Our Stories This Story: The Youth

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. you can access it here.

Psalm 91:9-11  Because you have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation, There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. For God shall give God’s angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.

Introduction

“They have no idea what they’re doing. None. I look around and see the violence, I watch these people run the world, and I’m convinced they’re blind. Can’t they see that these old systems just don’t work and that something must change or I’ll lose my future? Do they even care?! …I mean, I think my parents try but…I don’t know…I fear for them, too. How much more will they be able to bear to try to prevent the inevitable from happening? I mean, we’re doomed right? I might be young, but I can at least see that…I’m exhausted. I’m young and exhausted and I fear I’m practically burnt out.”

From the Ash Wednesday Sermon 3.2.22

We’ve become a people who passes on mess rather than story.

We are all born into the beauty and mess of the world of our parents and grandparents. We receive a world that is in process and are told that its progress is due to previous generations, and even if it’s not perfect, the new generation is to move it forward on that line of progress and clean up the mess of those who were here before participating in this process. But that idea is a myth. The problem being that we have a hard time discerning between systems bent against survival and those able to create realms of thriving. By picking up and carrying on while cleaning up—just as they did before—we participate not in the process of making things better but perpetuating systems that are inherently flawed. If this is so, then nothing is actually getting better and we are thrusting the entire kit and kaboodle further into death and despair.

When we just pick up just because it’s handed to us, we receive it as normal and as “always been”. Then, we, the adults, become so far in it’s hard to see what’s wrong. If you are in a building with a foundation that is giving way, it’s the person external to the building, the new person who enters the building, who notices the problem and not those who have grown accustomed to the slow and steady nearly invisible alterations of the building. Same thing goes for our world and society and the systems in place running everything: those who are newer to this world, to society, to our approach to life—the young—see things in a different light. This is why the youth come to dinner tables eager to dream and dare and put words to problems through questions and rough insight. It’s the energy and zeal of the young who surge into rooms and spaces and try to remind tired and burned out adults that there was once a story.

When it’s our perceived responsibility to pass on systems as they are rather than stories of what things could be, then the challenging “Why?” of the youth is met with condescension and rejection. We respond to their questions and inquiries, their challenges and dares by dismissing them as byproducts of overzealous youthful vim and vigor because we despise being waked into our storylessness and being reminded that we’ve long buried our stories in the ground because the world told us to, that such dreaming and hoping was pointless. In this way we cease passing on our stories because we’ve lost our stories to our pain. And, instead, we pass on our pain and wounds and demoralization…we pass on flawed and harmful systems. If I was beaten down, then you will be too, that’s just the way the world works.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

Deuteronomy 26:3-9

In our passage from Deuteronomy, Moses, inspired by the spirit of God, proclaims prophetically to the people who are about to take up residence in the long-awaited promised land to recite the story of God’s dealing with God’s people. One of the most fundamental and recurring themes here is remembering what God has done. Israel, through Moses, is exhorted to remember and recall and recite the story of God’s great deliverance of the captives. Israel is to hold to this story; not in a dogmatic and dead fashion, but as a living and thriving narrative. This story is to remind them that God is for them, that God is their God and they are God’s people. This story is to be remembered and shared, passed on from one generation to another. And through the sharing of this story, hope and possibility and promise and life are passed on from one generation to another.

Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the Israelites to contemplate the revelation of God made known in the giving of the law and the liberation of Israel from captivity in Egypt day and night all the days of their life, and to share these very laws and stories with their children. Discussions were supposed to happen; questions asked and answers given. In passing on this story, the children would then make this story theirs, and in this way this God of their parents would become their God, too—not a strange and unfamiliar God, but one whom they knew from the beginning and into whose story they could see themselves participating and not merely observing. In passing on the story—this story about a God who liberates the captives, unburdens the oppressed, and cares for the homeless, hungry, and naked—Israel passes on the hope and dreams of the story that resonate with the fuel and fire of the youth that this world can be better. In passing on the story, the old share with the young their wisdom and what they’ve learned. In passing on the story, the young add to it offering different perspectives and views on how this liberation, unburdening, and care manifest in their age now. It’s this process of sharing story that is to be passed on; not the death grip to human made systems long expired and past their time.

