Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
A reading from St. Alfred North Whitehead:
“When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered … The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly … [But] the Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar … There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the three main strands of thought [about God]. It does not emphasize  the ruling Caesar, or  the ruthless moralist, or  the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love … Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals.”*
Yes, I’m poking fun at many process theologians’ tendency to treat Whitehead as holy writ—“Whitehead said it, I believe it, that settles it.” I’ve tried to avoid treating Whitehead that way. But I do think he was onto something here when he mentions “the brief Galilean vision of humility flicker[ing] throughout the ages, uncertainly.” In fact, I’m pretty sure he had one of this week’s readings, the Beatitudes, in mind when he used that phrase.
As it turns out, all of the readings for this week dwell “upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.” (And do note that this emphasis is not just of “Galilean“ origin; it’s there in Micah and Psalm 15 also.)
In the Beatitudes Jesus has the nerve to congratulate those who are thought to have little to no impact on the course of history—they’re either devastated by life‘s circumstances, or else they’re well-meaning but basically ineffectual people. Losers. They’re to be congratulated because in their now-shared life they have so much in common not only with the way Jesus works, but with the way God works, “slowly and in quietness” operating by a love that refuses domination or insulation or moralizing, flickering uncertainly throughout the ages.
Of course this is probably Matthew adapting handed-down sayings of Jesus to encourage the churches of Matthew’s time (we’ll call him Matthew although he never told us his name). These early churches were filled with people like that, as Paul confirms: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”
Maybe we would like a God who is more like Caesar, especially with people who are not like us. Maybe we would like this Cesar-like God to be ruthlessly judgmental, again, just so long as the judgments are not directed at us. Or maybe we have given up on the idea of God as intimately involved with us, since our requests seem to go unanswered, and have come to think of God as that “unmoved mover“ who might just be a pious name for a clockwork universe.
Or maybe God, and the way God works, are more like that brief Galilean vision reflected repeatedly, at least sometimes, in readings like these, and more crucially, embodied in the life, death, and risen life of the one Christians came to call God-with-us.
Maybe our principal calling as the Body of Christ is to keep embodying this flickering power slowly and in quietness operating by a love that refuses domination or insulation or moralizing.
Maybe the most God-like and transformative thing we can do is to keep drawing one another into a relentless love that will not dominate and yet can never be quenched, despite appearances to the contrary, taking as long as it takes to make that brief vision a flesh-and-blood reality.
Are you spiritually exhausted when you try that? Are you grieving? Are you being shoved around by callously assertive people? Do you feel like giving up as you see your dreams for a better world crushed again and again?
Then congratulations! If things like that are happening to you, then you’re where Jesus himself was. If things like that are happening to you, then you’re where Jesus still is. If things like that are happening to you, then you’re where God is. And you’re making a bigger difference than you can imagine.
*Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978 ), pp. 342-343.