Refiner’s Fire

Sermon on Acts 19:1-7

Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy/Set apart for You,
Ready to do Your will

I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.

Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord

Acts 19:1-7

…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”

Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine

The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions.[1] When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission.[2] Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Wellokay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.[3]

For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ. [4] John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[5]

“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mk 1:8

The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.”[6] In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[7] and with humanity in its plight.[8] This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.

In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history[9]–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[10] It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?

Conclusion

To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19),[11] like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.

This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism[12] deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.

Willie James Jennings writes,

Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.[13]

The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist[14] theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,

It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.[15]

For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.


[1] Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”

[3] Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”

[4] Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”

[5] Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”

[6] Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”

[7] Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[8] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[9] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[10] McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[11] Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”

[12] David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.

[13] Jennings Acts 185

[14] Womanism  is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.

Revolution of the Light

Sermon on John 1:1-5

Psalm 147:5: Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp.

Introduction

I’ve never met someone who meets opportunity for exposure with open and eager embrace. Exposure can harm our body. Even the small forms of exposure provide enough discomfort to warrant avoidance. Anyone here like it when that wool blanket and down comforter are yanked back suddenly exposing your warm skin to chilly air? What about that cruel adjustment moment when eyes accustomed to dark are exposed to brightness? What about that little trip while you’re walking exposing the reality that you’re not as graceful as you thought you were? All I have to say is, “Hospital Dressing Gown,” and you all know what I’m talking about.

Exposure hurts and ushers in self-death when it reveals bigger problems. That thing keeping you stuck or that thing haunting your peace rears its head again and exposes your lack of control. Maybe it’s the fights that won’t go away; maybe it’s the threat of failure; maybe it’s the persistent sickness; maybe it’s the lie that was found out…these are exposures soliciting a death to self: I need help.

Exposure hurts. But exposure and its pain and death aren’t antithetical to life but the basis of it.

John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was in the company with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning in the company with God. Everything was made through him, and not one thing having existed was made separately (from) him. In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.

Jn 1:1-5, translation mine

The first part of the reading should sound familiar. Genesis 1:1 starts off identically (εν αρχη). The allusion in John 1 to the start of the Hebrew Scriptures is intentional. The Word is to be equated with God and the creative speaking power of God. The Word was God. The word spoken in Genesis 1:1 is the word piercing the silence of the cosmos, disrupting the darkness by tearing from it the light. The point is not creationism, but that God’s word and God’s deed are one and the same thing: God speaks and it happens; not a word falls to the ground void of substance of completed action.[1] For John, this word spoken at the beginning of creation is the Word that has come into the world in the baby born to Mary (Jn 1:14)—and not only to Israel, but to the whole world.[2]

With one hand John grabs the tip of the Hebrew scriptures and pulls them into view. With the other hand he drags the Greek philosophical tradition into view—signified by the word λογος. John uses the birth of Christ Jesus as the focal point to articulate the light that was called forth in Genesis 1 will expose the world and humanity unto life, unto glory and truth. For John the world is not its own Lord or “Law” but is created and sustained by the very Word of God; [3] it is not chaotic matter (the Greeks) but creation out of nothing. [4] In 5 words (εν αρχη ην ο λογος), John indicts humanity and its thought structures and assumptions. And we—those who listen in from here—also are indicted and confronted with John’s statements about the Word who was with God and is God. We are asked to reexamine everything we thought we knew, the terms and concepts we have grown (all too) familiar with and think we’ve defined rightly.[5] Here we’ve been exposed by the confrontation of the divine answer that is the Word made flesh and is the light of life of humanity.

John writes, “In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.” The distinction between light and dark is one we move over quickly. We’re used to the idea that light happens at the flick of switch. In swift motion, the dark room is now illumined. It wasn’t, but now it is. But is it a simple change? The articulation of light into a room means that darkness must be converted. Darkness doesn’t run to other side of the room. What was dark is not anymore; it is light. It must cease being dark and become light.

When the light shines in the dark, the darkness in the path of the light is changed and transformed into not dark. Zooming in on the event you might see that which is light and not light, that which is darkness and not darkness. You might see particles in process of transition of giving themselves over to the light. There’d be a point where time would cease to matter as everything grinds to a halt as the activity of darkness changing into light gives over to the stillness of dark and light and not dark and not light—like a ball thrown into the air comes to a full stop before descent, there would be a cessation of darkness before there is lightness. There is a point in the conversion of darkness into lightness where it seems action seems to stop, where movement stops, where time becomes timelessness. There’s death—a cessation of everything. [6]

In the Christian Apocryphal work, Protoevangelium of James, the author tells of the moment Jesus is born, from Joseph’s perspective.[7] Listen,

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not liftin it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything return to its course.”[8]

Protoevangelium of James trans Lily C. Vuong

This is what happens to the world when divine exposure is born into it. The moment Jesus is born of Mary, time stops to make room for the light to enter the world that is trapped by darkness. Mary births the babe who is the light of humanity[9] that will convert darkness into lightness and death into life.[10] Everything comes to a standstill as God enters our timeline and completely overhauls it, flipping it on its head, moving space like the water of the red sea during the exodus, and thrusting the cosmos into divine truth. When God shows up, everything grinds to a halt and the world goes through a death as life motions to revolt against death.[11]

Conclusion

In the advent and nativity of the Christ child, we’re exposed by the light of life and shown we’ve been complicit with and held captive by systems and kingdoms of darkness of death. I mentioned before that 2020 is a year of exposure. This exposure hurts and will continue to hurt because none of us is done wrestling against the powers and principalities of this human world. It’s not easy to see how deeply embedded we are in the narrative of white supremacy. It’s painful to see greed and selfishness run rampant and realize those are our feet running and keeping pace with those we’re criticizing. It’s horrifying to realize our silence participates in propping up vile and malicious institutions, practices, ideologies when we’d rather not #saytheirnames or say #blacklivesmatter because it’s…more comfortable not to.

In the exposure inaugurated by the birth of the Christ in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are brought out of the old humanity through death into new humanity.

To be exposed is to endure the transition of darkness into light—being reduced to the moment you are and you are not. To be exposed is to come to a full cessation and be changed from darkness into lightness through death. To be exposed is to see things as they are in the stillness of time and ask the questions so many are afraid to ask: is this all there is? Is this really the good and true and the beautiful? Is anything else possible? The exposure of the encounter with God in the event of faith brings life out of death through resurrection—it’s new life and you are a new creation, with new eyes to see and ears to hear. And you’re given a new mission in the world: joining in the revolt against the dark with the army of the light who is the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, the hurting, the dying. This is the mission of God in the world; this is the thrust of the nativity. Everything we think we know as right, and good, and true is in the line of fire of the great divine revolution of life against death humbly started by God born a baby boy to a young unwedded mother, wrapped in rags and laid in a humble manger surrounded by dirty shepherds.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. P. 20 “In the O.T. the Word of God is his Word of power, which, in being uttered, is active as event. God’s word is God’s deed, and his deed is his word; that is, he acts through his word, and he speaks in his action, and it is man whom he addresses.”

[2] Bultmann John 21. “The Prologue does not speak of the relation of the chosen people to the Word of God, but of the relation of the world to the ‘Word’.”

[3] Bultmann John p. 39. “The radical nature of the idea of creation is evident at this point: in the beginning the world did not, so to speak, receive as its own that which it then maintains by itself; both its beginning and its continuing existence are attributed to the Logos. Precisely this is the meaning of v. 4a: ο γενονεν, εν αυτω ζωη ην: the vitality of the whole creation has its origin in the Logos; he is the power which creates life.”

[4] Bultmann John p. 38. “The Greek view, that wants to understand the world as a correlation of form and matter, is also excluded: the creation is not the arrangement of a chaotic stuff, but is the καταβολη κοσμου (17.24), creation ex nihilo.”

