Love + Action = Freedom

Psalm 77:13-15 13 Your way, O God, is holy; who is so great a god as our God? You are the God who works wonders and have declared your power among the peoples. By your strength you have redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.

Introduction

The way freedom is spoken of today leaves little to be desired. It’s a big concept, described by truncated language reduced to me and mine. While there is some me and mine involved with the concept and the working out of freedom, it doesn’t end there.

To conceive of freedom as strictly how I’m unrestricted by the demands of another renders the concept of freedom malnourished. Does freedom even exist apart from another? If I’m isolated to myself, do I know what freedom is? The discussion is moot; I’m neither free nor not free. I’m just without demands from others. I’m (essentially) free from others for myself.[1] It’s a perpetual turning in of the self, rendering the self wrong-side-out,[2] and locked in its own prison of death. Here, isolation informs the need to pull further and further apart from others, and in that space grows the evil of the devaluation of the other to the point where the other is the enemy.

Freedom, to be something worthwhile (something that one would literally risk life and limb) must be something that exists with others. To be free while still in the presence of another is true freedom. You are you as you are and I am me as I am me; as different as we are, we affirm each other—self-differentiated and together—two Is forming a we of yous. I’m not restricted by you, but voluntarily restrict myself to see to your thriving. This voluntary self-restriction is freedom because I freely enter into it for you. I’m (essentially) free from myself for others. It’s a contagion of affirmation, rendering the self right-side-out, liberated into the realm of life. Here, togetherness informs the need to see myself more and more a part of the group, and in that space the other’s liberation becomes my liberation and love informs my action for the other who is beloved.

Galatians 5:1,13-25

For liberty [a state of freedom from slavery] Christ liberated us. Therefore, persevere and be not ensnared again to the yoke of slavery.
For you, you are summoned into liberty, brothers and sisters, only not liberty for the occasion for the flesh, but through love be slaves to one another. For all the law has been fulfilled in one word, in which “You love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite [harm seriously] one another and you eat up [injure seriously] one another, beware (!) you do not consume one another.[3]

(Gal 5: 1, 13-15)

Our friend, Paul, spends much of Galatians working out the concept of freedom of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith. For Paul, as mentioned last week, we are liberated from a problematic (idolatrous) relationship with the law; a relationship that rendered our obedience to the law ultimate, and love of God and of neighbor as penultimate. You don’t need the law to inform your love of God and of others, rather you need the love of God and of others to inform your relationship to the law.

Jesus is the hinge upon which all realignment hangs. When Christ is proclaimed, there God is encountered; where God is encountered, the divine Spirit of Love resurrects those who were once dead in themselves and ushers them into new life. This new life, according to Paul in Galatians 5, is about freedom informed by the spirit and activity of love. This new life is freedom from the law for others; this new life is the business of law serving love and love serving others. Remember: in the encounter with God in the event of faith, according to the philosophical and theological logic of Galatians, our misalignment to the law is broken and we’re re-centered (each of us) with our faces turned to God and (thus) necessarily to our neighbor and the world (those whom and that which God loves very much).

So, for Paul, if freedom is inherently connected to the reordering of love of God and love of neighbor, why drag in that which is septic and toxic: our misalignment to the law? Paul isn’t an antinomian; Paul isn’t arguing for the law’s abrogation (a word defined as, “the act of formally ending a law, agreement, or custom). Thus, law isn’t gone; it’s just the law, it’s been debarked, it’s become a tool for us to use so that love + action = freedom. In other words, when I enter a space with others, I’m motivated by love for them and either reject or submit to whatever law brings the other life. In that this rejection or submission brings life to my neighbor, I find myself liberated here, too, because now there’s more freedom spreading about and thus more love informed action. In this equation, the law isn’t lord, love is.

While I know the church has done a dastardly job not allowing many people—not part of the dominant group—to be themselves, I have to add that both Paul and Jesus advocate for the full receipt of self. Jesus exhorts one finds themselves when they lose themselves; Paul advocates for a sense of other demanding a real and present self. Both argue for the death of the self from the prison of the self, which does not end in death for death’s sake (this would be the death of the self ending in no self) but in new life (of the self) which is categorically re-oriented for others informed by the love of God’s life-giving Spirit. Herein is freedom: a substantiated self who loves and acts for the other, calling out death-dealing systems and refusing to ever again be yoked to slavery to the law in such a way that the law triumphs over love and over the other.

To solidify his point, Paul highlights what works look like when trapped in the prison of the self unliberated from the self, and he compares those works to the fruits of a self liberated from the self for others. I won’t deliberate long on those, for that’s an entirely different sermon. But when you get a chance, look at the difference and see where love + action = freedom; where that formula is lacking there you will find death, and where it is present you will find life.

Conclusion

Dorothee Sölle writes,

“Unless we are free, we cannot be instruments for the liberation of anyone else. And what prevents us from being free? Anxiety. Liberation is a problem which first begins within us, of not having any anxiety about the consequences. We can have anxiety, but we must control this anxiety. It is anxiety in the sense that we recognize the risk; otherwise it would be blind.”[4]

Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God

What Sölle is getting at here is, essentially, the liberation of the self from the self that is the seat of “being free”. Anxiety is a driving force helping us to protect the self from disaster; but it can also grow so large that it renders us useless in the prison of the self. Rather than just command people not to be anxious and just lose themselves, she articulates a need of self-mastery and self-differentiation that is informed by love of God and love of others. I can see my anxiety, acknowledge my anxiety, and then move forward with my anxiety. This momentum begins the freedom starting within and rippling outward into realms with others.

In other words, love of the other drives us to secure life for others. Is this not the gospel story of God’s love for the world manifest in Jesus the Christ from Nazareth who loved others with God’s Spirit of Love even to the point of his own death? Then, as those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan to the Cross, is this not also our story individually as Christians and corporately as the church? Aren’t we to be those willing to love others beyond our own anxiety so that there is life and liberation for all? When did Christianity and the Church become the message about the laws of power and privilege, the law of the self over and against the other? When did we lose ourselves to our pews and the obligations of standing and sitting for an hour on Sunday?[5] When did the church forget that she’s more than a coffee hour and is a little bit dangerous in a world bent in on itself?[6]

There’s no way around it: love is risky because love risks the security of the self for the security of the other. Love isn’t some saccharine feeling that ends in peace signs and always feeling good. Love propels us beyond ourselves for others and (paradoxically) in this activity we become more ourselves. And herein is freedom, beloved: to be those who are substantially for others with love and corresponding loving action that shakes the foundations of the world. In other words, we love as we were first loved by God, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit of love.


[1] Grateful to Holly Tran for mentioning this for aspect to the way freedom is considered in America.

[2] This is the logical trajectory of Ayn Rands Objectivism and its promotion of the selfish.

[3] Translation mine, unless otherwise noted.

[4] Dorothee Sölle, Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. First Eng. Ed SCM Press, 1990. 129.

[5] Sölle, Thinking About God, 144. “One of the main dangers of Protestantism lies in its excessive stress on the kerygma, or more properly, on the kerygma reduced to preaching. The church is regarded as the place where preaching is done. Church takes place between ten and eleven on Sunday morning. The two other functions of the church disappear from view and hardly affect the ordinary members of the congregation. …“If church de facto consists in sitting still for an hour on Sunday without getting to know anyone else, the unity of kerygma, diakonia and koinonia is destroyed. How can any life develop which deserves the name ‘church’, in the sense of the assembled people of God?””

[6] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

Paradoxical Elastic Love

Sermon on John 13:31-35

Psalm 148:13-14 Let them praise the Name of God, for God’s Name only is exalted, God’s splendor is over earth and heaven. God has raised up strength for God’s people and praise for all God’s loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near God. Hallelujah!

Introduction

I know that considering God’s love for us—for all of us—is complicated. So, let me make it a bit easier to understand…

God’s love is the inconsistent consistency.
God’s love is an ambiguous certainty.
God’s love is the unknown known.
God’s love is a same difference and a different sameness.
God’s love is comforting discomfort and discomforting comfort.
God’s love is disrupting stabilization, and stabilizing disruption.

There. Did that help? All clear?

I didn’t think so.

God’s love for the world and humanity is profoundly paradoxical, always, and elastic. It goes there and here and in that it is there it is still here. God loves us no matter what happens or who we think we are or what we have done, are doing, or will do, in whatever time period we find ourselves, in any town or city in those time periods. God loves that other person over there in just the same unconditional ways God loves you and me, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And, believe it or not, that creates a tension…

…for us…

…not for God.

If the person is like us, then we can see why (and how) God would love this other one; clearly, they’re pretty great. However, what happens when we try to comprehend God loving an other who is not like us, one who is in fact different, and maybe even opposite to us in some way or many ways? The reality of the elasticity of the substance of paradoxical divine love drives us crazy because we really want God not to love those whom we do not and cannot love. We really want God to find those people appalling whom we find appalling. We really want to think that something about us is so unique that God loves us and since that other person over there is very different from us then God’s love stops at our handmade boundaries of separation and exclusion. (comment about classroom catholic and protestants.) We want God’s love to have limits, to have an end…not for us….but for them over there.

However, God just loves whether or not we actually and fully comprehend the depth of the profundity of that loving. God just loves—without limits, without end—and as we are encountered by God in the event of faith, we are caught up in that elastic paradoxical divine love, love-just-loving-because-it-can-do-no-other…always.

John 13:31-35

Very dear little ones, I am with you yet a little while; you will seek me, and just as I said to the Israelites, “Where Ι, Ι depart [to], you, you are not able to come,” I say to you now. A new command I give to you (all), that you love one another. I loved you so that you also love one another. In this all will know that you are disciples to me, if you have love in one another. [1]

John 13:33-35

Our assigned gospel reading is quite familiar. It’s so familiar that if I was a betting woman, some of you may have checked out a little already, because yeah…yeah…yeah…love one another; got it…can we go get coffee now? The more familiar a passage or concept is to us, the less we notice something new unless we slow down and look at it again. So, let’s do that.

Jesus begins by speaking of a reciprocal and mutual and equal glorification between Jesus and God the Creator. In a way that bends time and twists space, both God and Jesus are glorified and will be glorified; in other words, in what Jesus is doing and will do, God’s name will be hallowed here and in heaven.