Conclusion

One of my favorite theologians, Helmut Gollwitzer,[1] argues that age needs youth and youth needs age. Or phrased differently: energy inspires wisdom and wisdom guides energy. In the preface to his book, The Rich Christian & Poor Lazarus, Gollwitzer expresses gratitude for the impact the youth, the students, have on his life and the world. I’ll quote a portion here:

“This book is dedicated to the students of Berlin. By this I mean those who, among many thousands who attend the universities of West Berlin, are responsible for the fact that Berlin has for some time now been censured or praised as a place of unrest. I mean especially those of their spokesmen with whom in recent years I have come in contact, and who go in and out of my house. In contrast with many of my contemporaries and colleagues, who regard them with deep antipathy or at least shake their heads over them in bewilderment, I have come love them for their sincerity, their courage, their feeling for freedom, their sense of responsibility for the future, and their dream of a more human society. I have received from them encouragement, instruction, and the stimulus for new thought, and they, I hope have benefited from some of the things that I and my friends have had to say in criticism and correction…”[2]

Helmut Gollwitzer

What beautiful words of mutual affirmation. Gollwitzer writes, “I have come to love them for their sincerity, their courage, their feeling for freedom, their sense of responsibility for the future, and their dream of a more human society.” I deeply, deeply believe that when we bring our young ones to the table and give them a vital and necessary place to talk and engage with us, we will stop passing on the mess of flawed and violent systems. I believe we will be called back to our stories of liberation and freedom and hope and life and we will be exhorted to dream with them that maybe, just maybe, things don’t have to be as bad as they are. Until then, we will continue to be complicit and held captive in these systems that are killing not only us but also the hope and dreams and future of the young.


[1] A great text on Gollwitzer is Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s text Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017.

[2] Helmut Gollwitzer The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1970. x-xi

and The Possibility Opens

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51: 11-3 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. (49)

Introduction

I was diagnosed with Dyslexia as a young girl. I didn’t read “right”. From what I recall, letters jumped places, words flipped about, the sentences moved to their own beat—every written page was a gymnastics competition and those words were gold medalists. The diagnosis strapped me with insecurities about my intelligence and a disdain for reading. According to the diagnosis, I didn’t have the potential to read well because I was a “bad” reader. I lived into the idea that I wasn’t a “reader. My act of reading exposed I didn’t have the potential to read well. In our performance and production driven economy, it’s the actuality of the act that is esteemed. I wasn’t a reader because my actions demonstrated that I wasn’t.

Referring to Aristotle’s Metaphysics: this is what is known as actuality having priority over possibility. Aristotle’s ontological priority of actuality over possibility equates to the simple equation: yet v. not-yet. “Yet” being more important than “not-yet”; “not yet” means nothing if it is never actualized into “Yet”. Even though the actual is derived from the possible (the “yet” from the “not yet”), the possible strives toward the actual (like a seed striving to become actualized as a plant). [1] For Aristotle, actuality is both origin and goal of the possible, thus the possible serves and is subordinate to that actual.[2]

In that possibility serves actuality, actuality has primary position over possibility. Actuality is preferred and determines what the possibility was. So, we can say: one wasted their potential by not realizing it into actuality. Oh, she had so much potential! we say of people who have made “bad choices.” (As if potential can be “wasted” away if it’s not acted on.) The smart student who gets Ds also gets the obligatory look of disappointment. There was potential but it was never actualized as act; thus the potential is inferior in value to the actual and rendered as pointless apart from action.

But what if Aristotle was wrong?

Jeremiah 31-34

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Jeremiah 31: 31, 33

Jeremiah prophesies about a new covenant God will make between God and God’s people. This new covenant will, according to Jeremiah, “…not be like the covenant that I [God] made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke…” (Jer 31). According to Jeremiah, it is not the fault of the content of the previous covenant, but the fault of the people: [3] they are unable to perform according to the covenant established on the far side of the Red Sea as they stood in the shadow of Mt. Sinai receiving the revelation of the law, Torah.[4] Leaving the Torah outside of the people as words carved in stone—as a thing to be actualized out of human possibility—was failing. The command to love God imparted to the stones, needed to be imparted to the hearts of the people.[5] The people needed the actual to manifest the possible.

