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

Numbers and Reckoning with God’s Self-Disclosure

Sancta Colloquia episode 104 ft. Liam Miller

This isn’t the first time I’ve had the privilege of talking with Liam Miller (Twitter: @liammiller87). Earlier this year I was honored to be a guest speaker for his Jesus 12/24 online conference. I had a blast, thus, when an opportunity presented itself for me to have another dialogue with Liam, I took it. In this episode, Liam and I are talking about the book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the fourth of five books that make up Israel’s Torah. Liam does an excellent job walking us through large portions of the book of Numbers or, as he refers to it, “The Book of the Wilderness.” What was supposed to be a relatively short(ish) travel through the wilderness, turns into an epic journey that is repeatedly marked by God’s radical self-disclosure, the Israelites hard and stubborn hearts (and their craving for leeks), and the encounter of the two. But while there are plenty of hard things to face in the book of Numbers, things that don’t make sense, Liam guides us to the goal: hope. Hope that is embedded in recognizing, as Liam says, “the inscrutability of our own lives.” We are dependent completely on God, this God who is not to be objectified. And while this could seem terrifying, it’s not. We are undone and redone over and over again as we dare to walk forward into so much unknown and be encountered by the oncoming future; we find ourselves not swallowed up unto the pit of the earth, but into the encounter with God in the event of faith that leads to through death to life, where we find ourselves new creations and utterly human and completely beautiful.

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).

Liam Miller is the Uniting Church in Australia Chaplain at Macquarie University. He is just weeks away from completing his MDiv and Pilgrim Theological College, and is a candidate for minister of the Word in the Very same Uniting Church. He trained and (sometimes) worked as an actor, and before trading stage lights for Christ candles. He lives in a house with his wife, 18 month old daughter,, brother, and a dog called Zeus who is afraid of thunder.

Here’s the video I reference in the introduction to the show from Liam’s YouTube channel featuring Dr. David Congdon.

And here are two more interviews I highly recommend:

Here are some resources from Liam for further reading and studying and ways to connect with more of Liam’s work:

The Heart of Torah vol.2: Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Rabbi Shai Held

Numbers, Dennis Olson (Interpretation Series)

Womanist Midrash, Wilda Gafney

Systematic Theology vol 1. The Doctrine of God, Katherine Sonderegger

Bewilderments, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Biblical Truths by Dale Martin

Twitter: @liammiller87
Website: www.loverinserepeat.com
Podcast: Love Rinse Repeat
Videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/LiamMQUT

Extravagantly and Lavishly Loved: A Homily on John 12:1-8

John 12:3-5 “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’”

I have certainly wanted to flip my lid over waste. I hate waste. Of the three Rs of ecological consciousness (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) the second one, Reuse, is my mode of living. “Wait!” I holler as my husband takes out a large jar to toss in the garbage. “I can use that!” And to good use it goes. I can use all parts of vegetables and chickens to make food. Plastic bags from stores? You can cut them into plarn (plastic yarn) and make more durable bags by crocheting the plarn. I’ve used jelly and jam jars for drinking glasses. For a while I collected the water from the shower while the water warmed up and then hauled it from the second floor to the basement to the washer to do laundry in order to use less water. I hate waste.

The human reality of the situation confronting us in this portion of the gospel of John isn’t far fetched. Judas isn’t “technically” wrong. The Jews of this time had an extensive tithe system and collection in place for the poor.[1] (In fact Jesus’s rebuttal to Judas, in v. 8, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” echoes Deut. 15:1-11 which is the basis for this collection system for the poor.) All four gospel accounts of this story (Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9, Lk 7:36-50, and our passage from John), describe the scene after the woman breaks the bottle of costly oil and pours it on Jesus: the surrounding crowd around the table is upset with her.

So, when it is recorded that Judas pipes up about the loss of the perfume (prior to John’s insertion about why), he’s not technically wrong or very much out of place for voicing his disdain for the action. And, I have to confess, I would’ve seen eye to eye with Judas. I’d like to think that I’d be all about Mary’s action, but the reality is that I wouldn’t be. Prior to Jesus’s explanation of why this action by Mary was a good deed, I’m team Judas. Why are you wasting this precious and very, very, very, costly fragrant oil, Mary?!

