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.

 

 

 

He Loved First

1 John 4:7-12, 19 (Homily)

My* eldest has always had quite the ability to wage verbal warfare and throw impressive tantrums. When my son was about six, he and I had quite an altercation. After receiving a consequence for unacceptable behavior, he stomped up the stairs loudly informing me (and no doubt the neighbors) of the injustice of his punishment. The stomping was followed by a door slamming, a door that then became the target for his toys as he threw them; as he threw each one, he shouted, “You are the meanest mommy ever!” I sat on a stool in the bathroom just listening to him. “I will never ever snuggle with you again! I don’t like you! I wish you weren’t my mommy!”

Typically, according to the parenting practices we’ve adopted for our children, I would wait until he was calm before talking with him again. (For all practical purposes this is an excellent strategy.) In fact, during the conflict I had said, “Go to your room and come back when you are calm and ready to be sweet.” But as I sat in the bathroom, something else came over me: conviction. Laying heavy on my heart as I listened to him hurl insult upon insult at me was that I was asking him to be better before I would once again be with him. Finally conviction had its way with me. I stood up and entered his room as he was in mid rant. I walked to his bed and sat down. “Come here,” I said to him and motioned for him to sit on my lap. He reluctantly complied, and I held him. He didn’t want to be there, but I held him firm. The entire time whispering to him, “I love you…I love you, I love you, I love you…” He relaxed further and further into my embrace and his crying and anger subsided. After a short while he whispered, “I love you, too, mommy.”

Why did I change my mind? What made me retract my earlier request and do the exact opposite? All I can say is that in the midst of my son’s tantrum, I became freshly aware of something: God has never asked me, asked us, to be better before He would dwell with us. In fact, while we were at our worst, God showed up; while we were busy denying God’s very existence by our lack of faith and mistreatment of our neighbor and the world, God made his presence known to us and pursued us. We earned none of God’s coming not the first time and not every time we come to encounter with God in the event of faith; our acts weren’t (and aren’t) together before God comes. In fact, Paul writes in Colossians 2:13 that we were dead in our trespasses—it doesn’t get any more inactive and unprepared than that! And in this deadness we are loved, truly loved. Victor Hugo wrote in his work, Les Misérables, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved — loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” God, in Jesus, loves us this way – we can neither earn God’s love nor can we drive it away.

Each of us is struggling through this thing called existence and life. I’ve said a number of times this semester, to my kids and to my students: it’s hard being human, why do we make it harder for each other? Day to day we fight to make it to the end unscathed and unharmed. Each and everyone one of us fights to maintain our dignity and our humanity intact from the moment we rise to the moment we rest our heads on our pillows. So I wonder, why choose tearing down when we can build up? Why choose condemning others when we could feel our own conviction? Why choose me and myself when I know you and I are both struggling through? Why not love, love that breeds itself: more love…

I want my children to know they are loved; I want you to know you are loved…today, and tomorrow, even yesterday. And loved not only when you are calm and sweet but when you are at your worst. It’s there, at our worst, where the “I love you” breaks in and becomes real. Jesus Christ, the one who was “in the form of God” and who is the love of God for the entire world, has come to us and says, “Come unto to me.” He came while we were still screaming and throwing our toys, and he says, “Come here.” And reticently crawling into His lap and into his embrace, our ears are filled with His relentless “I love you, I love you, I love you,” And, maybe, after a short while softened and given to his embrace, we whisper in reply the words of worship: “I love you, too.”

 

*The original post “He Loved First” has been edited from its original version which was edited by Jono Linebaugh and appeared on another blog.

 

**

Forgiveness as Death and Resurrection

For 9/11 (Homily)

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:14-21)

Two miles doesn’t seem like much. On 9/11 it was. About 2 miles separated my office situated a stones throw from Trump Tower in midtown from the Twin Towers downtown; two miles felt like the distance of an ocean separating me from those two massive towers collapsing in Manhattan. When you are in and out of Manhattan daily, midtown’s Rock Plaza and downtown’s Financial District don’t feel far apart. But on that day, they were. Midtown was secure and safe; downtown lay under layers of debris, destruction, and tragedy. They could have been two different cities…it was just two miles.

Last year I shared with you that I was a new Christian during this national tragedy. I shared that I couldn’t make sense of this God who a few months earlier brought me the comfort of love and forgiveness and now seemed and felt far distant and even absent. For those of us separated by a mile or two from the events, the question about God’s presence in the aftermath of the tragedy became a mere echo within months as Manhattan did what Manhattan does: rebound. It felt like it took New York a New York Minute to find its new normal.

Actually, as we rebuilt and restructured, mended and healed, interned and inurned, the question about God’s presence didn’t go anywhere. While it wasn’t readily on our lips, it lay underneath the resilient human spirit in the form of fear and its twin, anger. At least I can speak for myself: I was afraid and I was angry. Was another attack coming? I should be ready just in case. I would spend months commuting to work prepared to spend the night away from my apartment. Why did this happen to my city, to those innocent people going about their day?! And cue the anger.

These two emotions pack a punch when coupled together, and they are often coupled together. Fear makes room for anger because anger protects us from that which we fear. However, the more anger we have the more we are afraid because anger doesn’t actually solve anything–it keeps us blinded. Yet, suppress either and they both fester and become toxic.

In the aftermath of 9/11 I was in quite the dilemma. I was a new Christian who was afraid and angry. Monday through Friday I worked in the post 9/11 atmosphere of NYC masking my fear and anger; on Saturday and Sunday I was involved in conversations about God’s peace and God’s love. I wanted very much to place blame and seek vengeance; but I was exhorted weekly to love my enemies as myself and to forgive those who trespass against me as I am forgiven my trespasses.

Forgiveness is a very heavy topic in any situation, especially those situations involving deep pain, personal loss, fear and anger. So, I dare to piggy back off of Rev. Kennedy’s excellent homily from last Wednesday wherein he discussed our need to be forgiven and to forgive and the reasons why. While I have nothing substantial to add to what he said, I was moved to contemplate the act of forgiveness. What is it? What does it do?

I’ve found in my years walking with Christ, forgiveness isn’t a mere formula of words uttered into the universe hoping they land somewhere, like shooting arrows at an unknown target in the horizon. Forgiveness demands intention, demands my full presence both to offer and to receive the words of forgiveness. Forgiveness demands so much because–like it’s twin, love–there’s no half way. Like love, forgiveness demands a death. It’s not only setting your pride a side, it’s dying to what was. I can no longer hold on to what was, for it’s gone; to cling is to grasp at oil. I can only turn forward and face the oncoming future, the very future forgiveness beckons me into, the future I do not have control over. It’s a death to follow in and to relinquish the façade of ownership of the past. But in this gallows there God is; in this crisis there Christ is; in this suffering, there the Spirit comforts and whispers: it is finished.

And where there is the divine it is finished, there is resurrection. When we die to what was, we are brought into new and vibrant life of now. In this newness of life in the aftermath of forgiveness, something remarkable happens: what is possible takes priority over what is actual. In forgiveness, it’s now possible to build anew, to move forward, to grow into solid and beautiful selves—scars and all. I know well it’s not easy and it takes time—as anything worthwhile in our lives: time, space, and patience is needed. It’s not easy, but the life that comes from it is worth every painful, cautious step.

