Perhaps it surprises us that at the tail end of the Easter liturgical season we hear of Jesus’ praying for our protection. Why would we need protection? The First Epistle of Peter answers the question and calls us to be alert, for the adversary seeks whom to devour.
That sounds like hard spiritual work, to be so alert. But it is a spiritual work that is grounded in our relationships of human to human. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.”
Loving the neighbor is hard spiritual work. Much of the difficulty in so loving is because we fear release from the prisons of ourselves. I’ve often said to you that loving the neighbor as yourself is not necessarily good news for the neighbor. Taylor illumines why. Her point is so very insightful. Being imprisoned in ourselves is so, so debilitating. To us. To neighbors. To society. And yet it is the greed that drives us to feed and inflate ourselves inside our prisons that would destroy us and society together. We do not take the time to discern with spiritually astute rationality this disconcerting truth. We may pride ourselves on ROI rationality. But we don’t reason in the higher terms of ROSI: Return On Spiritual Investment. And that opens the way for evil to look normal.
Consider today’s politics. The federal administration’s proposed budget intends to shred the social safety net by cutting over $1 trillion dollars. Marv Knox, the editor of The Baptist Standard, no snowflake liberal he, sees three possible scenarios should these cuts in some way remain intact. 1) The administration’s plan not only balances the budget, but also wildly stimulates the economy. People don’t need a safety net, because they’re getting by on their own and Christians can celebrate that both country and God are great. 2) The administration’s program fails, but the church saves the day. Christian charity flourishes in all possible ways. God gets the glory for our spiritual and financial generosity and America experiences a revival it has not seen in generations. 3) The administration’s program fails and the church does not show up. The federal safety net shreds as planned. People suffer without alleviation and blame the 81% of the evangelicals and other Christians who supported this platform. The sufferers conclude that Christians did them in. And history repeatedly shows that this third scenario is the most likely. So writes evangelical Marv Knox. The so-called “nones” already make this judgment.
But Mr. Knox does not write merely of politics. Nor is my preaching here merely political. Simply put, it is distinctly anti-Christian to treat the neighbor as a cipher primarily for personal gain. Worse, so to mistreat any fellow human is to deny Christ, who identifies always with the “least of these.” The care of the neighbor—including each other—is the most spiritual thing we can do because Christ born human, died human, rose human and ascended human is now incarnate in the neighbor. That’s what the ascension means (it is the upshot of what theologians call the communicatio idiomatum). It is heresy to think otherwise.
The popular interpretation that “spirituality” is about some disembodied oneness with divine truth that has nothing to do with other flesh and blood human beings could not be more wrong. Love of God and neighbor—with all one’s mind and all one’s heart!—is an essentially spiritual responsibility. But there are awful forces set against God’s will. These forces may look “just political.” They are not. To dismiss and separate “the political” from religious faith is the first way the rebellious spiritual powers and principalities try to deceive us. When Paul in Romans speaks of the “elemental spirits and principalities of the world,” he means the systems by which the powerful authorities everywhere collude to extract well-being from the vulnerable to inflate their own lives. When Paul names these powers he also calls for smart Christian discernment on behalf of the suffering neighbor. We see the same impetus in Peter’s words today. Evil sneaks and stalks around—usually covertly through back channels and obfuscating systems of collusion—but finally outs itself as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Dearest sisters and brothers, we’ve known these attacks personally. We’ve seen how evil systems deny us and our loved ones the wholeness we need when physical and emotional illness attack us and our beloved. Even we privileged ones (!) have suffered from a social service deficit and a heartless spirit outside us that is much more than a “state of mind.” We’ve personally met the cold spirit that occupies offices like they did Enron’s, over-leveraged banks, and desperate mortgage companies. The same malevolent spirit lurks and links for-profit prison systems with immigration policy and denial of voting rights. Now even federal funding goes to impersonal for-profit meal delivery programs at 50% more than non-profit Meals-on-Wheels programs distinguished by human interaction. The federal “help” here clearly puts profits above the human good. Greed and malevolence happily, if secretly, connect plutocrats in Moscow and New York and DC and other habitations all over the globe, and they go to the greatest lengths to hide the documents that prove their evil. Networked like a spider’s dark web, they vibrate excitedly with cunning to weave their web yet tighter. Be not deceived. The guilty are those who put money above humanity and partisan identities do not matter. Sin is an equal-opportunity jailer.
How will we not fall to fear? How do we respond faithfully and effectively? First, know that the only fully human being who has taken evil’s onslaught, resisted it, and overcome it, is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ prays that God protect God’s own in the world. Jesus prays for us and God answers positively what Jesus asks. God has your back. God has the back of Christians who carefully discern and boldly resist the evil that the elemental powers and principalities wage against God’s people.
Since God has our backs, since we are set free from the prisons of ourselves by the holy imprimatur of the Spirit’s cross on our baptized brows, we now double down on discerning what’s happening in the world and it’s not just political. It is a spiritual battle of love vs. greed, whose close kin is hate. We double-down to separate the wheat of justice from the chaff of hateful self-interest. We double down again to put the chaff to the purifying fire of God.
This doubling-down of faith active in love means not only on this Memorial Day that we practice the selfless conviction of veterans who died for the human rights of all. It is up to us now with the genuinely Christian principle of neighborly love to understand, name, resist, and replace what harms the neighbor. And the networked neighbors who know not their enslavement to the evil powers and principalities need our shrewd love too, even if they do not allow themselves yet to be freed from their own prisons.
Double down on God’s love. Double down to see clearly what the powers and principalities try to hide. Double down on doing the good, however best and fitting you in your situation can so do. And if you should think that you do not have the energy for it, that all this is just too much to ask for, just wait for it: wait for the fusion fire of God’s presence as with a Pentecost, when all God’s people are fully spirited with Christ’s humanity. But since the odds are we cannot wait, Christ prayer and giving of himself sustains us; he gives himself really, divinely, and humanly (!) even now. It is his own-doubling down until the promised Holy Spirit sweeps us off our feet into deeper love for each other near and far. Amen.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX