Get Your Stoic On

Sancta Colloquia Episode 205 ft. Juan Torres

In this episode Juan Torres (@orthoheterodox1) and I talk about his recent pursuit of understanding Stoicism. What’s neat about this episode is that it’s a different perspective and a different discussion than the one I had with John Marc Ormechea (Season 1, Episode 2, linked below). I met John-Marc as is: a Stoic. But I met Juan as a dyed in the wool Moltmannian protestant and now, three years later, he’s deep in Stoicism. I was intrigued with what looked like a shift to me. So, I decided why not talk to Juan and figure this out. And Juan demonstrated the deep connection that Stoicism has with things like a basic understanding of the New Testament and that one of his favorites (Rudolf Bultmann) engaged with the concepts of Stoicism. Juan says, “Bultmann compares Christian understanding of freedom with the stoic understanding of freedom.” So, he started tracking down this line of thought. And he makes many valid arguments for the inclusion of the study of Stoicism to have a well-rounded engagement with the bible. Juan explains that Stoicism is about freedom based on reasoning one’s way through life by making the best possible choices in life, and that virtue is the only good. We are, according to Juan, to do what is right. But not in an individual way. He demonstrates that in Stoicism there’s a strong social aspect and this social aspect influences our use of our reason. Stoicism was originally a communal endeavor like “church”, the young stoic was always guided by the older and wiser stoics. At the end of the day, Juan is trying to give the philosophers a fair hearing and implement their thought into his daily life in practice. What I love about this conversation is that Juan demonstrates what it is to be truly openminded and a full-embodied student to the nth degree. He reminded me: stoicism was first to the scene and then Christianity; when it comes to borrowing it’s only in one direction, Christianity borrows from Stoicism ::micdrop::

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

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

Juan C. Torres is nothing more and nothing less than what some call a ‘lay-theologian”. He’s never gone to bible college, seminary, or on of those fancy religion/philosophy scholars’ conferences. All he has is an abiding interest/concern for the core matters of the Christian faith, in particular, he has always been immersed in theodicy and eschatology. Main thinkers who have molded his thought: Barth, Bultmann, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Tillich, etc. (Yes, he has read books/articles by women and people of color, but not the extent that he can list them and talk about their work.) By trade, he is a middle school math teacher. By passion, he is a theologian (in the broadest sense of the word) and most recently a stumbling but practicing Stoic.
You can find more by Juan Torres (and do some extra reading and listening) by visiting his blog and podcast:
https://thecheerfulstoic.com/ (Twitter: @CheerfulStoic1)

Love Wins

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (Homily)

When my eldest was in first grade, I received an email from his teacher one after-noon. The email from his first-grade teacher informed me that my son–the ever obedient, rubric hitting, perfectionism of epic first born status—had dropped the f-bomb in class. The email didn’t entail many details, but that the teacher wanted me to know so that I could address it at home. I spent a couple of minutes pondering the email. I had a few thoughts, as any parent would. I messaged his dad and let him know what had happened. Since I was the stay-at-home parent, I knew it was my duty to handle this situation. When my husband asked me what I was going to do, I told him I had it handled.

When Quinn came home, we sat on the couch and he did what he did every afternoon after school: he told me about his day. I waited, hoping he would tell me of his own volition about his rather bold and colorful vocabulary word used earlier that day. Nothing. “Anything else happen today worth noting…making mention of…sharing…” I tried leading him to tell me. Still nothing. Silence. Then I looked at him, and said, “I got an email from your teacher today…” I didn’t even finish the sentence before my son was a mess on the couch, weeping and apologizing and explaining what had happened. I held the sobbing heap of little boy while he told me the story. When he was finished and a bit more collected, I told him that I loved him. Then I said to him, let’s have a treat; how about a root beer float…

What caused that particular response from me? This: knowing my son well enough, I knew he had already suffered his consequence. The consequence had already been given, all I had to do was do what I love: comfort him. I didn’t need to bring more “command” and “demand” to his life, he didn’t need a follow up consequence. It was clear to me, in the way he was acting about the situation, that his error was known and felt. To add more consequence would be me adding an extra layer of condemnation to the situation that already (clearly) had condemnation. Adding more condemnation is adding threat where threat is already felt, and this leads to death.

Russian author, Dostoevsky, beautifully articulates the result of heaping threat upon threat, and condemnation upon condemnation in his brilliant novel Crime and Punishment. A horse, yoked to a buggy, is commanded by its owner to pull said buggy packed with a lot of people. So many people that the buggy can’t move, no matter how hard the horse pulls. In the story, the master of the horse commands the horse to move. But the horse can’t. Then the whips come out. Nothing. The horse can’t move even though it is desperately trying. Then, in what appears to be a fit of maniacal rage, the master starts beating the horse with pipe and stick demanding and commanding it to move. The horse, after many noble attempts to obey and move the buggy, collapses, dead, under the blows.

More harshness, more cruelty, more demand, more threat, more fear never, ever, produces the thing that is desired. Being increasingly harsh and cruel, threatening and demanding with others and with ourselves will never ever get us the very thing desired. Threatening someone into compliance will only result in temporary surface obedience with eventual and corresponding, resentment running very deep. Hating yourself will only result in self-destruction: you can’t shame yourself into confidence.

I’ve said it before: it’s hard being human; why do we make it harder for others and ourselves? Our lives are fragile and fleeting…doesn’t life offer enough suffering of its own? Do we have to add unnecessary and additional pain and torment? Here’s a powerful secret: Love–(love love) love that goes to the depths with us in our worst–will always generate the very thing desired because it creates comfort and freedom for the beloved. Love doesn’t seek to gain obedience from the beloved, but love can’t help generating more love.

This love-love is the “comfort” Paul speaks of in our passage. And here’s the foundational truth to why I responded to my son the way I did: I’ve been radically loved to such an extent that my life is a 180 degree turn from what it was when I was encountered by God in the event of faith. At my worst, I was loved…as is…by God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. And over the years, as that love has worked its way into my very being, I’ve grown more and more into the woman I am in Christ—faults and all.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)

At the end of the day love wins because Jesus the Christ, back on Calvary’s mountain, died, descended into hell and liberated into comfort and freedom those trapped under the weight of condemnation and threat—a liberation that is true from age to age to age.

Love wins because Love won.

Dostoevsky and Dialectical Theology

Theological Examination of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

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

 

Forde and the Bound Will

Gerhard Forde, Theologian of the Cross, Luther’s Bound Will

The following is a post I’ve thrown together from notes and underlines made for preparation to teach on Luther’s conception of the bound will using Gerhard Forde’s On Being a theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. I figured: why not share it with you, Beloveds 🤓

Gerhard Forde,[1] considering theses 13-17 in “The Problem of the Will,” asks the question, “If we are overwhelmed and captivated by grace alone, can we claim to play a part in the matter?”[2] In discussing the role of the will of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith, he contends with the notion that we do a “little bit,” which, for Forde, is the claim of the theologian of glory. The idea: if we do our best, God will give us the desired grace.[3] “Can we or will we by our own natural powers, doing our best, prepare for the reception of grace? Are we free to will that?”[4]

Forde’s answer to the question posed is a resounding: no. There are reasons for this:

“If there is to be salvation, it cannot come by the will’s own movement. That means that there must be a death and a resurrection. The cross stands behind the question of the will. The cross itself is the evidence that we did not choose him but that he, nevertheless, chose us (John 15:16).”[5]

For Luther, and thus for Forde, the idea of the electing God is—at its roots—abhorrent to us. We abhor the good; unlike Aquinas’s argument that we are always in search of the good and are ontologically connected through our intellect to the being of God (thus seeking God)—Luther strikes a different chord. We aren’t looking for the good or God and we are content to do as we please. In other words: we are very content to keep ourselves as Lords of our small kingdoms. “We can’t accept an electing God. We will not will it.”[6]

Thesis 13 “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin.”

