“Have Mercy on Me!”

Luke 17:11-19 (Sermon)

Introduction

God is hard to pin down and figure out because, as Bishop Owensby said, “God is a who and not a what”; a person, not a thing. So, our knowledge of God is limited; it seems we live in the tension between the book of Numbers and the held breath of the Easter Vigil. The chaotic and terrifying book of Numbers highlighting God’s bold activity emphasizes that no one puts God in a corner; this gives way to the deafening silence of the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Movement then silence and stillness. More movement…more silence and stillness. It’s part of the story of Israel in the midst of exile and return; it’s part of our story, too. There are times when our hearts grow weary, on the brink of fracturing under the weight of yearning under the twin questions: where is God? Who is God? I wish I could tell you I’ve never doubted; I have. I wish I could tell you that I always stand on the firm bedrock of my faith; I don’t. I question, I weep, I long. Where is beauty? Where is justice? Where is peace? Where is love? Where is God? If God has come, and God’s will is being done, then why isn’t earth as it is in heaven? Sadly, it’s often hard to think about giving thanks.

I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me!

vv.11-14

Jesus is on the move in our gospel passage. Luke tells us he travels into Jerusalem, taking a middle route between Samaria and Galilee (v.11). As Jesus enters a certain village a group of ten men encounter him; but they keep their distance (v.12). They kept their distance because they suffered from leprosy—it was a divine curse and they were ritually unclean. [1] These leprous men knew their plight and the commands of Torah: one must steer clear of family and community, [2] and one must announce their unclean presence. [3] But these men weren’t without hope: lepers could be healed and welcomed back. [4]

And hope comes near; and they recognized hope when they saw him. And they lifted up their voices and cried out when they saw this hope. “Jesus!” They called. “Master, have mercy on us!” Desperate, they called out to the one they knew could help them, who had the miraculous power to rid them of this curse and make them clean.[5] (Otherwise, why ask?) Calling Jesus “Master” is not only a term of respect; they saw and recognized in Christ the power of God to heal and reconcile.[6] And their desperate hope and plea is met with an answer from Jesus: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And they got up and went. On the way they were made clean (v.14).

If we stop here, we might be tempted to make faith into a work. (Have (enough) faith and be healed!). When that happens, faith no longer saves, it no longer flies with the wings of mercy and hope but is a mere dead stone dropped into the deepest part of the sea. If we stop here, we will make this moment of sudden healing of the ten leprous men the dénouement. But it’s not. This is:

Now one of the men when he saw that he had been healed, returned with a great voice giving glory to God, and he fell upon his face on the feet of [Jesus] giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan…and [Jesus] said to him ‘Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” (Luke 17:15-16, 19)

Gratitude.[7] Gratitude is pushed to the front. Hiding behind all the other players on the stage, gratitude steps forward and speaks. And Luke uses a leprous Samaritan voice,[8]the voice of a double outcast, to do make a point. It’s the Samaritan who understands what has happened in his event of encounter with the merciful one. His leprosy is gone and he is clean, and something bigger occurred: he’s healed (v.15). Luke changes the verb “they were made clean”[9] in v. 14 to “he had been healed”[10] in v. 15.

The comparison here is not between one having faith and the others not.[11] Rather, the comparison is between only hearing and really hearing so deeply that you do (shema). All ten were made clean; one realizes he’s healed. They all believed; one saw and heard.[12] Would not a double outcast know the depths of rejection and being marginalized?[13] Would not a double outcast know not only the miraculous healing, but also the bigger miracle being healed by Jesus, the good Rabbi, a Jew? [14] The Samaritan Leper is accepted and received across socio-political lines. It’s doubly not about clean and unclean with Christ. It’s about cosmic healing and this Samaritan man sees it. It’s the word of acceptance, of mercy, of hope, of beloved that he hears—words having long gone silent and still. And he hears so deeply that he can only do one thing: return with magnificent gratitude to the one who is the priest of priests in the temple of temples. And it is this priest and this temple that know no dividing walls and exclusion, but only unity and inclusion.[15] And he is grateful! He falls on his face at Jesus’s feet:[16] loving the Lord his God “with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind…” (Lk 10:27).

