This Love and Life, Our Business

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-29

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Galatians 3:23-29

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

(Gal. 3:23-26)

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Crime and Punishment

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

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

Crime and Punishment

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peace of Justice

Sermon on Romans 5:1-5

Psalm 8:1-2 O God our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world! Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.

Introduction

I bet we confuse control for peace. I think we’re dead set on thinking security and protection will grant peace. I believe we’re gullible believing that calm and tranquil are synonymous with peace.

When I can control my environment, others, things, objects, I feel like things around me are calm. This feels like peace. But it’s not. Calm doesn’t mean peace. Control doesn’t mean peace. Things are just calm; I have control. But, again, that’s not peace. The kids aren’t fighting anymore because I exerted my authority and silenced them and now there’s calm. Yet, if you asked the rabble, I bet they’d narrate a different story. I can eliminate people from my life who cause me strife, I can go out into the woods, I can seclude myself from society and its ills, but that’s only control thus calm and not peace. Even if we say: ahhhh, how peaceful…. Doesn’t mean it’s the substance of peace; it only means we’ve forgotten what peace is.

Correlated to seeking peace by control, is our unhealthy desire for “security” and “protection.” Security and protection make us feel safe from external intrusions and threats. Safety produced this way brings the illusion of peace. This is true at the individual, state, and national levels. If I, the state, or the nation can ensure safety from the external threats by stock piling and threatening to use _________ (money, guns and other weapons, walls, fences, oppressive legal restraint, force, etc.), then it might feel “secure” and “protected” and “safe.” But, again, this sense is confused. If a person, a house, or a state uses mechanisms of fear and intimidation through power and authority, it might get some calm and even have control, but peace? Nope.

In fact, heavy-handed authority always foments anger and resentment; fear and intimidation always create oppression and isolation; anger and resentment blended with oppression and isolation is a deadly recipe for chaos and violence. The very thing security and protection aim for is missed. Always. You may have control, and you may have (momentary) calm, but peace? Nope.

The problem with confusing calm, control, security, and protection for peace is that calm, control, security, and protection are things created externally, thus always. If peace is never having any bad feelings or conflict, then you must always cut people and situations off as soon as they manifest unhappy feelings. If peace comes because you feel secure from outside threats, then you must always be alert, your security systems need to be updated frequently to handle increasing amounts of threats. If your peace comes from protection, then your guard can never be down. If your peace comes from being in control, then you must always be in control. If your peace comes from being threatening and intimidating, then you always have to threaten and intimidate. It becomes an endless cycle of more and more; the last I checked the relentless pursuit of more and more is not the definition of what it means to have peace.

“Peace” that’s patched together and fabricated from artificial means of control isn’t peace; it’s an illusion, it’s false, it’s a sham. Peace isn’t about controlling externals (through force or elimination), it isn’t about trying to bring bodies, houses, states, and nations into obedience by forcing them to conform to your will and control. Peace must reside first in the heart and mind and then radiates outward into the environment, carrying with it peace for others.

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, being justified by means of faith we have peace in company with God by means of our Lord Jesus Christ and through whom we have obtained approach for faith in the grace into which we have stood and still stand and we boast on the basis of the hope of the glory of God…But, hope does not shame, because the love of God has been bestowed liberally in our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit being given to us.[1]

(Rom 5:1-2, 5)

It’s not surprising to see this short but profound statement about peace from Romans 5 on Trinity Sunday. For Paul, there is no peace, no shalom, that side-steps around God. Knowing the Hebrew scriptures like the back of his hand and knowing the divine commands, Paul is well acquainted with the peace of God which surpasses all worldly and human understanding.[2] To be sure, this isn’t peace that’s caused because God’s wrath has been appeased, or because you are now safe from hellfire and brimstone; that’s calm, not peace. When Paul declares that we have peace with God through our justification by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit apart from works, it means that we’ve been made right with God, and this means we stand in and with God without disturbance.[3]

If your inner world is chaotic and disturbed,[4] it’ll never matter how secure your doors are and perimeter is, how tall and firm your walls and how barbed your fence, how big the figures in your checking and savings account, or how many weapons you have: there’s no peace because there will never be enough to be sure.

But if you’re sure on the inside, that’s a different story.

Peace is getting to be you, loved as you are, and exhorted to love as you’ve been loved. When God is encountered and this reality in Christ is believed, then your inner world aligns by the presence of the Spirit: no longer do you need to run to make yourself invincible, no longer do you need to deny to remain innocent, no longer do you need to be afraid of being wrong for fear of being bad, no longer do you need to withhold mercy and forgiveness so as not to lose yourself. You don’t need to do these things because you know who you are: a beloved child of God.

We are loved by God who is love, this is made known to us in the proclamation of Christ Jesus who causes us come face to face with the reality of God’s love incarnate and also shows us how to love like God, and then the Spirit takes over our hearts and minds yoking us forever to God’s love, causing us to love that which and those whom God loves. [5] This is the triune mystery that is our reality. [6] This Triune affair is why no one and no thing can ever sever you from God and God’s love; this triune affair is why we get to participate in the perpetual illumination of the world with God’s divine revolution of love and peace.

Conclusion

Prof. Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz says that the embodiment of God’s message of no greater love “…is not a matter of dying for someone else but a matter of not allowing someone else to die…For [the Madres Cristianas] ‘no greater love’ is nothing but the justice-demand that is a constitutive element of the gospel message.” [7] God’s love is oriented toward justice; thus, so is God’s peace. It is only through justice for all, we’ll have real peace, shalom.

Peace always starts with us, with our hearts and minds, with our bodies and presence. Peace is not that which I fabricate by excessive control of other people or my space. Rather, peace, like love, is that which I bring with me (to others) being at peace with God and with myself. If I’m consumed with fear, I cannot bring peace to others. If I’m consumed with threats, I cannot bring peace to others. If I’m desperate to protect myself and feel secure, to be calm and comfortable then I cannot bring peace to others; I will always see others as a threat to my safety, security, protection, calm, and comfort.

Our world is in a desperate state; discourse reveals an intense desire to protect and secure ourselves and those whom we love from the very present threats of death, from the storms of violence and chaos, from the sinkhole of despair. I promise you that more “protection” and “security”, more “control” of others and spaces isn’t the answer. If it is our answer, we’ll head into more chaos and violence, more death and despair. We can’t put our hope in various forms of metal, wood, and stone.

I can tell you that I truly believe the peace, shalom, of God’s love embodied by Jesus and given by the Holy Spirit with and within us is the better answer, the better way to life. God’s love and peace bring justice, because God’s love and peace are merciful, forgiving, steadfast and patient, slow to anger and quick to love, eager to liberate, bring equality, bestow life, and create fertile ground encouraging people to grow and thrive. God’s love and peace never bring deprivation and intimidation, exclusion and isolation, fear and threats; rather God’s love and peace turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27, NRSVUE). Beloved, never forget God’s Spirit of love and peace lives in you, is with you, and goes before you; you’re never alone, never forsaken, never without hope. And be at peace with God, with yourselves, and with each other, and spread peace and love wherever you go and to all whom you meet.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Martin Luther Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia (1515/1516) LW 25 Ed. Hilton C. Oswald. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1972. “THIS is the spiritual peace of which all the prophets sing. And because this is the case, he adds the words with God.”

[3] Luther Romans LW 25, 285. “And this is the real peace of conscience and trust in God. Just as on the contrary a spiritual disturbance is the lack of a quiet conscience and a mistrust of God.”

[4] Luther Romans LW 25, 285-286. “But note how the apostle places this spiritual peace only after righteousness has preceded it. For first he says, ‘since we are justified (iustificati) by faith,’ and then, ‘we have peace…’ And here the perversity of men seeks peace before righteousness, for this reason they do not find peace. Thus the apostle creates a very fine antithesis in these words…”

[5] Luther Romans LW 25, 294. “It is called ‘God’s love’ because by it we love god alone, where nothing is visible, nothing experiential, either inwardly or outwardly, in which we can trust or which is to be loved or feared; but it is carried away beyond all things into the invisible God, who cannot be experienced, who cannot be comprehended, that is, in to the midst of the shadows, not knowing what it loves, only knowing what it does not love; turning away from everything which it has known and experienced, and desiring only that which it has not yet known…”

[6] Luther Romans LW 25, 296. love through the HS “For it is not enough to have the gift unless the giver also be present…”

[7] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 106.

