Love + Action = Freedom

Psalm 77:13-15 13 Your way, O God, is holy; who is so great a god as our God? You are the God who works wonders and have declared your power among the peoples. By your strength you have redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.

Introduction

The way freedom is spoken of today leaves little to be desired. It’s a big concept, described by truncated language reduced to me and mine. While there is some me and mine involved with the concept and the working out of freedom, it doesn’t end there.

To conceive of freedom as strictly how I’m unrestricted by the demands of another renders the concept of freedom malnourished. Does freedom even exist apart from another? If I’m isolated to myself, do I know what freedom is? The discussion is moot; I’m neither free nor not free. I’m just without demands from others. I’m (essentially) free from others for myself.[1] It’s a perpetual turning in of the self, rendering the self wrong-side-out,[2] and locked in its own prison of death. Here, isolation informs the need to pull further and further apart from others, and in that space grows the evil of the devaluation of the other to the point where the other is the enemy.

Freedom, to be something worthwhile (something that one would literally risk life and limb) must be something that exists with others. To be free while still in the presence of another is true freedom. You are you as you are and I am me as I am me; as different as we are, we affirm each other—self-differentiated and together—two Is forming a we of yous. I’m not restricted by you, but voluntarily restrict myself to see to your thriving. This voluntary self-restriction is freedom because I freely enter into it for you. I’m (essentially) free from myself for others. It’s a contagion of affirmation, rendering the self right-side-out, liberated into the realm of life. Here, togetherness informs the need to see myself more and more a part of the group, and in that space the other’s liberation becomes my liberation and love informs my action for the other who is beloved.

Galatians 5:1,13-25

For liberty [a state of freedom from slavery] Christ liberated us. Therefore, persevere and be not ensnared again to the yoke of slavery.
For you, you are summoned into liberty, brothers and sisters, only not liberty for the occasion for the flesh, but through love be slaves to one another. For all the law has been fulfilled in one word, in which “You love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite [harm seriously] one another and you eat up [injure seriously] one another, beware (!) you do not consume one another.[3]

(Gal 5: 1, 13-15)

Our friend, Paul, spends much of Galatians working out the concept of freedom of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith. For Paul, as mentioned last week, we are liberated from a problematic (idolatrous) relationship with the law; a relationship that rendered our obedience to the law ultimate, and love of God and of neighbor as penultimate. You don’t need the law to inform your love of God and of others, rather you need the love of God and of others to inform your relationship to the law.

Jesus is the hinge upon which all realignment hangs. When Christ is proclaimed, there God is encountered; where God is encountered, the divine Spirit of Love resurrects those who were once dead in themselves and ushers them into new life. This new life, according to Paul in Galatians 5, is about freedom informed by the spirit and activity of love. This new life is freedom from the law for others; this new life is the business of law serving love and love serving others. Remember: in the encounter with God in the event of faith, according to the philosophical and theological logic of Galatians, our misalignment to the law is broken and we’re re-centered (each of us) with our faces turned to God and (thus) necessarily to our neighbor and the world (those whom and that which God loves very much).

So, for Paul, if freedom is inherently connected to the reordering of love of God and love of neighbor, why drag in that which is septic and toxic: our misalignment to the law? Paul isn’t an antinomian; Paul isn’t arguing for the law’s abrogation (a word defined as, “the act of formally ending a law, agreement, or custom). Thus, law isn’t gone; it’s just the law, it’s been debarked, it’s become a tool for us to use so that love + action = freedom. In other words, when I enter a space with others, I’m motivated by love for them and either reject or submit to whatever law brings the other life. In that this rejection or submission brings life to my neighbor, I find myself liberated here, too, because now there’s more freedom spreading about and thus more love informed action. In this equation, the law isn’t lord, love is.

While I know the church has done a dastardly job not allowing many people—not part of the dominant group—to be themselves, I have to add that both Paul and Jesus advocate for the full receipt of self. Jesus exhorts one finds themselves when they lose themselves; Paul advocates for a sense of other demanding a real and present self. Both argue for the death of the self from the prison of the self, which does not end in death for death’s sake (this would be the death of the self ending in no self) but in new life (of the self) which is categorically re-oriented for others informed by the love of God’s life-giving Spirit. Herein is freedom: a substantiated self who loves and acts for the other, calling out death-dealing systems and refusing to ever again be yoked to slavery to the law in such a way that the law triumphs over love and over the other.

To solidify his point, Paul highlights what works look like when trapped in the prison of the self unliberated from the self, and he compares those works to the fruits of a self liberated from the self for others. I won’t deliberate long on those, for that’s an entirely different sermon. But when you get a chance, look at the difference and see where love + action = freedom; where that formula is lacking there you will find death, and where it is present you will find life.

Conclusion

Dorothee Sölle writes,

“Unless we are free, we cannot be instruments for the liberation of anyone else. And what prevents us from being free? Anxiety. Liberation is a problem which first begins within us, of not having any anxiety about the consequences. We can have anxiety, but we must control this anxiety. It is anxiety in the sense that we recognize the risk; otherwise it would be blind.”[4]

Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God

What Sölle is getting at here is, essentially, the liberation of the self from the self that is the seat of “being free”. Anxiety is a driving force helping us to protect the self from disaster; but it can also grow so large that it renders us useless in the prison of the self. Rather than just command people not to be anxious and just lose themselves, she articulates a need of self-mastery and self-differentiation that is informed by love of God and love of others. I can see my anxiety, acknowledge my anxiety, and then move forward with my anxiety. This momentum begins the freedom starting within and rippling outward into realms with others.

