Holy Spirit and Pentecostal Fire

Psalm 104:34-35, 37 I will sing to God as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please God; I will rejoice in God. Bless God, O my soul. Hallelujah!

Introduction

God does not leave God’s beloved. God, from the very beginning, sent out God’s Spirit to be with and among the beloved, from the beginning of light to the unendedness of dark, from the tiniest of mites to the largest of beasts, form the highest of mountains to the deepest of ocean floors, God is with God’s beloved. This is what our ancient creation myths of Genesis 1 and 2 tell us. Genesis 3 tells a tale of fracture and disruption of harmony and communion among God, humanity, creation, and one existing within each person. Yet, even in the ricochets of the fractures, God never left the beloved. Even when the beloved left the garden, God went with them. God’s Spirit suspended before and with God’s people: calling Abraham and Sarah, sustaining Isaac and Ishmael, leading Jacob, sending Moses, manifesting as fire in bushes, pillars of flame at night, in clouds during the day, in the pulling apart the waters of the Red Sea like the pulling apart the light from the dark at the beginning of creation, in tabernacles, tents, and temples. Not to mention Israel’s prophetic line speaking as God’s representatives; being filled with divine passion, they summoned and heralded to Israel the good news of God and God’s presence, exhorting them to see God not only in their own midst in their strength and power, but more importantly in the weakest of them: in the widow and orphan, in the hungry and thirsty, in the houseless and unclothed.

God does not leave the beloved because love needs the beloved. The lover who loves needs an other to love, the beloved; the beloved needs the lover to be the beloved. And the very spirit of God—the one that hovered over the face of the deep so long ago and the same one that inspired the prophets to proclaim God’s passion for God’s people—is the substance of love. As much as we are all made of start-dust, we are in equal part made of love. Love has set this whole crazy cosmic experiment in motion, and love sustains it. God is so serious about love that we declare that God’s love took on flesh. Jesus the Christ was formed in the womb of Mary and born into her love, not only to experience the power of love in his own flesh, but to love others as God. Jesus demonstrated in word and deed to the beloved that God really does love them, is really for them, really does see and know their pain and suffering (Ex. 2), really does get angry over injustice and weeps over death, and really does walk in solidarity with humanity even in death. And as you know, death cannot sever the bonds and ties of love because love remembers, love recalls. And even more than that, love resurrects, calls forth the beloved from the tomb, and sends the beloved onward and forward in love.

John 20:19-23

Therefore when it was evening on that day—the first [day] of the week—and when the door having been shut where the disciples were because of the fear of the children of Israel, Jesus came and stood in their midst and he said to them, “Peace to you.”… Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you; just as the father/elder/ancestor has sent me, so also I send you.” And after saying this, he breathed [on them] and he said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit… “[1]

John 20:19, 21-22

The disciples are locked away for agitation and fear. And what does God do? Shows up. None of these men had their act together, were stalwart emissaries of unflagging faith, or superheroes braving the persecutions. They were terrified and confused human beings, desperate for something, for anything. And, as God has done since the conception of the inception of creation, God shows up behind that locked door and brings peace to them. Why? Because God knows their fear and panic, their terror and anxiety, their desperate desire to live and when God knows these things, God feels these things, and God acts to ameliorate these things. The ascended Christ does not leave the disciples alone to figure it out or muster up their own strength; Jesus shows up and brings it to them where they are because that’s what God does.[2]

Prior to this moment, Jesus has already promised giving peace, his peace that surpasses any peace that the world can offer. It’s not that the world is bad or should be shunned, rather the world is the playground of divine love and liberation seeking and desiring the beloved. However, the systems made by humans can only provide a certain and temporary form of peace; no material possession can secure your peace—none. However, in chapter 14 of John’s gospel, Jesus’s gave these same men peace: peace I let go to you, my peace I give to you; I give to you not as the world gives. Let your heart be neither agitated nor fearful (v. 27). It doesn’t mean that this gift of peace failed. Rather, at the time they were not able to receive it because Jesus was with them, but now that he is ascended and gone from them and they are agitated and fearful, he appears to them and calls them to awareness that they have his peace.[3]

But he doesn’t merely reiterate that they have his peace, he gives them the Holy Spirit to be with them from this day on, the same Spirit existing before the cosmos and the one that called Jesus forth from the tomb. This Spirit is the Spirit of God and fulfills the promise from old that God’s Spirit would dwell in the hearts of God’s people, the beloved (ref. Ez. 36:26). The peace of God is no longer a wish or a prayer but is with the disciples of Christ…literally, because they have the Spirit of God. Easter finds its fullest expression in Pentecost, for now true life is accessible to the disciples; they are (once again) being summoned from their tomb and exhorted to walk forward into the light of day, proclaiming and heralding God’s love to all.[4] Not only do the disciples have the peace of Christ with them, they have the authority of the Spirit of God to be the witnesses of Christ, they are sent not by any other person than God of very God. They are sent into the world as Christ to carry forward the mission of God: seeking and desiring the beloved, bringing life, love and liberation to the captives.

Conclusion

Pentecost secures—forever—God’s liberation and liberating of the captives. It is as powerful as Christmas and Easter; it ranks with the major feasts of the Christian tradition. It is the power of God transcending all the boundaries we create, breaking down the barriers we build, rewriting the narratives we write about ourselves, each other, creation, and God. It is the descent of the Spirit that is echoed in creation coming into recreation. It is the sound of doors being unlocked, cells sliding open, and those previously curved inward standing upright for the first time in a long time. It is the sound of bodies dancing, voices singing, and communities experiencing the liberation of God.

My dear friend and colleague, The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch, recently published a book, Storied Witness: The Theology of Black Women Preachers in the 19th-Century America. In this text she tells the stories of three black women preachers: Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, and Sojourner Truth. In sharing about the religious and theological influences of Truth, she mentions that Truth’s mother, Mau Mau Bett (Elizabeth), was her first spiritual teacher, combining “her African heritage with the Dutch culture of her enslavers.”[5] It was this that opened the door, writes Kate, to Truth’s broad and deep view of God’s presence with her.[6] In addition to this, Sojourner Truth’s theology was influenced by the Dutch holiday of Pinkster…otherwise known as Pentecost.[7] The celebration of Pinkster created a space in time where liberation from oppression made its truth known in the material realm, where baptismal regeneration and the essence of the sacramental meal of thanksgiving were cultivated into a bodied celebration of the descent of the Spirit that knows no boundaries of skin color, wealth, sex, gender, age, etc.[8] Here Love descended and imparted itself to everyone; here the enslaved walked and danced free in the fullness of the glory of God, “These erotic dances enabled her to love her own body and also reminded her of the Holy Spirit who dwells with and in all bodies, Black and white, enslaved and freed.”[9]

Let us follow Truth’s lead and witness and live like God is truly present with us, rejoice like the disciples seeing Christ, and exist liberated and loved like the Spirit of God within us. And may the life-giving breath of the church, the Holy Spirit burning with Pentecostal fire, ignite the divine revolution of love, life, and liberation as we go forth into the world.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed; RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. German: Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964, 1966). 691. “Suddenly he appears in their midst, and he greets them with the customary prayer for blessing. That Jesus in the meantime had ascended to the Father, as he had said to Mary that he would (v. 17), and has now again returned to earth would be a false reflection—not only in the meaning of the source, but also in that of the Evangelist. Rather the sense is that he has ascended, and even as such he appears to the disciples; as such he is able to bestow the Spirit (v. 22)…”

[3] Bultmann, John, 691-692. “In harmony with this the εἰρήνη—and the Solemn repetition of the greeting hints that we have to understand εἰρήνη in the full sense of 14:27—which Jesus offers the disciples has in truth already been given to them in the hour of the departure (14.27). Easter is precisely the hour when their eyes are opened for that which they already possess; and vv. 19-23 are no more than the depiction of this event.”

[4] Bultmann, John, 692-693. “The fact that the narrative depicts the fulfilment of the promise in the farewell discourses is shown finally in that the Risen Jesus bestows the Spirit on the disciples through his breath (v. 22); Easter and Pentecost therefore fall together. If in 16.8-11 the task of the Spirit was described as an ἐλέγχειν, so here correspondingly the bestowal of the Spirit is accompanied by the giving of authority to the disciples (v. 23). Thus the judgment that took place in the coming of Jesus (3.19; 5.27; 9.39) is further achieved in the activity of the disciples. It is self-evident that it is not a special apostolic authority that is imparted here, but that the community as such is equipped with this authority; for as in chs. 13-16 the μαθηταί represent the community.”

[5] Kate Hanch, Storied Witness: The Theology of Black Women Preachers in the 19th-Century America (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2022). Pp. 112-113.

[6] Hanch, Storied Witness, 113.

[7] Hanch, Storied Witness, 113.

[8] Hanch, Storied Witness, 114-115.

[9] Hanch, Storied Witness, 115.

Why Do You Stand Looking Up?

Psalm 68:3, 5-6a: But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; let them also be merry and joyful. Parent of orphans, defender of the widowed, God is in God’s holy habitation! God gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom…

Introduction

I had hamsters as a little girl; two: Peanut Butter and Jelly. Having hamsters as a kid taught me two very valuable lessons. The first was practical: hamsters and cats don’t mix; no matter how high up you store that hamster habitat, the cat—like a stealthy ninja thief—will break into it. The second was existential: humans and hamsters hold the tendency of running and running in circles in common. To be honest, as tragic as the first lesson was to learn as a young girl, the second lesson was even more tragic. While it’s not great to come home from school to catpocalypse having descended upon our humble home, it’s worse to find out for yourself you can be moving and moving and not going anywhere.

Sometimes we spend a lot of energy running in place, going back (again) to the same thing—behavior, thought, framework, tendency—to find help and yet those things leave us wanting again and again. We can feel a lack and purchase something only to be left (again) with feeling the lack. We can return to old habits to find that the same consequences still manifest. We can keep thinking we can beat the system by playing the system, only to find out that once again the system is way better at this game than we are. If you’ve ever thought, uttered, mumbled the words, “This is just how the world is…”, listen closely for the squeak, squeak, squeak of that hamster wheel. All in all, the comfort of our hamster wheel and the feeling of moving perpetuate the false notion that we are getting somewhere. We are running and running and all we are doing is standing still.

