The Common Good
February 2004

Living the Word

by Michaela Bruzzese | February 2004

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

"Oh, king of kings, we kneel before you, asking for peace in the rest of the country. Reveal yourself, reveal yourself, Almighty!" The lyrics of "King of Kings," by South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, indicate their confidence that God revealed is peace itself. But the reactions of those to whom God revealed God’s self in scripture reflect anything but peace. Jeremiah and Isaiah are both overcome with feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. Jeremiah attempts to get out of his calling. And though he’s willing, Isaiah cannot call his attempts at conversion very successful, for he is ultimately killed by his own people. The disciples, however, so enjoy their glimpse of heaven that they offer to set up camp and "make three tents, one for [Jesus], one for Moses, and one for Elijah" (Luke 9:33). They prefer to dwell in the vision of the kingdom instead of making the vision a reality on earth by struggling through the suffering and hardship of discipleship.

And the life of Jesus brings us yet another unexpected revelation of the divine: God as human, God who suffered and died, and who, Paul assures us, has "been raised from the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:20). This fact brings another aspect of God revealed: a God who loves and cares for us in body and spirit, who knows our physical hungers and sorrows, and who promises that ours "is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20).

Michaela Bruzzese is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

February 1

Prophets to the Nations

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5). Though God assures Jeremiah that he was chosen as a prophet before birth, Jeremiah is a reluctant sell. Hiding behind his youth, he attempts to avoid God’s invitation: "I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy" (Jeremiah 1:6). Despite his protests, God insists; and though Jeremiah later will be known as a great prophet, his mission can hardly be called successful either. Slandered, arrested, imprisoned, exiled, and killed by his own people, Jeremiah himself could have written the words of the psalmist: "Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel" (Psalm 71:4-5).

Jeremiah’s situation was not unusual; Jesus reminds his followers that because "no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown" (Luke 4:24), God often sends them to "outsiders." Perhaps, with fewer expectations and less to lose, outsiders (the outcast, forgotten, hated, and "unclean") can better hear, and live, the good news.

However, Paul reminds us that it’s not only our message that matters, but also our attitude as prophets and disciples. The community at Corinth had apparently become so fixated on the gifts of the spirit that the gifts were becoming ends in themselves, rather than a means of transmitting God’s love. Even spiritual gifts can become idolatrous if they point to anyone but God. Our charisms and talents are only gifts if they are given away in love, not used to bolster our own egos, power, or control. Paul insists that love alone can fulfill this role, for it is the opposite of ego (1 Corinthians 13:4-6); it alone is enduring. Love always turns outward, seeking not its own power, but the other.

February 8

Whom Shall I Send?

Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13); Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

The calling and purification of another prophet, Isaiah, again raises issues of worthiness. When Isaiah comes before God, he is so overwhelmed by God’s holiness and goodness that he not only fears for his life, but is overcome by his unworthiness: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5). Not until he is purified with a burning coal does Isaiah feel able to answer God’s call, responding with confidence and enthusiasm: "Here am I; send me!"

Worthiness is also an issue faced by Peter when Jesus’ words turn a fruitless day of fishing into an overwhelming bounty. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke places the miracle after Jesus’ rejection in the synagogue. He thus contrasts the reaction of Jesus’ community to that of Peter, who recognizes Jesus’ authority immediately. Peter’s response to Jesus’ divinity is the same as Isaiah’s—complete unworthiness: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5:8). Like God with Isaiah, Jesus does not look for another, more qualified person, but assures Peter that he will now have an even more daunting task: "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people" (Luke 5:10).

These are hardly comforting words to someone who can’t handle a basic miracle, let alone be commissioned to fish for souls in the name of Christ. But Jesus’ words, and God’s response, are the most important answers to Peter’s (and our) feelings of inadequacy. Even when we show ourselves and the world just how limited, and sinful, we can be, God still calls to us, asking "Whom shall I send?" (Isaiah 6:8), and Jesus still reminds us, "Do not be afraid."