He then moves on to say something classically “Jesus-in-the-Gospel-of-John” cryptic, I’m going away and you can’t come. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that cryptic for one person to tell another they are going away…alone. However, the emphasis adds another layer of odd: I, I am going away, and you, you cannot come. Thus, the emphasis falls on “this is for Jesus alone” and those who have been following cannot follow him—anymore—to his next destination (the cross). The prophesied absence immediately thrusts the disciples, all those who are listening and following Jesus, into disruption[2]: where can he go that I can’t also go? Their faith must fill that silence.[3]

Jesus cannot be held by them, and they cannot force him to stay as he is with them; in Jesus removing himself to a place where they cannot follow, the disciples are yanked out of their existence in the present tense and dropped into another that is not theirs to control.[4] They are brought face to face with a new reality, one embedded in a reversal of anxiety about the self to concern for the other.[5] Jesus exhorts those listening, love…love each other, love one another, love because I loved you. The great moment of the uncoiling or turned-in human beings occurs in the divine exhortation to love one another because God has loved them.[6]

Jesus then yokes the loving of one another to witness in the world: by this love the others will know you are my disciples. This is more than merely love that exists within a community of like and familiar and friend; Jesus’s conception of love is the proclamation of the good news that loves and in loving it liberates and in this way it is new from what has come before it.[7] This isn’t warm fuzzies or happy feelings; this is divine love that does, love that acts, love that turns lives around, that pushes religious zealots off donkeys and over hauls the piety of those who thought they knew and understood but didn’t.[8] It is this love (active and participatory) that will become the characteristic by which the world will know these who follow the man who is God, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. They will know because this love liberates rather than possesses and this will be strange to the world[9]—this love affirms the material of the world and condemns the works of humanity and their sinful and oppressive kingdoms, built to keep some lifted up and some pressed down, some in and others out, preferring some and disparaging others. It will be love that exceeds the wisdom of knowledge and dogma, slips from the grasp of religious tyranny and private piety, only to be realized by those who are encountered by God in the event of faith, those who succumb to the divine love summons to follow me.[10] And in this way, Jesus never leaves those whom he loves.[11] In this way God is never finished with those whom God loves.

Conclusion

“Don’t it make you get teary? The world looks dreary
When you wipe your eyes, see it clearly
there’s no need for you to fear me
If you take your time and hear me
Maybe you can learn to cheer me
It ain’t about black or white, ’cause we human
I hope we see the light before it’s ruined;
my ghetto gospel”[12]

Tupac Shakur “Ghetto Gospel”

These lyrics are from Tupac Shakur, an American rapper born in 1971 and shot and killed in 1996. The song is titled, “Ghetto Gospel.” As far as contemporary prophetic voices go, Shakur’s reaches ranges I don’t encounter in the church or the world. While this song was produced in 2004, I am mesmerized in 2022 by Shakur’s understanding of the extent to which divine love must go if it is divine love. For the good news to be the good news it must bring good news to the oppressed, those trapped and threatened by systemic violence and suffering under hate, fear, and looming death. Shakur reminds me that as we are caught up in the elastic paradoxical divine love, we are not dropped into a reality that makes sense to us and our privilege and status; rather, we are dropped into the reality as it is for another, whom God loves, too.

Later in the song, Tupac raps,

“I make mistakes but learn from every one
And when it’s said and done
I bet this Brother be a better one
If I upset you don’t stress, never forget
That God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Tupac Shakur “Ghetto Gospel”

Listening to Tupac’s interpretation of divine activity on his behalf, the way that God loves him, the way he sees himself as a divine work in progress, challenges any notion that there is one type of person whom God loves and that someone how we are affirmed in the way we were before our encounter with God in the event of faith. God isn’t finished with me yet are the words of paradoxical elastic divine love for humanity. God’s love is the love that never gives up, never abandons, never says that’s it too far! Divine love is the love that seeks and seeks and seeks, that stretches and stretches and stretches, that keeps yoking together human beings from this walk of life to that walk of life, love that closes gaps across boundaries and over tracks destroying anything meant to keep people apart.

God’s paradoxical elastic love is perpetually in the business of disrupting us so that we never grow stagnant and stuck. And as we are disrupted, we can move forward with God’s good news of the liberating proclamation of Jesus Christ on our lips and bring (and participate in!) God’s love: the good news of Beloved, the good news of liberation, the good news of life, and the good news that God is never finished with anyone because everyone has possibility in light of divine love.

Beloved, do not lose hope, God isn’t finished with us yet.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed; RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. German: Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964, 1966). 524. “What now lies in the past does not guarantee the future, but is called into question by it. Jesus, in whom they believed, disappears from them, and they are left with no security.”

[3] Bultmann John 524 “His own will miss him; they will not realise the full significance of that νυν immediately. Their faith has to stand the test.”

[4] Bultmann John 525. “The future is subjected to an imperative! Their anxiety is centered on their own actual existence, but not they are directed towards an existence that has the character of an ‘ought.’ The illusion that they possess him in such a way that he is at their disposal is confronted by another kind of possession: one which consists in fulfilling a command.”

[5] Bultmann John 525. “Their despairing gaze into the past that is no more is redirected to the future, which comes and lays its obligation upon them. An unreal future, which would only be a persistence in the past, is made into the real future which demands faith. And in so far as the content of the εντολη is ινα αγαπατε αλληλους, the care for oneself is changed into the care for one’s neighbor.”

[6] Bultmann John 525. “But since it is precisely this becoming free from the past and form oneself that is subjected to the imperative, the future that is grasped as command coincides with the future that is promised for loyalty of faith for it was freedom from that past and from oneself that was promised to the believer. Thus the imperative is itself a gift, and this It can be because it receives its significance and its possibility of realization form the past, experienced as the love of the Revealer…”

[7] Bultmann John 527. “But Jesus’ command of love is ‘new,’ even when it has been long-known, because it is the law of the eschatological community or which the attribute ‘new’ denotes not an historical characteristic but its essential nature. The command of love, which is grounded in the love of the Revealer received by the disciples, is ‘new’ in so far as it is a phenomenon of the new world which Jesus has brought into being,…”

[8] Bultmann John 526. “Jesus’s love is not a personal emotion, but is the service that liberates; and the response to it is not a mystical or pietistic intimacy with Christ, but the αλληλους αγαπαν”

[9] Bultmann John 527-528. “v.35 states that the new world becomes reality in the community: reciprocal love within the community is the criterion of the discipleship of Jesus for those outside. The fact that the command of live is fulfilled there demonstrates the strangeness of the community within the world, and results in the world calling those who love, the disciples of Jesus. Not just because theirs is a community in which love is both an injunction and an actual practice. Much rather because love itself there takes on a form that is strange to the world. In the community the command of love is grounded in the love of God which is encountered in the Revealer, and this means that its fulfilment must bear the nature or world-annulment; by it all human love is peculiarly modified, in a way that both limits and broadens it.”

[10] Bultmann John 528. “The associations with Jesus, therefore, is not realized by possessing articles of knowledge or dogmas, nor in institutions or experiences of individual piety, but in ‘pupil-hood,’ in obedience to the command of love.”

[11] Bultmann John 528. “How does the departing Revealer remain present for his own? By vitality of the gift of his love in their love of each other, and by their representation within the world of the new world, which became reality through him.”

[12] Tupak Shakur Ghetto Gospel produced posthumously by Eminem feat. Elton John. 2004

“Tabitha, rise!”

Sermon on Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23:1-3 God is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. God revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.

Introduction

In my last call I had the privilege of being a high school teacher at a private Episcopal high school in deep south Louisiana. I taught theology and religion, and I also participated in some of the pastoral care of the students. I had many conversations with students, but some of my favorite ones were with seniors fretting over what college to go to. Them, frantic: Rev. Larkin…Rev. Larkin I don’t know what to do! They had sweet and endearing intentions but they were stuck. They weren’t merely stuck because they were waiting for that frontal lobe to fully kick in, but because they worried about doing God’s will for fear that anything else would cause God to become displeased in them. What college should I go to, Rev. Larkin, what’s God’s will for me?

If there’s any question in the world that I both value and understand and disvalue and dismiss it’s that question. If you ever want to see this enneagram 5 go full tilt wut. just ask: What’s God’s will for me right now? Me:

Robot Monkey GIF by Giphy QA - Find & Share on GIPHY

Now, while my internal monologue looked something like that, my external pastoral side always kicked in. I loved these kids and hated how tied up they were in fear of not knowing God’s will. In these moments, I loved leaning back on Luther. His conception of seeking God’s will as a form of magic and divination (he’s no fan of either, by the way) and the freedom we have in Christ, gave me the power and authority to declare to my fretting and worried beloveds: my dear one, God loves you through and through and through; a college choice isn’t going to ever ever ever take that from you no matter how bad it all turns out. You can just transfer. Also, and this is going to sound a bit blunt and maybe even mean and I intend this with the biggest amount of love for you: God isn’t worried about where you go to college. Literally. God’s will for all of us is written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Pick a school and live in God’s already existent good pleasure and love for you…and care for the poor and vulnerable.

When it comes to our own questions about what does God want for us, what does God want us to do, it’s clearly laid out for us in scripture through the examples of many of the main characters. Even if we rationalize away the example of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, leaning heavy on Christological formulas: Well, Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully God thing…there are still many more examples. In the book of Acts of the Holy Spirit, we’re given plenty examples of people who are both fully human and called by God and live out the will of God in the material world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Saul-Paul is one. I know he’s a bit intense, and he seems to have a penchant for getting into heaps of trouble with the religious and state authorities, but he’s fully human and a converted follower of the way (like many of us).

But maybe Saul-Paul isn’t your cup of tea, too much drama that he clearly could’ve avoided if he was just a bit more reserved and taken with common sense…There’s always another contender: Peter. He seems a bit more practical.

Acts 9:36-43

Now, it happened in that day [Tabitha] became weak and died. And having bathed [her], they laid her in an upper room. Now, Lydda being near Joppa the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda and they sent two men to summon him, “Do not hesitate to pass through us.” And Peter rose and went with them. After arriving, they lead him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and displaying the tunics and many cloaks [Tabitha] was making being with them. Now, Peter sent them all out and [getting on his] knees, he prayed and turned toward the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.[1]

Acts 9:37-40

Last week, looking at chapter 9 of the book of Acts we encountered Saul who was encountered by God in the midst of his self-determined obstinance to reclaim Israelites for the glory of God. Saul was disrupted, and his life changed in a short moment. This week we are being asked to consider Peter who returns to the story as the one who has followed Jesus and continues to do so. Where Saul represents being suddenly disrupted; Peter represents continual and persistent disruption. Peter knew Jesus and continues to get to know him in deeper and more profound ways.[2] Specifically, the blessed mingling of human and divine of the incarnate Christ raised and now ascended beckons to Peter by the power of the Holy Spirit asking him to see how much more that divine and human mingling goes beyond Jesus the Christ. Peter is caught up in the divine pursuit of disruption and disturbing the status quo by shaking up the divine and human distinction through drawing the regular time and regular people into the holiness of God.[3] And he’s about to be thrusted into the middle of such a moment of disruption and disturbance.

