Hope in the Mess

Sancta Colloquia Episode 401 ft. Bp. Jake Owensby

This episode with Bp. Jake Owensby (@jakeowensby) marks the start of Seaon FOUR. That’s right, I’m entering in my fourth year of hosting interview. This season will open with a few interviews with authors; how the season will close will be a, well, let’s say: it will be a “self-disclosing” event. Stay Tuned!

In this first episode of season four, I had the honor of talking with my former bishop, Bishop Jake Owensby of the diocese of Western Louisiana of The Episcopal Church. This interview focuses on his most recently published book: Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. We get to talk about why hope and why now? Bp. Owensby articulates well where his source of hope comes from, “Being the beloved in the eye of the Lover and that’s where my hope comes from. I am deeply loved.” It’s this being and knowing and experience deep divine belovedness that motivates Bp. Owensby’s work in this text as a message to help other people. Principally, Bp. Owensby communicates about our proclamation (either written or preached), “There’s one message; it’s the resurrection. That’s the message. That’s it…it’s God’s mighty work!” And it true; he’s not lying. Holding the story of Christ’s resurrection in one hand as we walk with people with the other, helping them and standing in solidarity with them, is the key to comprehending what it means to have hope when hope seems pointless even lost. If we weed out this very story of resurrection from our proclamation because it’s “not real” or “could never happen”–statements more about our logic and reason and not God’s mighty work–we lose one of the most cataclysmic narrative movements of divine life usurping death’s supposed last word. It’s here in the encounter with God in the event of faith that, for Bp. Owensby, where “All of [the] ways in which we’ve allowed or simply had to allow a way of living die and a new way of living emerge, that’s resurrection; that’s hard work.” Chaos, turmoil, fear, death, all of it has been stripped of it’s claim to the last word in this divine mighty work of God in the resurrection. Thus, we can have hope that what we see right now isn’t all we see. That maybe the mess isn’t messy but beautiful because in that mess there is God with us.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Bp. Jake Owensby

Jake Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana. His writing and his speaking events focus on helping people find hope, meaning, and purpose in their lives. He is the author of five books, most recently Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. Jake has three adult children, two grandchildren, and lives in Alexandria, Louisiana, with his wife, Joy. Gracie their rescue pup is their constant companion.

Follow Bp. Jake Owensby on Twitter: @jakeowensby; on Insta: @jakeowensby; and on Facebook: Jake Owensby and Bp. Jake Owensby. Also, for more of Bp. Owensby’s writing, check out his blog: jakeowensby.com.

Other Books by Bp. Owensby:

A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth

Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God

Gospel Memories: The Future Can Rewrite Our Past

Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life

The New Order Begins!

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

Introduction

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

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

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

According to Paul, there is.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

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

2 Corinthians 5:14-15

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

2 Corinthians 5:16-17

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Encouraged, Beloved

Sermon on 1 John 5:9-13

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

Introduction

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

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

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

1 John 5:9-12

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

1 John 5:9-12

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and The Sky Opens

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Genesis 9:8-17

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

Genesis 9:8-16

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


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

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

[3] JPS Study Bible Levenson

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Luther Genesis 153

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

and The Earth Opens

Ash Wednesday Homily on Numbers 16 and Psalm 88

Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

In the book of Numbers there’s a story about a man named Korah of the tribe of Levi who, with a couple of his Levite friends, gathered about 250 chiefs of the congregation of Israel and rose up against Moses challenging his authority and presence as Israel’s leader. Korah spoke to Moses, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num 16:3). The accusation from Korah dropped Moses to his knees, so the story goes. Moses saw the accusation from this son of Levi not as one against him but against God. And so, Moses tells Korah that God will tend to and deal with this situation in the morning. So, morning dawns. Moses instructs the bulk of the congregation of Israel to move away from Korah and his two friends. Once the majority of Israel is safe, Moses says to everyone,

‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’

Numbers 16:28-30

Moses stopped talking. And then:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.

Numbers 16:31-35

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.

In the Psalter, Psalm 88 picks up this story. Korah is remembered in Israel’s hymns; the psalmist giving voice to the one who dropped to the bottom of the pit when the earth opened up underneath his feet:

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

Psalm 88:6-14

Psalm 88 has no happy and uplifting ending. The psalmist is not rescued from the pit and darkness is the only thing that accompanies them day and night. God seems absent and distant. And maybe even more than that, God appears to be gone. Not for lack of trying, the one stuck at the bottom of the pit cries out day and night, pleading with an entity that might have left them there to rot. Here enclosed in walls of dirt they suffer, here in the dust they are in agony, and here in the darkness they cry out and….silence.

