The Untamed God of Life

Sermon on Luke 21:5-19

Canticle 9 Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in God and not be afraid. For God is my stronghold and my sure defense, and God will be my Savior. Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.

Introduction

In CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver says this about Aslan,

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

CS Lewis does a great job telling a fantastic story pointing to something beyond us. Aslan, the lion—Lewis’s representation of God in Christ, the one whom Mr. Beaver is talking about, is an untamed lion, the one no one controls and whom no one can determine and disclose. Aslan is big, striking, protective and inviting, warm and fierce, and full of life—death can’t hold this lion.

What’s striking to me is how trapped we are in thinking God is rather tame, small, quaint, proper, more concerned about etiquette than existence. We prefer the pocket-sized God, neatly tucked into back-pockets and handbags. This tiny-origami God is a very small God who could never reverse the laws of nature surrounding the scientifically demonstrated irreversibility of life and death, would never dare do anything disrupting the status quo, and is completely practical and predictable. We don’t much like Mr. Beaver’s unsafe, disruptive Aslan.

Funny thing is, I can’t find our tame and safe God among the splendor and magnificence of the cosmos from the smallest star in our night sky to the brilliant light of the noon sun, or in the technicolor coat of the flora covering the earth, nourishing the equally diverse and rich clusters of fauna calling earth home. Tell me where this safe and tame God is within the First and Second testaments. From the first page to the very last, the entire Bible speaks of a God who is big and quite untamed: a God willing to contend with Israel’s oppressors, destroy temples, tear open the earth, divide waters to the right and left, flip tables, whisper instead of yell, be born vulnerable and die as such, and call forth the living from the dead.

All that to say: God is not small. God is not tame or safe. An encounter with God will sweep you up into God through death and into new life. Even if we prefer to shrink God, make God safe, tame, and predictable, God refuses our insistences and remains big, forever outside of our grasp, and beyond the limits of our imaginations. So, to quote Mr. Beaver with slight alteration, “‘Tame? … Who said anything about tame? ‘Course [God] isn’t tame…’”

Luke 21:5-19

“Now, before all of these things they will place their hands upon you, and they will persecute, delivering [you] to the synagogues and prisons, being lead to kings and governors on account of my name. It will become to you a witness. Therefore, fix in your heart not to premeditate in order to give an account of yourself. For I, I will give you speech and wisdom which all who oppose you will not be able to resist or contradict. And you will be delivered also by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of my name. And not a hair from your head will be destroyed. In your enduring you will acquire your soul.”[1]

Lk 21:12-19

Luke begins by telling his audience about what the coming demise[2] of the temple.[3]In reply to some casual admiration of the structural magnificence of the temple, Jesus says: these things which you gaze, a day will come in which not one stone upon another stone will be left alone.[4]I imagine the look of the disciples communicated something between: Way to cut to not-so-casual warnings pertaining to the end times, and

It’s this awkward entrance through warnings of the temple’s total destruction that Jesus ushers in a(nother) discussion about how to exist after he’s gone: be on your guard because God’s great reversal will bring a bunch of discomfort![5]Jesus follows up by promising that it wont go well for those who proclaim good news in Jesus’s name. He alerts them to keep their eyes open, Watch(!)[6] [so that] you might not be led astray! Jesus declares that many men will come in my name saying, I, I am and the time has come near!” Then, as they are still perceiving, he tells them to keep their ears open so that whenever you may hear of wars and upheavals, be not struck with panic!And then he adds as a rejoinder, these will not be the end but the first things. He goes on, nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earth quakes and in many places famines and pestilences, there will be scares and great signs of heaven. Jesus then makes it personal, oh, and in case you thought you would escape it, they’ll come for you, too…and by “they” I mean your own darn family. Those who follow the Christ and proclaim his message will end up experiencing the same rejection and fate he did.[7]

Starting with the spiritual realm (represented by the Temple) through the temporal realm (represented by the advent of false Christs and national, tectonic, and viral chaos), to the deeply personal realm, Jesus indicates in all-encompassing fashion that God’s great reversal will consume their whole entire lives. There will be nowhere to run where you don’t suffer some exposure to death on a personal level as God rights wrongs, brings justice where there has been injustice, liberates the captives, unburdens the oppressed, brings in the ostracized, heals the sick, and resurrects the dead. [8] Be prepared; it will be very hard!

This is the good news? What happened to my safe and comforting God? Where did my tame God go?

According to Jesus, the tame God is a myth of status-quo proportions.[9] There is no way to live in both ages—this one and that one—at the exact same time and without disruption to one or the other.[10] Consider this passage a blown-up version—cosmically big—of Jesus’s previous discussion about mammon: you cannot serve both God and mammon. Thus, you cannot follow the Christ, live into the message and activity of Christ, represent Christ when he’s gone, and think that the world is going to be fine with it. They won’t be, not even the one who bore you. This all feels like so much. Where is the hope in the midst of the advent of the new age, where is the good news in the wake of this untamed God?