“Free will” at best is a concept and not an empirical truth and certainly not a “God gave us free will it’s in the bible” type of claim. To argue for the actuality of “free will” is to argue, according to Forde, against the electing God. Even just a “miniscule” amount will work against the electing God and this proves Luther’s point that we abhor the idea of the electing God (and are in bondage of the will). That the will does not will to hand itself over to death, it is, since the fall “an empty name.”[7] It is free to will what it wills (itself) but not what it will not will (the electing God), thus it is not free.[8]

And this gets us to:

“Thesis 14: Free will after the fall has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.”

As is the case with anything that or anyone who is bound, they need liberation that comes from the outside. When we are stuck, we are in a passive capacity and need help from a non-stuck source (i.e. not ourselves).[9] This coincides with the dialectic of death and life prominent in the kerygma of Christ. Christ does not resurrect himself from death but is resurrected; same to for the Christian in the encounter with God in the event of faith: she is brought through death into newness of life not of her doing but of the Lord’s.[10]

“Thesis 16: The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty”

“Thesis 17: Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.”

Forde highlights that we grow uncomfortable as the theses drive home that we are not free not to sin but very much free to only sin and do “evil.”[11]

“The theologian of glory in us is beginning to cry out in frustration and despair! There is nothing to hold on to, no support left, nothing to do. Then the last-ditch defense is tried. ‘If all I do is sin, why not just quit? Why not just forget it all and sink into complete indifferent?’”[12]

For Luther and for Forde, there is a deep need to let God be God. There’s no claim we can put on God by our works as if we can hold God to a deal: If I do my part then you will *have to* do your part.  This is an objectification of God. If God is to be wholly other and we are to throw ourselves completely and totally depend on this wholly other God, then we cannot bring anything to the table. (And are we even at the table? Or, do we need to also *be* encountered by God?)

 

So, we obtain Grace through humility and not by “doing what is in one.” Humility is when we do not plead our case or try to self-justify but when we just confess and wait for justice (faith) which never comes in the form we expect. It arrives in absolution in grace in life—we are brought *out of* death in *into* new life. This type of humility must be differentiated from the “humility piety” (i.e. the “humbling the self” in an effort to save the self); this would render humility to be a work.[13]

One could argue that self-inflicted humility piety is not even humility. Humility is a death of the self and needs an active action of God for resurrection. We can be humbled; we don’t actually humble ourselves.[14]  “Humility in this context means precisely to be reduced to the position where we claim absolutely nothing.”[15] And, “The law humbles, grace exalts. Something is done to us.”[16] Humility is coming to the end of the self and the self’s ability to justify the self but it is here where we are encountered with mercy and grace. When the self (and with it the will) is brought to the end of itself it is free to confess and in this freedom to confess it is—for the first time—doing what it should: being honest. Or, in good Luther terms (what it means to be a good theologian of the Cross): calling a thing what it is.[17]

“Thesis 18: It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”

The distinction here is how to properly define “despair.” Forde explains, that this despairing is despairing of the ability of the self to receive God.[18] Forde,

“It is itself possible only because the grace of Christ has brought new hope…At the same time it is true that such preaching brings about the final surrender of faith in self, the ‘utter despair of our own ability’ that is inspired by and prepares to receive the grace of Christ. Ultimate despair is due to the temptation to believe that there is no hope beyond our own abilities. Despair itself then becomes ultimate and so leads to death. Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so lead to life. This subtle nuance points to a fundamental theological divide.”[19]

In this “utter” despairing we are brought to the foot of the cross in confession and are received and receive Christ as absolution/forgiveness. “Utter” despairing is not “ultimate” despairing, which leads to death unto death (the domination of toil and “actual”). “Utter” despair brings life out of death (the dominion of work and “possible”). If we are using our works as a means to self-justify, we are entering further into the realm of toiling (works in domination over us) and this is a battle we will not win. But to come to, to be brought to the end of ourselves and confess is to gain the entire world including ourselves in fullness and freedom and our works back as just works in their right place under our dominion.

 

[1] This is a book I’ve been reading since I’ve been teaching it to a group of students, introducing them to the concept of the bound will as it comes from Luther. Most of my students are more exposed to the concept of the free will and are briefly exposed to determinism. So, I thought it would be helpful to dive in a bit deeper to nuance some of these claims more. What follows here are from my underlines and notes made in the book in preparation to teach the class.

[2] Gerhard Forde On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation 1518 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 49.

[3] Forde 50.  “Luther’s teachers were from a particular branch of late medieval scholasticism (Nominalism) that held that if we ‘do what is in us,’ that is, if we do our best, we can be assured that God will not fail to give us the desired grace.”

[4] Forde 50.

[5] Forde 51.

[6] Forde 52; Determinism rejected because of willing the things below in free choice. We do what we want no matter what we hold philosophically speaking.

[7] Forde 52-3. “There must be some free will, no matter how minuscule. But the very claim is itself evidence of bondage over against the electing God…The theological of the cross…sees that that is exactly the problem, and therefore recognizes and confesses that, since the fall, free will does not exist in reality. It is an empty name.”

[8] Forde 54. “The will is bound to will what it wills. After the fall, it is bound by sin, hence not free.” And, “…when the will, bound to its own self, tries to do its best, it only commits deadly sin. It commits deadly sin because it refuses to recognize the power of God to save and cuts off from grace…We refuse to live by the cross.”

[9] Forde 55. “In its passive capacity the will can do good when it is acted upon from without but. Not on its own, not in an active capacity.”

[10] Forde 55. “Since will after the fall is dead and bound to do deadly sin, it can be rescued only from without, as is indicated by the fact that it could not bring life out of death but could only be commanded from without by our Lord.” Same concept applies, for Forde, to Thesis 15 and remaining in innocence in the Garden.

[11] I’d like to add that this “evil” in relation to our actions of our bound will is about our desire to add to the vertical realm our activity and actions as a means to participate in a type of self-justification either in the place of or alongside of the grace of God which justifies us with God. This is not that our horizontal works are “evil” and thus should always be avoided, but when we try to use those as a means for our justification with God is when they become “evil”.

[12] Forde 60.

[13] Forde 61

[14] Forde 62

[15] Forde 62

[16] Forde 62

[17] Forde 64. “Despair would rather come if one is falsely optimistic and tells them that they don’t need a physician while they steadily decline toward death. …The theologian of the cross knows that we do the world no good by playing the role of pious or sentimental optimists. One must ‘say what a thing is.’ One is given the courage to be honest.”

 

[18] Forde 65

[19] Forde 66-7.

Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

Have you ever been trapped? I have. I’ve been trapped by my big brother. As kids, he’d chase me through the house, yelling, “Pick your exits!” Meaning: make the choices you need to make to get outside. However, I’d panic and make just one irrational choice, and end up hiding deep in a closet or locked behind the bathroom door. Waiting…waiting for help or for the menace to leave.

I’ve felt trapped when as a young adult struggle against a destructive lifestyle that was running me into the ground. I was powerless against these forces that were controlling my days and night. No matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t break free from self-destructive behaviors. I was trapped and I need help, something or someone to intervene.

Have you felt trapped? Unable to break free? Liberty just so close but so far away?

I’ve felt trapped now, not always knowing what to do or how to move forward. Sometimes we put on a façade that things are all put together, but they aren’t always put together. False confidence, soothing and charming grins, and white lies pave our fool’s gold paved roads.  Bills demand, cars break, foundations crack, family strains, and there seems to be no way through.

