Remember Whose You Are

Sermon on Luke 17:5-10

Lamentations 3:21-23 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.

Introduction

If you’ve been in Christendom long enough you’ve heard the faith the size of a mustard seed exhortation. Various forms of itinerant faith healers, gospel preachers, and downright charlatans prey on the gullibility of humanity through the proclamation of material promises of radical healing if you believe just really really believe and abundant prosperity if you give just really really give all you have. The declarations and exhortations are couched in terms of just believe and you will receive; sadly, few received that for which they staked their livelihood. Many people have been led a long a treacherous path ending in despair and spiritual demise.

I wish you knew how angry I get when I hear stories of spiritual abuse such as this. People bombarded with accusations of not enough faith because they never saw the fulfillment of prayers. The material failure of the prayer renders the one praying in a state of personal condemnation (why can’t I have enough faith? What’s wrong with me?) and angry at God (what kind of God would do this? Why would a loving God make things so impossible?). This combination of condemnation and anger produces spiritual despair leading to rejecting God.

It makes sense to me. When I hear these stories, I don’t blame the person for giving up faith in that god. Ditching that god is the best choice. That god is slavery and captivity, forever demanding you play monkey games to earn your desired reward (God’s love!). The world would be better without this god. In these instances, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite short stories by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parable of the Madman. In this short story, a madman hollers in the market place, “‘I seek God!’ I seek god!’”[1] Met with mocking jeers and jeering mockery by passersby,

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eye. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this?”[2]

Nietzsche “Parable of the Madman”

The accusation is delivered; the question is never answered. The reader is left with that dual gift. We are left with that dual gift as the dawn of realization unfolds upon us in the wake of story upon story of spiritual trauma: we have woefully misrepresented God, recreated God in our own image, forgetting we are created in God’s image.

Luke 17:5-10

Now the apostles said the Lord, “Please add faith to us!”[3] But the Lord said, “If you have faith like a grain of a mustard plant then you would say to this sycamore tree, ‘be rooted and planted in the sea!’ and then it would listen to you.”[4]

Luke 17:5-6

Luke has some more fun things up his story-telling sleeve. Our gospel passage is a collection of odd statements—the heading in the NSRV bible translation literally reads: “Some Sayings of Jesus.” Sadly, and once again, our lectionary has jumped the bridge; and within the bridge is the key: woe to those who cause sinful stumbling for that fate is worse than stumbling (vv. 1-2),[5] and you must forgive, forgive, forgive… (vv. 3-4).[6] In these few verses the disciples are warned:[7] don’t become a stumbling block to anyone especially in terms of being unforgiving.[8]

This is heavy; heavier than they have been. See, Jesus is eager to teach his disciples all that he can for the end is approaching and these moments are some of the last moments before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. The disciples are coming up against the long, hard journey continuing on with the coming of God’s kingdom…without Jesus.[9] Thus the exhortation not to be a stumbling block and to be forgiving as often as possible are the very tools that will assist the disciples on their daily and continued practice when their good Rabbi is gone.[10]

Herein lies the plea of the apostles, “Please add faith to us!” Now, doesn’t that exclamation make more sense? The disciples feel the weight of Jesus’s exhortations; they know it’s impossible to walk that narrow pathway! The disciples know that others will stumble because of them—they aren’t perfect; they know human nature and the inability therein to forgive those who hurt them, and repeatedly—they themselves carry anger and resentment![11] So, these humble human beings do the only thing they know to do: throw themselves at the mercy of God, Give us more faith, Lord!!

The very next thing Jesus says in reply to the plea is: “If you have faith like a grain of a mustard plant then you would say to this sycamore tree, ‘be rooted and planted in the sea!’ and then it would listen to you.”

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Herein is the problem: taken out of context it sounds as if Jesus is imploring them to have more faith thus indicating that they don’t have enough faith. But, take a step back and look at what Jesus is saying: it’s ridiculous. It’s an impossible solution to an impossible demand. Both forgiving seven times every day for the rest of your life is a weighty task, demanding faith, even more than verbally uprooting a sycamore tree and making it plant and root itself in the sea.[12] Therein is the resolution: it’s not about the disciples lacking anything; it’s about the disciples realizing who they are: the beloved of God; and realizing who God is: Love.

Here, look at the next story, a parable about a master and slave. I know this parable falls coarsely on our ears, but stay with me. Culturally and historically[13] the master would not ask the slave to come in and dine at the table after working the fields and herds; the slave, according to this parable, would expect to continue with their duties—serve the master.[14] As with the slave, so to the disciples: they are expected to do what they are expected to do, nothing more and nothing less.[15] And they are to do it humbly—faults and all—in the spirit of love and forgiveness as they have been loved and forgiven.[16] This isn’t about great, big, heroic heavenly acts of faith demonstrating one’s power over the divine; rather, it’s about miniscule, small, unheroic, earthly acts of faith informed by humility, mercy, kindness, justice, peace, and love in submission to this God of love.[17] The disciples need not extra faith; they just need to do faithfully[18] what they can with what they have leaning (hard) into the love of God made known in Christ in their hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit.[19]

Conclusion

We’ve killed God, Nietzsche isn’t wrong. We’ve taken God’s self-disclosed image and ran it through the mud forcing it into forms and fittings unsuited for such beauty. We’ve conformed God into our image, reduced God to our desires, rendered God’s word in service to our words. We’ve even framed our self-composed deeds of ownership over the doctrines of God, declaring to many in unnegotiable terms who and what God is, what God wills, whom God condemns; and we’ve crushed people, desperate, hungry lovers of God rendered to ashes in our outrage over and adherence to being right. All of it cloaked in the tyranny of religiosity.[20] How many have been wounded, harmed, victimized, oppressed, and traumatized because of this tendency to make God some object under human determination? How many people have been driven from God because of self-righteous claims? How many people can’t imagine a loving God because we’ve turned God into a cruel despot?

