Grace to you and peace from God...
As some of you may know, I went to a Jesuit high school. Jesuits, for any who do not know, are an order within the Catholic church, founded (and still deeply inspired) by Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits today work particularly in the areas of education (with schools, universities, medical centers, and seminaries all over the world); they also give retreats, minister in hospitals and prisons, and promote social justice and ecumenical dialogue. (They’re a lot like Lutherans :)
Pope Francis is a Jesuit. And as he continues to do and say things that reportedly are rocking the Catholic world, I keep thinking to myself, “Well, he’s a Jesuit. What do you expect?”
And emphasis on critical thinking was/is so central to my experience of and training by Jesuits over the years.
Jesuits have accomplished and influenced many things, and many more to come in our world, but critical to everything they do is an open and intentional and ongoing acknowledgement that, everything they are and do comes from God.
In fact, when I was in high school -- and I understand this is still the practice today, and always will be -- when we wrote our name and date on our work (homework, quizzes, tests, final essays), we also were trained to put the letters A.M.D.G. under the date. Name, date, A.M.D.G. Some even required it in the center, just above the title.
Ad maiorem Dei gloriam: to the greater glory of God. This is the Jesuit motto, and it pervades their lives and those who are influenced by them, as I gratefully was in my education.
Everything we do, everything we are, everything we have is dedicated to the greater glory of God, from a promotion at work, to a perfect little newborn grand-daughter, to Thursday’s math homework.
I can’t help but think of the Jesuits, when I hear this story today of Paul and Barnabas, as they accomplish great things -- first as they are elected by this international council to be the evangelists, and then as they are literally makin’ miracles happen. Pretty easy to let one’s ego get the better of them, with such wild successes. But Paul and Barnabas, like the Jesuits, proclaim A.M.D.G. with their lives, remind their communities, this is not our doing, but God’s.
What an important message for those among us who have accomplished many things! You know, lots of times our messages in worship, our scripture lessons, and sermons themes are directed at those who are down and out, those who are experiencing failure or loss at some level. A word of hope and comfort for us when we find ourselves in those difficult places. But here, I find a message for the successful, the accomplished. We too work miracles in one way or another. Passing exams that most people could never pass, hurdling barriers in our lives and careers, overcoming obstacles at home, recovering from illness or traumas in our past. We’re not perfect, but upon a bit of reflection, we have done some amazing things in and with our lives.
But we are called back to the truth today, in this lesson, and in the Jesuit motto, that all we have and all we have accomplished is to God’s greater glory.
I knew a preacher once, who was a great preacher. He was the campus pastor for Episcopal campus ministry in St. Louis, and every time I heard him preach, I felt like he knocked it out of the park, and every time I complimented his sermon, he’d just say, “Praise God. It wasn’t me.” And his tone, I thought, was truly humble, not pretentiously humble.
Let’s go back to the text, Paul and Barnabas are among international leaders of the church, all gathered together in Antioch. How do we know this? Simeon from Niger, deep in the center of Africa, Lucius from Cyrene, which is much further North near Egypt, Manaen was from Herod’s court. Herod, an international figure had apparently sent his emissary...
(While Heather and I were in Brussels, we visited the E.U. Headquarters, where leaders from all over Europe and all over the world come to meet, and we sensed that we were at the center of “where big decisions are made”, like how you feel when you stand inside our great halls of Congress.) Antioch was the Brussels of the ancient church.
And the Spirit of God was alive and with them (just as She is with us today), and says, “Send Paul and Barnabas.” And the council prays on this, then lays their hands on them, and affirms the Holy Spirit’s call. How do you think Paul and Barnabas might have felt? Pretty awesome, right? If we all got together and you were chosen, then we prayed, laid hands on and elected you, how would you feel? Pretty awesome right? Scared maybe, but also very special. This is where the ego, gets in there.
And this can obviously translate far beyond the walls of the church. When you succeed, get chosen out of a large pool of applicants, pass a test, set a new record or standard...who gets the glory? You do, right? You should, right? You did it; you deserve it. But Paul and Barnabas, and our best leaders in the church and in the world, accept good things -- accomplishments -- with humility and prayer.
(AMDG. Those Jesuits know that the discipline of writing it just as much as you write your name, is important because the ego is a monster.)
So they’re selected and sent, and then they work a miracle that’s got the people of Lystra calling them Zeus and Hermes! “The gods have come down to us in human form!” they proclaimed and start worshipping them, that is, they start offering sacrifices to them. (Remember, offering is always at the center of worship.)
If you could make a person who couldn’t walk, walk again, as many doctors do; if you could defend and free someone from the burdens of their prosecutors, as many attorneys do; if you could teach someone to read, or to communicate in another language, or to take care of themselves, as so many educators and parents and grandparents do -- these are all miracles done by human hands. But to God be the glory.
We are called to humble service once again this day, and reminded that it is though God’s grace that we do all that we do. Look around you this week and see the whole creation bearing witness to God’s grace. Just like Paul and Barnabas point out: even the rain, and the food in your bellies, are witnesses to God’s goodness and greater glory in our lives.
God is good. And watches over us. Uses us as instruments of Christ’s peace, which is made known to us again in this Easter season, in the breaking of the bread. We share that peace with one another. We share the good things that we have done and can do with one another and with the world. Because they were never ours to begin with. Look at all our God has done -- sometimes through us, many times beyond us. So turn from these worthless things, Paul and Barnabas say: “Turn from these worthless things [pause], to the living God.” Counter that ego, with a prayer. “Praise God. It wasn’t my doing...ultimately.” To God be the glory. AMEN.