25 May 2009

Set aside not above

7th Sunday of Easter: Acts 1.17-17, 20-26; 1 John 4.11-16; John 7.11-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Walking the streets of Rome can teach you a lot about negotiation. Walk up the Via del Corso on a Saturday afternoon. Sidewalks jammed with idly strolling citizens. The street choked with wandering tourists lost in their maps. Fashionistas linger in front of the shop windows, damming up traffic, sending thousands into the street to play catch with the taxis. For someone with a destination in mind, a purpose and a goal, taking the del Corso is an adventure in paying attention, dodging threats of bodily harm, and negotiating the perils of polite society. Will that bus stop at the crosswalk? Will the group of trendy ladies in front of me stop suddenly to squeal over a pair of Ferragamo pumps? Do I need to say “excusa” every time I bump into someone? What degree of impatience do I express when zipping past the amorous couple clogging up the sidewalk with their public display of sloppy affection? You have a goal, a purpose; you have a destination and a mission. You don’t have the time or the patience or even the inclination to suffer these social obstacles lightly, to indulge these worldly distractions with anything less than haughty contempt! How often do you sigh in angry exasperation and imagine yourself screaming: “For the love of all that is holy: move!” When you are a Christian and the world you live in is the Via del Corso on a Saturday afternoon, how do you negotiate the traps, the potholes, the slippery curbs? How do you weave through the foot traffic without landing in the street dodging the buses? Do you surrender to the flow, slow your pace, assume your place in the crowd, and hope your destination comes to you? What happens to the urgency of your mission? Your schedule? One vital point to keep in mind when thinking about these questions: as Christians, we are set apart; we are not set above.

Knowing that his time draws near, Jesus commends his people to the Father. Lifting his eyes to heaven, he prays to God: “I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely. I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” What could Jesus mean? Of course, we belong to the world! We need food, drink, clothing. We are as much affected by gravity, the weather, and the passage of time as anyone else. We have jobs, kids, taxes, and all sorts of worldly ties. We are bound to all the physical necessities of living well in our skins. How exactly do we not belong to this world? What sets us apart? In other words, how are we consecrated in truth? And how does this complete our joy in Christ?

Many of the great heresies in Church history are deeply rooted in a distorted view of the relationship between heaven and earth, body and soul, world and Church. Like most heresies, these distortions exaggerate a distinction, mutate a vital difference, and privilege one extreme over another. In the early Church, most heresies exaggerated the spiritual over the material, leaving us with a disembodied Christ and a purely mystical, intellectual faith that proclaimed the evils of the flesh and demanded radical asceticism. Today, we tend to the other extreme, privileging the material and historical, leaving us with a Christ who is just some guy who said some interesting stuff about the need for social change. Among those who saw the world as a place of greed, lust, and gluttony, the only way to combat murderous distraction was to withdraw into the desert to seek out a spiritual purity in extreme practices of bodily mortification. Among those today who see the spiritual, especially the moral, as a kind of straight-jacket, a fuddy-duddy fussing about mythical codes of behavior, the world is a place of license, freedom, unlimited choice. Even among some Christians, the world is to be revered, imitated, and lauded, if not worshiped. What both the desert-dwellers and the world-worshipers fail to see is that the “world” Jesus implicitly condemns is not the material world, the cosmos of stuff and physical law, but that time and place where the powers of rebellion and strife hold sway, the material and spiritual battlefield where obedience to God and the temptation to disobey God compete for our allegiance. This is the world we are in and yet the world we do not belong to.

To be consecrated in the truth in this world is to be set aside by grace to achieve a divine purpose wherever you find yourself. You will not fulfill your divinely gifted purpose by hating the material world and living only for the spiritual. You will not fulfill your divinely gifted purpose by hating the transcendent world and living only in the flesh. We are body and soul. Neither one nor the other wholly without the other. If you are only your soul, then what you do materially is irrelevant to your spiritual growth. Be spiritual! And be as you please. If you are only your body, then what you believe about the spiritual is irrelevant to your material growth. Just do it! And do anything you please. Christians are saddled with a much more difficult task: as embodied souls consecrated in the truth, we are bound materially to a world ruled by sin and obligated to achieve spiritual purity in the midst of physical temptation. What we do materially affects us spiritually. What we believe about spiritual truths affects us materially.

If this is true, and it is, what good does it do us to be consecrated in the truth? We are set aside not above. “To consecrate” means “to aside for a specific purpose.” We consecrate things, people, places. We don’t use the altar as a card table. We don’t use a chalice to chug beer. Priests and religious do not participate in government as elected or appointed officials. As baptized priests, prophets, and kings of the Father’s Kingdom, we are set aside to work toward and achieve a specific goal, an end that perfects us in all His gifts. Notice that Jesus does not say that he has removed us from the battleground of this world. He does not elevate us above it or subject us to it. He does not say that we do not belong in the world. He says that we do not belong TO this world. We are not slaves, citizens, or subjects of the dominion of the Enemy. Our purpose is not defined by the laws of nature or the rules of engagement followed by the Enemy. We are free. We are free from this world in order to be free for this world. Not above the world. Not of this world. But in it and beside it, not belonging to it, but free to show a better way, a divinely gifted Way.

Our joy is completed not by worldly victory or political conquest. We are not given a completed joy by winning elections or getting federal funding. There is no joy in making ourselves slaves to a world we do not belong to. There is no joy in raising ourselves above it all, or fleeing into the desert to watch it all burn. Our consecrated work, our baptismal duty is right in the middle of the mess, squarely centered in the heart of the world, right where the Enemy is strongest. We are chosen to be vessels and conduits of God’s love for the world and to the world not because we are morally superior or spiritually invincible. We are neither. We are chosen because we chose to answer His call to be everything He made us to be in love. A choice anyone can make.

To this world, we are dramatic, pathetic failures. Lost and hopeless zombies driven by superstition and irrational religious mythology. In this world, we can be tragic examples of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and religious zealotry. For this world, we are a comedic scandal that brings salvation and peace. But for this to work, we must be set aside in truth. Engaged but detached. Involved but distant. Who and what we are most fundamentally is found in our end not in the means we use to get there. But our means must always prophesy the truth of the gospel. How else do we witness to our divinely gifted end if not through our divinely gifted means?

We are consecrated in the truth so that our joy may be complete. We are set aside in Christ by Christ so that we may come to him in the end wholly joyful, perfected in love. John writes: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.” Our nearly impossible task is to love God and one another in a world ruled by the Enemy. Tempted though we are by passions unruled by reason, we are set aside for a purpose. That purpose and its pursuit is how we succeed—in our witness, in our ministries, in our duties to Love Himself.

In and beside this world, shining out the love and mercy we have received, we bring our joy to its highest human perfection. Beyond this world, having done as we promised to do, we become Joy, seeing Truth Himself face-to-face.


  1. Whew!
    I'm out of breath...
    I think I held!! my breath - reading this - so engrossed was I.
    WOW... and amen.

    Just thinking... as you said elsewhere, both the prosecutor and the advocate are the same for everyone.

    I'd like to post this next day or two. After I've un-overhauled my office.

  2. Anonymous4:17 PM

    I will need to read this piece one more time, and then, spend time meditating on what it means. Thanks for the respect you show for our intelligence.