Today’s readings, two days after Pentecost, feature Jesus giving his disciples a mission. He tells them “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” They are tasked with bringing some seasoning and illumination to all the nations. They are, as Elwood Blues would say, on a mission from God. And if they fail to follow through on this mission, there is a tremendous sense of waste – what good is salt that loses its taste or a light that is hidden?
As I reflected on this passage over the last week or so, it brought to my mind another mission-type moment. In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus’ baptism is immediately followed by his temptations in the wilderness. I’ve long thought this connection to be significant, especially in my own life: after my baptism at age 22, I often characterized my decision to go to the University of Chicago Divinity School as my trip into the wilderness. Much as Jesus tasks his followers with going out into the world – one that will often reject them – so too does Jesus head off into an unknown place and face unforeseen dangers.
What is more striking to me though is the way this account is portrayed in the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. In the baptism narrative, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. Following this, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” It is the Spirit that drives him there, that leads Jesus into this unknown and potentially dangerous place.
(As a sidebar, I find this even more striking when one considers that in Matthew 6:13, Jesus teaches his followers to pray “lead us not into temptation” – is the Son taking a jab at the Spirit?)
So what do we have here: the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, and elsewhere Jesus commissions his followers to go out into the world as shining examples of God’s love. This seems right, actually, especially as we think of us, the church, as the Body of Christ acting in the world today. Like Jesus in Luke 4, we continue to be led by the Spirit.
And the Spirit may, from time to time, lead us places we are afraid to go. It may lead us out of our enclaves, our safe spaces, our gardens of like-minded friends. It led Jesus away from the River Jordan, away from his followers and from all those who were there to be baptized. The Spirit remained with him throughout the Gospel, even as he faced opposition, abandonment, and death. The Spirit pushes us into a world of unknowns, of risks, and yes, even of temptations.
For myself, as I prepare to go on pilgrimage and hike the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, I feel this urging of the Spirit. I leave in two days, having done my best to train and prepare myself for the rigors, both physical and spiritual, of the coming weeks. And I suspect I will experience temptations to despair, to quit, and to think myself better than those not hiking. I will meet new people, many of whom I don’t share a language with. I have an opportunity to bring flavor and light to the lives of others. I feel led by the Spirit, which is reassuring, humbling, and terrifying all at once.
The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and we too are tasked with going there. I hope that following Pentecost, we are empowered and courageous enough to follow this lead and be salt and light.