With Dirty Hands

Sermon on Mark 7:5-8

Psalm 45:7-8  Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom; you love righteousness and hate iniquity. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness…

Introduction

One of the most difficult things for me to navigate as a teacher is the tendency for students to parrot. When I was a teacher at the high school levels, I would walk around my circle of students and say, “I want to know what *you* think; I don’t need 20 more Rev. Larkins…God knows there’s one too many.” To protect the space for students toward intellectual liberty, I implemented a contract grading system. Making grades dependent on the completion of specific tasks (with flexibility to student need) rather than on memorization and recitation. While I had great success with this grading approach, one thing congested the air preventing authentic and personal wrestling with thought: the deeply ingrained training of conformity for fear of punishment. For the life of me, there were students who just froze when given the liberty to speak their mind, so they would tell me what they thought I wanted to hear.

While I could wax not-so-eloquently about the state of school systems and how they contribute to the conformity of human beings to the status-quo rather than bolstering and building curiosity and creativity, the thing that I want to stress here is that this conformity for fear of punishment moved from chair and desk into pew and table. When I lead chapel as a chaplain at the high school, I’d listen to student voices recite in unison creeds, prayers, and responses. But there was very little life in it. They said the words because they had to, because they were told they must, because they were afraid of some form of punishment if they didn’t. For one reason or another, their hearts were far from those words.

At some point during each semester, I’d exhort them: “Don’t say the words if you really don’t want to; there’s nothing magic in them, you aren’t saved through them but through faith. You have my permission to opt out.” I desired for them to have robust and vigorous relationships with God, the very God who moved heaven and earth to be as close to them as they are to themselves and maybe even closer. I wanted them to embody the liberation that comes with the groundwork of justification with God by faith in Christ alone by the power of the Holy Spirit. I wanted them to want to say those words, those prayers, those responses and not because they were so tied to fear and traditionalism. I wanted them to be ὸ λαός of God bursting forth from the heart, not an illusion built upon words slipping from lips.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

And then the Pharisees and the scribes questioned him, “Why are your disciples not walking according to the tradition of the elders, but are eating food with unclean hands?” And [Jesus] said to them, “Isaiah prophesied well concerning you pretenders, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with lips, but their heart are held far back from me; and they worship me to no purpose while teaching the teaching of religious precepts of humanity.’ While releasing the command of God you hold fast to the tradition of humanity handed down.”[1]

Mark 7:5-8

So, Jesus’s disciples are caught eating with dirty hands by a group of pharisee-scribes coming from Jerusalem (vv. 1-2).[2] As the disciples sit and eat, this group of religious authorities from Jerusalem confronts Jesus about this brash and flagrant infraction. Why care so much? Well, the issue at stake here for this group of religious authorities is that Jewish people are supposed to wash their hands (and other items (vv. 3-4)[3]) diligently prior to using them to make sure they are ritually clean (the issue of hygiene is less in view here).[4] What’s interesting is there’s only a reference in the First Testament (Ex. 30:18-21; 40:30-32) to diligently washing hands for the sake of purity: priests are supposed to wash their hands prior to the sacrifice.[5]

The command to wash hands—given to the priests—morphed into a human tradition passed down from the religious authorities to the people, and it became normative.[6] This is what Jesus takes issue with, and rightly so. The emphasis on obedience to the traditions handed down by humanity interferes with heart-felt devotion to God. The people, who are merely trying to survive day in and day out, are burdened with superfluous tasks and deeds baptized in the name of God. The work of serving the Lord and offering authentic devotion birthed from the heart gives way to the toil of upholding human made demands for fear of being punished or ostracized. So, in defense of the beleaguered people, Jesus creatively quotes Isaiah[7] to respond to the pharisee-scribes from Jerusalem:

“‘This people honors me with lips, but their heart is held far back from me; and they worship me to no purpose while teaching the teaching of religious precepts of humanity.’”

And concludes with the accusation that they have allowed the traditions of humanity to usurp the command of God (v.8).

Two things I want to highlight here in the profundity of Jesus’s reply. There’s a clear accusation against the religious authorities: they’ve taught and handed down these traditions of humanity and demonstrate they are not holding to the commands of God.[8] The religious authorities are taking the purity of the people into their own hands thus they are commandeering the worship of the people to reflect human traditions handed down (the externals).[9] The more they do this, the further they get from being of the things of God.[10] Their worship of God is of no purpose and in vain. This is their own doing.