And I’ve not mentioned the world yet; feeling trapped and being trapped are realities in our world.  Our world seems to groan and sigh under the weight of oppression and injustice, sicknesses and despairing unto death. The world and her inhabitants are weary to the point of death. As I’ve asked many times before: is hope lost?

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.” (Is 35:3-4)

Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in words of hope; hope in darkness. In the chapter preceding the one read, God promises to execute judgment on the nations. Thus, God demonstrates his great power over the nations and his promise that a cosmic battle will ensue to defend his own. Those who come against the beloved, will have to contend with God himself and his retribution.i God does not play nice with those who use their power for evil, get drunk on authority and greed, oppress and willingly participate in the oppression of those who can’t help themselves. Mark Isaiah’s words: Zion will come to Israel; justice will flow; salvation will be Israel’s by the retributive power of God.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there. (Is 35:8-9)

Hemmed in on all sides, Israel can’t defend itself from the oppression of the surrounding nations and enemies. The oppressive nations and enemies will be parted like the waters of the red sea at the boarder of Egypt; God will usher Israel out of enslavement and captivity into Zion, life, and salvation. As if lead by the hand through that verdant garden nearly forgotten, God will walk Israel through a deadly desert on his road, protected on every side.ii

Israel will not travel on just any road, but on the “Holy Way,” the golden road paved by God himself.iii And this road is for Israel and Israel alone; for those called and sought for by God, those freed and liberated by God, those whom God defends and rescues. It is these who are the clean and pure who are in God’s company.iv Isaiah prophesies, “Behold, God’s on the move; ‘He will come.’ All will be well; keep your hope, small nation.”v

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices!vi

This movement, this divine arriving, this promise all will be well is the crux of Advent. We wait, along with Israel, for the great “Holy Way” of God to be made before us, for God to place our feet upon its firm foundation. With Israel, strengthening our hands and our feeble knees, fortifying fearful hearts we wait for our God. And in a way no one expected, he shows up. He shows up in tangible redeeming love.vii

It’s in the arrival of a vulnerable baby, the one born of Mary, who will be the way, the truth, and the light through the deadly desert into Zion and Salvation. It will be upon his back our burdens will be laid as we walk unburdened out of our cages and our captivity into liberty and freedom. It will be by his hand we are led into God’s presence, where the unclean become clean, the slave become free, and the lowly are lifted. The birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the one pined for under the weight of sin and error is the advent of God’s cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death running rampant in the world. It’s in Christ, born in a manger, where those trapped reach out and grab not cold, restraining metal (bars and chain-link), but the warm, liberating, loving hand of God, and who are brought into great joy and gladness, into rest and peace, into life our of every present death.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!viii

 

 

i Brevard S. Childs Isaiah The Old Testament Library Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 255About chapters 34 and 35, “The relation is that of a reverse correspondence and together they summarize the two major parts of the Isaianic corpus: God’s power over the nations, and the exaltation of Zion for the salvation of Israel. The crucial decision to make regards the peculiar function of these chapters in their present position. Chapter 34 picks up from chapters 13-23 the call to the nations to bear witness to God’s sovereign power and to his imminent cosmological retribution. The geographical sweep is far broader than in chapters 28-33. Already the rod of punishment has been transferred from Assyria to Babylon (13:15), and the proud boasting of Assyria before its destruction (chapters 36—37) is paralleled by the taunt against the king of Babylon (chapter 14).  

ii JSB; JPS. “Isaiah” Benjamin D. Sommer. eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: OUP 2004). 852. “This ch [35[ is the converse of the previous one: In ch 34,  a land inhabited by Judah’s enemies becomes a desert; in ch 35, the desert is transformed so that Judean exiles in Babylonia can pass through it with ease on their journey to Zion. Normally, travelers from Babylonia to the land of Israel would move northwest along the Euphrates, then southwest through Syria, avoiding the route that went directly west through the impassable desert. But this prophecy insists that the exiles will be able to go directly and quickly through the desert, because the Lord will provide water and safety for them there. This passage borrows extensibly from Jeremiah’s prediction of the exiles’ return in Jer. 31.7-9. It amplifies that prediction, while changing its historical referent from another (Israelite) exiles in Assyria to southern (Judean) exiles in Babylonia. It also deliberately recalls the vocabulary of Isaiah 32.1-6.”  

iii Childs 256“The same typological tendency to transcend the specificity of earlier texts and to extend the prophecy in a more radically eschatological mows cam to in chapter 35. The same imagery of Second Isaiah recurs–the eyes of the blind opened, the transformation of the wilderness, the highway for the returnees–yet the images have increasingly taken on a metaphorical tone. The highway is not just a means of improving the route home, but now is portrayed as a holy path reserved for the pure of heart.  

iv JBS 856 “No on unclean: Since God would personally accompany the exiles (v. 4), they would have to be in a state of ritual purity.”

v Childs 257. “…chapter 35 immediately launches into an elaborate portrayal of the salvation of Israel. The imagery is not only closely related to that of chapters 40ff.—the desert blossoming, the joyful singing, the seeing of Yahweh’s glory—but the vocabulary of v. 4 offers a parallel to 40:9-10: ‘Behold, your God! He will come.’” 

vi Oh Holy Night 

vii Abraham J. Heshel ”Chastisement” Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 194.”God’s anger must not obscure His redeeming love.”  

viii Oh Holy Night 

An Encounter with Jesus, An Encounter with Hope

Luke 8:26-39 (Sermon)

Introduction

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here…[1]

This song would put Liza to sleep as an infant. While lying in our bed trying to catch my couple of hours of nighttime sleep without a baby, I would listen to my husband sing this song to my daughter as he would rock or walk her. I’m sure it was the mellow octave and slow rhythm that lured Liza to sleep, but the words would often keep me up. Man, I know this feeling. The song is about addiction, the loss of a dear friend to that addiction and the longing for that person to return, but everything seems too far-gone. The wish remains only a wish; hope seems lost.

Hope seems lost today. Via social media timelines and various news outlets, chaos seems to reign, violence is everywhere, people are dying, angry is the mood of the hour, and anxiety is the new normal. Bringing it to a personal level, we’re driving ourselves into isolation through our gadgets and screens. We’ll sacrifice people on the altar of materialism, burning brothers and sisters as a pleasing aroma to a false idol; and if that reward is good enough, we’ll sacrifice ourselves. We speak pleasing words but they lack substance; they’re hollow husks. We’ve been disabused of the notion that anything could ever be different or, God forbid, better, so we plug our ears, close our eyes, abide by system, and keep our heads down. We’re in chains thinking we’re living our best lives now, but we’re comfortably numb, more dead than alive.

Is hope lost? Are we just deaf, dumb, and blind?

Luke 8:26:39

And they sailed down into the region of the Gerasene which is on the opposite shore of Galilee. Now, after going out [of the boat] upon the earth, a man, having evil spirits, met him who was from the city, and for a considerable amount of time was not clothed in a robe, and he was not abiding in a house but in the tombs. (8:26-27)*

Our passage is from Luke 8 and participates in the meta-theme Luke is building. [2] He writes, “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (8:1). And Jesus does just that: travel and proclaim the word of God; where he steps and to whom he speaks causes radical change.

Jesus tells the crowd[3] gathered around him the parable of the sower. The word of God falls on various soils with various results (8:9-14). The conclusion, “But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (8:15). Jesus’s emphasis is this: they who have ears to hear, hear and respond.

