Are You Free?

Sermon on 1 Cor 8:1-13

Psalm 111:1-3 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Introduction

I was taken with the idea that love never participated with law. I was deeply invested in pursuing what seemed a clear and eternal divergence between divine command and promise, following closely to a specific reading of Martin Luther’s theology—the distinction between law and gospel. In this scheme, to be in a loving relationship with someone else means never making any demands on them. Here, Love is about creating space for that person to be as they are wherever they are whenever they are; this was the liberty of God’s grace, the freedom in Christ: true rest from the demands to “perform” and “people please” and “earn righteousness through work” and thus “true life”. While some of these ideas find some grounding (albeit with intentional nuancing), the underbelly of this theology wasn’t rest, freedom, and life but increased suffering, burden, and death. Well, it was rest for one group and toil for everyone else not in that group.

Then one day as I stood in a large church auditorium like sanctuary, watching a video of people talking about the liberative experience of this specific interpretation of God’s love and grace, I saw it. It was the last video. A married couple was sharing their story. The husband spoke about how wonderful this conception of grace was because now he comes home from work and there is no expectation on him to help with the kids or other events, he can rest if he wants to—fall back on the couch, kick shoes off, grab a beer, and watch some tv. Then the camera turned to the wife. “Yeah…,” she said half-heartedly. “It’s great because now when he helps, he wants to.” While her words affirmed her husband’s experience, her face and her eyes told me everything I needed to know. She was not free. She was not rested. She was exhausted, burdened, and suffering by being stripped of any ability to ask for help and to confess pain and discomfort because it would be “law” to him and thus “condemnation.” She was dead. When you see death, you can never unsee death.

That image—her face, her desperate eyes—fuels my academic and pastoral pursuits now as I’ve walked away from that destructive theology.[1] Liberty and freedom in Christ brings liberty and freedom to all and not at the expense of another’s body, mind, soul, and spirit. A relationship is only loving and free where both people in the relationship are mutually engaged in each other’s thriving not in turning a blind eye to things. Where both step into the exposing light of love calling a thing what it is and are willing to do self-reckoning work.

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Now, “food of any kind will not prove us to God.” Neither if we do not eat are we lacking, nor if we eat are we over and above. But discern carefully this power to act of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9, translation mine

Paul proclaimed that the believer is justified by faith in Christ (ευαγελλιον) apart from works of the law. She need only faith in Christ, and this becomes the sole foundation of her justification and righteousness with God—there are no works of the law that can justify or make righteous as completely as faith does. Thus, the believer is liberated from the threat of condemnation and death that leads to death and is now free to love God and neighbor. There is nothing that can or will separate her from the love (presence) of God—not even hell. This is the freedom Paul proclaims to his fledgling churches: freedom inherent in the event of encounter with God in faith liberating into life and living. God in Christ comes to the believer, calls her, and rescues her from death into new life in the Spirit. This is grace.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul pumps the freedom brakes. He details guidelines for the Corinthian believers finding themselves in a conundrum. Some believers are fine eating meat “associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[2] They are whom Paul refers to as “the strong”—a phrase referring to both those confident in their faith and who were wealthy and had access the occasions to eat such meat.[3] Paul writes, while it is true that neither eating nor abstaining from this meat has an impact on their presence before God, it may have an impact on those “weaker” brothers and sisters—those who were both insecure in their faith (unsure about what is okay and not okay) and lower in social status.

Paul challenges the knowledge (γνωσις) of “the strong” resulting in their liberty to eat what they want and do what they please. Paul declares that knowledge (alone) puffs up and inflates and lures toward being an imposter; but paired with love it builds up authentically edifying both the beloved and the lover (vv. 1-2).[4] In other words, “the strong” should keep γνωσις yoked to αγαπη (love): even if they are free to eat, they should care more for their “weak” brother or sister who didn’t have the same access to such food and security in the liberty of their actions.[5]

Paul makes it clear that this love isn’t self-generated but imparted in the encounter with God in the event of faith (v.3). To love God is to be loved by God and known by God; this becomes the foundation for the love fractal. As we are loved by God, we love that which and those whom God loves seeing and knowing those whom God loves by seeing and knowing them, too.[6]

Paul’s point isn’t to side with the “strong” Corinthians or the “weak”, but to say: the composition of the conscience (secure or insecure) can lean toward a miscalculation about what is right to do and what is wrong.[7] Operating out of fear is as problematic as operating out of abundance of confidence. Paul warns “the strong” that their supposed liberty isn’t a reason for autonomous activity without considering the effect on others. [8] It’s not strictly about intent for Paul, these Christians may truly believe they’re free. Impact must also factor in here. For Paul, this is done with freedom wedded to love. Just because you can, says Paul, doesn’t mean you should because it may cause others to be polluted by being tripped up by your actions. [9] For Paul, a future forward ethic keeping in mind the potential impact of one’s actions/words on other brothers and sisters is the definition of freedom