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they are returned.

These are the mournful, sorrowful, anxious filled, agonizing, words of Ash Wednesday. Today is our reckoning with God—each of us embarks on our own journey into divine encounter. Today we each come into close proximity with the divine and the holy and are exposed as stuck and sick. Today we each recall how fragile our lives are—vulnerable to virus and infection, to breaks and fractures, to mental breakdown and heartbreak. Today we each are reminded of how often we have failed ourselves and others, broken promises, played the charlatan with her act together, opted for self-gain over self-gift. Today we each clearly hear all the voices and see the faces we turned deaf ears and blind eyes toward as they asked for help, for acknowledgment, for dignity. Today we each are brought to our knees in our humanity remembering that our time here is finite. Today we each collide with the ruse of free will and autonomy. Today the ground opens underneath us and swallows each of us. Today we each drop all the way down to the bottom of the pit, landing on hard ground and are consumed by darkness. Today we each echo the psalmist, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (Ps 88:18).

There is no way to bypass Ash Wednesday and proceed straight to Easter. For those of us sitting here in 2021, the new life of Easter is hinged on our encounter with God in the event of faith that is the death of Ash Wednesday. We must each walk this long and arduous path of self-reckoning and self-exposure spanning the time from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. I cannot protect you from it; in fact, I must lead you into it. Today they weight of my stole feels more like the heavy of a millstone than the light of fabric; today I anoint you not with oil but with ashes and dirt.

From dirt you were taken and to dirt you will return.

Don’t lose heart, beloved; hold tight to the mercy of God. There is no end of the earth so far, no pit so deep, no darkness so dark, no dirt and dust so thick where you, the beloved, are out of the reach of the love and mercy of God, from where God cannot call you back unto God. Not even death itself can separate you from love and mercy of God.

He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

Psalm 103:3-5

God’s Near

Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

Psalm 62:6-7 For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

Introduction

I never paid much mind to the impact of my voice. I spent a lot of time not wanting to talk in public. I was safer staring out the window of the backseat of the car as a kid, retreating to the back of the classroom and hiding as a student, and sitting in the pew furthest back as a new Christian. I’ve only considered my voice to be merely a voice to me and my inner circle but lacking weight apart from carrying words into the air. I didn’t put much thought into the reality that we come into the world knowing one voice well: the voice of the one who carried us for a little over nine months. It’s the first voice we know; the second being that of the other parent but in a muffled way. I recall with clarity the screeches of my babies quieting across the OR as soon as I spoke: it’s okay little one, mama’s here.

I put even less thought into the impact the voices of my children would have on me. I recall vividly standing amid a large group of moms at a birthday party for Jack when a child’s yelp and cry sounded from across the park where dads and kids were splashing in a shallow creek. We all went quiet listening. And then I took off. No other mom ran, just me because it was my kid and none of theirs. I knew that voice because it was the voice of my child, and he needed me.

While I learned something about the power of my voice by becoming a mother, this knowledge isn’t relegated to motherhood. The voices of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren, friends, lovers turn our heads and bring warmth to our insides; it’s their voices we miss terribly when they walk this timeline no more. We also love and miss the sound of the barks, meows, oinks, baaas, maaas, neighs, and moos (etc.) of the animalkind we care for.

Mark 1:16-18

And while passing by alongside the sea of Galilee [Jesus] saw Simon and Andrew–the brother of Simon—while throwing nets into the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Come (!) behind me, and I will make you to become fishermen of people.” And immediately they dropped the nets and followed him.

(Mk 1: 16-18, translation mine)

Mark wastes no time getting us from the announcement of the divine son Jesus the Christ (1:1), into the waters of the Jordan (1:9-11), dropped into the wilderness temptation (1:12-13), and to the calling of the disciples (1:16-20) by way of briefly articulating the good news (ευαγγελιον).[1] The thrust of chapter one is the announcement that the ευαγγελιον has come into the world; it’s this good news that John the forerunner of the Christ proclaimed waist deep in water, and Jesus, the Christ, fulfills[2] as the divine herald.[3] For Mark, the content of the ευαγγελιον: “…the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is has come near; repent[4] and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15).[5]

Mark isn’t mindlessly rattling off details about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; Mark is writing to disciples who are presently facing persecution and is eager to show them what it means to be a good disciple. Thus, the calling of disciples accentuates none of this is their doing but God’s. Mark’s people heard the voice of God call them and responded rightly[6] by following just like Jesus’s disciples did. Therefore, they like these men, are with Christ amid the suffering and persecution. Mark establishes that faith and following are inextricably linked; hold steady, little church, Mark maternally comforts, keep the faith; God hears your cries and comes; God is with you.

