The Common Good
May 2004

The Eternal Thou

by Michaela Bruzzese | May 2004

The history of the struggles of the oppressed is the history of the call of the Holy Spirit to a divided world,

The history of the struggles of the oppressed is the history of the call of the Holy Spirit to a divided world, writes Mexican theologian Maria Pilar Aquino in Our Cry for Life. For liberation theologians, the presence of the Holy Spirit is synonymous with the struggle for liberation. This observation is lived out in the experience of the early Christian community, as related in Acts. With the descent of the Holy Spirit, the community learns what it means to live the gospel "in a divided world." Filled with the Spirit, they are able to communicate with people from every culture and language, without fear or hesitation. They discover that enemies, strangers, and the unclean are also God’s children. In other words, they discover church.

With the help of the Spirit, the disciples spread the gospel far beyond what they imagined. They minister to and welcome Gentiles, amazed that "God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!" (Acts 11:18). The community had to be constantly reminded that Jesus’ resurrection meant new life for all of humanity; even physical death would never have the last word. The God of Jesus is faithful to the end. With this reassurance, we too can re-enter the world, newly converted and newly committed to the struggles for liberation in this divided, suffering world. Blessed by the Spirit, we too can engage the world as "Thou," making strangers into friends and enemies into neighbors, and encountering the presence of God in the process.

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

May 2
Life Goes On
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

As the church prepares to celebrate the ascension and Pentecost, readings are focused on the life of the disciples after Jesus. In the resurrection of Tabitha, Luke conveys Christ’s power over death, which continues at the hands of Jesus’ followers. Peter’s words, "Tabitha, get up," are reminiscent of those Jesus used to restore life: "Little girl, I say to you, arise" (Mark 5:41). But physical life is not the only life restored in Luke’s account. He reports that Peter stayed at the home of Simon, a tanner, a profession considered unclean by Jews. Christ restores not only physical, but communal life, breaking barriers and creating community among those previously separated by social and religious purity codes.

The opposite occurs in John, where Jewish religious leaders are unable to comprehend or accept the new life Jesus offers. Ironically, the direct translation of their question, "How long will you keep us in suspense?" (John 10:24) is "How long will you take away our life?" Their inability to believe in Jesus’ words and mission leaves them, literally, lifeless.

The book of Revelation, finally, promises resurrection to Christ’s faithful, even in the midst of death and suffering. With imagery of resurrection and victory, it testifies to the trials of those martyred for their faith: "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 7:14). The author promises that death will never have the final answer: "They will hunger no more, and thirst no more...and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Revelation 7:16-17). Only when we, like Peter, recognize and trust the work of the Spirit can we contribute to the renewal of the face of the earth.

May 9
Lifegiving Repentance
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Following the resurrection and leading to Pentecost, we and the disciples learn how to live the resurrection and translate it into community, into church. For Jesus’ followers, community has always consisted of those who look, think, pray, and act like they do. Once on their own, the disciples revert to what is comfortable and known. When Peter ministers among the Gentiles, the other disciples ask him, "Why did you go to uncircumcised people and eat with them?" Peter gives a lengthy explanation, ultimately concluding, "If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" (Acts 11:17). Peter and the community are amazed to find that the "unclean" are also invited to the table: "God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!"

If Jesus’ own followers had trouble living the gospel, how much more so will we? Aren’t we, too, hesitant to believe that God has given all others "the repentance that leads to life"?

Perhaps instead of judging the worthiness of those who are different, we should look at our own lives and the opportunities for conversion that lie within. According to martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the ongoing process of conversion is itself the meaning of church: "One cannot be part of this church without being faithful to [Jesus’] manner of passing from death to life, without a sincere movement of conversion and of fidelity to the Lord." Both the disciples and Romero had to rethink their preconceived notions about what—and who—makes the church. In both cases, it was the despised, the unclean, who helped the faithful to pass "from death to life."

