The Gentle Resurrection

Luke’s first Resurrection narrative is the quietest of all four Gospels. Matthew is easily the loudest with an earthquake announcing the event. That’s our idea of Easter! Mark is puzzling and a bit of a cliffhanger with the women running away from the tomb out of fright. That’s still a pretty intense reaction. John is almost as quiet with the women finding the tomb empty before Jesus appears to Mary, but Luke is quieter still. The women are puzzled by the empty tomb and the announcement of the two men in dazzling clothes. They do tell the disciples but the disciples don’t believe them, not just because they are women but because the news is too unbelievable. The narrative ends with Peter looking into the empty tomb, amazed, but scratching his head.

There is an air of suspended reality about all this. Much of it has to do with the shock of grief over the death of a loved one. In the shock of grief, nothing seems real, least of all the absence of the loved one. It’s like the person is there and not there. This isn’t what we think Easter is all about but I would argue that this is the most realistic entry into this stupendous event. We are used to thinking of earth-shaking events as–well–events that shake up the world. But these sorts of events don’t really change the world as they are the same old acts of competition and violence and force that have been with us since Cain killed Abel. If the Resurrection were such an earth-shaking event, it would actually have kept the world going in the same old rut of retaliatory violence. That the Resurrection is so low-key, especially in Luke’s version, shows us that the Resurrection does indeed embody a radical act of non-violence, giving us all the space we need, century after century, the discern why it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners, crucified and then rise from the dead. The necessity for the death was, of course, a human necessity as Caiaphas affirmed. (Jn. 11: 15) The Resurrection, though, is God’s necessity. It was necessary that God raise Jesus to give us an undying life-giving presence for all time. But this presence needed to be totally without violence, i..e. without force of any kind, just as Jesus’ death had to result from renouncing all violence in the face of evil. Not even the earthquake in Matthew forced Jesus’ resurrected life on anybody.

St. Paul writes about being baptized into Christ’s death before rising with him. (Rom. 6: 3) The initial phase of disorientation described by Luke is very much a feeling of death as the world the disciples had been living in had also been rendered unreal, even if the imperial order continued unabated as it always had done. There is a lot more to dying to the old self than giving up our own personal sins. More than that, we need to die to the culture of violence we are immersed in so as to enter the life-giving nonviolence of the resurrected life. Since there is nothing earthshaking about it, nothing to make headlines, it may not seem like much, but to the contrary, embracing the forgiving life is indeed everything.

We may think that nothing has changed when we read about the virulent racism in our own country and around the world. Even worse is the horrific act of violence in Ukraine, which makes headlines, but is really only a repeat of what Rome was doing in Jesus’ time. But something has changed over the centuries. We now have oppressed people throughout the world arising in non-violent protest, including Martin Luther King Jr and William Barber II. We have a world-wide protest against the invasion of Ukraine and many countries doing what they can to help their stricken neighbor. These are all signs of the Resurrection in the midst of the horror and death that Jesus suffered on the Cross. The Resurrection, though, isn’t just about events on a large scale. It is also about small events of love and concern for the well-being of others day after day with the people right next to us—our neighbors.

Giving Everything and More

The meal at Bethany served by Martha seems to be an ordinary meal but in reality it is extraordinary. To begin with, John explicitly says that it is six days before Passover. This puts the meal in the context of the most solemn festival of the Jewish year. For another thing, Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, is present. The imminent offering of the paschal lamb and resurrection are both brought together. Even more extraordinary is the extravagant anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious perfume by Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Jesus interprets Mary’s action as a preparation for his burial, which he seems to expect is imminent, thus tying his death with the both the Passover and Resurrection. Judas’s protest over this “waste” shows that the hostility against Jesus has reached the inner circle of his disciples.