But there’s good news, paradoxically, in Nietzsche’s accusation: God is only dead as long as we keep misrepresenting God. If we, humbly follow Jesus the Christ—God’s baptized representative[21]—by loving others, showing mercy, granting forgiveness, confessing error and fault, embracing our humanity and the humanity of others by participating in liberation and justice, we can let Nietzsche’s madman find whom he seeks: God.[22] So, remember whose you are; remember you are born of love; in remembering this, you can’t help but bring that love into the world. Thus, God will cease being dead, and those who seek God will find God.

To all of you who hurt, nurse wounds, hide scars; to all of you who are afraid to speak, to ask questions, to push back for fear of punishment; to all of you who were and still are traumatized from an early age by images of wrath and hellfire; to all of you who became convinced that you were not enough, unworthy, unwelcome, and unloved for being unique in anyway, standing outside of the status-quo… I’m sorry. None of that is God, was God, will be God; that God is dead. It was all a sham anyway, created by human beings cloaked in fancy colors and robes drunk on their own power and image.

God loves you—not another version of you that’s cleaner, better, happier, or whatever—God loves you…as you are, right now, faults and all. God needs no great work of faith from you to earn God’s love—you cannot earn God’s love, it’s yours right now even if you are not ready to receive it. God loves you—always has, always will—and that’s all you need.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science “Parable of the Madman” Trans Walter Kaufman. New York, NY: Vintage Books, Random House, 1974. 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] aorist active imperative second person, addressed to a superior (polite command). The aorist imperative carries the emphasis on the action as a whole rather than a continuation of an action from now into the future. Thus, we could look at it as a request for the faith that is needed (full stop); rather than give us some faith and keep giving us faith for a period of time.

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 199. “The warning is that, even though people will continue to stumble, any who become a stumbling block for others bear a responsibility even greater than the ones who stumble.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. Be on your guard (vv.3-4), “On the basis of the preceding, it is a warning that the disciples are in danger of becoming stumbling blocks to ‘these little ones’….But the possible stumbling block on which Jesus focuses is unwillingness to forgive.”

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 199. “The first saying (w. 1-2) places the rest in their proper setting. It is a warning to the disciples.”

[8] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 612. “Disciples are to be on their guard against a mindset that works against justice and compassion for the ‘little ones,’ but also against dispositions that obstruct the restoration of sinners to community.”

[9] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 199 “What Luke is stressing in this entire section is the continued life of discipleship. Forgiveness must then be not only unlimited, but also daily and repeated. It is a continued practice rather than a magnanimous action.”

[10] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “But for the time being, in the last stages of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he is preparing his disciples for the continuous, lifelong trek after him, carrying crosses and knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “…’Increase our faith!’ Read in the context of the foregoing, this points to the wise recognition that what Jesus is demanding of them is impossible. Forgiving even our worst offenders seven times a day? That would take much faith indeed! Hence the disciples’ request.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 202. “Then, given the context in which the saying appears in Luke, there is still another possible interpretation. Jesus has just commanded them to do the impossible: to forgive others seven times, and then to do it all over again the next day. The disciples ask for more faith in order to be able to obey this injunction. Jesus recognizes that what he is asking of his disciples is difficult and requires much faith, even more faith than would be necessary to command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and be planted in the middle of the sea. This last interpretation would then lead into the fourth and last of the sayings in this section, which has to do with the impossibility and yet the need to obey the Master in all things.”

[13] Green, Luke, 614. “In this instance, the parable turns on the observation that a slave who is simply completing his work does not by doing so place his master under any obligation to reward him in some way. That is, the absurdity Jesus outlines draws on a particular, taken-for-granted social script apparent to ancient readers but easily missed by many contemporary ones. In this script, ‘thanks’ would not refer to a verbal expression of gratitude or social politeness, but to placing the master in debt to the slave. In the master-slave relationship, does the master come to owe the slave special privileges because the slave fulfills his daily duties? Does the slave through fulfilling his ordinary duties to the master, become his mater’s patron? Of course not!”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 202. Begins with a ridiculous proposition. “The parable begins by focusing on a slaves master Apparently, this is a fairly small household, in which a single slave is expected first to work in the fields—‘plowing or tending sheep’—and then top prepare the master’s meal and serve him. In that setting, the slave returning form the fields would not expect the master to feed him on the contrary, he knows that he must now prepare food for the master and serve him. This is no more than would expected of the slave, and the master would not even thank him for doing it.”

[15] Gonzalez, Luke, 202-203. “The point then is that all that a slave can do for a master is no more than is his due, and that the same is true of the disciples. Going back to the beginning of this series of sayings, this would mean that, even when the disciples have forgiven someone seven times daily, and done this day after day, they have done no more than is expected of them.”

[16] Green, Luke, 613. “Elsewhere Luke speaks of the daily demands of discipleship…by collocating ‘daily’ with forgiveness ‘seven times’ he points to the need to forgive as a matter of course and ‘without limit.’ To do so is not in any way extraordinary; rather, it is simply part of the daily life of those whose lives are oriented around the merciful God…”

[17] Green, Luke, 613. “In each case, ‘faith’ is not so much a possession as a disposition: Faith leads to faithful behavior; lack of faith leads to anxiety and fear…If for Luke faith manifests itself in faithfulness, then the request of Jesus’ followers, ‘give us faith,’ is tantamount to saying, ‘Make us faithful people!’”

[18] Green, Luke, 614-615. “…Jesus opposes any suggestion that obedience might be construed as a means to gain honor, or that one might engage in obedience in order to receive a reward. Remembering those in need with justice and compassion, working for the restoration of the sinner into the community of God’s family…—practices of this nature are simply the daily fare of discipleship. Extraordinary in no way, neither do they provide the basis for status advancement with the community.”

[19] Gonzalez, Luke, 203. “Taken together, these four sayings are both an indictment and a word of grace, both law and gospel. They set impossible standards. They show how faulty all human discipleship is, yet they also free the slave—and the disciples—from the burden of believing that one can do all that is expected, and therefore should somehow earn God’s love by means of absolute obedience. one could easily apply to them Luther’s saying to the effect that the law is like lighting striking a tree: it kills the three, and yet it makes it branches point skyward.”

