From One Grain of Earth

Sermon on John 18:33-37

Psalm 132: 8-10  Arise, O Lord, into your resting-place, you and the ark of your strength. Let your priests be clothed with righteousness; let your faithful people sing with joy. For your servant David’s sake, do not turn away the face of your Anointed.

Introduction

The Christian life can feel hard to live out in moderation. We are told that we are not of this world but merely resident in the world. In the letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts the believers in chapter 12 not to be “conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” (v.2a-b). In the book of James, we are told that to be friends with the world causes us to be enemies of God (4:4). 1 John 2:15-17 reads:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

With these rather antagonistic words spoken against the world, what is a material girl to do? How do I, a human being—made of very tangible materials of bone and flesh, living in a world that is made up of other various material—navigate this supposed enmity between that which is spiritual and material? That which is of God and that which is of the world? What does it mean to be here but not of here?

Answers tend to range in two binaries: be completely invested in other-worldly, spiritual matters and the non-corporeal or be completely invested in the material and corporeal. The problem with the former is that it makes you too disconnected from the plight of the world and those who are materially sabotaged and held captive by malevolent and prejudicial systems, not to mention the very real tendency to participate in those systems that abuse and consume both the flora and fauna of creation. The latter is problematic because of the tendency to make a religion out of creation, forcing it into a space it’s not supposed to be—forcing the material to be spiritual—thus stealing its mystery and magnificence as it becomes a part of your consumption.

But what if the robustness of our Christian life isn’t in the either/or but in the paradox: in our material existence therein is our spiritual existence, and in our spiritual existence therein is our material existence? What if there is something to the Ruach of God mingling with dirt resulting in human form and existence?[1] In other words, what if the incarnation of Christ our King means something for our life in the present realm and not just the ethereal one? What if the other-cosmicness of Christ’s kingdom is made most manifest in our earthliness when we, filled with the Spirit press into the love of God and find ourselves at the doorstep of our neighbor, in solidarity with them?

John 18:33-37

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this cosmos; if my kingdom was of this cosmos, my servants would be striving so that I would not be handed over to the Jews. But now my kingdom is not from this place.” Then Pilate said to him, “So then you, you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You, you say that I am. For this I have been brought forth, and for this I have come into the cosmos, so that I may witness to the truth…”[2]

John 18:36-37b

John tells us that Jesus is brought before Pilate, deep within the residence of the governor.[3] In this scene, Pilate seeks to get answers to questions to retrieve information if Jesus is a king or not. In his questions, Pilate reveals his primary concern: Are you a threat to me and my people and land? [4] Are me and mine threatened by your and yours? Jesus’s answer can be boiled down to a not-so-clear: yesno. In other words: Jesus doesn’t deny being a king, but he does deny being that type of king, a king of this world. It’s this ambiguous yesno that causes Pilate to keep along his line of questioning: If a king, what type of kingdom, then? [5] And Jesus’s answer can be boiled down again to another not-so-clear response: therehere and some herethere.

The radical thing about Jesus’s presence before Pilate is that he sees Jesus as merely a man, just a material and corporeal being. Yet Jesus’s replies indicate an otherworldliness to his presence and being.[6] There’s a collision of the divine and the created, of the infinite and the finite, of the immaterial and the material, of the non-corporeal and the corporeal. If there ever was an intersection of the collision of the otherness and the familiar, it’s here in the incarnation of the Christ the king, a divine ruler of the heavens, before a flesh and bone only human ruler of the earth. Here, Pilate is exposed by Jesus—the ruler of land is exposed by the ruler of notland. Here, the Judge is being judged by the judge who is being judged by the Judge; here, life collides with death, and death with life.[7]

Here truth confronts lie. As Jesus tells Pilate that he is here to reveal the truth into this world, Pilate is now in the position to hear it or not. The great Shema, hear!, entered Pilate’s home and spoke to him. If Jesus is the witness to the truth, then Pilate is positioned as the one who witnesses to the lie. He reveals this by his question, “What is truth?” To ask this question exposes Pilate’s not heard Jesus’s voice, the divine call to truth; Pilate remains outside of it.[8]

Conclusion

Of what is Pilate remaining outside? The reign of God entering the kingdom of humanity to overhaul it: by first taking it down to rubble and then resurrecting God’s new kingdom under the reign of Christ and the law of love, mercy and kindness, love and grace, forgiveness and longsuffering, in solidarity and revolution on behalf of the captives. This reign and kingdom does not hover above, to the left, to the right, or just below the earth; it exists in the world and on the earth, forcing everything out of the comfort of neutrality to side with either truth or lie.[9]