All four Gospels have a story of a woman who pours expensive ointment or perfume over Jesus, but the differences are striking. Matthew and Mark are very close parallels. Just before the Passover and Jesus’ Passion, an unnamed woman enters the house of Simon the Leper, who lives in Bethany, pours the ointment and dries Jesus’ feet with her hair. The disciples as a group protest the “waste.” This is much the same story as in John except the host is different. (Mt. 26: 6–13), Mk. 14: 3–9) Luke tells the same story except that it is placed much earlier in his Gospel and is not connected to the Passover and the Passion. (Lk. 7: 36–50) That the anonymous woman is called “a sinner” adds a sharp edge to the story. The host is Simon and he is identified as a Pharisee. He grumbles that Jesus should have known the woman was a sinner and elicits a famous parable on sin and repentance. The woman in Matthew and Mark, like the sinful woman in Luke, is so froward with Jesus that she too is considered a loose women if not a sinner. Mary of Bethany in John is more respectable and is a hostess rather than an intruder, which gives the story a very different feel from the other three, but this respectability makes the gesture all the more shocking. Respectable women don’t act this way.

It is intellectually interesting to piece together the symbolism in John and the relationships between the four versions of the story. If we let all of this seep deeply into us, it can be quite spiritually stimulating. But what really connects the women in all four versions is the extravagance of the woman which is warmly commended by Jesus. Even if we are shocked by these women (or woman), we should be even more shocked at ourselves over how little we care about Jesus. Are we like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his table but showed no affection? Are we like the apostles who complained about the waste? To this day, we tend to look down on this woman, thinking the worst of her, when Jesus would have us look up to her as an example of apostolic zeal. It is worth noting that in Luke Mary of Bethany is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus listening to this teaching while Martha (as in John) serves the meal. Here, Mary of Bethany shows her ardor but in a more contemplative way.

Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” In this generosity, God is pouring Godself out as extravagantly as the women with the ointments, and surely God does need see this extravagance as“wasteful.” (Is. 43: 19–21) When Paul writes to the Philippians that he is pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” his words gush out like ointment flowing out of control. (Phil. 3: 12–14) Bob Dylan expresses this gush in his song “Pressing on” which repeats these words over and over with greater and greater intensity that becomes overwhelming.

The women and Paul return the overflowing love of God back to God while the rest of us sit back and grumble at the unseemliness of it all. Do we not realize that the women who let their hair down and gush out their love for Jesus will also gush out that same commitment to Jesus who is present in the poor? Meanwhile, the complaining disciples, and especially Judas, don’t really mean to help the poor or anybody else. More importantly, do we not realize that on the Cross, Jesus’ blood will pour forth as did the ointment poured over him? It isn’t that all of us have to be as emotional as these women and Paul, but we do need to be as deeply committed to Jesus so as approach the deep commitment Jesus shows to us. We should take to heart Leonard Bernstein’s directions to a choir and orchestra: “Give me everything you’ve got, and then a crescendo.”

Living With Jesus’ Temptations

Every year, the first Sunday of Lent has us reflect on Jesus’ testing in the desert. In two of the three years, the Gospel narrates the three temptations presented by the devil. We have been over this terrain many times, but since we struggle with temptation and fall, each year we need to see what insight we might get from the way Jesus dealt with the three temptations. With the help of Luke’s ordering of the temptations, it is easier, compared with Matthew, to see the first two temptations as focused primarily on our relationship with the material world while the third is focused on our relationship with God.

This year, I realized that in the first temptation, it is the devil who offered the stones as raw material for bread. This ties into the second temptation where the devil claims that the kingdoms of this world are his to give. If the devil believes he owns the kingdoms, it is small wonder he thinks he owns the stones in the desert. So who gave the stones and the kingdoms to the devil? God? Hardly, as Jesus makes clear in his reply. The only other possibility is that humans have given the kingdoms and stones to the devil. What does that say about us? I can’t help but think of Jesus’ rhetorical question: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Mt. 7: 9) But when we think of all the carbs, fat, sugar, and other junk that goes into so much food these days, aren’t we practically feeding each other stones? This thought leads to the suggestion that in offering the kingdoms and their authority, the devil is offering mountains of stones that threaten to bury us. And with the overwhelming social injustices in our country, not least the racist system that entangles all of us, our social relationships consist of throwing stones at each other rather than offering each other wholesome bread.

