God is Love and God Loves You

Luke 13:10-17 (Homily)

The statements “God is Love” and “God loves you” are abstract concepts. I can tell you these things all day, but apart from concrete manifestation of that love in substance and action, both statements fall flat. We live in an era where words are tossed about, rapidly and thoughtless so. We say I love you to our friends and family and then in the next breath profess love to jellybeans. What then does love mean? In the predicament where there is little concern for the substance of language, the meaning of words, and the impact of nouns and verbs, how do I communicate to you love? What does “God is love and loves you” mean? A profession of love causing you to experience and believe that profession, means the profession needs substance, the landing has to stick; deed must follow word.

We encounter Jesus on the Sabbath teaching in a synagogue. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears having an ailment for 18 years. Luke explains: she is bent forward,[1] unable to raise herself up completely. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the woman. He only tells us that she’s suffered with this ailment for 18 years. For nearly two decades she existed in a curved-in state, unable to look up. Her eyes took in more of the ground than the sky; her face went unnoticed, turned toward the dust and dirt of her travels. The very face a mother adored, a lover loved, a child yearned for now hidden in plain sight. An identity hidden; she was merely a body in the crowd. 18 years nearly unseen. That’s a lifetime for some of you.

When she appears,[2] Jesus perceives her. In the midst of all the people attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus’s perception of her presence is identical to his question, “Who touched me?” in Luke 8, while being pressed in on all sides in a crowd. Luke loves highlighting Jesus’s divine attributes. One of those attributes is perceiving the people his society and the religious therein have ceased to perceive. Jesus sees those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have slipped off the grid, those who have been relegated to the fringe. Those who have been excluded and isolated? These he sees. And he doesn’t merely see, he perceives and he acts. Jesus loves these.

On any other day, that woman would’ve gone in and come back out without much notice. But not today; today, Jesus notices her very presence. And what does he do? He calls her to him. “Woman, you have been[3] set free from your infirmity.” And then he lays his hands upon her. In an instant (literally), she is set straight (again)[4] and (at the same time) is bestowing glory on God.

And, I am brought back to Genesis 2. The last time someone was this curved-in was when Adam felt the deep trial of isolation. In the presence of God, he longed for an other. As God gazed upon this turned in man, God said: it is not good that this man is alone. I will make a partner for him. And like the light and the dark on the first day, God pulled the man apart—taking one and making two. Just as light is its own substance and so too the dark, both the man and the woman were two complete individuals—they were equal but not interchangeable. Forever, in this swift movement of deft surgical precision, loneliness was lifted from Adam’s back and cast into the outer darkness to take up its kingdom where there is not. And God sat on his throne among the light, in the midst of the life of humanity in community in the cool of the verdant garden. And it was very good.

As Adam was set free from his infirmity of loneliness in divine intervention, so too this woman is set free. Jesus lays his hands upon her and separates her from her burden, from her isolation, from her oppression, from her exclusion. She now stands upright, for the first time in 18 years; she can see the bright light of day, the blue of the sky, the twinkling stars of night. As she stands upright, she gazes (again) into the eyes of those around her, to recognize and to be recognized in her identity. Jesus restores her to the dignity of her humanity articulated in upright posture. Not frail and hunched over, she stood tall and looked out, restored by the simple word and touch of Jesus the Christ, by his love. What was her life of burden and bondage is now relegated to the old age of what was; she is ushered into the freedom and liberty of the new age. And when that event of encounter happens with God, a thick and dark line is drawn in the sand between what was and what is and what will be; a line is drawn like the one created by the collapsing walls of water forever separating Israel from Egypt and their bondage and captivity.

In Luke’s brief story, he boldly describes the cosmic battle between God and the powers of sin and death. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is chastised. He brings dignity and humanity to an old woman, and the ruler of the synagogue loses his mind.[5] After a stern, “Hypocrites!”, Jesus tightly correlates Satan (the powers of sin and death) to the religiosity of the rulers. According to Jesus, using the law to keep people bound in their burden and oppression is letting Satan have his way in the world. The law is good and can create and maintain freedom; but it should never be weaponized. When we love the law more than we love people, we are in the business of stripping people of their dignity and humanity. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.

Back to the beginning, God is love because God is active and God’s activity is manifest in love loving, which is bringing freedom to the captives (in a real way). When I profess love, my love best look like this…

 

 

 

 

[1] More like “bent-forward-ing” the verbal aspect of the word doesn’t translate well into English.

[2] The word that is translated as “appear” in the text is technically “Behold!” which carries the same force of “suddenly there she was!” thus “appearing”.

[3] The perfect passive here has the force of an event that has occurred to the recipient that has ramifications into the present. In a sense, she will has been set free and will continue to be set free. Woe to anyone who attempts to reverse the divine action.

[4] Highlighting that she wasn’t always this way that at one point she could stand up straight.

[5] Quite literally, he is indignant, it’s the manner of his being in the current situation.

Called

Luke 5:27-32 (Homily)

“After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him.

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:27-32).