So, what if we stopped running? Maybe we need someone to throw a stick in the gear to force us out of our little round, squeaky comfort zones. But it’s always good to remember that we aren’t—in fact—hamsters; we can get off our wheels. We can leave our tube-errific habitats and fight back catpocalypse with our own armadoggon, walking as liberated beings with in the world bringing life and love to other captives so stuck in place.

Acts 1:6-14

“…but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses: in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and until the end of the earth.” And after saying these things while they were watching [Jesus] was lifted up and a cloud received him from their eyes. And as they were gazing into the heaven while he was going, behold! two men stood by them in bright robes, and they said, “Men of Galilee, why have you stood looking into the heaven?…”

Acts 1:8-11a (Translation Mine)

Luke tells us that those who were gathered around Jesus came and asked him if he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus, according to Luke, uses this question to navigate towards a discussion of something else than kingdom restoration: the reign of God extending beyond humanmade boundaries defining this or that kingdom; this is the advent of the new order, not a return to the old one.[1] The disciples are still stuck in thinking in terms of people groups and kingdoms; but God, in Christ, is thinking about the cosmos, the people of God, the entire world. In fact, this is the point of the book of Acts. We think it’s about the disciples and what they did, but it’s more of a testament to the power and action of the divine Spirit and what the Spirit will do by moving the disciples to spread the message of Christ—the message of divine love, life, and liberation—to the ends of the earth.

God isn’t interested in Israel standing still because God doesn’t stand still.[2] See, as a people who partake in the divine image, as God self-discloses so too do believers participate in that self-disclosure. God moves and is on the move: creation speaks to this, the history of Israel speaks to this, the incarnation speaks to this, the resurrection speaks to this, the ascension will speak to this, and so to the coming fulfillment of the promised descent of the Holy Spirit. So, as God moves so, too, do those who have new life in God by faith. While humans like to think God stands still causing us to have to go “back” to find God, the reality is something else: God is always a couple steps ahead of us, and in being ahead of us is able to be with us guiding us toward something new of God.[3] Thus, believers do not stand still, rather they are to be witnesses, moving, proclaiming witnesses of God’s power over death.

This is the point of Jesus’s promise that the Holy (Divine) Spirit will descend and come upon the disciples; herein the likeness to God takes on more distinctive features. Like Jesus’s life was a message of divine love, life, and liberation to people held captive and pressed and pushed to the margins, so, too, will the disciples become these very story books or divine love letters to more and more people.[4] They—by their bodies in word and deed—will announce not the establishment of human empires but the divine revolution of God’s love in the world seeking and searching for the beloved.[5] Here the ends of the earth are brought together at one point: as the disciples move by the power of the divine spirit, God’s love eclipses the notion of the villainy of otherness and the tyranny of us v. them. For where there is life-giving and love-sharing there is liberation from the captivity of death and hate (here, otherness is refused and the battle between us and them rent asunder). This isn’t about going out and making converts to a singular way of thinking—believer or die! Rather, it’s about spreading divine gifts of love, life, and liberation to all people, incorporating all people into the family of God’s life and love.

Then we get to my favorite moment in this story. As Jesus ascends—not to abandon the disciples but to be with them in a more personal and intimate way[6]—two men appear dressed in bright-like-light clothing. These two men find the disciples staring up into the sky, still, stuck, and motionless. Then they ask the most perfect question, My Dudes, why in the world are you just standing there staring up into the sky? Granted, and to be fair, the disciples have a lot going on at that moment, but the point is made: it’s time to move, move forward. It isn’t about looking up or looking back, but looking ahead; it’s about interrupting what’s grown old even if comfortable and embarking on something new. As Willie James Jennings says,

“We must never discount the next step that must be taken at the sight of Jesus’ leaving. Such a step is understandably a labored step, unsure and unclear. Nevertheless it must be taken because faith always leans forward to Jerusalem, toward the place where God waits to meet us. We are always drawn on by God to our future.”[7]

Conclusion

“People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into the heaven?” Or, People of God, why do you keep running on that hamster wheel? Our life of faith is dynamic and active. It’s not about sitting and reverencing and standing far off. It’s about standing up, and acting, and coming up close and personal—to God and to others. Our life of faith is not about just accepting things as they are, shrugging, and just rolling over; it’s about saying something new, doing something different, taking a risk, and living liberated and responsible in the world to the benefit of God’s beloved who is your neighbor.

Jesus’s ascent into heaven does not limit the spreading of the proclamation of God’s love for the entire cosmos, but, in fact, ensures that it can (and will) spread. As Christ was and is embodied, Christ can only do so much with a body—as we know. But with the promised divine Spirit that will come to the disciples to anchor and yoke them to God, this message of Christ—the incarnated proclamation of God’s love for all people—can now very much and very literally travel to the furthest reaches of the earth. It is a message that is now unrestricted by culture and context, unbound by dogma and doctrine, and unleashed from time and tense.

As the beloved of God you, by faith, are liberated by love and given new life. This is part of our Easter story. But it doesn’t end with Easter; it doesn’t end with Ascension…it is just beginning. So, again, let me ask, People of God, why do you stand looking up into the heaven? As those who have been encountered by God in the event of faith in the proclamation of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit: Go. Go forth into the world carrying and sharing the grace and mercy of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, bringing God’s love to all…


[1] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 16. “He will seal this new order, this revolution over death and the power of violence through the Holy Spirit. The Sprit is the promise of the Father to the Son and those joined to him. Indeed Acts narrates the journey of the Spirit even more deeply into the way of Jesus and the journey of Jesus more deeply into the way of the Spirit. The Spirit, companion with Jesus and his disciples, will soon spread the body of Jesus over space and time opening his life as a new home for the faith of Israel.”

[2] Jennings, Acts, 16. “Geography matters. Place matters to God. From a specific place the disciples will move forward into the world. To go from place to place is to go from people to people and to go from an old identity to a new one. Jesus prepares them for the journey of their lives by holding them in a place where the Spirit will be given to them in that place, and from that place they will be changed.”

[3] Jennings, Acts, 19. “Jesus ascends not only to establish presence through absence, but he also draws his body into the real journeys of his disciples into the world. He goes to heaven for us, ahead of us. He goes with and ahead of his disciples into the real places of this world. He is Lord of time (past, present, and future) yet walking in our time, and he is Lord of space (here and there) yet taking our spaces and places with utmost seriousness.”

[4] Jennings, Acts, 18. “They will be an irrefutable presence. They will also be witnesses of divine presence. They will give room to the witness, making their lives a stage on which the resurrected Jesus will appear and claim each creature as his own, as a site of love and desire.”

[5] Jennings, Acts, 18. “The disciples will be formed by the Spirit as witnesses. They will be turned out to the world not as representatives of empires but those who will announce a revolution, the revolution of the intimate, God calling to the world. They will enter new places to become new people by joining themselves to those in Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. As Jesus announces this divine desire, he ascends.”

[6] Jennings, Acts, 19. “Jesus’ ascension is in fact God claiming our space as the sites for visitation, announcing God’s desire to come to us. Gods desire will be seen in the pouring out of the Spirit in a specific place in order to enter specific places and specific lives. He ascends for our sake, not to turn away from us but to more intensely focus in on us.”

[7] Jennings, Acts, 19-20.

Jesus is Better than Santa

Psalm 66:14-15, 17-18 Come and listen, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what God has done for me. I called out to God with my mouth, and God’s praise was on my tongue. But in truth God has heard me; God has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld God’s love from me.

Introduction

I think there are times when people get Santa and God confused. When we lived in Pittsburgh, my neighbor said something to my boys about Santa one December. They either didn’t hear her or didn’t know what she was talking about; either way they looked at her with rather vapid expressions. Being one who dislikes very awkward silences, I chimed in, “Oh, we don’t do the Santa thing.” As soon as I spoke that line rather casually, I regretted it. She confronted me. I did my best to cogently explain that it made sense to me to minimize my kids’ exposure to the cornucopia of mythology shared and celebrated around that time of year—I mean, virgin births aren’t necessarily not myth; she was still rather unimpressed with my decision. She closed the conversation with one final statement, one I’ve never forgotten, “Lauren, don’t you know that Santa lives in all our hearts?” I was now the one without words and the vapid expression. Literally, speechless. I thanked her for the reminder once I got my wits about me and then shuffled the boys into the house like wrangling cats or balloons.

The comment stuck with me because I was rather terrified of the idea of someone like Santa living in my heart. I mean, the man literally keeps a record of my good and bad, right and wrong, and then that north-pole based, magical voyeur checks that darned list twice! For no other reason than to make sure I’ve rightly earned my gifts. But then thinking upon it some more, it dawned on me that there’s a tendency in our culture to ascribe to Santa the grace that is God’s and ascribe to God the judgment that is Santa’s. Truth be told… that tendency is well justified when the church and its leaders have rendered the simplicity of loving God and obeying God’s commandments the spiritual equivalent of competing in American Ninja Warrior. If God has set some sort of sadistic, masochistic, gauntlet of an obstacle course, then yes, please give me Santa; God’s terrifying.

But what if God hasn’t set such a course and it’s rather easy to love God and obey God’s commandments? What if God’s law has very little to do with you achieving your own perfection and, rather, recognizing your deep and desperate need for divine love, life, and liberation? What if it’s as uncomplicated as faith and as simple as being loved?

