When they had brought them to face the Sanhedrin, the high priest demanded an explanation. “We gave you a formal warning,” he said, “not to preach in this name, and what have you done? You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and seem determined to fix the guilt of this man’s death on us.” In reply Peter and the apostles said, “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men…”
Acts 5: 27-9
The one who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony…He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit.
John 3: 31-2; 34
The scriptural description of the human experience speaks of labor as a punishment for our sinfulness: “With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it” (Gen. 3:19). We do not flow with life and creation but rather live in tension with it. We must work to survive, but that work is difficult, laborious, and often uncongenial. By choice, human beings have opted for a conflictual relationship with creation that often feels as if we are fighting the course of life rather than serving it.
In today’s reading from Acts we hear of the courage of the apostles who, now alive in the Spirit of the Risen Jesus, are acting and speaking in obedience to God, to the ways of God’s creation rather than the dictates of human power and ambition. Their work is, as that of Jesus in the gospel of John, to bear “witness to what…[they have] seen and heard.”
What we call life in the Spirit is a life lived in obedience to Reality, to God’s way and will. In this light work is different for it is participation in the “great work” of creation. A prerequisite to such a conversion in our life of work, of doing, is learning the practice of “not doing.” The distinguishing aspect of work after the Fall is how much of its source and energy is anxiety. Our anxiety about our own survival — at all levels of our personality — drives much of our activity. If we can begin to learn to still that anxiety, we begin to create a space for listening to the very life of God in which we and all creation “live, and move, and are.” Of all the possibilities for action and speech at any given moment, there is but one thing that is necessary, that we are called to do. We get worn out in life by doing many things that do not need to be done. Once the call of the moment is recognized and responded to, we know the freedom and the courage of the apostles in today’s reading. We know that we are not dependent on the approval and recognition of others, for we are doing what God has given us to do.
From the ages of twenty-four to thirty, I was fortunate enough to be a high school teacher. Many mornings as I headed into school, I would have the following thought: “I am so lucky. Most people have to struggle to work for a living, but I get to spend my days doing that which I most want to do in the world.” We all know moments of this experience where we are not working “by the sweat of our brow” but rather bearing witness in our unique way “to what…[we have] seen and heard.” At many points in our lives, our daily “job” may not be such a consonant experience. Yet from moment to moment, whatever our circumstance, we can pause to still our anxious form of life and to listen to the call of Spirit to us in the present moment. What is being asked of me as servant of God’s creation, at this moment, by this person, in this circumstance? Paradoxically enough, the experience of work is transformed when we become a servant of God’s way rather than attempting to be the master of the situation on our own terms.
Although, as from a prison walled with hate,
each from his own self labors to be free,
the world yet holds a wonder, and how great!
All life is lived: now this comes home to me.
But who, then, lives it? Things that patiently
stand there, like some unfingered melody
that sleeps within a harp as day is going?
Is it the winds across the waters blowing,
is it the branches, beckoning each to each,
is it the flowers, weaving fragrances,
the aging alleys that reach out endlessly?
Is it the warm beasts, moving to and fro,
is it the birds, strange as they sail from view?
This life—who lives it really? God, do you?
Rainer Maria Rilke, Poems from the Book of Hours