And that goes for us, too. We who follow Jesus out of the Jordan and into Jerusalem must see that we are neither solely of this material world nor solely of a spiritual world, for either extreme renders us as neutral to what is going on. Rather we are to hear the truth that is Christ and feel the claim of Christ the king and his reign.[10] We must see our material life made whole by our spiritual life, and our spiritual life made whole by our material life. Through the presence of the Spirit of God, we must see our profound and deep connection to the very soil beneath our feet. As we do, we will see that the breadth of the heavens, the entire cosmos, this world, this creation, this humanity is united in a profound connection of a material-spiritual existence. For from the soil humanity was created by the divine breath of God; in the essence of our existence, we all share in one grain of earth…

The Beginning of the World {Yokuts}

“Everything was water except a small piece of ground. On this were Eagle and Coyote. Then the turtle swam to them. They sent it to dive for the earth at the bottom of the water. The turtle barely succeeded in reaching the bottom and touching it with its foot. When it came up again, all the earth seemed washed out. Coyote looked closely at its nails. At last he found a grain of earth. Then he and the eagle took this and laid it down. From it they made the earth as large as it is. From the earth they also made six men and six women. They sent these out in pairs in different directions and the people separated. After a time the eagle sent Coyote to see what the people were doing. Coyote came back and said: ‘They are doing something bad. They are eating the earth. One side is already gone.’ Then eagle said: ‘That is bad. Let us make something for them to eat. Let us send the dove to find something.’ The dove went out. It found a single grain of meal. The eagle and Coyote put this down on the ground. Then the earth became covered with seeds and fruit. Now they told the people to eat these. When the seeds were dry and ripe the people gathered them. Then the people increased and spread all over. But the water is still under the world.”[11]


[1] Ref. Gen 2

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[3] Part of the definition of τὸ πραιτώριον, the Praetorium.

[4] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. 653. “The significance of the question is determined by the fact that Pilate, i.e, the state, understands the concept of king only in the political sense. Pilate therefore proceeds now in an objective manner in so far as he, despite the mistrust of the accuser voiced in v. 31, investigates conscientiously whether there was occasion for proceedings by the state. Does Jesus claim a political status which the representative of the public authority could not recognize?”

[5] Bultmann John 654-655. “Pilate questions further, because Jesus indeed has indirectly affirmed that he is a king; and now Jesus affirms it directly: Yes, he is a king! But of what sort is his kingdom? Some kind of claim to sovereignty must be his, otherwise his statement would have lost all meaning!”

[6] Bultmann John 654. “That this concerns a claim which goes forth to the world from beyond it is signified by γεγέννημαι και… ελήλυθα εἰς τὸν κόσμον, whereby γεγέννημαι to a certain extent is orientated to the viewpoint of Pilate, for whom Jesus is first and foremost a man and nothing more: he, this man, has come for this reason… But because in this man one is confronted with a claim other than human, the mythological ελήλυθα εἰς τὸν κόσμον is paradoxically bound up with γεγ.: the origin—and therefore the being of this man is not from this world, but he has ‘come’ into this world.”

[7] Bultman John 655. “And in truth he has come in order to ‘bear witness’ for the ‘truth,’ i.e. in order to make God’s reality effective over against the world in the great trial between God and the world. He indeed has come into the world for judgment (9.39; 3.19), and his witness is at the same time an accusation against the world (7.7). It is in this ‘witness’ that he lays his claim to sovereignty; he himself is the ἀλήθεια to which he bears testimony (14.6), and he testifies on behalf of himself (8.14, 18). He is the judge, who decides over life and death (5.19ff.). So he stands now also before Pilate, who according to the world’s standard is his judge.”

[8] Bultman John 656. “…‘What is truth?’ i.e. he takes the point of view that the state is not interested in the question about the ἀλήθεια—about the reality of God, or as perhaps it ought to be expressed in Pilate’s way of thinking—about reality in the radical sense. He remains on the outside. For the person who represents this standpoint that means that he shuts the door on the claim of the revelation, and in so doing he shows that he is not of the truth—he is of the lie.”