The other thing I want to highlight is this: while Jesus is casting divine accusation at the religious authorities for their preference for human tradition over and against divine command, he’s also exposing the people. As the religious authorities peddle these traditions of humanity handed down and baptize them as God’s decree, the people (ὁ λαός) are also far from being of the things of God and are consumed by the things of humanity. They, too, worship in vain and to no purpose. But this is not of their own doing.

Conclusion

My colleague and dear friend The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch reflects on the call of the black woman preacher, Zilpha Elaw:

“…she described people who were bothered by her ministry as ‘ignorant and prejudiced…men whose whims are law, who walk after the imagination of their own hearts, and to whom the cause of God is a toy…’ She could not and would not give in to [sic.] their objections and neglect God’s calling on her. Her calling was so clear, so distinct, that she remarks ‘it is an easy matter to adopt a string of notions on religion, and make a great ado about them; but the weight of religious obligation, and the principle of conscientious obedience to God are quite another matter.’ To translate that into today’s terms, Elaw implies that it is easier to become legalistic over doctrine than to obey God’s calling on our lives.”[11]

Elaw qtd in The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch’s forthcoming book.

I was never upset with my beloved students for their fear of performing rightly if vacantly; they were taught to fear things created by human minds and hands. I was upset with their teachers, the ones who instilled the fear. Their teachers had become legalistic and had rejected God’s calling on their life to love people and not idols, and that rejection was reflected in their teaching. And, as Jesus says, what comes out of our mouths is very important.

When we become so consumed with this thing and that thing, with how things should be done and should not be done, with wood and stone, with our own purity and obedience in external things, we lose the marvel and wonder of the divine presence in the encounter with God in the event of faith. All these material and external things surrounding us are here to serve us and our worship; we are not to serve it. When we elevate the material and external things to the realm of the divine, we will—along with the pharisee-scribes—release the word of God and hold fast to the traditions handed down by humanity. When the emphasis falls on us serving the material and external things; we become burdened with toil and our worship is in vain and to no purpose because we are worshipping ourselves.

Even worse than losing ourselves in wrong priorities, we will guide others into this dis-order. As a priest and future doctor of the church, the weight is rightly on me to speak well. Not in terms of doctrine and dogma (human made), not in creeds and prayers (again, human made), but in the Word made flesh, the incarnate word of God, the Christ crucified and raised. Those of us called out to lead from within must remain humbled at the foot of the cross and consumed in the glory of divine activity of life out of death in the resurrection of Jesus. It is not about me bringing you into what makes sense to me, but into what makes sense to God: divine love, divine peace, divine justice for you and for others. In other words, what comes out of my mouth is very important and reveals where my roots are, where my focus is, and to whom my heart belongs (vv.14-15).

Beloved, we have been liberated to love the world not in the purity of our religiosity which actually drives people away, but in the imperfection of our humanity which will call people in. It’s not about getting the external and material right in these walls at this table in these linens; rather, it’s about living through the imperfection of our belovedness into the world making the material and external better for those fighting to survive for truly this is divine love, divine peace, and divine justice in action.

Let us love as we’ve been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 280. “Matthew’s phrase ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων Φαρισαῖοι καὶ γραμματεῖς suggests a single group coming from Jerusalem to Galilee. Mark’s wording, however, divides the group into the (presumably local) Φαρισαῖοι and τινες τῶν γραμματέων ἐλθόντες ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων. Judging from the area of their concern these scribes from Jerusalem were themselves also Pharisees, and no distinction between the two groups is discernible in the pericope…The fact that in both instances they are described as having arrived…from Jerusalem probably indicates that they have come specially to investigate and/or to dispute with Jesus.”

[3] France Mark 281. “Mark’s explanatory account of Jewish rituals of purity is apparently directed to Gentile readers of the gospel. It is a broad-brush, unsophisticated account, which conveys a general sense of meticulous concern to avoid defilement rather than a nuanced presentation of the purity laws- of the OT and of tradition.”

