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.

Born of Love

Sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16

Psalm 51:9-11 Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Introduction

Of my three children, Liza was by far the most active in utero. I felt her quick and swift movements early and often up until the very end of her 41 weeks. I’m not sure what she was doing, but Daniel and I often joked that she was busy building extra rooms and additions in her 98-degree cave. She was here, she was there, she was … wait, how did you get there?! Even our obstetrician had difficulty locating her heartbeat early on so that we could hear it for longer than a few seconds. You’d hear the rapid thump-thump-thump draw close to the doppler and then *poof!* like magic, she was gone. As she grew larger (she’d be about 10lb when she was born), I’d literally rock with her full-bodied movements. She didn’t just kick, she lambadad about, with a flamenco thrown in here and there.

It was just a few weeks out from what was to be her birthday, and I busy capitalizing on the quiet house with both boys off at school until 3:30pm. I sat at my computer and worked, writing up some notes on Thomas Aquinas. I felt her roll about. I rocked in response to her motions. And then, out of the corners of my eyes as I was typing, I saw my belly go left and right at the exact same time. I went from round to oblong because #theogbg decided she was in the mood for a full body stretch. I immediately put my hands to my now football shaped belly; I felt her hands and her feet. She was in there and I was out here, and we were one but not, but so much one in our distinction and symbiosis in love.

While birth would relocate her into her my arms and eventually in front of me, I knew that deep connection wouldn’t break once the link of the umbilical cord was broken. The symbiosis and distinction would take on new and vibrant colors and encounters, yet that very moment was the initial of a myriad of fractals of love in action as I would continue to stretch around her: through her activity, in response to her growth, and with her self-discovery and disclosure. And as she grows more and more, more and more will that bond of love, that realm of love adjust to bear the weight of the transformation of her, of me, and us together as one.

Ephesians 4:1-16

Therefore, I, the prisoner in and because of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you were called, with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering, enduring one another in love; being eager to keep guard over the unity of the Spirit with respect to the bond of peace. One body and one spirit, just as even one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who [is] above all both through all and in all. Now to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the free gift of Christ.[1]

Ephesians 4:1-7

Our author begins chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians with a powerful “Therefore” tightly linked to an urgent beseeching for the Ephesians to walk worthily. What preceded this exhortation of exhortations is not now forgotten but is the foundation and motivation of the exhortation. The author hasn’t ceased to preach the gospel to focus on the community. Rather it’s the articulation of the gospel of Christ in imperatives[2] into the community; the emphasis is still on the divine activity[3] now manifest in the faith and love of the community. [4] The divine love in action toward humanity—unifying people previously separated and unifying God to God’s people—is now translated by its own self-disclosure into the community.[5]

There’s no way around it, what came before in the first three chapters is the fuel of the liberating power of divine love. It is in this way: The encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit[6] changes us forever because we are enwombed in the totality of divine love and birthed into love’s service as this community of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.[7] This is the rebirth that Jesus speaks of in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. In hearing the profundity of divine love for us as we are, we are transformed…forever.[8] We can’t unhear and unsee what we now hear and what we now see. We are bound to the source of our new life in love and now our activity with each other and in the world will be different than it was. Therefore, the author uses the seemingly small and subtle adverb, “worthy,” with the infinitive, “to walk”. Rather than just getting up and walking as you have been, walk like you’ve seen and heard the love of God for you and the cosmos. And necessarily we walk in community; our union with God in the event of faith is corporate as we are grafted into the body of Christ by faith and the power of the Spirit.[9]

What does this worthy walk look like for the community reborn of God symbiotically connected by divine love? The author urges his audience to walk with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit with respect to the bond of peace (vv. 2-3). Rather than being turned inward toward themselves, they are turned outward, with their faces lifted high, brazened by the glory and love of God, and turned toward their neighbor, to one another,[10] seeking and seeing the highest love for and in the neighbor for no other reason than they have first been loved.[11] Humility rejects the Ego’s assumption that it is more than it is and orients the eyes toward those of the neighbor; I don’t just see me, I see you and me. Gentleness isn’t weakness but rightly ordered self-control, knowing when and where to use force and when not to; I will ally with you in the fight and in rest.[12] Being realistic about the burden and demand of community, the community acknowledges the burden and shows up in that burden to walk with their neighbors through their trials and tribulations, to bear with the neighbor in their captivity and oppression, and to allow for the differences that exist in community; I will love[13] you as you are because I’ve been loved as is;[14] that’s what the miracle of love: it just loves.[15] And all of it oriented toward the unity of the community where love and the Spirit of peace stretch out over it, bringing it closer while allowing it to grow and expand.

Conclusion

What if I’m far from home?
Oh brother, I will hear you call.
What if I lose it all?
Oh sister, I will help you out.
Oh, if the sky comes falling down
For you, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do.[16]

The humble enamored author of Ephesians directs us to see that we are grafted into this body of Christ through love and the Spirit, and reborn of this love thus of the same family with a familiar history with those in Ephesus and with each other. We, like those members of the early church, have been knit together in the womb of divine love, submerged in the amniotic fluid of love, and birthed anew into a new age of the reign of God with the first breath of divine love in our new lungs. And like those first followers of the way so long ago, we are urged by this divine Love to love the world: it’s wonderful and various inhabitants of flora, fauna, and anthrop[a].

In the ever expanding ὺμᾶς of the letter, once penned to a small few in Ephesus, we are caught up in the call to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called. We are called to be one in the unity of the diversity of community—not isolated but knit together sharing a common history and hope. We are called to know and feel the divine love of God for us manifest in Christ present in us by the power of the Holy Spirit and then to love as we’ve been loved.[17]

Love is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, or distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and is the material substance dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves—amid the closeness of intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity…Love loves the beloved and the beloved loves.[18]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted in the text.

[2] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974 457, “A close look at the details of Pauline ethics will discover that the structure, the intention, and the individual parts of Paul’s admonition are invariably informed and determined by the grace which the apostle proclaims and to which he subjects himself and others. Christ is the key, the touchstone, the scope of all. Proclamation of Christ is made even when imperatives abound. It is beyond dispute that Pauline ethics are based upon, and implicitly contained in, his Christology and soteriology. Even if Paul had written nothing at all about ethical questions, imaginative interpreters might still have derived the Pauline ethics by inference from the Pauline kerygma. But it can also be shown that his ethical utterances contain the whole gospel.”

[3] Barth Ephesians 451, “Here ecclesiology and ethics are so completely identified that they can neither be separated nor distinguished. In the second, vss. 4-6, the contents and the fact of the church’s confession are called to mind to demonstrate how essential is oneness to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as confessing church. In the third, vss. 7-12, it is shown, by means of a comment upon a Psalm text, that the exalted Christ himself gives the church diverse gifts. Each of her members benefits from the gift given from above.”

[4] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard Ephesians Belief: A Theological Commentary Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011. 133, “The pattern is rather that the gospel comes to us in both the indicative mood and in the imperative mood? To be sure, the indicative is frequently (and appropriately) first and the imperative second, but in both the gospel is proclaimed. As an apostle and as a pastor Paul was always proclaiming the gospel, ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ (Rom. 1:16). He did not stop proclaiming the gospel when in Romans 12:2 he urged the Roman Christians to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds,’ or when in Romans 15:7 he urged them to ‘welcome one another.’ Such imperatives are not a mere addendum to the gospel. They are the gospel in the imperative mood, calling for ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), summoning the churches to perform the gospel.”

[5] Barth Ephesians 426 “When the conjunction ‘therefore’ is used, at the beginning of a second, hortatory part of Pauline Epistles, it bears great weight; it emphasizes the logical dependence of ethical advice upon the preceding doctrinal statements….the content of Eph 1-3 is doxological rather than dogmatic. The direct connection of the ethical chapters with the praise of God rather than with a doctrine of God is a specific feature of Ephesians. The verb translated by ‘I beseech’ can also be rendered ‘I exhort,’ ‘I encourage,’ ‘I comfort,’ ‘I warn.’ While it includes a direct request (customarily expressed in Papyri epistles by the verb ‘I ask,’ erotao), the word preferred by Paul signifies a will of the writer that is at the same time personal, and urgent Its sense is stronger than that of the English verb ‘I exhort.’”

