Going the Distance

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“We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first. Of the links between God and man, love is the greatest. It is as great as the distance to be crossed.” Simone Weil, quoted in Bread and Wine

The distance between who we are when we are honest with ourselves, and who we think God requires us to be, is vast. Everyone has a measuring tape; it’s what we do when we face our failures, is to measure ourselves against other people. Sometimes it’s only to exhale with relief when we see the misfortunes of another person—that fleeting moment when we think, I escaped again!—before we open the door to empathy. To be Christlike in these and other moments is to be a disciple, a follower, and to follow someone, especially one like Jesus, is to put oneself under discipline.

It’s not a following like flotsam that swirls in the wake of an ocean liner nor is it a following such as one train car coupled to another. Those metaphors are void of will. I mean how we overcome the almost involuntary form of our history, traditions, and reflexive rituals, our habits and the mental laziness that we use to convince ourselves we are faithful—these dispirited elements that play a part in our stumbling attention to God.

In contrast, we long to follow Christ with a will that is active, imaginative and muscular. Once we let go of our fear it’s only longing that lures us onward. Given our flightiness, we could just as well veer off on a tangent or do an about-face and lark off in the opposite direction. The problem is that longing is diffuse, scattering like motes in the sunlight. But love—longing narrowed by the will to a burning beam of light focused singly on God—that is discipline.

Already there is an element of measurement in this description, usually to our own advantage. Disciples have discipline, discipline is noble and self-sacrificing, following Jesus is all about sacrifice. Sacrifice is what makes it authentic, us putting everything aside, especially our pride, and following on after Jesus. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we’ve eclipsed the Lord, passed him up as it were, and are prancing at the head of our own parade. It’s a puzzle. Can love be a discipline?

“We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason,” says Thomas Merton, “and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.”

Be perfect, we’re told, as your Father in heaven is perfect. That maxim alone has sent many a confused teenager careening into a ditch. It’s the kind of self-improvement slogan for moral and spiritual perfection that gets weaponized in the hands of leaders who sincerely believe that the Second Advent is delayed indefinitely by our fallibility. But in these latter times, we’ve learned that the phrase is best translated “be complete,” somehow more reassuring even as we attempt to square the circle.

In my teens, I began to grasp the geologic depths of God’s love for us in the person and being of Jesus. Through the fieldwork of certain spiritual geologists—teachers, musicians, poets and pastors—the strata of evidence pointing to God’s reach over the centuries came to light. Prophets and parables, ages of sages, scriptures and songs, odes and stories, stars and rivers, devils and dust—all of it was there for the taking.

But that was the thing: how were we to act on all this? On the one hand, there were the teachers of the law, sincere and thin-lipped, who confirmed there was nothing good in us, yet we must fulfill every jot and tittle of the law in order to qualify for God’s love. By contrast, there was another party, cheerful and expansive, who held there was nothing we could do to earn God’s love, that it was all God’s doing, and our part was only to believe. Faith against works, a classic standoff. It was Paul against James in the ring, with Luther scoring the punches. The net effect of all this was a paralyzed indecisiveness, a post-modernist Protestant constriction of the bowels of our hearts. We were no good and there was nothing we could do.

Somewhere in transmission the message was garbled. All our righteousness was as filthy rags. Fair enough, our best efforts weren’t going to save us. Christ died to save us from our sins. True enough, and we couldn’t begin to calculate how pervasive our sins were. But after repentance and conversion, what then? A friend turned his life over to Christ, only to await instructions on what to wear each day. One pastor I knew implored us week after week to cling to the foot of the cross. But even Jesus left the cross within hours, as the arc of God’s justice bridged the abyss of death and touched down in the kingdom.

I found myself with Thomas, doubtful and needing evidence. ‘Touch me and see,’ said Jesus, and then gently, ‘Happy are those who never saw me and yet have found faith.’ I am also on the road to Emmaus, heartbroken and confused, but listening with rising awe to the history of the geology of God’s love, and then in stunned joy catching a glimpse of the Christ before he disappears.

