Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Being Saved" By One Another

In August, 1964, I was sent, with my newly-ordained classmates, to St. Anthony’s Parish, Detroit, MI, for a year of pastoral training. St. Anthony’s was a large east-side inner city parish, composed of Polish, Italian, Irish, Slovak, and German ethnic minorities. Though predominantly white, the neighborhood was in major transition, with more and more African-American people moving into the area.  About eight months before our coming to St. Anthony’s, the Precious Blood Missionaries, who operated the parish, along with a neighborhood Lutheran pastor, key people from Wayne County Catholic Social Services, the Catholic Youth Organization, and the Protestant Community Services in the area, embarked on a new, ambitious social service experiment: possibly the first of its kind in the nation, known as the Interfaith Community Center, officially launched in October, 1964. 
The idea was, first, to assess the needs of the people in the surrounding neighborhood, then to have agencies based at or working out of the Center address specific needs in a coordinated way. It was so successful that, later, the City of Detroit honored the Center with a Citation of Award recognizing its innovative work. In 1965 The Catholic World publication described the Interfaith Community Center as: “...the one outstanding example in the country of ecumenism in action, rather than [just] in dialogue or in friendship.
The late Fr. Urban Hoorman, C.PP.S., our pastoral training director, recruited us early on, sending us out to take a door-to-door social survey of some 500 of the 1200 neighborhood families. In the few weeks before our classes began, we hit the streets in our collars and black suits to ask questions and gather information using a form designed by the Center.  It would be putting it mildly to say that our awareness of the “real” world was greatly enhanced! Only years later would we begin to appreciate not only the skills we developed, but more importantly the hands-on experience of being immersed in and confronting a radical societal and cultural shift in one of the major urban areas of the U.S.  We met all sorts of people and, predictably, we regaled each other and our mentors at dinner each evening with stories of bizarre humor and deep pathos.  
One day I was walking along the street and a lady was working in her yard.  She saw my collar and stopped me saying, “Can I ask you a question?”  “Of course,” I replied.  “Are you saved?” she bluntly asked. I sensed immediately that she was probably of a more fundamentalist persuasion and that this was a test!  “Why, yes, I believe I am,” I said.  “Well, how can you say that?” she wondered, it being fairly obvious that I was a Catholic priest, and that she was quite convinced that anyone like “that” was a lost soul! Luckily, our Scripture professors in seminary had done a superb job in teaching us, and the fruits of their labors were all stored fresh in our memory banks! Without trying to sound too self-assured, hard for most clergy, but especially for one newly-ordained, I tried to give her a reasoned and thoroughly Scriptural justification for my conviction about my personal salvation.  She listened intently during our short discussion, and in parting allowed, “Well, I can see that you’re a very sincere person.”  Somehow I don’t think my apologia stood the test in her mind, but at least our parting was polite and friendly.
The phrase “Being saved” can have a lot of different meanings. Biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer gives a concise summary of the meaning of salvation, especially as Luke envisions it in his Gospel: "By it”, says Fitzmyer, “he means deliverance of human beings from evil, whether physical, political, cataclysmic, moral, or eschatological, and the restoration of them to a state of wholeness." (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible 31 (Doubleday, 1998, p. 301)
The writer of John’s First Epistle today (1 John 3:16-24), whether John himself, who would’ve been advanced in years at this time, or a writer in John’s tradition, gets right down to the business of describing what our “being saved” by Christ means: “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us... One need only look, not just at Jesus’ death, but at his whole life to see how Fitzmayer’s words about Luke apply here: Jesus delivered human beings from physical, political, cataclysmic, moral, and eschatological evil, restoring us to wholeness through self-giving love. In light of that, the writer of 1 John can also say: “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” I doubt that there’s any more important message for our times than the message of today’s Scriptures, particularly the Epistle.
If, indeed, St. John wrote the First Epistle, he’d had close to 60 years to reflect on the words and actions of Jesus, and on how they applied to his Christian community, particularly in the light of some of the challenges to faith being experienced at the time this Epistle was written. From what we can gather, John’s consistant message was love as embodied in Jesus the Anointed One. He himself had been called “the beloved” disciple, and knew firsthand what a relationship with Jesus felt like. As he grew older he grasped even more deeply how the two-fold invitation which Jesus so often held out to people -- “Love God” and “Love one another” -- was the essence, the foundation of living as a follower of Jesus. 
John’s message continues: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” A more literal translation from the Greek would be: “If anyone has the world's livelihood and sees a brother or sister in need, and shuts off compassion, then how does God's love abide in that person? It’s a message that’s all but lost on the world’s religious and political establishments’ rich and powerful today, the entitled, the have’s, the 1%, who so glibly “talk the talk” publicly, but harden their hearts and stiffen their necks against “walking the walk” as Jesus did, and as John bids his hearers and readers to do.“Word and speech”, according to John, have to be made visible in “truth and action”.
John goes on to say that a sure gauge of whether we have these two things in synch for ourselves is that our hearts will “condemn us” if we don’t. The Greek notion is that what is deepest within us will be bothered, it’ll nag us, if we claim to love, but don’t prove it in how we act. Contrarily, if we do act on what we say we profess, we feel a freedom, a confidence, a “boldness before God”, as John puts it, to ask for anything we need, knowing that God will grant it. Think for a minute about the situation described in the first reading from Acts (4:5-12). , Luke tells us that Peter, John and the former crippled beggar, whom they’d just healed at the Temple’s Beautiful Gate by the power of Jesus’ name, have been arrested and taken into custody. They’re hauled before “rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high priestly family...” Who, but a person totally sure of the saving love of Christ could confront such an assembly with words such as Peter spoke: “...this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified...This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders...‘ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved...That bold and incriminating statement isn’t really posed just against the Jewish leaders, but also against the Roman Empire itself. At that time “salvation” was purported to be the gift which the emperor brought to the empire, as indicated in his imperial title of savior. Peter is directly challenging the empire’s claims in the name of the true Savior.
At the end of John’s passage in the Epistle, he reiterates two things which God expects of us: 1) “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ”, and 2) “love one another”. Those who faithfully do this, he says, “abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” It’s the Spirit which we see at work in Peter as he speaks the truth to power in Acts. It’s the same Spirit by which Jesus, the noble shepherd of today’s Gospel (John 10:11-18), is able to lay down his life for those of his one sheep-herd. In both cases, as John has told us already in the Epistle, it’s all about love: about the self-giving knowing between the Father and Jesus and between Jesus and us, the relationship with God and with one another, the mutual abiding in the love of the Holy Spirit, who enables you and me to love in truth and action, to boldly confront evil wherever it exists, and even to lay down our lives, really or symbolically, for God and for one another.

