Prayer as Unity

Seventh Sunday of Easter Meditation: John 17:11

(Video at the end of the post)

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jn 17:11

I’m always humbled when I read about Jesus praying. It highlights that I don’t pray enough and rely on my own reason and will to do things. I find myself seemingly autonomously going from moment to moment without feeling the need to pause to pray. I convince myself it’s because of a “robust” doctrine of the Holy Spirit and a deep awareness of the perpetual presence of the Spirit residing in me…but it’s comical really. I’m fooling myself.

The reality for me is prayer feels like work, work that I often don’t have the energy to do. On top of sheer exhaustion from all the demands and the instability of chaos and confusion, prayer feels like work with nonexistent results. A work that goes ignored, is met with silence, and with more suffering, sorrow, and sickness. Even though I’m very familiar with the doctrines and dogmas surrounding prayer and why I should do it, more often than not prayer exposes just how alone I am, how desperate I am, how hurt, scared, confused, and stuck I am. I don’t like that.

But, that’s the point. Life reduces us to the powerless ashes from which God’s divine creative activity and flair calls forth a powerful phoenix. This is the encounter with God in the event of faith, the being wholly dependent on a wholly other God, the death giving way to new life robust in, deeply aware of, and bringing glory to God. Life out of death is the divine means by which God is glorified.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” As Jesus prepares to leave the disciples, they are faced with their own “hour” whereby they are left alone in the world as Jesus suffers, dies, is raised, and goes to the Father.[1] The intersection of Christ’s hour with the disciples’ hour is both the completion and the consummation of the love of God for the whole cosmos made manifest in the event of the cross. [2] This is the trajectory of Jesus’s ministry on earth unto death: as Christ is the embodied love of God which the disciples experience bodily, so too are the disciples in world as they move forth from their hour of encounter with God in faith, in prayer.[3]  The metanarrative of scripture is aimed to this fact: it’s about God’s love for the world, for Israel, for each of us.[4]

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The small band of disciples extends, by the Holy Spirit, to the ends of the earth, making disciples and adding to the union for which Jesus prays. Thus, while we are alone and wholly dependent on a wholly other God, we aren’t alone. Prayer unites each of us individually to Christ, the Revealer, and in being united individually to the Revealer we are united to each other into the eternal body of Christ.[5] As we pray in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are in communion with God and thus brought into the beautiful and timeless community of saints: past, present, and future.

 

[1] Bultmann John 487 “In 12.23 this ωρα had been described as the hour of his δοξασθηναι. The difference is purely one of form—it is described as the hour of his μεταβηναι εκ του κοσμου τουτου. For it is introduced here to show its significance for the disciples. For them, it is primarily The Hour, because he is going; they have still to learn that this μεταβηναι is at the same time a δοξασθηναι.”

[2] Bultmann John 487-8 “But the reader is immediately made aware his μεταβηναι is not only the end, but at the same time the consummation of his work: αγαπησας εις τελος; he showed them his love right to the end, which means at the same time, right to its completion This is not of course a biographical comment designed to show the extent of Jesus’ heroism—that he remained true to his own, ‘right up to his last breath’; the intention is to show that even the end itself is nothing other than an act of love, nay more, that it is the necessary end, in which the work of love he had begun finds its consummation.”

[3] Bultmann John 488-9 “It is not necessary after ch. 10 to enlarge on the question who the ιδιοι are. Τhey are his own (10.14) whom the Father has given him f 10.29). And although they are the object of his love, whereas in 3.16 it was the κοσμος that was the object of the Father’s love, this distinction between the two involves no contradiction, but is quite appropriate. Of course the love of the Son, like that of the Father, is directed towards the whole world, to win everyone to itself; but this love becomes a reality only where men open themselves to it. And the subject of this section is the circle of those who have so opened themselves.”

[4] Bultmann John 488 “But it is only looking back at the end of his ministry that we can see the whole of it clearly: it was never really anything other than an αγαπαν τους ιδιους.”

[5] Bultmann John 489 “In the actual situation as it was, this circle was represented by the twelve (eleven); but the use of the term ιδιοι here, and μαθηται, is significant; it shows that they are the representatives of all those who believe, and it also shows that they are being viewed in terms of their essential relation to the Revealer, which is grounded not in the temporal but in the eternal.”

Encounter and Rebirth

Sermon on John 14:1-7

I recorded this sermon for the Rev. Josh Andrews and the Methodist Churches he cares for (Trinity United Methodist Church in Spencerville, Ohio; and, Westside United Methodist Church in Lima, Ohio). The text follows the video.

