Heath Carter and “Union Made”

My mom has never been very religious but always very concerned about my earning potential. She was worried when I became a Christian and started to entertain church work as a vocation that I’d end up destitute. The church didn’t fit my Wall-Street, southern Connecticut based upbringing and family. However, relief was allayed: I was getting ordained in The Episcopal Church. “Oh!” she said, “The Episcopal Church is a very wealthy church! You’ll be paid well!” The comment went in one ear and out the other; I never fully thought to question why that was even a thing or if it should bother me.

But it does bother me. And now, after all this time since that first conversation, I’ve been instructed in why it bothers me. I give credit to this enlightenment to Heath W. Carter and his book, “Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.” This book by Carter is a tour de force of the battle for economic equality and the development and fight for the “Union Made” Social Gospel in Chicago’s history. The rise of material wealth in Chicago brought with it the evangelical clerics and their churches. Being able to purchase expensive preachers and pay them handsomely moved the church from a position of working alongside the average working person to a member of the elite class. As the capital trend went, so did the pulpits. Carter deftly explains the ebb and flow of what was the constant struggle for the working/earning class against capitalism’s monstrous appetite that consumes everything even the gospel.

Carter focuses on a specific era of Chicago’s history—roughly the era encompassing the ante-bellum to the early 1900s, tracking the formation and establishment of and the need for (!) unions for wage-earners. The reality is, the thrust of Carter’s work isn’t restricted to that handful of decades. To a significant degree Carter is using history to shine the light on the reality of our current era. That reality is: there is currently a constant struggle against capitalism and an elite and privileged version of the gospel that is plaguing the western world in this 21st century. Thus, while I am convicted and saddened by this reality (and by the part I play and have played in it), I am also very optimistic for the future because this book exists.

To preach the word of God is–for the preacher–to actively engage in proclaiming to all of God’s people the radical and revolutionary wisdom of God, which is in contradiction with the wisdom and the status quo of the world and against oppressive power structures and elite hierarchies. God and God’s word will always side with those who are oppressed and marginalized, with the far off and rejected, with the homeless and the hungry, and the naked. To engage in this preaching, to enter into pastoral ministry for any reason—especially for financial gain—is anathema to the Gospel and an offense to God.

This book is a must read if we want to actually learn from history and not just about it. This book is a must read if we want to embrace the reality that the cries of the oppressed and marginalized cannot be chalked up to or pushed away as mere echoes of a bygone era. Carter writes at the end of his “Epilogue”,

“Now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, American capitalism appears once more poised to overwhelm American democracy…It remains to be seen whether present-day believers will quietly abide this state of affairs, or whether it will at some point call forth a nation of prophets comparable to those that visited Gilded Age Chicago” (182).

For those who are losing their lives in this constant battle and fight against Capitalism, we, gospel believing, Christ following Christian disciples have no time to lose; let us heed the call.

 

 

I recommend you follow Dr. Heath Carter on Twitter; to do so, here’s his handle: @heathwcarter. And his blog is here: https://heathwcarter.com/

The Silence of God, God of the Void: A Reflection for Holy Saturday

Silence is disturbing. Personally, I’d rather know bad news than sit with myself in the midst of silence of reply. I’d rather a verbal explosion go off, leaving word shrapnel strewn about; that’s something I can tangibly make sense of, examine, create order with. Give me baskets piled high of “what-you-actually-think”, and no matter how much pain I may have, at least I have something to work with and to fight with. The whole idea that “no news is good news” escapes me; I find no comfort in having nothing with which to do battle against. I can’t kick against silence; there’s nothing to fight in the void.

God gifted me with the ability to be a very good and efficient problem solver. A MBTI INTP, I live to order chaos, to make precise connections over vast intellectual distances, to build and construct and expand and to push and to see just how far this *thing* can go (be it object, idea, or my own person). Thus I would naturally expect that God would meet me as I am: give me riddles to solve, puzzles to put together, ask me to follow along a trail of thoughts dropped by God’s divine hand so that when I arrive at the end I can, as if by intellectual paint-by-number, assemble these thoughts to get the full picture I’ve been desiring.

But rarely is this so. Rarely?…Better yet: never. That I expect God to meet me in such a way is my own demand on God, it is my own form I’m forcing God into. I forget that God self-discloses God’s self. The reality is that my encounter with God in the event of faith is often in the midst of total silence, where I feel as if I am suspended and hovering above a void and an abyss that it is threatening to take me into it. Where my repeated whispers of “Why?” are pulled from me only to float off into the distance and seemingly evaporate like a lone cloud does as it floats over the dry Colorado desert. Where my “Where were you when…?” stack up and collect dust and become brittle, like old books long forgotten. Where the word “hope” has no value and where doubts of God seem to ontologically define my spirituality and my personhood.

I’m not alone in this particular encounter with God in the event of faith. According to one scholar, Elie Wiesel has a similar conceptualizing of God,

“For Elie Wiesel the struggle of the survivor is not merely an inquiry with the mind while knowing in the heart but a shattering of that knowledge, that trust in God. Wiesel’s God is not a God who gave man freedom in history but rather a God who promised deliverance and remained silent in the hour of Israel’s greatest need, a God who made it impossible to believe in the promise of future deliverance. Wiesel’s theodicy is a theodicy of the void. His God is a God of silence. Wiesel’s struggle is to live in the face of the void.”[1]

Everything that has been held dear is shattered and rent asunder. Like Wiesel, everything I’ve put my “hope” in is and has been demythologized. The stories become like playground taunts to my pain and suffering, to my deep abiding questions. The God I’ve historically worshipped is, in the silence and in the face of the void, demythologized; and I come face to face with God’s Thou-objectivity as it is and not as I assume it to be. I’m exposed as the one who has worshipped the stories and not the one to whom the stories point: God. Thus, I am demythologized.

Recently I was reminded of a concept Luther articulates early in his lectures on Galatians and one that I use frequently with my students when explaining the journey of faith. Faith is a journey into darkness[2] not up and into the light but down and into the darkness, being lead by the hand and not by our own sight. Luther writes,

“Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business.[3]

In the event of faith, we are ushered out of the light and into the darkness; we are completely undone unto death of the self that was. Where faith is undone unto it’s own death. Where our self-created depictions of God are undone unto their death. Where we are thoroughly and completely brought to nothing in the divine silence and in the void.

“Therefore we are nothing, even with all our great gifts, unless God is present. When He deserts us and leaves us to our own resources, our wisdom and knowledge are nothing. Unless He sustains us continually, the highest learning and even theology are useless… Therefore let no one boast or glory in his own righteousness, wisdom, and other gifts; but let him humble himself and pray with the apostles (Luke 17:5): ‘Lord, increase our faith!’”[4]

In the silence, stalwart faith turns to haunting doubt; hopeful stories are exposed as hopeless myths; reason is exposed as enemy; and I am left naked and exposed and in what feels like certain death. I let go of the things I’ve had a death grip on and give in to the pull of the void. Arms clinging to unsubstantial things go limp and unfurl to the left and right; head drops back and eyes close waiting to be sucked in and all the way down into nothing, in to the void.

But in this silence, in this seemingly deathly void, there is life. The “I am who and what I am” is. I am in God’s intimate embrace, locked deeply in the divine kiss summoning me from death–resurrection from the dead–and as I wake and the divine kiss pulls back, one word, “hope”, remains, trailing on my lips.

We rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday clinging to the stories therein as if these were our only hope. We skip over Saturday because it has no story to offer us, no story for us to anchor our faith in, no words that we can cling to when we face doubt and despair. We skip over Saturday because silence is disturbing and the void feels most threatening. But maybe, maybe it’s the silence of Saturday that is the most divine because we are brought deep into the darkness, into the silence, into the void and asked to die to everything we’ve held on to for life.

To have faith in God’s activity in the world depicted in the stories handed down to us makes sense but is not the substance of faith but of the rational. Rather, to have faith in the wake of the cessation of divine activity, when words aren’t spoken and heard, where there’s nothing to cling to but God’s ambiguous and alarming “I am” is the substance of faith. To have faith today, when it doesn’t make sense because all seems lost and gone, is the substance of faith. And this is the substance and demand of the silence and void of Holy Saturday.

 

 

[1] M. Barenbaum “Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel”. See also, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God and his reference to Elie Wiesel’s Night, pp. 273-4.

[2] Dr. David W. Congdon mentions this concept of Luther’s (via Rudolf Bultmann) on this episode of Whit Hodge Podcasts: https://soundcloud.com/whitehodgepodcasts/s2-e1-everyone-be-saved-dr-david-congdon

[3] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4 LW vol. 26. Pp. 113-4. Emphasis, mine.

[4] Ibid, 114.

The Impossible Puzzle: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In my house, there are two jigsaw puzzles framed and hanging on two separate walls. The puzzles achieved “frame and wall-mount” status because they were both very difficult to put together; each demanding months of time, and in one case, a few years. If you’re not a puzzle person, then I may have just lost you, and it’s quite possible you think I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy; my fellow puzzlers may/will attest to this: puzzles often take massive amounts of time depending on the complexity of the picture.

One puzzle that’s hanging is a large picture of a massive group of penguins in the different stages of molting from furry to sleek. That’s it. ALL. PENGUINS. The other puzzle that’s hanging (and this is the one that took me a few years) is a bit more complicated. It has no edge pieces, the image is repeating, each piece is cut the same, and, wait for it, there are 5 extra pieces thrown in. The puzzle is rightly part of a series of puzzles called: “Impossibles.”