Christ’s love and forgiveness plucked me from the very real clutches of darkness, sin, and death in 2000; not even a year later, in 2001, Christ’s love and forgiveness beckoned me forward through death into life again. A few more times since then this call has sounded.

I don’t know much, but I do know that in Christ there is life even where there seems to be only death everywhere; I know that out of the ashes and rubble of our lives, the phoenix that is God’s grace rises; I know that fear and anger do not have the final word because the comforter, the Spirit, brings peace beyond understanding. I know that in this in love and forgiveness I find the core of all that is good and right and divine and human, and that love and forgiveness are the foundation and substance of my life. I know that in this love and forgiveness God is good and that even the darkest times, God will never leave us of forsake us because there is love and forgiveness.

God is Love and God Loves You

Luke 13:10-17 (Homily)

The statements “God is Love” and “God loves you” are abstract concepts. I can tell you these things all day, but apart from concrete manifestation of that love in substance and action, both statements fall flat. We live in an era where words are tossed about, rapidly and thoughtless so. We say I love you to our friends and family and then in the next breath profess love to jellybeans. What then does love mean? In the predicament where there is little concern for the substance of language, the meaning of words, and the impact of nouns and verbs, how do I communicate to you love? What does “God is love and loves you” mean? A profession of love causing you to experience and believe that profession, means the profession needs substance, the landing has to stick; deed must follow word.

We encounter Jesus on the Sabbath teaching in a synagogue. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears having an ailment for 18 years. Luke explains: she is bent forward,[1] unable to raise herself up completely. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the woman. He only tells us that she’s suffered with this ailment for 18 years. For nearly two decades she existed in a curved-in state, unable to look up. Her eyes took in more of the ground than the sky; her face went unnoticed, turned toward the dust and dirt of her travels. The very face a mother adored, a lover loved, a child yearned for now hidden in plain sight. An identity hidden; she was merely a body in the crowd. 18 years nearly unseen. That’s a lifetime for some of you.

When she appears,[2] Jesus perceives her. In the midst of all the people attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus’s perception of her presence is identical to his question, “Who touched me?” in Luke 8, while being pressed in on all sides in a crowd. Luke loves highlighting Jesus’s divine attributes. One of those attributes is perceiving the people his society and the religious therein have ceased to perceive. Jesus sees those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have slipped off the grid, those who have been relegated to the fringe. Those who have been excluded and isolated? These he sees. And he doesn’t merely see, he perceives and he acts. Jesus loves these.

On any other day, that woman would’ve gone in and come back out without much notice. But not today; today, Jesus notices her very presence. And what does he do? He calls her to him. “Woman, you have been[3] set free from your infirmity.” And then he lays his hands upon her. In an instant (literally), she is set straight (again)[4] and (at the same time) is bestowing glory on God.

And, I am brought back to Genesis 2. The last time someone was this curved-in was when Adam felt the deep trial of isolation. In the presence of God, he longed for an other. As God gazed upon this turned in man, God said: it is not good that this man is alone. I will make a partner for him. And like the light and the dark on the first day, God pulled the man apart—taking one and making two. Just as light is its own substance and so too the dark, both the man and the woman were two complete individuals—they were equal but not interchangeable. Forever, in this swift movement of deft surgical precision, loneliness was lifted from Adam’s back and cast into the outer darkness to take up its kingdom where there is not. And God sat on his throne among the light, in the midst of the life of humanity in community in the cool of the verdant garden. And it was very good.

As Adam was set free from his infirmity of loneliness in divine intervention, so too this woman is set free. Jesus lays his hands upon her and separates her from her burden, from her isolation, from her oppression, from her exclusion. She now stands upright, for the first time in 18 years; she can see the bright light of day, the blue of the sky, the twinkling stars of night. As she stands upright, she gazes (again) into the eyes of those around her, to recognize and to be recognized in her identity. Jesus restores her to the dignity of her humanity articulated in upright posture. Not frail and hunched over, she stood tall and looked out, restored by the simple word and touch of Jesus the Christ, by his love. What was her life of burden and bondage is now relegated to the old age of what was; she is ushered into the freedom and liberty of the new age. And when that event of encounter happens with God, a thick and dark line is drawn in the sand between what was and what is and what will be; a line is drawn like the one created by the collapsing walls of water forever separating Israel from Egypt and their bondage and captivity.

In Luke’s brief story, he boldly describes the cosmic battle between God and the powers of sin and death. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is chastised. He brings dignity and humanity to an old woman, and the ruler of the synagogue loses his mind.[5] After a stern, “Hypocrites!”, Jesus tightly correlates Satan (the powers of sin and death) to the religiosity of the rulers. According to Jesus, using the law to keep people bound in their burden and oppression is letting Satan have his way in the world. The law is good and can create and maintain freedom; but it should never be weaponized. When we love the law more than we love people, we are in the business of stripping people of their dignity and humanity. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.

Back to the beginning, God is love because God is active and God’s activity is manifest in love loving, which is bringing freedom to the captives (in a real way). When I profess love, my love best look like this…

 

 

 

 

[1] More like “bent-forward-ing” the verbal aspect of the word doesn’t translate well into English.

[2] The word that is translated as “appear” in the text is technically “Behold!” which carries the same force of “suddenly there she was!” thus “appearing”.

[3] The perfect passive here has the force of an event that has occurred to the recipient that has ramifications into the present. In a sense, she will has been set free and will continue to be set free. Woe to anyone who attempts to reverse the divine action.

[4] Highlighting that she wasn’t always this way that at one point she could stand up straight.

[5] Quite literally, he is indignant, it’s the manner of his being in the current situation.

Come and Follow Me

Luke 10:38-42 (Sermon)

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

[3] Matthew 11:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Called

Luke 5:27-32 (Homily)

“After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him.

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:27-32).

There’s something about having your name called and such an event comes with a myriad of potential responses: total excitement or complete fear. I remember in high school, in college, and even in seminary, I would sit in the back of the class, quiet, listening and praying and hoping that the teacher would never, ever, ever, ever call on me. (I know, the irony that I’m not a teacher, in the front of the class, incessantly yammering on about ancient texts and dead theologians.)  I remember the panic when a professor in seminary decided he was going to start calling on people to answer his questions rather than wait for volunteers (a means to ensure everyone was doing the reading). I remember my heart stopping as his eyes met mine and I had yet to fully slip all the way under my desk. “Ms. Ellis, please explain to the class Calvin’s view of the response of the believer to God in faith…” Me: blank stare. I literally just stared at him. After an awkward silent stand off, he moved on to someone else.    

And then there’s the good moments when someone calls your name like when your best friend mentions your name or when that person, you know, that someone who you like says it, the person you like “like like,” like a lot. There are people who call your name and you feel warm and your head turns and you move toward them; and there are people who call your name and you shudder and you feel exposed and you want to hide.