In our story here in Acts, Peter dares to do what Jesus did. In other words, to quote Willie James Jennings, “Peter repeats Jesus.”[4] Like his friend, sibling, and savior did, so, too, will Peter do: bring light where there is darkness, liberty where there is captivity, life where there is death. In other words, Peter, like Jesus continues to spread God’s never-stopping, never-giving up material and tangible love for the entire cosmos (from the biggest to the least).[5] Most notably Peter steps into and brings[6] this proclamation to weeping widows in the presence of the death of Tabitha—one who lived well and loved these widows deeply.[7] Here we see how willingly divine power and love will sink and seep into the most narrow crevices of society: the grief of the widows and the death of Tabitha matters to God—these women matter to God, so much so that death is refused the final word.[8]

The final word is God’s power through Peter, “Tabitha, rise.” The echo of Jesus’s “Lazarus, come here! outside!” “Peter repeats Jesus.” Resurrection happens, life triumphs over death. The widows’ grief and sorrow (also fear and anxiety) is heard, and their Tabitha is brought back to life.[9] Our scriptures record this incredible and astounding story: the first disciple to experience resurrection after Jesus’s is a woman. God gives a big heck about bodies, all bodies.[10] And this message doesn’t cease with Tabitha; soon Peter will find himself with a body considered unclean, Simon the Tanner. Peter’s on a divine journey, discovering the depth of God’s love for all people, diving deeper into being disrupted and disturbed by the heart, love, grace, and will of God. [11]

Conclusion

This story from the book of Acts about Peter and the widows and Tabitha reminds us that all bodies matter to God, and not merely the bodies of the wealthy, the powerful, the capable, but, the bodies of least of these, the bodies of the oppressed and poor. Women’s bodies matter. Black bodies matter. Trans bodies matter. Differently abled bodies matter. Imprisoned bodies matter. Your body matters.

So, back to the beginning: What’s God’s will for us? What does God want us to do? I guess God wants us to raise the dead. Or, rather, bring life where there is death. The ultimate interpretation of what it means to liberate the captives is: resurrection. “Tabitha, rise.” And we, like Peter and Saul get to be encountered by this radical and profound divine pathos, divine love for the world and then we get to spread it where ever we go. We, like Saul and Peter, get to say: “Tabitha, rise.” Yes, you! You, too! You, too, rise! Death has no claim here anymore only life, no longer darkness, only light. You are the beloved of God, dearly loved and deeply cherished. From head to toe, without shame, without hiddenness, without secrecy, with all boldness and bigness. “Tabitha, rise.”

You, the Beloved, rise!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 99. “Peter returns to center stage and engages in a bit of wayfaring life, echoing again his history of following Jesus and doing as his savior had done. He is on the road and comes to Lydda to be among the living saints.”

[3] Jennings Acts 99. “Jesus is God drawing the everyday into holiness, into God’s own life. Everyday people are made holy in Christ. Everyday people are made holy by Christ, and this is a holiness that will last, not be episodic, and constitute a new space for living life and knowing ourselves. ‘Saints’ are those marked by the new gestures of belief in Jesus. They worship a crucified Lord in the Spirit, and in the Spirit they live the everyday, knowing that each moment has been made sacred by God’s faithful presence.”

[4] Jennings Acts 99.

[5] Jennings Acts 99-100. “He is with Jesus, following where his savior wants to go. Once again a marvelous act, a touchable miracle, will turn people to the Lord (v. 35). This is repetition that illumines the inexhaustible riches of God’s love for the fragile creature and God’s desire to constantly touch us, hold us, and announce the victory over death.”

[6] Jennings Acts 100. See also Cassidy p.30. “Here glory joins strong grief because to lose someone who cares for the weak and vulnerable, whose life is turned toward making a difference in the world and who is making a difference, is a bitter loss. The widows have lost Tabitha and a disciple is gone. This is what Peter steps into in Joppa.”

[7][7] Jennings Acts 100. “We come to the story of Tabitha with Peter at the very end. There is glory and grief at the end. The glory is a life lived well, lived in service to others. Tabitha’s life, even in the fragments we gain in this story, hangs together beautifully as someone devoted to helping people, especially widows.”

[8] Jennings Acts 100. “Peter’s presence declares an unmistakable truth: women matter. This woman matters, and the work she does for widow’s matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word.”

[9] Jennings Acts 100-101. “’Tabitha, get up.’ Peter repeats Jesus. Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power. Her body has been quickened by the Spirit, and her eyes are opened again to see a new day. She has work to do and joy to give to the widows: you have not been abandoned, dear widows, God has heard your weeping and returned her to you.”

[10] Jennings Acts 101. “We know that death imagines a special claim to the bodies of women. Their deaths are normalized and naturalized in social orders that value men’s body far above all others. It will not be so among the disciples. They will find Peter standing next to Tabitha, a gift of God who has been given again the gift of life. It is no accident that the first disciple to have this little taste of the resurrection is a woman…”

[11] Jennings Acts 101. “Tanners worked with death flesh—the skin of animals and tanners were, theologically speaking, unclean Few if any pious Jews would normally or easily stay with a tanner, but here was Peter with Simon the tanner. Peter is indeed moving from saints to saints, and soon he will find out just how far the generosity and mercy of a holy God reaches. Soon he will see just how far God will extend holy place and holy people. Peter is with a man who touches the unclean, and soon he will see God do the same.”

Desired and Disrupted

Sermon on Acts 9:1-6

Psalm 30:2-4 My God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, God, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave. Sing to God, you beloved of God; give thanks for the remembrance of God’s holiness.

Introduction

Encounters change us. They can be big or small, prolonged or brief. Sometimes the change is little, sometimes it’s big. Sometimes the encounter is good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes we’re left with warm fuzzies; other times we’re left with the cool pricklies. The encounters can be with other humans, an animal, out in nature, up in the mountains, and down on the beach. Everything and everyone we encounter changes us in some degree. We’re all material girls in this material world; we’re bound to be changed by other materials floating and flitting about.

And then there are the encounters that not only change us, they overhaul us. These are encounters that blend the material and the spiritual, physical and metaphysical. They reduce us to the marrow of existence, hand us over to death, and then beckon us into resurrected new life. We’re new creations facing new directions, walking new paths with new eyes to see and ears to hear; suddenly, everything looks and feels and sounds and tastes and smells different.

These encounters are with God in the event of faith. They can happen anywhere, at any time, and they are completely out of our control. We cannot fabricate them, plan them, cause them, manipulate them, or repeat them. There’s no doctrine to be determined from them, there’s no dogma to be latched on to. They happen, and they change us forever and make us new, wrapped up in this encounter with God. They can be with another living being or not at all; they can be in the four walls of the church or completely outside of them. God decides when God encounters us, and they can happen even in the least likely of places, when we are the furthest from the goal, completely dead set on our way or the high way, headstrong and determined about our own doing and goings on. And they will always be personal and they will always incorporate our entire selves.[1]

Acts 9:1-6

Now, Saul, still breathing with threats and murder towards the disciples of the Lord…Now while journeying it happened to him nearing Damascus, suddenly a light flashed around him like lightening from heaven and after falling up on the earth he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And [Saul] said, “Who are you Lord” And [Jesus] said “ I, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…” [2]

(Acts 9: 1a, 2-5)

Saul’s story—told by Luke here in Acts—is a story about God encountering Saul. This story tells us something of God and of Saul. Saul was, by no stretch of the imagination, a killer, a man bent in on himself and his own human logic of things divine. And, he was travelling to Damascus with authority to imprison and if necessary execute those who will not obey his exhortation to return from following (and worshipping!) this dead man, Jesus.[3] And here we see privilege drunk on its own power: those whom Saul hunts—the followers of the way—have no recourse, no chance, no ability to fight against Saul and resist him.[4] He is like a mountain that is about to fall on them and they have only meager stones to fight back. Saul will seek, and they will be found; they will lose, and Saul will win.

But not even Saul, with all his earned power and privilege and authority to pursue,[5] will be able to outrun the One who pursues him. As God meets up with Saul, Saul is forever changed. Saul is knocked off of his donkey on to his “donkey,” and when he gets up he is a brand-new person. Saul is 100% disrupted on his way to Damascus; his old ways disturbed and brought to death as he is consumed and enveloped in bright divine light. In this light, even before Jesus speaks to Saul, Saul experiences the love of this desiring God in his own person—his entire being[6] is about to be caught up in God.[7]

Even if this was enough, something more happens to Saul: Jesus speaks and asks Saul a profound question. Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? Saul, why are you doing this to me? Saul knows this the Lord—Who are you Lord?—and would never persecute the Lord. Yet, he is persecuting those who are following this (same!) Jesus of Nazareth. And herein Luke tells us a fabulous story of the intimate bond between this Lord and the people of this Lord.[8] In this moment, the solidarity of God with the disenfranchised and oppressed, the hunted and hungry, the threatened and thirsty, is made known to Saul in dramatic and sudden fashion.[9] In other words, mess with the beloved, mess with God.

And as Saul encounters God in this moment in Christ’s self-revelation, Jesus the Christ and God become one. And, Jesus’s presence and God’s people become one. Saul moves from abstract to concrete, from theory to praxis, from ritualistic and traditionalist obedience to law to disruptive and redirecting activity of divine love.[10] Saul will have no choice but to set out on a new path in this new life found in the incarnate, crucified, raised, and ascended Christ. Saul will not be able to justify continuing on with his previous desires to imprison and execute the Followers of the Way;[11] in his entire being and presence, mind and heart, in his actions from here on out, all is changed, all is different, all is disrupted, all is new.

Conclusion

While every encounter changes us, when God encounters us God disrupts us. God does not affirm our former paths, the ones we were dead-set on, the ones we were determined to cling to certain we are right. When we are encountered by God, we’re rendered unto death and are resurrected into new life…not a nicer version of our old life, but a completely, new life. When we’re encountered by God, we’re made more ourselves being wrapped up in divine love and desire for us. And then we’re unleashed back into the world to love others as we’ve been loved, participating in Christ’s mission in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, spreading divine love in passive and active ways, in expected and radical ways, in peaceful and revolutionary ways. We get to participate in another’s encounter with God in the event of faith; we get to be those who bring light into the dark, liberation where there is captivity, release where there is oppression, community where there is isolation, life where there is only death.

In a text by Dorothee Sölle, she refers to (at length) Helmut Gollwitzer’s personal confession of encounter with God in the event of faith, I will close by quoting a portion of it:

The most important thing, from which all the rest follows is that through hearing what can be heard of him I have never been alone. Certainly, like anyone else, I have often enough felt alone, abandoned, helpless, but he has spoken to this solitude with his ‘I am here.’ ‘I spoke to him, asked him, heard very clear words which be said to me, had to take account of them—and the spell of solitude was broken.

He gave me – still gives me – things to do. He is involved in a great work, the greatest here on earth: the revolution of the human race, the individual and all people, for a new life, for real, fulfilled humanity. That is what he is involved in, that is what he is winning for his disciples. To become involved in that is already to participate in the new life oneself. …The connection with Jesus’ great work given an eternal significance even to the most unlikely things: nothing will be lost. A joyful meaning enters into all action.