God has heard the cries of God’s people; the good news is on the move.[7] And where does it go? To the downtrodden and exhausted. Jesus goes neither to the religious teachers and elders nor to those who are wealthy and lead, but to the simple men, throwing simple nets, to catch fish.[8] Jesus goes not to the temple but to the sea. Jesus goes not to the powerful rulers but to the powerless ruled—from these he calls his disciples; to these the kingdom of God comes near. It’s here among this imperfect, rag-tag, group of laborers smelling of sweat and fish and sea where the kingdom and kingship of God is secured.[9]

Jesus doesn’t ask them to follow; he commands it.[10] It’s a command commanding the action in its entirety (now): Come behind me! (Now!) Unlike other rabbis who were sought by future students, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.[11] These disciples will ask not: can I sit at your feet, rabbi? Rather they will have to self-reckon: Will I come behind Jesus? Will I follow Jesus? The crux of the predicament being the necessity of an overhauling and upending of their lives as they know it. Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as James and John (vv19-20) are called into apprenticeship that demands leaving everything they knew as is to become was in order to embrace what will be.[12]

This is the core of what it means to “repent” (μετανοιετε) proclaimed in the good news. It’s not about some verbal “sorry” or about professing how wretched you are. Instead, it’s about being called to reconsider things, to change your mind/purpose in the world, to align with the will of God and not the will of humanity—these two things rarely aligning (if ever). Jesus tells Peter and Andrew they’ll no longer fish fish to eat but fish people out of harm’s way. If they follow their lifestyle will change.[13] If James and John follow, they’ll leave behind their father and his way of life.[14] These fishermen are the epitome of what it means to repent and believe: they heard the voice of love—who spoke the cosmos into existence—and they turned, dropped their nets, and walked with God. To repent and believe is not about verbal self-flagellation because of God’s wrath in some desperate attempt to make God love you. It’s about being made aware God’s love comes to you lovingly calling you into God’s presence like a mother seeking and calling her beloved child to her bosom. It’s okay little one, mama’s here.

Conclusion

Simon, Andrew, James and John heard love call them into love’s presence and couldn’t do anything else but drop their nets and follow love. They didn’t follow an abstract concept of elusive warm feelings, but a tangible, fleshy, active, living and breathing love walking in the world. They won’t follow perfectly, but perfection isn’t the point; Love walking in the world is. It’s this living, breathing, active love they’ll proclaim after Jesus leaves and sits down at the right hand of God. It’s this living, breathing, active love that’ll cost them not only their livelihood, but also their life breath as they proclaim a love that upended and overhauled their society and their status-quo. Following this active, living, breathing love and asking the self-reckoning question that day on the shore, changed not just their lives but the lives of many others.

This love, this active, living, breathing love set the world in motion, keeps it in motion, and comes near and calls us today. The same love that walked along the wet sand of the sea of Galilee, walks on the frozen ground of this Ute land at the base of the National Monument calling us. We are the sought, the Beloved. And, we, like the disciples, must ask the same question: will I come behind Jesus? Will I follow after Jesus?

To follow will upend your life; to follow love, God, Jesus, will overhaul everything you know to be true about the world. If you drop your nets, you’ll walk away from that which is rendered “what was” to embrace “what will be.” The encounter with God in the event of faith—working out through “repentance” and “believing”—is death to the old age and old person and new birth into the new age as a new person (not as “sinless and good” but as “new and filled with divine love of God’s spirit”). The kingdoms of humanity rage against the way of love of the kingdom of God. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to behave as if God’s eternality eclipses the mortality of our human institutions.[15] He asks them to follow love so that through them and by them something new comes forth from death. “For the external structures of this world are slipping away,” (7:31b).[16] It’s okay little ones, Paul comforts, God’s near. The new age is populated with new creations perpetuating love and life and light into the world and letting that which is of the old age slip away so that something new can be built in its place, letting the divine phoenix of life break from the ashes of death.


[1] RT France The Gospel of Mark NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: 2002. 88. “The narrative moves on rapidly from scene to scene, carrying the reader on by its own momentum rather than by any formal structural markers.”

