Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (2 Corinthians 13:11-12
It’s often said that context is everything. I don’t believe that anything is that absolute except God – only God is everything – but it is true that the context in which Paul wrote and the very different context in which we read his words today make a lot of difference to how we hear him.
Take, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” There will be no greeting of one another with kisses, holy or otherwise, hugs, or even handshakes for a long time to come, and Paul would agree that it is right to refrain from such things as would harm the most vulnerable in our community, as he writes elsewhere to the same church of Corinth,
Take care that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to your neighbour. (1 Corinthian 8:9, paraphrased)
And there’s the rub. What is a Christian church to do when “agree with one another, live in peace,” runs up against, “Take care that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to others.” I want to be careful here to acknowledge that I’m taking this verse out of context, too. Paul was concerned for Christians taking their first steps in faith, those who might need some extra support. But what if those others whom we shouldn’t cause to stumble include also the vulnerable in health, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the attacked? What if it includes not only the weak, but those who are powerful, but put upon; not only the uncertain, but those who are faithful, but crucified?
What if my liberty, my peace, come at the cost of my brother’s life?
That is the context in which we read Paul’s letter today: one in which the realities of racism in this country’s very structure have once more been laid bare. On this Wear Orange weekend, when we lament and mourn the scourge of gun violence, we find that we are suddenly protesting all sorts of violence, and we are recognizing at last, or again, or with every breath that racism is a form of violence. From the disparities in health outcomes from birth to last breath, to police brutality, discriminatory justice, to the slights on the street, and even sometimes in so-called polite conversation, my liberty, my health, my status, my benefit of the doubt, my privilege has become a stumbling block to others.
So how can I preach, “Listen to my appeal, agree with one another [which always means, agree with me], live in peace,” in a context such as this, while Jeremiah prophesies?
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14)
In the beginning, when God began to create, the world was formless and void, desolate and empty, except for the raging, chaotic, deep waters on the other side of nothing. And God called forth out of the chaos a new creation: first light and darkness, night and day, the moon and the sun. But even God did not quell the chaos all at once. Instead, God saw how it could be shaped into something new and good – at least that’s one interpretation of the story.
And it took time, and a succession of steps, because God is not hasty. God didn’t want to lay a mere veneer of created order over the chaos, but truly to transform it into something good, something very good.
This is not an argument for ignoring the urgency of our moment. It doesn’t argue for allowing chaos to breed violence rather than the creation of a new life. But it does argue for paying attention to what is being called out of the chaos, what new thing could make something truly good come out of it, rather than papering over the mess and hoping the glue holds, rather than seeking to diminish the grief of our people by saying, “Peace, now; peace,” where there is no peace.
I am not great at this work, I have to admit. I have a deep need to be liked and to be recognized for doing the right thing. That ego is an obstacle to digging into my misunderstandings and lack of awareness of the experience of my siblings, sisters, and brothers of all stripes; and if I will not dig deep, how can I have compassion with them? Not for them, but with them.
But Christ calls me to repentance. If I am to call myself a Christian, I have to do the work.
The risk of discovering where I have been wrong, where I have allowed the assumptions of society to blind me to injustice, where I have participated in the polite slights of everyday conversation and diminished the dignity of another human being – that risk is real, and uncomfortable. It is easier to dress the wound, paper over the cracks, say “let us just agree and be at peace.” But that is not repentance, and that will not bring about the new creation, the kingdom, some say the kin-dom, of God.
And really, what is the discomfort of my conscience compared to the death of a man like George Floyd, or a woman like Breonna Taylor, or a child like Tamir Rice? What are my tears compared to the burning of tear gas, or the bitterness of a mother’s grief?
In the beginning, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit swept, hovered, brooded over the deep waters of chaos. The Revd Dr Wilda C. Gafney puts it this way in Womanist Midrash:
She, the Spirit of God, She-who-is-also-God, at the dawn of creation fluttered over the nest of her creation at the same time as He, the more familiar expression of divinity, created all. (Gafney, 20)
Outside my window at home just now there is a nest. It’s a little hard to see what’s happening in there, but from the comings and goings, I suspect that there are eggs. It will take a couple of weeks for any new life to hatch out of them. It will take a couple weeks more before any young fledglings are ready for their first flight out. In the meantime, their parents brood and flutter in and out, tending to the new creation that is almost ready to break out.
So the Spirit of God hovers over us, watching us struggle to grow against the edges of our shells, almost ready to break out into some new understanding, some new way of living, almost ready to fly…
Keep the faith, dear ones; be strong in faith. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Love your neighbour. Love the image of God within them. And the God of love and peace will be with you, fluttering and brooding over you, until the end of the present age, into the new creation, and beyond.
Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Know Press, 2017)