The first temptation is closely linked to the feedings in the wilderness narrated six times in the four Gospels. Significantly, Jesus does not pick up stones and turn them into bread; he takes a few loaves of bread and makes many loaves to feed the people. Jesus is not concerned with feeding himself; he is feeding others, and he is using the initial generosity of the disciples (or the boy with some loaves and fish in John) and extending that generosity. Generosity creates abundance while parsimoniousness creates scarcity. There is much we need besides bread alone to live on, and one of them is the willingness to share with others. The same principle applies to our relationships with kingdoms and their authorities. The stones that the devil offers feature sacrificial practices where the well-being of many is sacrificed for the benefit of the few. That is certainly the case where maximizing the bottom line in a business becomes an absolute value to the exclusion of everything else. It is tempting here to wax eloquently about the dictator of a certain country who has unleashed an invasion of another country, but we must not let that distract us from how we ourselves handle social and power relationships.

This brings us to the third temptation. As a promise of care and protection, Psalm 91 is among the most comforting in the Bible. That the devil should quote it to pervert the assurance that the angels will bear us up lest one dash a foot against a stone (Ps. 91: 12) is especially painful. When Jesus replies with Deuteronomy 6: 16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he gets to the heart of the matter. Yes, we are to trust in God’s providence but not in a way that focuses on self rather than God. We ourselves put God to the test in the same way if we assume we can do what we want and God will protect us from the consequences. The late Tom Truby, a good friend of mine, said in a sermon on this Gospel that our ecological situation is an example of this presumption. The demonic voice says: “Go ahead, jump into environmental free fall, nothing will happen to you.” With this attitude, we are testing God, expecting God to clean up our messes. Instead, we may dry up all the drinking water on the planet.

There came a time when Jesus indeed fell into the pit of death and needed to trust his heavenly Abba and the angels to catch him and raise him up. But far from self-centeredly making a spectacle of himself, Jesus gave his life for the sake of us all. If we think and care deeply for others, we will enter difficult and sometimes dangerous situations for their sake. This is what the psalm verse is about. God and the angels will protect us but, as with Jesus, the protection does not necessarily leave us unscathed in this life. After all, we are venturing into the Paschal Mystery. As material goods such as food and our social relationships need to be focused on the good of others, our dependence on God’s protection must be focused even more deeply in the same way. As Jesus depended on his heavenly Abba and the angels to sustain him during the temptations in the desert and throughout his life and death, so we also must depend on Jesus and his heavenly Abba.

Where Are You Planted?

The last time I preached, Jesus announced the Jubilee of God. I suggested that we will likely find the rest of the Gospel filling out what such a Jubilee entails. If that is so, the blessings and woes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6: 20–26) seem to be an odd way to have a jubilee. Usually we think that being rich and being well fed at meals filled with laughter and receiving lots of compliments is precisely how to have a jubilee. On the other hand, being poor and hungry while weeping and being reviled are all downers, but Jesus seems to suggest that these downers are what the jubilee is all about. As for Jesus himself, after he announced the Jubilee, he was spoken well of for about a minute and then it all tanked and he was driven out of the synagogue. So Jesus was already practicing his jubilee in terms of the Sermon on the Plain from the start of his ministry.

Obviously we need all the help we can get for understanding these troubling and puzzling words, so let’s see what we can glean from the first two readings. Jeremiah also talks about blessings and curses. Does he mean that God curses people God doesn’t like? The people that Jeremiah says are cursed “trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength.” (Jer. 17: 5) Sounds like these people are cursing themselves by rejecting God. The contrast of a tree planted by the water and a tree planted in salt land suggest that blessings and curses are simply natural outcomes of being grounded in God or not being so grounded. Jesus, then, picking up on Jeremiah, would be suggesting that the poor and hungry are grounded in God and the rich and sated aren’t. If that is true, then maybe being rich is overrated and is not such a great cause for jubilee. It is worth noting that the Rich Young Man went away sad because he had many possessions.

