Like Beloved Children

Psalm 130:4-7: I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Introduction

For 11 years, I was a stay-at-home parent. My favorite and least favorite part of being a stay-at-home parent was watching how my mannerisms, colloquialisms, and habits were reproduced by my children—for better or for worse. Somedays it would be Liza who would see to her duty of unpacking the pantry I just packed after a run to the store. Or it was Quinn who would use a spare calculator as a cellphone and walk around the house, like I did when I was on the phone, yammering to some unknown person while imitating my intonations and inflections. Or, in Jack’s case, it was making use of my penchant and fondness for polysyllabic words.

Of all the stories I have about Jack’s ability to command language and his artistic ability to render it to his will, my favorite was an encounter with our mailman on a warm summer day. Playing out in the gated front porch, both boys were busy with paints and bubbles. The mailman climbed the two flights of stairs to our mounted mailbox. As he was putting the mail in the mailbox, he greeted the two toddlers with a happy smile and a warm, “Hey guys!” Quinn, my shy extrovert, smiled and whispered a hello in reply. Jack, a little over two and wearing nothing but a bulky cloth diaper, looked at the mailman, pointed at him, and—assertive and confident—said, “Do not antagonize our cat, Joe Joe!” The mailman was a bit taken aback by both the prohibition and from whom it came. He laughed and assured my son, “Don’t worry, buddy, I won’t!”

It didn’t take but a second to figure out where Jack had learned that polysyllabic word: me. Day in and day out I would use various words to exhort the boys to stop (verbally) fighting—some more colorful than others, but always words natural to the way I speak. And, “antagonize” was one of those words targeted at the boys locked in verbal fisticuffs. Thus, Jack had not only made note of it, he learned when to use it. He didn’t need to memorize the word; he just heard it enough in specific situations to absorb it and imitate it to an innocent mailman making rounds.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Let all bitterness and outbursts of negative passion and impulsive vengeance and clamoring against others and abusive language be removed from you with all malice. Now be kind with respect to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God forgave you in Christ. Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and handed himself over for our sake, as an offering and sacrifice for a fragrant odor to God (Eph 4:31-5:2)[1]

Ephesians 4:31-5:2

The author of our love letter to Ephesus continues with the exhortative nature initiated at the start of chapter four. As we pick up in v. 25, neither lose the beseeching to walk worthy of the call to which you were called (v.1), nor the imagery of being the reborn children of divine Love. What we have in our portion from Ephesians today is a dive into what it looks like to walk in this worthy way, as those beloved children of God—heirs with Christ of the fulfilled promises—sealed by the Holy Spirit. Being reborn of God in and by love, we are to reflect that divine genetic material of love into the world; the old life being shed, we are new.[2] This new person and worthy walk, according to the author, is what it means to be a new person born into the reign of God in the world.[3]

What will this new life reborn of love look like? The first thing is removing falsehood from our language. This isn’t about threatening others with condemnation if they lie; it’s about pursing what is genuine and real, rejecting what is in opposition to genuine and real.[4] We not only seek honesty with others, but we are also honest with ourselves. We live in reality and not in some mythical approximation that makes us feel comfortable. We can twist and bend our words and language about the world however we want, but this exhortation is about calling things as they are for what they are. We owe others truth because we are linked together with them in our humanity and as objects of divine love—both in and outside of our common gathering on Sunday.[5] In this way, to propagate falsehood does harm to us as it is does to others. Perpetuating the myth and lie of the kingdom of humanity keeps us all trapped in complicity and captivity of the myth and lie.

Closely linked with putting aside untruth, we’re exhorted to be angry in a life-giving way and not in a death-dealing way. As we’re called to see things as they are, we will become angry when we see people suffering and being held captive by oppression and injustice perpetuated by the myth and lie.[6] In this righteous anger over pain and suffering,[7] we’re to aim at the mark: remedying the situation and not exacerbating it. We are prohibited from missing the mark (“sin”), thus in the negative prohibition is the positive command: do the right thing, fight for those who need to be fought for, ally with those who are being pressed and killed by greed, and overturn violent institutional and systemic oppression as if they were tables.[8] Concurrently, we must prevent our anger from festering for too long and becoming septic.[9] This is why it’s important to channel the energy of anger toward life; festered and septic anger brings death.

The next two exhortations—to work with hands and not steal and the call to speak edifying words and not “worthless” words—address the orientation of heart of the new person as the beloved child of God. Both exhortations are directed to the neighbor. While we may think thievery is anyone who steals what they have not purchased, it’s more than that. It’s about greed. A poor person steals bread to eat because they have a desire to eat; a rich person steals not for lack but because of a desire to satisfy greed. A loquacious person may speak many words, but not all of them will be edifying. In both commands the heart of the believer is exposed. We must keep watch over ourselves and our tendency to fall prey to the myths of our society that convince us we can say what we want and take what we want to the detriment of the neighbor. We must remember that our material existence and the material of our words are not ours; rather, they are of God because we are reborn of divine love.[10] We use both our work, our material existence, and our words[11] to benefit those in need, bringing the love of God to them in real and tangible ways. Thus, the Holy of Spirit of God (in you and in whom you are sealed[12]) rejoices and is not grieved.[13],[14]

Conclusion

We are to remove from us a bitter attitude, negative outbursts of passion, destructive anger, clamoring against each other, and abusive language. In other words, our attitude, disposition and manner of speech,[15] must resist participating in death-dealing. This is the way of humanity, bent on its desires to consume until everything is gone, bent on its own destruction, bent on gain and greed even if it means the end of the world, of humanity, and of themselves. Rather, we are to pull close to our divine parent, to gaze upon God in Christ. We are to look so ardently and listen so well (shema) that we, like the beloved children of God that we are, mimic Christ in the world. The more we gaze upon Christ, the more we hear about God’s activity and speech manifest in Christ for us and the entire creation and cosmos, the more we will reflect those things into the world and all for the love of God and for our neighbor.

The more we understand God’s compassion for us and the world, made tangible in Christ, the more compassion will take root, grow, and flourish in our hearts, minds, and bodies in word and deed.[16] As we see and hear God weep with us in our grief and sorrow, so will we weep with others who grieve and sorrow. As we see and hear God relieve our hunger and thirst, so will we relieve the hunger and thirst of others. As we see and hear God present in our pain and suffering, so will we be present in the pain and suffering of others. As we see and hear God ally with us in our captivity and get angry about it, so will we ally with those who are being held captive and be angry about it. As we see and hear God forgive us for missing the mark, we will forgive others who miss the mark, too. As we witness by eye and ear God’s gracious and free gift of Grace in Christ to us, we will reflect this free gift of grace into the world.[17]

Like beloved children of Love, let us know God’s love for us and the cosmos in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can’t do anything else but mimic and imitate this divine love into the banality and monotony of daily life, boldly communicating this profound love to others in word and deed…even to the unsuspecting mailperson making their rounds on a warm summer day.[18]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 615. “Having established the believers position as a new person, the inferential conjunction Sid points to the desired application of this position. The lifestyle of the old person is integrally tied to the person and so the lifestyle and the position of the new should be integrally bound together. Once the new person had been put on at conversion, one’s subsequent life should reflect what he or she is.”

[3] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974 511  “In what follows Paul presents examples to show what specific deeds and attitudes are rejected when the ‘0ld Man’ is castaway.”

[4] Hoehner Ephesians 615-616, Pseudos “…in all contexts this word is used as the antithesis of truth…. Falsehood connotes that which is not genuine or real. The lifestyle of the old person was one of deception (v. 22). This kind of lifestyle has been laid aside.”

[5] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard Ephesians Belief: A Theological Commentary Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011. 188, “Truth is owed to the neighbors because of our social solidarity with them. It is also a bit surprising that the text does not say that we are members of the ‘body’. The ‘body’ is not mentioned. Perhaps it is also too obvious to mention. But perhaps the reference the ‘body’ is left out because ‘the neighbors’ to whom we are to ‘speak the truth’ evidently include those who are not members of the body, not members of the church. The exhortation was not simply that we should tell the truth ‘to one another.’ Truthfulness is not just owed to other members of the church, but to any and all neighbors.’ The ‘truth’ in Jesus of our social solidarity, that ‘we are members of one another’ points beyond the church to the universal community that is God’s plan.”

[6] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 190, “Anger at injustice is permitted. Indeed, an injustice not only prompts anger; it requires it When we see the poor oppressed, we should get angry. When the ‘other’ is demeaned or insulted, we should get angry. But anger can be an occasion for sin, for seeking revenge instead of justice, for holding a grudge instead of seeking reconciliation. It is sin that is renounced.”

