The New Order Begins!

Psalm 20:5-6 We will shout for joy at your victory and triumph in the Name of our God; may the Lord grant all your requests. Now I know that the Lord gives victory to his anointed; he will answer him out of his holy heaven, with the victorious strength of his right hand.

Introduction

If I were to ask you what you do for a living, you’d use the verb “to be” to answer. At any social event, when asked what I do, I say, “I’m a priest.” (The responses to this statement are amusing!) The “am” in my statement is telling. I identify myself with my occupation in the world. “I’m a doctor.” “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a teacher.” Etc. While, yes, people understand you are describing your occupation or vocation in the world, there’s also a lot of assuming and judging going on about who you are. If a doctor, then you must be smart. If a teacher, you’re kind. A lawyer…depends, who’s side are you on? A person’s activity in the world tells us who someone is; or we think it should. When we call someone a liar, it’s because they lie. A thief is one who steals. A murderer, one who kills.

We assume we can pinpoint who and what someone is based on their activity and presence in the world. If you are smart you will act smart, not acting smart must mean the opposite: dumb. We then create a binary of actions resulting in good or bad, right or wrong. A good person does good things; a bad person does bad things. A good person does the right thing and a bad person does the wrong thing. And then we create a system by which we treat people according to our judgments about them based on their actions and presence in the world. Good people who do good things are good and deserve good treatment; bad people who do bad things are bad and deserve bad treatment. We determine the worth of a person based on their good actions or their bad actions—life is expendable when you’re bad (or have any history of bad) verses when you’re good. We assume we know who someone is as a person by what they do in the world and how they conform to our binaric paradigm of good and bad/right and wrong.

A question haunts me here. What about me? Am I good? If I define myself through my actions and my adherence to the cultural standards of good or bad, right or wrong, then I can determine I’m good or bad. If I do good and right, I am good and right. But what happens when I do bad and wrong? Am I now bad and wrong? Is there any hope for me even if all my actions conflict with what we determine is good and right?

According to Paul, there is.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

For the love of Christ is holding us together, because we are convinced of this that one died on behalf of all people, therefore all people died. And he died on behalf of all, so that the ones who are alive live no longer for themselves but to/for the one who died and was raised on their behalf.[1]

2 Corinthians 5:14-15

In our 2 Corinthians passage for today, Paul continues with the theme of bodies and perception that he began in 4:13-5:1. In chapter 5:6-8 Paul mentions that while we are at home here in this mortal body, we’re absent/exiled from the Lord. This isn’t dualistic thinking; but a distinction between that which can be perceived and that which cannot be perceived. Even though we are, right now, in Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, our hearts long to be in our eternal and glorified bodies like Christ and with Christ.[2] For Paul, this desire motivates his actions. Paul works in his mortal body to please the Lord[3] through his words and deeds in proclaiming Christ crucified and raised as the divine act of Love seeking the Beloved in the world. Yet, Paul—walking with Christ by faith[4]—longs for the consummation of the union with Christ in a real and bodily way that will come with death when he shows up at the throne of Christ.[5] At this throne, Paul explains, those of us who walked by faith in the body receive that which belongs to us and that which was lost, whether we did or endured good or bad[6]—not status or destiny is determined, but a sober assessment of what we did as those who claimed Christ and walked in the law of Love of God and Neighbor.[7]

In vv. 14-15, Paul proclaims that Christ’s love[8] for the world and in our hearts sustains and holds us together on this journey in the world walking by faith in mortal bodies—this love is the animation of our work in word and deed in the world. Christ’s death on the cross exemplifies how much Christ loved all of humanity. Paul explains that Christ died for all, and in that Christ died for all, all have died. The words are simple, but the thought isn’t. In our feeble human judgment of who is good and who is bad, we determined Jesus was worthy of being crucified and Barabbas was to be set free. What Christ’s crucifixion indicates is that we are, flat out, poor judges of people based on externals. We had God in our midst—the very source of life—and we sentenced God to death releasing instead one of our own who was very much prone to breaking the law and taking life. In the crucifixion of Christ, we are exposed…exposed unto death. This is the real death of which Paul speaks:[9] We are rent unto dust, the very dust from which we are taken. Our wrath at the good, our sin, put Christ on the cross and Christ suffers our sinful judgment; what we didn’t realize is that we died, too, by our own judgment in that event of exposure.

But God. But God in God’s vindication of good, of Christ, of God’s self, raises Jesus from the dead. And overhauls everything we did, have done, and will do. With Christ, God raises us, giving us life and not death. God’s love of reconciliation and restoration eclipses God’s retribution. We are given life, when our actions begged for a death sentence. Therefore, we live no longer for ourselves in selfish ambition but for “the one who died and was raised on behalf of all people.” And if we live for the one who died and was raised for all people, then we live for those whom Christ died and was raised.[10], [11] And this necessitates, according to Paul, a complete change resulting in refusal to categorically determine someone based on their presence and action in the world.[12] We lost that right—if we ever had it—when we told Pontius Pilate to crucify God.

Conclusion

So then from now on we, we perceive no one according to the flesh. Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, but now we no longer know/do so. Therefore, if anyone [is] in Christ, [there is] a new creation/creature; the old order is rendered void, behold! a new order has come into being.

2 Corinthians 5:16-17

With intentional emphasis, Paul exhorts us: Christians are categorically forbidden from determining someone’s value, worth, dignity, right to life, (etc.) based on their actions. Paul minces no words here as he climactically exclaims: Behold! A new order has come into being! If anything functions to be determinative of Christian praxis and existence in the world it’s that we don’t determine personhood and human dignity based on human activity and presence in the world.[13] We participate in the divine activity of Love seeking the Beloved in our new ordering of our freedom for and toward others and not strictly for ourselves in selfish gain—this is the call of those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan.[14] We dare to proclaim in the face of opposition that in all instances this one is human and worthy of life and dignity and honor…when they’re wrong or even when they’ve done something bad. We’re are the ones who reject categorical determination of someone based on their actions, and especially refuse prejudging people based on their differences from the dominant culture. Those who walk by faith in this mortal body, are ushered into a new order of things. We reject anything having to do with a hierarchy of human being based on anything but that which cannot be perceived.[15] While there are consequences for actions, none of those consequences can equate to a loss of human dignity and worth and life.

This means we mustn’t have anything to do with prejudice of any type: skin color, gender, sex, sexuality, ability, and class. It means that Christians must let others tell them who they are and allow the complexity of human existence manifest rather than cut them off with assumptions and judgments because of what they look like, how they act, or how they are different than what the status-quo determines is good and right, as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr explains.[16] It means, no matter what, we stand—by the law of Love in our hearts—with those whom society deems unworthy and undignified, this is part of the new order we are reborn into in our encounter with God in the event of faith, as the Rev. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz declares.[17] It means that we—in our Christ born freedom and creative disobedience—reject any created order that is claimed to be the one and only way/life on earth, which categorically forces people to be against who they are in body, mind, and spirit to the point of destruction, refering to what Frau Prof. Dr. Dorothee Sölle teaches.[18] And it means, with The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, that we participate with God in “bearing the memory of Christ in the world…[and] being the change that is God’s heaven.”[19]

[B]ehold! a new order has come into being


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 395-6. Εκ/εν “Paul has in mind the physical body as the locus of human existence on earth, the frail and mortal σωμα ψυχικον. His thought here is neither dualistic…nor derogatory. He is affirming that to be living on earth in a physical body inevitably means distance—indeed exile—from the risen Lord, who lives in heaven in a spiritual body. To be εν Χριστω does not yet mean to be συν Χριστω…Unlike Christ, Paul had his residence on earth, not heaven, but he recognized that this true home, his ultimate residence, was προς τον κυριον (v. 8); in this sense he was an exile, absent form this home with the Lord…And if an exile, also a pilgrim…But as well as regarding his separation from Christ as ‘spatial,’ Paul may have viewed it as ‘somatic.’ It is not simply a case of Christ’s being ‘there’ and the Christians’ being ‘here’; until Christians have doffed their earthly bodies and donned their heavenly, they are separated from their Lord by the difference between tow modes of being, the σωμα ψυχικον and the σωμα πνευματικον.”

[3] Harris 2 Corinthians 405, “Whatever his lot, Paul was always …. Possessed of confidence in God as the fulfiller of his promises (v.6) and always…desirous of pleasing Christ (v.9).”

[4] Harris 2 Corinthians 398, “…to walk in faith…is to keep the eye focused on things not yet visible…and not to have the gaze fixed on things already present to sight…”

[5] Harris 2 Corinthians 397-8, “The separation, Paul answers, is relative not absolute: though absent from sight, the Lord is present to faith, yet it is not until he is present also to sight that Christian existence will reach its true goal of consummated fellowship with him. Residence in the earthly σκηνος implies not the absence or unreality of communion with Christ, but simply its imperfection during the course of the Christian’s earthly life.”

[6] I’m playing with the definition of κομιζω (the first principle part of κομισηται, an aorist middle subjunctive 3rd person singular verb) in v.10.

[7] Harris 2 Corinthians 408-9, “Since, then, the tribunal of Christ is concerned with the assessment of works, not the determination of destiny, it will be apparent that the Pauline concepts of justification on the basis of faith and recompense in accordance with works may be complementary. Not status but reward is determined…for justification as the acquisition of a right standing before God anticipates the verdict of the Last Judgment. But, already delivered from εργα νομου…’ by justifying faith, the Christian is presently committed to το εργον της πιστεως…’action stemming from faith,’ which will be assessed and rewarded at Christ’s tribunal.” And, “…for Paul this φανερωθηναι involved the appearance and examination before Christ’s tribunal of every Christian without exception for the purpose of receiving an exact and impartial recompense (including the receipt or deprivation of commendation) which would be based on deeds, both good an bad, performed through the earthly body. The fear inspired by this expectation … doubtless intensified Paul’s ambition that his life should meet with Christ’s approval both during life and at the βημα…”

[8] Harris 2 Corinthians 419, “No one doubts that believer’s love for Christ motivates their action, but here Paul is concentrating on an earlier stage of motivation, namely the love shown by Christ in dying for humankind.”

[9] Harris 2 Corinthians 422, “When Christ died, all died; what is more, his death involved their death….But if…παντες is universal in scope in vv. 14-15, this death maybe the death deservedly theirs becomes of sin, or an objective ‘ethical’ death that must be appropriate subjectively by individual faith, or a collective participation in the event of Christ’s death by which sin’s power was destroyed. It is certainly more appropriate to see this αποθανειν of the παντες as an actual ‘death’ than as a potential ‘death.’”

[10] Harris 2 Corinthians 422, “Replacing the slavery to self that is the hallmark of the unregenerate state should be an exclusive devotion to the crucified and resurrect Messiah. The intended result of the death of Christ was the Christians’ renunciation of self-seeking and self-pleasing and the pursuit of a Christ-centered life filled with action for the benefit of others, as was Christ’s life…”

[11] Harris 2 Corinthians 430, “A new attitude toward Jesus Christ prompts a new outlook on those for whom Christ died…When we come to share God’s view of Christ…we also gain his view of people in general.”

[12] Harris 2 Corinthians 434, “Christian conversion, that is, coming to be in Christ, produces dramatic change…: Life is not longer lived κατα σαρκα, but κατα πνευμα. Paul implies that a change of attitude toward Christ (v. 16b) brings about a change or attitude toward other people (v.1 6a) and a change of conduct from self-pleasing to Christ-pleasing (vv. 9, 15), from egocentricity to theocentricity.”

[13] Harris 2 Corinthians 429, “First, Paul is rejecting (in v. 16a) any assessment of human beings that is based on the human or worldly preoccupation with externals. It was now his custom to view people, not primarily in terms of nationality but in terms of spiritual status….Paul is repudiating (in v. 16c) as totally erroneous his sincere yet superficial preconversion estimate of Jesus as a misguided messianic pretender, a crucified heretic, whose followers must be extirpated, for he had come to recognize ethe Nazarene as the divinely appointed Messiah whose death under the divine curse…in fact brought life…”

[14] Harris 2 Corinthians 434, “When a person becomes a Christian, he or she experiences a total restructuring of life that alters its whole fabric—thinking, feeling, willing, and acting. Anyone who is ‘in Christ’ is ‘Under New Management’ and has ‘Altered Priorities Ahead,’ to use the working sometimes found in shop windows and …on roads. And the particle ιδου…functions like a such a sign, stimulating attention; but here it conveys also a sense of excitement and triumph.”