 

I love the explicitly obscure imagery in this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The story of the house with many “dwelling places” seems to be a break from what came before in chapter 13 where Jesus foretells Peter’s denial. Yet, a theme overlaps thus binds the two chapters together: discipleship.[1]

“Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’” (Jn 14:1-4)

Moving swiftly from prophesying Peter’s denial to speaking of peace, faith in God, and a dwelling place with the Father actually makes sense when you place it under the umbrella of “discipleship.” What the disciples—especially Peter—do not understand is that good discipleship starts not with us choosing to follow after God; rather it begins with God’s preparation of a place for us and God’s coming to get us. Thus, disciples are where Jesus is, or where Jesus is there are the disciples. (One can’t exist without the other.) Just as we are born in the flesh by our mother where our mother is and into a space prepared for us by her; so too are we spiritually reborn by God where God is and into a space prepared for us by God.

I don’t want to vilify Peter. His profession in chapter 13 (and echoed by Thomas’s question in our passage) makes sense according to his logic: if this is the long-awaited Messiah, then yes, Peter’s going to go into battle for him; he’ll lay down his life for Christ–like a good soldier in the midst of battle for his General. If we know anything about Peter, it’s that he’s wonderfully human, and in this we are all pulled into the story—no matter how much we may think we would’ve gotten it. Peter’s logic here is air-tight; but it’s wrong. He won’t die for the Messiah, rather, the Messiah will die for him.[2] Thus, to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow where Jesus is headed necessitates not the risk that death might occur in a battle for life, but that life might occur as a result of death.[3] Dare we come to the end of ourselves and … find more, abundantly more?

The path that lies ahead for the disciples is through Jesus, and this will necessitate a death: a death of what has been held true, a death to dogma and doctrine, a death to human made idols, a death to our reason, our common sense, and our rationality, our self-justification, and a death to our self anchored in false narratives. For all of these things are on a collision course with God in the revelation of God in the event the cross. The disciples will not be entering into battle against the tyranny of other nations; rather, they will enter into confrontation with the tyranny of themselves, rendered and returned to dust.

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” (Jn 14:5-7)

Where Jesus is going the disciples cannot follow and they cannot lead. They must let Jesus, the Christ, make the “way” both for himself and for them.[4] Thus, in that Jesus is going to make the way for them, he’ll be the way for them and this renders Jesus as the inseparable “way and goal.”[5] Salvation occurs when one is brought into encounter with God in the event of faith, this happens and is the means by which this happens to the person. Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection re the way and the goal for a disciple.[6]

If Jesus is both the way and the goal for the disciple and by which the disciple is defined, then, according to John, to be a disciple is neither mere mimicry of Jesus nor surging ahead of Jesus with weapons bared. Rather, it is to be found in Jesus—Jesus is the way. Not a doorway, not a gateway, but the way: the path from which the disciple never veers and is thus also the goal for the life of the disciple. It is in Christ where the one who hears the call of God and is forever changed and altered, the one who could not hear but now has ears to hear—to hear so deeply that they can’t unhear what they’ve heard, and they are always hearing truth and receiving life. The Christian, the believer, the hearer never moves from her location in Christ but is plunged deeper and deeper into Christ thus into truth and into life. [7]

The language of John describes the disciple of Christ being the one who dies and finds life. The one who is encountered by God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is returned to the very dust that is the substance of the earth, thrown into a wholly other God being wholly dependent on the self-disclosure of this God that God is love, and finds not death unto death but, by the presence and activity of divine mercy and grace, finds and receives the fulness of life. It is this one who is yanked out of her previous existence and thrust into a new one that is oriented in God toward her neighbor in a living, true way.[8]

All of this is so incredibly abstract and heavy. What does it have to do with my life? With me? I intellectually understand that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; but then I don’t know. Or, do I?

As I read and meditate on this text written so long ago, something sparks a maternal familiarity; something I know deep in my gut, something my body tells me she’s done. And then, like a freight train, memories overwhelm me.  I know this…I know what Jesus is describing… This is none other than birth language. We are born of women in the flesh and are made “people”; we are reborn of God by faith and are made disciples. The maternal heart, pregnant with desire for the beloved, and the unconditional sacrificial love of God shining through the text–cloaked to the casual observer, like Jesus’s divine sonship is to anything but faith.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’” (Jn 3:1-6)

 

I know this language because I’m a mom, because I’ve nurtured and brought life into the world through my body, that my children are my children and perpetually so because of an eternal relation between mother and child—no matter how doubtful, how confident, how meager, how substantial, how rocky, how wonderful, how distant, or how close. Forever it is my voice, my scent, my touch, my very heartbeat that my three children will know and recognize better than anything else in the world. It is their presence, their bodies, their laughs, their cries that will perpetually tug at something located in depth of the core of who I am. Birth is not the end of the symbiotic connection between mother and child; it is the very beginning, it is the way.