There’s something about having your name called and such an event comes with a myriad of potential responses: total excitement or complete fear. I remember in high school, in college, and even in seminary, I would sit in the back of the class, quiet, listening and praying and hoping that the teacher would never, ever, ever, ever call on me. (I know, the irony that I’m not a teacher, in the front of the class, incessantly yammering on about ancient texts and dead theologians.)  I remember the panic when a professor in seminary decided he was going to start calling on people to answer his questions rather than wait for volunteers (a means to ensure everyone was doing the reading). I remember my heart stopping as his eyes met mine and I had yet to fully slip all the way under my desk. “Ms. Ellis, please explain to the class Calvin’s view of the response of the believer to God in faith…” Me: blank stare. I literally just stared at him. After an awkward silent stand off, he moved on to someone else.    

And then there’s the good moments when someone calls your name like when your best friend mentions your name or when that person, you know, that someone who you like says it, the person you like “like like,” like a lot. There are people who call your name and you feel warm and your head turns and you move toward them; and there are people who call your name and you shudder and you feel exposed and you want to hide.

Luke 5 is an interesting chapter because it’s primarily about Jesus calling to himself the people who will become his disciples. And when he calls them, the come. What’s really interesting to me is that Jesus doesn’t technically know these people he calls. When he gets into the boat with Simon Peter and tells him what to do with his net at the beginning of chapter 5, there’s no, “Hey, Pete, let’s go fishing…” There’s just: do this, do that, now, come follow me.” And Peter follows. In our text, there’s no, “Hey, Levi, what’s up…how are you? How’s mom?” There’s just: “‘Follow me.’” And, as Luke tells us, Levi “…got up, left everything, and followed him” (v. 28). It’s pretty amazing; just try getting someone to follow you who does not know you by only saying, “Follow me.” Chances are, the person you address will think you are flat out not quite right.

You turn and move immediately because the voice that has called your name loves you. When these people heard Jesus call their name, they heard the voice of love calling them; they heard the voice of God and their heads turned, and they moved toward God.

What’s really, really interesting to me is this: back in Genesis 3, there’s a moment after the fateful eating of the fruit when all things go to heck in a hand-basket, Adam and Eve realize they are naked and feel shame and humiliation, and they hide. Here’s the story,

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen 3:7-10).

In their newfound ability to determine what was good and evil for on their own, they decided that God’s voice; God’s call was not good. They hid when they heard God approach. Hoping and praying that God would not notice them, they ducked behind some trees. There’s a fear and trembling here when God calls the man and the woman out from behind the tree. They’re reluctant to step out into the open.

But when Jesus calls it seems this previous moment of Genesis 3 is being undone. Jesus calls the people, and the people come, they don’t hide, they don’t run, they turn and follow.  Jesus fulfilled the great promise of God to his people: I will be your God and you will be my people. They will be the people who turn and follow God when God calls, not the ones that hide and turn away.

But why this change? Why are the people dropping everything and following Jesus when Jesus calls? Because Jesus is the word made flesh, the love of God incarnate, the loving voice that sounded at the beginning of creation and called everything into existence: the stars, the sun and the moon, the land and the sea, and all of the animals, you and me. This is the voice that is calling these people in this moment, and don’t we know when love calls?

John tells us in his gospel, that Jesus says, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’” (3:16-17). Where before Adam and Eve assumed that God’s presence and God’s call was going to expose unto condemnation and death, Jesus reveals that this divine presence, call, and exposure leads unto comfort and life. Jesus is the word of God that goes forth into the world causing what it desires: “Come and follow me” and the people do.

The one who called Simon Peter the fisherman and Levi the tax collector calls you. You are grafted into this story because Jesus’s call goes forth by the power of the Holy Spirit today: calling, beckoning, you into comfort, into love, into life. The one who spoke the cosmos into existence calls you, lovingly calls you who are the beloved of God. Hear the God of love call you, Beloved, and turn and follow and experience life beyond measure.

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away. (Song of Songs 2:10-13)

You Can’t Get There From Here

John 6:35, 41-51 (Sermon)

“You can’t get there from here,” I said to the person sitting in their car.

“But isn’t this Pine Street?” They asked, a bit desperate.

“Yes,” I assured. “It is Pine Street. But the part of Pine Street you’re looking for isn’t connected—in any way—to this segment of Pine Street. You actually have to go down this road, take a left, go up two blocks, take a right, then you take the next life, follow that road for a few blocks, take a left, and then take your next left, then drive a few blocks, and then you’ll see the part of Pine Street you’re looking for on your right.” I finished on a very confident note.

The driver of the maroon sedan looked over his left shoulder and down a small portion of Pine Street clearly visible through his back window. “But, isn’t it just right there?” He pointed to a cluster of trees and a dead-end no more than 50 yards away. His eyes communicated his confusion and maybe even a small amount of panic. Good Lord. What dimension have I fallen into??

I turned to look in the direction he was pointing. I smiled, chuckled, and said, “Yup. It’s right there. Someone could easily throw a rock and hit that house you want to get to.” And then I turned back to look at my confused traveler. I smiled as reassuringly as I could, and said, “Welcome to Pittsburgh.” I sent him on his way and encouraged him that he’ll eventually get there, but that he’ll also probably have to stop and have this very conversation a few more times. But, hey! Isn’t life about being on a meandering journey and making many new acquaintances on the way?