These are not puzzles for your average puzzler; they will surely weed out the puzzling mice from the puzzling humans. It does this weeding because there’s no way to do this puzzle according to normal puzzling conventions. There are no edge pieces to find. Sorting in any constructive way is pointless; you get (about) three piles: black cat pieces, white cat pieces, and pink marble background pieces. And with every piece cut the same and that there are extra means: pure puzzling mayhem.

In order to complete the puzzle, you must let the puzzle tell you how to put it together. It reveals its puzzle-self to you and contradicts everything you know about puzzles. The wisdom of the puzzle doesn’t make sense; it completely defies puzzling common sense. By all means, it’s foolishness…

For the word (proclamation)[1] of the cross (on one hand) is foolishness to the ones who are being destroyed (on their way to ruin), (…)[2] 

The word of the cross is foolishness from our human perspective because it’s counter-intuitive to our common sense. It contradicts everything we hold to be true. Justice defined as retribution makes sense; justice as reconciliation… Come again? The first, the powerful, the rich, the strong should be first and blessed; what is this about the last, the meek, the poor, and the lame being first and most blessed in the Kingdom of God? “God helps those who help themselves”; nope, God helps those who can’t help themselves because they are burdened by systems of oppression.

There’s very little in the proclamation of the gospel that isn’t cacophonous to my ears that are strained toward the solo of self illusion. Me. Tell me more about me, and then I’ll listen. What makes sense to me, what coincides with my reason about myself and about the world and even about the divine is what I want to hear. Let me be content with the image of God I’ve constructed, and thus the image of humanity with it. Share with me whatever it is that won’t tear back the protective layers of my cozy cocoon. Keep me comfortable and well sedated on the continual drip of saccharine sweetened words of self-affirmation. Tell me everything’s okay, even if it’s not. Tell me not to worry, even when there’s ample reason to worry and worry a lot. Lie to me.

The proclamation of the cross is a direct assault on our common sense and our self-centered orientation. In fact, it’s a flat out revolution against us. It’s such an assault that it causes offense, great offense. Our knee jerk reaction is to reject the message and continue on our way to destruction and ruin. We are not hard wired to the good defined by the word of the cross; we abhor it and thus reject it. It’s clearly foolishness.

However, the validity of the proclamation of the cross rests in the divine wisdom behind it and not in whether or not I agree.[3] Thus, my rejection of the proclamation of the cross is the declaration that I believe it to be a lie. If the proclamation of the cross is actually divine wisdom,[4] then my foolish human wisdom and I both stand condemned and continue on our way to destruction and ruin.[5] Continuing on my way to destruction and ruin is surely folly, but the power of the lie that blinds me is strong.

…but (on the other hand) to the ones being[6] saved, it is the power of God to us.

But there’s good news in verse 18. For those who have been encountered by God in the event of faith, the proclamation of the cross is life. The revolutionary word of God in the proclamation of the cross is revolution against my lies and those of the world; it is oriented toward life. It is, to quote Paul, “the power of God to us.”

Paul presents two distinct groups of people: those who are on their way to life and those who are on their way to destruction. Those who are on their way to destruction are doing so by depending not on the wisdom of God but on the wisdom of the world, on their own wisdom. But those who are “being saved” are so because God is operative[7] in them through the proclamation of the cross. They have been exposed by the illuminating word of God and have been brought through the death to self that is the ash-bed of new life. They are on their way to being saved and to living life rightly oriented to God and to neighbor.

In God’s self-disclosure in the word of the cross, the one who is encountered therein in the event of faith is transitioned from the folly of the wisdom of the world and is ushered into the wisdom of God that is the form and substance of the kingdom of God. And, thusly, this wisdom of God, the word of the cross, is the constitutive power of those who are being saved and the constitutive element of living as disciples in the kingdom of God.

Those who are disciples in the kingdom of God cannot devolve back toward the self-deceptive lies of the wisdom of the world and obsessive orientation of the self toward the self[8]; this is a skin that no longer fits or feels comfortable. Death and destruction are not befitting a creature created for life and blessing.

For it has been written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will declare invalid the intelligence of the intelligent. Where is the wise? Where are the scribes? Where are the debaters of this world order?[9] Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Now, the bad news of that good news we just discussed is that I can’t get there from here, especially of my own intellectual efforts. I spent the first part of this sermon talking about how my own conceptions of what is right, sensible, and wise are the sure path to destruction and ruin because they are in contradiction to the wisdom of God. Apologetics fails here. Natural theology fails here. Reasonable arguments fail here. The cross is offensive and appalling and foolishness until I can see it otherwise. Apart from divine intervention and illumination in God’s self-disclosure,[10] I cannot see the truth and goodness of the divine activity in the world as proclaimed by the word of the cross.

The key to the divine intervention and illumination that I need is expressed here in v.19, where Paul quotes from Isaiah 29:14, “‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will declare invalid the intelligence of the intelligent.’” And also in verse 20d, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” My wisdom and I need to be destroyed, my intelligence and I need to be declared invalid. The world needs to come into conflict with the divine word of the cross and suffer its death throes. I need to come into conflict with the divine word of the cross and suffer my death throes. And it’s in the encounter with God in the event of faith that this destruction, invalidation, and death throes occur. But it would not merely be death working for death’s sake (this would be the trajectory of the wisdom of the world), but in operation for the sake of new life (the power to those who are being saved). [11]

The word of God is destructive, specifically the word of the cross. And here in lies a distinction and a demand: destructive destruction or creative destruction? You are going to be destroyed one way or another, would you like to be destroyed unto death or destroyed unto life? No one who is encountered by the word of the cross is left untouched. There’s no part of the person in the event of faith that is not razed to the ground. We, the liars are exposed as liars.[12] The cross is a word of death. For the hearer who is encountered in the event of God’s self-disclosure in Christ and the conflict that ensues within the person in this event of encounter a demand is felt and that demand is to die to the self, to self-empty, and to self-abandon[13] and to let go. But this letting go and self-emptying and self-abandonment is not into a dark abyss of nothingness (destructive destruction) but into God and God’s self (creative destruction).

Thus, the word of the cross is also the word of life for we must hold in conjunction with the event of the death of Christ on the cross, Christ’s resurrections. Thus, the word of the cross is life for those who have been brought to death (for those who are being saved). If there was ever a moment for tabula rasa[14] in the life of a person, it’s at the very intersection of death into new life. New life lies in entering into that darkness, into death, being destroyed by the word of God. But rather than the flat-line being the last thing the we hear as we enter into the darkness of death, we hear the trumpet summoning us awake, resurrecting us from death in to new creation and new life.

Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“…[God] is already ‘with us on the scene with his Spirit and his gifts’. He has already bound himself to us indissolubly in Jesus. The victorious battle has already been waged on the Cross and made secure, so that destruction, wickedness, the devil and death do not have the last word, but life, light, and the promise of God. There is not only a promise for a distant future. He fulfills already the promise in the midst of the unchanged world through liberations now, through fellowship with God now, so that now we do not merely hope fore eternal life, but again and again experience new life, and can bear witness not merely to the future of a new life at the end of the old world, but to the presence of the new life in the midst of the old world—and on these grounds can go forward into stronger hope.”[15]

Our new life marked by the proclamation of “a Christ crucified,” by the proclamation of the cross takes on a decidedly active cruciformity. Our new life’s peculiarity is marked by a revolutionary and new orientation:[16] others rather than me, giving and sharing rather than taking and holding, last rather than the first, the weak rather than the strong, the meek rather than the powerful, reconciliation rather than retribution. [17]

The wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world are in radical contradiction, in fact (as mentioned above) the wisdom of God articulated in the proclamation of the Cross is a full blown revolution against the wisdom of the world. [18] Thus, it is necessary that Christians, because of their encounter with God, will also exist as revolution and in contradiction to the wisdom of the world. As the world walks in one direction according to its wisdom, we, through our encounter with our “resurrected Lord” are “‘[forced]…into a totally different direction’”[19] that is the wisdom of God. Proclamation of the cross is not strictly preaching about the word of the cross from the pulpit, but is also (and especially?) the living out the word of the cross[20] in both word and deed.[21] It’s about living and speaking dangerously in distinction and in opposition to the natural inclinations of humanity and of the world.[22]

Because the foolishness of God is wiser [than the wisdom] of humanity and the weakness of God stronger [than the strength] of humanity (I Cor. 1:25).

God’s wisdom reveals itself to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And in this self-revelation we are brought into and through destruction into new life that retains the characteristics of the God who has breathed life back into the ashes of ourselves. God is the impossible puzzle, you cannot determine God from your common sense and worldly wisdom; God discloses God’s self.

And in correspondence with God (and God’s activity in the world), the church and the disciples of Christ are impossible puzzles in the world; revealing God in the proclamation of the crucified Christ to the world. And in that proclamation revealing themselves to the world rather than being defined by worldly wisdom and common sense. And because we as a church and as disciples are created and sustained by the proclamation of the cross, sustained by the wisdom of God which is the power of God to us who are being saved, let us live and love radically. Let the entire world and all of humanity know us by our [radical] love and [revolutionary] life.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NRSV).

 

 

[1] Anthony C. ThiseltonThe First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2000. “Since της μωριας describes του κηρυγματος in v. 21 where the two aspects of thought are parallel, we may justifiably assume that proclamation most adequately conveys the aspect of λογος which Paul has in view. Message of the cross…risks too narrow a concentration on cognitive or informational content. Such content is certainly included but it tends to point away from the transformative dimensions of proclamation.” 153

[2] The 1 Corinthian passage translation in the sermon is my translation.

[3] Thiselton 155. “The proclamation is folly unless God, not human wisdom, stands behind it to validate and to underwrite it.”

