The Common Good
May 2012

New Wind, New Flesh

by Martin L. Smith | May 2012

Reflections on the Common Lectionary, Cycle B

Experiments in my first science class at school left an indelible impression on my imagination. I was particularly fascinated when the physics teacher covered a hefty bar magnet with a sheet of paper and then sprinkled iron filings over it. We made the filings jump about by banging the table and when they fell back they aligned themselves into a graceful fern-like pattern, revealing the invisible lines of force emanating from the magnet below. That’s why I love this sentence from the Easter sermon in John Updike’s novel A Month of Sundays: “Still to this day ... the rumor lives, that something mitigating has occurred, as if just yesterday, to align, like a magnet passing underneath a paper heaped with filings, the shards of our confusion, our covetousness, our trespasses on the confusions of others, our sleepless terror and walking corruption.”

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Again in Eastertide we sense that the resurrection of Jesus has started to pull the scattered impulses of our lives into a new pattern. We realize afresh that Christian life is essentially powered by hope, a passion for the unprecedented, possibilities for life in our world that have never been seen before. We recall that Christian life is not a religious ideology to be propagated, but an actual incorporation into the person of the risen Christ and an intimate experience of divine indwelling, through the Spirit active and present in the heart and in our relationships.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C.

[ May 6 ]
Sink Deep Your Roots
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31;
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

The scriptures of Eastertide are already full of the Spirit’s action. The Spirit urges Philip to connect with the official traveling back to Africa. In the Spirit, Philip is able to bring the traveler to recognize that the pattern of suffering, reconciling love found in the puzzling Isaiah passage has reached its climactic demonstration in the recent death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. All he has to do is embrace that same pattern of life in Christ, and he is ready to be baptized into that new identity.

In 1 John 4, the re-centering of our identity around the indwelling Spirit and our union with the risen Christ are two sides of one Easter experience. “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (verse 13). Far from leaving the cross out, this new pattern of identity is suffused with awareness of the severity of the human predicament, the pain of divine love, and the costliness of reconciliation. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (10).

Our gospel reading about abiding in Jesus as the true vine has a powerful resonance for Christians who are passionate about social justice. It tells us how essential it is to have a profound sense of being rooted and grounded—if our work for justice is to be enduring. The practices of solidarity and action for change are not immune from losing their grounding in the mystical core of the gospel. They can mutate into oppositional ideology and utopian posturing. The prophet Charles Péguy reminded us how social movements tend to become unmoored from their core mystique and degenerate into the futility of mere politique. Our work will be fruitless unless union with Christ becomes instinctive. That is the only identity robust enough to give lasting force to our action as witnesses to God’s transformative desire.

[ May 13 ]
Faith Conquering the World?
Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98;
1 John 5:1-6;
John 15:9-17

Do you sometimes shudder at the vulnerability of the word of God to tragic misunderstanding? The elder John in his letters speaks of our faith as “the victory that conquers the world” (1 John 5:4). That kind of language was horribly misappropriated to justify Christendom, a territorial Christianity bent on the subjugation of the “heathen,” expanding through crusades. It lurks behind the story of Constantine’s vision of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the supposed message from heaven: “In this sign, conquer!” Even today militant evangelical Christianity can speak of conquering the world for Christ in a way that reeks of triumphalism. In the gospel it is costly nonviolence that the resurrection reveals as the divine energy capable of outlasting and facing down the world’s devices of institutionalized violence and unearned privilege.

In John’s gospel about the commandment to love one another, we hear Jesus reshaping traditional religious language. What could be more orthodox than the rhetoric of obedience to divine commandments? Yet here the feel of that language is radically new. Obedience is re-forged in the context of intimacy. To obey is to accept the responsibility of close friendship with Christ. Far from blind obedience, true obedience grows through intimate communion with Christ, who shares with his friends his own inner conversation with God.

[ May 20 ]
Acting on the Resurrection
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1;
1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

In Acts, Luke reports that the 11 disciples acted swiftly to replace Judas and bring their number back to 12. Jesus had appointed the 12 to symbolize God’s restoration of God’s people, with new founders for all 12 tribes, and the apostles needed to make sure that symbol still spoke loud and clear. God was re-creating a people through resurrection, fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). The resurrection of Jesus was the sign that this re-creation was now underway. That’s why it was essential to choose someone who not only had been a companion of Jesus, but who also could bear eyewitness testimony to the resurrection.

Luke packs into the appointment of Matthias key words about Christian leadership: episcope (“oversight”), diakonia (“service”), and apostole (“authorized agency”). This highlights the relevance of this Easter story to our contemporary efforts to grasp the core qualifications for Christian leadership. Our leaders must be primarily witnesses to God’s transformation of the world inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection, in which we are participating as active agents.

John’s gospel makes us eavesdroppers, listening in on the impassioned prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper, in which he sums up the motives and desires at the heart of his life and impending death. Jesus recalls that his intimate followers “do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:14). What is this powerful non-belonging? It is not isolation and detachment (“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” John 17:15.) Rather, it is the gift of being liberated from the limitations of the present world order, which ruthlessly sustain discrimination between the haves and the have-nots, rulers and ruled, those in control and those destined for passivity and conformity. Not belonging to the world is the freedom to envision a new world, to see through confining structures of privilege, class, and wealth for what they are under God’s judgment: obsolete.

[ May 27 ]
Re-creation and Reckoning
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:24-35b;
Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

On the feast of Pentecost we celebrate the irruption of the Spirit, God’s re-creative energy that subverts convention and blows our life open to the divine winds of change. I celebrate Pentecost by praying a poem by Rilke, “A Spring Wind,” in which there are lines that express beautifully the Christian experience of receiving through the Spirit our real identity, pregnant with new possibilities: an identity not based on the past, on our origins, our ancestry, our allotted place in society, but on the part we are being given in the realization of God’s future.

“Oh, this new wind is bringing from afar,

swaying with the freight of nameless things designed us, over the ocean, what we are ...”

The imagery in Luke’s account of Pentecost expresses the unleashing of these new possibilities. In this new reality ignited by new fire, each person is endowed with a gift. No single nationality or ethnicity is superior to another; all hear the gospel in their own cultural idioms. Every talent for vision is being kindled and recruited, so that all who used to be regarded as superfluous now find vital roles. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, a revolutionary end to the old ways of reserving spirituality and authority to the few. Sons and daughters prophesy now, the young as well as the old, and men and women in bondage as a voiceless underclass now step forward as bearers of Spirit.

No wonder the bursting forth of the Spirit is portrayed as the onset of judgment! If God is empowering the powerless, how can this not be a judgment on systems bent on keeping them powerless? Luke has to include the traditional symbolism of apocalyptic upheaval from the prophet Joel. Pentecost is an earth-shaking judgment on the old order, the dawning of what prophets called “the day of the Lord,” the day of reckoning for the powers that be.

When will we hear this judgment theme in our own churches at Pentecost? Notice how it is reinforced by the passage in John’s gospel, which insists that the Spirit delivers judgment as surely as it inaugurates liberation. Jesus proclaims at the Last Supper that the Advocate “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:8-11).

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

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