Saying Yes Anyway

Martin Buber observed that "when I believe…the totality of my nature enters into the process…because the relationship of faith is a relationship of my entire being." Rainier Maria Rilke concurs in his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God: "When I go toward you, it is with my whole life."

In the first readings of the year, God again invites each of us—with our whole selves—to the covenant, issued now in the birth of Christ. The readings are sharply focused on the nature of discipleship and what it means to say yes to this unusual Messiah, whose mission is embodied, not in material wealth or power, but in liberating those excluded from the riches of this world. Some of the most moving texts in the Old and New Testaments beautifully illustrate God's loving pursuit of God's people and desire to be in relationship with them. The readings reassure those of us who would hesitate that our caution is not new. From the prophets to the disciples, God has encountered reluctance and outright refusal from those whose assistance he seeks in building the kingdom. We can see from the lives of Isaiah and Peter, Jeremiah and Paul, that there is truly no need to fear. In this New Year, we can turn to God anew, to live Jesus' good news with our whole lives.

Michaela Bruzzese, formerly program associate with Call to Renewal, is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

January 7

Fire and Water

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The beginning of the calendar year brings a new invitation to covenant with God and to equip ourselves for the work of the kingdom. In these readings, water and fire are used as compelling symbols of the Holy One's transformative power. From Isaiah to Luke, they represent the promise of God's redemptive love, a love so powerful that, bathed in its flames, we are free to care for others with the same reckless abandon and meritless compassion with which we have been blessed.

Isaiah describes a God who loves us beyond reason, with tenderness and longing few of us can fully comprehend or believe. It makes no sense in a world that bases reward on merit alone, but our God operates on a different level. Instead of abandoning us to our lesser selves, God seeks us out with love and forgiveness, whether we "deserve" it or not.

Accompanying this boundless love is God's admonition to "fear not." Love and fear in God's world are mutually exclusive, as illustrated with the use of water and fire. The God who ushers us safely through angry rivers and scalding flames in Isaiah blesses us with gentle waters and spirit-drenched fire, claiming us as God's own in Acts and in Luke. The very elements that are most fearful in one reading are turned into God's own spirit in another. Who is this God who turns our fears into sacraments? Who is this God who accompanies us through paralyzing pain, whose presence transforms such moments into revelations of steadfast love for us?

When we truly, viscerally "know" how much we are cherished by God, we can approach the world as God does—with unconditional love, generous acceptance, and a passionate concern for one another's welfare. Liberated from shackles of fear and fortified by a sense of our belovedness, we can abandon our preoccupations with whether others "deserve" our forgiveness, generosity, and care. Like God, we can help to transform their fears into signs of God's love, whether they are family or friends, co-workers or neighbors, rich or poor.

January 14

Qualities of Discipleship

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

The Wedding at Cana is one of the most beautiful and profound illustrations of Christian discipleship in all of scripture. In it, John describes discipleship with three essential qualities: bringing new life, requiring radical commitment, and transforming the human person.

John begins "On the third day..."; it is a resurrection theme and the first quality of discipleship: new life. To commit oneself to discipleship is to assume resurrection. Knowing that Jesus has defeated death and its cohorts, evil and suffering, we can enter the struggle for life and kingdom ideals—justice, peace, love—without reservation and despite the fact that we may never see them fulfilled. The resurrection theme enables us—indeed, compels us—to enter the struggle anyway, knowing that life has already won. We commit to proclaiming and living the good news, even when doing so seems absurd.

Which brings us to John's second promise of discipleship: radical commitment. The miracle takes place at a wedding, a communal celebration of a choice two people make to commit to one another, given in freedom and joy. Like marriage, discipleship is not a command, but a choice born of freedom. Because we can say no, saying yes is a joyful occasion! But be warned—a commitment to discipleship may seem as senseless and radical as believing in the resurrection, especially in a world that doesn't think much of commitments, or have the time and patience for gospel ideals like welcoming the stranger and solidarity with the outcast. Believing in such suspect ideas takes strength and seriousness, faith and fidelity.

Finally, and most important, John promises that discipleship means transformation. As with Jesus' turning of water into wine, we must be willing to be transformed into sacramental substance, a life-giving presence in the world. Are we willing to believe that, like wine within the grape, we have the inherent ability to be a sacramental presence in the world? More important, are we willing to risk such a transformation? John is perfectly clear—at the hands of Jesus, no less is possible.