In the process of bringing forth life, a mother will lay her life down for her child, one whom she knows and yet does not; she can’t do anything else, she will, through every groan and each contraction, look death in the face and say: my life for this one. Her body will be broken, the water will spill, and the blood will run; and, what looks eventually like sure death will be become the event of abundant life. She will birth this child at the expense of her own body, she will make a place for this child, she will carry this child, she will nurture this child… where she is, there the child will be also. And where the child is, there, too, will she be.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (Jn 3:16-17)

Love* is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves in the midst of the closeness intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity. Love loves.

It is in divine love that is our common location with each other and with God. This divine Love is both agape and eros: it goes out, it seeks, and it takes the beloved back into the lover. Love causes the lover to always be with the beloved. The lover never forgets the Beloved because by love the beloved is always with the lover. Love is the path and the destination.

In the encounter with God in Christ in the event of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are reborn in and through love. And this Love is the way, it is truth, it is life. God is love; God loves you; you are reborn of God by faith. you are forever the Beloved.

Happy Mother’s day.

 

 

*This and the following paragraph are adapted from this post: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

[1] Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, and JK Riches. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). 595-6

[2] Bultmann John 598, “…he does not know that he cannot enter the field ‘for’ the Revealer, but only the Revealer for him…It is therefore clear that the following of Jesus is not an act of heroism.”

[3] Bultmann John  597, “Thus the following of Jesus has become a possibility in this double sense—as world-annulment and as following into the δοξα—only because of Jesus’ victory over the world; it is therefore possible solely through faith in the Revealer, in whose υπαγειν the victory over the world is accomplished.

[4] Bultmann John 605, “By describing himself as the way Jesus makes two things clear: 1. his case is different from that of the disciples; he does not need a ‘way’ for himself, as the disciples do, rather he is the way for them…”

[5] Bultmann John 605, “The way and the goal are not to be separated as they are in mythological thinking. In the myth the redemption has become embodied in a cosmic event, and therefore-contrary to the intention of the myth—it is conceived as in intra-mundane event, as a divine history, which takes place apart from the existence of man, who is referred to it as the guarantee of his future.”

[6] Bultmann John 605, “…the redemption is an event which takes place in human existence through the encounter with the Revealer, with the result that the believer’s present is already based on his future; his existence is eschatological existence; his way is at the same time his goal.”

[7] Bultmann John 606-7, “That means that there is no ‘short cut’ to the correct understanding of αληθεια and ζωη. The discovery of this αληθεια is not something established once and for all, at men’s disposal, such as could be communicated in ‘condensed form’ like a truth of science; on the contrary everyone has to take the way to it for himself, for only on the way does this truth disclose itself. Similarly Jesus is the truth; he does not simply state it. One does not come to him to ask about truth; one comes to him as the truth. This truth does not exist as a doctrine, which could be understood, preserved, and handed on, so that the teacher is discharged and surpassed. Rather the position a man takes vis-à-vis the Revealer decides not whether he knows the truth, but whether he is ‘of the truth,’ that is to say, whether his existence is determined by the truth, whether the truth is the ground on which his existence is based. And as in Christianity everyone has to start for himself from the beginning, so too there is no such thing as a history of Christianity within world-history, in the sense of a history of ideas or problems, in which one progresses from stage to stage, from solution to solution; each generation has the same original relation to the revelation.”

[8] Bultmann John 606, “Εγω ειμι η οδος: this is pure expression of the idea of revelation. The Revealer is the access to God which man is looking for, and what is more—as is implied in the phrase Εγω ειμι and is stated explicitly in words ουδεις κτλ.—the only access. Not, however, in the sense he mediated the access and then became superfluous…On the contrary, he is the way in such a manner as to be at the same time the goal; for he is also η αληθεια και η ζωη: the αληθεια as the revealed reality of God, and the ζωη as the divine reality which bestows life on the believer in that it bestows self-understanding in God. All three concepts are bound to each other by the word Εγω: just as Jesus is the way, in that he is the goal, so he is also the goal, in that he is the way. He cannot be forgotten in the of the goal, for the believer cannot have the αληθεια and the ζωη as acquisitions at his own disposal: Jesus remains for him the way. Of course that is not to say that αληθεια and ζωη are a goal that is always to be striven for and that is an infinite distance away; on the contrary, in going along the way the goal is reached. Not however in the sense of Stoicism or idealism, where the goal is ideally present in the infinite way…nor is it a ‘perpetual striving to make the effort’; rather it is the state of existence that is subjected to the actual word of Jesus within history, for there God is present. But the believer finds God only in him, i.e. God is not directly accessible; faith is not mystical experience, but rather historical existence that is subject to the revelation.”