And it was very costly. Judas rightly quotes the value of the oil now rendered useless all over Jesus’s feet: 300 denarii. At that time, it’s a year’s salary. Roughly equivalent to: $18-$20,000. Mary’s gesture–from the human perspective prior to divine revelation—is superfluous, extravagant, wasteful, and unnecessary.[2] Mary, this perfume could’ve been put to better use…

”Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’” (John 12:7-8).

And I must let my words fall heavy to the ground right at that moment, just like Judas’s did in our story. I must let the rebuke of Christ as recorded by John silence me so I can hear those falling words break on the ground like the alabaster jar did moments before in the hands of Mary. I must allow the illuminating word of the Word Incarnate to expose me for who I am: a betrayer. I must experience the extravagant aroma of Mary’s costly perfume eclipse the decaying stench of my misplaced concern.

Mary is the designated prophet (designated by Jesus) to anoint Jesus for his Kingly ministry that is going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world (John 3:16). (Just like Samuel anoints David to be the anointed king in 1 Samuel 16, so Mary anoints Jesus The Anointed One.)[3] And, Mary is the true disciple and Judas is the anti-disciple. And like Judas, I am the anti-disciple.

Mary is the true disciple because she loves Jesus to such an extent that the most lavish and extravagant act is not wasted because it honors Christ[4] and is an act of true devotion to Christ.[5] This is the level of selfless and lavish and extravagant love of Christ that escapes Judas at this moment.[6] Even with Christ’s explanation and defense of Mary’s actions, Judas will still carry on with what it is he’s going to do. Jesus isn’t enough and isn’t primary for Judas. In fact Judas is more than willing to “surrender [Jesus] for something else which appeared better to him.”[7] Where Mary pours out a year’s worth of salary to honor Jesus, Judas takes in 30 pieces of silver to betray him.

But even here, there’s hope. Even in Judas’s wrongly ordered priority there is hope. And if there is hope for Judas (The Betrayer), for the disciples (who never seem to get it) and then there’s hope for me, for us. Judas’s sin at this moment is not his solely and alone, but indicative of all the disciples. It is this systemic sinful misalignment in the mind, heart, and soul that needs a very special, extravagant, lavish, prodigal act of love. It is this sinfulness, it is this uncleanliness[8] that is the reason why Jesus is being anointed as The Anointed One who will go to Jerusalem for them to die for them. So that by his death sins will be forgiven and by his resurrection justification will be granted by faith alone (Rom 4:25). And this lavish and extravagant love poured out through the event of the cross and with it the resurrection of Christ, is not just for Mary the good disciple, but for Judas—the very bad one, this love is poured out for the disciples who fled and denied and doubted Jesus, and for us.

Here this very, very, very, costly fragrant good news:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world [with lavish and extravagant love] to save sinners. (1 Tim 1:15)

…if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and he is the [lavish and extravagant] atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1)

For God so [lavishly and extravagantly] loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

We [extravagantly and lavishly love] because he first [extravagantly and lavishly] loved us. (1 John 4:19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] RT France commenting on the similar passage in Mark 14, (554) “οταν θελητε might suggest that giving to the poor was merely an optional extra. But in first-century Judaism it was more than that. The concern for the poor expressed in Dt. 15:1-11 (which includes the recognition, echoed here by Jesus, that ‘the poor will never cease out of the land’) had become the basis of an extensive and carefully regulated system of donation to poor relief, which included the mandatory ‘tithe for the poor’ as well as numerous opportunities for personal charity. The point is not that you may neglect the needs of the poor, but that they can catered for at any time: the opportunity will not go away.”

[2] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.xvii.26, “The anointing did not please the disciples, because they thought it a needless and useless expense and bordering on excess; consequently, they would have preferred to have the money, which they thought ill spent, bestowed upon the poor.” (1393).

[3] Karl Barth CD IV.2.796-7. “It is to be noted that what finally made the incident significant for all four Evangelists is that it gave drastic and unexpected concretion to the anointing of the One who in the New Testament is call ‘the Anointed.’ This woman accomplishes it…in direct preparation for the confrontation of the royal man complete in His death.”

[4] Karl Barth CD II.2.462, “It is an utterly prodigal, a wholly generous and selfless, and at the same time an absolutely humble action, and Jesus later says (v.8) that it honours His dead body in anticipation, and will therefore glorify His death.”