[7] Barth Ephesians 513, “Among the saints who are ‘God’s imitators’ (5:1) such anger cannot be excluded any more than in God himself (Rom 1:18; 2:5, 8; 5:9) or in the Messiah (Mark 3:5, etc.). ‘Wrath against a brother’ draws judgment upon the angry man (Matt 5:22; cf Gen 45:24), but ‘indignation on behalf of others is one of the common bonds by which society is held together.’”

[8] Hoehner Ephesians 619, We Anger “Since the word sometimes is in reference to Gods anger it cannot be said that anger is intrinsically evil. Hence, the next command is important. The imperative is from ὰμαρτάνω, meaning in classical Greek ‘to miss the mark’ such as when throwing a spear or ‘to miss’ the way. Generally it means ‘to fail to accomplish ones purpose, go wrong.’”

[9] Hoehner Ephesians 623, “This is why Paul does not want believers to give the devil an opportunity by their anger. The devil twists and distorts the truth. If there is no quick restoration between parties, further anger mounts and dissension and revenge often result.”

[10] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 192-193, “There is the sort of theft to which the poor and powerless are tempted, but there are also the subtle forms of stealing that tempt the rich and powerful. It is a kind of theft when the rich get richer at the expense of a decent wage for laborers or by taking advantage of slaves. It is a kind of theft when merchants ‘make the ephah small and the shekel great’ (Amos 8:5). It is a kind of theft when a judge takes a bribe. And it is a kind of theft when the wealthy do not recognize that what they call “their own” is really God s and an opportunity to practice justice and generosity. It is a kind of theft when the rich ignore and dismiss the legitimate claims of the poor upon them, when they do not share with the needy what is due them by Gods justice. It is likely that the latter sorts of theft are in view here in Ephesians rather than the first. Then one need not suppose that there were a lot of petty thieves and shoplifters in the churches of the Lycus Valley.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 631, “Paul states that believers are accountable for what they say. In fact every word is accountable. Care must be taken that each word is not useless or unprofitable but is beneficial for the building up of the body. While the preceding verse dealt with the physical needs of believers, this verse speaks to their spiritual needs.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 633, “In conclusion, verse 30 revolves around the person of the Holy Spirit. Believers are reminded that he has sealed them for the day of redemption. They are warned against the use of worthless words because they not only hurt the body of Christ but also grieve the Holy Spirit.”

[13] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 194-195, “The motive here, the motive to do an honest days work, is not simply to earn a living for oneself and one’s family, honest enough motives, to be sure. The motive is surely not to accumulate enough possessions to pretend one has achieved by oneself and for oneself security and an identity. The motive, rather, is simply ‘to have something to share with the needy’ (4:28). That will include those who do not have work.”

[14] Barth Ephesians 522, Blaspheme “This term may have been chosen in order to show that one’s fellow man is under God’s protection: he who reviles his brother by using profane speech shouts obscenities against God.”

[15] Hoehner Ephesians 636, “To summarize, first noun ‘bitterness’ in verse 31 deals with attitude. The next two nouns ‘anger and wrath’ deal with disposition, and the last two ‘shouting and abusive’ refer to the manner of speech.”

[16] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 200-1, “Compassion (eusplangchnos; NRSV ‘tenderhearted’) is the second in this triad of virtues. Compassion is a visceral response to the suffering o£ another. It is to share the suffering, to ‘suffer with’ (com-passion) another. Compassion will seek to relieve the suffering of another, even if the only way to relieve it is to be present to it, present to the sufferer, lest the sufferer be abandoned to the desolating loneliness of suffering….. In solidarity with that Christ, we hope for the day of resurrection, the day when death will be no more, when there will be no more suffering. But meanwhile we share in Christ s death. And if we share in that death in baptism and the Supper, then to refuse to share the suffering of another is quite unfitting, quite unworthy of our new identity and community.”

[17] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 206, “Nevertheless, the broader meaning should not be neglected here. Both God’s forgiveness and the practice of forgiveness within the church are, after all, works of grace. Moreover, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness—and the whole set of renunciations and exhortations in this section—find their final motive and basis in the grace of God made known in Christ Forgiveness, surely, but also kindness and compassion, follow upon this affirmation of the gospel, that “God in Christ has been gracious to you.’”

[18] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 206-7, “Love is the mark of God s own life, both in the relations of the Trinity and in Gods creative and redemptive relationship with Gods creation. But here, no less than in Johns epistle, ‘we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:16). We are to imitate God by living in accord with Christ’s love. We imitate God by following Christ; we are to ‘walk [peripatetic] in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Eph. 5:2). Here, no less than in John’s epistle, the implication is that ‘we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16). That imitation of God, that following of Christ, may mean first; as in 1 John, something as mundane and commonplace as helping the needy in the community (Eph. 4:28; c£ 1 John 3:17).”

Born of Love

Sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16

Psalm 51:9-11 Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Introduction

Of my three children, Liza was by far the most active in utero. I felt her quick and swift movements early and often up until the very end of her 41 weeks. I’m not sure what she was doing, but Daniel and I often joked that she was busy building extra rooms and additions in her 98-degree cave. She was here, she was there, she was … wait, how did you get there?! Even our obstetrician had difficulty locating her heartbeat early on so that we could hear it for longer than a few seconds. You’d hear the rapid thump-thump-thump draw close to the doppler and then *poof!* like magic, she was gone. As she grew larger (she’d be about 10lb when she was born), I’d literally rock with her full-bodied movements. She didn’t just kick, she lambadad about, with a flamenco thrown in here and there.

It was just a few weeks out from what was to be her birthday, and I busy capitalizing on the quiet house with both boys off at school until 3:30pm. I sat at my computer and worked, writing up some notes on Thomas Aquinas. I felt her roll about. I rocked in response to her motions. And then, out of the corners of my eyes as I was typing, I saw my belly go left and right at the exact same time. I went from round to oblong because #theogbg decided she was in the mood for a full body stretch. I immediately put my hands to my now football shaped belly; I felt her hands and her feet. She was in there and I was out here, and we were one but not, but so much one in our distinction and symbiosis in love.

While birth would relocate her into her my arms and eventually in front of me, I knew that deep connection wouldn’t break once the link of the umbilical cord was broken. The symbiosis and distinction would take on new and vibrant colors and encounters, yet that very moment was the initial of a myriad of fractals of love in action as I would continue to stretch around her: through her activity, in response to her growth, and with her self-discovery and disclosure. And as she grows more and more, more and more will that bond of love, that realm of love adjust to bear the weight of the transformation of her, of me, and us together as one.

Ephesians 4:1-16

Therefore, I, the prisoner in and because of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you were called, with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering, enduring one another in love; being eager to keep guard over the unity of the Spirit with respect to the bond of peace. One body and one spirit, just as even one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who [is] above all both through all and in all. Now to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the free gift of Christ.[1]

Ephesians 4:1-7

Our author begins chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians with a powerful “Therefore” tightly linked to an urgent beseeching for the Ephesians to walk worthily. What preceded this exhortation of exhortations is not now forgotten but is the foundation and motivation of the exhortation. The author hasn’t ceased to preach the gospel to focus on the community. Rather it’s the articulation of the gospel of Christ in imperatives[2] into the community; the emphasis is still on the divine activity[3] now manifest in the faith and love of the community. [4] The divine love in action toward humanity—unifying people previously separated and unifying God to God’s people—is now translated by its own self-disclosure into the community.[5]

There’s no way around it, what came before in the first three chapters is the fuel of the liberating power of divine love. It is in this way: The encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit[6] changes us forever because we are enwombed in the totality of divine love and birthed into love’s service as this community of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.[7] This is the rebirth that Jesus speaks of in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. In hearing the profundity of divine love for us as we are, we are transformed…forever.[8] We can’t unhear and unsee what we now hear and what we now see. We are bound to the source of our new life in love and now our activity with each other and in the world will be different than it was. Therefore, the author uses the seemingly small and subtle adverb, “worthy,” with the infinitive, “to walk”. Rather than just getting up and walking as you have been, walk like you’ve seen and heard the love of God for you and the cosmos. And necessarily we walk in community; our union with God in the event of faith is corporate as we are grafted into the body of Christ by faith and the power of the Spirit.[9]

What does this worthy walk look like for the community reborn of God symbiotically connected by divine love? The author urges his audience to walk with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit with respect to the bond of peace (vv. 2-3). Rather than being turned inward toward themselves, they are turned outward, with their faces lifted high, brazened by the glory and love of God, and turned toward their neighbor, to one another,[10] seeking and seeing the highest love for and in the neighbor for no other reason than they have first been loved.[11] Humility rejects the Ego’s assumption that it is more than it is and orients the eyes toward those of the neighbor; I don’t just see me, I see you and me. Gentleness isn’t weakness but rightly ordered self-control, knowing when and where to use force and when not to; I will ally with you in the fight and in rest.[12] Being realistic about the burden and demand of community, the community acknowledges the burden and shows up in that burden to walk with their neighbors through their trials and tribulations, to bear with the neighbor in their captivity and oppression, and to allow for the differences that exist in community; I will love[13] you as you are because I’ve been loved as is;[14] that’s what the miracle of love: it just loves.[15] And all of it oriented toward the unity of the community where love and the Spirit of peace stretch out over it, bringing it closer while allowing it to grow and expand.

