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

The Gods Dissolve Like Clouds

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“There are billions of gods in the world . . . Most of them are too small to see and never get worshipped. . . They are the small gods. Because what they lack is belief. . . Because what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods.” — Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Sometimes we need a brisk jolt to the spiritual nervous system, like the whack from the paddle that the Zen master gives his novices who zone out under his watchful eye during their sitting meditation. Terry Pratchett does this with his cheerful parody of institutional religion called Small Gods. If all you got out of it was the epigraph above, you’d still be ahead of the game.

The root idea here is that the gods are remarkably human in that they rely on others to validate their existence. The more the followers, the greater the size of the god. The field can get crowded, the advertising intense, as the gods compete for air time and loyalty. Let us see how this knowledge might be applied.

***

There are gods for everything: The God of Laundry, who restores the one lost sock; the God of The Mother of All Headaches; the God of Parking Spaces; and the God of Snappy Comebacks After Arguments. Most of these pass through their life cycles unnoticed, unheralded, and unmourned because they simply don’t have the polling power of, say, the God of Instant Recall or the God of Social Skills or the big one, the God of Ultimate Truth. The grace note for the smaller ones is that like Home Depot, there’s a tool for every job. If you need to put your hands on a paper clip, the God of Hammers just won’t do.

There is specialization to the nth degree, but the really wise gods become generalists in order to play to the broadest possible audiences. The God of Polite Euphemisms, for instance, competes favorably with the God of Sly Innuendo, while a current favorite, the God of Plain Speaking, polls just ahead of an evangelical mainstay, the God of Thus Saith the Lord.

Granted, there are whole swaths of humanity who have never heard of these gods, of any gods for that matter, for whom the news that gods are dying by the billions arrives with all the interest quotient of banana price indices. These are tough audiences. They are unmoved by tragedy, indifferent to complexity, focused on the trivial, and contemptuous of procedural niceties. They lack a sense of history. Timelines mean nothing to them nor does the inherent authority claimed by certain small gods command respect or compliance.

We may well ask whence cometh and goeth these gods anyway. For this we can turn to Wallace Stevens, one of the truly great American poets and a man of letters, who conjectures in a lecture that “To speak of the origin and end of gods is not a light matter. It is to speak of the origin and end of eras of human belief.” Humans and gods are so closely intertwined, allows Stevens, that the demise of the gods cannot but change the very nature of humans.

I quote at length from his lecture, “Two or Three Ideas,” in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose:

“To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing . . . It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.”

To be sure, these gods once played a significant role in the lives of many. The God of Tradition, for instance, carried a respectable train of believers for centuries, while the God of Fundamentals enjoyed tremendous growth even as his fundamental traits tripled, making it difficult to clearly discern the fundamentals from the incidentals.

But the God of Institutional Authority, one of the biggest in the pantheon, lost millions of adherents when he abused their trust in a naked grab for more power. The reaction was at first puzzlement: why would he do that? Many had been happy to serve in his court without need for coercion or arm-twisting. But puzzlement turned to concern, and then a stiffening of resolve, as it became clear that the God of Institutional Authority no longer trusted them nor looked on them of equal worth. No amount of evident sincerity could mitigate against the feeling that sincerity could be wrong if it overlooked, nay deliberately set aside, such a foundational element as equality.

The aberrant behavior of the God of Institutional Authority prompted endless discussion, even argument, among those for whom god-watching was their profession, and others for whom it was a consuming avocation. There were some who muttered darkly that such abuse ran in dynastic god families, even unto the third and fourth generation, and that nothing more could be expected from such a god — ‘like father, like son,’ was the summarizing phrase. Others just as vehemently argued that the God of Institutional Authority was merely exercising the power he had been entrusted with to keep order, enforce the rules, and maintain the hierarchy of responsibilities that was so important for a smoothly functioning organization. “It’s not for us to question him,” they said. “He carries enormous burdens. On him rests the well-being of millions. Who are we to thwart the will of the gods?”

This prompted some to turn once again to Stevens, who noted parenthetically that “Their [the gods] fundamental glory is the fundamental glory of men and women, who being in need of it create it, elevate it, without too much searching of its identity.” Stevens then added, prophetically as it turned out, “The people, not the priests, made the gods.”

Among the professional god-watchers there were a few whose expertise and knowledge of the gods was unparalleled. Many people relied upon them to discern the movements of the God of Institutional Authority and his court, and to place this within a larger framework of cosmic events. One of them had been knighted for his efforts and was known affectionately and colloquially as Sir George the Dragon-Slayer. Even though he was supported by a comparatively large and established network, there were those who privately worried that there was a bounty on his head. Some cited Henry VIII’s off-hand and exasperated remark, “Who will rid me of this troublesome prelate,” as historical precedent for vigilante action against Sir George by devoted free-lance enforcers.

This brings us to the present in what is a developing story. Because there are many facets to these developments, one should not be too quick to pronounce that the definitive analysis is in. After all, on the central point of equality of members and service, decades of blue-ribbon commissions were commissioned, only to see their conclusions and recommendations dismissed on the wind. Looking ahead for the consequences of present actions, intended or otherwise, one need only invoke the carefree butterfly flitting above a chrysanthemum on a remote Japanese island, to shudder at the hurricane that might await us up ahead.

In the meantime there comes to us a word from another professional god-watcher, the sociologist Peter Berger, who warned in his book, A Far Glory, about something which seems to have been lost in the current confusion. I will quote it at length:

“All true worship is a difficult attempt to reach out for transcendence. It is this reaching out that must be symbolized, by whatever resources a particular tradition has at hand. . . The community itself is not the object of the exercise; at best it is the subject . . . The congregation itself is not what matters, but the community of the Kingdom of God which the gathered congregation feebly foreshadows. Nor is this proleptic community contained within the walls of a particular sanctuary: It includes the community of the living everywhere, and of the living and the dead; ultimately it includes the worshiping community of the angels and all creation.”

There must be a God for that.

Photo: Samuel Zeller, Unsplash.com