[5] Karl Barth CD IV.2.797. “What emerges clearly in all four accounts is that Jesus not only defend unconditionally the act of the woman but in all solemnity acknowledges that it is a good act which belongs necessarily to he history of salvation, even though it seems to be wholly superfluous, an act of sheer extravagance, which can serve ‘only’ the purpose of representing direct and perfect self-giving to him.”

[6] Karl Barth CD II.2.462 “But it is precisely this, this prodigality, which Judas—as seen by his protest (v.4)—cannot and will not understand or accept…He is not wiling that the complete devotion, which by her deed Mary had in a sense given the apostles as a pattern for their own life, should be an absolute offering to Jesus…It is to be for the benefit of the poor, of those who are injured or needy to help improve their lot and that of others, and in that way it will be a meaningful devotion. This view, this attitude of Judas, is what makes him unclean.”

[7] Karl Barth CD II.2.463.

[8] Karl Barth CD II.2.465. “And He still says the same [Zech 11:9] as He takes it upon Himself to be led to the slaughter on their behalf, because of their guilt and according to their will. They have the reward which they wanted and earned. And it is with this reward that their punishment secretly beings. The sin of Judas is that, with all Israel, he wants this reward with which the punishment already begins; that for him Jesus can be bartered for this evil reward. This sin makes it clear that as far as he was concerned Jesus was present with the disciples in vain. He protected and watched over them in vain. In it there is exposed an uncleanness which was the uncleanness of all the apostle and need a special cleansing.”

The Lamb of God

The following is the edited manuscript for a homily delivered yesterday to high-school students. It is nothing but a thing; however, hubris leads me to share 🙂

Also: yesterday, while I was tweaking and putting final touches on the homily prior to delivery, I was poking around one of my favorite blogs and read a recent (as in just posted) book review by my friend Juan C. Torres on David W. Congdon’s The God Who Saves. But why am I bringing this up? Well, I smiled as I read Torres’s book review because there was a pleasant (albeit slight) overlap in what he was emphasizing from Congdon’s book with a portion of the conclusion to the homily I had written the night before.   Considering Congdon (as well as Torres) says it better and with greater perspicuity than I ever could, I figured it would be beneficial to post the book review here and you can read it for yourself.* Enjoy 🙂

 

“The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29)

Jesus, he is the Lamb of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. (A direct reference to the first Passover lamb whose blood was shed and whose blood was used to cover the door frames of the faithful.) According to the John, Jesus is the one who actually takes away the sins of the world.

But What does that mean? What does that even mean in light of the very real fact that we sin, that we fall way short of the mark in our own lives and in relation to our neighbor, that in any direction we look we see the real-time effects of broken human beings impacting all the different aspects of creation? What does that mean when in the 2000 plus years since Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, there seems to be very little evidence that the “sin of the world” has been taken away. As you and I live and breath, we wonder this.

But yet John proclaims with confidence: Jesus takes away the sin of the world. So, what does it mean that Jesus takes away the sin of the world? The “takes away” is more like: “over comes.” There isn’t an erasure of the activity of sin, for we still sin. But, in “overcoming” there’s evidence of struggle and victory; there’s an outcome and a victor. In overcoming there is victory. “Overcoming” provides hope because “overcoming” says that even in this ever present darkness of our broken reality, the final word (the victory) doesn’t belong to that darkness, it doesn’t even belong to us (initially). It belongs (first) to God.

And John has already told us what that word is, what that promise (fulfilled) is: God has overcome the world and sin. And how? The “how” is answered in that Jesus is who he is: because Jesus entered this world to change it, to overcome sin like light piercing and extinguishing darkness (John 1:5).

“Here is the place for the doubtful concept that in the passion of Jesus Christ, in the giving up of His Son to death God has done that which is ‘satisfactory’ or sufficient in the victorious fighting of sin to make this victory radical and total” (cd IV.1.254)

Whatever havoc sin and brokenness and darkness wreak in our actual timelines and in our lives, Christ is bigger and so is the possibility he creates because Christ is the victor and his victory is both “radical and total.”

