The Common Good
June 2010

A Cast of Emancipated Characters

by Walter Brueggemann | June 2010

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

These texts, taken in sum, imagine the church. It is not an institution, but rather a community of folk who are propelled by God’s own spirit, situated in Jesus’ own narrative, and alive in the world in alternative ways. The sequence of texts in Luke’s gospel gives us character sketches of the kind of folk who are drawn to Jesus: The son raised from the dead (7:11-17), the woman of the street who enacted generosity (7:36-8:3), the possessed man now restored to sanity (8:26-39), and the would-be disciple who felt reluctance (9:51-62).

These are unlikely characters. But they people our imagination, because all of them are attracted to Jesus and all of them are summoned to radical and deep change.

Pentecost is a time to reimagine and re-enact the church as a movement that is unrestrained by old patterns or by the rule of fearful authorities. It is no wonder that the gospel readings are matched to Galatians. In that letter Paul is aflame with the freedom that Jesus gives out beyond all business as usual. And now our society is in deep need of folk who have energy beyond business as usual. Folk gathered around the gospel are likely candidates for just such a vocation.

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Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

[June 6]
'Your Son is Alive'
1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 146: Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
Biblical faith attests that God, creator of the world, is the giver of life, even in a world of deathliness. While that claim is pervasive in faith, it is rooted in specific, nameable moments when God’s power for life was particularly concentrated and effective in contexts of death. In these readings, we have two such specific moments. Elijah is presented as the one who gave life to the widow’s son: He prayed, and then declared to the mother, “See, your son is alive” (1 Kings 17:23). In a reprise of that narrative, Jesus commanded the widow’s only son, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” (Luke 7:14). In neither case does the narrative explain nor speculate. It only bears witness. It asserts that God has moved powerfully beyond all of our categories to offer new life. In these moments, the creator enacts the new creation.
From that, the church echoes Israel in doxology concerning the God who gives new life to prisoners, the blind, the bowed down, strangers, orphans, and widows (Psalm 146:8-9). Such practices, in neighborly action and in broad policy concerns, exhibit God’s way in and intention for the world. This God is a “help,” as the psalmist says, toward that life, exactly when human agents are “no help.”
It is to this life-giving God that Paul is summoned as witness and apostle. And of course, Paul intends that the churches he addresses should join him in praise and obedience to the God of life. This requires a bold confidence (the kind that Paul exhibits) that refuses the world’s deathliness and that acts with and toward the new life God gives. The psalm summarizes that new way in the world as “justice for the oppressed” (Psalm 146:7). Easter faith is indeed revolutionary in the world. The Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of new life, the force not stopped, even by our fear of that newness.
[ June 13 ]
Pray and Act
1 Kings 21:1-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36 - 8:3
In Galatians 2:15-21 Paul offers a classic statement about an alternative life that is lived out of God’s limitless generosity, for which we use the term “grace.” The other readings may be taken as commentary on this contrast between a graced life and a life propelled and measured by self-securing.
The psalm voices a prayer for God’s attentive protection against “boastful evildoers” (5:5) who are “bloodthirsty and deceitful” (5:6) and counted as “my enemies” (5:8). As usual, the psalm provides no particulars about the social crisis reflected in the prayer. If we look for a set of particulars that fit this prayer, the narrative of 1 Kings 21 provides such a case. We may imagine Naboth, owner of a small plot of land that the king covets, as the petitioner in the psalm. King Ahab and his co-conspirator Jezebel qualify as “bloodthirsty and deceitful” evildoers who are clearly adversaries of Naboth in their quest for his land that eventually requires his life. Naboth himself does not pray in the narrative. But the subsequent intervention of Elijah the prophet indicates just such an advocacy for “your righteousness” in the face of usurpatious wickedness (Psalm 5:8). Thus the narrative of Naboth and the generic voice of the psalm give flesh to Paul’s defining categories.
