“Unfinished Work Among the People of God”
Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
People of God has such a great ring to it, doesn’t it. We who were introduced to this new title that was applied as an image of and a teaching about church – an introduction now going on 60 years later – we thought we knew exactly what it meant. But then we didn’t. And now, after 6 papacies we are not so sure.
For example, some of us thought the People of God, with its association with Pope John XXIII’s opening wide the doors of the institution to let in the light of the world and its 20th century witness to the strength of democratic values and ways was just the ticket to incorporate a wider vision of the “sense of the faithful” in a church that still teaches to this day that the use of contraceptives and the practice of pre-marital sex is a grave sin. And wasn’t it true that the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI reigned in such visions of reading the signs of the times and instead interpreted this title of People of God in a hierarchical and closed view of authority? The sense of the faithful bcame the correctness of everything that aligned itself with the Magisterium.
Now Pope Francis encourages the People of God to be a listening people, a gathering of people who live both in the church and in the world. And the priests, he says, must smell like the flock – a homey picture, but meaning what? It turns out as refreshing as the term of People of God sounds there remains great gaps between its application to the “real” life of both church and world.
Deeper still than its application, surely it is also clear that we the People are only beginning to finish the work we are all called upon to do. The idea of People of God indicates identity, but what ecclesiology satisfies all believers? It indicates shared belief but where does one find a unified systematic, let alone practicable theology? It indicates a gathering for prayer and worship, but how can one think that liturgy is universally celebrated as some synthesis of faithful practitioners? It indicates a reassuring level of unity – which seems to have escaped communities of faith – sometimes at the most local level.
People of God is a title that indicates unfinished work. At the individual level, being a member of the People of God can provide us a very clear idea of what needs to be done – work that is on the shoulders of each one of us and is inescapable. Take the work of each one’s cross as a case in point.
Jean’s sister, Joan, has gone through months of misdiagnosis of a physical condition that causes her to be incapable of eating. In all this time she has lost probably 25% or more of her body weight. It’s not like she hasn’t given the doctors a chance to figure this out. Finally, in the last several weeks a diagnosis has been settled on – it’s a mass on her esophagus. Quickly, now, they have begun a program of simultaneous treatments of radiation and chemotherapy. Once that was put in motion, one of the doctors actually said to her, “If you had come in sooner, we probably could have beaten this.” I prefer to believe that this doctor was not blaming her.
I don’t know about you, but if this had happened to me or Jean – as it very well could to any of us – I would be very, very angry. Joan may be very, very angry. She certainly has every right to be. But Joan also has faith, a faith that you and I are very familiar with. Just last week Joan said to Jean, “This is what I have been given,” meaning of course, “This is my cross to bear.” And because she has faith she sees this as her way of carrying her cross following in the footsteps of Jesus.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Those who will not carry with them the instrument of their own death – following in my footsteps – are not worthy of me.” Each of us is a member of the People of God learning the always unfinished lessons of our own dying and rising. This is our “sense of faith,” the gift of life, death, and new life in Christ. We acknowledge this gift as we read in Romans:
“We have been buried with Jesus through baptism, and we joined Jesus in death,
so that as Christ was raised from the dead by God’s glory, we too might live a new life.” (6:4)
In this journey from death to new life we know we are engaged in the unfinished work of the People of God – as we give witness through dying to the One who raises us to new life.
We are also members of the People of God in the communities with whom we gather. These days our community of Mary of Magdala is going through a rough patch. We know the details and they matter deeply to us. But, I’m guessing that all our communities have experienced a rough patch. As we all live by hope to see our way through it.
When you are able to think about the obligation that the People of God have toward service to others it is one that clearly must be carried out. Jesus says in the Gospel:
“(W)hoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones just for being a disciple will
not lack a reward.” (10:42)
This is two weeks in a row that Jesus talks about insignificance: last week it was the value of a sparrow, this week is a focus on lowly ones. Clearly the role of the People of God is to respond to a universal call to charity without restricting such action to only those who are like us.
But what about closer to home? For those of us who lean toward identification of democratic ways among the People of God, when we are hurt, disappointed, and separated there is no bishop to blame, no hierarchy to call in to remedy the situation, no sure fire remedy to rescue ourselves from ourselves. We find ourselves living out Shakespeare’s line from Julius Caesar when he writes: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves.”
We who share the benefits of community must see repair of the community as an unfinished work of the People of God – well, at least in our little corner of it.
While theologians write their books, and bishops claim for themselves all authority concerning the truths of faith, we must set about completing the unfinished work of the People of God, because being unfinished is what gives it hope and promise. Maybe then we will be worthy of a disciple’s reward.
A Prayer (JR)
We call ourselves the People of God, a title that reaches back to the first
covenant people and looks forward to the neverending life we will share
in the hereafter.
You who called the people, and to whom the people responded, renew in us the
confirmation of this sacred bond. It forms us as your People and
commissions us to live, to die, to rise again in Christ.