Christ is the Lamb of God who overcomes the sins of the world. And the entirety of the life of Christ is oriented toward this victory, this overcoming not merely for himself but for us. His victory is our victory and we stand (by faith) on the substantial promise that “all things are possible with God” (Mt 19:26) and “What was meant for evil God will use for good” (Gen 50:20) and “Nothing can separate you from the Love of God” (Rom 8:38-39). We, by the very active and persistent love of God expressed in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, are no longer held captive to sin and the world; the captives have been set free.

In this moment in John 1, John the Baptist saw and proclaimed that not only would Messiah come but that the Messiah had come. And in the wake of the arrival of the Messiah—who is Jesus—the world began to undergo upheaval—not only would wrongs be righted but firsts would be last, and those who were held captive would be set free. In light of this, we are freed not merely unto ourselves but for the benefit of others. We are set free to upright that which has been for too long upside down. Because of the victory of Christ in overcoming sin and the world and that victory being ours, we ourselves become a missional community standing on the promises of God and pointing to the Christ, the messiah, the one who has come to be the lamb of God to seek and rescue the lost.

 

 

*On Twitter you can follow: Herr Juan C. Torres (@postmoltmannian), Herr Dr. David W. Congdon (@dwcongdon), and the mastermind behind DET, Herr Prof. Dr. Travis McMaken (@WTravisMcMaken). I follow all three and am better for it 🙂

Tell Me

Tell me this isn’t all there is.

(I fear that it is.)

Tell me there’s something beyond this.

(I fear there isn’t.)

 

Tell me to take heart.

(For I feel it grow weary.)

Tell me there’s a reason to go on.

(My energy wanes.)

 

Tell me my life is precious.

(I need to remember why.)

Tell me my life hasn’t been worthless.

(I can’t silence that voice anymore.)

 

Tell me with sweet silence.

(The cacophony in my head.)

Tell me with lavish love.

(My hearts floods with fear.)

 

Tell me Jesus loves me.

(My doubt stomps about.)

Tell me Christ longs to hold me.

(I long for that sweet embrace.)

 

Tell me there will be answers.

(The questions rage.)

Tell me it’s not all for naught.

(This darkness looms.)

 

Tell me…

(I bow my head.)

Just tell me…

(Words fail me but tears don’t.)

Please, just tell me…

(Please.)

 

 

 

 

 

Hope When in Doubt

The following is a sermon I preached at Southside Anglican Church almost a year ago. The text ran as a post on Mockingbird (click here for the post).  Instead of just retweeting/re-posting a link to the Mockingbird post, I wanted to put the full text here (with proper acknowledgment that it ran on Mockingbird first, of course!).

I also wanted to explain why I’m posting it.  As I pursue answers to theological questions in my academic pursuits and interactions, I’m bound to run up against (and should run up against) answers that challenge some of my beliefs. This encounter with conflict is good and I accept it and even promote it; from the conflict I grow. I know this because I experienced growth out of intense conflict as I worked through my stm and my stm thesis with an advisor that disagreed with many of the concepts I brought to the table. The conflict(s!) forced me to go back to my drawing table and reformulate answers (to argue better), to re-examine what I held to be true, to acknowledge the weakness of my position and to admit the critique, not to mention to be formed and molded as a better scholar. Had my advisor not challenged me in conflict, I’d be a weaker thinker. But hindsight is 20/20 (as the saying goes); I know now that the conflict was good, but during the conflict there was plenty of doubt bordering on despair: have I been believing a lie? Not an easy question for a theologian to ask herself.

Over the past week, I found myself in a similar conflict. Some concepts that I’ve held closely have come under fire, but the fire hit too close to the source of my hope; I was working and fighting and resisting the black-hole of despair that was eager to devour me as I felt my hope crumbling to the ground. (Despair being a state of hopelessness.) To be honest, being tired of fighting so hard I wanted to give in and let my whole being be consumed. The original conflict and challenge lead to an uncontrollable flow of questions and subsequent doubts and more questions and more doubts; I was losing the ability to keep my head above the water. But I have a friend, Sarah, and she refuses to preach anything but the Gospel. She heard all my questions, my doubts, and my looming despair. But she doesn’t just tell me that Jesus loves me (though this is very true), she quotes from Galatians. It’s what I needed to hear because I was something she said made me remember what it was that plucked me out of my trajectory leading to certain death and placed me on the path to life: Jesus Christ who died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). Her words also reminded of a sermon I wrote nearly a year ago on Gal 1:1-12. While the sermon is about our fickle hearts, I think the gist applies to our deep and sincere moments of doubt and despair; I was reminded of where my hope resides: in Christ, in his word, in the Gospel (the doctrine of the justification of the sinner (Jüngel)). So, I thought I’d share.