The words of St. Paul from the end of his First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15: 12–20) with his anxious defense of the Resurrection suggest the possibility that the reversal takes place in the afterlife. Jesus does hint at that for the reviled and defamed. Maybe a better afterlife can also be some consolation for the poor and starving, but that does not otherwise help us cope with being poor and starving and slandered right now. And Jesus is saying that the poor are blessed now, not just later. The anxiety on Paul’s part is the denial of the resurrection on the part of some supposed followers. What’s the problem? If applying Jeremiah’s words to the Sermon on the Plain leads us to depend on God, we must depend on a living God, not a dead one. Only if Jesus is truly raised from the dead as the apostolic witness avers can Jesus be depended on right now.

So, the big take from Jeremiah and Paul is that we are blessed if we are grounded in God and we are unfortunate if we are not. That much is certainly true and has the advantage of being a pretty big loophole where there didn’t seem to be one: we don’t have to worry about having some economic resources and being well-fed as long as we are grounded in God. But maybe this loophole threatens to be a trap. Surely Jesus is warning us that the more we have, the less likely we are to depend on God.

At this point. I get the feeling I’m fretting that if I have one penny too many, I lose my blessing and become unfortunate. Same if I take one bite of food too many, laugh too much or get one compliment past my quota. There is no end to this spiral unless I stop and turn around. After all, these thoughts are all centered on self. There is no jubilee in such fretting and there is no depending on God either. But what if we think more about other people having something to eat and something to laugh about? What if we stop reviling other people and build them up by letting them know we appreciate them? Doesn’t this start to look a little more like the Jubilee announced by Jesus? If we take this approach, we start to see how we hinder these things and how our social system hinders them. This gives us cause to weep, but if weeping leads to making these things better, then we have turned tears into laughter. But the deeper mystery remains. Sometimes we don’t see the silver lining of being poor and starving, crying and being reviled and these things often happen as a result of doing the things listed above. Jesus is encouraging us by promising that the silver lining we cannot see is really there in the love we pour out for others. He should know, having gone through Gethsemane and the Cross. This is why we are blessed even in such times if we are grounded in the crucified and Risen Christ.

As Jesus Grew

Church window at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, PA

The story of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (Lk. 2: 41–41) is unique in the New Testament in that, being the only story about Jesus as an adolescent, it is also the only text that gives us insight into Jesus as a developing person. The infancy narratives show Jesus as a vulnerable baby and stories of Jesus as an adult, thirty years of age, show a pretty steady portrait of Jesus although a few stories hint at some change in Jesus’ perspective, such as the story of the Canaanite woman. (Lk. 18: 1–9). The big turning point in Jesus’ life was the baptism when the heaven’s opened. This was clearly a powerful experience that oriented him for the rest of his life and solidified his identity. It is well-known that early adolescence is a time of transition and a growing sense of identity, and Luke shows us the beginnings of the identity that was firmed up by his baptism.

The biggest transition for an adolescent is to move from parental care and authority to a growing independence in calling the shots for one’s own life. This is a transition that both parents and children have to navigate. That Jesus’ parents assumed that their son had rejoined the caravan for the return trip from Jerusalem (a poor assumption) suggests that they were indeed letting go and giving their son some responsibility for himself. If Jesus had been younger, they would have made sure the boy was with them before the caravan left. As for Jesus, it is obvious that he made an independent decision on his own initiative. This independent choice led to a new dependence beyond his family as Jesus felt drawn to the temple and took advantage of the opportunity to learn and sharpen his own growing insights in conversation with the elders. Although Jesus would, as an adult, have an adversarial relationship with many of the same people, at this time in his life, Jesus asked questions, listened carefully, and weighed the answers for what they could teach him. As often happens with adolescents, Jesus seemed to assume that his parents would know where he would be, another poor assumption..