In other words, love of the other drives us to secure life for others. Is this not the gospel story of God’s love for the world manifest in Jesus the Christ from Nazareth who loved others with God’s Spirit of Love even to the point of his own death? Then, as those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan to the Cross, is this not also our story individually as Christians and corporately as the church? Aren’t we to be those willing to love others beyond our own anxiety so that there is life and liberation for all? When did Christianity and the Church become the message about the laws of power and privilege, the law of the self over and against the other? When did we lose ourselves to our pews and the obligations of standing and sitting for an hour on Sunday?[5] When did the church forget that she’s more than a coffee hour and is a little bit dangerous in a world bent in on itself?[6]

There’s no way around it: love is risky because love risks the security of the self for the security of the other. Love isn’t some saccharine feeling that ends in peace signs and always feeling good. Love propels us beyond ourselves for others and (paradoxically) in this activity we become more ourselves. And herein is freedom, beloved: to be those who are substantially for others with love and corresponding loving action that shakes the foundations of the world. In other words, we love as we were first loved by God, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit of love.


[1] Grateful to Holly Tran for mentioning this for aspect to the way freedom is considered in America.

[2] This is the logical trajectory of Ayn Rands Objectivism and its promotion of the selfish.

[3] Translation mine, unless otherwise noted.

[4] Dorothee Sölle, Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. First Eng. Ed SCM Press, 1990. 129.

[5] Sölle, Thinking About God, 144. “One of the main dangers of Protestantism lies in its excessive stress on the kerygma, or more properly, on the kerygma reduced to preaching. The church is regarded as the place where preaching is done. Church takes place between ten and eleven on Sunday morning. The two other functions of the church disappear from view and hardly affect the ordinary members of the congregation. …“If church de facto consists in sitting still for an hour on Sunday without getting to know anyone else, the unity of kerygma, diakonia and koinonia is destroyed. How can any life develop which deserves the name ‘church’, in the sense of the assembled people of God?””

[6] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

Love Me Again

Before any of you were, you were with me.
Deeply embedded in the folds of my skirt,
hidden from light’s illumination, cloaked
in my warm darkness, protecting you.

Having to release you into that other realm,
kills me each and every time; my heart breaks.
We were one and now we’re rent asunder,
and a piece of me always leaves with you.

I know you intimately, even when you go
into that other existence, and I long for you
to come back to me; arms aching to feel you
once again held, enfolded in my embrace.

I wish you knew how much I miss you.
I watch you as you move through one stage
into another; form and shape changing, grow-
ing, learning. I watch and smile. I’m proud.

I keep my distance, though; this is not my place, my
realm, or my existence. Sometimes I forget myself and
get too close to you, and you see and feel my shadow’s
presence. Look of horror! I weep, receiving your hate.

Nothing changes how much I love you; rejection and
and denial cannot actually refuse me my existence.
You still carry with you a piece of me just as I still carry
that piece of you with me. You cannot forget me. Ever.

I’m threaded through everything; bringing forth the
echo to the sound, the shade to the light, the shadow
to the brightness, the undertone to the overtone; the
background to the foreground. Yet, I’m the villain.

“The Enemy” some call me. Oh! the books and papers
that have been written about me over the surge of all
time. A few get close, some too far afield, none really
know me; verbal streams feeding into the great void.

I’m painted as the one who devours, as if I’ve no love;
I’m decked with the cloth of tyrants, as if I’m boundless.
I’m cast as the pernicious rogue choosing my hapless
victims, as if my heart does not break with your pain.

My embrace at the end of your journey is not cold
but warm. I bring peace as I enfold you, my beloved,
back into me. Reverse birth, back into my womb.
And here you remember me; I’m threat no more.

I’m not the termination of Life; I’m the source and the return.
I’m in Life as much as Life is in me; we are friends, not enemies.
We’re twins, God’s Love coursing through all creation this side and that.
Her crown gleams in the sun light; mine glimmers under the moon.

Fear not the transition, my dear beloved ones.
Love leaves you not in one moment to the next.
From her hand you are passed into my arms;
I fold you into me, and you love me again.

Our Stories This Story: The Old

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

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

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

Introduction

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

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

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

In the telling of their stories.

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

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

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

Philippians 3:4b-14

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

Phil. 3:4b-9a

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Dorothee Sölle “Suffering” 159-160

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

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

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


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

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

Rebirth

The backside of loneliness is longing; or
maybe the backside of longing is loneliness.
Either way both forces seem to draw forward
and backward, surging sideways: left and right
grabbing and dragging its victim into its shadow
and there pummeling it with once held dreams
and desires, leaving shapes and husks of human
form once was. Hissed and slithered words of
comfort uttered from longing and loneliness add
insult to the injuries, conjuring up consuming
spirits from the belly of fear: you are nothing.
Whispered words from the consuming darkness
of the shadow encompassing your entire being
as you lay on your own cold ground among the
shards and shrapnel of those dreams and desires.
And you give in. You succumb. You agree. Yes.
I am nothing
. Nothing else comes up; no other
words present, no other thought arises, no other
comes to your rescue. No one can see you in
this tormenting and tortuous moment. Loneliness’s
weight grows heavier as longing steals more and
more of your form and shape, pulling strands of
inner life out like pulling and stretching playdough
until there’s not enough firmness and resistance
to snap back. Elastic broken; shape broken. And
again to sooth the pain of this madness you agree:
I am nothing. And again: I am nothing. And again:
I am nothing. Love is gone now. Confidence has
fled. I am nothing. Light has been eclipsed by the
shadows and oppressive darkness. And then:
out loud: I am nothing. The words are bullets.
The strength of confession is that the thing con-
fessed becomes real and external, a life of its
own over which and at which you can look and
examine, peering at this side and that side.
In the concession I am nothing, you become
something. And like conception of your being
happening all over again, you are reborn. I am
something
. To speak these words, to affirm, I
am something
. Dark and shadow dissipate and
begin to slip off. I am something. Hands touch
now reanimated and emboldened substance.
I am something. And for this moment, as you sit
regathering and regathered, you watch as you
witness the backside of longing trail away and
you wave goodbye to loneliness and longing…

Unpitiable Hope

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Psalm 1:1-3a Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on [God’s] law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water.

