Taking that first step toward healing and reconciliation, the first step away from the reign of Caesar and toward the reign of God, that step is the hardest one. That step is a doozy. The gospel story, on those rare occasions when we actually hear it proclaimed, rings like a clarion call in our ears, a trumpet that calls us not to war, but away from war, and toward peace. I’ve been thinking recently about how infrequently the gospel “forest” is proclaimed any more. It seems to me as though the individual stories in the larger gospel are taken from their context and milked for some aspect of “niceness” or self-improvement, forcing us to look at these “trees” (weeds?) while missing the gospel forest. Where is the gospel? What's so good about the good news? Why should these couple of thousand people in this upper middle-class parish give a damn about it?
One stunning insight about this came to me while reading John Dominic Crossan’s book on St. Paul, In Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom. His insight on Paul’s conversion just really knocked me over: that Paul’s conversion was not only a change from persecuting the Way to embracing the Way and becoming it’s great apostle. It was a conversion from a style of evangelization and catechesis, a turning away from force, violence, and threats of violence against his ideological enemies to a mode of persuasion, respect, and solidarity with them. The conversion of St. Paul was not movement out of Judaism any more than Jesus himself moved out of Judaism. It was a way of widening his ideological circle, of seeing others, Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, men and women as equals and heirs with him to the promise of God and the salus (health, liberation, salvation) offered by the Messiah, Jesus. This is so obvious a transformation that I was initially amazed that I didn’t notice it before. But we’ve made such a big deal about some of Paul’s other great insights, and about the controversial “civilization” of Paul’s ideas about radical equality in the pseudo-Pauline letters, that we missed the heart of Paul’s conversion, that is, his movement from the violent ways of Caesar to the agape of the reign of God.
Solidarity is necessary for this sea change. The fearful Damascus community of the Way embraces the neophyte and models the Way for him. The first act of Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan (using Mark’s scenario) and his formative desert retreat is to choose a community of disciples to walk with him. The group of townsfolk in Mark 2:1-12, a gospel we don't hear this year, is excited about the wonderworker and presumably about his message. But what is his message? “Your sins are forgiven!” This great equalizing statement puts to the lie the idea that the poor deserve their poverty, the sick deserve their sickness, the dominated deserve their overlords. It is not God’s will that some suffer for their sins and others rule by their righteousness; God is love, and all sins are forgiven. There is equality in that proclamation. Agape is the reign of God.
But as the prophets saw, this must mean that healing is in the land: the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk. And so Jesus demonstrates his ability to cure the sick in the name of God even as he announces the healing of the world in the streets of Galilee. It’s one thing to know we need healing; it’s quite another to get to the place where we can receive it. Solidarity is the only possibility, as the paralytic knows in the gospel, carried by his friends to Jesus and lowered through the roof, as did the crippled hope of Poland and Eastern Europe, carried to freedom on the back of Lech Walesa and the labor unions of Gdansk.
So we have a Church, gathered around the gospel, so that we have a chance to experience this solidarity, embrace the quest, the turning-about and seeking together of the reign of God instead of the reign of Caesar. And yet, as the late Pope St. John Paul II once observed in a speech (I cannot find the source—this is a paraphrase), with millions of Catholics attending the Eucharist every Sunday for so many decades, centuries, millennia, why has so little changed? How is it that, in spite of the intervention of God’s anointed Christ, the world is so firmly in the grasp of Caesar, whose mark can even be seen in the machinations of the Church itself? For me, on the one hand, the answer is in the loss of the proclamation of the gospel itself, the forest being lost for the trees. We’re gathered around the wrong message, the message of niceness and self-improvement, rather than the powerful message of the reign of God. But rather than bemoan that too much, the other hand is that the world has been changed by the gospel, by every movement of reconciliation and peacemaking that has stopped violence, by all the ministries of healing and intervention that have derived from the discipleship of Christians, perhaps most of all by the advocacy for victims’ rights and every act that stands between civilization and the violence of the scapegoating mechanism.
“I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?” With the approach of Lent and its call to reflect upon our baptismal commitment to gospel life, we could do worse than to reimagine that call, and spend some time in the forest of the gospel, the forest of life, peace, and solidarity.