In Deuteronomy the great Shema of chapter 6 is the heart of Jewish liturgy. The word shema means: to hear so deeply that you do.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

While Israel promised that they would obey this and other commands they received from God, they didn’t. This didn’t render the Torah, the revelation of the Law, in error or wrong; rather, it exposed a deeper and bigger issue: a human inability to hear so well and so deeply that love comes forth. (The possibility of doings wasn’t manifesting into act.) In Dt 10,[6] God commands Israel to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts so that they obey God’s commands. But then, in Dt 30, Moses prophesies God’s promise that God will circumcise their hearts so that they will love God as they should.[7] The people needed the actual to manifest the possible.

Jeremiah is picking up on that promise. God is going to act on the inner life of Israel so that the love of God and of God’s people is written on their hearts of flesh rather than on tablets of stone. Relying on manifested human potential as act wasn’t working. Jeremiah stands in solidarity with God in God’s passionate zeal for God’s beloved people and creation.[8] He is filled with the divine pathos hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s love and heralds to the people this new promise: God will act not only on behalf of but also in God’s people. God will act on and in the people in a way that will create possibility for obedience to love; God will manipulate actuality, parting space like water and stopping time like the rains of the heavens and create room for the possible. Jeremiah exhorts and encourages, Shema, O Israel!

No longer will Israel have to wrestle with the inner failure of potential failing to become actual, with hearts that listen but do not truly hear. Rather, they will be caught in the divine activity that is oriented toward possibility. When God sweeps in and moves God’s people, in that actuality there is possibility. Thus, we say with confidence: with God all things are possible. God acts in our time and space, in our material realm and makes room for things that were not but now can be. In God’s economy it is not that possibility serves actuality, that potential serves act, but the opposite: actuality serves possibility, act serves potential, and the possible has primacy over what is actual.

Conclusion

It was in high school, during the later half of Junior year, where I wanted to receive untimed testing for the SATs. I was, as the test concluded in elementary school, dyslexic. My guidance councilor thought it was a good idea, but I had to be tested first before I’d be granted untimed testing. So, I sat for a test. A week later I sat with the examiner as she gave me my results. She explained before she went over my test that the test answers are scored on a scale of 1-14, 14 being the highest number and 1 being the lowest. The higher the score, the less a need for untimed testing. She opened my results and showed me a list of 14s and 12s with a 10 here and there. She laughed kindly, I’m sorry, there’s no way I can recommend an untimed test with these high scores. I was baffled. Where did my dyslexia go? I asked. Apparently, your brain fixed it, she replied. Becoming a good reader had nothing to do with “potential” made “actual” but about actuality making space and time for the possibility of being a good reader.

We take the actual and make it the final because we are taken with our deeds and actions as the final verdict of who we are as human beings on this planet; we’ve believed the lie that actuality has priority over possibility. We put too much stock in actions as determinant of who and what a person is. And this means we are focused on the past that we miss the divine activity of the future right in front of us for us.[1] We get wrapped up in what is, we miss what could be. What is isn’t all there is. And what is allows us the creativity and imagination to dream of what isn’t yet. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, we are people of possibility rather than only actuality. Here in lies our hope. A pandemic has disrupted what is; so, what could be? Where can we go from here? Can we dare to be people who face the anti-Asian racism plaguing this land, that eight lives were taken for no other reason than hate? Can our society meet the survival needs of people who find themselves stuck between two choices, work or don’t work, where both end in death? Can our society fight for the lives of Black, Indigenous people of color? Can our society become a safe place for people to be who they are, what they are, and love those whom they love freely?

What we have now doesn’t have to be what we have tomorrow; what we’re accustomed to isn’t all there is. Possibility has priority over actuality. There’s more than what the eye can see. Because sometimes the man on the donkey is a divine king in disguise and a state sanctioned instrument of death becomes a tool for the victory of life. For the beloved, what is isn’t ever all there is.


[1] Heschel Prophets 211 “Here, knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant…”


[1]   The quotation is from Aristotle’s Metaphysics “(2) In time it is prior in this sense: the actual which is identical in species though not in number with a potentially existing thing is prior to it. I mean that to this particular man who now exists actually and to the corn and to the seeing subject the matter and the seed and that which is capable of seeing, which are potentially a man and corn and seeing, but not yet actually, so are prior in time; but prior in time to these are other actually existing things, from which they were produced. For from the potentially existant the actually existing is always produced by an actually existant thing, e.g. man from man, musician by musician; there is always a first mover, and the mover already exists actually. We have said in our account of substance that everything that is produced is something produced from something and by something, and that the same in species as it” 1049b 19-28.