Introduction

I fear hope has gone the way of bathwater when a bath is over: swirling down the drain. The phrase, “I hope so” seems to carry the same force as “thoughts and prayers.” I think we’ve lost some of our willingness to be creative. Creativity takes on a forward-action of momentum; in creating, I move into the space where there is nothing with my hands, feet, head, heart, words, thoughts, actions and put something there. I believe the concept of hope carries this same action-oriented ability (hope and creativity seem to run on the same fuel of imagination); as of late, hope seems stripped of any forward action. When we use the word, it falls from our lips with a downtrodden lilting tone flirting with despair and heavy with doubt; our hands appear tied behind our back as we whisper the phrase to some unknown force and wait for intervention, like waiting on a superhero who will (hopefully) arrive just in time.

I don’t think it’s only an issue of creativity. I think we’ve emphasized too much intellectualism, rationalism, reasonability, and sensibility defined as “common sense.” We’ve allowed what is to triumph over what could be or might be or would be; we’ve stolen away with possibility and shoved it in the attic cranny or the basement closet of the house of actuality: what “is” is best and what isn’t “is” is worst. But if this is our axiom, then isn’t this axiom a death sentence? We’re stuck, if this is our paradigm. Doubly stuck if our hands are tied behind our back. What point is there in having hope if all there is is what we see; we know we don’t hope in things seen especially if all our world and society present is tumult and chaos…

The ultimate problem is a confusion of hope and expectation. When we consider hope we think about something we expect to happen in the future. In this way, hope is that thing that has (as of late) disappointed rather than pleased. I’m quite familiar with theologians, both alive and dead, who have no room for hope in their theologies. I’ve always marveled at such a stance but haven’t judged it because I get it. When hope fails to produce material or spiritual alterations to our life—extricating it from the burden of bludgeoning demoralization or the monotony of the mundane—it makes sense to ditch it. If my hope keeps presenting as dreaming of phantoms of good and better, rather than material bodily presence, then it’s nothing but that which perpetually disappoints me. It’s the mythological carrot of sadistic King Future luring on the peasants of the present eager to steal their labor and love.[1]

Sadly, we’ve conflated future expectation and present hope. When I’ve read through the First Testament and the recorded stories of Israel’s journey and walk with God, Israel’s hope in God is a ripe present hope based on historical stories hallmarking the past: we hope now because God has done… Today we can press on because yesterday God saw us through it.

Hope keeps an eye on history for the present; future expectation uses history as certainty for the future. Future expectation sidesteps the present and anchors what was into what will be, and flags are mounted on that moon with vigor and certainty. But the problem here is that we are not in a position to substantiate the future with…anything—neither with certain cynicism nor opportunistic optimism. We do not have the ability to throw anything far enough and hard enough into the future to populate it. I can only populate the present and in doing so participate in populating the past. I can’t penetrate the future; it always remains right outside of my grasp.

So, hope must accompany me today oriented toward possibility and built on the story of what has happened.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Now if it is proclaimed that Christ has been raised from the dead, how are some of you saying there is no resurrection of the dead? … If then Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins. Also, therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If with reference to this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of all people

But now, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.[2]

1 Corinthians 15:12, 17-20, translation mine

Notice that in this part of the letter to the Corinthians, Paul challenges the refutation circulating among the Corinthians that resurrection isn’t real[3] by turning to story to validate the proclamation that Christ is the first fruits of hope of resurrection, hope that the death that threatened does not carry the final word. Using logic[4] to explain the consequences of such a denial, Paul calls the Corinthians back into the story, their story. Remember … remember what God has done[5]…This is all God’s work; as it was then, is now, and will be forever.

The point at stake, for Paul, is the vanity of faith and the emptiness of the story of God’s activity in the world if even this part is a lie.[6] Thus, Paul (eagerly but gently) reminds the Corinthians to consider the work of God, to consider the possibility that remains existent around them independent of what makes sense and what they can see. He explains the fruitlessness of a claim that resurrection from the dead isn’t real or couldn’t be because it’s beyond anything we’ve ever witnessed or demonstrated in our seeking of knowledge through the pursuit of science. In doing so, he allows the Corinthians to linger in a moment of hopelessness. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead by God and the power of the Holy Spirit…then what are you doing? The story is pointless: your faith counts for nothing; the dead are not asleep[7] but are dead; you are stuck where you are; death reigns and new life is a myth. For Paul, to completely reject Christ’s resurrection because you can’t prove it or it doesn’t make sense is the most hopeless posture to be in. It is a posture to be pitied because it is without hope and life.[8]

Why?

Because such a statement puts human limitations on God. For all intents and purposes, we could read this passage in 1 Corinthians as a litany of questions addressed to the Corinthians: Where’s the possibility? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the daringness to imagine something other than just what we have here and now? Where is the audacity to question and to ask, “What is it?” (Manna) Without the interrogatives, without the subjunctive mood and future possible conditional clauses, without the question mark, where would we be but stuck in the indicative and the imperative with the full-stop and exclamation mark forever prohibiting us from the forward-action of creativity and hope. We’d be without story, without room to grow, to experience, and to dare. Isn’t that just stasis? Isn’t stasis death? Isn’t that state the most to be pitied?

Conclusion

But yet we were made to live and not just exist but live: boldly and daringly, marinated in divine love and clothed in hope.

If we allow God to be God (the Creator) and humans to be humans (the created, the creature) then what the future is, is God’s alone because that “not-yet” resides yet in God—all time is in God. We can’t declare that x is impossible because that’s a substantiation of the future, so too is: x will be. The only thing we are given as terminology to speak of tomorrow is the language of possibility and the space of paradox. What is isn’t ever all there is, thus we live in the collision of possible and paradox performing revolutionary resistance to the powers that threaten to take our lives (material, spiritual, social, sexual, financial, political, etc.).[9]

Here in is hope’s realm.