*******

We’re fickle. Human beings are fickle. You and I both know it and we’re free to confess it. Our hearts and minds easily change orientation and preferences by the mere shifting of the wind, our hearts and minds have a difficulty staying the course, being constant in our loyalty and affections.

I do want to be clear that I don’t think all moments of changing our mind are bad; sometimes our propensity toward changing our mind isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are times receiving new information and incorporating it into our database of knowledge is good, in fact it’s an aspect of being wise. For instance, learning that the earth is not square but round, that it’s okay and quite acceptable to overly love, snuggle, hug and kiss your baby, and that all human beings should be treated with dignity (etc.) are wonderful pieces of information to know and to have. So, our ability to change our minds, our views, and our opinions by the influence of new information isn’t always bad. In fact, it’s quite laudable.

However, we’re not always changing our mind because of the presentment of new and good information. As I said just a moment ago, we’re fickle. Our hearts and minds do not have the metal constitution we would like to think they do. A soft breeze can easily challenge our deepest held conviction. I wish I could tell you that I am NOT fickle; I wish I could say that I’m the epitome of mental, emotional, and spiritual constancy and loyalty. There are times that I can appear content with how things are in and out of the house and then my husband, upon returning home, will ask, “Honey, why is the wall to wall carpet on the sidewalk?” or, “Where’d those bushes go?” Or He’ll ask, “Why is your hair a different color?….again…” While these moments where I’ve given in to my fickleness are comical to most, I have to be honest and say that my fickleness runs a bit deeper than carpet, evergreen bushes, and hair color. It runs painfully deep in my mind and heart and soul. The serpent of old slithers his way to me, and asks, once again, that deadly question: “Did God really say…?” (Gen 3:1). Did God really say that you are saved only by faith in Christ? Did God actually say He loves you? Did God truly say _you’re_ saved, Lauren? Did God really say…?

And no matter how many academic accolades I have hanging from weak nails on my walls, no matter how many volumes of theological works I have on flimsy wooden bookshelves, it is nearly impossible for me to refute those doubts once they’re planted. In these moments, I’m powerless and voiceless to argue back.

“How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes

I struggle to find any truth in your lies

And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know

My weakness I feel I must finally show” (Mumford and Sons “Awake My Soul”).

And I’m not alone; I know you’ve heard the same questions and have had the same doubts, too.

“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me” (Gal 1:1-2).

Enter Paul and the Galatians. It doesn’t take more than the first two words of the opening line of the epistle for Paul to begin to deal with the fickleness of the Galatian Christians and contends with the false teachers directly. Pau/loj avpo,stoloj (Paul (an) Apostle). It’s two small words but these two words pack a significant punch: Paul is an apostle and those other teachers, those other guys, aren’t. Paul was an apostle he was not sent by the apostles. And to back up that title (Paul, an apostle) he adds this: “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father,” Paul pokes holes in the claim to authority the false teachers had (they were sent by humans, Paul was not), and affirms his apostolic status by declaring he was called and sent by Christ Himself (Acts 9:15ff).

And with the added clarifying addend modifying God the Father, “who raised him from the dead,” Paul affirms the original message he brought to them, the message they heard first from Paul: righteousness comes by faith and not by works of the law. And any teacher who is proclaiming another message from the message of Paul is not only against Paul, but against the Father and the Son. Luther writes in Galatians,

“Thus at the very outset Paul explodes with the entire issue he intends to set forth in this epistle. He refers to the resurrection of Christ, who rose against for our justification (Rom. 4:25). His victory is a victory over the Law, sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell, and all evils; and this victory of His He has given to us” (21-2).