That Jesus was drawn to the temple and to conversation with the elders indicates that he had a growing sense of a vocation deeply involved with the religious tradition of his people and the time to begin preparing for it had come. When his parents found him, he showed himself to be firm in this growing sense of vocation when he said: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2: 49) Like many adolescents, Jesus failed to make himself understood to his parents. Not wishing to be a rebellious adolescent, Jesus returned to Nazareth and “was obedient to them.” (Lk. 2: 51)

The insights into adolescent psychology are pretty good for a writer who had no opportunity to take a course in developmental psychology, but that is not the point of the story. What is important, and something we should ponder, is that Jesus, as truly and fully human as well as divine, developed as a human being as every human being develops. As with everything else human, Jesus leads us through his own human experience in our own navigating of transitions in life.

On Not Offending the Vulnerable—Or Anybody Else

Jesus’ suggestions that we cut off a hand or a foot or tear out an eye are so shocking that we are pulled away from the previous verse where Jesus mildly says that “whoever is not against us is for us” and that anyone who gives a cup of water will be rewarded. (Mk. 9: 41) It is worth noting that a great many sayings and parables of Jesus take us out of our comfort zones. This particular hard saying takes the cake, a rock hard bad tasting cake at that. The standard way for a preacher to wriggle out of these hard sayings is to say that they are “hebraisms,” that is to say, hyperboles to get our attention. Maybe so, but let’s allow these verses to get our attention and see where they take us.

We get some help from the broader context of these sayings. Earlier in Mark 9, read as last week’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be “betrayed into human hands” and killed. The disciples respond to this warning by fighting about who is the greatest. Jesus responds to this infighting by putting a child among the disciples and saying that whoever welcomes this child welcomes him and the one who sent him. (Mk. 9: 37)

In this context, we can see that the disciples’ complaint about the person who is not “one of us” casting out demons is a renewal of the competitiveness on the part of the disciples. Casting out demons is something Jesus has told the disciples to do and now this other person is doing it. What’s the problem? Maybe the problem is that the disciples had just failed to exorcize a demon as Jesus was coming down from the mountain and they are jealous. Jesus gently rebukes them for their competitiveness by saying that anyone who is not against him is for him. The disciples aren’t the only show in town. Then Jesus echoes his commendation of the child by saying that whoever offers anyone a cup of water will be rewarded. That is, thinking about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, and doing something about it, leaves no room for competition.

Then come the hard sayings. Jesus warns the disciples (and us) about putting stumbling blocks before these little ones: the child in the midst of the disciples, the one who should be given a cup of water. It is precisely the competitive behavior that scandalizes the little ones, leading them to copy the behavior modeled by those larger and more powerful than they. Children playing cowboys and Indians, as in my day, or with GI Joe or Ninja toys more recently, may be cute, but aren’t they mimicking their elders too closely for comfort? When children see their elders fighting over who is the greatest, is it any wonder they do the same? The notion that it is better to be hurled into the sea with a millstone around the neck than to scandalize the little ones should make one think. It is worth noting that throwing people off of cliffs was a popular means of sacrificing. Being willing to cut off a hand or leg or gouge out an eye rather than scandalize a little one is drastic, but it makes it urgent that we sacrifice our competitiveness rather than scandalize the vulnerable. Indeed, lacking a limb or an eye (remember Odin?) causes one to be a “random” victim of sacrifice. Moreover, dismemberment is also a common method of sacrifice. (Remember Prajapati?) Of course, it would be simpler and less drastic to offer a cup of water, but if competitiveness through what René Girard called “mimetic rivalry” is a powerful addiction, as Girard suggested, our hands and feet are too caught up in rivalry to make even so simple a gesture.