John 14:15-21

‘If you love me, you will observe my commandments. I, I too will ask the father/the ancestor/the elder to give you another Paraclete, so that [the Paraclete] might be with you into the ages, the spirit of truth. … The one who has my commandments and observes them that one is my beloved. And the one who loves me will be loved by my father/ancestor/elder, and I, I too will love [them] and I will appear to [them] myself.’ [1]

Jn 14:15-16, 21

What does it take to love God? Observe God’s commandments—this is discipleship; what are the commandments? To love God—this is discipleship.[2] No joke. This is exactly what Jesus is saying in this passage according to John. Even if we take a step back and look at the Big Ten from the First Testament, they can be easily broken into two commandments that are alike to each other: Love God (first tablet) and love your neighbor (second tablet). The neat thing about the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is God’s love incarnate, thus to love Jesus is to love your neighbor because in Christ’s incarnate form he is your neighbor and he identifies with the neighbor.[3] Thus when you love Jesus you love God and your neighbor; and, according to the gospels, you can check your arithmetic: if you love God then you love Jesus and the neighbor; if you love the neighbor then you love God and Jesus. It’s all embedded in this trifold reality that God is in Jesus and Jesus identifies with the neighbor.[4] In that the gospels proclaim Jesus as divine love incarnate and this love incarnate proclaims love, life, and liberation to the captives—like all the great prophets before him caught up in the same “Spirit of Truth”—then to identify with those with whom God in Christ identified, to love those whom God in Christ loves is to love Christ thus God since God is in Christ.[5]

What John is doing in this passage is highlighting that what the world does not understand is that it’s not about me and private pursuit of righteousness and justification; to be self-righteous and to try to self-justify is to go against God because it causes the believer to be wrapped up in themselves at the expense of the neighbor and to sidestep that hunger for God. Pursuing your self-righteousness and self-justification tells God and your neighbor you do not need them; it’s the opposite of how the gospels define what it means to be holy. The encounter with God by faith,[6] on the other hand, liberates the one so encountered and releases them into the world to love like God which is like Jesus and the Spirit of truth. The one so encountered is actually liberated: from the prison of themselves; from the threat that if they don’t get it just right, they will burn; from the violence of self-chastisement over privatized sins; and, from the suffocating sensation that God is against you unless…. Here meritocracy is dashed to the ground; it’s not about you and your personal and privatized so-called-holiness, it’s about loving God and loving others and being loved by God and by others. This is what the world doesn’t get, according to John’s Jesus. The world runs on merit; but God doesn’t.[7] When the church forgot this message and made God and the spiritual realm all about merit, it abandoned the Spirit of Truth for a few pieces of silver.

Conclusion

The conclusion here is this—and this is a tough one so listen close:

Santa is not Jesus, God, or the Holy Spirit.

And the second is like unto it:

Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are way better than Santa.

When all is said and done, the very thing that liberates human beings from the threat of the pursuit and demand of self-righteousness and self-justification, that liberates human beings into life and love is never achieved by merit. A prisoner can be absolutely perfect and still denied parole because grace and mercy are absent. You can strive to perform every day and still be denied that raise or promotion because someone else was younger or had the right pedigree. You can do it all correctly according to the world and still end up at the end of days destitute and desolate. Merit cannot ever be the means of liberation because you must wake up and do it all again tomorrow and all the while pray you are always able to do so.

But with God, God’s love liberates because it just loves and allows to live, God’s love creates a place in space and time for the beloved to exist as they are for who they are in whatever form they are. God’s love releases the captives from their captivity because they are liberated from the demand of merit for self-worth and self-approval, they are released from the rat-race of meritocracy, they are free to stop thinking of only themselves (because they can’t afford not to) and can start thinking of someone else. Freedom and liberation are most emphasized in the presence of others and God and not in absentia of both. The freest person I’ve ever heard of was the one who was so free he literally concerned himself with others to the point that he would even endure death to identify with God’s beloved, you.

You are loved; be loved. You are the beloved, rest. And then spread that love everywhere, bringing God’s love to God’s beloved who doubt they are or ever could be God’s beloved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed; RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. German: Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964, 1966). 614. “V. 15: the answer to the question how a relationship of love can be established with the departed Revealer is this: it consists in the disciple fulfilling his commands.”

[3] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 557. “I: ’Yes, he is love incarnate, he himself is the new commandment; to love his message of love is to love one another.’ ‘You can also say the reverse to love people is to love him.’”

[4] Cardenal, Solentiname, 557. “I: ‘He and the Father are the same thing, the Father, who is love, sent us Jesus, love incarnate, and now he’s going to send us the spirit of love, that is, the spirit of the teachings of Jesus, which is also himself.’”

[5] Cardenal, Solentiname, 558. “I: ‘In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Yahweh, same as saying the spirit of justice and liberation. He’s the one who spoke through the prophets proclaiming the truth.’”

[6] Bultmann, John, 614. “To love him means to be obedient to his demands, and this obedience is faith.”

[7] Cardenal, Solentiname, 559. “I: ‘In the Gospel of Saint John the world’ is the same as the system, unjust society, the status quo. Those who belong to the system, says Christ, cannot receive that spirit.’”

Not Even in Death

Psalm 31:5, 15-16 Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Make your face to shine upon your servant, and in your loving-kindness save me.

Introduction

Part of our Easter theme is solidarity. Solidarity with each other because of our solidarity with God. We are joined to God by faith and liberation; knit together with God through new life; and we have solidarity with God in our love for God and God’s love for us. This is the axiomatic narrative thrust of the biblical witness. God does not leave the beloved (full stop). You cannot be so far removed to be outside of the long reach of God’s life-giving arm, loving embrace, and liberating hand. The prophets attest to this; the psalmists attest to this, the witness of our first parents attest to this…you are not so far gone to be beyond God. Not even being cast out of the garden created a distance between humanity and God; God has always been and always will be with, among, alongside God’s beloved: humanity, the cosmos, you and me.

But our Easter theme goes further than another reiteration of a much-needed message of God’s unyielding, never-stopping, never-giving up, always and forever love. The Easter story tells us that God even goes with us unto death. Not even death can separate you from the love of God. The images of hellfire and brimstone, of eternal torment, of punishment for sins is more the credit of John Milton’s and Dante’s imaginations than scriptural witness. God is so for you that God is for you even when you don’t want God to be. God is so for you that when you think that the most final thing about our existence—death—is the last word forever separating you from God, God says: NOPE. As Paul says in Romans 8:38-39, “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things at hand, nor things about to be, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor what other things in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[1] You do not enter death alone but with God, thus with life, love, and liberation. The God of Jesus Christ is not only the God of the living but also those who have gone on before us into death, into God; therefore, we can say that we are blessed by God even in death just as we are in life because God is with us, in deep solidarity with us and our human condition.

Acts 7:55-60

 Now being full of the holy spirit [Stephan] was gazing into heaven and he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing from the right hand of God and [Stephan] said, ‘Behold! I see the heavens being opened up completely and the son of humanity standing from the right hand of God.’…and while they were stoning Stephan he was appealing and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And after placing down the knees, he cried out in a great voice, ‘Lord, hold not this sin to them.’

Acts 7:55-56, 59-60b

There’s a tendency to focus on Stephan’s death. And by that statement I mean the fact he is killed by stoning, which was approved by the local religious authority. Let me take a moment to refresh memories about why Stephan is in the spot. First, he’s one of the seven chosen to table-service so that the apostles could maintain time and space for teaching and preaching. Table-service is *not* setting the table; table-service is a robust ministry to care for the least of these, the very apple of God’s eye, the ones who provoked the words of God born into the world by the prophets, the very people Jesus came to serve. So, Stephan is one of these chosen ones. Now, because the Spirit really doesn’t care whose title is what, the Spirit graces Stephan with the power to perform signs and wonders for and among the people. Also, the Spirit blessed Stephan with profound wisdom and boldness to preach the Goodnews to the captives. Now, Stephan, as one chosen to table-service, became the target of human jealousy. This jealousy led to lies and falsification about Stephan and ultimately thrusts him before the Sanhedrin (the council).

So, standing before the Sanhedrin, Stephan is asked by the high priest, “‘Have these things to be thus?’” (7:1). And instead of Stephan being like: “No way!” Or “Uh sure!” Stephan launches into what I like to think of as a premodern, religious, theologically and biblically sound “Well….akshually…” And proceeds to school the entire Sanhedrin in their history while accusing them of pursuing the same death-dealing course that those before them pursued contrary to God’s will. The last thing he says—before being dragged outside of the city—is,

‘You stiff -necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you, you are unceasingly striving against the Holy Spirit, you [are] just as your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not pursue? They killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, and now you, you have become betrayers and murderers. Whosoever received the law as an ordinance of angels, and yet you have not kept it.’ Now, when they heard these things, they were cut to the quick in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at [Stephan].

Acts 7:51-54

And the very next passage is the one we read this morning. This speech ending in Spirit filled accusation lands Stephan facing death, a death Saul fully agrees with (v. 58).[2] This is not about the glorification of martyrdom; this isn’t even about villainous religious leaders getting bent out of shape when someone beneath them in rank speaks out against them. Rather this is about God demonstrating solidarity with humanity in death, once again. Here we see as we did on Good Friday into Holy Saturday and in the bursting forth of Easter Sunday Morning, God stepping into the deep plight of humanity finding themselves sentenced to death. Jesus shows up and joins Stephan, suffering with Stephan as he suffered before with others so caught and held captive by death. In this moment, unlike Saul,[3] God does not side with power and prestige, but with humility and vulnerability. As the Spirit graced Stephan with great power in this moment, so too especially in this moment is God’s grace and power demonstrated for all to see; and nothing, positively nothing can separate the beloved from God, not even death.[4]

Conclusion

The collision here is very obvious: the old order v. the new order. But this collision isn’t between one group and another as much as it is between the Reign of God and the kingdom of humanity. We, too, are thrust into this collision: those of us who dare to follow Jesus out of the tomb, must leave behind the rags of the old order and don the clothes of the new one. As we’ve been given life, so we advocate for life; as we’ve been loved, so we love; as we’ve been liberated, so we liberate.

God does not threaten people with condemnation and death to get them to believe in God or to follow God or to listen to God; that’s what humans do. Rather, God steps into death, under condemnation to protect the beloved from both.  God woos with love, with identification with your plight, with promise, and with liberation, solidarity, and life. Humanity threatens with violence, isolation, ostracization, captivity, and death. All those messages crafted to cause you to bend the knee out of fear are not and never have been of God; those have been crafted by human beings desperate to keep their power and control over other people, to get them to be compliant and obedient to their selfish advantage. God doesn’t need that type of response from you to be God; and if God did, wouldn’t you wonder about the insecurity of such a God?* The God that we worship here, the Creator, the parent of Jesus Christ, the source of the Holy Spirit, the substance of love is so secure that God can even still exist even when you deny God.