Love and Solidarity

Farewell Letter to my Students

 

 

Three years ago, I was in Colorado minding my own business, mothering, puttering around the house, thinking theological things, wondering what the future held for me as a newish transitional deacon in The Episcopal Church. Never once did I think that my phone would ring, that I *would* answer it, and that the familiar voice on the other end would ask, “Do you want to go teach World Religions in deep south Louisiana?” When that exact thing happened one afternoon, that question was met with a quick, “Nope. I’m not qualified for that…I don’t know a thing about any other tradition.” After some discussion and very crafty convincing by my friend, I reluctantly and skeptically gave in, “Although we both know that in no way, shape, or form should I be teaching high school kids anything and that I’m better fit for the inanimate world of books, I’ll go ahead and talk to them.”

I’m glad I did.

From the moment I stepped on Campus in 2017, I knew this was home. And it was, and it is. I can say honestly, one of the best decisions I ever made was moving my family across the country and teaching 11th and 12th graders theology and religion—and eventually 8th graders, too. I wasn’t convinced I’d be good at it, and I don’t know if I was; but, I knew that this was where I was supposed to be.

Every student who has passed through my door and sat at my desks has taught me more about what it means to be a teacher, an adult, a Christian, to be me than any book I’ve read (and I’ve read a few). Every encounter, discussion, argument, banter, and painful (painful!) silence, were the moments through which I fell more in love not only with my job, but with you. This is by far the best job I’ve ever had and definitely the hardest one to leave. But love loves, and love knows when to leave.

As my family weathers chaos and global pandemic, it’s become clearer to us that the geographical distance that exists between us and our parents is too large. Pandemic wedded to the tangible reality that our parents are getting older and won’t always be with us, thrust us into serious conversations about our immediate future. After thoughtful and careful evaluation, I was faced to make that choice that was right and excruciatingly difficult: leave my students. Love knows when it must let go.

I like to fully invests in what I’m doing and into my relationships. As I looked at what was ahead, I knew that my place needed to be alongside my parents, doing for them what they did for me many years ago. As my parents carried me in their arms through crowds and gatherings, and used their voices to sooth my fears and concerns, it is now my turn to use my arms to carry them and my voice to sooth them. I knew I couldn’t also be here (fully) for you; I’d be divided.

As a middle-aged adult I span the gap between two generations. My children need me and so too my parents. This means, that, with only two hands, I must let go of something to grab hold of my parents. And since my children are yet too young to be released, I had to let go of my job. While I have tried to find a workable solution to make everything fit, I cannot. (And trust me, I tried; if you don’ believe me you can ask Ms. Fournet or Coach Dardar or Ms. Neal-Jones, they know I tried and they know how much I loved this work and how much I *do* love you.)

And I do love you; you’re the Beloved. Love is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. In the fall I preached that love loves. And it does. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves;, in the midst of the closeness intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity. Love loves.

Others have moved from here, I am moving from here, you will move from here, but the tie that binds is love. It is in divine love where our common location resides. This divine Love is both agape and eros: it goes out, it seeks, and it takes the beloved back into the lover. Love causes the lover to always be with the beloved. As I move to Colorado, my love for you will not lessen even though there will be geographical distance; in love distance is non-existent. The lover never forgets the Beloved because by love the beloved is always with the lover; thus, you won’t be forgotten.

So, my Beloved, thank you. Thank you for letting me be your teacher, for trusting me with your thoughts, ideas, bodies, and minds; thank you for making my world and life bigger, better, and brighter because you each exist; thank you for showing and teaching me so much, for your patience and your forgiveness; and thank you for being you—the world is a more beautiful place because you are.

With that and with all my love…catch ya on the flip side…

Love and Solidarity,

Rev. Lauren R. E. Larkin

Doubt and Encounter

Second Sunday of Easter Meditation: John 20:26-28

(video at the end of the post)

 

“…Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (Jn 20:26d-28).

Thomas the doubter. We have more patience for the denials of Peter than we do the doubt of Thomas. In the history of “The Top Ten Best Moments of the Disciples,” it seems (often) that Thomas’s doubt ranks just above Judas’s betrayal. Don’t be such a doubting Thomas. Words that silence questions and confusion unto shame and condemnation. It’s only slightly better than being called a Judas.

Shade is thrown in Thomas’s direction because his disbelief hits too close to home. That Thomas’s doubt is recorded for all posterity reminds me, at least once a year, that doubt is…is possible. It reminds me that I do, in fact, doubt. It reminds you that you doubt. Thomas’s story hits the core of our insecurities and tells us that it doesn’t matter how many degrees we have or how many times we’ve read through the bible or how reasonable and rational our apologies for God are…we doubt. All of us.

