"NO ONE SPEAKING by the Spirit of God ever says, 'Let Jesus be cursed!'" insists Paul in his first letter to Corinth (12:3). Driving through Corinth not long ago, I found myself musing about the extraordinary spirituality that had grown up in the church he was trying to straighten out. Apparently, ecstatic worshippers caught up in charismatic excitement on the Lord's day were actually known to blurt out these shocking words: "Anathema, Jesus!" In a very brief period, the church there had come up with a mutation of the gospel in which only the cosmic, exalted savior, known through speaking in tongues and exciting miracles, mattered. The earthly person of Jesus of Nazareth had been a mere husk to be shucked off, they said. Only the Spirit-giving celestial Lord mattered. Jesus be damned! His teachings back in Galilee signified nothing; now they could concentrate on the prophecies that came hot and strong from heaven through the church's prophets—a belief that left plenty of room for all sorts of wild ethical "experiments," to put it mildly.
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Well, no one actually utters "Let Jesus be cursed" out loud anymore, but, in a more subtle way, how prevalent is a pseudo-spirituality that relativizes the radical teaching of the reign of God! These readings bring us back under the authority of Jesus' witness in Galilee—and the reality that there is no Spirit, and no spirituality, except the one we receive as the driving energy to bring good news to the poor.
Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.
[ January 6 ]
Wiser Than We Think
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
GUIDES TO REFLECTION on scriptures for the liturgical year have a long lineage. Every Epiphany I turn to the Golden Legend, a popular medieval compendium of lore about the church's feast days. It's full of weird and wonderful legends, but the way it stimulates meditation by offering a wide range of alternative meanings for events in scripture is fascinating. So for Epiphany, no fewer than six distinct meanings are attributed to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh offered by the Magi. The carol "We Three Kings" is based on one of them. I love this explanation: "The second reason is of St. Bernard: For they offered to Mary, the mother of the child, gold for to relieve her poverty, incense against the stench of the stable and evil air, myrrh for to comfort the tender members of the child and to put away vermin."
I always feel earthed by these touching words. The Son of God appears as a poor child at risk in just those ways that millions of children are today. The Magi's gifts are not exotic luxuries, but practical relief aid. Mary and Joseph need financial help. A cramped peasant's house, with animals crowded on the other side of the manger that divides the single room, stinks of their excrement. The baby has a rash because the manger is crawling with fleas. The wise men are wise enough to offer money, fumigation, and medication.
Epiphany is a manifestation of Christ present in all those children today who cry out for sustained and practical support, social reform that gives every family economic sufficiency, adequate sanitary housing, and basic health services. The reading from Ephesians reminds us that God's plan is now to "be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (3:10). The controlling forces that dictate the current unjust social order must be confronted with God's radical order that ensures that the basic human needs of the masses are met.
[ January 13 ]
Epiphany in a Muddy River
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
WHAT IS SO REVEALING about the epiphany that takes place at the baptism of Jesus relates to its context of human turmoil, questioning, and expectation. This is no serene mystical experience in a place apart, but a disclosure that occurs in the muddy river churned by the bodies of stressed and needy men and women who are at the end of their tether and are stretching out their arms to John in a collective yearning for divine intervention on their behalf. Jesus disappears into the noisy crowd of those desperate for healing and purification, people anticipating God-knows-what solution to their plight. Just as he takes the plunge with them into the water, identifying himself wholly with the masses of the common people in their anguished need for a new beginning, just then Jesus is singled out as the Beloved of God, and God's answer to their desperate need. It is by virtue of his self-emptying solidarity with the people that he becomes open to his vocation as Messiah and catalyst of the in-breaking reign of God.
It would be good to hear a sermon on the Trinity today: The manifestation of God in the muddy river is a disclosure of God who is known only as and in interrelationship. This is the epiphany of interchange and interconnection between the Bestower, the Bestowed Spirit, and the Offspring receiving and open to love, empowerment, and self-giving—even to death. Godhead is dynamic community, intimacy, relationship. And this Trinitarian revelation of God as a nexus of relationship is no arcane metaphysics but an event embedded in politics, in history, in the human plight of oppression and despair. The epiphany leads instantly to the driving of Jesus into the wilderness. Not for contemplative retreat, but to grapple in agony with the contrast between divine action through suffering love and the kind of power that is exercised by emperors and their agents.
[ January 20 ]
The Abundance of Your House
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
ABUNDANCE IS MANIFESTLY the theme of these scriptures. The glorious Psalm 36 evokes the experience of worship in which pilgrims' senses are so transfigured by the liturgy that they break free from the cramping limits of the banal and mundane and become open to the magnificent generosity of God, fraught with unprecedented fullness. "They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light" (36:8-9). And the story of the wedding at Cana tells us how misguided it is to think that God exists either to meet our needs as human conventions assess them, or to merely supplement our lives with an added "spiritual" ingredient. If the life of faith was only about that, then the story would need to be rewritten: Jesus would have needed to produce only half a dozen normal jugs and, given the lateness of the hour, it would have been fine to match the stuff canny hosts brought out when people were too tipsy to discriminate. But the quantity of wine with which these huge vessels are brimming is almost absurdly excessive, and its quality is sublime, astonishing.
Divine abundance: What a searching light this trains on contemporary religiosity! It exposes the grotesque parody, the "prosperity gospel" that deludes so many by conjuring up a God eager to deluge believers with a plethora of goods and services from the cornucopia of the consumer capitalism God supposedly inspires. That is not the abundance of God's house, or the wine that is served at the marriage feast of the Lamb!
The real abundance of grace is found in the wealth of relationships, in the plenitude of community, in which each is empowered for giving and receiving. Paul's vision of the Christian community, in which each member is endowed with gifts for mutual service and the common good, for the up-building of community, gives us an authentic spirituality. Divine abundance is not a concept at all, but an experience of the Spirit, endowing us to be gifts for one another in the church, which is called to be God's pilot project to show what life is for.
[ January 27 ]
The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21
LUKE'S RIVETING account of the Sabbath service at a Nazareth synagogue when Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll makes this Sunday a high point for Christians passionate about remaining true to the liberating thrust of the gospel. Jesus makes the implicit but unmistakable claim to be the one anointed by the Spirit to re-forge the community of God, re-embracing the excluded, the voiceless, the deprived, the discounted, and placing them at its heart and center. All who hear this claim can belong—unless they exclude themselves by resenting the messenger and the message as a threat to their worldview.
Paul's elaboration of the theme of the interdependence of the members of the Body of Christ, the new community of the Spirit, is equally eloquent about prophecy fulfilled in our hearing. Scriptures pointed forward to God's final new world, the future new covenant, new heart when the Spirit would be poured out on all. But for the community in Christ there is no more eschatological postponement that our conservatism can use as an excuse for keeping things the same. The new community is not a dream lying over the horizon. It exists already, in real time, in the churches, the pioneering colonies of God's future. The community of the Spirit lies under the authority of the future. The churches are called to be actual "working models" of the future world of a renewed humanity. In this community new standards and perspectives render old conventions obsolete. Now it should be obvious that "the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable" (1 Corinthians 12:22). Old hierarchies of importance are irrelevant.
Psalm 19 offers an interesting voice in our conversation about social ethics and the reign of God. The first six verses form a wisdom poem about the message of divine glory that creation speaks—silently—to the wondering person of faith. Then it changes into a poem about the goodness, the attractiveness, the wisdom of the law. This sense that covenant ethics are an expression of God's creative and life-giving energies is then immeasurably heightened in the Christian revelation, which proclaims that, in the crucified messenger of God's reign, we encounter the embodiment of the creative Word and Wisdom that sustains the universe.