[6] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 520-1, “In concluding this section two observations should be noted. First, the Trinity is an integral part of this treatise on unity. The one body of believers is vitalized by one Spirit, so all believers have one hope. That body is united to its one Lord (Christ) by each member’s one act of faith, and his or her identity with him is in the one baptism. One God, the Father, is supreme over all, operative through all, and resides in all. All seven components are united in the Trinity. Some scholars such as Kirby think that baptism is central1 and some like Hanson think that faith is central, but in reality the Triune God is the center and model for unity- This is in keeping with the rest of Ephesians is known for its abundant references to the Trinity (cf. 1:4—14, 17; 2:18, 22; 3:4-5,14-17; 4:4-6; 5:18-20).”

[7] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 132-3, “In Ephesians (and in the Pauline Epistles generally) ‘therefore’ signals a link, not just a transition. It is a moral theology in the first three chapters, announcing the ‘immeasurable greatness of [Gods] power’ (1:19), attentive to the grace and the cause of God, but always already with an eye toward the implications of the gospel for the lives of Christians and the common life of the churches. And it is a theological morality in the last three chapters, announcing the gospel now in the imperative mood, attentive to the sort of conduct, character, and community that are empowered and required by God’s grace and cause.”

[8] Hoehner Ephesians 504, “The aorist tense is ingressive, indicating that lifestyle of the believer. The aorist tense is ingressive, indicating that believer is to change his or her conduct from what it was previously. The adverb ἀξίος, ‘worthy, worthily, suitably,’ literally means ‘“bringing up the other beam of the scales/ ‘bringing into equilibrium,’ and therefore equivalent’” or “worthily, a manner worthy of, suitability.”… In Phil 1:27 its connotation is that the believer’s life should be worthy of the gospel of Christ and in Col 1:10 its connotation is that the believer is to live a life worthy of the Lord (cf. Rom 16:2; 1 Thess 2:12). In the present context the emphasis is on conduct that is in balance with or equal to ones “call.’”

[9] Hoehner Ephesians 504-5, “In the present context, the reference is not only to salvation by election and adoption by the Father (cf. 1:4-5), but also to their union into one body, the church. Therefore, the call to walk worthy of the calling refers not only to the individual believers but also the corporate body of believers.”

[10] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The focus on ‘one another’ is significant. This word occurs forty times in Paul’s letters. Christians are part of each other and are to receive one another, think about one another, serve one another, love one another, build up one another, bear each other’s burdens, submit to each other, and encourage each other. Christianity is a God-directed, Christ-defined, other-oriented religion.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 510, “This kind of love seeks the highest good in the one loved, and more particularly for the believer, it has the idea of seeking the will of God in the one loved. It is an unconditional love that does not seek a response in kind.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 507 (Barclay qtd in), “Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of selfcontrol, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the of power for the purpose of retaliation. Barclay states it well when he writes, ‘The man who is praus is the man who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.’”

[13] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The Christian life is a life of putting up with other people, and this tolerance finds its ability and motivation in love (cf. Gal. 6:2). ‘Love’ and ‘putting up with each other’ are intertwined and mutually explanatory. Both are ways of valuing the other person.”

[14] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The focus on love is an extension the emphasis on love in 3:17-19. That is, the love experienced in Christ must be extended to others. The noun agape was rarely used outside Jewish sources and the Christian writings. A few secular occurrences ate now known, but clearly Christians injected the word with new content to talk about love relation to God—first love from God, then also love for God and for other people because of God. This love does not have its origin in human motivation; it is a choice made because of the love of God.”

[15] Hoehner Ephesians 509, ἀνέχω “- It means ‘to take up, to bear up, to endure,’ In the LXX it occurs sixteen times and in the canonical books it appears eleven times. It is used of Gods endurance of the Israelites’ vain offerings (Isa 1:13) or Jobs endurance through great trials (Job 6:11, 26; cf. also Isa 46:4). It also has the idea of restraint, as when God withheld the rain (Amos 4:7; Hag :10) or restrained himself from destroying people (Isa 42:14; 63:15; 64:12 [MT & LXX 64:11]). …In addition, it is used when Jesus asks how long he should bear with the disciples (Matt 17:17 = Mark 9:19 = Luke 9:41) or when Gallio bore with the Jews’ accusation against Paul (Acts 18:14). … Hence, this word has reference to bearing or enduring with respect to things or persons. In the present context and in Col 3:13 Paul asks to bear with those in the assembly. Thus, to translate this word ‘forbear’ is appropriate. Robertson suggests that it is a direct middle meaning ‘holding yourselves back from one another.’ In other words, differences between believers are to be tolerated.” And Marcus Barth Ephesians 461 “The neighbor—even the one who is a burden and whose character and behavior prove cumbersome…He is its very material. Love is not an abstract substance or mood that can be present in a man’s heart even when there are no others in sight and no confrontations are taking place. It does not exist in a vacuum, in abstracto, in detachment from involvement in other men’s lives. Rather it is a question of being surprised by a neighbor, accepting him, going out to him, and seeking solidarity and unity just with him even if this should mean temporary neglect of, or estrangement from, others. Such love is an event that takes place exclusively when one meets and lives with specific men, women, children, old people, relatives, and strangers. Love is always love of this or that person, love here and now, love shown under ever new conditions in ever original forms. Where there is love, there this and that person in his uniqueness is “borne” and fully accepted. Therefore “love” should not be defined as a virtue of the soul, not even as the highest virtue. It is an ever-new miracle which has to happen again and again just as the filling with the Spirit spoken of in the book of Acts was an ever new experience given whenever there was need of a spirited testimony. In Rom 5:5 the gift of love is identified with the gift of the Spirit, and in Gal 5:22 love is listed as the first “fruit of the Spirit”.

[16] Avicii True “Hey Brother” https://genius.com/Avicii-hey-brother-lyrics

[17] Snodgrass Ephesians 198, “Christians must maintain the unity of the Spirit because everything they hold of any significance they hold with other people. Seven items are preceded by the word ‘one,’ and in each case the oneness expresses both the uniqueness of the item and its foundational value for unity. All seven express reality that there is only one gospel and that to believe that gospel is to enter into the unity it creates. Christianity is a shared faith. No separate or merely individual faith exists, nor is there a different salvation.”

[18] Taken from a goodbye message delivered to the Seniors and Juniors of Ascension Episcopal School upon my resignation. Text and video here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

Wrapped Up in Love

Sermon on Ephesians 3:14-21

Ephesians 3:20-21: Now to the one who has the power to do super-abundantly beyond all things we request…to [God] [be] the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus into all the generations forever and ever, Amen.

Introduction

The evening wasn’t much different than others. The only distinction was that a disagreeable verbal transaction occurred between me and my oldest son.[1] I can’t necessarily, at this point, recall the exact details of the engagement, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the time of evening and bed. What I do remember clearly was the near three-year-old standing at the top of the stairs yelling down at me, full of fury and ferocity (angry as the dickens!). The summary of what he yelled down at me, red faced with tiny fists clenched, was that I wasn’t a very good mom and he—at that moment—didn’t like me very much.

I informed him that he could have those feelings, but he needed to go have them in his room. Then I added: you can come out when you’re calm and sweet. I watched and listened to him go-ish to his room, slam the door, and proceed to throw things and vent that (in summary) I wasn’t a good mom and he—at that moment—didn’t like me very much. While I’m an advocate for taking time and space when emotions run high and heated, there was a something in the moment that shot through my heart and altered my perspective. In the midst of his anger—specifically at me—I felt the surge to go to him. But this isn’t what the parenting book says, went through my head as I tried to circumnavigate the increasing conviction to go to him. Hold your ground…Don’t give in. So, I didn’t move.

I stood there looking up the stairs and listened to my son rant and rave as much as his little lungs and heart would allow him. And then, Nah, this doesn’t feel right. I ascended the stairs and opened the door to his room—just barely missing the most recent airborne toy but not the current toddlery lambast. I walked in and wrapped him up in my arms and held him. As passionate as his mother is, he fought back with intensity. I held him to me. I love you so much. I whispered as he fought me. I said it a few more times, I love you so much. Then, what felt like suddenly, he relaxed and melted into my embrace as we sat on his bed. Then, I love you, too.