Hope never lays claim to what will be, it doesn’t even pretend to do so (we force it to be future-expectation’s handmaid). Hope always takes up residence in the present with every anthology of the past stacked against her walls. Hope whispers to us: what is right now, isn’t all there is right now; there’s more here than meets the eye; all things are possible with God. Hope latches on to possibility, or maybe hope is the embers of the once raging fire that is the source of the divine phoenix of possibility rising forth. Hope has eyes to see this one step and not that one just changed everything. Hope has the ears to hear the whisper filled wind of history’s many stories surging and coursing around our fatigued bodies. If I’ve made it these many days, to this spot, can I make it one more? It’s possible.

Beloved, come into this story today, take my hand around this table and hear the wonderful proclamation of God’s love for you that echoes through all the halls of time seeking your ears to hear and your eyes to see and your heart to dare to hope. There is more here than we know, for we proclaim Christ raised from the dead and our hope is not in vain.


[1] This and the following two paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1214. “The first refutation now addresses what in the language of deliberative rhetoric would be called the “disadvantages” (or, for Paul, dire, unacceptable consequences) of any attempt to deny the possibility or applicability of resurrection as a reality or concept in principle. Such a denial would entail the unimaginable claim that Jesus Christ himself had not been raised from the dead. If the universal principle has no currency, by deductive logic a particular instance of it has no currency either. Any possible sense of confusion for the modern reader arises because the resurrection of Christ is also regardedas the paradigm case of resurrection in reality.”

[4] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1217. “An a priori denial of the possibility of resurrection thereby logically excludes the resurrection of Christ. These verses underline Paul’s expectation that believing Christians will respect logical coherence and rational thought. He does not hesitate to appeal to it.”

[5] Intentionally using the perfect passive here to highlight this is God’s work (passive) and that it happened in a previous moment but has ramifications for us now in that Christ is still raised.

[6] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1216. “The fundamental kerygma has as its content the raised Christ (the force of the perfect passive ἐγήγερται is that Christ was raised and continues to live: present state on the basis of past event). Hence, to deny the possibility of resurrection as such is to knock the bottom out of what constitutes a central article of Christian faith (ἐν πρώτοις, 15:3)…”

[7] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “However, sleep regularly denotes the experience of death for Christians as pregnant with hope and becomes a standard term…”

[8] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “Paul carefully portrays someone who has placed hope in Christ with nothing beyond, i.e., only so. ἐλεεινότεροι denotes more pitiable, more to be pitied, followed by the genitive of comparison πάντων ἀνθρώπων, than all human beings…”

[9] This and the remaining paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

Hope in the Mess

Sancta Colloquia Episode 401 ft. Bp. Jake Owensby

This episode with Bp. Jake Owensby (@jakeowensby) marks the start of Seaon FOUR. That’s right, I’m entering in my fourth year of hosting interview. This season will open with a few interviews with authors; how the season will close will be a, well, let’s say: it will be a “self-disclosing” event. Stay Tuned!

In this first episode of season four, I had the honor of talking with my former bishop, Bishop Jake Owensby of the diocese of Western Louisiana of The Episcopal Church. This interview focuses on his most recently published book: Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. We get to talk about why hope and why now? Bp. Owensby articulates well where his source of hope comes from, “Being the beloved in the eye of the Lover and that’s where my hope comes from. I am deeply loved.” It’s this being and knowing and experience deep divine belovedness that motivates Bp. Owensby’s work in this text as a message to help other people. Principally, Bp. Owensby communicates about our proclamation (either written or preached), “There’s one message; it’s the resurrection. That’s the message. That’s it…it’s God’s mighty work!” And it true; he’s not lying. Holding the story of Christ’s resurrection in one hand as we walk with people with the other, helping them and standing in solidarity with them, is the key to comprehending what it means to have hope when hope seems pointless even lost. If we weed out this very story of resurrection from our proclamation because it’s “not real” or “could never happen”–statements more about our logic and reason and not God’s mighty work–we lose one of the most cataclysmic narrative movements of divine life usurping death’s supposed last word. It’s here in the encounter with God in the event of faith that, for Bp. Owensby, where “All of [the] ways in which we’ve allowed or simply had to allow a way of living die and a new way of living emerge, that’s resurrection; that’s hard work.” Chaos, turmoil, fear, death, all of it has been stripped of it’s claim to the last word in this divine mighty work of God in the resurrection. Thus, we can have hope that what we see right now isn’t all we see. That maybe the mess isn’t messy but beautiful because in that mess there is God with us.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Bp. Jake Owensby

Jake Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana. His writing and his speaking events focus on helping people find hope, meaning, and purpose in their lives. He is the author of five books, most recently Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. Jake has three adult children, two grandchildren, and lives in Alexandria, Louisiana, with his wife, Joy. Gracie their rescue pup is their constant companion.

Follow Bp. Jake Owensby on Twitter: @jakeowensby; on Insta: @jakeowensby; and on Facebook: Jake Owensby and Bp. Jake Owensby. Also, for more of Bp. Owensby’s writing, check out his blog: jakeowensby.com.

Other Books by Bp. Owensby:

A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth

Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God

Gospel Memories: The Future Can Rewrite Our Past

Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life

and The Sky Opens

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:3-4 Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Introduction

Some stories in the First Testament can cause grave internal turmoil. The first five books making up the Torah (the revelation of the law) of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals radical and at times seemingly chaotic stories of God’s relationship with the world, with humanity, and with Israel in specific. It’s no surprise then that “why?” often escapes our lips as we read these stories. Why would God divide humanity by confusing language? Why would God send a flood? Why would God allow Israel to be brought under captivity and thus into exile? Why would God open the ground and swallow not only the guilty Korah but his family as well? If God is a God of love, then Why? Why all this divine disaster and heavenly havoc?