He makes people dear to me. Some of them are dear anyway, and many others are not. He tells me that he loves those who are alien, indifferent or even unattractive to me. In so doing he helps me to behave in a different way, to be capable of talking, listening to others as openly and seriously as I would like them to listen to me and take me seriously, never writing anyone off, never pronouncing a final judgment on anyone, always attempting new things with them in hope… They all become my neighbours.

In this way he disturbs to me. Because of his intervention I cannot behave as I wanted to at first. Of course, unfortunately I often do just that. But be does not leave me to my inclinations and moods. He struggles with me, there are arguments, and sometimes he prevails. To be disturbed in this way is the healthiest thing that can happen to us. … He does not restrict my freedom; he is not I despotic superego against which I have to fight to come to myself; on the contrary, the more I allow myself to be governed by his intervention, the forces, the more open, the more friendly and the more joyful I become.[12]

Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle

As of Easter, in light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, in tune with Saul’s encounter with God, you are the wonderfully disrupted, disturbed, and desired beloved of God. Go forth, and disturb, disrupt and desire by the power of the love of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.


[1] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 93. “The revealing God yet remains hidden in revelation. This hiddenness is not because God hides, but because, as Karl Barth says God controls God’s own self-revealing, we do not. God comes to us one at a time, specifically, uniquely in the singularity that is our life. God comes to you and to me, as only God can come to you and me, as God, our God. The coming is a calling. A drawing, an awakening of our life to its giver and lover.”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Jennings Acts 90. “Saul is a killer. We must never forget this fact he kills in the name of righteousness, and now he wants legal permission to do so. This is the person who travels the road to Damascus, one who has the authority to take life either through imprisonment or execution. No one is more dangerous than one with the power to take life and who already has mind and sight set on those who are a threat to a safe future. Such a person is a closed circle relying on the inner coherence of their logic.”

[4] Jennings Acts 91. “The disciples of the Lord, the women and men of the Way, have no chance against Saul. They have no argument and certainly no authority to thwart his zeal They are diaspora betrayers of the faith who are a dear and present danger to Israel. This is how Saul sees them. His rationality demands his vision of justice. But what Saul does not yet know is that the road to Damascus has changed. It is space now inhabited by the wayfaring Spirit of the Lord. Saul pursues, but he is being pursued.”

[5] Richard J. Cassidy Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987. 80. “Within Luke’s portrait of his activities, the fact that Paul received approval for this initiative implies that he had emerged as a dedicated and trusted ally of the chief priests and was no longer to regarded merely as the young custodian of their cloaks.”

[6] Jennings Acts 92. “’The Lord and Jesus have been connected in Saul’s body, and they can never be separated again.”

[7] Jennings Acts 90. “God disrupts the old order by interrupting lives. Luke has removed every temporal wall that might separate in our thinking the God who moved in ancient Israel from the God present in the world in Jesus from this God of untamable love. This is the same Holy One, and Saul too will fall into the hands of this desiring God.”

[8] Jennings Acts 92-93. “Jesus is one with the bodies of those who have called on his name and followed in his way by the Spirit Their pain and suffering is his very own. This too is scandal, this too is a crossed line. The mystery of God is found in human flesh, moving in and with the disciples who are a communion of suffering and a witness to life. Saul is meeting a God in Jesus who is no alien to time, but one who lives the everyday with us. The shared life of Jesus continues with his disciples as he takes hold of their horrors and they participate in his hopes. Yet just as he confronted Saul, this God is no passive participant in the suffering of the faithful, but one who has reconciled the world and will bring all of us to the day of Jesus Christ Saul has entered that new day.”

[9] Jennings Acts 91. “The power of this event almost overwhelms its textual witness. Luke is handling holy fire now. The question comes directly to Saul. This is a question too massive for him to handle because it is an intimate one. ‘Why are you hurting me?’…In our world, this genre of question flows most often out of the mouths of the poor and women and children. The question casts light on the currencies of death that we incessantly traffic in, and it has no good answer. The only good answer is to stop. But now this is God’s question. It belongs to God. It belongs with God. Hurt and pain and suffering have reached their final destination, the body of Jesus.”

[10] Jennings Acts 92. “This is the bridge that has been crossed in Israel. The Lord and Jesus are one. This is the revelation that now penetrates Saul’s being and will transform his identity. He turns from the abstract Lord to the concrete Jesus. …Saul moves from an abstract obedience to a concrete one, from the Lord he aims to please to the One who will direct him according to divine pleasure. Discipleship is principled direction taken flight by the Holy Spirit It is the “you have heard it said, but I say to you—the continued speaking of God bound up in disruption and redirection.”

[11] Jennings Acts 90. “There is no rationale for killing that remains intact in the presence of God.”

[12] Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. Gollwitzer’s statement is from H. Spaemann (ed.), Wer ist Jesus von Nazareth—für mich? 100 eitgenössische Zeugnisse (Munich: 1972) 21ff.

Our Stories This Story: A Revolutionary Story

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here,(“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here, (“The Old”) click here, (“The Others”) click here, and “Us” click here.

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12

Psalm 118:15-17 There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of [God] has triumphed! the right hand of [God] is exalted! the right hand of [God] has triumphed!” I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of [God].

Introduction

Death dared to stand between God and the Beloved and did not survive; like a mama bear eager to protect her cubs, God roared and death became dust; God’s beloved was liberated. Happy Easter! Hallelujah!

Today, we are people of story.

Today, on this beautiful day of celebration, of praise, of great and big Hallelujahs! we become a people of story. We become a people created and crafted by a radical and profound story of God’s abundant, steadfast, unconditional, never-giving-up, mama-bear-like love for the cosmos.

Today our posture uncoils, and we boldly turn our faces toward the outer edges of the universe letting the rays of the risen Son shine down upon us. All that was has come undone; everything is now as it should be according to God’s story of love for the world and all people.

Today, we get to stand (literally and metaphorically) in the realm of life in the aftermath of the exposure that we do not know what we are doing. Today, we get to float in the wonderful amniotic fluid of divine love soothing over every wound and trauma, we get to dance freely to the manifold melodies of liberation, we get to drink in the waters of life, consume the food of the word of God of love, and hear the comforting declaration that even when we did not and do not know what we are doing, God does know what God’s doing.

Even when we were determined to terminate God’s story, God met our determination with God’s story of love and forgiveness, mercy and grace; what we sentenced to death and thrust into the dirt, God made alive and caused the very ground under our feet to burst open. In the resurrection of the Christ, we receive the splendor of God’s story and watch it eclipse our own feeble stories hallmarked with pain and sorrow, captivity and complicity, sickness and trauma, and death. Today our stories become living, breathing testaments to the revolutionary love of God.

Today we are a people of story.

Luke 24:1-12

Now, on the first [day] of the week at the deep of the early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb carrying spices that they prepared. And they found the stone having been rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus; they became perplexed about this. And then, Lo!, two men in lustrous clothing stood by the women; [the women] became full of fear. While bowing [their] faces to the earth, [the two men] said to the women, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember how he said to you while in Galilee saying ‘it is necessary the Son of Humanity is handed over into the hands of sinful humanity and crucified and on the third day raised up.’” And the women remembered his words…

Luke 24:1-8, translation mine unless otherwise noted

“And the women remembered his words…” This is the profound moment when these brave women[1] who were previously lurking in the background of Luke’s story surge to the foreground.[2] In addition to that, this is the moment when they begin to grasp the depth of what they’ve encountered: God…the awe inspiring and undiluted power of God’s fulfilled promise to liberate the captives even.

Luke tells us: coming to the tomb early in the morning, bearing their spices, they were prepared to meet Jesus’s dead body. Make no mistake, these women are no heroes of “blind faith”, as if they obstinately held to some whimsical fantastic fiction denying what had happened, refusing to accept reality. They knew what happened; they were grounded. They were (literally) carrying spices for burial. They expected to fight against larger-than-life stone to access the decaying body of Jesus of Nazareth and anoint it.[3]

They expected to encounter death; they were ready for that. Instead, they encountered life, and were thrown back on their heels.

Two men greet them in lustrous and dazzling clothes and tell the women: why are you looking for the living among the dead? Let’s imagine the two men ask the question and then smile, knowing (full well) what these women were expecting and knowing (full well) they are seconds away from dropping all those prepared burial spices on the ground. Try to listen to the lilt in the question as it falls on the astounded women who are becoming more perplexed… the living…?among the dead?

The familiar aroma of the paradox of comfort and chaos lingers in that hewn out hole in the rock. For these women, the world is turned upside down…Jesus is alive and not among the dead…The story just took a radical turn. In a moment, these humble women are wrapped up (and lead! [4]) in what will become one of the revolutionary stories of divine love for the world. A story so radical many people and churches will and do suffer persecution and death to tell it.

For these women, nothing will ever be the same. As they leave the empty tomb and return home proclaiming this divine revolution against death in Jesus being raised from the dead, their own stories change for good. What follows, what comes after this encounter with God is not a continuation of what went before…everything is being made new! A new order is ushered in.[5] This isn’t some happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after; this is a brand-new story, a new chapter in history, in the history of these women, in the history of the world.[6] God’s battle with death is won in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit; everyone who collides with this story, will be forever changed in one way or another.[7]

Conclusion

Today,

  • We are a people who passes on story rather than mess
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than isolation and alienation
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than toil
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than utility
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than exclusion
  • We are a people who passes on life rather than death

Today, we become a people who passes on story rather than not-story. As those who encounter God today, in this story, we are changed for good. What was before is eclipsed by this moment. The stories we bring here today—the ones we were given by others who couldn’t love us as well as they wanted to; the ones we were given by those who hated us; the ones we were given through pain, sorrow, suffering, illness, grief, trauma, bullying, and death; the ones we give ourselves—all of our stories, one by one, are rendered to dust as we are enveloped and wrapped up in this new story of God’s for us: Beloved. In this “Beloved” we are called, we stand up, we rise, we are resurrected, and we enter into the divine revolution of God’s love loosed against the remnants of death and its destructive systems.

What was, ended; all that lies ahead is the divine material that is the foundation of our new life and new creation, our liberation and belovedness, our faith, hope,[8] and persistence.[9] This new life—this rising up and resurrection[10]—becomes our praxis in the world. As resurrected new creations, our posture in the world and toward others is completely altered. In this new life we participate with the Holy Spirit in the liberation of the captives.[11] As those summoned from death, from slumber, from the myths and lies we’ve been telling ourselves, we become those who wake up and see, hear, feel, and speak the profound good news of liberation for the world[12] from the captivity of death. In doing so, we demonstrate to the world that resurrection is for now and not strictly for the future.[13] As we bring good news to the oppressed, disenfranchised, poor, lonely, isolated, excluded, used up, and the burnt out, we bring resurrection into the present and push back the expired tyranny of death and usher in the reign of love and life. [14]

I want to close by way of a poem I stumbled across in my studies this week. The title of the poem is Threatened with Resurrection, by Julia Esquivel a poet and Guatemalan exile. I’m quoting the final few stanzas:

No, brother,
it is not the noise in the streets
which does not let us sleep.