According to the Gospel of John, some time passed after the disciples saw Jesus in the upper room after his resurrection. We don’t know how long it was but it was long enough that they finally furtively emerged from hiding, resigned to the fact that they were, after everything they’d seen and done, just fishermen again.

So off they go, fishing all night for nothing. In the morning light, a mysterious figure on the beach calls out to them a crazy thing. “Shoot the net to starboard and you’ll make a catch.” Fishermen knew to crowd the fish toward the beach on the port side in the shallow water, not the starboard side where the fish could dart out for the deep. But when, against their own practice and knowledge, they followed what the lone figure on the beach suggested, their catch was so great they couldn’t haul it in. Then they knew, and John exclaimed, “It’s the Lord! At that Peter jumped into the water and thrashed his way ashore. No walking on the water this time, just an electric surge of joy that it was Jesus on the beach. He jumped because that’s what Peter always did. He did not jump out of fear of breaking the rules or of guilt for not following them. He jumped for the love of the Son of Man.

Anything that compels us to cross that great divide between ourselves and God, that does not come from gratitude, will end in failure. It is a discipline not of compulsion but of love and longing.

“So that the love may be as great as possible, the distance is as great as possible,” comments Simone Weil, a person whose spirit burned with an intensity that resisted evil without becoming it.

She sees God, with our consent, conquering the soul. “And then when it has become entirely his, he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone, and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made toward it. And that is the cross.”

“He is as near to thee as the vein in your neck,” says the Qu’ran. And so, like the prodigals we are, we are drawn home at last across the universe.

Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash.com

The Acts of the Disciples

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The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor

He has sent me to proclaim release to

the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s

favor. (Luke 4:18,19)

And Luke’s gospel says that Jesus “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were upon him.”

Let us sit with them for a moment, in that holy silence. Jesus carefully, reverently, rolls up the scroll. He does not hurry. He holds the knurled ends of the scroll in his hands, feels the polished wood turning against his palms, as the papyrus curls back to its resting position. The attendant reaches to take the scroll as Jesus sits down. No one stirs. It is the silence of expectancy, not of inattention and boredom.

What were they expecting, and why would they be transfixed, holding their breath for the next moment? Perhaps it was the way Jesus read the passage, ascending the hills of the text to each crest, hitting the “me” of each one with emphasis, descending to the plains in between, and then scaling the highest one to summit in triumph on “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

If you have always been told that a day was coming when everything that breaks you every day would vanish, and you would be able to take a full breath, and you could lift your head and you could stand up and you could smile and even laugh—then you will know what each person knew when Jesus said, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

The people in that meeting place that Shabbat turned to one another excitedly and remarked at how well Jesus spoke. They were not talking about his elocutionary style, but about the thrill of hope that jolted through them in that moment. The words from Isaiah 61, so familiar and so tantalizing, rang in their ears.

But then there were doubts. Wouldn’t the Day of the Lord come with trumpets, thunder, signs in the heavens? And wouldn’t it be announced by the Messiah, the awesome figure of power and glory of whom the prophets spoke? Instead, we get a local boy, smart but shiftless, who left his mother and travels the countryside. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. “We’ve known him since he was a little kid. Is he saying that he’s the One? He’s getting way above himself.”

And then Jesus went off-script. You’ll probably tell me to heal myself, he said. You want me to do tricks, like what you think I did up in Capernaum. If I don’t do the same thing here, you won’t believe me. Well, let me tell you something. No prophet is ever welcomed in his own country. There were a lot of widows in Israel during the famine, but our own prophet, Elijah, was sent to a widow in Sidon instead of them. And there were a lot of lepers in our country, but Elisha was sent to heal Naaman, the Syrian. Not one of ours was healed.

