Beloved Bodies

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Psalm 139: 13-15 I will thank you [Lord] because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well. My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them. [76]

Introduction

Our psalm articulates the idea the psalmist is marvelously made. I’ve struggled at times to make such a bold statement. While I can say I’ve always considered the body to be brilliant artwork, I’ve not always been able to say it specifically about my body. It’s only been as an adult I’ve come to marvel at my own creation: it’s strength, it’s twists and turns, it’s bends and folds, it’s looseness and firmness, it’s life-marks left behind from life lived and being lived. The adoration being far from selfish and narcissistic; rather it affirms the creation I am in the story I was made into: as the one who came from others as marvelously made as I am and as the one from whom others came as marvelously made as I am.

I credit the shift in my thinking to the birth of my daughter. While I knew my body was important for my sons, I also knew they may not come under the same judgment because of their bodies as I did as a woman. In other words: I felt there was less pressure on me to care about what I thought about me. They, by being male, would have an ease in the world; very little closed to them because of their body. But when I held that beautiful little body of my daughter, writhing and screaming as she did, I felt an urgency to get myself straight. I knew I was strong; I knew I was intellectually capable. And I knew I lacked a certain confidence about my body. I held her and couldn’t help but feel the need to protect her from destructive societal and generational opinions about the female body in all its stages and at all its ages. I’d do whatever it took to bear the brunt of patriarchy so she could walk easier in the world; I’d follow behind women before me who fought to make this place safer and freer for our daughters.

I wish I could tell you the church was my faithful partner in this battle against the powers of oppression. Sadly, most of my battles over my body are fought here, in the church. The church and her purity culture participated in the battle against women and men in turning men and women against each other. What was to be one community of humanity (ref. Gen 2:18 ff) was torn asunder into us and other. And both of their bodies would be the site of battle. She’d lose her body and be torn to pieces; he’d lose his soul and become a discarnate shell.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Or do you not perceive that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit in you which you have from God and not of your own? You were bought for a price; indeed, esteem God as glorious in your body.

! Cor 6:19-20, translation mine

Paul’s small treatise on the body in 1 Corinthians 6 demonstrates the body is important. The idea that the soul is merely residing in the body is more a result of platonic influence on Christianity and less from Paul’s theology of the body. [1] Too often this passage is used more for abstaining from “sin” to keep the soul clean rather than as a celebration of our earthy somatic experience in the world (individual and communal). Far from being aliens inhabiting edgar suits,[2] Paul makes it clear: your body (σωμα) is important because it’s the site of cleaving to God by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that is the foundation of your baptism. [3] Paul compares the union of the believer with Christ by the Spirit to an indissoluble union. It’s this union that becomes strained when we partake in practices and behaviors misaligned with the Spirit in us. [4] Thus, our union with Christ isn’t strictly about our identity in Christ but how we live in the world, too.[5]

In short, the body and what you do with it is important. If it’s not, then I must ask why then be baptized and take communion? If our life in Christ is strictly about our soul being saved from the fires of hell, then why tend to the body in such intentional ways? If the body isn’t important as part of our human experience in the world, then why put so much energy into celebrating the advent of the incarnate divine child of Mary? If our bodies are pointless here, aren’t we essentially saying the body of our Lord is pointless, too?

Everything about our religious life in the church is material so both our spiritual existence and our material existence experience God in our bodies. The event of justification by faith apart from works is not a doctrine by which we elevate the realm of the πνευμα (spirit) over and against the realm of the σωμα (body). It is in this event of justification the body and the spirit are brought into righteousness in union (with God and with ourselves and with eachother). Thus, our actions in the world reflect the one who we are cleaved to and cleaves to us in the event of justification. [6] As we do in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit there Christ is for others in the world. [7] So, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 draws out the implications of our baptism of water and spirit of Acts 19 linking us in solidarity in following Jesus out of the Jordan. Paul makes it clear: what we do in the world tells the world who we are and who’s we are. [8]

Paul concludes with an exhortation to flee “fornication” or “idolatry”.[9] Through idolatry we forfeit our dominion and we hand ourselves over to being dominated[10] πνευμα και σωμα (spirit and body). As those who followed Jesus out of the Jordan in our baptism of water and the refining fire of Spirit, we are the temples of the Holy Spirit. This reference is intentionally material. Paul is making an intentional cultural and contextual connection between the temples housing gods or goddesses and the believer’s body being the house of God. [11] And, to be clear, Paul has in mind *all* bodies being the site of divine union and residence. So, I’ll ask again: if the body isn’t important why make such a bold and rather crazy statement? If my body isn’t important in this exchange, why would Paul spend time risking life and limb defending both resurrection of the body and the inclusion of gentile bodies in the body Israel along with Israelite bodies?

Conclusion

The body is important. Your body is important. It is through this body we experience the world and by which the world experiences us. Your body isn’t merely a vehicle for the soul but intimately and materially bound up with it. It is through this body time surges and courses leaving behind reminders of endurance. It is in the body where the declaration of holy resides; you in your body are the holy temple of the holy spirit; thus to desecrate this temple of muscle and bone is more of an affront to God than desecrating this temple of stone and wood.[12]

The body is important. And not just white bodies, but brown bodies, black bodies, indigenous bodies, transbodies, lgbtqia+ bodies, big bodies, small bodies, old bodies, young bodies, and differently abled bodies. There are no “illegal” bodies, and poor bodies deserve as much health and rest as those who are wealthy. It is not our place to determine what bodies are good or what bodies are bad because all bodies are sacred, all bodies are the target of divine love in the world; it is not for us to harm other bodies, reject other bodies, oppress other bodies because of their body. We are exhorted by Paul in this pericope to take seriously our bodies in the world and how those bodies act in the world. We are exhorted to live in ourselves for others, to be substantial people in the world who are divinely loved and who love divinely. For it is by this divine love that other swill know we are those who followed Jesus out of the Jordan (John 13:35). And we cannot support systems and institutions, ideologies and dogmas that ask us to oppress bodies; to do so would be to yoke ourselves to and be dominated by that which is not Christ. To deny an other of the fullness of somatic liberty is a means by which we grieve the spirit in us, the divine spirit given to us by God. We must, with Martin Luther King Jr. live a life marked by “a kind of dangerous unselfishness” and ask not the question “what happens to me if I help this other [body]” but, “If I do not help this [body] what will happen to [them]?”[13] Death for too long has stolen life from too many bodies; may our bodies participate in the revolt of life against death in the world.


[1] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC p. 462, “This supposed dualism of ‘levels’ is foreign to Pauline thought, but common place in those circles influenced by a popular form of quasi-Platonic thought.”