Pittsburgh was notoriously hard to navigate via car. I don’t think I ever audibly uttered the sentiment, “If I just had a horse, this whole thing would be easier,” more than I did when I lived in Pittsburgh. At one point in our little-more-than-a-decade there, I was convinced that Down Town Pittsburgh itself, the actual city of Pittsburgh, had a magical force field around it. If you didn’t hit it just right, you’d bounce off it and be sent into a long and major tunnel that would drop you off somewhere else where you’d whisper while curiously looking around and out of all the angles of your windshield, “Huh, I didn’t know this was part of Pittsburgh…” Then 40 minutes later and finally having found a place to turn around (legally or illegally, desperation gets the best of all us), you’d find yourself headed back for round two, “Hold on, Kids! Mama’s breaking through this time! Children’s Museum or Bust!”

You can’t get there from here.

Jesus said to them, “I, I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me will not hunger, and the one who believes in me will not thirst at any time…And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not grumble with one another. No one is able to come to me if the father, the one who sent me, does not draw them…It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ All the ones who heard and learned from the father come to me (John 6:35, 43-45; translation mine)

The tension of the paradox embedded in this portion of our Gospel passage is palpable. Jesus explains in v. 35, “The one who comes to me will neither hunger nor will they thirst ever again…” And then Jesus adds, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws them.” This is the divine, “You can’t get there from here.” “Come to me but only if you’ve been called.” “I’m calling your name, but only if you’ve been given ears to hear me.” In this verbal moment, those who are listening to Jesus are all stuck in a maroon sedan, unable to get to the location they want to get to: satiating bread and thirst quenching water. The destination is so close and also so far away, it’s right there within reach and just beyond their grasp. These verses highlight that the people Jesus is addressing are very much in a bad way; they’re stuck. Like Nicodemus before them in John 3, “How can anyone…?”

We’re stuck, too. We spend most of our days endlessly running and running and running, and the entire time we are going absolutely nowhere. Days bleed into each other, the same thing over and over and over again, the distinction that used to be big and bold between Thursday night and Friday night has nearly vanished—weekdays and weekends are all just days. Demands come and demands are met; and again, tomorrow, those same demands will come trouncing back in to our lives, asking to be met with the same answers and actions. Day in and day out we are chained to the treadmill of life that forces us to run at a demanding pace, that causes us to slowly and surely turn in on ourselves so much that we eventually begin looking like tightly coiled springs that are made of flesh and bone.

We live in the paradox of being “alive” but also very dead at the same time. We’re stuck in an endless cycle that is death pretending to be life—we joke, “Life, am I right?” We comfort others and ourselves as we run about this rat-race with contrite phrases and some version of “misery loves company” and console ourselves into accepting that this living death as living life. But it’s not, it’s no joke, and it’s certainly no comfort. And, I ‘m not speaking of the monotony of life that I referenced a couple of weeks ago. And, I’m not speaking against various forms of self-improvement. What I’m speaking of is the striving after our own self-justification, the desperate activity we employ to make ourselves “ok” not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God; I’m speaking against our frantic and frenetic activity that is the hallmark of the sham existence that is desperately trying to stave off the reality that death (in its myriad of existential forms) comes and you’re helpless against it. No matter how much food we eat or how much water we drink, death still comes; [1] to think we can avoid death through any of our own actions is to attempt to grasp oil with the hand. This type of striving and living is a sham living, is a barely alive version of death; and it is very real. We’re the walking dead and no wonder most of us were riveted to that show for months and months—it strikes very close to home.

The worst part of what I’ve been describing is that we’re hopeless to remedy the situation of our living-deadness in and of ourselves; we’re helpless to help ourselves out of this death like living. No Zombie can unzombify itself; the walking dead have no hope apart from the quick activity of a sharp blade. No one stuck on this treadmill of life can just turn the treadmill off and take a break because this treadmill doesn’t have an on/off switch or a pause button; and it’s ill advised to just step off because that way lies either certain disfiguring injury or death. We’re stuck, very stuck unless someone trips us up and throws our incurvatus in se focus out of alignment. Anyone who comes to me will never thirst or hunger again…but the ones who come only come because the Father draws them. Apart from some miracle of radical intervention, we can’t get there from here.

‘…Not that anyone has seen the father except the one who is from God, this one has seen the father. Truly, truly I say to you, “the one who believes has eternal life.” I, I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This one who came down from heaven is the bread, in order that anyone may eat of it and not die. I, I am the living bread, the one who came down from heaven…’ (John 6:46-51a, translation mine)

We need an intervention and that intervention necessitate having our dire state exposed and revealed to us. It’s not until we get the right diagnosis that we can then get the very help we need. In our gospel passage from John, Jesus is the one who has come down from heaven to reveal to us God and to give the dry bones, the walking dead life, true life—not the living deadness we call life. Jesus is the Revealer, the one who has descends into our plight, exposes our dire situation, calls us to him, feeds us with the bread of life, quenches our thirst with living water (John 4), sends the darkness permanently fleeing with his light (John 1:5), and summons the dead to life. [2]

Deuteronomy 30 verses 11-14 we read:

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ either is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

We can’t get there from here. But the good news is God crosses the vast distance to us. The incarnate word, the word made flesh, Christ the Revealer, descends from heaven and crosses the sea to us. No matter how much we think that demand rests on our shoulders, it doesn’t. You can’t climb up into heaven and you can’t walk across water. The paradox and tension embedded in our gospel passage is real, but it is of great comfort, too. God has descended. God has come down from heaven and has entered into our world, not hovered a bit above it or dwelled about over in the sidelines, but into it, in it, in the midst of the people.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:14, 16-18).

