The Holy Spirit, An Agitator for Justice
A reflection on the readings for Easter 6B
In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday of May as the national day of observance for Mother’s Day. However, the history of Mother’s Day is much longer than the legislation of a 101 years ago. The ancient culture of Greece and Rome, out of which our Christian faith grew, worshipped the female goddess Rhea, who was the mother of all the Gods. Christians have worshipped Mary, the mother of Jesus, and held her up as a model for womanhood and motherhood. In the 17th century England created Mothering Sunday designed to allow working people to have a day off in order to travel home and spend the day with family. Woodrow Wilson’s declaration was the result of the efforts of two women, Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis.
You might remember that Julia Ward Howe, following a visit to Civil War battlegrounds in 1861, wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The hymn’s theology is based on the Book of Revelation. Then, in 1870, in response to the fractures left in this country by the death and violence of that war she wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation. The proclamation asked for women to work for peace, to create a time when no mother’s son went to war and no mother’s son killed another mother’s child. Howe used her own funds to support Mother’s Day observances which continued for about ten years after her death. In 1908 Anna Jarvis picked up the practice of Mother’s Day by petitioning the church where her mother had been the superintendent of Sunday School for twenty years, to observe her life and ministry. Thanks to her efforts, on May 10, 1908 two churches, one in West Virginia and one in Pennsylvania honored Mother’s Day. Six years later these observances led to the legislation that President Wilson signed.
Clergy and worship leaders around the country are concerned about what to do with Mother’s Day now that it is viewed as primarily a secular Hallmark card holiday. Now that we are more sensitized to the hurt inflected on women and men who may have had abusive mothers or the pain that women feel when they can’t have a child - Mother’s Day is complicated. We have lost the connection of this day to its roots in the church and its hope for justice for all people. That our readings this morning from scripture focus on love, justice, and equality, is perhaps, not a coincidence.
Every year, throughout the Easter season, our readings reveal the Holy Spirit as the active energy in the formation of the early church. First we have Peter and Paul in Jerusalem debating before the whole church whether or not circumcision should be required for membership. The argument was, if circumcision was a defining characteristic of a man’s identity as a Jewish Christian should it be necessary for the Gentiles? Could the community embrace members who were different in a basic aspect of their identity? In the end James settled the debate by determining that circumcision was not necessary and Jews and Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, could be equal members in the Christian Church. The first great conflict was managed and the church opened its boundaries, coming to understand God, community, and human beings in a new, more expansive way. Other conflicts arose - last week Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, breaking open the boundaries of race and gender, God’s church is meant for everyone, equally. This week another action of the Holy Spirit, breaking open boundaries as Peter baptizes a Centurian, a Roman soldier.
Although the readings are essentially the same every Easter season, it seems to me that this year they are hitting a universal nerve that runs through the current of our society, as if the Holy
Spirit is stimulating the electrical charge. From the public accounting of the deaths of black men and boys, shot by police officers; to the suicide of teenagers, many of whom are transgender, children who are taunted and bullied by their peers; to the baby in Florida whose baptism was initially denied because he has two fathers for parents; television and the internet are reporting on the many ways we are struggling to understand who we are to love. Social media is in an uproar as petitions for justice circulate. Clearly, this love, that the Holy Spirit calls forth in us, is not the sweet romantic love we tend to identify with. The love that the Holy Spirit calls forth is a verb, an action, trying to provoke us to be like James, Peter, and Philip, like Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, seeking to inspire us to love others as God loves us. It’s the Holy Spirit calling us to live the greatest commandment as Jesus taught it: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
No doubt there are many days when I wish Jesus had not laid down that commandment. I do not want to be challenged to love others in this way. I want someone to blame for the anxiety in our world, the anxiety in my life. But, Jesus reminds me to take the log from my own eye, learn to understand myself better, and respond to others with maturity and wisdom instead of anger and blame. This love that God commands is hard work.
The good news is, we don’t have to do this by ourselves. Thank God, the Holy Spirit is present, guiding, sustaining, and supporting. When I consider all the things in the world today that make me anxious, whether it is health care or marriage, baptism or race, gender, violence, guns, our roads, our government, terrorism, the economy…..regardless of how I view these realties of the world, if I trust the movement of the Holy Spirit, I do not need to live my life being anxious. I do need to be proactive for what I believe in, working for justice as I understand it through the lens of my faith as a Christian.
The readings tell us that the Holy Spirit stirs things up, is an agitator for justice, inspiring humans to work to break down the barriers that other humans have imposed in the name of God and religion. We also hear that the Holy Spirit is the stabilizing energy in this force field of anxiety. She stirs things up and yet she stabilizes the energy by pulling us to Jesus.The Holy Spirit is the center of gravity that pulls all things toward God’s love, striving to bring balance and prevent us from going off course.
Allowing the Holy Spirit to anchor me to Jesus and to God is an intentional act on my part. Through prayer, worship, and life in community, I learn, over and over, that God will push me to be the best version of myself that I can become, push me to love others with an open and expansive heart, push me to put this love into action, but God will also provide me with the wisdom and the stamina and the courage to do so.
Again, the Battle Hymn of the Republic comes to mind, and I realize that whether I go or not, God’s truth is marching on. No anxiety on my part will stop the Holy Spirit from advancing God’s desire for love and justice. But, this does not really let me off the hook, it does not release me from the push and pull to do my part.
Though my eyes are often closed if I but open them I will see the coming glory of God and if I but have a little courage I too can join the march. May I follow in the footsteps of Peter and
Philip, Julia and Anna, being lead by the Holy Spirit, into the truth of God’s desire for all creation, that we love one another as God loves us.
Glory, glory hallelujah!