[5] Bultmann John 13. “The concepts ζωη and φως, δοξα and αληθεια are the kind of motifs for which the reader brings with him a certain prior understanding; but he still has to learn how to understand them authentically.”

[6] Bultmann John p.32. “…in the person and word of Jesus one does not encounter anything that has its origin in the world or in time; the encounter is with the reality that lies beyond the world and time. Jesus and his word not only bring release from the world and from time, they are also the means whereby the world and time are judged: the first words of the Prologue at once prepare us for this.”

[7] For an excellent engagement with this text, please see Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel’s work located here: https://hcommons.org/members/evandeneykel/deposits/ It was his paper—”Then Suddenly, Everything Resumed Its Course”: The Suspension of Time in the Protevangelium of James Reconsidered—that I heard at SBLAAR 2017 and was profoundly impacted by. If you are interested in further pursuing apocryphal engagement, I highly recommend engaging with Dr. Vanden Eykel.

[8][8] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[9] Bultmann John p. 43, “…φως comes to mean revelation. And where one speaks of a Revealer, one can describe him as the ‘Light’ or as the Giver of light.”

[10] Bultmann John p. 41. “In its original sense light is not an apparatus for illumination, that makes things perceptible, but is the brightness itself in which I find myself here and now; in it I can find my way about, I feel myself at home, and have no anxiety. Brightness itself is not therefore an outward phenomenon, but is the illumined condition of existence, of my own existence. Such brightness is necessary for life; so that from the first, and throughout the ancient world, light and life, darkness and death are seen as belonging together.”

[11] Bultmann John p. 47. “Yet the ζωη of the Logos does not cease to be the φως of men just because men have chosen the possibility of darkness. Rather it is only because the Logos is constantly present as the light of men that the world of men can be σκοτια at all. For darkness is neither a substance nor the sheer power of fate; it is nothing other than the revolt against the light.” I made revolution the work of the light because revolutionary violence is in response to oppression and suffering. Darkness’s response would be counter revolution. It is not light who responds to hold the status-quo, but darkness. It is darkness and death to uphold the status-quo and systems bent on destruction to keep your power.

Some Sölle

I recently read the short book Creative Disobedience by Dorothee Sölle. She was influenced by both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Gogarten. Her work is excellent, pastoral, tangible, accessible; dare I say she’s the best of both of these scholars. Also, considering my own work engages both Bonny and Fritz, it made sense to me to begin reading Sölle; seems she’s my older sister here in this odd theological family.

What I am providing here is not a book review; sadly, I’ve no time for a quality book review. Rather my aim is to provide some enticing quotes from the text, encouraging you, beloved reader, to go get it and read it and take it to heart. I will use bold to add emphasis to parts I want to stand out to you.

“Basically, however, in a completely authoritarian model of obedience one never asks the question ‘why.’ The world loses its significance and is degraded to being but the raw material used in practicing formal obedience. That which is done is uninteresting. When obedience concentrates itself completely on a higher and guiding ‘other,’ it becomes blind, that is, blind to the world. It hears the voice of its master in a very narrow and exclusive sense but it sees nothing. it accomplishes the act of obedience for its own sake, recognizing no additional significance.

“An attempt has been made to solve this dilemma by suggesting that the obedience requested and carried out is given freely. To be sure an obedience freely given does mean a displacement of the power relationship and allows the obedience subject to maintain a certain semblance of honor. But the problem of worldlessness and the lack of objective concerns inherent in such a person-oriented obedience is only sharpened. A critique of obedience cannot satisfy itself merely by maintaining that those who obediently submit choose to do so freely. Blindness toward the world and total irresponsibility are still lacking in this variant of the authoritarian model.

“An obedience that is blind to objective concerns and to the world, that merely listens to what it is told, has divest itself of all responsibility for what is commanded. Obedience and not what is to be done is the sole motivation.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 15-16

“But it is precisely spontaneity for which Jesus sets us free. That which he requires does not presuppose the order of the world; that order has yet to be established in the future. Insofar as the human must first discover what God’s will is, the future of the world remains open.

“In traditional usage one speaks rather descriptively of ‘fulfilling’ obedience. The picture is that of a container of form which must be filled. So too with obedience. A previously existing order is postulate that must be maintained, defended, or fulfilled. But Jesus did not conceive of the world according to a model of completed order, which person were merely required to maintain. The world he enter had not yet reached perfection. It was alterable, in fact, it awaited transformation. Schemes of order are in Jesus’ words utterly destroyed–great and small, scholar and child, riches and poverty, knowledge of the Law and ignorance. Jesus did everything in his power to relativize these orders and set free the person caught up in the se schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Out obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?

“I detect that we need new words to describe the revolutionary nature of all relationships begun in Christ. At the very least it is problematic whether we can even continue to consider that which Jesus wanted under the term obedience.

Creative Disobedience pp. 27-28

“A society is imagined in which it is no longer necessary to deny someone people their own subjectivity. Such an inhuman demand destroys the person on whom it is made. Those who require such a degree of self-sacrifice, or include it in their life plan, lose their freedom. He who makes use of another person as a means of achieving his own ends not only humiliates that person but also degrades himself. To treat another person as if she were a thing is to become a thing oneself, a servant to the functioning of the very ‘thing’ being manipulated. By demanding sacrifice, such a person destroys his own freedom. As the one in control he becomes the one controlled. In alienating others from that which they wish to be and can become, he alienates himself. Because he concentrates on domination, on employing others as means to his own ends, he loses all the other possibilities open to him. For example, he no longer pays attention to anything that does not fit his purpose. He loses the ability to enjoy ling because he must constantly reinforce his life by accomplishments. The relationship between people is so interdependent that it is impossible for one person to prosper at the expense of another. In the long run such exploitation proves detrimental to both.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 34-35

“The stronger a person’s self-identity–that which we have previously referred to as his or her being a subject–the easier partial renunciation becomes. in borderline situations the expression ‘partial renunciation’ can be applied to the runcination of one’s own life for the sake of the other. However, even then it is impossible for such a person to relinquish his or her identity for the sake of the other. And so one could formulate the thesis: The greater one’s realization of selfhood the greater one’s ability for true renunciation. The more successful one is at living the easier it is for him or her to let go of life.

Creative Disobedience p. 39

“A person can, during the course of his lifetime, become more imaginative, or, on the other hand, he can give u more and more of his phantasy. He then becomes progressively poorer in his style of living and ever more fixed in that which he refers to as his life-experience or his understanding of people. This growing impoverishment of life takes pleasure in assuming the appearance of maturity, in feigning a full awareness of reality.

Creative Disobedience p. 51

“Jesus made people whole without asking for thanks. He fulfilled people’s wishes without requesting their validity. He allowed phantasy full reign without bowing to propriety. he took seriously the religious requirements such as fasting, the breaking of bread, and thanksgiving, but he was also able to put them all aside. He was at ease with friend and foe alike. The conventional classification of people in artificial groupings could be suspended at any time.

“He never brought new virtues and duties. It was fulfillment he offered to those with whom he dealt, a certain sense of wholeness, of well-being, which made virtue and its practice possible. He did not fulfill duties; instead he changed the situation of those whom he met. His phantasy began with the situations but always went far beyond them.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 52-53

“The liberated human being is so strongly aware of him or herself as a self-determining subject that partial denials become possible. The expression ‘partial denial’ may seen inappropriate when it is applied to Jesus, but I use it in order to underscore the fact that a person can never deny his own identity simply at the will of another. In this sense Jesus too never denied his own identity. It is more appropriate to say that his death was the final substantiation of his identity, of the unheard of assertion ‘I am the life.'”

Creative Disobedience p. 58

It appeared to be forgotten that for Jesus ‘God’ meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. The feeling of possessing a full life, the fulfillment of Jesus, was lost. It was as if one wished to promise people something more and greater than the fulfillment of Jesus–a participation in divine life which is realized only after death. With the help of this beyond, this still to come, fulfillment was defamed, and the transformation of this earth in view of the possibilities for fulfillment remained subordinate.