Just a few chapters before our gospel passage we read about the “Samaritan Woman” who has trudged off to the well to fetch water under the heat of the noonday sun. There at the well, she encounters Christ who is sitting on the ground reclined against the well. Jesus the incarnate word is physically down low; the word made flesh dwells low in a Samaritan village talking to a Samaritan.

“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?…Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’” (John 4:10-15)

Descent is exactly the verbal thrust of what “incarnation” means and is. It doesn’t mean that God took on flesh and then remained out of reach; it means God was very much in reach, touchable by us as we are. It means: we might not be able to get there from here, but sure as heck God can.

Because God has come to us, because God has descended from heaven and has traversed the sea to get to humanity, to get to us, faith is now possible[3] because the author of faith, God, has come to us to create that which God desires. The static voice of the law couldn’t generate faith, only something dynamic—something living, breathing, thirst-quenching, hunger-satisfying—could generate faith. Not the commands of God but God in God’s self in Christ Jesus comes down into the world to dwell among humanity, calling humanity unto God’s self. To gaze upon Christ is to gaze upon God; [4] the great “I am” walks among the people and calls them to him thus to God; this is who is speaking, the one we desire and long for. [5]

We do not receive of some measly bread loaves and a couple of fish and wash it down with a bit of water drawn from a human made, earthy well—these items mentioned by Jesus symbolically represent that everything we desire, our deepest needs are met in God by faith.[6] In faith in Christ we receive more than what any bread or water could ever give us: we receive God, thus life.[7]

And this goes against everything that makes sense to us; in fact it’s an offense to us and to the world.[8] Jesus, the “son of Joseph and Mary”, is the Revealer, is the έγώ-είμι that walks about on the earth encountering humanity, up-ending our expectations and desires, and putting a cessation to our demands. We are stripped down of all of our false beliefs and comforting myths; not even our real hunger and our real thirst will save our hide.[9] Everything we are striving after is as if we are striving after the wind. We need the real manna[10] (cf. Ex. 16) from heaven and the waters from the real Rock (cf. Ex. 17): “…the bread [and water] of God is the Revealer who comes from heaven and gives life to the world.” What Christ reveals is that we need him.[11]

In that we are made to realize in the revelation by the Revealer, by Christ, that we do not need more bread and water, but that we need him, we find ourselves falling to our knees with empty hands outstretched and eager to partake of Christ—because Christ is the both the foundation and orientation of faith.[12] We find ourselves forfeiting our rights to ourselves and to our self-justifications and our sham existence.[13] In this moment of our desperation, in the coming-to-the-end of ourselves, and in being completely undone, we paradoxically find ourselves—in the event of faith—fully alive in this wholly other, we find ourselves fully alive in God by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.[14] When we let go of ourselves and suffer that death, we find ourselves called back to life by the voice of God in Christ.[15]

“I, I am the living bread, the one who came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live into eternity, and also the bread that I, I will give—my flesh—it is for the sake of the life of the world” (John 6:51, translation mine)

The love of God can neither be contained in heaven, nor can it be contained within God’s self alone. It’s a love that is both dynamic and active and moves and goes to the furthest recesses of the world to seek and save the beloved: you and me, the disciples way back when and all who are to come, the whole entire world. [16]

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

It is a love that descends and hovers over the surface of the waters and the land as it did way back when in Genesis (cf. Gen 1:1-5). In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, in the totality of who Christ is and what Christ did, Christ is for all of humanity.[17] And in that we have heard and seen, in that we have partaken of the living bread and living water given to us in Christ received by faith, we are sent forth in to the world moved by the Spirit who’s mission is to continue to reveal to the world this man Christ Jesus who is God and to draw all people unto God through faith in Christ.

Just as the love of God manifest in Christ Jesus was not static but dynamic, so to are we made to be dynamic and not static. We weren’t able to get there from here, but God met us. And we are to bring this encounter out and beyond the four walls of this church. We are not to be lights dwelling with other lights; we are to be lights unto and into the world, casting away darkness with the light of life. We who have been encountered by a wholly other God go forth into the world making a wholly other society.[18] As we are fed with the bread and water of Christ by faith, we go out and literally feed those who are hungry, clothe those who are naked, shelter those who are homeless, befriend those who are lonely, and reunite those who have been separated. We are drawn unto God and exhorted to live wholly different in a world that is tethered to it’s own addiction to the status-quo, controlled by the myths circulating and running amuck and oppressing people with fear, stuck in an incessant need to meet real hunger and thirst with things that never bring relief and only bring death: death to those who are starving from consuming and death to those because they are being consumed. We are left in our encounter with God without reason or excuse not to be about the business of upending injustice.