Conclusion

For those who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan and for those who have ears pricked and heads turned hearing Christ call them by name, what is freedom for you? To follow Jesus as disciples means that freedom is going to take on an orientation toward the other. A cruciform freedom puts “weak” brothers and sisters before us. This is not to the loss of our freedom as if we lose ourselves, but in that we have received ourselves in the love of God in the encounter with God in faith, we enter into the plight with our brothers and sisters. True freedom for me is actualized only in freedom for you; if you are not free, am I free? [10] It becomes about mutuality. Mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explains,

“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter. It involves all aspects of one’s life and demands a lifelong permanency. The way in which the commitment is lived out may change. From time to time one maybe less passionate about carrying out the implications of mutuality, but somehow to go back and place oneself in a position of control and domination over others is to betray others and oneself. Such a betrayal, which most of the time occurs by failing to engage in liberative praxis rather than by formal denunciation, results in the ‘friends’ becoming oppressors once again and in the oppressed losing their vision of liberation.”[11]

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology p. 100

If I in my strength cannot tame my liberty and walk with you so you can have your liberty, then I’m not free. If I cannot deem the liberties and freedoms of others as important as mine, then I have not freedom but bondage. If I am threatened by you having as much liberty and freedom as I do, I’m not free. If my autonomy must eclipse and ignore your need; I’m not free but captive.[12]

To be free, to be truly free isn’t to claim your rights as absolutes and acting on them no matter what. To be free, to be truly free is to say with Christ: into this I can enter with you. (This is solidarity.) Freedom can both break the law and obey it because it knows when to do which. If we’re free, then we are free–free to share in the burden of existence while trying to alleviate the yoke of suffering without losing our freedom. If stepping into the anxiety, fears, and concerns of our neighbor means we’ve lost our freedom then we didn’t have freedom to begin with. If we are unable to hear the cries of the weak, to listen to their stories of suffering, and affirm their lived experience, we’re not strong. So, beloved of God, you who are sought and called and loved by God: Are you strong? Are you free?


[1] I give credit for the start of this journey to two colleagues: Dr. Dan Siedell and Dr. W. Travis McMaken.

[2] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 620

[3] Thiselton “ε`ιδωλο’θυτα And the Scope of the Corinthian Catchprhases” 617  “…if Theissen and the majority of specialist writers are correct in their sociological analysis of the identities of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak,’ the issue of eating meat, together with its scarcity for the poor and the variety of social occasions for the rich, has a decisive bearing on Paul’s discussion.”

[4] Thiselton 622 In re γνωσις Gardner “[compares] the contrast between ‘knowledge’ and love in this verse with the parallel contrast between 13:1-1 and the two chapters on ‘spiritual gifts’ which provide its frame. He sis that γνωσις is practical; but its nature and its relation to love can profoundly determine what kind of practical effects it set in motion.” And, “Love, by contrast, builds solidly, and does not pretend to be what it is not. If it gives stature to a person or to community, that enlargement remains solid and genuine.” “knowledge inflates” “φυσιοω suggests the self-importance of the frog in Aesop’s Fables, or something pretentiously enlarged by virtue of being pumped full of air or wind.”

[5] Thiselton 622-3 “Rather than seeking to demonstrate some individualist assertion of freedom or even victory, love seeks the welfare of the other. Hence if ‘the strong’ express love, they will show active concern that ‘the weak’ are not precipitated into situations of bad conscience, remorse, unease, or stumbling. Rather, the one who loves the other will consider the effect of his or her own attitudes and actions upon ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.”

[6] Thiselton 626  “The kind of ‘knowledge which ‘the strong’ use manipulatively to assert their ‘rights’ about meat associated idols differs form an unauthentic Christian process of knowing which is inextricably bound up with loving.” And, “…it is part of the concept of authentic Christian knowing and being known that love constitutes a dimension of this process.”

[7] Thiselton 640, “Paul sides neither entirely with ‘the weak’ nor entirely with ‘the strong’ in all respects and in relation to every context or occasion. For the self-awareness or conscience of specific persons (συνεδησις αυτων) does not constitute an infallible guide to moral conduct in Pauls’ view….someone’s self-awareness or conscience may be insufficiently sensitive to register negative judgment or appropriate discomfort in some context…and oversensitive to the point of causing mistaken judgment or unnecessary discomfort in others.”

[8] Thiselton 644, “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience.’ Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’….must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin.’ This ‘freedom’ may become ‘sin against Christ (8:12).”

[9] Thiselton 654 “By projecting the ‘weak’ into this ‘medium” of γνωσις, the ‘strong’ bring such a person face-to-face with utter destruction. What a way to ‘build’ them!”

[10] Thiselton 650-1, “For in the first case, ‘the weak’ or less secure are tripped up and damaged by the self-assertive behavior of the overconfident; while in the second place it is putting the other before the self, manifest in the transformative effect of the cross, which causes the self-sufficient to turn away….True ‘wisdom’ is seen in Christ’s concern for the ‘weak” and the less secure, to the point of renouncing his own rights, even to he death of the cross.”

[11] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 100.

[12] Thiselton 657-8, “Chrysostom comments, ‘It is foolish in the extreme that we should esteem as so entirely beneath our notice those that Christ so greatly cared for that he should have even chosen to die for them, as not even to abstain from meat on their account.’ This comment captures very well the key contrast through this chapter between asserting one’s own ‘right to choose’ and reflecting with the motivation of love for the other what consequences might be entailed for fellow Christians if self-centered ‘autonomy’ rules patters of Christian attitudes and conduct. It has little or nothing to do with whether actions ’offend’ other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just ‘knowledge’ but Christian character and Christian community.”