As they say, ‘the optics weren’t good.’ Excitement and admiration turned to doubt, and doubt to hostility and rage. More than just grilling the preacher’s sermon over Sabbath lunch, they were infuriated. Leaping to their feet, the whole congregation—families, men, women, and children—dragged him to the cliff on which the town was built to fling him bodily out and down.

Imagine the scene: people so angry, so completely consumed by rage that they seem demon-possessed. Neighbors he has known all his life, shoving and kicking him, his arms stretched out in their grasp, and him falling and stumbling back up, his eyes riveted ahead to where the ground drops away for hundreds of feet.

This is a video that will go viral, but before it does, let us freeze the frame with Jesus at the lip of the cliff—and since this is imagination we can do this—and ask ourselves what they are thinking.

If you saw them on the street you would have no idea they were capable of killing. They look like ordinary people. But seeing them now, ranged behind the figure twisting in their grasp, we see the leers, the harsh laughter, the sweat. A woman’s face is framed behind his shoulder. She is jeering, the veins in her forehead distended and throbbing. She feels forgotten, neglected, the hopes that were stirred by the promises of the prophets have vanished, and all that fills her mind is the thought of foreigners receiving the healing that is rightfully hers. Next thing they’ll be pouring across the border, Syrians, Caananites, Samaritans, lepers! It is a betrayal of everything she stands for, made worse by one of her own, a traitor in their midst like a devil among them.

Luke places this story near the beginning of Jesus’ mission, while Mark and Matthew record it as further down the timeline. Commentators suggest that Luke’s purpose is to show us that this is how Jesus’ mission is going to play out. The rejection he endures by his own people is triggered by his hints that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all who need it, those in other nations as well as in Israel. The nationalist fervor that roils this crowd into a murderous rage fulfills the prophecy that Jesus speaks.

We know how the incident ends, although we don’t know how it is done. Jesus teeters on the cliff’s edge, and then suddenly he is striding back through the crowd, parting them before him as if a force-field surrounds him. Luke gives it one line, ending with “he went on his way.” What matters most is that the kingdom has been announced, the Spirit is present, and Jesus is on his way into the world. Evil is no longer safe.

Jesus announced the kingdom in that dusty town on that Sabbath. He also denounced the fear that gripped the congregation in a snake’s coils. Annunciation and denunciation, two sides of a coin that has been carried by prophets and preachers and ages of sages. Wherever there is denunciation by the prophets, annunciation can be found in the neighborhood. And where the announcement falls upon deaf ears, denunciation of their callous disregard soon follows. The denunciation clears away the thickets, allowing the annunciation to spring forth.

But we must add something else to this prophetic witness between these two movements: the renunciation of our sins. Denunciation of the power structures in church and society, the uncovering of that which is intentionally hidden, is a necessary step toward the freedom of justice. But for the Christian, and any person of good faith, there follows in response another step equally important— that of renunciation.

Jesus began with the annunciation because he is the one who brings in the kingdom. In our time it is up to us as people of faith to begin with the denunciation of systems and structures that oppress and break the spirit of people. It would then be the most natural thing in the world to leap to the annunciation. Problem and solution; it’s how the world works.

But we are called to walk humbly as we act for justice. It is with the gospel in trust that we are invited to renounce our sins. The public renouncing of the sins of our discrimination opens the way to announce the good news of the gospel. And the gospel lived out is what reconciles us to God and to each other.

These are the acts of disciples who follow Jesus: they denounce, renounce, and announce. A movement begun by one is carried on through the Spirit by those who are willing to follow.

***

Twenty centuries after Jesus announced the kingdom we tell ourselves that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr., famously uttered that phrase we look up to see that arc crossing overhead, but with no discernible point on the horizon where it could touch down. That is, unless we prepare the way by renouncing our sins of injustice, as a nation, as a church, and as individuals.

Unity without equality for everyone is conformity to injustice for all.

Mark Oakley, in The Splash of Words, invokes a Franciscan blessing: “May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, doing in his name what others claim cannot be done.”

Photo: Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com