May 15, 2011
Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly
I Peter 2:19-25
This Sunday’s lectionary readings can be interpreted through the lens of John 10:10, whose words may be quite countercultural in our current era of personal, congregational, and political scarcity thinking. “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” Today’s moderate and progressive Christians are constantly receiving messages of gloom and doom – shrinking budgets, program cutbacks, marginalization, and the demise of the institutional church as we’ve known it. While a good dose of realism and bottom thinking is necessary for healthy personal and institutional life, Jesus’ mission statement, recorded in John 10:10 suggests a deeper, open-system realism in which the limitations become the womb of possibilities. In the midst of concrete and finite situations, we are always receiving the input of divine presence, possibility, and energy. In a world of fear and scarcity, we can live with a sense of abundance. This is, first, a matter of interpretation that, then, leads to action and mission.
In your world and the world of your congregation, what does abundant life mean? Where do you and your congregants experience real or perceived scarcity? What would happen in your congregation if folks believed God’s energies and possibilities were present amid the concrete limitations of time, talent, and treasure? In a global context, how might we understand Jesus’ vision of abundant life?
Acts 2 presents the vision of a church that lives by abundance. While this may be a romanticized description of the early church, the portrayal of the early church as a community joining mysticism and mission still serves as a polestar for our own Christian communities. “Awe” and “signs and wonders” characterized each new day. The community expected great things from God and equally great things from themselves. Clearly, the experience of signs and wonders was connected not only with the lively presence of God’s Spirit in the Jerusalem church but with the everyday practices of personal and community life. Acts 2 presents Christian community as a laboratory for vital and life-changing Christian spiritual practices.
Briefly put, Christian practices are daily disciplines, regularly repeated, that awaken us to the abundant life God envisions for us. Our practices don’t create God’s grace or awaken God’s energetic possibilities for ourselves and our communities, but they open us to embracing these energies. Practices create a “thin place,” or “field of force” in which both God and human beings can be more active in living their respective visions for personal and planetary life. More than that, practices align our vision with God’s vision, enabling us to create a vision in synch with God’s aim for us moment by moment and over the long haul. (For more on Christian practices see, Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us.)
Acts 2 suggests a variety of Christian practices, all related to and edifying one another. The Jerusalem church was a place that joined prayer, worship, generosity, hospitality, study, praise, communion, and grateful consumption. The barriers between self and other were broken down. In the spirit of Paul’s description of the “body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12), members of the community recognized that their well-being was connected with the well-being of others. Rather than being imprisoned by the solitary and isolated self, their “self-understanding” was relational and communal.
Acts 2 is countercultural, at least, in some quarters. Many of my relatives who lived through the depression claimed: “we weren’t poor; we just didn’t have any money.” They lived full lives, often giving to others in need, despite their own economic insecurity. They knew nothing of Ayn Rand’s rugged self-made, scorn the poor and working class, individualism. Like the early church, they knew that we were all in this together and that in giving we also received. What is lacking in much of today’s political and economic dialogue is a sense of generosity. Ayn Rand’s isolated ego, so popular today among Tea Party members and conservative politicians, is constantly anxious, worried about scarcity, unable to trust the good will of others, or sacrifice that others may live. Other peoples’ prosperity and success is always a potential threat to our own. While creativity and entrepreneurial behaviors are consistent with Christian faith, our creativity is never solitary. Those who prosper, who build institutions, or forge new ways of looking at the universe stand on the shoulders of their predecessors as well as their employees. Abundance thinking promotes the well-being of others as a way of maximizing my own well-being.
Acts 2 presents the vision of a symbiotic community in which everyone has enough because everyone is willing to share. Private property is never fully private; its use is accountable to the needs of the larger community. Generosity leads to personal stature and the growth of self-interest from individualism to include the health and success of others. This generosity is not accidental but emerges from a life of prayer, worship, study, hospitality, and praise. Our abundance contributes to and is enhanced by the abundance, even strangers, experience.