“We still secretly feared that the realization of selfhood could only be achieved at the cost of others, suspected that it was the robbery of others, because we viewed the earth itself and the projected possibilities for fulfillment as constant and immovable. If instead the world is seen as moving toward a goal, if God is experiences as active in history and not merely posited as resting beyond nature, as eternally being, then the possibilities for fulfillment are multiplied. Then phantasy ceases to be a thing for children and poets–that which Christian history has made of it. The person is once again given the courage to say ‘I,’ without, in so doing, taking anything from anyone else.

Creative Disobedience pp. 64-65

In Rags and Wood

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Canticle 15: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Amen

Introduction

Sermons on love are often so lofty the subject—God’s love—becomes too other worldly and abstract, beyond human grasp, and of no earthly good. These sermons leave congregants grasping at the actuality of God’s love like grasping at oil; there’s nothing in your hand but the residual of what brushed past it. Preachers get in pulpits on Sunday and proclaim the word of comfort—God loves the beloved and the beloved is us (all of us)—then turn around and make that word so abstract and comfortable the divine love communicated about is not communicated to those who have ears to hear. It’s safer to preach abstract love that doesn’t touch down in the material realm in action and conviction because God forbid those coins cease hitting beloved coffers. We love the idea of divine love for us. If we’re honest, we don’t know what that means apart from some safe ideas we’ve memorized from Sunday school, gathered from the repetition of creeds, and absorbed by the incessant bombardment of dogmas.

Love is a remarkable and profound thing surging through the cosmos since the beginning of time—love neither started with us nor will it end with us. While the neuro response to love—both loving and being loved—is locatable in the brain and we can describe the way it feels, science and her scientists cannot figure out the why or the source or, coupled to attraction, the reason it’s this person and not that person. While society has historically tried to dictate who we can love, love knows not artificial man-made boundaries—love transcends and tears down walls and fences built to keep some in and others out. Love is more than a feeling and full of action in a material world.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…” (Is. 61:1-2b)

Isaiah begins by confessing: the “spirit of the Lord God is upon” me. He speaks of something beyond comfortable feeling; he speaks of ruah. Ruah, a word used to describe the breath of God animating soil in Genesis, is the spirit of God, the pathos, the passion, and the emotion of God. [1] It is this spirit that is upon Isaiah. This spirit anoints Isaiah…to do what? Not to perform sacrifices, not to stand high and mighty, not to be clad in fancy robe behind tables decorated with gold and fine stone, not to swing incense, to be solemn, or to be feared for his authority. [2] Rather, it’s significantly humbler than we could imagine. Isaiah’s anointing by the spirit of God is to herald good tidings to the oppressed, to bind and have mercy on the suffering, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, it’s to proclaim to God’s people God’s great love for them.

Isaiah speaks of being endowed with the proclamation of God’s dynamic and active love to God’s people (Ruah). He also speaks of a divine day of favor and divine day of vengeance. Isaiah intentionally throws allusion to the year of Jubilee detailed in the book of Leviticus (cf. chapter 25). The liberative activity of God’s love coming in material form to God’s people is physical and not merely psychological—debts forgiven freeing both the debtor and the creditor. [3] Thus, the juxtaposition here of God’s favor and day of vengeance is intriguing. Make no mistake, Isaiah is intentional with his words. And I’m sure, as we like to do, that day of vengeance is sitting a bit heavy. But don’t lose heart just yet, stay with me; this isn’t bad news. The day of favor and the day of vengeance are one and the same day.

The twin divine decree sounding from Isaiah’s mouth is one of comfort and confrontation, and both are oriented toward the divine art of divine love: God loves God’s people. Isaiah is exhorted by the spirit being upon him…

“…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” (Is. 61:2c-3).

To comfort those who mourn is to confront those who caused the mourning; to take away ashes and crown with garlands is to raise up those who were made low and to remove the distinction with those who were (already) raised up, thus lowering them; to embolden spirits is to give strength to those who are weak making them as strong as those who were strong. To bring comfort to captives through their liberation is to come into confrontation with captors by liberating them from holding captive.* To bring good news to the oppressed is to confront the oppressor and illuminate the oppressor’s own oppression in the system. God’s love liberates all people from violent and oppressive kingdoms of humanity. [4]

“For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed” (Is. 61:8-9)

Isaiah proclaims God’s desire: justice. God loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing. Echoing other prophets of Israel: God cares about those who are suffering under and because of unjust systems. For Isaiah and the other prophets of Israel, there is a tight link between God’s love of justice and our right worship. There’s no way around it. You can be the most pious person, wear all the right robes, say the words, bow here and kneel there, you can perform the most sacred of ceremonies, but if you are also actively participate and uphold oppressive and violent systems in word and deed, your worship is “detestable” to God. [5] According to Isaiah, there’s one way to serve God: love. Specifically, the love of neighbor in the pursuit of God defined justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[6]

Let us not forget the way Isaiah opened up this proclamation: ““The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me..” (Is. 1). It’s come full circle. This spirit which is also God’s desire and pathos has become Isaiah’s. [7] The math here is simple: being indwelled with God’s spirit, Isaiah’s desire is the same as God’s: a love of justice and dislike of robbery and wrongdoing. Thus, it is for us. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, brought out of death into new life, that new life in the world is marked by the pathos of God: active love for justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[8]

Conclusion

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Is. 61:11)

God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, Isaiah proclaims. God’s love will triumph. In other words, divine justice and righteousness prevails over injustice and unrighteousness. The day of divine favor for the oppressed will be the day of vengeance for the oppressor and love will win both out of death into life.

But…How? In a dire and precarious way no one expects: a baby born to a young woman. God will descend into the human predicament to suffer the human predicament and will not remain above it. This is divine love: to come low, to descend to the beloved. “The coming of Jesus is the bond, the event of descending love, is the appearing of new life, of life undreamt of, of eternal life in the earthly life.”[9]

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Love drives us toward and into each other’s burdens, to share the weight, to call things as they are, to provide relief and to comfort. This love knows no bounds, it descends to the depths of human existence, into the muck and mire of suffering and pain and grief; it searches out across vast spaces looking for the beloved who is missing; it surges into the fringes and margins of society to proclaim in word and deed “Beloved” to those who’ve only heard “unlovable”. [10] It’s not found in our personal piety defined by the superiority of our self-righteousness, it’s not found in glory but in humility,[11] not in gold but in wood, not in rich and clean robes in stone buildings but swaddled in rags in a manger.


*The Work of David Justice on Martin Luther King, Jr., and King’s conception of the Beloved Community and Creative Rage does excellently to detail out in more detail how the liberation of the oppressed is good news for the oppressor.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets NY, NY: JPS, 1962. 315. “The word ruah means, according to standard dictionaries, ‘air in motion, breath, wind, vain things, spirit, mind.’ What was not noticed is that one of the chief uses of the word ruah is to denote pathos, passion or emotion—the state of the soul. When combined with another word, it denotes a particular type of pathos or emotion.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 195 “Sacred fire is burning on the altars in many lands. Animals are being offered to the glory of the gods. Priests burn incense, songs of solemn assemblies fill the air Pilgrims are on the roads, pageantries in the sacred places. The atmosphere is thick with sanctity. In Israel, too, sacrifice is an essential act of worship. It is the experience of giving oneself vicariously to God and of being received by Him. And yet, the pre-exilic prophets uttered violent attacks on sacrifices…”

[3] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary TOTL. Louisville, KY: WJK 2001. 505. “…the theme of proclaiming liberty in ‘the year of Yahweh’s favor’ (v.2) is formulated in the language of the Jubilee year…and articulates succinctly the great change in Israel’s fortunes initiated through God’s favor. Finally, to ‘bring good tiding’ … is to assume the mantle of the herald…who first sent out the message of God’s return to his people in power.”