Encounter and Rebirth

Sermon on John 14:1-7

I recorded this sermon for the Rev. Josh Andrews and the Methodist Churches he cares for (Trinity United Methodist Church in Spencerville, Ohio; and, Westside United Methodist Church in Lima, Ohio). The text follows the video.

 

I love the explicitly obscure imagery in this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The story of the house with many “dwelling places” seems to be a break from what came before in chapter 13 where Jesus foretells Peter’s denial. Yet, a theme overlaps thus binds the two chapters together: discipleship.[1]

“Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’” (Jn 14:1-4)

Moving swiftly from prophesying Peter’s denial to speaking of peace, faith in God, and a dwelling place with the Father actually makes sense when you place it under the umbrella of “discipleship.” What the disciples—especially Peter—do not understand is that good discipleship starts not with us choosing to follow after God; rather it begins with God’s preparation of a place for us and God’s coming to get us. Thus, disciples are where Jesus is, or where Jesus is there are the disciples. (One can’t exist without the other.) Just as we are born in the flesh by our mother where our mother is and into a space prepared for us by her; so too are we spiritually reborn by God where God is and into a space prepared for us by God.

I don’t want to vilify Peter. His profession in chapter 13 (and echoed by Thomas’s question in our passage) makes sense according to his logic: if this is the long-awaited Messiah, then yes, Peter’s going to go into battle for him; he’ll lay down his life for Christ–like a good soldier in the midst of battle for his General. If we know anything about Peter, it’s that he’s wonderfully human, and in this we are all pulled into the story—no matter how much we may think we would’ve gotten it. Peter’s logic here is air-tight; but it’s wrong. He won’t die for the Messiah, rather, the Messiah will die for him.[2] Thus, to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow where Jesus is headed necessitates not the risk that death might occur in a battle for life, but that life might occur as a result of death.[3] Dare we come to the end of ourselves and … find more, abundantly more?

The path that lies ahead for the disciples is through Jesus, and this will necessitate a death: a death of what has been held true, a death to dogma and doctrine, a death to human made idols, a death to our reason, our common sense, and our rationality, our self-justification, and a death to our self anchored in false narratives. For all of these things are on a collision course with God in the revelation of God in the event the cross. The disciples will not be entering into battle against the tyranny of other nations; rather, they will enter into confrontation with the tyranny of themselves, rendered and returned to dust.

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” (Jn 14:5-7)

Where Jesus is going the disciples cannot follow and they cannot lead. They must let Jesus, the Christ, make the “way” both for himself and for them.[4] Thus, in that Jesus is going to make the way for them, he’ll be the way for them and this renders Jesus as the inseparable “way and goal.”[5] Salvation occurs when one is brought into encounter with God in the event of faith, this happens and is the means by which this happens to the person. Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection re the way and the goal for a disciple.[6]

If Jesus is both the way and the goal for the disciple and by which the disciple is defined, then, according to John, to be a disciple is neither mere mimicry of Jesus nor surging ahead of Jesus with weapons bared. Rather, it is to be found in Jesus—Jesus is the way. Not a doorway, not a gateway, but the way: the path from which the disciple never veers and is thus also the goal for the life of the disciple. It is in Christ where the one who hears the call of God and is forever changed and altered, the one who could not hear but now has ears to hear—to hear so deeply that they can’t unhear what they’ve heard, and they are always hearing truth and receiving life. The Christian, the believer, the hearer never moves from her location in Christ but is plunged deeper and deeper into Christ thus into truth and into life. [7]

The language of John describes the disciple of Christ being the one who dies and finds life. The one who is encountered by God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is returned to the very dust that is the substance of the earth, thrown into a wholly other God being wholly dependent on the self-disclosure of this God that God is love, and finds not death unto death but, by the presence and activity of divine mercy and grace, finds and receives the fulness of life. It is this one who is yanked out of her previous existence and thrust into a new one that is oriented in God toward her neighbor in a living, true way.[8]

All of this is so incredibly abstract and heavy. What does it have to do with my life? With me? I intellectually understand that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; but then I don’t know. Or, do I?

As I read and meditate on this text written so long ago, something sparks a maternal familiarity; something I know deep in my gut, something my body tells me she’s done. And then, like a freight train, memories overwhelm me.  I know this…I know what Jesus is describing… This is none other than birth language. We are born of women in the flesh and are made “people”; we are reborn of God by faith and are made disciples. The maternal heart, pregnant with desire for the beloved, and the unconditional sacrificial love of God shining through the text–cloaked to the casual observer, like Jesus’s divine sonship is to anything but faith.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’” (Jn 3:1-6)

 

I know this language because I’m a mom, because I’ve nurtured and brought life into the world through my body, that my children are my children and perpetually so because of an eternal relation between mother and child—no matter how doubtful, how confident, how meager, how substantial, how rocky, how wonderful, how distant, or how close. Forever it is my voice, my scent, my touch, my very heartbeat that my three children will know and recognize better than anything else in the world. It is their presence, their bodies, their laughs, their cries that will perpetually tug at something located in depth of the core of who I am. Birth is not the end of the symbiotic connection between mother and child; it is the very beginning, it is the way.