This brings us to hell where the worm never dies and the fire never quenched. (Mk. 9: 48) It would indeed be better to have one hand rather than two that burn in hell for all eternity. But that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. The word he uses is “Gehenna,” which means something different. Some scholars think it was a large garbage dump outside Jerusalem whose flames never stopped smouldering. More to the point, Gehenna was the valley where Jeremiah claimed that children were sacrificed to the pagan deities. It does seem fitting that such a cursed place would be turned into a refuse heap. Gehenna, then, is where our rivalrous battles end: a place where the vulnerable are sacrificed to fuel our battles. Maybe Jesus’ words about cutting off limbs is hyperbole, a set of “hebraisms,” but they are warning us of the consequences of our rivalrous ways. One of the clearest symptoms of mimetic rivalry is the sharp divide between us and them, a divide the contending disciples tried to make between themselves and the other person who exorcized people.

Jesus concludes his teaching by referring to salt. Salt was added to sacrifices by both Jews and Romans, but as in the use of the image in Matthew and Luke, salt refers to an inner quality, perhaps a willingness to sacrifice self rather than others. This willingness to sacrifice self is of great value and losing it would be much worse than losing an arm or a leg. Jesus tells us that the greatest value of the inner salt is to “be at peace with one another.” (Mk. 9: 49) Being at peace allows for offering a cup of water to one who has need of it, and such giving creates more peace. Indeed, Jesus himself gave up much more than a hand or a foot; he gave up his life to deliver us from the Gehenna of our own making.

Sowing Parables in our Hearts

mustardTreeThe eighth chapter of Romans is among the most inspirational passages in all scripture. Paul assures us that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” and that we will be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Rom. 8: 28–29) Lest we think that only some people are predestined for God’s family, Paul asks: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8: 31) If Jesus is interceding for us, what more powerful persecutor is there to speak against us? Do we really want any personal being to veto the advocacy of Jesus? If we are truly stirred by these words, then we must stamp them deep into our hearts and allow them to govern how we view God and how we view other parts of scripture. For today, I suggest using these words to help us understand the parables in Matthew 13.

There is a tendency to interpret these parables separately, treating each as a little gem of wisdom in itself. Each parable is indeed a gem but I think we do well to see how these parables interact with each other. Perhaps we’ll get one great big gem with many facets.

Most of the parables present images of sowing seeds and cultivating plants, a similarity that begs for comparisons. The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of Weeds among the Wheat and the Parable of the Fishnet all deal with sorting the good from the bad. One comes at the beginning of the sequence, one in the middle, one at the end, providing a frame for the set. Sorting good from bad seems to be a good thing to do, but there are some cautions in these parables. The slaves of the household want to pull out the weeds sown among the wheat but the householder says that we can’t differentiate well enough to do this sorting without pulling out a lot of good stuff. And what about the seed that falls on bad soil or among the thorns? Are they bad seeds because they got tossed on the wrong places? Are these seeds just cast away? And do the fishers sorting fish caught in the net really want any fish to be so bad that they have to throw them away? Does God, who did not withhold his only son, want the angels to throw anybody away? (Rom. 8: 32)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Mustard Plant gives us pause. When we take the parable in isolation, we assume the mustard plant is a great good thing, a sign of God’s kingdom. But many farmers consider it a weed and try to get rid of it, although the farmers hired by Grey Poupon Dijon seem to want it. Maybe it is precisely because the mustard plant, “the greatest of shrubs,” is a weed, or in any case not an impressive plant, that it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was treated like an unwanted weed that was pulled up by the roots and thrown away. And yet this weed popped back up and grew until birds could nest in its branches. This weedy shrub continues to shelter many others who are elsewhere treated like weeds.

How did we get into the habit of treating some (many) people like weeds? René Girard suggests that it happened at the dawn of humanity when social tensions were most successfully resolved (in the short run anyway) through everybody ganging up on a victim or a group of victims. That is, somebody was weeded out. When Jesus let the people of his day weed him out, he revealed the truth of what we have been doing all these millennia. So who planted the mustard seed? Looks like the work of God.

In the other two parables, Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field and a pearl, both so valuable as to be worth selling everything to buy them. The large family that Paul says God is gathering everybody into would surely be the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, worth everything we have. But are these treasures worth giving up our desire to weed out the people we don’t like, or hoping God will do it for us? That is the route to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or will we embrace the priceless pearl that puts us in embrace with everybody else? That would give our culture a makeover, maybe like the small measure of yeast that transforms the bread. Paul concludes his inspirational chapter: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If that is so, than no number of weeds in our lives can separate us from God.