Conclusion

We may think that in this age of pain and suffering, this level of gratitude has gone the way of the horse and buggy. But I don’t think it has. I think each and everyone of us knows the depth of gratitude that changes lives forever: the partner who took us back when we didn’t deserve it; the friend who forgave us; the parent who embraces us upon our return even when we were convinced things were too far gone; the sibling who actually did pick up the phone finally. We know this depth of gratitude. And our hope for ourselves and for others—not only those seated here with us right now, but for the whole world—is based and embedded in this simple thing: gratitude.

Gratitude is the basis of our ethic because gratitude remembers and recalls and retells the story of when: when we were too far-gone, when we were lost, when we were in doubt, when we were angry and then God.[17] Christ came near. God in Christ comes near to those who think they are too far-gone, he seeks those who are lost, he believes for those who are in doubt, and comforts those who are angry.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 38-39)

As we tell our stories here and proclaim Christ crucified for us, we encourage each other and carry each other and bear each other up. We then spill out from this building into the world. And as we go we carry with us our absurd gratitude and our absurd stories into a world that is convinced God has gone completely silent and completely still, questions of where and who still fresh on suffering, hurting lips. But God is only silent and still if we remain so; God’s silence and stillness is only true if we forget who we are and whose we are: we are the apple of God’s eye, we are the beloved of Christ, and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Where we go, so too does God; where God goes, so too do we.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:11b-13)

It is God in Christ Jesus who is our story, the one we remember, recall, and retell. Christ is our faith, hope, and mercy—not only when we cannot muster these but especially when all we can do is: I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me! And he does; over and over again never ceasing and never failing.

Hallelujah!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the Lord! (Ps 111:1-2)

[1] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). “‘Leprosy’ was a term used to designate a number of skin diseases, so the fundamental problem of these ten was, in all likelihood, not a malady that was physically life-threatening. Instead, they were faced with a debilitating disorder. Regarded as living under a divine curse and as ritually unclean (whether they were Jew or Samaritan, it does not matter), they were relegated to the margins of society.” 623.

[2] Justo Gonzalez “Luke” Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. “To be a leper was not only to suffer a physical illness, but to be cast out from family and society.” 205.

[3] Gonzalez 204-5, Numbers 5:2 (lepers ostracized from community by law); Leviticus 13:45-46 (lepers announce their uncleanliness).

[4] Gonzalez 205, “Since various diseases were included under the general heading of leprosy, allowance had to be made for those whose symptoms disappeared. For them, the law provided a detailed procedure, which included an examination by a priest, and then a complex ritual of cleansing (Lev. 14:2-32).”

[5] Green 623, “Used elsewhere in the Third Gospel, ‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power, and this is its meaning here.”

[6] Green 623, “What is clear is that, in naming him as master, these lepers place themselves in a position of subordination to him in the hope of receiving from him some form of benefaction. This benefaction, they seem to believe, will have its source in God; in effect, they request from Jesus a merciful visitation from God.”

[7] Gonzalez 204. “The theme of gratitude for God’s wondrous and unmerited gifts connects it with the previous parable, about the master owing nothing to the slave. In this case, the Samaritan who returns is grateful for what Jesus has done, while the others seem to take it in stride, almost as if it were their rightful due.”

[8] Gonzalez 205-6, The one who returns is a Samaritan and it is assumed the other 9 were Jews; the Samaritan is leper (outcast) and Samaritan (double outcast).

[9] Greek: εκαθαρι᾽σθησαν

[10] Greek: ια᾽θη

[11] Gonzalez 205, “We tend to ignore these nine, or to classify them as unbelieving ones; but the text says (or at least implies) that they believed Jesus, and even that they obeyed him by continuing on their way to see the priests.”

[12] Green 626, “What separates the one from the nine, then, is not the nature of the salvific benefits received. Rather, the nine are distinguished by their apparent lack of perception and, then, by their ingratitude. They do not recognize that they have been healed. This may be because leprosy was as much or more a socio-religious stigma as a physical malady. For it to be effective, cleansing must reach more deeply than the surface of one’s skin, and it may be precisely this added dimension of restoration that the nine fail to comprehend. More evident in the distinction between the behavior of the one and the nine, though, is the failure of the latter to recognize that they had received divine benefit from Jesus.”