In the process of bringing forth life, a mother will lay her life down for her child, one whom she knows and yet does not; she can’t do anything else, she will, through every groan and each contraction, look death in the face and say: my life for this one. Her body will be broken, the water will spill, and the blood will run; and, what looks eventually like sure death will be become the event of abundant life. She will birth this child at the expense of her own body, she will make a place for this child, she will carry this child, she will nurture this child… where she is, there the child will be also. And where the child is, there, too, will she be.

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

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

It is in divine love that is our common location with each other and with God. This divine Love is both agape and eros: it goes out, it seeks, and it takes the beloved back into the lover. Love causes the lover to always be with the beloved. The lover never forgets the Beloved because by love the beloved is always with the lover. Love is the path and the destination.

In the encounter with God in Christ in the event of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are reborn in and through love. And this Love is the way, it is truth, it is life. God is love; God loves you; you are reborn of God by faith. you are forever the Beloved.

Happy Mother’s day.

 

 

*This and the following paragraph are adapted from this post: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

[1] Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, and JK Riches. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). 595-6

[2] Bultmann John 598, “…he does not know that he cannot enter the field ‘for’ the Revealer, but only the Revealer for him…It is therefore clear that the following of Jesus is not an act of heroism.”

[3] Bultmann John  597, “Thus the following of Jesus has become a possibility in this double sense—as world-annulment and as following into the δοξα—only because of Jesus’ victory over the world; it is therefore possible solely through faith in the Revealer, in whose υπαγειν the victory over the world is accomplished.

[4] Bultmann John 605, “By describing himself as the way Jesus makes two things clear: 1. his case is different from that of the disciples; he does not need a ‘way’ for himself, as the disciples do, rather he is the way for them…”

[5] Bultmann John 605, “The way and the goal are not to be separated as they are in mythological thinking. In the myth the redemption has become embodied in a cosmic event, and therefore-contrary to the intention of the myth—it is conceived as in intra-mundane event, as a divine history, which takes place apart from the existence of man, who is referred to it as the guarantee of his future.”

[6] Bultmann John 605, “…the redemption is an event which takes place in human existence through the encounter with the Revealer, with the result that the believer’s present is already based on his future; his existence is eschatological existence; his way is at the same time his goal.”

[7] Bultmann John 606-7, “That means that there is no ‘short cut’ to the correct understanding of αληθεια and ζωη. The discovery of this αληθεια is not something established once and for all, at men’s disposal, such as could be communicated in ‘condensed form’ like a truth of science; on the contrary everyone has to take the way to it for himself, for only on the way does this truth disclose itself. Similarly Jesus is the truth; he does not simply state it. One does not come to him to ask about truth; one comes to him as the truth. This truth does not exist as a doctrine, which could be understood, preserved, and handed on, so that the teacher is discharged and surpassed. Rather the position a man takes vis-à-vis the Revealer decides not whether he knows the truth, but whether he is ‘of the truth,’ that is to say, whether his existence is determined by the truth, whether the truth is the ground on which his existence is based. And as in Christianity everyone has to start for himself from the beginning, so too there is no such thing as a history of Christianity within world-history, in the sense of a history of ideas or problems, in which one progresses from stage to stage, from solution to solution; each generation has the same original relation to the revelation.”

[8] Bultmann John 606, “Εγω ειμι η οδος: this is pure expression of the idea of revelation. The Revealer is the access to God which man is looking for, and what is more—as is implied in the phrase Εγω ειμι and is stated explicitly in words ουδεις κτλ.—the only access. Not, however, in the sense he mediated the access and then became superfluous…On the contrary, he is the way in such a manner as to be at the same time the goal; for he is also η αληθεια και η ζωη: the αληθεια as the revealed reality of God, and the ζωη as the divine reality which bestows life on the believer in that it bestows self-understanding in God. All three concepts are bound to each other by the word Εγω: just as Jesus is the way, in that he is the goal, so he is also the goal, in that he is the way. He cannot be forgotten in the of the goal, for the believer cannot have the αληθεια and the ζωη as acquisitions at his own disposal: Jesus remains for him the way. Of course that is not to say that αληθεια and ζωη are a goal that is always to be striven for and that is an infinite distance away; on the contrary, in going along the way the goal is reached. Not however in the sense of Stoicism or idealism, where the goal is ideally present in the infinite way…nor is it a ‘perpetual striving to make the effort’; rather it is the state of existence that is subjected to the actual word of Jesus within history, for there God is present. But the believer finds God only in him, i.e. God is not directly accessible; faith is not mystical experience, but rather historical existence that is subject to the revelation.”

Doubt and Encounter

Second Sunday of Easter Meditation: John 20:26-28

(video at the end of the post)

 

“…Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (Jn 20:26d-28).