Conclusion

What if I’m far from home?
Oh brother, I will hear you call.
What if I lose it all?
Oh sister, I will help you out.
Oh, if the sky comes falling down
For you, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do.[16]

The humble enamored author of Ephesians directs us to see that we are grafted into this body of Christ through love and the Spirit, and reborn of this love thus of the same family with a familiar history with those in Ephesus and with each other. We, like those members of the early church, have been knit together in the womb of divine love, submerged in the amniotic fluid of love, and birthed anew into a new age of the reign of God with the first breath of divine love in our new lungs. And like those first followers of the way so long ago, we are urged by this divine Love to love the world: it’s wonderful and various inhabitants of flora, fauna, and anthrop[a].

In the ever expanding ὺμᾶς of the letter, once penned to a small few in Ephesus, we are caught up in the call to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called. We are called to be one in the unity of the diversity of community—not isolated but knit together sharing a common history and hope. We are called to know and feel the divine love of God for us manifest in Christ present in us by the power of the Holy Spirit and then to love as we’ve been loved.[17]

Love is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, or distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and is the material substance dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves—amid the closeness of intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity…Love loves the beloved and the beloved loves.[18]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted in the text.

[2] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974 457, “A close look at the details of Pauline ethics will discover that the structure, the intention, and the individual parts of Paul’s admonition are invariably informed and determined by the grace which the apostle proclaims and to which he subjects himself and others. Christ is the key, the touchstone, the scope of all. Proclamation of Christ is made even when imperatives abound. It is beyond dispute that Pauline ethics are based upon, and implicitly contained in, his Christology and soteriology. Even if Paul had written nothing at all about ethical questions, imaginative interpreters might still have derived the Pauline ethics by inference from the Pauline kerygma. But it can also be shown that his ethical utterances contain the whole gospel.”

[3] Barth Ephesians 451, “Here ecclesiology and ethics are so completely identified that they can neither be separated nor distinguished. In the second, vss. 4-6, the contents and the fact of the church’s confession are called to mind to demonstrate how essential is oneness to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as confessing church. In the third, vss. 7-12, it is shown, by means of a comment upon a Psalm text, that the exalted Christ himself gives the church diverse gifts. Each of her members benefits from the gift given from above.”

[4] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard Ephesians Belief: A Theological Commentary Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011. 133, “The pattern is rather that the gospel comes to us in both the indicative mood and in the imperative mood? To be sure, the indicative is frequently (and appropriately) first and the imperative second, but in both the gospel is proclaimed. As an apostle and as a pastor Paul was always proclaiming the gospel, ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ (Rom. 1:16). He did not stop proclaiming the gospel when in Romans 12:2 he urged the Roman Christians to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds,’ or when in Romans 15:7 he urged them to ‘welcome one another.’ Such imperatives are not a mere addendum to the gospel. They are the gospel in the imperative mood, calling for ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), summoning the churches to perform the gospel.”

[5] Barth Ephesians 426 “When the conjunction ‘therefore’ is used, at the beginning of a second, hortatory part of Pauline Epistles, it bears great weight; it emphasizes the logical dependence of ethical advice upon the preceding doctrinal statements….the content of Eph 1-3 is doxological rather than dogmatic. The direct connection of the ethical chapters with the praise of God rather than with a doctrine of God is a specific feature of Ephesians. The verb translated by ‘I beseech’ can also be rendered ‘I exhort,’ ‘I encourage,’ ‘I comfort,’ ‘I warn.’ While it includes a direct request (customarily expressed in Papyri epistles by the verb ‘I ask,’ erotao), the word preferred by Paul signifies a will of the writer that is at the same time personal, and urgent Its sense is stronger than that of the English verb ‘I exhort.’”

[6] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 520-1, “In concluding this section two observations should be noted. First, the Trinity is an integral part of this treatise on unity. The one body of believers is vitalized by one Spirit, so all believers have one hope. That body is united to its one Lord (Christ) by each member’s one act of faith, and his or her identity with him is in the one baptism. One God, the Father, is supreme over all, operative through all, and resides in all. All seven components are united in the Trinity. Some scholars such as Kirby think that baptism is central1 and some like Hanson think that faith is central, but in reality the Triune God is the center and model for unity- This is in keeping with the rest of Ephesians is known for its abundant references to the Trinity (cf. 1:4—14, 17; 2:18, 22; 3:4-5,14-17; 4:4-6; 5:18-20).”

[7] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 132-3, “In Ephesians (and in the Pauline Epistles generally) ‘therefore’ signals a link, not just a transition. It is a moral theology in the first three chapters, announcing the ‘immeasurable greatness of [Gods] power’ (1:19), attentive to the grace and the cause of God, but always already with an eye toward the implications of the gospel for the lives of Christians and the common life of the churches. And it is a theological morality in the last three chapters, announcing the gospel now in the imperative mood, attentive to the sort of conduct, character, and community that are empowered and required by God’s grace and cause.”

[8] Hoehner Ephesians 504, “The aorist tense is ingressive, indicating that lifestyle of the believer. The aorist tense is ingressive, indicating that believer is to change his or her conduct from what it was previously. The adverb ἀξίος, ‘worthy, worthily, suitably,’ literally means ‘“bringing up the other beam of the scales/ ‘bringing into equilibrium,’ and therefore equivalent’” or “worthily, a manner worthy of, suitability.”… In Phil 1:27 its connotation is that the believer’s life should be worthy of the gospel of Christ and in Col 1:10 its connotation is that the believer is to live a life worthy of the Lord (cf. Rom 16:2; 1 Thess 2:12). In the present context the emphasis is on conduct that is in balance with or equal to ones “call.’”

[9] Hoehner Ephesians 504-5, “In the present context, the reference is not only to salvation by election and adoption by the Father (cf. 1:4-5), but also to their union into one body, the church. Therefore, the call to walk worthy of the calling refers not only to the individual believers but also the corporate body of believers.”

[10] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The focus on ‘one another’ is significant. This word occurs forty times in Paul’s letters. Christians are part of each other and are to receive one another, think about one another, serve one another, love one another, build up one another, bear each other’s burdens, submit to each other, and encourage each other. Christianity is a God-directed, Christ-defined, other-oriented religion.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 510, “This kind of love seeks the highest good in the one loved, and more particularly for the believer, it has the idea of seeking the will of God in the one loved. It is an unconditional love that does not seek a response in kind.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 507 (Barclay qtd in), “Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of selfcontrol, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the of power for the purpose of retaliation. Barclay states it well when he writes, ‘The man who is praus is the man who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.’”

[13] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The Christian life is a life of putting up with other people, and this tolerance finds its ability and motivation in love (cf. Gal. 6:2). ‘Love’ and ‘putting up with each other’ are intertwined and mutually explanatory. Both are ways of valuing the other person.”

[14] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The focus on love is an extension the emphasis on love in 3:17-19. That is, the love experienced in Christ must be extended to others. The noun agape was rarely used outside Jewish sources and the Christian writings. A few secular occurrences ate now known, but clearly Christians injected the word with new content to talk about love relation to God—first love from God, then also love for God and for other people because of God. This love does not have its origin in human motivation; it is a choice made because of the love of God.”

[15] Hoehner Ephesians 509, ἀνέχω “- It means ‘to take up, to bear up, to endure,’ In the LXX it occurs sixteen times and in the canonical books it appears eleven times. It is used of Gods endurance of the Israelites’ vain offerings (Isa 1:13) or Jobs endurance through great trials (Job 6:11, 26; cf. also Isa 46:4). It also has the idea of restraint, as when God withheld the rain (Amos 4:7; Hag :10) or restrained himself from destroying people (Isa 42:14; 63:15; 64:12 [MT & LXX 64:11]). …In addition, it is used when Jesus asks how long he should bear with the disciples (Matt 17:17 = Mark 9:19 = Luke 9:41) or when Gallio bore with the Jews’ accusation against Paul (Acts 18:14). … Hence, this word has reference to bearing or enduring with respect to things or persons. In the present context and in Col 3:13 Paul asks to bear with those in the assembly. Thus, to translate this word ‘forbear’ is appropriate. Robertson suggests that it is a direct middle meaning ‘holding yourselves back from one another.’ In other words, differences between believers are to be tolerated.” And Marcus Barth Ephesians 461 “The neighbor—even the one who is a burden and whose character and behavior prove cumbersome…He is its very material. Love is not an abstract substance or mood that can be present in a man’s heart even when there are no others in sight and no confrontations are taking place. It does not exist in a vacuum, in abstracto, in detachment from involvement in other men’s lives. Rather it is a question of being surprised by a neighbor, accepting him, going out to him, and seeking solidarity and unity just with him even if this should mean temporary neglect of, or estrangement from, others. Such love is an event that takes place exclusively when one meets and lives with specific men, women, children, old people, relatives, and strangers. Love is always love of this or that person, love here and now, love shown under ever new conditions in ever original forms. Where there is love, there this and that person in his uniqueness is “borne” and fully accepted. Therefore “love” should not be defined as a virtue of the soul, not even as the highest virtue. It is an ever-new miracle which has to happen again and again just as the filling with the Spirit spoken of in the book of Acts was an ever new experience given whenever there was need of a spirited testimony. In Rom 5:5 the gift of love is identified with the gift of the Spirit, and in Gal 5:22 love is listed as the first “fruit of the Spirit”.