Ephesians 3:14-21

[I pray][2] that, [God][3] may give to you–according to the abundance of the glory [of God]—strength to become strong through God’s spirit in[4] the inner person, Christ being permanently settled[5] in your hearts through faith, having been fixed firmly and founded in love…[6]

Ephesians 3:16-17

One of the things that the author of Ephesians does here, in chapter three, is link the love of God to parental love. While the author uses the term “father”, the emphasis isn’t on “fatherhood” specifically. Rather, the emphasis is on accessibility and presence and acceptance that is a significant part of parenthood in general. According to our faith claims and this text, God is the parent of all peoples (3:15)—all are elected and adopted through Christ (1:5, 11) and there is now no dividing wall between those who are near and those who are far off (2:14-15). It is this tight correlation of God as parent—of Jesus Christ and of the people—that underscores the reality of God’s love for God’s people. God sees you; God knows you; God loves you like a mother loves her child even when he’s losing his little three-year-old mind.

Essentially, the author is highlighting positive disintegration: 1. There is the disintegration of the separation of people groups (there is now no longer an in group/out group dynamic at play); and 2. The disintegration of distance between God and humanity. This disintegration emphasizes a revolutionary way to think of God: close and personal. You are profoundly loved by a cosmically big God[7] who is not far off and strange, but who is close and familiar.[8] God is close and familiar not in an abstract purely spiritual way but in a material way evidenced by Jesus the Christ, God of very God, the Word and Love of God incarnate. And evidenced by the sending of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete) who is of the same substance of God and who resides in you uniting you to God and giving you a new heart (you are the new temple of God).

It is the close presence of God that establishes divine love as the fertile soil you are rooted in and which is the firm foundation from which you grow.[9] You grow as you are and into who you are[10]; herein lies the increase of strength that is found in our union with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.[11] God’s love for you[12]—unconditional love—creates space for you to exist as you are, to see yourself as you are, and to grow as you will into who you are more and more every day, every moment, in every step you take with Christ in love. And as you are loved fully by God, you know love. As you know love you are transformed by this love.[13] This is what love does.

Hear me here. Love’s goal is not to transform you, you are not a means to an end. Rather, love’s goal is to love you as you are, and as you are loved as you are you are transformed and strengthened—this is the beautiful byproduct of being loved, of being liberated, of being accepted as the marvelous person God created you to be.[14] And the more you relax into that love, the more you find yourself, and the more you find yourself (growing in knowledge and love of who God is and who you are) you can then love others as they are and just because. We cannot love well from a deficit or from self-hatred—if we do this, we will consume others by making them fit into our own stories. Instead, knowing who we are, loving who we are, we can love others well granting them love, liberty, and acceptance to be who they are as they are.

Conclusion

Being loved by God I knew that sending my son away from me (at that moment) wasn’t the right answer. God never asked me to calm down and become sweet before God would be with me. While there are significant benefits to learning to self-sooth, at that point and time my son couldn’t. I had to go to him just as God has come to me time and time again. Each time received and accepted; each time transformed. I’m not the same woman I was when I first encountered God in the event of faith; yet, I’m more fully me than I’ve ever been because of the love of God perpetually consistent and unconditional

Quinn relaxed into my embrace because my hold told him I wasn’t going anywhere, that love wasn’t going to leave him. I didn’t tell him to calm down or to stop fighting me; I merely held him and told him I loved him. This persistent and unconditional love and acceptance in that moment didn’t cause more tantrum or more toy throwing. Rather, it produced what no command or amount of quiet time on earth could ever produce: freedom, liberation, rest, and transformation. In being free to be who he was in that moment, he was truly free. This radical love and acceptance caused the transformation from fight to rest, rooted and founded in love.

Love, true love, persistent love, unconditional love, will wrap up us and soften our edges. It will pick us up and create safe space for us to reckon with ourselves: to be free to be completely honest with ourselves because we are truly and radically loved and accepted by God in love. Even in the thick of our worst, Love enters in and sweeps us up, embracing us and holding us tightly no matter how much and how hard we fight against it.

We are loved, deeply loved by a Love that does not know a limitation of depth, height, width, length (3:18-19). A love so magnificent not even death can separate you from it. There’s no conditionality attached to God’s love for you, the beloved. Just as Jesus went to the margins and the fringes and dwelled with those who were outcast, so does God’s love in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit seek you out always and everywhere. You cannot run hard enough or fast enough to outrun the inexhaustible love of God.

Love loves and knows not how to do anything else but love. You are the beloved, caught up in the majesty of the divine love that comes close to you and is not far off. You are heard, you are seen, and you are loved…wrapped up (tightly) in the arms of the God of Love and washed in the divine word: I love you, so much…I love you, so much.


[1] I did obtain permission from my eldest child before relaying this story in this context.

[2] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974Ephesians 368, “Paul does not begin vs. 16 with the words ‘I ask,’ but he treats the statement ‘I bow my knees… that’ as an equivalent to “I pray that” (1:16-17); cf. the combination of “bowing the knees” and “praying” in Acts 9:40, 20:36. Three petitions may be discerned in what follows (a) 7 Intercession for the inner fortification of the saints; this is unfolded the prayer that Christ reside in their hearts (vss. 16-17)- (b) Supplication for interpreted by a request for knowledge of Christ’s love (vss. 18—19a). (c) Petition for perfection with God’s perfection (vs. 19b)….At this Point Paul’s thinking follows the form of devotion and meditation rather than that of deduction, induction, careful subordination or coordination.”

[3] Intentionally dropping the pronouns for God because the best way to refer to God is with “God”.

[4] I’m taking the εἰςas spatial translating as “in”

[5] Barth Ephesians 370, “The verb ‘to dwell’ denotes permanent habitation as opposed to sojourning, pitching a tent, or an occasional visit. The “heart” is in biblical diction man’s total identity and existence described under the aspect of his vitality, intelligence, will, decision. In the OT and NT the bowels rather than the heart are the seat of emotion. When in II Cor 6:11-12 Paul intends to speak of the emotive capacity of the heart he adds a reference to ‘bowels’ (or ‘compassion’). More frequently he mentions joy or sorrow without locating them in the ‘heart.’ The term ‘heart’ can also denote an essential trait of human existence hidden to the eye; Paul is as much aware as OT writers that not everything human is apparent on the surface. In Eph 3:17 he may have in mind not only Christ’s rulership over man’s reason, will, and decision, but also the hidden quality of a Christian’s existence. It is far from evident to every onlooker that Christ fills and directs the saints.”

[6] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[7] Barth Ephesians 368-9, “In 3:14-15 the title of Father pointed out God’s stable love, and the reference to ‘all families’ stressed God’s universal power. The inexhaustible ‘glory’ of God is the third and final presupposition of Paul’s prayer. The triad ‘love,’ ‘power,’ ‘glory’ and the reference to ‘riches’ were also found in 1:3-23. In remembering the ‘riches’ and ‘glory’ of the Father, Paul is convinced that God need not change or lose anything by granting the requests made to him. God is expected to act according to his nature, his character, i.e. his radiating love and power…”

[8] Klyne Snodgrass Ephesians The NIV Application Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. 179, “Paul again emphasizes God as Father He refers to God as Father forty-two times in his letters, of which eight are in Ephesians. No other description of God is used so frequently in the New Testament. No doubt this goes back to Jesus’ teaching his disciples to address God as Abba, the Aramaic word for ‘father’ used by both children and adults but considered by Jews to be too familiar to use without qualification in relation to God, God is the Father of believers, but both a narrower and a broader use of ‘Father’ also occurs. More narrowly God is viewed as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which marks out the uniqueness of Jesus’ relation to the Father. In 3: 15 (and 4:6) the broader sense occurs: God as the Father of all humanity’s The emphasis in Ephesians on a cosmic Christ and a cosmic role for the church is based in an understanding of God as a cosmic Father.”