For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

The Common Ministry of Peter and Paul

220px-Greco,_El_-_Sts_Peter_and_PaulMuch has been said about the conflicts between Saints Peter and Paul. I have commented on them myself. However, whatever their conflicts, they were martyred in Rome at roughly the same time and that is one of the reasons they are celebrated together in one Feast. Let us see if they have more in common

Both Peter and Paul were penitents. Peter betrayed Jesus by denying that he knew him when pressured by the people in the high priest’s courtyard. Paul approved of the stoning of Stephen and persecuted the Christians. Peter heard the cock crow and he wept. Paul head a voice asking him: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Both came to know themselves to be profoundly forgiven sinners. How do we know this? Both preached God’s forgiveness to others.

When. at Pentecost, Peter confronted the people with the truth of what they did in Jerusalem forty days earlier, that they handed an innocent man over to death on the cross, they “were cut to the heart” and asked how they could be saved. Peter’s reply was: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2: 38) Peter was announcing both the truth of what the people had done and the forgiveness of God for what they had done.

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote: “Therefore we have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6: 4) This is Paul’s more complex way of saying that repentance and baptism bring us forgiveness of our participation in the death of Christ so as to be free to rise with Christ and live new lives in Christ.

In the First Epistle attributed to Peter, the author cites the forgiving example of Christ: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” (1 Pet. 2: 23) It is troubling that Peter is speaking specifically to slaves but we should note that the masters are not being upheld as good examples of anything. Later in the Epistle, Peter says to everybody: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Pet. 3: 8–9) The forgiving example of Christ should be followed by everybody. (Could one follow this admonition and still be a slave master?)

Likewise Paul makes the identical admonitions when writing to the Romans: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” and “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12: 14, 19–21) Lofty words but there is a troublesome sting to them. It should be noted, though, that vengeance is indeed God’s prerogative. The teachings on the part of both Paul and Peter raise the questions as to whether God actually uses that prerogative. The burning coals in the quote from Proverbs are also troubling, but sometimes an undeserved act of kindness has that effect.

What we can celebrate today on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is their united front in preaching the forgiveness of the Risen Victim which we must both receive and give to others.

The Holy Spirit as a Divine Person who Inspires and Fosters Love

White_Doves_at_the_Blue_Mosque_(5778806606)The Holy Spirit is the most obscure of the three Persons of the Trinity, not that the other Persons aren’t mysterious as well. One reason is that the Son is said to show the Father, and the Holy Spirit is said to show the Son, but that leaves nobody to show the Holy Spirit. So obscure is the Holy Spirit that it is difficult to think of the Holy Spirit as a Person at all. It is not uncommon to hear the Holy Spirit referred to as “it,” although both masculine and feminine pronouns also fall far short of the Holy Spirit’s personhood.

It is easier to sense some personhood for the Father and the Son because their relationship is defined by filiation, that is, the Father begetting the Son has a personal analogy in human experience. But the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the other Divine Persons is through spiration, that is breathing. We think of breath as a human function rather than a person in his or her own right. The Holy Spirit is often called the “Bond of Love” between the Father and the Son. This is a beautiful phrase but again, it doesn’t give the Holy Spirit a personality. If we say two people are bonded in love, we think of the bond as something between the two people, not a third person.

Since it is a sure thing that the Holy Spirit is a Person, however obscure, and however mysterious, then perhaps we can take these rather impersonal images and analogies and personalize them.

