Hands in Solidarity

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50

Psalm 124:6-7 6 Blessed be the Lord! [The Lord] has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth. We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

Introduction

In an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, a 20-year-old man comes to the ER because he’s attempted to cut off his right hand due to “sin”. Per the directives of Jesus, he explains to the doctor, this besetting sin (revolving around self-pleasure) involved his hand, and since it was a stumbling block, he tried to cut it off. A literalist, this young man took Jesus’s words as they were: the word of God as command to be obeyed. The doctor assisting him, April, tries to convince him not to take the text that literally. The young man replies in such a way to indicate that the word of God is true or it isn’t and then if it isn’t true, then he’s wasted his entire life following Jesus and believing in him and God. Then I scream into my pillow: context is king!

Just like doctors who cannot watch doctor shows, I cannot handle watching media portray religion in general and Christianity in specific.  While I think the episode did a decent job presenting space to the viewers to ask more profound questions about faith and belief, sacred text and sacred dogma, it still rendered the image of Christianity and Christians with it in simplistic and literal terms, leaving behind the profoundly rich potential for nuance and creativity.

The binary that something is true (read: factual) or it isn’t (read: hard lie), isn’t a binary that exists. Something can be true and not factual or real; something can be factual and built of lies. There’s variation between two polarized things; there is a shade of gray that is so dark that it looks like it’s the shade black, but it’s not. It’s very very very very very very very dark gray. And so, we must be willing, especially as those encountered with God in the event of faith, to investigate doctrines and dogmas and ask many, many questions and bend toward creativity. We are humans, given rich inquisitive and creative minds; not robots prewired and coded to obey without thought and question.

So, in that spirit, we must ask: what does Jesus mean when he commands the disciples to cut off the appendage that is causing spiritual stumbling? Let’s look.

Mark 9:38-50

And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it is better for them if a donkey’s millstone lies around upon their neck and be thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is good for you to enter life without a hand than arrive in the unquenchable fire of Gehenna having two hands. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is good for you to enter life maimed than to be thrown into Gehenna having two feet. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out; it is good for you to enter the kingdom of God one-eyed than be cast into Gehenna having two eyes.[1]

Mark 9:42-48

Mark continues the conversation between Jesus and his disciples picking up with John ratting out a stranger for doing an exorcism in the name of Christ and telling Jesus they tried to stop him but failed.[2] The cliquishness[3] and exclusivity[4] of the disciples are exposed in this moment of “impulsive hostility” toward an outsider who was unknown to them.[5] Jesus responds quickly to disarm and defang such cliquishness and excluding behavior by correlating the powerful deed done in Jesus’s name with a future inability to speak ill of Jesus. According to Mark’s Jesus, this outsider is an insider and on the right side by virtue of their activity done in the name of Christ.[6] So, why get in their way? Why intentionally try to cause them to stumble in their activity?

Jesus then mentions that if anyone were to give you even the most simple and basic thing (a cup of water, which, in that context, was a common and expected thing to do[7]), specifically because you bear the name of Christ, then there is reward that won’t be lost. With the anyone,Jesus does what the disciples can’t do: extend the boundaries of the group from a circle of twelve to a potentially ever-expanding quantity of people. Where the disciples want to limit the group to exclusive membership that looks a particular way (this person wasn’t following US), Jesus, like Jesus does, tears down the wall. Even that small act of a fellow journeyer[8] to one of those of Christ is seen and acknowledged; to see Christ in another person and act on it for their livelihood (even if basic) is to be on the right side.[9] The disciples see themselves as part of a sect, but Jesus has called them to be a church.[10]

He then moves straight into the declaration that it would be better to have a millstone put around one’s neck and thrown into the sea than to cause “one of these little ones” to stumble. As if in juxtaposition to the simple and common act of giving water to even one such as these, Jesus makes another very similar statement, but this time in the negative. To give water to one of these who bear the name of Christ is worthy of reward; but to make one stumble is worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck. A quick death is better than the actual punishment deserved for causing one of those who believe in Jesus to stumble; the actual punishment, Jesus mentions, is eternal torment (vv. 43, 45, 47).[11] Jesus continues to speak of hands, feet, and eyes that cause you to stumble. It’s better, he says (rhetorically, according to the structure of the Greek text), to cut them off or pluck them out than to keep all of your appendages and organs and be thrown into the eternal torment of the unquenchable fire of Gehenna.