This doubt feels deadly in a tradition that is orthodox, meaning (simply): right thought. Doubting can seem like unfaithfulness and willful rejection of what God has done and said and this means divine rejection. If I doubt, am I lost? If I am lost, will I be found? Is it all up to me? Jesus even says to Thomas, “‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,’” (Jn 20:29). In this moment it seems that Thomas is chastised for not believing because he wanted physical proof (a very human and rational thing to ask for). We are scared to doubt because there seems to be big risk attached.

The good news is, Thomas isn’t lost, left, and abandoned. Zoom out and look at the story as a whole. What we see are those characteristics that are the trademarks of God: long-suffering, patient, merciful, abounding in lovingkindness, and gracious. Thomas doubts; Jesus shows up. In his doubt, Thomas comes face to face with God. Thomas encounters God in the event of faith and what bursts forth from his human lips is a confession: confession of faith and confession of his lack of faith.[1]

In this story, Thomas is truly human. In the first instance he stands on his reason alone where he cannot believe what has been told to him by his peers. In the next moment, Thomas is encountered by God in Christ and believes. “My Lord and my God!” Says Thomas. Thomas sees here what he could not see before based on mere testimony. Thomas, in this moment, sees Jesus as he desires to be seen as the incarnate word of God (John 1). Behold, God!

It is not that we think, but that we doubt where we find ourselves at the core of what it means to be human. Because it is here, in doubt, where we look beyond ourselves, beyond the narrow framework of our mind and imagination. Doubt is our confession of being human. And it’s in this confession where we are, ironically, so very close to God. More often than not, doubt is not that we are far from God, but that we are so close…as close as Jacob, Israel, wrestling with God.

 

 

[1] Thoughts here and following influenced by Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Trans. GR Beasley-Murray and RWN Hoare, JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. (pp. 689-697).

Waters of Thursday

Maundy Thursday Meditation: John 13:6

(video at the end of the post)

 

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’” (John 13:6)

 

Peter does not know what Jesus is doing.

Wanting to know and seeking to understand is part of our natural inclination and orientation. Being without sight, having words held by silence, being trapped in isolation, these restrictions cause chaos, and this chaos drives us crazy. In an effort to make sense of our surroundings, our environment, our predicament we concoct schemes and stories, dogmas and doctrines, rituals and routines. Some of these things seem to rise to celestial heights others shatter on the ground as the human made earthen vessels they are.

We do not know what God is doing.

Peter feels the tension as Jesus–the Christ!–stoops low and washes his feet. This is a boggling gesture on Jesus’s part, and Peter cannot make sense of it. Roles should be reversed, seats swapped; what is He doing? The only consolation that Jesus offers to Peter’s shock filled question, is an understanding that will come at a later date. Yet that does not ease the oddness of this particular moment in the present. We know this feeling intimately. Blindness now, silence now, isolation now leaves us feeling unsteady and uncertain even if we know that one day everything we’ve endured (now) will make sense as we watch all the parts of our story fall into place.  But at the onset of every night, in our solemn prayer as we drift off to sleep is the confession: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

We do not know what God is doing.

Resisting the urge to flash forward to Easter Sunday and the glory of the resurrection, stay here in this chaos with Peter. Marvel, with Peter, at Jesus kneeling before you, laying hold of your foot, and washing it. Feel his hands grip and the water pour over. Listen as Jesus promises that even in this present chaos, you will understand. Gaze upon the Christ and his posture before you, because it’s in that divine posture of humility where our comfort will be found. It is this posture that will not only mark the night before his crucifixion, but also the cross itself. Christ the meek will humble himself even unto death on the cross for the beloved (Phil 2:8)–to restore us to God and cleanse us completely by his once-and-for-all sacrifice.

We do not know what God is doing.

However, that’s quite okay. Because in this not knowing we are made aware we’ve become the humble and meek, wholly dependent on this wholly other God, the one who calls us by name and washes us. The water of Thursday and the silence of Saturday are, to be sure, the marks of our Christian life now as we wait and walk humbly with our God, acting justly and loving mercy (Micah 6:8).

Hearing unto Life

Romans 5:12-19 (Sermon)

On Ash Wednesday, Rev. Kennedy and I placed ashes on foreheads and whispered the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The alb became our sackcloth, the stole a millstone, and our words reminders that the wage and curse of sin is death. We anointed fragile and vulnerable people not with the oil of life, but with the ash of death.

The sermon carried a glimmer of hope, yet I was taken by the deep tenor of the service. Life eclipsed by death. The moment driven home when I placed ashes on the foreheads of my own children. My hands, my voice, my body–which gestated, nurtured, sustained, warmed, comforted and consoled my babies–delivered their sentence: death. Woven through the reminder of return to dust was the maternal apology that from this I cannot protect them. The great reaper knocks on every single door and collects.