Not hiding the light of lamps (8:16-18) is tied up with this theme, “Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away” (8:17). As well as Jesus’s definition about his true mother and brothers (8:19-21): “But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (8:21). The refrain goes out: they who have ears to hear, hear and respond. [4]

Luke has Jesus get in a boat with his disciples to head over to the other side of the lake (8:22). On the way, a storm presents and literally threatens the lives of the disciples as well as the other fishermen. The disciples panic and wake Jesus up. Jesus shouts at the wind and the waves commanding them to “Be still!” At the sound of the divine yawp, the “the winds and water” (8:25) immediately obey Jesus and marvels at his disciples who don’t seem to know God when they encounter him. Again, those who have ears to hear, hear and respond.

Luke is a master storyteller. By linking vignettes he builds his meta-theme. The kerygmatic aspect, Luke’s proclamation of Christ crucified through these stories puts the audience in contact with the Christ and asks his audience the same question Jesus will ask his disciples in the next chapter: who do you say that I am? (9:20). That answer will determine everything; have you really heard?

Luke really wants his reader to hear and to know who this is who will set his face to Jerusalem to bear the sin of the world and be raised to new life in victory over death and captivity. [5] Luke is building a capable case for the Christ; he is stockpiling narrative artillery to get his audience to answer that question rightly. They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

Luke’s meta-theme sails across the lake to non-Israelite territory, and we land on the shore of our passage about the Gerasene Demoniac. As he exits the boat, Jesus’s foot strikes the dry ground of unclean territory: the region of the Gerasenes, a Gentile territory.[6] Where that foot strikes, chains fall. Freedom from the bondage of sin and liberty from oppression is not for Israel alone, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’” (Jn 3:16). [7] The seed of the parable of the sower has come to the region of the Gerasenes, and Luke wants his reader to hear what happens when it hits the fertile soil of a desperate human heart and not only rebellious wind and the water.[8]

And after perceiving Jesus, [the man] shouted and fell down before him and in a great voice he said, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus the Son of the Most High? I beg of you, do not torture me.” For [Jesus] was commanded the unclean spirit to go out from the person. (For many times it had dragged him by force and he was bound by means of chains and shackles for his feet while being guarded and when tearing asunder the bonds he would be driven into desolate places by the evil spirit.) And Jesus inquired of him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” because many evil spirits entered into him. (8:28-30).

Notice Luke uses a specific Gentile to demonstrate how far Jesus’s liberating grace can and will go: to the unclean of the “unclean.” [9] Jesus goes to the margins of society, to the back alleys of civilization and finds fertile soil. Not among the civilized (the well dressed abiding proper etiquette) but among those bound by chains and not in their right minds. The fertile soils are those who hear because they know their dire state, [10] know they are bound, know their enslavement, know the burden of the fruitlessness of the rat-race of life, who know what it feels like to be ostracized and excluded, who know the crushing aspect of systems bent on the destruction and demolition and dehumanizing[11] of the person, those familiar with grim and with death.[12] They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

And [the evil spirits] were exhorting him that he might not command them to go away into the abyss. Now, there was a considerable herd of swine being pastured in a mountain in that place. And they were exhorting [Jesus] in order that he might allow them to enter [the herd of swine]; and [Jesus] allowed them. Now, when the evil spirits came out from the person, they entered into the swine, and the herd hastened from the precipice into the lake and was drowned (8:31-33).

When Luke brings Jesus across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes, he wants his audience to see how far, how deep, how wide, how cosmically powerful[13] the love and grace of God is in Jesus the Christ (to see how compassionate and powerful God is). This is Jesus, the one who was baptized by John in the river Jordan and the son with whom God is well please (Lk 3:21-22), this is Jesus the one who bested the devil in the wilderness (Lk 4:1-13).[14] This is Jesus who commands not only the wind and waves but also a legion (a military term designating 5,600 men) to flee a hopeless man.[15]

The evil spirits knew who it was standing before them and their paltry position by relation.[16] The evil spirits knew when Jesus spoke they had to obey, thus the pleading to be relocated into the swine and not into the unfathomable abyss thus death. They knew the power and the compassion (!) of the one who stood with the man among the tombs. Luke asks: do you know? They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

Now, after the ones who were feeding saw what had happened, they fled and announced [it] to the city and to the country. And they came out to see what had happened, and they went to Jesus, and they saw sitting near [his] feet the person from whom the evil spirits came out having been clothed and being of sound mind, and they were afraid. And the ones who saw announced how the one who had been possessed by an evil spirit was saved. And altogether the crowd of the neighboring country of the Gerasenes asked [Jesus] to go way from them, because they were seized by a great fear. And he turned back and stepped into the boat. Now the man from whom the evil spirits had gone out of was begging [Jesus] to be with him. But [Jesus] set him free saying, “Return to your house and fully relate what great things God did for you.” And [the man] went away toward the entire city proclaiming what great things Jesus did for him. (8:34-39).

While we don’t know exactly why the swineherds and the townspeople were seized with a great fear, we can guess. Jesus did send a lot of profit over the precipice into the lake. [17] But the emphasis in this final portion is on what had happened. So, both the now cured pork products and the cured former demoniac are in view. [18] This event was a massive encounter with divine power that upset the region in a myriad of ways (as divine power does: it upsets what humans build and prize).

There’s something else in view: the juxtaposition of the crowds’ fear and the fear of the man from whom many evil spirits came out. The crowd is seized with fear that’s closer to terror and they want Jesus to get out, fast; they lack faith; they’ve seen but they’ve not heard. [19] The man is seized with fear but it’s the fear that comes with hearing, the type of fear of the event of faith in the encounter with God. The man’s encounter with God has upended his existence: being possessed by evil spirits he is now possessed by faith and by the love of God, possessed by grace alone; he was naked, now he’s clothed; he was out of his mind, now he’s in his right mind; he was ostracized and excluded now he’s befriended and included. He has gone from being judged forsaken by God to being declared beloved by God; he came out of certain death into true life and hope.

Conclusion

The former demoniac hears and responds: he desires to follow Jesus. But Jesus tells him to go and do: Proclaim the freedom and the liberation God has given you. And he does just that: let me tell you about Jesus the Christ…Let me tell you about a man who told me everything about me… The most absurd people become God’s favorite messengers of a most absurd message: God does so love the whole entire world, a light shines so bright that darkness cannot overcome it, the good part is here and will not be taken away, Jesus is the Christ who died for our sin and was raised for our justification, that we matter to a wholly other God—who flung the stars in to the sky, who made the high mountains of the earth and the deep trenches of the sea—who has abolished death!

Our lives speak to this fantastic and absurd message; we are part of God’s motley crew of absurd messengers encountered by God in the event of faith in the proclamation of Christ and pulled out of ourselves and reoriented in and to the world[20]—not in a meek way, but in a dangerously helpful one.[21] For where we go, so to the proclamation of Christ Jesus who is love and divine grace and righteousness, who sets the captives free from their chains of bondage, who brings freedom to those enslaved by the demonic powers of a world and its systems oriented to it’s own self-destruction, like possessed pigs careening off of a precipice. We have come through certain death into true life and hope; how can we not bring this life and hope to a world fast loosing life and hope?

Jesus proclaimed gives birth to hope because “[t]hat is the meaning of the name Jesus Christ, a name of hope, a meaning of hope…The way of the love with which God has laid hold of our hearts…is the way of a hope that cannot be disappointed and will not be disappointed.”[22] Those of us gathered here today, who have ears to hear, are sent out from here with the hope given to us in Christ proclaimed. We are thrust back into a turbulent and hurting world and are caused to be witnesses to the mercy and justice and love of God in a world[23] seemingly devoid of such things. Mercy, justice, love, peace, and hope are not only for us who sit here and hear, but also for the people out there who long to hear.

The world groans restricted by the chains and shackles of the cage, held in bondage to the myths and lies of our systems and dogmas and longs to hear the message of Jesus Christ who brings hope to the hopeless, freedom to the captives, and love…

Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
There is a design,
An alignment to cry,
Of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be[24]

 

*Translation mine.