[4] Childs Isaiah 506. “It has also been rightly pointed out that the description of Israel’s deliverance has shifted a way from Second Isaiah’s portrayal of captivity and exile to that of release from economic slavery within the land.”

[5] Heschel Prophets 195, “However, while Samuel stressed the primacy of obedience over sacrifice, Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”

[6] Heschel Prophets 195. “Questioning man’s right to worship through offerings and songs, they maintained that the primary way of serving God is through love, Justice, and righteousness.” See also: W. Travis McMaken’s book on Helmut Gollwitzer, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress Press, 2017). “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy,” p. 91.

[7] Childs Isaiah 506. “The speaker in these verses is clearly God, who confirms the word of the servant figure. The grounds for the mission of the one endowed with the spirit in vv. 1-7 rest on God, who loves justice while hating injustice.”

[8] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy.” 91 And, Speaking in terms of principle, however, the demand is more exacting…’The conversion to which the Christian community is daily called by God’s Word also includes the renunciation of their integration in the dominant system of privileges and their active exertion for justice, and so for social structures no longer determined by social privileges’…Christians are called to resist the social structures that imbue some with privileges while disadvantaging others.” 113-4 . And, “But if Marx turns theology into politics, Gollwitzer transforms politics into theology. That is, he clarifies for us that there is no such things a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” 166-7.

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1981. 80.

[10] Gollwitzer 79. “…he did not remain above, did not count his superiority a thing to be grasped at, but came down into human existence, into a slave-existence, to a place where he was spat upon, trodden down, and put to death. Thus anyone who wishes to find the ‘above’ of which the whole Bible speaks, must, w strange though it may seem, go right down below here on earth. The paradox is that what is of the earth, the thought that is of earthly origin, is actually a striving upwards, everyone wants to get on top; while on the contrary what is here called the true divine ‘above’, is a string downwards, and is only to be found at the lowest point of the earth, on the gallows among the most downtrodden and outcast of society, with one who has no longer a place in it, in the grave which is the destiny of us all.”

[11] Gollwitzer 79. “There in the depths the Lord of glory of the religions is not to be found, but the servant God of the Gospel, the ministering, self-sacrificing brother Jesus who ‘and no other one’ is the living Lord of the Gospel.”

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:8-9: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Amen (50)

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the word “comfort”? What is comfort? If you ask me, I may reply with some description of the darker recesses of a library, hidden from sight, nestled among books, coveting the quiet, the alone, and my beloved texts like Gollum and his precious. If you ask one of my children the answer may involve some form of “no school” and “video games” and “friends”.

Comfort is something we describe with adjectives soliciting the tactile senses and align more with “comfortable,” which contends with bodily senses. But are the words “comfortable” and “comfort” synonymous? I’ll argue they’re similar but not interchangeable. When we talk about something being comfortable we imagine some of the images mentioned a moment ago (things that bring us relaxation and pleasure), or a fuzzy robe with corresponding slippers, or a bed, or a couch, or a pair of jeans, or those old sneakers. Comfortable is something that doesn’t disrupt our state of rest; it affirms it. In fact, when presented with too much of what is comfortable, we become complacent with numbness. The old axiom exists for a reason: lethargy breeds lethargy. We can become so comfortable in what is because it is what is, it is familiar and known and doesn’t require that we reach too far out of our own spaces. In fact “comfortable” encourages resistance to anything infringing on that which is comfortable and known and familiar. It’s why change can be so scary.

But comfort is something altogether different because it disrupts us and our rest, our groove or rut, and our familiar and known. To bring comfort to someone is to alter their state in a way so they can catch that breath, breathe a sigh of relief, come down a few notches, and, sometimes, to push us into that scary unknown and unfamiliar.

Comfort comes as a person, a word, a space, an action thus it is disrupting. Something enters our sphere seizes us, speaks to us, creates space for us, and moves us into a different spot.  Comfortable keeps you where you are; comfort moves you. Comfortable is denial; comfort comes with acceptance. Comfortable is the saccharine colloquialism smoothing over tension, sadness, anger, frustration; comfort is the honest, “damn, I’m sorry…” that enters the tension, the sadness, the anger, frustration. Comfortable is pretending you don’t see that dragon; comfort is everyone you know showing up to fight it. When comfort arrives, in whatever form, we are never the same as we were before, and we are altered in some way forever—death into new life.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Through the humble yet bold voice of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a). It is time to move Israel from one state to another,[1] and God declares that God’s ministers are to bring comfort to Israel. According to the text, it is God’s presence with Israel that will bring comfort; it’s God’s voice, God’s word that soothes the troubled soul and the broken hearted. Thus, the ministers of God are to bring this voice and this word to God’s people. They are to elevate the heads of the Israelites, much like a mother gently grabs the chin of her distraught child and with love in her eyes and reassurance in her smile moves the child into comfort. Israel is beckoned by the great prophet, look to the Lord your God and be comforted and have joy, for deliverance and restoration come![2]

Israel plagued by captivity and complicity, tumult and turmoil, despondency and desperation needs the good divine word to instill them with profound divine joy. Israel is not only plagued for her own internal and external issues, but by a mutuality in suffering. Israel suffers as the nations around her suffer, too. As they are held captive, so is Israel; as they are in pain, so, too, is Israel. [3] As God feels the pain of God’s people, so does God’s people feel the pain of those around them.

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Is 40:3-5)

Isaiah declares God’s forgiveness, peace, and restoration to Israel; the great comforter comes, joy will exceed sorrow, God’s presence will eliminate exile, redemption will overturn condemnation. Here in Isaiah, God reaffirms that God is their God and they are God’s people. [4] And thus, Israel is commissioned[5] to fulfill Israel’s great call: to be the “herald of good tidings” to the nations, [6] to proclaim the word of God, God’s truth and God’s comfort.[7] “…lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Is 40:9).

The revelation of divine glory will be seen and witnessed and beheld by all. [8] God will gather up God’s flock like a shepherd, God will tend and carry the weak, smoldering wicks God will not snuff out, broken reeds God will not break. God will come for God’s people a group defined no longer by boundary markers, but which will extend beyond Jerusalem to all Judea, into Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Conclusion

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her…Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper… (Lam 1:1-2, 5).

The words of Israel’s lament to God here in these opening verses to the book of Lamentations, echo our current feelings of being abandoned. Lonely, widowed, weeping, held captive by foes, and without comfort. 2020 has thrust us deep into a long season of chaos soliciting our crying out. And while we may be able to find things that are comfortable it’s to numb the discomfort we feel; yet, the more we reach for the comfortable, the further comfort remains. We need not what is comfortable but to be comforted; we need to be disrupted in such a way that we see things as they are for what they are and to feel the umbilical connection to the rest of humanity who is sick, who is in pain, who grieves, and who fights for the right to breathe.

God’s presence has always meant comfort for God’s people manifest in the people’s liberation from captivity by forces internal (Israel’s sin) and external (those who are holding Israel captive)—this is salvation. Thus, the promised divine nativity of the Christ, God born in flesh, will be salvation for all flesh and this salvation is still intrinsically linked with human liberation. And this liberation isn’t solely from mythical forces of evil, threats of hellfire, and the intellectual burden of a burdened conscience. It is bodily liberation from religious tyranny, from marginalization, it is healing from sickness, it is bringing in and bringing together those who have been forced out and into exile by the rulers and authorities, it is dismantling of malignant systems born to create hierarchy between divine image bearers.[9] Jesus is the word of God, the word of comfort, born into the world to save and redeem God’s people…all of God’s people bringing low the high places and raising up the low places. So, we, as those who have been disrupted become disruptive, like Israel declaring the divine word of comfort rousing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert
far and near, calling us to repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.[10]

Advent is a season designed for disruption. The announcement that the divine nativity draws near and being asked to sit and wait and re-experience Israel’s pain and anguish waiting for God to act is to be disrupted in a marvelous way. God’s promised comfort comes and disrupts our comfortableness. Borrowing from Isaiah, John declared, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3). In the announcement that God comes, we, the comfortable, have been disrupted by the divine word of comfort of the afflicted, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The divine word of comfort comes to desperate ears, tired eyes, and exhausted bodies. All is disrupted. Behold, salvation comes to God’s people; the great comforter arrives in flesh to liberate (disrupt the captivity of) the captives.