Join us in this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
Then you will know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with Resurrection!

To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to know ourselves already
resurrected![15]

Julia Esquivel, “Threatened with Resurrection”

By living into this story we’ve been given today, we live into resurrection now, living lives joining in the “vigil” of those who suffer under what was and those who are threatened with the violence of not-yet, we live “already resurrected,” we live “while dying,” we “dream awake”, and keep watch even while sleeping. When we dare to let the resurrection of the Christ be the divine revolution in the world that it is, we dare to live resurrected now, we dare to become those who don the love of God and spread it to everyone, and we dare to be those who pass on liberation, pass on love, pass on life…those who dare to pass on the story.


[1] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname “The Resurrection (Matthew 28L1-10) “Thomas Pena: ‘The got up early because they wanted to. And they were brace, because they weren’t scared of the National Guardsmen that were on duty there.’” P. 618

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 272. “…Luke will tell parallel but different stories about the women disciples and the men. In this particular case, however, the story about the women comes first. These women have been present, but have remained mostly in the background of the story, ever since Luke introduced them in 8:2-3…Now they come to the foreground as the first witnesses to the resurrection.

[3] Gonzalez Luke 273. “They, no less than the rest, believe that in the cross all has come to an end. It is time to return home to their more traditional lives. But before they do that, they must perform one last act of love for their dead Master: they must anoint his body.”

[4] Gonzalez Luke 273. “Even though the later course of church history, with its expectation of entirely male leadership, would lead us to think otherwise, it is they who bring the message of the resurrection to the eleven, and not vice versa.” See also, Cardenal Solentiname “[Cardenal]: ‘In those times nobody paid much attention to women. And that’s why those women maybe didn’t run any risk, as Laureano says. Their role was only to go and weep and then embalm the body of Jesus. A humble role. But this Gospel assigns them a more important role: they were witnesses to the resurrection.” P. 618

[5] Gonzalez Luke 273

[6] Gonzalez Luke 274. “The resurrection brings about a new reality, a new order. Things do not continue as before … The resurrection is not the continuation of the story. Nor is it just its happy ending. It is the beginning of a new story, of a new age in history…The victory is won. What now remain are no more than skirmishes in a battle that has already been won.”  

[7] Gonzalez Luke 275. “Thus, in the areas that were part of Christendom as well as in the rest of the world, Christians have been rediscovering the significance of the resurrection as victory over the powers of the old age, and as the beginning of a new order and a new history pointing to the final establishment of the reign of God.”

[8] Gollwitzer Way to Life 141 “Nothing is lost, nothing is in vain. Tribulation is not the last thing, joy, arrival at the goal will be the last thing, and for this reason we shall be able to hold on in faith and in hope, hearing the primes ever anew.”

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans. David Cairns Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981 (eng) p. 139 [German version: Wendung zum Leben München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1980. “The whole Gospel calls to us ‘look forward!’ however things are going with you. Look forward! Hope will come to you form that direction, and staying power. Look forward, you see there what gives you the power to hold on!”

[10] Dorothee Sölle “Uprising and Resurrection” The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity Trans. Robert and Rita Kimber Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984. Pp. 71 “Rising, uprising, and resurrection belong together factually as well as linguistically. Rising is a word that describes what an individual does in the morning, uprising, what a people does when it shakes off political sleep. Both of them mean learning how to walk upright, in a way that is still perhaps unfamiliar. To rise up means not to cringe anymore, to lose fear.”

[11] Helmut Gollwiter The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus Trans. David Cairns Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press, 1970 (eng) p.3 [German version: Die reichen Christen und der arme Lazarus München: Chr. Kaiser Verlad, 1968.] “Only by altered attitudes in this world, not by assertions about divine truths, which are claimed to be true ‘in themselves,’ can we bear witness to the relevance of our confession of faith. Therefore John A. T. Robinson is right to ask his question ‘Do we affirm the Easter faith in these days, when we insist that God raised Jesus from the dead—or when we dare to gamble our lives in the faith that God will raise us from the dead? Can we do the former, without doing the latter.’ And indeed, keeping our eye on the liberal reduction of faith to humanism, we shall also have to add, “Can we do the latter, without doing the former?”

[12] Sölle Strength 71-72 “We rise from sleep; we are resurrected from death. An uprising is a rising from political sleep, from a kind of death in which people are deprived of crucial elements of their lives and are commandeered by others.”

[13] Sölle Strength 76 “The price we have to pay for a truly human life has not become less since ancient times, much as we may want to believe that it has. People are still being tortured today because they have fought for justice. People are still dying today from the indifference of others who do not want rebellion and do not need resurrection. But despite the betrayal of the revolution and, God knows, the betrayal of Christ, we see happening again and again what we all need most uprisings of life against the many forms of death; which is to say, resurrection.”

[14] Cardenal Solentiname 619 “I: ‘And he goes on showing us that he’s alive, us, gathered here twenty centuries later; and he’s present in the midst of us.’ WILLAM: ‘-The important thing is that he’s alive wherever there’s community.’”

[15] Julia Esquivel Threatened with Resurrection for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Esquivel. I’ve ordered her book of the same title; more to come!

Rebirth

The backside of loneliness is longing; or
maybe the backside of longing is loneliness.
Either way both forces seem to draw forward
and backward, surging sideways: left and right
grabbing and dragging its victim into its shadow
and there pummeling it with once held dreams
and desires, leaving shapes and husks of human
form once was. Hissed and slithered words of
comfort uttered from longing and loneliness add
insult to the injuries, conjuring up consuming
spirits from the belly of fear: you are nothing.
Whispered words from the consuming darkness
of the shadow encompassing your entire being
as you lay on your own cold ground among the
shards and shrapnel of those dreams and desires.
And you give in. You succumb. You agree. Yes.
I am nothing
. Nothing else comes up; no other
words present, no other thought arises, no other
comes to your rescue. No one can see you in
this tormenting and tortuous moment. Loneliness’s
weight grows heavier as longing steals more and
more of your form and shape, pulling strands of
inner life out like pulling and stretching playdough
until there’s not enough firmness and resistance
to snap back. Elastic broken; shape broken. And
again to sooth the pain of this madness you agree:
I am nothing. And again: I am nothing. And again:
I am nothing. Love is gone now. Confidence has
fled. I am nothing. Light has been eclipsed by the
shadows and oppressive darkness. And then:
out loud: I am nothing. The words are bullets.
The strength of confession is that the thing con-
fessed becomes real and external, a life of its
own over which and at which you can look and
examine, peering at this side and that side.
In the concession I am nothing, you become
something. And like conception of your being
happening all over again, you are reborn. I am
something
. To speak these words, to affirm, I
am something
. Dark and shadow dissipate and
begin to slip off. I am something. Hands touch
now reanimated and emboldened substance.
I am something. And for this moment, as you sit
regathering and regathered, you watch as you
witness the backside of longing trail away and
you wave goodbye to loneliness and longing…

From One Degree to Another

Psalm 99:2-3, The Lord is great in Zion; [God] is high above all peoples. Let them confess [The Lord’s] Name, which is great and awesome; [God] is the Holy One.

Introduction

When I consider the glory of God I always imagine it just outside of my reach: something external to me. Something forever out there and never in here—in my body, mind, heart.

I think part of the problem is that I’ve been too well schooled in the idea that God is other, some wholly other, existing strictly outside of me, something I gaze upon; someone I encounter from without. At times, this imagery takes on historically protestant tones as God becomes all knowing, all powerful, all pure, while I am the complete opposite: utterly ignorant, completely weak, and totally depraved. I think our holy text with its stories and myths and narratives also contribute: God speaks and the people listen, God causes the rains or the sun or the rainbow, God dwells in a tent or a tabernacle or the holy of holies of the temple.

Even though I know the Holy Spirit dwells in me and believe firmly in the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer, I’ve not thought of the Spirit’s presence in my mind, heart, and body to be particularly visible apart from manifesting certain actions (typically rendered as “good” or “holy”). In other words, my deeds and works—my active love in the world for my neighbor—bring glory to God—but I am still separate from that glory; glory is God’s and has nothing to do with me. What I haven’t considered until now is that by God’s grace and love I participate in God’s glory. I mean, as God’s Spirit dwells in me, as God’s love dwells in me, so, too, does God’s glory.

God’s presence in Spirit, love, and glory work together to bring me (more and more) into sanctification, otherwise known as “transformation”/“transfiguration”. I don’t have to self-apply God’s glory through my “good” actions. Rather, God’s glory—like God’s Spirit and love—is already working in me and bringing me in closer alignment to being like Christ in the world.

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

“Therefore, having hope such as this, we take advantage of great confidence…Now the Lord is Spirit. And where the spirit of the lord is [there is] freedom. Now, we, we all—with faces having been unveiled—looking at the glory of the lord as if in a mirror are being transformed/transfigured into the same likeness from one degree of glory to another just as from the Lord who is Spirit.” [1]

(2 Cor 3:12, 17-18)

It’s Paul’s confident and humble words to the Corinthians that caused me pause this week. The language of “such a hope”, “confidence”, “the Spirit of the Lord”, and “freedom” coupled with a vibrant discussion of the movement of God’s glory from one place to another and always all-encompassing and never forsaking made me realize how interconnected are God’s presence by Spirit, God’s love, and God’s glory.

This part of Paul’s letter encapsulates both the first testament story from Exodus—describing Moses’s encounter with God and the divine glory remaining (temporarily) on his face—and the story of Jesus’s transfiguration told in the Gospel passage. In this way—unintentionally or intentionally—Paul draws a line from one transfiguration to another and lastly to another: from Moses, to Jesus, to us. This line that Paul draws is not one meant to humiliate Moses or cause one story to be inferior to another; rather, it’s meant to highlight the activity and movement of God in God’s presence with God’s people: from concealment to openness.[2] God’s glory moves from God’s self and presence made temporarily visible on Moses’s face which is then veiled to the brilliant transfiguration of Christ on the mountain in the presence of a few disciples, and then to those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan (both literally and by faith).

I can’t help but consider the transition of God’s glory from a specific location (God’s self) that is shared in a limited[3] manner with the people (in this case: mediated to Israel through Moses behind a veil), to the divine glory culminating visually and physically in God’s self-revelation in God’s son: this man Jesus of Nazareth who is God’s Christ, and then settles upon God’s people directly through the presence of God’s Spirit in the minds and hearts of the believers.[4] This movement coincides with God’s presence which moves from one locale to another ultimately ending in the hearts of those who encounter God in the event of faith.