Thomas the doubter. We have more patience for the denials of Peter than we do the doubt of Thomas. In the history of “The Top Ten Best Moments of the Disciples,” it seems (often) that Thomas’s doubt ranks just above Judas’s betrayal. Don’t be such a doubting Thomas. Words that silence questions and confusion unto shame and condemnation. It’s only slightly better than being called a Judas.

Shade is thrown in Thomas’s direction because his disbelief hits too close to home. That Thomas’s doubt is recorded for all posterity reminds me, at least once a year, that doubt is…is possible. It reminds me that I do, in fact, doubt. It reminds you that you doubt. Thomas’s story hits the core of our insecurities and tells us that it doesn’t matter how many degrees we have or how many times we’ve read through the bible or how reasonable and rational our apologies for God are…we doubt. All of us.

This doubt feels deadly in a tradition that is orthodox, meaning (simply): right thought. Doubting can seem like unfaithfulness and willful rejection of what God has done and said and this means divine rejection. If I doubt, am I lost? If I am lost, will I be found? Is it all up to me? Jesus even says to Thomas, “‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,’” (Jn 20:29). In this moment it seems that Thomas is chastised for not believing because he wanted physical proof (a very human and rational thing to ask for). We are scared to doubt because there seems to be big risk attached.

The good news is, Thomas isn’t lost, left, and abandoned. Zoom out and look at the story as a whole. What we see are those characteristics that are the trademarks of God: long-suffering, patient, merciful, abounding in lovingkindness, and gracious. Thomas doubts; Jesus shows up. In his doubt, Thomas comes face to face with God. Thomas encounters God in the event of faith and what bursts forth from his human lips is a confession: confession of faith and confession of his lack of faith.[1]

In this story, Thomas is truly human. In the first instance he stands on his reason alone where he cannot believe what has been told to him by his peers. In the next moment, Thomas is encountered by God in Christ and believes. “My Lord and my God!” Says Thomas. Thomas sees here what he could not see before based on mere testimony. Thomas, in this moment, sees Jesus as he desires to be seen as the incarnate word of God (John 1). Behold, God!

It is not that we think, but that we doubt where we find ourselves at the core of what it means to be human. Because it is here, in doubt, where we look beyond ourselves, beyond the narrow framework of our mind and imagination. Doubt is our confession of being human. And it’s in this confession where we are, ironically, so very close to God. More often than not, doubt is not that we are far from God, but that we are so close…as close as Jacob, Israel, wrestling with God.

 

 

[1] Thoughts here and following influenced by Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Trans. GR Beasley-Murray and RWN Hoare, JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. (pp. 689-697).

Dostoevsky and Dialectical Theology

Theological Examination of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Hi! I decided to talk about one of my favorite books because I was inspired by a group of students and my academic research. I had fun working on this video. I hope you enjoy it.(It’s a bit longer than I had hoped it would be, but I definitely said the things I wanted to…and could have said a lot more!).

 

Jesus of Nazareth the Christ

A short post on Gerhard Ebeling’s views of Christology.

The following is something I wrote for an advanced theology class I’m cultivating/forming, and I tasked my self with completing the first assignment. The text assigned was from Word and Faith by Gerhard Ebeling, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” which is an essay written in Honor of Rudolf Bultmann’s 75th birthday. It’s fun to participate in a project like developing this type of class, and putting yourself on the spot. The students have the opportunity to critical engage my work; I stand not above them, but with them. I wanted to share here what I wrote because 1. I’ve been meaning to process the concept of the Historical Jesus specifically from Ebeling’s view for my own work; and, 2. why not? Enjoy, Beloveds. 

 

Proving Jesus existed cannot be the sole foundation for faith. Making an apologetic for faith out of Jesus the man is a mere throwing words into the wind. Faith extends beyond that which can be discerned by the five senses. To actualize by scroll and parchment the humanity of the Jesus of Nazareth merely means that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, existed at one point in time. If the Christian claim was only Jesus as a great moral exemplar, well, then, maybe we’d have something to go on. However, that’s not the laudatory aspect of the gospel proclamation; there’s nothing substantially good or new about another good man being a good human. Yet, the proclamation of the gospel is both good and new; as it pertains to Jesus of Nazareth something else must be at work especially if, christologically speaking, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the communication of faith.

 

In his chapter, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” Gerhard Ebeling makes this statement, “The encounter with Jesus as the witness to faith, however, is without limitation an encounter with himself. For the concentration on the coming to expression of faith—and that alone!—is the ground of the unity of ‘person’ and ‘work’, but for that reason also the ground of the totality of the encounter,” (298). And then Ebeling adds, “Faith’s view of Jesus must therefore assert itself as a furtherance to the historical view of Jesus. For faith itself is the coming to its goal of what came to expression in Jesus. The [one] who believes is with the historical Jesus,” (298). There was a man Jesus of Nazareth and the early church recorded and proclaimed very specific things about him. Thus, seemingly opposing my first comment: Jesus’s existence is everything for faith. It is in encounter with Christ (both then and now through the proclamation of the Word of God) that is the beckoning of the event of faith. There must be a man named Jesus who is of Nazareth to make the claim that this particular man is God.

