Faithful Agnosticism – Br. Mark Brown

Br. Mark Brown

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Cor. 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” So ends the first part of the story of Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth. He has just come from forty days in the wilderness, driven there by the Spirit after his baptism.  But, “filled with the Holy Spirit,”as Luke tells it, things then take a strange turn: for no reason apparent in the text he begins to provoke the hometown crowd, saying that they’re going to reject him: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town,” he says, and other impertinent things. He makes a narrow escape from being thrown off a cliff for his insolence. But, today we have the nice part of the story.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me…”The gracious words that came from his mouth were Isaiah’s gracious words, from a passage sometimes grouped with the so-called “Servant Songs”.  One of the best known of these we hear in Holy Week: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” [Is. 53:5] The Servant Songs in Isaiah helped shape the early church’s understanding of Jesus—and very well could have helped shape Jesus’ understanding of himself.  And if these prophetic songs help us understand Jesus, they help us understand ourselves.  The church is the servant of God; each of us is servant of God. He came not to be served, but to serve [Mark 10:45]—as do we.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me…”These words fall on our ears even today with a particular force.  The Spirit is indeed upon us, within us, around us, under and through us.  “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  We, too, are anointed in our baptism: anointed with oil, anointed with the Holy Spirit.  “Messiah” (from Hebrew) and “Christ” (from Greek) both mean “anointed”.  Jesus is Messiah, Jesus is Christ, Jesus is anointed.  We are anointed, and so in this literal sense, we are little christs, little messiahs. We scruple to put it quite that way, for good reason, and so we call ourselves “Christians”.

But Paul reminds us: we are indeed the Body of Christ, the Body of the Messiah, we are the anointed Body of the Anointed One. And, as the Spirit empowered Jesus of Nazareth, so the Spirit empowers us. It is the Spirit that gives us the gifts to build up the Body of Christ—each of us receiving gifts as the Spirit wills.  Some will be apostles, some prophets, some teachers, or healers or leaders, or speakers in tongues, or miracle workers, according to 1 Corinthians.  Or, how about this all-inclusive category: some will be given “forms of assistance”.  “Forms of assistance” covers a lot of territory.

If we connect the dots between the gracious words of Isaiah, St. Paul and Jesus, we can see a basic pattern emerging: the Spirit is upon us (within us, around us, behind us…); the Spirit, with which we are anointed, bestows upon us various gifts for service (leading, teaching, helping…); we, who are anointed by the Spirit, take up the work of God, the mission of God, bringing good news to the poor (whatever their poverty), proclaiming release to captives (whatever their captivity), restoring sight to the blind (whatever their blindness), letting the oppressed go free (whatever their oppression), proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (whatever that means).

One of the perennial questions in the air here at the monastery is “what exactly is God calling me to do in his service?”  Or, how do I participate in God’s work in the world? What should I be doing with my life? Many people, perhaps most, who come here for retreat or for spiritual direction or even for worship bring some version of that question. Even those of us who live here ask that question.  We all want to know that as servants of God we are actually doing what God desires and what the Spirit is empowering us to do.

There are times in life when we have a confident sense that we are, indeed, doing exactly what we’ve been put on earth to do. There can be a wonderful synergy or reciprocity between the Spirit working within us and the ministries we exercise. We can experience a deep sense of gratification and enjoyment from the work we do, knowing that what we enjoy doing is actually helping other people and participating in the work of God.The great Presbyterian spiritual writer Frederick Buechner put it this way: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”  There are times in life when we know this to be true, that the Spirit is upon us, empowering us to do things we find meaningful, even enjoyable, and that we know are meeting the needs of the world.

Wouldn’t it be sweet if every day were like that? Sometimes, the best we can hope for is a kind of—what shall we call it?—perhaps a “faithful agnosticism”.  Agnosticism simply means not knowing. I think Christians would do well to reclaim the word “agnostic” from its more narrow application. Faith, as we understand it, wouldn’t be faith if all we had were absolute certainties.  It is of our limited human nature to know only in part, and of what we do know, only dimly at times.  Yes, there are days when we feel certain that what we are doing is exactly what we were put on earth to do.  Then there are the other days.  Days when things just aren’t adding up, days when we experience failure or rejection, days when the best laid plans go awry.  Days when our most honest prayer, our most faithful prayer, is “God, I just don’t know what’s going on here…”

As miserable as this can feel when we experience it, there’s good news for us.  Our state of confusion or “faithful agnosticism” or not-knowing is not failure in the eyes of God.  What we do in this world is important. What I believe is more important to God is the movement of the will, the desire to know and to understand and to serve God and God’s people.  This movement of the will, seated deeply somewhere in our beings, may not even be expressible in words.  It is sometimes only an inchoate, not-yet-formed, not-yet-articulated impulse at the core of our being to know God and to serve God in this world.  To him all hearts are open, all desires known; from him no secrets lie hidden.  As the Lord said to Samuel: “…the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7]

In a sense, we need not be anxious about whether we’re actually doing the work God has called us to. Ultimately, it is our desire to serve, our will and intention to serve that is important to God.  And we may discover in hindsight that we were doing what we were supposed to be doing all along—and just didn’t recognize it at the time.

At the core of our being there is a flame of desire to know and love and serve God and God’s people: this is triumph.  Even if we’re in a fog of unknowing, or in a morass of self-doubt with clarity about nothing, the flame of this desire still burns—and that is triumph.  That is the triumph of the Spirit of the Lord who anoints us, the Spirit of the Lord who is upon us, the Spirit of the Lord who empowers us, the Spirit of the Lord who loves us in all our doings and just as much in what may seem to us to be our “not doings”.

I’ll close with a well-known prayer by the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, whose 101st birthday would be next Sunday, January 31.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”


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  1. Jennifer on February 5, 2016 at 08:45

    This message was just what I needed to hear on the day before Diocesan Discernment Conference. Thank you! I know that God set me on this path years ago, but frequently I don’t know where my next step will lead, and I wish I could see God’s vision for me as clearly as God does. You bolster my faith that I don’t need to know where God is leading. All I need to do is follow.

    God bless you!

  2. Annette Taylor on January 30, 2016 at 01:22

    Praise God, a life boat! Just when I thought all hope was gone. Thank you.

  3. Paul on January 28, 2016 at 23:26

    “Age quod agis,” dear Brother Mark; and may God bless you now and forever. Amen

  4. Robert D Scott on January 28, 2016 at 18:40

    Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

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