[15] Harris 2 Corinthians 427, “Paul is affirming that with the advent of the era of salvation in Christ, and ever since his own conversion to Christ, he has ceased making superficial, mechanical judgments about other people on the basis of outward appearances—such as national origin, social status, intellectual capability, physical attributes, or even charismatic endowment and pneumatic displays….”

[16] Martin Luther King Jr. “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart” A Strength to Love “The toughminded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges. The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short he prejudges and is prejudiced.”

[17] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 88. “The paradigmatic shift ai am proposing calls for solidarity as the appropriate present-day expression of the gospel mandate that we love our neighbor. This commandment, which encapsulates the gospel message, is the goal of Christianity. I believe salvation depends on love of neighbor , and because love of neighbor today should be expressed through solidarity, solidarity can and should be considered the wine qua non of salvation. This means that we have to be very clear about who ‘our neighbor’ is. Our neighbor, according to Matthew 25, is the least of our sisters and brothers. Neighbors are the poor, the oppressed, for whom we must have a preferential option, This we cannot have apart from being in solidary with them.”

[18] Dorothee Sölle Creative Disobedience Trans. Lawrence W. Denef. Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995. (Original: Phantasie und Gehorsam: Überlegungen zu einer künftigen chrstilichen Ethik Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1968). “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.’ Ought obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?” And, “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

[19] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015. 224. And, “The church is compelled as bearer of the memory of Jesus to step into the space of the Trayvons and Jordans who don’t’ know whether to walk slow or walk fast in order to stay alive. To step into their space is what it means for the church to being the past, which is Jesus, into the presence crucifying realities of stand-your-ground culture. Moreover, it is only when one an enter int the space of crucified class, with sympathetic understanding, that one is able to realize what is required for he salvation of God, which is justice, to be made manifest in our world.” 201-2.

To Be Celebrated

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Psalm 138:1-2 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your Name, because of your love and faithfulness…

Introduction

In the relationship between the material and the spiritual, we find ourselves wanting to create order and hierarchy between the two to resolve the discomfort we feel realizing the binary isn’t so clear. Which one is more important? Some say the spiritual, others the material. An answer of both, crosses eyes. Make it clean and neat for me! We like things to be ordered rightly and when they refuse to exist in specific categories we get upset. Our language about and around the spiritual and material and the relationship of both stumbles as it tries to find location and substance. What is is yet it is also not all there is. Right? A table is a table and it is not a table because what is a table?

On a more personal level, we speak of our bodies as if they’re mere Edgar suits (a reference to the movie Men in Black) housing the soul, the spirit, the spark—the conglomerate of mutant alien cockroaches—as if the body doesn’t matter, and we’re above the body. But then when that body hurts from physical or emotional pain or sickness, we find ourselves restrained by the body and alerted to its importance. We call our bodies “it” rather than using our pronouns to speak of our body, reducing it to a thing that is other than us. And we can force others into the degradation of the body as we try to deny them the right to be as they are inside and out.

Religion is participant and culprit in creating a hierarchy and hard distinction between the material and the spiritual. Christian Church history is replete with instances of preference for the soul as being the thing that matters ultimately. The rhetoric around mission and evangelistic work is repent and believe and save your soul from eternal torment. The threat was death physical and then ultimate death spiritual, but the emphasis was on the soul’s primacy over the body. In our Christian tradition we speak of spiritual rewards for obedience and for faith while ignoring physical needs and demands of the human beings to whom we are called to minister. In modern church contexts, the gospel is used to justify the suffering in the body through oppression and marginalization with the promise of the future bodily resurrection—suffer now and later you will be given that liberation you so long for.

But there isn’t a hierarchy; both are crucially important.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

On which account we are not growing weary but even if the outer self is being destroyed nevertheless the inner self is being received again day after day. For the light immediate [moment] of our affliction is working for us for the purpose of the surpassing eternal weight of glory surpassing into surpassing excellence. While we are not regarding attentively the things which can be perceived but things which cannot be perceived. For the things which can be perceived [are] temporary, but the things which cannot be perceived [are] eternal.[1]

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

It seems as if Paul advocates for a dualist interpretation of Christian life—the bifurcation of the “spiritual” from the “material”. However, the thrust of the Christian proclamation denies this interpretation. Paul acknowledges an inner and outer “self”, but what Paul isn’t making one better than the other or wrenching them apart as if they’re two distinct things. The inner self isn’t a full self without the outer self; for Paul, the soul isn’t poured into a body like a cup holding water. Paul is very aware of the paradox of human life in two forms (inner and outer) yet one.

Paul explains the common spirit of the faith is the thing animating the proclamation of the gospel which—when proclaimed and heard—generates faith (4:13). Despite challenges and tribulations Paul faced bodily, his faith propelled him forward to proclaim the gospel.[2] The believing isn’t just spiritual believing for Paul but leads to the material act of speaking/doing for the glory of God. In v. 14, Paul draws on the imagery of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead as the source of our hope: we, too, will be raised from the dead being incorporated into the eternal divine life of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. For Paul, that Jesus was physically/bodily raised is important and functions in the background of the following discussion on the inner and outer person.[3] It’s not that Paul’s noncorporeal soul will go to heaven when he dies wherein he’ll live forever with God, but that the trajectory of Paul’s life transitioning through death—believed to be imminent—will have its destiny in bodily life with God in heaven on Earth.[4]

Transitioning to vv. 16-18, we must keep the fluidity of activity between the spiritual and the material. When Paul speaks of the inner and outer self, it is anathema to assume he’s ripping the human person into two different things or parts inner/outer, soul/body. Rather, it’s about two perspectives based on one experience in the world: from within and from without. Both are the one person.[5] Just as the voice in my head when I complain about that messy room and the voice that I use to request the room be cleaned are one and the same voice in two experiences: inner and outer.

For Paul, the resiliency of the outer self is dependent on the inner person untouched directly by the violence of the world though the experience of the world endured by the outer person informs how the inner person responds to the world. As the outer self migrates through chronological time into divine time, the inner self changes but doesn’t decay like the outer self. The more experience the outer self has (through aging, experience, trials and tribulations), the more the inner self accumulates knowledge and wisdom. It’s literally why we grow more confident as we age, why our gray hairs speak to wisdom, and our wrinkles tell profound stories of experiences of delight and disappointment.

So, even as Paul’s outer self suffers destruction from time and experience, his inner self renews; this then animates his material continuing in the world until the outer self no longer moves—at which point he’ll await the raising up with Christ of his full self.[6] In other words, the inner self (that which cannot be perceived) is resilient even when the outer self (that which can be perceived) breaks down but these aren’t two separate selves, but one in the same from two difference perspectives of and experiences in the world. Even if the outer self is halted by death, manifesting its temporality, the inner self will be the continuity between this life and the next in the resurrection of that body in its glorified eternal form.[7] The material and the spiritual participate together to the glory of God.

Conclusion

The supposed dichotomy between the spiritual and material is a false one, and it’s violent. We must, in all urgency, reject such a dichotomy. Through the false dichotomy of inner and outer, body and soul, spiritual and material we’ve been complicit in subjugating fellow human beings, forcing them to ignore the violence done to their bodies for the hope of something better in the future. We’ve kept people from liberty and freedom, life and love now with the promise of something else in another life. We’ve deprived people of justice and dignity by wrongly prioritizing the suffering of the menial body as the purification of the majestic soul, asking them to endure what we don’t have to endure. Our God took on flesh and walked the earth, healing the bodies of those cast out and neglected by the dominant culture of state and religion; when we deny bodily, material, and outer necessity to bodily and material outer beings we are denying the incarnation of the Christ, God of very God. As those who confess Christ born, lived, died, raised, and ascended, we cannot deny the importance of the body, material, and outer self for anyone, neither for ourselves nor for others. For God so loved the world and everyone and everything in it like this: God became human to love and rescue the Beloved.

There’s that which can be perceived and that which cannot be perceived, that which is temporary/mortal and permanent/eternal, but not good and bad, better and worse. I want you to have a profound sense of the beauty and importance of the whole person. The body matters. The soul matters. The inner and outer selves matter. It is by the body we go through the world. We feel in the body, we understand through the body, we’re treated according to the body. Thus, our experiences in the world are not uniform because bodies aren’t interchangeable. My experience in the world is different than yours because our bodies are different and unique. The experiences of the outer self influence and inform the feelings and storytelling of the inner self. The way the inner self identifies influences and informs the material expression of those feelings and story in the outer self. We’re paradoxical mixes of that which is perceived and that which is not perceived; and we’re all unique expressions of this vibrant multifaceted humanity—each human worthy to be celebrated as they are, as the beloved children of God.


[1] Translation mine unless stated otherwise

[2] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 352, “As the principle applies to his case, Paul is affirming that in spite of the inroads of θανατος in his life (v.12a), his unswerving belief in God and in the gospel as God’s powerful instrument to bring salvation to everyone who has faith…made it natural and necessary for him to declare…the good news.”

[3] Harris 2 Corinthians 353, “…but also his Christian conviction that Christ’s resurrection was a pledge of the resurrection of believers (v.14). If persecution or toil should precipitate his actual death, he knew that a resurrection comparable to Christ’s was his destiny as a believer.”

[4] Harris 2 Corinthians 354, “…it should occasion no surprise that here he speaks of his own resurrection, at the same time tactfully assuming his readers’ survival until the Parousia… ‘I, Paul’ as Christian who expects to die before the Parousia from ‘you Corinthians,’ who may well be alive at the time of the second advent. 1 Corinthian’s 15 indicates that in Paul’s thought both the living and the dead will be ‘transformed’ on the last day…but only the dead will be ‘raised’…’Resurrection’ implies prior death.”

[5] Harris 2 Corinthians 359-60, “Because Paul’s anthropology is aspecitival not partitive, and synthetic not analytic, when he speaks of ‘our outward self’ and ‘our inward self’ he is not thinking of two distinct entities, ‘the body’ …and ‘the soul’…with the former as the receptable for the latter. He is, rather, contemplating his total existence from two contrasting viewpoints. The ‘outer self’ is the whole person form the standpoint of one’s “creaturely mortality,’ the physical aspect of the person…The ‘inner self’ is not to be equated with the νους … ‚that which survives death,‘ or even  with the corporate new humanity in Christ. Rather it is the whole person as a ‘new creation’ (5:17) or a ‘new person’ (Col. 3:9-10)…the spiritual aspect of the believer.”

[6] Harris 2 Corinthians 360, “For Paul, the spiritual body was not simply the state of the renewed ‘inner self’ at the time of the believer’s death, but it seems a priori likely that he saw a relationship between the two, that he regarded resurrection not as ta creatio ex nihilo, a sudden divine operation unrelated to the past, but as the fulfillment of a spiritual process begun at regeneration. The daily renewal of the ‘inward person’ …contributed toward the progressive transformation of the believer into the image of Christ in a process that would be accelerated and completed by resurrection.”

[7] Harris 2 Corinthians 373, “Compared with the earthly and therefore transient character of the σωμα ψυχικον, the σωμα πνευματικον is permanent, transcending all the effects of time. Compared with earthly corporeality, with its irreversible tendency to decay, which finally issues in death, the heavenly embodiment provided by God is indestructible, incapable of any deterioration or dissolution.”

Divine Paracletic Revolution

Sermon on John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Psalm 104:34-37 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please him; I will rejoice in the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Hallelujah! (43)

Introduction

Today’s the celebration of Pentecost. According to the book of Acts, this is the day the Holy Spirit of God arrives, fueling tongues of flames hovering above the heads of the disciples who have been left by the one they followed and loved. Amid spontaneous tongues of fire, the disciples begin speaking and all there were able to hear them—like, listen and hear them. Whether the disciples were spontaneously speaking in different languages or those present were able to hear the message in their own language isn’t the point. The point is that there was proclamation and there was proclamation being heard. The Gospel gospelled the Gospel.[1] All of it due to the presence of the Holy Spirit, very God sent into the world to move in hearts and minds of people, to usher people and the world into life out of death from the kingdom of humanity into the reign of God.