 

Faith is not strict intellectual assent to the actuality of the human person named Jesus who is of Nazareth. Rather, faith asserts something about this particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. (This is the same distinction Ebeling highlights between the claims about the historical Jesus and the early church’s proclamation of Christ (300-301).) Faith is that event by which the person is encountered by God through the proclamation of Christ crucified and raised. In hearing the word the person is seized by the proclamation and faith assents: behold God. Ebeling, “To belong to Jesus means to believe, and to believe means to belong to Jesus. Faith is not a form that can be given any content at will, but is the very essence of the matter, the thing that came with Jesus Christ, the content of revelation, the gift of salvation itself,” (303). Faith explains how one moves from the demand, crucify him! To surely, this was the son of God.

 

To have faith in Christ is not because of any one thing or picture or idea presented about Jesus (304). Faith’s grounding is this man Jesus of Nazareth who is God. To quote Ebeling, “…the sole ground of faith is Jesus as the witness to faith in the pregnant sense of the ‘author and finisher of faith’,” (304). Ruled out here are any claims to reason and will or even to fear as the basis for one believing in Jesus as the savior of the world. Faith is new every morning because it asserts new every morning what came to expression in Jesus (304). It is timeless because it is the event of the encounter with God who is unrestricted by time. The proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sins and raised for justification is the means by which the hearer is beckoned into the encounter and thus into faith and grafted into the universal and eternal message of God’s dealings with the entire world.

PT Forsyth for Our Time

Sancta Colloquia episode 202 ft. Ben Nasmith

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I finally get the chance to talk with someone I’ve wanted to talk with for a while: Ben Nasmith (@BNasmith).  Ben and I have connected over the work of PT Forsyth. I don’t know a lot about Forsyth, but what I’ve read I always love. Specifically, what I love about PT Forsyth is that his work is the type of theology resonant with my own theological motto: if the gospel is true then it is true in the darkest of dark, the solitudes of solitudes, the weariness of weariness, and the despair of despair. In this episode, Ben puts flesh on the man and makes him real for me, and this makes Forsyth’s theology even more powerful, in my opinion. After offering a good biographical sketch of Forsyth and the progress of his study and work, Ben offers insight into what make Forsyth tick: the severity of the Cross. Taking the liberal theology he studied in the later part of the 19th century, Forsyth, according to Ben, makes it practical by rediscovering the gravity of the cross event in order to heighten the sweetness that is the proclamation of the gospel. Ben explains that the treasure of the Christian faith is the cross. When we forget this, we lose the very fabric that is the event of encounter with God in faith. “As we interpret the cross, the cross interprets us,” says Ben. “We can’t nail [the event of the Cross] down; it’s a continual process.” It’s true; when we think we’ve figured it out, figured out the event of the cross, figured God out, that’s when lose what it is we really truly need: a wholly other God who is always outside of our grasp but in whose fingers we are grasped. There’s no way to look at the event of the cross and come into encounter with the active will of Jesus under this severe condition and not be changed. And repeatedly so. We never figure it out; we are always being encountered. Faith is new every morning, just like God’s mercy is also new every morning. Ben drives home the reality that PT Forsyth is for us weary travelers on this journey of life…yesterday and today. I’m grateful that Ben took time from his own work to come talk to me. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

 

At the moment Ben teaches undergraduate physics at the Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario, where He’s also a PhD candidate in mathematics with a focus on algebra and exceptional structures in combinatorics. Theology is a passion but not a profession for Ben. A couple years ago, he completed a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Briercrest Seminary in Caronport Saskatchewan. Ben wrote a masters thesis on the role of experience in theology according to the philosophy of Paul Moser. After graduating, while keeping his day job, he’s been working with the same Paul Moser of his master’s thesis. They have collaborated on a couple of theology projects, including a new collection of hard to find Peter Forsyth essays with Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock (entitled “God of Holy Love”).

Also from Ben as part of his biography:

“The driving interest behind this project and others is a concern for the role of experience, especially moral experience, in theology and the Christian life. My religious upbringing was in a Canadian evangelical tradition, the Associated Gospel Churches, and I also attended an evangelical seminary. In seminary I came across the theology of Peter Forsyth and completed a directed reading course on his work. Forsyth was just what I needed to hear at just the right time. My faith has evolved a great deal in the meantime, but I still turn to Forsyth for inspiration, encouragement, and an existential challenge.”

Recommended and mentioned reading:

I maintain a collection of PT Forsyth writings here: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/category/pt-forsyth
Paul Moser also has lots of Forsyth writings: http://pmoser.sites.luc.edu/ptforsytharchive/
An excellent way to find PT Forsyth writing is to search the internet archive (I’ve uploaded dozens of new items and there was already a lot there): https://archive.org/details/experientialtheology?and[]=creator%3A%22peter+taylor+forsyth+%281848-1921%29%22
The very helpful PTF article on the atonement is here: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/255
The article “From a Lover of Love to an Object of Grace”: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/133
The article “The Disappointment of the Cross”: https://archive.org/details/PTFDisappointmentofCross
The article “Sacramentalism the True Remedy of Sacerdotalism”: https://archive.org/details/ForsythSacramentalism1898

“Our God Loves Justice”