[1] Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. “Although this narrative unit is part of the sequence of scenes held together by these references to a journey, then, its position at the midpoint of this sequence and its identification the goal of Jesus’ intended trip (v 22) portend its identification of the goal of Jesus’ intended trip (v.22) portend its particular importance in this chain of episodes.” 335

[3] The text indicates that the crowd was comprised of many people from town after town . “When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable” (8:4).

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. About Luke 8:19-21, “…the point is that those who hear and do the Word of God are a new family of Jesus and of God.” 106.

[5] Gonzalez, 107. About 8:22-25, “…the central theme of this entire section, which is power of Jesus over demons. It is important for Luke’s narrative to stress that power as a prelude to the entire section on the passion in which that power seems to be brought to naught. Thus four miracle stories serve to remind us of who this is who will set his face to go to Jerusalem and there suffer and die The first of these stories shows the power of Jesus over the demons that wreak havoc through the elements.”

[6] Green, 335. “The one who shares center stage with Jesus has no name in the narrative- his foremost characteristic is his bondage to and release from demonic power (cf. 4:18-19). If these variations on a theme help us to identify the melody, then the countermelody is recognized in the assorted clues that this is the first time Jesus has crossed over into predominantly Gentile territory.” See also Gonalez, 108. “Although there are textual problems in this passage, so that it is impossible to tell exactly where the miracle is said to take place, it would seem that we are now in a Gentile area where large herds of swine were common…Thus one of the added dimensions of this story is that it is an early indication of the power of Jesus beyond the world of Judaism.”

[7] Gonzalez, 108. “Jointly, the three narratives serve to announce that the one who will soon find himself in Jerusalem refused, mocked, and crucified is Lord over all powers of evil, including disease and death, and is yet loving and compassionate. Separately, they point to various aspects of the lordship and compassion of Jesus.”

[8] Green, 336. “On a fundamental level then this text concerns the crossing of boundaries in Jesus’ mission, and more particularly the offer of salvation in the Gentile world. Within the larger narrative setting of this account, this emphasis is striking for Luke thus portrays how the lessons of the story of the sower then (8:4-21) appropriate to the Gentile world too. Here is a man, first full of demons then saved who responds as a disciple and becomes the first person to be commissioned by Jesus for missionary activity grounded in his own.”

[9] Gonzalez, 110. Bigger theme here, “It is the theme so prevalent in Luke, of the outsider being brought back in and of the restoration of community when this happens. The Gerasene who lived in the tombs is restored to his home and community. The woman who, of her hemorrhages, was considered unclean and was therefore excluded from community is now cleansed and restored. The girl restored to her family. In all three stories Jesus seems to go beyond borders of propriety: he heals Gentile; he commends an unclean who has touched him; he touches a corpse… The demons that Jesus conquers not only those of disease and but also those of isolation exclusion.”

[10]Gonzalez, 110. “As a whole the three stories warn us against being too systematic and dogmatic about the nature of the Christian mission. It is mission to Gentiles but also to those who should be part of the community but are excluded. At points it is a mission inviting to witness; and at other points it is a mission inviting some to be silent! It is a mission among crowds; but it is also a mission of personal touch. It is a mission of joy and restoration both to those who have long been oppressed by evil and to those who have suddenly discovered its demonic and life-destroying power.”

[11] Green, 338. The way Luke sets up the story, the audience is given a clear and upfront view of this man who used to be “normal” but now—for some reason—wasn’t, “In fact, his adverse condition is so advanced that he had crossed the boundaries of human decency. He had lost any claim to status’ naked and living in the tombs he was scarcely even human.”

[12] Green, 338. “Uncontrollable out of his mind, he was chained and guarded as a societal menace, like a wild animal. The strength of the evil forces at work inside of him is further underscored by Luke’s observation that attempts at containment had been unsuccessful. The destructive power of the demonic on this man could hardly be portrayed more strikingly. Completely displaced from his community living among the tombs he might as well be dead.”

[13] Green, 338. So many mentions of Demons/Evil Spirits, “…an encounter of cosmic proportions.”

[14] Green, 338-9. “The demoniac’s actions, now under diabolic control, signal the tension of the moment of encounter. Falling before Jesus is a sign of reverence, submission 70 but the demoniac’s loud shout suggests a defensive posture even resistance 71 The demoniac uses a question to issue a defensive directive: Let me alone! Within the Lukan narrative the demon correctly identifies Jesus as God’s Son, just as the devil had done (4:1-13); and, in particular as ‘Son of the Most High God’…”

[15] Green, 339. “Rather than immediately departing the man, this demon attempts to negotiate with Jesus and, indeed to gain ascendancy over him. Jesus counters by demanding and receiving the name of the demon: Legion from the Latin term legio, designating a military unit of some 5 600 men. The significance of this term in this co-text is signaled immediately by the narrator, who interprets the demon’s reply to mean that the number of demons who had entered the man was ‘many.’ With this the confrontation opposing powers has reached its zenith, with Jesus the victor. Not only does the compassion of Jesus expand to include the Gentiles then but so also does his power and authority.”

[16] Green, 339. “This demon finds himself in the presence of one related to “the Most High God” is one more powerful than he, and more powerful than the one he serves…That is the demon’s address is motivated by his recognition of his own inferior position. “

[17] Gonzalez, 109. “Then there is matter of the reason why the people in the area wish Jesus to The text mentions only ‘fear.’ Is it fear of the unknown and surprising power that has been manifested; or is it fear that Jesus will upset the economic well-being of the region, as he has already done drowning the swine?”

[18] Green, 340, Presence of Swineherds functions as testimony: other people saw these events. “Their return to the ci (from whence the man hailed, v 27) provides for the additional witnesses of what Jesus had done for this man. Hence the repeated phrase ‘what had happened’ must be taken to mean both the drowning of the pigs and the healing of the former demoniac.”

[19] Green, 341. “Fear in the face of evidence of divine activity is expected in the Gospel, but the fear of these people is not portrayed as a positive response. Have gathered from city and country (v 34), and now all from the region share in a common verdict. In fear they reject Jesus. The offer of good news rebuffed, Jesus departs. Unlike the disciples in the boat (8:22-25), in spite of the unambiguous evidence of divine intervention before them in the form of their transformed acquaintance, these people seem not to have any faith at all.”

[20] Corresponds with the definition for Dialectical Theology provided by Dr. W. Travis McMaken on this podcast hosted by Stephen Waldron, http://theologyandsocialism.libsyn.com/our-god-loves-justice-interview-with-w-travis-mcmaken-on-helmut-gollwitzer

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

[22] Helmut Gollwitzer “Hope for the Hopeless” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. 103-4. “And now with this hope [we go] back into our earthly life, and that means into tribulation, into hopes that can be disappointed, into battles win two which he sends us as his disciples, into the unpeaceful world as peacemakers, into solidarity with the hungry and the enslaved as prisoners…When we are struck to the ground, we rise again and again, and even at the grave we raise our hopes again…”

[23] McMaken, 148 “Christians are called to bear political witness to the God they have encountered—a God of peace, justice, mercy, and ultimately, of love.”

[24] Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More

Blessed are the Ordinary

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (Sermon)

One of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had is being a parent, specifically being a stay-at-home-parent. It’s probably not hard to imagine why I’d say such a thing; either you personally relate to such a statement because of experience or you’ve witnessed the grueling task being performed by another. Being the primary care provider for little and rather irrational human beings demands a certain amount of mental and physical and emotional fortitude; not to mention the exponential increase therein as you have more kids. Maneuvering through (what seems like) the endless minefield of demands and needs and still retaining some sense of self at the end of the day is the feat of feats.