[4] Thiselton, 154. “But, as Conzelmann correctly notes, the contrast between being on their way to ruin and being on our way to salvation does not correspond to the antithesis between human folly and human wisdom; it reflects the contrast between human folly (μωρια) and divine power (δυναμις θεου).”

[5] Karl Barth CD II.1 “Because the foolish are without faith in Him and therefore do not belong to the true people of God, they can obviously see in the news of the death of Jesus Christ (either with or without that of His resurrection, and even more so with it) only the news of a further demonstration of the meaninglessness of human life; and probably indeed the proclamation of the paradox that the meaninglessness reveals here too is as such its true meaning. So then, as I s described in Acts 17:32, they turn away in impatience or alarm from this foolish Gospel. But they do not realize that by doing this, and by making this judgment, the are already condemned, exposed and revealed as the mother of the dead child.”

[6]Thiselton 156 “The temptation to assume that Christians have already ‘arrived’ nourishes a mood of self-congratulation which is entirely at odds with the proclamation of the cross: a Christ wounded, humiliated, and done-to-death. Hence ‘It is highly characteristic of Pauls’ soteriology that he does not speak of “the saved” (which would be “sesosmenoi”) but of those who are being saved (sozomenoi). Salvation is not yet gained in its totality.’” (Hering qtd in).

[7] Thiselton 156. “The cross, then, constitutes the point at which, and/or the means through which, God’s presence and promise becomes operative as that which actualizes and transforms. It differs from human weakness and folly not in degree but in kind…a merely rhetorical or psychological exercise in communicating some belief system remains empty if it fails to engage with the cross precisely as a saving proclamation…”

[8] Thiselton 157. “The latter brings illusion and self-deception which marks their way to ruin, for recognition of one’s ignorance and one’s need to continue to learn and to grow marks our way to salvation. However, unlike the tradition of the Greek sage, Paul bases everything on the proclamation of the cross. By its very nature this determined the pattern of Christian disciples as living for others, at whatever personal cost.”

[9] Thiselton 165 “In Jewish and Christian eschatology the phrase occurs most characteristically to set in contrast ‘this age’ from ‘the age to come.’ But if we translate this age, we encounter a lack of contextual understanding brought to the text by modern readers who may have little understanding of a Jewish eschatology of the two ages of apocalyptic.”

[10] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion II.ii.20, “Because these mysteries are deeply hidden form human insight, they are disclosed solely by the revelation of the Spirit. Hence, where the Spirit of God does not illumine them, they are considered folly.” 280. And Karl Barth CD IV.2.350, “Where the Holy Spirit intervenes and is at work between Him and us as the Spirit of Jesus Christ, as the self-activation and self-revelation of the living Jesus Christ, we can believe and confess it in face of that hard antithesis.”

[11] Thiselton 161. “……in the wisdom of his own purposes God chose to reverse what was perceived as wise in an event which appeared to consist in weakness and failure. But would lead in the longer term to new beginnings and to a chastened, transformed, people.” And, 162, “Here the semantic contrast functions in relation to God as power (v.18), as denoting that which is effective, valid, operative, and capable of achieving its goal. Against the background of Isaiah 29 the contrast suggests a parallel between the vulnerability and fragility of time spent devising strategies for self-preservation or self-enhancement as against seeking alignment of the self with divine purpose.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.390 “And it is as He attests the truth, Himself, in this form, that He unmasks us as liars. It is in this form of suffering, as the wholly Rejected, Judged, Despised, Bound, Impotent, Slain and Crucified, and therefore as the Victor, that He marches with us and to us through the times, alive in the promise of Spirit. In this form he is at the core not only of the kerygmatic theology of Paul but also of the kerygmatic accounts of the Gospels.”

[13] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 16. “Only by self-emptying in encounter with what is alien, unknown and different does [a person] achieve selfhood…trust in the hidden and guaranteed identity with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) makes possible the self-abandonment, the road into non-identity and unidentifiability, which neither clings to ancient forms of identity, nor anxiously reaches out for the forms of identity of those one is fighting in common.”

[14] Karl Barth, CD II.1.435, “‘Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world?…There is none. By the very fact of what God has done through this Gospel He has made tabula rasa of all that is published in the world as wisdom but is not.” I’m applying this to the person in the event of justification.

[15] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life. 63.

[16] Thiselton 166. “…the event of the cross is like the new frame of reference brought to the sick by health, or to children or to the unsound in mind by full, rational maturity.” I think it’s more than just a new frame of reference. Due to the destructive and re-creative nature of the encounter with God in the event of faith, I’m not merely handed a new key to the world, but recreated to be oriented in a different way within the world.

[17] Thiselton 162. “Paul invites his addressees to say what is left of a human wisdom which Gods saving acts have left high and dry in the light of a cross. The cross places giving, receiving, and serving above achieving or ‘finding the right formula.’”

[18] Thiselton 169. The wisdom of God “…stands in antithetical opposition to the wisdom of this world order, which is fallible, temporary, short-term, and self-absorbed. The links with apocalyptic verdict, whether in the cross or at the end time, cannot be avoided. For what some may perceive as foolish is in fact definitive, and will expose its transient opposite as deceptive and illusory.”

[19] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

[20] Thiselton 167. “‘The word kerygma…here means not the act of preaching itself, but the content of that proclamation…The point is worth making, first because the emphasis falls on the limits of natural human inquiry and discovery. Second, Schrage places the emphasis on the divine decree and its basis, not on the mode of communicated as such, and on the difference between gospel proclamation and human discovery. It has nothing to with whether the mode of communication is in a pulpit rather than variety of modes which may or may not include lectures, dialogue, disputation, or living the gospel out.”

[21] See fn17.

[22] See fn17.

Extravagantly and Lavishly Loved: A Homily on John 12:1-8

John 12:3-5 “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’”

I have certainly wanted to flip my lid over waste. I hate waste. Of the three Rs of ecological consciousness (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) the second one, Reuse, is my mode of living. “Wait!” I holler as my husband takes out a large jar to toss in the garbage. “I can use that!” And to good use it goes. I can use all parts of vegetables and chickens to make food. Plastic bags from stores? You can cut them into plarn (plastic yarn) and make more durable bags by crocheting the plarn. I’ve used jelly and jam jars for drinking glasses. For a while I collected the water from the shower while the water warmed up and then hauled it from the second floor to the basement to the washer to do laundry in order to use less water. I hate waste.

The human reality of the situation confronting us in this portion of the gospel of John isn’t far fetched. Judas isn’t “technically” wrong. The Jews of this time had an extensive tithe system and collection in place for the poor.[1] (In fact Jesus’s rebuttal to Judas, in v. 8, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” echoes Deut. 15:1-11 which is the basis for this collection system for the poor.) All four gospel accounts of this story (Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9, Lk 7:36-50, and our passage from John), describe the scene after the woman breaks the bottle of costly oil and pours it on Jesus: the surrounding crowd around the table is upset with her.

So, when it is recorded that Judas pipes up about the loss of the perfume (prior to John’s insertion about why), he’s not technically wrong or very much out of place for voicing his disdain for the action. And, I have to confess, I would’ve seen eye to eye with Judas. I’d like to think that I’d be all about Mary’s action, but the reality is that I wouldn’t be. Prior to Jesus’s explanation of why this action by Mary was a good deed, I’m team Judas. Why are you wasting this precious and very, very, very, costly fragrant oil, Mary?!

And it was very costly. Judas rightly quotes the value of the oil now rendered useless all over Jesus’s feet: 300 denarii. At that time, it’s a year’s salary. Roughly equivalent to: $18-$20,000. Mary’s gesture–from the human perspective prior to divine revelation—is superfluous, extravagant, wasteful, and unnecessary.[2] Mary, this perfume could’ve been put to better use…

”Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’” (John 12:7-8).

And I must let my words fall heavy to the ground right at that moment, just like Judas’s did in our story. I must let the rebuke of Christ as recorded by John silence me so I can hear those falling words break on the ground like the alabaster jar did moments before in the hands of Mary. I must allow the illuminating word of the Word Incarnate to expose me for who I am: a betrayer. I must experience the extravagant aroma of Mary’s costly perfume eclipse the decaying stench of my misplaced concern.

Mary is the designated prophet (designated by Jesus) to anoint Jesus for his Kingly ministry that is going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world (John 3:16). (Just like Samuel anoints David to be the anointed king in 1 Samuel 16, so Mary anoints Jesus The Anointed One.)[3] And, Mary is the true disciple and Judas is the anti-disciple. And like Judas, I am the anti-disciple.

Mary is the true disciple because she loves Jesus to such an extent that the most lavish and extravagant act is not wasted because it honors Christ[4] and is an act of true devotion to Christ.[5] This is the level of selfless and lavish and extravagant love of Christ that escapes Judas at this moment.[6] Even with Christ’s explanation and defense of Mary’s actions, Judas will still carry on with what it is he’s going to do. Jesus isn’t enough and isn’t primary for Judas. In fact Judas is more than willing to “surrender [Jesus] for something else which appeared better to him.”[7] Where Mary pours out a year’s worth of salary to honor Jesus, Judas takes in 30 pieces of silver to betray him.

But even here, there’s hope. Even in Judas’s wrongly ordered priority there is hope. And if there is hope for Judas (The Betrayer), for the disciples (who never seem to get it) and then there’s hope for me, for us. Judas’s sin at this moment is not his solely and alone, but indicative of all the disciples. It is this systemic sinful misalignment in the mind, heart, and soul that needs a very special, extravagant, lavish, prodigal act of love. It is this sinfulness, it is this uncleanliness[8] that is the reason why Jesus is being anointed as The Anointed One who will go to Jerusalem for them to die for them. So that by his death sins will be forgiven and by his resurrection justification will be granted by faith alone (Rom 4:25). And this lavish and extravagant love poured out through the event of the cross and with it the resurrection of Christ, is not just for Mary the good disciple, but for Judas—the very bad one, this love is poured out for the disciples who fled and denied and doubted Jesus, and for us.