[1] Isaiah 40:2b-d, “…that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

[2] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets Ny NY: JPS 1962. 152, “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, says your God’ (40:1). And also, ‘I, I am He that comforts you’ (51:12). ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’ (66:13). His comfort comes from compassion (49:13), and will bring about joy (51:3), deliverance from captivity and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.”

[3] Heschel 149, 40:2 “As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is s ritual its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.”

[4] Childs 297, “Most important is that God confirms his relation with the people of Israel. He is their God and they are his people, a formula that reverberates as a distant echo from the ancient covenant tradition.”

[5] Childs 296, “Seitz writes: ‘God speaks again from the divine council as he had done formerly in Israel’s day…[T]he word of God goes forth directly, commissioning the heralds of good tidings’ (245).”

[6] Childs 300, “Zion and Jerusalem are now personified as the evangelists of the good tidings. They are appointed to proclaim the news to the cities of Judah.” And 301, “Zion and Jerusalem are not portrayed simply as awaiting the coming of imminent salvation. Indeed the emphasis is not primarily on the return of the exiles, but focuses foremost on the coming of God. Jerusalem and Zion are now described from the perspective having already received redemption. Their task is rather one of the proclamation of the good news to the remaining cities of Judah.”

[7] Brevard Childs Isaiah TOTL Louisville KY: WJK 2001. 294, “in the prologue of chapter 40 God announces his will for a new dispensation toward Israel of forgiveness, peace, and restoration. His redemptive message is then proclaimed from the heavenly council as a confirmation of the truth of his word, and redeemed Jerusalem is called as a herald of the good tidings.”

[8] Childs 298, “A voice from the heavenly council now picks up the divine message of coming redemption with a cry that continues the urgent imperatives to a plural addressee…Then the imagery of the highway is further expanded. Valleys will be raised, mountains levelled, and the rough terrain made flat. This is in preparation for the unveiling of the glory of God that will be revealed to all.” And 299, V.5 tie to chapter 6 “The prophet overhears the liturgy of the seraphim bearing witness to the whole earth’s being filed with God’s glory. However, the point of his experiencing God’s presence in chapter 6 is that only to the prophet was the revelation disclosed. However, in chapter 40 a sign of the inbreaking of a new age of salvation is that the glory of God will now be revealed to all flesh.”

[9] This paragraph influenced by this quote from James H. Cone For my People: Black Theology and the Black Church  Ny, ny: Orbis, 1984. 80, “In the process of rereading the Bible in the light of black history, black clergy radicals concluded that both biblical and black histories revealed God’s unqualified solidarity with the poor in their fight against injustice. This revelation disclosed God’s salvation as being identical with human liberation. In the United States, black theologians were the first to identify liberation with salvation, and thus with the ore of the Christ gospel. It was in this context that they began to refer to God as the liberator of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt and to Jesus as the liberator whom God has anointed ‘to preach the goodness to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, an to set a liberty those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV)”

[10] “Comfort, comfort ye my people” hymn 67 v.2

Divine Nativity Draws Nigh

Psalm 80:3, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Introduction

When we moved to Louisiana, something drove me crazy having nothing to do with the new culture or context but with one simple human verbal behavior: it’s okay. That phrase and its twin, “It’ll be fine,” met me at nearly every turn. At school, at church, among my neighbors, anytime someone asked me how I was doing and settling in, my reply was met with a quick and sweet, “it’s okay,” “it’ll be fine,” or the more sinister “don’t stress…”

But, see, things weren’t okay.

I *was* stressed. I had just asked my family, my partner and three young children, to move to an unknown location for me to take a job I had no idea if I was going to be successful. We left family and friends and home to make new friends and make a new home. Little things like where do the plates go and does it make sense to put the silverware here and can we seat 5 this way in that room caused stressed and anxiety even if small. Resettling and re-establishing…stress was part of that, anxiety was part of that. I was a mix of sadness having left that place and those whom I loved and excited about meeting those I would grow to love. And even if I knew full well that a new normal would present itself, nothing was “okay”.

We dismiss others’ anxiety and stress because it strikes to close to our home. If I can calm you down with a quick “It’s okay” then I can keep my own anxiety and stress under control. Don’t bring your mess here, that phrase says, I’m barely keeping the closet door shut on my own mess. We gaslight ourselves with the “it’s okay” and we drag others into that altered reality to make it true for us. I tell you it’s okay because I need them to be okay because I’m afraid things aren’t okay. And, deep down we know:

Things are not okay.

The grim reaper stands on every corner of every neighborhood looming over hearths and homes, reminding us our fleshy existence is reduceable to dust by a sub microscopic infectious agent. Covid’s count and toll creep closer and closer to unnecessary heights. Things are not okay. Racial tensions surge as white people across this country make the bold statement that white supremacy is just fine. Black bodies are being destroy and most white people will go to brunch bemoaning the anger and the charged political and civic atmosphere. Things are not okay. We are anxious, stressed, isolated and alone, our pillow damp with tears of frustration and sadness, we have no idea what comes tomorrow, and feel that each new day is one more where risk exceeds reward. Why? is fresh on desperate lips and exhausted bodies bear the when?… When will this be over? Why is this happening? When will we have life and liberty for all people? When will it be okay to embrace and touch and sing with my neighbor without fear? Why does this hurt so much?

Isaiah 64:1-9

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Is 64:1-2)

These prescient words preserved in Isaiah 64 address the weight of why and when. Isaiah shares the yoke of suffering and stands in solidarity with oppressed and burdened people. [1] The request is that God makes God’s self known in such a way that the earth quakes and nations tremble.[2] A holy plea for revelation of divine presence setting the world right, establishing justice and peace, and stripping power from corrupt leaders. The book of Isaiah is replete with images of divine glory manifest in ways reorienting human beings to what they are: human. To see God revealed in God’s splendor is to also realize our humble: not God. [3] This is Israel’s call: to direct the eyes and ears of all people of all nations to this God who has done “…awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (Is. 64:3).

The world Isaiah speaks from and to is sick and is in a desperate way. There is, Isaiah sees, a deep and fleshy need for the revelation of divine intervention of divine presence. Isaiah’s voice cries out on behalf of all the people suffering, cries out for those who have lost their voice under the weight of oppressive rule and regulation, and cries out in solidarity with the marginalized. [4] What we have here in this Isaiahic moment is petition, prayer, and plea. In recalling God’s divine engagement and encounter with and for Israel in the past, Isaiah confesses Israel’s need for God to do again what God has done before.[5] “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (Is 64:4). [6]

This confession is twofold: it is both a confession of what is needed and what has been done. Isaiah takes up the priestly mantel of confession on behalf of the people:

“You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (Is. 64:5).

When Israel feels abandoned, when help seems distant, they grow weary in keeping the law. It is easier to give over to selfish desire than to fight against it; it is easier to give into greed of power than resist; it is easier to play along with oppressive systems than to stand with the oppressed, calling out the oppression; it is easier to be violent than just; it is easier to confuse evil and good than to call a thing what it is. “We are like a polluted garment, our virtue like filthy rags, and as for God, he has hidden his face from us.”[7]

One scholar renders 64:5 like this,

“You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, they remember you in your ways. Because you were angry, we have sinned. For a long time we have been immersed in them; how then can we be saved?”[8]

The feeling of hopelessness is visceral. It’s been so long and you’ve been so absent, how then can we be saved? There has been so much violence and so much oppression and so much death, how can we be saved? Isaiah puts words to Israel’s lament, her frustration, her confession, and her fear. Isaiah knows that things are not okay; and as far as Isaiah can see, it won’t end well if God remains silent and seemingly absent (64:12). [9] Israel cries out: Do you hear our cry, O Lord? How Long?!