[2] France 90, “For now the reader is expected to know it already, or must simply take it on trust. There is no place here to spell it out, since John himself is no longer in focus, and to delay over the details of his story at this point would distract attention from his successor, who now takes, and will retain, his place in centre stage. The role of the forerunner is over; the time of fulfilment has come.”

[3] France 90-1, “There is an important element of continuity between John and Jesus. The same participle κηρυσσων which described John’s ministry (v.4) now describes that of his successor, and at least one of the elements in that proclamation is the same…[the overlap being the ‘forerunner motif’] but also the messianic herald of Is 40:9 52:7; 61:1 whose role is to announce ευαγγελιον…and who is himself the Spirit-endowed Messiah.”

[4] Μετανοιτε (first principle part: μετανοεω) in v.15 it is an imperative 2nd person plural verb: a command to repent. The verb can also be translated as: you change your mind/purpose. It can also carry the idea of changing the inner person in regards to the will of God. It’s as if you were going in one direction and you are caused to change your direction.

[5] France 90, “Verses 14-15…play a crucial role in Mark’s story, as the reference point for all subsequent mentions of the proclamation initiated by Jesus and entrusted by him to his followers. Here is the essential content of the ευαγγελιον to which the people of Galilee are summoned to respond.”

[6] France 93, “With the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, therefore, a new era of fulfilment has begun, and it calls for response from God’s people”

[7] France 90, “Down there, people had had to make a special journey to John, but now Jesus is going to where people are, in the inhabited areas of his own province.”

[8] France 94, “…the Messiah himself refuses to assert his authority by an impressive show of divine…pomp and pageantry. The kingdom of God comes not with fanfare but through the gradual gathering of a group of socially insignificant people in an unnoticed corner of provincial Galilee.”

[9] France 94, “They [the disciples called] may, and often will, fail him and disappoint him, but their role is crucial to the achievement of his mission, for it is through this flawed and vulnerable group of people that God’s kingship will be established.”

[10] δευτε οπισω μου: come (!) after me. Δευτε is an aorist active imperative 2nd person plural verb indicating the action being commanded is being commanded as a whole.

[11] France 96, “Rabbis didn’t call their followers; rather the pupil adopted the teacher. Jesus’ preemptory summons, with its expectation of radical renunciation even of family ties, goes far beyond anything they would be familiar with in normal society. It marks him as a prophet rather than a rabbi.”

[12] France 96, “Simon and Andrew are being called to follow Jesus as their leader, in a relationship which went beyond merely formal learning to a fulltime “apprenticeship’.”

[13] France 97

[14] France 97

[15] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 585, “…‘Paul’s point is not the transiency of creation as such….but the fact that its outward pattern, in social and mercantile institutions, for example, has no permanence.’ To combine Barrett’s emphasis on social, political and commercial institutions with the notion of outward appearance with Hering’s ‘disappearing across the stage’ we translate the sentence as For the external structures of this world are slipping away.”

[16] Thiselton 585, “The crumbling of the present world order is indicated by παραγει γαρ το σχημα τοθ κοσμου τουτου…Paul’s eschatological frame indicates a dynamic cosmic process. Hence we translate, For the external structures of this world are slipping away.”

Refiner’s Fire

Sermon on Acts 19:1-7

Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy/Set apart for You,
Ready to do Your will

I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.

Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord

Acts 19:1-7

…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”

Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine

The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions.[1] When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission.[2] Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Wellokay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.[3]

For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ. [4] John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[5]

“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mk 1:8

The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.”[6] In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[7] and with humanity in its plight.[8] This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.

In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history[9]–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[10] It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?

Conclusion

To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19),[11] like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.

This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism[12] deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.

Willie James Jennings writes,

Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.[13]

The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist[14] theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,

It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.[15]

For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.


[1] Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”

[3] Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”

[4] Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”

[5] Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”

[6] Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”

[7] Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[8] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[9] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[10] McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[11] Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”

[12] David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.

[13] Jennings Acts 185

[14] Womanism  is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.

Revolution of the Light

Sermon on John 1:1-5

Psalm 147:5: Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp.

Introduction

I’ve never met someone who meets opportunity for exposure with open and eager embrace. Exposure can harm our body. Even the small forms of exposure provide enough discomfort to warrant avoidance. Anyone here like it when that wool blanket and down comforter are yanked back suddenly exposing your warm skin to chilly air? What about that cruel adjustment moment when eyes accustomed to dark are exposed to brightness? What about that little trip while you’re walking exposing the reality that you’re not as graceful as you thought you were? All I have to say is, “Hospital Dressing Gown,” and you all know what I’m talking about.