It’s here in what Jesus says by way of closing. He doesn’t leave them without a word of comfort. Rather, he presses into the promises of God, But, BUT in all of it I’ll be with you, and you’ll not be destroyed (not even a hair on your head will be lost) for in this active endurance you’ll gain your soul because you’ll be found in God and God lives![11]In other words, I might be gone, but I am with you[12] as you are with each other in solidarity;[13] wherever two or three are gathered together, I am in their midst. Whether you live or die, I am with you and you’ll not be lost or destroyed. Jesus’s God is a big, untamed God bringing a great reversal ushering in the new age teeming with life and destroying the old age burdened by death. This great reversal isn’t easy for anyone. But, take heart Beloved; this untamed God is the author of love and life, and where love and life are death and destruction cannot be also… So, Beloved, hold tight, stand firm together, take heart the fight for life is worth it for you are on God’s side. Beloved, rejoice and behold …

Conclusion

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;

for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;

for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;

for they shall be offspring blessed by the [God]–
and their descendants as well.

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent– its food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says [God].


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 238. “The siege and destruction of Jerusalem are described in terms, and even with words, that are parallel to the account of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Verses 12-19 are almost an outline of what Luke will later tell in Acts about the subsequent history of the Christian community, although obviously the phrase ‘not a hair of your head will perish’ must be taken as either a hyperbole or even better as a sign that even death is not defeat, for at the time of this writing Luke already knew of the deaths of at least Stephen and James. Even before the tall of Jerusalem and its awesome events of death and destruction, the disciples of Jesus will be persecuted.”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 733. “The Jerusalem temple admired by those with Jesus was the project of Herod the Great, who in 20/19 B.C.E. began a reconstruction of the temple that essentially doubled its size and otherwise reflected his own aggrandizing character. Pilgrims pouring into the city from the rustic environs of Palestine and the wider diaspora could not help but be impressed, even overwhelmed, by its sheer size and magnificence, by the brilliance of the gold plates that covered its façade, and by (he while marble that adorned its upper reaches, 12 What is more, its splendor as an architectural feat would have been for the faithful more than matched by the awe it inspired as the abode of God and socio-religio-political center of the Jewish universe. Jesus’ emphatic prediction of total annihilation (leaving no “stone upon stone”), echoing his earlier words in 19:44 as well as prophetic oracles of judgment in the OT, must have been stunning on both accounts.”

[4] Gonzales, Luke, 236-237. “The rest of chapter 21 is devoted to a series of announcements and warnings about the time to come, or rather, to what is constructed as a single discourse about future events and the disciples’ lives as they await such events. The setting is the temple, where Jesus has been teaching, and the occasion is the admiration of ‘some’ not necessarily the disciples. In response to such admiration, Jesus comments that the time will come when even the temple will be utterly destroyed, a destruction so thorough that “not one stone will be left upon another.”

[5] Gonzales, Luke,237. “For these reasons, it seems best to interpret the text as bearing the same general thrust as many of the parables of stewardship: telling the disciples how to behave while awaiting the end. On this score, Jesus’ main warning is not to believe any who claim to know when the end will come…”

[6] Green, Luke, 735. “They are not to follow after those making such claims, but neither are they to respond in terror. They are, instead, ‘to watch,’ to exercise their faith in such a way that they have insight into what God is doing.”

[7] Green, Luke, 736. “‘Persecution’ is the heading under which this material can be gathered – persecution resulting from the identification of Jesus’ followers first with his message and then, consequently, with his fate.”

[8] Gonzales, Luke,239-240. “But we prefer a ‘gospel’ without eschatology—a ‘good news’ without hope—because for many of us such ‘good news’ is not so good. We prefer a gospel without eschatology, because the good of the great reversal that Luke has been proclaiming all along does not seem so good to us. If the promised great reversal is for the benefit of sinners rather than properly religious folk, for the exploited, for the poor, for those who have no other hope, where does that leave us? How can such a reversal be a promise of hope for us who are now, so to speak, on top of the heap? This is why, while for most Christians eschatology is a matter of hope, for many others it has become a matter of fear. When the latter is the case, change ceases being a promise and becomes a threat.”

[9] Green, Luke, 736. “The coming resistance is, according to Jesus, not limited to that exacted by official bodies within Judaism and the realm of Rome, but would extend as well to one’s own kin. The inventory of those who would betray the faithful is reminiscent of the list in 14:12, including those with whom, under normal je wo… share relationships of mutual trust and reciprocity. The coming of the kingdom, however, renders normal conventions obsolete, with the result that the faithful have repeatedly been called upon to redraw kinship lines, to find their familial attachments with those ‘who hear the word of God and do it’ (esp. 8:21; cf. 18:29). Of course, it is precisely this disregard for normal conventions, this embracing of the purpose of God as it unfolds in and overtakes the present world order, that leads to the despising of Jesus’ disciples among those who fail to recognize or serve God’s redemptive project. Marked as deviants by their behavior, they will find themselves detested, by those who uphold the accepted protocols of their social world.”