Luke 5 is an interesting chapter because it’s primarily about Jesus calling to himself the people who will become his disciples. And when he calls them, the come. What’s really interesting to me is that Jesus doesn’t technically know these people he calls. When he gets into the boat with Simon Peter and tells him what to do with his net at the beginning of chapter 5, there’s no, “Hey, Pete, let’s go fishing…” There’s just: do this, do that, now, come follow me.” And Peter follows. In our text, there’s no, “Hey, Levi, what’s up…how are you? How’s mom?” There’s just: “‘Follow me.’” And, as Luke tells us, Levi “…got up, left everything, and followed him” (v. 28). It’s pretty amazing; just try getting someone to follow you who does not know you by only saying, “Follow me.” Chances are, the person you address will think you are flat out not quite right.

You turn and move immediately because the voice that has called your name loves you. When these people heard Jesus call their name, they heard the voice of love calling them; they heard the voice of God and their heads turned, and they moved toward God.

What’s really, really interesting to me is this: back in Genesis 3, there’s a moment after the fateful eating of the fruit when all things go to heck in a hand-basket, Adam and Eve realize they are naked and feel shame and humiliation, and they hide. Here’s the story,

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen 3:7-10).

In their newfound ability to determine what was good and evil for on their own, they decided that God’s voice; God’s call was not good. They hid when they heard God approach. Hoping and praying that God would not notice them, they ducked behind some trees. There’s a fear and trembling here when God calls the man and the woman out from behind the tree. They’re reluctant to step out into the open.

But when Jesus calls it seems this previous moment of Genesis 3 is being undone. Jesus calls the people, and the people come, they don’t hide, they don’t run, they turn and follow.  Jesus fulfilled the great promise of God to his people: I will be your God and you will be my people. They will be the people who turn and follow God when God calls, not the ones that hide and turn away.

But why this change? Why are the people dropping everything and following Jesus when Jesus calls? Because Jesus is the word made flesh, the love of God incarnate, the loving voice that sounded at the beginning of creation and called everything into existence: the stars, the sun and the moon, the land and the sea, and all of the animals, you and me. This is the voice that is calling these people in this moment, and don’t we know when love calls?

John tells us in his gospel, that Jesus says, “‘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’” (3:16-17). Where before Adam and Eve assumed that God’s presence and God’s call was going to expose unto condemnation and death, Jesus reveals that this divine presence, call, and exposure leads unto comfort and life. Jesus is the word of God that goes forth into the world causing what it desires: “Come and follow me” and the people do.

The one who called Simon Peter the fisherman and Levi the tax collector calls you. You are grafted into this story because Jesus’s call goes forth by the power of the Holy Spirit today: calling, beckoning, you into comfort, into love, into life. The one who spoke the cosmos into existence calls you, lovingly calls you who are the beloved of God. Hear the God of love call you, Beloved, and turn and follow and experience life beyond measure.

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away. (Song of Songs 2:10-13)

Solidarity in the Jordan

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (Sermon)

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Amen  (Psalm 29:2)

According to the Enneagram, I’m a 5. When you look up the description of any type, there’s always one word that describes the type: 1s = reformers; 2 = helpers, etc.). 5s are “Investigators.” We are the “thinkers”, the “pontificators”, the ones who wax eloquently about everything (You’re welcome). We’re the people that make you mumble, overthink things much? We’re the type where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is never what the therapist suggests.

A really fun (and endearing) thing about 5s in general is that we, without fail, think we’re exceptionally clever and always right. Always. And if you don’t agree with us, *shrug*, clearly you weren’t listening. The irony is hard to miss: I’m an ordained priest given the authority to preach and teach. I’m allowed to get in this elevated pulpit and tell you all my clever thoughts, and you are held captive in those pews (to leave now would be weird!). 

But I’m not supposed to.

I’m supposed to be intellectually humble and led by the Holy Spirit. It’s like putting a toddler in a room with a bunch of candy out in the open and then saying, but don’t eat any of it…mkay? Okay, Lauren, we’re going to ordain you, but don’t let any of it go to your head, even when it threatens to do so…which will be all of the time.

One of the main reasons I resisted being ordained was because I felt the potential for this hot mess. I was terrified to be ordained because I knew the mix had the potential to become a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious type of hot mess. In other words, a big bunch of NOPE. When told (repeatedly for years): you should be ordained; I replied (repeatedly for years): get behind me, Satan. No. Nope.

I feared what I knew I could become: more full of myself and more disconnected.

When the day came and I found myself getting ordained to the priesthood (and the walls of the Cathedral hadn’t caught on fire), I felt this fear with every heart-beat, with every breath: Good Lord, keep me…keep me from myself. So, when the time came for me to lie prostrate on the ground, I felt led to do something else. I knelt down. I reached behind my head, gripped the two big clips holding back all of my hair, and pulled them out. My hair unfurled, and I bent forward, forehead to the ground. My hair spread out around me. 

I pulled into my ordination the story of the sinful woman forgiven—the woman who uses her hair and expensive oil to anoint Jesus for his burial. While I was being ordained into the great commission to care for God’s people and to proclaim the Gospel, I wanted to remember who I am: forgiven. And I wanted to remember that my charge was to be for the people, for you with God.

I am one of you yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I never ever want to forget my solidarity with the very people I am here to minister to, to love, to comfort, and to care for in the name of God. You and I, we’re not very different: bone of bone, flesh of flesh, desperate for a love that always endures, and in need of the comforting word of reconciliation and absolution, in desperate need of Jesus. If I am different in any way it is not that I’ve been called further up and further out of the people, but further down and further in. And I share the crisis of judgment: will I follow the devices and desires of my own heart or will I follow Christ into and out of the waters of the Jordan?

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you downGo tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler
The gambler
The back biter
Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down[1]

And while the people were expecting and considering in their hearts concerning John, whether or not he was the Christ, John answer saying to all of them, “I baptize you [with] water; but the one who is mightier than I comes, of whom I am not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals; he will baptize you in with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand to cleanse thoroughly his threshing floor and to lead together the grain into his granary; but the chaff will burn up in unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:15-17)

In chapter three of the gospel of Luke, John has stirred up an “eschatological crisis”[2] among the people who came to him to be baptized in the Jordan. John declared to the people: judgment is coming and there is nowhere to run or hide! Just as the Old Testament ends with the judgment oracle in the book of Malachi, John opens his prophetic ministry with judgment. The people who hear are not only thrust under water in John’s baptism of repentance and water, but into an existential crisis: on whom will judgment fall? And the answer that dawns on their minds and in their hearts is: on us. All the people (the regular yous and mes and the tax collectors and the soldiers) rightly panic and ask: what should we do!?

John tells them what to do and in doing this incurs their private curiosity as they wonder if he is the Messiah because they don’t honestly know at this point;[3] it’s unclear and they are thrust further into existential crises and chaos. John senses their internal question and proclaims: no, I am a man—one of you—not the Christ. I have merely baptized you with water, cleaning only your outside.[4] But He who is mightier than I am is coming, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire and this will cleanse you to the core. The long awaited fulfillment of the promise spoken by the prophet Ezekiel comes, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). Where water can’t go, the Holy Spirit can; where water can only clean and make “new” the outside, the Spirit with fire can clean and make new the inside.[5]

John’s call to baptism with water and repentance sets the stage for the baptism that is to come with the Messiah.[6] As mentioned above, John has set the people into an eschatological crisis: judgment is coming. And all the people are forced to make a choice:[7] repent and be baptized with water thus be for God and purified by the baptism of fire and the holy spirit, sealed as Christ’s own forever, collected like grain in a granary; or, reject repentance and the baptism with water, thus reject and be against God, thus endure the fires of judgment of the baptism of the holy spirit and be burnt up like useless chaff.