The stories of God’s presence with Israel have a boundaried feel: God is always present with God’s people, but in this tent, that tabernacle, this temple and holy of holies or that cloud/fire (even a burning bush!). God’s presence is limited according to what is written: the people could not be directly in God’s presence without potentially burning up (think of Uzzah dropping dead for touching the tabernacle[5]). Then, in Christ, God’s presence is still contained but in a free way: Jesus the Christ moves about as God’s son—God of very God—and communes, touches, and rests with the people directly. It’s recorded that death did not come to those who touched Jesus or whom were touched by Jesus. Then, after the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God descends and takes up bountiful residence in the hearts and minds of believers unrestricted.

God’s presence and Spirit moved from concealed to opened, from limited to bountiful. Moses’s veil and the curtain of the holy of holies is abolished in Christ by the presence of the Spirit in us. God is not restricted to one location. Thus, where God’s presence and Spirit[6] go, so, too, does God’s glory. In this way we participate in God’s glory in Christ by faith not only by our works but by the presence of the Spirit of God in us and the freedom and liberty, [7] confidence and boldness, love and compassion that shines forth as a result.

Conclusion

When we consider the transfiguration of Jesus, we must see it as more than just about Jesus—though this is important. If we see it only as something unique and special to Jesus, it will remove Jesus from us further, and we are already very prone to treat Jesus as if he cannot be touched by us because he is elevated and we aren’t. But we must see that Jesus is and has been and will be always among the people. So, when we consider the transfiguration, let’s see the comprehensive movement of God’s love, and glory, and presence into and among the people. For after Jesus’s transfiguration he descends the mountain and continues his divine mission to seek and save the lost, to liberate the captives, to bring peace to the anxious, and proclaim comfort and freedom to the poor and oppressed.

Beloved, the glory of the Lord is among you and with you and in you. God has claimed you as God’s own in God’s never stopping, never giving up, bountiful love for you, the beloved. In this claim you are immersed and drenched in the grace and glory of God. In the presence of the Spirit with and in you, God’s glory is a part of your person as the result of your encounter with God in the event of faith; you cannot shake it because it lives in you because God lives in you. This is the foundation of your hope for the present: God’s presence and love and glory and grace and mercy are unconditionally and bountifully present for anyone and everyone.

Such a hope as this brings confidence and boldness—even if we are transfigured and sanctified from one degree of glory to another, day by day by nearly immeasurable increments.[8] This boldness and confidence is not only in relation to oneself and to God, but especially in relation to our solidarity with others through out the world. As we are more and more in Christ—more in more embedded in God’s glory and love and embedded in the presence of the Spirit—our inner lives are transfigured and transformed and our minds and our hearts are renewed. In this way our actions begin to align with the activity of divine love for the world in “Christ-like” behavior. [9]

If we are to be more Christ-like in our transfiguration and transformation by the presence of God’s Spirit, glory, and love, then this necessarily means that we participate in the divine mission of Love in and for the world. We, with Christ and by the power of God’s Spirit, proclaim good news to the poor, bring liberty to the captives, unburden the oppressed, and rescue the threatened from death. Even if our actions right now seem small and insignificant in light of the magnitude of current world events, it is the boldness of our hope and the confidence of faith founded in our liberative encounter with God in the event of faith that makes us more impactful than we realize. For we are bold to pray for, we are confident to stand with, and we can dare to act for those stuck and terrified by threat of war and violence, loss and death, starvation and thirst, nakedness and homelessness.

We are the glory of God spreading in the world; as we praise God let us participate in God, and spread God’s love and glory from one degree to another.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A Hagner (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 296. “The contrast Paul draws between himself (and his associates) and Moses is not that of boldness (παρρησία) as opposed to timidity (Moses’ ‘meekness’ [Num. 12:3] should not be equated with fainthearted diffidence), nor straightforward honesty in contrast with devious deceit, but rather openness as opposed to concealment, with no necessary implication of duplicity in that concealment.”

[3] Harris 2 Corinthians 300. “On this view the purpose of Moses’ veil was to prevent preoccupation with outward δόξα (cf. 5:14) and to point to the temporary character of the whole Mosaic system of covenant and law…”

[4] Harris 2 Corinthians 313. “It was the privilege of Moses alone to glimpse Yahweh’s glory when he saw his ‘form’ (Num. 12:8) and his ‘back’ (Exod. 33:23), but now all Christians without distinction are privileged to witness that glory. Moreover, although Moses’ face was unveiled when he was conversing with God and was reporting God’s words to the congregation, it was thereafter veiled until he returned to the Lord’s presence (Exod. 34:33-35). Christians, however, see the divine glory with permanently uncovered faces.”

[5] Ref. 2 Sam 6:7

[6] Harris 2 Corinthians 312. “…Paul adds (dé, “and”) that the Spirit to whom people turn in the new dispensation brings them freedom. Wherever the Spirit of the Lord (God) is present and active, liberty is enjoyed and compulsion is absent.”

[7] Harris 2 Corinthians 312-313. “It is significant that ἐλευθερία is unqualified, which suggests that Paul would not wish to exclude any type of freedom that is implied in the context, such as the freedom to speak and act openly (= πασρρησία, V 12); freedom from the veil (vv. 14-16) whether the veil of spiritual ignorance concerning truths of the new covenant or the veil of hardheartedness (vv. 13, 14); freedom from the old covenant (v. 14) or from the law and its effects (v. 6); freedom to behold God’s glory uninterruptedly (v. 18) or to conform to Christ (v. 18); Or freedom of access into the divine presence without fear.”

[8] Harris 2 Corinthians 316-317. “In stark contrast with the radiance on Moses’ face that faded (3:7, 13), the glory of the Lord that is reflected in believers’ lives gradually increases. Justified at regeneration, believers are progressively sanctified until their final glorification at the consummation…”

[9] Harris 2 Corinthians 315-316. “Although it is now the whole person rather than the face alone that reflects God’s glory, Paul must be thinking principally of the transformation of ‘the inner person’ (4:16b), the whole person as a ’new creation’ (5:17) and as a participant in the life of the age to come, for he observes that the outer person,” the whole person as a mortal creature, is being worn down (4:16a), not transformed. When Jesus was transfigured, the change was outwardly visible (Matt. 17-2), but when Christians are transformed, the change is essentially the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2), and becomes visible only in their Christ-like behavior.”

Be Merciful as God is Merciful

Sermon on Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 37:41-42  But the deliverance of the righteous comes from [God]; [God] is their stronghold in time of trouble. [God] will help them and rescue them; [God] will rescue them from the wicked and deliver them, because they seek refuge in [God].

Introduction

Being told to “love your enemies” is easier said than done. The command is muddled by how we define “enemy” in a way that leans toward those *we* don’t like. It’s definitely hard to override disdain with feelings of love; when we don’t like someone, we just don’t like someone. Enemies also aren’t the people who we can’t forgive because they hurt us once in some way. That’s a real feeling and one I understand very well. Yet, it has its own category. Still, that person is not an enemy, no matter how angry you (still) are.

Who is the enemy?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines “enemy” in his text, The Cost of Discipleship, writing on Matthew 5:43-48:

“By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, who forgive us nothing when we forgive them all, who requite our love with hatred and our service with derision…”[1]

Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in 1937, was already a target of Hitler’s personal aggression. Two days after Hitler took office on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer aired a public radio broadcast in which he offered criticism of the Führer (without naming him directly); this broadcast was cut off before it was finished.[2] The text quoted above came to Bonhoeffer in response to his contemplation of the Sermon on the Mount and how it impacted the believer in terms of Christian-life formation related to “what it means to follow Jesus Christ.”[3] As the church struggled to find it’s voice under the tyranny of Hitler, Bonhoeffer sought to articulate something into the void. For Bonhoeffer he himself in specific and Christians in general were at a “fork in the road.”[4] He and other pastors were under great pressure to capitulate to the oppressive demands and threats of the NSDAP[5] who was strangling and starving all resistance.

All that to say: Bonhoeffer, even with his privilege, wasn’t writing about enemy-love from a secluded and safe distance. He wasn’t instructing people who were fighting for their lives while he grew fat from luxury and comfort. He was in the thick of it, guiding others into it, and teaching those younger about this radical conception of love even for those who are threatening your life and survival.

“Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it. And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love? Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy? Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies.”[6]

Cost of Discipleship

Who loves the one who bullies them? Who loves the ones who are bent on violence and destruction and death? Who loves those enlisted in this service of a fascist dictator in the Sturmabteilung (SA)[7] and the Schutzstaffel (SS)?[8] But yet—in the face of fear, terror, threat, and very real death—this is what Bonhoeffer was asking from all who would listen to the exhortation of Christ.

Luke 6:27-38

“But to you all I say to those who are listening: Love your enemies, in the same way act toward those who hate you, bless those who are cursing you, offer prayer concerning those who are reviling you. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, present also the other; and from the one who removes your cloak, do not hinder the tunic also. Give to all who are asking you, and from the one who removes things form you do not demand [them] back. And according to the manner you wish people do to you, you do to them likewise. [9]

Luke 6:27-31

When Jesus exhorts “those who are listening” to do what seems like the impossible, he is elevating the call to righteousness.[10] While you might have believed x, or thought y, I say….[11] (Something utterly new.) Whatever was assumed, is no longer. Jesus begins by calling attention to an alteration, specifically about “enemies.”

For Jesus, and especially for those who follow him, Love—divine love—is more than a feeling; it’s an action.[12] And not a passive action, but a proactive one; love empowers us to love in radical ways, even to love those who hate us.[13] Love, for Jesus, is done toward others (those least deserving and most in need) in such a way that it reflects what you would want done to your own body and person. In the love-economy of the reign of God: love loves, no matter the status of the other person. [14] In the love-economy of the reign of God not even enemies are the categorical other; for this new community of Christ—the ones who follow after Jesus in person (flesh and bone)[15] and then later by the power of the Holy Spirit—there are only porous boundaries. It is this very community who refuses to declare definitively that another or an other is an “enemy”, undeserving of love, kindness, mercy.[16] Jesus exhorts all those who are listening to love especially the “enemy.” [17]

The reason for the exhortation is embedded in the second half of the text, “And your wages  will be many, and you will be children of the highest, because God is gentle on behalf of the ungrateful and wicked people,” (6:35). In other words, love is about mercy, and God is merciful—abundantly merciful. So, as God is merciful and kind,[18] so too are those who follow Jesus, God of very God.[19] The basis of the ethical posture of this new community: do as God does because God’s nature made manifest in God’s Christ is the starting point for any and all discussions of “Christian” ethics.[20] And this Jesus will allow love to cover over and define every space and distance between him and the other so that he can declare that other as beloved even when we’d say otherwise.