More than that, God is so secure in God’s self that God goes with you into your suffering, into your pain, into your anger, into your frustration, and even with you into death because God knows nothing else than God’s deep desire to be with the beloved in all things—dirty or clean, pure or impure, sinner and saint. And, as Paul eventually learned, nothing…absolutely nothing can or will ever separate you from the love of God.

*A thought influenced by Dorothee Sölle


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Richard J. Cassidy Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987. 79. “By it, Luke portrays Paul agreeing with the Sanhedrin members that Stephen’s activities and words could not be tolerated and agreeing with them that death by stoning was the way to put an end to them.”

[3] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 73-74. “For Saul, this is a righteous righteous act. Killing in the name o. God be approved. But this approval is of the old order, not the new. Now its absurdity can be exposed. There were no doubt evil people in Israel worthy or death, but there was no one, without doubt, who was innocent enough to kill them. It is in this tension between the new order and the old that the old will assert its power in and among the faithful. Stephen has been seen as the first Christian martyr, but we must see more than a faithful witness unto death. We must also see the way faithful people can yield to the old order and kill if they believe they or God are threatened by a different witness. Stephen was executed, and his execution was approved. How often have Christians given their approval of executions, religious and political, but how often have we seen this as giving into the old order and resisting the Holy Spirit?”

[4] Jennings, Acts,72-73. “Something else, however, is happening that could easily be missed in the rushed judgment to death and the silence engendered by closed ears and grinding teeth. Stephen is being joined to God. Luke has flashed forward to a future that waits for those who follow the prophets, the apostles, and finally Jesus. God, the Holy Spirit, fills Stephen and will face death with him. This will always be the case for believers. No matter how hard they are thrown, the stones cannot separate Stephen from God. Nor can any stone, no matter its velocity, its surprising angle, or its accuracy in hitting our vulnerable places, ever separate those who know the savior from God.”

church daring to be Church

Psalm 23:1-3 God is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. God revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.

Introduction

On Good Friday I asked, “Who’s in your corner? Who’s on your side? Who’s your ‘ride or die’? Who’s the Louise to your Thelma?”[1] This question is still relevant to me; I can’t help but sense that deep solidarity with other human beings has grown thin over the course of time. Through the myriad of moments pitting one group against another, avoiding wary sneezes and threatening sniffles, and love suffering over distance, it’s easy to feel isolated—caught between having friends and having no one to rely on…like really rely on, like show up on a Saturday at noon in the middle of August to help you move large furniture type of rely on…

While time and energy are factors, there’s a bigger one. There’s a lot of othering in our society whether socio-politically, religiously, or relationally. We’re bombarded with media images promoting material competition with others; we live in a world carrying a variety of threats to the welfare of our bodies in the world. This is the perfect environment to breed fear: fear of the other, fear of difference, fear of conflict, fear of confrontation. (And fear is always the undercurrent of anger.) And, so, we are kind of walking about half-cocked, ready to protect ourselves from a threat. In psychology this is called hyper-vigilance and hyper-vigilance has a bestie: hyper-arousal—always on the lookout for a threat, when one is perceived BOOM! Explosion!

It’s hard to gain ground with an other if there’s this type of air swirling about fragile and delicate human bodies wrapped in a rather porous and vulnerable epidermal layer. When fear and anger—hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal—are in the mix, threatening to rear their head and shove love and grace out of the window, it makes it really hard to cultivate rich relationships extending beyond social acquaintances into, “Of course I’ll come move that mahogany armoire with you this August on a Saturday at noon!”

But I’m not hopeless; I’m not hopeless because church (the invisible and visible) exists. Now, when church is bad it can be very bad; but when it’s good, it’s so, so, so good because in this event of church-churching-well love draws human beings together into solidarity in their need and abundance, their sickness and health, and their anxiety and comfort.

Acts 2:42-47

Now, they were attending constantly to the teaching of the apostles and in fellowship; to the breaking of the bread and in prayers. …And all those who believed were up to the same [things] and they were having all things in common—they were selling both possessions and properties, and they were distributing things to all in accordance to who was having need/necessity.[2]

Acts 2:42, 44-45

There’s something spectacular about the life of the early church right after Jesus was raised. Luke describes how the “followers of the way” existed alongside the other children of the house of Israel. At this point, animosity is not the theme of the day. Luke tells us that they were attending constantly to the teachings of the apostles and in the prayers, spending their time together (καθ’ ἡμέραν τε προσκαρτεροῦντες ὁμοθυμαδὸν) in the temple (ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ) (v.46), were breaking apart the house bread, sharing in food in exhilaration and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having grace toward the entire people (τὸν λαόν). All those who believed πάντες…οἱ πιστεύοντες (v.44) lived with each other; not in name only as if neighbors who casually exchanged hellos or that two-finger wave; they were with each other by being for each other; and for no other reason than love and faith, mercy and grace, the draw of the Spirit of God into the fullness of life with the neighbor for the neighbor in the world. The reign of God born through the cracks and crevices breaking through the kingdom of humanity

Willie James Jennings writes this about our passage from Acts, “Life with Jesus must give shape to life in the Spirit.”[3] Love knows no other way than to break down barriers and hurdles hindering our ability to see each other’s humanity; everything about these early followers of the way was pulled into the community founded and built by God’s love for the world.[4] Under the draw of divine love, it becomes impossible to cling to those things that they clung to prior to encounter with God; those material markers of identity fell away like linen garments left behind in a tomb in the event of resurrection.[5] By faith, those who followed the way found their identity in God by faith in Christ, and if this then they found mutual identity with others; and not only those who also believed like they did, but among and with those who followed different paths. This is God’s heart for the world and in the world: to love others as you have been loved by God, to see the humanity in others, to give as you have received, to be wrapped up in the divine passion for the beloved, to see not an other but one just like you.[6]

Luke’s story-telling point here is not to propose fiscal or political platforms. Rather, his goal is to ask his reader to reconsider their way of faith in following the Christ by the power of the Spirit. Luke wants to demonstrate what solidarity looks like founded on divine love born of divine life and liberation.[7] This is not about refusing individuality at the expense of the community, but rather about showing how each person is intimately linked to the other in love and life: that one person’s well-being is connected to another’s well-being. It’s not about everyone thinking the same, being the same, or believing the same; it’s about valuing the humanity in another person, seeing their need, their sickness, their fear as one’s own, it’s about identifying with another’s plight as Christ, God of very God, identified with humanity’s plight not to condemn humanity, but to bring humanity into the very life of God the source of love, life, and liberation in the world as it is in heaven.[8]

Conclusion

We do not need to go this world alone. While our world is quite different from the world of the first followers of the way, it does not mean that we can’t still have solidarity with one another. What we find in Luke’s description in Acts is not a formula for church but the formation of church. The thematic structure of the story tells us that our neighbor is more important than things, that community is better than isolation, that going the distance is what love does, that being here for each other in the good and the bad, when things are going well and when they’re going poorly, when it’s a great mood or a yikes! mood. It’s about profound connection where the foundation is just shared humanity clothed in the heavenly fabric of divine love…love that knows no limits.

When church dares to put on Church, when its witness shares in the witness of Christ,[9] it can be a beautiful place of affirmation, confirmation, and solidarity in the world for the beloved. When church dares to Church, it radiates divine life into the world, beckoning those who have lost their way in the world, or those who have become alienated and isolated, or those who suffer under the weight of oppression and marginalization unto the warmth and comfort of the eternal and heavenly substance that is love that just loves.


[1] https://laurenrelarkin.com/2023/04/07/nothing-seems-to-satisfy-craving-solidarity/

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[3] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 38.

[4] Jennings, Acts, 39. “The space of this common was where life stories, life projects, plans, and purposes were being intercepted by a new orientation. This ekklēsia? Time, talent, and treasures, the trinity of possessions we know so well, would feel the pull of this holy vortex.”

[5] Jennings, Acts, 39. “The real questions are not whether this holy communalism, this sacred sociality, could or would be operative, be practical in this ancient world or any world, but what must it have been like to feel the powerful pull of the life of our savior, and what energy did it take to resist the Holy Spirit, to slow down this pull enough to withhold themselves and their possessions from divine desire.”

[6] Jennings, Acts, 39. “A different order of sacrifice is being performed here, one that reaches back to the very beginning of Israel. Their God does not need possessions and has never been impressed by their donation. The divine One wants people and draws us into that wanting. This is intensified giving, feverish giving that feels not only the urgent need but the divine wanting. A new kind of giving is exposed at this moment, one that binds bodies together as the first reciprocal donation where the followers will give themselves to one another.”

[7] Jennings, Acts, 39-40. “Thus anything they had that might be used to bring people into sight and sound of the incarnate life, anything they had that might be used to draw people to life together and life itself and away from death and the reign of poverty, hunger, and despair—such things were being given up to God. The giving is for the sole purpose of announcing the reign of the Father’s love through the Son in the bonds of communion together with the Spirit.”

[8] Jennings, Acts, 40. “Luke gives us sight of a holy wind blowing through structured and settled ways of living and possessing and pulling things apart People caught up in the love of God not only began to give thanks for their daily bread, but daily offered to God whatever they had that might speak that gracious love to others. What is far more dangerous than any plan of shared wealth or fair distribution of goods and services is a God who dares impose on us divine love.”

[9] See W. Travis McMaken’s “Definitive, Defective or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4”  IJST Vol17/Num1 (Jan 2015) pp. 89-114.

“What Might We Do?”

Psalm 116:2-3, 10: 2 The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow. Then I called upon the Name of God: “God, I pray you, save my life.” How shall I repay God for all the good things God has done for me?

Introduction

There’s something about love that’s overwhelming. I think it’s overwhelming because love just loves without why or wherefor (sunder warumbe[1])—like being in the midst of spring springing and the flowers bursting forth, they give no reason for their showy, brilliant colors, they just bloom, they just are, they just exist. Love is similar: it just loves.

The inability of locating a why or wherefore to anchor another’s love for us makes love that other-worldly substance. We are rational, sense-making, riddle-solving, concrete, fleshy, material creatures. And, to be honest, we’re quite basic. To be told, “I love you” and for no other reason than “just because” solicits furrowed brows of “why…”, skeptical vocal lilts of “…me? …Really?”, even down right toddler-like resistance, “No!” Love that loves just because is not for us; we need the whys and the wherefores, the reasons and the data.