Just as through this one person sin entered the cosmos and through [this] sin death, and in this way death spread into all humanity, on the basis of one all sinned. (Rom 5:12)

In Romans, Paul marries together sin and death in such a way that (grammatically) to tear one from the other would be to destroy both. The presence of death is evidence of the presence of sin.[1] That we die is, for Paul, evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. How has this come to be?

To answer, Paul, in vv. 13-14, yanks Adam out of Genesis 3 and makes him stand trial. Paul makes it clear it is not the Law that caused sin. (As if we could just get rid of the law to get rid of sin, if we did would only eliminate the exposure of sin.[2]) That there is death, which existed before the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, there is sin because death is before the Law was.[3] For Paul, before there is the Law there is death, before death there is Adam and with him the “sin.” Before the manifestation of the “sin,” there is the problem.

What is this “problem that thrust all of humanity into the cold, boney arms of death?[4] It’s not an issue of will, it’s an issue of hearing.

The language Paul employs talking about the “sin” of Adam sounds more like mis-stepping and slipping[5] than willful disobedience. It’s aiming but missing the mark. It’s trying to walk but falling down. It’s being well intentioned and making a huge mistake. You can love and cause pain.

In v.19 things get interesting. It’s here we get the first reference to “disobedience” and “obedience.” Again, the words chosen for the discussion are built from the concept of hearing.[6] And herein lies the problem that precedes the “sin”: hearing wrongly v. hearing rightly. (Shema O, Israel the core of Jewish liturgy and would have been coursing through Paul’s veins.) Paul creates a scene where Adam misheard and (thus) mis-stepped.

Going back to Gen 3, to the intellectual cage match between Eve and the serpent, something revelatory occurs. When tempted with the “forbidden” fruit, Eve without hesitation tells the serpent, “‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die,”’” (Gen 3:2-3). Do you hear the problem? Eve misquotes the prohibition to the serpent.

In Genesis 2:15-17, Adam is created out of dust and is inspired by God’s breath. Then he’s brought into the garden to work and have dominion over it. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,’” (Gen 2:15-17). Who received the prohibition? Adam.  According to the narrative fluidity of the two chapters, who relayed it to Eve? Adam. What was the problem resulting in the situation at the tree? Not the ingesting of the fruit, that’s the wage (the fruit) of “sin” which partook of death. The problem: someone misheard.

Adam was spoken to first. And then Eve. One of them or both of them misheard. Did they love God? We can assume they did. Did they want to do poorly? No. They intended well and mis-stepped because the fundamental problem of humanity is hardness of heart resulting in a stiff neck preventing the hearing of hearing,[7] hearing so deeply that you do (Shema). We can be God-inspired, God-breathed creations, placed in paradise, and still have massive hearing problems.

Martin Luther explains that part of the original sin we are born into is not only a lack of uprightness in the entire (inner and outer) person, but a “nausea toward the good.”[8] Why is the idea of good, of God, so loathsome? Because it’s an issue of hearing. I hear God as a threat to me because I mishear. That God is and reigns comes to me as threat: threat to myself, my will, my reason, my perception of what is good, etc. The proclamation that God is is flat out offensive to me; it means I am not the queen I think I am.

Thus, when the law comes, it exposes my predicament, plight, and problem. In the Law’s ability to expose, I blame it for my predicament; ignorance is bliss. Had the law never come, I’d not know I was stuck. But now in seeing that I’m stuck, I’m angry, and I blame the law for my stuckness, which I was before the law came. But I blame wrongly because I hear wrongly.[9]

This is the original sin that we are born into. We are not evil and horrible, willfully bent on disobedience and destruction. Rather, we’ve genetically inherited poor hearing and this results in disobedience, missing the mark, and mis-stepping, and thus into death. To hear wrongly is to die; to hear rightly is to live. We need to be caused to hear rightly. The great Shema O, Israel[10] goes forth, but who has ears to hear so deeply that they hit the mark, step rightly, to walk and not slip?

Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. It is he who hears rightly, steps rightly, hits the mark and walks without slipping. He is God incarnate, the word made flesh[11] who proclaims the word of God, obeys the word of God, and performs the word of God he hears. Jesus proclaims the reign of God, he lives the reign of God, he is the reign of God. This is the one who is baptized by John in the river Jordan and hears God proclaim him as God’s divine son. This is also the one who has heard the word of God so well he will defeat the attacks of the evil one, being successful where Israel wasn’t. Shema O, Israel.