[9] Bultman John 657. “For the βασιλεία is not an isolated sphere of pure inwardness over against the world, it is not a private area for the cultivation of religious needs, which could not come into conflict with the world. The word of Jesus unmasks the world as a world of sin, and it challenges it. In order to defend itself against the word it flees to the state, and demands that the latter put itself at its disposal. But then the state is torn out of its neutrality precisely in so far as its firm hold on to neutrality signifies a decision against the world.”

[10] Bultmann John 654. “The reader knows that if the βασιλεία of Jesus is not ‘of this world,’ and is not ‘from here,’ as it is ἂνωθεν, and therefore superior to all worldly dominion (cp. 3.31). He knows also the peculiar claim which this βασιλεία makes on man.”

[11] https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/The-Beginning-Of-The-World-Wukchamni-Yokut.html

Of the Land

Meditation

Psalm 22:2-3 O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest. Yet you are the Holy One, enthroned upon the praises of Israel.

We have a problem. A big one. One so big that some think that we are about to run out of time to do anything about it. I’m not yet hopeless, emphasis on yet. Some days are better than others; half of the days leave me feeling emotionally and spiritually catatonic. I can barely utter the question that streams from mind to tongue: what in the world are we doing? Have we become so consumed with consumption that we will consume the ground from under our feet? Would we really rather self-destruct than self-reflect?

Our relationship with the land is in dire-straights, and it has been for a while, like centuries. A long time ago we lost the idea that from the earth we were pulled and formed and into that dust begotten form God breathed life. Over the course of time, we lost sight of our forever and necessary dependence on the land, not just in what it can offer up to us, but that it must be here for us to be here. Long ago, we let something else lure us into reconceiving the centrality of our existence in opposition to the world. Humanity against the land; when the land resists, you fight back bigger and harder and win.

“cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3:17-19

From my perspective, it’s as if we’ve let our interpretation of Genesis 3:17-19 and its tendency toward the concept of domination triumph over the concept of dominion in Genesis 1.  

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:26-28

We’ve become convinced we are a gift to land as if without our direction it would be lost, that it must be tamed and controlled (this is domination). We’ve forgotten that we came from the land and that this land is a gift to us which we are asked to care for and exhorted to make sure it thrives (this is dominion having).[1] We’ve become convinced we were the point of creation, that the entire story is about us that we are center stage; we’ve forgotten that there’s another character on this stage of life, our partner, the earth.

“In the day that the LordGod made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Genesis 2: 4b-9

I think one issue causing our malnourished view about connection to the soil is particularly unique to Christianity. We create a hierarchy between the event of the Cross and the event of Creation—making the cross the greater divine event over the event of creation. However, the two are profoundly linked. Yes, there is a great distance between the mythology of Genesis 1 and 2 about the creation of humanity out of the dirt and the Easter stories embedded in the Gospel narratives of Jesus. In the end, though, both events of Creation and Resurrection (Recreation)–the forming of humanity from the soil and the calling forth of Jesus from the deep pit—are the same event. And as we Christians claim we are dependent on God for our recreation, so should we see we are dependent on God for creation, too. Just as we cannot call ourselves out from the dead, we cannot call forth our own existence. We are all dependent on others, on the land, and on God. Thinking that we are the authors of our own existences has led us to the domination of the land and away from dominion.

Another aspect is that we’ve lost the mystery of story. We’ve become so practical, and sensible, scientific and intellectual we’ve “outgrown” stories and myths. We’ve let that spatial distance between Genesis and the Gospels maneuver its way into our minds and hearts. Where are our stories? Where are our story-tellers? While, yes, we can affirm that the stories written down centuries ago about God forming the earth in a specific pattern and in a set time are not scientific accounts of the creation of the cosmos, but does that also mean we must throw them out? Do they not still hint at a truth albeit abstract and written in archaic characters and from a different era? Must STEM triumph over the Humanities and the Arts? Is what is actual better than what is possible? If so, then what do we do with hope, with love, with the divine movement of the Holy Spirit, or those goose bumps you feel when struck with otherly inspiration?

Taking both issues together—the primacy of Crucifixion over Creation and our loss of story and mystery—we have lost ourselves in ourselves and our accomplishments and have given ourselves over to domination while forsaking dominion, thus a fundamental aspect of our humanity is lost. We’ve also participated in trying to strip other people of their land and their stories, too; denying humanity to others. This is the way of domination: it knows only destruction and death. Rather let us be exhorted in and through our manifold and brilliant stories to be called back to dominion having. Let us feel the soil upon our fingertips and toes and remember vividly that it is of this soil we are taken and to this soil we will return. In doing so, we will foster life: life within ourselves, life within the land, and life of others of the land.

