Wednesday, October 10, 2007

God's Work, Our Work

One of many reasons I love the Gospels is that they show so boldly the readiness of our Lord Jesus Christ to contradict his disciples. I’m talking about those moments in the disciples’ life together with Jesus when they said “The sky is blue,” and he replied, “No, it’s magenta—why can’t you see it?”

These are never dull moments. Electricity is snapping in the air between Jesus and his merry gang, at these moments. Like the time when two of them, let’s call them Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, nudged their mumsy to go ask Jesus to set them on his right side and his left, in glory. She obliged them, but Jesus would not.

Or that time when a bunch of them huddled like trigger-happy security experts and proposed to Jesus that they punish inhospitable Samaritans who refused to feed and house the gang from Galilee, calling down fire from heaven to deliver shock and awe. Jesus looked straight into their wild eyes and says, “Let it not be so among you.”

Today’s contradiction feels less charged, but let’s not be fooled. The apostles ask him to increase their faith. They want a truckload, and they want it now. They are not ready for what they hear. They want St. Michael and All Angels lighting their dark night like the aurora borealis. They want Joan of Arc, leading the charge. They want a touch of the rapture, with all the theological cooing that will convince them that they won’t be left behind. Instead, they get actual revelation, actual God-in-their faces revelation. And it’s a lesson about seeds and servants.

Julian of Norwich, 14th-century English mystic, was familiar with actual revelation. She wrote down sixteen revelations of divine love, showings of God, and pouring out of these pages is a religion of joy, an understanding that there is no anger in God (anger, she says, is a human franchise, not a divine one), and her theology rejoices in the motherhood, as well as the fatherhood and sonship, of God. Whether the apostles would have agreed with her, I cannot say; but they would find in her revelations a truckload of faith.

Yet Julian asks the question, “Yes, but how does it come about, this faith?” For her, actual revelation comes not in the expected way, but in the unexpected. Here is a very simple modern translation from the Middle English of what she wrote about one of her showings:

“And in this the Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. . .In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it."

Let me read that to you in another translation that keeps the flavor of the old language:

“Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.”

Lovely as that is, I’m going back to the simpler version. God shows Julian all that matters: that the God who made us loves us and preserves us. There is the holy trinity in a nutshell, literally. It is all the apostles need to face what’s frightening them, challenging them, overwhelming them. It’s all that we need, to face what’s frightening and challenging and overwhelming us.

What was having that effect on them? In general, it was their mission, the task, the work Jesus had sent them out to do. Notice that Luke doesn’t call them disciples here; he calls them apostles—a term we don’t expect to hear until his second volume, The Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Disciples sit and learn. Apostles are sent to work. In Luke’s Gospel, that has already happened, about eight chapters ago, so he’s showing us that the Christian life takes students of Christ and turns them into agents of Christ by the divine Spirit St. Paul tells us about today, “not…a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” that causes Christians to show Jesus to people, sometimes through how they handle suffering, and always through how they rely on the power of God. And how they recognize revelation in the hazelnuts they handle, day in and day out.

Apostles first have to be disciples. No, they always have to be disciples, learning to recognize actual revelation when they see it. And disciples have to become apostles, or else they turn to mush. Or worse, in retreating from being apostles, they become the opposite of who Jesus needs them to be—and then he must contradict them.

That’s happening today in our portion of Luke. What we haven’t heard can help us understand.

We all know the three most important things about real estate: location, location, location. Remember that, whenever you consider a little piece of scripture: the three most important things are context, context, context. Today’s portion may show you the house, but last Sunday’s—and what comes between—shows you the land it sits on.

Last Sunday, Lazarus, a beggar, is a little person who we come to see as having a great claim upon the heart of God, and so of the Church. Between that portion and today’s, Jesus teaches his disciples that if they cause a little one like Lazarus (but any little one) to stumble, they’re sunk as apostles (literally—“it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”) Then he tells them that disciples have got to confront one another with the truth as they work and live together, boldly contradict one another so that they keep to the truth, and when one repents, the other must forgive—even if the same person needs forgiving seven times a day.

Context shows us specifically why the disciples asked the Lord to increase their faith. They were trying to live by Jesus’s marching orders, but found them hard, painful, and scary.

“Increase your faith? You make it sound like you want to inflate yourselves with laughing gas,” I hear Jesus answer them. “Or earn a degree in righteousness. Or find a short cut to getting it right, as if what we’re talking about here is all about you and your goodness. It isn’t. It’s about God—and the world.”

And then, in the second part of this little Gospel, Jesus contradicts the kind of false hope that comes from fear and worry and exhaustion. “No, your life with me is not about getting everything right so you get promoted up from being a servant. The call to be my people in the world is the call to serve. Get used to it. Rejoice in it.”

And, he might have added, learn through it, learn through this call to serve, to value little things.

So he gets them thinking about seed. Small, but mighty—if we’re to judge by what dandelions do in our lawn, and forget-me-nots in our garden. And the message? If we want a seed to grow, we know that to do. We plant it in the light, we let it go, down into the earth where it will fall apart. What follows is a mystery way beyond our comprehension, the wonder of germination and growth. That is God’s work. But it takes the right care—watering, feeding, weeding—and that is our work.

What else can we say about seed? Being a disciple is seed for being an apostle. Being an apostle is like sending seeds into the wind, seeds of friendship and leadership and witness and service. Those seeds sprout and grow, and a new generation of disciples rises.

So let’s see if I can sum this up. The disciples are panicking, flipping out, overwhelmed by the demands of their calling. “We just can’t DO it, Jesus! Increase our faith!”

“This isn’t about you,” he replies. “Your calling is from God. God made you. God loves you. God preserves you.”


"That’s great!"


"Whew, for a while there…"

"Oh, so I can just…”

And in that moment, Jesus is reminded that this is his gang that can’t shoot straight. He contradicts his apostles once again: “This good news about God frees you for your calling. It doesn’t excuse you from the work. For there to be more disciples, you must be apostles! It’s a great endless chain of receiving and giving and receiving and giving that I have come to ensure on this earth. It all depends on God. And it all depends on you.”