With Dirty Hands

Sermon on Mark 7:5-8

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 7:5-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us love as we’ve been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolution Beautiful

Sancta Colloquia Episode 402 ft. Lydia Wylie-Kellermann

I had the pleasure of talking a new friend in the revolution for a better world: Lydia Wylie-Kellermann (@lydiaiwk). We talk about her work at Geez Magazine, her upbringing and local activism in Detroit, MI, and her newest book project released into the world: The Sandbox Revolution. Lydia brings profound experience and insight to the normal discussion about what revolution is and what it looks like to live revolutionarily. She doesn’t confound her audience by over complicating things; rather, she takes very complicated things and makes them easy and hands them in digestible portions to everyone who has is eager for something more. Lydia brings home to us a deep desire for something more than what we have: a world where love and life and liberty are the trademark characteristics of all people and the creation itself. Using her own life, she shares her stories and invites us in to participate with her in this revolution for something more beautiful.

For a more detailed engagement with the text, please go see my review of The Sandbox Revolution over on Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s blog DET; click here for the post. It was an honor to be able to publish something over on DET, and I’m grateful to Dr. McMaken for the opportunity. If you aren’t following DET’s posts, you should. It’s one of the places I recommend visiting on the “Recommend Reading” page of this cite.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Lydia Wylie-Kellermann

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is a writer, editor, activist, and mother. She lives with her partner and two boys in the neighborhood where she grew up in southwest Detroit. She is the managing editor of Geez magazine, a quarterly, non-profit, ad-free, print magazine at the intersection of art, activism, and faith.

Further Reading:

  • Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jen Harvey
  • Revolutionary mothering: Love on the Front Lines, edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
  • Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy, and Kindness by Cindy Wang Brandt
  • It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood by Frida Berrigan

Born of Love

Sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Ephesians 4:1-16

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

Ephesians 4:1-7

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Encouraged, Beloved

Sermon on 1 John 5:9-13

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

Introduction

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

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

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

1 John 5:9-12

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

1 John 5:9-12

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.