Who You Ask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tabitha, rise!”

Sermon on Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23:1-3 God is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. God revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.

Introduction

In my last call I had the privilege of being a high school teacher at a private Episcopal high school in deep south Louisiana. I taught theology and religion, and I also participated in some of the pastoral care of the students. I had many conversations with students, but some of my favorite ones were with seniors fretting over what college to go to. Them, frantic: Rev. Larkin…Rev. Larkin I don’t know what to do! They had sweet and endearing intentions but they were stuck. They weren’t merely stuck because they were waiting for that frontal lobe to fully kick in, but because they worried about doing God’s will for fear that anything else would cause God to become displeased in them. What college should I go to, Rev. Larkin, what’s God’s will for me?

If there’s any question in the world that I both value and understand and disvalue and dismiss it’s that question. If you ever want to see this enneagram 5 go full tilt wut. just ask: What’s God’s will for me right now? Me:

Robot Monkey GIF by Giphy QA - Find & Share on GIPHY

Now, while my internal monologue looked something like that, my external pastoral side always kicked in. I loved these kids and hated how tied up they were in fear of not knowing God’s will. In these moments, I loved leaning back on Luther. His conception of seeking God’s will as a form of magic and divination (he’s no fan of either, by the way) and the freedom we have in Christ, gave me the power and authority to declare to my fretting and worried beloveds: my dear one, God loves you through and through and through; a college choice isn’t going to ever ever ever take that from you no matter how bad it all turns out. You can just transfer. Also, and this is going to sound a bit blunt and maybe even mean and I intend this with the biggest amount of love for you: God isn’t worried about where you go to college. Literally. God’s will for all of us is written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Pick a school and live in God’s already existent good pleasure and love for you…and care for the poor and vulnerable.

When it comes to our own questions about what does God want for us, what does God want us to do, it’s clearly laid out for us in scripture through the examples of many of the main characters. Even if we rationalize away the example of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, leaning heavy on Christological formulas: Well, Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully God thing…there are still many more examples. In the book of Acts of the Holy Spirit, we’re given plenty examples of people who are both fully human and called by God and live out the will of God in the material world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Saul-Paul is one. I know he’s a bit intense, and he seems to have a penchant for getting into heaps of trouble with the religious and state authorities, but he’s fully human and a converted follower of the way (like many of us).

But maybe Saul-Paul isn’t your cup of tea, too much drama that he clearly could’ve avoided if he was just a bit more reserved and taken with common sense…There’s always another contender: Peter. He seems a bit more practical.

Acts 9:36-43

Now, it happened in that day [Tabitha] became weak and died. And having bathed [her], they laid her in an upper room. Now, Lydda being near Joppa the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda and they sent two men to summon him, “Do not hesitate to pass through us.” And Peter rose and went with them. After arriving, they lead him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and displaying the tunics and many cloaks [Tabitha] was making being with them. Now, Peter sent them all out and [getting on his] knees, he prayed and turned toward the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.[1]

Acts 9:37-40

Last week, looking at chapter 9 of the book of Acts we encountered Saul who was encountered by God in the midst of his self-determined obstinance to reclaim Israelites for the glory of God. Saul was disrupted, and his life changed in a short moment. This week we are being asked to consider Peter who returns to the story as the one who has followed Jesus and continues to do so. Where Saul represents being suddenly disrupted; Peter represents continual and persistent disruption. Peter knew Jesus and continues to get to know him in deeper and more profound ways.[2] Specifically, the blessed mingling of human and divine of the incarnate Christ raised and now ascended beckons to Peter by the power of the Holy Spirit asking him to see how much more that divine and human mingling goes beyond Jesus the Christ. Peter is caught up in the divine pursuit of disruption and disturbing the status quo by shaking up the divine and human distinction through drawing the regular time and regular people into the holiness of God.[3] And he’s about to be thrusted into the middle of such a moment of disruption and disturbance.

In our story here in Acts, Peter dares to do what Jesus did. In other words, to quote Willie James Jennings, “Peter repeats Jesus.”[4] Like his friend, sibling, and savior did, so, too, will Peter do: bring light where there is darkness, liberty where there is captivity, life where there is death. In other words, Peter, like Jesus continues to spread God’s never-stopping, never-giving up material and tangible love for the entire cosmos (from the biggest to the least).[5] Most notably Peter steps into and brings[6] this proclamation to weeping widows in the presence of the death of Tabitha—one who lived well and loved these widows deeply.[7] Here we see how willingly divine power and love will sink and seep into the most narrow crevices of society: the grief of the widows and the death of Tabitha matters to God—these women matter to God, so much so that death is refused the final word.[8]

The final word is God’s power through Peter, “Tabitha, rise.” The echo of Jesus’s “Lazarus, come here! outside!” “Peter repeats Jesus.” Resurrection happens, life triumphs over death. The widows’ grief and sorrow (also fear and anxiety) is heard, and their Tabitha is brought back to life.[9] Our scriptures record this incredible and astounding story: the first disciple to experience resurrection after Jesus’s is a woman. God gives a big heck about bodies, all bodies.[10] And this message doesn’t cease with Tabitha; soon Peter will find himself with a body considered unclean, Simon the Tanner. Peter’s on a divine journey, discovering the depth of God’s love for all people, diving deeper into being disrupted and disturbed by the heart, love, grace, and will of God. [11]

Conclusion

This story from the book of Acts about Peter and the widows and Tabitha reminds us that all bodies matter to God, and not merely the bodies of the wealthy, the powerful, the capable, but, the bodies of least of these, the bodies of the oppressed and poor. Women’s bodies matter. Black bodies matter. Trans bodies matter. Differently abled bodies matter. Imprisoned bodies matter. Your body matters.

So, back to the beginning: What’s God’s will for us? What does God want us to do? I guess God wants us to raise the dead. Or, rather, bring life where there is death. The ultimate interpretation of what it means to liberate the captives is: resurrection. “Tabitha, rise.” And we, like Peter and Saul get to be encountered by this radical and profound divine pathos, divine love for the world and then we get to spread it where ever we go. We, like Saul and Peter, get to say: “Tabitha, rise.” Yes, you! You, too! You, too, rise! Death has no claim here anymore only life, no longer darkness, only light. You are the beloved of God, dearly loved and deeply cherished. From head to toe, without shame, without hiddenness, without secrecy, with all boldness and bigness. “Tabitha, rise.”

You, the Beloved, rise!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 99. “Peter returns to center stage and engages in a bit of wayfaring life, echoing again his history of following Jesus and doing as his savior had done. He is on the road and comes to Lydda to be among the living saints.”

[3] Jennings Acts 99. “Jesus is God drawing the everyday into holiness, into God’s own life. Everyday people are made holy in Christ. Everyday people are made holy by Christ, and this is a holiness that will last, not be episodic, and constitute a new space for living life and knowing ourselves. ‘Saints’ are those marked by the new gestures of belief in Jesus. They worship a crucified Lord in the Spirit, and in the Spirit they live the everyday, knowing that each moment has been made sacred by God’s faithful presence.”

[4] Jennings Acts 99.

[5] Jennings Acts 99-100. “He is with Jesus, following where his savior wants to go. Once again a marvelous act, a touchable miracle, will turn people to the Lord (v. 35). This is repetition that illumines the inexhaustible riches of God’s love for the fragile creature and God’s desire to constantly touch us, hold us, and announce the victory over death.”

[6] Jennings Acts 100. See also Cassidy p.30. “Here glory joins strong grief because to lose someone who cares for the weak and vulnerable, whose life is turned toward making a difference in the world and who is making a difference, is a bitter loss. The widows have lost Tabitha and a disciple is gone. This is what Peter steps into in Joppa.”

[7][7] Jennings Acts 100. “We come to the story of Tabitha with Peter at the very end. There is glory and grief at the end. The glory is a life lived well, lived in service to others. Tabitha’s life, even in the fragments we gain in this story, hangs together beautifully as someone devoted to helping people, especially widows.”