A decision must be made at this juncture. What will you do? Asks, John. Will you be for God or against?

Well my goodness gracious let me tell you the news
My head’s been wet with the midnight dew
I’ve been down on bended knee talkin’ to the man from Galilee
He spoke to me in the voice so sweet
I thought I heard the shuffle of the angel’s feet
He called my name and my heart stood still
When he said, “John, go do my will!”

And when all the people were baptized and when Jesus had been baptized and while he was praying the heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form as a dove, and a voice from heaven came: you are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased. (Luke 3:21-22)

Jesus’s baptism is not the focus here in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism; rather, Luke’s focus is a bit more specific: the endowment of the Holy Spirit and God’s affirmation of Jesus as his son.[8] This affirmation is specifically placed at the end of the entire event. Luke’s ordering is intentional (as Luke is in his gospel): all the (regular) people are baptized first, then Jesus gets baptized, and then while Jesus is praying the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends, and God speaks. “’You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

The ordering draws the ear of the hearer: The last to be baptized is the first of New Creation, of the New Order, who is the New Adam.

The Old Adam, the first of the Old Order and of the Old Creation was commissioned to care for the creation and to trust God. In Genesis 3, at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, both Adam and Eve are presented with a choice: will you be for God or for yourselves? Will you choose to define good and evil according to yourselves or follow with God’s definition of good and evil? And we know how this story ends: Adam and Eve opt for the fruit to make them wise. They choose to be for themselves. With this fateful choice—with the man and the woman he created—God was not well pleased.

Here in the waters of the Jordan with John, the choice is presented again: will you be for God or will you be for yourselves? Will you stand with God or with yourself? But this time it’s not just any old Adam answering, it’s Jesus, the son of God, who answers. Jesus enters the waters and stands among the people and is baptized by John, and he answers the divine question posed to humanity: I am for God; I stand with God.

But, again, this isn’t just any old Adam answering. It’s Jesus the Christ, the divine son with whom God is well pleased. Also, this divine son is also the son of humanity. Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ stands in the Jordan praying after having been baptized and thus stands in total and complete solidarity with the very people he came to rescue. Like those who had come out to be baptized, to be about God, to be reoriented to God, so did Jesus.[9] But this is also God incarnate in solidarity with humanity; Jesus is for God and for them, the regular people who stand with him in the Jordan. Jesus is the answer to the divine question posed to humanity and is the divine proclamation that God is for humanity.

In Christ, heaven and earth have become one. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[10] and with humanity in its plight.[11] The one who is the Beloved of God is the love that has come into the world to save the beloved whom God loves. Following Jesus in this moment:  to love others is to love God; to love God is to love others. There is no distinction between the two. Jesus does both in the moment he is baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan; thus we are confronted with the same crisis: whom will you follow? With whom will you stand?

Here in the Jordan, God’s solidarity with humanity and humanity’s solidarity with God is made tangible and manifest in the person and work of Christ. When the people hurt, God hurts. When the people suffer, God feels that suffering. When the oppressor oppresses God’s people, the beloved, God feels that oppression. When the Pharaoh in the beginning of Exodus enslaved and tormented the Israelites and the Israelites called out under the weight of immense suffering and oppression, God heard and God knew in an intimate way and God acted. When Saul reigned terror upon and persecuted the fledgling church, Jesus showed up: “’Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?… I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:4-5). You can’t mess with God’s people and think God won’t notice and won’t act. Mess with the least of these; mess with him.

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light
You can run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Judgment has come to the world in the waters of the Jordan in the person of Jesus the Christ. Humanity is exposed for who and what they are and who and what they are not

“With His existence there will fall upon them in all its concreteness the decision, the divine and ultimate decision. What will become of them? How shall they stand?”[12] You stand implicated under this judgment in this crisis: whom will you follow? With whom will you stand?

More than you, those of us in leadership called and employed to be servants to the people of God, we stand doubly in crisis and doubly judged. Bishops, priests, and deacons of the church bear the burden of the millstone and the deepest part of the sea if we do not stand with the people thus follow God. Whom will I follow? And with whom will I stand? The answer must always be God and the people; my collar demands this.[13]

Christ came because God loved; he came to save us; to save the lost. He came to graft us into his story and to cause us to partake in his mission to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love justice, mercy, and peace. He came to make us his brothers and sisters thus heirs with him. And if heirs then sons and daughters of God Almighty, the ones who make up the manifold children promised to Abraham in Genesis 12, the children who make up the nations blessed.

And we are the ones who rest in the fulfillment of the promise that the love of God will never ever be taken from them because the promised son of David, Jesus, sits forever on the throne. And our baptism with water and spirit is through which we are made participants in this story and where Jesus’s history becomes our history[14]–we with our histories are grafted into the history of Christ; where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[15]

While I pray you always stand with the One who stood with those people in the Jordan and pray you stand with the one who stands with you in your baptism, you are faced with the dilemma anew today and everyday. Being grafted into this story of Christ’s history by the event of faith in the encounter with God: whom will you follow? When the man comes around,[16] with whom will you stand?


[1] Johnny Cash “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”

[2] Joel Green “The Gospel of Luke” The New Internationl Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. “John’s provocation of eschatological crisis (3:7-9) elicits two forms of questions from his audience. First, they inquire how they might ready themselves for impending judgment (3:10-14). Now, they query whether he is the Messiah.” 180.

[3] Green 180, “For them, the meaning of ‘Messiah’ is manifestly fluid at this point; hope is present but ill defined. They do not know if John and the anticipated messianic figure fit the same profile, and this allows John to begin the process of outlining what to expect of the Messiah. At the same time, he is able to identify his own relationship to the coming one. According to the narrator, John’s answer is to all the people- everyone receives the invitation to accept his baptism and receive the baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

[4] Green 180-1, “John addressed the people by characterizing the Messiah in comparison with himself…(1) The Messiah is superior to John in terms of status. John does not count himself worthy even to serve as the slave by removing the thong of his sandals.73 (2) John characterizes as the messenger or prophet who prepares the way for the coming one using language that echoes Mai 3:1’ 4:5, thus embracing the role anticipated for him in 1:17,76; 3:4-6. (3) John designates the Messiah as “more powerful’ than himself—a comparison that apparently resides in his superior status and above all in his mode of baptism. The character of John’s baptism has been articulated in 3:3-14 as repentance-baptism, a cleansing by which one’s life is oriented anew around the service of God…”

[5] Green 182, “…[John’s] his baptism forces a decision for or against repentance, and this prepares for the Messiah’s work (cf. Ezek 36:25-26).”