Here this very, very, very, costly fragrant good news:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world [with lavish and extravagant love] to save sinners. (1 Tim 1:15)

…if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and he is the [lavish and extravagant] atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1)

For God so [lavishly and extravagantly] loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

We [extravagantly and lavishly love] because he first [extravagantly and lavishly] loved us. (1 John 4:19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] RT France commenting on the similar passage in Mark 14, (554) “οταν θελητε might suggest that giving to the poor was merely an optional extra. But in first-century Judaism it was more than that. The concern for the poor expressed in Dt. 15:1-11 (which includes the recognition, echoed here by Jesus, that ‘the poor will never cease out of the land’) had become the basis of an extensive and carefully regulated system of donation to poor relief, which included the mandatory ‘tithe for the poor’ as well as numerous opportunities for personal charity. The point is not that you may neglect the needs of the poor, but that they can catered for at any time: the opportunity will not go away.”

[2] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.xvii.26, “The anointing did not please the disciples, because they thought it a needless and useless expense and bordering on excess; consequently, they would have preferred to have the money, which they thought ill spent, bestowed upon the poor.” (1393).

[3] Karl Barth CD IV.2.796-7. “It is to be noted that what finally made the incident significant for all four Evangelists is that it gave drastic and unexpected concretion to the anointing of the One who in the New Testament is call ‘the Anointed.’ This woman accomplishes it…in direct preparation for the confrontation of the royal man complete in His death.”

[4] Karl Barth CD II.2.462, “It is an utterly prodigal, a wholly generous and selfless, and at the same time an absolutely humble action, and Jesus later says (v.8) that it honours His dead body in anticipation, and will therefore glorify His death.”

[5] Karl Barth CD IV.2.797. “What emerges clearly in all four accounts is that Jesus not only defend unconditionally the act of the woman but in all solemnity acknowledges that it is a good act which belongs necessarily to he history of salvation, even though it seems to be wholly superfluous, an act of sheer extravagance, which can serve ‘only’ the purpose of representing direct and perfect self-giving to him.”

[6] Karl Barth CD II.2.462 “But it is precisely this, this prodigality, which Judas—as seen by his protest (v.4)—cannot and will not understand or accept…He is not wiling that the complete devotion, which by her deed Mary had in a sense given the apostles as a pattern for their own life, should be an absolute offering to Jesus…It is to be for the benefit of the poor, of those who are injured or needy to help improve their lot and that of others, and in that way it will be a meaningful devotion. This view, this attitude of Judas, is what makes him unclean.”

[7] Karl Barth CD II.2.463.

[8] Karl Barth CD II.2.465. “And He still says the same [Zech 11:9] as He takes it upon Himself to be led to the slaughter on their behalf, because of their guilt and according to their will. They have the reward which they wanted and earned. And it is with this reward that their punishment secretly beings. The sin of Judas is that, with all Israel, he wants this reward with which the punishment already begins; that for him Jesus can be bartered for this evil reward. This sin makes it clear that as far as he was concerned Jesus was present with the disciples in vain. He protected and watched over them in vain. In it there is exposed an uncleanness which was the uncleanness of all the apostle and need a special cleansing.”

Even From Dust

Ash Wednesday (Sermon)

I have a confession: I don’t like Ash Wednesday. Now, some of you may be shocked to hear this. Some of you may not be shocked. And some of you may even (secretly) agree with me. But, nonetheless, I don’t like Ash Wednesday. So, when I was told I was preaching Ash Wednesday, I smiled and said “yayyy.” But on the inside, I cried just a little bit.

You see, Ash Wednesday puts a hard stop to the festivities that culminated in yesterday and last night (the final night of) Mardi Gras. Ash Wednesday throws open the door to a season of some sort of self-denial and fasting that is the season of Lent. None of us really like days that end our celebration and start us about our task of taking life seriously. Ash Wednesday, in some respect, is the Monday of all Mondays in the liturgical calendar. And who really likes a Monday?

But it’s not only the Monday-esque vibe that Ash Wednesday brings to our liturgical life and calendar that I don’t like. It’s not the inauguration into season of self-denial and fasting of Lent that I don’t like. It’s the part that constitutes and substantiates the inauguration of Lent that I don’t like. And it’s that very part that we love to forget to talk about as we transition from celebration to fasting. Dialogue surrounding Ash Wednesday moves swiftly and deftly from what I did last night and all the fun I had to, “Yes, I’m giving up _____” for Lent. But something else needs to happen before I so smoothly move from Mardi Gras to Lent and that is the form and substance of Ash Wednesday; I must be forced to reckon with myself as I am and not as I portray myself to be.

Ash Wednesday is less like an average Monday and more like that one Monday where it was already bad and then you got pulled over and instead of the Police Officer handing you a ticket, she handed you a stack, a ticket for every infraction you’ve ever committed known and unknown to you.

Ash Wednesday is not a day of celebration; Ash Wednesday is the 4th step of the 12 Step Program for Sinners.[1] It is a day for us to take a fearless and ruthless moral inventory of ourselves that results in our throwing ourselves prostrate on the ground crying out, “Lord, Have Mercy! Have Mercy on us!” And knowing that our lives, our very lives are fully and completely dependent on that divine word of “Mercy.” It’s a day to wake up to the dire reality that apart from God’s mercy, we are only dust.

I don’t like Ash Wednesday because I’m the one that has to bring you to that place with my words. Rather than using my priestly office to bring you hope and comfort and to bless you and bring you life, I have to use it in a way that reminds you of the curse of sin, and that the wage therein is death. I have to anoint you not with oil, but with ash. I have to remind you that you are dust and that, as it stands now, to dust you will return.

We are dust because we have failed. And this failure is nothing to gloss-over as we are wont to do. This failure surely pulverizes us to dust because this failure encompasses our activities and the orientations of our heart and mind. We are fully incriminated: body, mind, and soul. We have not acted the way we ought to act, we have not spoken the way we ought to have spoken, we have not thought the way we ought to have thought, and we have not loved as we ought to have loved. We have failed to uphold God’s good and righteous law. What I mean by failure to uphold God’s law is our failure to live according to this:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 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. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

And, failure to uphold this:

“…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18b)

There’s no escaping what feels like (and is) the crushing weight of condemnation of Ash Wednesday and it’s demand to self-reflection and fearless and ruthless moral inventory. You can’t side-step this event. Today you will be bombarded by the words of the liturgy and of the prayers. Today the voices of the prophets of Israel ring in our ears anew:

“The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
thus they pervert justice.” (Micah 7:2-3)

“Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1-2)

“Gather together, gather,
O shameless nation,
before you are driven away
like the drifting chaff,
before there comes upon you
the fierce anger of the Lord,
before there comes upon you
the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (Zephaniah 2:1-3)

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

You have failed. You have failed God and you have failed your neighbor; you have failed God because you have failed your neighbor. The homeless go unsheltered. The hungry go unfed. The marginalized and oppressed continue in their bondage and slavery. Let this active word of God spoken through the prophets present itself to you not as mere historical fiction spoken to others of long ago, but as a very present reality in its veracity. Let this word of God touch you: let it break your heart, let it trouble your conscience, let it be the encounter with the divine that strips you of “…all agreeable self-deceptions…” and causes you to face the truth of your failure: you are people of unclean lips in the midst of people of unclean lips (Is. 6ff).[2]

And not only are you incriminated in this verdict of guilty, but I, too, am convicted and condemned. I’ve remained silent when a voice was needed; I’ve intentionally stepped back and hidden from the call to step up and act. I have professed love of God and then turned a blind eye to the turmoil, oppression, and suffering of my neighbor. I have not fed the hungry, housed the homeless, or clothed the naked. For this I am guilty and judgment comes; judgment comes from God and I am guilty. The encounter with God in the words of the prophets burns and I am rent to dust.

From dust we were taken and to dust we shall return.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:8-14).

There is hope yet still and this I must proclaim alongside judgment lest our hearts grow too weary to beat and our mind too burdened to conceive of hope and our bodies too feeble to make it to our feet. “For he knows how we were made,” writes the Psalmist. “[H]e remembers that we are dust.” Our God is a God “whose property is always have mercy,”[3] to have mercy especially when and where all hope seems lost.

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18).

Paul exhorts us in the place of Christ and with an urgent entreaty in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, “…on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” [4] God’s justice is not retributive; it is merciful and reconciliatory and thus restorative. Being rent to dust by the heat of judgment of the divine words of the oracles of the prophets and the law may seem like the final nail in the coffin, but with our God it’s just the beginning.

In the beginning God created out of nothing, and out of nothing God will create a new beginning. There is hope in the creative and long-suffering mercy of God.

We throw ourselves in our manifold convictions and guilt and failure at the feet of a God who is merciful—not “maybe will be,” “might be,” or “could be,” but is merciful. We throw ourselves down at the feet of a God who has reconciled and restored us to himself in his mercy through the sending of his son out of self-sacrificial love for us.[5] This is the God we come into contact with in Christ, the God by whom we are touched in the words of proclamation of Christ and yet we live because of God’s mercy and reconciling us to himself.[6] This is the God we encounter in Ash Wednesday.