Pokoh, The Old Man (Ute Legend)

Pokoh, Old Man, they say, created the world. Pokoh had many thoughts. He had many blankets in which he carried around gifts for men. He created every tribe out of the soil where they used to live.

That is why an Indian wants to live and die in his native place. He was made of the same soil. Pokoh did not wish men to wander and travel, but to remain in their birthplace.

Long ago Sun was a man, and was bad. Moon was good. Sun had a quiver full of arrows, and they are deadly. Sun wishes to kill all things.

Sun has two daughters (Venus and Mercury) and twenty men kill them; but after fifty days they return to life again.

Rainbow is the sister of Pokoh, and her breast is covered with flowers.

Lightening strikes the ground and fills the flint with fire. That is the origin of fire. Some say the beaver brought fire from the east, hauling it on his broad, flat tail. That is why the beaver’s tail has no hair on it, even to this day. It was burned off.

There are many worlds. Some have passed and some are still to come. In one world the Indians all creep; in another they all walk; in another they all fly. Perhaps in a world to come, Indians may walk on four legs; or they may crawl like snakes; or they may swim in the water like fish.[2]


[1] “So here, the creation of humanity in God’s image and likeness carries with it a commission to rule over the animal kingdom…some have seen in that commission a license for ecological irresponsibility. The fact is, however, that the Tanakh presents humanity not as the owner of nature but as its steward, strictly accountable to its true Owner…” Jon D. Levenson Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Oxford: JPS, 2004.

[2] https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/PokohtheOldMan-Ute.html. And http://snowwowl.com/legends/ute/ute001.html

For Ones Such as These

Psalm 26:6-8 I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, that I may go in procession round your altar, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving and recounting all your wonderful deeds. Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides. (46)

Introduction

I was asked before my ordination if I would lie prostrate or kneel, I said, “I’ll lie prostrate.” When the time came, I didn’t. Rather, I knelt, reached behind my head, unclipped my hair, and, with my hair down and around my shoulders, I bowed down my forehead to the ground with arms encircling.

Why did I do that? There’s a passage of scripture that is important to me and formative of my journey with Christ: the sinful woman forgiven and the anointing of Jesus with oil. In the accounts of this encounter, Jesus is anointed by a woman who recognizes that he is here to forgive sins. While all the elite and powerful judge him and challenge him; this woman gets it and she, in her sinfulness, goes to Jesus to thank him, to show love and gratitude to the one who will stand in solidarity with her when no one else will. The sinful woman cast out, discarded by whomever and society, was received and accepted by Christ. And this is what Christ did: went to the fringe and gathered up all the discarded humans and restored them, calling them to him and thus back into community with God.

It was into this divine activity of seeking the discarded I knew I was being ordained. I never wanted to forget the people—desperate to hear the love and solidarity of God for and with them. So, I pulled the story into my ordination to remember once and always: I was called from the people for the people; that I am as the people to serve the people.

Before I sound too anthropocentric, this call isn’t merely to people, but also to creation. While I love you with my whole heart, I love animalkind with that same love. I feel the pain in my heart when people and animals hurt; righteous indignation surges in my mind when humans and creation are discarded by other people and society, treated as if they serve and profit us with no livelihood or worth of their own.

This isn’t my doing; this is because God cares a lot about people and animals who are discarded and tossed to the side as if they don’t matter. Being grafted into God’s mission of love in the cosmos means I will give a big damn about how it’s treated.

Mark 10:2-16

And then the Pharisees were interrogating him—in order to test him—whether it is lawful for a husband to be rid of the wife. Now he answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” And they said, “Moses permitted [us] to write a paper of bill of forsaking/divorce and be rid of [the wife]. And then Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment to you because of your hardness of heart.”[1]

Mark 10:2-5

You may wonder why a passage of scripture about “divorce” is in a sermon about how humans and animals are discarded. But bear with me as I attempt to follow our lectionary and our feast day of St. Francis with some lexical creativity.

Jesus is approached by some Pharisees and asked about “divorce”—how many translations translate the Greek word in the text, ἀπολῦσαι.[2] The Pharisees are like the law-and-order guys—being considered the strictest observers of the law.[3] There’s nothing wrong with law and there’s nothing wrong with order; but when both become idols rendering humans subordinate to them, they become problematic. For the Pharisees, obedience to the law was utmost because according to their interpretation of the priesthood of all people, the demand to obey the law and be a holy nation—the bringing of heaven to earth[4]—wasn’t merely on the shoulders of the elders but on all people. The Pharisees were also considered to be the most creative with generating laws flexible to the times—all of it, though, revolved around law and law keeping, the merger of heaven and earth, and the coming of the Messiah.