[16] Avicii True “Hey Brother” https://genius.com/Avicii-hey-brother-lyrics

[17] Snodgrass Ephesians 198, “Christians must maintain the unity of the Spirit because everything they hold of any significance they hold with other people. Seven items are preceded by the word ‘one,’ and in each case the oneness expresses both the uniqueness of the item and its foundational value for unity. All seven express reality that there is only one gospel and that to believe that gospel is to enter into the unity it creates. Christianity is a shared faith. No separate or merely individual faith exists, nor is there a different salvation.”

[18] Taken from a goodbye message delivered to the Seniors and Juniors of Ascension Episcopal School upon my resignation. Text and video here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

Wrapped Up in Love

Sermon on Ephesians 3:14-21

Ephesians 3:20-21: Now to the one who has the power to do super-abundantly beyond all things we request…to [God] [be] the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus into all the generations forever and ever, Amen.

Introduction

The evening wasn’t much different than others. The only distinction was that a disagreeable verbal transaction occurred between me and my oldest son.[1] I can’t necessarily, at this point, recall the exact details of the engagement, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the time of evening and bed. What I do remember clearly was the near three-year-old standing at the top of the stairs yelling down at me, full of fury and ferocity (angry as the dickens!). The summary of what he yelled down at me, red faced with tiny fists clenched, was that I wasn’t a very good mom and he—at that moment—didn’t like me very much.

I informed him that he could have those feelings, but he needed to go have them in his room. Then I added: you can come out when you’re calm and sweet. I watched and listened to him go-ish to his room, slam the door, and proceed to throw things and vent that (in summary) I wasn’t a good mom and he—at that moment—didn’t like me very much. While I’m an advocate for taking time and space when emotions run high and heated, there was a something in the moment that shot through my heart and altered my perspective. In the midst of his anger—specifically at me—I felt the surge to go to him. But this isn’t what the parenting book says, went through my head as I tried to circumnavigate the increasing conviction to go to him. Hold your ground…Don’t give in. So, I didn’t move.

I stood there looking up the stairs and listened to my son rant and rave as much as his little lungs and heart would allow him. And then, Nah, this doesn’t feel right. I ascended the stairs and opened the door to his room—just barely missing the most recent airborne toy but not the current toddlery lambast. I walked in and wrapped him up in my arms and held him. As passionate as his mother is, he fought back with intensity. I held him to me. I love you so much. I whispered as he fought me. I said it a few more times, I love you so much. Then, what felt like suddenly, he relaxed and melted into my embrace as we sat on his bed. Then, I love you, too.

Ephesians 3:14-21

[I pray][2] that, [God][3] may give to you–according to the abundance of the glory [of God]—strength to become strong through God’s spirit in[4] the inner person, Christ being permanently settled[5] in your hearts through faith, having been fixed firmly and founded in love…[6]

Ephesians 3:16-17

One of the things that the author of Ephesians does here, in chapter three, is link the love of God to parental love. While the author uses the term “father”, the emphasis isn’t on “fatherhood” specifically. Rather, the emphasis is on accessibility and presence and acceptance that is a significant part of parenthood in general. According to our faith claims and this text, God is the parent of all peoples (3:15)—all are elected and adopted through Christ (1:5, 11) and there is now no dividing wall between those who are near and those who are far off (2:14-15). It is this tight correlation of God as parent—of Jesus Christ and of the people—that underscores the reality of God’s love for God’s people. God sees you; God knows you; God loves you like a mother loves her child even when he’s losing his little three-year-old mind.

Essentially, the author is highlighting positive disintegration: 1. There is the disintegration of the separation of people groups (there is now no longer an in group/out group dynamic at play); and 2. The disintegration of distance between God and humanity. This disintegration emphasizes a revolutionary way to think of God: close and personal. You are profoundly loved by a cosmically big God[7] who is not far off and strange, but who is close and familiar.[8] God is close and familiar not in an abstract purely spiritual way but in a material way evidenced by Jesus the Christ, God of very God, the Word and Love of God incarnate. And evidenced by the sending of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete) who is of the same substance of God and who resides in you uniting you to God and giving you a new heart (you are the new temple of God).

It is the close presence of God that establishes divine love as the fertile soil you are rooted in and which is the firm foundation from which you grow.[9] You grow as you are and into who you are[10]; herein lies the increase of strength that is found in our union with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.[11] God’s love for you[12]—unconditional love—creates space for you to exist as you are, to see yourself as you are, and to grow as you will into who you are more and more every day, every moment, in every step you take with Christ in love. And as you are loved fully by God, you know love. As you know love you are transformed by this love.[13] This is what love does.

Hear me here. Love’s goal is not to transform you, you are not a means to an end. Rather, love’s goal is to love you as you are, and as you are loved as you are you are transformed and strengthened—this is the beautiful byproduct of being loved, of being liberated, of being accepted as the marvelous person God created you to be.[14] And the more you relax into that love, the more you find yourself, and the more you find yourself (growing in knowledge and love of who God is and who you are) you can then love others as they are and just because. We cannot love well from a deficit or from self-hatred—if we do this, we will consume others by making them fit into our own stories. Instead, knowing who we are, loving who we are, we can love others well granting them love, liberty, and acceptance to be who they are as they are.

Conclusion

Being loved by God I knew that sending my son away from me (at that moment) wasn’t the right answer. God never asked me to calm down and become sweet before God would be with me. While there are significant benefits to learning to self-sooth, at that point and time my son couldn’t. I had to go to him just as God has come to me time and time again. Each time received and accepted; each time transformed. I’m not the same woman I was when I first encountered God in the event of faith; yet, I’m more fully me than I’ve ever been because of the love of God perpetually consistent and unconditional

Quinn relaxed into my embrace because my hold told him I wasn’t going anywhere, that love wasn’t going to leave him. I didn’t tell him to calm down or to stop fighting me; I merely held him and told him I loved him. This persistent and unconditional love and acceptance in that moment didn’t cause more tantrum or more toy throwing. Rather, it produced what no command or amount of quiet time on earth could ever produce: freedom, liberation, rest, and transformation. In being free to be who he was in that moment, he was truly free. This radical love and acceptance caused the transformation from fight to rest, rooted and founded in love.

Love, true love, persistent love, unconditional love, will wrap up us and soften our edges. It will pick us up and create safe space for us to reckon with ourselves: to be free to be completely honest with ourselves because we are truly and radically loved and accepted by God in love. Even in the thick of our worst, Love enters in and sweeps us up, embracing us and holding us tightly no matter how much and how hard we fight against it.

We are loved, deeply loved by a Love that does not know a limitation of depth, height, width, length (3:18-19). A love so magnificent not even death can separate you from it. There’s no conditionality attached to God’s love for you, the beloved. Just as Jesus went to the margins and the fringes and dwelled with those who were outcast, so does God’s love in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit seek you out always and everywhere. You cannot run hard enough or fast enough to outrun the inexhaustible love of God.

Love loves and knows not how to do anything else but love. You are the beloved, caught up in the majesty of the divine love that comes close to you and is not far off. You are heard, you are seen, and you are loved…wrapped up (tightly) in the arms of the God of Love and washed in the divine word: I love you, so much…I love you, so much.


[1] I did obtain permission from my eldest child before relaying this story in this context.

[2] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974Ephesians 368, “Paul does not begin vs. 16 with the words ‘I ask,’ but he treats the statement ‘I bow my knees… that’ as an equivalent to “I pray that” (1:16-17); cf. the combination of “bowing the knees” and “praying” in Acts 9:40, 20:36. Three petitions may be discerned in what follows (a) 7 Intercession for the inner fortification of the saints; this is unfolded the prayer that Christ reside in their hearts (vss. 16-17)- (b) Supplication for interpreted by a request for knowledge of Christ’s love (vss. 18—19a). (c) Petition for perfection with God’s perfection (vs. 19b)….At this Point Paul’s thinking follows the form of devotion and meditation rather than that of deduction, induction, careful subordination or coordination.”