We live in this encounter because there’s an exchange[7] occurring between Christ, and us as Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We live because Christ willingly and voluntarily and lovingly resolves to head to Jerusalem to die and to be raised up (Mark 8:31).[8] We live because God is so merciful that God will bear in God’s own self (freely intervening by his own being from both sides)[9] on the cross our sin and become so indistinguishable from that sin.[10] We live because the sin bearing sinless Christ—who knew no sin in any way, shape, or form–dies and in his death so to goes the death of our death, so to goes the dust of our dust. And from the dust of death: life.[11] Our lives are given back to us because God is merciful to take our affairs in this world so personally that he makes himself responsible and burdens himself with our failure and guilt and evil ways;[12] That is the extent and power of God’s love for us; that is mercy and this is our merciful God: the God who in “[Christ] is the [one] who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.” [13]

Speaking about Isaiah’s encounter with the divine in Isaiah chapter 6, which applies here to our situation in Ash Wednesday, Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“A miracle happens, the miracle of all miracles, that this impure being, impure in the midst of the pure creation, that this intolerable being is permitted to live. The annihilating encounter with God becomes for him a life-giving encounter. Without his co-operation, entirely on the initiative of this other power that ought to have meant his death, that which must be death for him is turned into new life; the miracle of forgiveness. He who can no longer purify himself is purified…Death is taken away, the death which I bear in myself because of my contradiction, my impurity is covered by the encircling life-giving love to him who was the prey of death.”[14]

From dust we were taken and to dust we should return; but our God is a merciful God and there is life even out of dust and ash.

[1] “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

[2] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981. “The bible in fact believes that things would be just the same with everyone one of us, as it was with this man Isaiah, confronted with the final truth, with the divine life which fills the creation, everyone of us is stripped of and must acknowledge himself as the dark blot in the creation, that must be removed in order for the creation to join with clear and pure voice in the great joyful hymn of praise of the angles. That is for us the intolerable truth, which we try to disguise from ourselves with all kinds of inventions, a truth which we face when the word of God touches us.” 41. (cf Is. 6)

[3] BCP Prayer of Humble Access

[4] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 447. “But here neither verb denotes a dispassionate and detached request but rather an impassioned and urgent entreaty. The second us of υπερ Χριστου links the δεησις with the ambassadorship: whether performing the general role of envoys (πρεσβευομεν) or issuing a specific entreaty (δεομεθα), Paul and his colleagues were acting υπερ Χριστου, “for Christ,” on his behalf and in his stead. Moreover, this repeated prepositional phrase suggest that the principal role of Christ’s ambassadors is issuing the evangelistic treaty to be reconciled to God.”

[5] Ibid, 447. “The aorist imperative passive form καταλλαγητε is unlikely to be a reflexive passive, ‘reconcile yourselves (to God),’ whatever allowance be made for synergism (Cf. 6:1-2), because whenever this verb is applied to the atonement, God, and only God is the reconciler (see above v. 18). While it is possible that this passive is permissive, ‘let yourselves be reconciled (to God),’ it is more probably a true passive, ‘be reconciled,’ or, to bring out the ingressive sense of this aorist, ‘get reconciled,’ with God as the implied agent.”

[6] Ibid, 449. “In the divine economy, the declaration of ‘the message of reconciliation’ (v.19), or, in other words, the preaching of the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18, 23) with the attendant entreaty to be reconciled to God, is the link between the objective work of reconciliation accomplished by Christ and the subjective appropriation of its benefits by the sinner. Paul saw himself and everyone who proclaimed reconciliation in Christ as trustees of a message (v. 19), ambassadors for Christ, and mouthpieces for God (v.20).”

[7] Karl Barth CD I.2.156. “…in the likeness of flesh (unholy flesh, marked by sin), there happens the unlike, the new and helpful thing, that sin is condemned by not being committed, by being omitted, by full obedience now being found in the very place where otherwise sin necessarily and irresistibly takes place. The meaning of the incarnation is that now in the flesh that is not done which all flesh does…[(5.21)]…does not mean that He made Him a man who also sins again—what could that signify ‘for us’?—but that He put Him in the position of a sinner by way of exchange (καταλλασσων, in the sense of the Old Testament sin-offering).”

[8] Harris, 2 Corinthians, 451. “Although ποιειν can mean ‘make something into something (else),’ the meaning here is not ‘God made the sinless one into sin’ … but ‘God caused the sinless one to be sin,’ where ποιειν denotes causation or appointment and points to the divien intiiative. But we should not forget that matching the Father’s set purpose to deliver Christ up to deal with sin (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:32) was Christ’s own firm reolsition to go to Jerusualem to suffer (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:51). Jesus was not an unwillling or surprised participant in God’s action.»

[9] Karl Barth CD II.1.397. “This sending means a self-offering grounded in the free will of the Father and the Son in fulfillment of the divine love turned towards the cosmos and the world of man. But it is the case that God in this offering or sending of His Son, and the Son Himself in accepting this mission and allowing Himself to be sacrificed, has exposed Himself to an imposition. In His love God has been hard upon Himself, exacting a supreme and final demand…in a self-emptying, in a complete resignation not of the essence but of the form of His Godhead, He took upon Himself our own human form—the form of a servant, in complete likeness to other men…allowing himself to be found in fashion as a man…Like all men He was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). But what does it mean to take the place of man, to be Himself a man, to be born of a woman? It means from Him, too, God’s Son, God Himself, that He came under the Law…that He stepped into the heart of the inevitable conflict between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of man. He took this conflict into is own being. He bore it in Himself to the bitter end. He took part in it from both sides. He endured it from both sides. He was not only the God who is offended by man. He was also the man whom God threatens with death, who falls a victim to death in face of God’s judgment. If he really entered into solidarity with us—and that is just what He did do!—it meant necessarily that He took upon Himself, in likeness to us…the ‘flesh of sin’ (Rom. 8:3). He shared in the status, constitution and situation of man in which man resists God and cannot stand before Him but must die.”

[10] Harris, Second Corinthians, 454. “We conclude that in v.21a Paul is not saying that at the crucifixion the sinless Christ became in some sense a sinner, yet he is affirming more than that Christ became a sin offering or even a sin bearer. In a sense beyond human comprehension, God treated Christ as ‘sin,’ aligning him so totally with sin and its dire consequences that from God’s viewpoint he became indistinguishable from sin itself.”

[11] Ibid, 455. “So γινομαι may be given its most common meaning (‘become,’ ‘be’) and points to the change of status that accrues to believers who are ‘in Christ’ and that is the ground of the ‘new creation’ (v.17). ‘To become the righteousness of God’ is to gain a right standing before God that God himself bestows (cf. Rom. 5:17; Phil. 3:9). It is to be ‘constituted righteous’ in the divine court…As a result of God’s imputing to Christ something that was extrinsic to him, namely sin, believers have something imputed to them that was extrinsic to them, namely righteousness.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “But the great and inconceivable thing is that He acts as Judge in our place by taking upon Himself, by accepting responsibility for that which we do in this place. He ‘who knew no sin’ (2 or. 5:21)…gives Himself…to the fellowship of those who are guilty of all these things, and not only that, but He makes their evil case His own. He is above this fellowship and confronts it and judges it and condemns it in that He takes it upon Himself to be the bearer and Representative, to be responsible for this case, to expose Himself to the accusation and sentence which must inevitably come upon us in this case. He as One can represent all and make Himself responsible for the sis of all because He is very man in our midst, one of us, but as one of us He is also very God and therefore He exercises and reveals amongst us the almighty righteousness of God. He can conduct the case of God against us in such a way that He takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and compromising and burdening Himself with it.”

[13] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “It is no longer our affair to prosecute and represent this case. The right and possibility of doing so has been denied and taken away from us. What He in divine omnipotence did amongst us as one of us prevents us from being our own judges, from even wanting to be, from making that senseless attempt on the divine prerogative, from sinning in that way and making ourselves guilty. TIN that He was and is for us that end is closed, and so is the evil way to that end. He is the man who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.”

[14] Gollwitzer Way to Life 41.

“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done”: Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

There is nothing better than good news. Wouldn’t you agree with me? Is there anyone here that would dare say: “eh, no…give me that good ol’ bad news…nothing like a good dose of bad news to make someone feel alive!” I doubt it. Good news invigorates us. Good news spreads a smile across our face and brightens our eyes. Good news results in various forms of physical celebratory habits like embracing, grasping, jumping up and down, and and a hearty #squee.

Good news can bring relief, especially if there was a possibility of bad news. Good news alleviates our fears: what could have been bad isn’t and won’t be. This type of good news is that which drops us—fast and hard—to our knees in gratitude with tears of joy, with a sincere, “Oh, thank God!” that whispers past our lips. Same, too, for the good news that springs itself upon us and breaks the long, dry season of silence and disappointment. The kind of good news that will radically recalibrate our world; good news can drag us out of the valley of despair and place us on the mountain top of joy, long suffering hope materialized.

And isn’t this what Advent is all about? Isn’t Advent about our waiting, longing, desiring, and hoping for good news? Our liturgical calendar thrusts us back into the story of the Israelites; we are caused to sit and listen and imagine and to bear that history as part of our own. We are asked to recall and remember the longing of the people of God. We are asked to recall and remember the hungry and the thirsty people of God who are waiting for their God to intervene on their behalf, who are longing for their God to hear their cries and liberate them from oppression, who are desiring to be resident with their God as his people in God’s Kingdom come, and who are hoping for alleviation of the toil, suffering, sorrow, and brokenness in the fulfillment of the one who is to come, the Messiah.

We are asked to feel the heavy weight of Isaiah’s words,

“A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’” (Is. 40:3-5)

We are asked to let our desperate hearts, our burdened minds, and our exhausted bodies cry out, “so be it!” and let our voices join in the great chorus belonging to the people of God.

We are asked to hear (again) the proclamation of the advent of God in our world in the word incarnate, the savior, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and to be encountered (again) in the event of faith.