February 15

Body and Spirit

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

Paul addresses the Corinthian community’s divisive debate about the nature of the resurrection, insisting upon our physical (not just spiritual) resurrection. Due to the influence of Greek philosophy, which disdained the physical, some Corinthians discounted bodily resurrection. Paul uses logic to refute such beliefs and to establish the reality of physical resurrection after death: "For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:16-17).

Paul’s insistence upon the importance of our faith as both physical and spiritual is also reflected in Luke. In the sermon on the plain, Jesus focuses on the physical needs of the community. Unlike Matthew’s portrayal, where Jesus’ concerns are focused on the spirit, in Luke, Jesus addresses physical needs, sufferings, and desires: hunger, loneliness, and poverty. Luke wants to convey that physical suffering matters to Jesus, and that in the reign of God, our joy and wholeness will be physical as well as spiritual. Paul and Luke both emphasize that God, as body and spirit, loves and relates to us through both.

At the same time, Jeremiah and the psalmist warn us that we must strike a careful balance in our faith, loving and respecting the joy of physical existence on earth, but knowing that our true source of life is God: "Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength" (Jeremiah 17:5). When the physical world is our only source of strength, our stamina evaporates and we "shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land" (Jeremiah 17:6). When our focus is God, however, we find new life after death; we are "like a tree planted near running water...whose leaves never fade" (Psalm 1:3).

February 22

The Vision Unveiled

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

Like Jeremiah and Isaiah, Moses returns from his encounter with God not just spiritually transformed, but physically transformed. His face is so radiant from being in God’s presence that the Israelites "were afraid to come near him" (Exodus 34:30); from then on, he veils his face so as not to frighten them. Paul uses this image to illustrate the tendency to listen to God’s words "with veiled minds." Paul is quick to accuse the Israelites, but it is a problem that affects us all. Can we face the presence of God, and the perfection and beauty of God’s reign? The Israelites needed distance from such overwhelming reality. So, too, did the disciples, but it was a different reality that they could not bear.

In Luke, the disciples accompany Jesus to the same mountaintop where Moses and Elijah made and renewed covenants with God. There, as Jesus is transfigured with them, the disciples are allowed a glimpse of heaven. The vision is meant to reassure the disciples that, despite the passion Jesus has just predicted (Luke 9:22), he will ultimately defeat death and return in glory. But by proposing to remain in the vision of glory (Luke 9:33), the disciples are veiling their hearts to Jesus’ impending suffering. Unlike the Israelites, the disciples are not veiled from the radiance of God’s presence, but from the reality of what commitment to Jesus means: that Jesus will suffer and die before he can rise again. They refuse to acknowledge that both physical and spiritual death is essential to resurrection.

As modern-day disciples, we suffer both types of veiling. We fail to live the conviction that the reign of God truly exists and that we are called to build it on earth. We also fail to comprehend that suffering, detachment, and death are necessary before resurrection is possible. Our ability to behold the vision unveiled allows us to continue to struggle without becoming paralyzed by the suffering. And our acceptance of the reality of death allows us to fully engage the world, with all its joys and hardships.

February 29

Journey to Freedom

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

The road to Lent begins with a thanksgiving ceremony, in which the Israelites commemorated the generosity of the God who "brought us out of Egypt" into a land "flowing with milk and honey" (Deuteronomy 26:8-9). They recalled God’s faithfulness during their journey to freedom, and God’s invitation to honor the covenant that would bring them new life.

Jesus, too, enters the desert to find freedom, but ironically must reject the very blessings—food, new land, and protection—that God bestowed upon the Israelites during their time in the desert and later in Canaan. The difference is not in the blessings themselves, but in who is offering them, and at what price. All of the devil’s offerings come with strings attached—that Jesus worship the devil (Luke 4:7), and that Jesus use the gifts for himself and his own satisfaction, making the gifts ends in themselves instead of instruments of new life for all. The blessings that God bestowed upon the Israelites, on the other hand, were freely given so that the Israelites could discard their false idols and trust in the liberation promised by God.

For the Israelites, for Jesus, and for us, our desert journey gives us the opportunity to name and reject the false idols we have collected—whether they be comfort, power, or protection. Only then can we be truly ready to recognize and accept God’s promise: "Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.... With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation" (Psalm 91:14, 16). 

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