By the movement of the Spirit in our lives and because we have heard and have seen and have eaten and have tasted, we are to be humans in a world that behaves and acts rather inhuman.[19]

Borrowing from the words of Paul to the Ephesians,

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (4:31-5:2) 

Let us go forth into the world, bringing the very life and light we have received here in hearing and seeing and partaking of Christ through faith in Christ to a world that is desperately in need of life and light. Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the spirit, proclaiming to a hungry and thirsty world: We couldn’t get there from here but God has crossed the divide, God has come to us! Let us go forth in to the world proclaiming, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!” (Psalm 34:8).

[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). v.27 “This warning is again delivered against the background of Johannine ‘dualism”’ It is open for all to understand; for it is addressed, as of the living water, to man’s will for life. It brings home to man that life is not assured by human food; for such food is perishable as is the life which it gives. If man wants eternal life, he must find the food which endures. But what is this miraculous food, and where is it be found?“ p. 222

[2] Bultmann, “For here the bread of life which the Father gives by sending the Son from heaven (vv. 32f.) is the Son the Revealer. He gives (v. 27) and is (vv. 35,48,51) the bread of life, in the same way that he gives the water of life (4.10) and is the light of the (8.12), and as the Revealer gives life to the world (v. 33; cp. 10.28; 17.2)—to those, that is, who “come” to him (v. 35; cp. 3.20f.; 5.40), who believe in him (v. 35; and cp. 3.20f. with 3.18). In all of this there is no need for a sacramental act, by means of which the believer must make the life his own.” p. 219

[3] Bultmann, “On the other hand vv. 41-46 again form a closely-knit unit. The Jews’ unbelief, which finds expression in their murmuring (vv. 41f.), is traced back to its metaphysical roots: the possibility of faith is given only by God (vv. 43-46). The reference to faith here as “coming to Jesus” gives the theme of “coming” its organic place within the dialogue, and vv. 36-40 would doubtless most appropriately follow on vv. 41-46.” p. 221. And, Έγώ-είμι “…shows Jesus as the true bread of life and confronted man with the decision of faith in the form of a promise. In the second part the express theme is the possibility of faith….” p. 229

[4] Bultmann, “’In the έγώ-είμι statements Jn. 6.35, 48, 51; 8.12; 10.7, 9, 11, 14; 15.1, 5 we clearly have recognition formulae, even if in the source they were perhaps intended as presentation or qualificatory formulae. For in the context of the Gospel the έγώ is strongly stressed and it is always contrasted with false or pretended revelation (cf. 6.49-51; 10:10, 11-13; cp. also 5.43). On the other hand 11.25, and perhaps too 14.6, are probably identification formulae.” 226fn3

[5] Bultmann, “Jesus’ reply (v. 35), expressed by means of the revelatory formula, έγω είμι, says that what they are looking for is present in his person…” p. 225

[6] Bultmann, “In the promise the fulfillment of man’s desire for life is split up into the stilling of man’s hunger and the stilling of his thirst…symbolic meaning of άρτος, and the identity of the bread of life and the living water.” p. 227fn3

[7] Bultmann, “The whole paradox of the revelation is contained in this reply. Whoever wants something from him must know that he has to receive Jesus himself. Whoever approaches him with the desire for the gift of life must learn that Jesus is himself the gift he really wants. Jesus gives the bread of life in that he is the bread of life. Yet he is the bread of life surely because in his person he is nothing in himself, but is present in the service of the Father for man. Whoever wishes to receive life from him must therefore believe in him—or, as it is figuratively expressed must ‘come to him.’” p.227

[8] Bultmann, “The murmuring of the Jews (v. 41) is directed against the decisive έγώ είμι in ν. 51. The claim of revelation provokes the opposition of the world. It takes offence at the fact that the revelation encounters it in history; it is offended by the fact that the man, whose father and mother they know, claims to be the Revealer (v. 42).” P. 229

[9] Bultmann, “…God’s revelation destroys every picture which desires make of it, so that the real test of man’s desire for salvation is to believe even when God encounters him in a totally different way from that which he expected.” p. 228

[10] Bultmann, “The contrast is first made in general terms. The manna could not give life; the fathers who ate it the bread of heaven (v. 50). This is again followed in v. 51a by the word of revelation: ‘I am the one who fulfills that which is said about the bread of heaven’.” p. 229

[11] Bultmann, “V. 32 had stated that only God gives the bread of heaven, and v. 33 added that the bread of God is the Revealer; vv. 47f. now completes the argument by declaring, “I am he!” What is true in principle has become historical reality in Jesus’ person.” p. 229

[12] Bultmann, “Since hearing and learning from the Father are basically nothing other than faith, i.e., coming to Jesus, the statement is a paradox which makes clear the nature of faith. It means that only he who believes, believes; but this is to say that faith has no support outside itself; it sees what it sees only in faith….For faith is related to its object; it is a relationship to that which is believed and as such it has its own security, which can rest only in the object of faith: τον ερχόμενον πρός με ού μή εκβάλω εξω. Faith is sure of only as it seizes hold of the promises made to it.” P. 232