[13] Gonzalez 206, “One could even say that there is a hint that the reason why he was doubly grateful for his healing was that he had a double experience of exclusion, and that he therefore could be doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing—not only a leper but a Samaritan leper! Thus the great reversal takes a new twist: those who are most marginal and excluded are also able to be most grateful to this Lord who includes them. Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”

[14] Green 624-5, “Unlike the other lepers, this one perceives that he has been the recipient of divine benefaction—and that at the hand of Jesus. Of his three actions—praising God, falling at Jesus’ feet, and thanking Jesus — the first is expected within the Lukan narrative, the second two quite extraordinary. Praising God following a miracle is the appropriate response in the Third Gospel; indeed, this former leper joins many in the narrative who witness God’s mighty acts, then return praising God.”

[15] Green 626, “Worded differently, one appropriately gives praise to God via one’s grateful submission to Jesus as master or lord, the ‘location,’ so to speak, of God’s beneficence. Here, Luke’s Christology reaches impressive heights as he presents Jesus in the role of the temple – as one in whom the powerful and merciful presence of God is realized and before whom the God of the temple (whether in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim!) can be worshiped.”

[16] Green 625, “’Falling at the feet’ of someone is an act of submission by which one acknowledges another’s authority; it signifies reverence, just the sort of response one might make toward a person regarded as one’s benefactor. Gratitude, too, is expected of those who have received benefaction. Because the former leper recognizes Jesus as the agent of the inbreaking kingdom of God, there is nothing incongruous in his actions: Both praising God and to his request for the merciful visitation of God.”

[17] Karl Holl The Reconstruction of Morality. Eds. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense. Trans. Fred W. Meuser and Walter R. Wietzke. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1979. “But whence comes this duty to love God? Luther did not fail to answer this question in his Lectures on the Psalms. We are bound to love God because God is the given and sustainer of life who daily, unceasingly, and bountifully blesses us with his gifts. It is therefore the feeling of gratitude form which Luther derived the sense of obligation. Now we see why the New Testament imperative, in all its majesty and inexorableness, stirred him so deeply. He accepted it not only on authority; its essential meaning wrought conviction. If we owe God everything, then even by ‘natural right’ [iure naturali] we must give ourselves wholly to God.” 48.

There’s a Structure.

There’s a structure;

It exists it’s on its own.

It exists. Trust me.

It exists.

I wish you could see…

…The pain inside me.

…The structure…

The Structure is a number

A number is a symbol; which

Represents a substance;

And Substance provides for need.

But…

I am me

What provision meets need?

A substance clear and thick?

Something against you can kick?

A challenge and a crisis?

(What rhymes with crisis?)

Won’t anyone take the time to see…

What’s slowly consuming me?

Substance as a weapon

Used to abuse and to shame;

Stealing your reputation and your name.

The very thing that smiles as you kneel

Naked in the disgrace you feel.

I’ll never forget that look,

You never fucking forsook.

Substance as nothing and absence.

That silence and that smirk,

That “I’m-not-seeing-this” look.

Brings the most violent blow

Rendering substance to flow.

I cringe at your name and your mention

Just the mere thought is mental detention.

Take this for what it’s worth

There’s a structure, it exists.

On its own, it definitely exists.

Trust me, it exists, I wish you’d understand;

You’re nothing but a pawn in its capable hand.

There’s a structure; it exists on its very own;

It exists. I know you see it; to you it’s known.

An Encounter with Jesus, An Encounter with Hope

Luke 8:26-39 (Sermon)

Introduction

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here…[1]

This song would put Liza to sleep as an infant. While lying in our bed trying to catch my couple of hours of nighttime sleep without a baby, I would listen to my husband sing this song to my daughter as he would rock or walk her. I’m sure it was the mellow octave and slow rhythm that lured Liza to sleep, but the words would often keep me up. Man, I know this feeling. The song is about addiction, the loss of a dear friend to that addiction and the longing for that person to return, but everything seems too far-gone. The wish remains only a wish; hope seems lost.