[4] France Mark 280. “As in 2:18,23-24, it is the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples rather than his actions which provides the point of dispute…The issue this time (as in 2:18) is not one of obedience to the OT laws, but of rules subsequently developed in Pharisaic circles. While no doubt it could normally be expected that hands would be washed before a meal for hygienic reasons (since food was often taken from a common dish), the only hand washing required in the OT for purposes of ritual purity is that of priests before offering sacrifice (Ex. 30:18-21; 40:30-32). The extension of this principle to the eating of ordinary food, and to Jewish people other than priests, was a matter of scribal development, and it is uncertain how far it had progressed by the time of Jesus.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] France Mark 283. τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν περσβυτέρων “The term is not specific, and refers merely to ‘received wisdom’, and that wisdom may not have been of very long standing, nor have been shared by all groups within Judaism at that time. But for the scribes, as for religious groups generally, there is an assumption that what has once been established by usage normative; for them this practice is now self-evidently right. Jesus’ response will therefore focus on this more fundamental issue of the relative authority of tradition as such as a guide to the will of God, rather than on the provenance of the particular tradition in question.”

[7] France Mark 284. “‘The Introductory formula (containing the only use in Mark of the ‘Matthean’ term ὑποκριτής) assumes that Isaiah’s words, which originally described the superficial religious devotion of his eighth-century contemporaries than predicting a future situation, can be directly applied to, indeed were written about, ὑμεῖς. This ‘contemporising’ use of OT texts is typical of much NT interpretation, and presupposes a typological understanding of continuity in the relationship between God and his people such that earlier events and situations appropriately serve as models for a later era of fulfilment, even though in themselves they had no predictive force.”

[8] France Mark 284. “The specific statement that the worship described is ‘vain’ undoubtedly sharpens the application, and the inclusion of διδάσκοντες fits well with the specific application of the charge to scribes rather than to the people in general, but the text even in its Hebrew form describes a worship which is based on externals and is of purely human origin, which is just the point which Jesus goes on to make about the scribal traditions, whereas the specifically LXX point that their worship is ‘in vain’ is nowhere drawn into Jesus’ comments.”

[9] France Mark 284-5. “The contrast in Isaiah between lips (words) and heart is not taken up as a regular form of expression in the gospels, but reflects an important prophetic theme…and corresponds to the charge elsewhere in the gospels that scribal religion is more concerned with external correctness than with fundamental attitudes and relationship to God…”

[10] France Mark 285. “The fundamental contrast is the last—true religion is focused on God, not a merely human activity. What comes from God has the authoritative character of ἐντολή, which requires obedience; what comes from human authority is merely παράδοσις, which may or may not be of value in itself, but cannot have the same mandatory character. Yet they have held fast to the latter, while allowing the former to go by default. ἀφίμι perhaps does not yet denote deliberate rejection, but rather a wrong sense of priorities, resuming in de facto neglect of God’s law…”

[11] Zilpha Elaw qtd in The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch’s forthcoming book. The reflection by Elaw is from recorded in Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century ed. William L. Andrews.

Hearing unto Life

Romans 5:12-19 (Sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Deuteronomy 30:6ff

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

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

[10] Deuteronomy 6.

[11] John 1

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

[13] Deuteronomy 30:6

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

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

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

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

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

Love 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

Jesus of Nazareth the Christ

A short post on Gerhard Ebeling’s views of Christology.

The following is something I wrote for an advanced theology class I’m cultivating/forming, and I tasked my self with completing the first assignment. The text assigned was from Word and Faith by Gerhard Ebeling, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” which is an essay written in Honor of Rudolf Bultmann’s 75th birthday. It’s fun to participate in a project like developing this type of class, and putting yourself on the spot. The students have the opportunity to critical engage my work; I stand not above them, but with them. I wanted to share here what I wrote because 1. I’ve been meaning to process the concept of the Historical Jesus specifically from Ebeling’s view for my own work; and, 2. why not? Enjoy, Beloveds. 

 

Proving Jesus existed cannot be the sole foundation for faith. Making an apologetic for faith out of Jesus the man is a mere throwing words into the wind. Faith extends beyond that which can be discerned by the five senses. To actualize by scroll and parchment the humanity of the Jesus of Nazareth merely means that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, existed at one point in time. If the Christian claim was only Jesus as a great moral exemplar, well, then, maybe we’d have something to go on. However, that’s not the laudatory aspect of the gospel proclamation; there’s nothing substantially good or new about another good man being a good human. Yet, the proclamation of the gospel is both good and new; as it pertains to Jesus of Nazareth something else must be at work especially if, christologically speaking, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the communication of faith.