[20] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “Too often we Christians are so self-assured in our righteousness, in our orthodox beliefs and in our certainty on what it is that God wills that we convince ourselves that we have reason not to forgive those whose beliefs, lifestyle, or understanding of the will of God differ from ours. We know that this is uncharitable; yet we justify it by our adherence to the true faith, or to the straight and narrow. In so doing we may well be precisely the sort of stumbling block that Jesus is talking about in this passage. And we would do well to heed the words about the millstone!”

[21] Dorothee Sölle Christ The Representative: An Essay in Theology after the ‘Death of God’ Trans. David Lewis. London, England: SCM Press LTD, 1967. German original: stellvertretung—Ein Kapitel Theologie nach dem ‘Tode Gottes’ Kreuz Verlag, 1965.,132. “Christ represents the absent God so long as God does not permit us to see himself. For the time being Christ takes God’s place, stands in for the God who no longer presents himself to us directly, and who no longer brings us into his presence in the manner claimed by earlier religious experience. Christ holds the place of this now absent God open for him in our midst. For without Christ, we should have to ‘sack’ the God who does not show up, who has left us.”

[22] Sölle, Representative, 133-134. “But in view of this hope, what Nietzsche calls the ‘death of God’, the fact ‘that the highest values are devalued’, is in fact only the death of God’s immediacy—the death of his unmediated first form, the dissolving of a particular conception of God in the consciousness. It is therefore unnecessary for Christ to counter Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God by affirming a naïve consciousness of God. If the dialogue between Christians and non-Christians is simply a tedious exchange of affirmative and negative statements, it is certainly not Christ who speaks in this way. To assert that God ‘is’ is no answer to the contemporary challenge, for Nietzsche does not in fact assert that God ‘is not’. His madman does not announce the commonplace wisdom of an atheism which imagines it has something to say objectively about the existence or non-existence of a supreme supernatural being. Unlike the multitude of the sane, Nietzsche’s madman goes about saying, ‘I seek God’. Nietzsche is no more concerned with God, as he is ‘in himself’, than the Christian faith is. This God ‘in himself’ is dead, is no more an object directly present to the consciousness, Nietzsche is concerned with the God who lives for us and with us. His madman mourns the manifest inactivity of God, but the thought of denying God’s reality does not occur to him. Yet this inactivity is taken seriously and at the same time transformed when someone who is conscious of it (but has the hope which resists this consciousness) stands in for God. When the inactive God is provisionally represented, then the two experiences—of the death of God and of faith in Christ’s resurrection—are present simultaneously to join battle as to what is real.”

This Love and Life, Our Business

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-29

Psalm 43:5-6 Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me? Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to God, who is the help of my countenance, and my Abba God. (44)

Introduction

In general, the essence and idea of law are neutral. Law should be just law. Laws of nature are true for everyone without exceptions and biases. Gravity works for me like it works for you; gravity isn’t spending a lot of time picking and choosing whom to hold to the earth and whom to let go. Same should be with the laws of society; law (in essence and idea) is neutral saying two things: you can do this and you cannot do that. You can drive this speed or you cannot, the risk is yours; a speed limit sign never issues a ticket and never says good job. Thus, there are implicit consequences of obeying or disobeying the law. In other words, drive this speed limit and you’ll go about your business with little interference from nature and its consequences; drive faster/slower than this speed limit and risk is yours to suffer. Do this and it goes well with you; don’t do this and it won’t go well for you.

Now: enter human arbiters of the law, and everything gets a bit more interesting. Our society needs law (in general) and laws (in specific) to function well because human beings are arbitrary creatures who might float away if left to their own devices. We need law and laws because we need to be reminded we don’t live here alone, there are others who share our space and deserve respect, honor, and dignity. So, in recognizing our need for law we’ve created systems upholding and enforcing the law and the laws of our society. As a result, the implicit consequences of the law are made explicit (reward and punishment). Sadly, the punishment is made explicit, while reward is kept implicit. Anyone here ever pulled over to be told: hey, good job driving 35 mph; you’re really living well today and plus you are saving sooooo much money on gas by driving sensibly, here’s a cookie!!

Law is important, yet, for humankind, we’ve grown misoriented toward the law. Because of law’s inherent goodness (creating order) and benign nature, the law has taken on a divine quality for us. Rather than seeing the law as a gift and tool for human beings to use to their advantage, for their livelihood, for their thriving together and individually, it’s become a thing that must be obeyed or suffer the harrowing consequences of infraction. In other words: we’ve forgotten the law was created for us, and are trapped by the myth we were created for the law. The law’s become God

So, we’re misoriented toward the law; we’ve put all our eggs in the law basket hoping it will save us from ourselves and from others. But it can’t; it can only say: do this/do not do that. We’ve put so much hope in law that we’re naïve to think that once we get a law down on the books, the work is now finished. We’ve invested so much in the law we’ve forgotten our own responsibility for ourselves and for others; we’ve handed our responsibility over to the law’s clergy and church: lawyers, judges, police, courtrooms and prisons. We’ve sold our bodies to the law; we’re now the law’s property. So, those who enforce the law can do whatever they need to do to ensure the law is upheld even take life. We’ve elevated the law above people; we set our sights on the law as the ultimate thing, rendering our neighbor as sacrifice to the law. We will even crucify God to uphold the law in the name or order.