Conclusion

There’s nothing in this passage about sex or personalized sin habits; it’s about solidarity.

All of this is part of a larger context–beginning last week—and makes sense in conjunction with the wider context of the discussion between Jesus and his disciples. An indicator is the “little ones” (μικροί), which correlates these statements back to the conversation about “who is the greatest…” Jesus is building from that discussion by calling all followers “little ones”. And Jesus care a lot about the μικροί who are the children of God. Whoever receives one such as this child/little one in my name… Anyone who does anything life-giving to another child of God for the name of Christ, is one with God. In this way, the first is last, and servant of all. In this way, to be greatest is to be smallest, humbly following Christ and walking with other fellow journeyers on the way; not tripping up others or tripping up yourselves—no matter how long we’ve been walking, we are all able to be tripped up and to trip up.

In order to walk this way, Jesus is exhorting the disciples not only to think bigger about what parameters form the group, they must also re-evaluate what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple.[12] It necessitates continual self-examination and openness;[13] taking seriously life-giving and not death-dealing. Thus, those who follow Christ must not be stumbling blocks to other people or stumbling blocks to ourselves. It’s such a serious thing that Jesus attaches hellfire and quick death to it. Intentionally getting in the way and being a stumbling block to oneself[14] and others is a capital offense for Jesus.[15] We are to be in solidarity with other children of God, which and in light of God so loving the entire cosmos, puts us in solidarity with all other people, especially those who are suffering from oppression and marginalization and with whom Jesus stood in solidarity with.

The Rev. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz brilliantly defines Christian solidarity,

The preferential option at the heart of solidarity is based on the fact that the point of view of the oppressed, ‘pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality…’…The preferential option for the poor and the oppressed makes it possible for the oppressors to overcome alienation, because to be oppressive limits love, and love cannot exist in the midst of alienation. Oppression and poverty must be overcome because they are a ‘slap in the face of God’s sovereignty’ The alienation they cause is a denial of God. Guitierrez refers to the profoundly biblical insight of a Bolivian campensino: ‘an atheist is someone who fails to practice justice toward the poor.’[16]

Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology 91

Jan made brilliant reference last week to us being the hands and feet of Christ in the world, loving others actively in deed and word. And I can’t help but see her imagery here in this text. If we are to be the hands and feet and eyes of Christ in the world, shouldn’t we take all pains to ruthlessly examine ourselves and our bodily presence in the world and how we are or are not in solidarity with others? For it is better to suffer the pain of awareness and confession, then to go about life oblivious to how I’m hurting others and delighting in my own comfort.

To be the church in Christ’s name, we must extend our definition of beloved children of God to embrace all those who bear the mark of divine love. For we are called to love as we have been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] See fn4

[3] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 378, “The cliquishness which too easily affects a defined group of people with a sense of mission is among the ‘worldly’ values which must be challenged in the name of the kingdom of God.”

[4] France Mark 377 “What John is looking for is not so much personal allegiance and obedience to Jesus, but membership in the ‘authorised’ circle of his followers. We should perhaps understand ἠμεῖς here as specifically the Twelve, regarded as having an exclusive link with and commission from Jesus, so that other people’s association with him must be through their mediation. Even if such a possessive doctrine is not explicit, it fits John’s restrictive action and explains the terms of Jesus response.”

[5] RT France Mark 376 “The impulsive hostility to an outsider revealed in this incident (cf. Lk. 9:54) perhaps gives some basis for the otherwise puzzling epithet Βοανηργές (see on 3:17). If the imperfect tense of ἐκωλύομεν is correct…it probably indicates an unsuccessful attempt rather than the repeated prohibition of a persistent offender’.”

[6] France Mark 377 “First, the fact that the man is able to work a miracle in Jesus’ name shows that he cannot be an enemy…There is no suggestion that the man is personally known to Jesus; rather, he has associated himself with him by using his name, and his choice of that authority, together with the fact of his success, marks him as being on the right side. Such a person cannot in consistency go on to speak as his enemy, and so there is no justification for Jesus’ disciples to oppose him.”

[7] France Mark 378 “This phrase thus brings the series of ‘name’ formulae to a climax where the actual name is spelled out: ὃτι Χριστοῦ ἐστε. It is that name which gives this kind act its specific significance and justifies the reward. This is not mere benevolence, but the demonstration that a person is ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν by means of practical help given specifically to those who belong to Jesus.”