Just as we who are born of flesh are born into Adam’s imperfect hearing resulting in disobedience and death, we are reborn by hearing through the giving of ears to hear in the proclamation of Christ Crucified. In this encounter with God in the event of faith (hearing), we are brought through death and are recreated into Christ’s perfect hearing resulting in obedience.[12]

When God acts on behalf of God’s people, God doesn’t merely contend with “disobedience” (that’s what we do). God contends with the problem by giving the free gift of new, circumcised[13] hearts and spirits which lead to obedience.[14] God gives the free gift of the grace of and righteousness of God in Christ Jesus, making the unrighteous righteous. It is the grace of Christ that eclipses the sin of Adam;[15] it is the life of Christ that drowns out the death of Adam; it is the perfect hearing of Christ that resurrects all who are stuck in the death of the mishearing of Adam.[16] It is the supernova of Christmas and Easter that engulfs and swallows the sting of death.

It is Christ, the righteous one, who heals those who are lame, declares clean those who are unclean, gives sight to those who can’t see and hearing to those who can’t hear. It is Christ who is the free gift of God’s grace and righteousness.[17] It is Christ who speaks to those condemned to death as criminals with his pronouncement of acquittal and restores them to life. This is the substance of the church’s witness to the world in her speech and sacraments. In hearing rightly, we speak to and act rightly in the world. In hearing rightly, we are brought to the font and table, witnessing to our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. And there we are anointed not with ash but with oil, sealed as Christ’s own and into his obedience, fed by Christ’s hand, hearing the comfort of the divine whisper, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[18]

 

 

 

[1] Luther LW 25. 298. “…if death comes by sin and if without sin there would be no death, then sin is in all of us. Thus it is not personal sin that he is talking about here. Otherwise it would be false to say that death had entered by sin, but rather we ought to say that it came by the will of God.”

[2] Luther LW 25. 303. “And thus it is not understood to mean that sin existed until the Law came and then ceased to exist, but that sin received an understanding of itself which it did not possess before. And the words of the apostle clearly indicate this interpretation: ‘But sin was not counted where there was no law,’ as if to say that through the Law, which it had preceded, sin was not abolished but imputed.”

[3] Luther LW 25. 298. “…sin was in the world before the Law was given, etc. (v. 13). Actual sin also was in the world before Moses, and it was imputed, because it was also punished by men; but original sin was unknown until Moses revealed it in Gen. 3.”

[4] Luther LW 25. 299. “Note how at the same time it is true that only one man sinned, that only one sin was committed, that only one person was disobedient, and yet because of him many were made sinners and disobedient.”

[5] Α῾μαρτα´νω: I miss the mark, I sinned, I made a mistake. η῾ παρα´βασις: the going aside, deviation, overstepping. το` παρα´πτωμα: the trespass, false step, lapse, slip, sin.

[6] Η῾ παρακοη´: the hearing amiss, by implication disobedience; imperfect hearing. η῾ υ῾πακοη´: obedience, submissiveness, compliance.

[7] Deuteronomy 30:6ff

[8] Luther LW 25. 299. What is original sin, “Second, however, according to the apostle and the simplicity of meaning in Christ Jesus, it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness, a flight from and an abomination of all good works, a pursuit of evil…”

[9] Luther LW 25. 307. “And this is true, so that the meaning is: the Law came and without any fault on the part of the Law or in the intentions of the Lawgiver, it happened that it came for the increasing of sin, and this happened because of the weakness of our sinful desire, which was unable to fulfill the Law.”

[10] Deuteronomy 6.

[11] John 1

[12] Luther LW 25. 305. Luther makes reference later to 1 Corinthians 15:22.

[13] Deuteronomy 30:6

[14] Ezekiel 36:24-27, Jeremiah 31:31-34

[15] Luther LW 25. 306. “This gift is ‘by the grace of that one Man,’ that is, by the personal merit and grace of Christ, by which He was pleasing to God, so that He might give this gift to us. This phrase ‘by the grace of that one Man’ should be understood of the personal grace of Christ, corresponding to the personal sin of Adam which belonged to him, but the ‘gift’ is the very righteousness which has been given to us.”

[16] Luther LW 25. 306. “Thus also original sin is a gift (if I may use the term) in the sin of the one man Adam. But ‘the grace of God’ and ‘the gift’ are the same thing, namely, the very righteousness which is freely given to us through Christ. And He adds this grace because it is customary to give a gift to one’s friends. But this gift is given even to His enemies out of His mercy, because they were not worthy of this gift unless they were made worthy and accounted as such by the mercy and grace of God.”

[17] Luther LW 25. 305-6. “The apostle joins together grace and the gift, as if they were different, but he does so in order that he may clearly demonstrate the type of the One who was to come which he has mentioned, namely, that although we are justified by God and receive His grace, yet we do not receive it by our own merit, but it is His gift, which the Father gave to Christ to give to men, according to the statement in Eph. 4:8, ‘When He ascended on high. He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.’”

