This past Friday, I was blessed to be part of a group offering feedback to a colleague (and friend) who works at another university on the philosophy of refugees. She had just finished the draft of a book on ethics of our treatment of refugees, and wanted feedback from others. I am not a specialist in the field, but my parents and grandparents were refugees who lived in displaced persons camps before being sponsored to come to the USA. So the political issue is close to my heart, and it’s one that I touch on repeatedly in my social justice/ service learning class at my own university. Some of the others in our small group did hold real expertise in the field, while yet a couple more were undergraduate students or professors in other fields who had a different angle to bring to the discussion. We also were of a variety of nationalities and cultural/ religious backgrounds.
I always find these interdisciplinary kinds of roundtables to be fascinating, because the sorts of questions that get raised help me to understand the topic in a fresh way. In our discussion, we were a little like the community that St Paul describes in today’s reading: varied in our interests and in our roles, and different with respect to our nationalities and social positions in the academic world, but everyone’s input helped my friend to better understand what further revisions might benefit her book and its later audience. Academics may do some of our work such as writing alone, but we thrive most when we are in community with others who are in ongoing conversation with us.
Today’s Gospel passage marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s gospel. Jesus interprets Scripture but he does more than interpret it: he also says that he is its fulfillment. Luke presents Jesus as not only a well educated young man who can ably read and discuss his faith, or even as a good rabbi, but also as the person about whom the prophets have been writing all along. Jesus is shown to be the Messiah—one who has been anointed by God (Messiah, like Christos, means “anointed one.”) What does that entail? He comes to free those who are captives, to bring good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to those who are blind. Later on in Luke’s gospel we see what this looks like concretely: Jesus heals those who are blind and gives them not only sight, but also freedom in the forgiveness of sins. Jesus crosses many social boundaries, speaking with women, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, and publicly known sinners. He speaks encouraging and loving words in his sermon on the plain. He feeds those who are hungry with bread and fishes, and he feeds them with his words. Jesus brings people love and freedom.
What struck me today in reading this passage today is that the need of others with whom to be in community in order to do the work of ministry—of which St Paul speaks— was no less true for Jesus than it is for us. Immediately after he reads and interprets this passage, Jesus is rejected by his home town. And so he has to go elsewhere, because Jesus also needs to be in a community with others as he takes up his ministry. Maybe it is not only that Peter and James had a call given to them by God, and so Jesus called them. Maybe Jesus needed them so that he was not alone in living out his own call. Jesus is uniquely the Savior and only he saves us from our sins. But in his active ministry on earth, Jesus needed both time to pray in solitude with God, and a community of other people.
Jesus’ ministry begins with calling the apostles who accompany him as he goes around healing others and forgiving sins, but it does not end there—not even with the Crucifixion and the Resurrection and all that it means. Much later in Acts—which is also written by the same author—the apostles at Pentecost receive the Spirit and they continue to speak the good news, care for the poor, heal those who are sick, and free those who are unfree. They, too, are anointed (by the Spirit) and their ministries continue to fulfill the words of the prophets. Jesus ascends because otherwise, he says, the Spirit will not come. Jesus makes room for God’s greater plan to be played out.
At this book panel, one of the other women present whose specialty was working with refugees in Canada asked me about my work, and so I shared about both my prison ministry and teaching in my social justice/ service learning class. My students serve in a wide variety of places: at homeless shelters, tutoring children in underprivileged schools, working with men and women recovering from substance abuse, taking phone calls for people experiencing suicidal ideation, and a variety of other kinds of work. My fellow book discussant wondered whether I found it very hard to go into a prison month after month, and whether my students found what they did to be overwhelming, too. She assumed it must be hard in some way. I said, no, I really don’t find it to be, because I don’t think that my job is to change everything that is wrong with the world —that would be depressing, because to think about our own ministries as fixing or healing everything that is amiss is to want something impossible, to want to be God.
I go to prison along with fellow volunteers and I know others who work with returning inmates. In the fall, I am going to teach a course on the philosophy of incarceration, as others that I know also do at other universities, and I am hopeful that my students, and their students, too, may do something valuable with whatever they learn in these classes—even if we never know what that is. I encourage my service learning course students to remember that although they may feel powerless at moments in which their individual work seems not to be doing as much as they would like, that they also are part of a wider community of others who are also serving. Individually, our effect may be rather small in a world that needs so very much healing and where injustice is still everywhere.
We may be able to tutor only one student well, or may find that some students are not yet ready to learn. If I spend my time visiting a prison, I may not have any time left to work with those who return from prison and need their own kind of assistance. However, others can do this work. I can only go to the prison twice a month because I have teaching and writing, and family and friends to care for, too. But together, communities who serve others make significant impacts on the city in a way that no one individual can. One person holding a protest sign outside of an office building will be written off as a crazy extremist, but ten thousand protesters marching together can affect social policy and change unjust systems.
We are not Jesus, but Jesus gave us a model for how we can look at our own ministries: first, we can care about those who are poor or sick, unfree in some way, oppressed, and in need of good news. When we do have the power to do something, God calls us to do it. God has sent us this Spirit. That call and that relationship to God can be intensely personal and unique, special in our experience of God. But we are not the only ones with calls and we need others who are called and who are in relationship to God differently than we are. We need to do our work in community with others who have different perspectives, who offer different kinds of skills, insights, or talents to address the problems of our day.
We also need other people to accompany us as we go along the way of life, life beyond service and ministry: people who do shared work with us, but also people who have fun with us and help us to unwind in our “down” time. We need people who pray for us and for whom we pray. We need times of solitude to be alone with God and to cultivate that unique relationship, and we need times to be together with one another in worship and in work. We are asked to “love one another” (John 13:34), and part of that love is remembering our mutual need for one another. We need others to love and who love us back, in the variety of ways that Love shows its face.