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Conclusion

Things are not okay. But hope is not tethered to facts and is the flip side of divine love. That we love, there is God; that we hope, there is God. Israel’s feeling of being abandoned and her cries to God are seen, heard, and known by God. Isaiah’s recounting of God’s activity with Israel is to draw his audience into the story line of Israel and her encounters with a God who hears and acts. It is God who made the covenant with Abraham and kept it through threat and famine. It is God who heard the cries of Israel so intimately and intensely that God knew in God’s being the pain of his people and acted by calling Moses to liberate the captives. It is God who comes to dwell with Israel, to see her forward in to fertile and fruitful existence, out of death and into life.

Today we enter Advent as those who are grafted into Israel’s story through encounter with God in the event of faith. It is part of our tradition to slow down here, to pause and reflect, to resist the urge to run to the liturgical “it’s okay” of Easter’s promise of future resurrected life, to viscerally feel the deep pining pleas of Israel for God to hear and to act, and to ask the desperate question: how can we be saved?! 2020 has made this penitential feeling and corresponding question easy. While I cannot tell you when the travail of souls and burdened bodies will end, I can point you to a distant light illuminating this midnight sky over our heads, warming the fringes of this long chill, drawing our eyes from death and destruction around us up toward life and hope. It is this light that will invigorate us to stand where we are and be present; to get up once again and take our places in this world knowing that what is isn’t all there is, that possibility has priority over actuality. It is not the dawn of the sun, but the bright star of the Son of God, the Christ.

Advent begins the ascent of this bright star high into the midnight sky, signaling the depths of divine hearing and knowing. Hold tight and stand firm, Beloved, do not lose heart, the great encounter with God in the divine nativity draws nigh.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel


[1] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets New York, Ny: JPS 1962. In re: second Isaiah “The message of Second Isaiah as he is conventionally called, is of no age. It is prophecy tempered with human tears, mixed with a joy that heals all scars, clearing a way for understanding the future in spite of the present. No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.” 145

[2] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary The Old Testament Library Louisville KY: WJK 2001. “The prayer returns to the urgent plea for God’s direction intervention from above: ‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down.’ That the plea is for a theophany is clear from the imagery of quaking mountains, flaming fire, and streaming liquid.” 525

[3] Heschel “The grandeur and presence of God are strikingly apparent, heaven and earth are radiant with His glory it is enough to lift up the eyes on high and see Who created these (40:26). Yet men are blind; spiritually, they live in a dungeon. Israel’s destiny is, as we have seen ‘to open the eyes that are blind.’ Yet the tragedy is that the servant himself fails to understand the meaning of his mission.” 156

[4]  Childs “The form is that of a communal complaint that shares much with the common oral pattern of the Psalter, but especially with other late psalms such as Psalms 76, 106, Nehemiah 9.” 522

[5] Childs “The wording evokes again reference to God’s past intervention with the awesome signs of power displayed when he descended at Sinai and the mountains quaked. The confession of God’s sole rule as sovereign also reverberates from the Sinai tradition: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (ex. 20:3), but now understood as an affirmation of God’s uniqueness (‘no eye has seen any God besides you’).” 525

[6] Childs “The voice of faithful Israel had confessed its own unrighteousness in the light of the appalling conditions of national wickedness (59:1ff.). Then in 59:15ff. and 63:1-6 the promise of salvation is repeated with the coming of God as redeemer, but must first be preceded by God’s terrifying judgment on his people…In 63:7ff. the voice of faithful Israel is heard in a prayer that contains all the stereotyped features of the complaint: recital of God’s past mercies, confession of sin, call for divine intervention, and plea for aid in need.” 522

[7] Childs 526

[8] Childs 521

[9] Childs “this proposed reading seems radically to reverse the traditional theological sequence of first the sin, then the divine judgment….In my opinion, the power of the verse lies in the unexpected sequence, which is an ad hoc formulation, and its literary function lies exactly in its outrageous formulation. The sentiment is not to be abstracted into a theological principle, but serves only to identity the frustration of the confession community. The statement is congruent with the intensity of the rest of the lament that follows…” 525

Spiritual Wounding and Narcissism

In this video I discuss both Spiritual Wounding and Narcissism. Two subjects that seem to present themselves more often than I’m happy to admit. Carol Howard Merritt offers tangible pastoral advice about working through our religious and spiritual trauma that doesn’t reject God and spirituality completely. Chuck DeGroat walks us through understanding narcissism and systemic narcissism. Both books work symbiotically looking at the victim of spiritual abuse and the abuser.

None of this is easy. This subject matter is difficult to talk about yet important. Because, sadly, if the church is going to become what it can be for future generations, then it needs to go through this transition of death into new life. Fearless and honest moral inventory of the self is the only way forward for both the the clerics and authorities of the church and the church herself.

Simultaneously the charge is also leveled against the academy. Too long has it been that narcissists and those who spiritually and intellectually wound and manipulate have been able to hide in your folds. Those who abuse women, people of color, the lgbtqia+ community, standing on their shoulders for self-promotion and narrative promulgation can no longer run for refuge to the academy. No longer shall we be okay with the “good” theology of those who privately drive into the ground those close to them (family, friends, colleagues, and students). It is one thing to tromp around social media excoriating people for false belief and malrepresetantion, and it is another thing to be the person of substance who invokes action on the ground beyond words spilled from image drunken lips. The sand runs out for those who use smoke and mirror to build and promote their own platforms on the language of liberation of the captives. No longer are creative and charismatic words enough…

Action is necessary. Priests and professors must substantiate their words with their bodies and actions. People are dying, and as long as we keep playing linguistic games of rhetoric, we will be gambling lives…

I’m done with that, who’s with me?

The video can be split 30 mins for each book.

“Sign of the Gospel”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 303 ft. W. Travis McMaken

If you’ve ever wanted to know all things Baptism, I’ve got you covered. In this episode (and the next one), Dr. W. Travis McMaken joins me to talk about his book The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. I have to be honest and point out up front that this episode is (in my opinion) a bit different than my other episodes. It’s less casual and more formal due to the structure and flow of the questions I asked Dr. McMaken ahead of time. So, there’s a strong pedagogical feel to the episode. McMaken does the lion’s share of walking through the history of Baptism, from the early church to the Reformation, and, finally, landing squarely at the feet of one of the greats of the early to mid 20th century: Karl Barth. Thanks to McMaken’s depth of knowledge and experience as a professor, this episode is an excellent exposure to sacraments, sacramental theology, church history, and the implications our church life has for our political life. Understanding some of the traditions of Christianity can help us to revisit and review those traditions in a new light: baptism is exceptionally political. Those who say otherwise are pulling the wool over your eyes, keeping you from good activity on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized (maybe even from good work on behalf of yourself).

So, if you thought that Baptism is just that thing that happens at church where you watch and then go eat cake, you’d be a wee bit right but way more wrong. It’s the event of Baptism especially where Jesus Christ is preached, that moves not only the baptizand but also those who stand around the baptismal font (family, God-parents, fellow parishioners, etc) into their active role in the world. Baptism isn’t just about a few sprinkles of water (or about whether or not it should be “full immersion”), but about activating the person through the event of faith in the encounter with God to love their neighbor as themselves in the world. Baptism transcends the four walls of the church and the reception hall (housing that cake). The gathered community becomes the sent community; the church body gathered to hear Christ preached, who witness baptism (over and over again, because it’s not a singular historic event but one that repeats in the encounter with God in the event of faith) becomes the body of Christ in the world, thus, participating in the breakdown between the distinction between church and world. The work of the baptized, of those who have encountered God in the event of faith, become those whose actions, in the proclamation of Christ, become as divine action, especially as it pertains to radical acts of loving others materially, economically, politically, socially, with justice, peace, humility, and grace. There’s so much packed in this interview, that I’m breaking it into two parts—I really did not want to cut too much; when it comes to pedagogy, Dr. McMaken is excellent.