The arrival of the Spirit among the humble followers of the way confirmed these had the divine power to preach and proclaim the gospel, the witness of Jesus the Christ died and raised and ascended. Never again would the presence of God be isolated to material structures protected by very specific people. In Pentecost, everything is blown wide open: all are the worthy vessels of the Spirit of God (no in group, no privileged few, no elite clique). From hovering over the face of the deep in Gen 1, the Spirit of God moves through time and space perpetuating God’s love at every twist and turn of the manifold pathways of the cosmos and bringing that love straight to you in a personal and intimate way through encounter with God in the event of faith. The long promised new spirit and new hearts for all of God’s people is fulfilled in the arrival of God’s Spirit among the disciples.

This is a remarkable claim. A most profound and revolutionary claim rivaling the claim of life out of death in resurrection. The presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer eliminates any possibility of exile from God; there’s no where you can run and hide where God isn’t because by faith you are yoked into God because God by the presence of the Spirit lives in you. God transcended God’s self to be born of a woman and to take the regular name, Yeshua/Jesus. Even more profound is God continues to transcend God’s self by taking up residence in our hearts and minds. We are, to quote St. Paul, the vessels of the holy spirit. We are clay, and we crack and fracture, and we are very much good but not perfect, yet we’re the beloved and worthy by our simple existence to be in and with God and God to be in and with us.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Whenever the Paraclete comes, whom I, I will send to you from beside the Father, the spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, that one will witness concerning me. And now you, you are witnesses, that from the beginning you are with me. [2]

John 15:26-27

The above is certainly good news, yet John the elder has more to say about the Spirit of God, the Paraclete: The Paraclete continues the revolution of God started by Christ. The work Jesus started on earth isn’t over. The Paraclete will come and will continue the divine witness[3] of love embodied and manifested by Christ.[4] Thus, John affirms Jesus’s ministry was not a singular and isolated historical event relegated perpetually to what was. What Jesus did in the world materially by his presence and activity remains in the present even when he leaves (“you, you are witnesses”) and surges into the future when the Paraclete arrives (“that one will witness concerning me”). God’s revelation of God’s revolutionary and liberating love set everything in motion and continues world without end.

In other words, with the arrival of the Paraclete God clearly isn’t done with the cosmos; nothing and no one is too far gone, without hope and possibility, or too sick, dirty, anxious, and other to be beyond God’s revolutionary and liberating love. In Christ the disciples witnessed God go to the fringes of their society, liberating and rescuing those who were isolated and shut out by the local rulers and religious authorities. The divine pursuit of the beloved was an intentional confrontation with human made systems of the day. It’s these systems causing death and captivity for the children of God from which Jesus called forth life and liberty in material and spiritual forms. Jesus’s work and activity while alive is as much a part of the divine witness as is his death and resurrection and ascension. So, it is this entire witness the disciples are witnessing to and which the Paraclete will continue to witness into the ages. The Paraclete comes so there will always be witness to the divine revolution of love and liberty in the world in the hearts and minds of disciples who’ll participate in witnessing in their time, culture, and context.[5]

But I spoke these things to you because the grief in your hearts is made full. But I, I say the truth to you, it is profitable to you that I, I go away. For if I do not depart then the Paraclete will not come to you. Now, if I go, I will send [the Paraclete] to you.

John 16:5-7

According to what Jesus says here, without the arrival of the Paraclete there will be no assuaging of the disciples’ grief—his presence may cease their grief but only temporarily. If Jesus doesn’t ascend, then the witness and revolution of divine love will last only while Jesus lives on earth. Due to Jesus’s resurrection being bodily, this is a finite time conditioned on human health and protection from danger—both being rather tenuous for Jesus. By ascending and sending the noncorporeal Paraclete who can live in and among the believers and followers, the divine witness of love begun by Jesus never ends.[6] No matter the threat of death, the passing of time, or variance of cultural context, the Paraclete goes and exposes systems and liberates captives in ways Jesus wouldn’t be able to do[7]—he would’ve been restricted by his body to his time and context. With the presence of the Paraclete all who grieve are consoled, all who are stripped of the power to speak have an advocate, all who are anxious and burdened are comforted, all who need help have a helper, all who find themselves without words have an intercessor, and the Paraclete comes to all who callout and need aid—in any culture, from any context, in every age. This is certainly the divine revolution of love.

Conclusion

Still I have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them just now. But when that one comes, the Spirit of truth, [they] will guide you into all truth. For [the Paraclete] will not speak from [themselves]but will speak as much as [they] hear and will report back to you the things that come.

John 16:12-13

The Paraclete isn’t stuck in the context and culture of Acts 2; the Paraclete isn’t bound by time or era. The Paraclete informs us as we are to be informed and then will inform the next generation of Christians as they need to be informed, which won’t be as we’ve been informed. The way we are being informed today is not the way our foremothers and forefathers in the faith were informed. Jesus withheld information from his disciples because they couldn’t hear it; the Paraclete was given the privilege of revealing and witnessing to God into different cultures and contexts, among different peoples. Today can never be yesterday and tomorrow will never be today; God cannot be captured and caught by time or people. Why do we confuse the consistency of God’s love with God being stuck in some romanticized version of history?

The questions we have today need answers that haven’t been given before. No matter how great the bible is, how brilliant philosophers of yesterday were, or how insightful theologians have been, they can’t directly address our questions in 2021. Thus, we’re reliant on the presence of the Paraclete to guide us into truth through exposure and comfort that leads to the revolution of the witness of God. First, we ourselves are guided by love into exposure because we must always be in the truth of who we are and where we are and find ourselves therein received and accepted. Second, we’re guided by love and truth to participate in exposing archaic, static, and septic traditions and rituals, systems and ideologies. Last, we’re guided by love to work in the world as beloved radical midwives of comfort, love, and liberty participating in the revolution of bringing forth the reality of God manifested in Christ by the power Spirit of truth, the Paraclete.[8]

Let us live and liberate, let us laugh and love like those profoundly impacted in heart and mind by the life, liberation, laughter, and love of God made known in the witness of Christ in the world by the presence and power of the Paraclete.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster 1971. Original: Das Evangelium des Johannes Göttigen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964). 554 “Their witness is not, therefore, a historical account of that which was, but—however much it is based on that which was—it is ‘repetition,’ ‘a calling to mind,’ in the light of their present relationship with him. In that case it is perfectly clear that their witness and that of the Spirit are identical. The Gospel is itself evidence of the kind of witness this is, and of how that which was is taken up again…”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Bultmann John 553 “This two-fold designation makes the reference to the idea of revelation certain; even after Jesus’ departure, God’s revelation will be mediated through him: he it is, who sends the Spirit (sic, without additional description), who bears witness to him; but he does so in his unity with the Father, who has made him Revealer; he sends the Spirit from the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father, just as it is said in 14:16 that the Father sends the Spirit at the Son’s request, or in 14.26 that he sends him ‘in the name’ of the Son.”

[4] Bultmann John 552 “After Jesus’ departure, the situation on earth will remain unchanged inasmuch as the offence which Jesus’ work offered the world will not disappear. The witness, which till now he had borne to himself, will be taken over by the Paraclete, the Helper, whom he will send from the Father.”

[5] Bultmann John 554 “But when…the Spirit’s witness and the witness of the community are spoken of as two factors distinct from one another, this shows first that the working of the spirit is not unhistorical or magical, but rather requires the disciples’’ independent action, and secondly that the disciples cannot accomplish on their own what they are in fact able to do. They may not rely on the Spirit, as if they had no responsibility or need for decision; but they may and should trust the Spirit. Thus the peculiar duality, which exists in the work of Jesus himself, repeats itself in the Church’s preaching: he bears witness, and the Father bears witness. But the community’s preaching is to be none other than witness to Jesus…”

[6] Bultmann John 558 “…the historical Jesus must depart, so that his significance, the significance of being the Revealer, can be grasped purely by itself. He is only the Revealer, if he remains such. But he remains it only by sending the Spirit; and he can only send the Spirit when he has himself gone. In context the statement means the same as the others, that Jesus must be exalted or glorified in order to be the one who he really is.”

[7] Bultmann John 562-3 “The judgment consists in the world’s sinful nature being exposed by the revelation that continues to take place in the community. This is brought out by relating the ελεγχειν of the Paraclete to the three dimensions αμαρτια, δικαιοσυνη, and χρισις. The absence of the article proves that it is the three ideas that are called in question, and not three cases of sin, righteousness, and judgment. It would therefore be wrong to supplement the three substantives with three subjective genitives…The judgment that takes place in the revelation consists in disclosing the true meaning of the standards and values current in the word. But this means at the same time disclosing who is the sinner, who the victor, and who it is that is judged.”

[8] Thought influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Christ, Reality, and the Good” of his Ethics

Be Encouraged, Beloved

Sermon on 1 John 5:9-13

Psalm 1:1-3 Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

Introduction

A couple of weekends ago, Daniel and I went to a store looking for a lamp for a bedside table. The table isn’t big, so the lamp needed to be a specific size. Sadly, when we got to the store (a secondhand store) the options for table lamps were sparse. About to lose hope, something changed. Suddenly, I said, “What if we look for a floor lamp instead?” Remembering that I had a lamp on my desk I was eager to get rid of and that was the perfect size, I switched my perspective and there were (now) many options available. We found a floor lamp that works marvelously, and the table lamp has a new home.

So, when I looked at the texts for this Sunday, I cringed and sighed. The passage from Acts made me furrow my brow and shrug. Scanning the Psalm, meh. The 1 John 5 passage made me cringe and shudder, gosh I dislike the assumption that Christians are better than others. The gospel was … to say the least… a lot and too much. So, there I was…speechless…: I wonder if I anyone would notice if there wasn’t a sermon?

But then: floor lamps. Oh damn. I went back to the text that gave me the strongest visceral reaction and looked at it again, but this time from a different perspective—bottom up rather than top down. 1 John 5:13 was like a neon sign at night with no other light around: I wrote these things for you all—those who believe in the name of the son of God—so that you may know that you have eternal life.[1] Boom. This isn’t a text about judging non-Christians or people of other traditions as inferior, hell-bound, bad, and life-less. Rather, it’s a means to tell a small group of Christians under attack to hold-on: hold the faith, little flock, God’s with you. And here, the author, like many others before, whispers courage and compassion to those struggling to make sense of things, who are fighting against doubt, who want to call it quits and walk away, wasn’t our life before easier? And rather than offer some trite colloquialism, what does our author do? Points up: this is of God and not of your doing; keep following The Way of Christ. You are not alone, the Spirit of God is with you in your fear, in your doubt, in your anxiety.[2]

1 John 5:9-12

If we are receiving the witness of humanity, the witness of God is greater; because this is the witness of God that God has witnessed concerning [God’s] son. The one who believes in the son of God has the witness in themselves; the one who does not believe has made God a liar because [they] have not believed in the witness which God has witnessed concerning [God’s] son. And this is the testimony: God gave to us eternal life, and this life is in the son of [God]. The one who has the son has life; the one who does not have the son of God does not have life. (1 Jn 5:9-12)

1 John 5:9-12

The author here is exceptionally (and painfully?) logical and mathematical. If we receive human testimony, why wouldn’t we accept the testimony of God who is greater? If we trust what our neighbor says who is capable of being inconsistent in retelling and lacking love, can’t we also trust God who is the substance of consistency and love?[3] And to what has God witnessed? God’s son: Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ died and raised.[4] This is the thrust of all four gospel narratives, the core of Paul’s theology that he was willing to die for, and through which the rest of the second testament weaves and wends. For John, this is not the stuff of humans but of God[5]—we couldn’t make this up and, if you really think about it, I doubt we’d want to.

The author continues, the one who believes has the witness from God of Jesus the Christ in themselves and the one who does not believe calls God a liar. Again, this is logical and mathematical: to believe in a witness is to affirm that the one who shares it is truthful; not to believe the witness is to say that that one who shares it is lying. If I say I have seen unicorns, many of you may not believe it and thus would esteem the claim a lie and me with it as a liar. To believe in the testimony of God is to affirm with the Spirit that Jesus is the Christ and to call it truth; not to believe is to categorize it as a lie. I want to point out that there’s no condemnation here, just a plain statement that those who do not believe do not have the eternal life that is found in and given by faith in Christ. They live, but not in the same way as those who claim Christ crucified and raised.