Hope seems lost today. Via social media timelines and various news outlets, chaos seems to reign, violence is everywhere, people are dying, angry is the mood of the hour, and anxiety is the new normal. Bringing it to a personal level, we’re driving ourselves into isolation through our gadgets and screens. We’ll sacrifice people on the altar of materialism, burning brothers and sisters as a pleasing aroma to a false idol; and if that reward is good enough, we’ll sacrifice ourselves. We speak pleasing words but they lack substance; they’re hollow husks. We’ve been disabused of the notion that anything could ever be different or, God forbid, better, so we plug our ears, close our eyes, abide by system, and keep our heads down. We’re in chains thinking we’re living our best lives now, but we’re comfortably numb, more dead than alive.

Is hope lost? Are we just deaf, dumb, and blind?

Luke 8:26:39

And they sailed down into the region of the Gerasene which is on the opposite shore of Galilee. Now, after going out [of the boat] upon the earth, a man, having evil spirits, met him who was from the city, and for a considerable amount of time was not clothed in a robe, and he was not abiding in a house but in the tombs. (8:26-27)*

Our passage is from Luke 8 and participates in the meta-theme Luke is building. [2] He writes, “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (8:1). And Jesus does just that: travel and proclaim the word of God; where he steps and to whom he speaks causes radical change.

Jesus tells the crowd[3] gathered around him the parable of the sower. The word of God falls on various soils with various results (8:9-14). The conclusion, “But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (8:15). Jesus’s emphasis is this: they who have ears to hear, hear and respond.

Not hiding the light of lamps (8:16-18) is tied up with this theme, “Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away” (8:17). As well as Jesus’s definition about his true mother and brothers (8:19-21): “But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (8:21). The refrain goes out: they who have ears to hear, hear and respond. [4]

Luke has Jesus get in a boat with his disciples to head over to the other side of the lake (8:22). On the way, a storm presents and literally threatens the lives of the disciples as well as the other fishermen. The disciples panic and wake Jesus up. Jesus shouts at the wind and the waves commanding them to “Be still!” At the sound of the divine yawp, the “the winds and water” (8:25) immediately obey Jesus and marvels at his disciples who don’t seem to know God when they encounter him. Again, those who have ears to hear, hear and respond.

Luke is a master storyteller. By linking vignettes he builds his meta-theme. The kerygmatic aspect, Luke’s proclamation of Christ crucified through these stories puts the audience in contact with the Christ and asks his audience the same question Jesus will ask his disciples in the next chapter: who do you say that I am? (9:20). That answer will determine everything; have you really heard?

Luke really wants his reader to hear and to know who this is who will set his face to Jerusalem to bear the sin of the world and be raised to new life in victory over death and captivity. [5] Luke is building a capable case for the Christ; he is stockpiling narrative artillery to get his audience to answer that question rightly. They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

Luke’s meta-theme sails across the lake to non-Israelite territory, and we land on the shore of our passage about the Gerasene Demoniac. As he exits the boat, Jesus’s foot strikes the dry ground of unclean territory: the region of the Gerasenes, a Gentile territory.[6] Where that foot strikes, chains fall. Freedom from the bondage of sin and liberty from oppression is not for Israel alone, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’” (Jn 3:16). [7] The seed of the parable of the sower has come to the region of the Gerasenes, and Luke wants his reader to hear what happens when it hits the fertile soil of a desperate human heart and not only rebellious wind and the water.[8]

And after perceiving Jesus, [the man] shouted and fell down before him and in a great voice he said, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus the Son of the Most High? I beg of you, do not torture me.” For [Jesus] was commanded the unclean spirit to go out from the person. (For many times it had dragged him by force and he was bound by means of chains and shackles for his feet while being guarded and when tearing asunder the bonds he would be driven into desolate places by the evil spirit.) And Jesus inquired of him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” because many evil spirits entered into him. (8:28-30).