Galatians 3:23-29

Now, before faith came, we were being kept (as by military guard)—being closed up—under the law with respect to the intending faith to be revealed. So then, the law was as our PEDAGOGUE until Christ has happened, in order that we might be declared righteous from faith. Now while faith came, we are no longer subordinated by the pedagogue. For you all are sharing in the same nature of God by means of faith in Christ Jesus. [1]

(Gal. 3:23-26)

According to Paul, the neutrality of the law is gone. The “do this” and “don’t do that” became condemnation to death rather than commendation to life.[2] Paul refers to the law as a “Pedagogue” (παιδαγωγός). This is no compliment. We see this word as “teacher”; but Paul’s usage is more like this: the person who needed to do whatever it took to make sure morals were cultivated in children.[3] Paul highlights that the law must do whatever it takes to ensure obedience; even if the law was given for life, it’s used for death because we can never keep it enough to avoid suffering consequences of disobedience. [4] Thus, the declaration of righteous as children of God is forever elusive; we’ll never obtain it through the law.[5]

For Paul, our relationship to the law is greatly disturbed; we’ve replaced our devotion to God with devotion to the law, demanding the law be something it isn’t…savior. Thus, our misalignment toward the law is only remedied by Christ Jesus, by whom the law is fulfilled[6] and in whom we have faith.[7] Through our relationship with Christ, our devotion to the law is broken because we’re realigned (rightly) to God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this realignment to God through Christ by the Spirit (who is God’s spirit of love residing in us), our relationship to the law is restored to what it should be: a tool we use to make this world better and not worse for others and for ourselves (because we’re all one in Christ[8]). By the Spirit of love received through faith in Christ, we are rightly oriented to God, thus rightly oriented to our neighbor with love, and thus to the law.[9] The law serves love, and love serves the neighbor; this is our business. The law is no longer a threat but a tool; no longer about condemnation to death but commendation to life. [10] In with the Paraclete, out with the Pedagogue; in with the Spirit, out with the stones; in with life, out with death.

Conclusion

Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, articulated the tragedy of our misalignment to the law perfectly in his brilliant novel, Crime and Punishment.[11] For our purposes, we are looking in on a fever dream the main character, Raskolnikov, has: A horse, yoked to a buggy, is commanded by her owner (Mikolka) to pull the buggy packed with many people. Mikolka demands the horse to move. The horse can’t, though it tried desperately. Mikolka grew angrier and the crowd more fevered.

Under the whipping, the horse struggled to obey; she couldn’t move the cart. Mikolka increased punishment to get obedience. The crowd (in and outside of the buggy) cheered Mikolka. The horse had very few advocates; one old man hollered at Mikolka, “‘What are you about, are you a Christian, you devil?’…” This question was met with further exhortation from the crowd for more severe beatings.

The horse tried to fight back by kicking, but her resistance was met with escalated punishment, “‘I’ll teach you to kick,’ Mikolka shouted ferociously. He threw down the whip, bent forward and picked up from the bottom of the cart a long, thick shaft, he took hold of one end with both hands and with an effort brandished it over the mare….‘It’s my property,’ shouted Mikolka and brought the shaft down with a swinging blow. There was a sound of heavy thud.”

Needless to say, the beating continued; no matter how severe the blow, the horse was unable to pull the buggy. She was exhausted; barely any fight left, no matter how hard she was hit she could not pull the buggy. Then,

“‘I’ll show you!…’ Mikolka screamed frantically; he threw down the shaft, stooped down in the cart and picked up an iron crowbar. ‘Look out,’ he shouted, and with all his might he dealt a stuffing blow at the poor mare. The blow fell; the mare staggered, sank back tried to pull, but the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log.”

Crime and Punishment

The poor horse had few advocates, just random voices hollering into the air; few tried to interfere. The mare was Mikolka’s property; he could do what he wanted. Yet in this story of a helpless beast, there was one little voice that not only hollered, a little body accompanied that little voice.

[a] boy, beside himself, made his way, screaming, through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms around her bleeding dead head and kissed it, kissed the eyes and kissed the lips…Then he jumped up and flew in a frenzy with his little fists out at Mikolka. At that instant his father, who had been running after him, snatched him up and carried him out of the crowd.
‘Come along, come! Let us go home,’ he said to him.
‘Father! Why did they…kill…the poor horse?’ he sobbed, but his voice broke and the words came in shrieks from his panting chest.
‘They are drunk…they are brutal…it’s not our business!’ said the father.

Crime and Punishment

What the father forgot, the young boy remembered: serving love and protecting life is very much our business and not serving the law and allowing death. The law serves love, and love serves the neighbor; this is our business. Life—human life, animal life, all life—is always way more important than enforcing the law at the expense of life; we must make life our business and then the law, not the reverse.

Beloved, remember that the law was created for you, you weren’t created for the law. Remember whose you are: you are the children of God, if children of God then heirs of love and life, and if heirs then those who like their Abba God bring and proclaim love and life to others.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians (1535) Chapter 1-4 LW 26 Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan Assoc. Ed. Walter A. Hansen. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1963. 335. “For the Law is a Word that shows life and drive us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent. it does not reveal death in a way that takes delight in it or that seeks to do nothing but kills us. No, it reveals death in order that men may be terrified and humbled and thus fear God.”

[3] Luther LW 26 336. “…before the time of the Gospel and of grace came, it was the function of the Law to keep us confined under it as though we were in prison.”

[4] Luther LW 26 335. “Therefore the function of the Law is only to kill, yet in such a way that God may be able to make alive. Thus the Law was not given merely for the sake of death; but because man is proud and supposes that he is wise, righteous, and holy, therefore it is necessary that he be humbled by the Law, in order that this beast, the presumption of righteousness, may be killed, since man cannot live unless it is killed.”

[5] Luther LW 26 336. “Such is the power of the Law and such is righteousness on the basis of the Law that it forces us to be outwardly good so long as it threatens transgressors with penalties and punishment. Then we comply with the Law out of fear of punishment, but we do so unwillingly and with great indignation. What kind of righteousness is that, if you refrain from evil because you are compelled by the threat of punishment.”

[6] Luther LW 26 347. “The Law is a custodian, not until some other lawgiver comes who demands good works, but until Christ comes, the Justifier and Savior, so that we may be justified through faith in Him, not through works.”

[7] Luther LW 26 343. “By faith in the Word of grace, therefore, the Christian should conquer fear, turn his eyes away form the time of Law, and gaze at Christ Himself and at the faith to come.”