Somewhere along the way we’ve been taught love must be verified by a reason: you love me because I’m…. We all have the thing that fills in that blank, answering the “because.” I’m:  funny, smart, pretty, rich, capable, athletic, a good provider; you have to, you’re my____ (another fill in the blank)….etc. Whatever it is, it sits there like a beacon of existential validity answering the “why” we’re worthy of love, while ignoring the reality love just loves.

Sunder warumbe.

The worst of this is we’re all quite able to imagine why we shouldn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t be loved. We know ourselves better than the one who gave us life, right? We know how “bad” we are, how ill-tempered, frustrating, irritating, debased, faulty, and failing… We don’t need another person to give us reasons why we’re unlovable. Sadly, our world amplifies this being unlovable unless… Our beloved status hangs in a dastardly imbalance, and we’re losing.

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Now after hearing [Peter] they were pierced in the heart, and they said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, “What might we do, Brothers?” And Peter [said] to them, “You repent[2] (!) and be baptized each on the basis of the name of Jesus Christ for the complete forgiveness of your sins,[3] and you will lay hold of the gift of the Holy Spirit: for it is the promise to you and to your children and to all who are distant, as many as God our Lord called to God’s self.[4]

Acts 2:37-39

Luke, the author of one of the gospels and Acts, tells us that Peter raised his voice and declared to his fellow Israelites (v.14) that God made Jesus—whom you [and others[5]] crucified[6]—lord and Christ (v.36). I will never stop loving Peter. As much as I love Paul I also love Peter. These two represent to us the totality of what it means to be creatures in relation with the Creator, humans before and with God among other human beings. Peter raised his voice and declared to his religious siblings that Jesus is the Christ, God is (still) for them; they are (still) God’s beloved.[7] Peter who used his voice to deny Christ, now uses it to proclaim Christ crucified and raised as a measure of divine love for all[8]of God’s people, even those, like the disciples, who were far off or hid for shame, those who carried no pedigree or status, those who had no power and found themselves immersed in the shadow of isolation and alienation.[9]

Peter’s message emphasizes that this Jesus who was crucified and died and raised is now the divinely appointed Christ (Greek for “Messiah”) of God’s people. This man whom the house of Israel knew and crucified (they did not intervene), according to Peter, is now the Christ, the one who bears both the divine and human image (he carries Mary’s face in the world) and ushers in God’s reality.[10] And God’s reality comes into conflict and confrontation with the reality of the kingdom of humanity. What used to be right-side up to us, after our encounter with God in the raised Jesus is now upside down; Jesus once flipped tables, now he’s flipping worlds, and the disciples—even those 2023 years later—are invited to see the upside-down world made right-side up.[11]

Thus, when the hearts of those who heard were pierced, they asked, What might we do? (v. 37). This is the question of change; this is the question of divine encounter.[12] It is not that God poses to us a question in this moment, but we pose a question to God: if this is the right way to see the world, from the perspective of the one whom we crucified, what do we do now? because everything else seems wrong…[13]Not knowing what to do now because of one’s encounter with God is not a lack of faith, but evidence of it; it is also prayer, in humility there’s both a confession and a prayer for help in What might we do?

The best part of Luke’s story is Peter’s response: by means of changing their minds (repenting) and being baptized, the gifts of forgiveness of sins (missing the mark) and the receipt of the Holy Spirit are for them. And not only for them—as if it was a one-time event relegated to one generation—but also for their children and all those who are far off; for whomever God calls to God’s self. Thus anyone can be baptized, summoned unto God by God’s love made known in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.[14] Peter presents what it looks like to follow Christ out of the tomb, to be ushered through death into new life; this is not a formula it is formation.[15] There are no prerequisites here, there is no demand to look this way or that, no need to be clean or made right prior to the encounter with God in the event of faith; God loves the beloved (full stop) and this love changes the beloved, sanctifies her, causes her to live and thrive, calling the beloved over and over again unto God’s self—unto life, love, and liberation.[16] In being summoned unto God, in following Christ, it makes sense to live and live fully.[17] Sunder warumbe.

Conclusion

With the resurrection of Christ, the world is turned upside down. Death is not the final word; life is. Captivity is not the final word; liberation is. Unlovable is not the final word; beloved is. Whether you know it or not, YOU ARE LOVED. Whether you want to hear it or not, YOU ARE LOVED. And the greatest part? It has nothing to do with what you do or look like or have done or will do, you are just fully loved by God right now, as is inside and out. God is love and love just loves, no ands, ifs, or buts about.

Luke exhorts us through the words of Peter to harken to this story of God’s radical and revolutionary love in the world for the benefit and wellbeing of the beloved (not only us but especially our neighbors). We need to see ourselves grafted into this story and not mere spectators watching on from a seat in the balcony. We are the object of God’s desire and yearning, we are the goal of the divine mission of love in the world, we are needed by God because God is love and love needs the beloved. You are cherished. You are prized. You are the apple of God’s eye. You are irreplaceable.[18]

So, too, those who exist beyond the four walls of this church. The resurrection story is not a story just for us who get our ducks in a row, it’s not just for us who believe x, y, and z in just the right way and right fashion, and it’s not just for those who produce in this or that way in the world. The story of the resurrection of Christ—life out of death—is for all, for our children and those who are far off (this is what the text tells us). We are confronted today with the story of divine love and life in the world, turning the world right-side-up, liberating the captives … all the captives in the spiritual and temporal world, liberating not only souls (the inner nature) but bodies (the outer nature), too. God’s love sets us free to do something new, to live new, to love new, to be in the world as new creations, participating in God’s turning the world right-side-up for God’s beloved. Sunder warumbe.


[1] From Dorothee Soelle The Silent Cry a reference to Meister Eckhart.

[2] “Repent” can also be “change the mind” and “change the inner nature”

[3] “Missing the mark”

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Steve Walton, “The State They Were In: Luke’s View of the Roman Empire” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics. Eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Library of New Testament Studies. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017. 92. “A key passage for understanding Luke’s view is Acts 4:27-30, which asserts that opposition to Jesus is the factor which unites Pilate, Herod, the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel. To assert, as some do, that the Jewish people alone are held responsible for the death of Jesus is to overstate the case. Luke’s presentation is more nuanced, for he locates responsibility on the Jewish side with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. This is clear, not least, since it is only in Jerusalem itself that the apostles speak of ‘you’ as responsible for killing Jesus (Acts 2.36; 3.13, 14, 17; 4.10; 5.30; 7.52; cf. 5.28).”

[6] Richard J. Cassidy Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987. 33. “Nevertheless, the speech clearly does indict his audience and Luke subsequently reports that, when those assemble asked Peter and the apostles what they should do, Peter replied that every one of them should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins (2:38).”

[7] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 33. “This is Israel speaking to Israel, calling to their own with the good news of the intensification of their election and of the personification of the free grace that shaped their existence from its beginning.”

[8] Jennings, Acts, 33. “This is precisely where the scandal that was Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s baby with all the tensions he created and all the theological, social, and political contradictions that religious and civic leaders associated with his ministry, began to spread over many bodies.”

[9] Jennings, Acts, 33-34. “This is a strange image, an unappealing icon-twelve men, none with exceptional credentials, no fabulous educational pedigrees, none with reservoirs of immense cultural capital to draw from, all standing in front of Israelites with nothing more than a message. We live in times when images create and carry so much power. For us, image and word, body and text, are inseparable, merging together, mutually constituting. Yet in this primordial moment the image standing before these gathered does not carry gravitas. It can never match its message. Nor will it ever. This is the eternal imbalance that that will mark preaching, a message far more powerful than its messengers. Indeed, image emerges here fully encased in witness.”

[10] Jennings, Acts, 35. “The Jesus you knew—crucified, dead and buried, and now alive—is both Lord and Messiah, the bearer of the divine image and reality. This is the great contradiction.”

[11] Jennings, Acts, 35. “It is the contradiction inside of which all the disciples of Jesus will live forever. Life inside this contradiction means, as Samuel Proctor said, that we may now see the world for what it is: upside down. The world, seen from the site of the crucified One, moving quickly from life toward death, is the real contradiction. Only from within the declaration of a God who was crucified will any words about God in this world, the real world, make sense.”

[12] Jennings, Acts, 36. “A change is taking place among the people of God. Faith in Israel is taking a new direction. And it all begins with a simple but terrifying question: ‘What should we do?’”

[13] Jennings, Acts, 36. “The question itself is at the door of offense. Although the irenic is concealed within the question, nonetheless, it suggests a necessary change for those already of committed faith. We must hear in this question the astounding work of the living God who will not be relegated to Israel’s past but will reveal divine faithfulness to ancient promise in the present moment. And in so doing, we see the precise way Israel’s Lord alters theological frames of reference by demanding more of those who believe.”

[14] Jennings, Acts, 37. “His response reveals language internal to the culture and theology of Israel. Repentance, forgiveness, and gift are all themes that flow through the streams of Israel’s historical consciousness. Yet now a new point of entry and departure has emerged through a new stream that flows in a new direction. All must be baptized in the new stream, baptized into Jesus.”

[15] Jennings, Acts, 37. “The trajectory of the text is not toward formula but formation. From this moment forward, life with God will be through Jesus, and this moment of baptism will yield life in a body turned toward the renewal of creation. The story of Israel has opened up, and Gods body has been joined to Israel’s body and will be joined to all who will come to the water, Luke signifies a redeemer who would bring all of Israel from death to life through these them more deeply into divine desire.”

[16] Jennings, Acts, 37-38. “Now divine hunger will be revealed. God is calling to Israel and its children and other children and their children. This calling will be contra mundi, against the world’s calling, the world’s desire for the children. It will be against this corrupt generation (v. 40). This will be the difference bound to a decision, God’s calling or the world’s calling, and at this moment the new word reveals the old tension for God’s people between listening and thus obeying the voice of the world or hearing the dabarim of Adonai, the word of the Lord.”

[17] From Dorothee Sölle’s Thinking about God.

[18] Ref. Dorothee Sölle Christ the Representative.