These whys echo a fear living deep in subterranean crevices and crannies of our person and being. As we read these stories they poke and provoke this fear: would I be washed away? dropped into the pit? thrust into exile? destroyed by some theotic whim of a divine bad mood? These questions haunt us as we read through the first testament and contemplate the deeds and activity of God. Under all of it surges what feels like our eternal question on repeat: if God is love how is any of this destruction love?

We get lost in the details of the storied wrath of God and miss the overarching metanarrative of the love-story embedded in and told by the composite biblical story. Truly, because of our human experiences and our self-knowledge and the myths we believe about ourselves and our unloveliness, we identify with the ones swept away and dropped down and not the ones rescued or moved to safety; and these stories terrify us. The seemingly random righteous exceptionalism of Noah becomes the plumbline against which we are shown lacking. So, we get stuck in the flood and forget that the waters recede, we miss the rainbow for the raindrops, and we forget that which God brings to death is raised into new life.

Genesis 9:8-17

“God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…’”

Genesis 9:8-16

We all are familiar with the story of Noah, the flood, and the ark.[1] A flood of assumed divine origin washes the earth clean of the evil and wickedness that has stained the earth and taken up residence in human hearts. What is less familiar to many of us is that the flood story isn’t solely about God’s anger at evil and wickedness on the earth and in the heart. The flood is ultimately about God cleansing that which God loves. I know it may be hard to believe this especially considering the long tradition in the church of overemphasizing God’s anger over and against God’s love—even going to the extent of saying that God’s anger is God’s love, which is just an atrocity in theology causing spiritual trauma rather than trust.

The story about the flood and Noah and the ark isn’t ultimately about wrath but about love. Looking at the arch of the story line floating through the waters of the text, it’s the promise God makes here with Noah that is solid ground for the reader. The promise is the ultimate point, the flood is only the penultimate point. But we get confused; we get stuck in the waters and caught up with the rising tide of divine wrath and conclude that God is primarily angry and then if we are good God is loving. Rather, it’s that God is loving even when we are weak and frail and covered in wickedness and evil.

For the Israelites, the story of the flood represented not strictly God’s active pathos manifest in anger, but God relenting and promising: never again will I do this thing because humanity is weak. It’s in the flood story where God identifies and accepts the weakness of humanity[2] prone to mishearing, misunderstanding, and misstepping. And it’s in the rescue of Noah and his family, the divinely proclaimed upright, with whom God makes a covenant. This covenant is not strictly with Noah and his sons but with the entire world. From this point on, all of humanity is brought under the arching bow of color in the sky. The “offspring” of Noah is not strictly the Noahic family line sharing the same immediate mom and dad. Considering the story mentions that all humanity—save Noah and his family—was washed away in the flood, this means all humanity that now populates the earth are all Noah’s descendants.[3] By the time this story is formed and passed from story teller to story teller, generations upon generations are included in the covenant.[4] And not only humans, but animals (all of them) from the very, very big to the very, very small, are included in the divine spoken promise of never again.[5]

None of us here or any of our foremothers and forefathers knows a time when the covenant spoken between God and Noah—on behalf of the entire world and every living thing—didn’t exist. For as long as humans have been telling and sharing stories and eras before history could be recorded in writing, God promised never to come after wickedness and evil by washing out humanity unto death. Rather, from this moment on, when God comes after wickedness and evil, when God attends to human kingdoms and structures bent on destruction, and when God seeks us to mend us and heal our hearts, God will do so through God’s self. God will wash the earth and humanity and all creation through God’s love, God’s life, and God’s light. God will do so not by remaining remote but by coming near and intimately identifying with human suffering and weakness and frailty. God will take death into God’s own body and destroy it.

Conclusion

And the rainbow arcs across the sky forever carrying with it the reminder that the earth is not abandoned and won’t be abandoned.[6] The arch of colors scientifically explained, does not lose its mystery and absurdity.[7] While we know how rainbows happen, we don’t know why they need to happen. The world could exist just fine without them, but with our atmosphere and our sun we get to have rainbows. And in that mystery and absurdity we are pulled up out of ourselves as our gaze moves from our navel to that which is above. We are reminded that there is something beyond us, something outside of us, something we didn’t cause and didn’t create. It lies outside of our abilities and talents and paints the sky in beauty whether we’ve been good or bad. And, for those of us who travel this earth tracking with the Hebrew and Christian narratives, it’s a sign of comfort attached to the words of promise from God to Noah and all creation.[8] The rainbow is something tangible, reminding us: life wins, love wins, light wins.

The story of the flood reminds us that Love is triumphant as Life and Light revolt against death and darkness; and so, the story of the flood is foundational story of baptism. Death and darkness precede life and light. It is being submerged into the waters of baptism where we die and receive new life.[9] Baptism is the sign of divine encounter attached to the words of promise delivered to the world through the incarnate Christ. As Christ is raised from death, so too will we be as baptism is “joined with the promise of life.”[10] In the midst of the waters of earth of our baptism, the rainbow arch of the waters of the sky remind us God isn’t absent but present, not silent but beckoning us out and into new hope, new presence, and new life.