I also want to point out that for those who join in the claim of the centurion at the foot of the cross watching Jesus breath his last (“Truly this was the son of God!”[6]), faith affirms in us this man Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, is God. For those of us who believe the testimony of the women fleeing the tomb, faith affirms in us who Jesus is thus who God is for us. There isn’t the claim that there can’t be other ways to live, but that this is the way for those who have been so encountered. Thus, our affirmation is neither mere intellectual choice nor confession made by threat of death and hell; it’s the assertion of faith which is of God and in God.[7] We believe not because it’s been proven to us or is material fact, but because we’ve been encountered by this God in the event of faith and that encounter affirms the testimony of this God about this Jesus by the power of this Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

In this affirmation of the testimony of God is life. For John, it’s eternal life and it’s for those who believe in the name of the Son of God. Those who do not believe do not have life. This is tricky language and coarse to our ears in 2021. So, what is our author getting at?

First, this is not a recipe for the violence of threatening human beings in the name of evangelism. We are not to create systems by which we force people to choose life or literal death to confess Jesus is the Christ. You either do or you don’t; in the end God is love and loves all: those who do and those who do not believe. (This is the offense of the Gospel!). Jesus descended to the dead to release the captives and close those doors, not leaving them open for those who don’t believe. The most this text gives us is those who don’t believe don’t have the life that is promised in Christ to those who believe. This letter was written to Christians to encourage them; it isn’t a treatise on mission and evangelization.

Second, and importantly for us, the life we have in Christ by faith is life that is lived like Christ by faith. Faith asserts that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, thus by faith we’re linked to and grafted into the history of this Jesus the Christ—in and into his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.[8] What was and is Jesus’s, is now ours—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The church has existed, continues to exist, and will continue to exist not because of dry human rituals and violent force, but because this testimony of God keeps going forward calling people into it (culturally and contextually shifting, bending, and moving). It’s not our doing but God’s. Thus, in being grafted into the life of Jesus, we are ushered in as part of the manifold followers of the The Way of Christ.

And this is the way of life for the Christian, the one who believes the testimony of God: we live in love, in asking and granting forgiveness, in baptism, in truth, in reality, in possibility, and in solidarity with God and with our fellow human beings. In this way, we live eternally now and, one day, forever. For us Christians, the way of Christ leads through death into new life and is the way of freedom and liberation, release and the end of captivity—not only for us but for others. Having been given the way of Christ as our framework, we are made aware of what systems of death look like and what systems of life look like; we are made to be free in the world to bring life to those stuck in death not by forcing personal conversion at the tip of a sword (metal or verbal). Rather, we do so by exposing human made systems threatening death for those who don’t measure up to the dominant culture; and then we convert those systems by bringing them through death and into new life to participate in the cosmic and divine work of love and freedom.

Be encouraged, Beloved, hold steady; God is with you.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] I. Howard Marshall The Epistles of John TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1978. 3-4, “…he here summarizes his purpose in the composition of this Epistle. He was writing to a church in which there had arisen divergent teaching regarding the nature of Christian belief…John now sums up by saying that the effect of what he has written should be to give assurance to believers that they do possess eternal life. John was therefore writing not to persuade unbelievers of the truth to the Christian faith but rather to strengthen Christian believers who might be tempted to doubt the reality of their Christian experience and to give up their faith in Jesus.”

[3] Keeping the consistency with the larger context of Chapter 5 and 4.

[4] Marshall The Epistles of John 17 “The witness of the Spirit is God’s testimony to Jesus.”

[5] Marshall Epistles of John 17, “…John is saying that we ought to accept God’s testimony precisely because it is God’s testimony and that this testimony concerns his Son, the supreme importance of the fact that Jesus is the Son of God is thus brought out. Because it is God who has borne testimony to Jesus and declared him to be his Son, it follows that acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God is of fundamental and decisive importance.”

[6] Mt 27:54; Mk 15:39; Lk 23:47

[7] Rudolf Bultmann The Johannine Epistles a Commentary on the Johannine Epistles Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1973). “This testimony can no more be exhibited as something at hand than can the testimony of the spirit. Ζωὴ αἰώνιος (‘eternal life’) belongs to the eschatological time of salvation, but is already present for faith; for God has given it to us as a gift, and according to 3:14 we know ‘that we have passed out of death into life.’ It can thus only be testimony in the sense that this knowledge is inherent in faith.” 19

[8] Bultmann The Johannine Epistles 19-20, “The basis of this knowledge is given by: καὶ αὕτη ἡ ζωὴ ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ ἐστιν (‘and this life is in his Son’). That the ‘life’ can be the ‘testimony’ lies in the fact that life is there in the Son of God for the believer, indeed in the historical Jesus, in whom the life was made manifest, according to 1:1–3. On the basis of v 6, it is specifically to this historical Jesus that the spirit bears witness: the testimony given by the spirit and the testimony of God to the life bestowed upon us as a gift are one and the same, because life is given in the Son. One would not be surprised were the text to read: ἡ ζωὴ ὁ υἱός ἐστιν (‘The life is the Son’). But, certain as it is that the revelation of the life is given in the historical Jesus, the author does not risk the direct equation of ‘life’ and ‘Son’ (as is done in Jn 11:25; 14:6), but chooses to say that ‘life’ is given ‘in the Son,’ a formulation that appears also in Jn 3:15 (similarly Jn 16:33; 20:31).”

God is Love

1 John 4:7-21

Psalm 22:24, 29 My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him… My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’S for ever.

Introduction

I’ll confess that over the past few years I’ve found it easier to say, “God is dead” than, “God is love.” It seems we are daily forced to navigate a world decorated with the placards of death and destruction, mischief and malice, greed and grief. With a single swipe up, we easily witness death’s toll rise as our sisters and brothers are seized by pandemic, suffocated in the grip of hatred and prejudice, and neglected for the preference of self-indulgence. It is hard to reconcile the manifold tragedy we see all around us and the claim “God is love.” The world feels absent love especially at a cosmic level. God feels gone.

I wish I could say (with confidence): even though the world feels divested of divine love, the church stands as a bastion of the perpetuity of this love. Sadly, I cannot. The very institution charged to carry on the precious treasure of the life-giving message of God’s love is also the institution that participates—by word and deed—in the same violence and destruction of so called “secular” institutions. It seems that the proclamation God is love and its twin “God loves us” are trapped under systems of the necessity of right thought wedded to faulty interpretations of what it means and looks like to be a follower of Christ. We’ve become mesmerized by our image and not God’s and what makes us feel pious and good. We’d rather quibble over fabric, wood, stone, and precious metal than throw open doors and arms tossing religiosity to the wind to embrace the “least of these.”

With so much pain and turmoil around us, maybe it would be better to throw in the towel, admit the failure of this divine experiment, and confess, with the 19th century genius existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche,

“…Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead.”[1]

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another because Love is from God; all who love both have been birthed from God and know God…In this way the love of God was manifested in us, because God sent forth [God’s] only begotten son into the cosmos so that we might live through him. In this is love: not that we we[2] have loved God but that [God God] has loved us and sent [God’s] son as atonement for our sins. Beloved, if in this way God loved us, also we we ought to love one another…We we love because [God God] first loved us. [3]

1 Jn 4:7, 9-11, 19

According to John’s first epistle, love is from God because God is love. He goes so far to say that those who love are the ones who have been birthed of God. Then he quickly moves to describe how divine love is brought forth in those who have been born of God and thus of love. Harkening to the imagery of the gospel of John chapter 3—“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” (v.16, NRSV)—the author articulates: the love of God precedes our love for God. [4]

Pushing the imagery further, we can also say, in accordance with Gen 1, that the wind of God hovering over the formless void and the face of the deep is the same as love.[5] Everything about the cosmos is embedded and submerged in divine love. Divine love is the creative force animating the cosmos; the very fabric of our material being is nurtured and produced from love. Thus, even as God’s love predates our love for God. Love itself is older than time and recorded human history. We neither know of a time nor can conceive an era when love didn’t exist. (As Rev. Teri pointed out last week: God loved and loves the dinosaurs!) Our scope is cosmic: God loved and loves without end.[6]

And as God loved the cosmos into being so to does God in God’s love rescue the cosmos and its inhabitants from the plight of humanity by entering that very plight unto death. It is for this reason the epistle writer uses the events of Good Friday through Easter as the lens to comprehend the preceding and continuation of God’s love from one end of the cosmos to the other. God’s love is so profound that not only can it create but it can recreate. That which is dead can be made alive. Christ died on the cross, was buried, and then walked out of tomb. God’s love produced what is (creation) and then went beyond that to grant us the possibility of what could be (recreation).

The epitome of divine love is manifest in standing in solidarity with suffering and stuck humanity threatened with death and destruction and liberating them from it even if they brought it upon themselves. This is unconditional love, and therefore divine love can exist into eternity because it’s based on the eternal source that is God and not conditioned on this or that behavior of the beloved. Conditional love isn’t love; it’s a contract. There is no contract in God’s love language. God just loves because love loves. Where there is love there is God.

Conclusion

Going back to the quotation above from Nietzsche. The quote is only in part. The Parable of the Madman is more profound than the portion I referenced.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

Far from pessimistic, Nietzsche’s words partake of possibility and hope. God is not dead because we cannot kill Love. What Nietzsche refers to as “God” isn’t “God” but what we’ve crafted and fashioned to be “God.” And this “God” is dead. The false idols we have constructed of God and propped up in the name of God are the ones that are being exposed as monsters and must be torn down. The death and destruction we see abounding around us isn’t because God is dead; rather, it’s because we’ve baptized (in the name of God) the death dealing and life destroying structures and systems we’ve built and curated and these we must destroy because they are putrid and septic. The god we’ve presented to the world in our own flesh is a god who has been found wanting and we must kill this “God.” And the only way to do that is to love, to love to the fullest extent of the word and in the most radical interpretation. For where we love there is God, where God is there is life and light and liberation.

“The gravity of her situation settled in on her, closing in on her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Would she put the chains back around her neck or let them go and step forward into love? Her heart beat right up into her throat. She tried to swallow it down, but her mouth was suddenly dry. She sat perfectly still but within she was a child, flailing about, trying to push love away; until another part of herself pulled it to her, holding love out to her. It’s not what you want, it’s what you need. She stopped writhing and pushing and looked at it. She reached out and took love, still afraid. She held love in her hands, not knowing if she held it right…Tell God you are afraid. And thank Him. She couldn’t’ find a way to say she was afraid, but she could at least hold her fear and the love she feared out to Him. So she held our what He was forcing her to carry, her commitment to carry love without even knowing what that meant, her fear, all of it, and took one step forward, making herself say aloud, ‘Alhamdulilah.’”[7]

Laury Silvers The Lover

You are the beloved not because it’s a nice sentiment but because Love started this entire thing and sustains it, always in search of the object of love: you, the world and everything in it from the very small to the very big, the entire cosmos. You are the beloved because you’ve been wrapped up in this ancient and present activity of divine love. You’ve been swept up into the current of the activity of divine love, Beloved. You are the beloved because God is love and is not dead; praise be to God.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman” The Gay Science Trans Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974 (trans). Original publication Die frölich Wissenschaft 1887.III.125.181-2.

[2] The double pronoun use here and following is due to the use of the pronouns with the verb in Greek which indicates an emphatic emphasis on the pronouns. It’s stressing that we did not love God but that

[3] All translations of the text are mine unless otherwise noted.

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.555 “…aorist indicates past time with reference to the time of speaking.”

[5] Gen 1:1-2 NRSV

[6] The statement here is based on the conception of the aorist verb used in the verse translated. This portion reads, “…αλλ’ οτι αυτος ηγαπησεν ημας…” the ηγαπησεν is an aorist active indicative 3rd person singular verb. Daniel B. Wallace explains that the aorist is best understood as, “as taking a snapshot of the action…” as opposed to a moving picture. And here, “The aorist tense ‘presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence.’” (554).

[7] Laury Silvers The Lover: A Sufi Mystery Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019.254

Behold, Christ’s Feet

Psalm 4:1 Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard-pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. (27)

Introduction

I’m not afraid of physical pain—the sore and strain of bones and muscles.[1] As an athlete, one must endure pain to be good. To build muscle, muscle must be torn down and rebuilt, a painful process. I am eager to learn new skills, so, know the demands for discomfort that comes with learning. It’s physically awkward to learn new moves, new postures, new holds. I wasn’t afraid to enter 14 hours of heavy contractions without medication as my son Jack attempted to make his debut on a hot August day in 2008. (With every contraction, Jack hit every bone he could before the midwife called the c-section—his head being too big to pass through my structure.) I’m that ridiculous person who says: no pain, no gain. If something is too easy, I immediately think: what am I doing wrong. Always looking for the next level because, to quote Will-I-Am as Pedro in the animated movie Rio: “Come on! This ain’t the level. The next level is the level.”