 

In his chapter, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” Gerhard Ebeling makes this statement, “The encounter with Jesus as the witness to faith, however, is without limitation an encounter with himself. For the concentration on the coming to expression of faith—and that alone!—is the ground of the unity of ‘person’ and ‘work’, but for that reason also the ground of the totality of the encounter,” (298). And then Ebeling adds, “Faith’s view of Jesus must therefore assert itself as a furtherance to the historical view of Jesus. For faith itself is the coming to its goal of what came to expression in Jesus. The [one] who believes is with the historical Jesus,” (298). There was a man Jesus of Nazareth and the early church recorded and proclaimed very specific things about him. Thus, seemingly opposing my first comment: Jesus’s existence is everything for faith. It is in encounter with Christ (both then and now through the proclamation of the Word of God) that is the beckoning of the event of faith. There must be a man named Jesus who is of Nazareth to make the claim that this particular man is God.

 

Faith is not strict intellectual assent to the actuality of the human person named Jesus who is of Nazareth. Rather, faith asserts something about this particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. (This is the same distinction Ebeling highlights between the claims about the historical Jesus and the early church’s proclamation of Christ (300-301).) Faith is that event by which the person is encountered by God through the proclamation of Christ crucified and raised. In hearing the word the person is seized by the proclamation and faith assents: behold God. Ebeling, “To belong to Jesus means to believe, and to believe means to belong to Jesus. Faith is not a form that can be given any content at will, but is the very essence of the matter, the thing that came with Jesus Christ, the content of revelation, the gift of salvation itself,” (303). Faith explains how one moves from the demand, crucify him! To surely, this was the son of God.

 

To have faith in Christ is not because of any one thing or picture or idea presented about Jesus (304). Faith’s grounding is this man Jesus of Nazareth who is God. To quote Ebeling, “…the sole ground of faith is Jesus as the witness to faith in the pregnant sense of the ‘author and finisher of faith’,” (304). Ruled out here are any claims to reason and will or even to fear as the basis for one believing in Jesus as the savior of the world. Faith is new every morning because it asserts new every morning what came to expression in Jesus (304). It is timeless because it is the event of the encounter with God who is unrestricted by time. The proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sins and raised for justification is the means by which the hearer is beckoned into the encounter and thus into faith and grafted into the universal and eternal message of God’s dealings with the entire world.

“Have Mercy on Me!”

Luke 17:11-19 (Sermon)

Introduction

God is hard to pin down and figure out because, as Bishop Owensby said, “God is a who and not a what”; a person, not a thing. So, our knowledge of God is limited; it seems we live in the tension between the book of Numbers and the held breath of the Easter Vigil. The chaotic and terrifying book of Numbers highlighting God’s bold activity emphasizes that no one puts God in a corner; this gives way to the deafening silence of the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Movement then silence and stillness. More movement…more silence and stillness. It’s part of the story of Israel in the midst of exile and return; it’s part of our story, too. There are times when our hearts grow weary, on the brink of fracturing under the weight of yearning under the twin questions: where is God? Who is God? I wish I could tell you I’ve never doubted; I have. I wish I could tell you that I always stand on the firm bedrock of my faith; I don’t. I question, I weep, I long. Where is beauty? Where is justice? Where is peace? Where is love? Where is God? If God has come, and God’s will is being done, then why isn’t earth as it is in heaven? Sadly, it’s often hard to think about giving thanks.

I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me!

vv.11-14

Jesus is on the move in our gospel passage. Luke tells us he travels into Jerusalem, taking a middle route between Samaria and Galilee (v.11). As Jesus enters a certain village a group of ten men encounter him; but they keep their distance (v.12). They kept their distance because they suffered from leprosy—it was a divine curse and they were ritually unclean. [1] These leprous men knew their plight and the commands of Torah: one must steer clear of family and community, [2] and one must announce their unclean presence. [3] But these men weren’t without hope: lepers could be healed and welcomed back. [4]

And hope comes near; and they recognized hope when they saw him. And they lifted up their voices and cried out when they saw this hope. “Jesus!” They called. “Master, have mercy on us!” Desperate, they called out to the one they knew could help them, who had the miraculous power to rid them of this curse and make them clean.[5] (Otherwise, why ask?) Calling Jesus “Master” is not only a term of respect; they saw and recognized in Christ the power of God to heal and reconcile.[6] And their desperate hope and plea is met with an answer from Jesus: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And they got up and went. On the way they were made clean (v.14).