[9] Barth Ephesians 371, “Therefore, it is probable that in Eph 3:17 love is designated as the soil upon which the seedling can grow. The same love is also the ground upon which the building is to be constructed”

[10] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 479 “Hence, the inner person is the heart or mind of the believer whereas the outer person is the physical body that is wasting away. In the present context it is the innermost being of the believer which is to be strengthened with Gods power. That innermost being corresponds with the heart of the believer in the following verse.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 481, “The strengthening in the inner person results in the deep indwelling of Christ by means of faith (διὰ τῆς πίστεως see the use of this phrase in 2:8) and this takes place in the hearts of believers (εν tαῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν). This demonstrates both the work of Gods Spirit in strengthening the believer and the subjective means by which the believer obtains this.3 However, it is not a reference to Christ s indwelling at the moment of salvation (Rom 8:10; 2 Cor 13:3, 5; Gal 2:20; cf. Col 1:27). Instead, it denotes the contemplated result, namely, that Christ may “be at home in,” that is, at the very center of or deeply rooted in believers’ lives. 4 Christ must become the controlling factor in attitudes and conduct.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 484, “In the present context Paul states that believers are firmly rooted and grounded in love. This root and foundation of love refers to God having chosen them, predestined them, bestowed them in the beloved, redeemed them, made them a heritage, sealed them with the Holy Spirit, made them alive, raised and seated them in the heavenlies, and placed them equally in one new person in the body of Christ. Therefore, for the believer, the origin of this love is God’s love.”

[13] Snodgrass Ephesians 181, “God’s love is the wellspring from which believers are nourished and the foundation on which they find stability. Being rooted and established in love enables them to perceive love, and from knowing love they are filled with the fullness of God. Love is both the source and the goal. When Christ permeates people, they know they are rooted in his love. From the experience of love they know love and are transformed.”

[14] Snodgrass Ephesians 182, “Love brings movement,- it causes things. To know Christs love is to be transformed by love and expanded into the fullness of God…In experiencing Christ Christians experience the fullness of his presence, and power. In experiencing that fullness they themselves are made full by Christ. That is, the/ partake of God’s own being and are made like him….The implication in Ephesians is that as believers encounter Gods love in Christ, they will be filled with love.”

Truly and Fully Loved

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14

Psalm 24:9-10 Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. ‘Who is he, this King of glory?’ ‘The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’

Introduction

We love to speak of love. We talk about the things we love. As we do, a glow enters our face and light twinkles in our eyes. We grow passionate speaking of and discussing things we love—things we love to study, read about, watch, examine, play, create, etc. Love and passion seem to level the playing field between introverts and extroverts. Introverts come roaring out of their shells when given an opportunity to talk about their passions and loves. Most people who encounter me through study of theology or proclamation of the gospel are shocked to find out I’m introverted. I am…truly. But here, in this moment, I’m lit up, excited, filled with passion infused blood cells coursing through my body and love-struck animation taking over as I get to talk about divine love and liberation! Buckle up! Cuz there’s no rollercoaster quite like that!

We also love being in love. There’s a powerful chemical embrace of euphoric proportions as we are enveloped and elevated into something more profound than our own existence. Love is an intoxicating sensation in the body and mind, one moment where head and heart not only shake hands but enter full bodied embrace. We write movies, stories, and songs describing and depicting the profundity of being in love, highlighting our deep desire to be in love and to be loved. Even the most emotionally stoic of us have dreams and desires of being truly loved and truly loving even if we don’t and can’t speak of it in the floral of poetry or the fluidity of prose.

The worst is when we don’t feel loved. When our desire for love is met with silence and absence, neglect and violence. Or, when we feel as if we aren’t good enough for love—overworn scripts with lines repeated in inner monologues: love isn’t for you. Or, when we feel we are only loved because of or due to and not just because. We become paralyzed with fear of being ontologically unlovable. So, we battle against feeling unlovable and try to fight the two headed dragon of performance and condition. And we lose every time because that fight is unsustainable. If we believe we can earn love then we must also believe that love earned can be lost if we cease to be, to do, to act etc. And therein lies condemnation. Conditionality in love renders it no longer love but a violent contract wedded to production and performance. No on in the equation is loved; rather both are pulverized by the demand to measure up.

This one’s for the lonely, the ones that seek and find
Only to be let down time after time
This one’s for the torn down, the experts at the fall…

Greg Laswell “Comes and Goes (in Waves)”

Ephesians 1:3-14

Blessed is God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who blessed us with all spiritual blessing in the heavenly sphere in Christ, just as [God] chose us with [Christ] before the conception of the cosmos to be holy and blameless before [God] in love, [God] foreordained us for adoption as a [child] into the divine family through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the divine happiness of the will of [God], for the praise of [God’s] glory of grace that [God] endowed us with in the one who has been loved [and still is].

Ephesians 1:3-6, translation mine

Do you know what Ephesians is? It’s not merely an epistle supposedly written by Paul;[2] it’s a love letter. There’s little in the letter about the supposed wretchedness of the human condition, considered trademark Paul;[3] its emphasis and thrust is the activity of divine love in the world for creation and humanity. The Christian sacred text—its stories and letters—are verbal moments of encouragement to a fledgling church teetering on the brink of the abyss. Rather than seeing these texts strictly as sources of doctrine and dogma, see them as divinely inspired love letters written by human hands, a gentle bellows upon a small ember threatened with being snuffed out: Don’t give up, Beloved, you are loved; truly and fully loved.

Here, in this introduction, the author sets the scene and thematic structure of the letter: God’s love has come and called us to God[4] through God’s son—Jesus—the Beloved,[5] in and through and by whom we are chosen and liberated[6] to be the beloved since the beginning of the universe.[7] This is good news. The emphasis is on the manifestation of divine Love in the person and work of Jesus who is the elect one of God and in whom we’re elect.[8],[9] Jesus is the one who loves God and is the love of God come to the world and for humanity. According to Ephesians, Jesus is—literally—God’s love among and God’s love of humanity.[10] What does God’s love look like? It looks like Jesus the Christ the one loved by God loving us.[11] While we’re unable to look upon and touch the flesh of divine love set loose in the world in an active and a revolutionary way, we hear the words of these ancient stories by authors writing to long gone first churches of the followers of the way. In hearing these words of this story, we are grafted into the history of these stories and into the proclamation of divine love. In this way, we, also, encounter divine love made manifest in Jesus Christ as if we walked dusty roads with him.

The author continues: Love not only walked the earth, calling and liberating humanity and creation, Love also adopted us as Love’s children. The “us” being important and inclusive unrestricted by time and space: anyone who comes into contact with this story is looped into the “us”. When we encounter the love of God in the event of faith in Christ, we are reborn of God[12] by the Holy Spirit; and if reborn of God then we are children of God and thus heirs with Christ in love.[13]

This adoption provides a new framework for those who are called and liberated.[14] We’re radically and profoundly loved and wrapped up in God’s good happiness and pleasure,[15] and we are animated by this Love in whom and by whom we are reborn and loved. Our rebirth isn’t some singular trite tabula rasa situation; it’s the substance of our new existence in the “kingdom of the son of his love.”[16] We are now children of love, radically loved and provoked into loving our neighbor as we’ve been loved.[17]

Conclusion

This one’s for the faithless, the ones that are surprised
They’re only where they are now regardless of their fight
This one’s for believing if only for its sake
Come on friends get up now love is to be made.

Greg Laswell “Comes and Goes (in Waves)”

It is this divine love that is our message into the world in word and deed. When we Christians lose this part of the story, we become a very toxic and violent bunch unfit for the status of the messengers of God. When we cease to tell and hear this story, we lose our identity as those who follow Jesus; when we demand that something else be shared, we will lose our focus and our grounding and become as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.[19] Our world needs all willing participants in the profound and active message of divine love; our world needs not just good vibes and thoughts and prayers, but people who dare to be motivated by divine love and run the risk of loving those long deemed unlovable by society. As we are loved, so we love.

God’s love in Christ has nothing to do with how good or bad you are. You don’t earn that love. You are loved (full stop). I know love can feel illusive. I know the sadistic whisper of unlovable. I know the battle against performance and condition to earn love. I know the dastardly silence and absence filling love’s space, the neglect and violence. And I know profound love. I am here because God so loved the world, so loved us, so loved me. While that story is for another time, it’s the motivation for why I’m here dressed in alb and stole. I’m set aside not strictly to perform rituals or what looks like divine magic, but to tell you and anyone else this particular story of divine Love for them—Love without hesitation and condition, a full blown apple-of-the-eye type of love. I’m charged to communicate to you the type of love that

… will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the [person] you were made to be

Mumford and Sons “Sigh No More”

And not just talk of it in abstract terms seeming to float above and just out of reach; rather I’m charged to bring it to you in space and time, to look you in the eye and tell you that you are loved—profoundly loved—and then to love you: to make space for you, to accept you, to walk with you, to be divine love present for you when you can’t feel it, when it feels gone, when you just want to call it quits…to remind you with echoes of ancient authors: Don’t give up, Beloved, you are loved. Truly and fully loved.