[2]   Eberhard Jüngel “Possibility”. 99-100. Referring to Aristotle: “So actuality is the origin and goal of all that comes into being, and possibility exists for the sake of actuality. Possibility stands in teleological relation to actuality.”

[3] JPS Study Bible Marvin A. Sweeney “Jeremiah” Eds Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler Jeremiah 31:31 New York, NY: OUP 2004 “The new covenant has been interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of the new covenant though Jesus (New Testament means new covenant), but here it refers to the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile and the reconstruction of the Temple. According to this passage, it is not the content of the new covenant which will be different, but how it is learned.”

[4] Exodus 19:1ff

[5] JPS Study Bible Jeremiah 31:33-34 “God places the Teaching, i.e., the Torah, in the inmost being or heart of the people so that the covenant cannot be broken again. This idea is developed in later Lurianic kabbalah, which maintains that all persons have a divine spark within. Since it is so inscribed, there will be no need for the Torah to be taught.”

[6] Deuteronomy 10:12-22, “12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God[c] and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. 22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.”

[7] Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you. Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, 10 when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

[8] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 25 “The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God. Emotional detachment would be understandable only if there were a command which required the suppression of emotion, forbidding one to serve God ‘with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.’ God, we are told, asks not only for ‘works,’ for action, but above all for love, awe, and fear. We are called upon to ‘wash’ our hearts (Jer. 4:14), to remove ‘the foreskin’ of the heart (Jer. 4:4), to return with the whole heart (Jer. 3:10). ‘You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart’ (Jer. 29:13). The new covenant which the Lord will make with the house of Israel will be written upon their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34).”

[9] Heschel Prophets 211 “Here, knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant…”

You Can’t Get There From Here

John 6:35, 41-51 (Sermon)

“You can’t get there from here,” I said to the person sitting in their car.

“But isn’t this Pine Street?” They asked, a bit desperate.

“Yes,” I assured. “It is Pine Street. But the part of Pine Street you’re looking for isn’t connected—in any way—to this segment of Pine Street. You actually have to go down this road, take a left, go up two blocks, take a right, then you take the next life, follow that road for a few blocks, take a left, and then take your next left, then drive a few blocks, and then you’ll see the part of Pine Street you’re looking for on your right.” I finished on a very confident note.

The driver of the maroon sedan looked over his left shoulder and down a small portion of Pine Street clearly visible through his back window. “But, isn’t it just right there?” He pointed to a cluster of trees and a dead-end no more than 50 yards away. His eyes communicated his confusion and maybe even a small amount of panic. Good Lord. What dimension have I fallen into??

I turned to look in the direction he was pointing. I smiled, chuckled, and said, “Yup. It’s right there. Someone could easily throw a rock and hit that house you want to get to.” And then I turned back to look at my confused traveler. I smiled as reassuringly as I could, and said, “Welcome to Pittsburgh.” I sent him on his way and encouraged him that he’ll eventually get there, but that he’ll also probably have to stop and have this very conversation a few more times. But, hey! Isn’t life about being on a meandering journey and making many new acquaintances on the way?

Pittsburgh was notoriously hard to navigate via car. I don’t think I ever audibly uttered the sentiment, “If I just had a horse, this whole thing would be easier,” more than I did when I lived in Pittsburgh. At one point in our little-more-than-a-decade there, I was convinced that Down Town Pittsburgh itself, the actual city of Pittsburgh, had a magical force field around it. If you didn’t hit it just right, you’d bounce off it and be sent into a long and major tunnel that would drop you off somewhere else where you’d whisper while curiously looking around and out of all the angles of your windshield, “Huh, I didn’t know this was part of Pittsburgh…” Then 40 minutes later and finally having found a place to turn around (legally or illegally, desperation gets the best of all us), you’d find yourself headed back for round two, “Hold on, Kids! Mama’s breaking through this time! Children’s Museum or Bust!”

You can’t get there from here.