However, throw in a sudden shot of mental anguish and everything changes. While I won’t flee from physical pain, mental anguish is something altogether more painful to me. The mind takes over and anxiety surges in the body. Chaos starts to swirl in my mind and around me; my refuge of safety—my mind palace—is under siege. I am ushered into the crevasse opening under my feet, threatening to swallow me. Trying to fight against the discomfort (working, reading, running, tasking, scrolling, etc.) or pretending that everything is just fine (#fakeittillyoumakeit), makes it worse. The harder I fight and ignore, the worse the discomfort gets. I am no match to resist this Apollyon[2] seeking to destroy me on this journey, eager to drive me to the brink and edge of myself into oblivion.

Luke 24:36-48

Now, as they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood in the middle of them and said to them, “Peace to you.” But being terrified and becoming full of fear, they were thinking they were looking at a spirit. And Jesus said to them, “Why are you disturbed and why are thoughts coming up in your hearts? Experience my hands and my feet that I am[3] myself. Touch me and experience that a spirit has not flesh and bones just as you behold me having.” Then after saying this he showed them [his] hands and feet.

Luke 24:36-40

Luke is clear about the mental anguish of the disciples when Jesus appears in the middle of them.[4] He is clear: Jesus showing up didn’t immediately bring the comfort we might think/hope it would. The language Luke uses is thematically like the language Mark used to describe the women arriving at an open tomb on Easter morning. Divine movement in human time and space is terrifying even if it’s good.[5],[6] Divine activity here always alters reality as we know it—there’s nothing comforting about this. When God moves, things will change; we don’t like change, especially when it destroys what we know to be true. The tomb is opened; the women were terrified and seized with fear. The Crucified Christ shows up; the men are terrified and full of fear.

Jesus declares: Peace to you! Yet, fear and trembling persisted. Even if this declaration of peace was understood as the shalom that is peace with God thus salvation, it wasn’t all that the disturbed disciples needed.[7] These men were in mental anguish; speaking “peace” wasn’t enough. Jesus recognizes this. His response? He names what is going with these men: why are you disturbed? Why are reasonings coming up in your heart? I am myself![8]In other words, I see you and feel you. Jesus is truly there with them; in solidarity with them. But calling a thing what it is isn’t all Jesus does.

He knows something else must happen to relieve the disturbedness. Behold my hands; gaze upon my feet; see for yourself that I am who I am and that I am here with you! These terrified people needed to touch Jesus to know he was real. It wasn’t enough for Jesus to speak peace; he needed to show them his wounded hands and feet. He stood among them and held out his hands, experience the holes from the nails that held me to the cross; gaze at death’s feeble attempt to keep God and my beloved apart; behold, not even death can exile you from me. And they touched him. When they did, their terror and fear turned to doubt because of joy (v.41); this was too good to be true. Doubt still existed, but it’s source was the good news they felt with their hands as they touched the body of Jesus.[9] They reached out with trembling hands, like the shepherds did back at Christmas, and touched the very flesh of God and were not reduced to dust but into new life. The Lord is Risen!

Conclusion

The only way the disciples moved from their fear and terror at Jesus’s presence was through and not around. So it is with us. The only way for me to pass through my mental anguish, my fear and terror, my panic and anxiety is to sit and feel, to face and acknowledge, to look it in the eyes, touch it, call it for what it is, and exist there. Referring to the EnneaThought for this past Friday, “…if we stay present to our discomfort, we will also feel something else arising—something more real, capable, sensitive, and exquisitely aware of ourselves and of our surroundings.”[10] The beginning of release comes in facing the reality of what is and moving through and from there; this becomes our sure foundation: embracing the truth, naming the feelings, and admitting our weakness and problem.

When Jesus walked the earth, he overturned condemning material systems birthed from human judgment. In his resurrected material[11] life, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, flips time and space—like he did tables in the temple—and brings with him the women and men whom he encounters into the divine reign. Christ’s resurrected material presence on earth among people indicates that God’s reign is not merely spiritual, but physical, too; this (all) is God’s good creation.[12]

The rest is in making our home where we live and standing in solidarity with our neighbors rather than escaping it through fighting against Apollyon and turning blind eyes.

The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark
And no dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart

I took the stars from my eyes, an then I made a map
And knew that somehow I could find my way back
Then I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you[13]

Florence and the Machine “Cosmic Love”

The material presence of Christ with the disciples makes it impossible for us to reduce problems and their solutions of our world to the spiritual. In other words, our presence in the world toward our neighbor must be more than “thoughts and prayers” or the ludicrous assertion people should pull themselves out of their suffering and oppression by their own bootstraps. We must look at the violence in our country and call it what it is: life denying and anti-human. To quote the biblical scholar, Justo Gonzalez, “The Lord who broke the bonds of death calls his followers to break the bonds of injustice and oppression,”[14] that which causes death. The material presence of Christ with people after his resurrection is a sure sign that, to quote womanist theologian, The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas of Union Seminary,

The resurrection asserts the sanctity of human life as it overcomes all the forces that would deny it. The resurrection in effect makes plane the ‘wrongness’ of the crucifixion, and thus of all crucifying realities. It shows that death does not have the last word. [15]

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground

In our encounter with God in the resurrected Christ of Easter in the event of faith, we are made into new people in the world. In our new life in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to love God with our whole selves and to also love our neighbor as ourselves. In this encounter we are remade and reshaped (the product of repentance[16]), we will be “wholly transformed” through death into new life to conform to the image of Christ in the world.[17] If we think this means merely speaking peace and not attempting to perform this divine shalom into the world, then Jesus is still in the tomb, and we follow phantoms.

But we don’t follow a phantom; we follow the materially risen Lord Jesus Christ who fully affirms life (for all people, and especially the oppressed and suffering people[18]). Hope is not lost; faith is not abandoned. Prayer informs our praxis, rendering the space of our activity divine space. We are indwelled with the holy spirit, God of very God. Where there is death, we bring life; where there is midnight, we shine light; where there is hunger, we bring food; where there is terror and fear we, the beloved, bring comfort to the beloved. Our hands extend to the downtrodden and we lift up, behold Christ’s hand. Our feet stand in solidarity with black and brown bodies threatened at every turn; behold Christ’s feet.


[1] I’m not including here physical pain from chronic illness. I group that under mental anguish because of the toll it takes on the mind and body. Also, as someone who has not suffered with chronic illness, I cannot speak to it. I wanted to add this here so people know I’m aware of the physical pain of Chronic Illness.

[2] Reference to the antagonist in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

[3] The εγω ειμι here is a loaded term, so I emphasized it. The Greek reads “…εγω ειμι αυτος” thus a literal translation would be “I, I am myself.” Whenever you see the personal pronoun with the verb in Greek there’s a needed emphasis. I also think Luke is intentional with the wording and order; the great I AM is with them. God is with the Beloved.

[4] Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds. Ay Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 279 “The theological emphasis of this passage lies on the true, physical resurrection of Jesus. The disciples think that what they are seeing may be his ghost, a story parallel to the reaction of other disciples in Acts when Peter returns to them unexpectedly.”

[5] Joel B. Green TNICNT The Gospel of Luke Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997. 852 “…the Evangelist [Luke] places a premium on ‘seeing.’…Initial points of contact with accounts of angelic appearances signal the wonder of this moment, while points of contrast indicate the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. …Luke’s narrative affirms a resurrected Jesus over against these other options for the afterlife current in the Hellenistic world.”

[6] Green 855, In re Luke’s use of “Joy” “What they were experiencing was simply too good to be true.”

[7] Green 854, “Within the Third Gospel, ‘peace’ is metonymic for ‘salvation,’ so that, in this co-text, Jesus’ greeting takes on an enlarged meaning. The Emmaus travelers imagined that his rejection and crucifixion had rendered Jesus incapable of serving as Israel’s redeemer; here, following his death, though, he communicates or transmits continue salvation to those gathered.”

[8] Green 854-5, “…Jesus is now represented as alive beyond the grave as an embodied person. Jesus’ affirmation is emphatic—‘it is I  myself!’ ‘It is really me!’—intimating continuity between these phases of Jesus’ life, before crucifixion and after resurrection.”

[9] Green 855, “Nestled between these two demonstrations of materiality is a transparent indication that such exhibitions are insufficient for producing the desired effects This is consistent with the emphasis through ch. 24 on the inherent ambiguity of ‘facts’ and, thus, the absolute necessity of interpretation. Not even controvertible evidence of Jesus’ embodied existence is capable of producing faith; resolution will come only when scriptural illuminate is added to material data.”

[10]The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 37

[11] Gonzalez Luke 279, “The Jesus who repeatedly ate with his disciples, with sinners, with publicans, wand with Pharisees now eats his last meal before leaving his disciples in the ascension. He does this in order to prove that he is not a just a vision or a ghost, that he has really conquered death.”

[12] Gonzalez Luke 279, “The one whose life the church shares in Word and Sacrament is not a ghost or a disembodied spirit. He is the risen Lord. Those who serve him do not serve a moral or religious principle, nor just the natural spiritual urges of humankind; they serve one like themselves, yet Lord of all.”

[13] Florence and the Machine “Cosmic Love”

[14] Gonzalez Luke 280, “And, because his resurrection is not a merely spiritual matter, they cannot limit their service to purely spiritual matters. The Lord who showed his resurrection to his disciples by eating with them invites his followers to show his resurrection to the world by feeding the hungry.”

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013. 187 Here’s the full paragraph for context: “The resurrecting power of God is made fully manifest in the defeat of the ultimate power of evil represented by the cross. The resurrection is God’s definitive response to the crucifying realities. It clarifies the essential character of God’s power—a power that values life. The resurrection of the one who died such a hideous and ignominious death firmly established that God does not in any way sanction the suffering of human being. The resurrection asserts the sanctity of human life as it overcomes all the forces that would deny it. The resurrection in effect makes plane the ‘wrongness’ of the crucifixion, and thus of all crucifying realities. It shows that death does not have the last word.”

[16] Green 858, “Repentance’ will be a key term describing the appropriate response to the offer of salvation in Acts, and connotes the (re)alignment of one’s life—that is, dispositions and behaviors—toward God’s purpose.”

[17] Green 854, “‘Heart’ has already been used in vv 25 and 32, reminding Luke’s audience of the importance in these sense of the need for the inner commitments to these persons to be reshaped in light of the resurrection of Jesus. They must be wholly transformed—in disposition and attitude, cognition and affect, as well as practices and behaviors—but they continue to lack the categories for rendering this new experience of Jesus in a meaningful way. As with Jesus’ companions on the road to Emmaus, they are obtuse, slow of heart (v 25).”

[18] Douglas Stand Your Ground 188 “What the resurrection points to…is not the meaning of Jesus’s death, but of his life…The resurrection of Jesus thus solidified God’s commitment to the re restoration o life for the ‘crucified class’ of people. It reveals that there are ‘no principalities or power’ that can frustrate or foil God’s power to overcome the crucifying death in the world that not only targets but also creates a ‘crucified class’ of people  To restore to life those whose bodies are the particular targets of the world’s violence is to signal the triumph over crucifying violence and death itself….The crucifixion-resurrection event points to the meaning found in Jesus’ life, not his death. By understanding he resurrection in light of the cross, we know that crucifying realities do not have the last word, and, thus, cannot take away the value of one’s life. The meaning of one’s life, in other words, is not found in death and is not vitiated by it.”