[3] Intentionally dropping the pronouns for God because the best way to refer to God is with “God”.

[4] I’m taking the εἰςas spatial translating as “in”

[5] Barth Ephesians 370, “The verb ‘to dwell’ denotes permanent habitation as opposed to sojourning, pitching a tent, or an occasional visit. The “heart” is in biblical diction man’s total identity and existence described under the aspect of his vitality, intelligence, will, decision. In the OT and NT the bowels rather than the heart are the seat of emotion. When in II Cor 6:11-12 Paul intends to speak of the emotive capacity of the heart he adds a reference to ‘bowels’ (or ‘compassion’). More frequently he mentions joy or sorrow without locating them in the ‘heart.’ The term ‘heart’ can also denote an essential trait of human existence hidden to the eye; Paul is as much aware as OT writers that not everything human is apparent on the surface. In Eph 3:17 he may have in mind not only Christ’s rulership over man’s reason, will, and decision, but also the hidden quality of a Christian’s existence. It is far from evident to every onlooker that Christ fills and directs the saints.”

[6] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[7] Barth Ephesians 368-9, “In 3:14-15 the title of Father pointed out God’s stable love, and the reference to ‘all families’ stressed God’s universal power. The inexhaustible ‘glory’ of God is the third and final presupposition of Paul’s prayer. The triad ‘love,’ ‘power,’ ‘glory’ and the reference to ‘riches’ were also found in 1:3-23. In remembering the ‘riches’ and ‘glory’ of the Father, Paul is convinced that God need not change or lose anything by granting the requests made to him. God is expected to act according to his nature, his character, i.e. his radiating love and power…”

[8] Klyne Snodgrass Ephesians The NIV Application Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. 179, “Paul again emphasizes God as Father He refers to God as Father forty-two times in his letters, of which eight are in Ephesians. No other description of God is used so frequently in the New Testament. No doubt this goes back to Jesus’ teaching his disciples to address God as Abba, the Aramaic word for ‘father’ used by both children and adults but considered by Jews to be too familiar to use without qualification in relation to God, God is the Father of believers, but both a narrower and a broader use of ‘Father’ also occurs. More narrowly God is viewed as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which marks out the uniqueness of Jesus’ relation to the Father. In 3: 15 (and 4:6) the broader sense occurs: God as the Father of all humanity’s The emphasis in Ephesians on a cosmic Christ and a cosmic role for the church is based in an understanding of God as a cosmic Father.”

[9] Barth Ephesians 371, “Therefore, it is probable that in Eph 3:17 love is designated as the soil upon which the seedling can grow. The same love is also the ground upon which the building is to be constructed”

[10] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 479 “Hence, the inner person is the heart or mind of the believer whereas the outer person is the physical body that is wasting away. In the present context it is the innermost being of the believer which is to be strengthened with Gods power. That innermost being corresponds with the heart of the believer in the following verse.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 481, “The strengthening in the inner person results in the deep indwelling of Christ by means of faith (διὰ τῆς πίστεως see the use of this phrase in 2:8) and this takes place in the hearts of believers (εν tαῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν). This demonstrates both the work of Gods Spirit in strengthening the believer and the subjective means by which the believer obtains this.3 However, it is not a reference to Christ s indwelling at the moment of salvation (Rom 8:10; 2 Cor 13:3, 5; Gal 2:20; cf. Col 1:27). Instead, it denotes the contemplated result, namely, that Christ may “be at home in,” that is, at the very center of or deeply rooted in believers’ lives. 4 Christ must become the controlling factor in attitudes and conduct.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 484, “In the present context Paul states that believers are firmly rooted and grounded in love. This root and foundation of love refers to God having chosen them, predestined them, bestowed them in the beloved, redeemed them, made them a heritage, sealed them with the Holy Spirit, made them alive, raised and seated them in the heavenlies, and placed them equally in one new person in the body of Christ. Therefore, for the believer, the origin of this love is God’s love.”

[13] Snodgrass Ephesians 181, “God’s love is the wellspring from which believers are nourished and the foundation on which they find stability. Being rooted and established in love enables them to perceive love, and from knowing love they are filled with the fullness of God. Love is both the source and the goal. When Christ permeates people, they know they are rooted in his love. From the experience of love they know love and are transformed.”

[14] Snodgrass Ephesians 182, “Love brings movement,- it causes things. To know Christs love is to be transformed by love and expanded into the fullness of God…In experiencing Christ Christians experience the fullness of his presence, and power. In experiencing that fullness they themselves are made full by Christ. That is, the/ partake of God’s own being and are made like him….The implication in Ephesians is that as believers encounter Gods love in Christ, they will be filled with love.”

Prodigals Abound

Sancta Colloquia Episode 206 ft. Judy Douglass

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

Intrigued? You should be.

Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

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

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

Resources and Help

Books

Allison Bottke—Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children

Katherine James—A Prayer for Orion

Robert J Morgan—Moments for Families with Prodigals

Dena Yohe—You Are Not Alone

Other helps

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

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

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

Suicide Prevention Lifeline–National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-8255

Available 24 hours everyday

Forde and the Bound Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this gets us to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Forde 50.

[5] Forde 51.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Forde 60.

[13] Forde 61

[14] Forde 62

[15] Forde 62

[16] Forde 62

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

 

[18] Forde 65

[19] Forde 66-7.

Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

vi Oh Holy Night 

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

viii Oh Holy Night 

Militant Grace

Sancta Colloquia episode 201 ft. Kait Dugan

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I had a chance to talk shop with my twitter friend and IRL friend: Kait Dugan (@kaitdugan).  Having finished Dr. Philip Ziegler’s book, Militant Grace, I was eager to find someone to discuss the core concepts of the book: eschatological-apocalyptic theology. I needed more information, and the first person who came to mind was Kait. She knows her stuff, and I really enjoy talking with her—in person and online. I chose wisely. Kait provided me—and thus you—with an excellent discussion unearthing the core body of apocalyptic theology. Through her own personal journey in her faith, Kait highlighted the fracturedness of the world under the oppression of the powers of sin and death, both of which are everywhere and seek to destroy and dehumanize. She explained the cosmic battle God wages against these powers through the advent of the crucified one, the Christ—a cosmic battle highlighting God’s radical grace and action. According to Kait, while forgiveness of sin is involved, God’s cosmic dealing with the powers of sin and death are about liberation from the powers of sin and death. She articulated that things are far worse than we can see and imagine: we are in a struggle, and it’s serious. I believe we can be myopic about our own lives and about our “sins” that we miss, according to Kait, the emergency: “The world is on fire!” If this is true then spending time perfecting your own personal and moral virtue is silly unless the personal and moral virtue is defined in terms of giving a damn that your neighbor also suffers under these powers of sin and death. Fretting about quiet times and our religious piety misses the point entirely and just gives us a saccharine moment of feel-goodness. God’s battle is for the liberation of the cosmos, and thus we are liberated in the event of encounter with God in faith to participate in that battle in the world IRL. We are liberated in our event-encounter unto joy, laughter, and living in resistance to the systemic and oppressive systems perpetuating injustice and captivity (the powers of sin and death) in our world.

 

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

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

Kaitlyn Dugan is the Managing Director of the Center for Barth Studies, which involves managing the daily operations, programs, and conferences of the center as well as curating, preserving, maintaining, and developing Princeton Theological Seminary’s Barth Special Research Collection. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and political science from Taylor University, a Master of Arts in theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing her PhD in systematic theology from the University of Aberdeen. Her research is focused on the role of Death in Pauline apocalyptic theology. Kait is a member of St. James Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Harlem, New York City.

Recommended and Mentioned reading:

1. Books referenced (or alluded to):
— Beverly Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul – https://www.wjkbooks.com/Products/0664231497/our-mother-saint-paul.aspx
— J. Louis Martyn – Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul – https://www.amazon.com/Theological-Issues-Letters-Lewis-Martyn/dp/B005Q6GI1I
2. Further reading:
— J. Christiaan Beker – Paul the Apostle – https://www.amazon.com/Paul-Apostle-J-Beker/dp/0800618114
— Paul Lehmann – Transfiguration of Politics – https://www.amazon.com/Transfiguration-Politics-Paul-Lehmann/dp/0060652292
My Twitter handle is @kaitdugan and my blog (which I don’t use anymore but has a lot of my writing) is kaitdugan.blogspot.com.

Come and Follow Me

Luke 10:38-42 (Sermon)

Introduction

One of the temptations in addressing this Lukan gospel passage, is the temptation to create a dichotomy between Mary and Martha. You’ve likely heard the moral of the story expressed as: Be “Maries” in a world of “Marthas”—an exhortation to Christians to prefer passive, private, quiet worship life like Mary, rather than a life filled with activity and motion and doing that coincides with Martha’s. [1] If you’ve ever heard this dichotomy between the sisters and felt a certain amount of tension and frustration, good news: you are not wrong.