[2] Reference to Men in Black (1). Edgar is the body the alien termites strip the substance out of and then use the discarded flesh as the “suit” in which they walk in.

[3] Thiselton 458-9, “Paul rejects the quasi-gnostic dualistic notion that ‘spiritual’ issues are ‘above’ matters relating to the body. Quite the reverse is the case. Far from Pauline Christianity being what Nietzsche and the later Heidegger called ‘Platonism for the people,’ early Christian theology perceives the body as a temple sanctified by the Holy Spirit…united-as-one-entity with Christ…and a mode of being through which and in which the Christian self brings glory to God.”

[4] Thiselton 459, “As those who belong to Christ by redemptive purchase (6:20), Christians are to live out their bodily existence in union with Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, to the glory of God…”

[5] Thiselton 458. “This section demonstrates…the inseparability of Christian identity and Christian lifestyle, or of theology and ethics.”

[6] Thiselton quoting Käsemann from NT Questions of Today 464. Quoting Käsemann “‘For Paul it is all important that the Christian life is not limited to interior piety and cultic acts…In the bodily obedience o the Christian…the lordship of Christ finds visible expression, and only when this visible expression takes personal shape in us does the whole thing become credible as Gospel message.’”

[7] Thiselton 466 “Paul does indeed see the public, embodied life of Christ’s people as the instantiation of the gospel which points to, and thereby identifies, Christ for the world.”

[8] Thiselton 473 “It is precisely in how a person reveals themselves as what they are in the bodily and everyday life that what it means to be ‘in Christ’ emerges.”

[9] “Idolatry” is an acceptable translation of the word α πορνεια. It does mean in the literal sense “fornication” but the metaphorical definition is “idolatry” or “promiscuity of any kind.” While I do think Paul is directly using the word for fornication in a literal way (considering his time and context), I don’t think that it is a mistake to also include the metaphorical use of the word. I doubt that Paul would think it just fine to uphold violent systems just as long as you don’t have sex with a prostitute, in other words. Thus, it is my opinion that the sex imagery is to emphasize how important the body is and that when we choose to partake in idolatrous ways with systems, ideologies, practices, dogmas, institutions it’s as if you’ve physically linked yourself to that thing, like sex does between two people. Thus, we could say: those who participated in the coup against democracy to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy and oppression in the name of Christ, were promiscuous and strained their union with the Spirit while dragging their union with Christ through the mud; they voluntarily tore themselves (as limbs) from the body of Christ and oned (a reference to Julian of Norwich’s conception of the union with God) with a prostitute (white supremacy, patriarchy, oppression, Trumpism). And thus, we can say: they sinned against fellow creatures and against God.

[10] I’m using domination here playing off of the theme of the Greek word εξουσιασθησομαι(future passive indicative 1 person singular) meaning: I will be ruled over, I will be held under authority). I’d like to also point out that Paul employs the emphatic εγω here (Greek verbs come packed with their own personal pronoun endings) thus this is an emphasis for Paul: I I will not be held under authority…

[11] Thiselton 475, “The image of the god or goddess usually dominated the temple whether by size or by number (or both), and Paul declares that the very person of the Holy Spirit of God, by parity of reasoning, stands to the totality of the bodily, everyday life of the believer (σωμα) in the same relation of influence and molding of identity as the images of deities in pagan temples.”

[12] Thiselton 475, “The phrase ου εχετε απο θεου emphasizes both the transcendent source of the Holy Spirit who is Other and holy…and the gracious bestowal of the Holy Spirit as God’s free gift of love. Grace and judgment are held together: to desecrate the body is to violate God’s gift and to invite an unfavorable and awesome verdict on the part of God himself.”

[13] Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve been to the Mountaintop April 3, 1968. This was his last sermon before being assassinated. h/t friend and colleague The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch for calling my attention to this sermon and idea. https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop?fbclid=IwAR3lVIJ7Vt9E96hGDgSyo1NQIvFyHW4I0VTVVpmuGGjzkPnF2lTHCK91MWc

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 4: “By the Rivers of Babylon”

In this episode, Sabrina and I discuss Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s book Mujerista Theology, specifically looking at chapter 3: “By the Rivers of Babylon: Exile as a Way of Life”.

Isasi-Diaz takes time to walk her reader through the structure and language of Psalm 137, a Psalm that marks her life journey as one of exile. Exile is not an easy place to live…when we think of exile we may think of one being a stranger in a strange land, but what if that strangeness is felt both at “home” and one different soil? Those of us accustomed to being “accepted” as part of the dominant and in group do not know this feeling of being neither here nor there. In a world that loves classifying bodies as “illegal” maybe we should stop and think about the strain of permanent exile?

Sabrina and I discuss some of the primary themes of the chapter and drive home the recurring theme that our praxis as Christians matters…even if small, Sabrina reminds us, those small acts have beautiful ripple effects.

Here are some quotes from the chapter we look at specifically:

“I learned how to do scientific exegesis. But no matter how much i tried, I was not able to acquire that disinterested objectivity that seems to be required for this discipline. There are two things that always troubled me about this. First, as a mujerista theologian, a Hispanic women’s liberation theologian, my hermeneutics of suspicion led me to conclude what most of the time thwart is considered objectivity is the subjectivity of dominant groups who can impose their understanding on others.”

page 37

“Then, as I struggle to stand in solidarity with the poor in this country and in other parts of the world, Psalm 137 helps me sustain hope and maintain a countercultural posture while living in one of the richest countries in the world. This means, among many other things, not succumbing to consumerism, not caring so much about always having enough money that I am not generous in sharing what I have. It means that I have to influence other Christians, in whatever way I can, to understand and accept that we cannot call ourselves Christian if we do not avidly work so all can have what humans need in the struggle for fullness of life; food, shelter, healthcare, employment. Psalm 137 helps me to maintain a countercultural position by remind me to ‘live simply so other can simply live.’” 

page 48

“The point of entry is precisely the reader: she is the one who frames the questions being posed about the text and to the text; her hermeneutics will ultimately influence what the text is understood to have meant and meant today. Because scientific biblical studies ignore this, they cannot get at the real meaning of the Bible. Attempts to recover the original meaning in reality turn the Biblical text into an undiscovered archeological artifact.”

page 38

“The ‘speech of assault’, I believe, often becomes not cathartic but rather as a screen for the complicity (by omission if not by commission) of all of us in exile in what has happened in Cuba. The cries for vengeance can indeed function to absolve us falsely of all responsibility for the situation in our country.”

page 46

“middle-class white woman”: “One of the most shocking things that I came to realize many years later was that in coming to the USA my race had changed from white to “Hispanic.” 

page 39 fn 7

Ute Legends

In this video I talk about a book I’ve read recently, Ute Legends, by Celinda Reynolds Kaelin. In this book, Kaelin shares some prominent and meaningful legends passed on from generation to generation among the Ute people. I wanted to read these stories because I live on Ute land. Reading these legends gave me insight into the people who lived and connected with both the flora and fauna of their territory. Also, these stories demonstrate the deep connection to older civilizations, predecessors of the Utes (like the Anasazi and Mayan peoples). Reading these legends caused me to ask some very necessary questions of myself, to reckon with my history against the people who lived here before me, to reckon with my faith that is part of a tradition that told people their spirituality was pagan, to reckon with my stories that were used to perpetuate violence, oppression, and death. I really enjoyed reading these legends and being a listener. I hope you enjoy them, too.