It is with good reason that Psalm 23 is often read at Christian funerals. Amid visions of green pastures, there is the reality of conflict and threat. But, more significantly, Psalm 23 proclaims the presence of God who guides, refreshes, sustains, nurtures, and protects. People of faith are not immune to serious illness, tragedy, economic insecurity, and natural disaster. Psalm 23 is not a manifesto for the “prosperity gospel.” Still, it presents a vision of divine abundance amid all that we perceive as threatening and diminishing. It proclaims that in the hospice that while there may not be a cure, there can be a healing of spirit and sense of peace. It reminds us that we can still sing and experience the joy of God’s companionship (see Acts 16:25) in adverse situations. It invites us to see possibility when others see dead ends. Psalm 23 proclaims God’s abundant presence amid all that would frighten us. The Psalm implicitly invites us to look beyond the needs of the individual ego to discover an ever-flowing stream of energy and possibility to sustain ourselves and our neighbors.
At first glance, I Peter 2:19-25 suggests a form of substitutionary atonement out of vogue among progressive and moderate Christians. The passage appears to celebrate the “virtue” of quietly enduring pain and willingness to suffer unjustly. The passage reminds us that Jesus’ own suffering on the cross is a model we should embrace. Perhaps to soften the scripture, the lectionary committee has omitted the reference to household slaves in verse 18. Frankly, I would include it in the text today, both to challenge the theology of the passage and to more holistically note the passage’s context. If you choose to address this text – and if it’s read in church, you must address it – you need to ponder what gospel word – what good news - can emerge from this passage to people today. To be responsible, you must read it from the perspective of those who still face oppression and marginalization in our time. This may take some imaginative thinking, but an honest pastor must be imaginative and explore positions other than her or his own to be faithful to the gospel.
First, we need to challenge a theology that accepts the authority of oppressors, whether they are gentle or violent. Perhaps, early Christian slaves had no choice in the matter. Powerless to change their social location, they needed a sense of stoic detachment and hope for eternal life. This is no longer acceptable; nor was it acceptable then. While we may choose to suffer, we should not embrace suffering. Rather, our task as Christians is to eliminate needless and unredemptive suffering. We do not need to embrace the way of the cross unless we find that suffering is necessary – as Jesus did – to achieve a greater good for others and for ourselves. Jesus chose to suffer so that we might have more abundant life and so that others might not be forced to follow the way of the cross.
Second, we need to recognize that suffering is part of life, and cannot be avoided. Mortality is the lot of everything we love. Finding a vision of reality that enables us to face suffering with grace, dignity, and peace of mind is part of the spiritual journey. Such spiritual equanimity is a gift of grace, but it is also the gift of spiritual practices that nurture a sense of self-transcendence and hope beyond the present moment or the affairs of the isolated ego.
Third, we can affirm in light of Jesus’ suffering, described in this passage, the importance of sacrifice for personal growth and communal well-being. Sacrifice, grounded in freedom and creativity, is essential to healthy relationships. On a everyday level, we sacrifice a good night’s sleep to care for an infant who awakens in the night. We give up a vacation so that an out of work neighbor might pay her or his mortgage. We stand vigil at the bedside of a spouse with Alzheimer’s as an act of love. Sacrifice can be a gift of self-transcendence; of a sense of a larger self whose well-being is connected with the well-being of others. This sacrifice may also involve taking risks to secure justice, fight oppression, and minimize suffering. Our calling is not to bear or witness unnecessary suffering silently but whole-heartedly and gracefully confront unjust and harmful situations. This can be costly to us, but such sacrifices open up new possibilities for justice, equality, well-being, and joy.
At first glance, John 10 appears to separate the sheep and the goals and perpetuate a type of Christian exclusivism and superiority. It describes certain persons as thieves and bandits. These are strong words. They imply a judgment that some spiritual leaders are inauthentic or harmful to those who follow them. While we ought not to rush to judgment, the relativity of theological location and the limitations of all theological systems need not lead to relativism. While confessing our own theological limitations, we can humbly challenge certain theologies, spiritual practices, economic theories, and lifestyle advice as harmful to our communities and to the larger world. Pluralism of perspective need not paralyze us or silence our voices in the spiritual, theological, and political marketplace. There are times that we need to proclaim, “But as for me and my house,” we will follow another path.
In light of Jesus’ mission statement, proclaiming his vision of abundant life for all, John 10:1-10 can be read as a testimony to divine love for all creation. Yes, we may go astray. Yes, there are spiritual leaders whose teachings and practices can harm their followers. Yes, danger abounds in the economic and political marketplace. But, God is calling us toward wholeness individually and in community. Our practices, described in Acts 2, help us hear the shepherd’s voice and find pathways that are both safe and adventurous.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is availabale for lectures, seminars, and retreats.