Exposure hurts and ushers in self-death when it reveals bigger problems. That thing keeping you stuck or that thing haunting your peace rears its head again and exposes your lack of control. Maybe it’s the fights that won’t go away; maybe it’s the threat of failure; maybe it’s the persistent sickness; maybe it’s the lie that was found out…these are exposures soliciting a death to self: I need help.

Exposure hurts. But exposure and its pain and death aren’t antithetical to life but the basis of it.

John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was in the company with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning in the company with God. Everything was made through him, and not one thing having existed was made separately (from) him. In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.

Jn 1:1-5, translation mine

The first part of the reading should sound familiar. Genesis 1:1 starts off identically (εν αρχη). The allusion in John 1 to the start of the Hebrew Scriptures is intentional. The Word is to be equated with God and the creative speaking power of God. The Word was God. The word spoken in Genesis 1:1 is the word piercing the silence of the cosmos, disrupting the darkness by tearing from it the light. The point is not creationism, but that God’s word and God’s deed are one and the same thing: God speaks and it happens; not a word falls to the ground void of substance of completed action.[1] For John, this word spoken at the beginning of creation is the Word that has come into the world in the baby born to Mary (Jn 1:14)—and not only to Israel, but to the whole world.[2]

With one hand John grabs the tip of the Hebrew scriptures and pulls them into view. With the other hand he drags the Greek philosophical tradition into view—signified by the word λογος. John uses the birth of Christ Jesus as the focal point to articulate the light that was called forth in Genesis 1 will expose the world and humanity unto life, unto glory and truth. For John the world is not its own Lord or “Law” but is created and sustained by the very Word of God; [3] it is not chaotic matter (the Greeks) but creation out of nothing. [4] In 5 words (εν αρχη ην ο λογος), John indicts humanity and its thought structures and assumptions. And we—those who listen in from here—also are indicted and confronted with John’s statements about the Word who was with God and is God. We are asked to reexamine everything we thought we knew, the terms and concepts we have grown (all too) familiar with and think we’ve defined rightly.[5] Here we’ve been exposed by the confrontation of the divine answer that is the Word made flesh and is the light of life of humanity.

John writes, “In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.” The distinction between light and dark is one we move over quickly. We’re used to the idea that light happens at the flick of switch. In swift motion, the dark room is now illumined. It wasn’t, but now it is. But is it a simple change? The articulation of light into a room means that darkness must be converted. Darkness doesn’t run to other side of the room. What was dark is not anymore; it is light. It must cease being dark and become light.

When the light shines in the dark, the darkness in the path of the light is changed and transformed into not dark. Zooming in on the event you might see that which is light and not light, that which is darkness and not darkness. You might see particles in process of transition of giving themselves over to the light. There’d be a point where time would cease to matter as everything grinds to a halt as the activity of darkness changing into light gives over to the stillness of dark and light and not dark and not light—like a ball thrown into the air comes to a full stop before descent, there would be a cessation of darkness before there is lightness. There is a point in the conversion of darkness into lightness where it seems action seems to stop, where movement stops, where time becomes timelessness. There’s death—a cessation of everything. [6]

In the Christian Apocryphal work, Protoevangelium of James, the author tells of the moment Jesus is born, from Joseph’s perspective.[7] Listen,

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not liftin it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything return to its course.”[8]

Protoevangelium of James trans Lily C. Vuong

This is what happens to the world when divine exposure is born into it. The moment Jesus is born of Mary, time stops to make room for the light to enter the world that is trapped by darkness. Mary births the babe who is the light of humanity[9] that will convert darkness into lightness and death into life.[10] Everything comes to a standstill as God enters our timeline and completely overhauls it, flipping it on its head, moving space like the water of the red sea during the exodus, and thrusting the cosmos into divine truth. When God shows up, everything grinds to a halt and the world goes through a death as life motions to revolt against death.[11]

Conclusion

In the advent and nativity of the Christ child, we’re exposed by the light of life and shown we’ve been complicit with and held captive by systems and kingdoms of darkness of death. I mentioned before that 2020 is a year of exposure. This exposure hurts and will continue to hurt because none of us is done wrestling against the powers and principalities of this human world. It’s not easy to see how deeply embedded we are in the narrative of white supremacy. It’s painful to see greed and selfishness run rampant and realize those are our feet running and keeping pace with those we’re criticizing. It’s horrifying to realize our silence participates in propping up vile and malicious institutions, practices, ideologies when we’d rather not #saytheirnames or say #blacklivesmatter because it’s…more comfortable not to.