[8] Luther LW 26 356. “In Christ…where there is no Law, there is no distinction among persons at all. there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are one; for there is one body, one Spirit, one hope of the calling of all, one and the same Gospel, one faith, one Baptism, on God and Father of all, one Christ, and the Lord of all…”

[9] Luther LW 26 349. “Coming at a predetermined time, He truly abolished the entire Law. But now that the Law has been abolished, we are no longer held in custody under its tyranny; but we live securely and happily with Christ, who now reigns sweetly in us by His Spirit. But where the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17).”

[10] Luther LW 26 352. “But to put on Christ according to the Gospel is a matter, not of imitation but of a new birth and a new creation, namely, that I put on Christ Himself, that is, His innocence, righteousness, wisdom, power, salvation, life, and Spirit…”

[11] The story is found on pages 48-53. All quotations are taken from this section.

Who You Ask

The gospel isn’t political; it’s a missive
carrying divine words transmissive —
addressing the sinful state of humanity
deserving refusal of heaven’s eternity.

“If I could recollect before my hood days
I sit and reminisce, thinkin’ of bliss and the good days
I stop and stare at the younger
My heart goes to ’em, they tested with stress that they under”
*

We don’t want to be like the activists now, do we?
We would fall to the ego’s restless insatiable vanity.
We must protect Christ from assimilation between
politics and action; forsooth, people would misween.

“And nowadays things change
Everyone’s ashamed of the youth ’cause the truth look strange
And for me it’s reversed
We left ’em a world that’s cursed, and it hurts”

The gospel saves souls from hell;
we must stay the course and tell
this message of surreal security
from flames eager for impurity.

“’Cause any day they’ll push the button,
and all good men Like Malcolm X or Bobby Hutton died for nothin’
Don’t it make you get teary? The world looks dreary
When you wipe your eyes, see it clearly”

Proclamation of the gospel of God: love for all;
but only those who hear—in heart—God’s call:
those who ascend to this dominant culture’s law
keep the message, don’t stray, lock tight the jaw.

“There’s no need for you to fear me,
if you take your time and hear me maybe you can learn to cheer me
It ain’t about black or white, ’cause we human
I hope we see the light before it’s ruined”

Expectation to be comforted by that ancient declaration
of God’s cosmic divine love, sweet gospel proclamation;
don’t alter the protocol, give me dear, mellifluous Jesus
salvation by words harmonious and never ever versus.

“Tell me, do you see that old lady? Ain’t it sad?
Livin’ out of bag but she’s glad for the little things she has.
And over there, there’s a lady, crack got her crazy;
guess who’s givin’ birth to a baby?”

Leaning heavy on the liberating baptismal covenant—
the spiritual waters washing me into the Remnant —
exhorted to combat evil (demythologized into oblivion),
charged to spread the Gospel (only in word, not action).

“I don’t trip or let it fade me
From out of the fryin’ pan we jump into another form of slavery
Even now I get discouraged
Wonder if they take it all back, will I still keep the courage?”

Don’t risk the active pace, preach only the “Gospel”,
never straying from that saccharine comfort (fiscal).
God forbid disrupting that flow of donated wealth
and lose privileges in the gentrified commonwealth.

“I refuse to be a role model
I set goals, take control, drink out my own bottles
I make mistakes but learn from everyone
And when it’s said and done, I bet this Brother be a better one.”

Atop this kingdom of table and pew, hewn stone and wood,
Ruling by myth and cloth, condemning those who withstood.
With clenched fists and jaw, eyes shut so tight: adoro deum;
disturb the self-righteous seat: beware narcissistic tantrum.

If I upset you don’t stress, never forget
That God isn’t finished with me yet
I feel his hand on my brain
When I write rhymes I go blind and let the Lord do his thang.”

Confer with the others—self-appointed judges—and we agree:
the gospel remains purely spiritual; dialectically, materially free.
Lest—shudders—the people wake and reform to revolutionary,
we must remythologize those divine words of Love incendiary.

“But am I less holy
‘cause I chose to puff a blunt and drink a beer with my homies?
Before we find world peace,
we gotta find peace and end the war on the streets;
my ghetto gospel.”

*This and all other right hand side citations are from Tupac Shakur’s “Ghetto Gopsel”

Sweet Divine Liberty

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Luke 4:14-21

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

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

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

Luke 4:16-20a

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Green Luke 214

Loved and Freed

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Psalm 147:1-3 Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! How pleasant it is to honor God with praise! The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; God gathers the exiles of Israel. God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Introduction

The red and blue lights in my review mirror solicited my hard sigh; the same lights were, at that moment, entertaining the boys, seven and six, and their entertainment was entertaining Liza who was just about one. I pulled off the road and into a parking lot to a chorus of “Mommy got pulled over! Mommy got pulled over!” Both boys swaying rhythmically to their own tune. I was not amused; but I wasn’t fully mad, either. It truly was a catchy little tune.

I waited for the police officer to come to my window, clutching my license and registration; I was ready to get this business over with because I had swim lessons to get to and was already late…which may have been the reason for the red and blue lights in my rearview mirror. As I waited, a moment of condemnation came upon me. I soothed myself by remembering I was justified by faith apart from works, so if I was guilty of breaking the law than I was guilty of breaking the law and that was it. Nothing more; nothing less.

When the police officer approached, he asked me if I knew why he was pulling me over. I said, “No.” He said, you were going 60 in a 40. I was shocked. “Really?! In this car?!” “Yes,” he answered. “Are you using VASCAR? Because I know VASCAR can give false readings.” “Yes, I was, and, no, it wasn’t a false reading.” Then he asked for my license and registration, which I eagerly handed to him. He thanked me and then went back to his car.

