The Common Good
January 2009

Claiming Our Inheritance

by Michaela Bruzzese | January 2009

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary for January.

The next four weeks usher us through the closure of the Christmas season and God’s final present of presence—Wisdom Sophia, the feminine spirit that becomes both word and flesh. She is the final manifestation of God’s attempt to find us; she has been with us “[b]efore the ages, in the beginning … and for all the ages” (Sirach 24:9).

The psalmist sings joyfully about a God who has “searched me and known me.” Our God knows us, and is known by us: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well” (Psalm 131:14).

To know us better, God becomes ordinary; as water, God claims us, and as Spirit, God commissions us. Jesus, too, looks among the “ordinary” to do the extraordinary task of building the new reign of God, starting not from the centers of power but with the powerless—ordinary people without special qualifications besides enough faith to leave everything and become “fishers of people.”

Now, as always, it is our turn to respond, to join community, to make it accountable and to be accountable to it, and to claim the only inheritance that is not susceptible to fluctuating markets. As Christians, now more than ever, we must be bankers and give freely of our savings of hope, justice, and new life, for “in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance … so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-12).

Michaela Bruzzese, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York.

January 4

Full Circle

Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

The Christmas season of the liturgical calendar comes full circle, concluding with alternate readings that feature God’s presence as Wisdom and word-become-flesh: Jesus. Critical to the understanding and unification of these themes is Jesus as the continuation of Wisdom Sophia, the feminine manifestation of God’s spirit, who has been continually present with the Israelites (Sirach 24:9). In Jesus, she becomes Word, which John emphasizes is not just spirit, but also flesh: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). This is not an abstract God or one limited to the spiritual realm; this Messiah is flesh and blood, completely incarnate and fully sharing the human experience.

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson notes the critical impact that the Wisdom tradition has played in Christianity’s understanding of Jesus. “Unlike the historical and prophetic books,” she writes in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, “the wisdom tradition is interested not only in God’s mighty deeds in history but in everyday life with the give and take of its relationships.” This understanding will be reflected in Jesus’ way of being—the formation of community, his preaching style, the parables he tells about everyday life. Like Sophia, Johnson writes, Jesus “delights in being with people; joy, insight, and a sure way to God are found in his company.”

Finally, Paul emphasizes that our beliefs before Jesus—whether as Gentile or Jew, Greek or pagan—are unimportant compared to our faith in Jesus, which unites us all in one Spirit: “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit is God’s response to our faith in Jesus.

Whether as Word or Spirit, Incarnate Son, or Mother/Father God, God continues to seek ways to be present and presence to us.

January 11

Water and Fire

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

The celebration of Jesus’ baptism begins with a testimony to God as Creator, the source and master of both light and water. First, Genesis testifies that God not only created the heavens and earth, but brought forth order and light from chaos and darkness. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” The psalmist follows with a testament to the God whose glory thunders even “over mighty waters.” The trifecta of baptismal symbols finally concludes with Mark’s narrative of the baptism, where the arrival of the Spirit descends from heaven “like a dove” (Mark 1:10).

Although Mark’s description depicts the reign of God descending from on high, theologian James Cone observes that Jesus’ baptism actually displays a new understanding of God’s reign, one that is more horizontal than vertical. By being baptized with the masses, Cone writes in A Black Theology of Liberation, “Jesus embraces the condition of sinners, affirming their existence as his own.” Those brave enough to journey to the wilderness to seek salvation find it waiting for them in the form of Jesus—who walks with them.

Paul’s testimony in Acts shows that as Christians, baptism by both water and spirit is still an essential part of our identity and practice. While baptism by water welcomes us to the promise of new life and community, baptism by spirit then impels us to communicate God’s saving grace to the world: “When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). With water and fire we form and build our communities, remembering that God’s new reign emphasizes horizontal relationships rather than vertical ones, therefore enabling each of us to uniquely proclaim the good news to the world.

January 18

Incarnate Faith

1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

The second Sunday of Epiphany is all about knowing and being known. Samuel, whose birth is an answer to Hannah’s prayer, is known by God from conception, and though he doesn’t understand God’s call, he trusts in both Eli’s advice and in God’s word. For his faith and willingness to tell the truth, Samuel becomes a great prophet to the people of Israel, overseeing the enthronement of David. He became accountable to his community and God, and insisted on the same from them.

In John’s gospel, Nathanael is known by Jesus before they meet; Jesus saw him “under the fig tree,” a symbol of peace in the Hebrew Bible. In contrast to Nathanael’s skepticism when told about Jesus (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”), Jesus greets him with authority and generosity, noting his qualities as a leader and disciple: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47). Believed to be the disciple Bartho­lomew, Nathanael joins the new community of Jesus, becoming responsible to, and for, it.

In contrast, Paul explains the position of the new Christian community on knowing in the traditional biblical sense. Addressing issues such as prostitution and sexual relations outside marriage, Paul insists that being Christian involves body and soul, and so “the fornicator sins against the body itself.” Paul asserts that the effects of such activity are not limited to the individual but involve the whole community, asking, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Corinthians 6:15).

These examples of knowing could not be more different: Samuel and Nathanael respond with faith, join the community, and become accountable to it. Their being known brings life and shared commitment. In contrast, Paul writes against a knowing that is focused exclusively on the physical needs of the individual, insisting that as Christians we are challenged to balance the goodness and beauty of body and spirit, and to act in ways that honor both. As an incarnate faith, Christianity is concerned with body and soul; our presence to one another reflects God’s presence among us.

January 25

Help Wanted

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Jesus continues to build a community of followers, skipping the temple and other places of power and instead looking among those with whom he was baptized for anyone willing to take a leap of faith. Those with the least to lose and protect (money, reputation, possessions) are the first to respond. Despite his less-than-tempting invitation—“Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17)—Simon, Andrew, James, and John leave their nets and follow Jesus without looking back.

Their response stands in contrast to that of another man who is all-too- familiar with fish. After a tantrum and a time-out, Jonah finally does God’s will and preaches repentance to Nineveh. Following today’s reading, we see that Jonah is shocked and dismayed when the Ninevites actually repent and are spared God’s wrath. An elitist with something of a superiority complex, Jonah is more interested in seeing sinners punished than building a loving community. God’s response demonstrates that God’s mercy is available to everyone who seeks it and that all God’s people are worthy of love and a second chance.

Between Jonah’s shortcomings as a prophet and the questionable résumés of Jesus’ new disciples, God’s human resources skills would be seen as suspect under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances; this is the new reign of God, to which everyone—stubborn elitists and uneducated fisherman—is equally welcome and heartily invited. Apparently, all Jesus (like God) asks is repentance and faithful hearts willing to take a chance. As Paul advises, they—and we—must be willing to throw away all that came before and “deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Joining this new community signifies a new reality for each of us, with new power structures (horizontal), new rules about screwing up (mercy), and new rules about what really matters (love one another). For those willing and (not necessarily) able, applications are now and always being accepted. Please apply in person.

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