Jesus said to them, “I, I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me will not hunger, and the one who believes in me will not thirst at any time…And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not grumble with one another. No one is able to come to me if the father, the one who sent me, does not draw them…It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ All the ones who heard and learned from the father come to me (John 6:35, 43-45; translation mine)

The tension of the paradox embedded in this portion of our Gospel passage is palpable. Jesus explains in v. 35, “The one who comes to me will neither hunger nor will they thirst ever again…” And then Jesus adds, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws them.” This is the divine, “You can’t get there from here.” “Come to me but only if you’ve been called.” “I’m calling your name, but only if you’ve been given ears to hear me.” In this verbal moment, those who are listening to Jesus are all stuck in a maroon sedan, unable to get to the location they want to get to: satiating bread and thirst quenching water. The destination is so close and also so far away, it’s right there within reach and just beyond their grasp. These verses highlight that the people Jesus is addressing are very much in a bad way; they’re stuck. Like Nicodemus before them in John 3, “How can anyone…?”

We’re stuck, too. We spend most of our days endlessly running and running and running, and the entire time we are going absolutely nowhere. Days bleed into each other, the same thing over and over and over again, the distinction that used to be big and bold between Thursday night and Friday night has nearly vanished—weekdays and weekends are all just days. Demands come and demands are met; and again, tomorrow, those same demands will come trouncing back in to our lives, asking to be met with the same answers and actions. Day in and day out we are chained to the treadmill of life that forces us to run at a demanding pace, that causes us to slowly and surely turn in on ourselves so much that we eventually begin looking like tightly coiled springs that are made of flesh and bone.

We live in the paradox of being “alive” but also very dead at the same time. We’re stuck in an endless cycle that is death pretending to be life—we joke, “Life, am I right?” We comfort others and ourselves as we run about this rat-race with contrite phrases and some version of “misery loves company” and console ourselves into accepting that this living death as living life. But it’s not, it’s no joke, and it’s certainly no comfort. And, I ‘m not speaking of the monotony of life that I referenced a couple of weeks ago. And, I’m not speaking against various forms of self-improvement. What I’m speaking of is the striving after our own self-justification, the desperate activity we employ to make ourselves “ok” not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God; I’m speaking against our frantic and frenetic activity that is the hallmark of the sham existence that is desperately trying to stave off the reality that death (in its myriad of existential forms) comes and you’re helpless against it. No matter how much food we eat or how much water we drink, death still comes; [1] to think we can avoid death through any of our own actions is to attempt to grasp oil with the hand. This type of striving and living is a sham living, is a barely alive version of death; and it is very real. We’re the walking dead and no wonder most of us were riveted to that show for months and months—it strikes very close to home.

The worst part of what I’ve been describing is that we’re hopeless to remedy the situation of our living-deadness in and of ourselves; we’re helpless to help ourselves out of this death like living. No Zombie can unzombify itself; the walking dead have no hope apart from the quick activity of a sharp blade. No one stuck on this treadmill of life can just turn the treadmill off and take a break because this treadmill doesn’t have an on/off switch or a pause button; and it’s ill advised to just step off because that way lies either certain disfiguring injury or death. We’re stuck, very stuck unless someone trips us up and throws our incurvatus in se focus out of alignment. Anyone who comes to me will never thirst or hunger again…but the ones who come only come because the Father draws them. Apart from some miracle of radical intervention, we can’t get there from here.

‘…Not that anyone has seen the father except the one who is from God, this one has seen the father. Truly, truly I say to you, “the one who believes has eternal life.” I, I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This one who came down from heaven is the bread, in order that anyone may eat of it and not die. I, I am the living bread, the one who came down from heaven…’ (John 6:46-51a, translation mine)

We need an intervention and that intervention necessitate having our dire state exposed and revealed to us. It’s not until we get the right diagnosis that we can then get the very help we need. In our gospel passage from John, Jesus is the one who has come down from heaven to reveal to us God and to give the dry bones, the walking dead life, true life—not the living deadness we call life. Jesus is the Revealer, the one who has descends into our plight, exposes our dire situation, calls us to him, feeds us with the bread of life, quenches our thirst with living water (John 4), sends the darkness permanently fleeing with his light (John 1:5), and summons the dead to life. [2]

Deuteronomy 30 verses 11-14 we read:

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ either is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

We can’t get there from here. But the good news is God crosses the vast distance to us. The incarnate word, the word made flesh, Christ the Revealer, descends from heaven and crosses the sea to us. No matter how much we think that demand rests on our shoulders, it doesn’t. You can’t climb up into heaven and you can’t walk across water. The paradox and tension embedded in our gospel passage is real, but it is of great comfort, too. God has descended. God has come down from heaven and has entered into our world, not hovered a bit above it or dwelled about over in the sidelines, but into it, in it, in the midst of the people.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:14, 16-18).

