It is reciprocity that converts us

The logic of charisms/4 - Christians are the ones about the way and the encounter, not always happy ones but decisive.

by Luigino Bruni

Published in the Avvenire 12/09/2021

"It is not so necessary to educate children to grow up quickly, as to educate adults to know how to be – or turn – children again."
Igino Giordani, The republic of the brats/ La repubblica dei marmocchi

There was no money during the journey of the followers of Jesus, but they had what was essential. What is essential is the Word. The result is a condition of dependence on others, because proclamation is a gift and welcoming others.

We continue with the analogy between the early days of Christianity and our charismatic communities or spiritual movements today - two expressions that I use as synonyms, as collective realities born and nourished by a charism and therefore by one or more founders, who are the first bearers and the first image of that charisma. Hence, analogy, which, as scholastic philosophy teaches us, is a parallelism between two realities where similarities coexist with dissimilarities, and the latter are generally greater than the former. The analogical method, especially in history, must always be taken with significant precautions, but like any method, it can be a way to start a journey in a new territory to be explored. Analogies can be generative, if the term of comparison is rich and fruitful: the Bible and the first Christian communities certainly are. The analogy suggests, hints, points out, always softly and in a whisper; it is the dawn of speech, always fragile and vulnerable. Hence, it knows the typical virtues of vulnerability.

How did the first community around Jesus develop? Mark describes it to us like this: «Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff - no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them» (Mark 6,6-13).

In John, the first disciples come from the Baptist's movement; according to Mark and the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus calls upon them along the Sea of Galilee. Once back from Judea, at the end of his experience with the Baptist, his first gesture is calling disciples, companions, friends, to tell us that this extraordinary story is collective, communitarian, social history, it is the story of the "two or three”, an immediately ecclesial story. Jesus immediately begins his mission by associating his name with other names: Peter, Andrew, James, John. The first name of "Christians" is a plural name. Elijah, very present in these stories by Mark, calls upon Elisha at the end of his mission, Jesus calls them at the beginning; he calls them in pairs, in pairs of brothers. "Woe to the sun", the wise Qoheleth sang a few centuries earlier, and if brotherhood in spirit is not a brotherhood of blood, this beginning tells us that sometimes the two can meet. Mark says that the first disciples are called by Jesus while they are working, in their activity as fishermen. Fishermen, hence workers trained in collective team action - sea or lake fishing is necessarily a work for "two or three". 

In the beginnings of the community of Jesus there is work. Moreover, there is continuity with a constant note from the Bible, which in this shows the humanism of work. In the Bible, some decisive calls take place while people are working. Amos, Gideon, Judith, David, all receive their calling while working. Jesus calls his friends and calls them to become "fishermen of men". That technical skill they had learned by learning the difficult trade of fishing for fish, Jesus now asks them to use it for another task, for a different profession. Proclaiming the Kingdom is a vocation, not a profession, but it resembles a profession, because it requires competence, skill, commitment and apprenticeship. One does not become a professional of the calling, but competent, yes; and without people who know how to "catch men" at least as well they know how to catch fish, no movement can be born, no great adventure like the Christian one.

From time to time, the apostles are seen by the Gospels as they fish, even during the years they live next to Jesus (think of the miraculous catch); telling us that leaving the fishnets to handle those of men does not necessarily mean to leaving their first boats for the boat of the Church definitively or materially. In the history of the Church, some apostles left the first boats and their first nets, even materially, and never took them back; other apostles left them only in spirit, and continued to handle the same boats as before gathering both fish and men, often with the same nets, when the work remained the same after the vocation. There have always been many ways of being an apostle. So in our communities and movements: their members are not professionals of the spirit, much less employees of a company; but they are competent, sometimes even in work, and the lay competence in their work nourishes and supports the other apostolic competence. The risk to be avoided is that the invitation to leave the old nets should cause the loss of the old skills and competence without generating any new ones.

Why does Jesus order his apostles to take «no bag, no bread, no money...» on their journey? Jesus is creating a new type of man and hence a new type of community. Here we understand why Christians in the beginning were called "those of the way", those who walked. The community of Jesus was a mobile one, a following, a walking behind, a going back to being a "Wandering Aramean". Tent, encampment, precariousness, being non-permanent. And Christian communities remained like that for decades, the decades that changed history.

