The New Order Begins!

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

Introduction

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

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

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

According to Paul, there is.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

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

2 Corinthians 5:14-15

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

2 Corinthians 5:16-17

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Dorothee Sölle Creative Disobedience Trans. Lawrence W. Denef. Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995. (Original: Phantasie und Gehorsam: Überlegungen zu einer künftigen chrstilichen Ethik Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1968). “In traditional usage one speaks rather descriptively of ‘fulfilling’ obedience. The picture is that of a container of form which must be filled. So too with obedience. A previously existing order is postulate that must be maintained, defended, or fulfilled. But Jesus did not conceive of the world according to a model of completed order, which person were merely required to maintain. The world he enters had not yet reached perfection. It was alterable, in fact, it awaited transformation. Schemes of order are in Jesus’ words utterly destroyed–great and small, scholar and child, riches and poverty, knowledge of the Law and ignorance. Jesus did everything in his power to relativize these orders and set free the person caught up in these schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Ought obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?” And, “I detect that we need new words to describe the revolutionary nature of all relationships begun in Christ. At the very least it is problematic whether we can even continue to consider that which Jesus wanted under the term obedience.” pp. 27-28

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

Love as Self Embodied Gift

Sancta Colloquia episode 203 ft. Logan Williams

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I have the privilege of talking with friend and academic colleague, Logan Williams (@lllogansays). The topic du jour was a combination of talking about the self, the giving of the self, and love. What does it mean to offer the self as gift in the act of love. Looking at Jesus’s sacrifice and the claim that he “gives himself for us,” does Jesus empty himself in that there is nothing left or does he give himself in a substantival way? The way we answer the question is important, and Logan does well to guide me and you down that narrow way.  We covered a lot and there’s no way I’ll address all of it in this short write up, but I’ll point out some highlights. Logan expands on the predicament we find ourselves in when we overemphasize the loss of self in the event of encounter with God in faith and with Jesus’s self-gift through the event of the cross.  He explains that there are two problems of life giving/self-emptying language used: it tends to portray the self as entirely negative with no possible hint at resurrected life now. Essentially, you give yourself away (empty) without any instance where it is right to take care of yourself. Thus, the end result is seeing the cross and the event of encounter with God in faith as total body destruction (of both Jesus and the person in the event of faith). But yet, is emptying the self an actual gift to another person? Doesn’t one have to have integrity of the self in order to engage the self with others? Logan discusses some of the historicity of the idea of self-emptying. According to him, there is an emphasis in Christendom that we are prone to so seek our own interests to the exclusion of caring for others that the event of self-sacrifice on the cross and the inclusion of that idea in theological anthropological definitions has been included to correct this radical self-absorption and has been absolutized in an unhealthy way. Accordingly, self-emptying to correct self-absorption has become a weapon against women causing them to stay subjugated (marital, friend, social, occupational, etc.). And has been used by male theologians to deal with their anxiety about what the human problem is based on male guilt. Logan doesn’t deny the reality of the “death” component in “giving self as gift” that is characteristic of some of Paul’s language in the letter to the Galatians. According to Logan, for the language to work, double reference–giving self into death and gift–Christ has to maintain the integrity of the self after death. There is a death in the event, but in order for the gift to be given, there needs to be a self. And here you find resurrection themes. Self in the event of “salvation” is both deconstructed and critiqued, challenged and sculpted, taken away and reformed, deconstructed and reconstructed. On the other side of that death is resurrection. This is the good word of new life and new creation in Christ. We become more ourselves in the encounter with God in the event of faith and not “less.” The problem is that the authorities don’t often want the people knowing how much substance they have because how else would they maintain their tyranny? Break the silence, become a little bit dangerous, listen to Logan.  

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

Although born and raised in Northern California, Logan Williams now resides in England, where he is near the completion of his PhD studies at Durham University. His doctoral research focused on love in Greco-Roman philosophy and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and his future research will turn to Jewish apocalyptic literature. Outside of academic life he is an avid musician who writes original music, composes arrangements for choir and a cappella groups, and plays jazz guitar and piano at various gigs locally. As a sort of amateur linguist, he also has a deep love for ancient and modern languages. 

 

Logans Recommended/Mentioned reading:

Gene Outka. Agape: An Ethical Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1972.
David Horrell, Solidarity and Difference (2d ed.; Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).
Anthony Carreras. ‘Aristotle on Other-Selfhood and Reciprocal Shaping’. History of Philosophy Quarterly 29 (2012): 319–336.
John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015).
Collini, Stephan. ‘The Culture of Altruism: Selfishness and the Decay of Motive’. Pages 60–90 in Public Moralists: Political thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850–1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1991.
Sarah Coakley. ‘Kenōsis and Subversion: On the Repression of “Vulnerability” in Christian Feminist Writing’. Pages 3–39 in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender. Challenges in Contemporary Theology. Oxford: Blackwell. 2002.
John Burnaby. Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1938.
Darlene Fozard Weaver. Self-Love and Christian Ethics. New Studies in Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002.
Richard Hays, ‘Christology and Ethics in Galatians: The Law of Christ’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (1987): 268–290.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics books 8–9.
Seneca, On Benefits.
Cicero, On Friendship
Cicero, On Duties

