The books of Luke, Acts, and 1 Peter dominate the readings this month; Peter and Paul are key players. Passages from Acts replace those from the Hebrew Bible so that the only Hebrew content is the Psalms. This leaves us seemingly cut off from the prophetic tradition and the reality of Jesus and his companions as Jews. It also brings into sharp focus the struggles of the early church in the years after the crucifixion.
As Christianity spread from Palestine into other parts of the Roman Empire, the various communities swung between resistance and assimilation. In their quest to survive this hostile environment, they sought both to establish an identity and to present Christianity as nonthreatening to Roman authority and decorum. In this bid for survival, those who were least valued in the Roman patriarchal household—women and slaves—were in some sense abandoned. Unfortunately, the later church, and even modern churches, have read this compromise as a mandate.
In a talk on prophetic religion, Junaid Ahmad, a progressive Muslim, reflected on his many invitations to speak to other faith groups, with the implication that he is to show why Islam is not threatening. He counters with the challenge, “Why is your faith not a threat? In the face of a dehumanizing global economy that is an affront to the divine, why have you abandoned the prophetic call of your tradition?” Is “nonthreatening” the best people of faith can do?
Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator in Vancouver, British Columbia. www.laureldykstra.com
Heads, Hearts, and Bellies
Acts 2:14, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
Heart imagery is central to today’s readings. In Acts, those who hear Peter are “cut to the heart,” and in 1 Peter members of the churches of Asia Minor are called to “love one another deeply from the heart.” In Luke, Jesus calls the Emmaus pair “slow of heart”; they describe their hearts burning when he opened scriptures to them.
For someone like me who loves to study scripture, the road to Emmaus has a good lesson. Although the hearts of the pair “burn,” it is not in breaking open the word but in breaking the bread that Cleopas, and the companion who is probably his wife, actually recognize Jesus: “He had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). This story is not about the head, but the heart—and also the belly.
Eating, and eating together, are essential to Jesus and the kingdom movement. The open-table practice that they shared breaks down barriers and reveals food justice issues in a way that soup kitchens, food banks, or holiday hampers handed across a counter cannot.
Very few people suffer from malnutrition in North America, but food insecurity—literally not knowing where your next meal will come from—impacts more than 10 percent of households. Eating with others made this real to me. I recently led a workshop attended by a number of women who are homeless, street-involved, or living close to poverty. At lunch plenty of food was available, but the sugar, animal protein, and fat were completely devoured. I could not keep enoughcookies, cheese, and sliced meat on the table.
When you have only occasional access to a microwave, no can opener, one bowl, and a fridge shared with hungry neighbors, the only thing to do with an offered sandwich, pastry, or pancake is eat it. No matter if your belly’s full; who knows when you will see another?
And the belly brings us back to the heart. Poverty, Dennis Raphael of York University tells us, is the single best predictor of heart disease. In North America few are dying of hunger, but many die from the stress and food insecurity of poverty.
The couple on the road to Emmaus, like many of us on the giving side of the food bank counter, were headed away from Jerusalem, on the run from suffering, but their meal with Jesus sends them straight back into the heart of the struggle.
Ambiguity and Challenge
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
This Good Shepherd Sunday the bleating of sheep, the calling of shepherds, and the clattering of sheep gates nearly drown out two ambiguous and challenging portraits of life in the early church.
Acts 2 describes a community engaged in active economic sharing that goes far beyond charity: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). In 1 Peter 2 we hear an exhortation to endure undeserved suffering and not to return abuse for abuse.
While these examples reflect the communities’ attempts to grapple with and live out two central precepts of Christianity—economic justice and nonviolence—they obscure the ways in which, as a survival strategy, the same communities failed to live out the Christian call.
The model of radical economic sharing in Acts is tainted by the fact that women’s role as financial backers of the movement was accepted and lauded but their leadership was discouraged and distorted by the author of Luke and Acts.
The 1 Peter selection has been cut from the surrounding material so that what seems to be a call to the community to nonretaliation is in fact a call to slaves to accept violence. In 1 Peter 2:13-17, the whole community is exhorted to honor Roman authorities, including the emperor and governor, and then slaves are addressed explicitly: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18). Especially given the reality that trafficking in persons is a billion-dollar industry, calling slaves to accept violence is an idea that is rightly distasteful to modern readers.
While we should be uneasy with these passages, knowing that they have been taken out of their early church context and used through history against women and enslaved persons, we also need to think about what texts we use in the same way and ask ourselves, “What will we regret in the future?”
Rocks and Stones
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Most places I go I pick up stones. They wear holes in my pockets when I forget them in the laundry. Rough and smooth, fist-size or smaller, they fit into my hand—solid reminders of places I have been and that we humans, with all of our hurting, are still relative newcomers to this planet.
Our scriptures for today are as full of stones as our newspapers, and the two can form stark juxtapositions. Saul watches while Stephen is executed: “Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 7:58). Schoolchildren throw stones at armed soldiers. “You are indeed my rock and my fortress,” the psalmist sings to God (Psalm 31:3). A woman sells a sex act for a rock of cocaine.
Peter, named “the Rock,” is credited with writing, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). Tourists climb over the sacred stone of an indigenous nation.
1 Peter 2 refers to the Lord as “a living stone,” a “cornerstone chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:4, 6). To those who disbelieve, this cornerstone becomes “a stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall” (1 Peter 2:8).
I pray that we find our way among the rocks that are the living stones—and those that are instruments of death.
Your Lawyer Will Be With You Shortly
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
In the gospel of John, witnesses, testimony, and confession all have special significance. Scholars tell us that the whole of John can be read as a lawsuit—a courtroom drama. It should not be surprising to us, then, that at their last meal together Jesus promises his companions an advocate. Activist, Bible teacher, and former lawyer Wes Howard-Brook says the Greek word paraclete is a secular court term that indicates both an attorney for the defense and a comforter in suffering. So Jesus is sending not just a lawyer, but a good lawyer, one who cares and whose caseload is not so overwhelming that there is time to make that caring real.
I haven’t spent much time in jail, but when I have—due to my community, good organizing, and some degree of privilege—I have had good lawyers. Most poor people never do.
The image of waiting for your legal defender conveys for me a particular kind of anticipation and alertness. Each crackle of the intercom makes you jump. Is it me? Was that my number? Is it my turn? I don’t often wait with that kind of focus. One of the women who shared such a jailhouse vigil with me, playing cards and telling stories, is now a lawyer herself. It makes me smile to imagine the Spirit described in the gospel of John embodied in people such as Mi Jo, Bill, Katya, Midnight Special Law Collective, Pivot Legal Society, the Poverty Law Center, and others like them who believe in justice and who work for change with activists, poor people, racialized youth, immigrants, and other people who are marginalized. It is that Spirit who asks us all the question emblazoned on the Midnight Special logo, “What have you done for justice today?”