If we stop here, we might be tempted to make faith into a work. (Have (enough) faith and be healed!). When that happens, faith no longer saves, it no longer flies with the wings of mercy and hope but is a mere dead stone dropped into the deepest part of the sea. If we stop here, we will make this moment of sudden healing of the ten leprous men the dénouement. But it’s not. This is:

Now one of the men when he saw that he had been healed, returned with a great voice giving glory to God, and he fell upon his face on the feet of [Jesus] giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan…and [Jesus] said to him ‘Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” (Luke 17:15-16, 19)

Gratitude.[7] Gratitude is pushed to the front. Hiding behind all the other players on the stage, gratitude steps forward and speaks. And Luke uses a leprous Samaritan voice,[8]the voice of a double outcast, to do make a point. It’s the Samaritan who understands what has happened in his event of encounter with the merciful one. His leprosy is gone and he is clean, and something bigger occurred: he’s healed (v.15). Luke changes the verb “they were made clean”[9] in v. 14 to “he had been healed”[10] in v. 15.

The comparison here is not between one having faith and the others not.[11] Rather, the comparison is between only hearing and really hearing so deeply that you do (shema). All ten were made clean; one realizes he’s healed. They all believed; one saw and heard.[12] Would not a double outcast know the depths of rejection and being marginalized?[13] Would not a double outcast know not only the miraculous healing, but also the bigger miracle being healed by Jesus, the good Rabbi, a Jew? [14] The Samaritan Leper is accepted and received across socio-political lines. It’s doubly not about clean and unclean with Christ. It’s about cosmic healing and this Samaritan man sees it. It’s the word of acceptance, of mercy, of hope, of beloved that he hears—words having long gone silent and still. And he hears so deeply that he can only do one thing: return with magnificent gratitude to the one who is the priest of priests in the temple of temples. And it is this priest and this temple that know no dividing walls and exclusion, but only unity and inclusion.[15] And he is grateful! He falls on his face at Jesus’s feet:[16] loving the Lord his God “with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind…” (Lk 10:27).

Conclusion

We may think that in this age of pain and suffering, this level of gratitude has gone the way of the horse and buggy. But I don’t think it has. I think each and everyone of us knows the depth of gratitude that changes lives forever: the partner who took us back when we didn’t deserve it; the friend who forgave us; the parent who embraces us upon our return even when we were convinced things were too far gone; the sibling who actually did pick up the phone finally. We know this depth of gratitude. And our hope for ourselves and for others—not only those seated here with us right now, but for the whole world—is based and embedded in this simple thing: gratitude.

Gratitude is the basis of our ethic because gratitude remembers and recalls and retells the story of when: when we were too far-gone, when we were lost, when we were in doubt, when we were angry and then God.[17] Christ came near. God in Christ comes near to those who think they are too far-gone, he seeks those who are lost, he believes for those who are in doubt, and comforts those who are angry.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 38-39)

As we tell our stories here and proclaim Christ crucified for us, we encourage each other and carry each other and bear each other up. We then spill out from this building into the world. And as we go we carry with us our absurd gratitude and our absurd stories into a world that is convinced God has gone completely silent and completely still, questions of where and who still fresh on suffering, hurting lips. But God is only silent and still if we remain so; God’s silence and stillness is only true if we forget who we are and whose we are: we are the apple of God’s eye, we are the beloved of Christ, and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Where we go, so too does God; where God goes, so too do we.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:11b-13)

It is God in Christ Jesus who is our story, the one we remember, recall, and retell. Christ is our faith, hope, and mercy—not only when we cannot muster these but especially when all we can do is: I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me! And he does; over and over again never ceasing and never failing.

Hallelujah!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the Lord! (Ps 111:1-2)

[1] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). “‘Leprosy’ was a term used to designate a number of skin diseases, so the fundamental problem of these ten was, in all likelihood, not a malady that was physically life-threatening. Instead, they were faced with a debilitating disorder. Regarded as living under a divine curse and as ritually unclean (whether they were Jew or Samaritan, it does not matter), they were relegated to the margins of society.” 623.

[2] Justo Gonzalez “Luke” Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. “To be a leper was not only to suffer a physical illness, but to be cast out from family and society.” 205.