[1] Greg Laswell “Comes and Goes (in Waves)”

[2] In other words, I am not opposed to or deny the possibility that someone else wrote this letter in Paul’s name. Authorship doesn’t minimize the profundity of the articulation of God’s love described in this letter.

[3] Barth Ephesians 84, “In Ephesians there is no trace of a tragic harmartology (doctrine of sin). As was earlier observed, sin is not the basis or presupposition of grace. Neither is it the foundation upon which theology rests. Its incidental, senseless, wretched character deserves no better than the demeaning term ‘lapses.’ Even the plural of this noun (which is always used in Ephesians) appears to make sin a series of pitiable mishaps rather than the grave force it appears to be when Paul discusses sin in the singular.”

[4]Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.   Barth Ephesians 80, “‘Before him’ denotes the immediate presence of God to man, and the closest proximity of man to God. The image suggests the position and relationship enjoyed by the cream of society at a royal court; by children to their father; by a bride to the bridegroom (see 5:27!), by the priest in the sanctuary or another elect servant of God; or, by a supplicant seeking legal help from a righteous judge.”

[5] Barth Ephesians 82, “Jesus is not one among those loved by God. He is The Beloved Son. In the time of the Apostolic Fathers ‘the beloved’ appears as a designation of Jesus Christ which need not be supplemented by the noun ‘Son’.”

[6] Barth Ephesians 83, “‘Freedom’ is the clear purpose and result of redemption…Jn this verse Paul does not speak of a way to be followed, a function to be fulfilled, or an action to be completed, but of the complete attainment of the ultimate.”

[7] Barth Ephesians 78 “The totality of God’s gracious manifestation is extolled in the blessing of 1:3-14. This part of Ephesians is a summary of the whole message the apostle wants to give.”

[8] Barth Ephesians 86, “If Christ’s title ‘the first-born’ is considered a parallel, then Eph 1:9b intends to say, the same Jesus Christ in whom the saints have been elected, through whom they were adopted, and through whose blood they were liberated and forgiven—this Christ is granted God’s favor at the head of all creation. In this case Christ is here characterized as the primary and exemplary elect. Election is then, as it were by definition, first and essentially the election of the Son by the Father.”

[9] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 175, “The words ἐξελέξατο “[God] chose us,” are very comforting for the believer….The choice of Levi for the priesthood does not imply negative about the other tribes. Furthermore, nowhere is election contrasted with reprobation. It speaks only of those who are chosen and nothing of those not chosen.”

[10] Barth Ephesians 80, About “in love” “According to Ephesians Jesus Christ is the epitome of both, the chosen one beloved by God and the man loving his fellow man. The reception and the demonstration of God’s love among men are as inseparable in this epistle as in I John. The translation of Eph 1:4 must give expression to each of the possible meanings.”

[11] Barth Ephesians 82-3, “(c) The coming, the death, the resurrection of Jesus—in short himself is the form, the content, the revelation, the transmission of God’s overflowing grace. Several Pauline passages support the third among these alternatives …things do appear certain. The election of men by God and his outgoing grace are inseparably connected with God’s warm and personal relation to Jesus Christ. And election cannot be separated from love—or else another election is spoken of…”

[12] cf. John 3

[13] Barth Ephesians 80-1, “Among the NT writers Paul alone speaks explicitly of adoption. Others speak of the father-child relationship between God and man, but they prefer biological imagery and mention a specific role which the word of God, the Spirit, the resurrection of Christ, or the reception of Christ in faith has in the act of birth or rebirth. Paul’s utterances on adoption emphasize the causative and cognitive power of the Spirit and at the same time the juridical-economical implication of adoption: those adopted receive an inheritance. His specific concern is always the inclusion of the Gentiles among the children adopted by God.”

[14] Hoehner Ephesians 196-7, “The point is that the one adopted acquired a new status, privilege, and property that would not have been available under [their] old [parent].”

[15] Barth Ephesians 81, “Far from any idea of arbitrariness, it has warm and personal connotations. When God’s good pleasure is mentioned, his willingness and joy in doing good are indicated. The happiness that accompanies a radiant good will is implied.”

[16] Barth Ephesians 82, “Lit. ‘in the beloved.’ The term, ‘the beloved,’ is a Messianic title. An equivalent, but heavier formulation is found in Col 1:13 where reference is made to the (lit) “kingdom of the son of his love.” In the LXX the passive perfect participle egapemenos, which is also used here, occurs as name of the chosen people or their personal representative. In the Blessing of Moses and in Isaiah this participle renders either Jeshurun or yadid, i.e. titles or attributes that almost mean ‘darling.’ The verbal adjective agapetos is in Hellenistic Greek synonymous with the passive participle.”

[17] Hoehner Ephesians 184, “To have love without righteousness is to have love without a standard of right and wrong, and to have righteousness without love lacks warmth and personal interest. In reality, both work in harmony because love is the essence of all virtue for it fulfills the whole law. God has restored what humans lost in the fall. [God] is both love and holy and a person is to manifest love with holiness as a result of being elected. This will be fully realized in the future when believers will stand in God’s presence. However, if it is true that they will be holy and blameless before him in love, the purpose of God’s work in believers today is to produce holiness within them and love toward one another.”

[18] Greg Laswell “Comes and Goes (in Waves)”

[19] Cf 1 Corinthians 13:1ff

[20] Mumford and Sons “Sign No More”

Love’s Love Walks On

Sermon on Mark 6:1-13

Psalm 48:1-2 Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised; in the city of our God is his holy hill. Beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth, is the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of the great King.

Introduction

The Christian life isn’t easy. When I first became Christian, I was under the impression that the walk was going to be fun and light; I’d be that person whom everyone liked because I’d be so nice. So, as a new Christian, I read my bible daily, prayed, and journaled. I was clearly content and happy inside and out, which was the mark of being a true Christian. I was certainly happy in all things because my joy was in the Lord. Until I wasn’t content, until I couldn’t keep up joy and nice and easy. It took about two months before I realized that this was going to be harder than I thought. Happy fled in the face of internal conflict because I started to see the crisis of collision of myself, my faith, and the world. So, I hunkered down and read more, prayed more, journaled more, trying desperately to return to the pristine state of new-Christian where everything was easy and nice. I went to church as often as possible and took notes on every sermon. None of it worked. I’d try variations of this for years, even thinking that heading off to seminary was the thing: Maybe if I figure it out, I’ll get back my happy and easy.

While some would say that I was trying to earn my righteousness through works (I won’t deny that wasn’t there), I think there was something else more profound happening. As I walked with Christ, my glasses were not obtaining to a darker shade of rose. Rather they were going clear, the lenses correcting my vision. I saw things…things I hadn’t seen before. It turns out, the more I read, the more I prayed, the more I listened, the more my calcified heart gave way to flesh, the more my mind grew alert, unfettered by the shackles of chaos previously imprisoning it. I began to realize I couldn’t accept things as they were, couldn’t hold ideologies and opinions as I had, couldn’t affirm those who I once could. Because of Love’s love, I found myself in opposition to the status-quo and to those who upheld it. I couldn’t stomach making money for money, I couldn’t walk by people without homes and look the other way as if they didn’t exist, I couldn’t not see humanity in all people no matter what choices or deeds they’d made and done. 21 years out from conversion…Good Lord, the Christian life isn’t easy.

Mark 6:1-13

And then while the Sabbath was happening he began to teach in the synagogue and then many people listening were struck with panic/were shocked saying, “From where [did] this man [get] these things, both who [is] the one who gave wisdom to this man and power such as this being done by his hands?…” And they became indignant by him. And then Jesus was saying to them, “There is not a prophet without honor except in [the prophet’s] native place both among [the prophet’s] relatives and at [the prophet’s] home.[1]

Mark 6:3-4

After doing rather profound acts of divine intervention (restoring a man trapped by demonic presence and isolated to the tombs and drawing Jairus’s daughter from the dead into new life), Jesus and his disciples return to Jesus’s home. With news of Jesus’s healings and deliverances trickling into Nazareth, Jesus’s return was of great interest to his former neighbors, indicated by the invite to teach in the synagogue.[2] As Jesus is teaching the gathered crowd becomes panicked and shocked and eventually fall into indignation. The crowd responds to Jesus this way because Jesus’s teachings and actions, and also because of the panic infused confusion over the source of Jesus’s authority to do such as this.[3] Who gave him—the carpenter heir,[4] the kid[5] who used to run around this town—the authority to do such things? To which Jesus responds: a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s hometown, among family, and at home. Jesus, Love’s love, is in opposition to those of his hometown.