As we travel through the season of Lent and self-reckoning in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are dropped to the bottom of the pit and swept up in the waves of water. The story of the flood reminds us that to this pit and these waters, God will not abandon us. To answer one of the questions of Psalm 88, “Do you work wonders for the dead?” (v 10a), the flood story answers with a resounding yes. And that yes is declared in the sky in manifold color of divine glory: death has not the final answer, life does.[11]


[1] This is a story. A story historicizing a natural disaster that demolished the livelihood of civilization in the “cradle of society” in the fertile crescent (which was prone to floods, and big ones). Was the entire earth covered by one flood? Most likely not. Was this local world swept up in waves of water? Most likely. The story of Noah and the arc isn’t all that unique; we find significant overlap with flood and boat story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When humans experience a massive natural disaster, we try to make sense of it and at times we ascribe divine activity to it because somehow such a thing brings comfort to us: this wasn’t chaotic but controlled. There’s also a need to explain why some were washed away and others weren’t. When the planes hit the twin towers, I was in midtown. A few months earlier in 2001 I was working downtown; that path train trapped under the collapsed building? That was my normal path train. Because of an event that happened earlier in the year, I was not on that train. From here and coupled with survivor’s guilt and the absurdity of surviving, we craft stories. We can’t handle surviving things that others haven’t so we are prone to ascribe divine activity because it’s the only way to make sense of some seemingly so chaotic. So, we craft story and legend and pass them on as beautiful markers of our humanity. If you examine your own journey, you’ll similar instances of this behavior. For a similar story from the Utes, see the legend: “Rabbit Killed the Sun” which is a legend with significant imagery that seems to be speaking of (both) the solar eclipse that preceded the Clovis comet and the comet itself that hit the earth and decimated an entire people group.

[2] JPS Study Bible “Genesis” annotations by Jon D. Levenson. Eds Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler New York, NY: OUP 1999.

[3] JPS Study Bible Levenson

[4] Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14. Luther’s Works vol 2 Ed Jaroslav Pelikan 144. Promise is not only for those people and those lives of that context and generation but for all generations “until the end of the world.”

[5] Luther Genesis 143-4 “Moreover, because the covenant of which this passage is speaking of involves not only mankind but every living soul, it must be understood, not of the promise of the Seed but of this physical life, which even the dumb animals enjoy in common with us: this God does not intend to destroy in the future by a flood.”

[6] Luther Genesis 146-7 “…this bow stands there by divine pleasure, because of the will and promise of God, to give assurance to both [humanity] and beast that no flood will ever take place at any future time.”

[7] Luther Genesis 146 Natural phenomenon with a divine application “…because of the Word of God, not because of some natural cause, the bow in the clouds has the meaning that no further flood will occur.” Natural phenomenon with a divine application “…because of the Word of God, not because of some natural cause, the bow in the clouds has the meaning that no further flood will occur.”

[8] Luther Genesis 144-5 “There was need for them to have a sign of life, from which they could learn God’s blessing and good will. For this is the particular nature of signs, that they dispense comfort, not terror. To this end also the sign of the bow was established and added to the promise.”

[9] Luther Genesis 153 “…Baptism and death are interchangeable terms in the Scripture. Therefore Paul says in Rom. 6:3: ‘As many of us has have been baptized, have been baptized into the death of Christ.’ Likewise, Christ says in Luke 12:50: ‘I have a Baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!’ And to His disciples He said (Mark 10:39): ‘You will be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.’”

[10] Luther Genesis 153

[11] Luther Genesis 154-5 “This must be applied also to other trials. We must learn to disdain dangers and to have hope even when no hope appears to be left, so that when death or any other danger befalls us, we may encourage ourselves and say: ‘Behold, here is your Red Sea, your Flood, your baptism, and your death. Here your life…is barely a handbreadth away from death. But do not be afraid. This danger is like a handful of water, whereas through the Word you have a flood of grace. Therefore death will not destroy you but will be a thrust and aid toward life.’”

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.”

Hearing unto Life

Romans 5:12-19 (Sermon)

On Ash Wednesday, Rev. Kennedy and I placed ashes on foreheads and whispered the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The alb became our sackcloth, the stole a millstone, and our words reminders that the wage and curse of sin is death. We anointed fragile and vulnerable people not with the oil of life, but with the ash of death.

The sermon carried a glimmer of hope, yet I was taken by the deep tenor of the service. Life eclipsed by death. The moment driven home when I placed ashes on the foreheads of my own children. My hands, my voice, my body–which gestated, nurtured, sustained, warmed, comforted and consoled my babies–delivered their sentence: death. Woven through the reminder of return to dust was the maternal apology that from this I cannot protect them. The great reaper knocks on every single door and collects.

Just as through this one person sin entered the cosmos and through [this] sin death, and in this way death spread into all humanity, on the basis of one all sinned. (Rom 5:12)

In Romans, Paul marries together sin and death in such a way that (grammatically) to tear one from the other would be to destroy both. The presence of death is evidence of the presence of sin.[1] That we die is, for Paul, evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. How has this come to be?

To answer, Paul, in vv. 13-14, yanks Adam out of Genesis 3 and makes him stand trial. Paul makes it clear it is not the Law that caused sin. (As if we could just get rid of the law to get rid of sin, if we did would only eliminate the exposure of sin.[2]) That there is death, which existed before the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, there is sin because death is before the Law was.[3] For Paul, before there is the Law there is death, before death there is Adam and with him the “sin.” Before the manifestation of the “sin,” there is the problem.

What is this “problem that thrust all of humanity into the cold, boney arms of death?[4] It’s not an issue of will, it’s an issue of hearing.

The language Paul employs talking about the “sin” of Adam sounds more like mis-stepping and slipping[5] than willful disobedience. It’s aiming but missing the mark. It’s trying to walk but falling down. It’s being well intentioned and making a huge mistake. You can love and cause pain.

In v.19 things get interesting. It’s here we get the first reference to “disobedience” and “obedience.” Again, the words chosen for the discussion are built from the concept of hearing.[6] And herein lies the problem that precedes the “sin”: hearing wrongly v. hearing rightly. (Shema O, Israel the core of Jewish liturgy and would have been coursing through Paul’s veins.) Paul creates a scene where Adam misheard and (thus) mis-stepped.

Going back to Gen 3, to the intellectual cage match between Eve and the serpent, something revelatory occurs. When tempted with the “forbidden” fruit, Eve without hesitation tells the serpent, “‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die,”’” (Gen 3:2-3). Do you hear the problem? Eve misquotes the prohibition to the serpent.