[8] Jennings Acts 100. “Peter’s presence declares an unmistakable truth: women matter. This woman matters, and the work she does for widow’s matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word.”

[9] Jennings Acts 100-101. “’Tabitha, get up.’ Peter repeats Jesus. Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power. Her body has been quickened by the Spirit, and her eyes are opened again to see a new day. She has work to do and joy to give to the widows: you have not been abandoned, dear widows, God has heard your weeping and returned her to you.”

[10] Jennings Acts 101. “We know that death imagines a special claim to the bodies of women. Their deaths are normalized and naturalized in social orders that value men’s body far above all others. It will not be so among the disciples. They will find Peter standing next to Tabitha, a gift of God who has been given again the gift of life. It is no accident that the first disciple to have this little taste of the resurrection is a woman…”

[11] Jennings Acts 101. “Tanners worked with death flesh—the skin of animals and tanners were, theologically speaking, unclean Few if any pious Jews would normally or easily stay with a tanner, but here was Peter with Simon the tanner. Peter is indeed moving from saints to saints, and soon he will find out just how far the generosity and mercy of a holy God reaches. Soon he will see just how far God will extend holy place and holy people. Peter is with a man who touches the unclean, and soon he will see God do the same.”

Our Stories This Story: A Revolutionary Story

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here,(“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here, (“The Old”) click here, (“The Others”) click here, and “Us” click here.

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12

Psalm 118:15-17 There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of [God] has triumphed! the right hand of [God] is exalted! the right hand of [God] has triumphed!” I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of [God].

Introduction

Death dared to stand between God and the Beloved and did not survive; like a mama bear eager to protect her cubs, God roared and death became dust; God’s beloved was liberated. Happy Easter! Hallelujah!

Today, we are people of story.

Today, on this beautiful day of celebration, of praise, of great and big Hallelujahs! we become a people of story. We become a people created and crafted by a radical and profound story of God’s abundant, steadfast, unconditional, never-giving-up, mama-bear-like love for the cosmos.

Today our posture uncoils, and we boldly turn our faces toward the outer edges of the universe letting the rays of the risen Son shine down upon us. All that was has come undone; everything is now as it should be according to God’s story of love for the world and all people.

Today, we get to stand (literally and metaphorically) in the realm of life in the aftermath of the exposure that we do not know what we are doing. Today, we get to float in the wonderful amniotic fluid of divine love soothing over every wound and trauma, we get to dance freely to the manifold melodies of liberation, we get to drink in the waters of life, consume the food of the word of God of love, and hear the comforting declaration that even when we did not and do not know what we are doing, God does know what God’s doing.

Even when we were determined to terminate God’s story, God met our determination with God’s story of love and forgiveness, mercy and grace; what we sentenced to death and thrust into the dirt, God made alive and caused the very ground under our feet to burst open. In the resurrection of the Christ, we receive the splendor of God’s story and watch it eclipse our own feeble stories hallmarked with pain and sorrow, captivity and complicity, sickness and trauma, and death. Today our stories become living, breathing testaments to the revolutionary love of God.

Today we are a people of story.

Luke 24:1-12

Now, on the first [day] of the week at the deep of the early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb carrying spices that they prepared. And they found the stone having been rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus; they became perplexed about this. And then, Lo!, two men in lustrous clothing stood by the women; [the women] became full of fear. While bowing [their] faces to the earth, [the two men] said to the women, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember how he said to you while in Galilee saying ‘it is necessary the Son of Humanity is handed over into the hands of sinful humanity and crucified and on the third day raised up.’” And the women remembered his words…

Luke 24:1-8, translation mine unless otherwise noted

“And the women remembered his words…” This is the profound moment when these brave women[1] who were previously lurking in the background of Luke’s story surge to the foreground.[2] In addition to that, this is the moment when they begin to grasp the depth of what they’ve encountered: God…the awe inspiring and undiluted power of God’s fulfilled promise to liberate the captives even.

Luke tells us: coming to the tomb early in the morning, bearing their spices, they were prepared to meet Jesus’s dead body. Make no mistake, these women are no heroes of “blind faith”, as if they obstinately held to some whimsical fantastic fiction denying what had happened, refusing to accept reality. They knew what happened; they were grounded. They were (literally) carrying spices for burial. They expected to fight against larger-than-life stone to access the decaying body of Jesus of Nazareth and anoint it.[3]

They expected to encounter death; they were ready for that. Instead, they encountered life, and were thrown back on their heels.

Two men greet them in lustrous and dazzling clothes and tell the women: why are you looking for the living among the dead? Let’s imagine the two men ask the question and then smile, knowing (full well) what these women were expecting and knowing (full well) they are seconds away from dropping all those prepared burial spices on the ground. Try to listen to the lilt in the question as it falls on the astounded women who are becoming more perplexed… the living…?among the dead?

The familiar aroma of the paradox of comfort and chaos lingers in that hewn out hole in the rock. For these women, the world is turned upside down…Jesus is alive and not among the dead…The story just took a radical turn. In a moment, these humble women are wrapped up (and lead! [4]) in what will become one of the revolutionary stories of divine love for the world. A story so radical many people and churches will and do suffer persecution and death to tell it.

For these women, nothing will ever be the same. As they leave the empty tomb and return home proclaiming this divine revolution against death in Jesus being raised from the dead, their own stories change for good. What follows, what comes after this encounter with God is not a continuation of what went before…everything is being made new! A new order is ushered in.[5] This isn’t some happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after; this is a brand-new story, a new chapter in history, in the history of these women, in the history of the world.[6] God’s battle with death is won in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit; everyone who collides with this story, will be forever changed in one way or another.[7]

Conclusion

Today,

  • We are a people who passes on story rather than mess
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than isolation and alienation
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than toil
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than utility
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than exclusion
  • We are a people who passes on life rather than death

Today, we become a people who passes on story rather than not-story. As those who encounter God today, in this story, we are changed for good. What was before is eclipsed by this moment. The stories we bring here today—the ones we were given by others who couldn’t love us as well as they wanted to; the ones we were given by those who hated us; the ones we were given through pain, sorrow, suffering, illness, grief, trauma, bullying, and death; the ones we give ourselves—all of our stories, one by one, are rendered to dust as we are enveloped and wrapped up in this new story of God’s for us: Beloved. In this “Beloved” we are called, we stand up, we rise, we are resurrected, and we enter into the divine revolution of God’s love loosed against the remnants of death and its destructive systems.

What was, ended; all that lies ahead is the divine material that is the foundation of our new life and new creation, our liberation and belovedness, our faith, hope,[8] and persistence.[9] This new life—this rising up and resurrection[10]—becomes our praxis in the world. As resurrected new creations, our posture in the world and toward others is completely altered. In this new life we participate with the Holy Spirit in the liberation of the captives.[11] As those summoned from death, from slumber, from the myths and lies we’ve been telling ourselves, we become those who wake up and see, hear, feel, and speak the profound good news of liberation for the world[12] from the captivity of death. In doing so, we demonstrate to the world that resurrection is for now and not strictly for the future.[13] As we bring good news to the oppressed, disenfranchised, poor, lonely, isolated, excluded, used up, and the burnt out, we bring resurrection into the present and push back the expired tyranny of death and usher in the reign of love and life. [14]

I want to close by way of a poem I stumbled across in my studies this week. The title of the poem is Threatened with Resurrection, by Julia Esquivel a poet and Guatemalan exile. I’m quoting the final few stanzas:

No, brother,
it is not the noise in the streets
which does not let us sleep.

Join us in this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
Then you will know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with Resurrection!

To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to know ourselves already
resurrected![15]

Julia Esquivel, “Threatened with Resurrection”

By living into this story we’ve been given today, we live into resurrection now, living lives joining in the “vigil” of those who suffer under what was and those who are threatened with the violence of not-yet, we live “already resurrected,” we live “while dying,” we “dream awake”, and keep watch even while sleeping. When we dare to let the resurrection of the Christ be the divine revolution in the world that it is, we dare to live resurrected now, we dare to become those who don the love of God and spread it to everyone, and we dare to be those who pass on liberation, pass on love, pass on life…those who dare to pass on the story.