[6] Karl Barth CD IV.4 (53), “What took place according to their account is thus more than an independent and materially alien preface to the history of Jesus. As they see and present it, it is the prologue which opens and characterizes the whole of this history, setting it in motion here from both with a definite direction and towards a specific goal. The baptism of Jesus, as His baptism is in a sense the point of intersection of the divine change and the human decision. In the main character in the event who here enters upon His way, who, one might almost say, stands here at the beginning of His Christian life, the two aspects though plainly distinct, are directly one and the same. In this direct unity this person is the subject of the life-history which follows, the history of salvation lived out for all men. At this point however, the particular interest of the event is that it was the exemplary and imperative baptismal event. In this respect, too, it is a point of intersection. For here baptism with the Holy Ghost, which may be regarded as the epitome of the divine change effected on a man, meets baptism with water which represents here the first concrete step of the human decision which follows and corresponds to the divine change.”

[7] Green 182, “Although the image described here is generally taken to be that of winnowing—that is, tossing harvested grain into the air by way of allowing wind to separate the wheat from the chaff—the language John uses actually presumes that the process of winnowing has already been completed. Consequently, all that remains is to clear the threshing floor, and this is what John pictures. This means that John’s ministry of preparation is itself the winnowing, for his call to repentance set within his message of eschatological judgment required of people that they align themselves with or over against God’s justice. As a consequence, the role of the Messiah is portrayed as pronouncing or enacting judgment on the people on the basis of their response to John.”

[8] Green 185, “Luke is less interested in Jesus’ baptism as such, and more concerned with his endowment with the Spirit and God’s affirmation of his sonship.”

[9] Green 185, The three infinitive phrases in parallel, “The initial dependent clauses lead into the focal point of this pericope by stressing Jesus’ solidarity with those who had responded positively to John’s message- by participating in the ritual act of baptism, we may recall, they (he) communicated their (his) fundamental orientation around God’s purpose.”

[10] Green 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.”

[11] 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.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.1 (217), But, of course this involves judging in the more obvious sense of the word, and therefore pardoning and sentencing. Thus the solemn question arises: Who will stand when the Son of God…into the world, when He calls the world and therefore all men (and every individual man) to render an account and to make answer for its condition? Quid sum miser tunc dicturus, quem patronum roguaturus, cum vix justus sit securus? All other men will be measured by the One who is man as they are under the same presuppositions and conditions. In His light, into which they are nolentes volentes betrayed by His being as a fellow-man, they will be shown for what they are and what they are not.

[13] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life “What is this mission that makes him ready to let himself be sent thus into that which men can do to him? What is the mission of Jesus? To make men human, to make inhuman men human, brotherly, for the sake of God’s brotherliness, because inhumanity and unbrotherlines sis destroying all of us.” 21.

[14] 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

[15] Ibid, 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.”

[16] Johnny Cash “The Man Comes Around”

“Trees Planted by Streams of Water”

Proverbs 31, Mark 9:30-37: True Discipleship #LikeAGirl (Sermon)

Introduction

You either love her or hate her; but all of you are opinionated about her. She’s either revered as the ultimate example of womanhood or she is despised as nothing but oppressive idealism unattainable by human standards. In academic circles she’s rarely if ever the topic of conversation: she’s relegated to an inferior position; that’s just about woman’s work.

Personally, I’m fascinated by her, ever since becoming a Christian I’ve marveled over her. At multiple points in my life, I’ve tried to be her only to fail. I’ve meditated on and prayed through the poem multiple times. It is no surprise to hear that I wrote a 100 page thesis on her. My question leading up to writing my MDiv thesis was: Why? Why is she here?

In and through my intellectual digging, I discovered an answer I wasn’t expecting. Rather than being a checklist for the proper execution of womanhood and wifery or some abstract communication about the people of God, the Church, she is, from head to toe, the manifestation of hope. And not just hope in general, but hope specific. She is the hope of restoration: restoration of woman to God and the restoration of the relationship between men and women. And even more than those two things, she is the manifestation of hope for humanity: what it means to be a good disciple.

It is my contention that she is an expression of the hope for the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3. She is hope for the longed for reversal that is to be completed in the coming Messiah—the Messiah to whom all of the Old Testament points. It is my belief that she is the signpost on the way to through the metanarrative of scripture that points to what comes in Christ. She is the embodiment of the hope embedded in the protoevangelium (the first gospel promise) uttered way back when in Gen 3:15 when God cursed the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,/and between your offspring and hers;/he will strike your head,/and you will strike his heel.”

She doesn’t just point to Genesis 3 when everything goes bad; but to Genesis 1 and 2 when everything was very good. The poem draws us back to the cool air of the garden, when woman walked alongside man and they communed together in the presence of God, as co-vice-regents of the earth. The Proverbs 31 Woman is fighting a battle, not just keeping house. The warfare imagery throughout the poem leads us, the reader, to see a woman, to see a person who is fighting against the chaos established by the fall. The Proverbs 31 Woman is pointing back to Eve and Adam, and at the same time pointing forward—through the chaos of the fall—to Christ—who is the very image of God his Father in his divine substance (God of very God) and of Mary his Mother in his humanity. When God walked the earth he carried her face into the world. The woman was not forgotten when God became man. To over emphasize the masculinity of Jesus the Christ at the expense of the femininity of the one whom he looked like, is to devolve into a very bad Christology and a malnourished and weak God-talk (theology). Let us talk rightly, for ourselves and because the children are listening.

V.10: “An excellent wife who can find?/She is far more precious than jewels.” The way this question is phrased in the original language expects a negative answer. Who can find this excellent wife? No one. She is so “rare” that jewels do not compare to her. Even if you could “find” her, you couldn’t afford her anyway! VV.11-12: “The heart of her husband trusts in her,/and he will have no lack of gain./12 She does him good, and not harm,/all the days of her life.” She is mature in age and in spirit. Their relationship has weathered the trials of the passing years; she is not young nor is she a newly wed. She operates in love towards her husband, just as in the New Testament those who are in Christ are encouraged to operate in love towards one another.[1] He knows that she loves him; there is no doubt, no worry, no wonder; he is confident in her love toward her. And in that he knows she loves him, his heart trusts in her. Much like a child trusts his mother.

V.13: “She seeks wool and flax,/and works with willing hands.” She can use a broad spectrum of materials to create things—she is capable, creative and astute. There is nothing wasteful about her handling of materials; everything is put to use in some way or another (v.13). V.14: “She is like the ships of the merchant;/she brings her food from afar.” She provides for her family. She’s not just making meals, she’s enjoying the bounty created by God and deemed enjoyable by Him.[2] She takes pleasure in the world just as God did and does; just as humanity did and should. V.15: “She rises while it is yet night/and provides food for her household/and portions for her maidens.” She is not given to too much sleep; she is not lazy. However, though she is diligent throughout her days, her work is not her lord (work is its proper place, under her dominion). She does not neglect her household—those who depend on her—for her own pleasures. Both men and women are to be active and care for others and not act like disinterested selfish slugabeds.[3] Oh, and by the way, she’s wealthy: she has servant girls! Even if this was about “works,” She does NOT bare that responsibility alone.

