What kind of messenger?

Year C, 15th Sunday Ordinary Time | Mark 6:7-13

Recently, I was at the airport, sitting in a enclosed room, waiting for a flight that had been delayed by a few hours. It was a noisy place! From where I was sitting, I could hear many different voices. A lot of the voices were shouting, bitter, complaining and angry. These voices made my mood worse. I’m sure they had the same effect on many others in the room. Other voices, however, were more positive. There was a mother who was playing with her child, an elderly couple talking about the nice places they went on their trip and polite staff who tried to reassure the passengers that the flight would come soon. These voices were uplifting and made the waiting easier. Each day can feel like being in that airport waiting room. We are surrounded by many voices. Numerous messengers communicate to us. Some of these voices are good and others bad.

There are many messengers who fill the world with darkness by their way of life and with the message they convey. Some examples come to mind. Messengers in the media. Although there are many well-meaning people working in the media, too often the media - whether it be newspapers or news programs on TV - tend to be negative. Only the bad news seems to be reported. Social media has aggravated this tendency. In an attempt to garner more clicks, the stories shared on the internet are becoming more and more sensational. Political messengers. Although there are many dedicated politicians, others live scandalous lives, lie and cheat. Their message seems intent on inflaming the fear and hatred of people, dividing them in the process. Religious messengers. Unfortunately, even in the world of religion there are many negative voices. Some religious leaders, who should be serving their people, use their positions to enrich themselves. For example, you might have heard the story recently about the TV evangelist who tried to convince his congregation to buy him a private jet for 54 million US dollars. This would be his fourth jet!

In stark contrast to the many voices that fill the world with darkness, Jesus sent his twelve apostles to be be messengers who fill the world with love, liberation and healing. In the days before newspaper, TV and internet, information was spread through itinerant, wandering preachers. Jesus and the apostles were these kind of communicators. In the gospel of today (Mark 6:7-13), Jesus lays out clearly what kind of messengers the apostles are called to be. First and foremost, the twelve share in Jesus ministry. Like Jesus, they teach and call people to repentance, that is, to live a life more in accordance with what God would want. The twelve are also given authority over unclean spirits. Instead of bringing more darkness into the world, they receive the power to cast darkness out. Jesus also instructs his apostles “take nothing for the journey” except some mere essentials. They are to have just a walking stick, sandals and the clothes on their backs. In this way, Jesus informs his apostles that their focus should not be on material possessions but rather on their mission. This mission should fill them with a sense of urgency. They should not expect to have financial security but rather should rely on the hospitality of others. In addition, Jesus tells the twelve that when people do not accept them, they should “shake off the dust” from their feet “in testimony against them”. When they are rejected, the twelve are not to respond with violence or anger, but rather with this symbolic action which might represent that those places in which they are not accepted are not part of the true land of Israel. For this reason, they shake the dust of these places off their feet. It shows that those who reject them and Jesus are not part of Israel, that is, God’s chosen people.

Like the apostles, we are sent by Jesus to be messengers who fill others with love, joy and hope and lead them closer to God. Unlike the apostles, we are probably not called to go out as travelling missionaries. In our daily lives, however, Jesus calls us to be messengers like him. How can we do this? Two points stand out. 
First, we need to seriously evaluate our relationship with material possessions. Although we are perhaps not called to poverty like the twelve, we are challenged to put material possessions in proper perspective. Certainly, we need things like a place to live, food, and clothing and should work to get them. However, these things are not ends in themselves. These possessions are tools; they are means of building up God’s kingdom. When we die, Jesus will not ask us what kind of car we drove, the clothes we wore or the phone we had, but rather what we did to spread his message of love to others and how we have helped the needy.  
Second, like the apostles, we are called to engage in a peaceful way with others, especially those who disagree with us. We live in a polarized world where people no longer seem to get along. There is far to much shouting and too many unkind words. Like Jesus, we are called to speak kindly to others, to be patient and to forgive. Each day, we meet many people who are struggling and in need of encouragement. At work or school, we can compliment others when they do something well. If someone is passing through a difficult time, we can listen to them and assure them of our prayers.

Life is very much like that airport waiting room. It is filled with many voices. Many voices drag people down and bring more darkness into the world. Jesus calls us to be messengers who bring love, joy and compassion to others. What kind of messenger will you choose to be?

Water as a Symbol for the Holy Spirit in John

In the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit is likened to water. While interacting with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4), Jesus offers her living water. He declares that anyone who drinks this water will never thirst again. Once received, this water will become a spring, welling up to eternal life (v. 13). By the end of the encounter, the Samaritan woman accepted the offer of Jesus since she leaves her water jar behind and goes on a mission, bringing her townspeople to encounter Jesus (vv. 28-29). Later, on the final day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus again promised living water to the thirty who come to him (7,37-39). In this episode, the living water that Jesus gives is clearly identified as the Spirit (v. 39). When blood and water flowed from his pierced side as he hung on the cross (19,34), Jesus finally gave the Spirit – the living water – to his followers.