[1] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname “The Resurrection (Matthew 28L1-10) “Thomas Pena: ‘The got up early because they wanted to. And they were brace, because they weren’t scared of the National Guardsmen that were on duty there.’” P. 618

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 272. “…Luke will tell parallel but different stories about the women disciples and the men. In this particular case, however, the story about the women comes first. These women have been present, but have remained mostly in the background of the story, ever since Luke introduced them in 8:2-3…Now they come to the foreground as the first witnesses to the resurrection.

[3] Gonzalez Luke 273. “They, no less than the rest, believe that in the cross all has come to an end. It is time to return home to their more traditional lives. But before they do that, they must perform one last act of love for their dead Master: they must anoint his body.”

[4] Gonzalez Luke 273. “Even though the later course of church history, with its expectation of entirely male leadership, would lead us to think otherwise, it is they who bring the message of the resurrection to the eleven, and not vice versa.” See also, Cardenal Solentiname “[Cardenal]: ‘In those times nobody paid much attention to women. And that’s why those women maybe didn’t run any risk, as Laureano says. Their role was only to go and weep and then embalm the body of Jesus. A humble role. But this Gospel assigns them a more important role: they were witnesses to the resurrection.” P. 618

[5] Gonzalez Luke 273

[6] Gonzalez Luke 274. “The resurrection brings about a new reality, a new order. Things do not continue as before … The resurrection is not the continuation of the story. Nor is it just its happy ending. It is the beginning of a new story, of a new age in history…The victory is won. What now remain are no more than skirmishes in a battle that has already been won.”  

[7] Gonzalez Luke 275. “Thus, in the areas that were part of Christendom as well as in the rest of the world, Christians have been rediscovering the significance of the resurrection as victory over the powers of the old age, and as the beginning of a new order and a new history pointing to the final establishment of the reign of God.”

[8] Gollwitzer Way to Life 141 “Nothing is lost, nothing is in vain. Tribulation is not the last thing, joy, arrival at the goal will be the last thing, and for this reason we shall be able to hold on in faith and in hope, hearing the primes ever anew.”

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans. David Cairns Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981 (eng) p. 139 [German version: Wendung zum Leben München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1980. “The whole Gospel calls to us ‘look forward!’ however things are going with you. Look forward! Hope will come to you form that direction, and staying power. Look forward, you see there what gives you the power to hold on!”

[10] Dorothee Sölle “Uprising and Resurrection” The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity Trans. Robert and Rita Kimber Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984. Pp. 71 “Rising, uprising, and resurrection belong together factually as well as linguistically. Rising is a word that describes what an individual does in the morning, uprising, what a people does when it shakes off political sleep. Both of them mean learning how to walk upright, in a way that is still perhaps unfamiliar. To rise up means not to cringe anymore, to lose fear.”

[11] Helmut Gollwiter The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus Trans. David Cairns Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press, 1970 (eng) p.3 [German version: Die reichen Christen und der arme Lazarus München: Chr. Kaiser Verlad, 1968.] “Only by altered attitudes in this world, not by assertions about divine truths, which are claimed to be true ‘in themselves,’ can we bear witness to the relevance of our confession of faith. Therefore John A. T. Robinson is right to ask his question ‘Do we affirm the Easter faith in these days, when we insist that God raised Jesus from the dead—or when we dare to gamble our lives in the faith that God will raise us from the dead? Can we do the former, without doing the latter.’ And indeed, keeping our eye on the liberal reduction of faith to humanism, we shall also have to add, “Can we do the latter, without doing the former?”

[12] Sölle Strength 71-72 “We rise from sleep; we are resurrected from death. An uprising is a rising from political sleep, from a kind of death in which people are deprived of crucial elements of their lives and are commandeered by others.”

[13] Sölle Strength 76 “The price we have to pay for a truly human life has not become less since ancient times, much as we may want to believe that it has. People are still being tortured today because they have fought for justice. People are still dying today from the indifference of others who do not want rebellion and do not need resurrection. But despite the betrayal of the revolution and, God knows, the betrayal of Christ, we see happening again and again what we all need most uprisings of life against the many forms of death; which is to say, resurrection.”

[14] Cardenal Solentiname 619 “I: ‘And he goes on showing us that he’s alive, us, gathered here twenty centuries later; and he’s present in the midst of us.’ WILLAM: ‘-The important thing is that he’s alive wherever there’s community.’”

[15] Julia Esquivel Threatened with Resurrection for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Esquivel. I’ve ordered her book of the same title; more to come!

Our Stories This Story: The Old

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here, (“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here.

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

Psalm 126: 5-7 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Introduction

“I have enough years under my belt to feel the conflict of knowing what I’m doing and not knowing what I’m doing. Or maybe I should say: I’m old enough to know I once thought I knew what I was doing. Now, I’m not so sure I did. I wish I had done some things differently, maybe thought a bit longer about certain things? I don’t know. Age has its benefits, hindsight is 20/20, and my body really hurts. … Yes, I’ve seen humanity get through war and violence; I’ve seen social unrest sooth; I think I’ve even seen progress made through struggle and fight, but now I don’t know…did I imagine it? Gosh, my heart breaks for the younger generations; I feel their pain so deeply. I wish I could share hope, but I don’t know if they’d listen, or if they even want to hear from me… Sometimes I feel like they just don’t have a use for me or for my stories or my experience and learned wisdom…I just feel pointless, shuffled off to the side, in the way, my fire and flame are gone, I’m burnt out.”[1]

We’ve become a people who passes on utility rather than story.

We do not treat our older generation as well as we should. It seems our society has decided that if you can’t work, you aren’t worth anything. If you can’t participate in productive society, pull your weight, carry your load, bear your burden (physically), then you aren’t worth anything to the group. So, off you go! The voices of experience pushed to the fringe, just like slower drivers get pushed to the side. If you can’t keep up, get off the road! In a fast paced, strong-only, autonomous society, where does our older generation find its place?

In the telling of their stories.

But we’re a society that’s sacrificed our storied nature to unhealthy relationships with toil, to forced isolation of the middle age of parenting, to silencing the youth. We’ve grown so backwards in our relationships that we have forgotten how to allow ourselves the time to sit at the feet of those wiser and more storied than we are. We’re so separated from one another—generationally speaking—that we fight against each other rather than listen, criticize each other rather than see the likeness, blame each other rather than receive.

And yet…the irony. We’re genetically constructed material stories of generations long, long past. The way our face is shaped, the color of our hair, the sway of our walk, the way you kick your leg when it’s crossed over the other one, that look he gives when he’s appalled, the way they say that word…it’s all passed down; potentially decades and centuries of mannerisms and genetics and traits passed down and we—each of us—are that miraculous material story. And here we are disregarding the story-tellers…

In priding ourselves in our strength, ability, productivity, and usefulness we’ve lost sight of the necessity of the guidance and hindsight of those who have walked this earth longer than we have. When we focus so much on the accolades of our utility, we won’t have time for the story-tellers because doing is better than listening; activity is better than passivity; to be able is better than to be unable; to give is better than to receive. But this mindset creates a sick and malnourished people, trapped in the hubris of the façade of our various strengths and autonomy, caught in the hierarchy of doing and abledness that perpetuates the fear that when I can’t any longer, I’m pointless.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone thinks to have another confidence with respect to the flesh, I [have] more. Circumcision on the 8th day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, according to the law, a Pharisee, according to zeal a persecutor of the congregation, according to righteousness which came by the law, blameless. But whatever gain it was to me, these things I consider loss through Christ. But more than that, I consider all things to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, through whom all things I have lost, and I consider refuse so that I might gain Christ and I might be found in him…

Phil. 3:4b-9a

When it comes to a contest of perfection, Paul knows exactly where he’d fall: the top of the heap, lead dog of the pack, the honcho of honchos. Make no mistake, Paul was exactly what he claimed to be: excellent, according to law and status. He had and was all that his society esteemed as excellent, good, right, the “who” of “who’s”. While we may want to cast stones at him for bragging too much; let’s hold off for a moment. Rather, let’s see what he’s saying in this context to this audience, the Philippians.