Sex and Revolution II: Eros, Theology, Revolution

Sancta Colloquia Episode 307 ft. Mason Mennenga

In this episode Mason Mennenga (@masonmennenga) joins me and we talk about the need for a new theology of sex. As I mention in my introductory thoughts, there’s a need to reevaluate the current and negatively pervasive theology of sex. It’s notable and not farfetched to say that our conceptions of sex and marriage coming in from both media and the church are inherently flawed and warped by historic misconceptions and fear of eros. In simpler words: there’s a rampant fear of desire that is woven through the Church’s doctrine of sex and in the culture/media. Both church and culture are bound in the extremes. We need to take seriously that as whole human beings we are wholly spiritual and wholly material and do not divide well. What we think about capital and production will impact our intimacy will impact our spirituality will impact our existence. The sad thing is that, as Mason said, we don’t reimagine constructs but just try to fit new things into old paradigms. Mason makes a really good point: we must go beyond merely speaking of revising or recreating a sex-ethic, we need an actual theology of sex that undergirds this new sex-ethic. One of the ways in which we can go about doing such a necessary revision is to actually…get ready for this…think of Jesus as a sexual being. According to Mason, in making space for thinking of the sexuality of Jesus’s context and Jesus as a sexual being, we allow ourselves or open ourselves to being confronted. Referencing Marcella Althaus Reed, Mason drives home the need for us to be confronted, interrogated and provoked by radical images that draw theology and sex in tighter alignment. Mason also brings up the need for revisiting liturgy…we both agreed, liturgy has plenty of erotic imagery embedded in it. The church may stress (too much, in my opinion) the agapic love of God, but both the scripture and our liturgies scream erotic love. So, why not begin with re-understanding eros and going back into a theology of eros, and, wedded to this need is this one: letting the voices of the oppressed speak and determine for themselves what sex is and what sex is for. It’s time for a regime change. It’s an excellent episode, if I don’t say so myself.

Excited? You Should be. Listen here:

Interview with Mason Mennenga

Mason is a youth worker at Solomon’s Porch, Master of Divinity student, aspiring theologian, podcaster [A People’s Theology], and writer. He enjoys conversation over a drink, being a music snob, stand-up comedy, scrolling through Twitter, and a good read.

Further reading/learning:

Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics by Linn Marie Tonstad

The Queer God by Marcella Althaus Reid

Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics by Marcella Althaus Reid

Refiner’s Fire

Sermon on Acts 19:1-7

Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy/Set apart for You,
Ready to do Your will

I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.

Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord

Acts 19:1-7

…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”

Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine

The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions.[1] When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission.[2] Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Wellokay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.[3]

For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ. [4] John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[5]

“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mk 1:8

The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.”[6] In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[7] and with humanity in its plight.[8] This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.

In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history[9]–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[10] It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?

Conclusion

To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19),[11] like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.

This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism[12] deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.

Willie James Jennings writes,

Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.[13]

The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist[14] theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,

It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.[15]

For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.


[1] Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”

[3] Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”

[4] Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”

[5] Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”

[6] Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”

[7] Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[8] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[9] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[10] McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[11] Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”

[12] David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.

[13] Jennings Acts 185

[14] Womanism  is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.

Baptized as Holy Troublemakers

Sermon on Luke 2:46-49, 52

Psalm 84:1-3: How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are they who dwell in your house! they will always be praising you.

Introduction

Have you thought about wisdom?–what it is as a concept and thing. Who oversees discerning if someone has it? I think we tend to confuse common sense for wisdom; those who choose the path of action or the line of thought most commensurate with what we would do are “wise”. But are they? Isn’t that like judging whether someone is a good driver on how you drive? Too fast, reckless jerks; too slow, ridiculous. Each of us has used “they say” when offering some random “wise” fact to a conversation; basing the inclusion of the sentiment on the hopes that the “they” who are doing the saying are wise. Who are “they”? I hope it would be a group of various voices, experiences, and bodies; however, I fear their selective and exclusive composition.

Wisdom is defined for us through the philosophy poured out over the ages. However, so much of it is written by the privileged and powerful group of people at the expense of the oppressed—in fact leaving out large groups of people when talking about things like labor and production and value. But even if they weren’t negating large swathes of human existence, what is the basis for determining what is moral and what is wise, what is good and what is beautiful? How does one group determine that for all the other groups?

Is wisdom of the silver generation who walk before us? There is wisdom in maturation, and I’m eager to learn. I’ve also seen those grown into the decades become calcified in archaic thoughts and actions refusing to change with the demand of context.

Maybe wisdom is something different than we’ve come to expect—especially from the perspective of one encountered by God in the event of faith. What if it looks more like a “little bit dangerous”[1] disturbing the status quo? What if Christian wisdom looks like Creative Disobedience?[2] What if Christian maturation based on The Christian Imagination[3] makes us look like fools to the world and stumbling blocks to politicians eager to count our votes?