In the End the Beginning

Psalm 118:22-24 The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (41)

Introduction

“On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it,” (Ps 118:24). Are there any words more fitting than those for today? Today we rejoice in the activity of God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the risen Lord Jesus Christ: the one who was crucified, died, and was buried, the one who descended to the dead, and the one who was raised from it. What appeared to be gone, was the furthest thing from. What sounded like bad news, wasn’t. What looked like sure failure became a means for something else. All because a rock was moved, and a tomb was opened. What seemed the end, was the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where everything that was, is (now) not the only thing there is. Today is the day we celebrate an action so divine in substance and impact that someone walking out of a tomb—who had been sealed in—became possible. That’s not the trajectory of activity when it comes to tombs. When you’re sealed in with a massive stone, you do not come back out. But divine action made the impossible possible; the new was ushered in.[1] On this day the possibility opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where all the doors of the building are thrown open. Today is the day we celebrate a redefinition of what it means to worship God and to be God’s people. What was restricted to wood and stone, to brick and mortar is now set loose into the world in spirit and flesh. The very thing that kept God separate from the people was destroyed. The temple veil was torn in two, and the holy transcended and coupled with the common bypassing the rulers and authorities, seeping into the fringes and margins of society.[2] On this day the temple opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where the entire sky bursts forth with love and hope and peace. Today is the day we celebrate the cessation of incessant rains[3] and the rising of the sun with healing in its wings.[4] This sun shines down, enlivens and invigorates chilled and tired bodies drained from resisting and enduring separation and silence. The sun breaks through the clouds of chaos bringing comfort and peace to those minds exhausted from trying “…to be a man with/A peace of mind/Lord, I try/I just can’t find/My peace of mind”—borrowing lyrics from a talented former student of mine.[5] On this day the sky opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where the very ground underneath violently shook. Today is the day we celebrate great divine movement of the earth opening again. This time, God and God’s self dropped into the pit of Sheol; drawing light to shine among the darkness of the dead.[6] Here God searches and finds and looks upon the face of Korah, and as God’s hand extends God declares: Beloved, not even the exile of death and the pit can separate you from me. On this day the earth opened. In the end, the beginning.

Mark 16:1-8

Then very early on the first day of the week [the women] went to the tomb after the rising of the sun. And they were continuously talking to themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” (Mk 16:2-3[7])

Mark 16:2-3, translation mine

Mark highlights the humanity of the women, thus showcases the divine action of this story.[8] The beginning of the gospel passage opens with what feels like minutia. At the completion of the Sabbath, being Saturday night,[9] the women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—purchase spices and perfumes to use on Jesus’s entombed body. Then, early the next morning, they head out.

Apart from Jesus being buried in haste the previous Friday evening, none of this is worth writing home about. Nothing—so far—is out of the ordinary. In fact, Mark robes the story in so much humanity, he writes about the women worrying as they walk to the tomb. The greatly great stone occupied their conversation as they walked. Our English translation misses the extent this stone bothered the consciences of the women. In Greek, it’s an imperfect verb indicating a continuous action. Thus, they didn’t just ask themselves once about who will roll away the stone; they literally talked about it the entire time.

And then looking up and beholding/gazing that the stone has been rolled away; for it was exceedingly great.

Mark 16:4

Then suddenly all conversation comes to a dead halt. The women lift their eyes and behold: the very thing they were worried about is removed. The stone was rolled back. What was a regular scene is now an irregular one enveloped in supernatural activity.[10] Our translation loses the emotion here. The women didn’t just look and see. As the tomb comes into view, they lift their eyes up from having been talking among themselves, and, as they draw near to the tomb, they see…it…#wut? They gazed and beheld the scene: the greatly great stone was rolled away. Their hearts raced as they gazed in disbelief while trying to make sense of an impossibility made possible. Everything changes here.[11]

As they step inside the tomb, they do not see the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth, which they expected to see. Rather they encounter one whom they did not expect: a young man clothed in bright light, an angelic being.[12] Thus, onto disbelief there is added great astonishment and fear. Their entire world does not make sense.[13] Then, adding to the topsy-turvy situation making itself known, the brightly clothed young man says, “Do not be greatly astonished! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene the one who was crucified; he was raised, he is not here. Behold the place where they placed him” (Mk 16:6). The tomb is open, there’s an angelic being casually seated inside, and Jesus’s body is not there with the declaration that he is risen.

And they went out and fled from the tomb for trembling and bewilderment was holding the women; and they said nothing to no one; for they were terrified.

Mark 16:8

For these three women, fleeing and running in fear and trembling is a very human response considering a remarkable and an unbelievable encounter with the impossible being made possible. He whom they saw crucified and dead was raised[14] and gone out.[15] When time and space shift and change, when the narrative takes a surprising turn, when the thing that is going to happen does not happen, fear and trembling is a right response. When something overhauls reality, you are put on a collision course with the possible and reality reshaping and altering; it’s terrifying. It’s why real love is scary and hard to accept and receive (as Rev. Jan brilliantly made note of on Thursday). Real, unconditional, nonperformance-based love is terrifying because it undoes everything you think you know to be real, to be true, to be actual. The narrative you’ve been given by the world and crafted in your head about you and the world is exposed as myth by real, unconditional love. Thus, good news can be as terrifying as bad news because it radically alters and transforms the reality of the one who hears such good news.[16] And so, the women run and are afraid. But, in the end, the beginning.

Conclusion

As Mark’s gospel suddenly ends on a note of fear, we are propelled back to the beginning.[17] As the women run from the tomb afraid and in silence, we follow and find ourselves located back at Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the good newsof Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[18] The end of Good Friday is now the beginning that is Easter. This is the source of our hope that springs eternal. Today we come into encounter with this God who raised Jesus of Nazareth the Christ from the dead. And today our world is turned upside down by the “mystery of divine love…acted out in human history,” to quote Rev. Emil. Today, in the end the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story— where everything that is, is not the only thing there is. Today is the day we dare to embrace this divine event and step into the possible. Today we dare to dream of what could be for us and for all those around us. Today we dare to reject what has always been and believe, anything is possible with God. Today, the possibility is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where we sit in a similar predicament as did the founders of this humble church. Today we are eager to (re)claim our building, to enter it, to be bodily present with others. Yet, we are asked to reconceive what this building means considering divine activity redefining the temple. Can we open the doors and throw open the windows extending divine love to the fringes and margins, spreading good news in word and deed? Can we remember that we were once homeless and without shelter?[19] Do we really believe that God is not restricted to a building but resides in each of us? Today the temple is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where the sky is illuminated with love and hope and peace. Today is the day we celebrate the rising of the Son with healing in its wings for bodies drained from enduring a pandemic, witnessing human life being destroyed, social upheaval, confusion, and isolation; for bodies exhausted from trying to find peace where peace doesn’t reside. Today the sun shines down, warms and energizes our chilled and tired bodies, rejuvenating hope and bringing forth the sapling of long desired peace. Today the sky is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where the very ground underneath our feet shook. Today is the day we celebrate the fracturing of old structures and the exposure of the errors and faults of our human judgment and human made systems and kingdoms as the God of life and liberty reigns victorious over death and captivity. We rejoice in the freedom and liberation that is brought in the divine love for the whole world. In the risen Christ, we hear and feel chains and shackles dropping as all the captives are released from the effects of sin and death into new life. On this day the earth opened. In the end, the beginning.


[1] Jeremiah 31:31-34; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/03/21/and-the-possibility-opens/

[2] John 2:13-22; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/03/07/and-the-temple-opens/

[3] Genesis 9:8ff; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/02/21/and-the-sky-opens/

[4] Malachi 4:2

[5] Cameron Seaton “Peace of Mind” Cry Me A Song 2020

[6] Numbers 16, Psalm 88; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/02/17/and-the-earth-opens/

[7] All GNT translations are mine in this portion of the sermon

[8] R.T. France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2002. 675, “The setting for the discovery is remarkably down to earth, with the women coming to fulfil the previously omitted duty of anointing Jesus’ body with perfumes, worrying bout how they were to get into the tomb, meeting there a young man who tells them that Jesus has risen and gives them a message for the disciples and Peter, and running way frightened from this unexpected encounter. This is not the stuff of a heroic epic, still less of a story of magic and wonder, and yet what underlies it is an event beyond human comprehension: the Jesus they had watched dying and being buried some forty hours earlier is no longer dead but rise, καθως ειπεν υμιν. It is in this incongruous combination of the everyday with the incomprehensible that many have found one of the most powerful and compelling aspects of the NT accounts not of Jesus’ resurrection…but of how the fist disciples discovered that he had risen.”

[9] France Mark 676, “As sabbath finished at sunset on the Saturday, the phrase διαγενομενου του σαββατου probably refers to the Saturday evening, the first time after Jesus’ hasty burial when it would be possible to buy perfumes.”

[10] France Mark 678, “Rather than arranging with Joseph’s servants to come back with them, they were now trusting to luck that someone would be around to help. But from the dramatic point of view their anxiety is important as the foil to their discovery that the problem was already solved…The unexplained removal of the stone thus begins to create a sense of superhuman agency in the narrative.”

[11] This is Mark’s written intent. The Greek here at the beginning of v.4, και αναβλεψασαι θεωρουσιν…, is an attendant circumstance construction of an aorist participle and a present indicative main verb. The attendant circumstance indicates that something brand new is happening, there’s new action on the table and the author wants you to take note of it.

[12] France Mark 678, “Other features of Mark’s description add to the supernatural impression: he is wearing white, and the women are terrified.”

[13] France Mark 679, “For εκθαμβεομαι…conveys a powerful mixture of shock and fear, and this is followed by τρομος και εκστασις leading to a precipitate flight from the tomb in 16:8. Such a reaction is more consonant with a meeting with an angel than with an ordinary young man, and his first words to the women convey the same impression…”

[14] France Mark 680, “τον εσταυρωμενον, however, poignantly describes what the women at present believe to be the truth about Jesus. Having themselves watched him die on the cross, they have now come to attend to that tortured body, and that is what they expected to find in the tomb. That whole tragic scenario is reversed in the simple one-word message, ηγερθη, though the clause that follow will spell out more fully what this dramatic verb implies.”

[15] France Mark 680, “The women, even if they were unaware of Jesus’ predictions, could not mistake the meaning of this verb in this context. But the νεαωισκος goes on to make it clear that he is talking not merely about survival beyond death but about a physical event: the place where Jesus’ body had been laid…is empty. The body has gone, and from the promise made in the following verse it is plain that it has gone not by passive removal but in the form of a living, travelling Jesus. However philosophy and theology may find it possible to come to terms with the event, it is clear that Mark is describing a bodily resurrection leading to continuing life and activity on earth.”

[16] France Mark 682-3, “…in Mark the sense of panic is unrelieved. The words the women have heard were entirely good news, but their immediate response is apparently not to absorb the message of the words but to escape as quickly as possible from the unexpectedly numinous situation in which they have been caught up.”

[17] France Mark 680-1, “The announcement of Jesus’ resurrection is not an end in itself, but the basis of action, which for the women is the delivery of an urgent message, and for the disciples to whom that message is sent a journey to Galilee in preparation for the promised meeting with Jesus…Life, discipleship and the cause of the Kingdom f God must go on.”

[18] France Mark 672, “…the Mark who began his story on an overt note of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God (1:1) and has reminded his readers quite blatantly from time to time of that faith, is not likely to leave any room for doubt about its reality at the end. By the time mark wrote his gospel the message of the resurrection and the soties of meeting with the risen Jesus were so widely in circulation and so central to the life of the Christ church that there was in any case nothing to be gained by concealment: what is the point of being coy about what everyone already knows.”

[19] Reference to a document about the early history of Nativity by Bruce Jones

and The Possibility Opens

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51: 11-3 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. (49)

Introduction

I was diagnosed with Dyslexia as a young girl. I didn’t read “right”. From what I recall, letters jumped places, words flipped about, the sentences moved to their own beat—every written page was a gymnastics competition and those words were gold medalists. The diagnosis strapped me with insecurities about my intelligence and a disdain for reading. According to the diagnosis, I didn’t have the potential to read well because I was a “bad” reader. I lived into the idea that I wasn’t a “reader. My act of reading exposed I didn’t have the potential to read well. In our performance and production driven economy, it’s the actuality of the act that is esteemed. I wasn’t a reader because my actions demonstrated that I wasn’t.

Referring to Aristotle’s Metaphysics: this is what is known as actuality having priority over possibility. Aristotle’s ontological priority of actuality over possibility equates to the simple equation: yet v. not-yet. “Yet” being more important than “not-yet”; “not yet” means nothing if it is never actualized into “Yet”. Even though the actual is derived from the possible (the “yet” from the “not yet”), the possible strives toward the actual (like a seed striving to become actualized as a plant). [1] For Aristotle, actuality is both origin and goal of the possible, thus the possible serves and is subordinate to that actual.[2]

In that possibility serves actuality, actuality has primary position over possibility. Actuality is preferred and determines what the possibility was. So, we can say: one wasted their potential by not realizing it into actuality. Oh, she had so much potential! we say of people who have made “bad choices.” (As if potential can be “wasted” away if it’s not acted on.) The smart student who gets Ds also gets the obligatory look of disappointment. There was potential but it was never actualized as act; thus the potential is inferior in value to the actual and rendered as pointless apart from action.

But what if Aristotle was wrong?