Paul had everything; this is his confession first and foremost. Hey, Philippians, I was the cream of the crop! But he doesn’t stop there because it doesn’t mean anything to Paul now… But now, he counters, I count it all—every accolade, every achievement, every accomplishment, every status—as dung. In a world where status, strength, doing, and achieving are everything, Paul calls BS (and yes, that word “refuse” or “dung” can also be translated in a more vivid way…). In other words, for Paul, all of that emphasis on doing and achieving, being able and strong, top and best, perfect in the eyes of others and according to human made structures, means absolutely, positively nothing. It’s garbage. It’s refuse. It’s dung. It’s… whatever word you want there.

Paul desires not to be known by what he can do; rather Paul wants to be known by what Christ has done. Paul desires not to be known by his achievements, doing, and abledness, but by this crazy story of God incarnate loving humanity and the cosmos so much that God would not only take on flesh, but would also suffer on the hard wood of the cross—an instrument of death of the state—judged as the least and lowest of society, unworthy of life and liberty…worthy only of death. This is the story Paul wants decorating the hallways and aisles of his mind and body, of his history and future. Paul opts for this story as the thing to pass on; not his accolades and achievements. He desires to pass on his weakness and not his strength.

Conclusion

We need to do better by our story tellers. As Christians, we’ve no excuse in giving preference to the capable able-bodied, the strong doers, the decorated achievers. I’m not saying that we now treat those who can poorly; rather, we must treat all of us with the same dignity and equality, the same love and reverence, the same importance and need as we treat those who are able to carry their own.

Dr. Dorothee Sölle in her book, Suffering, argues for an understanding of Christianity highlighting this errant dichotomy between those who can and those who cannot. She articulates that Christianity isn’t for the abled, but for the unabled.

“Christianity exists for slaves. It is the religion of the oppressed, of those marked by affliction. It concerns itself with needs. People are pronounced blessed not because of their achievements or their behavior, but with regard to their needs. Blessed are the poor, the suffering, the persecuted, the hungry…I am not referring to the religion of slavery which perpetuates slavery, but rather to the religion of those unfortunate for a time to time to whom life is promised. Their suffering, their rights, their truth are expressed.”[2]

Dorothee Sölle “Suffering” 159-160

Blessed are the weak, blessed are those who receive, blessed are those who can’t any longerBlessed are those whose bodies hurt, whose eyes have seen, whose hands have done, and whose stories hold deep and profound truth, wisdom, and hope.  

No life is more valuable than another based on placement in time; no body is more valuable than another based on what it can and cannot do; no one is more valuable than another based on strength and accolades. If we want a human society worthy of the declaration “truly human” we must make more room for our story-tellers; we are nothing without them. They, holding hands with the youth, form the basis of hope and possibility for those of us caught in the middle. 

The story we have been given, the one we are walking through right now affirms the nobility, dignity, and beauty of bodies and lives and people, of flora and fauna, of creation and cosmos. Christ came to give life to those who were deprived of it. Christ came to liberate the captives. Christ came to unburden the burdened. Christ came to give humanity a better story than the one they’d written for themselves and deemed good. Christ came to give them a story that is very good. Christ came to give us—all of us—a story that brings each of us, no matter where we are on our journey, life…life abundant.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Sölle Suffering 159-160; see also pages 161-162, specifically, “It is in fact the religion of those who have been disinherited and condemned by life. Contrary to all vitalism and all worship of the healthy and strong, Christianity sees life better preserved by those who have already died once. God ‘will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick’ (Isa. 42:3, NEB)—contrary to all principles of selection.” See also Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s text, Our God Loves Justice, p. 176, quoting Helmut Gollwitzer, “The goal of the disciples’ service is a society that gives equality to their unequally endowed members and gives each member the chance for a full unfolding of life: where the strong help the weak, where production stands in the service of all, where the social product is not siphoned off by privileged minority so that only the modest remainder is at the disposal of the others, a society that ensures appropriate regulation of freedom and of social co-determination for all, the development of social life for the common task and for rich purpose in life for all members of society.”

Be Merciful as God is Merciful

Sermon on Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 37:41-42  But the deliverance of the righteous comes from [God]; [God] is their stronghold in time of trouble. [God] will help them and rescue them; [God] will rescue them from the wicked and deliver them, because they seek refuge in [God].

Introduction

Being told to “love your enemies” is easier said than done. The command is muddled by how we define “enemy” in a way that leans toward those *we* don’t like. It’s definitely hard to override disdain with feelings of love; when we don’t like someone, we just don’t like someone. Enemies also aren’t the people who we can’t forgive because they hurt us once in some way. That’s a real feeling and one I understand very well. Yet, it has its own category. Still, that person is not an enemy, no matter how angry you (still) are.

Who is the enemy?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines “enemy” in his text, The Cost of Discipleship, writing on Matthew 5:43-48:

“By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, who forgive us nothing when we forgive them all, who requite our love with hatred and our service with derision…”[1]

Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in 1937, was already a target of Hitler’s personal aggression. Two days after Hitler took office on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer aired a public radio broadcast in which he offered criticism of the Führer (without naming him directly); this broadcast was cut off before it was finished.[2] The text quoted above came to Bonhoeffer in response to his contemplation of the Sermon on the Mount and how it impacted the believer in terms of Christian-life formation related to “what it means to follow Jesus Christ.”[3] As the church struggled to find it’s voice under the tyranny of Hitler, Bonhoeffer sought to articulate something into the void. For Bonhoeffer he himself in specific and Christians in general were at a “fork in the road.”[4] He and other pastors were under great pressure to capitulate to the oppressive demands and threats of the NSDAP[5] who was strangling and starving all resistance.

All that to say: Bonhoeffer, even with his privilege, wasn’t writing about enemy-love from a secluded and safe distance. He wasn’t instructing people who were fighting for their lives while he grew fat from luxury and comfort. He was in the thick of it, guiding others into it, and teaching those younger about this radical conception of love even for those who are threatening your life and survival.

“Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it. And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love? Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy? Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies.”[6]

Cost of Discipleship

Who loves the one who bullies them? Who loves the ones who are bent on violence and destruction and death? Who loves those enlisted in this service of a fascist dictator in the Sturmabteilung (SA)[7] and the Schutzstaffel (SS)?[8] But yet—in the face of fear, terror, threat, and very real death—this is what Bonhoeffer was asking from all who would listen to the exhortation of Christ.

Luke 6:27-38

“But to you all I say to those who are listening: Love your enemies, in the same way act toward those who hate you, bless those who are cursing you, offer prayer concerning those who are reviling you. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, present also the other; and from the one who removes your cloak, do not hinder the tunic also. Give to all who are asking you, and from the one who removes things form you do not demand [them] back. And according to the manner you wish people do to you, you do to them likewise. [9]

Luke 6:27-31

When Jesus exhorts “those who are listening” to do what seems like the impossible, he is elevating the call to righteousness.[10] While you might have believed x, or thought y, I say….[11] (Something utterly new.) Whatever was assumed, is no longer. Jesus begins by calling attention to an alteration, specifically about “enemies.”

For Jesus, and especially for those who follow him, Love—divine love—is more than a feeling; it’s an action.[12] And not a passive action, but a proactive one; love empowers us to love in radical ways, even to love those who hate us.[13] Love, for Jesus, is done toward others (those least deserving and most in need) in such a way that it reflects what you would want done to your own body and person. In the love-economy of the reign of God: love loves, no matter the status of the other person. [14] In the love-economy of the reign of God not even enemies are the categorical other; for this new community of Christ—the ones who follow after Jesus in person (flesh and bone)[15] and then later by the power of the Holy Spirit—there are only porous boundaries. It is this very community who refuses to declare definitively that another or an other is an “enemy”, undeserving of love, kindness, mercy.[16] Jesus exhorts all those who are listening to love especially the “enemy.” [17]

The reason for the exhortation is embedded in the second half of the text, “And your wages  will be many, and you will be children of the highest, because God is gentle on behalf of the ungrateful and wicked people,” (6:35). In other words, love is about mercy, and God is merciful—abundantly merciful. So, as God is merciful and kind,[18] so too are those who follow Jesus, God of very God.[19] The basis of the ethical posture of this new community: do as God does because God’s nature made manifest in God’s Christ is the starting point for any and all discussions of “Christian” ethics.[20] And this Jesus will allow love to cover over and define every space and distance between him and the other so that he can declare that other as beloved even when we’d say otherwise.

