This Sunday's readings are marked by dysfunctional community, used and rejected building materials, and near-paralyzed leadership. Not the characteristics that normally describe a flourishing enterprise. Yet here we are, all these millennia later, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, remembering where we came from as a faith community, wondering how we got to where we are and what it will mean for us once the Easter glow is gone. We are on the edge of ordinary time, back to normal. We are exactly where our ancestors in faith were when these readings were written.
|Fifth Sunday of Easter|
1 Peter 2:4-9
Acts 3:12-21 recounts what borders on racism in the startup church in Jerusalem. Did the community need more ministers because there was an insufficient number or because the majority Palestinian Jews discriminated against the minority Hellenist Jews, their widows and their worthiness for leadership? If we read on, we see that the seven men chosen in this passage -- all of whom have Greek names -- are assigned outreach to non-Jews. Were numbers or diversity the real problem?
In our second reading, the author of 1 Peter advises the persecuted communities in Asia Minor, "Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house." He does not say, "Go build a spiritual house." Rather, let Jesus Christ, the once-rejected cornerstone, do this in and among you through the Holy Spirit. You just need to show up.
I understand this to be the sheltering community where we go for sustenance while living out our faith among destructive religious, political, economic, class and cultural forces. We are called to that engagement, to that redeeming dance with destruction just as the Christian communities in Asia Minor were. But how do we do that without being co-opted by destruction itself? "Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house," 1 Peter tells us. Be made into a saving community. There was a passion, death and resurrection before yours. Believe in that together. It is the saving motif that will lead you from darkness to light.
The reading from John 4:1-12, strikes me with overwhelming sadness this year, though I know it is meant to be encouraging. Had I been there for that final discourse, I would have felt betrayal beyond words. I would have walked out. Yes, I know all the evidence, but Jesus is leaving. He's "leaving but not abandoning" us, whatever that means.
What indeed. The apostles are surrounded by a hostile Jewish leadership. They're not in good stead with the local Roman occupying forces either. They've hooked up with a man who is turning out not to be the messiah, at least in the way they understand that term. They feel completely unprepared for whatever it is he intends for them to do -- while he's off somewhere else, having left them flat. There is such pain here. Such an unexpected, unplanned-for loss.
Five weeks into Easter, and on the brink of ordinary time, we may feel the same way. We may need a pep talk, and this is what the church gives us.
1 Peter pulls out all the Hebrew Scripture stops, the scale of connections between past and present. The author is building a foundation on which to set the cornerstone: Christ, who in his passion, death and resurrection uniquely accompanies us through the struggles of life. Accompanies us, not protects us. The Resurrection granted us the insight that evil does not have the last word. It did not promise freedom from struggle, but gave us the basis to struggle faithfully. Passion, death and resurrection is the central motif for the believer.
The early Jewish followers of Christ repeat the motif: the passion, death and resurrection of a spiritual house built with living, limited stones. Christ may be the cornerstone, but there is still a lot of loose masonry. We hurt each other, deny each other, build ourselves up upon sand. There is so much to learn. So much to die to. So much to live for. And so we continue.
We live on the other side of the Resurrection and so, little by little, become aware, in unguarded moments, that the promises of Jesus, as John sets them forth in the final discourse, are real. There is a Holy Spirit, there is a presence within and among us. Fraught as our lives are with loss of unendurable kinds and numbers, belief in Jesus and the God he reflected does make a difference. Belief saves.
Presbyterian Pastor Joy Douglas Strome sums it up like this: "Our role is clear and we are compelled to act. God's own people are empowered through Christ to sing, protest, dance, pray, and march. We make our way into ordinary time with the most extraordinary claim: Christ is risen! It is enough to sustain us. It is enough to support us. It is enough to empower us for the days ahead. Alleluia! Amen!"
[Angie O'Gorman is a freelance writer and human rights worker living in St. Louis, where she works at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. She has done human rights work in Honduras, Guatemala, the West Bank and the United States.]