Thus, let us hear and turn our heads to the proclamation of Mark,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1).

The gospel of Matthew begins with the who’s who of Christ’s genealogy; characters ranging from the very good to the very “colorful.” The author of Matthew begins the gospel in this way to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is of the line of David and is the long awaited messiah, Emmanuel, “God with us” (Mt 1:22ff).

The gospel of Luke begins with an account of the conception of both John the Baptist and Jesus as a pronouncement that the long awaited liberty and rescue for the captives has come, the long awaited son of God, the “savior for us” (Lk 1:69a), the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to his people, is here.

The gospel of John, being the most abstract and theologically dense of all four gospels of Christ, begins with the connection that the God who hovered over all of creation in the beginning is one and the same with the incarnate Word; the Word went forth and created as it went and the Word goes forth (now) creating as it goes, forcing away the darkness and illuminating the world (Jn 1:1-18).

Mark’s gospel starts off with the clear proclamation that there’s good news: Jesus Christ is the Son of God and with the advent of Christ in our time line so to the inauguration of the time of the reign of God with him. (The whole of the written book that is Mark’s gospel is a proclamation about Jesus Christ and his kingdom in the fullest sense of the word proclamation.)[1] Mark steps out into the streets ringing his bell and shouts: Hear, Ye! Hear, Ye! Hear ye the good news: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is come!

And be not mistaken, Mark is very much concerned with the advent of Christ and with the concurrent coming and inauguration of the kingdom of God.[2] Our author is being politically polemical in his introductory language. The Hellenistic religious use of the word ευαγγελιον («good news») had the «connection with the cult of the emperor, whose birthday, accession to power, and the like, even a forthcoming ‘royal visit’, were hailed as ευαγγελιον.»[3] The author of Mark isn’t pulling any punches. He coopts and uses intentionally political language to grab the attention of his audience. The audience being not only Christian disciples, but also roman authority.[4]

Again, place Mark and his announcement in the streets. The one who thinks he’s divine (the human emperor) isn’t; Jesus Christ is. Mark points at the human ruler and says, essentially, «Not my emperor.» And he invites his audience—the people suffering under the harsh rule and demoralized under the oppression of the powers that be—to see the distinction between the human emperor and the Christ, the true emperor. He invites them to locate themselves in the coming of the kingdom of God and to see that this new location[5] demands a confrontation with the way the regime and reign of the human emperor operate because the hearer of the good news of Jesus Christ can see them for what it is: the current regime is sham, the human emperor is naked.

For Mark (and for anyone willing to listen) there’s a new emporer in town and this emporer is the emporer who is going to tear down the current regime and reign and usher in a completely new one. The new reign and regime that comes in with Christ’s advent will not be marked by oppressive systems and structures designed to keep the low low while granting unfettered power to the powerful. It wont bear the traits of despotic rule. It won’t use the coercion and subjugation and enslavement of human beings to reduce them to mere cogs in a machine or objects to be used, abused, and left for dead. In fact the kingdom of God cannot be marked by these things because these things are antithetical to the character of God and thus to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

With the immediate reference to the announcement of John the Baptist, Mark intentionally draws the audience into the realization that Jesus Christ is truly divine, thus ousting the human emperor from his self-proclaimed divine status,

«[John] proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mk 1:7-8).[6]

This new emporer is truly divine (the true son of the true God) and thus the new reign and regime, the Kingdom of God, that Christ ushers in will have the characteristics fitting of a divine kingdom: divine restorative and transcending justice, peace that surpasses all understanding, reconciliatory mercy.[7]

With the Son of God on the throne, the kingdom of God is very much at hand and the Christian disciples are baptized into this new reign and regime, into this new emperor and his good kingdom. Thus, not only the kingdom bears these divine traits of justice, peace, and mercy, but so, too, the citizens of this new kingdom. The Disciples of Christ bear these traits by their baptism both of water and of the Holy Spirit and in their life in the world.

And if this is all true for those initial hearers of Mark’s gospel, so it is true for us who listen today. By our baptism with water and Spirit, we have been grafted into the history of Jesus Christ and thus if into His history then our present and our future is located therein where the promises of God are yes and amen and this is our present tense reality. We are reminded that the promises spoken by God that are fulfilled in and by Christ are ours by faith.[8] We are born anew by the spirit (all that was and is, is washed from us),[9] and we have been given the ears to hear the loving summons of our Savior that calls us to an encounter with God in the event of faith.

Also, if Mark’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is for us, thus, so too is his political polemic. In hearing this proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we have been given not only ears to hear the proclamation but also eyes to see that we are—in the event encounter—located squarely in the kingdom of God. And if located therein, then citizens: active, participatory citizens. Citizens who are not removed from society, but live a radical and different (and maybe even dangerous?)[10] existence in society. We are a voice for the voiceless and resist oppression; we create space for the alien and the refugee; we fight for freedom for all because if our neighbor isn’t free, then we aren’t free. Our neighbor’s pain is our pain, our neighbor’s plight our plight, our neighbor’s suffering our suffering. We are marked by the characteristics of our God: mercy, justice, and peace, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We profess our faith in Christ, the Son of God and push forward the good rule of Christ into the entire world, this is the mission of the church, and this is church as event rejecting the status quo and defending and advocating for the defenseless.[11] We preach Christ crucified and risen. Jürgen Moltmann writes,

“Wherever Jesus is acknowledged as the Christ of God, Christian faith is to be found. Wherever this is doubted, obscured or denied, there is no longer Christian faith, and the riches of historic Christianity disappear with it. Christianity is alive as long as there are people who, as the disciples once did, profess their faith in him and, following him, spread his liberating rule in words, deeds and new fellowship.”[12]

We, today, are asked to remember the advent of the long awaited messiah of Israel, the fulfillment of all the promises of God. We are asked to hear (again) the proclamation of the advent of God in our world in the word incarnate, the savior, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and to be encountered (again) in the event of faith. And we, along with Mark’s audience, are asked to participate in the kingdom of God and to be a force in the world that must be reckoned with.[13] We are asked to step out into the streets with our verbal and physical proclamation of the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come, forgiveness and reconciliation are here, and so too God’s kingdom and “liberating rule.”

[1] R. T. France The Gospel of Mark TNIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. “Mark’s book is intended, therefore to pass on the god news about Jesus. This news has been hithero the subject of primarily oral declaration (Mann therefore appropriately translates ευαγγελιον here as ‘Proclamation’), but Mark’s book is an attempt to communicate it in written form (though probably with a view to its being read orally in the congregation. Ευαγγελιον denotes the content rather than the form of the book» 52-3.

[2] Karl Barth CD IV.2.64.197-8, “Again, ‘the kingdom of coming with power’ of Mk. 9:1 could be calmly replaced by ‘the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ of the parallel Mt. 16:28. ‘The Gospel’ in the preaching of Philip in Ac. 8:12 is the kingdom of God, and (the και is surely to be understood epexegetically in all the passages) the name of Jesus Christ. According to the last verse of Acts (28:31), Paul preached ‘the kingdom of God,’ and taught ‘those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.’ According to the great voice from heaven in Rev. 12:10, the βασιλεια of God and εξουσια are given to His Christ. The references to the kingdom and to Christ are obviously to be understood in the light of each other in all these passages.”

[3] Ibid 52.

[4] Lauren Ellis. Final Paper on the Gospel of Mark, “There is a two sided approach to addressing who was reading (or who needed to read) Mark’s Gospel. The first audience to consider is Christians who were enduring suffering—they can read about suffering in context and see a meaning for their suffering. A second audience is the people in Authority in the empire. Christians are not what Tacitus and Nero thought they were; thus, if the Empire takes Christianity seriously, they will not only see the truth but also see that Christianity would help to make the world better. The modern reader can see the two fold apologetic aspect of the Gospel.”

[5] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: Fortress 2017. “As Ulrich Dannermann and Matthias Weissinger put it, ‘social analysis and social criticism are a theme of theology work. Theology can only adequately speak to the real world, to real people, when it tries to plot society…on the horizon of the coming kingdom of God’” 92-3.

[6] Karl Barth CD IV.4.56, “The different aspects of the event which according to this preaching is directly imminent are as follows. According to Mt. 3:2 what is at hand and at the doors, can take place any moment, is the βασιλεια των οθρανων, the establishment on earth of the divine dominion already set up in heaven. What breaks in is also God’s penetrating and divisive judgment. (…) Just as distinctively as the kingdom, no less majestically than the threatening judgment, there also comes in and with the judgment something very different, namely, remission, the legally effective taking away and setting aside of the sins of Israel, which are not overlooked or taken lightly, but which are brought under the grace of God (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 1:77; 3:8).”

[7] McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, 89-91.

[8] This particular portion of the sermon is me playing around with the insights and scholarship of W. Travis McMaken as found in “Definitive, Defective or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4” IJST vol 17.1 Jan. 2015.

[9] Karl Barth CD IV.2.563 “…in relation to everything that [I] previously was or otherwise [am] it is a new beginning newly posited by God.”

[10] McMaken Our God Loves Justice. 149-151. Specifically, referring to Gollwitzer, “Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangers church because a church that is not dangerous I no help at all” 150-1.

[11] McMaken Ibid, 16. “Just as God cannot legitimately be objectified, so also the church cannot legitimately by objectified. The true being of the church occurs as it responds in faithful obedience to its encounter with God’s though-objectivity, which necessarily includes renunciation of its privilege and political advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.”

[12] Moltmann The Crucified God New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1974. 82.

[13] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “The kingdom of God is the ‘revolutionary, eschatological, and social determination of the present’; it is ‘the revolution of all revolutions, that is, the eschatological revolution’” 118.

