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Monday, September 8, 2014

The Gospel (squirm uneasily) of the Lord

Sometimes it’s like whoever wrote the gospel reads your email.

O wait, never mind...

A quick reminder about yesterday’s gospel:

“If your brother sins against you,

go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.

If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.

If he does not listen,

take one or two others along with you,

so that ‘every fact may be established

on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.

If he refuses to listen even to the church,

then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Amen, I say to you,

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Again, amen, I say to you,

if two of you agree on earth

about anything for which they are to pray,

it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name,

there am I in the midst of them.” 

I’ve mentioned before John Shea’s first volume in the 3-volume Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels series. The Matthew book is called The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year A . I suppose I could read it in preparation for Sunday, but generally I use it after the liturgical hearing, to help me focus what I’ve heard and reacted to. This week, one sentence jumped out at me from his reflection, and it kept haunting me all day. In discussing the first part of the gospel, Shea drops this bombshell, which at once obvious and in a way devastating:
“The onus is on the one offended to seek out the offender.”
As I said, it’s like someone up there is reading my email. How is this fair? For anyone who’s an introvert, the occasion of being offended is something that drives a person deeper into introversion. It’s like drowning in a way. What you think you need is someone to throw you a lifeline, a mediator to help bridge the divide, not a gospel that throws you a ten-foot line when you’re drowning twenty feet out and claims to be meeting you halfway. Jesus’s own “punchline” at the end of the passage seems to say this approach won’t work, “Where two of you agree about anything on shall be granted.” Clearly, in this area, there’s no agreement. Hence, no granting?

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. The passage ends, “For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Jesus’s presence, the divine life of the Holy Spirit, our sharing in the Godhead that is part of our baptismal character, is already active in us, even before we disagree. There must be an internal drive toward reconciliation that is not our idea, that is preconscious, that comes from the indwelling of God.

Back to the onus being on the offended. “How can God ask this of us?,” I kept asking myself. Isn’t God the friend of the offended, the one who casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly? How can God ask the offended person not just to turn the other cheek, but to reach out to the offender to seek reconciliation?

I think to do this requires rethinking God. The “power” of the indwelling Spirit, the “power” to reconcile, is from this God, and not Baal or some other god of armies and missiles. This God is agape, the God whose manifestation is kenosis. I suddenly recalled Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans (5:8) which we heard again just a few weeks ago: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” As John reminded Christians forever in his first catholic letter, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” In other words, what I began to see on Sunday that we really have to act this way because that’s the only way we enter into the divine life of God. We can only do this because God empowers, and it is the only mode of reconciliation clearly empowered by God, because it is God’s very nature to act this way. It is who God is. (I can’t help but be embarrassed to write those words. I mean, who knows what God is like, let alone me, but it just seems that this is what God is revealing God’s self to be, not through me, but through the gospel.)

This would be why this path to reconciliation seems like death to me. Acting this way is participating in the paschal mystery. It appears to be death, but it is the only kind of life there really is, the only path that leads out of self-doubt, hatred, resentment, depression, and ultimately, violence. And I repeat, because I don’t want this to sound like “bootstraps” preaching, as though we just have to be tough and do it on our own: we cannot do it on our own, but we presume the power because of baptism, because being part of the Christian way wasn’t our idea, it was God’s. God is already present in the moment of loving confrontation as the possibility and offer of reconciliation. That is God’s nature; that is where God is. We (I) need to stop thinking that God will somehow, violently or not, “avenge” the wrong done to me. That’s not what God does. God invites, gathers, reconciles. And I’m invited to be part of that.

By way of anecdote, I've been reading the latest book by James Alison, called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. This book is a godsend, a transcript of a four-DVD set of lectures for regular parish churches and others who see that the old approach to redemption, substitution theology and so forth, just do not work in explaining life for modern people. Alison, a Dominican priest and theology professor, as well as a disciple of Rene Girard, begins this project by re-interpreting the Emmaus story with wondrous clarity. I haven't internalized it yet, so I am loath to share it, but he talks about how meeting Jesus on the road was different from seeing a ghost, how, though he was completely transformed and yet ultimately himself, he was risen and not just a spectral appearance. Alison talks about how ghostly apparitions are generally about revenge: "I'm dead! I'm deeeaaaad! Avenge me!", like Hamlet's father, and so on. But Jesus is not interested in what happened to him, or to the people who killed him, for the purpose of revenge. He is interested in helping the travelers get past their grief and disappointment to the truth that he himself came to understand. As Girardians have been saying for years, it was time for people to stop sacrificing to gods. It is God who gives. God sacrifices for people. We needed to get the story straight. So "beginning with Moses and the prophets," Jesus exposes the process of victimization and murder for what it is, and invites us into a new world of  life-giving, re-oriented toward the need and sorrow of the other.

See why we can’t lay the task of reconciliation on the offender? It is the wronged person who is, ultimately, the one who is most like God! Only the wronged person can invite the (apparently) more powerful one to lay down arms and reconcile. It is, however, possible for all persons, baptized or not, by virtue of creation, but in the baptismal character this divine “power” is made visible and sacramental. It is the exercise of domination and abuse that is ungodly. And what separates this Christian way from just absorbing the abuse and floating away is the inward pressure toward reconciliation. “The onus is on the one offended to seek out the offender.”

Thus, what appears to be surrender is actually participating in the “power” of agape, the outpouring of self in love, love which created the universe. I suppose I need to keep coming back to this, and practice it as often as I can, so that I can overcome my tendency to want to be right, to win, to bypass conflict through mediation. This seems to be the divine way, not to shrivel up and disappear nor to lash out in retributive self-righteousness, nor even, at least in the first place, to seek mediation from another authority or authorities. To approach reconciliation as a thirst, and the offender as another tired and thirsty traveler at Jacob’s well, this is the gospel way. It may be there, as in John 4, that one meets the Messiah, or a spouse, or both. At any rate, whatever the outcome, in the urge toward and practice of reconciliation we are never alone. Christ is in the very meeting, the epiphany and sacrament of God, transforming the chaos of our strife into a new universe of life and possibility. As we used to pray in one of the Eucharistic prayers (I can't bring myself to use the 2010 translation):
Father, all powerful and ever living God, we praise and thank you through Jesus Christ our Lord for your presence and action in the world.

In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.

Your Spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together.

Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.

For this we should never cease to thank and praise you. 

Say “Amen”, somebody!?