Sancta Colloquia episode 109 ft. Sabrina Peters (Talkin’ “Our God Loves Justice” by Dr. W. Travis McMaken)

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I had the honor and privilege of sitting down and chatting with a friend from Twitter, Sabrina Peters (@sdrp_). I’ve always really enjoyed the content Sabrina produces both through her tweets as well as one her blog (listed below). She’s very insightful and completely human: she loves and lives in a way that is authentic (she isn’t virtue posing, this woman gives a damn about you and your life). So, when Sabrina posted a book review about Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s most recent book, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (#OGLJ), I couldn’t help but notice and want to talk to her about it. There are two reasons: McMaken’s book is one of my favorites (as I express in the show), and I knew that Sabrina would have an embodied response to the work and the implications of Helmut Gollwitzer’s Political Theology and Theological Politics. My conversation with Sabrina about this book proved me right: Sabrina is postured in the world toward others as her theology demands her to be: fighting against oppressive systems and finding ways to dismantle the kyriarchy.* For Sabrina, the Gospel is not a tool of oppression as it is all too often used. Objectivist Neo-Capitalism has infiltrated gospel proclamation, and what we have is, as Sabrina makes mention, a disembodied message (ironic since the Word of God is also the incarnate Christ, Jesus of Nazareth) that is only a saccharine word of numbing “comfort” for a very small group of people: those who are elite and privileged. (In other words, you aren’t actually getting comfort in this proclamation; you’re being lulled to sleep in the midst of your pain and the pain others.) Sabrina makes it clear that the word of God, when we are encountered by it in the event of faith, brings a bit of crisis and crisis brings embodiment. When you are under exposure you become very aware of your body (flesh and blood). And as this crisis plays out with the encounter with God in the proclamation of the Gospel it isn’t just a crisis that ends with exposure unto death but one that ends in life, new embodied life. To think this event only involves some sort of soothed conscience so that you can just continue to live in a disembodied way is a lie: the creative word of God in the proclamation of Christ Crucified is a word that reconstitutes the entire person (mind, soul, heart, and body). The mind and the body matter. Freedom and rest are not freedom and rest if you merely think you are; freedom and rest are truly freedom and rest when you are free and at rest. I was honored to have Sabrina on the show and I believe you’ll agree with me that she doesn’t pretend to be smart, she’s hella smart and insightful.

*Kyriarchy: Sabrina explains it as anything that maintains systems of power and oppression like Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia to name a few

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

Sabrina reads lots of books (mostly comics and theology books lately), drinks lots of tea, pretends to be smart on Twitter, and ponder how to destroy the kyriarchy. She lives in the passive-aggressive, beautiful Seattle, with her spouse and his mostly clever, somewhat corny jokes. She currently serves as a Eucharistic minister at a local Episcopal church, and is re-exploring her vocational direction, dusting off the MDiv she earned six years ago. For the personality junkies out there, she is most likely a 5w6, and every MBTI test ever taken has been inconclusive, save for the “I” for “introvert”. Her blog is: https://sdrp.me/

The following are links to highly recommended videos/podcasts where Dr. W. Travis McMaken discusses his book Our God Loves Justice:

With Stephen Waldron (@stephen_m_w) on his podcast Theology and Socialism (@TheoSocialism) cohosted with Benjamin D. Crosby (@benjamindcrosby): https://t.co/sFA3IDWHV1

With Tripp Fuller (@trippfuller) on Homebrewed Christiantiy (@HomebrewedXnty & https://trippfuller.com/): https://trippfuller.com/2018/04/17/our-god-loves-justice-with-w-travis-mcmaken/

With Dean Dettloff (@DeanDettloff) and Matt Bernico (@spookymachines) on their podcast: The Magnificast (@themagnificast & https://themagnificast.com/): https://m.soundcloud.com/themagnificast/ep-54-our-god-loves-justice-w-w-travis-mcmaken

And this video with one of my previous guests, Liam Miller (@liammiller87), on his youtube channel (youtube.com/user/MQUT) for his blog/podcast: Love, Rinse, Repeat (@RinseRepeatPod):

Recommended Reading/Works Mentioned in the Podcast:

There’s a free study guide for Our God Loves Justice; you can read about it here on Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s blog (DET): http://derevth.blogspot.com/2018/02/free-study-guide-for-our-god-loves.html

Evangelical Theology, by Karl Barth: https://books.google.com/books/about/Evangelical_Theology.html?id=8iQgolN1WTMC

Wisdom Ways, by Elisabeth Schüller Fiorenza: https://g.co/kgs/StgzoA

Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision by Randy S. Woodley: https://books.google.com/books?id=cB5qKv72Jz0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=shalom+and+the+community+of+creation&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjI6ur8pZniAhXKs54KHa-ODUsQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=shalom%20and%20the%20community%20of%20creation&f=false

Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, by Heath Carter:  https://g.co/kgs/SnA8bR