Life as Descent: Homily on John 6:41-51

“‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’” (John 6:51).

I stood cloaked in white alb, wearing a red deacon’s stole. I held the plate of Eucharistic wafers, nervous. I had just been ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and this was my first time participating in the distribution of the Eucharistic elements. With some apprehension and a whole bunch of “Just don’t drop the plate, Lauren,” I approached the first person kneeling at the railing. “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” I said as I held up and then handed the wafer to the adult kneeling in front of me. And then I did it again, and again, and again.

By my fourth pass by my half of the rail, I’d grown quite composed and quite confident. I grew comfortable with the eye contact and the pastoral moment that was this brief encounter with the individual congregants at the Cathedral. “Huh…” I thought, kind of surprised. “This isn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be.”

The last group of individuals knelt at the rail, and I started the last distribution of the bread. “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…The body of Christ the bread of heaven…” I rounded the corner of the rail and continued, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…”

And then my eyes landed square on the big blues of a small child; his chin just cleared the rail. I stood looking down at him; actually, I was looming over him—I rarely loom over anyone. I paused while I held his eager gaze and watched him grip the railing with his hands, pull himself forward, and open his mouth for me to place the wafer in it, as he had watched me do with his mother a few minutes before him.

I couldn’t reach him from my position looming over him. I took the plate in one hand, grabbed my alb with the other, and brought my self all the way down to eye level with him; my right knee had to rest on the floor. I held up the wafer and made eye contact with him again, his big blues locked on me. “The body of Christ…” I said looking at him, holding his gaze, “…the bread of heaven.” And fed him.

“‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’” (John 6:51).

The Word of God, the word made flesh, the living bread of life, Jesus Christ, descends to us. The manna Jesus refers to in our passage (6:49) is mentioned in Exodus 16. This “manna”—a fine, flaky, white-like-dew substance that appeared on the ground for Israelite consumption—was the bread of heaven that God promised to send in Exodus 16:4[1] to satiate the starving people. They were in the throws of sever hunger pangs and cried out. And God heard; God acted. His word descended and fed the people; in this event, the Israelites were to encounter the power of God and see, hear, and to have faith. Jesus is clearly referring back to that part of Israel’s history with God, pointing the Israelites to recall God’s divine activity for them. Make no mistake about it; in correlating himself to the manna descended from heaven, Jesus intentionally proclaims that that historical event is happening at that very moment, in him, with him, and by him.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-14 it is written,

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Christ—who is the bread of heaven—descends to us so that we do not have to ascend to heaven to search for it. It is Christ who comes walking across the sea to us so that we do not have to cross over the sea to get it. Jesus is the word made flesh and is the bread of life, the true bread of heaven that has come down into the world so (the word is near) so that we hear (deeply, inwardly digest the word) and have faith in him. In Christ we see that God has heard and that God acts.

Christ, who is God of very God, not only descended in casting off his own divine royalty, humbling himself in being born in human likeness and form (Phil. 2:6-8),[2] but he descended to us and for us. The divine activity in Christ is the event encounter of God and humanity. The word made flesh descends low to be the lamb of God to redeem the world (John 1:29), descends low to demonstrate his glory in making the mundane (water) grace filled (wine) (John 2:1-12), descends low to be the event of love of God for the whole world to bring life abundant (John 3:16ff), descends low to recline against a well to encounter an ostracized Samaritan woman (John 4), descends low to heal those who are seemingly incurable, defies the existing authority structures, and is the apocalyptic event of God’s power in the world (John 5).

This proclamation of the gospel in the gospel of John (John 6:41-51) is the recounting and retelling of the descent Christ—the bread from heaven and the word made flesh—who is the divine once-and-for-all, established-forever divine activity of God for God’s people and the world. And in this recounting and retelling of Christ’s descent from heaven and the corresponding event encounter between God and the world, we—we—are pulled into the story and become the object in the encounter of that event—just as we are the objects of the gift of Grace by faith in Christ apart from works by the power of the holy spirit, so, too, are we the object of the divine revelation of God in Christ.[3] We, by hearing the proclamation of Christ, are pointed to Christ, to God, and, thus, we are encountered by God who has descended to us.[4] Jesus is the bread of life descended from heaven not only for his immediate disciples or his historic community. But in that he is such for them and that the proclamation of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension has moved from generation to generation for the past 2000 + years means he is also for us, for all, for the world. [5]

Christ came to you to give you life abundant. And this life that is given to you is life that is marked not by ascent upward out of the earthly realm or fleeing the brokenness of the world by crossing the sea, but by descent. As we have seen Christ do and as we’ve experienced in event encounter with God in Christ by faith, our lives are marked by the same deep descent by transcending society’s boundaries[6] to those who are oppressed, to those who are burdened, to those who are seeking refuge, to the voiceless. As we have been nourished, so we nourish. As we have been provided for, we provide. As we have been clothed, we clothe. As we have been encountered, we encounter. We are commissioned by Christ to be the preachers sent into the world to descend low, bringing our knees to the ground to give the bread of life to the least of us scattered all through out our society and the world (Matt 25:31ff). [7]

[1] “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.’”

[2] “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

[3] Dr. W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017): “Dialectical theology’s enduring contribution, then, is affirming that Protestant theological epistemology must be decisively shaped by protestant soteriology so that just as Christians can in no way merit saving grace, theologians can in no way merit revelation by finding it already embedded in the structures of human intellect or creation as a whole…Just as saving grace is an alien grace that comes to sinners from outside of themselves, knowledge of God is likewise an alien knowledge that comes to sinners from outside of themselves. Salvation and revelation thereby become two sides of the same event of God’s gracious activity” 55. To purchase this book, which I highly recommend you do, click here. To follow Dr. McMaken on Twitter: @WTravisMcMaken.

[4] Ibid, 72n61: McMaken quoting Helmut Gollwitzer, “‘there is no way to the event, to the act of God which is called Jesus, that circumvents the word of proclamation with its corresponding answer of faith.’ The kerygma ‘points beyond itself to the living God who encounters us in the proclamation but is more than a title for the word-event itself’…”

[5] Karl Barth, “What Jesus is ‘for us’ or ‘for you’ in the narrower circle of the disciples and the community He is obviously, through the ministry of this narrower circle, ‘for all’ or ‘for the world’ in the wider or widest circle. And in the majority of the relevant passages this action of Jesus for others (His disciples, His community, the many, all, the world) is His death and passion.” CD III.2.45.213-15.

[6] McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, 77: Explaining how Gollwitzer develops the concepts of “Brotherhood” (and “Sonship) found in the New Testament, McMaken writes, “Brotherhood designates a new Spirit-empowered sociality that ‘transcend[s] race and class.’ And this transcending cannot be limited to the realm of personal feeling, for that only serves to insulate the powers that be from the transformative power of the gospel Rather, ‘brotherhood transcending race and class in the New Testament means: actual life together in actual equality, that is, in a new classless society. A system of injustice legitimated as a system of justice is being abolished.’”

[7] ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”

Once More with David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage”: Schnarch, Moltmann, and the Self.

This is the last installment of my intentional engagement with David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage.” (All that to say, since the book hasn’t been shelved and is still roaming about my house, I’m sure I’ll be dipping in here and there in the future.)

Here are the previous posts in this mini series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

This last excerpt is taken from Chapter 14, from the section Self Transcendence and Self-Dissolution.  (bold is mine)

“Sebastian Moore says that our desire of fullness is, in essence, a ‘death wish’: life crises like falling in love, undergoing conversion, or suffering bereavement present the painful and bewildering demands that the ‘you’ whose desire brought this about must die. Boundary experiences arise from confronting the limits of what you can attain as the person you are currently. To fulfill your desires, you  have to change in ways that make that fulfillment possible. This means that the smaller ‘you’ dies as a fuller ‘you,’ a more unique ‘you,’ is born. We desire our self to death in the most positive sense.

“We can consider the paradox from another perspective: throughout this book…we have explored the need to hold onto yourself. But holding onto yourself and becoming more differentiated actually leads to the loss of the self you’ve been holding onto. My clients begin to mourn their ‘old self’ dying in the process of a new self being born. (…) It’s the death that gives life, but they’re often wistful about it. They talk of not knowing who they are, but more accurately they mean who they are becoming. Ironically, they’ve never been more clear about who they are.

This process of your ‘old’ self dying as your ‘new, larger’ self is born is how self-transcendence and self-dissolution go hand in hand…Self-dissolution is as much a part of this process as is self-transcendence.

“Herein lies an important point that is sometimes hard to grasp: many people who seek self-transcendence don’t want to give anything up, and they want the path safe and clearly mapped. However, our unwillingness to give up what no longer fits (i.e., self-dissolution) blocks us from self-transcendence.And once you recognize yourself…as the manifestation of Spirit seeking its own fulfillment, then your refusal to grow is not just a personal shortcoming but also a thwarting of Spirit. This is where sin fits in…

“Sin isn’t about unconfined desire–it’s our refusal to desire and grow, our refusal with denial or rejection of the pleasurable parts of life. But as Lama Yeshe, Tibetan master of Buddhist Tantra points out, religion often becomes a form of suppression instead of a method for transcending our limitations. Instead of viewing pleasure and desire as something to be avoided at all costs, Tantra recognizes the energy aroused by our desires to be an indispensable resource for spiritual enlightenment. This same view is expressed in the Talmud in the words of third-centruy Rabbi Arika, who said that we will have to account to God for all the good things our eyes beheld but which we refused to enjoy.

“It’s not hard to understand why we in this way (not pursuing our own potentials): self-transcendence is fraught with discontinuities–and self-dissolution. Wilber notes that nature progresses by sudden leaps and deep transformations, rather than through piecemeal adjustments. He cites evidence from many fields of science to illustrate that dynamic systems do not evolve smoothly and continuously over time, but, rather, in comparatively sudden leaps and bursts.