[18] These final few thoughts in this paragraph are influenced by the profound work of Dr. W. Travis McMaken in his book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth Emerging Scholars Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. It was difficult to find one quotation to demonstrate how I was influenced—the entire book is a masterpiece. However, for the sake of space, I think this gets at the thrust of it: “The objective-subjective character of baptism as a mode of the church’s gospel proclamation confronts those baptized with the demands of the gospel thereby proclaimed. As mode of the church’s gospel proclamation, baptism confronts those baptized with the message that they were baptized in Jesus Christ’s baptism, died in his death, and were raised in his resurrection. This baptismal proclamation calls those that it confronts to, as Paul puts it, “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Such an exhortation requires neither a baptismal transfer of grace nor a baptismal ratification of personal commitment; rather, it flows from the objective-subjective and holistically particular installation of the church’s gospel proclamation within the history of those baptized.”233-34.

Love Wins

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (Homily)

When my eldest was in first grade, I received an email from his teacher one after-noon. The email from his first-grade teacher informed me that my son–the ever obedient, rubric hitting, perfectionism of epic first born status—had dropped the f-bomb in class. The email didn’t entail many details, but that the teacher wanted me to know so that I could address it at home. I spent a couple of minutes pondering the email. I had a few thoughts, as any parent would. I messaged his dad and let him know what had happened. Since I was the stay-at-home parent, I knew it was my duty to handle this situation. When my husband asked me what I was going to do, I told him I had it handled.

When Quinn came home, we sat on the couch and he did what he did every afternoon after school: he told me about his day. I waited, hoping he would tell me of his own volition about his rather bold and colorful vocabulary word used earlier that day. Nothing. “Anything else happen today worth noting…making mention of…sharing…” I tried leading him to tell me. Still nothing. Silence. Then I looked at him, and said, “I got an email from your teacher today…” I didn’t even finish the sentence before my son was a mess on the couch, weeping and apologizing and explaining what had happened. I held the sobbing heap of little boy while he told me the story. When he was finished and a bit more collected, I told him that I loved him. Then I said to him, let’s have a treat; how about a root beer float…

What caused that particular response from me? This: knowing my son well enough, I knew he had already suffered his consequence. The consequence had already been given, all I had to do was do what I love: comfort him. I didn’t need to bring more “command” and “demand” to his life, he didn’t need a follow up consequence. It was clear to me, in the way he was acting about the situation, that his error was known and felt. To add more consequence would be me adding an extra layer of condemnation to the situation that already (clearly) had condemnation. Adding more condemnation is adding threat where threat is already felt, and this leads to death.

Russian author, Dostoevsky, beautifully articulates the result of heaping threat upon threat, and condemnation upon condemnation in his brilliant novel Crime and Punishment. A horse, yoked to a buggy, is commanded by its owner to pull said buggy packed with a lot of people. So many people that the buggy can’t move, no matter how hard the horse pulls. In the story, the master of the horse commands the horse to move. But the horse can’t. Then the whips come out. Nothing. The horse can’t move even though it is desperately trying. Then, in what appears to be a fit of maniacal rage, the master starts beating the horse with pipe and stick demanding and commanding it to move. The horse, after many noble attempts to obey and move the buggy, collapses, dead, under the blows.

More harshness, more cruelty, more demand, more threat, more fear never, ever, produces the thing that is desired. Being increasingly harsh and cruel, threatening and demanding with others and with ourselves will never ever get us the very thing desired. Threatening someone into compliance will only result in temporary surface obedience with eventual and corresponding, resentment running very deep. Hating yourself will only result in self-destruction: you can’t shame yourself into confidence.

I’ve said it before: it’s hard being human; why do we make it harder for others and ourselves? Our lives are fragile and fleeting…doesn’t life offer enough suffering of its own? Do we have to add unnecessary and additional pain and torment? Here’s a powerful secret: Love–(love love) love that goes to the depths with us in our worst–will always generate the very thing desired because it creates comfort and freedom for the beloved. Love doesn’t seek to gain obedience from the beloved, but love can’t help generating more love.

This love-love is the “comfort” Paul speaks of in our passage. And here’s the foundational truth to why I responded to my son the way I did: I’ve been radically loved to such an extent that my life is a 180 degree turn from what it was when I was encountered by God in the event of faith. At my worst, I was loved…as is…by God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. And over the years, as that love has worked its way into my very being, I’ve grown more and more into the woman I am in Christ—faults and all.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)

At the end of the day love wins because Jesus the Christ, back on Calvary’s mountain, died, descended into hell and liberated into comfort and freedom those trapped under the weight of condemnation and threat—a liberation that is true from age to age to age.

Love wins because Love won.