It’s a bad application of the text. It throws shade on Martha that she doesn’t deserve and puts Mary in a position she hasn’t chosen. If we fall to the temptation to draw the line between Martha and Mary—substantiating the former with bad and the latter with good—we end up pitting the sisters against each other in a way that will plague us with a burden insidiously destructive to our discipleship—it’ll make any form of the law look like a fuzzy little kitten.

If we are dead set on this dichotomy between the sisters, let’s be warned: we’ll miss out on the wonderful story of what it means to be fully human; we’ll miss Jesus’s verbal deftness rendering the law in service to the gospel; we’ll miss witnessing the powers of sin and death collapsing under the weight of the invasion of God into our world in Christ—bringing to ashes our categories and expectations based on divisions; [2] we’ll miss the moment when the Christ takes from our weary shoulders the domination of toil and replaces it with the light burden and easy yoke[3] of the activity of discipleship, of following after this One who is the first of new creation. If we are dead set in pitting Mary against Martha, we’ll forfeit a word that is dynamic and life giving for a word that is static and death dealing.

And as he journeyed with [his disciples], he, he entered into a certain village; and a woman whose name [was] Martha received him as a guest. (10:38)

The story opens up with Jesus on the move with his disciples. Luke adjusts the focus and the disciples recede into the background. [4] Jesus enters this town and this woman, Martha, receives him. Hold still here. I don’t want us to miss this small moment in this brief story because we want to move quickly to the activity of Mary and Martha. Jesus is being intentional here. He enters this certain village and is received into this particular home. Luke asks us to listen: Do you hear it? God comes. Christ inaugurates everything occurring from here on out; everything is set in motion by the divine One who has come into our world, in to the very heart of our homes. We asked for none of this; in fact, we weren’t even looking for it and certainly not in this way. God comes.

And she had a sister called Mary, and [she] was seated at the feet of the Lord and listening to his word. (10:39)

Luke moves the narrative along quickly: Jesus has arrived at this home and Martha and her sister Mary are introduced. Martha takes the lead to receive Jesus as we read in the last verse, and Mary is imaged in what seems as a more passive role: the one who is sitting and listening. But, again, if we move to quickly to the action of the story, we’ll miss what Luke wants us to hear and see.

A striking aspect of this verse is that there is no way Mary is passive here. While I usually don’t spend time explaining words in their original biblical language, I must do so here because our English translation is painfully lacking. The text reads, “Mary was seated at the feet of the Lord…” However, we must understand the past tense participle (παρακαθεσθεισα) translated as “was seated” would be better rendered as: “Mary got up and placed herself at the feet of Jesus…” The radicality and boldness of Mary’s movement is lost in our translation. Thus why we want to make the bad dichotomy between Mary and Martha. Mary is as active as Martha is.

When Jesus enters the room, Mary stops what she is doing, moves toward him, and assumes the (active) role of being a disciple[5] to this one who is the Christ, the word made flesh, the apocalyptic invasion of God in the world. Nothing, neither the Law nor some societal gender expectations, [6] will keep Mary from being close to the one she adores, the one she loves, the one who has called her and the one whom she hears. She’d rather suffer the consequences of bucking expectation and assuming a position that was not hers to assume or seize[7] rather than not be near Jesus whom she loves.

This isn’t about active equals bad and passive equals good; Mary and Martha are equally active. This is about something bigger than we think. It’s about God’s cosmic battle with the powers of sin and death through the arrival of the good (Christ)—the good we weren’t looking for but need.

And Martha was troubled greatly about all of the service. Now, she stood before [Jesus] and said, “Lord, is it not an object of anxiety for you that my sister has abandoned me alone to serve? Therefore, tell her for the purpose that she may lend me a hand. (10:40)

Martha is burdened by what has to be done and her sister, according to her, has “abandoned” her to do all the work of service for their guest. So she asks for help. Now, both sisters are before Jesus. One has seated her self to listen and one who has stepped close to cry out for help. How are either of these positions is wrong? Martha, under extensive anxiety, forsakes her independence and goes straight to the one who can help. Thus the supposed dichotomy between the sisters (activity/bad; passivity/good) diminishes more.

Rather than looking where we want to look, let’s look in the direction Luke is asking us to look; what’s the real distinction Luke is trying to make here? The distinction Luke is making with this story is orientation; orientation as a result of hearing; orientation as a result of hearing that manifests in love of the One who has come. One is oriented and one has to be reoriented.

Martha calls out from the depths of her humanity, burdened by the weight of the demands and cares of the laws placed on her, oppressed by the many anxieties weighing her down she cries out. She needs help, and she goes to the one she knows can help. She calls Jesus’s attention to the storm in her life, like the disciples did in Luke 8 when their dingy was threatened by raucous waves and roaring winds. “Master, we are going to drown!”, they cried out. “Lord, I’m going to drown!”, cries Martha. “Do something, Lord!”

Martha wants Jesus to intervene in a way that forces Mary to come and help her with the tasks of table service. She wants him to right the situation and put it back to normal; she wants him to make it that makes sense to her. [8] Jesus will help her and will make things “right,” but not in the way she expects. When does God work within our systems and according to our plans? When is the word of the gospel forced to serve the things conceived and born of ash and dirt? When has the Reign of God given way to the kingdom of humanity?

When Jesus speaks, everything will change, will become topsy-turvy and flipped around; including Martha.

And the Lord answered her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled in mind about many things, but there is one need; for Mary picked for herself the good portion which it will not be taken away from her.” (10:41-42)

Jesus speaks. The Word words himself. Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for her anxiety and burdens, but loving calls her (thus the double use of her name). The first Martha gets her attention, and the second one draws her deeper into himself. Like a mother would her anxious child. The voice she knows of the one who loves her so very much speaks, and when he does so in love and not condemnation. Martha’s orientation shifts from what must be done to the Lord sitting before her. And Jesus doesn’t tell her to stop worrying. He calls her by name. He doesn’t shush her, tell her she’s ridiculous, or shame her for feeling burdened. He merely reorients her to him and does so by calling her by name. That’s the gospel gospeling itself: love loving.

Then, he exposes her. First he flips her words. Martha asked Jesus if it was causing him anxiety that she was abandoned to serve. Jesus aren’t you upset my sister isn’t doing what she is expected to do? Jesus’s reply? Nope. I’m not. You’re the one, Martha, who is anxious to fulfill the relentless beast of burden of what is expected. Second, he intensifies her state: And it’s more than just this particular table service that’s causing you anxiety, Martha; it’s many things. It’s the demand upon demand placed upon her by the things of her world that are weighing her down. Martha is burdened to fulfill what is expected of her, but notice that this isn’t what Jesus expects. [9] Jesus isn’t upholding and isn’t going to uphold the law created and sustained by the old age, the very age God is putting to an end in Christ’s advent.

As Jesus addresses Martha, he highlights that discipleship isn’t worrisome obedience to “domestic performance” as one scholar called it, but about orientation toward the one who is the revelation and disclosure of God’s great cosmic rescue plan. [10] And this rescue plan—the cosmic invasion of God to contend with the powers of sin and death in the world—doesn’t incorporate thrusting people back into systems and structures that have only left them bound and gagged and laboring unto death (that’s the old age). Jesus is not the Lord who deals death, but the one who speaks and the dead come to life. He is the word of life and the body of living sustenance. The gospel is not in service to the law, but the law in service to the gospel; the tablets of stone serve the embodied Son of God who came to save the world.

Martha lost herself in the many things being demanded of her according to custom, but there is only need: the Word made flesh. In trying to serve her guest according to the rules and laws of the old age, Martha renders herself incapable of service to the Lord, to Jesus the Christ. Thus the contrast between Mary and Martha is orientation: Martha has her eyes to the old age; Mary to the new one inaugurated by Christ. Discipleship and its service is to be oriented toward the divine activity in the world following closely to the path initiated by Jesus. Our faith with our works are to be oriented to Christ and the Reign of God taking place in Christ; not to our objectives, our systems, our common sense, and our dogmas.[11]

Conclusion

The paradox of humanity in this small potent story of Luke 10: we are both Martha and Mary. You can’t pick sides here. You are not one or the other; you are both. I am both. We’ve been called and we’ve heard, but we also need to be called and to hear continually. We run through our days and perform in our rate races, fretting over the demands upon demands upon demands of our age: rest is a complete and total illusion here. Being oriented to the old age and its demands and trying to appease it so to silence it is a worthless endeavor because those systems and demands are insatiable. We will never be able to have or do enough to settle all the anxiety and silence the cacophony of demands. When we look to the old age to bring us hope, we are hopeless.