[10] Gonzales, Luke,240. “There is only one way, and it is to this that Jesus refers in verses 12-19. It is the way of living now as those who know that a different future awaits. It is a difficult way, for those who live out of a different order than the existing one will necessarily clash with the present order. The good news does not at first sound so good: ‘they will arrest you and persecute you… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.’ This sounds so alien to us! Persecuted for being a Christian? Rejected by family and friends for our faith? That may have been true in the first century, but not in these enlightened times…

[11] Green, Luke, 737. v. 18 “Its proximity to v 17 suggests, further, the Jesus promises that persecution, even death, does not spell the end of life for the faithful.”

[12] Green, Luke, 737. “Moreover, Jesus thus portends his continual presence with the disciples even as they face the tribunal, following his death; only with the onset of Acts do we understand fully that he will be present to the community of his followers by means of the Holy Spirit poured out among them. That this witness cannot withstood or contradicted finds ready fulfillment in Acts 4:14; 6:10, as well. This, however, does not guarantee that the testimony of Jesus’ witnesses will win the day, only that the resistance they attract and even the executions they undergo are not to be perceived as testimony against the truth or vitality of their witness or the authenticity of their understanding of God’s purpose. This is a pivotal message for Jesus’ disciples, who thus far have been unable to correlate humiliation and suffering with the divine purpose (e.g., 9:44-50; 18:31-34).”

[13] Gonzales, Luke,240-241. “What then about those of us who are not poor or disinherited, whose religion makes us socially respectable, whose mainline churches are the moral and social mainstay of our communities? If all that Luke says about the great reversal is true, there is only one way open to us: solidarity. The doctor of the law cannot suddenly become a Samaritan. He is who he is. The only alternative left to him is to act like the good Samaritan. The Pharisee cannot leave behind his faith, his piety, and his obedience to the law. The only alternative left to him is to join ‘sinners’ in their pain and their trust in God. Zacchaeus cannot undo the evil he may have done while becoming rich on the basis of exploitation and collaboration with an oppressive regime. The only alternative left to him is to use the wealth and the power he has acquired to undo as much as he can of the evil he has produced. Those of us whom society considers ‘mainline’ Christians must understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the promise and hope of the great reversal, make the very phrase ‘mainline Christian’ a contradiction in terms-that the very name of ‘Christian’ requires being at the sidelines, at the margins where people suffer and are exploited or ignored. This is the proper consequence of genuine Christian hope—and it is precisely for that reason that we would much rather leave eschatology aside.”

Remember Whose You Are

Sermon on Luke 17:5-10

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Nietzsche “Parable of the Madman”

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

Luke 17:5-10

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

Luke 17:5-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly (not so weekly) Update

It’s been a bit.

I wish I could tell you I’ve been out traveling with my family or taking fun vacations; I wish I could tell you that I’ve been enthralled with scholarship, joyfully trapped by the plot of a book, or wrapped up in new ministries. None of these things kept me away. Truthfully…

It’s been a bit much.

Everything is heavy, right now. Without having to share details, people are dying, institutions are dying, relationships are dying, and most days I just need to focus on getting to the end of the day as present and accomplished as I can be. And by “accomplished” I don’t mean “successful” in the way it’s used in our rather competitive, dog-eat-dog world. I mean: I got done what needed to get done … and no one was mortally wounded in the process. I can’t even imagine trying to “win” right now…

It’s all too much.

I think what really weighs heavy on my mind and soul and body is that I know I’m not alone. I think we are all struggling. I think that’s why many forms of social media became too much for me. We’re digitally recreating mythical worlds that look sparkly and shiny and serendipitous, but yet we’re all struggling. We’re trying to cast illusions like magic tricks in the attempt to tell ourselves: everything is fine, this is fine. Many of us are (rightly) afraid, and being afraid breeds anger, and anger breeds exclusion, and exclusion breeds isolation, and well isolation breeds…

…too much.

It’s weird redefining what it means to be “successful.” Just arriving at the end of each day and watching those days accumulate in the succession of weeks tells me I’ve succeeded–everything is still running, even if just barely. Success means keeping my daily routine in check and seeing how it brings comfort to my kids. Success is waking up once again and saying, yes, I think I can do this again today…I think I can carry this heaviness, this sadness, this discouragement one more day. Sometimes I shudder thinking what will happen once I move through this difficult phase of existence into an easier one (no, I’m not talking about death into new life, but just literally a letting up of heavy). I fear it will be a lot…like, maybe I’ll break down, and people will say to me,

that’s a bit much, Lauren.

What’s most interesting to me is that while things feel heavy, I still feel my hope and the ever present sense that possibility is just right next to me. I know it mars my academic cred to confess this but… I’m a theologian of hope, through and through and through. I see no reason not to have it; I do see every reason to rescue the concept of home from it’s abusive partner: future expectation. My hope is embedded in that which I cannot see–the possible. And I hold this hope not according to time (or, our human conception of time in its linear mode) but space and that which is just beyond the material I can touch–the things of now but yet unseen, unfelt, unexperienced, untasted. I look around and I can see a lot, but that which I cannot see is

much, much more.

I planted my garden this year and had seeds designated in specific spots. I had no idea there was also growing at that moment mammoth sunflowerS and compost carrots:

I mean…that’s a lot of Mammoth Sunflowers and Carrots and the wall of Parsnip flowers hiding below the surface…

That’s almost too much!