Just a few chapters before our gospel passage we read about the “Samaritan Woman” who has trudged off to the well to fetch water under the heat of the noonday sun. There at the well, she encounters Christ who is sitting on the ground reclined against the well. Jesus the incarnate word is physically down low; the word made flesh dwells low in a Samaritan village talking to a Samaritan.

“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?…Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’” (John 4:10-15)

Descent is exactly the verbal thrust of what “incarnation” means and is. It doesn’t mean that God took on flesh and then remained out of reach; it means God was very much in reach, touchable by us as we are. It means: we might not be able to get there from here, but sure as heck God can.

Because God has come to us, because God has descended from heaven and has traversed the sea to get to humanity, to get to us, faith is now possible[3] because the author of faith, God, has come to us to create that which God desires. The static voice of the law couldn’t generate faith, only something dynamic—something living, breathing, thirst-quenching, hunger-satisfying—could generate faith. Not the commands of God but God in God’s self in Christ Jesus comes down into the world to dwell among humanity, calling humanity unto God’s self. To gaze upon Christ is to gaze upon God; [4] the great “I am” walks among the people and calls them to him thus to God; this is who is speaking, the one we desire and long for. [5]

We do not receive of some measly bread loaves and a couple of fish and wash it down with a bit of water drawn from a human made, earthy well—these items mentioned by Jesus symbolically represent that everything we desire, our deepest needs are met in God by faith.[6] In faith in Christ we receive more than what any bread or water could ever give us: we receive God, thus life.[7]

And this goes against everything that makes sense to us; in fact it’s an offense to us and to the world.[8] Jesus, the “son of Joseph and Mary”, is the Revealer, is the έγώ-είμι that walks about on the earth encountering humanity, up-ending our expectations and desires, and putting a cessation to our demands. We are stripped down of all of our false beliefs and comforting myths; not even our real hunger and our real thirst will save our hide.[9] Everything we are striving after is as if we are striving after the wind. We need the real manna[10] (cf. Ex. 16) from heaven and the waters from the real Rock (cf. Ex. 17): “…the bread [and water] of God is the Revealer who comes from heaven and gives life to the world.” What Christ reveals is that we need him.[11]

In that we are made to realize in the revelation by the Revealer, by Christ, that we do not need more bread and water, but that we need him, we find ourselves falling to our knees with empty hands outstretched and eager to partake of Christ—because Christ is the both the foundation and orientation of faith.[12] We find ourselves forfeiting our rights to ourselves and to our self-justifications and our sham existence.[13] In this moment of our desperation, in the coming-to-the-end of ourselves, and in being completely undone, we paradoxically find ourselves—in the event of faith—fully alive in this wholly other, we find ourselves fully alive in God by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.[14] When we let go of ourselves and suffer that death, we find ourselves called back to life by the voice of God in Christ.[15]

“I, I am the living bread, the one who came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live into eternity, and also the bread that I, I will give—my flesh—it is for the sake of the life of the world” (John 6:51, translation mine)

The love of God can neither be contained in heaven, nor can it be contained within God’s self alone. It’s a love that is both dynamic and active and moves and goes to the furthest recesses of the world to seek and save the beloved: you and me, the disciples way back when and all who are to come, the whole entire world. [16]

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) 

It is a love that descends and hovers over the surface of the waters and the land as it did way back when in Genesis (cf. Gen 1:1-5). In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, in the totality of who Christ is and what Christ did, Christ is for all of humanity.[17] And in that we have heard and seen, in that we have partaken of the living bread and living water given to us in Christ received by faith, we are sent forth in to the world moved by the Spirit who’s mission is to continue to reveal to the world this man Christ Jesus who is God and to draw all people unto God through faith in Christ.

