Friday, Fifth week of Easter
Acts 15:22-31 / John 15:12-17
At the very end of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, we overhear a conversation between the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the once mysterious stranger who had drawn him into the grand adventures of the book, now his dear friend, the wizard Gandalf. Bilbo, mind you, who began the novel as something of a bachelor homebody who liked nothing better than the comforts of his humble if spacious home in the Shire, had, through Gandalf's prompting, assisted a band of dwarves in winning back their ancestral treasure from a terrible dragon. Along the way, he managed to evade being eaten by trolls, escape the clutches of goblins and worse under the mountains, discover a magical ring that made him unseen, be transported by giant eagles, rescue his companions from wicked, giant spiders, deliver them from the dungeons of the Elf King, send a crucial message that enabled the slaying of the terrible dragon, and unite the warring bands of elves, dwarves and men against their common enemies. While his share in the slain dragon's hoard was far greater than he could ever imagine, even the modest wealth he brought back home was more than he could dream to use in a lifetime. So, sitting with his friend Gandalf, enjoying a smoke with their pipes, Bilbo has much he could be proud of, much that he could rightly say would not have come to pass without his contribution. Ancient enemies were restored to the friendship of even more ancient alliances, and the evils that threatened the peace and security of those of good will had been vanquished, and none of it without that specific blend of common sense and uncommon courage, of a desire for adventure coupled with a deep love of home, that was Bilbo Baggins.
As they speak, Gandalf reminds Bilbo of the prophecies of old that have come to pass as a result of Bilbo's exploits. Bilbo, of course, finds this just a bit ironic. After all, he had a hand in all of that, did he not?
'Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!' said Bilbo.
'Of course!' said Gandalf. 'And why should they not prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were manages by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!'
'Thank goodness!' said Bilbo Baggins laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
Now, we might think Gandalf's words here are apt of Bilbo, but when turned upon our own selves, we are far less certain. After all, we have not spent years — few, several or many — nor the resources — money, yes, but also time and a sense of peace, within ourselves and with those we love — we have not spent so much of great cost, have not forged with trial and adventures, with near escapes and occasional failures, an identity as theologian, as minister, as catechist or healer, as preacher simply to be quite a little fellow in a wide world. We have — and our mentors, our teachers, our colleagues and peers have both thought and said as much — we have great things to offer the Church as we proclaim to the world the salvation won for us in Christ Jesus and made ours in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We have not come this far to be without impact — in the theology we teach, in the works of love we minister, in the identity we have in the community of Christ's members, the holy Church of God.
Lest we think on this point we have slipped into a grandiose and ultimately unhelpful view of self unhappily proportioned against the truth, we remind ourselves of the wisdom of our brother Thomas. Did he not remind us that every created thing, every created thing, has some good, some unique good which it, and it alone, has to offer, not only for its own flourishing, but for the completion of the whole of creation? And does he not remind us what Paul had taught us long before, that this is all the more true of the order of grace, that there are no superfluous gifts, no works of the Spirit of Christ in our lives that are merely reducible one to the other, or replaceable, however simply they may seem? So, we think, we have been sent — sent to teach Christology, ecclesiology or doctrine of God, our pastoral plan for liturgical life, our best system to hear the wisdom on the lips of children claimed by Christ in baptism, our vision of what Catholic health care is or ought to be, our insight into the best way the Gospel can be preached and the Great Commission fulfilled. We've worked for it, after all! We've earned it! Look out, Church, here we come!
Except ... except we then turn to God's inspired word today, and we hear something else. There we do indeed hear of those who had their own Christology, their own ecclesiology, their own liturgical and pastoral plan for the Church, their own preaching — but these are the ones who are not praised, but who fall under the censure of the Twelve: they have gone out without any mandate, they have upset with their teachings and disturbed the peace of mind of the faithful. It is not the unique, the novel, the radical rethinking of the Gospel that is praised here. No, on the contrary, those appointed theologians and ministers, Barsabbas and Silas, are sent to teach not their insights, but the teaching of the Apostles and presbyters. It is not from their own inner sense nor from an open community committed to seeking and searching, but from the decision of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles that they are to restore peace and unity to Antioch. It is just this sort of obediential ministry, a theological proclamation not produced of one's own but received lovingly from God and those whom God has appointed and empowered to guide us in authentic witness to the salvation in Jesus Christ — this is the preaching that brought delight to the Christian community.
We should not, of course, be surprised at all. We hear the same teaching from the lips of Christ himself in the Gospel. If we serve one another in acts of love, we do not do so in ways unheard of and without model, but rather we love as Christ has loved, we pour out our lives in service as Christ has already done for us, we minister, that is not from ourselves, but only because it is Christ who has loved first in us and in our ministry. So, too, our witness, our ministry of presence — Christ reminds us with a clarity that may be painful to our egos but is cooling and sweet delight to our souls: It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.
So, is that it? Do we have nothing to say but what we have been told, no way to love except on a pattern set by another, no identity to claim save what has been decreed in the hidden counsels of God Most High from before the dawn of time? Must all of the hopes and dreams we have as theologians and ministers, all our private projects, plans and goals, be set aside, willingly perhaps in light of a greater good, but still remain untapped goods? Are we simply in the end quite little fellows in a wide world after all?
To speak and think that way is to speak and think the language of servants. The servant, after all, does not in the end pursue his own good nor the handmaid her own projects. It may well be that the master knows what will be at least not contrary to their flourishing, and may even promote something of what the servants desire. However, in the end, the servant does the master's bidding, the handmaid's good is subordinated to the fulfillment of her mistress' goals and plans.
How different it is with friends! Friendship, love, is not competitive. If friends spar with one another, it is to outdo one another in kindness. The victory of a friend, the fulfilled dreams of the beloved, is not indifferent to the lover. The deeper the love, the richer the sharing in hopes, dreams, projects and plans. In perfect love, the love God has already bestowed on us in Christ and which we, in halting and fumbling ways now, but on that last and glorious day hope to experience in fulness through the transforming power of the Spirit — in perfect love there is no worry of mine or yours, but a blessed sharing and rejoicing in the good wherever it is found, a good we can, in love, rightly claim as our own, not in envy, but in confidence and joy, which the lover concedes to us, not with resentment, but gladly and with delight.
Said differently, as Christ makes us more and more fully his friends and partakers in his life with the Father, his words, everything he has heard from the Father, become truly and rightly our own. Those saving truths entrusted to the Twelve, and they to their successors and the company of presbyters, these come to us, as they came to Barsabbas and Silas, not as alien words suppressing their own insight, but as the articulation of the very same teaching they happily claimed as their own. So, too, with us, if we will let it. As we grow in our life as theologians, as ministers, catechists, administrators and preachers, each of us growing in friendship with Christ Jesus, we will find that there is no difference between our theology and the saving words of the Gospel entrusted to the college of Apostles, no choice between our pastoral plan and the paschal, cruciform love of the Word made flesh, no need to claim an identity for ourselves, since God's election from before time will become, by the mystery of love, our own choosing.
Brothers and sisters, God has loved us, and in the mystery of the death and rising of his Son, has made us his friends. The world out of which he calls us and into which he sends us, may indeed be a wide world after all. We, however, are not little fellows, but kings and queens, and infinitely more — sharers in the very Triune life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are friends of God Most High who has chosen us and given us the commandment of sharing the Love that is the very being of God throughout the whole world.
Go, my sisters and brothers, go and bear fruit that will remain!