So, having a law about the permissibility of “divorcing” one’s wife, isn’t far fetched and is based (loosely) on some of the text held in esteem by the Rabbis received from Moses. When you esteem law and the obedience to law, then when something isn’t working, you can justify it by making a law for it. Thus, “divorcing” the wife wasn’t even questioned; it was completely acceptable and understandable, and justifiable for any reason:[5] a “spoiled meal”, “whatever reason”, maybe you just found one “fairer”, or because she wouldn’t “accept your control”. For any of these and other reasons a husband: could “divorce her and send her away” (emphasis, mine).

The last part of that statement, “…and send her away”, catches my eye. That’s the part conditioning the thrust of the definition of the Greek word ἀπολῦσαι translated as “divorce” in the text. ἀπολύω carries with it the senses: to be freed from, to free, to release, to send away, to be rid of, to release, to discharge, to disband. ἀπολύω is where we get the idea of to ransom and to redeem. In a positive sense, we can be redeemed from a debt owed and released into liberty. But in the negative, it can be seen as one person being freed from the burden of another; or as being rid of a wife and releasing her to her own tries at survival, which would be devastating. To be freed from the wife by divorcing her is to discard her and for whatever reason you want. She is now an impure woman with potentially no where to go and without livelihood; you may have just thrown her to violent and marauding pack of men clamoring for your life as if her life matters less than your own (ref. Judges 19).

It makes sense that Jesus replies to the Pharisees with the accusation that this law permitting “divorce” is because of the hardness of their heart. To treat another human being (one’s own partner) in such a way as to discard them as if they were nothing but garbage because they ceased to be pretty or accidentally made a bad meal, is hardness of heart toward God.[6] To have a hard heart toward God is synonymous, for Mark’s Jesus, with discarding divine image bearing human beings.

Conclusion

Later in the conversation, Jesus’s disciples are busy rebuking people for bringing little children to Jesus (Mk 10:13). Rebuking. Why? Because children weren’t considered worthy of such a presence; they were sort-of human but not worthy like adults, specifically male adults. Like women, children were lower class human beings and worthy of being discarded just ‘cuz.

And then seeing [this] Jesus was incensed/grieved/indignant and said to them, “You permit(!) the little children to come toward me, do not prevent/hinder them(!), for the kingdom of God is of ones such as these!”

Mark 10: 14-15

Jesus doesn’t take kindly to getting in the way of people trying to come to him. Jesus doesn’t relish treating other human beings like they aren’t worthy in their own bodies to be near him, like they are discardable, mere trash ready to be taken out. He grew indignant because God cares a great deal about human beings. The kingdom of God is for ones such as these; the kingdom of God—brought in Christ—dwells with and among ones such as these.

And not just humankind, but all of God’s creation, from the smallest most miniscule mite crawling upon the ground to the biggest and noblest beasts of the deepest part of the sea; from the smallest grain of sand to the largest and most magnificent mountain. Considering this, can we participate in any system or network or ideology that promotes or encourages the discarding of any part of the creation for our personal gain? No. Being indwelt with the same divine Spirit of God—with which Christ grew indignant—we cannot. We are grafted—by faith and the Holy Spirit—into the great divine mission of love loving the cosmos. Thus, this same spirit will move us to care deeply about others and all creation.

It will lead us to take our place with and among all creation, to echo the words of St. Francis[7]:

Praise be to Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures,
Especially to my worshipful brother sun,
The[e] which lights up the day, and through him dost Thou brightness give;
And beautiful is he and radiant with splendor great;
Of Thee, most High, signification gives.
Praised be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars,
In heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair.
Praised be my Lord for brother wind
And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather,
By the[e] which Thou givest to Thy creatures nourishment.
Praised be my Lord for sister water,
The[e] which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.
Praised be my Lord for brother fire,
By the[e] which Thou lightest up the dark.
And fair is he and gay and mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth,
The[e] which sustains and keeps us
And brings forth diverse fruits with grass and flowers bright.
Praised be my Lord for those who for Thy love forgive
And weakness bear and tribulation.
Blessed those who shall in peace endure,
For by Thee, most High, shall they be crowned.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2]  1pp: ἀπολύω. In our text the verb is an aorist active infinitive.