Jeremiah 31-34

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Jeremiah 31: 31, 33

Jeremiah prophesies about a new covenant God will make between God and God’s people. This new covenant will, according to Jeremiah, “…not be like the covenant that I [God] made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke…” (Jer 31). According to Jeremiah, it is not the fault of the content of the previous covenant, but the fault of the people: [3] they are unable to perform according to the covenant established on the far side of the Red Sea as they stood in the shadow of Mt. Sinai receiving the revelation of the law, Torah.[4] Leaving the Torah outside of the people as words carved in stone—as a thing to be actualized out of human possibility—was failing. The command to love God imparted to the stones, needed to be imparted to the hearts of the people.[5] The people needed the actual to manifest the possible.

In Deuteronomy the great Shema of chapter 6 is the heart of Jewish liturgy. The word shema means: to hear so deeply that you do.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

While Israel promised that they would obey this and other commands they received from God, they didn’t. This didn’t render the Torah, the revelation of the Law, in error or wrong; rather, it exposed a deeper and bigger issue: a human inability to hear so well and so deeply that love comes forth. (The possibility of doings wasn’t manifesting into act.) In Dt 10,[6] God commands Israel to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts so that they obey God’s commands. But then, in Dt 30, Moses prophesies God’s promise that God will circumcise their hearts so that they will love God as they should.[7] The people needed the actual to manifest the possible.

Jeremiah is picking up on that promise. God is going to act on the inner life of Israel so that the love of God and of God’s people is written on their hearts of flesh rather than on tablets of stone. Relying on manifested human potential as act wasn’t working. Jeremiah stands in solidarity with God in God’s passionate zeal for God’s beloved people and creation.[8] He is filled with the divine pathos hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s love and heralds to the people this new promise: God will act not only on behalf of but also in God’s people. God will act on and in the people in a way that will create possibility for obedience to love; God will manipulate actuality, parting space like water and stopping time like the rains of the heavens and create room for the possible. Jeremiah exhorts and encourages, Shema, O Israel!

No longer will Israel have to wrestle with the inner failure of potential failing to become actual, with hearts that listen but do not truly hear. Rather, they will be caught in the divine activity that is oriented toward possibility. When God sweeps in and moves God’s people, in that actuality there is possibility. Thus, we say with confidence: with God all things are possible. God acts in our time and space, in our material realm and makes room for things that were not but now can be. In God’s economy it is not that possibility serves actuality, that potential serves act, but the opposite: actuality serves possibility, act serves potential, and the possible has primacy over what is actual.

Conclusion

It was in high school, during the later half of Junior year, where I wanted to receive untimed testing for the SATs. I was, as the test concluded in elementary school, dyslexic. My guidance councilor thought it was a good idea, but I had to be tested first before I’d be granted untimed testing. So, I sat for a test. A week later I sat with the examiner as she gave me my results. She explained before she went over my test that the test answers are scored on a scale of 1-14, 14 being the highest number and 1 being the lowest. The higher the score, the less a need for untimed testing. She opened my results and showed me a list of 14s and 12s with a 10 here and there. She laughed kindly, I’m sorry, there’s no way I can recommend an untimed test with these high scores. I was baffled. Where did my dyslexia go? I asked. Apparently, your brain fixed it, she replied. Becoming a good reader had nothing to do with “potential” made “actual” but about actuality making space and time for the possibility of being a good reader.

We take the actual and make it the final because we are taken with our deeds and actions as the final verdict of who we are as human beings on this planet; we’ve believed the lie that actuality has priority over possibility. We put too much stock in actions as determinant of who and what a person is. And this means we are focused on the past that we miss the divine activity of the future right in front of us for us.[1] We get wrapped up in what is, we miss what could be. What is isn’t all there is. And what is allows us the creativity and imagination to dream of what isn’t yet. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, we are people of possibility rather than only actuality. Here in lies our hope. A pandemic has disrupted what is; so, what could be? Where can we go from here? Can we dare to be people who face the anti-Asian racism plaguing this land, that eight lives were taken for no other reason than hate? Can our society meet the survival needs of people who find themselves stuck between two choices, work or don’t work, where both end in death? Can our society fight for the lives of Black, Indigenous people of color? Can our society become a safe place for people to be who they are, what they are, and love those whom they love freely?

What we have now doesn’t have to be what we have tomorrow; what we’re accustomed to isn’t all there is. Possibility has priority over actuality. There’s more than what the eye can see. Because sometimes the man on the donkey is a divine king in disguise and a state sanctioned instrument of death becomes a tool for the victory of life. For the beloved, what is isn’t ever all there is.


[1] Heschel Prophets 211 “Here, knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant…”


[1]   The quotation is from Aristotle’s Metaphysics “(2) In time it is prior in this sense: the actual which is identical in species though not in number with a potentially existing thing is prior to it. I mean that to this particular man who now exists actually and to the corn and to the seeing subject the matter and the seed and that which is capable of seeing, which are potentially a man and corn and seeing, but not yet actually, so are prior in time; but prior in time to these are other actually existing things, from which they were produced. For from the potentially existant the actually existing is always produced by an actually existant thing, e.g. man from man, musician by musician; there is always a first mover, and the mover already exists actually. We have said in our account of substance that everything that is produced is something produced from something and by something, and that the same in species as it” 1049b 19-28.

[2]   Eberhard Jüngel “Possibility”. 99-100. Referring to Aristotle: “So actuality is the origin and goal of all that comes into being, and possibility exists for the sake of actuality. Possibility stands in teleological relation to actuality.”

[3] JPS Study Bible Marvin A. Sweeney “Jeremiah” Eds Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler Jeremiah 31:31 New York, NY: OUP 2004 “The new covenant has been interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of the new covenant though Jesus (New Testament means new covenant), but here it refers to the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile and the reconstruction of the Temple. According to this passage, it is not the content of the new covenant which will be different, but how it is learned.”

[4] Exodus 19:1ff

[5] JPS Study Bible Jeremiah 31:33-34 “God places the Teaching, i.e., the Torah, in the inmost being or heart of the people so that the covenant cannot be broken again. This idea is developed in later Lurianic kabbalah, which maintains that all persons have a divine spark within. Since it is so inscribed, there will be no need for the Torah to be taught.”

[6] Deuteronomy 10:12-22, “12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God[c] and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. 22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.”

[7] Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you. Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, 10 when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

[8] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 25 “The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God. Emotional detachment would be understandable only if there were a command which required the suppression of emotion, forbidding one to serve God ‘with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.’ God, we are told, asks not only for ‘works,’ for action, but above all for love, awe, and fear. We are called upon to ‘wash’ our hearts (Jer. 4:14), to remove ‘the foreskin’ of the heart (Jer. 4:4), to return with the whole heart (Jer. 3:10). ‘You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart’ (Jer. 29:13). The new covenant which the Lord will make with the house of Israel will be written upon their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34).”

[9] Heschel Prophets 211 “Here, knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant…”

and The Temple Opens

Sermon on John 2:13-22

Psalm 19:13-14: Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Introduction

Anger is scary. We’ve all been angry. We know the feeling of anger showing up in our bodies. It can literally feel like an alter ego rising to the surface; and, that’s scary. No one likes to feel possessed by something, especially something uncontrollable, erratic, and irrational. Anger has enough strength and power to feel like it’s taking the helm of your mind and body.

For centuries anger has been vilified. Sure, there may be an epicurean philosopher here and there advocating for anger as it is. However, what’s in many texts and treatises about anger is that it must be subjected, dominated, and controlled; never allowed into the visceral. The only right anger is calm, cool, and collected anger of the rational mind always in control. It’s not to be passionate, embodied, visceral anger. We are trained to see anger as an unforgivable emotion. So, we are never given any space to learn to navigate it in ourselves and with others. It’s that emotion that stands far off, threatening if it gets to close.

So, with little experience, we perpetuate the vilification of anger and fumble about wrestling with divine anger. What do we do with divine anger if good anger is invisible and bad anger is visible? If God is love, is anger another expression of God’s love? To resolve the cognitive dissonance, we make divine anger the sudden outburst of an angry (but loving) father disciplining his child. In this exchange, you’ve caused the extreme response; you’ve brought him to this point—no rational man would let himself get so angry unless there was a cause because visible anger is irrational. So, God gets angry at us and punishes us justly as a disciplinarian father would punish.

But what happens if we reconceive anger, allowing it to be normal? What if having pathos—emotions and passion—isn’t bad? What if we see divine anger as part of that defensive maternal anger of God waging war against forces acting against the beloved? What if anger and love aren’t the same thing but rather two separate emotions operating concurrently? There is a beautiful fury of maternality that will rescue children from the jaws of mountain lions, will wage war at all costs against systems designed to hinder and harm bodies and voices, will bring forth life amid death.

John 2:13-22

And the Passover feast of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up into Jerusalem. And he found in the temple the ones bartering/selling oxen and sheep and doves and the ones being seated there (as) moneychangers, and after making a whip out of a cord of rushes he threw/cast out all the sheep and oxen from the temple and he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned the money changing tables. And to the ones bartering/selling doves he said, “Take away these from this place! Do not make the house of my father a market house!”

John 2: 13-16, translation mine

As Jesus enters Jerusalem during the Passover festival,[1] he enters a temple. There’s little said about the time between when Jesus enters and discovers the established temple marketplace. So, we don’t know if Jesus was surprised or not to find such a thing. All we know is that he enters, finds, is angry, and makes a whip.[2] The point of the story isn’t Jesus controlling his frustration or anger. The point of the story is that Jesus is angry and acts on that anger.

Being the second chapter of John, the author has barely established that Jesus is someone who has this authority. Since we know this story well, we come to the text with little excitement. But for a moment, imagine participating in the original audience. What we have thus far is the divine miracle for water into wine at a wedding and then an immediate transition to Jesus driving out oxen, sheep, and doves form the temple. The author is cultivating the authority of Jesus that is both spiritual and material. Jesus has the authority to command the material of water to turn into the material of wine. This material control emphasizes Jesus’s divinity—for only God can do this. Concurrently, Jesus has the authority to walk into a temple and drive out what is established through human authority, and this establishes Jesus’s authority over the temple. Again, that’s only for God and God’s chosen priests. So: Who is this? Where’s his authority? Why is he so angry?[3]

The answer to that isn’t provided by the text. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be a rather irrational response by Jesus. Anyone would have been accustomed to such practices being performed in the temple. Yet, Jesus is angry about it. What was commonplace and status quo, what was common sense to the people and the rulers of the temple, the teachers and scribes, was not the stuff of divine rationality. So, Jesus enters the temple sees a mockery being made of the house of his father, and he’s angry.

If Jesus is who John says he is, then anger is very much a part of the divine pathos. If this Jesus is the word incarnate, the word made flesh, the one who was with God in the beginning and was God, then what is happening in word and deed is divine speaking and acting. The anger of Jesus is divine anger and it’s good. Why? Not solely because it’s divine in source, but because of the reason. The money changers and the ones bartering/exchanging oxen and sheep and doves were taking advantage of the people. It was a financial system rigged around the sacrificial system that united Israelite and God. It was not a system for temple authorities and temple merchants to make a few extra bucks to pad prestige and power. The sacrifice was to be personal, of one’s own property, field, herd; not bought with a few copper coins, a shekel here and there; that’s not sacrifice. It was to come from where it hurt not from where one didn’t quite feel it. Also, this system forced those of lower and meager status to feel the hierarchy of wealth, neither being able to bring of their own stock nor to buy the good sacrifice. In response to this abuse and extortion, Jesus, the word incarnate, the son of God, fashioned a whip and sent everyone and everything running, he flipped tables and poured out coins. His anger cleared out the temple; his love preserved the beloved, people held captive in a violent system.

Conclusion

Divine anger swept through that divine space of stone and wood and overhauled and disrupted every human made system. God loves God’s people, God loves God’s creation, God loves God’s cosmos, and that divine anger and judgment surged forth like a mother protecting her children from a threat. No one messes with those whom and that which God loves; if you wouldn’t step between a mama bear and her cub, don’t step between God and God’s people. Oppression and extortion, violence and threat of the people brings a full-on confrontation with the God who flung the stars to the furthest edges of space, burst through nothingness with somethingness, separated the waters of the red sea, and dropped a zealot of the law bent on persecution onto the ground of grace and gospel.