As a result of their lacking faith in their opposition to him, Jesus is unable to perform as many miracles as in the other lake-side towns.[6] As those who knew him when he was young box him in to a previous narrative, Jesus is prohibited from healing and delivering the people of his native place from sickness and ailments. He is being opposed and can only do so much. Mark concludes the section describing that Jesus was marveling and wondering because of their lack of faith. Mark pushes forward Jesus humanity:[7] like the prophets of old, Jesus knows and feels the opposition of his people.[8] No matter how much Jesus can accept things for what they are in wisdom and power, the hostility of those who saw him grow up—those whom he loved—hits him, and he is filled with astonishment. Love’s love is opposed by the beloved.

…and he began to send them two by two, and he was giving them authority [over] the unclean spirits…And then he was saying to them, “Wherever you enter into a home, you remain there until you leave from there. And if any place does not receive you and does not listen to you, depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet in witness against them.”

Mark 6: 7, 10-11

Jesus calls the twelve to him and then sends them out two by two. Before they go, Jesus gives them the authority to heal and deliver, the very authority that he himself has from God—the same authority called into question earlier. Mark designates the source of the disciples’ authority and power to do as Jesus did because the source of that power is not of themselves but from an other, the Christ, the son of God. Mark doesn’t specify for his audience where Jesus gets his authority because he’s already done so: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (1:1). So, with the power and authority that Jesus has,[9] the twelve are sent out in six groups of two to do the very thing Jesus himself was doing back in Nazareth.

However, as it is for Jesus, so it will be for Jesus’s disciples (all of them, past, present, and future). A hostile response to the disciples presence in towns and at homes (even not theirs) is completely possible and most likely probable. [10] The reign of God is often in opposition to the kingdom of humanity; those who are called to herald the coming kingdom and presence of God among the people in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and who use words and deeds to bring forth such a reality will come into conflict with that which is normal and accepted and regular in society. Upheaval of divine proportions always brings with it a fracturing of the foundation of structures propping up the dominant group by the liberation of the oppressed.[11]

The very message[12] and deeds done by the disciples in the name of Christ by the power of God[13] in those neighboring towns and villages was not one of beneficent well-being of comfort and all is well. Rather, the disciples through their authority to heal and deliver people from oppression bring the judgment of God to the town favoring those held captive, bringing them life and liberty and making known to those who are complicit with oppressing God’s judgment on such systems. So, yes, some would receive them and listen; some would not. When opposition came, they were to do as Jesus did among his own kin: walk on.[14] Shake the dust from under your sandals and walk on. The judgment of God is on them[15] as they oppose Love’s love. The disciples weren’t responsible for changing minds and hearts if those hearts and minds were in opposition to love; that transformation is God’s. They were charged to love the oppressed, even if that meant loving the oppressed in another town.

Conclusion

Martin Luther writes at the end of The Freedom of a Christian, “Therefore there is need of the prayer that the Lord may give us and make us theodidacti, that is, those taught by God…and himself, as he has promised, write his law in our hearts; otherwise there is no hope for us.”[16] The Christian life isn’t easy, even if it starts that way. As we are taught by God, through God’s love being written on our hearts, our hearts hurt and break with pain, grief, sadness, and surprise because of opposition to love—hallmarks of those following Jesus out of the Jordan daring to see in new ways, speak in new words, and pulling forth new structures of the kingdom of God. In fact, it is hard for those who hear and see in new ways, who lean into Love’s love, to affirm old systems and conceptions of normal.

You the beloved, grafted into God by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, are new creations; no longer of the old world but of the new that is the reign of God and life for you and for all people. You too, beloved, see and hear and feel things not in the old way but in the new: through the eyes and ears and heart of Christ that are now yours through faith. The Christian life isn’t easy, it is a burden and a blessing as we love with Love’s love. As we endure the same opposition Jesus himself endured, all we can do is walk on, loving radically as we have been radically loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted. Intentionally substituted the pronouns of the sentence with the subject.

[2] R. T. France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: 2002. 241 “Reports of that mission, however, have continued to reach Nazareth, so that the return of the local prodigy (with his followers from the lakeside towns) is a natural focus of interest.”

[3] France Mark 242, “As in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:22, 27), the congregation are astonished by both Jesus’ words and his deeds. The σοφία which impresses them is presumably discerned from the teaching given at that time, but the δυναμεις must be those of which they have heard at second hand (cf. Lk. 4:23), unless the healing of the ολιγοι αρρωστοι mentioned in v. 5 preceded the synagogue teaching. The primary cause of the astonishment is not, the wisdom and miracles in themselves, but the question Πόθεν τούτῳ ταῦτα;…”

[4] France Mark 242-3, “But Mark never mentions Joseph, and the absence of a father in 3:31-35…suggests that a simpler explanation is the traditional view that by the time of Jesus’ ministry Joseph had died, and therefore featured nowhere in the story outside the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke; in that case he was simply not a part of the tradition known to Mark. The absence of Joseph’s name [in v. 3], where members of the family are listed explicitly, supports this view. In that case Jesus, as the eldest son, would naturally have taken over the family business as ὁ τέκτων.” And, “In a small village the τέκτων would need to be versatile, able to deal both with agricultural and other implements and also with the construction and repair of buildings. As such he was a significant figure in the village economy, probably also undertaking skilled work in the surrounding area. In this context, then, there is nothing derogatory in the term. The point is rather in its familiarity; the τέκτων is (or rather was, until his fateful visit to John at the Jordan) a reassuring symbol of normality, not the sort of person from whom you expect σοφία and δυνάμεις.”

[5] France Mark 242, “To the people of Nazareth Jesus is the local boy, and they know no reason why he should have turned out to be any different from the rest of his family.”

[6] France Mark 244 “Both evangelists [Matthew and Mark] attribute Jesus’ ‘minimal’ miraculous activity to the ἀπιστία of the people of Nazareth, but Mark’s οὐκ ἐδύνατο is bolder, in suggesting that not even the ἐξουσία of Jesus is unlimited. Mark often highlights the importance of πίστις in healing and other miraculous contexts (2:5; 4:40; 5:34, 36; 9:23-24; 10:52; 11:22-24), so there is no surprise in seeing the opposite effect attributed to ἀπιστία, but the description of Jesus as unable to work miracles is christologically striking, and is not greatly alleviated by the mention of the ὀλίγοι ἄρρωστοι who were the exception to the rule.”

[7] France Mark 244, “The mention of Jesus’ surprise (only here in Mark; the verb is more normally associated with the crowds) further underlines the ‘human’ character of Mark’s portrait of Jesus. It also highlights the contrast between Jesus’ reception in Nazareth and the general popularity which he has come to enjoy in the lakeside towns.”

[8] France Mark 244, “In Mark, however, the saying is given in a fuller and more emphatic form, listing rejection not only in the πατρίς (as in most versions) and in his own οἰκία (as in Matthew), but also among his συγγενεῖς an addition which reflects the unhappy experience of 3:20-21,3b 35. The specific use of προφήτης (in all the Christian versions of the saying) need not necessarily be more than proverbial; the rejection of prophets by their own people is a common theme of the OT.”

[9] France Mark 248, “The ἐξοθσία τῶν πνευμάτων τῶν ἀκαθάρτων which was envisaged in 3:15 as part of the purpose of their being sent out, but which they have not hitherto had the opportunity to use, is now actually given (and will be effectively deployed, v. 13), even though 9:18,28-29 will remind us that there is no guarantee of ‘success.’ What has hitherto been a special mark of the ἐξουσία of Jesus 1:27; 3:11) is now to be shared with those who have been μετ’αὐτοῦ (3:14-15).”

[10] France Mark 246, “The possibility of a hostile reception has already been demonstrated in Nazareth (6:1-6) and is further envisaged in v. 11. There is a basic conflict of interests, even of ideologies, between the kingdom of God and the norms of human society- An ambassador of the kingdom of God is called not only to a mission of restoration and deliverance, but also to a conflict…”

[11] I’m not advocating for colonizing other cultures in the name of Christ; rather when the gospel enters different cultures it should liberate people who are oppressed in those cultures and not be a tool for oppression (something that has been done historically as a result of western missionaries and evangelists). The gospel, Christ as word and deed, is not in opposition to culture of any type, but is in opposition to captivity and oppression. Also, it must be stated that we are not to force people to accept a certain cultural interpretation of the gospel, as in converting people to a western conception of the gospel.