When you walk a lot, the choice of clothing and equipment is decisive. As we know as well when we have to start a long journey or a pilgrimage: it is a good idea to bring only the essentials; and the longer the journey, the more essential you need to become. For a long journey to be sustainable, you only need to bring what you really need, not the superfluous, and it is therefore essential to know how to identify the essential and distinguish it from what is superfluous. The journey of the apostles was something similar: the essential thing they brought was the announcement of a different Word, the advent of another Kingdom. They were not leaving, like merchants, to sell and buy things, they were not soldiers, they were not seasonal workers, nor representatives of a company paid by commission. The essential was therefore a single tunic, not a second one. They did not bring bread because the biblical God provides our daily bread, as he did in the desert, and as he continues to do with his "workers" who are entitled to their wages. There is a strong imperative not to even bring money, which is the basis of the charism of St. Francis, who in order to imitate this dimension of the apostolate forbade his friars to bring money into their begging.

These requests from the apostolate create a condition of dependence on others, which is perhaps the most important message. If you do not have a home, if you do not have bread or money with you, in order to live you need the hospitality of someone who welcomes you and gives you food. The Christian message is then essentially an experience of reciprocity from the very beginning: the apostles bring the proclamation of the Gospel, the true treasure, and receive a bed and a loaf of bread in return. This reciprocity of material goods is part of the apostle's experience, and if it is lacking he cannot, nor must he, proclaim the Gospel. This is why when there is no reciprocity «leave that place and shake the dust off your feet» (Mark 6,11). Because if those who must receive the proclamation of the Gospel do not immediately place themselves in an attitude of welcoming and of gift, they cannot understand that announced Gospel. The Gospel of love opens to those who are already find themselves in love. And the new commandment, that of mutual love, is lived already from its announcement: the disciple needs the reciprocity of the listener, who loves him even before converting, simply by listening and welcoming. If, however, he does not, you move on. The opposite, would be throwing away a treasure.

This reciprocity is almost as essential as the message itself. Whoever listens to the Gospel must first give. Whoever announces the Gospel knows that the first gift he can give to the listener is to give him the possibility of giving, in order to receive and then, perhaps, understand. Whoever announces the Gospel knows that he is a beggar of this reciprocity. In the Oikonomia of the Gospel, the donor has an essential need for a donee. The great skill of any announcement is to put the people to whom you want to give good news into an attitude of giving.

These missionary indications belong to the sources of Mark, probably dating back to the primitive teaching of Jesus. And they tell us something important for our communities. The first Gospel was lived above all through the feet, through walking. It was all about leaving, about being sent. The following should not in fact be overemphasized: as soon as the apostles began to follow Jesus, he sent them "two by two", and they began to do with others exactly what he was doing with them. The first community grew by budding, plural, bio diversified; so much so that immediately after the death of Jesus, which arrived a few years after the beginning of his public life, the various communities already found themselves being rather different from one another. Each with their specific characteristics and "theologies", where the different apostles and disciples left the imprint of their personality. The first Church was not born monolithic or compact because Jesus sent his disciples around, made them nomadic and non-residential, as he himself was.

The community, this community, is not a messianic court; it is not an esoteric community, but a missionary and nomadic community, which now and then gets together, only to immediately leave again. It is a community of heralds, and it is the message and the experience itself that founded the community, not cohabitation or insisting on the need to stand on common ground. They were not together because they were looking for the warmth of a home, they preferred being cold out in the streets before the comfort zone of a house. And on that bare and poor road the disciples, sent out two by two in pairs, proceeded to evangelize and heal. They did not leave dreaming of returning to Ithaca, their Ithaca was the road: this is why there is a lot of Christian humanism in Dante's Ulysses, even if he puts him in Hell, because the whole Divine Comedy is paradise thanks to the gaze of pietas of Dante.

Only in this way could a Church be born capable of quickly reaching all corners of the earth, because its columns had been formed by the art of the street. Spiritual communities, certainly the most authentic and healthy ones, are born in the streets. However, during the course of time, it is almost inevitable that the warmth of a home eventually should win over being cold in the streets. Hence, little by little, from communities made up of heralds, they turn into communities of consumers of spiritual goods, and sometimes this internal consumption becomes so important that they no longer able to feel the cold felt by those who are out in the streets. This is how communities die, but they can be resurrected, if one day they relearn the discipline of the road. When the community becomes a labyrinth of the soul, either we take off like Icarus (taking on all the risks of flying) or we look within the charism for an Ariadne who left a thread of salvation for us.



Language: ENGLISH

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