Luke 2:46-49, 52

Now it happened after three days they found him in the temple having taken a seat in the midst of the teachers both listening to them and questioning them. And all of those who were listening to him were amazed on the basis of his understanding and replies. Now after seeing him they were shocked, and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why did you act like this to us? Behold, your father and me also were seeking for you tormented. And he said to them, “why were you looking for me? Did you not perceive that it is necessary for me to be in my father’s house? (Lk 2:46-49, translation mine)

Our gospel passage starts with a unique story: parents forgetting their kid. This parental gaff becomes a moment for divine revelation. Between chapters one and two, Luke emphasizes the link between Mary and Jesus and Hannah and Samuel in 1 Samuel 2.[4] Luke is a master storyteller, so I ask: why Samuel? The themes Luke is eager to connect Jesus to are twin: “kingdom of God” and “temple”. Jesus is ushering in the kingdom of God and is the new temple.[5] There is movement here from the Kingdom of David to the Kingdom of God and movement to the locus of God: tent to tabernacle to temple to the body of Christ. For Luke, there’s a shift rupturing structures and systems built by humanity based on human “wisdom” and “assumption” about what God can and cannot do and where God can and cannot go.[6]

Jesus’s reply to his mother isn’t expected. Jesus prioritizes his posture and place in the temple over and against obedience to his parents; his dedication to the coming kingdom of God is of a higher priority than honoring father and mother.[7] Even the shift in recorded dialogue highlights the shift of perspective from that of humanity to God; this story is about God’s movement in the world and not about our wisdom and common sense and our status-quo and biased systems.[8] A reordering is happening in the relationship between the law and the person: the law was made for the person and not the person for the law. [9]

Scholar Justo Gonzalez does well highlighting Luke’s reach to the Hebrew Scriptures to make the correlation between Samuel and Hannah and Jesus and Mary in order to redefine familiar themes of “kingdom of God” and “temple”. This story is also the start to setting the groundwork for Jesus’s ministry culminating in radically redefining both what the kingdom of God is all about and the conception of what the temple is. I want to reach forward to Mary and Martha and Jesus when he visits in Luke 10. There, Mary and Martha are busy about their duties at home, then Jesus arrives. Mary stops what she is doing and seats herself[10] at his feet listening to his words. Martha “distracted by many things” confronts Jesus asking him to get Mary to help her. The story ends with Jesus drawing Martha’s attention to him away from what is causing her distraction and anxiety.[11]

The themes of Luke 2 are present in Luke 10. Jesus, the one favored by God, is in the position of the teacher, he is causing a disruption in expectation and assumed “wise” behavior, and the corresponding response of anxiety by the person holding to what is expected by tradition. Martha, burdened by much work, goes to Jesus and asks him if he cares that she is burdened by anxiety and expects him to tell Mary (her sister) to help her. Mary, Jesus’s mother, approaches him after “seeking for him in torment” and expects his reply to align with what a son should say based on tradition. In both cases, Jesus responds in an unexpected way and overhauls the status-quo. While the questions are different—(Luke 2) why are you doing this? and (Luke 10) why aren’t you doing this?—the communication is similar: what are you doing? Why aren’t you upholding tradition and expectation? Jesus’s answer is consistent in both cases: I’m not of the old age but the new; God is forging a new path for humanity. What came before will be reduced to the dust of death and what comes is life and light.

Now Jesus was progressing[12] in wisdom both maturity and grace in the sight [favor] of God and humanity. (Lk 2:52, translation mine)

Conclusion

So, to our opening question: what is the wisdom of the kingdom of God? It’s in opposition to the things we think are wise.[13] In two comparable stories we see Jesus’s actions and language are perplexing and causes anxiety because his actions and language challenge the expectations held by the people and society around him. Noting that at the end of Luke 2, Luke mentions Jesus has grown in maturity and wisdom as it pertains to God, we must see that by Luke 10, those actions are the working out of that wisdom and maturity influenced by God’s will and mission on earth. Jesus’s actions perpetuate the demand for questions which is hallmark of the divine encounter with God in the event of faith. When we are encountered by God in the scriptures telling of God’s divine incarnation at Christmas, we are pushed off balance and forced to ask questions because the answer that’s been given by God challenges and confronts what we have deemed as wise and mature. Thus, our questions in response to God become the bedrock of the questions we turn and ask ourselves, others, and our institutions and ideologies.

We are washed in the holy water of the divine answer that is Jesus of Nazareth the Christ and swept up in its movement. By baptism we’re grafted into the mission of God in the world trapped in death and darkness. By our baptism we are washed of death and brought into life. By our baptism we are made into holy troublemakers, wildcards, willing to imagine and be creatively disobedient by questioning things of the age of darkness and death and the kingdom of humanity. As the beloved of God and agents of light, we can challenge errant notions of heteronormativity, racism, sexism, classism, ageism and ableism–petrified, calcified, archaic, death-dealing ideologies and institutions having no place in the kingdom of God.

By our baptism we become responsive and active participants in the kingdom of God and the age of life and light, calling and pulling forth that which was and is being done by God in the world through the incarnation of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that as we stand at the beginning of 2021 we have the audacity to grow in the wisdom and maturity of God as Jesus did and that we would dare to drag the advent of the new age—Christmas—into our simple days in simple ways. By the power of the Holy Spirit in you, where you are there God is too, and there is the light of life; where you are, Beloved, there is God and there is love.


For an excellent discussion of the connection between the event of Baptism and the mission of God see W. Travis McMaken’s work, The Sign of the Gospel. I hosted Dr. McMaken on my podcast to talk about this text and the ideas contained within it, an episode which aired in two parts: here.

[1] Idea taken from W. Travis McMaken’s Our God Loves Justice: Introduction to Helmut Golwitzer. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.” 150-1.

[2] Playing with Dorothee Sölle’s book on Christian “obedience”, Creative Disobedience. Eugen OR: Wipf and Stock, 1995. “”In traditional usage one speaks rather descriptively of ‘fulfilling’ obedience. The picture is that of a container of form which must be filled. So too with obedience. A previously existing order is postulate that must be maintained, defended, or fulfilled. But Jesus did not conceive of the world according to a model of completed order, which person were merely required to maintain. The world he enters had not yet reached perfection. It was alterable, in fact, it awaited transformation. Schemes of order are in Jesus’ words utterly destroyed–great and small, scholar and child, riches and poverty, knowledge of the Law and ignorance. Jesus did everything in his power to relativize these orders and set free the person caught up in these schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Out obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory? I detect that we need new words to describe the revolutionary nature of all relationships begun in Christ. At the very least it is problematic whether we can even continue to consider that which Jesus wanted under the term obedience. Pp. 27-28

[3] Playing with Willie James Jennings book on race The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven CT: YUP, 2010. From the introduction, “The work also joins the growing conversation regarding the possibilities of a truly cosmopolitan citizenship. Such a world citizenship imagines cultural transactions that signal the mergence of people who sense of agency and belonging breaks open not only geopolitical and nationalist confines but also the strictures of ethnic and racial identities. This is indeed a noble dream even if it is a moving target given the conceptual confusions and political struggles around multicultural discourse. Yet I hope to intervene helpfully in this conversation by returning precisely to the question of the constitution of such a people and such a citizenship.” Pp. 10-11

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief Series Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. P. 43. “The story about the visit to the temple in Luke 2 has no parallel in the other canonical Gospels. Indeed, only Luke recounts an episode in the life of Jesus—this one—between his birth and the beginning of his ministry. In this particular case, Luke is again connection Jesus with Samuel—which he already did in Mary’s song, taken mostly from the song of Hannah—for the words in verse 52 are patterned after 1 Samuel 2:26…”

[5] Gonzalez Luke 43. “Here again there are typological connections: Samuel would bring in the kingdom of David, which pointed to the kingdom of God that Jesus would bring in. Furthermore, Samuel’s connection both with the temple and with Jesus hint at the typology that sees Jesus as the new and final temple of God.”