And then,

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:3-5)

As if the first verse wasn’t enough to establish the Gospel tenor of the entire letter, Paul, using his standard greeting (yet a greeting un-standard in the world in which Paul is writing), takes another moment to proclaim the foundations of the Gospel message.  Paul proclaims Grace and Peace, both words that contain within them the power to calm the troubled conscience, troubled mind and soul; Grace forgives sins and Peace quiets the mind and the two are inextricably linked: no peace without grace because grace silences the Law by forgiving sins. And the peace we have as a result of grace’s effectiveness in forgiving sin/s is the peace that Jesus gives, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

How is this grace and peace (from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ) given to us? Jesus, God of very God/of the same substance of the Father, who was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification, and by His word and breath (by the power of the Holy Spirit/triune affair) He gives us HIS peace. Luther refers to these words of Paul in v. 4, “These words are a veritable thunderbolt from heaven against every kind of righteousness, as is the statement (John 1:29): ‘Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (32). Grace and peace are ours by faith in Christ because Christ himself laid down his life to forever dethrone and overthrow the tyrant named sin and set all the captives free from its slavish yolk by his resurrection; we, like Adam before us, are helpless to remedy our problem, we are “dead in our trespasses” (Eph 2:5 and Col 2:13) and God intervened on our behalf to do what it is that we couldn’t do like he did all those many years back in the Garden (Gen 2:18ff).

Far from being a restatement of the law or another Moses, Jesus is the new word, the word that grants grace to forgive sins and gives us peace even in this “evil age” (from which we are delivered). Therefore, to quote Luther,

“…grasp the true definition of Him, namely, that Christ, the Son of God and of the Virgin, is not One who terrifies, troubles, condemns us sinners or calls us to account for our evil past but One who has taken away the sins of the whole world, nailing them to the cross (Co. 2:14) and driving them all the way out by Himself” (37-8).

By faith in Christ we are justified and in being justified we are Christ’s own in union with Him, and in this unity with Christ have been ushered to the Father. Any message that does not carry with it the proclamation of this grace and this peace is not a faithful message of the gospel. And that’s pretty much what Paul is setting up here in the first few introductory remarks to the Galatians. And I could stop here, but I won’t because Paul doesn’t and it just gets better…

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:6-12)

Someone in Galatia used their quiet time to painstakingly write and painstakingly mail a letter to Paul: Something is happening, Paul…these new teachers are saying x, y, and z, and the people are falling for it. Help! For all intents and purposes, Paul’s response is: “Dearest Children what are you doing, to whom are you listening, and to for what message are you falling? If it’s anything but Jesus Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification, it’s an errant message and those are errant teachers. Run.”

And here we move from being on the side-line looking in at the Galatians, to being addressed. We like the Galatians are fickle and with fickleness comes troubled minds, hearts, and souls. We are flesh and we are easily ensnared by lies, we, like the Galatians before us, are prone to fall for the lies of the “evil present age,” for the lies that drip from the lips of those who would rather bring glory to themselves than to God (ref. Gal 1:5 glory goes to God alone), we are prone to doubt when that age old question presents itself to us in the thick of night, “Did God really say….” It’s not that we seek or even want to be misled, but that we are easily mislead. Just as it takes one minuscule tick left or right from true north to cause directional mayhem in a walk in the wilderness, so it takes one morsel of doubt to undo sound teaching.[1]

Listen to what Paul declares in these verses:

  • You have been misled
  • You have strayed from He who has called you
  • You have wondered to another message
  • You are now troubled by this other (distorted) message/Gospel
  • There is only one Gospel message
  • Accursed is anyone—anyone—who proclaims to you another Gospel
  • The message you received from me is to be believed
  • I am not sent by nor am I seeking the approval of men but God.
  • I did not receive this message from man but from revelation from Jesus/Christ God

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8,

“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (vv. 5-6).

There is one God and there is one Gospel proclamation; Paul was sent and commissioned by the One God and given the One Gospel; any other message that contradicts this faithful servant and this faithful message is no Gospel and is an attempt to extinguish the one Gospel message. There is only the one word of the Gospel which brings grace and peace to the fickle heart and troubled mind of human beings; any other word added to this One word or any other word in place of this One Word and our fickleness looms and a troubled mind ensues.