The Holy Spirit as breath, the Person spirated, or breathed, by the Father and the Son is associated with inspiration. The Holy Spirits’s inspiration in its gentler form is symbolized by a dove in scripture, most importantly at Jesus’ baptism, where the image accompanies the heavenly voice acclaiming Jesus as the Son of the heavenly Abba. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as flames of fire inspiring the disciples to preach in the languages of the pilgrims from foreign countries. In all this, we have, again, impersonal images, except insofar as birds can show some elements of personality. In all this, however, we can see the Holy Spirit revealed as a Divine Person who inspires and energizes. In fact, the Holy Spirit inspires by distributing various gifts to various people, enhancing both the individuality of people and our connectedness as we exchange these inspired gifts to each other. Through this exchange of gifts, we can inspire others with our insights and enthusiasms. We can think of the inspiring teachers and preachers who have energized us to spread that same enthusiasm and inspiration to others. This is what the Holy Spirit does.

The Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son can also be understood in a personal way. That is, the Holy Spirit is a Person who actively encourages love between other people. Humans can act as such a bond of love. Friar Lawrence plays such a role in Romeo and Juliette. In South Pacific, Bloody Mary encourages the love between Col. Talbot and the Polynesian woman in the song “Happy Talk,” while Col. Talbot himself struggles with his racist heritage in “Carefully Taught.” As these go-betweens try to help lovers overcome obstacles (scandals), so the Holy Spirit encourages all of us to overcome all obstacles to loving relationships.

In the Upper Room, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the apostles and then commissions them to spread forgiveness to other people. (Jn. 20: 23) (I don’t think Jesus wants us to retain the sins of others.) Here we have the Holy Spirit as the Person who inspires, encourages, forgives, and reconciles. In all of these acts, the Holy Spirit remains hidden, showing other people to us and us to other people. At the same time, the Holy Spirit shows us the Son in other people and shows the Son in us to others. If we wish to really honor and celebrate the Holy Spirit, we, too, will go and inspire, encourage, forgive, and reconcile others.

The Still Small Voice of the Good Shepherd

lambsThe Good Shepherd is a reassuring image. The shepherd is in charge and the sheep follow the shepherd’s guidance. When thieves and robbers and wolves come to threaten the sheep, the shepherd deals with them in no uncertain terms. Jesus’ claim to be the gate, the way in and out of the fold, gives us another reassuring image: some of us are in and certain other people are out, just the way it should be.

But in my reflections on John 10 from a year ago, I noted that the Good Shepherd is the Lamb of God who lays down his life for the sheep. With this realization, the hierarchical picture breaks down. The Good Shepherd is not above the sheep but is one of the sheep. Whereas even the most compassionate and conscientious shepherds end up eating or sacrificing the sheep, Jesus shares the fate of the sheep by becoming the Paschal Lamb in place of the sheep.

The Lamb of God is also an odd gate. Rather than keeping the lambs inside, he leads the lambs in and out with so much movement that the idea of there being a gated sheepfold ceases to make sense. Rather than keeping the bandits and robbers away, Jesus lays down his life for the flock when the bandits attack. If Jesus is the gate, than his willingness to lay down his life is the way in to this abundant pasture for all who would join his flock.

In an essay on the Eucharistic Christ, James Alison explores these paradoxes with great insight. After taking us through stages where we fixate on the bad shepherds and feel righteous about identifying and hating them, Alison takes us to a stage where the fixations fall away:

There is no definitive inside and outside for the Good Shepherd, there are places of shelter and of feeding, different places to which the door gives access, and which presuppose movement, non-fixity, and confidence in being neither in nor out. It is assumed that the best feeding place might not be one that seems to be “in,” yet the good shepherd is able to make that place available to his sheep.

The mixup that Alison envisages reaches the point where we are all sheep and all wolves, not in a negative sense where each of us supposedly good people find the wolf within, but rather a recreation of abundant life where nobody needs to be a sheep who is devoured or sacrificed or a wolf who does the devouring and sacrificing. This is where our baptism into the death of Jesus leads us further into the abundant life of Jesus.

It is in the space of this abundant life that we hear the true voice of the Good Shepherd as the Lamb of God, which Alison suggests is the still small voice that Elijah heard in the wilderness. When we hear this still small voice, the strident voices of bandits are drowned out and our own voices can take on the same stillness that others need to hear.