by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, March 9, 2014:
First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm: Psalm 32
Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19
Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
This week's Gospel tells us the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Notice that Jesus is human in his temptations: he is tempted by the ideas of fame, power, and immortality. Henri Nouwen says, "There [in the desert] he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant ('turn stones into loaves'), to be spectacular ('throw yourself down'), and to be powerful ('I will give you all these kingdoms')" (Show Me the Way, p. 82, excerpted from Way of the Heart).
In her book, Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher points out that Jesus will indeed accomplish these things that Satan asks him to do. Jesus will reverse these days in the desert: he will multiply bread, he will hurl himself from the cliff of his crucifixion and be caught by angels, he will be worshipped, but by humbling himself in service (page 85).
Of course, we, too are tempted. We are tempted as a church. We want to be powerful. Many of us look back to a time when the church in America was a social force, when everyone went, and not just once a week. We want to be important. We want to be the megachurch, not the small church.
Just as Jesus went to the desert as a spiritual quest, the church, too, needs a time of discernment to discover the kind of church we want to become. And we, as individual humans, need to spend some time in the wilderness as we wrestle temptations and discern our the true purpose of our lives.
Gallagher says that we face the same kinds of temptations that Jesus did: “Magical powers, helplessness, rescue, fame and power—they beckon me every day of my life. Just around the corner lies happiness; a new lover will provide lasting bliss; if I had what she has then I would be . . . They are the fantasies, the illusions, that suck out my vitality, that keep me from discovering my own rich reality. To come to terms with illusion is one of the great jobs of our lives: to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is dead and what is alive, what is narcotic and what is food” (page 84).
We may want to tell ourselves that Jesus could resist temptations because of his Divine side. But I would posit that Jesus' special powers of resistance were less about his supernatural side, and more about his spiritual discipline. He's in the wilderness, making a retreat to pray, when he’s tempted. He resists. Throughout the life of Jesus, we see him hard at work honing his powers through his spiritual practices.
Here's the good news. These practices are available to you, as well. Great disciples are not born, they are created. How? We turn ourselves into great disciples the same way that a doughy person transforms himself or herself into a great athlete, the same way that a creative person becomes a great artist. We show up, day after day, logging the training miles, working on our art.
In his book Living the Resurrection, Eugene H. Peterson lists the ways we form disciples: celebrating the Eucharist, "visiting the prisoners, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, working for justice, loving our enemies, raising our children, doing our everyday work to the glory of God" (p. 56). He points out the ordinariness of these activities: "It doesn't take a great deal of training or talent to do any of it" (56).
Soon enough, we wake up to find out that we've transformed ourselves into different people. And perhaps, along the way, we've helped to transform our communities into something that God intended for creation.