Notice Luke uses a specific Gentile to demonstrate how far Jesus’s liberating grace can and will go: to the unclean of the “unclean.” [9] Jesus goes to the margins of society, to the back alleys of civilization and finds fertile soil. Not among the civilized (the well dressed abiding proper etiquette) but among those bound by chains and not in their right minds. The fertile soils are those who hear because they know their dire state, [10] know they are bound, know their enslavement, know the burden of the fruitlessness of the rat-race of life, who know what it feels like to be ostracized and excluded, who know the crushing aspect of systems bent on the destruction and demolition and dehumanizing[11] of the person, those familiar with grim and with death.[12] They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

And [the evil spirits] were exhorting him that he might not command them to go away into the abyss. Now, there was a considerable herd of swine being pastured in a mountain in that place. And they were exhorting [Jesus] in order that he might allow them to enter [the herd of swine]; and [Jesus] allowed them. Now, when the evil spirits came out from the person, they entered into the swine, and the herd hastened from the precipice into the lake and was drowned (8:31-33).

When Luke brings Jesus across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes, he wants his audience to see how far, how deep, how wide, how cosmically powerful[13] the love and grace of God is in Jesus the Christ (to see how compassionate and powerful God is). This is Jesus, the one who was baptized by John in the river Jordan and the son with whom God is well please (Lk 3:21-22), this is Jesus the one who bested the devil in the wilderness (Lk 4:1-13).[14] This is Jesus who commands not only the wind and waves but also a legion (a military term designating 5,600 men) to flee a hopeless man.[15]

The evil spirits knew who it was standing before them and their paltry position by relation.[16] The evil spirits knew when Jesus spoke they had to obey, thus the pleading to be relocated into the swine and not into the unfathomable abyss thus death. They knew the power and the compassion (!) of the one who stood with the man among the tombs. Luke asks: do you know? They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

Now, after the ones who were feeding saw what had happened, they fled and announced [it] to the city and to the country. And they came out to see what had happened, and they went to Jesus, and they saw sitting near [his] feet the person from whom the evil spirits came out having been clothed and being of sound mind, and they were afraid. And the ones who saw announced how the one who had been possessed by an evil spirit was saved. And altogether the crowd of the neighboring country of the Gerasenes asked [Jesus] to go way from them, because they were seized by a great fear. And he turned back and stepped into the boat. Now the man from whom the evil spirits had gone out of was begging [Jesus] to be with him. But [Jesus] set him free saying, “Return to your house and fully relate what great things God did for you.” And [the man] went away toward the entire city proclaiming what great things Jesus did for him. (8:34-39).

While we don’t know exactly why the swineherds and the townspeople were seized with a great fear, we can guess. Jesus did send a lot of profit over the precipice into the lake. [17] But the emphasis in this final portion is on what had happened. So, both the now cured pork products and the cured former demoniac are in view. [18] This event was a massive encounter with divine power that upset the region in a myriad of ways (as divine power does: it upsets what humans build and prize).

There’s something else in view: the juxtaposition of the crowds’ fear and the fear of the man from whom many evil spirits came out. The crowd is seized with fear that’s closer to terror and they want Jesus to get out, fast; they lack faith; they’ve seen but they’ve not heard. [19] The man is seized with fear but it’s the fear that comes with hearing, the type of fear of the event of faith in the encounter with God. The man’s encounter with God has upended his existence: being possessed by evil spirits he is now possessed by faith and by the love of God, possessed by grace alone; he was naked, now he’s clothed; he was out of his mind, now he’s in his right mind; he was ostracized and excluded now he’s befriended and included. He has gone from being judged forsaken by God to being declared beloved by God; he came out of certain death into true life and hope.

Conclusion

The former demoniac hears and responds: he desires to follow Jesus. But Jesus tells him to go and do: Proclaim the freedom and the liberation God has given you. And he does just that: let me tell you about Jesus the Christ…Let me tell you about a man who told me everything about me… The most absurd people become God’s favorite messengers of a most absurd message: God does so love the whole entire world, a light shines so bright that darkness cannot overcome it, the good part is here and will not be taken away, Jesus is the Christ who died for our sin and was raised for our justification, that we matter to a wholly other God—who flung the stars in to the sky, who made the high mountains of the earth and the deep trenches of the sea—who has abolished death!

Our lives speak to this fantastic and absurd message; we are part of God’s motley crew of absurd messengers encountered by God in the event of faith in the proclamation of Christ and pulled out of ourselves and reoriented in and to the world[20]—not in a meek way, but in a dangerously helpful one.[21] For where we go, so to the proclamation of Christ Jesus who is love and divine grace and righteousness, who sets the captives free from their chains of bondage, who brings freedom to those enslaved by the demonic powers of a world and its systems oriented to it’s own self-destruction, like possessed pigs careening off of a precipice. We have come through certain death into true life and hope; how can we not bring this life and hope to a world fast loosing life and hope?