In Genesis 2:15-17, Adam is created out of dust and is inspired by God’s breath. Then he’s brought into the garden to work and have dominion over it. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,’” (Gen 2:15-17). Who received the prohibition? Adam.  According to the narrative fluidity of the two chapters, who relayed it to Eve? Adam. What was the problem resulting in the situation at the tree? Not the ingesting of the fruit, that’s the wage (the fruit) of “sin” which partook of death. The problem: someone misheard.

Adam was spoken to first. And then Eve. One of them or both of them misheard. Did they love God? We can assume they did. Did they want to do poorly? No. They intended well and mis-stepped because the fundamental problem of humanity is hardness of heart resulting in a stiff neck preventing the hearing of hearing,[7] hearing so deeply that you do (Shema). We can be God-inspired, God-breathed creations, placed in paradise, and still have massive hearing problems.

Martin Luther explains that part of the original sin we are born into is not only a lack of uprightness in the entire (inner and outer) person, but a “nausea toward the good.”[8] Why is the idea of good, of God, so loathsome? Because it’s an issue of hearing. I hear God as a threat to me because I mishear. That God is and reigns comes to me as threat: threat to myself, my will, my reason, my perception of what is good, etc. The proclamation that God is is flat out offensive to me; it means I am not the queen I think I am.

Thus, when the law comes, it exposes my predicament, plight, and problem. In the Law’s ability to expose, I blame it for my predicament; ignorance is bliss. Had the law never come, I’d not know I was stuck. But now in seeing that I’m stuck, I’m angry, and I blame the law for my stuckness, which I was before the law came. But I blame wrongly because I hear wrongly.[9]

This is the original sin that we are born into. We are not evil and horrible, willfully bent on disobedience and destruction. Rather, we’ve genetically inherited poor hearing and this results in disobedience, missing the mark, and mis-stepping, and thus into death. To hear wrongly is to die; to hear rightly is to live. We need to be caused to hear rightly. The great Shema O, Israel[10] goes forth, but who has ears to hear so deeply that they hit the mark, step rightly, to walk and not slip?

Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. It is he who hears rightly, steps rightly, hits the mark and walks without slipping. He is God incarnate, the word made flesh[11] who proclaims the word of God, obeys the word of God, and performs the word of God he hears. Jesus proclaims the reign of God, he lives the reign of God, he is the reign of God. This is the one who is baptized by John in the river Jordan and hears God proclaim him as God’s divine son. This is also the one who has heard the word of God so well he will defeat the attacks of the evil one, being successful where Israel wasn’t. Shema O, Israel.

Just as we who are born of flesh are born into Adam’s imperfect hearing resulting in disobedience and death, we are reborn by hearing through the giving of ears to hear in the proclamation of Christ Crucified. In this encounter with God in the event of faith (hearing), we are brought through death and are recreated into Christ’s perfect hearing resulting in obedience.[12]

When God acts on behalf of God’s people, God doesn’t merely contend with “disobedience” (that’s what we do). God contends with the problem by giving the free gift of new, circumcised[13] hearts and spirits which lead to obedience.[14] God gives the free gift of the grace of and righteousness of God in Christ Jesus, making the unrighteous righteous. It is the grace of Christ that eclipses the sin of Adam;[15] it is the life of Christ that drowns out the death of Adam; it is the perfect hearing of Christ that resurrects all who are stuck in the death of the mishearing of Adam.[16] It is the supernova of Christmas and Easter that engulfs and swallows the sting of death.

It is Christ, the righteous one, who heals those who are lame, declares clean those who are unclean, gives sight to those who can’t see and hearing to those who can’t hear. It is Christ who is the free gift of God’s grace and righteousness.[17] It is Christ who speaks to those condemned to death as criminals with his pronouncement of acquittal and restores them to life. This is the substance of the church’s witness to the world in her speech and sacraments. In hearing rightly, we speak to and act rightly in the world. In hearing rightly, we are brought to the font and table, witnessing to our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. And there we are anointed not with ash but with oil, sealed as Christ’s own and into his obedience, fed by Christ’s hand, hearing the comfort of the divine whisper, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[18]

 

 

 

[1] Luther LW 25. 298. “…if death comes by sin and if without sin there would be no death, then sin is in all of us. Thus it is not personal sin that he is talking about here. Otherwise it would be false to say that death had entered by sin, but rather we ought to say that it came by the will of God.”

[2] Luther LW 25. 303. “And thus it is not understood to mean that sin existed until the Law came and then ceased to exist, but that sin received an understanding of itself which it did not possess before. And the words of the apostle clearly indicate this interpretation: ‘But sin was not counted where there was no law,’ as if to say that through the Law, which it had preceded, sin was not abolished but imputed.”

[3] Luther LW 25. 298. “…sin was in the world before the Law was given, etc. (v. 13). Actual sin also was in the world before Moses, and it was imputed, because it was also punished by men; but original sin was unknown until Moses revealed it in Gen. 3.”

[4] Luther LW 25. 299. “Note how at the same time it is true that only one man sinned, that only one sin was committed, that only one person was disobedient, and yet because of him many were made sinners and disobedient.”

[5] Α῾μαρτα´νω: I miss the mark, I sinned, I made a mistake. η῾ παρα´βασις: the going aside, deviation, overstepping. το` παρα´πτωμα: the trespass, false step, lapse, slip, sin.

[6] Η῾ παρακοη´: the hearing amiss, by implication disobedience; imperfect hearing. η῾ υ῾πακοη´: obedience, submissiveness, compliance.