Law, Justice, and Faith

Sancta Colloquia episode 108 ft. Tim Fall

In this episode I come face to face with the law. Seriously. My guest is Tim Fall (Twitter: @tim_fall) and he’s a judge. Now, many of you may think that this might be my first time in front of a judge, but it’s not! I’ll save those stories for later…plus, a little allure never hurt. For now, let me talk about what Tim and I discussed. I’ve known Tim strictly through Twitter and have thoroughly enjoyed his Gospel-centric approach to the way he does theology: oriented toward the comfort for the beleaguered. Now, most of my beloved readers/listeners will know that I’ve a penchant for all things distinguishing Law and Gospel. So, when I found out that my Gospel-peddling friend, Tim, was also a judge my interest was piqued. How does one who is the categorical symbol of the law (a judge) proclaim the gospel so well? How is the distinction between the gospel and the theological function of the law struck when one spends the majority of their time upholding the civic function of the law? What I found out from my conversation with Tim is that it is important to maintain the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. One needs to let the law of the court and of society operate as the law and being detached here is key. Tim told me, wisely, that a judge is not in the role to be judging the personhood of the person, and it’s this that Tim carries with him to the bench. A good judge keeps control and remains open (neutral, as neutral as any human can be). But when Tim is not in the courtroom, he spends all of his time looking for ways to speak of the event of the cross, to proclaim Christ crucified, the judge judged in our place (to borrow from Karl Barth), the longed for rest for those heavy laden.  So come and listen to this conversation with Tim and take away a wealth of good information offered from the perspective of one who upholds the law as well as a word of comfort for your mind and body. 

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

Tim is a California native who changed his major three times, colleges four times, and took six years to get a Bachelor’s degree in a subject he’s never been called on to use professionally. Married for 30 years with two kids (both graduated, woo-hoo!) his family is constant evidence of God’s abundant blessings in his life. He and his wife live in Northern California.

Tim does not normally talk about himself in the third person.

Recommended Reading/Works Mentioned in the Podcast:

Mere Christianity, CS Lewis
The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
Beyond Sex Roles, Gilbert Bilezikian
Persuasion, Jane Austen
 
Tim’s blog: https://timfall.com/
 

Who Do You Say That I am?

The Silence of Holy Saturday

If there was a day to feel the most human, I know not one better than the 24 hour period linking the event of death of Good Friday to the event of life of Resurrection Sunday.  Yet, I believe most of us rush through Saturday, not paying any attention to tension embedded in this day.

We know what happened: Jesus died on Friday and was raised on Sunday. Saturday is just the day I run those last minute errands, color eggs, plan for tomorrow’s dinner celebration, and lay out my “Easter best” outfit. My day to day productivity attempts to eclipse the possibility of eventful reflection. God can break through the clutter and cacophony of a regular day just as God can break through stone hard hearts and closed off minds. But if we are too immersed in the demands of our worlds and lives, we could miss the silence of Saturday; missing this silence and the very pregnant space-time pause, steals from the abundance of tomorrow, Easter Sunday. Might as well just be a celebration of the fertility of the Spring solstice.

In my opinion, Holy Saturday, the divine silence of this 24 hour period, is the center of the chiastic structure of massive event proportions. While everything feels normal here, nothing is actually normal. Everything is different but then none of it is. It’s the entire book of lamentations jammed into a day; it’s the moment between Adam and Eve stepping out of the Garden per divine decree and the settling in of the cherubim and seraphim who will forever prevent return. It’s the between of the walls of water dropping and drowning the Egyptian soldiers and the arrival at Mt. Sinai. It’s the deep dark of transition before Mary pushed Jesus into the world and held him to her breast. It’s the pain of Dinah after her rape and before her brothers find out; it’s the harrowing  moment between the last few breaths of the Levite’s concubine of Judges 19 and the door opening the next morning. This is where we are; it makes sense that we run through it.

There’s nothing easy about Holy Saturday. It’s filled with questions with no answers. It’s filled with crisis and confrontation. It’s filled with darkness no matter how bright the noon day sun shines. The demand of what in the hell just happened? weighs down on human skeletal structures, and there is no reprieve of an answer. This is loss; this is sorrow. Our bodies are forced into a conflict of feeling and thought: he was here, and now he’s not. The longing to touch him still courses through the nerve endings of the skin of my finger tips, but I cannot touch him anymore. The grief of desiring to lay lips on his that are now dead and gone, cold and lifeless. Substance was here and now it is seemingly vanished; the vacuum pulls my body into it: where I could not lie and sit and stand because he was there, I now can and that awareness of absence is crushing.

In the midst of this palpable heaviness that feels like divine silence, God isn’t actually speechless. The kerygma floats on the warm breeze: who do you say that I am? On Good Friday humanity answered with a conviction and judgment that ended in death. On Sunday, God will do the same but it will bring about life. But even if answers have been given, the question spoken long ago still demands an answer today; we aren’t off the hook because we’re being addressed today. And today, Saturday, the question haunts us as faith goes searching for her desire: what we knew and believed is being met with a radical upheaval of the unknowability of the future.

Today, law failed. Today, religion failed. Today, piety means nothing. Today, faith feels like a farce. Today, bodies long and hearts faint. Today, prophets only sigh. Today, love mourns. Today, grace feels beyond reach. Today, we are naked. Today, we are forced to be human, to reckon with what was and confront what will be. Today, we must wrestle with the demand of the eternal question in the divine address: who do you say that I am?