Jesus proclaimed gives birth to hope because “[t]hat is the meaning of the name Jesus Christ, a name of hope, a meaning of hope…The way of the love with which God has laid hold of our hearts…is the way of a hope that cannot be disappointed and will not be disappointed.”[22] Those of us gathered here today, who have ears to hear, are sent out from here with the hope given to us in Christ proclaimed. We are thrust back into a turbulent and hurting world and are caused to be witnesses to the mercy and justice and love of God in a world[23] seemingly devoid of such things. Mercy, justice, love, peace, and hope are not only for us who sit here and hear, but also for the people out there who long to hear.

The world groans restricted by the chains and shackles of the cage, held in bondage to the myths and lies of our systems and dogmas and longs to hear the message of Jesus Christ who brings hope to the hopeless, freedom to the captives, and love…

Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
There is a design,
An alignment to cry,
Of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be[24]

 

*Translation mine.

[1] Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. “Although this narrative unit is part of the sequence of scenes held together by these references to a journey, then, its position at the midpoint of this sequence and its identification the goal of Jesus’ intended trip (v 22) portend its identification of the goal of Jesus’ intended trip (v.22) portend its particular importance in this chain of episodes.” 335

[3] The text indicates that the crowd was comprised of many people from town after town . “When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable” (8:4).

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. About Luke 8:19-21, “…the point is that those who hear and do the Word of God are a new family of Jesus and of God.” 106.

[5] Gonzalez, 107. About 8:22-25, “…the central theme of this entire section, which is power of Jesus over demons. It is important for Luke’s narrative to stress that power as a prelude to the entire section on the passion in which that power seems to be brought to naught. Thus four miracle stories serve to remind us of who this is who will set his face to go to Jerusalem and there suffer and die The first of these stories shows the power of Jesus over the demons that wreak havoc through the elements.”

[6] Green, 335. “The one who shares center stage with Jesus has no name in the narrative- his foremost characteristic is his bondage to and release from demonic power (cf. 4:18-19). If these variations on a theme help us to identify the melody, then the countermelody is recognized in the assorted clues that this is the first time Jesus has crossed over into predominantly Gentile territory.” See also Gonalez, 108. “Although there are textual problems in this passage, so that it is impossible to tell exactly where the miracle is said to take place, it would seem that we are now in a Gentile area where large herds of swine were common…Thus one of the added dimensions of this story is that it is an early indication of the power of Jesus beyond the world of Judaism.”

[7] Gonzalez, 108. “Jointly, the three narratives serve to announce that the one who will soon find himself in Jerusalem refused, mocked, and crucified is Lord over all powers of evil, including disease and death, and is yet loving and compassionate. Separately, they point to various aspects of the lordship and compassion of Jesus.”

[8] Green, 336. “On a fundamental level then this text concerns the crossing of boundaries in Jesus’ mission, and more particularly the offer of salvation in the Gentile world. Within the larger narrative setting of this account, this emphasis is striking for Luke thus portrays how the lessons of the story of the sower then (8:4-21) appropriate to the Gentile world too. Here is a man, first full of demons then saved who responds as a disciple and becomes the first person to be commissioned by Jesus for missionary activity grounded in his own.”

[9] Gonzalez, 110. Bigger theme here, “It is the theme so prevalent in Luke, of the outsider being brought back in and of the restoration of community when this happens. The Gerasene who lived in the tombs is restored to his home and community. The woman who, of her hemorrhages, was considered unclean and was therefore excluded from community is now cleansed and restored. The girl restored to her family. In all three stories Jesus seems to go beyond borders of propriety: he heals Gentile; he commends an unclean who has touched him; he touches a corpse… The demons that Jesus conquers not only those of disease and but also those of isolation exclusion.”