“Nothing Seems to Satisfy”: God in Our Hunger

Psalm 118:22-24 I will give thanks to you, God, for you answered me and have become my salvation. The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day God has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

Introduction

What Death tried to seal in a tomb, God liberated with one proclamation: “Let there be life!” And life burst forth, sentencing Death to its own tomb. Nothing gets between God and God’s beloved!

Happy Easter! Christ is Risen!

What a day. It’s the singular time in the Christian liturgical calendar where the resurrection of Christ is told in the present tense and not as some distant future mythology for a special few who get their faith just right. Today, resurrection is for everyone. Today, God is for everyone. We declare today that God shook heaven and earth and liberated God’s beloved from death as the first born of all creation, the enduring symbol that death is not the final word for anyone. (Full stop.) Today we proclaim that life wins, love wins, liberation wins. Hallelujah!

Today in our encounter with this story of God’s radical activity in the world through the resurrection of Christ, I get to remind you that not only does life, love, and liberation win, but these become the foundation under our feet, the thread holding together the fabric of our existence, the substance of our individual and corporate life together, and the motivation for our activity in the world. It’s this message that makes the church the Church—visible and invisible. Without it, the church doesn’t exist. This awkward, weird, scientifically baffling, nonsensical, proclamation—Christ is Risen!—is meant to be the very characteristic establishing the church—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

What’s haunting me is how quickly we prefer to move on from Easter Sunday into this makes more sense Monday, and let’s be rational Tuesday, and that’s just mythology Wednesday, and so on. We are too quick to truncate the possibility of this announcement, relegating it to the simplicity of premodern people, some single historical event, a “picture painted on a wall.”[1] I think I’d be fine with this if we, as “enlightened” and “scientific” people, didn’t have so many of our own beliefs that don’t make sense, that are “irrational”, and that qualify as “mythology”. We have our own versions of the very things we criticize previous eras of human existence for. So, I’m wondering, what ifWhat if this ancient, whacky story of divine activity in the world, the overruling of death, the radical reordering of actuality and possibility has meaning for me, for you, for us today?

What if it can actually recenter and stabilize? What if it can create space and hold time to find identity? What if it can shatter alienation and encourage relationality? What if it can break through false expectations and give us ground to build community? What if it means—no matter what—we have solidarity? What if it’s true?

Matthew 28:1-10

Now, the angel answered and said to the women, “You, you do not fear! For I know that you are seeking Jesus the one who has been crucified. He is not here; for he is raised just as he said. Come (!) and see (!) the place where he was laid. And quickly go and say (!) to his disciples that he is raised from the dead; and behold! He is going before you to Galilee, there you will see him. Behold! I bid you!” [2]

Mt 28:5-7

Matthew seems to have a flair for the divinely dramatic side of story telling that seems, to me, absent in the other three gospel accounts of the resurrection. Mark, Luke, and John have the women (of some number) showing up and the stone already rolled away. But Matthew? Nah. That’s not his style. Let’s go big, or let’s go home!

Matthew tells us that the women, the two Marys (Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”[3]) came to look at the tomb.[4] Now, while our text makes it sound as if Mary and (the other) Mary were merely there to express their silent condolences, there was a purpose for this “looking”: to confirm Christ’s death.[5] These two women came assuming they’d affirm the actuality of death; they weren’t expecting to leave declaring  the possibility of life. Then, out of the blue…

[B]ehold!, a great earthquake happened; for an angel of the Lord descended out of heaven and drew near and rolled back the stone and then was sitting upon itand from fear of [the angel] the guards shook and they became as dead.

A massive shaking of the ground, an angel in dazzling brightness descending and rolling back a massive stone, and big guards falling over, stiff as boards because they are terrified. Matthew skips no beats here in adding scientific perplexity to vibrant narrative pizzazz; he’s got a point and it’s not just for entertainment. What’s his point? This: Jesus didn’t need the stone removed to leave the tomb.[6] The Angel does it for pure divine dramatic effect. So, this is Matthew hollering at the top of his lungs: JESUS IS RISEN! And God had everything to do with it! this isn’t a “resurrection” story, it’s a “he is not here!” story.[7] It’s a “No one gets between God and the Beloved!” story.

The angel beckons the two Marys to come and see, because the angel knows they are seeking Jesus, the one who has been crucified.[8] Then the angel charges the women to go and proclaim to the disciples that Jesus is not dead, that he has gone on before them into Galilee, and that they’ll see him there. These humble women, dismissed by much of society, are charged by the angelic visitor, a representative of the celestial estate, to be the first to proclaim[9] good news to the sorrowful, to the regretful, to the ones who ran off, to the one who denied three times. It’s these very ones Jesus declares as “my brothers”;[10] they in the midst of their alienation, isolation, loneliness, shame and regret are summoned unto God, affirmed as the beloved because nothing…not-one-thing can separate them from the love of God.

Conclusion

Today, we celebrate, let our voices ring out with the splendor of heart felt Hallelujahs!, throw our hands up in the air, dance with delight like children, and rejoice that death doesn’t triumph over life. When everything looked as it if was dead and gone, God stepped in and breathed life into dry bones.[11] When our hostility toward God felt like an eternal fracture, God bent low and mended it.[12] When our tongues grew parched from reciting unfulfilled promises, God brought us the water of heaven.[13] When our bodies grew exhausted under the constant threat of the thunder of doom creeping about our lives and relationships, God cleared out the clouds and let the light of God’s countenance shine over us.[14] Today, in the resurrection of Christ, God comes near to you, to me, to all of us and is for us.[15]

Today God is in our hunger for stability; we are stabilized.
Today God is in our hunger for identity; we are irreplaceable.
Today God is in our hunger for relationality; we are with others.
Today God is in our hunger for community; we are seen, known, and loved here.
Today God is in our hunger for solidarity; we are not nor ever will be forsaken.

Today, in the resurrection of Christ, sola suspicio, reaches its limit; it has nothing to say to a people who are aware of their hunger, no longer satisfied with consuming themselves to death. Today, in being confronted with this radical story of divine love, life, and liberation we are awakened in our spirits. Today our hearts quicken with possibility, with what if and why not. Today our imaginations are reinvigorated, daring to dream of a world filled with justice, peace, mercy, love, and life. Today, wrapped up in the story of He is not here! we have the audacity to defy nothing with something, what-is with what-could-be, captivity with liberation. Today we come face to face with our hunger, with the reality that resurrection is not of the past but is right now, that we desire more than what we have grown accustomed to accepting and receiving. Today, we realize that our hunger is God’s hungering divine passion for the beloved; thus, today, we see that Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is a summons to us to rise from the dead and join the living and God’s divine revolution of love, life, and liberation in the world for all people.

“The word of love lives, it happens, it is spoken and it is heard. As this word, Jesus is raised from the dead. The story of love does not end on Calvary but begins there.”[16]

Today we taunt death with the fullness of life and dare to follow Jesus out of our tombs; today we are bold to say beyond the limits of reason and suspicion:

“I believe in the crucified Lord who is alive, the failure which didn’t fail, the defenceless man whom God did not forsake, the man who loved, with whose cause God identified God’s self. God says yes to what we usually, with good reason, deny. God makes him the lifebringer, whom we thought of as lost in unreality. … God did not arm the defenceless man, God did not let him come to grief, as reason would suppose, but God approved of his defencelessness, accepted and loved him and raised him up. To believe in [Christ] means to follow his way. He who seeks him among the living, seeks him with God and therefore on this our earth.”[17]

(for part 1 click here, part 2 click here, part 3 click here, part 4 click here, part 5 click here, Good Friday click here)


[1] Luther qtd in Soelle, The Truth is Concrete, Trans. Dinah Livingstone. New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1969. 58.

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] ἠ ἄλλη Μαρία

[4] Θεωρῆσαι τὸν τάφον

[5] Anna Case-Winters Matthew Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2015. 336. “The effect of these visits was to confirm death. The women who come to perform this sad task of confirming death instead find themselves running tor Joy, announcing life. Waiting and watching in sadness, they have become the first witnesses to the resurrection. Once again the last are first. They are also first to worship the risen Lord.”

R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 1097. “The action of the angel in removing the stone from the entrance to the tomb draws attention even more clearly than in the other gospels to the fact that Jesus has already left the tomb, while the stone was still in place.”

[7] France, Matthew, 1098. “This is not an account of the resurrection of Jesus (as some editors still unaccountably describe it in their section headings), but a demonstration that Jesus has risen. We are not told at what point between the burial on Friday evening and the opening of the tomb on Sunday morning Jesus actually left the tomb, though the repeated ‘third day/three days’ language (and even more the ‘three days and three nights’ of 12:40) presupposes that he was in the tomb for most of that period. What matters to the narrators is not when or how he left, but the simple fact that now, early on Sunday morning, ‘he is not here’ (v.6).”

[8] Ἰησοῦν τὸν ἐσταυρωμένον

[9] France, Matthew, 1101. “The women are not only themselves the witnesses of the empty tomb, but also the chosen messengers to convey the amazing news to Jesus’ male disciples.”

[10] France, Matthew, 1103. “my brothers” “This time, however, it follows the abject failure of the Twelve to stand with Jesus when the pressure was on, a failure which was hardly less shameful because Jesus had predicted it in 26:31. But now it is time for the second half of that prediction to be fulfilled ( 26:32), and that Galilean meeting will eventually restore the family relationship which they must surely have thought had come to an end in Gethsemane.”

[11] Reference to Lent 5 Sermon, Ezekiel 37:1-14.

[12] Reference to Lent 3 Sermon, Romans 5:1-11.

[13] Reference to Lent 2 Sermon, Genesis12:1-4a.

[14] Reference to Lent 1 Sermon, Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7.

[15][15] Reference to Good Friday Sermon Isaiah 53

[16] Soelle, The Truth is Concrete, 80-81.

[17] Soelle, The Truth is Concrete, 59-60. The masculine pronouns for God rewritten as God/God’s

“Nothing Seems to Satisfy”: Craving Solidarity

Luke 18:13d: “‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

Introduction

Something has to change
Undeniable dilemma
Boredom’s not a burden anyone should bear
Constant over stimulation numbs me
But I would not want you any other way
Just not enough, I need more
Nothing seems to satisfy
I said, I don’t want it, I just need it
To breathe, to feel, to know I’m alive[1]

Who’s in your corner? Who’s on your side? Who’s your “ride or die”? Who’s the Louise to your Thelma?