In the exposure inaugurated by the birth of the Christ in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are brought out of the old humanity through death into new humanity.

To be exposed is to endure the transition of darkness into light—being reduced to the moment you are and you are not. To be exposed is to come to a full cessation and be changed from darkness into lightness through death. To be exposed is to see things as they are in the stillness of time and ask the questions so many are afraid to ask: is this all there is? Is this really the good and true and the beautiful? Is anything else possible? The exposure of the encounter with God in the event of faith brings life out of death through resurrection—it’s new life and you are a new creation, with new eyes to see and ears to hear. And you’re given a new mission in the world: joining in the revolt against the dark with the army of the light who is the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, the hurting, the dying. This is the mission of God in the world; this is the thrust of the nativity. Everything we think we know as right, and good, and true is in the line of fire of the great divine revolution of life against death humbly started by God born a baby boy to a young unwedded mother, wrapped in rags and laid in a humble manger surrounded by dirty shepherds.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. P. 20 “In the O.T. the Word of God is his Word of power, which, in being uttered, is active as event. God’s word is God’s deed, and his deed is his word; that is, he acts through his word, and he speaks in his action, and it is man whom he addresses.”

[2] Bultmann John 21. “The Prologue does not speak of the relation of the chosen people to the Word of God, but of the relation of the world to the ‘Word’.”

[3] Bultmann John p. 39. “The radical nature of the idea of creation is evident at this point: in the beginning the world did not, so to speak, receive as its own that which it then maintains by itself; both its beginning and its continuing existence are attributed to the Logos. Precisely this is the meaning of v. 4a: ο γενονεν, εν αυτω ζωη ην: the vitality of the whole creation has its origin in the Logos; he is the power which creates life.”

[4] Bultmann John p. 38. “The Greek view, that wants to understand the world as a correlation of form and matter, is also excluded: the creation is not the arrangement of a chaotic stuff, but is the καταβολη κοσμου (17.24), creation ex nihilo.”

[5] Bultmann John 13. “The concepts ζωη and φως, δοξα and αληθεια are the kind of motifs for which the reader brings with him a certain prior understanding; but he still has to learn how to understand them authentically.”

[6] Bultmann John p.32. “…in the person and word of Jesus one does not encounter anything that has its origin in the world or in time; the encounter is with the reality that lies beyond the world and time. Jesus and his word not only bring release from the world and from time, they are also the means whereby the world and time are judged: the first words of the Prologue at once prepare us for this.”

[7] For an excellent engagement with this text, please see Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel’s work located here: https://hcommons.org/members/evandeneykel/deposits/ It was his paper—”Then Suddenly, Everything Resumed Its Course”: The Suspension of Time in the Protevangelium of James Reconsidered—that I heard at SBLAAR 2017 and was profoundly impacted by. If you are interested in further pursuing apocryphal engagement, I highly recommend engaging with Dr. Vanden Eykel.

[8][8] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[9] Bultmann John p. 43, “…φως comes to mean revelation. And where one speaks of a Revealer, one can describe him as the ‘Light’ or as the Giver of light.”

[10] Bultmann John p. 41. “In its original sense light is not an apparatus for illumination, that makes things perceptible, but is the brightness itself in which I find myself here and now; in it I can find my way about, I feel myself at home, and have no anxiety. Brightness itself is not therefore an outward phenomenon, but is the illumined condition of existence, of my own existence. Such brightness is necessary for life; so that from the first, and throughout the ancient world, light and life, darkness and death are seen as belonging together.”

[11] Bultmann John p. 47. “Yet the ζωη of the Logos does not cease to be the φως of men just because men have chosen the possibility of darkness. Rather it is only because the Logos is constantly present as the light of men that the world of men can be σκοτια at all. For darkness is neither a substance nor the sheer power of fate; it is nothing other than the revolt against the light.” I made revolution the work of the light because revolutionary violence is in response to oppression and suffering. Darkness’s response would be counter revolution. It is not light who responds to hold the status-quo, but darkness. It is darkness and death to uphold the status-quo and systems bent on destruction to keep your power.

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:8-9: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Amen (50)

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the word “comfort”? What is comfort? If you ask me, I may reply with some description of the darker recesses of a library, hidden from sight, nestled among books, coveting the quiet, the alone, and my beloved texts like Gollum and his precious. If you ask one of my children the answer may involve some form of “no school” and “video games” and “friends”.