[3] Josepheus. The Antiquities of the Jews pp. 13.5.9

[4] See: Jacob Neusner Invitation to the Talmud: A Teaching Book, 1998.

[5] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 387-8 “While the permitted grounds of divorce were debated in the rabbinic world, the admissibility of divorce (of a wife by her husband, not vice versa: Josephus, Ant. 15.259) as such was not questioned: Dt. 24:1-4 (the only legislation relating specifically to divorce in the Torah) was understood to have settled the issue. The more restrictive interpretation of the school of Shammai (only on the basis of ‘unchastity’, m. Git. 9:10) was almost certainly a minority view. More typical, probably, is Ben Sira 25:26: ‘If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send her away’, or Josephus’s laconic comment (Life 426): ‘At this time I divorced my wife, not liking her behaviour.’ Josephus paraphrases Dt. 24:1, ‘He who wants to be divorced from the wife who shares his home for whatever cause—and among people many such may arise—…(Ant. 4.253), and the school of Hillel allowed this to cover a spoiled meal, or even, so R. Akiba, ‘if he found another fairer than she’ (m. Git. 9:10).”

[6] France Mark 391 “σκληροκαρδία though not in itself frequent in the LXX (Dt. 10:16; Je. 4:4; Ben Sira 16:10; cf. Pr. 17:20; Ezk. 3:7), picks up a frequent OT accusation, mentioning a ‘stiff neck’, that the people of God are hardened against him impervious to his demands. (A similar accusation is expressed in different in 4:12, drawing on Is. 6:9-10; cf. the καρδία πεπωρωμέν of 8:17.) Such language (and σκληροκαρδία in particular) is used primarily of people’s attitude towards God rather than of the way they treat each other. It thus refers here not to men’s cruelty towards their wives, but to their rebellion against God’s will for them. It is such σκληροκαρδία which has led them into divorce in the first place, and made it necessary for Moses to legislate for a situation which was never envisaged in the divine purpose.”

[7] The Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi, newly translated into English with an Introduction and Notes by Father Paschal Robinson (Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press, 1906). https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/assisi-the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi#StFrancis_0535_321

God is Love

1 John 4:7-21

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

1 John 4:7-21

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

1 Jn 4:7, 9-11, 19

According to John’s first epistle, love is from God because God is love. He goes so far to say that those who love are the ones who have been birthed of God. Then he quickly moves to describe how divine love is brought forth in those who have been born of God and thus of love. Harkening to the imagery of the gospel of John chapter 3—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (v.16, NRSV)—the author articulates: the love of God precedes our love for God. [4]

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

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

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

Laury Silvers The Lover

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Gen 1:1-2 NRSV

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

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

Prayer as Unity

Seventh Sunday of Easter Meditation: John 17:11

(Video at the end of the post)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

God is Love and God Loves You

Luke 13:10-17 (Homily)

The statements “God is Love” and “God loves you” are abstract concepts. I can tell you these things all day, but apart from concrete manifestation of that love in substance and action, both statements fall flat. We live in an era where words are tossed about, rapidly and thoughtless so. We say I love you to our friends and family and then in the next breath profess love to jellybeans. What then does love mean? In the predicament where there is little concern for the substance of language, the meaning of words, and the impact of nouns and verbs, how do I communicate to you love? What does “God is love and loves you” mean? A profession of love causing you to experience and believe that profession, means the profession needs substance, the landing has to stick; deed must follow word.

We encounter Jesus on the Sabbath teaching in a synagogue. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears having an ailment for 18 years. Luke explains: she is bent forward,[1] unable to raise herself up completely. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the woman. He only tells us that she’s suffered with this ailment for 18 years. For nearly two decades she existed in a curved-in state, unable to look up. Her eyes took in more of the ground than the sky; her face went unnoticed, turned toward the dust and dirt of her travels. The very face a mother adored, a lover loved, a child yearned for now hidden in plain sight. An identity hidden; she was merely a body in the crowd. 18 years nearly unseen. That’s a lifetime for some of you.

When she appears,[2] Jesus perceives her. In the midst of all the people attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus’s perception of her presence is identical to his question, “Who touched me?” in Luke 8, while being pressed in on all sides in a crowd. Luke loves highlighting Jesus’s divine attributes. One of those attributes is perceiving the people his society and the religious therein have ceased to perceive. Jesus sees those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have slipped off the grid, those who have been relegated to the fringe. Those who have been excluded and isolated? These he sees. And he doesn’t merely see, he perceives and he acts. Jesus loves these.