Just as the love of God manifest in Christ Jesus was not static but dynamic, so to are we made to be dynamic and not static. We weren’t able to get there from here, but God met us. And we are to bring this encounter out and beyond the four walls of this church. We are not to be lights dwelling with other lights; we are to be lights unto and into the world, casting away darkness with the light of life. We who have been encountered by a wholly other God go forth into the world making a wholly other society.[18] As we are fed with the bread and water of Christ by faith, we go out and literally feed those who are hungry, clothe those who are naked, shelter those who are homeless, befriend those who are lonely, and reunite those who have been separated. We are drawn unto God and exhorted to live wholly different in a world that is tethered to it’s own addiction to the status-quo, controlled by the myths circulating and running amuck and oppressing people with fear, stuck in an incessant need to meet real hunger and thirst with things that never bring relief and only bring death: death to those who are starving from consuming and death to those because they are being consumed. We are left in our encounter with God without reason or excuse not to be about the business of upending injustice.

By the movement of the Spirit in our lives and because we have heard and have seen and have eaten and have tasted, we are to be humans in a world that behaves and acts rather inhuman.[19]

Borrowing from the words of Paul to the Ephesians,

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (4:31-5:2) 

Let us go forth into the world, bringing the very life and light we have received here in hearing and seeing and partaking of Christ through faith in Christ to a world that is desperately in need of life and light. Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the spirit, proclaiming to a hungry and thirsty world: We couldn’t get there from here but God has crossed the divide, God has come to us! Let us go forth in to the world proclaiming, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!” (Psalm 34:8).

[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). v.27 “This warning is again delivered against the background of Johannine ‘dualism”’ It is open for all to understand; for it is addressed, as of the living water, to man’s will for life. It brings home to man that life is not assured by human food; for such food is perishable as is the life which it gives. If man wants eternal life, he must find the food which endures. But what is this miraculous food, and where is it be found?“ p. 222

[2] Bultmann, “For here the bread of life which the Father gives by sending the Son from heaven (vv. 32f.) is the Son the Revealer. He gives (v. 27) and is (vv. 35,48,51) the bread of life, in the same way that he gives the water of life (4.10) and is the light of the (8.12), and as the Revealer gives life to the world (v. 33; cp. 10.28; 17.2)—to those, that is, who “come” to him (v. 35; cp. 3.20f.; 5.40), who believe in him (v. 35; and cp. 3.20f. with 3.18). In all of this there is no need for a sacramental act, by means of which the believer must make the life his own.” p. 219

[3] Bultmann, “On the other hand vv. 41-46 again form a closely-knit unit. The Jews’ unbelief, which finds expression in their murmuring (vv. 41f.), is traced back to its metaphysical roots: the possibility of faith is given only by God (vv. 43-46). The reference to faith here as “coming to Jesus” gives the theme of “coming” its organic place within the dialogue, and vv. 36-40 would doubtless most appropriately follow on vv. 41-46.” p. 221. And, Έγώ-είμι “…shows Jesus as the true bread of life and confronted man with the decision of faith in the form of a promise. In the second part the express theme is the possibility of faith….” p. 229

[4] Bultmann, “’In the έγώ-είμι statements Jn. 6.35, 48, 51; 8.12; 10.7, 9, 11, 14; 15.1, 5 we clearly have recognition formulae, even if in the source they were perhaps intended as presentation or qualificatory formulae. For in the context of the Gospel the έγώ is strongly stressed and it is always contrasted with false or pretended revelation (cf. 6.49-51; 10:10, 11-13; cp. also 5.43). On the other hand 11.25, and perhaps too 14.6, are probably identification formulae.” 226fn3

[5] Bultmann, “Jesus’ reply (v. 35), expressed by means of the revelatory formula, έγω είμι, says that what they are looking for is present in his person…” p. 225

[6] Bultmann, “In the promise the fulfillment of man’s desire for life is split up into the stilling of man’s hunger and the stilling of his thirst…symbolic meaning of άρτος, and the identity of the bread of life and the living water.” p. 227fn3