May 16
To Be Made Well
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9

John and Acts portray two different models of discipleship. In John, Jesus performs a sign to mark the beginning of his self-revelation, which continues in Jerusalem. Encountering several infirm people, Jesus asks one of them, "Do you want to be made well?" (John 5:6). The man does not answer Jesus with a direct yes or no, but with excuses as to why he has not been healed (John 5:7). The man is defeated, unable to act for himself and therefore resigned to his paralysis. Jesus’ response is not one of forgiveness or praise for the showing of great faith, as in other healings, but a command: "Stand up, take your mat and walk" (John 5:8). In the end, the man is healed by his willingness to respond to Jesus’ command rather than the magical waters of the pool.

The opposite model of discipleship is portrayed in Acts. Like John’s reading, the account takes place on the Sabbath, and also near water. Here, Paul and other apostles go outside city gates near the river "to a place of prayer," where they "sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there" (Acts 16:13). Luke reports that Lydia listens eagerly to Paul’s words. In contrast to the paralyzed man, Lydia acts immediately, requesting that "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home" (Acts 16:15). She opens her life and home to the new community.

Neither disciple is judged, and both are invited equally to new life, as are all Christians in the lifelong process of conversion. At times, paralyzed by difficult events in our lives and world, we too are in need of Jesus’ command to move forward. Other times, we are ready to respond to the good news immediately. In either case, God meets us where we are and invites us "to be made well."

May 23
From Death to Life
Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

The ascension of Jesus takes place amidst the persecution of the early church. In both Acts and Revelation, the authors testify to the consequences of a lived faith. After healing a slave girl of an evil spirit, Paul and his followers find themselves "stripped of their clothing" and "beaten with rods" (Acts 16:22), then flogged and thrown into prison. And in Revelation, probably written during the reign of Domitian, a fierce persecutor of the church, the author encourages Christians to remain faithful, despite the pressures of paganism and persecution: "Blessed are those who wash their robes [that is, who are martyred], so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates" (Revelation 22:14).

Without Jesus, the new church finds itself the target of all the anger, persecution, hatred, and fear that was directed at Jesus and led to his crucifixion. Since Jesus arose and defeated death forever, however, the disciples are free to turn the hatred and fear into an invitation to life from God. Instead of responding to their jailer with revenge or violence, the disciples invite him to know the God of life: "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). In the midst of violence and death, the disciples choose to offer life, forgiveness, and mercy to those who rejected and abused them.

As Christians we must advocate for life in the midst of death, for justice in the midst of oppression, and peace in the midst of hatred. We are not called to avoid oppression, suffering, or even death but like Jesus and the first disciples to answer it with life, mercy, and hope.

May 30
Language of the Spirit
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-35; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, (25-27)

The descent of the Spirit upon the Christian community teaches them a new way of relating to the world. As Paul clarifies, it is not wine that makes the disciples’ words understandable to a multilingual audience, but the work of God through the Spirit. The disciples’ ability to communicate went beyond the simple understanding of words; they were somehow able to communicate about God. Witnesses proclaimed incredulously, "in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power" (Acts 2:11). Through the Spirit, the disciples related to others differently; they treated them not as potential converts to be exploited but, in the words of Martin Buber, as thou. The "I-Thou" encounter, according to Buber, is not just an encounter of our whole being with the whole being of another, but an encounter with the divine: "in each Thou, we address the eternal Thou."

Paul confirms the importance of relating to each other in this way, insisting that the most pure expression of faith in Christ is how we relate to others and form community: "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption" (Romans 8:15). A spirit of slavery leads to fear, and fear leads to limiting access to God based on power and privilege. Paul assures us, however, that there are no privileged, first-born children in the Christian community; we are all adopted "children of God." As such, we are called to relate to every person with respect and reverence, as thou. In doing so we, like the disciples, can speak with authority about God and with God, the "eternal Thou."

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