This is the God who wages war in anger against death and hell to keep you from it by destroying it forever. It’s not you God angers at, it’s sin, it’s death, it’s systems bent on destruction of relationships, of people, of minds and hearts and souls. God’s love of you doesn’t send you first through God’s anger and then into God’s love; rather, God’s love of you moves you out of the way of God’s anger. God’s love stands between you and God’s anger as God wages war with what keeps you hindered, wounded, starved, thirsting, and sick. God is not angry at you; God loves you fiercely, so much so that God will take the battle into God’s self in the event of the cross—an event of love protecting the cosmos from the judgment reserved for sin and death and destruction.[4] Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, will die on an instrument of the state in solidarity with humanity in it’s plight and stuck under and in sin as the one who knew not sin. It is not that God pours out God’s anger on the Christ to punish him for our sin, but that through this death of the righteous one at the hands of humans stuck in chaotic and antagonistic death dealing systems and governments, God’s anger and judgment will be poured out on sin, death, hell, destruction and anything else operating to steal life from God’s people.

And divine love will win and have the final word because death cannot conquer love and cannot conquer grace, righteousness, mercy, peace, all that the Christ is.[5]

It’s this word that becomes the word of the foundation of our baptism and new life in and following Jesus out of the Jordan on the way to the cross. This word is our word and activity in the world as we act in and with God’s mission to move the beloved out of the way of judgment of violent systems, ideologies, and doctrines. We love because we are loved first.


[1] Bultmann John 122-3, The reason for Jesus’s journey up to Jerusalem is a festival, which is the Passover. Functions as a date. We know when this happened.

[2] Bultmann John 123, “No account is given of the impression this made on Jesus, nor are we told explicitly of his judgement on them; rather in v. 15 we are told what he does, that he makes a whip out cords and clears the temple of the business which is being conducted.”

[3] Bultmann John 124-5, The Jews (v.18) “They ask for an authorization which will show the lawfulness of his action. The Evangelist will certainly have taken the σημειον asked for here, as in 6:30, to be a miracle which would prove his authority; as will the source, which makes Jesus answer by the announcement of a miracle—even if it is of a different kind to that expected by the questioners.”

[4] Bultmann John 127, “The building of the temple lasted 46 years, and Jesus wants to rebuild it in three days. By contrast with this absurd interpretation of the saying its true meaning is given in v. 21: Jesus spoke of himself, the ‘temple’ refers to his body’ that is, the saying is about his death and resurrection.”

[5] Bultmann John 129, “Thus by setting the picture of the τελος alongside that of the αρχη, the Evangliest gives us a portorayal of the meaning and fate of the revelation, and consequence of the fate of the world: in Jesus God is present, pouring out his fulnesss on [humanity] in his perplexity; and in him faith sees the glory of the Revealer. The world, however, has to face the attack of the revelation. It demonstrates its unbelief by autocratically demanding from the Revealer a proof of his authority. He will indeed prove his authority, but this proof is for the world the judgement which in its blindness it calls down on itself. Thus in these two symbolic narratives motifs are announced which will run through the whole of the Gospel.”

and The Sky Opens

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:3-4 Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Introduction

Some stories in the First Testament can cause grave internal turmoil. The first five books making up the Torah (the revelation of the law) of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals radical and at times seemingly chaotic stories of God’s relationship with the world, with humanity, and with Israel in specific. It’s no surprise then that “why?” often escapes our lips as we read these stories. Why would God divide humanity by confusing language? Why would God send a flood? Why would God allow Israel to be brought under captivity and thus into exile? Why would God open the ground and swallow not only the guilty Korah but his family as well? If God is a God of love, then Why? Why all this divine disaster and heavenly havoc?

These whys echo a fear living deep in subterranean crevices and crannies of our person and being. As we read these stories they poke and provoke this fear: would I be washed away? dropped into the pit? thrust into exile? destroyed by some theotic whim of a divine bad mood? These questions haunt us as we read through the first testament and contemplate the deeds and activity of God. Under all of it surges what feels like our eternal question on repeat: if God is love how is any of this destruction love?

We get lost in the details of the storied wrath of God and miss the overarching metanarrative of the love-story embedded in and told by the composite biblical story. Truly, because of our human experiences and our self-knowledge and the myths we believe about ourselves and our unloveliness, we identify with the ones swept away and dropped down and not the ones rescued or moved to safety; and these stories terrify us. The seemingly random righteous exceptionalism of Noah becomes the plumbline against which we are shown lacking. So, we get stuck in the flood and forget that the waters recede, we miss the rainbow for the raindrops, and we forget that which God brings to death is raised into new life.

Genesis 9:8-17

“God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…’”

Genesis 9:8-16

We all are familiar with the story of Noah, the flood, and the ark.[1] A flood of assumed divine origin washes the earth clean of the evil and wickedness that has stained the earth and taken up residence in human hearts. What is less familiar to many of us is that the flood story isn’t solely about God’s anger at evil and wickedness on the earth and in the heart. The flood is ultimately about God cleansing that which God loves. I know it may be hard to believe this especially considering the long tradition in the church of overemphasizing God’s anger over and against God’s love—even going to the extent of saying that God’s anger is God’s love, which is just an atrocity in theology causing spiritual trauma rather than trust.

The story about the flood and Noah and the ark isn’t ultimately about wrath but about love. Looking at the arch of the story line floating through the waters of the text, it’s the promise God makes here with Noah that is solid ground for the reader. The promise is the ultimate point, the flood is only the penultimate point. But we get confused; we get stuck in the waters and caught up with the rising tide of divine wrath and conclude that God is primarily angry and then if we are good God is loving. Rather, it’s that God is loving even when we are weak and frail and covered in wickedness and evil.

For the Israelites, the story of the flood represented not strictly God’s active pathos manifest in anger, but God relenting and promising: never again will I do this thing because humanity is weak. It’s in the flood story where God identifies and accepts the weakness of humanity[2] prone to mishearing, misunderstanding, and misstepping. And it’s in the rescue of Noah and his family, the divinely proclaimed upright, with whom God makes a covenant. This covenant is not strictly with Noah and his sons but with the entire world. From this point on, all of humanity is brought under the arching bow of color in the sky. The “offspring” of Noah is not strictly the Noahic family line sharing the same immediate mom and dad. Considering the story mentions that all humanity—save Noah and his family—was washed away in the flood, this means all humanity that now populates the earth are all Noah’s descendants.[3] By the time this story is formed and passed from story teller to story teller, generations upon generations are included in the covenant.[4] And not only humans, but animals (all of them) from the very, very big to the very, very small, are included in the divine spoken promise of never again.[5]

None of us here or any of our foremothers and forefathers knows a time when the covenant spoken between God and Noah—on behalf of the entire world and every living thing—didn’t exist. For as long as humans have been telling and sharing stories and eras before history could be recorded in writing, God promised never to come after wickedness and evil by washing out humanity unto death. Rather, from this moment on, when God comes after wickedness and evil, when God attends to human kingdoms and structures bent on destruction, and when God seeks us to mend us and heal our hearts, God will do so through God’s self. God will wash the earth and humanity and all creation through God’s love, God’s life, and God’s light. God will do so not by remaining remote but by coming near and intimately identifying with human suffering and weakness and frailty. God will take death into God’s own body and destroy it.

Conclusion

And the rainbow arcs across the sky forever carrying with it the reminder that the earth is not abandoned and won’t be abandoned.[6] The arch of colors scientifically explained, does not lose its mystery and absurdity.[7] While we know how rainbows happen, we don’t know why they need to happen. The world could exist just fine without them, but with our atmosphere and our sun we get to have rainbows. And in that mystery and absurdity we are pulled up out of ourselves as our gaze moves from our navel to that which is above. We are reminded that there is something beyond us, something outside of us, something we didn’t cause and didn’t create. It lies outside of our abilities and talents and paints the sky in beauty whether we’ve been good or bad. And, for those of us who travel this earth tracking with the Hebrew and Christian narratives, it’s a sign of comfort attached to the words of promise from God to Noah and all creation.[8] The rainbow is something tangible, reminding us: life wins, love wins, light wins.

The story of the flood reminds us that Love is triumphant as Life and Light revolt against death and darkness; and so, the story of the flood is foundational story of baptism. Death and darkness precede life and light. It is being submerged into the waters of baptism where we die and receive new life.[9] Baptism is the sign of divine encounter attached to the words of promise delivered to the world through the incarnate Christ. As Christ is raised from death, so too will we be as baptism is “joined with the promise of life.”[10] In the midst of the waters of earth of our baptism, the rainbow arch of the waters of the sky remind us God isn’t absent but present, not silent but beckoning us out and into new hope, new presence, and new life.

As we travel through the season of Lent and self-reckoning in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are dropped to the bottom of the pit and swept up in the waves of water. The story of the flood reminds us that to this pit and these waters, God will not abandon us. To answer one of the questions of Psalm 88, “Do you work wonders for the dead?” (v 10a), the flood story answers with a resounding yes. And that yes is declared in the sky in manifold color of divine glory: death has not the final answer, life does.[11]


[1] This is a story. A story historicizing a natural disaster that demolished the livelihood of civilization in the “cradle of society” in the fertile crescent (which was prone to floods, and big ones). Was the entire earth covered by one flood? Most likely not. Was this local world swept up in waves of water? Most likely. The story of Noah and the arc isn’t all that unique; we find significant overlap with flood and boat story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When humans experience a massive natural disaster, we try to make sense of it and at times we ascribe divine activity to it because somehow such a thing brings comfort to us: this wasn’t chaotic but controlled. There’s also a need to explain why some were washed away and others weren’t. When the planes hit the twin towers, I was in midtown. A few months earlier in 2001 I was working downtown; that path train trapped under the collapsed building? That was my normal path train. Because of an event that happened earlier in the year, I was not on that train. From here and coupled with survivor’s guilt and the absurdity of surviving, we craft stories. We can’t handle surviving things that others haven’t so we are prone to ascribe divine activity because it’s the only way to make sense of some seemingly so chaotic. So, we craft story and legend and pass them on as beautiful markers of our humanity. If you examine your own journey, you’ll similar instances of this behavior. For a similar story from the Utes, see the legend: “Rabbit Killed the Sun” which is a legend with significant imagery that seems to be speaking of (both) the solar eclipse that preceded the Clovis comet and the comet itself that hit the earth and decimated an entire people group.

[2] JPS Study Bible “Genesis” annotations by Jon D. Levenson. Eds Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler New York, NY: OUP 1999.

[3] JPS Study Bible Levenson

[4] Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14. Luther’s Works vol 2 Ed Jaroslav Pelikan 144. Promise is not only for those people and those lives of that context and generation but for all generations “until the end of the world.”

[5] Luther Genesis 143-4 “Moreover, because the covenant of which this passage is speaking of involves not only mankind but every living soul, it must be understood, not of the promise of the Seed but of this physical life, which even the dumb animals enjoy in common with us: this God does not intend to destroy in the future by a flood.”

[6] Luther Genesis 146-7 “…this bow stands there by divine pleasure, because of the will and promise of God, to give assurance to both [humanity] and beast that no flood will ever take place at any future time.”

[7] Luther Genesis 146 Natural phenomenon with a divine application “…because of the Word of God, not because of some natural cause, the bow in the clouds has the meaning that no further flood will occur.” Natural phenomenon with a divine application “…because of the Word of God, not because of some natural cause, the bow in the clouds has the meaning that no further flood will occur.”

[8] Luther Genesis 144-5 “There was need for them to have a sign of life, from which they could learn God’s blessing and good will. For this is the particular nature of signs, that they dispense comfort, not terror. To this end also the sign of the bow was established and added to the promise.”

[9] Luther Genesis 153 “…Baptism and death are interchangeable terms in the Scripture. Therefore Paul says in Rom. 6:3: ‘As many of us has have been baptized, have been baptized into the death of Christ.’ Likewise, Christ says in Luke 12:50: ‘I have a Baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!’ And to His disciples He said (Mark 10:39): ‘You will be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.’”

[10] Luther Genesis 153

[11] Luther Genesis 154-5 “This must be applied also to other trials. We must learn to disdain dangers and to have hope even when no hope appears to be left, so that when death or any other danger befalls us, we may encourage ourselves and say: ‘Behold, here is your Red Sea, your Flood, your baptism, and your death. Here your life…is barely a handbreadth away from death. But do not be afraid. This danger is like a handful of water, whereas through the Word you have a flood of grace. Therefore death will not destroy you but will be a thrust and aid toward life.’”