But it wasn’t just the tasks that sent me into my own personal pressure cooker and crucible, but the monotony of the tasks. The day in and day out of doing the exact same thing over and over again often felt soul crushing and dehumanizing. I had gone from a well-decorated seminary student with a bright-star-esque academic future, to rinsing off yet another poopy cloth diaper. The rocking chair and my nursing infant tethered me to the nursery. This. This is my life. Nursing and diaper changes. Peanut butter jelly sandwiches and massive tantrums.

 I watched as my peers reviewed proofs of their books, traveled to exotic locations to proclaim the gospel, start ministries and plant churches while I was stuck changing my shirt for the fourth time that day because of projectile spit-up. My inner monologue featured the twin thoughts: “I’m capable of so much more!” and “Good Lord, I’m a shell of a human being…”

One day, while I was reading one of the volumes of Luther’s Works, I saw my plight clearly defined.

This punishment [in Genesis 3:16], too, springs from original sin; and the woman bears it just as unwillingly as she bears those pains and inconveniences that have been placed upon her flesh. The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, defends his possessions, tills the soil, builds, plants, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home…so the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household, as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and that concern the state. She does not go beyond her most personal duties.[1]

On that day, as my eyes moved over Luther’s words, I felt the very long tentacles of the curse uttered way back when cinch and tighten around me. I was a nail hammered so deep into a wall that the only hope to recover the nail would be to tear the wall down; the only other recourse would be to just admit the nail was lost forever. I wasn’t special, I wasn’t a bright-shining star; I was just a mom stuck in the monotony and banality of #momlyfe.

And I know I’m not alone, and I know that what I experienced isn’t merely a stay-at-home-parent thing. We all suffer from the monotony and banality of our lives. Very few of us here are as famous and special as we thought we would be when we were kids. And even if we are, monotony and the mundane plague every one’s life. The same people keep sitting in the same chairs at our dinning tables, ranting about the same things. We drive the same route in the same traffic there and back from work. Our lunches are packed with the same foods and in the same manner; the only change being that the store ran a sale on pink lady apples so you didn’t get the Fuji you normally get. Ooooo. Fancy.

While routine can bring comfort, it will also bring disdain; no one likes being in a rut or in the thick of existential crises surrounded by the doldrums. At some point in the last 7 days—more likely than not—you said or thought something to the equivalent of: is this all there is for me? Or you felt stuck, stuck like a nail driven deep into a wall, nothing special.

And then the apostles were called together to Jesus and they reported to him everything that they did and everything they taught. And then [Jesus] said to them, “Come! You yourselves privately to an empty place and rest a little.” For the people—who were the ones coming and the ones going—they were not even having an opportunity to eat. And they (Jesus and the disciples] went away in a fishing boat into an empty place privately. And then they saw them [Jesus and the disciples] going away and many people recognized [them] and then together they ran from all of the towns and they were ahead of them [Jesus and the disciples]. (Mark 6:30-33)

There’s nothing really special about our Gospel passage either. In fact, it’s remarkably dull and mundane. Neither my exegetical work nor any commentary provided me with that: “Oh, wow! That’s really cool!” moment we preachers so desperately desire. The text is as a bland in the original Greek as it is in the English; you’re not missing out on anything.

The story is as follows: the disciples have returned to Jesus and tell him what they’ve been doing (Mark doesn’t take the time to be specific, it’s merely: they tell Jesus all the things, no one story being significant to tell in detail). Jesus then suggests a retreat, and they all get in a boat to go to a remote place for rest. This attempt is thwarted because: people. Jesus loves the people and teaches them. That’s it. There’s nothing very remarkable here.

The reality that Jesus is popular or that he is very concerned for the physical and mental state of his overworked disciples[2] isn’t new; Mark is consistently pointing out both.[3] Even the destination for the disciple’s retreat is not even worth mentioning in detail: it’s merely a deserted, remote place without a name located somewhere on the northwestern portion of the shore.[4] And, according to the commentary I read for this passage, v. 33 points out that Mark has, “…oversimplified the process by which so large a crowd came to be in the ε῎ρημος τόπος looking for Jesus.”[5] Mark, in his quick and immediate style, merely informs his reader that there were a lot of people, these people recognized them, and they ran to meet Jesus on the other side of the shore. V. 33 has a lot of information collapsed into it; none of it particularly all that fascinating.

To make matters more bland, the main point of the remainder of chapter 6 falls not with this failed attempt at retreat and rest, but on the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’s walking on the surface of the water.[6] But guess what? We weren’t even offered the good part. According to the Lectionary, we go from v. 34 straight to v.53 and read about another boating endeavor and Jesus healing everyone everywhere. The lectionary intentionally dropped those two big, fat miracles out of the reading. And, just like our boring lives, what we’re left with is a big dose of: meh.

Wedding the lectionary’s scriptural omission to the conception that Mark’s is very concerned with (and has been for a few chapters now) the “Christological question…‘Who is Jesus?’”[7], we find ourselves in a bit of an intellectual conundrum. We’re faced with the question: how does this handful of disconnected verses offer illumination into Jesus? How are we, through the text, brought into an encounter with God? And surely the crisis of the need for food and being encountered by your rabbi walking on water provides a more than adequate means for a textually centered encounter with God. In my very human opinion, the miracles seem to be a seraphic announcement: Jesus is God! But what we have seems more like divine mumbling, huh? what? I didn’t quite catch that.

And then when he [Jesus] got out he saw a large crowd and he felt sympathy upon them, that they were as sheep not having a shepherd, and then he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Rather than being overwhelmed by the largeness and the magnificence of the grand miracles of vv. 35-52, where we can point and say: See?! This is God; there is God in Christ! We are left being rather underwhelmed with mundane minutia and commonplace statements about Christ. But maybe that’s the point?

Maybe by not being dropped into midst of the grandness of the big miracles but shoved to the outside margins and fringes, we are being asked to reconsider how we view the ordinary? Being forced to focus on the text surrounding two major miracles and not on the miracles themselves demands that we broaden our typically narrow Christological answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” We are forced to incorporate the small, the mundane, and the banal of life in our answer. Whatever we say of Christ applies even in the monotony of the everyday.

In v. 34, Christ has compassion on the crowd because they are sheep without a shepherd (a clear Old Testament reference).[8] The imagery of the sheep without a shepherd, “…denotes the ‘untended’ state of the ordinary people of Galilee… which arouses Jesus’ compassion and to which he responds as in 4:1-2 by an extended period of teaching.”[9] Jesus has compassion on a group of people, a large group of ordinary people with ordinary lives. Jesus, in the big and in the small, is “‘the one who cares.’”[10] This one who cares is the one who the ordinary people encounter on the shore, and it’s in this encounter where the ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary because the ordinary comes into contact with the extraordinary. And, that’s what the grace of God does and this extraordinary alteration is the essence of the reign of God.[11]

In the economy of the reign of God: what was last is first, what is made low is brought high, what is poor is rich, what is unclean is made clean, what is rejected is accepted, and what is dead is made to be alive. In all of the gospel accounts of Christ, Jesus is recorded as upending the status quo and in doing so he overthrows the controlling myths of the world. When being strong and powerful and rich and satiated was considered to be the manifestation of blessedness, that God had looked upon you and smiled, Jesus said the opposite,

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.’” (Luke 6:20-22).