Conclusion

In the encounter with God in the event of faith the believer is tossed about and placed in the world in a way that is right-side-up even if it feels completely up-side-down. It is in this new life in God, fueled by the receipt of divine love, and from the magnitude of mercy we proceed (like being (re)born) into the world bearing the image of God in our features and new genetic code marked by love.[21] Because we have been recreated through faith, through our encounter with God in the event of faith, this puts a pause (even if momentary) on our desire to judge others by their actions. We are asked to think of what we would want from someone when we were acting in such a way; thus, we cannot determine who is and who is not to receive our mercy and grace if God does not withhold either from us.[22] If we so desire grace and mercy; are we also able to grant such things to others?

Loving the enemy feels impossible if it means I must hug and kiss and “love-on” the one who is hurting me, wounding me, being violent toward me. It’s just another violent Christian doctrine if it means I must lose myself to become a vacuous vehicle for abuse—this actually isn’t love because love is not vacuous existence lacking self, but active participation in the activity of love.

But maybe I’m radical enough to think it’s possible: because with God all things are possible. If we walk in love because we’re born of Love, then where we are there that space is filled with love. If God is with us, so too is God’s love. It does not mean I now think this enemy is just great, but it may mean I see them with God’s eyes. Maybe, I see a human, stuck in a misconception of the world detrimental to others and to themselves. I might see one who was a mere baby, held tightly by loving arms of a mother; I might even cry for sadness of the pain that caused this one to be as they are right now.

I know by standing in love and stepping forward in love, love goes with me. I do know that—like tiles being flipped over from the side of “not-love” to the side of “love”—the space and distance between me and my enemy is overhauled from not-love to love. (I do not even need to be physically close to my enemy to alter the space between us.) I know that by dropping the term “enemy”, I’ve already lost one; I know that by declaring “beloved” this one is now not my enemy. There is power in words. So, what happens when we use our words to alter the space and distance between us and our enemies? Would we not want that for ourselves? Would we not want someone else to see us as “beloved” and not as “enemy”? When we allow love to redefine our space and distance and location, then anything is really possible because love will always crack open what is to make room for possibility to blossom.

Beloved, you’re loved by God; mercy is new every morning. This divine love and mercy, forever altering the space between God and humanity bent on their own determinations and judgments and gains, is the very love that is glorified among those very children of God at their worst and best. God’s love is most exalted when it does what it loves to do: bringing God’s life and light to the farthest corners of the cosmos, overhauling death to make room for life, declaring beloved those whom were once called “enemy.”


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship New York, NY: Macmillan, 1959. 164. Emphasis, mine

[2] Christiane Tietz Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Tran s Victoria J. Barnett. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2016. 36.

[3] Tietz, Resistance, 60.

[4] Tietz, Resistance, 63.

[5] Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; The National Socialist German Worker’s Party.

[6] Bonhoeffer Discipleship 164. Emphasis, mine.

[7] Trans: Storm Division; the original para-military force of the Nazi’s.

[8] Trans: Armed Military/”Protection Squad”

[9] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[10] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 94 “The Sermon on the Plain now turns to those who are ready to accept Jesus’ call to a greater righteousness, and is therefore introduced with the words, “But I say to you that listen.” This may also be read as a further explanation of the last beatitude and its parallel woe, which have to do with the hatred of others toward the disciples.” See also: Joel Green (bibliographic material below): “A new beginning in Jesus’ sermon is marked by his words, ‘But I say to you that listen. …’ This should not blind us to the intimate relationship of this section of the address to what has preceded…” 269.

[11] Green Luke 272. “…he is asking people to accept an inversion of the world order, to agree with him that the world order has been inverted, and to act accordingly.”

[12] Gonzalez Luke 94. “Significantly, when one compares this section in Luke to its parallel in Matthew, it is clear that Luke emphasizes the use of possessions, and that he wants to make clear that Christian love is not just a sentiment or a feeling, but also an attitude leading to concrete action: “do good to those who hate you.’”

[13] Green Luke 272. “Love is expressed in doing good – that is, not by passivity in the face of opposition but in proactivity: doing good blessing, praying, and offering the second cheek and the shirt along with the coat.”

[14] Green Luke 272. “The category of “enemies” may include others, however, and not only those who deliberately oppose Jesus’ followers. Because the beggar is habitually defined as outside the circles of companionship of all but other beggars, they would not be classed as “friends” but as “enemies,” outsiders. Love is due them as well, as though they were comrades and kin, and in their case love is expressed in giving.”

[15] Green Luke 271-272. “Jesus’ sermon, then, serves an interpretive function for the narrative as it has developed thus far, casting in positive and constructive terms the worldview and concomitant practices Jesus’ message portends. It is also challenging, summoning its audience(s) to adopt this alterative view of the world and so to measure its practices by its canons.”

[16] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 270. “One corollary of Jesus’ message, then, is the construction of a boundary, the delineation of behavior characteristic of those within the community. This is an important observation, since one of the distinguishing marks of his ethic is a worldview that advocates love of enemies. But as a practice, it would appear that love of enemies is designed to mitigate social tensions that, if habitual, would jeopardize the identity of any group. How can this community be distinguished by a practice that dissolves any such distinctions? …in essence, Jesus calls on his followers. To form а community the boundaries of which are porous and whose primary emblematic behavior is its refusal to treat others (even, or especially, those who hate, exclude, revile, and defame you) as though they were enemies.”

[17] Green Luke 272. “Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” lack any commonly held ethical base and can only be understood as an admonition to conduct inspired by God’s own graciousness (W 350-36). This is not love for all humanity in general, but more specifically for those who stand in opposition to Jesus’ followers – those whom Luke has already noted in narration (5:27-6:11) and about whom Jesus has already spoken (vv 22-23).”

[18] Green Luke 271. “…in redefining the world for his followers, potential and actual, Jesus posits as its foundation his image of God as merciful Father (6:36) – a base on which he can draft the character of his followers, character that will manifest itself in the demeanor and practices here described.”

[19] Gonzalez Luke 94. This is parallel to Matthew’s ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. S:48). While Matthew’s words have often been taken out of context as the basis for a theological claim about God’s ontological perfection, Luke’s leave no room for such an interpretation. The divine perfection that the disciples are to imitate is the perfection of an all-embracing mercy

[20][20] Gonzalez Luke 94. “Furthermore, even though we often tend to think that the basis for the Christian ethics of love is the Golden Rule, in the final analysis the basis for Christian ethics is the very nature and action of God.”

[21] Green Luke 273. “…he incorporates into one utterance the character of this new people and the practices it engenders; theirs will be a countercultural existence indeed for their lives are based on an inverted understanding of their social world.”

[22] Green Luke 275. “Just as the merciful God does not predetermine who will or will not be the recipients of his kindness, so Jesus’ followers must refuse to “judge” – that is, to prejudge, to predetermine who might be the recipients of their graciousness. This is nothing but the command to love one’s enemies restated negatively. In an important sense, Jesus’ instructions are to refuse to act as those scribes and Pharisees had done in 5:27-32, as they calculated beforehand the status of those toll collectors and sinners and thereby excluded them from their circles of social interaction. …Jesus’ followers give freely, without dragging others and especially those in need into the quagmire of never-ending cycles of repayment and liability. And God will lavishly repay them.”

Exposed and Loved

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Psalm 138:1-2 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your Name, because of your love and faithfulness…

Introduction

Have you ever been exposed?

I’m sure we all have stories from our childhood where a parent or an older sibling found us mid infraction. A story that always comes to mind for me was the time in first grade. I took it upon myself to defend my friend who was disciplined by the driver of the bus during the ride home from school. As I stepped down from the bus, I turned, and then gave the bus driver a selection of choice words. Then I sprinted home—as fast as possible—through waist deep Minnesota snow while wearing moonboots. What I didn’t know was that my big brother had been right there when I let those words rip. And, for a kid who was regularly messing up, he now had his moment of glory: the baby of the family had done something wrong… he was ready to expose me. And he did. Let’s just say, I didn’t use some of those words for a very long time.