The overarching narrative Schnarch is playing with (the dissolution of self) is the death to self that is so common and familiar in Christianity. The death of self is emphasized from every quadrant of Christianity. I believe both men and women suffer under the burden of dying to self; but I believe women often suffer more. Specifically in evangelical Christianity, this is true. Though, I wasn’t raised Christian and was still fed enough bull to believe I was here to be as demure as possible, a substance barely person to make men happy. The “don’t disturb the waters” and “do whatever he wants” was loud and clear. In trying to achieve that standard (expectation?) women (not all, but most) learn the hard process of dying to themselves. The concept of having to die to self, for me, has, is, will never be foreign. I think most of you would agree with me.

What’s foreign to me is the emphasis on the reception of a new self or a self at all; Schnarch is on point to emphasize this aspect of the death to self. But, there’s something he’s wrong about that I want to address first.

Schnarch argues, “But holding onto yourself and becoming more differentiated actually leads to the loss of the self you’ve been holding onto.” (Again, as in previous posts, I’ll be using “I” to simplify my sentences and thoughts.) I’m not sure how I can hold onto myself, holding to my integrity while simultaneously dying to myself to allow the new self to emerge. I’m not very (as in: at all) sold that by pressing into myself more that I’m going to come to the death of myself (for how does this happen while I’m holding onto myself?), and also that from there transitioning through to a new self. I think the best we get there is a weird inside-out version of Lauren (*shudders), not necessarily a new self. Also, by focusing on the self (which I must do to hold onto myself), I would negate the processes by which I would die to myself.

(Side note: this is also a criticism I can use against Ayn Rand and Objectivism’s claim that I can be so selfish that I become other focused: I cannot be so self focused that somehow (miraculously?)–without any encounter with an other, an external event–I’m now caring for my neighbor.)

The dissolution of self is not predicated on the transcending of self; rather, the opposite is true. The transcended self emerges from the dissolution of self. Specifically, the transcended self, the new self is born out of the death that the old self has surrendered to. Thus, there is no “holding on” to the self but a letting go of the self, giving in to the dark pull of the abyss that is the event of the conflict encounter (usually with an other self). Holding on to the self would be a fighting against loss; surrender of the self to the event, to what is occurring and happening, is an embrace of the impending loss of self. So, as long as we are still holding on to self and fighting to be more transcended selves, the less likely the dissolution of self will happen and (with it) a transcended (a new) self is less likely to emerge if at all.

Jürgen Moltmann writes,

“It is much more the question of [a person’s] own personal identity and integrity, for every self-emptying in historical action is a venture, and a way into non-identity. A [person] abandons himself as he was and as he knew himself to be, and, by emptying himself, finds a new self. Jesus’s eschatological saying tells us that ‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loess his life will preserve it'” (The Crucified God 15).

What Moltmann refers to as both self-abandonment and self-emptying correspond to self-surrender as defined as a surrender not to the self but away from the self and to the event of the conflict encounter. Very much, I cannot hold onto myself in this equation, but I must lose myself entirely (no dependence on myself in any way shape or form).

So, what is missing from Schnarch is the surrendering (“self-abandonment”/”self-emptying”) to the event of the conflict encounter that results in the dissolution of self which then results in the transcended self. Dissolution precedes transendence because the dissolution begins with that sharp awareness that what was can be no longer and something most shift, change, be altered in the self. The surrender to this awareness and desire for change is (as described above by Schnarch) dramatic and sudden and rarely ordinary and lethargic. But just as quick is the birth of the new self, the transcended self. The self is either dead or alive and never a little bit of one or the other. Thus, the birth of the new self is and is suddenly.

Again, recourse to Motlmann,

“Only by self-emptying in encounter with what is alien, unknown and different does [a person] achieve selfhood…trust in the hidden and guaranteed identity with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) makes possible the self-abandonment, the road into non-identity and unidentifiability, which neither clings to ancient forms of identity, nor anxiously reaches out for the forms of identity of those one is fighting in common” (The Crucified God 16).

The fundamental component that is missing from Schnarch is the God-encounter. For the hearer who is encountered in the event of God’s self-disclosure in Christ and the conflict that ensues within the person in this event of encounter a demand is felt and that demand is to self-empty and to self-abandon and let go not into a dark abyss of nothingness but into God and God’s self. In other words, go ahead and let yo’self go, Boo; God very much got you.

“Becoming is never safe or secure, especially if we’re dependent on a reflected sense of self. We don’t get to stop when we’re scared or uncomfortable, because we grow by going into the unknown, including the Great Unknown” (Schnarch 399).

The letting go of self (not the holding on to self) that comprises the self-surrender, self-abandonment, self-emptying in the event of the conflict encounter with God’s self-disclosure in Christ is that death from which a transcended-self, a new self is born. This death and new life is far from safe and easy; it demands a beautiful desperation that has occurred by seeking our hope in everything but God and having that hope returned to us void, thus thrusting us deep into our own crucibles. The self’s last ditch effort to be an authentic self, a new self is counterintuitive to self-preservation: it lies in entering into that darkness, into death. But rather than the flat-line being the last thing the self hears as it enters into the darkness of death, it hears the trumpet summoning it awake, resurrecting it from death.

Rain, Rain Everywhere: Homily on John 3:1-15

“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’” (John 3:5-8)

There is something absolutely marvelous about a standard downpour of rain. When the skies open up and release every single droplet of water from a supersaturated atmosphere, there is a magnificence that must be reckoned with.

You might not agree with me; but then again, unless you’ve spent nearly three years in the desert, you might not have the awe I have when rain falls. When you live in Western Colorado, in the high-dessert, you can get the clouds that look like they’ll release heavenly water, but they don’t. The clouds move on, blown by the dry winds and the grass and plants and other sensitive foliage turns browner. Or, you may casually watch a storm front dissipate before your very eyes as you watch it travel east to west, burned and dried out by the dry, dry, dry heat of the sun and air.

I love the rain. And we get some really great rain here. And last night, when the rains fell for a second time, and dinner was almost but not quite ready, I opened the front door and stepped outside. Large water droplets fell all around me, hitting the ground–liquid staccato allegro. Large water droplets broke into smaller droplets as they hit the ground, covering my feet with rain. I stretched out my arm and let the rain hit my hand, and in that moment I was struck by the renewing and cleansing and refreshing that this rain was. The earth was being watered: renewed, cleansed, and refreshed.

And I was reminded of my own renewing and cleansing and refreshing that is daily manifested in my own life as I remember that I am baptized. And not only baptized with water but also of the Spirit; by this baptism I have been grafted into the history of Jesus Christ and thus if into His history then my future is located therein where the promises of God are yes and amen and this is my present tense reality. Each raindrop seemed to carry with it sweet whispers of reminder that while I was born of the flesh at one point in time, I am born anew by the spirit and have been given eyes to see the kingdom of God and enter it, and the ears to hear the loving summons of my Savior that calls me outward toward you. Each drop, a soothing reminder that the promises spoken by God that are fulfilled in and by Christ are mine by faith. Each drop, a refreshing reminder, a new beginning that all that was and is washes from me.[1] As it is written in the second letter to the Corinthians: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ…” (2 Cor 5:17-18b).[2]

While everything around us looks hopeless, while hatred and evil stomp and tromp around leaving what feels like an infinite number of victims in its wake, while our own lives and minds are plagued by turmoil, anxiety, stress, sadness, doubt, and maybe even disbelief that God actually loves and cares for us, we have been given a tangible reminder of God’s love for us. That Jesus Christ’s free and obedient giving of himself on the cross, his being lifted up on the cross is that event to which we turn our heads.[3] As John writes, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

And every time we recall our baptism of water and spirit, we are brought to this event of Christ being lifted up to die for our sins and to be raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). We are brought to the fulfillment of God’s promises that are yes and amen in Christ Jesus. We are brought to the heart of God’s love for us, you are brought to the heart of God’s love for you, for each and every one of you.

Rain, rain everywhere, and in every drop a thirst quenching drink: “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16).

 

[1] Karl Barth CD IV/2 p. 563 “…in relation to everything that [I] previously was or otherwise [am] it is a new beginning newly posited by God.”

[2] This particular portion of the sermon is me playing around with the insights and scholarship of W. Travis McMaken as found in “Definitive, Defective or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4” IJST vol 17.1 Jan. 2015. pp. 102-114.

[3] Karl Barth CD IV/1 p. 166

A Video Interview with John-Marc Ormechea

I don’t like being in front of a camera; I avoid it in fact. (Yes, I know the irony of saying that and being the woman who sent half-naked photos of herself through the Twitterverse earlier this year.) So, when my friend John-Marc Ormechea (otherwise known as @EpicTillich on Twitter), asked me to talk with him via Zoom my response was: hell no! Nah-ah. No way. Hard pass. But what I said was: “uh, sure.” And I mustered up all the courage in my 140 pound frame and sat with John-Marc and talked about my journey in Christ, Martin Luther (#swoon), and Liturgy as a beautiful feature of The Episcopal Communion. It was fun. I talk with my hands *a lot*. I choked up at one point (now you’ll know what I look like when I’m about to cry).  I’m *VERY* animated; everything is right there on my face to see (good news: I’m a bad liar because of this animation).

 

Anyway, here is that video. And, all my gratitude to John-Marc Ormechea for asking me to talk to him about things that I’m passionate about. I’m beyond honored.

 

 

You can find John-Marc Ormechea here: https://epictillich.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter: @EpicTillich. You’ll blessed as I have been.