So, I can’t just ever think that this is all there is because there’s always so much more than this going on at this moment. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t. That’s a lie of the worst kind and it takes massive amounts of hubris to believe that the universe is restricted to what *we* can see and touch and feel and think and comprehend and discern… I mean, really, think about it. Where do we get off thinking in such finite ways and then casting those assumptions vast and wide as a new form of inerrant scripture with our tiny human brain parading about as God. I’m not trying to make an apology for God, but I do think we might owe the universe a massive apology.

We’re too much.

Anyway. Hang in there. Take my hand. Let’s walk this heavy together. The more we share the burden the less that burden is…

too much.

Desired and Disrupted

Sermon on Acts 9:1-6

Psalm 30:2-4 My God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, God, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave. Sing to God, you beloved of God; give thanks for the remembrance of God’s holiness.

Introduction

Encounters change us. They can be big or small, prolonged or brief. Sometimes the change is little, sometimes it’s big. Sometimes the encounter is good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes we’re left with warm fuzzies; other times we’re left with the cool pricklies. The encounters can be with other humans, an animal, out in nature, up in the mountains, and down on the beach. Everything and everyone we encounter changes us in some degree. We’re all material girls in this material world; we’re bound to be changed by other materials floating and flitting about.

And then there are the encounters that not only change us, they overhaul us. These are encounters that blend the material and the spiritual, physical and metaphysical. They reduce us to the marrow of existence, hand us over to death, and then beckon us into resurrected new life. We’re new creations facing new directions, walking new paths with new eyes to see and ears to hear; suddenly, everything looks and feels and sounds and tastes and smells different.

These encounters are with God in the event of faith. They can happen anywhere, at any time, and they are completely out of our control. We cannot fabricate them, plan them, cause them, manipulate them, or repeat them. There’s no doctrine to be determined from them, there’s no dogma to be latched on to. They happen, and they change us forever and make us new, wrapped up in this encounter with God. They can be with another living being or not at all; they can be in the four walls of the church or completely outside of them. God decides when God encounters us, and they can happen even in the least likely of places, when we are the furthest from the goal, completely dead set on our way or the high way, headstrong and determined about our own doing and goings on. And they will always be personal and they will always incorporate our entire selves.[1]

Acts 9:1-6

Now, Saul, still breathing with threats and murder towards the disciples of the Lord…Now while journeying it happened to him nearing Damascus, suddenly a light flashed around him like lightening from heaven and after falling up on the earth he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And [Saul] said, “Who are you Lord” And [Jesus] said “ I, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…” [2]

(Acts 9: 1a, 2-5)

Saul’s story—told by Luke here in Acts—is a story about God encountering Saul. This story tells us something of God and of Saul. Saul was, by no stretch of the imagination, a killer, a man bent in on himself and his own human logic of things divine. And, he was travelling to Damascus with authority to imprison and if necessary execute those who will not obey his exhortation to return from following (and worshipping!) this dead man, Jesus.[3] And here we see privilege drunk on its own power: those whom Saul hunts—the followers of the way—have no recourse, no chance, no ability to fight against Saul and resist him.[4] He is like a mountain that is about to fall on them and they have only meager stones to fight back. Saul will seek, and they will be found; they will lose, and Saul will win.

But not even Saul, with all his earned power and privilege and authority to pursue,[5] will be able to outrun the One who pursues him. As God meets up with Saul, Saul is forever changed. Saul is knocked off of his donkey on to his “donkey,” and when he gets up he is a brand-new person. Saul is 100% disrupted on his way to Damascus; his old ways disturbed and brought to death as he is consumed and enveloped in bright divine light. In this light, even before Jesus speaks to Saul, Saul experiences the love of this desiring God in his own person—his entire being[6] is about to be caught up in God.[7]

Even if this was enough, something more happens to Saul: Jesus speaks and asks Saul a profound question. Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? Saul, why are you doing this to me? Saul knows this the Lord—Who are you Lord?—and would never persecute the Lord. Yet, he is persecuting those who are following this (same!) Jesus of Nazareth. And herein Luke tells us a fabulous story of the intimate bond between this Lord and the people of this Lord.[8] In this moment, the solidarity of God with the disenfranchised and oppressed, the hunted and hungry, the threatened and thirsty, is made known to Saul in dramatic and sudden fashion.[9] In other words, mess with the beloved, mess with God.

And as Saul encounters God in this moment in Christ’s self-revelation, Jesus the Christ and God become one. And, Jesus’s presence and God’s people become one. Saul moves from abstract to concrete, from theory to praxis, from ritualistic and traditionalist obedience to law to disruptive and redirecting activity of divine love.[10] Saul will have no choice but to set out on a new path in this new life found in the incarnate, crucified, raised, and ascended Christ. Saul will not be able to justify continuing on with his previous desires to imprison and execute the Followers of the Way;[11] in his entire being and presence, mind and heart, in his actions from here on out, all is changed, all is different, all is disrupted, all is new.