With a stubborn belief in the power of life over all forms of death, a commitment to fully live the good news, and a willingness to be transformed, we can choose to be a source of life and healing in a broken world. God has already gifted us with water; John invites us to become, at the hands of Christ, the finest wine.

January 21

A Primer for Disciples

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

Of all the gospel writers, Luke is most concerned with conveying Jesus' mission to the poor. He offers us the opportunity to reexamine our own lives in this New Year, to see how well they reflect Christ's preferential option for those he calls "the least of these."

Like Matthew and Mark, Luke reports on Jesus' teaching at the synagogue in his hometown. But there are three important differences in Luke's version that are of paramount importance to those of us who aspire to discipleship in the modern-day world.

The first is that Luke places this narrative after his description of Jesus' temptation in the desert. It is only after Jesus confronts and overcomes tremendous temptation that he feels prepared to begin his public ministry. Second, Luke is careful to tell us that after his temptation, Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is with this power and authority that he entered the synagogue that Sabath and began to preach. Luke's narrative parallels the Isaiah reading: Jesus, too, is "anointed" with the "Spirit of the Lord." Once again, Luke makes clear that the work of God must be anchored in active collaboration with God's living spirit on earth. Finally, Luke is the only author to elaborate on what exactly Jesus taught in the synagogue. By placing Isaiah's text directly in the narrative, Luke equates Jesus' Messiahship with the liberation of the outcast, the forgotten, the least valuable of the society.

Luke's telling of Jesus' faithful journey from baptism to public ministry serves as a primer for all who would profess Christianity, suggesting that it requires confronting temptation, active collaboration with the Holy Spirit through prayer and faith, and the open and public proclamation of God's love for the poor. Modern disciples, take note.

January 28

Which Do We Choose?

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

Our introduction to discipleship continues with the story of Jeremiah and Luke's account of Jesus' teaching at the synagogue. In the same week God assures us that all we need is a willing heart and a sincere faith. We also see, however, that proclaiming the gospel is a daunting and often dangerous task, as Jesus discovered among his own people.

The account of Jeremiah's choosing is a beautiful example of God's relentless, loving pursuit of some of the Bible's most reluctant heroes. Like so many before, including Moses, Jeremiah meets God's invitation with fear and resistance. As we have seen before, God is not easily dissuaded by cowardly excuses. Instead, he stretches his hand to us and assures us that our consent alone makes us worthy. God never asks that we be the most eloquent speakers, the most intelligent scholars, or the most prominent citizens. The only condition is that we have the courage to stop dwelling in fear: "Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you."

The depth of our faith and trust is of paramount importance, as Luke illustrates in the conclusion of the account of Jesus' teaching at the synagogue. Unwilling to perform tricks, Jesus is run out of town by an angry mob. The juxtaposition of these texts highlights the differences between Jesus' response, Jeremiah's and that of the mob. Jesus and Jeremiah trust in their chosenness; those in the mob insist on proof and give in to their fears. Which response do we choose on a daily basis? Are we willing to help God proclaim the good news, as lived and taught by Jesus? Or do we allow our fears to have the last word?

February 4

Send Me!

Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13), Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

This week's readings are a how-to guide to the invitation to discipleship. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul courageously say yes, despite their fears and with their very real limitations.

These accounts should be reassuring to those of us who are also limited and yet continue to aspire to a Christian identity. Each invitation follows a similar pattern: God asks the person to speak and act on God's behalf; the person declines, citing a lack of qualifications, holiness, etc. God then intervenes, assuring them of their worthiness, and each ultimately says yes. Each man embodies the paradox of chosenness that we also face. Their limitations are real and stated up front, yet God chooses them anyway. Who is at once more inept and more faithful than Peter—who denied Jesus, said and did the wrong things, and was among the last to understand the parables and mission? And yet Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom. Who persecuted and imprisoned more of Jesus' followers than Paul, and yet who had so great an impact on the faithful formation of the early church?

And who are we to question those God chooses, especially when it is us? We are not assured that it will be easy, fun, or successful. Peter, Isaiah, and Paul lived the heart- and soul-wrenching consequences of saying yes to God. When we say yes, we know there will be a hard road ahead. Alone, we are certainly inadequate to the task of living and proclaiming the good news in the midst of despair. But we are not alone: "The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever." God has promised to accompany us, if only we have the courage to cry, "Here I am, Lord—send me!"

February 11

‘In Seasons of Drought...'

Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26

Following Jesus requires a strength, passion, and courage that is not of this world. Without it, we would all be "done for" after the first week. This source of life is the stream of which Jeremiah and the psalmist speak, and only when we plunge our roots deeply into it do we have any hope of being God's instruments of justice and peace in a troubled world.

Jeremiah was rooted to a mighty stream. He lived and preached repentance and hope to an idolatrous and stubborn people, right through the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah stayed true to the task through persecution because his roots drank from a deep, life-giving water that assured him of God's faithfulness to his people. Five hundred years later, Paul faced the same task.

Paul reminded the early Christian community that this living stream is the firm belief in and commitment to Christ's resurrection. Without the resurrection, our faith is truly in vain and we are "the most pitiable people of all." Without belief in Christ's resurrection, the Sermon on the Mount is not just countercultural but utterly senseless and bordering on masochism. To claim the resurrection is to know that the least of these truly will be first, and that our tears truly will be turned into joy. It is the certainty that those mired in death will be raised into new life, that God's kingdom will reign on earth, liberating the captives and rescuing the poor.

Like Paul and Jeremiah, we cannot wait passively for the kingdom. The waters of our baptism compel us to start construction in the here and now. There is no time to waste—Christ is risen, Alleluia! With this joyful certainty we can confront deserts of death and sin in our nation and neighborhoods, and answer them over and over with our roots firmly set in Christ's triumphant stream. Despite the sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we persist with joy and hope "in seasons of drought untroubled."

February 18

Children of the Most High

Genesis 43:3-11,15, Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38

Following the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continues to explain the nature of this renewed relationship with God and one another. As if the Beatitudes are not enough, he raises the ante in this week's readings. Forgive, show mercy, give freely—not only to those you love, but to those who hate you and do evil to you. Such tangible acts of love will show the world that you are indeed "children of the Most High."

These teachings were not new to Judaism but formed part of the first Jewish laws and covenant: welcome the stranger, care for those in need, and most of all, love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus demands the full letter and spirit of the law here, extending the neighbor relationship even to enemies. Since Luke's audience was probably a Gentile one, based in Rome, he does not emphasize the Jewish foundations of Jesus' teachings as much as other gospel writers. Instead, he generalizes the text to make the gospel accessible to all, including those unfamiliar with Hebrew scriptures.

Luke's writings are supported by Paul's continuing discussion with the Corinth community, where he addresses the controversy about Jesus' resurrection and what it means for his followers. This is no coincidence. It is theorized that Luke and Paul were in fact contemporaries, even friends. Some have speculated that Luke's gospel was in fact written to support Paul during the time of his arrest. Whatever the case, read together the scriptures point to the importance of living from our belief in the resurrection as Christians. If we are not fundamentally grounded in this faith, how can we possibly be generous to our enemies, turn the other cheek, and do good to those who hate us? Jesus' teachings make no sense without the resurrection. The resurrection, life's triumph over death, allows us to take new risks. With nothing to protect and nothing to fear, not even death, we are free to live like children of the Most High.

February 25

Struggling Through the Valleys

Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

As a covenant people, ours is a history of mountain-top experiences, where we are rededicated to the one who "in his might loves justice" and who "established equity." Mountain tops are an important part of the faith journey, for it is there that we have access to the kingdom perspective, and we can see clearly God's loving and just plan for humanity. Mountain tops, however, are not ends in themselves. As Luke shows us, they are only the means through which we are better prepared to embody the covenant in the valleys of history.

Luke, like Matthew and Mark, frames the transfiguration account by two episodes that emphasize the day-to-day reality of Jesus' ministry. In the first passage, Jesus reveals that his Messiahship is embodied not in political revolution or religious power but in his suffering, death, and resurrection. In the second passage, following the transfiguration, Jesus must exorcise a demon from a suffering child because his apostles could not do so, reportedly due to their lack of faith. The ecstasy of the transfiguration is thus grounded by and rooted in the reality of the Christ who suffers for and who is incarnately present with those who also suffer. Luke emphasizes that our covenant is fulfilled or broken not on mountain tops but in the daily commitment to more fully embody the love of Christ.

As Christians we, like Peter, face the temptation of becoming entrenched in our mountain-top experiences, wanting to live safely apart from the struggle and desperation of those who seek justice in an unjust world. As tempting as it is, we cannot get comfortable on the mountain top, for we are just passing through. We may only rest awhile on our journey back down the mountain, to more fully love justice in the day-to-day difficulties of trying to live the gospel in a broken world.

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