On any other day, that woman would’ve gone in and come back out without much notice. But not today; today, Jesus notices her very presence. And what does he do? He calls her to him. “Woman, you have been[3] set free from your infirmity.” And then he lays his hands upon her. In an instant (literally), she is set straight (again)[4] and (at the same time) is bestowing glory on God.

And, I am brought back to Genesis 2. The last time someone was this curved-in was when Adam felt the deep trial of isolation. In the presence of God, he longed for an other. As God gazed upon this turned in man, God said: it is not good that this man is alone. I will make a partner for him. And like the light and the dark on the first day, God pulled the man apart—taking one and making two. Just as light is its own substance and so too the dark, both the man and the woman were two complete individuals—they were equal but not interchangeable. Forever, in this swift movement of deft surgical precision, loneliness was lifted from Adam’s back and cast into the outer darkness to take up its kingdom where there is not. And God sat on his throne among the light, in the midst of the life of humanity in community in the cool of the verdant garden. And it was very good.

As Adam was set free from his infirmity of loneliness in divine intervention, so too this woman is set free. Jesus lays his hands upon her and separates her from her burden, from her isolation, from her oppression, from her exclusion. She now stands upright, for the first time in 18 years; she can see the bright light of day, the blue of the sky, the twinkling stars of night. As she stands upright, she gazes (again) into the eyes of those around her, to recognize and to be recognized in her identity. Jesus restores her to the dignity of her humanity articulated in upright posture. Not frail and hunched over, she stood tall and looked out, restored by the simple word and touch of Jesus the Christ, by his love. What was her life of burden and bondage is now relegated to the old age of what was; she is ushered into the freedom and liberty of the new age. And when that event of encounter happens with God, a thick and dark line is drawn in the sand between what was and what is and what will be; a line is drawn like the one created by the collapsing walls of water forever separating Israel from Egypt and their bondage and captivity.

In Luke’s brief story, he boldly describes the cosmic battle between God and the powers of sin and death. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is chastised. He brings dignity and humanity to an old woman, and the ruler of the synagogue loses his mind.[5] After a stern, “Hypocrites!”, Jesus tightly correlates Satan (the powers of sin and death) to the religiosity of the rulers. According to Jesus, using the law to keep people bound in their burden and oppression is letting Satan have his way in the world. The law is good and can create and maintain freedom; but it should never be weaponized. When we love the law more than we love people, we are in the business of stripping people of their dignity and humanity. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.

Back to the beginning, God is love because God is active and God’s activity is manifest in love loving, which is bringing freedom to the captives (in a real way). When I profess love, my love best look like this…

 

 

 

 

[1] More like “bent-forward-ing” the verbal aspect of the word doesn’t translate well into English.

[2] The word that is translated as “appear” in the text is technically “Behold!” which carries the same force of “suddenly there she was!” thus “appearing”.

[3] The perfect passive here has the force of an event that has occurred to the recipient that has ramifications into the present. In a sense, she will has been set free and will continue to be set free. Woe to anyone who attempts to reverse the divine action.

[4] Highlighting that she wasn’t always this way that at one point she could stand up straight.

[5] Quite literally, he is indignant, it’s the manner of his being in the current situation.

Thomas Aquinas and The Concept of the Ontology of the Human Person

Sounds like the title of a children’s book gone horribly awry, doesn’t it?

Sadly, coming up with something creative as a title for this series of posts proved impossible; I’m rather bad at coming up with titles to begin with not to mention for entries once meant to be part of a larger academic work. *sigh* Oh well, “it is what it is”….wait, that may have worked! 😉

This is the first post (of many; yes you’ve been warned) discussing Thomas Aquinas’ concept of the human person. I’m pulling directly from a section for a dissertation I am no longer working on, which hurts…a little, won’t lie. But, having 75 pages of written material sit on the drive of my computer hurt more, so I’m giving them some light here on my blog. I can hear from here the shouts of ecstasy. Stop it. You’re making me blush.