V.16: “She considers a field and buys it;/with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” She has investment-like foresight. She re-invests; she does not earn gain for gain’s sake. Her very fruitfulness (prosperity) is evidence that she is sowing righteous seed in righteous soil and continually replants the fruits of her hand.[4] V.17: “She dresses herself with strength/and makes her arms strong.” Strength is one of her foremost qualities. Her arms are strong for the task…she is able to get things done, especially in ‘planting’ a vineyard. She is not afraid of hard work or of labor. [5] Meek and mild? Think again! Think: Princess Xena. Think: Wonder Woman: Think: Amazon. Think: Frontier Woman. Weaker sex, eh?

V.18: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable./Her lamp does not go out at night.” This is not about having a home-based business. This is creational language reminiscent of Genesis, “And God saw that it was good.”[6] She is a creature that was gifted to use her mind and her hands to make. And she uses this ability to purchase the oil for her lamp and keep a store of oil so that her lamp will not go out. She is, essentially, prepared with enough oil to provide light for a long time; she’s one of the wise virgins with a trimmed wick waiting for the Lord to return.[7] V.19: “She puts her hands to the distaff,/and her hands hold the spindle.” There’s more to the imagery here than sewing. What is the distaff and spindle imagery depicting? A valid definition for the Hebrew word translated as spindle is “district”.[8] She puts her hands to the district; she extends her hands and subdues the earth as the manifestation of one of the commands of God in the Garden (reversal of 3:16ff). [9]

V.20: “She opens her hand to the poor/and reaches out her hands to the needy.” She is caring for the poor and afflicted by “extending her hands” as was required by every Israelite (Deut. 15:11). She is the godly person for whom Micah seeks as he walks around the streets, for her hands stretch out and do “good” (7:1-7). She represents what it means to be truly human: caring for the disenfranchised; she is being used as what it means to love your neighbor as yourself;.[10] V.21-22: “She is not afraid of snow for her household,/for all her household are clothed in scarlet./She makes bed coverings for herself;/her clothing is fine linen and purple.” The poem covers many seasons, winter being one of them. The poem does not just cover this woman’s day, but this woman’s entire life. The reference to her household being clothed in scarlet is synonymous with her wealth; she is a wealthy woman and has clothed her household in good, warm clothing.

V.23: “Her husband is known in the gates/when he sits among the elders of the land.” Her husband sits among the elders so he is older, thus she is, too. Notice that there have been 12 verses since her husband has been mentioned. This woman is not defined by him and her service to him, but by her own qualities, V.24: “She makes linen garments and sells them;/she delivers sashes to the merchant.” She is aware that her deeds are worthy and, thus, she does not hesitate to capitalize on them. She is wise and can bring in her own income, which she uses to the benefit of her household.[11] V.25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing,/and she laughs at the time to come.” It is through her relationship with God, it is in her fear of the Lord (v.30) where these characteristics of strength and dignity are sourced. These characteristics are evident to everyone who meets her. V.26: “She opens her mouth with wisdom,/and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” And her words back this up; they are described as wise. Her outward appearance and inward manner are one in the same; she is not a white-washed tomb. The state and orientation of her heart is righteous for what flows out of her is righteous. In Mark 7, Jesus explains it is what comes out of and not what goes into that defiles a person; our Proverbs 31 woman speaks wisdom and thus is wise and you can only be wise if you know God (according to the Hebrew and our own tradition). She knows Torah (rare); she knows and is known by God.

V.27: “She looks well to the ways of her household/and does not eat the bread of idleness.” V.28-29: “Her children rise up and call her blessed;/her husband also, and he praises her:/“Many women have done excellently,/but you surpass them all.” “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” is akin to the statement of the husband in the poem in Proverbs 31, “Many women have done well, But you surpass them all.”[12] V.30-31: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,/but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised./Give her of the fruit of her hands,/and let her works praise her in the gates.” This is the key to the whole poem! It is her inner-beauty, her fear of the Lord that has been the eye-catching aspect of this woman from v.11 to v.30. Her strength and dignity come from her relationship with God; her wisdom, too, is of God (Prov. 1:7).

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 his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The proverbs 31 woman is a glimpse of a restored Eve and a restored relationship of Eve to God; thus, a glimpse of the restoration of the relationship of woman to man.[13] But it’s not only about that. If we take the creation myth of Genesis 2 seriously, and see it primarily as a story about the creation of (thus the necessity of) community in likeness and difference (which is the extinguishing of loneliness), then what we see here, too, is the restoration of Humanity. The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly the embodiment of the ideal humanity yanked out of the chaos and myths of the world–a world broken by oppressive and deleterious systems of abuse in manifold forms–and placed into the Reign of God. Located in the reign of God in the event-encounter with God by faith in Christ alone. And this Reign of God is marked by love and kindness, by mercy and divine justice in restoration and reconciliation, in freedom for all or freedom for none, in the solidarity in suffering and pain and grief and sorrow, in the equality and mutuality in community that lives the very thing believed: that the dividing wall has been torn down, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female (Gal 3:28). To be truly human, to be the faithful disciple in the world, is to act as the Reign of God is; to act like the Proverbs 31 woman.

The remarkable thing about our readings today is not just the fact that we read the Proverbs 31 poem and that you happen to have in your midst a self-proclaimed P. 31 scholar (*wink), but that our Gospel passage, from Mark, works with the Proverbs reading. Jesus spends time explaining to his disciples what it means to be a good disciple (and the Gospel of Mark is directed at such a specific message): If anyone wishes to be first, he must be last and servant of all people (9:35, translation mine). He then (immediately) snags a small child and places that child in the midst of his cadre of disciples. Jesus lowers himself, puts his arms around the child and says this, Whoever receives one such as this child on the basis of my name, that person receives me; and whoever receives me, does not receive (only) me, but the one who sent me (v37, translation mine). Whoever receives into their arms, intimately, one such as this child receives me. Receives one such as this child. And I am relocated to when I reached for and held my first born son, just born; receive one such as this child. According to Jesus, to be and do the will of God is to love like a mother.

Even Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians uses mothering imagery to explain what agape love (divine love) looks like to the men/husbands in Ephesus. In a discussion about what mutual submission looks like, Paul shorthands a quick statement to the wives: each to their own husbands as unto the Lord. (Full Stop.) He then turns to the husbands: y’all best sit down for this…Paul begins. What do I mean by love and mutual submission the women get, but you don’t because you’ve never brought a child into the world. The washing imagery of 5:25-28 is less to do with “baptism” and everything to do with the washing of a child by the mother.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

A regular practice of mothers in the ancient Greco-Roman society was to forgo their own cleanliness in order to wash their child. Just like our own bodies betray us in gestation, so to do our brains in consistently choosing the well being of our child over our own. It’s why mothers do weird things (because they’re tired and they’re in love). The men would’ve washed themselves first, but the mother would’ve washed the baby first. This Paul uses as an example for the men, they would’ve seen it practiced in their own homes and boy would that message had been radical. Paul knew that women understood “mutual submission”; not only because they had to endure it socially and politically but also because they couldn’t deny it relationally (as a mom). They knew instinctively what that agape love was.