Comfort is something we describe with adjectives soliciting the tactile senses and align more with “comfortable,” which contends with bodily senses. But are the words “comfortable” and “comfort” synonymous? I’ll argue they’re similar but not interchangeable. When we talk about something being comfortable we imagine some of the images mentioned a moment ago (things that bring us relaxation and pleasure), or a fuzzy robe with corresponding slippers, or a bed, or a couch, or a pair of jeans, or those old sneakers. Comfortable is something that doesn’t disrupt our state of rest; it affirms it. In fact, when presented with too much of what is comfortable, we become complacent with numbness. The old axiom exists for a reason: lethargy breeds lethargy. We can become so comfortable in what is because it is what is, it is familiar and known and doesn’t require that we reach too far out of our own spaces. In fact “comfortable” encourages resistance to anything infringing on that which is comfortable and known and familiar. It’s why change can be so scary.

But comfort is something altogether different because it disrupts us and our rest, our groove or rut, and our familiar and known. To bring comfort to someone is to alter their state in a way so they can catch that breath, breathe a sigh of relief, come down a few notches, and, sometimes, to push us into that scary unknown and unfamiliar.

Comfort comes as a person, a word, a space, an action thus it is disrupting. Something enters our sphere seizes us, speaks to us, creates space for us, and moves us into a different spot.  Comfortable keeps you where you are; comfort moves you. Comfortable is denial; comfort comes with acceptance. Comfortable is the saccharine colloquialism smoothing over tension, sadness, anger, frustration; comfort is the honest, “damn, I’m sorry…” that enters the tension, the sadness, the anger, frustration. Comfortable is pretending you don’t see that dragon; comfort is everyone you know showing up to fight it. When comfort arrives, in whatever form, we are never the same as we were before, and we are altered in some way forever—death into new life.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Through the humble yet bold voice of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a). It is time to move Israel from one state to another,[1] and God declares that God’s ministers are to bring comfort to Israel. According to the text, it is God’s presence with Israel that will bring comfort; it’s God’s voice, God’s word that soothes the troubled soul and the broken hearted. Thus, the ministers of God are to bring this voice and this word to God’s people. They are to elevate the heads of the Israelites, much like a mother gently grabs the chin of her distraught child and with love in her eyes and reassurance in her smile moves the child into comfort. Israel is beckoned by the great prophet, look to the Lord your God and be comforted and have joy, for deliverance and restoration come![2]

Israel plagued by captivity and complicity, tumult and turmoil, despondency and desperation needs the good divine word to instill them with profound divine joy. Israel is not only plagued for her own internal and external issues, but by a mutuality in suffering. Israel suffers as the nations around her suffer, too. As they are held captive, so is Israel; as they are in pain, so, too, is Israel. [3] As God feels the pain of God’s people, so does God’s people feel the pain of those around them.

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

Isaiah declares God’s forgiveness, peace, and restoration to Israel; the great comforter comes, joy will exceed sorrow, God’s presence will eliminate exile, redemption will overturn condemnation. Here in Isaiah, God reaffirms that God is their God and they are God’s people. [4] And thus, Israel is commissioned[5] to fulfill Israel’s great call: to be the “herald of good tidings” to the nations, [6] to proclaim the word of God, God’s truth and God’s comfort.[7] “…lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Is 40:9).

The revelation of divine glory will be seen and witnessed and beheld by all. [8] God will gather up God’s flock like a shepherd, God will tend and carry the weak, smoldering wicks God will not snuff out, broken reeds God will not break. God will come for God’s people a group defined no longer by boundary markers, but which will extend beyond Jerusalem to all Judea, into Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Conclusion

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her…Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper… (Lam 1:1-2, 5).

The words of Israel’s lament to God here in these opening verses to the book of Lamentations, echo our current feelings of being abandoned. Lonely, widowed, weeping, held captive by foes, and without comfort. 2020 has thrust us deep into a long season of chaos soliciting our crying out. And while we may be able to find things that are comfortable it’s to numb the discomfort we feel; yet, the more we reach for the comfortable, the further comfort remains. We need not what is comfortable but to be comforted; we need to be disrupted in such a way that we see things as they are for what they are and to feel the umbilical connection to the rest of humanity who is sick, who is in pain, who grieves, and who fights for the right to breathe.