Conclusion

In the encounter with God in the event of faith the believer is tossed about and placed in the world in a way that is right-side-up even if it feels completely up-side-down. It is in this new life in God, fueled by the receipt of divine love, and from the magnitude of mercy we proceed (like being (re)born) into the world bearing the image of God in our features and new genetic code marked by love.[21] Because we have been recreated through faith, through our encounter with God in the event of faith, this puts a pause (even if momentary) on our desire to judge others by their actions. We are asked to think of what we would want from someone when we were acting in such a way; thus, we cannot determine who is and who is not to receive our mercy and grace if God does not withhold either from us.[22] If we so desire grace and mercy; are we also able to grant such things to others?

Loving the enemy feels impossible if it means I must hug and kiss and “love-on” the one who is hurting me, wounding me, being violent toward me. It’s just another violent Christian doctrine if it means I must lose myself to become a vacuous vehicle for abuse—this actually isn’t love because love is not vacuous existence lacking self, but active participation in the activity of love.

But maybe I’m radical enough to think it’s possible: because with God all things are possible. If we walk in love because we’re born of Love, then where we are there that space is filled with love. If God is with us, so too is God’s love. It does not mean I now think this enemy is just great, but it may mean I see them with God’s eyes. Maybe, I see a human, stuck in a misconception of the world detrimental to others and to themselves. I might see one who was a mere baby, held tightly by loving arms of a mother; I might even cry for sadness of the pain that caused this one to be as they are right now.

I know by standing in love and stepping forward in love, love goes with me. I do know that—like tiles being flipped over from the side of “not-love” to the side of “love”—the space and distance between me and my enemy is overhauled from not-love to love. (I do not even need to be physically close to my enemy to alter the space between us.) I know that by dropping the term “enemy”, I’ve already lost one; I know that by declaring “beloved” this one is now not my enemy. There is power in words. So, what happens when we use our words to alter the space and distance between us and our enemies? Would we not want that for ourselves? Would we not want someone else to see us as “beloved” and not as “enemy”? When we allow love to redefine our space and distance and location, then anything is really possible because love will always crack open what is to make room for possibility to blossom.

Beloved, you’re loved by God; mercy is new every morning. This divine love and mercy, forever altering the space between God and humanity bent on their own determinations and judgments and gains, is the very love that is glorified among those very children of God at their worst and best. God’s love is most exalted when it does what it loves to do: bringing God’s life and light to the farthest corners of the cosmos, overhauling death to make room for life, declaring beloved those whom were once called “enemy.”


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship New York, NY: Macmillan, 1959. 164. Emphasis, mine

[2] Christiane Tietz Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Tran s Victoria J. Barnett. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2016. 36.

[3] Tietz, Resistance, 60.

[4] Tietz, Resistance, 63.

[5] Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; The National Socialist German Worker’s Party.

[6] Bonhoeffer Discipleship 164. Emphasis, mine.

[7] Trans: Storm Division; the original para-military force of the Nazi’s.

[8] Trans: Armed Military/”Protection Squad”

[9] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[10] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 94 “The Sermon on the Plain now turns to those who are ready to accept Jesus’ call to a greater righteousness, and is therefore introduced with the words, “But I say to you that listen.” This may also be read as a further explanation of the last beatitude and its parallel woe, which have to do with the hatred of others toward the disciples.” See also: Joel Green (bibliographic material below): “A new beginning in Jesus’ sermon is marked by his words, ‘But I say to you that listen. …’ This should not blind us to the intimate relationship of this section of the address to what has preceded…” 269.

[11] Green Luke 272. “…he is asking people to accept an inversion of the world order, to agree with him that the world order has been inverted, and to act accordingly.”

[12] Gonzalez Luke 94. “Significantly, when one compares this section in Luke to its parallel in Matthew, it is clear that Luke emphasizes the use of possessions, and that he wants to make clear that Christian love is not just a sentiment or a feeling, but also an attitude leading to concrete action: “do good to those who hate you.’”

[13] Green Luke 272. “Love is expressed in doing good – that is, not by passivity in the face of opposition but in proactivity: doing good blessing, praying, and offering the second cheek and the shirt along with the coat.”

[14] Green Luke 272. “The category of “enemies” may include others, however, and not only those who deliberately oppose Jesus’ followers. Because the beggar is habitually defined as outside the circles of companionship of all but other beggars, they would not be classed as “friends” but as “enemies,” outsiders. Love is due them as well, as though they were comrades and kin, and in their case love is expressed in giving.”

[15] Green Luke 271-272. “Jesus’ sermon, then, serves an interpretive function for the narrative as it has developed thus far, casting in positive and constructive terms the worldview and concomitant practices Jesus’ message portends. It is also challenging, summoning its audience(s) to adopt this alterative view of the world and so to measure its practices by its canons.”

[16] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 270. “One corollary of Jesus’ message, then, is the construction of a boundary, the delineation of behavior characteristic of those within the community. This is an important observation, since one of the distinguishing marks of his ethic is a worldview that advocates love of enemies. But as a practice, it would appear that love of enemies is designed to mitigate social tensions that, if habitual, would jeopardize the identity of any group. How can this community be distinguished by a practice that dissolves any such distinctions? …in essence, Jesus calls on his followers. To form а community the boundaries of which are porous and whose primary emblematic behavior is its refusal to treat others (even, or especially, those who hate, exclude, revile, and defame you) as though they were enemies.”

[17] Green Luke 272. “Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” lack any commonly held ethical base and can only be understood as an admonition to conduct inspired by God’s own graciousness (W 350-36). This is not love for all humanity in general, but more specifically for those who stand in opposition to Jesus’ followers – those whom Luke has already noted in narration (5:27-6:11) and about whom Jesus has already spoken (vv 22-23).”

[18] Green Luke 271. “…in redefining the world for his followers, potential and actual, Jesus posits as its foundation his image of God as merciful Father (6:36) – a base on which he can draft the character of his followers, character that will manifest itself in the demeanor and practices here described.”

[19] Gonzalez Luke 94. This is parallel to Matthew’s ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. S:48). While Matthew’s words have often been taken out of context as the basis for a theological claim about God’s ontological perfection, Luke’s leave no room for such an interpretation. The divine perfection that the disciples are to imitate is the perfection of an all-embracing mercy

[20][20] Gonzalez Luke 94. “Furthermore, even though we often tend to think that the basis for the Christian ethics of love is the Golden Rule, in the final analysis the basis for Christian ethics is the very nature and action of God.”

[21] Green Luke 273. “…he incorporates into one utterance the character of this new people and the practices it engenders; theirs will be a countercultural existence indeed for their lives are based on an inverted understanding of their social world.”

[22] Green Luke 275. “Just as the merciful God does not predetermine who will or will not be the recipients of his kindness, so Jesus’ followers must refuse to “judge” – that is, to prejudge, to predetermine who might be the recipients of their graciousness. This is nothing but the command to love one’s enemies restated negatively. In an important sense, Jesus’ instructions are to refuse to act as those scribes and Pharisees had done in 5:27-32, as they calculated beforehand the status of those toll collectors and sinners and thereby excluded them from their circles of social interaction. …Jesus’ followers give freely, without dragging others and especially those in need into the quagmire of never-ending cycles of repayment and liability. And God will lavishly repay them.”

Sweet Divine Liberty

Psalm 19:13-14 …keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Introduction

I spend a lot of time thinking about freedom. Specifically “freedom” as the product of the encounter with God in the event of faith. What does it mean that “in Christ” we are now “free”? Free into what? Free from what?

This freedom as a result of the encounter with God in the event of faith is what Jesus is talking about today in our gospel passage: liberation from captivity, freedom from enslavement, release from bondage.

There’s an aspect of liberation embedded deep within Jesus’s words that any form of enslavement is anti-God. Whether we look at it from the perspective of spiritual, emotional, physical, mental (etc.) enslavement, humans are not created by God to be enslaved to anything or anyone. If we were, then Jesus is a lunatic, and we shouldn’t trust him. But yet we do; it’s why we’re here every Sunday as a result of the faith we have in Christ uniting us into God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not come here every Sunday to be enslaved or re-enslaved or enslaved further into our burdens. (This is why church, to continue in being church and good news in the world, must resist the trappings of religious totalitarianism; no one need come here and feel afraid and condemned, for that is not good news, that is not liberation, that is not freedom, that is not Christ.) In coming here and hearing the proclamation of the gospel of the good news of God for the beloved, for you, for the people and the world, we are liberated, we are freed, we are released…

But again, I’m still left curious. Into what am I liberated and freed? And what put me there in the first place?

Luke 4:14-21

And he went into Nazareth—where he had been brought up—and he entered the synagogue—according to his custom on the day of the Sabbath. He stood up to read and the book of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and after unrolling the book he found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for the sake that he has anointed me
to announce good news to the poor,
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who have been broken down/enfeebled,[1]
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And then he rolled up the book and gave it back to the servant, and he sat down. And the eyes of all of the people in the synagogue were fixedly gazing at him.[2]

Luke 4:16-20a

Jesus goes home. Upon going home, he enters the synagogue as was his custom to do on the Sabbath. There’s no way to charge Jesus with not being a faithful and good follower of God. But it’s not just Jesus’s piety that is highlighted by Luke here in the phrase “as was his custom” but also that it was normal for Jesus to stand up, read from the scrolls, and to expound the scriptures.[3] So, that Jesus stood up and took the scroll from the servant of the temple and read it, isn’t the thing. It’s the passage that Jesus read that is the thing.[4]

Through the prophet Isaiah, Jesus makes known for whom his ministry is for: the poor.[5] There’s no reason to qualify this “poor” with an adjective to render it one way or another. We don’t need to feel better about this text by applying adjectives; we can let the word hang where it is as it is. We want to let the word lie because if we did apply adjectives here we would miss out on the breadth of this word in its original context. To be “poor” in Jesus’s context and culture had many and varied connotations; the poor are anyone who has “diminished status honor” for whatever combination of reasons.[6] Thus, using the prophet Isaiah, Jesus describes his mission: to proclaim good news to the poor; and highlights that he is the recipient of the anointing and the Spirit of God to proclaim good news, to set free, to release all these varying examples of the “poor”.[7] The poor will be released by God from their various forms of isolation and captivity; thus they will be partakers of what has been withheld from them: life, freedom, and the fullness of divine presence and love.

