The Common Good
April 2010

The Power of Suffering Love

by Walter Brueggemann | April 2010

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

Our readings move from Friday to Sunday, from death to new life. Friday, in Christian reckoning, is a null-point wherein the power of God is defeated by the empire of force. But the church has found in that Friday shut-down the transformative work of God, because this God works in and through weakness and vulnerability as the door to new life. It is a Friday truth that suffering love has transformative power that the “executioners” never suspect.

Sunday follows Friday. Sunday—Easter Sunday and all of the Easter Sundays to follow—exhibits the transformative power of God’s new life in the world. We cannot escape the particularity of that surprise in that ancient moment. It’s important, nonetheless, that we do not hold that moment back there, because Easter is always again an immediately contemporary reality. God’s power for life is always again being given in a world tempted to settle for deathliness. These texts exhibit Easter in its surging contemporaneity. It is the power of death that leads to hostility toward neighbor, that evokes greed and rage and violence toward others. These texts tell an alternative account of the world, where gifts of healing and forgiveness defy death. The church keeps these texts so that we now, in our culture of despair, may be recruited for a more excellent way. The Easter Lord, via Easter texts, invites an Easter people to be about that defiant civil disobedience of new life in a weary, spent world.
 
Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
 
[ April 2 ]
Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1 - 19:42
 
Jesus was executed by Roman authorities because his teaching was a threat to the established order of the socio-political system of the empire. But of course the church has gone well beyond that to ponder the way in which the willing, painful self-sacrifice of Jesus at the hands of the empire has immediate theological and pastoral implications for us.
 
From the beginning, the church has found the poem in Isaiah 53 to be a clue to interpreting the self-giving of Jesus. The poem affirms that the suffering (“stripes”) of one can heal another (53:5). From that the church claims that in his death Jesus has done something decisive for us. It is in this conviction that a faith confession goes beyond historical analysis.
 
The readings from Hebrews show that one way to speak of self-giving love is through the rhetoric of sacrifice in the book of Leviticus. In Hebrews 4:14-16, Jesus is the priest who grants mercy. In 5:7-9, he is the high priest who is the source of abiding well-being (“eternal salvation”). The text says, “Hold fast to a confession,” to insist that new life is given peculiarly in Jesus’ Friday love. Jesus’ people look only here for well-being and not to the “empire” of money, power, sex, control, or whatever. The confession is to stay close to Jesus, and then to follow him in self-giving for the world.
 
[ April 4 ]
Easter Imagination
Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18
 
The news of Easter is that, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has broken all the vicious cycles of deathliness in which the world finds itself. The lyric of Isaiah 65:17-25 anticipates that weary old heaven, jaded old earth, and conflicted old Jerusalem all will be broken open by the power of God to new, healthy possibility.
 
What the poetry of Isaiah anticipates the early church confesses. The Easter narrative of John 20 provides an early attestation about the “seeing” and “believing” of the first Easter, first reported by the uncredentialed women and then verified by the credentialed male apostles. The news of this new aliveness is breathtaking; Mary’s declaration, “I have seen the Lord,” is one of bewilderment and astonishment (John 20:18). Neither she nor her companions could explain what had happened, because they had no categories for this exhibit of God’s power for life. The narrative portrays a deep, singular event that defies all of our modern categories of explanation.
It is this singular event on which the church stakes its life and its witness. Paul testifies about the defeat of “the last enemy … death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Peter witnesses to the gift of forgiveness given in Easter (Acts 10:43). Easter invites us to imagine, embrace, and live in a world that is without fear of death or guilt. It is no wonder that the authorities recognized the Easter proclamation to be dangerously subversive of the world organized around death and guilt.
 
[ April 11 ]
A Peace Presence
Psalm 150; Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
 
It is amazing that the narrative of Jesus’ new life-giving presence (John 20:19-31) generates bold apostolic preaching (Acts 5:27-32) that eventuates in lyrical expectation of the coming rule of God (Revelation 1:4-8).
 
The narrative of John 20 concerns the doubt of the early church about Easter, and the peace-uttering presence of Jesus that overrides that uncertainty. The church reports its doubt that culminates in the affirmation of Thomas.
 
The apostolic preaching of Acts 5 caused early witnesses to the resurrection to be continually called “on the carpet” for asserting that the old authority of the empire had been broken by the eruption of God’s power for life. The ultimate testimony is that “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). Such defiance refers to Roman authority, but since then evokes bold witness and action in defiance of settled authority.
 
From that preaching comes hope that what God has begun in Easter, God will complete in the fullness of time. The lyric of Revelation 1:4-8 (matched by the lyric of Psalm 150) celebrates the fullness of God’s good rule from A to Z (alpha to omega). Such new life, lyric hope, and bold civil disobedience mean the undoing of the old world. Easter is not rumination on an odd miracle. It is rather the mounting of a new practical way in the world, a way that dazzles and threatens and ultimately transforms.
 
[ April 18 ]
‘I Am Jesus’
Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
 
Faith bears witness to abrupt, transformative newness that it cannot explain. It can only narrate what it has seen and heard.
 
The gospel reading turns on Peter’s assertion, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7). Jesus shows up where least expected, and everything is changed. The life-giving power of God has the capacity, always again on exhibit, to work newness where newness seems impossible. Our readings provide three “case studies” of the gift of Easter newness.
 
In Psalm 30, the psalm tells of the turn from mourning to dancing, from sad clothes into joy clothes (v. 11). Joy comes in the morning … after long weeping (v. 5)!
 
In the Acts narrative, the living Lord confronts Saul the persecutor: “I am Jesus” (v. 9). Nobody, surely not Ananias, expected that Saul could be transformed into a daring follower of “the Way.” But he is! He is given back his sight for his new vocation.
 
The lyric of Revelation 5 offers a scene of all creatures gathered around the throne of God. What a song they sing! It is about the “slaughtered Lamb” (crucified Jesus) become the enthroned Lamb (risen Lord), endowed with power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing (v. 12-13).
 
The readings provide a remarkable inventory concerning God’s transformative power: Saul to Paul, slain Lamb to enthroned Lamb. These texts invite us to ponder God’s gifts of newness among us: new selves, new church, new world. Gifts beyond our despairing.
 
[ April 25 ]
Beyond Death’s Reach
Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
 
The world believes that we are finally in the grip of death. We spend our frightened energy trying to stay young and be healthy. We use our money to secure our existence. We work frantically to establish our worth. We are propelled by fearfulness that evokes violence and produces policies of aggression and militarism.
 
Against that, these texts assert Jesus offers a way of “eternal life” that puts us out of the reach of deathliness. By “eternal life” the church means the full and final establishment of our worth, our identity, and our destiny in God’s rule.
 
The readings mediate on God’s power for life. Psalm 23 voices confidence in the protector who “restores my life” in the danger zones of hostility and threat. God leads “beside still waters,” an image picked up at the end of the great doxology in Revelation 7:17, where the good shepherd will finally prevail.
 
Between the ancient psalm and the sweeping doxology is the story of Peter restoring life to Dorcas. In his utterance, Peter reiterates the earlier command of Jesus in Mark 5:41 (Acts 9:40). This sequence of texts attests that God has entrusted to the church the capacity to defy death and evoke life. Imagine a world peopled by those unafraid of death. Those who join this narrative may cease to be “arms dealers” and become gift givers who share the water of life.
 
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.
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