[7] Bultmann, “The whole paradox of the revelation is contained in this reply. Whoever wants something from him must know that he has to receive Jesus himself. Whoever approaches him with the desire for the gift of life must learn that Jesus is himself the gift he really wants. Jesus gives the bread of life in that he is the bread of life. Yet he is the bread of life surely because in his person he is nothing in himself, but is present in the service of the Father for man. Whoever wishes to receive life from him must therefore believe in him—or, as it is figuratively expressed must ‘come to him.’” p.227

[8] Bultmann, “The murmuring of the Jews (v. 41) is directed against the decisive έγώ είμι in ν. 51. The claim of revelation provokes the opposition of the world. It takes offence at the fact that the revelation encounters it in history; it is offended by the fact that the man, whose father and mother they know, claims to be the Revealer (v. 42).” P. 229

[9] Bultmann, “…God’s revelation destroys every picture which desires make of it, so that the real test of man’s desire for salvation is to believe even when God encounters him in a totally different way from that which he expected.” p. 228

[10] Bultmann, “The contrast is first made in general terms. The manna could not give life; the fathers who ate it the bread of heaven (v. 50). This is again followed in v. 51a by the word of revelation: ‘I am the one who fulfills that which is said about the bread of heaven’.” p. 229

[11] Bultmann, “V. 32 had stated that only God gives the bread of heaven, and v. 33 added that the bread of God is the Revealer; vv. 47f. now completes the argument by declaring, “I am he!” What is true in principle has become historical reality in Jesus’ person.” p. 229

[12] Bultmann, “Since hearing and learning from the Father are basically nothing other than faith, i.e., coming to Jesus, the statement is a paradox which makes clear the nature of faith. It means that only he who believes, believes; but this is to say that faith has no support outside itself; it sees what it sees only in faith….For faith is related to its object; it is a relationship to that which is believed and as such it has its own security, which can rest only in the object of faith: τον ερχόμενον πρός με ού μή εκβάλω εξω. Faith is sure of only as it seizes hold of the promises made to it.” P. 232

[13] Bultmann, “Thus the Jews with their objection do not see that the divine cannot be contrasted with the human in the confident way in which they say, ‘How can an ordinary man claim to be the Revealer!’ For this is the very absurdity which the event of revelation proclaims; and the condition of its understanding is that [humanity] should relinquish the assurance with which [humanity] believes [humanity] can pass judgement on the human and the divine as objectively determinable phenomena.” p.230

[14] Bultmann, “It is not that [one] has the possibility of a special and direct relationship to God; for this can be said only of the Revealer; any other relationship to God must be mediated by the Revealer” p. 232

[15] Bultmann, “…faith becomes possible when one abandons hold on one’s own security, and to abandon one’s security is nothing else than to let oneself be drawn by the Father….[This drawing] is not a magic process, nor is it governed by rigid laws like the laws of nature. It occurs when man abandons his own judgement and ‘hears’ and ‘learns’ from the Father, when he allows God to him. The ‘drawing’ by the Father occurs not, as it were. Behind man’s decision of faith but in it. He who comes to Jesus, however, receives the promise, ‘I will not reject him’.” pp. 231-2

[16] Karl Barth CD III.2.45.213 “…and most powerfully of all Jn. 651 Tells us that ‘the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give —a saying which finds as exact parallel in the well-known verse Jn. 316, where we read that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.’ What Jesus is ‘for us’ or ‘for you’ in the narrower circle of the disciples and the community He is obviously, through the ministry of this narrower circle, ‘for all’ or ‘for the world’ in the wider or widest circle. And in the majority of the relevant passages this action of Jesus for others (His disciples, His community, the many, ail, the world) is His death and passion. This is the primary reference of the more general expressions which speak of His self-offering for men.”

[17] Karl Barth CD III.2.45.214 “It must not be forgotten that as the New Testament sees it man Jesus who was given up to death is identical with the Lord now living and universally visible return is for the community the sum of their future and of that of the world. He has overcome death in suffering it. He has risen again from the dead. And it is in this totality that He is ‘for men.’”

[18] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). “That is, [Gollwitzer] clarifies for us that there is no such thing as a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” pp. 166-7.

[19] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). “What is the mission of Jesus? To make men human, to make inhuman men human, brotherly, for the sake of God’s brotherliness, because in humanity and unbrotherliness is destroying all of us.” p. 21.