While this was a rather comical moment from my history, there are other moments I keep locked in my heart, moments when I was exposed but not unto punishment, judgment, and condemnation but unto mercy, grace, and life. Those moments when I did not receive what I rightfully deserved to receive, I hold as treasures of my history. These moments are rich and profound; they weave together that which is bad with that which is good, that which was ugly with that which is beautiful, that which was submerged in lightlessness with that which is exposed in lightfulness.

One such moment was an extensive moment of existence where I felt my life falling from my body as I lost myself into my pain and anguish, into my greed and vanity, into my self-inflicted violence and abuse. I was a sham. There was not life in me even though I went about from day to day. I hated me. I hated who I was. I could barely look in the mirror because I couldn’t handle the deep sadness of disappointment and failure. But then God. God spoke through the humble proclamation of God’s love for the world in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and I heard something I couldn’t believe to be true: me? Loved? Good? Welcomed? A holy and righteous God and “Lauren” in the same sentence?

My life was changed. Forever. I’d never be the same. Love changes us.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Then he was seen by James, then to all the apostles. Now, last of all as if one untimely born, he was seen also by me. For I, I am the least of the apostles of whom I am not fit to be called apostle on the very account that I persecuted the church of God. Now by the grace of God, I am what I am, and the grace of God with reference to me has not been empty…[1]

1 Corinthians 15:7-10

So, when I read Paul’s words in 1 Cor 15:7-10, it’s this moment of confession—of his own encounter with God in the event of faith exposing him—that becomes the operative force surging through this passage. Yes, the proto-credal statements[2] present in the earlier part of chapter 15 are important; yet, the thrust of the chapter hinges on the rampant divine love in the world seeking and saving the lost, of whom Paul is a member. This confessional outburst of qualifying (or disqualifying) content highlights the magnitude of divine love, it’s remarkably unconditional character, and its power to expose one unto life…no matter how bad they are. For all intents and purposes, as Paul considers the proclamation of the gospel which he received and which he shares with the Corinthians,[3] he is caught up in the emotional profundity of God’s love for him; God’s transformative love saved him from his death filled ways and view of the world unto and into God’s love and life.[4]

Before Paul does launch into his own desperate history and the work of God in the midst of that history, Paul anchors the contents of the gospel proclamation (the life, death, and resurrection) of Christ in the scriptures (“according to the writings”[5]). In doing this, Paul highlights for the Corinthians that this divine activity of love in Christ is the same divine activity of love that has been proclaimed in the midst of God’s people throughout the first testament in the words of Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim (the revelation of the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings).[6] Subsequently, the divine activity of love that is the foundation and the source of the creation of the cosmos is also the very source of the recreative event of encounter with God in the event of faith; God is the God of creation and new creation, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.[7]

Thus, as Paul poetically describes his situation in the midst of speaking of divine activity of love in the world, he emphasizes the power of God’s love surging through the world wrapping up into God and into Love all who get caught up. To be caught up into God through the act of divine love seeking the beloved is the salvation event. To be loved by God, to be given God’s grace for you no matter what is being saved: saved from a sham existence into a true one, one that has substance, presence, and is filled with the fullness of emotional and physical actuality with and for others and not merely for oneself. And Paul’s point is ultimately this profound reality: as he was going about persecuting the Church, God loved him into new creation—God caught him up, he did not catch God.[8] This grace of God and love from God is all God; and if all God then it is secured because it’s God’s work and God secures God’s work in God’s self (God’s promises do not return void or are they uttered in vain or are they fruitless). In other words, if this is God’s work of love toward us and it is not our work, then we cannot lose this grace and love because it’s not ours to lose. You can’t lose God’s love because God loves you and not because you do this or don’t do that; God just loves you, dearly and deeply loves you.

Conclusion

Our encounters with God in the event of faith can be big or small, they can rival Paul’s in sudden dramatic fashion, or they can be a subtle slow reveal. Yet, no matter what, they are never insignificant because they expose us unto new life. For me, for my story, my encounter with God felt big like being swept up in a wave of everything too good to be true: to be completely seen and loved for no reason than just because. I’m certain I’m here because of I was so swept up. And I’m not only here in this church and in these robes, but actually here…present in body, mind, and soul. The cry of my heart met in God’s exposing love unto life.

Save me, I’m lost
Oh, Lord, I’ve been waiting for you
I’ll pay any cost
Save me from being confused
Show me what I’m looking for[9]

Show Me What I’m Looking For

But, I am also here, in this building and in these robes to walk in the same footsteps of Paul. I now get to tell you that if God caught me up in God’s exposing love, you, too, Beloved, are caught up. Every priest called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ—the articulation of God’s divine activity of love in the world—must share the good news of God’s love with the people they are called to love. And I love that word “share”. Not only do I share with you the story of God’s love for the world and for you, I share in it with you. I too am here to hear the story even as I am charged to tell it. I share in the gracious and unconditional gift of God’s self revealed in God’s grace and love for me, for you, for us, for the world.  

When we tell the story of God’s love for the world in Christ to others, let us remember that our stories are now woven into in this one—no matter how bad or how ugly you think your story is or has been, it is now embedded and transformed in this good and beautiful story, radically transformed in the light of the glory of God for the glory of God. We are, truly, loved into new creations by the author of our salvation and foundation of our lives, by the one who threw the stars into place and the spun the planets into orbit; we are, truly, and forever, no longer lost, no longer confused, because we are the beloved.


[1] Translation mine.

[2] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1188. “Since the death and resurrection of Christ are both states of affairs or events extra nos and transforming events which shape faith, both aspects are fundamental for 15:3-5…Hence foundational confessions in the pre-Pauline and Pauline churches serve both as declarative acts of truth claims in the context of proclamation and teaching and as an oath of loyalty in baptism, the Eucharist, or times of persecution.”

[3] Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 1185. “τίνι λόγω is probably instrumental and is used here as if it were a relative, as it occurs frequently in the papyri. Any difficulty dissolves…as soon as we recall that λόγος often denotes not simply word, message, or act of speaking but also the content or substance of a declaration, assertion, proposition, or other communicative act. The verb εὐαγγελίζομαι already means to proclaim the gospel; hence Paul refers to the substance of the gospel that I proclaimed to you.”

[4] Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 1184-1185. “We must understand the gospel in 15:1, therefore, to denote more than the message of the resurrection, but not less. It denotes the message of salvation; in vv. 3-4 Paul endorses the shared pre-Pauline tradition which both proclaims the death and resurrection of Christ and interprets it in terms of the saving and transforming power of God as this receives explanation and intelligibility within the frame of reference provided by the [Old Testament] scripture.”

[5] …κατὰ τὰς γραφὰς… (found in vv. 3 and 4).

[6] Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 1195. This paves the way for our understanding the particular nuance of the phrase according to the scriptures when it is applied as a context for understanding the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (a) First, it does indeed relate this divine act of vindication and sovereign action to the theme of promise. Its occurrence rests not only on divine power and divine grace, but also on divine faithfulness to vindicate his obedient messianic agent,

[7] Thiselton 1195. “Third, it bears witness to the character of God whom the scriptures portray as a giving and gracious as well as a sovereign, faithful creator. If creation itself is God’s gift, the new creation which begins with Christ’s resurrection and promises the resurrection of believers is no less so.”

[8] Thiselton 1210. “Given Paul’s association of his encounter with the resurrected life as one of new creation (2 Cor 4:6; cf. Gen 1:3-5), it seems most probable that Paul perceives himself as one who was unable to contribute anything to an encounter in which God’s sovereign grace was all, even to the extent of giving life to one who was humanly beyond all hope. This precisely reflects the theme of resurrection as God’s sovereign gift of life to the dead (not to those who already possess capacities of self-perpetuating survival) throughout this chapter.”

[9] Carolina Liar Show Me What I’m Looking For writers: Karlsson Tobias Erik, Wolfinbarger Chad Douglas 2008

The Greatest of These…

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Psalm 71:1-2 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me.