A while later, he came back and said, “Man, I hate to do this…You’ve been really cool; I hate to give you this ticket.” I smiled, and said, “It’s okay. Really. If I’m guilty, I’m guilty.” He paused and stepped back a little from my car. And then again, “Man! You are so cool about this. I hate giving you this ticket.” I looked at the clock: swim lessons drew nigh; I needed to get this ticket from him. Knowing I couldn’t just grab it, holler “Thanks!” and peel out of there… I did the only thing I knew to do, “Listen,” I started. “I’m a student of the law; well, actually I’m a student of God’s Law. I study theology. And I know that the law can only tell me when I’m breaking it and that I’m guilty when I do break it. I accept that. I am guilty of speeding and you are free to give me that ticket.” He stepped back again and didn’t say anything; I was nervous. Then he spoke, “You have just shown a brother in the Lord mercy. Do me a favor and plead ‘not guilty,’ and I’ll take care of it on my end.”

“Really?! But I’m guilty!” I replied. He laughed and asked me to trust him.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came we were kept—guarded as by the military—under the law, being hemmed in until the intended faith would be revealed. Just as the law has been our trainer [in life and morals] with respect to Christ, so that from faith we may be declared righteous. While faith has come, we are no longer under the trainer [in life and morals].

Galatians 3:23-25

Paul describes to the Galatians the situation they were in prior to Christ’s advent: under the law as if trapped by a warden. The word Paul used to describe “the law” is παιδαγωγός (paidagogos/“pedagogue”). The law, according to Paul, was a pedagogue until faith was revealed. The problem arises here: we think that παιδαγωγός means “teacher.” It can mean that for us, but not in Paul’s context. The word defined according to the context in which it was used can be rendered: the slave who oversaw forcing the boys to school, who watched over and monitored and trained the boys in life and morals. Clearly, “teacher” does not cover the breadth of the definition. So, it’s better to see this word rendered as “warden,” which keeps an eye to the military aspect of having been guarded and kept by the law until Christ came. For all intents and purposes, when those kept by the law stepped out of line, the law would step close and threaten, presenting itself as an address to get back in line for their own good—like the slave would do when bringing the boys to and from school.[1]

The law, according to Paul, loomed and threatened, always bringing with it the potential to convict in order to keep those under its charge in line. But the law isn’t evil or bad; it’s just the law. The first word given by God to God’s people to bring them unto life; the law is revealed to God’s people to give them life abundant. The law was intended to turn God’s people toward God, to reveal the human tendency to think we ourselves are God; the law was there to humble God’s people and bring them toward God.[2] The relationship was always about God and God’s people, and the law was only ever to assist that relationship but not be the definitive thing of the relationship. In other words, the law was created by God for humanity, to serve humanity; humanity was not created for the law, to serve the law.

But a problem developed. Rather than being a word beckoning God’s people to God, it became like a god. And in walked fear, terror, shame, and condemnation. As the law was allowed to take over God’s thrown, it was forced into a position that it was not meant to be in. In response, the people became performative to avoid threat and punishment.[3] Thus, the law became a prison and a warden of the people; from this prison there was no escape because there is absolutely no way to satisfy the demands articulated by the law[4] to such a degree that the law stops demanding. And if it never stops demanding, to where to do you run for comfort? Where is forgiveness? And mercy?[5]

Conclusion

Deliverance from this predicament was and is necessary. Humanity cannot extricate itself from such a plight. And here the law served God’s deliverance of the people through the coming of Christ.[6] Paul explains well: the law was a warden until faith came.[7] God sent God’s only son to be born of Mary and to dwell among the dirty, poor, sick, sinners, ostracized, marginalized, and threatened people…anyone and everyone condemned by the law.

From the moment Jesus was born the law was stripped of its warden like status.[8] A woman who had given birth, was forbidden from touching anything holy, forbidden from going into the sanctuary (being in God’s presence). But then, Mary.  After Jesus’ birth, Mary was unclean. The thing that would have segregated her from her community, the thing that determined that she was unclean was the law. Yet, Mary had given birth and was subsequently holding and nursing Jesus for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet, there she was with God because God was with her, physically, in her presence and she in God’s. From the moment of Jesus’s birth, Jesus began to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment.

And so, it is to be found dumb now, just like it was found dumb when the police officer pulled me over. The law in that moment could not condemn or threaten me; it was just the law, just a word to which I could acknowledge my guilt. Same, too, for you who are in Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. The law cannot determine who you are or whose you are; the law cannot strip you of your beloved status, no matter what you do or do not do. Everything that we do here on Sunday morning, and how we conduct our lives should be fueled by the very real presence of God’s love in our life and not because we are scared God will flee us or cast us out if we don’t do this or that right. When the church becomes a museum of ritual and traditionalisms, trapped in a static performance of doing just to do, exhibitions to make us feel pious and holy, I fear that church is now no longer worshipping God, but the law. When the church becomes a place serving the law, a place of judgment, of fear, of threat, it has stepped away from its love, Jesus the Christ who silenced the law the moment he came into the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in the lap of his unclean mother, Mary.

You are the beloved; laugh as the beloved, rejoice as the beloved, and live as the beloved: loved and free.


[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians 1535 Chapters 1-4 Luther’s Works Vol 26 Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis, MO: Concordia 1963. 335. “For the Law is a Word that shows life and drives us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent. It does not reveal death in a way that takes delight in it or that seeks to do nothing but kills us. No, it reveals death in order that men may be … humbled….”

[2] Luther Galatians 335. “Thus the Law was not given merely for the sake of death; but because man is proud and supposes that he is wise, righteous, and holy, therefore it is necessary that the be humbled by the Law, in order that this beat, the presumption of righteousness, may be killed, since man cannot live unless it is killed.”

[3] Luther Galatians 336. “Such is the power of the Law and such is righteousness on the basis of the Law that it forces us to be outwardly good so long as it threatens transgressors with penalties and punishment.”

[4] Luther Galatians 337. “For then a man is confined in a prison from which he cannot escape; and he does not see how he can be delivered form these bonds, that is, set free from these terrors.”

[5] Luther Galatians 337. “That is, the Law is also a spiritual prison and a true hell; for when it discloses sin and threatens death and the eternal wrath of God, man can neither run away nor find any comfort.”

[6] J. Louis Martyn Galatians The Anchor Bible Gen Ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 363. “…the Law was compelled to serve God’s intention simply by holding all human beings in a bondage that precluded every route of deliverance except that of Christ.”