Conclusion

While every encounter changes us, when God encounters us God disrupts us. God does not affirm our former paths, the ones we were dead-set on, the ones we were determined to cling to certain we are right. When we are encountered by God, we’re rendered unto death and are resurrected into new life…not a nicer version of our old life, but a completely, new life. When we’re encountered by God, we’re made more ourselves being wrapped up in divine love and desire for us. And then we’re unleashed back into the world to love others as we’ve been loved, participating in Christ’s mission in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, spreading divine love in passive and active ways, in expected and radical ways, in peaceful and revolutionary ways. We get to participate in another’s encounter with God in the event of faith; we get to be those who bring light into the dark, liberation where there is captivity, release where there is oppression, community where there is isolation, life where there is only death.

In a text by Dorothee Sölle, she refers to (at length) Helmut Gollwitzer’s personal confession of encounter with God in the event of faith, I will close by quoting a portion of it:

The most important thing, from which all the rest follows is that through hearing what can be heard of him I have never been alone. Certainly, like anyone else, I have often enough felt alone, abandoned, helpless, but he has spoken to this solitude with his ‘I am here.’ ‘I spoke to him, asked him, heard very clear words which be said to me, had to take account of them—and the spell of solitude was broken.

He gave me – still gives me – things to do. He is involved in a great work, the greatest here on earth: the revolution of the human race, the individual and all people, for a new life, for real, fulfilled humanity. That is what he is involved in, that is what he is winning for his disciples. To become involved in that is already to participate in the new life oneself. …The connection with Jesus’ great work given an eternal significance even to the most unlikely things: nothing will be lost. A joyful meaning enters into all action.

He makes people dear to me. Some of them are dear anyway, and many others are not. He tells me that he loves those who are alien, indifferent or even unattractive to me. In so doing he helps me to behave in a different way, to be capable of talking, listening to others as openly and seriously as I would like them to listen to me and take me seriously, never writing anyone off, never pronouncing a final judgment on anyone, always attempting new things with them in hope… They all become my neighbours.

In this way he disturbs to me. Because of his intervention I cannot behave as I wanted to at first. Of course, unfortunately I often do just that. But be does not leave me to my inclinations and moods. He struggles with me, there are arguments, and sometimes he prevails. To be disturbed in this way is the healthiest thing that can happen to us. … He does not restrict my freedom; he is not I despotic superego against which I have to fight to come to myself; on the contrary, the more I allow myself to be governed by his intervention, the forces, the more open, the more friendly and the more joyful I become.[12]

Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle

As of Easter, in light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, in tune with Saul’s encounter with God, you are the wonderfully disrupted, disturbed, and desired beloved of God. Go forth, and disturb, disrupt and desire by the power of the love of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.


[1] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 93. “The revealing God yet remains hidden in revelation. This hiddenness is not because God hides, but because, as Karl Barth says God controls God’s own self-revealing, we do not. God comes to us one at a time, specifically, uniquely in the singularity that is our life. God comes to you and to me, as only God can come to you and me, as God, our God. The coming is a calling. A drawing, an awakening of our life to its giver and lover.”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Jennings Acts 90. “Saul is a killer. We must never forget this fact he kills in the name of righteousness, and now he wants legal permission to do so. This is the person who travels the road to Damascus, one who has the authority to take life either through imprisonment or execution. No one is more dangerous than one with the power to take life and who already has mind and sight set on those who are a threat to a safe future. Such a person is a closed circle relying on the inner coherence of their logic.”

[4] Jennings Acts 91. “The disciples of the Lord, the women and men of the Way, have no chance against Saul. They have no argument and certainly no authority to thwart his zeal They are diaspora betrayers of the faith who are a dear and present danger to Israel. This is how Saul sees them. His rationality demands his vision of justice. But what Saul does not yet know is that the road to Damascus has changed. It is space now inhabited by the wayfaring Spirit of the Lord. Saul pursues, but he is being pursued.”

[5] Richard J. Cassidy Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987. 80. “Within Luke’s portrait of his activities, the fact that Paul received approval for this initiative implies that he had emerged as a dedicated and trusted ally of the chief priests and was no longer to regarded merely as the young custodian of their cloaks.”

[6] Jennings Acts 92. “’The Lord and Jesus have been connected in Saul’s body, and they can never be separated again.”

[7] Jennings Acts 90. “God disrupts the old order by interrupting lives. Luke has removed every temporal wall that might separate in our thinking the God who moved in ancient Israel from the God present in the world in Jesus from this God of untamable love. This is the same Holy One, and Saul too will fall into the hands of this desiring God.”

[8] Jennings Acts 92-93. “Jesus is one with the bodies of those who have called on his name and followed in his way by the Spirit Their pain and suffering is his very own. This too is scandal, this too is a crossed line. The mystery of God is found in human flesh, moving in and with the disciples who are a communion of suffering and a witness to life. Saul is meeting a God in Jesus who is no alien to time, but one who lives the everyday with us. The shared life of Jesus continues with his disciples as he takes hold of their horrors and they participate in his hopes. Yet just as he confronted Saul, this God is no passive participant in the suffering of the faithful, but one who has reconciled the world and will bring all of us to the day of Jesus Christ Saul has entered that new day.”