[3] Gonzalez 204-5, Numbers 5:2 (lepers ostracized from community by law); Leviticus 13:45-46 (lepers announce their uncleanliness).

[4] Gonzalez 205, “Since various diseases were included under the general heading of leprosy, allowance had to be made for those whose symptoms disappeared. For them, the law provided a detailed procedure, which included an examination by a priest, and then a complex ritual of cleansing (Lev. 14:2-32).”

[5] Green 623, “Used elsewhere in the Third Gospel, ‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power, and this is its meaning here.”

[6] Green 623, “What is clear is that, in naming him as master, these lepers place themselves in a position of subordination to him in the hope of receiving from him some form of benefaction. This benefaction, they seem to believe, will have its source in God; in effect, they request from Jesus a merciful visitation from God.”

[7] Gonzalez 204. “The theme of gratitude for God’s wondrous and unmerited gifts connects it with the previous parable, about the master owing nothing to the slave. In this case, the Samaritan who returns is grateful for what Jesus has done, while the others seem to take it in stride, almost as if it were their rightful due.”

[8] Gonzalez 205-6, The one who returns is a Samaritan and it is assumed the other 9 were Jews; the Samaritan is leper (outcast) and Samaritan (double outcast).

[9] Greek: εκαθαρι᾽σθησαν

[10] Greek: ια᾽θη

[11] Gonzalez 205, “We tend to ignore these nine, or to classify them as unbelieving ones; but the text says (or at least implies) that they believed Jesus, and even that they obeyed him by continuing on their way to see the priests.”

[12] Green 626, “What separates the one from the nine, then, is not the nature of the salvific benefits received. Rather, the nine are distinguished by their apparent lack of perception and, then, by their ingratitude. They do not recognize that they have been healed. This may be because leprosy was as much or more a socio-religious stigma as a physical malady. For it to be effective, cleansing must reach more deeply than the surface of one’s skin, and it may be precisely this added dimension of restoration that the nine fail to comprehend. More evident in the distinction between the behavior of the one and the nine, though, is the failure of the latter to recognize that they had received divine benefit from Jesus.”

[13] Gonzalez 206, “One could even say that there is a hint that the reason why he was doubly grateful for his healing was that he had a double experience of exclusion, and that he therefore could be doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing—not only a leper but a Samaritan leper! Thus the great reversal takes a new twist: those who are most marginal and excluded are also able to be most grateful to this Lord who includes them. Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”

[14] Green 624-5, “Unlike the other lepers, this one perceives that he has been the recipient of divine benefaction—and that at the hand of Jesus. Of his three actions—praising God, falling at Jesus’ feet, and thanking Jesus — the first is expected within the Lukan narrative, the second two quite extraordinary. Praising God following a miracle is the appropriate response in the Third Gospel; indeed, this former leper joins many in the narrative who witness God’s mighty acts, then return praising God.”

[15] Green 626, “Worded differently, one appropriately gives praise to God via one’s grateful submission to Jesus as master or lord, the ‘location,’ so to speak, of God’s beneficence. Here, Luke’s Christology reaches impressive heights as he presents Jesus in the role of the temple – as one in whom the powerful and merciful presence of God is realized and before whom the God of the temple (whether in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim!) can be worshiped.”

[16] Green 625, “’Falling at the feet’ of someone is an act of submission by which one acknowledges another’s authority; it signifies reverence, just the sort of response one might make toward a person regarded as one’s benefactor. Gratitude, too, is expected of those who have received benefaction. Because the former leper recognizes Jesus as the agent of the inbreaking kingdom of God, there is nothing incongruous in his actions: Both praising God and to his request for the merciful visitation of God.”

[17] Karl Holl The Reconstruction of Morality. Eds. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense. Trans. Fred W. Meuser and Walter R. Wietzke. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1979. “But whence comes this duty to love God? Luther did not fail to answer this question in his Lectures on the Psalms. We are bound to love God because God is the given and sustainer of life who daily, unceasingly, and bountifully blesses us with his gifts. It is therefore the feeling of gratitude form which Luther derived the sense of obligation. Now we see why the New Testament imperative, in all its majesty and inexorableness, stirred him so deeply. He accepted it not only on authority; its essential meaning wrought conviction. If we owe God everything, then even by ‘natural right’ [iure naturali] we must give ourselves wholly to God.” 48.