[7] Luther Galatians 347. “The Law is a custodian, not until some other lawgiver comes who demands good works, but until Christ comes, the Justifier and Savior, so that we may be justified through faith in Him, not through works.”

[8] Martyn Galatians 362. “faith was invasively revealed. Paul’s use of the passive verb “was revealed” shows his intention to speak here of God’s eschatological act, and thus his concern to refer to the faith that is God’s deed in Christ (so also the faith” in w 25 and 26). From 2:16, 3:22-25, and 4:4-6, we see that Paul is referring interchangeably to the coming of Christ, to the coming of Christ’s Spirit, and to the coming both of Christ’s faith and of the faith kindled by Christ’s faith. It is that multifaceted advent that has brought to a close the parenthetical era of the Law, thus radically changing the world in which human beings live.”

On the Way

Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

Psalm 34:1-3 I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth. I will glory in the Lord; let the humble hear and rejoice. Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord; let us exalt his Name together. (44)

Introduction

Our gospel reading today reminded me that our encounters with God change us. I know that for me, this is the case. While the encounters vary from one to another and are difficult to pin down as this thing or act, an encounter with God in the event of faith brings me from a moment ago when I was this version of myself to now where I am this new version because of the encounter with God in the event of faith.

The most profound experience was when I became “Christian”. I was at the end of my rope, falling apart in so many ways, lost, chaotic, upside-down in all the ways one could imagine. I was devouring myself from the inside while I was letting the world have at me from the outside. And then…Jesus. I met Jesus in the isolation of my apartment in Hoboken, NJ, and left everything on the ground and took hold of his outstretched hand. And then I followed. I couldn’t not follow. My life was changed; I could see, I could hear, I could think, I could speak, I could feel in new ways; words and thoughts and deeds became fruitful seeds dropping into soil rather than weeds needing to be pulled out.

Other experiences of God-encounters in faith have come and gone. Many significantly smaller and simpler than the very first logged in the books by my own hand. Maybe it’s in the first sip of coffee, or the succumbing to exhaustion at the end of the day; in laughing with old friends and crying with a new one; in making bread in my kitchen and breaking bread at this table here in this church; in placing food into hands covered in dirt because that mud was too enticing and placing spiritual nourishment into hands that have seen so much; from moments outside these walls and moments inside these walls, the encounters with God in the event of faith are prosperous in possibility. There is no formula for them; they just happen, and they always catch me by surprise and change me as I find myself, once again, transitioned from was to is while taking hold of that outstretched hand of Christ and following.

Mark 10:46-52

Now, he, throwing off his cloak, rushed in and came toward Jesus. And then Jesus answered him and said, “What do you wish I would do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Teacher, that I might recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Depart, your faith has healed you.” And immediately he recovered sight and was following [Jesus] on the way.” (Mk. 10:50-52)[1]

Jan mentioned last week that all these stories and the discussion of what it means to be a disciple are leading up to Jesus arriving up to Jerusalem. She’s right. Mark doesn’t always mention the specific location when he tells a story. Sometimes it feels as if Jesus is teleported from here to there. However, this time, we get a clear and intentional geographical location: Jericho. This is the last stop before Jesus arrives at the outer limits of Jerusalem, just a day’s travel from Jericho.[2]

Mark tells us Jesus came to Jericho and as he is leaving, he encounters one who, having no sight and no belongings, recognizes who he is: Jesus, the son of David; this is no small claim. For all intents and purposes, this “son of David” was equivalent to “Christ” (Χριστός) but with more national and royal identity; according to this blind beggar, this is Jesus, the Messiah.[3] And here we begin to encounter a new facet to the discussion carried through the text. Not only do those who follow Jesus need to re-examine what it means to be a disciple of Christ, but they will also have to contend with their commonsense expectation of who Messiah is and what Messiah will do as Jesus’s ministry becomes more public.

Mark continues to tell us that this blind beggar, Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus—after being chided and rebuked by the crowd to be quiet—shouted all the more and all the louder, Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me! Once again, Jesus doesn’t tolerate chiding and rebuking and sides with the one calling on him.[4] Jesus doesn’t only acknowledge him, but he halts (himself and most likely the crowd) and tells the crowd to call the beggar to him. Immediately the chiding and rebuking crowd become eager and encouraging as they tell Bartimaeus to go to Jesus.[5]

Bartimaeus, the blind beggar publicly declaring Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel, throws off his cloak and rushes to Jesus. Jesus asks him, what do you wish I would do for you? Bartimaeus is clear in response: I wish to completely recover my sight. Done. Go, Jesus says. Your faith has healed you. Bartimaeus immediately regains his vision; he can do nothing else but follow Jesus, the one who gave him his sight, the one who gave him his life, the one who took his nothing and gave him something.[6] Bartimaeus ignores the command to go (ὕπαγε[7]) and chooses instead to follow Jesus as a disciple on the way (to Jerusalem).[8]

Conclusion

The interesting thing about Bartimaeus is how Mark juxtaposes him to the Rich young man (Mk 10:17ff). Prior to Jericho, the rich young man was the last and more likely recruit. Yet, he couldn’t do that final thing: abandon his privilege and follow after Jesus. Here, Mark highlights a blind beggar who, like the rich young man, recognizes Jesus, and who, unlike the rich young man, chooses to follow Jesus at the very last minute.[9] Both men encountered God, but only one was transformed by that encounter and thus experienced God in his self. One had everything and needed nothing; the other had nothing and needed everything. It is the poor, blind beggar—with nothing in this earthly life to lose who encounters God and is transformed in the encounter—who does the only thing that now makes sense because of that encounter: follow. The rich young man had too much to lose to let that make sense at that time. And Bartimaeus isn’t following Jesus as Jesus is growing in popularity but follows Jesus as Jesus is about to enter the most public and more devastating part of his ministry: his betrayal, his suffering, and his death.[10]

According to Mark, the way of the disciple is thus: follow Jesus deep down into the human experience, to be identified with the pain of others, to stand in solidarity in the fight for life and liberty of the captives, it is to weep with others who weep, too. And in it all, it is here where you find yourself, in the nitty gritty of human life, growing more in love with God and more in love with your neighbor.