[13] Bultmann, “Thus the Jews with their objection do not see that the divine cannot be contrasted with the human in the confident way in which they say, ‘How can an ordinary man claim to be the Revealer!’ For this is the very absurdity which the event of revelation proclaims; and the condition of its understanding is that [humanity] should relinquish the assurance with which [humanity] believes [humanity] can pass judgement on the human and the divine as objectively determinable phenomena.” p.230

[14] Bultmann, “It is not that [one] has the possibility of a special and direct relationship to God; for this can be said only of the Revealer; any other relationship to God must be mediated by the Revealer” p. 232

[15] Bultmann, “…faith becomes possible when one abandons hold on one’s own security, and to abandon one’s security is nothing else than to let oneself be drawn by the Father….[This drawing] is not a magic process, nor is it governed by rigid laws like the laws of nature. It occurs when man abandons his own judgement and ‘hears’ and ‘learns’ from the Father, when he allows God to him. The ‘drawing’ by the Father occurs not, as it were. Behind man’s decision of faith but in it. He who comes to Jesus, however, receives the promise, ‘I will not reject him’.” pp. 231-2

[16] Karl Barth CD III.2.45.213 “…and most powerfully of all Jn. 651 Tells us that ‘the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give —a saying which finds as exact parallel in the well-known verse Jn. 316, where we read that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.’ What Jesus is ‘for us’ or ‘for you’ in the narrower circle of the disciples and the community He is obviously, through the ministry of this narrower circle, ‘for all’ or ‘for the world’ in the wider or widest circle. And in the majority of the relevant passages this action of Jesus for others (His disciples, His community, the many, ail, the world) is His death and passion. This is the primary reference of the more general expressions which speak of His self-offering for men.”

[17] Karl Barth CD III.2.45.214 “It must not be forgotten that as the New Testament sees it man Jesus who was given up to death is identical with the Lord now living and universally visible return is for the community the sum of their future and of that of the world. He has overcome death in suffering it. He has risen again from the dead. And it is in this totality that He is ‘for men.’”

[18] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). “That is, [Gollwitzer] clarifies for us that there is no such thing as a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” pp. 166-7.

[19] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). “What is the mission of Jesus? To make men human, to make inhuman men human, brotherly, for the sake of God’s brotherliness, because in humanity and unbrotherliness is destroying all of us.” p. 21.

A Nail in the Wall

There are things I read as I research for my dissertation that will stick with me, even if it is unrelated to the topic I’m researching. And it’s not the type of sticking that’s “oh, hey, that’s really fascinating; let me mentally ruminate on that some more…” It’s the type of sticking that is more reminiscent of a good kick to the gut, the type that steals the very breath from you, leaving you curled up on the floor. It’s the type of sticking that’s akin to someone throwing cold-water on your face, and you find yourself all too alert to your current situation; really alert, like, “holy crap…this is really my life” and the reeling sets in because the stark reality is burdening your balance.

This punishment, too, springs from original sin; and the woman bears it just as unwillingly as she bears those pains and inconveniences that have been placed up 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. (LW, Lectures on Genesis, 202-3)

Luther is articulating the consequences for the woman as it is laid out in the curses articulated to Adam and Eve by God in Genesis 3. He’s specifically expounding here on the “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16b-c) portion. I don’t typically lie awake at night thinking about and spend very little emotional energy on Genesis 3. I spend way more of my time thinking about the reality of the event of justification in my everyday life than I do the curses proclaimed to Eve on that miserable day in the Garden. Like any other human being, I prefer good news to bad news.

But, on Monday, when my eyes crossed over Luther’s words, “The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall”–on the heels of falling to my knees, after an atrocious potty-training experience with my toddler, feeling generally poured out from an already long day, and uttering the words, “This, this is my life; this is all I’ll ever do…change diapers and make lunches…”–I felt that gut-punch, I felt that cold-water drench me. I was feeling stuck and frustrated and Luther’s nail imagery described what I was feeling: the effects of the remnants of the curse spoken long ago, a curse with lengthy tentacles reaching all the way into 2016. I was a nail hammered so deep into a wall that the only hope to recover the nail would be to tear down the wall; the only other recourse would be to just admit the nail was lost for ever.

But over the past couple of days, I’ve come to realize that Luther’s imagery, while very apt to my situation as a stay-at-home-mom/wife and specifically articulated about womanhood in light of the curse, was actually an image that could be broadened to all of humanity. Whether you are male or female, feeling stuck, feeling like a nail in a wall is a reality. It could be anything: being so financially strained that you can’t leave a dead-end job; existing in a marriage that has ceased to function like a marriage; strained relationships with your children; suffering under the weight of loss, grief, anxiety and fear; the general malaise of the day-in and day-out because nothing ever changes; that unrelenting thorn in your side that you can do nothing about and just bear and tolerate, and the list could go on. Feeling stuck, really feeling like a nail in the wall is not only a curse that affects womankind, it affects all of humankind; it’s a human problem, none escape it.

But it’s not the final word; it’s not the final nail in the coffin.

