Every Christian, and every congregation that professes to be part of the body of Christ, is ultimately concerned with two things. There are many other particular concerns, but I believe it’s absolutely necessary to be able to make a direct connection between each one of those other concerns and the first two. If we cannot make a direct connection between our many particular concerns and the first two, then those other concerns are a distraction from our mission and ministry as part of the body of Christ, they’re an obstacle to our having the abundant life Jesus came to offer, and we need to seriously ask ourselves why we’re giving them our attention.
Our two primary concerns are these: first, to embody the gospel Jesus proclaimed, the good news that our waiting is over and the reign of God on earth has begun (Mark 1:14-15); and second, to share that good news with as many people as possible so they can learn to embody the good news in their own lives (Matt. 28:19-20). Everything we do needs to serve one of these two primary concerns: living the good news in our lives, and sharing the good news with others so they can live it in theirs.
When the early church was ready to begin its ministry, the first thing Jesus told them to do was wait. “Stay where you are,” he said, “until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49b). Don’t try to do my ministry, he said, until you have my power. And then it happened. On the day of Pentecost, they received the power of the Holy Spirit, the power they had been promised, the power they needed, the power they were waiting for, and they were ready to begin their ministry (Acts 2:1-21).
We usually talk about the fire of Pentecost. “Divided tongues, as of fire, resting on each of them” is the way Luke describes it, so we dress the church in red and depict the flames of the Spirit. But when I read the scriptures closely, Pentecost and the beginning of the church’s ministry seems less about burning and more about hearing. The first thing that happened when the Spirit was given to the church was that they heard “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” (Acts 2:2), then they began to speak (v. 4), and then they began to hear each other (v. 6).
I believe each and every one of us – no matter who we are, where we come from, or what social or spiritual language we speak – is a word spoken by God, a unique expression of the deepest, most creative energy of the cosmos. According to Jeremiah, God has written on the heart of every person the deepest principles by which creation is formed and sustained (Jer. 31:33-34).
Our best and most abundant life is lived, our highest hopes are realized, and our deepest hungers are satisfied when our outer lives are in harmony with the divine principles that are written on our hearts. One of our two ultimate concerns as Christians is to express, perhaps for the first time, who we really are, who God is creating us to be. All of our personal spiritual disciplines – prayer, study, devotional practices, acts of mercy – have as their aim the hearing and the expressing of the word God has written on our hearts and embodying that word in our daily living.
I also believe that we are called into a “deep listening” to the divine principle of life that is written on the heart of every other person, especially on the hearts of those who are radically different from us, even those we call “enemy.” We are called to love them, we are called to value them, we are called to pray for them, because they, too, carry the divine law that make us all whole, without which we cannot be whole.
God said to Jeremiah that we will no longer teach one another to know God, for we shall all know God, from the least of us to the greatest (Jer. 31:34). Everyone around us carries a divine principle of life that we need to hear. When we are empowered by God’s Spirit, we will be able to hear in each other person, beyond our differences, the truth that sets us free and reconciles us to God. Our ministry as the body of Christ is to help others hear the divine truth they carry in their hearts, and it is to help them live that truth authentically and uniquely.
When we express freely what God has written on our hearts, and when we hear and honor what God has written on the hearts of every other person, then the work of God, the reconciliation of all things to God (2 Cor. 5:19), is accomplished. We are reunited with all people in the household of God.
You may have heard the story of the rabbi who was teaching his students about the finer points of Jewish law, and he asked them how they could tell when night ended and day began. One student said, “You can tell when night ends and day begins when you can look across the valley and tell the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree.” “Wrong!” the rabbi said. Another student said, “You can tell when night ends and day begins when you can distinguish a sheep from a goat on the far hillside.” “Wrong!” the rabbi said. A third student ventured, “You can tell when night ends and day begins when you can shoot an arrow into the air and see where it lands.” “Wrong again!” the rabbi said. No one said anything more until one student asked, “So tell us, rabbi, how can you tell when night ends and day begins?” And the rabbi said, “When you can look into eyes of anyone you meet and see into that person’s heart, and you recognize that person as your brother or sister, then you will know that the night has ended and the day has begun.”
These ruminations were first delivered at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Tonawanda, New York, on 9 June 2019.