In Luke’s gospel, moreover, the “woman in the city who was a sinner” (7:37) acts with uncommon generosity toward Jesus, while the host Pharisee stands, with the self-securing, under Paul’s indictment. The contrast is clear and complete: “You gave me no water for my feet ... you gave me no kiss ... you did not anoint my head with oil” (7:44-45). She is forgiven while the host receives nothing from Jesus. All of these texts witness to the summons put before us by the gospel—a choice between self-securing that brings death or reliance upon God’s generosity. The psalmist prays and the woman performs. Both prayer and performance belong properly to the new life offered in God’s goodness.
[ June 20 ]
Powerless Before Demons
1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalms 42, 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Paul’s witness is that, in Christ, we may be freed from all the “disciplinarians” that restrict our lives. Entry into that new life of gospel freedom, through baptism, is like changing clothes; that is, changing self. In the new life, all of the old classifications and stratifications are eliminated (Galatians 3:28). In the gospel narrative we see “a man from the city who had demons” (Luke 8:27). We may imagine, in contemporary context, the demons are any form of addiction—drugs, sex, money, power, control, self-promotion. Such demons preclude much of the life that we want to live. But Jesus has the power to give the man a new life of freedom, beyond the grip of all the demons. The man in his new life is “in his right mind” (8:35).
That new life requires bold, risk-taking human agents to be enacted. The Elijah narrative in 1 Kings portrays the risks the prophet ran in obedience to the God of life. And then he is spent (19:4, 10)! But then, like the needy man addressed by Jesus, Elijah is cared for and sent on his way. We may imagine that Elijah (or the man with Jesus) is the one who speaks the psalms. The speaker is exhausted, bereft of resources, thirsty for God and for new life. But this voice refuses to give in. While “cast down” (42:5; 43:5), the psalmist calls for “hope in God” (42:5, 11; 43:5).
In the extremities of our life, we are powerless for ourselves. Just so the man with Jesus is powerless in the face of his demons. And Paul reflects on being “imprisoned” (Galatians 3:23). But then freedom, restoration, and new life flow through. New energy for mission (1 Kings 19:15)! New life for testimony (Luke 8:39)! New life by promise (Galatians 3:29)! These readings trace the hard journey from bondage to freedom, from death to joy in life. No wonder the guy with Jesus went away “proclaiming how much Jesus had done for him” (8:39).
[ June 27 ]
Discipleship Is No Picnic
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Jesus does not sugar-coat his call to discipleship. There were many candidates to become his followers. But he tells them of the requirements of travel with him. There will be no safe place; discipleship is not a picnic. It requires going with him and not looking back to previous loyalties. He is on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:53). There he will face the authorities of the Roman Empire; he will deal with his Jewish compatriots who have colluded with the empire. And eventually, the empire will execute him.
How strange that Paul, who knew the ending of this narrative, calls this “freedom” (Galatians 5:1). Discipleship after Jesus does give freedom, of a very peculiar kind. It is not self-indulgent freedom (5:13), but freedom that enhances the neighborhood. The sum of the new freedom is “love of neighbor” (5:14) that variously involves “joy, peace, patience, kindness ... gentleness, and self-control” (5: 22). The new freedom of the gospel refuses the ordinary ways of the world that include quarrels, dissensions, carousing, and fornication (5:19-21). New life is under new freedom and new mandate. Life with Jesus is indeed another way in the world.
Psalm 77 traces the same route to newness. At the outset, the psalmist is preoccupied with self (77:1-9). But by verse 11, the psalm has refocused on God of the Exodus, who gives freedom. In remembering, the psalmist dares to hope and imagine that the same God “who works wonders” will do that yet again, here and now. These readings provide a ready convergence of old exodus and new gospel freedom, of defying Pharaoh and facing imperial authority in Rome, being on the way to the Sinai covenant and to neighborliness that is the only true freedom. It is no wonder that Jesus (and his disciples) had to go to face the authorities, because the authorities—ancient and contemporary—do not want neighborliness, because neighborliness precludes all of the self-indulgence that besets concentrations of self-preoccupied power.

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

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