There’s hope for us nails in walls, and His name is Jesus Christ. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (18-25)

Because Jesus Christ–fully God and fully man–climbed upon the hardwood of the cross and bore nails in his hands and feet, we who are stuck and suffering pain and frustration in this life have hope. By faith in Jesus Christ and by being united to Him through faith in Him, we–you and I–have hope, we have abundant hope. This life, this body is not all there is; there is more, abundantly more for those who are in Christ Jesus. Even in the midst of our very present and difficult realities, our faces are turned upward and bronzed by the glorious hope we have in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit because we know that our God is not only the one who promises but also fulfills His promises, and He has told us: it will not always be so.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:1-4)

And we have hope, even now…hope.

Why Sarah?

I’ve always read the story of Sarah and the casting out of Hagar as Sarah being nagging, and, sometimes, just down right mean. I saw it as petty. But then, last summer, I was given an opportunity to preach on Gen 21, and during research and writing the sermon, I saw something new. Sarah wasn’t being mean, she was defending the promise (this is what Luther tells us). Rather than, “just get that servant girl and her son out of here!”, I saw, “…it’s about the promise…the promise, dear husband!”  But then there was another question: why Sarah? Why would she care about the promise so much as to protect and defend it? Why would she be the one to remember?

Here’s my answer:*

God is the God of the Promise

In Gen. 21:1 we read, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised.” What was it that the Lord had promised both Sarah and Abraham? A Child—he would give them a child in their old age. We know this from Gen. 18:9-15,

“They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

One of my favorite verses is Gen 18:15. She flat out denies that she laughed…and Moses records it. Moses, inspired to record such an interaction, leaves one of our stately matriarchs completely human.

According to a webMD article, “‘Laughter isn’t under our conscious control…We don’t choose to laugh in the same way we choose to speak…” Sarah’s proof of this. Sarah’s laugh is an immediate and subconscious response to over-hearing the promise of a son the Lord makes to Abraham—and she uncontrollably scoffs…in disbelief. We’ve all done this. (scoffed in disbelief)

So Sarah laughs because she doesn’t believe what the Lord was promising. According to her, she is too old to have a child. Moses tells us that the way of woman had ceased. In her words, “I am worn out…” What a way to describe yourself. The word translated as “worn-out” in Gen 18:12 can also be rendered “used-up” or “exhausted.” Synonyms for “worn-out” are “spent,” “stale,” “deteriorated,” “destroyed,” “used,” and “useless.”

In Sarah’s eyes, she was—in her advanced age—“useless” because she could no longer bare children—because that possibility had ceased for her.  She had been created to bring forth children and she didn’t; in her opinion, this failure rendered her “useless.” Years of longing, years of praying, years of begging and yearning produced nothing. No child. Years of suffering through hope delayed in light of the physical possibility to produce a child give way to the concrete evidence that that possibility is now over.

For Sarah, there was no longer any reason or evidence or proof to hope for such a thing—it was over; it was impossible. So she laughs, because the words of the Lord being spoken contradict plain fact and promote the impossible. She laughs in disbelief. (no way! You’ve got to be kidding! What?!). Now, if the Lord appeared to Daniel and said, “this time next year Lauren will have a son” there would be NO laughter and most like wailing and gnashing of teeth (why?!!?), because it’s possible. It could happen. What could happen carries significantly far less comedic value than what flat-out could NOT happen. But the God Sarah worshipped, the one that was speaking with Abraham at that moment is the God of the promise. For, as I’ve said a million times before (at least!) with God, His promises are future facts. What He says, happens (Let there be….and there was!).

I’ve spent a lot of time in a passage of scripture that isn’t part of our reading because I need to set the scene for when we come back to chapter 21 (our passage). I want to paint with vibrant and bold colors where Sarah was prior holding the child in her arms, prior to nursing this child, prior to, how Luther referred to Isaac, “the promise [which has] now been made flesh” (4).

“The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Gen 21:1-7)

 

The promise has now been made flesh. The long awaited yearned for child is here.  The Lord, who questioned why she had laughed in chapter 18, has now fulfilled His promise and has given her a tangible reason to laugh but this time rather than laughing out of scoffing disbelief, she laughs because of hope and joy fulfilled. Because of God’s promise—and His faithfulness to that promise—Sarah is no longer the cursed one (barrenness would have been seen as a curse (Luther 11)) but as the blessed-one.

Now, finally, our passage:

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:8-13)

“But Sarah…” At some point Sarah notices and sees something. One day, Sarah looks upon the two boys her Isaac (the promise made flesh) and Ishmael (Abraham legitimate first born) and something dawns on her. And she speaks up. “Cast out this slave woman and her son” she says to Abraham. She continues, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” While Ishmael had a promise made about him (Gen 17:20: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.”), it was not the promise, the promise of the established covenant; Sarah “makes a very fine distinction between her own son and Hagar’s” (Luther 20).