[6] Gonzalez Luke 44. “The temple and the tabernacle before it, were types of the incarnation that was to come. Elsewhere in the NT…Jesus refers to himself when he says that if the temple is destroyed, he will raise it up on three days. God can dwell with mortals on earth—even though the cross shows that mortals do when God does dwell with us.” And this was interesting, too: Gonzalez recounts a discussion about the idea of incarnation among some rabbis, here is the conclusion: “…the presence of God in the temple is perfectly compatible with the presence of God in a human being. There are many other important differences, he said, but to the questions, Can God indeed dwell with mortals on earth? Jews and Christians can both answer, Yes!”

[7] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. P.155. “But Luke introduces a surprising countermeasure as well. Jesus is being raised in a pious environment, but his commitment to God’s purpose transcends that piety and that environment. In this case at least, acting on behalf of God’s aim places Jesus’ behavior against parental expectation.” And, “Jesus is in the temple, the locus of God’s presence, but he is there under divine compulsion engaged in teaching. The point is that he must align himself with God’s purpose, even if this appears to compromise his relationship with his parents.” P. 157

[8] Green Luke 156. “In addition the movement of the story is not simply to Jerusalem and back to Nazareth; rather, one recognizes in these geographical markers a subtle deixic shift. As the scene opens, Mary and Joseph are the subjects of the action, but as it unfolds Jesus takes on an active role—for the first time in the Gospel.”

[9] Green Luke 156. “Finally, the pericope contrasts two sorts of piety, not in order to negate the one but to underscore the preeminence of the other. It is a good thing to keep the Passover, but the sort of pious environment to which Jesus has become accustomed at home serves and must serve the more fundamental purpose of God. Not even familial claims take precedent over aligning oneself uncompromisingly on the side of God’s purpose.”

[10] While the word used describing Mary’s action is παρακαθεσθεισα (first principle part: παρακαθιζω (to seat oneself, to sit down) it shares the root word used of Jesus seating himself in the midst of the teachers καθεζομενον(first principle part: καθιζομαι the ppi1s of καθιζω, to sit down, to take one’s seat). I believe this creates a link between the story in Luke 10 with the story in Luke 2. As a deponent the action is as if it was active and the two words overlap significantly in meaning and intentional action.

[11] The words here are different than the words used to describe Mary’s (and also Joseph’s) panic, but the emotional content is similar. Again another link between the structure of Luke 2 and Luke 10. Jesus’s presence and action inaugurate something new and there is anxiety in response by those familiar with what should be according to tradition.

[12] This word προεκοπτεν (impai3s, first principle part προκοπτω) carries with it the idea of a pioneer cutting a way through brushwood.

[13] Green Luke 157. “He returns under different circumstances than before. Now he is an active agent in the story, set on working within the contours of God’s aim irrespective of the consequences.”

Revolution of the Light

Sermon on John 1:1-5

Psalm 147:5: Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp.

Introduction

I’ve never met someone who meets opportunity for exposure with open and eager embrace. Exposure can harm our body. Even the small forms of exposure provide enough discomfort to warrant avoidance. Anyone here like it when that wool blanket and down comforter are yanked back suddenly exposing your warm skin to chilly air? What about that cruel adjustment moment when eyes accustomed to dark are exposed to brightness? What about that little trip while you’re walking exposing the reality that you’re not as graceful as you thought you were? All I have to say is, “Hospital Dressing Gown,” and you all know what I’m talking about.

Exposure hurts and ushers in self-death when it reveals bigger problems. That thing keeping you stuck or that thing haunting your peace rears its head again and exposes your lack of control. Maybe it’s the fights that won’t go away; maybe it’s the threat of failure; maybe it’s the persistent sickness; maybe it’s the lie that was found out…these are exposures soliciting a death to self: I need help.

Exposure hurts. But exposure and its pain and death aren’t antithetical to life but the basis of it.

John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was in the company with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning in the company with God. Everything was made through him, and not one thing having existed was made separately (from) him. In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.

Jn 1:1-5, translation mine

The first part of the reading should sound familiar. Genesis 1:1 starts off identically (εν αρχη). The allusion in John 1 to the start of the Hebrew Scriptures is intentional. The Word is to be equated with God and the creative speaking power of God. The Word was God. The word spoken in Genesis 1:1 is the word piercing the silence of the cosmos, disrupting the darkness by tearing from it the light. The point is not creationism, but that God’s word and God’s deed are one and the same thing: God speaks and it happens; not a word falls to the ground void of substance of completed action.[1] For John, this word spoken at the beginning of creation is the Word that has come into the world in the baby born to Mary (Jn 1:14)—and not only to Israel, but to the whole world.[2]

With one hand John grabs the tip of the Hebrew scriptures and pulls them into view. With the other hand he drags the Greek philosophical tradition into view—signified by the word λογος. John uses the birth of Christ Jesus as the focal point to articulate the light that was called forth in Genesis 1 will expose the world and humanity unto life, unto glory and truth. For John the world is not its own Lord or “Law” but is created and sustained by the very Word of God; [3] it is not chaotic matter (the Greeks) but creation out of nothing. [4] In 5 words (εν αρχη ην ο λογος), John indicts humanity and its thought structures and assumptions. And we—those who listen in from here—also are indicted and confronted with John’s statements about the Word who was with God and is God. We are asked to reexamine everything we thought we knew, the terms and concepts we have grown (all too) familiar with and think we’ve defined rightly.[5] Here we’ve been exposed by the confrontation of the divine answer that is the Word made flesh and is the light of life of humanity.

John writes, “In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.” The distinction between light and dark is one we move over quickly. We’re used to the idea that light happens at the flick of switch. In swift motion, the dark room is now illumined. It wasn’t, but now it is. But is it a simple change? The articulation of light into a room means that darkness must be converted. Darkness doesn’t run to other side of the room. What was dark is not anymore; it is light. It must cease being dark and become light.

