Writing for Sojourners, biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann (“From Anxiety and Greed to Milk and Honey,” February 2009) contrasts our culture with the culture of the Kingdom. Our culture is characterized by autonomy (American individualism), anxiety and greed. As Francis of Assisi warned us, “If you have possessions, you will have to have arms to defend them.” Even if we do not personally resort to arms when it comes to our possessions, we are anxious about what we shall eat and wear and save. “Beset by anxiety” we get caught up in consumerism and acquisitiveness. Thus, autonomy, anxiety and greed permeate our culture and direct our lives.
Bruggemann identifies the values of the Kingdom. Covenantal existence replaces autonomy. Today’s reading from Acts is a dramatic example of covenantal community in the early Christian communities, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”
Bruggemann writes, “Biblical faith is an invitation away from autonomy to covenantal existence that binds the self to the holy, faithful God and to neighbors who are members in a common economy.”
Trust in the abundance of God replaces anxiety. “Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.” God keeps giving. Manna in the desert was a sign of God’s providence and care. Jesus’ feeding of thousands on several occasions was yet another sign of God’s care.
As part of the planning team for the Ecumenical Good Friday Walk in Melbourne, I had the privilege of meeting and working with Art Bourgeois, an elder at The Tabernacle Community in Melbourne. At the end of our debriefing meeting, Art humbly and with his characteristic gentleness of spirit, asked us for prayer for his wife and for himself. Art told us they do not believe much in medical procedures. They do trust in God. God had looked after them so well for so long—they know that God will continue to care for them. As I heard his powerful witness, I said to myself, “I wish my contemplative experience of God were so deep and abiding.” Art and his wife, Ann, know the abundance of God of which Bruggemann speaks.
Finally, Bruggemann replaces greed, one of the deadliest of sins, with generosity. Again, in today’s reading from Acts we see generosity in action:
Thus Joseph, also named by the Apostles Barnabas (which is translated “son of encouragement”), a Levite, a Cypriot by birth, sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the Apostles.
We hear and see (sometimes darkly). We know what Jesus expects of us. We know the price of discipleship but often are reluctant to pay the price. We are like the tight wire walker with a wheelbarrow. After he had crossed the canyon, an admirer urged him to repeat the feat. When the admirer kept insisting that he recross the canyon, he finally said “OK. Get in the wheel barrow.”
We, like Nicodemus, are reluctant to get into the wheel barrow, to commit fully to the Kingdom. We sing and pray on Sunday and dismiss the call to covenantal existence, trust in God’s abundance, and generosity as religious pablum during the rest of the week in the “real world.” Kingdom values are unrealistic. They will not work in a world of greed. All too often we agree with Gecko in Wall Street, “Greed is good.”
Nicodemus was holding back. He came under the cover of darkness. He was from the very group that was attakcing Jesus and what he stood for. He comes to Jesus right after Jesus had said that he did not need the approval of the religious leaders. Nicodemus resists, “How can a man be born again?” Jesus is trying to tell him that he must adopt new values, a new life style, a new way of seeing. He must eschew worldly power and the trappings of power and come into the light. Wes Howard-Brooke tells us to see this story in the context of the Johannine community for which it was written. They want the Judeans to give up their values and embrace Kingdom values. They want them to get into the wheel barrow.
Merton warns us about the excesses of the false self and rugged individualism. Contemplation grounds us in God so that we can love and trust, so that we can be born again.
Being born again means more than answering an altar call. Having heeded the call, we must then do something. We must live in covenantal community. We must trust in the abundance of God. And we must be generous.
One aside on covenantal community—so much of our political discourse, uncivil as it is, is about WIFM (what’s in It For Me?) when it should be about living in covenantal community. We are all one in the Creator. We are called to solidarity and the serving the common good, not our own individualistic, autonomous needs.
During the Vatican Council, a group of Latin American bishops got it. They met in the catacombs and came away from their deliberations with a new understanding of Gospel discipleship (http://ncronline.org/news/justice/urgent-need-return-being-church-poor). They pledged to return to their people and to live in poverty. They would eschew all the trappings of office and power. They would shed their flowing robes and cappa magnas.
Speaking about Romero in this context, Sobrino said:
At Puebla Archbishop Romero got to know those same bishops who had signed the Pact in Medellín, and he returned to San Salvador quite happy, as he relates: “I remember one of the first nights during the Puebla meeting, when I met Bishop Helder Câmara and Bishop Proaño and Cardinal Arns of Brazil. When they learned that I was the archbishop of San Salvador, they would tell me, ‘You have a lot to tell us. Be aware that we already know that that people of yours is admirable. May they remain faithful to the Gospel, as they have been until now.” The admiration they felt for Archbishop Romero was obvious, as was that he felt for them. Dom Helder Câmara was one of the principal animators of that prophetic group.
Nowadays, in our convulsed situation, we profess the continuing urgency of those social, political, and ecclesial dreams, which we can in no way renounce. We continue to reject neo-liberal capitalism, the neo-imperialism of money and arms, and the free-market economy of consumerism, which sinks the great majority of humankind into poverty and hunger. And we continue to reject all discrimination for reasons of gender, culture, or race. We demand a substantive transformation of the international organisms (UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc.). We commit ourselves to living a “profound and integral ecology,” promoting agrarian policies that are a true alternative to the predatory policies of large estates, monoculture, and toxic chemicals. We gladly participate in the social, political, and economic transformations that have as their goal a “high intensity” democracy.
As Church, we want to partake, in the light of the Gospel, of that consuming passion of Jesus, the Kingdom. We want to be a Church that opts for the poor, a community that is ecumenical and also macro-ecumenical. The God in whom we believe, the Abba of Jesus, can in no way be the cause of fundamentalism, harsh exclusion, possessive inclusion, or proud proselytizing. It is enough that we make of our God the only true God. “Does my God let me see God?” With all the respect due the opinion of Pope Benedict XVI, interreligious dialogue is not only possible, it is necessary. We will make of ecclesial co-responsibility the legitimate expression of adult faith.
Correcting long centuries of discrimination, we will demand full equality for women in the life and the ministries of the Church. We will encourage the liberty of our theologians and recognize their service. We will make the Church a network of praying, prophetic communities of service which bear witness to the Good News of life, liberty, and joyful communion. We will preach a Good News of compassion, welcome, pardon, and tenderness; we will be Samaritans on all the roadsides of humankind.
We will continue to insist that Jesus’ warning be lived out in ecclesial practice: “It shall not be so among you” (Matthew 21,26). Let authority be service. The Vatican will cease to be a state, and the Pope will no longer be head of a state. The Curia will be thoroughly reformed, and the local churches will promote inculturation of the Gospel and sharing of ministry. The Church will be committed, without fear or evasiveness, in the great causes of justice and peace, in the struggles for human rights and the recognition of the equality of all peoples. There will be a prophecy of proclamation, of denunciation, and of consolation.
They got it. Maybe someday, the rest of the leaders will get it. Like Nicodemus, the faithful—bishops, priests and the non-ordained—need to get into the wheel barrow. We all need to come out of the dark and into the Light of Christ.