Luther writes about Sarah at this point, “It is her purpose to prevent Ishmael from coming into the inheritance together with Isaac” (20). Rather than allow both sons to be heirs, Sarah steps up and speaks out to protect the promise; Isaac would be the heir, and not Ishmael. According to Sarah, Hagar and her son, Ishmael had to go. Rather than being petty and possessive, Sarah is protecting the promise. And so is God, “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you…” “[Sarah] is compelled by God’s command to undertake something contrary to her husband’s will” (Luther 23) [Abraham was very distressed]. Luther writes, “Abraham had not given such careful consideration to the promise. Therefore God repeats it…” (24).

Why does Sarah give more consideration to the promise than Abraham does? Why does Sarah seem to remember it more vividly than her husband? Luther makes the point that Sarah was alert and keen to the promise and Abraham wasn’t. (“But Sarah has her way and accomplishes what she had undertaken, for she looked more closely at the promise and understood it more clearly than Abraham did” (36)).

I’ll fill in the gaps. Why Sarah and not Abraham? Because, the woman, who has suffered from deferred hope and years upon years of longing for a child, when she holds that child that has been given to her by the very word of God and with that child there is a spoken promise, she remembers. She remembers it every day she looks into his eyes. The woman who suffers barrenness (infertility and loss) suffers the one-two punch of a broken and fallen world. Every month she is reminded of what hasn’t happened or what was and is now no longer. A woman who suffers in this way cannot hold the living, fleshy baby—the baby promised by the very word of God–and not think: God is faithful.  The Heir is born.

I have three children, but I’ve also lost three pregnancies. After our last loss, four years ago, I kept hearing “Nehemiah” a name of an old-testament minor prophet, a name which means “No more tears.” I went three years with that word and with the feeling that we weren’t finished yet, we weren’t finished having children. But month after month proved that we were finished, and the tears came every month. And then in January of 2014, there was hope. I was pregnant. In October, we held our daughter, a near 10lb pile of screaming baby, and I heard it again, “No more tears.” 9 months later, rocking her before a nap or nursing her at 2AM I hear it again and again, “No more tears.” Every time I look at her, I hear it. God is faithful. No more tears.

So, if it is so with me, how much more with Sarah? I was still (barely) at child-bearing age; but Sarah was 90. Every time Sarah looked at Isaac she remembered the promise. God had promised the impossible and had made the impossible possible, and she couldn’t forget it so she reminds her husband. “The Promise, dear husband, is with Isaac.” It is by the promise that rescue and salvation come and not through the flesh and bone of birth right. True heirs are heirs of the promise. “‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named,’ not through Ishmael; that is, the people of God are not those who have the physical succession but those who have the promise and believe it” (Luther 33).

God is a God of the promise.

*this is the first part of the sermon that was not published yesterday (2.9.15) with the rest of the sermon that went up on http://www.mbird.com (read it here).

Who is Woman?

Below is an entry I wrote for the Mockingbird Devotional (buy it here) on Gen 2:

Genesis 2:23                                                                                                                                        Lauren R. E. Larkin

This one at last is bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh…You surpass them all.

Who is woman? A question asked by men and women alike and that is applicable to all generations. A question I ask myself, as a woman. A question all too often defined by her form and function. But we cannot isolate her from man to answer the question, because the answer to who she is lies in her relation to him. And often the answer seems to be not really an answer at all. She is completely similar to him, yet utterly different; she is equal yet not interchangeable; she is of the same flesh and bone yet a different person completely; she is comfort and challenge.

There is no substitute suitable for woman to man.  Being “bone of [his] bones, flesh of [his] flesh” she is his perfect helper; and she is God’s first act of intervention on the behalf of man. The best answer I can give to “Who is Woman?” is: she is the first gift of Grace. She would not only alleviate man’s loneliness, drawing him up and out of himself toward another, but would also be the means by which God would consummate His relationship with him—with them as one. Without her, there is no relationship between God and man; without her, loneliness prevails and the Bridegroom is left standing at the altar.  Through her creation, God demonstrates to the whole of creation His love for this curved-in man who cannot help himself, who is stuck in his loneliness and isolation by bestowing to him this wonderful gift of Grace.

The word used in Gen 2:18, “Helper”, is the same word often used of God throughout the Old Testament. In her creation, in her name (“helper”), the themes of protecting, supporting, shielding, sustaining, delivering, comforting, giving hope, and blessing are ever present. As God gently nudges Adam awake, and brings her to the man, Adam is delivered out of loneliness into communion; he is given hope, comfort, and is blessed by her. She imputes to him that which is intrinsically hers and that which he lacks: glory; she is his glory (cf. 1 Cor. 11:2-16). Apart from her, the story ends too early.

Paul says in Ephesians 5:32 about the union of man and woman, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”  The very characteristic demonstrated here in the creation of woman as man’s helper, will reverberate through the books of the Old Testament and into the ears, hearts, and minds of the New Testament audience as well as into our’s. We were, like Adam, isolated, lonely, hopeless, and helpless. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5).   In Jesus, through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God demonstrates Himself to be our true helper.  What is intrinsically His (righteousness), he imputes to us; we were estranged, yet He entered into the midst of it and called us and brought us into communion with Him at His expense.  We live because He, being merciful and taking pity on our estate, died.

As it was in the beginning, so it is now: like Adam, we’ve been saved by Grace