When the light shines in the dark, the darkness in the path of the light is changed and transformed into not dark. Zooming in on the event you might see that which is light and not light, that which is darkness and not darkness. You might see particles in process of transition of giving themselves over to the light. There’d be a point where time would cease to matter as everything grinds to a halt as the activity of darkness changing into light gives over to the stillness of dark and light and not dark and not light—like a ball thrown into the air comes to a full stop before descent, there would be a cessation of darkness before there is lightness. There is a point in the conversion of darkness into lightness where it seems action seems to stop, where movement stops, where time becomes timelessness. There’s death—a cessation of everything. [6]

In the Christian Apocryphal work, Protoevangelium of James, the author tells of the moment Jesus is born, from Joseph’s perspective.[7] Listen,

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not liftin it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything return to its course.”[8]

Protoevangelium of James trans Lily C. Vuong

This is what happens to the world when divine exposure is born into it. The moment Jesus is born of Mary, time stops to make room for the light to enter the world that is trapped by darkness. Mary births the babe who is the light of humanity[9] that will convert darkness into lightness and death into life.[10] Everything comes to a standstill as God enters our timeline and completely overhauls it, flipping it on its head, moving space like the water of the red sea during the exodus, and thrusting the cosmos into divine truth. When God shows up, everything grinds to a halt and the world goes through a death as life motions to revolt against death.[11]

Conclusion

In the advent and nativity of the Christ child, we’re exposed by the light of life and shown we’ve been complicit with and held captive by systems and kingdoms of darkness of death. I mentioned before that 2020 is a year of exposure. This exposure hurts and will continue to hurt because none of us is done wrestling against the powers and principalities of this human world. It’s not easy to see how deeply embedded we are in the narrative of white supremacy. It’s painful to see greed and selfishness run rampant and realize those are our feet running and keeping pace with those we’re criticizing. It’s horrifying to realize our silence participates in propping up vile and malicious institutions, practices, ideologies when we’d rather not #saytheirnames or say #blacklivesmatter because it’s…more comfortable not to.

In the exposure inaugurated by the birth of the Christ in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are brought out of the old humanity through death into new humanity.

To be exposed is to endure the transition of darkness into light—being reduced to the moment you are and you are not. To be exposed is to come to a full cessation and be changed from darkness into lightness through death. To be exposed is to see things as they are in the stillness of time and ask the questions so many are afraid to ask: is this all there is? Is this really the good and true and the beautiful? Is anything else possible? The exposure of the encounter with God in the event of faith brings life out of death through resurrection—it’s new life and you are a new creation, with new eyes to see and ears to hear. And you’re given a new mission in the world: joining in the revolt against the dark with the army of the light who is the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, the hurting, the dying. This is the mission of God in the world; this is the thrust of the nativity. Everything we think we know as right, and good, and true is in the line of fire of the great divine revolution of life against death humbly started by God born a baby boy to a young unwedded mother, wrapped in rags and laid in a humble manger surrounded by dirty shepherds.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. P. 20 “In the O.T. the Word of God is his Word of power, which, in being uttered, is active as event. God’s word is God’s deed, and his deed is his word; that is, he acts through his word, and he speaks in his action, and it is man whom he addresses.”

[2] Bultmann John 21. “The Prologue does not speak of the relation of the chosen people to the Word of God, but of the relation of the world to the ‘Word’.”

[3] Bultmann John p. 39. “The radical nature of the idea of creation is evident at this point: in the beginning the world did not, so to speak, receive as its own that which it then maintains by itself; both its beginning and its continuing existence are attributed to the Logos. Precisely this is the meaning of v. 4a: ο γενονεν, εν αυτω ζωη ην: the vitality of the whole creation has its origin in the Logos; he is the power which creates life.”

[4] Bultmann John p. 38. “The Greek view, that wants to understand the world as a correlation of form and matter, is also excluded: the creation is not the arrangement of a chaotic stuff, but is the καταβολη κοσμου (17.24), creation ex nihilo.”

[5] Bultmann John 13. “The concepts ζωη and φως, δοξα and αληθεια are the kind of motifs for which the reader brings with him a certain prior understanding; but he still has to learn how to understand them authentically.”

[6] Bultmann John p.32. “…in the person and word of Jesus one does not encounter anything that has its origin in the world or in time; the encounter is with the reality that lies beyond the world and time. Jesus and his word not only bring release from the world and from time, they are also the means whereby the world and time are judged: the first words of the Prologue at once prepare us for this.”

[7] For an excellent engagement with this text, please see Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel’s work located here: https://hcommons.org/members/evandeneykel/deposits/ It was his paper—”Then Suddenly, Everything Resumed Its Course”: The Suspension of Time in the Protevangelium of James Reconsidered—that I heard at SBLAAR 2017 and was profoundly impacted by. If you are interested in further pursuing apocryphal engagement, I highly recommend engaging with Dr. Vanden Eykel.

[8][8] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[9] Bultmann John p. 43, “…φως comes to mean revelation. And where one speaks of a Revealer, one can describe him as the ‘Light’ or as the Giver of light.”

[10] Bultmann John p. 41. “In its original sense light is not an apparatus for illumination, that makes things perceptible, but is the brightness itself in which I find myself here and now; in it I can find my way about, I feel myself at home, and have no anxiety. Brightness itself is not therefore an outward phenomenon, but is the illumined condition of existence, of my own existence. Such brightness is necessary for life; so that from the first, and throughout the ancient world, light and life, darkness and death are seen as belonging together.”

[11] Bultmann John p. 47. “Yet the ζωη of the Logos does not cease to be the φως of men just because men have chosen the possibility of darkness. Rather it is only because the Logos is constantly present as the light of men that the world of men can be σκοτια at all. For darkness is neither a substance nor the sheer power of fate; it is nothing other than the revolt against the light.” I made revolution the work of the light because revolutionary violence is in response to oppression and suffering. Darkness’s response would be counter revolution. It is not light who responds to hold the status-quo, but darkness. It is darkness and death to uphold the status-quo and systems bent on destruction to keep your power.

Some Sölle

I recently read the short book Creative Disobedience by Dorothee Sölle. She was influenced by both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Gogarten. Her work is excellent, pastoral, tangible, accessible; dare I say she’s the best of both of these scholars. Also, considering my own work engages both Bonny and Fritz, it made sense to me to begin reading Sölle; seems she’s my older sister here in this odd theological family.

What I am providing here is not a book review; sadly, I’ve no time for a quality book review. Rather my aim is to provide some enticing quotes from the text, encouraging you, beloved reader, to go get it and read it and take it to heart. I will use bold to add emphasis to parts I want to stand out to you.