[8] France Mark 378-9 “The three sayings collected in vv. 39-41 thus illustrate in different ways the open boundaries of the kingdom of God, where both committed disciple and sympathetic fellow traveler find their place. The unknown exorcist represents this outer circle, and is to be welcomed as such. There are indeed opponents and ‘outsiders’, as we see repeatedly in the rest of the gospel, but disciples are called on to be cautious in drawing lines of demarcation. They are to be a church, not a sect.”

[9] France Mark 378 “The language of reward, which is so prominent in Matthew, appears explicitly only here in Mark (though see 10:28-30 for the idea). It is a paradoxical term to use in connection with a gift of water, which is so basic a feature of Eastern hospitality as to require no reward. But even so small an act betokens a person’s response to Jesus in the person of his disciples (cf. Mt. 25:31-46), and as such will not be unnoticed.”

[10] France Mark 379

[11] France Mark 380 “To be the cause of another’s spiritual shipwreck is so serious an offence that a quick drowning would be preferable to the fate it deserves; the μύλος ὀνικός the stone from a mill ground by donkey power, far heavier than that of a mill, ensures an immediate death. The stone is rather grotesquely pictured as ‘placed round’ (περίκειται) the neck like a collar, rather than hung from it (Mt. 18:6, κρεμασθῇ). καλόν ἐστιν μᾶλλον indicates a comparison: the drowning is not itself the appropriate fate of such a person…but rather serves as a foil to set off the greater severity of the actual punishment merited…What that punishment is will be indicated in the language of γέεννα and πῦρ ἄσβεστιν which dominates the following verses.”

[12] France Mark 380 “The whole little complex of sayings, like the preceding pericopes, focuses on the demands of discipleship, both negatively and positively.”

[13] France Mark 383, “Christians who disparage ‘hell-fire preaching’ must face the awkward fact that Mark’s Jesus (and still more Matthew’s and Luke’s) envisaged an ultimate separation between life and γέεννα which demanded the most drastic renunciation in order to avoid the unquenchable fire, and that he did not regard even his disciples as immune from the need to examine themselves and take appropriate action.”

[14] France Mark 382-3 “The extended warning of w. 43-48 picks up the theme of ‘tripping’ from v. 42, but the victim is not now someone else (a ‘little one’) but oneself, ‘tripped’ by one’s own hand, foot, or eye. Danger comes to the disciple not only from outside but from within. The metaphor is not explained; it is for the reader individually (the savings are expressed in the singular throughout, except for the αὐτῶν derived from the LXX in v. 48) to determine what aspect of one’s own behaviour, tastes, or interests is a potential cause of spiritual downfall, and to take action accordingly.”

[15] France Mark 381, “Disciples of any age are potentially vulnerable to such ‘tripping’. After the disciples’ abortive discussion of τίς μείζων (v. 34) it is very appropriate that μικροί be used to denote disciples in general. And it is the μικροί who matter so much to Jesus that to trip even one of them up is more than a capital offence.”

[16] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 91

With Dirty Hands

Sermon on Mark 7:5-8

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 7:5-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us love as we’ve been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Paracletic Revolution

Sermon on John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Psalm 104:34-37 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please him; I will rejoice in the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Hallelujah! (43)

Introduction

Today’s the celebration of Pentecost. According to the book of Acts, this is the day the Holy Spirit of God arrives, fueling tongues of flames hovering above the heads of the disciples who have been left by the one they followed and loved. Amid spontaneous tongues of fire, the disciples begin speaking and all there were able to hear them—like, listen and hear them. Whether the disciples were spontaneously speaking in different languages or those present were able to hear the message in their own language isn’t the point. The point is that there was proclamation and there was proclamation being heard. The Gospel gospelled the Gospel.[1] All of it due to the presence of the Holy Spirit, very God sent into the world to move in hearts and minds of people, to usher people and the world into life out of death from the kingdom of humanity into the reign of God.