Forgiveness as Death and Resurrection

For 9/11 (Homily)

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  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, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 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 Corinthians 5:14-21)

Two miles doesn’t seem like much. On 9/11 it was. About 2 miles separated my office situated a stones throw from Trump Tower in midtown from the Twin Towers downtown; two miles felt like the distance of an ocean separating me from those two massive towers collapsing in Manhattan. When you are in and out of Manhattan daily, midtown’s Rock Plaza and downtown’s Financial District don’t feel far apart. But on that day, they were. Midtown was secure and safe; downtown lay under layers of debris, destruction, and tragedy. They could have been two different cities…it was just two miles.

Last year I shared with you that I was a new Christian during this national tragedy. I shared that I couldn’t make sense of this God who a few months earlier brought me the comfort of love and forgiveness and now seemed and felt far distant and even absent. For those of us separated by a mile or two from the events, the question about God’s presence in the aftermath of the tragedy became a mere echo within months as Manhattan did what Manhattan does: rebound. It felt like it took New York a New York Minute to find its new normal.

Actually, as we rebuilt and restructured, mended and healed, interned and inurned, the question about God’s presence didn’t go anywhere. While it wasn’t readily on our lips, it lay underneath the resilient human spirit in the form of fear and its twin, anger. At least I can speak for myself: I was afraid and I was angry. Was another attack coming? I should be ready just in case. I would spend months commuting to work prepared to spend the night away from my apartment. Why did this happen to my city, to those innocent people going about their day?! And cue the anger.

These two emotions pack a punch when coupled together, and they are often coupled together. Fear makes room for anger because anger protects us from that which we fear. However, the more anger we have the more we are afraid because anger doesn’t actually solve anything–it keeps us blinded. Yet, suppress either and they both fester and become toxic.

In the aftermath of 9/11 I was in quite the dilemma. I was a new Christian who was afraid and angry. Monday through Friday I worked in the post 9/11 atmosphere of NYC masking my fear and anger; on Saturday and Sunday I was involved in conversations about God’s peace and God’s love. I wanted very much to place blame and seek vengeance; but I was exhorted weekly to love my enemies as myself and to forgive those who trespass against me as I am forgiven my trespasses.

Forgiveness is a very heavy topic in any situation, especially those situations involving deep pain, personal loss, fear and anger. So, I dare to piggy back off of Rev. Kennedy’s excellent homily from last Wednesday wherein he discussed our need to be forgiven and to forgive and the reasons why. While I have nothing substantial to add to what he said, I was moved to contemplate the act of forgiveness. What is it? What does it do?

I’ve found in my years walking with Christ, forgiveness isn’t a mere formula of words uttered into the universe hoping they land somewhere, like shooting arrows at an unknown target in the horizon. Forgiveness demands intention, demands my full presence both to offer and to receive the words of forgiveness. Forgiveness demands so much because–like it’s twin, love–there’s no half way. Like love, forgiveness demands a death. It’s not only setting your pride a side, it’s dying to what was. I can no longer hold on to what was, for it’s gone; to cling is to grasp at oil. I can only turn forward and face the oncoming future, the very future forgiveness beckons me into, the future I do not have control over. It’s a death to follow in and to relinquish the façade of ownership of the past. But in this gallows there God is; in this crisis there Christ is; in this suffering, there the Spirit comforts and whispers: it is finished.

And where there is the divine it is finished, there is resurrection. When we die to what was, we are brought into new and vibrant life of now. In this newness of life in the aftermath of forgiveness, something remarkable happens: what is possible takes priority over what is actual. In forgiveness, it’s now possible to build anew, to move forward, to grow into solid and beautiful selves—scars and all. I know well it’s not easy and it takes time—as anything worthwhile in our lives: time, space, and patience is needed. It’s not easy, but the life that comes from it is worth every painful, cautious step.

Christ’s love and forgiveness plucked me from the very real clutches of darkness, sin, and death in 2000; not even a year later, in 2001, Christ’s love and forgiveness beckoned me forward through death into life again. A few more times since then this call has sounded.

I don’t know much, but I do know that in Christ there is life even where there seems to be only death everywhere; I know that out of the ashes and rubble of our lives, the phoenix that is God’s grace rises; I know that fear and anger do not have the final word because the comforter, the Spirit, brings peace beyond understanding. I know that in this in love and forgiveness I find the core of all that is good and right and divine and human, and that love and forgiveness are the foundation and substance of my life. I know that in this love and forgiveness God is good and that even the darkest times, God will never leave us of forsake us because there is love and forgiveness.

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.