For readers of John today, much of the significant of the image of water can be easily missed. For many, water is readily available. Those living in an urban setting can be unaware of the necessity of water for agriculture and thus daily sustenance. Modern readers can forget that water is a basic necessity for life and its lack is something to be feared. In first century Palestine, water was not in abundant supply nor as readily accessible. Long droughts were not uncommon. From their daily experience, those who first heard the Holy Spirit described as water would have been struck by the image. The necessity of water for life would have been much more present in their minds. Similar to water, they could readily grasp how urgent and necessary the Holy Spirit is.

First century Jews would also appreciate the significance that water had in their Scriptures and therefore better appreciate what Jesus was offering them with the “living water”. In the Old Testament, water can be used to symbolize the following realities: 1) wisdom (Prov 10:11; 13:14; Wis 7:25); 2) the Spirit of God (Isa 32:15; Ez 36:25-26; Joel 2:28-29); 3) cleansing (Lev 14:5-6.50-52; Zech 13:1); 4) the Torah (Sir 24:23-29); 5) the power of healing (2 Kgs 12:5); and 6) the final state of salvation (Isa 30:23-26; 41:17-20; Ez 47; Zech 13,1). For the initial audience of John’s Gospel, the water that Jesus offered the Holy Spirit could be understood as fulfilling all these meanings which water had in the Old Testament.

One way we can better appreciate the gift of the Holy Spirit is by understanding what it means that the Holy Spirit is the “living water”. The Holy Spirit is necessary for life and growth. Being identified with water, the Holy Spirit corresponds with a rich tapestry of images from the Old Testament and fulfills what water symbolized there. Like the Samaritan woman, let us more fully accept the gift of Holy Spirit in our lives.

A "Culture of Dialogue" in the Bible

In response to discord in society, Pope Francis has called for a “culture of dialogue”. He encourages us not to ignore or stigmatize those we disagree with. Rather, we are to respect them and enter into open dialogue. In this way, consensus and agreement can be built. If we look carefully, we are able to find a culture of dialogue within the Bible. There are texts within the Bible that are clearly in dialogue and even disagreement with one another. Authors take up themes presented by previous writers and engage with them, offering another perspective. Over time, a clearer picture of God’s revelation is painted. 

For example, consider two questions posed by Isaiah. During a polemic against idolatry he asks, “to whom can you liken God and what form compare to him?” (Isa 40:18). According to the prophet, nothing on earth can compare to God. Some chapters later, Isaiah puts this question in the mouth of God: “where could you build a house for me, what place could serve as my abode?” (Isa 66:1). Again, the answer is clear. God cannot live anywhere on earth.

Isaiah’s questions are taken up in Genesis 1:26 and Exodus 25:8-9. These texts, which probably took shape sometime after the questions in Isaiah were written, give different answers. Genesis 1:26 narrates that God made man in his image and likeness. Unlike Isaiah 40:18, the author of Genesis 1:26 clearly believed that there was something on earth that could be likened to God: every human person. In Exodus 25:8-9, God promises Moses that if he builds a sanctuary just as he is commanded, then God will dwell there. Unlike Isaiah 66:1, the author of Exodus 25:8-9 thought that God could dwell somewhere on earth.

The questions of Isaiah are taken up again in the New Testament where new answers are given. Paul’s letter to the Philippians declares that Jesus was in the form of God (Phil 2:6). To Paul, it is clear that Jesus cannot be compared with God in the same way that Genesis 1:26 says every human being can, since Jesus is Lord, the one God has exalted and who all will praise. John puts things more clearly. Jesus wasn’t simply created in the image of God. Jesus and the Father are one (John 10:30). Elsewhere, John responds to the question posed by Isaiah 66:1. Unlike Exod 25:8-9, which argued that God can live in a sanctuary made by people, John teaches that Jesus is the only true dwelling place of God on earth (eg. John 1:4; 2:21).

In the examples above, the Bible exhibits a “culture of dialogue”. First, questions are posed by Isaiah, who also offers tentative solutions. These questions are then challenged by the authors of Genesis 1:26 and Exodus 25:8-9, who engage openly with Isaiah. Finally, Paul and John give fuller responses in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This development illustrates the fruit that comes from engaging with the ideas of those who see things differently. With God’s help, this dialogue can lead to a deeper comprehension of the truth.