Introduction

I never cease to marvel at the mystery that is love. How is it that we can come to love another person or animal or thing? No one can command love. I can clamor until I’m blue in the face that Christians should love one another, that you should love each other, but it would be in vain. I cannot command you to love one another or other people as much as I cannot tell the very humans that came from body to—for the love of God—love each other. Love really is mysterious. Love exceeds my control.

To be honest, I’m not sold that I choose love. I hear it a lot, especially in regards to marriage: every day I choose to love this person. Ehhh….maybe. *shrugs* I think you choose to follow through on the vows, or choose loyalty, faithfulness, steadfastness, commitment, and maybe even choose to act lovingly. But I’m not sure I choose love. In the same breadth I’ll add: love is more than a feeling. You can feel in love and you can feel not in love. However, I’m not sure that means you don’t love in that moment or that you aren’t loved in that moment—it just means you don’t feel it. Love exceeds my reason and rationality.

I think a hick-up in our conception of love is that we try to define love from our limited human perspective. When we do this, we render love as something we can squish between two small pieces of glass and slide under our microscope, or something we can slice open and dissect with our scalpel. In this scenario we are the determining subject, and love becomes the determined object, the other, the thing to be examined, dissected, and defined. This top-down evaluative approach is why we end up with ideas and definitions of love that are bitter on the tongue and less permanent than cotton candy. Love exceeds my examining gaze.

Love is truly mysterious.

What if all we need to get a better understanding of love is to change our perspective? What if I just reverse the direction between us and love? What if Love is the subject and we are the object? What if love is the subject and the verb, and we are the direct and indirect objects? Maybe love defines, examines, reveals, determines me? Maybe we can’t choose it because it chooses us? Maybe we can’t command it because it commands us? And if you have ever been wrapped up in intense feelings of love, that’s exactly what it feels like: a force presenting itself in our world and our hearts and minds that drives us toward each other and the world.

Love loves the beloved toward the beloved.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love perseveres, love acts gentle, love does not burn with envy, love does not vaunt itself, it is not inflated with its own interest, it does not act improperly, it does not demand things for its own interest, it is not exasperated into wounded vanity, it is not reckoning evil (in the wildest sense), it does not rejoice over the unrighteous but rejoices over the truth; there is nothing love cannot face, there is no limit to its faith, hope, and endurance.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The first thing I noticed when I was translating this passage was this: I am not the subject of these independent clauses. Love is the subject. While I know this may appear like a very rudimentary grammatical and intellectual moment, stay here with me. In English it sounds like a noun being modified by adjectives. For instance, I could say: The tree is tall. This is a descriptive construction about an object. *I* am doing the describing of the tree. So, as we read the English translation of the text, it sounds like Paul is describing this object “love” with these other adjectives. But here’s the thing: those aren’t adjectives. They’re verbs whose subject is love. The “is” comes from the fact that the verbal form is present tense.

ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται.

1 Corinthians 13:4

The word for love is in the subject position (it’s the feminine, nominative, singular) and the verbs are present tense and in the 3rd person singular. Thus, in accordance with the subject of the sentence doing the action of the verbs: love perseveres, [love] acts gentle. When we shift the tone of the words away from adjectival into verbal, we move from love as one more objective emotion, to love being a principal actor in our narrative. Love does this and not that.

Without love, Paul declares, he is nothing but a clanging symbol even if he can speak in tongues of humanity and angels (v. 1); without love, Paul exclaims, even with all the knowledge and all the faith, he is nothing (v.2). Yet, with love, with love acting through him the tongues turn from clanging symbols into gentle words; with love moving into and through him, he is something.[1] For Paul—holding close to Christ crucified and raised as God’s divine act of love in the world—love alters everything because love as the divine operative in the world is always oriented toward the other, toward the beloved.[2]

What Paul is describing here is not his conception of love but the activity of God in the world as the word incarnate—the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Love made manifest by God in Christ acts for the livelihood, welfare, and concern for the object of love, the beloved.[3] For Paul, who is wrapped up in the overwhelming reality of God’s love for the world and for him, launches into a poetic string of statements about what this Love present in the world looks like. He is not speaking of the way he loves or indicating that by doing such things he or the Corinthians obtains love; rather, he is proclaiming God’s love in the world for him and for the Corinthians.

Conclusion

If love is the subject performing the actions of persevering, being gentle, not burning with envy, not centering the self over and against the other person, and standing firm capable to face anything, without limit of faith, hope, and endurance, then what is the object?

You are.

The divine substance that is love seeks you and loves you to no end. From this edge of the earth to the other, in the worst and the best moments, in highs and the lows, you are loved by this divine love, by God. *You* are the beloved. And in being loved in such a way (unconditionally and completely) there is nothing you can do to lose that love; it’s not yours to lose because you are not the subject here, but the beautiful and wonderful object of love’s action in and for the world. Receive this truth; rejoice in this truth.

And if you are the beloved—the object of God’s love—then you are wrapped up in this force of love surging through the world and ushered into this realm of divine love for the world. In being so wrapped up and ushered in, you find yourself in the love of God erupting into the here and now as we are moved to love one another.[4] Love catches us up in its momentum into the world in search of more beautiful and wonderful beloveds.

We do not acquire the object of love by acting in this way or that way or avoiding this or that action; we do all of that for our own gain. Rather where there is perseverance, there is Love for the beloved; where there are gentle acts, there is love for the other; where burning envy is absent, there is love for the neighbor; where self-boasting is lacking there is love for the friend; where arrogance is missing, there is love for your brother; where there isn’t an exasperation unto wounded vanity, there is Love for your sister; where there is endurance, hope, faith, willingness to stand up and face anything no matter how scary, there is Love for God and the beloved.[5]

I’ll conclude with recourse to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The greatest of all virtues is love. Here we find the true meaning of the Christian faith and of the cross. Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of his [sic] generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. By uniting yourselves with Christ and your brothers [sic] through love you will be able to matriculate in the university of eternal life. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.[6]

“Paul’s Letter to the Americans”

Beloved where you have hope, where you have faith, where you see the humanity of your neighbor be assured—even in our chaotic, tumultuous, and violent world—there Love is and there God is. For where you are, there, too, is God. For you who are in Christ by fait,h where you are there Love is.


[1] Thiselton Corinthians 1045. “The first person subject is now merely implicit, but the reference is clear enough from the context. The logical (as against grammatical) subject is the series of acts which build up from the familiar to a projected climax: all this counts for nothing. Petzer’s analysis of defamiliarization applies. What seemed ordinary and obvious now appears in a new, unfamiliar light, which produces shock. These wondrous gifts and triumphant victories all amount to nothing, unless love directs them, with its Christlike concern and regard for ‘the other.’”

[2] Thiselton Corinthians 1049. “Paul hammers home the incompatibility of love as respect and concern for the welfare of the other and obsessions about the status and attention accorded to the self. How much behavior among believers and even ministers is actually ‘attention seeking’ designed to impress others with one’s own supposed importance? Some ‘spiritual songs’ may appear to encourage, rather than discourage, this preoccupation with the self rather than with others and with God. Here is Luther’s antithesis between theologia crucis and theologia gloriae…”

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1035 “Second, as we have noted, love (ἀγάπη) denotes above all a stance or attitude which shows itself in acts of will as regard, respect, and concern for the welfare of the other. It is therefore profoundly Christological, for the cross is the paradigm case of the act of will and stance which places welfare of others above the interests of the self.”

[4] Thiselton Corinthians, 1035. “First, love represents ‘the power of the new age’ breaking into the present, ‘the only vital force which has a future.’ Love is that quality which distinctively stamps the life of heaven, where regard and respect for the other dominates the character of life with God as the communion of saints and heavenly hosts. The theologian may receive his or her redundancy notice; the prophet may have nothing to say which everyone else does not already know; but love abides as the character of heavenly, eschatological existence.”

[5] Thiselton Corinthians 1057. “Paul declares: Love never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up. The fourfold never with four negative actions provides rhetorical force to Paul’s fourfold all things…”

[6] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” Strength to Love Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 153.

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