[9] Jennings Acts 91. “The power of this event almost overwhelms its textual witness. Luke is handling holy fire now. The question comes directly to Saul. This is a question too massive for him to handle because it is an intimate one. ‘Why are you hurting me?’…In our world, this genre of question flows most often out of the mouths of the poor and women and children. The question casts light on the currencies of death that we incessantly traffic in, and it has no good answer. The only good answer is to stop. But now this is God’s question. It belongs to God. It belongs with God. Hurt and pain and suffering have reached their final destination, the body of Jesus.”

[10] Jennings Acts 92. “This is the bridge that has been crossed in Israel. The Lord and Jesus are one. This is the revelation that now penetrates Saul’s being and will transform his identity. He turns from the abstract Lord to the concrete Jesus. …Saul moves from an abstract obedience to a concrete one, from the Lord he aims to please to the One who will direct him according to divine pleasure. Discipleship is principled direction taken flight by the Holy Spirit It is the “you have heard it said, but I say to you—the continued speaking of God bound up in disruption and redirection.”

[11] Jennings Acts 90. “There is no rationale for killing that remains intact in the presence of God.”

[12] Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. Gollwitzer’s statement is from H. Spaemann (ed.), Wer ist Jesus von Nazareth—für mich? 100 eitgenössische Zeugnisse (Munich: 1972) 21ff.

Sweet Divine Liberty

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Luke 4:14-21

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

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

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

Luke 4:16-20a

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Green Luke 214

Divine Silence and Suffering

Sermon on Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm 19:1-4 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.

Introduction[1]

“For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:32-33

On September 11th, 2001, at around 7:30 in the morning, I walked from the PATH station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located 20 street blocks (about a mile) from the station in midtown, Manhattan. I walked through Times Square, weaving and wending by the command of traffic lights; walked by St. Pats, by the windows of Saks 5th Avenue, Rock plaza, and arrived at 53rd and 5th avenue. The walk was brilliant; the air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. This Tuesday seemed to promise perfection. Nothing could have prepared me for the next few hours.

What felt like moments later and just settling into the glorious banality of office life, a coworker showed up, wide eyed at my desk. A massive passenger plane flew into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like…into,” was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible? Was it an accident?

I worked on the analyst floor with the guru of gaming and leisure stocks; we didn’t have TVs enough to manage the crowd, so we headed downstairs to the “Floor” (the Trading Floor). We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings comprising our skyline take the foreground, rendering that bright blue sky as a frame for destruction. As we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the South Tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were immediately dismissed from work and released into the streets of New York City … But to where? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could enter or leave.

Proverbs 1:20-33

“Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.”

Proverbs 1:20-23

After getting to the entrances of Morgan Stanley (47th and Broadway), where my father worked, I was told, “We sent everyone home a while ago,” said the officer holding guard. Thinking fast, I pulled out my PalmPilot to check his address and doubled back heading over to my big brother’s apartment near Grand Central Station. The crowd of people was thick. Yet there was a calm about everything. Cellphones didn’t work, because the towers were down… We just moved as we could and as kind as we could. You’d think it would be crazy, like movie crazy but it wasn’t; fear like that manifests in disbelief; disbelief mixed with fear is very quiet.

I entered the apartment building and before I could say anything, the door man took one look at me and said, “Go; he’s looking for you. Go!” 7 floors later and I was embraced by the biggest hug I’ve ever received and given.

By a little after noon, Manhattan was quiet. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big city was very silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed down large avenues, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to Ground Zero. I could (and did) walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’d do such a thing.

Manhattan and the surrounding areas would never be the same. We couldn’t go back to “normal” because that didn’t exist anymore. “Back to” isn’t the trajectory for “normal” when you’re constantly reminded of the horror and tragedy when walking by walls, bus-stands, and bulletin boards, plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried. Months and months, well into 2002; images of the once living haunting and following us until we were numb to their frozen smiles and twinkling eyes.

I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me, God was dead or at least appeared to be.

“Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.”

Proverbs 1:24-27

All the tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering we experience individually and collectively draw up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind desperate questions. Why? Where were you? Where are you God? Why didn’t God stop the tragedy? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where is God when we are in pain? Where is the Divine Comforter when our hearts are torn asunder through loss? Where was God on 9/11? And as fast as the questions arise so do the answers die.

I’ve spent most of my academic life in the pursuit of the question: where is God when we suffer? Where is comfort in divine silence? And there are times—like 9/11—where I come up wordless. The only I answer I have is the tears I shed because suffering is real; and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving? Is this suffering divine judgment?

“Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.”

Proverbs 1:28-31

But there are times when I see clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has only that last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows[2]; God is in the rubble.

Conclusion

Woman Wisdom in our Proverbs passage speaks not to us—those caught in earthly calamity and suffering—but to death and his foolish lackeys: pain, suffering, grief, sorrow, violence, evil, horror, disaster, etc., and anyone who follows death’s lead. Fear of the Lord will not protect me from earthly pain and suffering, sorrow and grief; but it is my life amid them. The cosmic battle is lopsided, leaning in the favor of the God of life.[3] God of Life, Love, comes for God’s people and raises them into God’s self, into life; and therein death, pain, suffering, grief, sorrow, violence, evil, horror is condemned while Wisdom watches and laughs.

