. Loving those outside our circles of approval, acceptance, or understanding is more than difficult—it can even be life-threatening. The psalmist, however, assures us that we will be prepared for the difficult tasks of living and proclaiming the reign of God: "So by your gift I will utter praise in the vast assembly; I will fulfill my vows before those who fear God" (Psalm 22:25). Only when we are connected to the vine can we receive the gifts we need to truly bear fruit; we need only ask, John assures us, "and it will be done for you" (John 15:7).

May 25

Commanded to Love
Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

The week before Jesus' ascension brings one more resource for the formation and maintenance of our Christian communities. But John does not advise, he orders. The word "command" or "commandment" appears four times in the first five verses of John's gospel and three times in the first five verses of his letter. And what is commanded is love: "This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). It is the most simple and most difficult instruction of the entire Bible, to expand our definition of who belongs and who is worthy of our love and compassion.

It is no coincidence that the reading in Acts describes the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles. Jesus' followers, primarily Jews, are confronted with the inclusion of non-Jews who have received the Holy Spirit. Enough controversy arose that Peter had to insist, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?" Already they are facing their own fears and prejudices about those who were outside of their circle. Their challenge was—as ours is now—to know God's love for them so profoundly that they could also love one another—and "outsiders"—as fully and deeply as Jesus did.

But this radical, senseless love cannot remain within the comfort of our churches. Instead, it must flow into the world where it can transform our small notions of both love and justice. The psalmist celebrates our belief in a God who "will rule the earth with justice, and the peoples with equity" (Psalm 98:9). It is no coincidence that justice and love are read together this week, for "Justice without love is tyranny, and love without justice is sentimentality." When we are tempted to settle for the narrow expressions of human justice, the command of the kingdom compels us to seek out the transformative power of God's justice and God's love, the love that redeems and brings new life, not death.

June 1

Disciples in Body and Soul
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Before leaving the disciples, Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom must continue to be lived fully in the midst of the world. It is never to be a purely intellectual or physical faith but a fully incarnate one. Just before his arrest, Jesus prays for the disciples: "I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one" (John 17:15).

God's desire to have a body in order to know and love us better, and Jesus' bodily ascension and prayer, have important and wonderful implications for an incarnate theology. All testify to the beauty and goodness of our physical bodies. Our lives as Christians must be physical and engaged in the reality of the world's struggles and difficulties. Jesus' ministry was completely immersed in the controversies and tensions of his time. He healed physical illnesses as well as spiritual ailments, and restored physical as well as spiritual life. And the death, resurrection, and ascension he experienced were all fully physical. As the inheritors of the mission, the disciples must imitate his example.

Despite Jesus' efforts, however, they are slow to fully understand both his mission and their own. In the Acts readings on the ascension, they wait for a political and religious solution to Roman occupation, asking, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). And in Luke, Jesus "opened their minds to understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:45). In both cases, Jesus must explicitly explain that as witnesses and companions of the incarnate God, the disciples must physically and spiritually live the good news.

Life without Jesus physically among us means that it is our job to wrestle with the big mysteries. There are no easy answers, only the struggle in action and spirit born of prayer and faith. Our journey, however, is made easier knowing that the disciples "returned to Jerusalem with great joy" (Luke 24:52). We, too, can discover the joy of living our faith fully and passionately in the world.

June 8

The Spirit of Truth
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27,16:4-15

Pentecost brings the birth of the church to fruition; in the words of Paul, "we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption...." (Romans 8:23). Though referring to our rebirth in Christ, Paul's words also describe the ongoing creation of the whole community of Christ. The creation of church is not isolated to one time and place, but a continuous process of becoming.

It is a process that Jesus recognizes as wholly necessary for the spiritual maturation of Christians and of the church: "But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you" (John 16:7). Had Jesus remained, we would have remained spiritual children, dependent on him in order to act and to know what is right. The truth is a slippery thing, wholly beyond us save for the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is we, like the first disciples, who must try to understand what exactly it is and where it lies.

Fortunately, the Pentecost event itself can and must serve as our guide. The Spirit descended upon individuals, but in community: "When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together" (Acts 2:1). Only together can we hope to discern if the real source of our claims to the truth are born of the Spirit or the powerful temptations of our own egos. Once again we are reminded of our faith's beautiful balance between individual agency and community discernment and action.

Though there are no hard and fast formulas for its deciphering, even in community, it's clear that the truth does not involve forms of death such as exclusion, hatred, and scapegoating. Rather, the Holy Spirit is always associated with new life, new beginnings, and new possibilities, as the psalmist joyfully describes: "When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and renew the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:30). Our claims of truth must always be on the side of life—renewing, redeeming, and co-creating with our God.