[10]Gonzalez, 110. “As a whole the three stories warn us against being too systematic and dogmatic about the nature of the Christian mission. It is mission to Gentiles but also to those who should be part of the community but are excluded. At points it is a mission inviting to witness; and at other points it is a mission inviting some to be silent! It is a mission among crowds; but it is also a mission of personal touch. It is a mission of joy and restoration both to those who have long been oppressed by evil and to those who have suddenly discovered its demonic and life-destroying power.”

[11] Green, 338. The way Luke sets up the story, the audience is given a clear and upfront view of this man who used to be “normal” but now—for some reason—wasn’t, “In fact, his adverse condition is so advanced that he had crossed the boundaries of human decency. He had lost any claim to status’ naked and living in the tombs he was scarcely even human.”

[12] Green, 338. “Uncontrollable out of his mind, he was chained and guarded as a societal menace, like a wild animal. The strength of the evil forces at work inside of him is further underscored by Luke’s observation that attempts at containment had been unsuccessful. The destructive power of the demonic on this man could hardly be portrayed more strikingly. Completely displaced from his community living among the tombs he might as well be dead.”

[13] Green, 338. So many mentions of Demons/Evil Spirits, “…an encounter of cosmic proportions.”

[14] Green, 338-9. “The demoniac’s actions, now under diabolic control, signal the tension of the moment of encounter. Falling before Jesus is a sign of reverence, submission 70 but the demoniac’s loud shout suggests a defensive posture even resistance 71 The demoniac uses a question to issue a defensive directive: Let me alone! Within the Lukan narrative the demon correctly identifies Jesus as God’s Son, just as the devil had done (4:1-13); and, in particular as ‘Son of the Most High God’…”

[15] Green, 339. “Rather than immediately departing the man, this demon attempts to negotiate with Jesus and, indeed to gain ascendancy over him. Jesus counters by demanding and receiving the name of the demon: Legion from the Latin term legio, designating a military unit of some 5 600 men. The significance of this term in this co-text is signaled immediately by the narrator, who interprets the demon’s reply to mean that the number of demons who had entered the man was ‘many.’ With this the confrontation opposing powers has reached its zenith, with Jesus the victor. Not only does the compassion of Jesus expand to include the Gentiles then but so also does his power and authority.”

[16] Green, 339. “This demon finds himself in the presence of one related to “the Most High God” is one more powerful than he, and more powerful than the one he serves…That is the demon’s address is motivated by his recognition of his own inferior position. “

[17] Gonzalez, 109. “Then there is matter of the reason why the people in the area wish Jesus to The text mentions only ‘fear.’ Is it fear of the unknown and surprising power that has been manifested; or is it fear that Jesus will upset the economic well-being of the region, as he has already done drowning the swine?”

[18] Green, 340, Presence of Swineherds functions as testimony: other people saw these events. “Their return to the ci (from whence the man hailed, v 27) provides for the additional witnesses of what Jesus had done for this man. Hence the repeated phrase ‘what had happened’ must be taken to mean both the drowning of the pigs and the healing of the former demoniac.”

[19] Green, 341. “Fear in the face of evidence of divine activity is expected in the Gospel, but the fear of these people is not portrayed as a positive response. Have gathered from city and country (v 34), and now all from the region share in a common verdict. In fear they reject Jesus. The offer of good news rebuffed, Jesus departs. Unlike the disciples in the boat (8:22-25), in spite of the unambiguous evidence of divine intervention before them in the form of their transformed acquaintance, these people seem not to have any faith at all.”

[20] Corresponds with the definition for Dialectical Theology provided by Dr. W. Travis McMaken on this podcast hosted by Stephen Waldron, http://theologyandsocialism.libsyn.com/our-god-loves-justice-interview-with-w-travis-mcmaken-on-helmut-gollwitzer

[21] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

[22] Helmut Gollwitzer “Hope for the Hopeless” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. 103-4. “And now with this hope [we go] back into our earthly life, and that means into tribulation, into hopes that can be disappointed, into battles win two which he sends us as his disciples, into the unpeaceful world as peacemakers, into solidarity with the hungry and the enslaved as prisoners…When we are struck to the ground, we rise again and again, and even at the grave we raise our hopes again…”

[23] McMaken, 148 “Christians are called to bear political witness to the God they have encountered—a God of peace, justice, mercy, and ultimately, of love.”

[24] Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More

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