So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Eph. 4: 11-13
Many decades ago, when I began teaching for the first time, our school, as many, grouped the classes of students according to their placement on the entrance exam. In my first year, one of my classes, perhaps my favorite, was the designated “lowest” of the freshman classes. At some point during the year during one of our class discussions, a number of the students told me that one of the books we were reading was too difficult for them. As I attempted to pursue with them what the difficulty was, several of them spontaneously expressed the common sentiment “because we’re stupid.” When I asked them why they would say this, they replied that people were always telling them that. It became clear that for some of them, they were “living up,” or perhaps “living down,” to their reputation. As a beginning teacher, I realized at that moment how important it was not to give an identity to others, but to try to foster in them the possibility of discovering, appreciating, and living out the unique gift for the world that each of them is. Many decades later I think of many of these students with the greatest fondness, and I hope that they have been able to give the gifts that are theirs to their families and to the world. Although they did not have the highest of test scores, their very presence was a gift to me in the life and light and emotional intelligence that it radiated.
Today’s reading from Ephesians reminds us of what it means to be a human person and what our life is for. The Xaverian Fundamental Principles echo the same teaching:
You were created by the God of love
in His image and according to His likeness,
to be a unique expression of that love.
It is through you
that He desires to manifest His love
to the peoples of the world in these times,
and to offer them the freedom
of the children of God.
Every human life is a unique mission in and for the world. In faith, we believe that we are all different for a Divine purpose. The body of Christ becomes “mature” to the degree that each of its members realizes, that is makes real, the gift that he or she is for the world. There is much mystery here, because the direction for the maturing of that body, in ourselves and among us all, is known only to God. We discover our own mission, and so deepest identity, as we attempt to offer it in service, to give it away. If this is true of ourselves, how much more true is it of others. As a parent, or a sibling, or a teacher, or a friend, or a spouse, or as a mere acquaintance, the call, the gift, the unique mission of the other is always a mystery to me. My proper stance before it, then, must be that of service and humble reverence.
Respect and reverence are not among the most prized dispositions of our age. As was true way back in 1970, and to be sure for ages before and since, we individually and culturally have our own hierarchy of value which we tend to impose on others. These tend to change from time to time and from culture to culture, nonetheless, what they all have in common is a reduction of the mystery of others. We know who the other is, we judge them by our cultural standards, and we put them and keep them in a place that often inhibits the growth of the body of Christ by depriving it of the unrealized gifts of those who are not appreciated.
In a recently released documentary by Raoul Peck on the life and work of James Baldwin, we see and hear Baldwin in an interview from 1963 state the following:
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger,” he said. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it… If I’m not a nigger and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
This documentary has struck a profound chord in our day, in good part, I suspect, because the question of Baldwin remains unanswered. The conflicts and crises that beset America and American culture at this point are, in no small part, due to our refusal to answer the question posed by Baldwin almost 55 years ago. It is, perhaps, our fear of the question that has led us as a people into a state of illusion and unreality in which we are attempting to return the world to an imaginary place of so-called racially cultural superiority and hegemony.
Why do we need to assert our superiority by demonizing and demeaning others? Why in a school do we have to have “stupid” students? Why in a culture to do we have to have inferior and enslaved peoples? Why in the global sphere do we have to have certain peoples and countries as the embodiment, the axis, of evil?
There is, unfortunately, far too often a wide abyss between our theology (our faith tradition) and our “common, ordinary, unspectacular” everyday lives. The teaching of Ephesians today is that each and every human person is a call and mission to and for the world. The body will not become mature without the gift of each of us. Our ordinary consciousness, however, formed by those cultural formation traditions which are truly the principal influence in the shape we give to lives, imposes our values on the lives of others. We determine what makes another valuable and worthy of our respect. This is precisely why respect and reverence do not come easily to us. We have a societal and cultural arrogance that actually inhibits the manifestation and the maturation of Christ’s body in the world.
It may be that our ability to practice respect and reverence requires of us, in the first place, the humility to ask and to answer the most pressing questions. The teacher who calls developing fourteen year olds “stupid” needs to ask him or herself why he or she finds it necessary to do so. The society built on the backs of a demeaned and repressed race needs to ask itself why it needed to invent “the nigger”? Members of a faith tradition who find it necessary to de-humanize and exclude women and gay, lesbian, and transgender persons need to ask themselves why the security of their “faith” requires them to hold in contempt and to exclude these “others”?
It is God who creates us, and God who gives the gifts for ministry to each and all. The work of God never ceases. It will always of its nature attempt to break down our prejudices and arrogant self and cultural interpretations by continuing to give those very gifts that we are repressing and excluding. The conflict and tension this creates we shall first of all try to resolve by doubling down on our prejudices and biases. Instead of humbly recognizing where and how we are closed to God’s way, we shall seek to build larger and stronger walls against the “threatening other.” We shall attempt to overwhelm, if not extinguish, that which challenges our reduction of the mystery and of God’s will for the world.
The living out of our unique call, vocation, ministry is, says the author of Ephesians, always manifest in service; that is, our true call shows itself always in service to the developing call and originality of every other person. We can, then, recognize infidelity to our own deepest call when we are diminishing or excluding others. To be of service to others requires of us that we stand in respect and reverence before the mystery that they are and that they contain. In pride, we want to build our own version of the body of Christ. That version will be created out of all our own and our culture’s unconscious fears and prejudices. Such a perversion of God’s creative will and design is what is truly evil. As Baldwin says, our future well may depend on our honest answer to, or refusal to answer, the question of why we need to project our own evil onto the strange and foreign “other.”
The Church’s mission, directed to all men and women of good will, is based on the transformative power of the Gospel. The Gospel is Good News filled with contagious joy, for it contains and offers new life: the life of the Risen Christ who, by bestowing his life-giving Spirit, becomes for us the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). He is the Way who invites us to follow him with confidence and courage. In following Jesus as our Way, we experience Truth and receive his Life, which is fullness of communion with God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. That life sets us free from every kind of selfishness, and is a source of creativity in love.
God the Father desires this existential transformation of his sons and daughters, a transformation that finds expression in worship in spirit and truth (cf. Jn 4:23-24), through a life guided by the Holy Spirit in imitation of Jesus the Son to the glory of God the Father. “The glory of God is the living man” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses IV, 20, 7). The preaching of the Gospel thus becomes a vital and effective word that accomplishes what it proclaims (cf. Is 55:10-11): Jesus Christ, who constantly takes flesh in every human situation (cf. Jn 1:14).
The Church’s mission, then, is not to spread a religious ideology, much less to propose a lofty ethical teaching. Many movements throughout the world inspire high ideals or ways to live a meaningful life. Through the mission of the Church, Jesus Christ himself continues to evangelize and act; her mission thus makes present in history the kairos, the favourable time of salvation. Through the proclamation of the Gospel, the risen Jesus becomes our contemporary, so that those who welcome him with faith and love can experience the transforming power of his Spirit, who makes humanity and creation fruitful, even as the rain does with the earth. “His resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force” (Evangelii Gaudium, 276).
Pope Francis, Message for World Mission Day, 2017