If you’re having difficulty answering any of those questions, I don’t blame you. Names do not come readily to me, either. Over the course of the past five weeks, it’s become clear we’re in a dire spot, moment, event, era, time, whatever this is right now. The reality is that we sit in the turned-over ground of our obsession with suspicion. We are overrun by sola suspicio running amok. If there is no truth, if it’s all about my productivity, if no one is trustworthy, and if our communities lack substance to nurture where do we find anyone or anything to be for us? If our communities cannot foster relationality and can only dismiss identity and destabilize stability, who is left to be on my side, in my corner, my “ride or die”, my Louise?

I can help you change
Tired moments into pleasure
Say the word and we’ll be
Well upon our way, blend and balance
Pain and comfort, deep within you
Till you will not want me any other way
But it’s not enough, I need more
Nothing seems to satisfy
I said, I don’t want it, I just need it
To breathe, to feel, to know I’m alive[2]

Sola suspicio has its place; but it cannot be where we live, it cannot be our best friend because with sola suspicio we must question and doubt everything and everyone; in this scenario the only people we can trust is ourselves. So, let us arm ourselves with weapons, horde material goods, work until our fingers bleed and our hearts stop, and keep looking over our shoulder for the threat of our replacement. There is no room for love here, there is no room for peace, there is no room for hope, there is no room for faith. There’s just nothing. And so we attempt to numb away the gnawing sensation that there could be more than this.

Something kinda sad about
The way that things have come to be
Desensitized to everything
What became of subtlety?
How can this mean anything to me
If I really don’t feel anything at all? Yeah
I’ll keep digging
Till I feel something[3]

With sola suspicio there is only one emotion left, and it’s a beast: fear. Sola suspicio demands fear. Tromping about waving its banners colored with the status quo and the unimaginative, hollering at the top of its lungs, Sola Suspicio reminds us at every turn: be afraid, nothing is true; be terrified, you are replaceable; be wary, your neighbor is not to be trusted; be alert, are you getting yours? It lures us to consume everything we can get our hands on and then soothes us into a deep post feast sleep coma. But we wake up again and are sent on more wild chases looking for something, anything, to give us sustenance.

We are craving solidarity, but nothing ever satisfies.

Isaiah 53:4-9

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
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.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Isaiah’s prophetic prayer highlights that whether we know it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, something is desperately wrong, and we are weary and faint; starvation does that to the body. This is our plight; this is not the product of divine chastisement; it’s the product of our own hands.[4] We’re caught up in the muck and mire of the tension between being held captive and being complicit in our starvation and the starvation of others. Isaiah says, all have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way.

Today we’re forced to recall the one person who identified deeply with the human predicament fell victim to the clutches of suspicion. Today we remember it was our inability to trust, to hope, to have faith in, and to love God more than ourselves that sent Jesus to suffer death. Today we remember that the son of God and the son of humanity hung on the cross, held by meager nails, a victim of our inability to accurately judge between good and evil. Today we’re reminded that we try soothing our existential hunger with the mythology of the kingdom of humanity: the myths of power, greed, status, and privilege. Today Christ dies because we are afraid, terrified of anything new, loyal to the lies of the status-quo. Today we stand guilty of being willing to pervert justice to our desires, bend it to our whims content with absolutely nothing rather than something.

Conclusion

In our hunger for God, we called out to God and pleaded for God to show up. And God did. God showed up in deep, deep solidarity with us; identifying with us in our weakness and vulnerability by being born and living as one of us. But it was too much for us; Christ exposed our captivity and complicity with destructive structures oriented toward death. And so we told God we wanted something else not-God.

Today God is dead; there’s no solidarity. Today, the church is gone; there’s no community. Today, relationality failed; we’re alone. Today, we sold our identity for 30 shekels; we’re replaceable. Today stability crumbled, and we’re abandoned to the hunger.

(for part 1 click here, part 2 click here, part 3 click here, part 4 click here, part 5 click here)


[1] Tool, “Stink Fist”, Aenima, Verse 1 and Chorus

[2] Tool, “Stink Fist”, Aenima, Verse 2 and Chorus

[3] Tool, “Stink Fist”, Aenima, Verse 3

[4] Abraham Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 151

“Nothing Seems to Satisfy”: Craving Community

Psalm 130:5-7 5 My soul waits for God, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, wait for God, for with God there is mercy; with God there is plenteous redemption, and God shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Introduction

A byproduct of our habitual consumption is a growing inability to stick with a community beyond what it can give to and do for me. With my focus on me and my happiness and comfort, I’m less obliged to stick with something when the rubber meets the road.  Now, I’m not saying that someone should stick with a community that is violent in any way—be it socially, physically, emotionally, or spiritually violent. What I’m saying is that we have a consumer attitude toward our communities; as long as I’m getting what I paid for, or what I want, I’m in. If that changes, I’ll leave. I am irreplaceable, but this community? Replaceable.

The irony here is that if your community is easily replaceable—being able to easily switch one community out for another—you are, too. If you can slip in and out of groups easily, if you’re always on the hunt for something better, then you do not allow yourself any time to cultivate interest in the group or the group to develop interest in you. Remember from the Lent 2 sermon on identity, irreplaceability is hinged on someone or something taking an interest in you, loving you, desiring you, missing you when you’re gone, wanting you to return. As more of our communities fall to consumerism, the more we become lost in the sea of replaceability. In fact, our relationality is further compromised; how relational can we be when our communities are fleeting? And if our relationality is faltering, then so too is our identity because will anyone take an interest in me long enough to stick around? And if that, then we are destabilized because we’re left with only ourselves and our own skepticism where nothing is permanent therefore nothing is permanent.

We’re consuming our communities and nothing seems to satisfy.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am God, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, God, have spoken and will act,” says God.

Our prophet is Ezekiel, a prophet and priest of Jerusalem. He lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, he’s a prophet during the exile to Babylon. It’s from this context Ezekiel speaks; it’s to the exiled people, those having lost their land, their temple, their community, Ezekiel brings the living word of God.[1] Ezekiel’s prophecies engage the imagination through the abstract and absurd.  In this particular prophecy, Ezekiel speaks from a valley of dry (dead) bones, where God dropped him off. Ezekiel’s story invigorates attention being more than acquired knowledge and “quiet insight”; “It is a startling event: a thunder in the world and a lightning in the soul.”[2] Those who have ears to hear begin listening: What about these dry bones surrounding our prophet who bears the weight of God’s divine hand?[3]

Ezekiel is commanded to speak to the dead bones, to prophecy to them the word of God. An absurd request, but nonetheless Ezekiel does. Ezekiel speaks the promises of God over these dead bones: I will, says God, bring breath to you, add sinew and ligaments, I will put muscle and flesh on you, and I will bring you back to life. As Ezekiel speaks these words promising life, the bones begin to move, come together. As they come together, they are being covered with sinew and flesh just as God promised. What once looked dead and dried up, alienated and isolated, too far gone to be of any good, are now bodies lying before Ezekiel.

Then Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the breath, to summon the four winds to come into these new bodies. And he did, and as he did the bodies became animated and living, standing up before Ezekiel. Then God spoke one more time: God promises God’s people will be brought out of death, out of dried-upness, out of alienation and isolation and will be made to be God’s people on God’s land once again. God will raise the dead because God will restore the people of Israel and restore them to each other and to their own land.[4] Life will triumph over death just as restoration triumphs over exile, because God’s word of promise doesn’t fall flat, it does what it intends to do. God holds Israel’s future, it’s not closed off; God isn’t distant but close, as close as breath in an animated body; Israel won’t spend eternity separated from each other, exiled from their community.[5]

Conclusion

Our communities seem to be dissolving right before our eyes; people come and go so quickly. The ties that bind no longer hold; this is one of the reasons why the church is suffering so much right now. The consumerism embedded in the fabric of the church creates a competitive environment between churches as they fight over the same group of people and trying to be unique. Sadly, in so doing they cease to be unique communities because they must offer what everyone else is offering and in at least the same but most likely in more entertaining ways. Pastors compete against pastors, worship leaders against worship leaders, youth leaders against you leaders. In this environment, you can’t risk actually being unique, because you may risk your spot on the field, competing against the others. In this environment, community must be forsaken for the bigger goal: bodies and dollars. But doesn’t this mean sacrificing the beloved of God for numbers? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of being a church when we become just one more spiritual strip mall?

So, if nothing seems to satisfy, how do we oppose this dissolution of community, this threat of consumerism? We must look beyond ourselves and our deeds. We must be awakened to our deep-seated need and hunger for community.

We want community. We want a place where everyone knows our name, sees us, knows us, remembers our birthdays, where we can risk being unique, where we can have our irreplaceability affirmed, where we are needed and where we are missed when we’re not here. I’m crazy enough to think that church was once and can be that place again. Churches came into existence to be small communal events, to share a story and to share a meal, where it was safe to believe and have faith in God incarnate raised again, Christ Jesus; where the Spirit called each person to dare to love like God, daring to love those declared unlovable by the society around them.

Church is where you’re brought alongside that guy you don’t really understand, that lady who never says a word, that person who seems really eager to leave, that kid who likes to hoot and holler during the sermon, that whacky priest in stilettos. In church you’re asked see your similarity with all these various people sitting next to you, people you may not commune with Monday through Friday, but on Sunday you do. Every Sunday each of you sets aside everything making you different and you come to these pews to share in hearing an ancient story, recite and respond with the same words, and confess and receive absolution together. Here we come together and join at the rail, each of us empty handed with each other and with God. Here we are spiritually awakened by the power of God’s spirit and come to terms with our hunger for God.

In our hunger for God, we long for community. In our desire for God we are brought together to feast at God’s table as one body. In this community, we’re brought out of the death of alienation and isolation, and we are brought together; we are summoned out of death and into life with each other. It is here, in the midst of the divine hope and love where I find community with you, because you are the beloved of God and God is where you are; God is where we are in the hunger.

(for part 1 click here, part 2 click here, part 3 click here, part 4 click here)


[1] Sweeney, Ezekiel, JPS Study Bible. 1042. “The book of Ezekiel presents the words of Ezekiel son of Buzi, a prophet and priest, and one of the Jerusalemites exiled to Babylonia with King Jehoiachin in 597 BCE by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24.8–17). Like his older contemporaries Jeremiah, 1, Ezekiel lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 and the early years of the Babylon exile.”