Rather, in the reign of God inaugurated by the advent of Christ Jesus, the cessation of the old age and the beginning of the new age, is the only means by which we will have true peace and rest. Paul writes in Colossians,

“[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (1:15-20)

Following Christ: freedom; taking up his yoke: liberty. It’s not about activity being bad and passivity being good, but about our orientation in our activity. In Christ, we are called by name unto him who is life and are brought out of the death of toiling and into new life of work. We receive freedom and liberty for us and for others who are also dying as we were dying. The way Luke structures chapter 10 of his gospel, we cannot isolate Mary’s active love of Christ from the active love for the neighbor of the Samaritan. [12] For him, work and worship are not separated. Chapter 10 is an exposition of the entire Law told in story. According to Luke, we cannot walk by our neighbor who is dying on the side of the road, beaten and bruised, and claim to love God.

We don’t need to justify ourselves to God through our incessant and frantic activity trying to appease the demands of the old age. [13] We are justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) by God’s grace (alone) and not by means of any of our toiling. We are called by name and we look; we are called by name again and we step closer. The one calling, the one proclaiming himself, puts an “it is finished” to the enslavement of the condemnation of the powers of sin and death, and he ushers in the comfort of the powers of love and life with “Come; come and follow me and I will give you rest.”

 

 

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997. “Although long interpreted as establishing the priority of the contemplative life over against the active one, the interests of this brief narrative unit lie elsewhere. Luke’s narration is manifestly concerned with the motif of hospitality.” 433. I’m not drawing out the specific theme of hospitality, but that should be incorporated into my discussion of the next albeit rather subtly, snuggled in between choosing the good part and discipleship.

[2] Gonzalez 141. “They must read within the context of Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom and radical obedience. In the chapters immediately preceding, Jesus has been teaching about the demands of the kingdom and of discipleship. In the coming of Jesus, something radically new has happened and this radically new thing demands an equally radical obedience (see, for instance, 9:57-62). The parable of the Good Samaritan calls for a radical obedience that breaks cultural, ethnic, and theological barriers. The story of Mary and Martha is equally radical. First of all, we often do not realize that the first one to break the rules is Jesus himself. He is the guest, and against all rules of hospitality he rebukes Martha, who is his host. And Mary too breaks the rules. Her role as (most probably) a younger sister, or as one living in the house of her sister, is to help her in her various chores. Instead, she just sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him.”

[3] Matthew 11:30

[4] Green 435; Also, Luke is intentional here: the “they” and “them” fall out of view once Jesus is received as a guest into Martha’s home.

[5] Green 144, “By means of this juxtaposition [with 10:25-37], Luke illuminates his overarching concern with genuine “hearing” of the word of God (cf. 8:4-21)…Now, Mary is depicted as one who has begun the journey of discipleship by acknowledging through her posture her submissiveness to Jesus and by ‘listening’ to his word. Martha’s ‘doing,’ on the other hand, is censured, rooted as it is in her anxiety as a host rather than in dispositions transformed by an encounter with the word.”

[6] Green 435, “She is positioned ‘at the Lord’s feet,’ signifying her submissiveness, particularly her status as a disciple (cf. Acts 22:3). The latter nuance is commended by her activity at his feet: she ‘listened to his word’ For the Third Gospel, to listen to the word is to have joined the road of discipleship (e.g., 6:47; 8:11, 21; 11:28)—in spite of the reality that, in this period, Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”

[7] Green 435fn142, While some Law was learned it was only in regards to those laws that controlled the feminine realm and were taught by mother to daughter.

[8] Green 436-7, “…Martha’s address to Jesus takes an unexpected, perhaps unconscious turn; while she engages in the irony of self-betrayal, her attempt to win Jesus’ support in a struggle against her sister ends in self-indictment. The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one’s guest, yet Martha’s speech is centered on ‘me’-talk (3 times). Though she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord,’ she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from him his.”

[9] Gonzalez 141, “Here Jesus rebukes Martha for doing what is expected of her, and commends Mary, who is eschewing her traditional woman’s role.”

[10] Green 434, “As high a value as Luke puts on service (by which he often denotes leadership, cf. 22:24-27), service grounded in and brandishing moral intuitions other than those formed through hearing the word is unacceptable. The welcome Jesus seeks is not epitomized in distracted, worrisome domestic performance, but in attending to this guest whose very presence is a disclosure of the divine plan.”

[11] Green 437, “…his status as Lord identifies him as the one whose design transcends self-oriented or conventionally correct plans and whose message takes precedence over the same. Thus, over against the attempt of Martha to assert the priority of her enterprise over that of her sister, Jesus provides his own two-sided valuation of the scene before him. Martha is engaged in anxious, agitated practices, behavior that contrasts sharply with the comportment of a disciple characteristic of Mary. Martha is concerned with many things, Mary with only one. Hence, Martha’s behavior is negatively assessed, Mary’s positively. What is this ‘one thing,’ this ‘better part’ Mary has chosen? Within this narrative co-text, the infinite range of possibilities is narrowed considerably: She is fixed on the guest, Jesus, and his word; she heeds the one whose presence is commensurate with the coming of the kingdom of God. With Jesus presence the world is being reconstituted, with the result that (1) Mary (and. With her, those of low status accustomed to living on the margins of society) need no longer be defined by socially determined roles; and, more importantly in this co-text, (2) Mary and Martha (and, with them, all) must understand and act on the priority of attending to the guest before them, extending to Jesus and his messengers the sort of welcome in which the authentic hearing of discipleship is integral.”

[12] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: 2017. “Theological commitment to the true socialism of the kingdom of God and engagement with socialist analysis of capitalist social structures, which are antithetical to that kingdom, coalesce in Gollwitzer’s thought to make the fundamental point that Christians must take sides on political issues, and they must take the side of the oppressed. Many of those Americans today who think of themselves as Christians feel very uncomfortable when faced with this demand. As Gollwitzer correctly notes, however, taking sides ‘sounds terrifying only to him who is blind to the fact that the empirical church has actually always taken sides.’ Christians have, by and large, sided with the status quo, But the gospel’s call to repentant conversion—to metanoia—‘reaches into the politico-social dimension,’ and ‘as long as we shrink from revolutionizing [that dimension], we have not really heard’ the gospel’s call. That is, we have not encountered the God who loves justice, and who is consequently served through the pursuit of political love.” 146

[13] Helmut Gollwitzer “Fellow-Workers With Love” The Way to Life Trans David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. “When we no longer defend and justify ourselves, then God, who is greater than our heart, defends us, and holds us fast…and we can breath again; we are not rejected as we deserve to be, we are still accepted by the love of God.”132.

Absurdity of Faith

Albert Camus and “The Myth of Sisyphus”

What if there’s no reason or purpose to anything? What if being alive necessitates an awareness that life is rather pointless? What if all there is, all we can actually know is the absurdity of our existence? And, what if that’s okay?

“What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But , on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divest of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his stetting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.”[1]

I have an entirely new respect for the absurd after reading The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. In fact, Camus gave me words to identify something what has followed me most of my conscious life: what is the purpose? Not merely: What is my purpose? But: What is the purpose of anything? There are times I contemplate beauty and question its reason for being. Think of the multitude of flowers–the vast variety of not only classification but of variations of color, form, size, and smell within each classification—there’s some absurdity there. I get that there’s something explanatory embedded in the theory of evolution, but at the same time the sheer multiplicity of variation betrays that not even the theory of evolution can address why this rose is this way and that one that way any better than just cuz.

Even all of our best efforts to explain all the nuances of creation (of our and the world’s) through the apologetic of the existence for God have never satiated the question. Every apologetic for God and for our purpose has consistently left me with my question still in tact and on my lips, …but why? The only explanation that has ever made any sense was that none of it makes any sense. Even with the notion that God is love and God loves and thus that love–being dynamic and creative–created this world as an object of God’s love, and all that is in it and of it is representative of that love…the reason for God’s love movement is still baffling and doesn’t make sense. It’s alway and everywhere: just because.

One of my very bright and capable of students made reference in one of his papers to the idea and the certainty of the Christian claim that God is love and loves us specifically: why would an almighty being like God deign to care about puny humans? He’s right; it’s rather absurd to think and to make this claim as true. But maybe the underbelly of God’s activity and presence is less about sense-making, but absurdity. Maybe God is absurd. The gift of God’s grace to people who do not earn it (justification by faith in Christ alone)[2] and the righteousness of God that is righteousness that makes righteous,[3] are absurd. The gospel is offensive because of its absurdity and not because it makes sense.