The episode will air in two parts. The second part will go live in two weeks (the link for that part will appear below the link for the first part in this post).

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

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W. Travis McMaken (@WTravisMcMaken), PhD, is Associate Professor of Religion and Assistant Dean of Humanities in the School of Humanities at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. He is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). McMaken’s writing engages primarily with 20th century theology (esp. Protestant theology, with specialization in Karl Barth, Helmut Gollwitzer, and T. F. Torrance) while working constructively on the subjects of sacramentology, ecclesiology, and political theology. His blog is: http://derevth.blogspot.com/. Also, you can find his work here at Lindenwood University:  https://www.lindenwood.edu/academics/academic-schools/school-of-humanities/our-programs/philosophy-and-religion/philosophy-and-religion-faculty/w-travis-mcmaken/

Recommended reading:

Susan K. Wood’s One Baptism: Ecumenical Dimensions of the Doctrine of Baptism (Liturgical Press, 2009).

Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology (Fortress, 1988).

Recommended reading authored by Dr. W. Travis McMaken:

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013). 

W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017).

“So, You Want to Read Karl Barth?” http://derevth.blogspot.com/2007/06/so-you-want-to-read-karl-barth.html

“So, You Want to Read Helmut Gollwitzer?”  http://derevth.blogspot.com/2018/03/so-you-want-to-read-helmut-gollwitzer.html

McMaken’s Recording Mediums:

Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-zJjJ64hu-f1OGp1fq43ZQ

McKrakenCast: https://wtravismcmaken.podbean.com/

Prayer as Unity

Seventh Sunday of Easter Meditation: John 17:11

(Video at the end of the post)

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jn 17:11

I’m always humbled when I read about Jesus praying. It highlights that I don’t pray enough and rely on my own reason and will to do things. I find myself seemingly autonomously going from moment to moment without feeling the need to pause to pray. I convince myself it’s because of a “robust” doctrine of the Holy Spirit and a deep awareness of the perpetual presence of the Spirit residing in me…but it’s comical really. I’m fooling myself.

The reality for me is prayer feels like work, work that I often don’t have the energy to do. On top of sheer exhaustion from all the demands and the instability of chaos and confusion, prayer feels like work with nonexistent results. A work that goes ignored, is met with silence, and with more suffering, sorrow, and sickness. Even though I’m very familiar with the doctrines and dogmas surrounding prayer and why I should do it, more often than not prayer exposes just how alone I am, how desperate I am, how hurt, scared, confused, and stuck I am. I don’t like that.

But, that’s the point. Life reduces us to the powerless ashes from which God’s divine creative activity and flair calls forth a powerful phoenix. This is the encounter with God in the event of faith, the being wholly dependent on a wholly other God, the death giving way to new life robust in, deeply aware of, and bringing glory to God. Life out of death is the divine means by which God is glorified.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” As Jesus prepares to leave the disciples, they are faced with their own “hour” whereby they are left alone in the world as Jesus suffers, dies, is raised, and goes to the Father.[1] The intersection of Christ’s hour with the disciples’ hour is both the completion and the consummation of the love of God for the whole cosmos made manifest in the event of the cross. [2] This is the trajectory of Jesus’s ministry on earth unto death: as Christ is the embodied love of God which the disciples experience bodily, so too are the disciples in world as they move forth from their hour of encounter with God in faith, in prayer.[3]  The metanarrative of scripture is aimed to this fact: it’s about God’s love for the world, for Israel, for each of us.[4]

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The small band of disciples extends, by the Holy Spirit, to the ends of the earth, making disciples and adding to the union for which Jesus prays. Thus, while we are alone and wholly dependent on a wholly other God, we aren’t alone. Prayer unites each of us individually to Christ, the Revealer, and in being united individually to the Revealer we are united to each other into the eternal body of Christ.[5] As we pray in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are in communion with God and thus brought into the beautiful and timeless community of saints: past, present, and future.

 

[1] Bultmann John 487 “In 12.23 this ωρα had been described as the hour of his δοξασθηναι. The difference is purely one of form—it is described as the hour of his μεταβηναι εκ του κοσμου τουτου. For it is introduced here to show its significance for the disciples. For them, it is primarily The Hour, because he is going; they have still to learn that this μεταβηναι is at the same time a δοξασθηναι.”

[2] Bultmann John 487-8 “But the reader is immediately made aware his μεταβηναι is not only the end, but at the same time the consummation of his work: αγαπησας εις τελος; he showed them his love right to the end, which means at the same time, right to its completion This is not of course a biographical comment designed to show the extent of Jesus’ heroism—that he remained true to his own, ‘right up to his last breath’; the intention is to show that even the end itself is nothing other than an act of love, nay more, that it is the necessary end, in which the work of love he had begun finds its consummation.”

[3] Bultmann John 488-9 “It is not necessary after ch. 10 to enlarge on the question who the ιδιοι are. Τhey are his own (10.14) whom the Father has given him f 10.29). And although they are the object of his love, whereas in 3.16 it was the κοσμος that was the object of the Father’s love, this distinction between the two involves no contradiction, but is quite appropriate. Of course the love of the Son, like that of the Father, is directed towards the whole world, to win everyone to itself; but this love becomes a reality only where men open themselves to it. And the subject of this section is the circle of those who have so opened themselves.”

[4] Bultmann John 488 “But it is only looking back at the end of his ministry that we can see the whole of it clearly: it was never really anything other than an αγαπαν τους ιδιους.”

[5] Bultmann John 489 “In the actual situation as it was, this circle was represented by the twelve (eleven); but the use of the term ιδιοι here, and μαθηται, is significant; it shows that they are the representatives of all those who believe, and it also shows that they are being viewed in terms of their essential relation to the Revealer, which is grounded not in the temporal but in the eternal.”

Encounter and Rebirth

Sermon on John 14:1-7

I recorded this sermon for the Rev. Josh Andrews and the Methodist Churches he cares for (Trinity United Methodist Church in Spencerville, Ohio; and, Westside United Methodist Church in Lima, Ohio). The text follows the video.

 

I love the explicitly obscure imagery in this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The story of the house with many “dwelling places” seems to be a break from what came before in chapter 13 where Jesus foretells Peter’s denial. Yet, a theme overlaps thus binds the two chapters together: discipleship.[1]

“Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’” (Jn 14:1-4)

Moving swiftly from prophesying Peter’s denial to speaking of peace, faith in God, and a dwelling place with the Father actually makes sense when you place it under the umbrella of “discipleship.” What the disciples—especially Peter—do not understand is that good discipleship starts not with us choosing to follow after God; rather it begins with God’s preparation of a place for us and God’s coming to get us. Thus, disciples are where Jesus is, or where Jesus is there are the disciples. (One can’t exist without the other.) Just as we are born in the flesh by our mother where our mother is and into a space prepared for us by her; so too are we spiritually reborn by God where God is and into a space prepared for us by God.

I don’t want to vilify Peter. His profession in chapter 13 (and echoed by Thomas’s question in our passage) makes sense according to his logic: if this is the long-awaited Messiah, then yes, Peter’s going to go into battle for him; he’ll lay down his life for Christ–like a good soldier in the midst of battle for his General. If we know anything about Peter, it’s that he’s wonderfully human, and in this we are all pulled into the story—no matter how much we may think we would’ve gotten it. Peter’s logic here is air-tight; but it’s wrong. He won’t die for the Messiah, rather, the Messiah will die for him.[2] Thus, to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow where Jesus is headed necessitates not the risk that death might occur in a battle for life, but that life might occur as a result of death.[3] Dare we come to the end of ourselves and … find more, abundantly more?