[12] France Mark 250, “Even though not included explicitly in Jesus’ charge in v. 7, proclamation (κηρύσσω) is an essential element in the disciples’ commission (3:14), just as it is in Jesus’ own ministry (1:14,38-39).”

[13] France Mark 250, “…the threefold ministry of preaching, exorcism, and healing which Jesus has already been exercising is now appropriately extended to the disciples.”

[14] France Mark 250, “In Middle Eastern society the expectation of hospitality for visiting teachers is no surprise; They ought to be able to take it for granted. A reasonably extended stay is apparently envisaged. What is surprising is the clear expectation that there will be some τόποι (not just single households but whole communities?) where they and their message are not welcome. Even at Nazareth Jesus and his disciples had at first been welcomed, even to the extent of an invitation to teach in the synagogue. But the ἀπιστἰα which followed there is likely to be repeated elsewhere, and in such a case the disciples must be prepared to do what Jesus did at Nazareth, to move on and focus their ministry in places where they will be welcome. (Cf. Lk. 9:51-55 for another example of Jesus’ acting by this principle himself.)”

[15] France Mark 250, “For ἐκτινάσσω τὸν χοῦν as a gesture of dissociation cf. Acts 13:51 (compare Acts 18:6). The gesture is more fully described in Lk. 10:10-11. The rabbis shook the dust off their feet when leaving Gentile territory, to avoid carrying its defilement with them. Such a gesture serves εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς, a phrase which could suggest that it is intended to lead them to a change of heart, but which generally carries the negative overtone of a ‘witness against’ (see above 1:44), a witness for the prosecution (this implication is explicit in Acts 18:6). A community ‘marked’ in this way as unrepentant (v. 12) will be liable to judgment (note how this gesture in Lk. 10:10-11 is followed immediately by pronouncement of condemnation on unrepentant towns, vv. 12-16).”

[16] Martin Luther The Freedom of a Christian vol 31 Luther’s Works Minneapolis, MN: Muhlenberg Press, 1957. 276-7.

Hope in the Mess

Sancta Colloquia Episode 401 ft. Bp. Jake Owensby

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

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

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Bp. Jake Owensby

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

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

Other Books by Bp. Owensby:

A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth

Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God

Gospel Memories: The Future Can Rewrite Our Past

Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life

Be Encouraged, Beloved

Sermon on 1 John 5:9-13

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

Introduction

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

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

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

1 John 5:9-12

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

1 John 5:9-12

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At This Table

What I bring to the table is what I bring to any table: my flesh and bone, muscle and sinew, my stories and experience. Breaking bread at one table is no different than at another: my substance meets bread substance, and I serve what is broken to those who are gathered. I preside over both a table at church and at home, and I find neither more sacred than the other. Bread is served in both places, and the only thing I can remark as distinct are the words used to harken my people to the table. In one place it is, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” And in the other it’s, “Dinner’s ready! Wash your hands and get your drinks!” Both cries accomplish their goal: bringing people into communion to partake of a common meal, and to give thanks for what has been done for us, to stop and take pause and sit and gather, to eat and be nourished while participating in story-sharing and story-making.

They are both sacred.

They are both sacred because both tables have the inherent quality of encounter with God in the event of faith. One table may be more specifically dedicated to such an encounter for the hearer through the words and linens unique to it, but both contain the verdant actual soil to bring forth that splendid fruit of possibility of encounter. Both tables, no matter the words and linens, participate in the space-making and the time-ceasing of divine presence relentlessly seeking the beloved (you and me). The false dichotomy of the sacred and secular collapses and, with Bonhoeffer, we can proclaim all this is good and of God because of the work of redemption and restoration of Christ.

At both tables I feel the same; I am there as I am here. I feel no surge of power at one more than the other, though there’s more potential for variance in emotional output at one than the other—especially with little people who won’t just come to this table with clean hands and drink. The apron here is white and the alb there a flaxen color, and neither fabric changes me; rather they render awareness to others that I am here mom serving dinner and there priest serving elements, but the person is the same in both. The fabric alerts both groups as to what is being served; I chuckle at the idea of swapping outfits…wouldn’t that make for a good and vigorous communion in both cases!

The words I use at both are filled with the same substance of my voice and presence; the voice, with its lilts and intonations, is the same that populates words at this table and at that table.  Even the event itself of this meal and of that meal is enveloped in robust and profound story, swirling and circling about the wood of the table and the flesh of person, bringing together and uniting in experience one to the other and lifting up all unto something way more profound than I can see and hear with ocular and audial material, feel and taste of senses and flesh.

In this radical similarity of these two tables lies the distinction.

To come to the table in my home, where I am clothed in apron, standing amid the elements of the fruit of the earth, is to come to engage in a multitude of stories in both sharing and hearing. It is here at this table where we are brought together and something new is created in our midst as we share and eat and listen. The actuality of our gathering creates the potential for divine encounter in the present. This event is profound and yet bound to this time and moment. It won’t be repeated and can’t be replicated in detail–any attempt to do so will end in a deadness. This table exists now, in this way, and next time it will be different. The divine ordering of humanity toward humanity thus to God will happen but in very distinct and unique ways each time it happens.

To come to the table at the church, where I’m clothed in flaxen alb and stole, standing amid elements of bread and wine is to come to hear and see a very particular story not restricted to this table but especially to be repeated and replicated at this table. It’s at this table with this fabric, with these elements, and using specific words where we are brought into another moment in time, grafted by word and hearing and seeing into the history of one not ours but is now ours, and united to those who have heard and seen this story before and those who will continue to do so long after we’ve transitioned. There’s a permanence and timelessness here at this table that defies and revolts against the static and temporariness of our present existence. This table persists forever—existing in myriad form and made of various material—promising that next time it will be the same–radical! The divine ordering of God toward humanity through Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and thus humanity toward God in the same will happen once again and always as it has happened then, is happening now, and will happen tomorrow. A promise articulated in every language and at any time, no matter what words or people are asked to tell this story at this table.

and The Earth Opens

Ash Wednesday Homily on Numbers 16 and Psalm 88

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

Ash Wednesday Meditation

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

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

Numbers 16:28-30

Moses stopped talking. And then:

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

Numbers 16:31-35

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.

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

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

Psalm 88:6-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 103:3-5

For All People

Sermon on 1 Cor 9:16-23

Psalm 147:5-7 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp. (44)

Introduction

For Quinn’s 7th birthday, we brought him and a few friends to see Frozen. At the time I didn’t know the hit it would be. A week later nearly every 1st grade girl sang the lyrics to Let it go! at the top of their lungs, and I knew. While I believe the movie has a profound inherent quality (of message and story), what seemed to grab the attention seven to eight year-old girls was one particular moment: Elsa breaking free from the strictures of an oppressive environment preventing her from being who she truly is.

After an angry display of her powers, Elsa hurries off. Nothing holds her back; she’s been revealed, and her only choice (so she believes) is to head off alone into the cold, dark, snowy night. And here web receive that song of liberation. As Elsa heads through snow, she shrugs off what was and embraces her newfound liberty. She’s done with everything and now: freedom. She sings while creates as she moves through snow…

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free[1]

Frozen

She creates a castle, releases her hair, and transforms her drab sensible clothing into a stunning dress made of snow and ice. This moment activated chills of every person watching it deeply longing for freedom that is freedom to just be as is! I, too, found myself caught up in the momentum as Elsa’s rejected her captivity to what was.

Let it go, let it go/Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go/Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

Frozen

Elsa finally gets to just live as she wants to as she is. Elsa is the self-proclaimed queen of her kingdom of ice-olation. She’s free. Or is she?

1 Corinthians 9:18-19, 22-23

Then what is my wage? So that while preaching good tidings I might establish the good news without expense in order not to make full use of my personal ability and power in the good news. For being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people, so that I might gain many more people (1 Cor 9:18-19).

In the Corinthian situation of chapter 9, Paul is still addressing those whom he addressed earlier in chapter 8. In view are “the strong”—those who feel confident in what they know to be true and in their faith, and those who are economically and socially empowered to participate in this or that event or meal.[2] Chapter 9 is Paul’s further clarifying what he means about the freedom of the gospel for the one who is justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works.