In delineating a specific direct object of his proclamation and ministry, Jesus created a dividing line between him and the social, political, religious, and economic boundaries erected—by people—to keep some in and others out.[8] According to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, no one…NO ONE is beyond the long arm of God and the expansive substance of divine Love enveloping the entire cosmos. No one is too far gone, no one is too lost, no one is too fractured, no one is too stuck, no one is too trapped, no one. Not me. Not you. Not anyone existing beyond these four walls. And if this is the implied statement falling from Jesus’s proclamation, then any boundary is anathema to God and God’s love; both the boundary and the boundary builders collide with all-encompassing and inclusive divine Love. Thus, it is through Jesus that these boundaries will not only be challenged but also destroyed. The reign of God has come, let the kingdom of humanity tremble; life and light has come into the world, let death and darkness cower.[9]

Conclusion

So, back to the questions from the introduction: Into what am I liberated? And what put me there in the first place?

First, “Into what”: Better to ask, “Into whom…?” In the encounter with God in the event of faith I am liberated and freed and released into God.

Now he began to say to them, “the writing has been fulfilled/completed in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

That Jesus the Christ, God of very God, is the one who is the fulfillment of this divine promise spoken by the prophet Isaiah, and if we are brought into this fulfillment of the promise by faith (as in: we do not fulfill this promise ourselves) then we are brought into Christ. This is what it means to be liberated by Christ: not liberated into myself for myself, but unto God thus for those with whom God stands in solidarity with: the poor (as big and expansive as that word can be). As the proclamation of the good news of Christ goes out, liberty and freedom and release of the captives, the oppressed, and the blind bursts forth. As the cages burst open, as chains drop, as jail cells slide open, the liberation of the oppressed and poor is a liberation into God and for others. The imprisoned, the chained, the shackled, the caged, the enslaved step out and into God. While I might be freed, and you too, it cannot mean that it is done in an isolated and autonomous way as if it is just for me and me alone. Rather, we are liberated into God and into community of those brothers and sisters who have been so liberated, too. We then bear a divine burden as those liberated by Christ and into Christ…to bring this same liberation to those who are burdened with various forms of poorness and thus captivity. In other words, we undo what we’ve done and have been complicit in doing…

Thus, second, “what put me there…”: Better to ask “Who put me there…?” There’s a tendency to blame everything on the abstract concept of “Sin” and then to point further away to the myth of Genesis 3, which then makes us point more fingers at each other and at snakes and serpents…But none of that is helpful. I prefer to say that we put ourselves in those prisons, cells, cages, and chains by putting others there. I know enough philosophy, enough ethics, enough history to know that God didn’t enslave us in the fall, we enslaved ourselves. Our inability to see and hear God and our neighbor as they are is our fundamental problem. Stated in the positive: we have a catastrophic hearing and seeing problem. We love hearing what we want to hear, we love seeing what we want to see. So, we create systems and schemes that reflect what we see and hear to benefit ourselves. In various ways, we erect barbed and electrified fences keeping out those deemed different, “other”, not “us”, “them” and then these people lose their humanity. The sad fact is that as we build these walls, these fences, these rules of membership of the ingroup, we, too, lose our humanity. Everyone loses in this system of walls and fences and cages and chains.

Beloved of God, we are guilty of being complicit in dehumanizing systems and schemes even if we, too, were held captive by them. But, by the grace of God, we are sought and liberated so that we can hear and see rightly both God and our neighbor; and in hearing and seeing rightly, we can act and speak with divine inspiration and participate in the great divine mission of love in the world to stand in solidarity with the poor and to liberate the captives.

Beloveds, we were blind and now we see; we were captive and now we are free; let us live and love and bring to all who cry out that sweet divine liberty, long granted to the world through God on a tree and resurrected for thee.


[1] I’m using the translation of θράυω from the Greek dictionary: “to break down, enfeeble”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] [3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 209, “Luke’s presentation indicates not only that Jesus regularly demonstrated his piety by attendance of the synagogue on the Sabbath, but also that it was his habit to take the role of the one who read and expounded the Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:2). This phrase, ‘as was his custom,’ underscores the paradigmatic quality of this episode, both with regard to his Sabbath practices, and with regard to the content of his proclamation.”

[4] Green Luke 209 “The primary point of focus, then, is the citation from Isaiah, which is itself a mix-text.”

[5] Green Luke 204. “These scenes are also taken up with the consequences of Jesus’ status, the ministry activity that grows out of his obedience to and empowerment from God. Taken together, they highlight four features of Jesus’ ministry. First, his is a ministry empowered by the Spirit. Second, Luke’s central interest in Jesus’ message, and the inseparability of teaching/preaching (4:15, 16-21, 43-44) and the miraculous (4:16-21, 33-36, 38-41), is foregrounded here. Indeed, 4: 18-19 establishes a narrative need for Jesus ‘to bring good news to the poor,’ and so these verses characterize the form and primary recipients of Jesus’ ministry”

[6] Green Luke 211. “In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as ‘poor,’ but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and ‘poor’ would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although ‘poor’ is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.”

[7] Green Luke 210. “Consequently, three structural features are emphasized. First, the first three lines each end with ‘me,’ repeating the pronoun in the emphatic position. This underscores in the clearest possible way the inexorable relation of the Spirit’s anointing and the statement of primary mission, ‘to proclaim good news to the poor.’ Second, and as a consequence, the three subsequent infinitive phrases appear in parallel and in a position subordinate to Jesus statement of primary mission. Third, as we have observed, the notion of ‘release’ is twice repeated.”

[8] Green Luke 211. “By directing his good news to these people, Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even these “outsiders” are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the pale of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family.”

[9] Green Luke 214

On That Night

Christmas Eve Sermon

Psalm 96: 11-13 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before God when God comes, when God comes to judge the earth. God will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

The Heavens Were Silent

Mary was a very pregnant woman that night. She probably looked as she felt…exhausted. As far along as she was, everything ached. I imagine her deep and profound desire to lie down and rest. Anyone passing by on the road and receiving her as she and Joseph roamed looking for lodging, would’ve seen just a pregnant woman. How many other pregnant women were seen that night? How many other babies would be born that night? How many children born before this one? There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. No one in Bethlehem felt the urgency to make sure she was well cared for; no one had the time or the space to make room for her. It’s not that they didn’t love her, I’m sure they did. But that night, there just wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in the air of a Bethlehem night.

When the contractions started, the whole entire host of heaven hushed. Not a word was spoken, the entirety of the divine residence of angels and archangels watched with bated breath as this woman did a regular thing: bear her first child, a son…But what the host of heaven knew—as well as Mary and Joseph—was this: this regular body and this regular act of birth were bringing for this not-so-regular child…the son of God, the prince of peace, the one of ancient of days, the true leader of Israel, the humble judge, and the embodiment of divine love for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as his mother brought him forth out of darkness into light so that he would be the light going into the darkness. This was the longed for, hoped for, yearned for child prayed for by many voices of ages gone by, the voices that cried out from bodies stuck in marginalization, trapped in violence, held down by oppression, and threatened by death. Could Mary feel their ancient cries? Could she feel those bowls upon bowls of prayers poured out on her like glory flowing from on high, covering her body and encouraging her spirit as she endured each contraction for minutes and hours?

God chose this body, this moment, this regularity of being born, to enter the world and the cosmos in physical form to identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could have shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in such precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s beloved, to stand in unity with the beloved from the beginning of life unto the end. It is this divine child born of Mary, this one who is God of very God, who will stand in solidarity with humanity and change everything.

That night, as Mary labored, heaven was silent.

The World was Still

Yet, it wasn’t just Mary who was walking steadily into that night, into that event, one step at a time while moving toward Bethlehem. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was moving along in his regular life before God intervened and shuffled everything. Now he was moving along with Mary, the one who was to bear the son of God into the world and he…trusted. Trusted that all of this was the work of God. So, he walked. With Mary. With this mother of this child that was not his. Still, he walked with God, humbly, trusting, believing that somehow God would show up.

The many closed doors to decent lodging were discouraging. It wasn’t personal; it was just unfortunate. However, he was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[1]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came to him, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. When the contractions started, Joseph knew of one thing to do, rush to find a midwife, or so goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[2]

And then something happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Everything seemed to slow down, and the world seemed to stop as if time ceased to exist and all that existed was merely matter in stasis. The cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God’s self was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a different direction.

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not lifting it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything returned to its course.”[3]

Protoevangelium of James

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not just keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops, stops in its tracks. Time is slowed all the way down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm, God takes our realm into God’s self. The moment Jesus was born into the world marked the beginning of something new and different, a different reign, a different rule, a different leadership, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, the world stopped.

The Barriers Were Destroyed

That dark night was no different than the other nights. Here they were, once again, tending and guarding their flocks of sheep, chatting here and there to stay awake.[4] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[5] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[6] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[7] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[8] Spirits were low that dark night.

Then the angle showed up, out of nowhere. The shepherds were rightly terrified. Here they were, in the dark of night, doing their job, minding their own business and then: FLASH! They were enveloped in the heavenly glory of the Lord. In seconds they went from no ones to some ones, illuminated by a great light, and being addressed by one from the host of heaven…who were they to warrant such attention?[9]

And the Angel said to them,

“Do not be terrified! For behold, I herald good tidings to you of great delight for all people! A savior is brought forth for you today in the city of David who is Christ the Lord! And this will be the sign for you, you will find a newborn child having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and being laid in a manger!”[10]

Luke 2

Before the shepherds found their voices, they were greeted by an army of the host of heaven who joined the angel and praised God, saying: Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace with humanity of good pleasure! And then, like it began, it was over.

The shepherds had been summoned by God to come into this moment, into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek and meager were beckoned to come and see how good God is, how much God was for them, how much God loved them. When they arrived, they found Mary and Joseph, and the divine newborn child was, as the Angel said, lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. And here, these unclean shepherds stood in the direct presence of God without having to change, become pure, clean, or right. There was no shame, no condemnation, no guilt, no offerings had to be made, no rituals performed; they just came, looked, and touched the very small and vulnerable foot of God.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers between clean and unclean were destroyed.

Conclusion

All that had been was now coming undone; the savior, the son of God, was born, surrounded by wood, straw, dirt, animals, an exhausted woman of color, a humbled man, and dirty shepherds. That night God called to God’s self all those who thought they were too far off to hear the call, too far gone to be seen, to unloved to be desired, too nothing to be something…It’s here where we enter the story. As we listen in and look on, we step into that menagerie of humans and animals gazing upon the newborn child. We become a part of those also called to witness this divine event in the world and to encounter God on this night. We are summoned to experience the divine heavenly hush break into the most magnificent chorus of the cosmos. We are provoked to feel God taking the cosmos into God’s self and sending it on the trajectory of love. We are asked to see the rubble of the barriers that once tried to steal from us our belovedness.

That night, while Mary labored, heaven was silent. That night, while Joseph searched for a midwife, the world stopped. That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers were destroyed. Because—on that night—God showed up and changed everything forever.


[1] The Protoevangelium of James 17:3-18:1

[2] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

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

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher, eds. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). 34

[5] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[6] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[7] Gonzalez Luke 33

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 34

[10] Translation mine