June 15

Love Without Limits
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

The Easter and Pentecost seasons close with the celebration of one of Christianity's greatest mysteries: God as one, yet three. In God's quest to know and love humanity, God chose not one but three persons. The psalm reveals the majesty of God as the supreme ruler: "The Lord is enthroned over the flood; the Lord is enthroned as king forever!" This is the God with whom the Israelites covenanted, the one who alone calmed the primal, chaotic waters and brought forth life, and who is greater than any earthly ruler.

The New Testament reveals yet another person of God and another way God invites us into relationship. Here it is the incarnate God, who walked among us in human form, experiencing life as we do. This is God as Human One who knew life in body and spirit and invites us to greater life through both: "Amen, amen I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit" (John 3:5). And Paul reveals God as Spirit who testifies that we are both children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ: "The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ" (Romans 8:16-17).

If we truly believe God seeks out multiple ways of relating to us in love, then it is similarly inconceivable that God has limited the ability to relate to humanity to a single gender. Indeed, our history reveals differently, for the one we know as Spirit today has also been known as Wisdom, she who was present with and as God before creation. Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic, wrote in Showing of Love that "the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are enclosed." As Trinity, God resists our desire to place limits on God's expression or manifestation. The faithful community of men and women, equally blessed by the Spirit, is left with only the mystery of God as three persons: Creator, Brother, and Spirit/Wisdom.

June 22

Faith or Fear?
1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49; Psalm 107:1-3; 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

The return to ordinary time begins by highlighting the importance of faith, especially in the face of overwhelming odds. In the psalm and in Mark, images of violent storms represent the demonic, while in Samuel David uses faith alone to defend God's people from slavery. Though physically weaker than their opponents, the power of faith brings victory to the believer in each story.

Mark's account of the crossing of the Sea of Galilee closely parallels that of the psalm's. In both cases, God/Jesus saves those in distress from a violent storm, described in the psalm as "...a storm wind, which tossed its waves on high" (Psalm 107:25), and in Mark as "a violent squall" whose "waves were breaking over the boat..." (Mark 4:37). Mark clearly associates the storm with evil by characterizing the wind with the same language he used to describe the demon exorcised by Jesus in chapter 1. Jesus "rebukes" the waters as he rebuked the demon, and orders the waters to be calm—"Quiet! Be Still!" (Mark 4:39)—in almost exactly the same way he orders the demon. In both cases, the demonic forces recognize him and obey his commands, unlike most of the human characters in Mark, including the disciples. After calming the storm, Jesus appears amazed and troubled at the disciples' lack of faith.

Their lack of belief strongly contrasts with David's in the book of Samuel. Though unskilled in war and without battle attire, David is certain that God will deliver him: "You come against me with sword and spear...but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts.... Today the Lord shall deliver you into my hand" (1 Samuel 17:45-46). Goliath is described in animal-like, almost inhuman terms: "Your servant has killed both a lion and a bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be as one of them" (1 Samuel 17:36). Unlike the disciples, David confronts the forces of death with his faith alone. It is our task to decide if we will confront the forces of death in our own lives with faith, or with fear.

June 29

Saved by Faith
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Teachings on faith and equality in the Old and New Testament readings prepare us for the same themes in Mark's extraordinary gospel, in his account of the healing of two women. First, the psalmist proclaims a steadfast faith in God: "I trust in the Lord, my soul trusts in his word; my soul waits for the Lord" (Psalm 130:5). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul asks that they share generously with other communities so that "as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply their needs" (2 Corinthians 8:13-14).

Mark's gospel combines these teachings in his account of two healings, which are also documented by Luke and Matthew. While it is faith that saves both women, their stories are remarkably different; through them, according to Ched Myers in Say to This Mountain, Mark "dramatizes how the poor were given priority in the ministry of Jesus."

The women occupy opposite sides of the social and religious spectrum. While an adult male, Jairus, directly asks Jesus for help on behalf of his little girl, the bleeding woman acts on her own and touches Jesus in secret, without speaking to him. The child is 12 years old and on the verge of fertility and greater status in society; the woman has bled for 12 years and is therefore impure, outcast, and poor.

However, despite her situation and through her faith, the impure woman "takes" from Jesus what she needs, in some ways exercising more agency than Jairus. It was not her action, Mark assures us, but her faith that made her well. Interrupting his journey to see the dying child, Jesus takes time to speak with the woman directly, and confirms that "your faith has saved you" (Mark 5:34). Jesus prioritizes the woman's concerns, acknowledges her existence and her actions, and commends her, symbolically equalizing her status with that of the child. Mark, like the psalmist and Paul, makes it clear that it is our faith in God alone that makes us equal and valued, regardless of our social status or religious purity.

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