God’s presence has always meant comfort for God’s people manifest in the people’s liberation from captivity by forces internal (Israel’s sin) and external (those who are holding Israel captive)—this is salvation. Thus, the promised divine nativity of the Christ, God born in flesh, will be salvation for all flesh and this salvation is still intrinsically linked with human liberation. And this liberation isn’t solely from mythical forces of evil, threats of hellfire, and the intellectual burden of a burdened conscience. It is bodily liberation from religious tyranny, from marginalization, it is healing from sickness, it is bringing in and bringing together those who have been forced out and into exile by the rulers and authorities, it is dismantling of malignant systems born to create hierarchy between divine image bearers.[9] Jesus is the word of God, the word of comfort, born into the world to save and redeem God’s people…all of God’s people bringing low the high places and raising up the low places. So, we, as those who have been disrupted become disruptive, like Israel declaring the divine word of comfort rousing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert
far and near, calling us to repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.[10]

Advent is a season designed for disruption. The announcement that the divine nativity draws near and being asked to sit and wait and re-experience Israel’s pain and anguish waiting for God to act is to be disrupted in a marvelous way. God’s promised comfort comes and disrupts our comfortableness. Borrowing from Isaiah, John declared, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3). In the announcement that God comes, we, the comfortable, have been disrupted by the divine word of comfort of the afflicted, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The divine word of comfort comes to desperate ears, tired eyes, and exhausted bodies. All is disrupted. Behold, salvation comes to God’s people; the great comforter arrives in flesh to liberate (disrupt the captivity of) the captives.


[1] Isaiah 40:2b-d, “…that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

[2] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets Ny NY: JPS 1962. 152, “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, says your God’ (40:1). And also, ‘I, I am He that comforts you’ (51:12). ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’ (66:13). His comfort comes from compassion (49:13), and will bring about joy (51:3), deliverance from captivity and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.”

[3] Heschel 149, 40:2 “As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is s ritual its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.”

[4] Childs 297, “Most important is that God confirms his relation with the people of Israel. He is their God and they are his people, a formula that reverberates as a distant echo from the ancient covenant tradition.”

[5] Childs 296, “Seitz writes: ‘God speaks again from the divine council as he had done formerly in Israel’s day…[T]he word of God goes forth directly, commissioning the heralds of good tidings’ (245).”

[6] Childs 300, “Zion and Jerusalem are now personified as the evangelists of the good tidings. They are appointed to proclaim the news to the cities of Judah.” And 301, “Zion and Jerusalem are not portrayed simply as awaiting the coming of imminent salvation. Indeed the emphasis is not primarily on the return of the exiles, but focuses foremost on the coming of God. Jerusalem and Zion are now described from the perspective having already received redemption. Their task is rather one of the proclamation of the good news to the remaining cities of Judah.”

[7] Brevard Childs Isaiah TOTL Louisville KY: WJK 2001. 294, “in the prologue of chapter 40 God announces his will for a new dispensation toward Israel of forgiveness, peace, and restoration. His redemptive message is then proclaimed from the heavenly council as a confirmation of the truth of his word, and redeemed Jerusalem is called as a herald of the good tidings.”

[8] Childs 298, “A voice from the heavenly council now picks up the divine message of coming redemption with a cry that continues the urgent imperatives to a plural addressee…Then the imagery of the highway is further expanded. Valleys will be raised, mountains levelled, and the rough terrain made flat. This is in preparation for the unveiling of the glory of God that will be revealed to all.” And 299, V.5 tie to chapter 6 “The prophet overhears the liturgy of the seraphim bearing witness to the whole earth’s being filed with God’s glory. However, the point of his experiencing God’s presence in chapter 6 is that only to the prophet was the revelation disclosed. However, in chapter 40 a sign of the inbreaking of a new age of salvation is that the glory of God will now be revealed to all flesh.”

[9] This paragraph influenced by this quote from James H. Cone For my People: Black Theology and the Black Church  Ny, ny: Orbis, 1984. 80, “In the process of rereading the Bible in the light of black history, black clergy radicals concluded that both biblical and black histories revealed God’s unqualified solidarity with the poor in their fight against injustice. This revelation disclosed God’s salvation as being identical with human liberation. In the United States, black theologians were the first to identify liberation with salvation, and thus with the ore of the Christ gospel. It was in this context that they began to refer to God as the liberator of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt and to Jesus as the liberator whom God has anointed ‘to preach the goodness to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, an to set a liberty those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV)”

[10] “Comfort, comfort ye my people” hymn 67 v.2

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.”