If you’ve ever wondered why the women are always getting “it” in the gospels, if you’ve ever wondered why the women seem to understand what and why Jesus came, you now have your answer: the activity of God for the world has not only paternal but also significant maternal power. And if you know agape love you recognize agape love.

Mark 15, the women watch Jesus die; they knew. Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman; she knew. Mark 14, the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany; she knew. Mark 5, the woman suffering from perpetual bleeding; she knew. John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well; she knew. Luke 10, Mary at Jesus’s feet; she knew. They all knew in the core of their being; they knew.

We see Jesus the man in his strong masculine form and forget that he’s God who is both male and female and thus embodies also the strength and dignity of the paradoxical gentleness and fierceness of the feminine. Both men and women, in Christ, justified by faith, are to receive and love all people unto the least, like a mother. It’s not reception as in tolerance; it’s life laying down neighbor love, the way a mother loves her child. Believe me, Jesus loves the whole world. He loves in the way that he bore the sins of the world just like a woman bears a child into it. In the same way she holds that child to her breast as she nurtures and sustains that child. In the same way a mother will lay her life down for her child no matter what the threat or possible destruction she herself will undergo.

Both men and women are encountered by God in the event of faith. Both men and women are called to be disciples of Christ marked by laying down of their lives and in bearing their crosses. Both men and women are brought unto death and into new life in Christ. Together.  Good news has come to the world in Christ Jesus this man who is God. And no longer bound to the systems and stories and lies of the world, believers are the ones who live into the world in a radical way; the one’s who know God and live as if they do. Today through the words of the poem of Proverbs 31 and in Jesus’s embracing a child, we are called to be the faithful witnesses of Christ in the world, to proclaim Christ crucified to the world in all that we say and in all that we do, and to love (radically) all people and the world as we have been loved (radically and unconditionally) by God. Let us love, let us love like a mother loves her child, love like the Proverbs 31 Woman, love like the women who knew, love #likeagirl.

[1] (1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5, Love your neighbor as yourself)

[2](DBI 297) “God not only provides, and provides abundantly for his creatures, but he also provides an immense variety of pleasurable flavors, textures, colors, shapes and smells, all of which indicate the joy and delight of the creator with his creation”

[3] (Prov. 6:6, 9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30)

[4] (v. 16; Gen. 1:28; Mt. 25:14-30).

[5] “Both the arm and the hand are biblical images of power….[and] can represent power in action, either good or evil” (DBI 43)

[6] (Gen. 1:10b, 12c, 18c, 20e, 25c, 31b)

[7] (Mt. 25:1-13)

[8] (Moore 25-30; BDB 813; cf. Nehemiah)

[9] (Gen. 1:24, Gen. 2:18)

[10] (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22;39; Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14)

[11] (Gen. 1:24, 28)

[12] “In order to understand what follows, we must turn at once to the final goal: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,’ is the cry of man when God brings him the woman. This exclamation, the expression of a recognition, the proclamation of a choice and decision made by man—the first saying of man expressly recorded in the saga—is not just a kind of epilogue to the creation of the woman, and therefore the completion of man’s creation, but it is with this express saying of man that the latter reaches its goal…The whole story aims at this exclamation by man. In this, and this alone, the creative work of God reaches its goal, for only now has man really been given the necessary help designed by God” (CD III I.41.3 291).

[13] Erika Moore’s Exegesis paper, “The Domestic Warrior: An Exegesis of Proverbs 31:10-31”. 1994. (14).

You Can’t Get There From Here

John 6:35, 41-51 (Sermon)

“You can’t get there from here,” I said to the person sitting in their car.

“But isn’t this Pine Street?” They asked, a bit desperate.

“Yes,” I assured. “It is Pine Street. But the part of Pine Street you’re looking for isn’t connected—in any way—to this segment of Pine Street. You actually have to go down this road, take a left, go up two blocks, take a right, then you take the next life, follow that road for a few blocks, take a left, and then take your next left, then drive a few blocks, and then you’ll see the part of Pine Street you’re looking for on your right.” I finished on a very confident note.

The driver of the maroon sedan looked over his left shoulder and down a small portion of Pine Street clearly visible through his back window. “But, isn’t it just right there?” He pointed to a cluster of trees and a dead-end no more than 50 yards away. His eyes communicated his confusion and maybe even a small amount of panic. Good Lord. What dimension have I fallen into??

I turned to look in the direction he was pointing. I smiled, chuckled, and said, “Yup. It’s right there. Someone could easily throw a rock and hit that house you want to get to.” And then I turned back to look at my confused traveler. I smiled as reassuringly as I could, and said, “Welcome to Pittsburgh.” I sent him on his way and encouraged him that he’ll eventually get there, but that he’ll also probably have to stop and have this very conversation a few more times. But, hey! Isn’t life about being on a meandering journey and making many new acquaintances on the way?

Pittsburgh was notoriously hard to navigate via car. I don’t think I ever audibly uttered the sentiment, “If I just had a horse, this whole thing would be easier,” more than I did when I lived in Pittsburgh. At one point in our little-more-than-a-decade there, I was convinced that Down Town Pittsburgh itself, the actual city of Pittsburgh, had a magical force field around it. If you didn’t hit it just right, you’d bounce off it and be sent into a long and major tunnel that would drop you off somewhere else where you’d whisper while curiously looking around and out of all the angles of your windshield, “Huh, I didn’t know this was part of Pittsburgh…” Then 40 minutes later and finally having found a place to turn around (legally or illegally, desperation gets the best of all us), you’d find yourself headed back for round two, “Hold on, Kids! Mama’s breaking through this time! Children’s Museum or Bust!”

You can’t get there from here.

Jesus said to them, “I, I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me will not hunger, and the one who believes in me will not thirst at any time…And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not grumble with one another. No one is able to come to me if the father, the one who sent me, does not draw them…It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ All the ones who heard and learned from the father come to me (John 6:35, 43-45; translation mine)

The tension of the paradox embedded in this portion of our Gospel passage is palpable. Jesus explains in v. 35, “The one who comes to me will neither hunger nor will they thirst ever again…” And then Jesus adds, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws them.” This is the divine, “You can’t get there from here.” “Come to me but only if you’ve been called.” “I’m calling your name, but only if you’ve been given ears to hear me.” In this verbal moment, those who are listening to Jesus are all stuck in a maroon sedan, unable to get to the location they want to get to: satiating bread and thirst quenching water. The destination is so close and also so far away, it’s right there within reach and just beyond their grasp. These verses highlight that the people Jesus is addressing are very much in a bad way; they’re stuck. Like Nicodemus before them in John 3, “How can anyone…?”

We’re stuck, too. We spend most of our days endlessly running and running and running, and the entire time we are going absolutely nowhere. Days bleed into each other, the same thing over and over and over again, the distinction that used to be big and bold between Thursday night and Friday night has nearly vanished—weekdays and weekends are all just days. Demands come and demands are met; and again, tomorrow, those same demands will come trouncing back in to our lives, asking to be met with the same answers and actions. Day in and day out we are chained to the treadmill of life that forces us to run at a demanding pace, that causes us to slowly and surely turn in on ourselves so much that we eventually begin looking like tightly coiled springs that are made of flesh and bone.