Blessed are you who are ordinary for yours is the extraordinary grace of God. Because it’s in the throes of existential crisis of monotony where you realize you are completely incapable in yourself to be anything but ordinary and commonplace, where the lie that you have to be the richest of the rich, or the powerful of the powerful to affect change in this world is exposed. God, in Christ, has looked upon you and has had compassion. And we know that it is the character and quality of God to have compassion because Christ is compassionate here and elsewhere; this is as marvelous and powerful (and maybe more so) as stilling and quieting the wind and waves, as magnificent as walking on water and feeding the 5,000. This is the extraordinary and compassionate God the ordinary people of Galilee encounter on the shore.[12]

In this event-encounter with God everything changes by the paradoxical grace of God. The rejected becomes the beloved, the sick become the well, and the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

A friend of mine wrote a very excellent book on the life and theology and politics of Helmut Gollwitzer, a theologian of early 20th century Protestant Germany. He writes about Gollwitzer’s death,

“Helmut lived for another seven years and more, until October 17, 1993. He died when he fell down the stairs of his house. This may seem like an odd detail to include here. I must admit that when I first learned how Gollwitzer died, it struck me as an unjustly ignoble death for one who had lived the life and survived the circumstances that he did. From another perspective, however, that Gollwitzer survived what he did only to die in such a mundane way is perhaps the greatest possible testament not only to his strength and character, but also the grace of God that characterized his life—grace upon grace.”[13]

When I first read how Gollwitzer died, it didn’t make sense to me that my friend was seeing it as a great testament to the grace of God. Considering my friend to be one of the better theologians I currently know, I knew there was something I was missing in the connection. What was he seeing that I couldn’t see?

Finally, it dawned on me that I could ask him, especially when he was standing next to me at AAR. When I asked him how Gollwitzer’s death—caused by falling down stairs—was “grace upon grace,” he explained to me that it was the paradox of grace. The grace of God changes the mundane tasks and events of life; it’s in the mundane tasks and events of life where the grace of God is exposed for what it is: truly remarkable. It’s in the non-miraculousness of life where the paradoxical grace of God shines brightly—we expect to see the power and grace of God in a miracle, but not so much in the everyday. It is here in the mundane and monotonous aspects of life where we encounter God and the question, “Who is this?” about Christ is answered with a “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). The drab gray background of our common and ordinary lives highlights the bright colors of God’s grace. God is glorified in the ordinary.

Our regular tasks and the things we do day in and day out, the very things we think are hindering the grace of God are the very vehicles for the grace of God, where we encounter God in the event of faith. We don’t have to be monastic monks to experience the grace of God. We can experience God’s grace in the common. Changing diapers is divine, holding an average steady job to provide for your family is divine, putting meals on the table over and over and over again is divine, studying or grading papers is divine, just getting up and being present in your life in whatever capacity you can participate in is divine, even death is divine; in all of these things we are brought into event-encounters with God and with each other. This is surely divine.

In these event-encounters we are brought into life out of death because now everything harbors the beauty of divine possibility for encounter with God with an other. We don’t have to be strong and powerful and rich to be of any good in the world (and often times these things fail and hinder us in this regard). Rather, all we need to be is wonderfully and unremarkably ordinary human beings doing wonderfully ordinary human things with other ordinary human beings. We are the ones who have been the beloved objects of the God who cares and has compassion on us, who will never leave us or forsake us.

Luther was wrong (and make note: I rarely say it). We are not nails driven so deep in to a wall, rendered stuck in our respective environs and social platforms. We are the very ordinary creatures set loose upon the world to love and act radically as the very ordinary humans we are in Christ. We don’t have to focus on trying to make ourselves special because we already are in Christ. Blessed are those who are ordinary because they are the beloved people of an extraordinary God freed unto and into the world to set the captives loose.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23:1-6)

 

[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. LW. V. 1. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958. p. 202-3.

[2] France, p. 263. “υ῾μει῀ς αυ᾽τοι´ is unusually emphatic, and places the focus on the need of the disciples themselves: they have been serving others; now they themselves need to be cared for.”

[3] France, p. 263. “At the same time it reinforces the repeated emphasis of Mark both on the uncomfortable popularity of Jesus…and on his habit of taking his disciples away from the crowd…for periods of relief and of instruction.”

[4] France, p. 264. “Mark does not tell us where this particular ε῎ρημος τόπος was, but Luke locates the incident at Bethsaida (or rather presumably in its neighbourhood, since he, too, calls it an ε῎ρημος τόπος).” However, it is better to not credit Luke with geographical accuracy and “…assume that Mark has in view a place on the northwestern shore (such as the traditional site at Tabgha) not too far from Capernaum and on the same side of the Jordan inflow…”

[5] France, p. . The description in v.33 of the crowd and their goings-on seems to be that “…Mark has oversimplified the process by which so large a crowd came to be in the ε῎ρημος τόπος looking for Jesus.” Specifically as it relates to the coming miracle (that is skipped by the lectionary) in the feeding of the 5k.

[6] RT France The Gospel of Mark NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002). p. 260. “The initial focus of the pericope is on the abortive attempt of Jesus to organize a ‘retreat’ for his disciples on their return from their mission (vv. 31-32), but the whole weight of the story falls on the feeding of the *unwanted_ crowd who frustrated that plan.”

[7] France, p 263. “But the patent symbolism should not lead us to miss what is surely the primary purpose in Mark’s inclusion of this story, the sheer wonder of an ‘impossible’ act, and the testimony which this provides in answer to the growing Christological question of this part of the gospel, ‘Who is Jesus?’ He is not merely the healer of afflicted individuals or the rescuer of endangered disciples; he is one who is not bound by the rules of normal experience of what is possible and impossible. In following him this representative group of Israelites, no less than those who followed Moses in the wilderness, will find all their need supernaturally supplied, for God is again at work among his people.”

[8] France, p. 265. “ω῾ς προ´βατα μη` ε῎χοντα ποιμε´να is an obvious metaphor for lack of care and leadership, and one used in the OT for Israel in the wilderness after Moses (Nu. 27:17, where the problem is solved by the appointment of Joshua), for Ahab’s army after his death in battle (1 Ki. 22:17), for the people of God when their appointed leaders have failed in their trust (Ezk. 34:5-6), and for their helplessness when their (messianic) leader is taken away (Zc. 13:7).”

[9] France, p. 265.

[10] France, p. 265. Reference to the 10th chapter of Best’s “Story”. “The only subject of whom the verb σπλαγχνιζομαι is used in the NT is Jesus (apart from parable characters who represent Jesus or God). It is not a common verb in Mark (especially if we are right in not reading it in 1:41), but it occurs in the accounts of both feeding miracles (8:2); combined with the simile of sheep without a shepherd it presents Jesus above all as ‘the one who cares.’”

[11] h/t David W. Congdon via Twitter

[12] David W. Congdon The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). p. 27fn11, “Traditional accounts of theology want to make the Christ-event an exception to the way God acts elsewhere in the world. Here I take radically christoscentric approach and argue that God acts elsewhere only in the way God acts in Christ, since the Christ-event is definitive, even constitutive of who God is and how God acts.”

[13] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). p. 48

The Truth Makes Free: A Homily on John 8:31-38

Jesus says, according to John, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32). And again, a bit later, “‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (8:34b-36). According to the words of Christ as recorded here by John, truth and freedom are inextricably linked. In other words, truth and freedom are so connected–one to the other–that no matter how hard and how long you looked you wouldn’t be able to find a point of entry with which to separate and disentangle them. The truth makes free, full stop.

But I want to be clear about something: this “truth” is not merely “honesty is always the best policy.” For such a simplistic correlation would render Christ’s statement trite: “just tell the truth.” But that’s not what Christ is saying here, there’s no “moral of the story” that you walk away with employing as you go about your day. Also, “honesty is always the best policy” places you in the subject position. Rather, you’re the intended recipient of this truth with its resultant freedom. In this situation, you are the hearer and the one being freed, not the speaker and the liberator. Plus, none of us here would ever really employ “honesty is always the best policy” for certainly if we did we’d have few if any friends and no need for SnapChat and its filters.

