Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Tangled Up in Love
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Near the beginning of his public ministry in Luke’s gospel, Jesus proclaims a passage from Isaiah and then shockingly concludes this reading with the statement that the prophecy is now fulfilled. What Jesus meant to communicate at that moment we cannot be sure, but we do know that Jesus attempted to live out that prophecy in his life: bringing glad tidings to the poor, offering sight to the blind, and offering freedom from oppression. To fulfill those prophetic actions, though, Jesus first had to live in such a way that his life became intertwined – or entangled – with those very populations. Might that entanglement with others be essential to our mission as followers of Jesus?
January 23, 2022: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm19:8, 9, 10, 15
1 Corinthians 12:12-30
Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
A reflection by John Falcone
This week’s readings call to mind Willie James Jennings – liberation theologian, Yale Divinity Professor of Africana Studies, and Baptist preacher. I’ve been watching his videos recently (I have a bit of an intellectual crush on him; also, I love how he wears his bowties). Jennings frames Christian experience in terms of history, difference, justice, and love. He argues that Christianity must understand itself as a religion of healthy interpersonal, interracial, and intercultural entanglement. (Check out parts one and two of his 2021 Payton Lectures.) Perhaps this message may be exactly what LGBTQ+ believers, allies, and all believers need to hear at this crisis-filled moment. This week’s readings highlight the issues with which Jennings frames our faith. They ask us to consider, “What’s our relationship to the Jewish experience?” and “How does being different fit into God’s vision of justice and love?”
The reading from Nehemiah addresses the Jewish roots of our faith (that is, our history). This pivotal story addresses how the Jewish nation was re-founded, and how the Jewish people were re-introduced to God’s Law. The people have returned to their homeland after generations of exile in Babylon, and they have finally rebuilt Jerusalem. Ezra reads the Torah while others interpret and explain. The listeners are moved to tears. How might we feel at such a moment: hearing God’s vision for justice and peace as it emerges from a tumultuous history? What must it be like to feel at home again, or to be at home for the first time? How many in the LGBTQ+ family know the experience of not being at home in houses or worship, or even in their own bodies? How many in our world today experience this same type of generational exile from their homelands due to war or poverty?
If Nehemiah addresses our history, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians focuses on difference, justice, and love. He presents an extended metaphor about interwoven bodily organs: some are proud, some are humble, but all of them need each other. We are the body of Christ, each different, each deeply connected, each equally to be valued and loved. Our bodily organs, Pauls argues, are hopelessly entangled with one another, as are we as members of Christ’s body. If we are to survive, everyone’s gifts are necessary!
This entanglement is at the core of our faith. Note that God planted the early Christian community at the intersection of Jewish and non-Jewish ways of life. In this week’s gospel, we hear a two-fold selection from Luke. First, (Luke 1:1-4), we hear about the research that went into compiling Luke’s narrative: how the author assembled and sorted interviews and documented sources. Then (4:14-21), we hear Jesus proclaiming Isaiah’s pivotal vision of Jubilee justice: good news to the poor, liberty to the refugees, sight to the blind, and freedom to the incarcerated. Jesus’ homily on this passage is short and shocking: “This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This fulfillment implies that Jesus’ mission is completely entangled with the lives of poor, refugees, disabled, and imprisoned – all people that many in Jesus’ time would have said it was best to avoid!
In fact, the first Christian communities were founded by Spirit-led acts that entangled radically different people and communities: not just individually, but in their cultures, their histories, and their full-bodied practices. Consider the issue of eating together. In the First Century ce Roman Empire, sharing food was a key form of care and of mutual respect. Specifically, sharing food that had been blessed and offered to idols was a central part of everyday practice, from celebrating national holidays to participating in neighborhood festivals to negotiating at a business lunch. In addition, Roman policy mandated that idols of Rome or the Emperor must also be honored at these kinds of meals. For many Jews, both inside and outside of Roman-occupied Palestine, these behaviors were ethically, politically, and religiously unacceptable. In turn, many others throughout the Empire viewed this Jewish reticence as anti-social, unpatriotic, and irreligious. Why couldn’t they just eat, act, and pray like everyone else?
The New Testament describes how early Christians wrestled with loving entanglement. In Acts chapter 10, Peter receives a vision from heaven where Jesus tells him that nothing is “unclean.” Peter reacts strongly against Jesus’ message, but immediately afterward, a group of Gentiles is filled with God’s Spirit, and they begin speaking in tongues. In the end, Peter decides that he has no choice but to baptize them. Peter realizes that no difference can keep people or communities from joining together when they are led by the Spirit in love. (Might Acts 10 describe the true “birthday of the Church”? After all, at Pentecost, in Acts 2, it is exclusively Jews “from every nation under heaven” who visit Jerusalem, hear the Apostles, and are baptized.)
The early followers of Jesus – deeply different yet drawn to love one another – struggled to negotiate their racial, cultural, and very physical mixing. They struggled to pray with each other, to eat with each other, and to share political, economic, and everyday life. Unfortunately, within a few generations, Gentile cultural dominance and a growing sense of anti-Judaism overshadowed their challenging work of entanglement. But as LGBTQ+ people can testify, the pull to get lovingly tangled up in each other, across every barrier of difference, is a divine calling that can never be quenched.
In this fractured and crisis-filled moment, the work of good, healthy, loving entanglement remains difficult and urgent. God calls us to be connected to one another, without erasing our own insights and experiences, or anyone else’s. God calls us to take other people seriously, to see life, history, and social issues through their eyes. God calls us to fall in love with all God’s creations – our fragile selves, precious human and non-human siblings, and the precariously balanced ecosystems that hold us together. God calls us to challenge injustice with courage, and yet, to approach with patience those with whom we differ. Our experience shows us there is always some wound or some unmet need that lies beneath people’s fury or fear.
What can we do to get better entangled in the lives of our family members, our next-door neighbors, and our fellow human beings? What can lesbian-, gay-, cis-, and straight-identified people do to get better entangled in the lives of our trans and queer siblings – especially those who are younger than us? What can trans, queer, and young people do to get better entangled in the lives of their (often clumsy and uninformed) possible allies? Can you think of one person of a different race or political orientation that you might become better entangled with? What’s the first step that you might take to create such a healthy entanglement?
We Christians of the West have a long history of absorbing and erasing those who are different: Jews, peoples, and cultures we colonized, Native Americans, and others. But looking back on our origin stories uncovers a different way to live out our faith. The Spirit calls us to love others by feeling-with and seeing-with them – not just individually, but by getting tangled up in their cultures, histories, and ways of life. …
It’s time to get better entangled.
John P. Falcone is a practical theologian, religious educator, and a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed (PhD, Boston College). He has been a Dignity member for more than 20 years with close links to Dignity NY, where he met his husband Matias Wibowo in 2005. He is currently Theologian-in-Residence at St. Matthew’s Bethnal Green (Church of England) in London’s East End.