The arrival of the Spirit among the humble followers of the way confirmed these had the divine power to preach and proclaim the gospel, the witness of Jesus the Christ died and raised and ascended. Never again would the presence of God be isolated to material structures protected by very specific people. In Pentecost, everything is blown wide open: all are the worthy vessels of the Spirit of God (no in group, no privileged few, no elite clique). From hovering over the face of the deep in Gen 1, the Spirit of God moves through time and space perpetuating God’s love at every twist and turn of the manifold pathways of the cosmos and bringing that love straight to you in a personal and intimate way through encounter with God in the event of faith. The long promised new spirit and new hearts for all of God’s people is fulfilled in the arrival of God’s Spirit among the disciples.

This is a remarkable claim. A most profound and revolutionary claim rivaling the claim of life out of death in resurrection. The presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer eliminates any possibility of exile from God; there’s no where you can run and hide where God isn’t because by faith you are yoked into God because God by the presence of the Spirit lives in you. God transcended God’s self to be born of a woman and to take the regular name, Yeshua/Jesus. Even more profound is God continues to transcend God’s self by taking up residence in our hearts and minds. We are, to quote St. Paul, the vessels of the holy spirit. We are clay, and we crack and fracture, and we are very much good but not perfect, yet we’re the beloved and worthy by our simple existence to be in and with God and God to be in and with us.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Whenever the Paraclete comes, whom I, I will send to you from beside the Father, the spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, that one will witness concerning me. And now you, you are witnesses, that from the beginning you are with me. [2]

John 15:26-27

The above is certainly good news, yet John the elder has more to say about the Spirit of God, the Paraclete: The Paraclete continues the revolution of God started by Christ. The work Jesus started on earth isn’t over. The Paraclete will come and will continue the divine witness[3] of love embodied and manifested by Christ.[4] Thus, John affirms Jesus’s ministry was not a singular and isolated historical event relegated perpetually to what was. What Jesus did in the world materially by his presence and activity remains in the present even when he leaves (“you, you are witnesses”) and surges into the future when the Paraclete arrives (“that one will witness concerning me”). God’s revelation of God’s revolutionary and liberating love set everything in motion and continues world without end.

In other words, with the arrival of the Paraclete God clearly isn’t done with the cosmos; nothing and no one is too far gone, without hope and possibility, or too sick, dirty, anxious, and other to be beyond God’s revolutionary and liberating love. In Christ the disciples witnessed God go to the fringes of their society, liberating and rescuing those who were isolated and shut out by the local rulers and religious authorities. The divine pursuit of the beloved was an intentional confrontation with human made systems of the day. It’s these systems causing death and captivity for the children of God from which Jesus called forth life and liberty in material and spiritual forms. Jesus’s work and activity while alive is as much a part of the divine witness as is his death and resurrection and ascension. So, it is this entire witness the disciples are witnessing to and which the Paraclete will continue to witness into the ages. The Paraclete comes so there will always be witness to the divine revolution of love and liberty in the world in the hearts and minds of disciples who’ll participate in witnessing in their time, culture, and context.[5]

But I spoke these things to you because the grief in your hearts is made full. But I, I say the truth to you, it is profitable to you that I, I go away. For if I do not depart then the Paraclete will not come to you. Now, if I go, I will send [the Paraclete] to you.

John 16:5-7

According to what Jesus says here, without the arrival of the Paraclete there will be no assuaging of the disciples’ grief—his presence may cease their grief but only temporarily. If Jesus doesn’t ascend, then the witness and revolution of divine love will last only while Jesus lives on earth. Due to Jesus’s resurrection being bodily, this is a finite time conditioned on human health and protection from danger—both being rather tenuous for Jesus. By ascending and sending the noncorporeal Paraclete who can live in and among the believers and followers, the divine witness of love begun by Jesus never ends.[6] No matter the threat of death, the passing of time, or variance of cultural context, the Paraclete goes and exposes systems and liberates captives in ways Jesus wouldn’t be able to do[7]—he would’ve been restricted by his body to his time and context. With the presence of the Paraclete all who grieve are consoled, all who are stripped of the power to speak have an advocate, all who are anxious and burdened are comforted, all who need help have a helper, all who find themselves without words have an intercessor, and the Paraclete comes to all who callout and need aid—in any culture, from any context, in every age. This is certainly the divine revolution of love.

Conclusion

Still I have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them just now. But when that one comes, the Spirit of truth, [they] will guide you into all truth. For [the Paraclete] will not speak from [themselves]but will speak as much as [they] hear and will report back to you the things that come.

John 16:12-13

The Paraclete isn’t stuck in the context and culture of Acts 2; the Paraclete isn’t bound by time or era. The Paraclete informs us as we are to be informed and then will inform the next generation of Christians as they need to be informed, which won’t be as we’ve been informed. The way we are being informed today is not the way our foremothers and forefathers in the faith were informed. Jesus withheld information from his disciples because they couldn’t hear it; the Paraclete was given the privilege of revealing and witnessing to God into different cultures and contexts, among different peoples. Today can never be yesterday and tomorrow will never be today; God cannot be captured and caught by time or people. Why do we confuse the consistency of God’s love with God being stuck in some romanticized version of history?

The questions we have today need answers that haven’t been given before. No matter how great the bible is, how brilliant philosophers of yesterday were, or how insightful theologians have been, they can’t directly address our questions in 2021. Thus, we’re reliant on the presence of the Paraclete to guide us into truth through exposure and comfort that leads to the revolution of the witness of God. First, we ourselves are guided by love into exposure because we must always be in the truth of who we are and where we are and find ourselves therein received and accepted. Second, we’re guided by love and truth to participate in exposing archaic, static, and septic traditions and rituals, systems and ideologies. Last, we’re guided by love to work in the world as beloved radical midwives of comfort, love, and liberty participating in the revolution of bringing forth the reality of God manifested in Christ by the power Spirit of truth, the Paraclete.[8]

Let us live and liberate, let us laugh and love like those profoundly impacted in heart and mind by the life, liberation, laughter, and love of God made known in the witness of Christ in the world by the presence and power of the Paraclete.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster 1971. Original: Das Evangelium des Johannes Göttigen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964). 554 “Their witness is not, therefore, a historical account of that which was, but—however much it is based on that which was—it is ‘repetition,’ ‘a calling to mind,’ in the light of their present relationship with him. In that case it is perfectly clear that their witness and that of the Spirit are identical. The Gospel is itself evidence of the kind of witness this is, and of how that which was is taken up again…”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Bultmann John 553 “This two-fold designation makes the reference to the idea of revelation certain; even after Jesus’ departure, God’s revelation will be mediated through him: he it is, who sends the Spirit (sic, without additional description), who bears witness to him; but he does so in his unity with the Father, who has made him Revealer; he sends the Spirit from the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father, just as it is said in 14:16 that the Father sends the Spirit at the Son’s request, or in 14.26 that he sends him ‘in the name’ of the Son.”

[4] Bultmann John 552 “After Jesus’ departure, the situation on earth will remain unchanged inasmuch as the offence which Jesus’ work offered the world will not disappear. The witness, which till now he had borne to himself, will be taken over by the Paraclete, the Helper, whom he will send from the Father.”

[5] Bultmann John 554 “But when…the Spirit’s witness and the witness of the community are spoken of as two factors distinct from one another, this shows first that the working of the spirit is not unhistorical or magical, but rather requires the disciples’’ independent action, and secondly that the disciples cannot accomplish on their own what they are in fact able to do. They may not rely on the Spirit, as if they had no responsibility or need for decision; but they may and should trust the Spirit. Thus the peculiar duality, which exists in the work of Jesus himself, repeats itself in the Church’s preaching: he bears witness, and the Father bears witness. But the community’s preaching is to be none other than witness to Jesus…”

[6] Bultmann John 558 “…the historical Jesus must depart, so that his significance, the significance of being the Revealer, can be grasped purely by itself. He is only the Revealer, if he remains such. But he remains it only by sending the Spirit; and he can only send the Spirit when he has himself gone. In context the statement means the same as the others, that Jesus must be exalted or glorified in order to be the one who he really is.”

[7] Bultmann John 562-3 “The judgment consists in the world’s sinful nature being exposed by the revelation that continues to take place in the community. This is brought out by relating the ελεγχειν of the Paraclete to the three dimensions αμαρτια, δικαιοσυνη, and χρισις. The absence of the article proves that it is the three ideas that are called in question, and not three cases of sin, righteousness, and judgment. It would therefore be wrong to supplement the three substantives with three subjective genitives…The judgment that takes place in the revelation consists in disclosing the true meaning of the standards and values current in the word. But this means at the same time disclosing who is the sinner, who the victor, and who it is that is judged.”

[8] Thought influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Christ, Reality, and the Good” of his Ethics

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.”