“Any though that abandons unity glorifies diversity. And diversity is the home of art. The only thought to liberate the mind is that which leaves it alone, certain of its limits and of its impending end. No doctrine tempts it. It awaits the ripening of the work and of life. Detached from it, the work will once more give a barely muffled voice to a soul forever freed from hope. Or it will give voice to nothing if the creator, tired of his activity, intends to turn away. That is equivalent.”[4]

Rather than being the fodder of an existential crisis, absurdity, as Camus presents it, is the stuff of radical living. It’s like being able to give up all of your coveted doctrines that you cling to as reason for believing in whatever God you believe in and just believing in that God. It’s scary as hell, but once embraced the freedom is unparalleled. The dark night of the soul is the wrestling with the pointlessness of life and the nonsense of existence and finding in that moment sense and point: just because. The question shifts from …but why? to …why not? The former slows to numbing slumber upon slumber while the later propels into existence upon existence (in quantity[5]). The way Camus plays his philosophy out, the person who sees and performs the absurd of existence is the one who is liberated and thus the one who is given a present defined through revolt, freedom, and diversity. The mundane and banality of the everyday becomes glorious, because that’s the paradox of the absurd, the paradox of grace.

“All that remains is a fate whole outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought, ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics—in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and, like it, inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the territorial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.”[6]

 

Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays Trans Justin O’Brien. New York, NY: Vintage International, Vintage Books (Random House) 1955. Le Mythe de Sisyphe France: Librairie Gallimard, 1942.

[1] Camus 6

[2] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians vol. 26 LW pp. 113-4, “I am saying this in order that we may learn the doctrine of justification with the greatest diligence and distinguish most clearly between the Law and the Gospel. On this issue we must not do anything out of insincerity or yield submission to anyone if we want to keep the truth of the Gospel and the faith sound and inviolate; for, as I have said, these are easily bruised. Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, b of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business. The Law, too, deserves a hearing, but in its proper place and time. When Moses was on the mountain speaking with God face to face, he neither had nor established nor administered the Law. But now that he has come down from the mountain, he is a law giver and rules the people by the law. So the conscience must be free from the Law, but the body must obey the Law”

[3] Eberhard Jüngel, Jüngel, “Living Out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency.” Theological Essays II. (Ed. J.B. Webster. Trans. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995). 243. “What follows will therefore try to explain the extent to which the message of justification brings light and life not only into our hearts and our church but also equally into our world. It is no doubt for this reason that the synod has placed its work under the title: ‘Living out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency’. Yet already at this point I stop short. The subtitle of this theme can potentially blind us to a decisive point of the message of justification at the outset. For it suggests that human agency directly and exclusively corresponds to divine action. Thus one is given the impression that the relevance of divine action for humanity is ethical and only ethical. But thereby something decisive of what the gospel of justification of sinners has to say is lost. If God’s righteousness brings forth life, new human life, then the question of our being has priority over the question of our agency. And prior to both questions is certainly the question of God himself.

[4] Camus, 116.

[5] Ibid, 72ff. I’d argue that it is both quantity and quality as long as quality doesn’t mean scarcity but substance. I see quality playing out with the reference to Don Juan. And quality is not antinomy to quantity.

[6] Ibid, 117-8

The Toxicity of Toxic Language

When “Toxic” becomes Toxic

Here’s the thing about “toxic” relationships: it’s not always restricted to one person being *the* “toxic” person that needs to be excised from the group or broken off with. Though, this is commonly what is conveyed in the dialogue of aftermath of relational split: “that person was toxic; so glad that person is gone. Now, we/I can go on being/becoming more healthy.” While I don’t have a very high anthropology (meaning: I still question the inherent goodness of human beings but not the inherent dignity; plus, I’m a Luther theologian, it comes with the terrain), I still believe that *anyone* can be “toxic” in *any* given situation. It’s the mix of personalities in their potential for toxicity. Potential for toxicity can be other wise dubbed as the beloved and oft used term: “brokenness.” However, in common parlance, it’s not just “brokenness” (because general brokenness is acceptable for the most part), “toxicity” is like the dark underbelly of “brokenness,” the thing that is the deal breaker and can’t ever be tolerated by anyone. Thus, people who have otherwise standard issues and problems and “brokenness,” get labeled as “toxic” and should be avoided at all costs because they bring “toxicity” to everything. They’re essentially and inherently harbingers of poison to every relationship they touch; they’ve been ontologically defined as poisonous.

(Side note, I’d like to argue that it is better to render “brokenness” as “bentness” in order to adhere to the inherent dignity of human beings. “Brokenness” can indicate being useless and worthy of being trashed; all human beings are never ever, never ever of that category.)

“Toxic” is the new “co-dependent.” One of the problems of the language of toxicity becoming so popular is that it has lost its actual definition and impact (there are legitimately toxic people, things, and places in our lives). It has become easier to label someone as “toxic” because they are causing us *any* discomfort. Also, It has become all the rage to label someone, some-place, something as “toxic,” in order to scapegoat our own problems on to someone else, some-place else, or something else. It’s easier to just cut someone, some-place, something out of your life, rather than take a long hard look in the mirror and realize you are fucking up your own life. (I say this as someone who was caught too long in “toxic” this-and-that language and finally had to come to terms that *I* was (me and my trauma narrative) more of the problem than any other person, place, or thing.) Rather than knee-jerk reacting and labeling someone, some-place, or something as “toxic,” it might be worth slowing the roll and asking: why is this causing this reaction in me? Therein answers lie.

Another problem is, from my perspective, we all carry within ourselves potential for acting caustically[1] toward others; our potential for this activity can be actualized by other people acting out of their issues and trauma (and vice versa). Also, our caustic behavior can be actualized by another person’s otherwise normal personality traits because we’ve had some sort of trauma associated with those traits even if they’d never be considered categorically “problematic” by any professional. It’s rarely the fact that only one person is the “toxic” source, but rather the mix of personality traits we have that conform and collide with others. Conformity with others creates a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, but this does not mean collision is out of the question nor does it mean that when collision occurs it’s a deal breaker and the other person is now “toxic.” Collision occurs as conformity becomes bedrock in a relationship. When the honeymoon of a new relationship wears off, it’s then where we start to see how different we are from each other and also the potential for triggering and being triggered. (And I am not speaking of small things like a disagreement and miscommunications that run standard in any relationship. Rather, I speak of the big collisions, the ones that demand terms like forgiving and forgetting.)

When collision happens, it’s a time for introspection and dialogue. The normal and healthy response in situations where collision has occurred—in any way—is: discussion, both interpersonal (what happened and what can we do together to grow and move forward with our relationship (if possible)?) and intrapersonal (why did this action trigger this response in me?). Granted not all relationships are or need to be carried forward, some are mutually too caustic (as a whole) to be continued; not because one person is inherently “toxic,” but because the unit doesn’t work and we are both mutually bad for each other because we trigger each other, you trigger me, or I trigger you. None of us wants to be in relationship that is primarily collision and strife. None of us want to be causing the caustic reaction. (I’m a firm believer that not all personality types should be anything more than cordial acquaintances because the relational scales tip too much in favor of the potential for collision and triggering.) Often times, though, a good conversation will allow for light to be shed on issues that either or both people in the relationship were blind to, where acceptance of your own and the other person’s contribution to the issue can be owned, and create the space for solutions to move forward to be implanted and embraced.

We have used and abused the word “toxic” in all its forms, and the results prove disastrous. We are all bent, traumatized individuals making our way through this journey of life. Even the most integrated of us still has plenty to work on and will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and bother other wanderers. The most we can do is admit our own weaknesses, realize when those weaknesses are not beneficial to others, and realize where we can and need to become strong.

Something that I loved learning about when I started studying Luther and his conception of justification and the proclamation of the Gospel, was not that he let me off the hook of the law of God, but that he put me on it. Far from being a therapeutic hedonist, Luther has a high view of the law both as it plays into the believer’s relationship before God and in the believer’s life. No, sin boldly isn’t the same as: you do you as you please at whatever expense and at whomever’s expense. It’s about the reality that you are, by encounter with God in the event of faith, right before God, that this event-encounter is not born of your particular activity but does have significant bearing on your present activity. Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel and the need for the good theologian to be able to distinguish between the two is never about being given the license to avoid the law at all costs and to reject all people and things and words that give off even the hint of personal discomfort and conviction to us. Rather, it’s always about being able to really *see* with our own eyes what is the law and what is the gospel, what brings death and what brings life, and to act accordingly—not to avoid it but to enter into the event, to be encountered there in by God and God’s grace.

Sometimes, we must enter into the death present and terrifying in relational collision (to face it head on, eye to eye, word to word) in order to be brought into something so much more beautiful and alive than it could ever be if we had sidestepped the entire problem in the name of comfort. I will be more alive, you will be more alive, and even the relationship (either sustained or terminated) will be life giving (even if there is grief and pain as a result of termination). With God all things are possible, even abundant life out of what feels like and looks like certain death.

 

[1] I like “caustic” rather than “toxic” because there is an allusion to a chemical reaction, neither chemical is bad in it’s own state, but when combined the reaction is bad.