God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quake. And the only reason I can say this is because Jesus the Christ, hung on a cross in solidarity with those who suffer in this world. Jesus was raised on the third day to be the fulfillment of the promise of life to those with whom he is in solidarity. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. This is one of the most radical things about the Church’s gospel proclamation: Jesus the Christ, God of very God, suffered in solidarity with the suffering and brings life to them.

God does dwell with those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer for they are in the fullness of God; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is amid God’s people as we gather, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the many services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed, but more: when they showed up.  

God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.


[1] The following is adapted and expanded from this: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2018/09/14/god-is-in-the-gallows-god-is-in-the-rubble-homily-on-luke-28-20-in-honor-of-9-11/

[2] Inspired by Jurgen Moltmann and Elie Wiesel; Moltmann in The Crucified God articulates a powerful story from Wiesel about the hanging of three Jews in a concentration camp. 273-4

[3] Bruce K. Waltke The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 TNICOT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004. 204

Hope in the Mess

Sancta Colloquia Episode 401 ft. Bp. Jake Owensby

This episode with Bp. Jake Owensby (@jakeowensby) marks the start of Seaon FOUR. That’s right, I’m entering in my fourth year of hosting interview. This season will open with a few interviews with authors; how the season will close will be a, well, let’s say: it will be a “self-disclosing” event. Stay Tuned!

In this first episode of season four, I had the honor of talking with my former bishop, Bishop Jake Owensby of the diocese of Western Louisiana of The Episcopal Church. This interview focuses on his most recently published book: Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. We get to talk about why hope and why now? Bp. Owensby articulates well where his source of hope comes from, “Being the beloved in the eye of the Lover and that’s where my hope comes from. I am deeply loved.” It’s this being and knowing and experience deep divine belovedness that motivates Bp. Owensby’s work in this text as a message to help other people. Principally, Bp. Owensby communicates about our proclamation (either written or preached), “There’s one message; it’s the resurrection. That’s the message. That’s it…it’s God’s mighty work!” And it true; he’s not lying. Holding the story of Christ’s resurrection in one hand as we walk with people with the other, helping them and standing in solidarity with them, is the key to comprehending what it means to have hope when hope seems pointless even lost. If we weed out this very story of resurrection from our proclamation because it’s “not real” or “could never happen”–statements more about our logic and reason and not God’s mighty work–we lose one of the most cataclysmic narrative movements of divine life usurping death’s supposed last word. It’s here in the encounter with God in the event of faith that, for Bp. Owensby, where “All of [the] ways in which we’ve allowed or simply had to allow a way of living die and a new way of living emerge, that’s resurrection; that’s hard work.” Chaos, turmoil, fear, death, all of it has been stripped of it’s claim to the last word in this divine mighty work of God in the resurrection. Thus, we can have hope that what we see right now isn’t all we see. That maybe the mess isn’t messy but beautiful because in that mess there is God with us.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Bp. Jake Owensby

Jake Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana. His writing and his speaking events focus on helping people find hope, meaning, and purpose in their lives. He is the author of five books, most recently Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. Jake has three adult children, two grandchildren, and lives in Alexandria, Louisiana, with his wife, Joy. Gracie their rescue pup is their constant companion.

Follow Bp. Jake Owensby on Twitter: @jakeowensby; on Insta: @jakeowensby; and on Facebook: Jake Owensby and Bp. Jake Owensby. Also, for more of Bp. Owensby’s writing, check out his blog: jakeowensby.com.

Other Books by Bp. Owensby:

A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth

Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God

Gospel Memories: The Future Can Rewrite Our Past

Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life

At This Table

What I bring to the table is what I bring to any table: my flesh and bone, muscle and sinew, my stories and experience. Breaking bread at one table is no different than at another: my substance meets bread substance, and I serve what is broken to those who are gathered. I preside over both a table at church and at home, and I find neither more sacred than the other. Bread is served in both places, and the only thing I can remark as distinct are the words used to harken my people to the table. In one place it is, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” And in the other it’s, “Dinner’s ready! Wash your hands and get your drinks!” Both cries accomplish their goal: bringing people into communion to partake of a common meal, and to give thanks for what has been done for us, to stop and take pause and sit and gather, to eat and be nourished while participating in story-sharing and story-making.

They are both sacred.

They are both sacred because both tables have the inherent quality of encounter with God in the event of faith. One table may be more specifically dedicated to such an encounter for the hearer through the words and linens unique to it, but both contain the verdant actual soil to bring forth that splendid fruit of possibility of encounter. Both tables, no matter the words and linens, participate in the space-making and the time-ceasing of divine presence relentlessly seeking the beloved (you and me). The false dichotomy of the sacred and secular collapses and, with Bonhoeffer, we can proclaim all this is good and of God because of the work of redemption and restoration of Christ.

At both tables I feel the same; I am there as I am here. I feel no surge of power at one more than the other, though there’s more potential for variance in emotional output at one than the other—especially with little people who won’t just come to this table with clean hands and drink. The apron here is white and the alb there a flaxen color, and neither fabric changes me; rather they render awareness to others that I am here mom serving dinner and there priest serving elements, but the person is the same in both. The fabric alerts both groups as to what is being served; I chuckle at the idea of swapping outfits…wouldn’t that make for a good and vigorous communion in both cases!