[7] Deuteronomy 30:6ff

[8] Luther LW 25. 299. What is original sin, “Second, however, according to the apostle and the simplicity of meaning in Christ Jesus, it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness, a flight from and an abomination of all good works, a pursuit of evil…”

[9] Luther LW 25. 307. “And this is true, so that the meaning is: the Law came and without any fault on the part of the Law or in the intentions of the Lawgiver, it happened that it came for the increasing of sin, and this happened because of the weakness of our sinful desire, which was unable to fulfill the Law.”

[10] Deuteronomy 6.

[11] John 1

[12] Luther LW 25. 305. Luther makes reference later to 1 Corinthians 15:22.

[13] Deuteronomy 30:6

[14] Ezekiel 36:24-27, Jeremiah 31:31-34

[15] Luther LW 25. 306. “This gift is ‘by the grace of that one Man,’ that is, by the personal merit and grace of Christ, by which He was pleasing to God, so that He might give this gift to us. This phrase ‘by the grace of that one Man’ should be understood of the personal grace of Christ, corresponding to the personal sin of Adam which belonged to him, but the ‘gift’ is the very righteousness which has been given to us.”

[16] Luther LW 25. 306. “Thus also original sin is a gift (if I may use the term) in the sin of the one man Adam. But ‘the grace of God’ and ‘the gift’ are the same thing, namely, the very righteousness which is freely given to us through Christ. And He adds this grace because it is customary to give a gift to one’s friends. But this gift is given even to His enemies out of His mercy, because they were not worthy of this gift unless they were made worthy and accounted as such by the mercy and grace of God.”

[17] Luther LW 25. 305-6. “The apostle joins together grace and the gift, as if they were different, but he does so in order that he may clearly demonstrate the type of the One who was to come which he has mentioned, namely, that although we are justified by God and receive His grace, yet we do not receive it by our own merit, but it is His gift, which the Father gave to Christ to give to men, according to the statement in Eph. 4:8, ‘When He ascended on high. He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.’”

[18] These final few thoughts in this paragraph are influenced by the profound work of Dr. W. Travis McMaken in his book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth Emerging Scholars Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. It was difficult to find one quotation to demonstrate how I was influenced—the entire book is a masterpiece. However, for the sake of space, I think this gets at the thrust of it: “The objective-subjective character of baptism as a mode of the church’s gospel proclamation confronts those baptized with the demands of the gospel thereby proclaimed. As mode of the church’s gospel proclamation, baptism confronts those baptized with the message that they were baptized in Jesus Christ’s baptism, died in his death, and were raised in his resurrection. This baptismal proclamation calls those that it confronts to, as Paul puts it, “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Such an exhortation requires neither a baptismal transfer of grace nor a baptismal ratification of personal commitment; rather, it flows from the objective-subjective and holistically particular installation of the church’s gospel proclamation within the history of those baptized.”233-34.

The Love of the Lover

John 15:12-17 (Homily)

A few years back, on a cold winter afternoon, I received a phone call from my across-the-street neighbor.

She wanted to give us some home-made rolls, fresh baked. Of course, I couldn’t resist. So, I put on shoes, grabbed my new born son, Jack, in my arms–wrapped in a blanket–and headed out. I didn’t even pause to consider our front porch stairs and the effects of the recent (that day) winter weather. As I stepped on to that first stair, I hit a patch of black ice. My feet went out from under me. I grabbed the railing to stop my fall, but to no avail, I still fell. I landed three stairs down. My heart raced. Was Jack OK?! I looked at him, still cradled in my arms; he let out a huge shriek. I then examined him from head to toe…not one scrape or bump or possible bruise did I find on his fairly small, 12 week old, newborn body. I did, as one does, praise the Lord.

Somehow, during the fall, my maternal instincts kicked in; somehow, I was able to contort and twist my body so that I was the one who absorbed the fall–between me elbow and me bum–and protected my baby. I didn’t think about it…it just happened. I have often wondered what I would do should I slip down the stairs carrying one of my babies…I have never been able to come up with a good “exit” plan. You don’t get training for such an event; you just hope it never happens. And, in that very real moment, love for my child poured forth un-summoned and I took the entire fall with my body.

I bore the pain in my body for my son when we fell. Love actively takes the other into its safe keeping because the well-being of the beloved is the well-being of the lover. Love bonds one to another in such a way that the beloved’s pain is the lover’s pain; the beloved’s joy, the lover’s joy. The lover grieves with the beloved, gets angry with the beloved, rejoices with the beloved. It is a full and embodied presence of the lover with the beloved, otherwise, it would be impossible for the lover to feel the grief, the anger, the joy of the beloved. As people encountered by God in the event of faith, we are deeply and intimately connected one to another, like a mother and her child. Your pain is my pain; your joy, my joy.

And so it is with Christ. Christ has loved us with a full-embodied, self-giving, love-gift.  In this gift of love the love of God is given to us (to you, thus, to me), and the love of one for another. John’s Christ declares, 

“‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another,’” (John 15:12-14, 16-17).

The love of Christ for the world, drives him to take on flesh and to be born into the human predicament, the human problem. The Christ came into the world to identify in a real and embodied way the plight of humanity, the plight of the oppressed and marginalized, those stuck in situations dominated by the powers of sin and death. The pain of the beloved the lover feels; when Saul is persecuting the church, Jesus reveals himself to Saul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting…me?” Not: the followers of the way, or the young church….but me. In love the beloved is united to the lover and the lover feels to the core the pain and suffering, the joy and celebration of the beloved.

In your pain and in your suffering, you are not alone. In your joy and in your celebration, you are not alone. Not only are your family and friends here, and your teachers, but, more than that, almighty God of the cosmos is also present with you by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in you and among you, uniting you to the Christ by faith by God’s grace. To gaze upon the cross is to see God united in solidarity with you even in your suffering, with the suffering of all humanity, with the suffering of the world. To gaze upon the cross is to see love at work, love loving the beloved, in an embodied full way unto the depths of human experience: suffering unto death.

Beloveds, you are you are heard, you are seen, you are loved; you are the beloved.