[2] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 444.

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 444. “‘The hand of God,’ a synonym for the manifestation of His strength and power (Isa. 10:10; 28:2; Deut. 32:36), is the name the prophet uses to describe the urgency, pressure, and compulsion by which he is stunned and overwhelmed. ‘For the Lord spoke thus to me with His strong hand upon me’ (Isa. 8:11). ‘I sat alone, because Thy hand was upon me’ (Jer. 15:17). ‘The hand of the Lord was upon me’ (Ezek. 37:1; 3:14, 24). The prophet very rarely speaks of God’s face; he feels His hand.”

[4] Sweeney, Ezekiel, 1114. “In its plain-sense meaning, the image symbolizes the restoration of Israel to its own land.”

[5] Sweeney, Ezekiel, 1042. “He wrestles with the problems posed by the tragedies of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Babylonian exile: Why did God allow the Temple and Jerusalem to be destroyed? why did God allow the people of Israel to be carried away into exile? What future is there for Israel?”

“Nothing Seems to Satisfy”: Craving Relationality

(for part 1 click here, for part 2 click here, for part 3 click here)

Psalm 95:6-7 Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before God our Creator. For God is our God, and we are the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of God’s hand. Oh, that today you would hearken to God’s voice!

Introduction

Have you gotten out of the habit of communing with other people? I think I have. Well, to be honest, being social is very low on my list of things I regularly think about. When we first lived in Grand Junction in 2014, it took about ten months before I realized that the looming feeling I had was something called “loneliness.” Have you heard of it? I don’t get lonely; I can go for a very long time without any social interaction. A. Very. Long. Time. So, when I had this weird sensation and finally realized that there’s a term for it and that it there’s no drug to take to eliminate it, I struck out to make a friend. Just one. And I did! Lyuda and I have been friends since late 2015.

But this story feels like a distant memory of eras long gone. I’m reminded it’s been awhile since I’ve done something like that: gone out and made a new friend. I think it’s something to do with what we’ve suffered over the past few years. Now, as I said, it takes me a long to get “lonely”, but three years in? It feels especially tangible right now, right on the surface. Do you feel lonely? If you do, you are not alone. We’re all lonely. We’re just now starting to pull together and peek heads out of our shells…three years later. For three years, we’ve been bombarded with the fear of a virus that is very contagious, making it impossible to share place and space with others. Not to mention the caustic socio-political environment, tearing friendships apart, families asunder, and drawing thick lines in the sand. So, we’ve became pros at shutting down and closing off because our lives depended on it; we’ve become experts at speaking vapidly to stave off emotional outbursts, or worse? So, the coming back is hard… at times, too hard; isn’t it just easier to stay in, stay closed, stay distant, stay safe? I’m fine on my own, …right?

I fear we’re losing our relationality and nothing seems to satisfy.

Romans 5:1-11

For if while being hostile to God we were reconciled to God by means of the death of God’s son, much more since being reconciled we will be saved by his life. But not only [that] but even boasting in God through our Lord Jesus Christ by whom we now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:10-11)[1]

At the core of what Paul is saying here in Romans, is that by virtue of the believer’s relationship with God through Christ, they are given space and time with God and with each other. Paul begins by explaining that in being justified we have peace with God and not only with God but with the world even in the midst of not having peace with other people.[2] During Advent I mentioned, “Peace exists because God is and God is within us.”[3] Herein is the foundation of that peace, according to Paul: God reconciles us to God through God’s son, Jesus. If this peace is done by works, we do not have a guarantee that peace with God exists. However, if it is by God’s doing, it’s secured and constant because it’s promised and God fulfills God’s promises. Every day we are justified and made right with God, every day we have union with God by faith because it’s by God’s mercy and not our own actions and even in spite of them.

By faith in Christ we have peace with God because by clinging to the promises of God we declare God to be truthful and true, rendering to God the things belonging to God: honor, delight, and trustworthiness (this is what it means that we “boast on the basis of hope of the glory of God”). In this way our relationship with God is aligned by our union with God; and if the relationship with God is aligned so, too, is our relationship with the world. In this new alignment with the world born from being children of God by faith,[4] we have peace with the world, because reconciliation with God allows us to interact with the world and with other people in a liberated way unencumbered from the burden of using the world and other people as means to an end (i.e. to secure a good relationship with God).

Paul anchors suffering and endurance in this union with God that we have by faith in Christ. Because we stand (“we are established”) in the grace of God, we have hope because we receive the love of God having been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit having been given to us. According to Paul, our union with God is the means by which we endure tribulations, for where we are God is, so, too is God’s love for us and the world. Therefore, our hope does not disgrace or shame because God promises to be present in our afflictions and sufferings and God is trustworthy and honest, because by Christ we have seen God suffer on our behalf.[5]   

Paul reminds his audience that if they received all of this while they were hostile (ἐχθρὰ ὄντες) to God and still missing the mark (ἔτι ἁμαρτωλῶν ὄντων ἡμῶν), then how much more will they receive in their reconciliation and union with God. Now God establishes God’s love for us, yet while we still missing the mark, Christ died on behalf of us. It is our missing the mark that brings Christ to the cross, for our ability to determine good from evil runs askew, as promised back in Genesis 3. Yet, even though we put Christ to death, God resurrects him meeting our demand for death with God’s gift of life.[6] This is love, this is grace: not giving someone what they deserve but giving them that which they do not deserve. Where we had the right to be judged and condemned for Christ’s death, we are given life, love and liberation.[7]

Now, receiving this divine grace and love while we were still hostile to God, how much more do we receive as those reconciled? We receive God, we receive the whole world, we receive ourselves in right relation with God and the World, thus with others.

Conclusion

We are rightly timid to derive our relationality from our own strength, trying desperately to reduplicate past experiences. We are right to be nervous to venture outside and commune with others, putting ourselves in physically vulnerable situations beyond our control. We are far from being out of the woods of the pandemic, and there are new bugs around, putting precious lives at risk. It is right to be cautious with whom you share your dreams and wishes for the world; the caustic socio-political climate that started back in 2016 is still percolating—for many people things are continuing to go backwards, away from what they had, or thought they had. Relationality right now is intimidating: with neighbors, with friends, with family, maybe even with ourselves.

So, if nothing seems to satisfy, how do we reverse this trend of losing relationality, this threat of loneliness? We must look beyond ourselves and our deeds. We must be awakened to our deep-seated need and hunger for relationality.

As those who have been encountered by God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are those who have been given life, love, and liberation. We are given union with God, we are given solid ground to endure the hardest tribulations with the most amount of hope. We are not given hope founded on false expectations for the future; rather, we are given hope that is present tense, that calls to mind what God has done, thus remembering what God said God will do. This type of hope is here, it is now, it is in spite of the world, transcends the world, and is for the world.[8] In our union with God we do not need to run away from chaos of multiple relational fractures or cling to what is behind denying the disordered relationality at hand. Rather, we can stand here, where we are, in the chaos and tumult, in the trial and tribulation, and know we are not alone for God resides with those whom God loves, with those who suffer, with those who have the audacity to experience their awakened hunger for God.

In this way, beloved, we are not alone; through God’s love for us we are not alone for we are with God. And if we are with God then we are with each other. It’s here where we’re brought further out of ourselves and our desperate attempts to keep ourselves from the difficulties of this life, from the anxiety of what lies outside the security of our homes, and from fear of the other. It is here, in the midst of the divine hope and love where I find relationality with you, because you are the beloved of God and God is where you are; God is where we are in the hunger.


[1] Translation mine.

[2] Martin Luther Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia (1515/1516) LW 25 Ed. Hilton C. Oswald. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1972. 43. “Since we are justified through God’s imputation, therefore by faith, not by works, we have peace the world and with God, although not yet with men and the flesh ….”

[3] https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/04/peace-even-now/

[4] LW 25, 43-44. “Through whom , as our Mediator, we have obtained access, to God by loving and knowing and delighting in Him, by faith, because there will be no salvation through Christ without faith, to this grace, of peace, remission of sins, and justification, in which we stand, through the firm confession of faith, and we rejoice, not in a present thing before men but in our hope of sharing the glory, the exaltation, that is, the glorification in the future life of the sons of God, those who are of God.”

[5] LW 25, 44. “And endurance produces trial that we might be proved by God and found without deceit and guile and hypocrisy, and trial hope, that is, of ‘the glory of God,’ as has been said (v. 2). 5. And hope does not disappoint us, because it neither deserts nor fails us. All these things, I say, happen because the love, etc.,’ because the love, which creates an insuperable attachment, of God, that is, from God, has been poured, freely poured out, not received by merit, into our hearts, because love performs its works voluntarily; for works done unwillingly and by force do not endure, by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us, through Christ from God the Father”

[6] LW 25, 44-45. “For hardly, it is extraordinary, I say, to die for the ungodly, for what is righteous, that is, for the sake of righteousness and truth, will one die—though perhaps, it is customary to die, for what is good, for its usefulness and desired features, one will dare even to die. 8. But God, the Father, shows, He makes it more commendable and worthy of love than all these things, His love, with which He loves us, for us, that is, the love which has been given to us, because on His part, in that while we were yet sinners, which he earlier (v. 6) expressed with ‘while we were still weak,’ at the right time (an expression which is not in the Greek at this point but only above) Christ died for us, the ungodly, so that we might not die in all eternity.”

[7] LW 25, 45. “For if, while were enemies, because of our sins, we were reconciled, so that we were not deserving of perdition, to God, not by our own merits or those of anyone else, except by the death of His Son; much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we, as His own, be saved by His life, in his resurrection to eternal life. 11. And not only  so, do we rejoice in tribulations, but we also rejoice in God, that is, because we have a God and He is our own God, because He has given Himself to us, through our Lord Jesus Christ, our Mediator, through whom we have now received our reconciliation, the remission of sins, so that we may receive God Himself, through One. I say. Christ.”

[8] I’m reminded here of similar tones in this post by J. Scott Jackson, http://derevth.blogspot.com/2023/03/a-peace-that-disturbs-berrigans.html