The words I use at both are filled with the same substance of my voice and presence; the voice, with its lilts and intonations, is the same that populates words at this table and at that table.  Even the event itself of this meal and of that meal is enveloped in robust and profound story, swirling and circling about the wood of the table and the flesh of person, bringing together and uniting in experience one to the other and lifting up all unto something way more profound than I can see and hear with ocular and audial material, feel and taste of senses and flesh.

In this radical similarity of these two tables lies the distinction.

To come to the table in my home, where I am clothed in apron, standing amid the elements of the fruit of the earth, is to come to engage in a multitude of stories in both sharing and hearing. It is here at this table where we are brought together and something new is created in our midst as we share and eat and listen. The actuality of our gathering creates the potential for divine encounter in the present. This event is profound and yet bound to this time and moment. It won’t be repeated and can’t be replicated in detail–any attempt to do so will end in a deadness. This table exists now, in this way, and next time it will be different. The divine ordering of humanity toward humanity thus to God will happen but in very distinct and unique ways each time it happens.

To come to the table at the church, where I’m clothed in flaxen alb and stole, standing amid elements of bread and wine is to come to hear and see a very particular story not restricted to this table but especially to be repeated and replicated at this table. It’s at this table with this fabric, with these elements, and using specific words where we are brought into another moment in time, grafted by word and hearing and seeing into the history of one not ours but is now ours, and united to those who have heard and seen this story before and those who will continue to do so long after we’ve transitioned. There’s a permanence and timelessness here at this table that defies and revolts against the static and temporariness of our present existence. This table persists forever—existing in myriad form and made of various material—promising that next time it will be the same–radical! The divine ordering of God toward humanity through Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and thus humanity toward God in the same will happen once again and always as it has happened then, is happening now, and will happen tomorrow. A promise articulated in every language and at any time, no matter what words or people are asked to tell this story at this table.

Prodigals Abound

Sancta Colloquia Episode 206 ft. Judy Douglass

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I had a chance to talk with author, Judy Douglass (@judydouglass417) about her recent book, When You Love a Prodigal. Apart from getting to know Judy a bit more on a personal level, we dove into why she wrote her book, which also is/was a personal journey. Judy’s pastoral heart shines through as she articulates her own maternal struggles with staying present and consistent in the life of her son who was self-destructing. There’s only so much we can do as parents to stop such a thing, and boy are we desperate to try to stop it. We’ll employ every tactic in the known parenting universe to try to protect those whom we love with our entire minds, hearts, souls, strength, and bodies from hurting themselves. But sometimes, the best thing to do is to simply walk alongside this one who bent on self-destruction, whispering the entire time: I’m here with you and I love you dearly, you are my child, my beloved. Judy takes her cues from her very personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ: she’s been loved radically in many different ways so why shouldn’t she love in the same way? Through out the discussion we weave and wend through talking about her book and about the parable of the Prodigal son as told in Luke 15; at the end of the show we come to the very needed conclusion that we are all prodigals like both sons in the story are prodigal. In one way or another, none of us has the right to judge another human being, especially according to their actions. As we fight for those we love, we must remember an important lesson: as Judy explains,  “tough love” creates barrier and separation, it pushes away and rejects; the object of this love doesn’t want to come back. She says that it’s better to think of “firm love” rather than “tough love”. “What’s the difference?” you ask. This, again recourse to Judy: you have to let them make their choices, parent like the father of the prodigal, because love draws others. We must remember to have Mercy and compassion. Forgiveness. Remembering her own faults and short-comings and that at the end of the day, we are dust. Judy reminds us from beginning to end of the episode: to send out mercy and grace to others, which we have received from God. At the end of the day, according to Judy, it’s better to make mistakes on the side of Grace. Couldn’t have said it better myself. 

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).

A native of Dallas, Texas, Judy Douglass is a graduate of the University of Texas with a degree in journalism.  She has been on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1964, serving previously as editor of Collegiate Challenge magazine, manager of the Publications Department, and founding editor of Worldwide Challenge magazine.
Judy currently partners with her husband, Steve, in giving leadership to Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru.  Her primary focus is Women’s Resources.  She is the author of four books and has had articles published in numerous magazines.
A frequent speaker at a variety of groups, including church women’s groups, retreats, missions conferences and student conferences, Judy is known for her “realness” and loves to encourage people to trust God for all He wants to do in them and through them. 

Resources and Help

Books

Allison Bottke—Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children

Katherine James—A Prayer for Orion

Robert J Morgan—Moments for Families with Prodigals

Dena Yohe—You Are Not Alone

Other helps

Connected Families book and seminars–https://connectedfamilies.org/

Hope for Hurting Parents–http://www.hopeforhurtingparents.com/

Prayer for Prodigals—virtual prayer community. To be invited in, write to PrayerforProdigals  @  gmail.com

Suicide Prevention Lifeline–National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-8255

Available 24 hours everyday

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.