Tag Archives: counter-cultural

Second Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth15)

The Self-Giving of the Community is Rooted in the Self-Giving of the Creator. Dennis Ormseth reflects on what it means to “own” property.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

Psalm 133 “speaks of brothers dwelling together in unity,” Ben Witherington III notes. And he likens the condition to the pleasure of a priestly anointment of oil upon the head and beard of Aaron, and to dew falling upon the “mountains of Zion” –-“a major blessing—like the dew that refreshes the plants in and around Jerusalem even in some of the dry times” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003: Easter Through Pentecost, p. 17-18). In reading this psalm on the Second Sunday of Easter, the Christian community thus lays claim for its gathering around our resurrected Lord to a sense of well-being associated in the Hebrew psalmist tradition with the temple in Jerusalem. That this is consistent with the view we have been developing in these comments, namely that in the narrative of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, particularly as presented in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus displaces the temple as the center of life in God’s presence, with significant consequences for the Christian orientation towards creation. This Sunday, other Scriptures from John and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles provide vignettes of life in the post-resurrection community which illumine the nature of this orientation and some of its implications.

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, “dwelling together in unity” is envisioned as a gathering in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. In the first section of the Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples, addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, and then commissions them by the power of the Holy Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. In the second section of the reading, Jesus’ appearance a week later to Thomas serves to reaffirm that the bodily reality of the resurrected Jesus exists in continuity with the body that was crucified. The community of the resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered similarly to reconcile others, will be gathered in the presence of this crucified body and no other.

An important consequence of this gathering in the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus for the community’s orientation to creation is exhibited in the lesson from Acts 4:32-35. This reading provides for contemporary Christians living in such strongly capitalistic societies as ours a strongly counter-cultural illustration of the expectations early Christians had for their communities: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in spite of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully for preachers who have strongly anti-socialist members (or not, given the suspicion directed towards all mildly “socialist” alternatives these days), Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that,

“No one claimed owner’s rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness. . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (Witherington, pp. 16-17).

It is important to note that while participants in this community did not absent themselves from worship in the temple (Acts 2:46), they nevertheless now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God’s grace,” which was fostered by the meal they shared when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ, home bound as it was, maintained in some measure the sense of living in God’s presence previously experienced in the temple.

Readers of our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday will recall our comments there connecting the meal instituted by Jesus on the night of his betrayal with the fundamental experience of the “restoration of human solidarity in membership with both other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.” Participation in the meal, we suggested, provides a “re-orientation to creation” in “that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God.” Quoting Norman Wirzba: “Jesus’ life and death are finally about the transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed.” In the reading from Acts, we see that these expectations have become in some sense normative for the post-resurrection community.

Of particular importance with respect to the orientation of the community to creation is the distinctive attitude toward ownership of property, as we noted above. M. Douglas Meeks provides the following summary of its meaning in his book God the Economist:

“The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 lead to different forms of property. . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (Meeks, p. 113).

Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property, which is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.

God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.

God’s owning, Meeks, concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving. The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (Meeks, p. 114).

It is striking to note that a scriptural basis for the trinitarian foundation of this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday, focused as they are “on dwelling together in unity.” The Gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciple. And in the second lesson of 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their Trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might easily move to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God’s suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday September 4 – 10 in Year C (Carr)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C:  Amy Carr reflects on Luke 14:25-33 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Readings for September 4-10, Series C (2019, 2022)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Sitting down to think about the cost of a venture before beginning it—to see if one can afford the cost—isn’t that what those of us who treasure environmentally-minded use of land wish we would do with more foresight? But the social cost of environmental activism when it is counter-cultural—not merely pragmatic—is also something the gospel reading provokes us to consider. The stakes are even higher when activists are resisting monied and militant forces that value only short-term profit. But as our reading from Deuteronomy reminds us, individual discipleship is ever-entwined with the well-being of all—not just ourselves.

The context that keeps coming to mind to me in recent weeks is the Amazonian forest in Brazil, where a right-wing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, denies the facts of climate change, openly encourages illegal logging, and tries to gut the environmental agencies and polices that are meant to resist deforestation. With so many Brazilians burning down—with impunity—areas of the forest for grazing, ranching, logging, mining, or farmland, many scientists fear the forest is at the tipping point after which the rainforest canopy can no longer sustain itself, drying out the forest and intensifying its vulnerability to burning. And pragmatically speaking, the irony is that farming will suffer without the canopied forest to keep more moisture in the atmosphere—and with more carbon released into the atmosphere through burning, raising temperatures and increasing drought conditions. (For sobering details about what is afoot in Brazil, see “On the brink: The Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point,” The Economist, 8-1-19, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2019/08/01/the-amazon-is-approaching-an-irreversible-tipping-point).

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).

Those of us who teach know that students often do not sit down to estimate how much time they need to read, research, and write to finish a project on time. Few among us resist the pull of immediate short-term pleasure. Even when we resist the temptation of profit by cheating, we might be willing to perform beneath our capacities in order to give our time and attention to something more immediately preferable. And we know we all need Sabbath moments, lily-of-the-field hours.