“Basically, however, in a completely authoritarian model of obedience one never asks the question ‘why.’ The world loses its significance and is degraded to being but the raw material used in practicing formal obedience. That which is done is uninteresting. When obedience concentrates itself completely on a higher and guiding ‘other,’ it becomes blind, that is, blind to the world. It hears the voice of its master in a very narrow and exclusive sense but it sees nothing. it accomplishes the act of obedience for its own sake, recognizing no additional significance.

“An attempt has been made to solve this dilemma by suggesting that the obedience requested and carried out is given freely. To be sure an obedience freely given does mean a displacement of the power relationship and allows the obedience subject to maintain a certain semblance of honor. But the problem of worldlessness and the lack of objective concerns inherent in such a person-oriented obedience is only sharpened. A critique of obedience cannot satisfy itself merely by maintaining that those who obediently submit choose to do so freely. Blindness toward the world and total irresponsibility are still lacking in this variant of the authoritarian model.

“An obedience that is blind to objective concerns and to the world, that merely listens to what it is told, has divest itself of all responsibility for what is commanded. Obedience and not what is to be done is the sole motivation.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 15-16

“But it is precisely spontaneity for which Jesus sets us free. That which he requires does not presuppose the order of the world; that order has yet to be established in the future. Insofar as the human must first discover what God’s will is, the future of the world remains open.

“In traditional usage one speaks rather descriptively of ‘fulfilling’ obedience. The picture is that of a container of form which must be filled. So too with obedience. A previously existing order is postulate that must be maintained, defended, or fulfilled. But Jesus did not conceive of the world according to a model of completed order, which person were merely required to maintain. The world he enter had not yet reached perfection. It was alterable, in fact, it awaited transformation. Schemes of order are in Jesus’ words utterly destroyed–great and small, scholar and child, riches and poverty, knowledge of the Law and ignorance. Jesus did everything in his power to relativize these orders and set free the person caught up in the se schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Out obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?

“I detect that we need new words to describe the revolutionary nature of all relationships begun in Christ. At the very least it is problematic whether we can even continue to consider that which Jesus wanted under the term obedience.

Creative Disobedience pp. 27-28

“A society is imagined in which it is no longer necessary to deny someone people their own subjectivity. Such an inhuman demand destroys the person on whom it is made. Those who require such a degree of self-sacrifice, or include it in their life plan, lose their freedom. He who makes use of another person as a means of achieving his own ends not only humiliates that person but also degrades himself. To treat another person as if she were a thing is to become a thing oneself, a servant to the functioning of the very ‘thing’ being manipulated. By demanding sacrifice, such a person destroys his own freedom. As the one in control he becomes the one controlled. In alienating others from that which they wish to be and can become, he alienates himself. Because he concentrates on domination, on employing others as means to his own ends, he loses all the other possibilities open to him. For example, he no longer pays attention to anything that does not fit his purpose. He loses the ability to enjoy ling because he must constantly reinforce his life by accomplishments. The relationship between people is so interdependent that it is impossible for one person to prosper at the expense of another. In the long run such exploitation proves detrimental to both.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 34-35

“The stronger a person’s self-identity–that which we have previously referred to as his or her being a subject–the easier partial renunciation becomes. in borderline situations the expression ‘partial renunciation’ can be applied to the runcination of one’s own life for the sake of the other. However, even then it is impossible for such a person to relinquish his or her identity for the sake of the other. And so one could formulate the thesis: The greater one’s realization of selfhood the greater one’s ability for true renunciation. The more successful one is at living the easier it is for him or her to let go of life.

Creative Disobedience p. 39

“A person can, during the course of his lifetime, become more imaginative, or, on the other hand, he can give u more and more of his phantasy. He then becomes progressively poorer in his style of living and ever more fixed in that which he refers to as his life-experience or his understanding of people. This growing impoverishment of life takes pleasure in assuming the appearance of maturity, in feigning a full awareness of reality.

Creative Disobedience p. 51

“Jesus made people whole without asking for thanks. He fulfilled people’s wishes without requesting their validity. He allowed phantasy full reign without bowing to propriety. he took seriously the religious requirements such as fasting, the breaking of bread, and thanksgiving, but he was also able to put them all aside. He was at ease with friend and foe alike. The conventional classification of people in artificial groupings could be suspended at any time.

“He never brought new virtues and duties. It was fulfillment he offered to those with whom he dealt, a certain sense of wholeness, of well-being, which made virtue and its practice possible. He did not fulfill duties; instead he changed the situation of those whom he met. His phantasy began with the situations but always went far beyond them.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 52-53

“The liberated human being is so strongly aware of him or herself as a self-determining subject that partial denials become possible. The expression ‘partial denial’ may seen inappropriate when it is applied to Jesus, but I use it in order to underscore the fact that a person can never deny his own identity simply at the will of another. In this sense Jesus too never denied his own identity. It is more appropriate to say that his death was the final substantiation of his identity, of the unheard of assertion ‘I am the life.'”

Creative Disobedience p. 58

It appeared to be forgotten that for Jesus ‘God’ meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. The feeling of possessing a full life, the fulfillment of Jesus, was lost. It was as if one wished to promise people something more and greater than the fulfillment of Jesus–a participation in divine life which is realized only after death. With the help of this beyond, this still to come, fulfillment was defamed, and the transformation of this earth in view of the possibilities for fulfillment remained subordinate.

“We still secretly feared that the realization of selfhood could only be achieved at the cost of others, suspected that it was the robbery of others, because we viewed the earth itself and the projected possibilities for fulfillment as constant and immovable. If instead the world is seen as moving toward a goal, if God is experiences as active in history and not merely posited as resting beyond nature, as eternally being, then the possibilities for fulfillment are multiplied. Then phantasy ceases to be a thing for children and poets–that which Christian history has made of it. The person is once again given the courage to say ‘I,’ without, in so doing, taking anything from anyone else.

Creative Disobedience pp. 64-65

Stand and Fight

Sermon on Luke 1:38a

Psalm 89: 1-2: “Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing; from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness. For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.” Amen.

Introduction

A gray winter evening ended in a depressed steel town in Pittsburgh, and the fall semester of my last year of seminary wrapped up. Then contractions started. A first-time mom, I had nothing previously in my life to prepare me for this moment. Yes, I took the necessary classes; yes, I read every book (I’m an enneagram 5, if we could, our babies wouldn’t be born until we’ve plumbed the depths of ACOG). Yet, as the contractions began that Monday night, my life was changing. Forever. The event that was barreling at me like a freight train was one I’d have to experience as it came in waves, in pain, in water and blood, in my body breaking. Daniel could not walk with me or protect me; I had to do it alone…I, on behalf of my unborn son, would wage a campaign against death, and my body would be the battleground and I’d never be the same again.