Paul explains to the Corinthians that he received the gospel freely—the good tidings came to him of no charge and was not a product of his own doing (he didn’t earn it or produce it of his own works). He confesses he is without boasting here[3] because he received this gift freely, and he is compelled[4] to preach this good news because he’s been entrusted with this proclamation in word and deed.[5] As Paul freely receives, he freely gives—not from threat of hell or reward of heaven, but just because he cannot do any other in his conformity to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who is the foundation of his faith.[6] He hinges it all to this purpose: so as not to make full use of my power and ability in the good news. In other words, Paul has not employed all of his rights to receive wages for his work, which he has entitlement to; he foregoes those by working with his hands to support himself. [7] Thus he exhorts the strong[8]: forego your own entitlement just as I have. [9]

And then with grand emphasis Paul dives deeper into the concept of gospel founded freedom: being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people (v.19).[10] I love studying languages. The more I study different languages, the more I enjoy my own language and the nitty gritty of grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. So, here I am compelled to highlight the importance of prepositions and cases because Paul is intentional with them. To speak of gospel freedom, for Paul, is to speak not only of freedom from other people (Ελευθερος…ων εκ παντων, the genitive prepositional phrase of belonging) but precisely that this freedom from is hardwired toward freedom to and for other people (πασιν, the dative case carrying with it the “to/for” prepositions, the case of the indirect object).[11]

For Paul, to be truly free is seeing your freedom from as freedom for and to other people. For “the strong” in Corinth this means that their freedom, if it truly is freedom, is not about an ardent insistence for their entitlements and rights. Rather, it’s for the weaker: those who don’t have what they have, those who don’t have access to what they have access to, those who are restricted in their ability to move about and do this and do that because of their dependence on other people and institutions.[12] Paul tells “the strong”: to/for the weak I became weak in that I might gain the weak (v.22). And then he concludes with …to all people I became all things so that I might rescue some. It is anathema for Paul that the believer would use her freedom to secure her entitlement. Instead, for Paul, his freedom from having to justify himself through works of the law is now freedom for those trapped in totalitarian religious and social systems. For Paul, this is the definition of what it means to act like Christ;[13] this is cruciform humanity in encounter with God in the event of faith that produces true freedom.[14]

Conclusion

So, back to Elsa. Is Elsa free when she tromps off into the wild winter night? Is she free as she constructs that stunning palace and her new persona unburdened by demands and expectations of others? No. She’s not free. She’s not acquired freedom but imprisonment. Freedom from when it stops there becomes a prison of the self. In order to maintain that type of freedom you must always pull back and away until you’re isolated. Then you must defend that isolation because freedom (strictly) from can never be free in the presence of another person. If my freedom is defined solely as freedom from (the law, from others, from obligation, from demand, etc.) then I’m not free because I can neither participate in those things nor not feel threatened by their presence indicating my limitedness. I’m not free if I’m limited by the threat of external things; this is the definition of enslavement. If I must have my way, I’m not free.

Elsa doesn’t become truly free until she figures out how to use her power in the presence of other people. Once she realizes love is the controlling factor, she’s released unto real freedom and can exist as is with others—not in her freedom from fueled by anger and rage keeping her isolated but freedom from that is drawn by love to be freedom to and for other people. Compare what she creates to protect herself from others and what she creates for others: in her freedom from she builds an ice palace, locking her away from others and in her freedom to and for she summons a summer snowfall, lays out an ice skating rink, and a snow cloud to protect Olaf.

Beloved, you’re free. God in God’s freedom freely descended because God so loved the world, the creation, the cosmos, so loved you to rescue everything and everyone from the powers of sin, darkness, and death; this is the content of the gospel, of the good news made flesh in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. That divine freedom is now our freedom from the powers of sin, darkness, and death to be free by faith and not works into grace, light, and life for and to others who are also the objects of divine love. To “share in the nature of the gospel” [15] is to stand with the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering and hurting, the wounded and sick, the hindered and ostracized. (There is no better expression of freedom than to willingly stand in solidarity with struggling humanity.) Where there are the sick, we become as the sick to rescue the sick from death; where there are those fighting for the right to breath, we become as those fighting for the right to breath to rescue those who are fighting for the right to breath from death; where there are those who have been displaced, we become as those being displaced to rescue the displaced from death. In our freedom from we count it not for us to seize for ourselves but for and to others; for it is this very thing God did for us.


[1] Let it Go! From the move Frozen Written by: Kristen Anderson-Lopez / Robert Lopez Performed by Idina Menzel

[2] And all of this is a further elaboration of chapter 6 where Paul addresses the body and what to do with it.

[3] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 695, “Paul has explained that the can glory or boast only where the principle of ‘freely you received, freely give’ operates, and when a renunciation of ‘rights is entirely voluntary. This cannot apply in his particular case to the act of preaching alone or to proclamation itself, for, like Jeremiah, in every account of his call Paul insists that God’s compulsion presses upon him.”

[4] Thiselton 696, “It is agony if Paul tries to escape form the constraints and commission which the love and grace of ‘the hound of heaven’ presses upon him. With this further logical step glorying (καυχημα) begins to slip back subtly into boasting.”

[5] Keep in mind that as Paul exhorted the Corinthians to treat their bodies well because they are the temples of God (the Holy Spirit), so to is Paul. And, thus, as Paul has received the good news, he has received it as the scribe and the scroll, as the messenger and the message in a bottle. This is why Paul is under Holy Spirit inspired compulsion to proclaim the good news: he is the temple of God proclaiming the good tidings of God (this links him with the great prophetic tradition that precedes him).

[6] Thiselton 697, “The whole argument hinges on sovereign grace, and that it is in freely giving in response to God’s free gift that καυχημα, grounds for taking delight in what one gives, becomes possible only within a framework where pressure and law do not apply: free gift in response to free gift. It is in giving that the believe receives, not as some ‘external’ reward, but through the internal grammar of the blessedness of giving which is a stamp of identification with the cross.”

[7] Collins qtd in Thiselton 697, “‘The object of Paul’s boasting is not the preaching of the gospel…Pauls’ boast is that he has not made use of the rights to which he is entitled…to support himself by the work of his own hands.’”

[8] Martin qtd in Thiselton 698, “‘Paul’s pointed surrender of his eleutheria and exousia (as one of the strong) is therefore…directed precisely at those who have these things and resist giving them up, that is, those of higher status.’”

[9] Thiselton 697, “This verse explicates the point just made above. Only by gratuitously proclaiming the gospel gratis can Paul go beyond the preaching which God has pressed upon him as an inescapable, not voluntary, task, and there by go the extra mile.’ To do this, however, he must forego a right, as he pleads with ‘the strong’ among his readers to do.”

[10] Thiselton 700, “Since ελευθερος is so strongly emphatic, we may retain the positive term free … to denote the Corinthian catchword taken up by Paul, but also combine it with NJB’s subtle use of the negative though I as no a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people…”

[11] Thiselton 701, “Paul very subtly but also emphatically presses in what precise sense Christian believers and Christian leaders are free and in what sense voluntary slavery performs a wholesome, even essential, saving purpose in Christ-like obedience and love for other.”

[12] Thiselton 705 “In this context the weak may mean those whose options for life and conduct where severely restricted because of their dependence on the wishes of patrons, employers, or slave owners.”

[13] Thiselton 706, “The weak stand in contrast to those with ‘social power, influence, political status…ability to competence in a variety of areas’ and by contrast have ‘low social standing’ and crave for identity, recognition, and acceptance. Paul’s foregoing of his rights to a ‘professional’ status by functioning as a religious rhetorician for a patron and toiling as an artisan demonstrate his solidarity with the weak both as a missionary and pastoral strategist and in Christlike behavior.”

[14] Thiselton 708, “Paul does all that he does to make transparent by his everyday life in the public domain the character of the gospel which he proclaims as the proclamation of the cross…, which derives its character, and not simply its ‘benefits,’ from Christ himself.”

[15] Thiselton 707, “To stand alongside the Jews, the Gentile, the socially dependent and vulnerable, or to live and act in solidarity with every kind of person in every kind of situation is to have a share in the nature of the gospel, i.e., to instantiate what the gospel is and how it operates.”