The path that lies ahead for the disciples is through Jesus, and this will necessitate a death: a death of what has been held true, a death to dogma and doctrine, a death to human made idols, a death to our reason, our common sense, and our rationality, our self-justification, and a death to our self anchored in false narratives. For all of these things are on a collision course with God in the revelation of God in the event the cross. The disciples will not be entering into battle against the tyranny of other nations; rather, they will enter into confrontation with the tyranny of themselves, rendered and returned to dust.

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” (Jn 14:5-7)

Where Jesus is going the disciples cannot follow and they cannot lead. They must let Jesus, the Christ, make the “way” both for himself and for them.[4] Thus, in that Jesus is going to make the way for them, he’ll be the way for them and this renders Jesus as the inseparable “way and goal.”[5] Salvation occurs when one is brought into encounter with God in the event of faith, this happens and is the means by which this happens to the person. Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection re the way and the goal for a disciple.[6]

If Jesus is both the way and the goal for the disciple and by which the disciple is defined, then, according to John, to be a disciple is neither mere mimicry of Jesus nor surging ahead of Jesus with weapons bared. Rather, it is to be found in Jesus—Jesus is the way. Not a doorway, not a gateway, but the way: the path from which the disciple never veers and is thus also the goal for the life of the disciple. It is in Christ where the one who hears the call of God and is forever changed and altered, the one who could not hear but now has ears to hear—to hear so deeply that they can’t unhear what they’ve heard, and they are always hearing truth and receiving life. The Christian, the believer, the hearer never moves from her location in Christ but is plunged deeper and deeper into Christ thus into truth and into life. [7]

The language of John describes the disciple of Christ being the one who dies and finds life. The one who is encountered by God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is returned to the very dust that is the substance of the earth, thrown into a wholly other God being wholly dependent on the self-disclosure of this God that God is love, and finds not death unto death but, by the presence and activity of divine mercy and grace, finds and receives the fulness of life. It is this one who is yanked out of her previous existence and thrust into a new one that is oriented in God toward her neighbor in a living, true way.[8]

All of this is so incredibly abstract and heavy. What does it have to do with my life? With me? I intellectually understand that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; but then I don’t know. Or, do I?

As I read and meditate on this text written so long ago, something sparks a maternal familiarity; something I know deep in my gut, something my body tells me she’s done. And then, like a freight train, memories overwhelm me.  I know this…I know what Jesus is describing… This is none other than birth language. We are born of women in the flesh and are made “people”; we are reborn of God by faith and are made disciples. The maternal heart, pregnant with desire for the beloved, and the unconditional sacrificial love of God shining through the text–cloaked to the casual observer, like Jesus’s divine sonship is to anything but faith.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’” (Jn 3:1-6)

 

I know this language because I’m a mom, because I’ve nurtured and brought life into the world through my body, that my children are my children and perpetually so because of an eternal relation between mother and child—no matter how doubtful, how confident, how meager, how substantial, how rocky, how wonderful, how distant, or how close. Forever it is my voice, my scent, my touch, my very heartbeat that my three children will know and recognize better than anything else in the world. It is their presence, their bodies, their laughs, their cries that will perpetually tug at something located in depth of the core of who I am. Birth is not the end of the symbiotic connection between mother and child; it is the very beginning, it is the way.

In the process of bringing forth life, a mother will lay her life down for her child, one whom she knows and yet does not; she can’t do anything else, she will, through every groan and each contraction, look death in the face and say: my life for this one. Her body will be broken, the water will spill, and the blood will run; and, what looks eventually like sure death will be become the event of abundant life. She will birth this child at the expense of her own body, she will make a place for this child, she will carry this child, she will nurture this child… where she is, there the child will be also. And where the child is, there, too, will she be.

“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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (Jn 3:16-17)

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

It is in divine love that is our common location with each other and with God. This divine Love is both agape and eros: it goes out, it seeks, and it takes the beloved back into the lover. Love causes the lover to always be with the beloved. The lover never forgets the Beloved because by love the beloved is always with the lover. Love is the path and the destination.

In the encounter with God in Christ in the event of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are reborn in and through love. And this Love is the way, it is truth, it is life. God is love; God loves you; you are reborn of God by faith. you are forever the Beloved.

Happy Mother’s day.

 

 

*This and the following paragraph are adapted from this post: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

[1] Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, and JK Riches. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). 595-6

[2] Bultmann John 598, “…he does not know that he cannot enter the field ‘for’ the Revealer, but only the Revealer for him…It is therefore clear that the following of Jesus is not an act of heroism.”

[3] Bultmann John  597, “Thus the following of Jesus has become a possibility in this double sense—as world-annulment and as following into the δοξα—only because of Jesus’ victory over the world; it is therefore possible solely through faith in the Revealer, in whose υπαγειν the victory over the world is accomplished.

[4] Bultmann John 605, “By describing himself as the way Jesus makes two things clear: 1. his case is different from that of the disciples; he does not need a ‘way’ for himself, as the disciples do, rather he is the way for them…”

[5] Bultmann John 605, “The way and the goal are not to be separated as they are in mythological thinking. In the myth the redemption has become embodied in a cosmic event, and therefore-contrary to the intention of the myth—it is conceived as in intra-mundane event, as a divine history, which takes place apart from the existence of man, who is referred to it as the guarantee of his future.”

[6] Bultmann John 605, “…the redemption is an event which takes place in human existence through the encounter with the Revealer, with the result that the believer’s present is already based on his future; his existence is eschatological existence; his way is at the same time his goal.”

[7] Bultmann John 606-7, “That means that there is no ‘short cut’ to the correct understanding of αληθεια and ζωη. The discovery of this αληθεια is not something established once and for all, at men’s disposal, such as could be communicated in ‘condensed form’ like a truth of science; on the contrary everyone has to take the way to it for himself, for only on the way does this truth disclose itself. Similarly Jesus is the truth; he does not simply state it. One does not come to him to ask about truth; one comes to him as the truth. This truth does not exist as a doctrine, which could be understood, preserved, and handed on, so that the teacher is discharged and surpassed. Rather the position a man takes vis-à-vis the Revealer decides not whether he knows the truth, but whether he is ‘of the truth,’ that is to say, whether his existence is determined by the truth, whether the truth is the ground on which his existence is based. And as in Christianity everyone has to start for himself from the beginning, so too there is no such thing as a history of Christianity within world-history, in the sense of a history of ideas or problems, in which one progresses from stage to stage, from solution to solution; each generation has the same original relation to the revelation.”

[8] Bultmann John 606, “Εγω ειμι η οδος: this is pure expression of the idea of revelation. The Revealer is the access to God which man is looking for, and what is more—as is implied in the phrase Εγω ειμι and is stated explicitly in words ουδεις κτλ.—the only access. Not, however, in the sense he mediated the access and then became superfluous…On the contrary, he is the way in such a manner as to be at the same time the goal; for he is also η αληθεια και η ζωη: the αληθεια as the revealed reality of God, and the ζωη as the divine reality which bestows life on the believer in that it bestows self-understanding in God. All three concepts are bound to each other by the word Εγω: just as Jesus is the way, in that he is the goal, so he is also the goal, in that he is the way. He cannot be forgotten in the of the goal, for the believer cannot have the αληθεια and the ζωη as acquisitions at his own disposal: Jesus remains for him the way. Of course that is not to say that αληθεια and ζωη are a goal that is always to be striven for and that is an infinite distance away; on the contrary, in going along the way the goal is reached. Not however in the sense of Stoicism or idealism, where the goal is ideally present in the infinite way…nor is it a ‘perpetual striving to make the effort’; rather it is the state of existence that is subjected to the actual word of Jesus within history, for there God is present. But the believer finds God only in him, i.e. God is not directly accessible; faith is not mystical experience, but rather historical existence that is subject to the revelation.”