And the only solution was to stand and fight
And my body was bruised and I was set alight
But you came over me like some holy rite
And although I was burning, you’re the only light
Only if for a night[1]

Florence and the Machine

In the act of bringing forth life, a woman will grab death by its face and fiercely declare: my life for this one. When labor comes, when the urge to bear down swells, there’s nothing else to do but submit to the event, to enter what feels like chaos and the blindness of darkness. The warrior woman and the ferocity of motherhood will be summoned, and she will stand and fight to remind death once more: life wins. Even if I die here and now, life wins.

Luke 1:38a

“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” (Lk 1:38a).

Mary, a young virgin, will take on the burden of this battle in her own body. In our gospel passage, Luke tells us the story of the announcement that Jesus will be born. After receiving Gabriel’s announcement that she—a humble and poor woman of no status—will conceive when the spirit of God comes upon her, Mary submits herself to this divine request. She will bear in her body the stigma of being a young, unwed mother and the threat of the law therein.[2] The task she undertakes in her submission is one that will not only be internal (reckoning with herself as her time approaches) but also external as she must prepare herself to come under the judgment of law: criminal, worthy of death. The path laid bare will be marked by pain and humiliation. [3]

Mary becomes part of the fulfillment of the promise made to David by the prophet Nathan, “…the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16). Her body is the house of the son of God—not made of mortar and stone, but of flesh and bone. She will bear in her body the child and son of God the Christ and the full weight of the law; the great rescue begins here. Her womb, her body becomes the battle ground between life and death. Her body hosts the form of the day of favor as salvation and rescue from the religious tyranny and authority of human systems and kingdoms deeply corrupt and oppressive in their favoring of the rich and powerful. Her body will become the site of the day of judgment coming into the world on those in authority abusing their power in using God’s word to marginalize and oppress those without power and authority. Mary is the site of the beginning of the world flipped right side up. [4] Woe to the rich, blessed are the poor…

Mary submits not to the oppressive command of a god taking advantage of a young and intimidated young girl, but to the mission of God in the battle of life against death. The Joan of Arc before there was a Joan of Arc, Mary enlists herself and her body in this divine war against death. Mary “…heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”; and she said, “‘Here am I; send me!’” (Is 6:8). Mary’s statement of submission to the mission of God puts her in the household of God usurping her role in the family of Joseph for the things of God surpass the things of humanity.[5] Mary’s statement of submission to the mission of God and the presence of God’s spirit anointing and empowering and strengthening her[6] graft her into the great line of prophets who roamed this earth proclaiming the wonderful and awesome day of the Lord. She, too, becomes one of those prophetic voices who will proclaim and herald good tidings of salvation and rescue to Israel and unto the ends of the earth.

Listen to her:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever. (Cant. 15 The Song of Mary; Lk 1:46-55)

Mary, like the prophets before her, submits to the mission of God of love in the world: behold the day of the Lord comes! She, like the prophets before her, participates in bringing justice to those who suffer injustice, bringing comfort to those who need to be comforted, proclaiming and performing love in the world. She is like Isaiah, the herald of good tidings; she is like Jeremiah, the suffering servant; she is like Micah, watching in hope for the coming of the Lord; she is like Malachi, announcing the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays.

Conclusion

The impact of the descent of God into our timeline radically alters our lives—yesterday, tomorrow, and (especially) today. The proclamation streaming out of the historical event of God’s descent into the world in Jesus of Nazareth the Christ ricochets through the halls of time, never exhausting itself and never running out of steam. It moves about the cosmos forever and unto the ends of the earth for the beloved, to reconcile the beloved, to love the beloved, to save the beloved from death. Not even death itself will put a stop to the activity of God on the behalf of the beloved (Rom 8:38-39).

This is the great mystery Paul mentions at the end of Romans, the long held secret mystery of God being revealed into the world for the whole world in the fractal of broken bodies (Rom. 16:25-27). Mary, the one low of status in wealth, society, and gender will become the blessed of God because God is with those whose bodies are broken: who are low status, hurt, who have pain, who suffer injustice, oppression, and marginalization. Mary will face death so that her son can reckon with it. Mary will go through hell, so that the Christ will shut it down. Mary will lay low the divine child in the wood of a manger so that Jesus the Savior may raise up all who suffer by the wood of his cross. Her body will be broken so that her son’s can be; so that ours, too, can be broken as we participate in reminding death—in all its forms—life wins.

And right now as death has found a seat in our pews, taking one of our beloved, we need to be reminded that death is not the final word. As Tom’s timeline stopped and ours seems to surge beyond, hold on to this: there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. And if that then also this: no one is separated from us—not even by death—because Love knows not that boundary and certainly isn’t restricted by it. Love descends into death bringing with it love’s life. So, today we have the audacity to stand in the encounter with God in the event of faith and fight and declare I believe, to sing, to look death in the face and, with confidence, proclaim: hope wins, love wins, life wins because the Christ, the child of Mary, Jesus of Nazareth is born.


[1] Florence and the Machine Only If For A Night

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 21. “Mary will have to bear the stigma—and perhaps even the penalty—of that condition…”

[3]Gonzalez. 21 “This is the beginning of a story of pain and humiliation that will lead her son being condemned to death as a common criminal.”

[4] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 92 “In antiquity, the status of a slave was determined by the status of the householder. In his characterization of Mary as ‘slave of the Lord,’ Luke has begun to undercut the competitive maneuvering for positions of status prevalent in the first-century Mediterranean world. Mary, who seemed to measure low in any ranking—age, family heritage, gender, and so on—turns out to be the one favored by God, the one who finds her status and identity in her obedience to God and participation in his salvific will.”

[5] Green 92 “In describing herself as the Lord’s servant…she acknowledges her submission to God’s purpose, but also her role in assisting that purpose. Moreover, she claims a pace in God’s household, so to speak; indeed, in this socio-historical context, her words relativize and actually place in jeopardy her status in Joseph’s household. For her, partnership in the purpose of God transcends the claims of family.”

[6] Martin Luther LW 25. 149. “It should be noted that the word virtus here is understood as ‘strength’ or ‘power,’ as Moglichkeit in the colloquial sense, ‘possibility’.’ And power of God is understood not as the power by which according to His essence He is powerful but the power by virtue of which He makes powerful and strong. As one says ‘the gift of God,’ ‘the creature of God,’ or ‘the things of God,’ so one also says the power of God, that is, the power that comes from God, as we read in Acts 4:33…Luke 1:35: ‘The power of the Most High will overshadow you.’”