As I think upon my own encounters with God, the most intriguing things is that after my first profound experience of encounter with God in the event of faith, I believed that this encounter would lead me up and out of the world, more into the heavenly, celestial, saintly realms of spirituality and purity. However, the reality is that I am, as I follow Jesus, lead deeper down and into the world, into the depths of human suffering and sorrow, into the nitty gritty of life in ways that I didn’t care for and didn’t desire. As a follower of Christ, I have felt more pain and more sorrow and more sadness than I have ever felt before when my life seemed decorated with such things. As a follower of Christ, I have felt the weight of my love for God and for others increase, driving me to reach each and every little one with the love of God, to tell them how loved they are by this God of love. In this deeper in and deeper down into the human experience, I find I’m given the gift of knowing who I am, specifically who I am in Christ. The more I walk with Christ, the more I encounter God and my neighbor—in both small and big encounters, both good and bad encounters. The more I encounter God and my neighbor the more I know who I am; and the more I know who I am the more I know who I am for you and in God. And the cycle repeats.

We, as disciples (united and individual), are called to go deeper in and deeper down, to see our call and our purpose in going out into the manifold masses, proclaiming—in word and deed—God’s profound and real love for them as the beloved when things are good and when things are bad, when things are big and when things are small. Those of us who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan have been and are encountered by God in the event of faith, we have been and are loved as we are, where we are, in every mundane day. I pray we bring this very love and encounter to others who may not have the ability to meet us here; may we meet them out there, on the way.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 421-22. “The preparation of the disciples for Jerusalem has already reached its climax in v. 45, but this final incident on the way moves the plot on from the vague geographical information of 10:1 to a specific location, Jericho, the last town before the traveller reaches the environs of Jerusalem, a mere day’s walk away. So we see Jesus and his disciples, with a growing crowd of fellow pilgrims, leaving this last town for the strenuous climb up from the Jordan valley to the city more than 1,000 metres above. But as they set out, the company is augmented by a further and unexpected recruit.”

[3] France Mark 423. “For Jewish people it would be functionally equivalent to Χριστός but the voicing of David’s name increases the loading of royal and nationalistic ideology which it carries. Peter’s recognition of Jesus as ὀ Χριστός in 8:29 would have given a sufficient basis for the disciples to use such language, if Jesus had it (8:30). But they have observed the ban, and so its first use now by an outsider is remarkable. No other onlooker has interpreted Jesus in messianic (as opposed to merely prophetic) terms in this gospel. Whether we should think of Bartimaeus as having unusual spiritual insight or as simply aiming to gain attention by the most flattering address he can think of, his words open up a new phase in the gradual disclosure of Jesus in Mark. For it is now time, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, for the messianic aspect of his ministry to become more public…”

[4] France Mark 424. “Like the disciples in 10:13, they (πολλοί, not just the disciples this time) rebuke someone of no status who wants to gain access to Jesus — and like the disciples they are overruled….but whereas in those instances it was Jesus who thus prevented disclosure of his identity, here it is the crowd who try to silence the ‘messianic confessor’, and Jesus who takes his part against them.”

[5] France Mark 424. “Given Jesus’ urgency in 10:32, his stopping (and presumably bringing the whole crowd to a halt) for a beggar is remarkable. The crowd’s sudden and complete change of heart indicates the authority of Jesus: they are now as enthusiastic as before they were dismissive, and become the medium for Jesus’ call to Bartimaeus.”

[6] France Mark 424-25. “The ‘privileged’ status which Mark has given to Bartimaeus allows him not only to call on Jesus as υἰὲ Δαυίδ but now also allows him to address him already as we might expect a disciple to do.…The request is expressed simply and boldly; the aorist subjunctive ἀναβλέψω looks for an instantaneous and complete recovery of sight (as in fact happens in v. 52), rather than the more protracted process we have seen in 8:23-25. Jesus’ reply uses terms already familiar from other healing stories….”

[7] ὕπαγε is the present active imperative 2 person singular of ὕπαγω. Thus, Jesus commanded him to depart (as he’s done with other recipients of divine healing), but Bartimaeus doesn’t. But that’s fine. France explains, In 5:19 ὕπαγε marked a refusal to allow the healed person to become a disciple, but in other cases it is simply a recognition that the person is now cured and may go, so that there is no need to see a conflict here between ὕπαγε and Bartimaeus’s deciding to follow Jesus.”

[8] France Mark 425. “The two terms ἀκολουθέω and ἡ ὁδός both speak of discipleship, and the prominence of the latter phrase in Act Two ensures its occurrence at the end of that Act reminds us of this central theme. Bartimaeus, now set free from his blindness, represents all those who have found enlightenment and follow the Master. So as the pilgrim group sets off again up the Jerusalem road, with one additional member, the reader is prepared to witness the coming of the Son of David to ‘his’ city, and challenged to join him on the road.”

[9] France Mark 422. “The last potential recruit we met was an admirable, respectable, and wealthy man (10:17-22), but to the disciples’ consternation he has not been welcomed into Jesus’ entourage. Now we meet a man at quite the other end of the scale of social acceptability, a blind beggar. And it is he, rather than the rich man, who will end up following Jesus έν τῇ ὁδῷ, with his sight restored, nothing to sell, and so his commitment can be immediate and complete. While we hear nothing of his subsequent discipleship, the fact that Mark records his name and his father’s name suggests that he became a familiar character in the disciple group.”

[10] France Mark 422. “…so now his extended teaching on the reversal of values in the kingdom of God is summed up in the recruitment of the least likely disciple, the ‘little one’ who is welcomed, the last who becomes first. As Bartimaeus joins Jesus έν τῇ ὁδῷ he functions as an example of discipleship, with whom ‘Mark encourages the reader to identify’.”

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).”