We are wounded and doubting creatures and need to be told things repeatedly: This God, this very God, the creator of heaven and Earth, loves you so much. But not only that, but also this: He will never leave you, nor forsake you no matter how dirty your past and how wounded or skeptical you are of Him. Thus the importance of the preacher proclaiming this very message every Sunday; to do otherwise is to starve the congregation, the hearers (both old and new) of this word of life. Luther writes,

“For if we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything. Hence the most necessary and important thing is that we teach and repeat this doctrine daily…For it cannot be grasped or held enough or too much. In fact, though we may urge and inculcate it vigorously, no one grasps it perfectly or believes it with all his heart. So frail is our flesh and so disobedient to the spirit” (26)

So, we need to constantly hear, over and over and over again, the single word of the Gospel. We need to hear, over and over and over again that Christ Jesus, this man who is my God, willingly climbed up on the sturdy, old rugged cross, and with strong nails in his hands and feet died for our sins, and was raised for our justification.

We are so prone to disbelieve the activity of God toward us in Christ, in the Cross, that we need to be perpetually told that God truly, and unconditionally loves us–that we are truly justified by faith apart from works.

Did God say…?

Yes, and always yes He did in fact say and THIS is what He said…Hear and be comforted:

“Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matt 11:28)

“So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

Hear also what Saint Paul saith.

“This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15)

Hear also what Saint John saith.

“If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 2: 1, 2)

[1] “This is what happened to Paul, the chosen instrument of Christ (Acts 9:15). With great toil and trouble he had gained the churches of Galatia; but in a short time after his departure the false apostle overthrew them, as this and all his other epistles testify. So weak and miserable is this present life, and so beset are we by the snares of Satan, that one fanatic can often destroy and completely undo in a short time what it took faithful ministers the hard labor of many years day and night to build up” (Luther Galatians 45).

John Donne on Sunday

From a sermon Preached at St Paul’s (Easter Day [28 March] 1623)

 

“Upon those words of the apostle, If there were no Resurrection, we were the miserablest of all men [1 Cor. 15:13, 19], the School reasons reasonably; Naturally the soul and body are united; when they are separated by death, it is contrary to nature, which nature still affects this union; and consequently the soul is the less perfect, for this separation; and it is not likely, that the perfect natural state of the soul, which is, to be united to the body, should last but three or four score years, and, in most, much less, and the unperfect state, that in the separation should last eternally, for ever: so that either the body must be believed to live again, or the soul believed to die.

 

“Never therefore dispute against thine own happiness; never say, God asks the heart, that is, the soul, and therefore rewards the soul, or punishes the soul, and hath no respect to the body; Nec auferamus cogitationes a collegio carnis, says Tertullian, Never go about to separate the thoughts of the heart from the college, from the fellowship of the body; Siquidem in carne, & cum carne, & per carnem agitur, quicquid ab anima agitur , All the that soul does, it does in, and with, and by the body. And therefore, (says he also) Caro abluitur, ut anima emaculetur, The body is washed in baptism but it is that the soul might be made clean, Caro ungitur, ut anima consecretur, In all unctions, whether that which was then in use in baptism or that which was in use at our transmigration and passage out of this world, the body was anointed, that the soul might be consecrated; Caro signatur, (says Tertullian still) un anima muniatur; the body is signed with the Cross, that the soul might be armed against temptations; And again, Caro de Corpore Christi vescitur, ut anima de Deo saginetur; My body received the body of Christ, that my soul might partake of his merits. He extends it into many particulars and sums up all thus, Non possunt in mercede separari, quæ opera conjungunt, These two, Body, and Soul, cannot be separated for ever, which, whilst they are together, concur in all that either of them do. Never think it presumption, says St Gregory, Sperare in te, quod in se exhibuit Deus homo, To hope for  that in thy self, which God admitted, when he took thy nature upon him. And God hath made it, says he, more easy than so, for thee, to believe it, because not only Christ himself, but such [humans], as tho art, did rise at the resurrection of Christ.* And therefore when our bodies  are dissolved and liquefied in the sea, putrified in the earth, resolved to ashes int the fire, macerated in the air, Velut in vasa sua transfunditur caro nostra [our flesh is poured out as if into a vessel], make account that all the world is God’s cabinet, and water, and earth, and fire, and air, are the proper boxes, in which God lays up our bodies, for the resurrection. Curiously to dispute against our own resurrection, is seditiously to dispute against the dominion of Jesus; who is not made Lord by the resurrection, if he have no subjects to follow him in the same way. We believe him to be Lord, therefore let us believe his, and our resurrection.”