In 2006 an article entitled “Ties That Bind” appeared in The Christian Century (May 2, 2006, p. 18), written by Stan Wilson, pastor of Northside Baptist Church, Clinton, MS. He related that his church has a unwritten rule never to ignore a member’s basic needs. One evening he asked his Bible study participants why they’d never made this policy, which they all knew to be true, explicit. Why not make official a statement that, no matter how hard it gets, the members will be there for one another. Wilson says that he never got an answer at that Bible study, as if what he suggested was perhaps too embarrassing, or violated an unspoken taboo, or simply reflected fear of the future, or of one another, or of commitment. He goes on to say that he doesn’t doubt that his congregation love one another. He just wanted them to say so. “But”, he says, “voicing our commitment is risky and profoundly countercultural. Our culture runs on fear and disordered desire...What happens if a little congregation breaks the rules and removes the fear by promising to care for one another? 
We might reveal the risen Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep. 
With a living God loose in the world, we might no longer live in fear, and no longer believe that the world runs only when people look out solely for themselves. We might start to look out for one another, and violate one of the cardinal rules of our economic order. 
Easter has been known to evoke robust theological claims and rogue behavior. Peter and John annoyed the rulers and elders and were tossed in jail because they taught that in Jesus there is resurrection for those locked in the fear of death. 
That’s what can happen when people believe that the future is not theirs to secure, but belongs in the keeping of a Good Shepherd. They begin to live without fear. 

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