No, the type of truth that is being referred to here by Christ is the word of truth that exposes. The word of truth exposes us as we are (sinners) and exposes our situation (enslaved). Living under the burden and weight of darkness and lies in the enslavement to sin is exhausting. And by “sin” I don’t mean just the mistakes I make or the lazy and often selfish choices I make. By sin I mean the desperate appeal to myself to fabricate myself. In other words, when I live into the burden of creating and maintaining an image of myself that I present to you for you to see and promote the illusion that I am in control and autonomously so, this is when I am a slave to sin.[1] When I try to define and create myself by myself, I am a slave to sin. When I try to strike out on my own and neglect what God has done for, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I am a slave to sin.[2] And to live as a slave and burdened in such a way causes me to curve in on and become consumed with myself; I become disfigured as my human likeness wanes.

And I speak of this not because I’ve spent some time studying theology and concepts surrounding what it means to be a person in light of faith (though I have). But because I know personally how exhausting, and burdensome, and how death dealing it is to live a life that is for all intents and purposes a sham, a life that is a complete and total sham.[3] Living a false and sham life in trying to present to the world a version of me that I deemed was the right version, the acceptable version, the demanded and expected version of me nearly crushed me. I know what it’s like to run the race of self-performance and self-proving, I know the pressure to try to live up to unattainable self-imposed and others-imposed expectations and demands; I know the fear of being exposed a sham; I know the weight of a life that lacks the mark of real life: joy, laughter, and heart felt gratitude. I also know that you know, too.

The good news is that this false and sham life can only persist for so long, enslavement to sin lasts for only a period of time. Jesus say, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (John 8:31b-32, 36). And you have been made free because truth has come and truth cannot be untruthed by our sham existence, by our lies and falsehood no matter how hard we fight against truth in our false and sham existence. The truth is the truth, and according to Jesus, it sets those it encounters free.[4]

The word of truth is the light in the darkness, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). The light of truth illuminates the thick darkness and exposes the one darkness has enveloped, pushing darkness back away from the one who is the object of the desire of the light of truth, the one who has long been enslaved by darkness. “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’” (John 3:16). And all of this is done in love and that is why the truth that exposes brings life and not death, brings absolution and not condemnation: because love loves the unloved into the beloved and the beloved is free, free indeed. “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3c-5). Where light is, darkness ceases; where truth is, lies are obliterated; in the activity of love (the harbinger of freedom) the sham life succumbs to true life.

Where there is light and not darkness, where there is truth and not lies, there is freedom. There is freedom in being exposed in love by the light and by the truth that is the word made flesh (John 1:14), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), Jesus the Christ, the Son who makes you free (8:36). Where Christ is there is truth and freedom and “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). And if truth and freedom and grace upon grace, then those exposed and encountered by Christ are made to be the sons and daughters with Christ by faith in Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if sons and daughters then not slaves enslaved to the sin of the false and sham existence but freed sons and daughters unto true life—true, free, and vibrant life; a life marked by joy and laughter and gratitude in all that we undertake; a life bearing the marks of love’s success.[5] A life freed from the domination of proving and fabricating ourselves and freed into authentic human existence working in the world, unleashing the same truth and the same freedom we ourselves have experienced in our service of love.[6]

 

[1] Eberhard Jüngel, 233, “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. “The human drive to possess becomes theologically problematic only when human persons wish to take possession not merely of something—even if it is a great deal—but rather of themselves. And this is precisely what modern human persons want.”

[2] Working backwards from this thought from Karl Barth (CD IV.1.743-4), “If a man believes, this means that he has found in Jesus Christ an object which does not merely concern him and concern him urgently, which does not merely call him to itself and therefore out of himself, which does not merely claim him, but which is the one true object, which concerns him necessarily and not incidentally, centrally and not casually. It means that he has found in Him the true centre of himself which is outside himself. It means that he must now cling to Him and depend on Him, that he finds that he belongs to Him.”

[3] Jüngel “Becoming” 232, “In the end, it is the gospel of the justification of sinners by faith alone without the works of the law which identifies the conviction that humans can constitute themselves through their own acts as persons and, by taking possession of themselves, become free people, as an untruthful existence.”

[4] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.476, “But as the truth cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the falsehood of [humanity], the reality of the grace God and the man freed by Him and for Him cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the image in which it must represent itself to lying man s the ground of so much pain…As the reconciliation of the world to God, the justification and sanctification of man, is the reality, and indeed the living and present reality in Jesus Christ the true Witness of its truth, a limit is set both to the falsehood of man and also to his decay and destruction, to the disintegration of his existence under the dominion of the pseudo- reality of that image.”

[5] Helmut Gollwitzer “The Way to Life” Invitation to Joy, “The real meaning of a call to gratitude is ‘You should open your eyes and acknowledge what ahs happened to you in this man’s friendly approach, then you will be grateful and laugh’. It is s call to acknowledgment, so this call ‘Let us give thanks and be joyful!’ is a call to acknowledge the friendly approach which has been made to us, God’s friendly approach to us”

[6] Building from Karl Barth CD I.1.457, “Free as the servants of God…No less plainly the ‘law of liberty’ referred to in Jas. 1:25; 2:12 is the order which is directly contrasted, but positively so, with the law of the Jews, an order under which a man stands who is not just a hearer but also a doer—and in James this means, not a forgetful nor a merely reputed hearer, but a real hearer of the Word of God who is claimed in his life-act, in his existence…His freedom to by Himself, what is at issue here is a man’s freedom for God, for the ‘glorious liberty’ of the children of God (Rom. 8:21), the analgia fidei of the divine freedom which alone really deserves to be called freedom”

Intertwined

Our legs are intertwined Your right leg drapes heavy over my upper left inner thigh There is no movement It just rests as you sleep a deep peaceful sleep Skin to skin thigh to thigh like it was meant to be there since the beginning of time as if these two were created for each other I rest on my back experiencing the weight of your leg resting across mine Love Gratitude Thankfulness emotions that overcome my mind I turn I roll over bringing my right leg parallel to my left My thighs press  together in symphony with gravity not resisting with fight not pressing with intentionality just turning and rolling and resting my thigh on top of yours on top of mine In the process I feel your weight press against me more I pause and take in the wonderful sensation Union You and me intertwined My arm sleepily shifts with me and extends beyond me to embrace you You are fast asleep on my left arm pressed up against my breast and my right sweeps to grasp your back and pull you closer to me Closer to me than you already are if that is possible Your forehead meets my lips as I bring my head down to kiss you and I pause and inhale you You are the smell that I have fallen in love with the moment you first came into my world I am grateful for you So grateful I didn’t expect you I didn’t see you becoming intertwined with me but you did and here we are in my bed draped mutually across each other intertwined mutually with each other like lovers Lovers of the truest meaning of the word lovers Lovers Sensual sensual in the safest sense of the word sensual Skin touching skin Comfort and safety Freedom thus mutuality There is no fear here The love I feel for you is real love I love you and would lay my life down for you I let my lips linger over you enjoying this silent moment this moment you don’t know about This moment you are unaware of where I can love you with no reciprocal action Just love you from the bottom of me to the top of me toward the bottom of you to the top of you Love The warmth of your body radiates over mine as I have you in my embrace You stir I subtly and slowly pull back to give you space intending not to wake you up Lest I lose this moment forever I gently and slowly lean in one more time for one more kiss and risk letting relaxed fingertips of my right hand run gently, lovingly, and sensually over your hair all the way to the nape of your neck I smile I love you I steal one more kiss I love you I roll away and lay upon my back to let sleep take me over once again.