Tuesday 5 March 2024

The Power of "With"

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

—Matthew 28:20

The word “with” can be used to imply many different things. It can suggest potential proximity—“Put this book with the others”—or accompaniment—“Let me go there with you.” It can connote hipness, as when Grampa Abe Simpson vociferously complains, “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was!” It can imply agreement and comprehension—“I’m with you so far”—or even a deep solidarity—“I will stand with you in your struggle for justice.”

With all these different uses and connotations of the word “with,” how might we understand the way that the resurrected Jesus uses the word when he says to his disciples, “I am with you always,” words he utters moments after he has charged them with the task of spreading his shalom way to the ends of the earth?

In the song “Can’t Hardly Wait” by The Replacements (one of my favourite rock bands from the 1980s) there is a cheeky line that always makes me chuckle, where singer Paul Westerberg intones: “Jesus rides beside me, but he never buys any smokes.” While I resonate with this image of Jesus as a steadfast travel companion on the road trip of life, I hope and trust that he is more than someone who is simply ‘along for the ride,’ mooching my last cigarette to boot! (In my case, as a non-smoker, the cigarette would have to be metaphorical.)

Perhaps it might help if we connect Jesus’ promise at the end of the gospel of Matthew to a claim made near the beginning of that same gospel, where the angel, echoing Isaiah 7:14, tells Joseph that the child Mary carries is the promised Messiah, the one who will be called “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us” (Matt. 1:23)? Once we make this connection, we begin to discern the mysterious contours of this very powerful “with,” and the way Jesus’ promise includes but also moves beyond simple companionship.

The very word “with,” I think, says something about the nature of divine power itself, this messianic possibility that Jesus promises to make available to us. As ICS Emeritus Professor Jim Olthuis suggests in his book Dancing in the Wild Spaces of Love, the power of this “with” is not a dominating or oppressive power, not an “over,” but rather a power that comes alongside us and empowers us—much like Jesus did, incognito, when he joined his erstwhile unwitting disciples on the road to Emmaus. 

Jim calls this power “withing,” and describes it as the way humans are uniquely called to image a Creator who desires to be with and love creation:

As God is with-us (Emmanuel), so we are to be-with others, cum amore (with love). “Withing” (power-with rather than power-over) is our gift and calling, be(com)ing the unique selves we are through relationship with other persons (intersubjectivity), with creation and all its creatures (solidarity), and with God (spirituality). In and with the impetus of love’s promise, we live-with, work-with, wrestle-with, suffer-with, celebrate-with the whole family of earth’s creatures, all of creation, and God. (xvi-ii)

Jim later describes “withing” as “a celebrating-with and suffering-with without submission or domination, a being-with in which we are true to ourselves even as we exist in connection with each other” (87).

How wonderful is this “with,” this divine connection that empowers us to connect—with the earth and all its creatures, with each other, and with God? How different it is from the kind of power we all too often seek, the power to dominate and control others, the earth, and even God? I ponder how deeply different is the way toward which our Messiah’s promise points us.

Shalom, friends!

Ron Kuipers