My plan is to go through and chunk up the section and post it (post by post by post…) here. I am neither an Aquinas scholar nor a Thomist. In an attempt to understand what Luther was saying about the concept of ontology of the human person (also part of the larger, former dissertation) I had to know (well) what he was working with and even against; this is how a Lutherphile ends up with near 100 pages of work on Thomas Aquinas. With that said, I want to add that I did my best to assume the posture of a student who wanted to learn from Thomas Aquinas; my aim in this section was not to find the myriad of ways I could disagree with him, but to (as best I can from the 21st century) get into his head, make his language my language, see through his eyes. And, in my opinion, that’s what a good student does: she learns, she learns well, and then she find the cracks and faults.

Now that that’s off my chest, let me cease my preliminary yammering. Without further interruption:

The Introduction

The concept of the ontology of the human person is rather difficult to pin down in the works of Thomas Aquinas. One cannot turn to the index of the Summa Contra Gentiles or the Summa Theologiea and look up the concept of the ontology of the human person to be directed to a part in each work that will clearly tell the reader the proper definition of the ontology of the human person. Rather the concept is embedded within Thomas’ works, nearly all of them. In Thomas’ discussion about God, we see what humans are not and this plays a role in understanding the concept of the ontology of the human person for Aquinas. One must first understand God as Creator, to know the created and why God creates and what aspect or characteristic of the Creator is contained within the created and what does the created say about the Creator. The concepts are intimately bound together yet distinct; they are one but polyform.

For instance, to understand humanity and the world as created, there must be a differentiation between Creator and created, a differentiation that must be upheld if we are to make sure that God is distinct from creation (distinction not intending complete disassociation, but rather difference: God is not creation and creation is not God). Not only that, but also that God is intimately connected with and toward creation (the concept of God’s Providence); God is not a far-off God that has merely created this world only to let it now run its course of action without any involvement on God’s end: God cares for, provides for, is the authority over, and sustains creation.

This distinction between God, Creator, and humanity and the world, the created, is crucial for Aquinas. The distinction highlights mainly the healthy differentiation between God and creation. As stated above, God is distinct yet connected to what God creates. What God is and who God is, humanity and the rest of creation are not (and cannot be). But it is also important to mention that the inverse is not 100% true. We cannot say, taking Aquinas at his word, that what humanity and the world are or who humanity is, God is not. Primarily we cannot say this because of the fact that there are resemblances and types that reflect the divine Creator within the creation. So, if we see beauty in a flower or a pastoral setting, we can deduce, according to Aquinas, that God is beauty more fully and perfectly. When we encounter a wise person, we can likewise deduce that in God wisdom is full and perfect, and so on. According to Aquinas, the virtues and the good that we see in humanity and in creation are in God fully and perfectly.

With this said, the main point of this discussion is to discern, carefully, what Thomas says about the ontology of the human person. It has been established that in order to do this well, maintaining the integrity of Thomas’ thought, one needs to look at both Aquinas’ concept of God and his concept of creation. So, what does the distinction between the Creator and the created as well as the types and resemblances between the Creator and the created tell us about the ontology of the human person? This concept of the ontology of the human person seems to come down to the proper definition of the image of God in which and with which humanity is created. It is here, in the image of God, where we see both the distinction between God and humanity and the resemblance of the Creator within the created. To understand the ontology of the human person, for Aquinas, one needs to understand the image of God as it is within humanity and as it is communicated to humanity through creation. For Aquinas, the image of God contained within humanity—if we dare to simplify here his complex definition—is (best defined) as: the intellect. While the term and concept of the intellect will be teased out in future posts, it will suffice to say here that this is not a cold and isolated term, depicting man as merely a brain with no heart. For Aquinas, the concept of the intellect is a broader term, encompassing the reason, free will, and love. It is the intellect that separates humanity from the beasts of the earth, for by it we can contemplate, and by it we can seek God, the true end of all good and humanity’s beatification.

This discussion, in its goal to define Aquinas’ concept of the ontology of the human person, will attempt to be faithful to Aquinas’ own approach by first looking into Aquinas’ concept of God, then into why God created and what He created, and then conclude with a discussion of Aquinas’ concept of the ontology of the human person. But prior to diving into those concepts I’ll be providing a background to some of Aquinas’ work (I know, you were dying to know) and definitions of terms (now this I know you wanted to know). Providing background into Thomas’ work gives his work a dimension for us in the 21st century; he did write in a particular time with a particular goal to address a particular problem, we would do well to understand this historical background as much as we can. Giving some definitions to terms is always a good idea to create the common-ground of language: if I merely toss to you the term “essence” you maybe be familiar with the term but we may be working with varying concepts depending on how we’ve developed the term from our own research.

With that…Stay tuned!