But here Jesus is calling to discipleship those who have considered the costs of investing in accompanying Jesus, and who know how doing so will strain their ties to family and to the state:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).

Reckoned in terms of green discipleship, those costs range from a commitment to ongoing learning about environmental issues, to finding ways to organize or connect with activist groups or movements, to risking attack or death if one becomes a prominent activist—as many indigenous Brazilian environmentalists have found (such as Emrya Wajãpi, killed on his tribal Amazonian lands by encroaching miners this past July).

And what of those of us who aren’t full-time environmental activists—not full-blown disciples—because we cannot afford to sustain our lives if we did so? Is it enough for us to be in the crowd listening to Jesus’ teachings, then going home and trying to love our neighbors as ourselves—perhaps including our non-human neighbors by writing letters, signing petitions, educating ourselves as we have time—and trying not to despair about how little we as individuals and as a species are doing?

Was Jesus judging those who counted the costs of activism as too high? Those who could not hate their families, in the active sense of breaking with their expectations of our responsibilities to them? Those who did not consciously place themselves in danger of arrest or attack? Or was Jesus simply being matter-of-fact—realistic about how few could meet the challenges of all-in discipleship?

We Protestants have inherited a resistance to making spiritual distinctions of worth among Christians. It reeks too much of the abandoned conviction that monastic life was superior to family life. Yet we too valorize heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was part of a small minority who resisted equating Christian identity with German nationalism.

Deuteronomy offers another perspective on a rightly dedicated life—a perspective addressed in fact to a nation. The well-being of the people and the land depended upon everyone being in sync and harmonizing with the ways of God:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God . . . by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear . . . I declare today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land. . . . .I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. . . (Deuteronomy 30:15-19).

Some hear in this passage the ring of a prosperity gospel, while others worry about the conquest sensibility so abused by European Christian settler colonialists, and which continues to echo no less in Israel and Palestine itself, with its two competing claims to indigeneity. But with the passage in second person plural voice, I hear myself addressed as part of a we—with no possibility of making a choice that could affect only my own status as a disciple.

In its corporate address to its audience as a people, a nation, the voice of God and Moses in Deuteronomy is as pragmatic as it is demanding. If we don’t work together to hear and heed the voice of the living God in matter-of-fact commandments (based, for ecological matters, on scientific understanding of the natural order), then we—people and land—will face collective destruction.

With a choice between collective flourishing and collective collapse, we are pulled towards a longing to harmonize, to synchronize our lives in a path of justice with our neighbors before a God who forces us to consider the consequences of doing otherwise.

If Luke sharpens the introspective focus of the question of the individual call to discipleship, Deuteronomy diffuses that focus to remind us that what is at stake is the good of the whole. We do not need to be against the state or our families, except where they walk in the way of death, the way that curses the possibility of a common life and the well-being of the land we ultimately possess together—or not at all.

Some readers may know of Paul Wellstone, a US Senator from Minnesota who was killed in a plane crash—but not before inspiring many of his students at Carleton, and many who encountered him when he was in office, with a contagious spirit of dedication to the common good. To be in his class on “Grassroots Organizing and Social Change Movements” was to be challenged to the quick to see, to care, and to participate in action to challenge structural injustice. “Why don’t the poor rise up in the streets?” Paul would ask, with prophetic passion. Among his students was a dedicated smaller group of disciples, some of whom were raised in Republican families and wondered out loud if they should or must distance themselves from old friends and families. Paul let students wonder such things, but he exuded a belief in American democracy and in everyone’s potential contribution as a citizen that was Deuteronomic in spirit—even if he spoke with the passion of Jesus calling for more. When my English major friend Deb asked Paul in office hours: “What about someone like me who wants to write children’s book? Can I contribute that way?” Paul declared that of course—there are many ways to contribute to the common good.

In many ways, for all his ability to speak like Amos, Paul (a secular Jew who drew on Jewish and humanist values) was also like the apostle Paul in Philemon—urging a better way in every way he could, appealing to the human heart to move it. As the apostle Paul encouraged Philemon to free the slave Onesimus—granting that the decision was Philemon’s alone, the power in his own hands—so too Paul Wellstone sparked a sense of possibility in those around him, a sense that we really could help to make a difference.

The activists who inspire us are those who “delight in the law of the LORD,” and “meditate” on it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). They perceive the pathway of justice and righteousness amid any current configuration of corruption, oppression, and exploitation. “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm 1:3).

We know that the just do not always prosper in conventional ways; they may have to bear their cross in ways that overtake their earthly lives. But it is prosperity simply to hold steady a vision of the common good, with ever-increasing ecological knowledge, especially in a time when many deny scientific facts.

“The way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6) by its own unsustainability. The question is whether the we all addressed by Deuteronomy will perish along with those who deny the way of God, the laws of ecosystems.

There is no path to hope except when we find closed all loopholes that might lead us to think we will be safe if we but look away. Better then to face Luke’s call to discipleship, Deuteronomy’s command to consider always the good of the whole people and land, and Paul’s creative lure to do the right thing because it tugs on our sense of a possible otherwise.