 

* Seems to be a reference to Matthew 27:52 (qtd in context), “51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; 52 the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’”

Selection take from: John Donne: A Critical Edition of the Major Works,  edited by John Carey; Oxford: OUP, 1990

 

 

Easter’s Present: Hope Springs Eternal

He is risen!

Hallelujah!

The Lord is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

I’m not one to put more emphasis on one aspect of the liturgical calendar over and against another aspect. I know the importance of holding in tandem all the events of Christ: birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Though I do hold these events in tandem, each one solicits from me a different response. Christmas brings with it anticipation and expectation: the baby has been born, the great rescue plan is under way! Christ’s life solidifies that I can have that expectation and anticipation; he is the perfect one, his is the same mission pursuit as the One who sent him: to seek and save the lost, to heal up the brokenhearted, to set right what was wrong, to defend the defenseless (to mention a few). Good Friday thrusts me in to solemnity that leads to my own death as I witness Christ’s death because he so loved the world that he couldn’t leave the cries of the burdened and oppressed go unheard. Easter is the brilliant light in the darkness; Christ’s resurrection draws from me a deep sigh of relief: my hope finds its grounding and fulfillment. The ascension reminds me: God is with me, God is working in the world, perpetually making things and people new and overhauling the dead.

As a rational and logical person I hold these events of Christ’s activity toward and on behalf of the world in tandem, but as someone who has suffered violence at the hands and words of other humans, Easter pulls strongest: hope springs eternal.

As a sufferer, I need to be called out of myself in the midst of my suffering, I need to be called to look not down at myself (turned/turning inward) but up at Jesus, raise my face to see this very God who is merciful and unyielding in His love; who, by the life of His one and only Son, through the event of the incarnation and the cross, has declared “it will not always be so.” Darkness, depression, sorrow, suffering, grief, loss, and pain have been given their verdict: no; and we have been given ours: yes.

Suffering has a unique way of drawing us to the Suffering God who suffered for us on the cross, who was raised from the dead and has declared that the suffering of this life will not last forever, that it is not the final word, and that He has conquered it. Suffering draws us to this God who is not far off when we are at our worst, ugliest, decrepit, sick, infirm, maimed, even when we are angry at Him about our own suffering or the suffering of those close to us.

Suffering draws us to this God who has come close and breathes into our breathless lungs—lungs carried in bodies exhausted from the battle, pelted by the hail-storms of pain and loss, bones made brittle by unfulfilled pleas and petitions. It is this God who breathes into our lungs and re-creates us from the dead, gives us real and true life and new hearts, who causes us to love him and to love others and uses all those things intended for evil for good. Even in suffering, the Light cannot be overcome by darkness.

This is Easter: hope. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is our hope. Hope that is so vibrant and fertile that it is the sole reason so many of us who have suffered incredible pain still walk this very earth. Our hope is historical, it is current, and it turns our faces toward the future because the promises of God have been fulfilled, are being fulfilled, and will be fulfilled. The resurrection of Christ is the event that reverberates through the halls of time; it is the voice that echoes: “hold-fast; I am.”

The event of the resurrection of Christ gives the broken-down, the oppressed, the suffering, the down-trodden future hope that (in it’s most amazing and beautiful way) reaches back to the now and gives it life, life abundant. Future oriented hope in resurrection makes this current life vibrant technicolor rather than drab monochrome. We can walk through this life with our scars, because a new body, a new life waits, one free from the muscle memory of pain and fear. We can bear the pain of loss and sorrow deep in our bones and carry on in life because the future hope of resurrection and reunion reorients our gaze upward toward the one who defeated death once and for all. We can fight for and free the oppressed because our future oriented hope gives us the audacity and freedom to do so in the here and now, to live into thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Hear ye, beloved, these comfortable words:

“He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken” (Is. 25:8).

And the Lord GOD has,

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15)

Today, Easter, hope springs eternal because Christ is risen from the dead.

Hallelujah!

He is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

A Nail in the Wall

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

This punishment, too, springs from original sin; and the woman bears it just as unwillingly as she bears those pains and inconveniences that have been placed up her flesh. The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, defends his possessions, tills the soil, builds, plants, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home…so the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household, as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and that concern the state. She does not go beyond her most personal duties. (LW, Lectures on Genesis, 202-3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we have hope, even now…hope.