We live in the paradox of being “alive” but also very dead at the same time. We’re stuck in an endless cycle that is death pretending to be life—we joke, “Life, am I right?” We comfort others and ourselves as we run about this rat-race with contrite phrases and some version of “misery loves company” and console ourselves into accepting that this living death as living life. But it’s not, it’s no joke, and it’s certainly no comfort. And, I ‘m not speaking of the monotony of life that I referenced a couple of weeks ago. And, I’m not speaking against various forms of self-improvement. What I’m speaking of is the striving after our own self-justification, the desperate activity we employ to make ourselves “ok” not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God; I’m speaking against our frantic and frenetic activity that is the hallmark of the sham existence that is desperately trying to stave off the reality that death (in its myriad of existential forms) comes and you’re helpless against it. No matter how much food we eat or how much water we drink, death still comes; [1] to think we can avoid death through any of our own actions is to attempt to grasp oil with the hand. This type of striving and living is a sham living, is a barely alive version of death; and it is very real. We’re the walking dead and no wonder most of us were riveted to that show for months and months—it strikes very close to home.

The worst part of what I’ve been describing is that we’re hopeless to remedy the situation of our living-deadness in and of ourselves; we’re helpless to help ourselves out of this death like living. No Zombie can unzombify itself; the walking dead have no hope apart from the quick activity of a sharp blade. No one stuck on this treadmill of life can just turn the treadmill off and take a break because this treadmill doesn’t have an on/off switch or a pause button; and it’s ill advised to just step off because that way lies either certain disfiguring injury or death. We’re stuck, very stuck unless someone trips us up and throws our incurvatus in se focus out of alignment. Anyone who comes to me will never thirst or hunger again…but the ones who come only come because the Father draws them. Apart from some miracle of radical intervention, we can’t get there from here.

‘…Not that anyone has seen the father except the one who is from God, this one has seen the father. Truly, truly I say to you, “the one who believes has eternal life.” I, I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This one who came down from heaven is the bread, in order that anyone may eat of it and not die. I, I am the living bread, the one who came down from heaven…’ (John 6:46-51a, translation mine)

We need an intervention and that intervention necessitate having our dire state exposed and revealed to us. It’s not until we get the right diagnosis that we can then get the very help we need. In our gospel passage from John, Jesus is the one who has come down from heaven to reveal to us God and to give the dry bones, the walking dead life, true life—not the living deadness we call life. Jesus is the Revealer, the one who has descends into our plight, exposes our dire situation, calls us to him, feeds us with the bread of life, quenches our thirst with living water (John 4), sends the darkness permanently fleeing with his light (John 1:5), and summons the dead to life. [2]

Deuteronomy 30 verses 11-14 we read:

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ either is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

We can’t get there from here. But the good news is God crosses the vast distance to us. The incarnate word, the word made flesh, Christ the Revealer, descends from heaven and crosses the sea to us. No matter how much we think that demand rests on our shoulders, it doesn’t. You can’t climb up into heaven and you can’t walk across water. The paradox and tension embedded in our gospel passage is real, but it is of great comfort, too. God has descended. God has come down from heaven and has entered into our world, not hovered a bit above it or dwelled about over in the sidelines, but into it, in it, in the midst of the people.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:14, 16-18).

Just a few chapters before our gospel passage we read about the “Samaritan Woman” who has trudged off to the well to fetch water under the heat of the noonday sun. There at the well, she encounters Christ who is sitting on the ground reclined against the well. Jesus the incarnate word is physically down low; the word made flesh dwells low in a Samaritan village talking to a Samaritan.

“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?…Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’” (John 4:10-15)

Descent is exactly the verbal thrust of what “incarnation” means and is. It doesn’t mean that God took on flesh and then remained out of reach; it means God was very much in reach, touchable by us as we are. It means: we might not be able to get there from here, but sure as heck God can.

Because God has come to us, because God has descended from heaven and has traversed the sea to get to humanity, to get to us, faith is now possible[3] because the author of faith, God, has come to us to create that which God desires. The static voice of the law couldn’t generate faith, only something dynamic—something living, breathing, thirst-quenching, hunger-satisfying—could generate faith. Not the commands of God but God in God’s self in Christ Jesus comes down into the world to dwell among humanity, calling humanity unto God’s self. To gaze upon Christ is to gaze upon God; [4] the great “I am” walks among the people and calls them to him thus to God; this is who is speaking, the one we desire and long for. [5]

We do not receive of some measly bread loaves and a couple of fish and wash it down with a bit of water drawn from a human made, earthy well—these items mentioned by Jesus symbolically represent that everything we desire, our deepest needs are met in God by faith.[6] In faith in Christ we receive more than what any bread or water could ever give us: we receive God, thus life.[7]

And this goes against everything that makes sense to us; in fact it’s an offense to us and to the world.[8] Jesus, the “son of Joseph and Mary”, is the Revealer, is the έγώ-είμι that walks about on the earth encountering humanity, up-ending our expectations and desires, and putting a cessation to our demands. We are stripped down of all of our false beliefs and comforting myths; not even our real hunger and our real thirst will save our hide.[9] Everything we are striving after is as if we are striving after the wind. We need the real manna[10] (cf. Ex. 16) from heaven and the waters from the real Rock (cf. Ex. 17): “…the bread [and water] of God is the Revealer who comes from heaven and gives life to the world.” What Christ reveals is that we need him.[11]

In that we are made to realize in the revelation by the Revealer, by Christ, that we do not need more bread and water, but that we need him, we find ourselves falling to our knees with empty hands outstretched and eager to partake of Christ—because Christ is the both the foundation and orientation of faith.[12] We find ourselves forfeiting our rights to ourselves and to our self-justifications and our sham existence.[13] In this moment of our desperation, in the coming-to-the-end of ourselves, and in being completely undone, we paradoxically find ourselves—in the event of faith—fully alive in this wholly other, we find ourselves fully alive in God by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.[14] When we let go of ourselves and suffer that death, we find ourselves called back to life by the voice of God in Christ.[15]

“I, I am the living bread, the one who came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live into eternity, and also the bread that I, I will give—my flesh—it is for the sake of the life of the world” (John 6:51, translation mine)

The love of God can neither be contained in heaven, nor can it be contained within God’s self alone. It’s a love that is both dynamic and active and moves and goes to the furthest recesses of the world to seek and save the beloved: you and me, the disciples way back when and all who are to come, the whole entire world. [16]

“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.” (John 3:16-17) 

It is a love that descends and hovers over the surface of the waters and the land as it did way back when in Genesis (cf. Gen 1:1-5). In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, in the totality of who Christ is and what Christ did, Christ is for all of humanity.[17] And in that we have heard and seen, in that we have partaken of the living bread and living water given to us in Christ received by faith, we are sent forth in to the world moved by the Spirit who’s mission is to continue to reveal to the world this man Christ Jesus who is God and to draw all people unto God through faith in Christ.

Just as the love of God manifest in Christ Jesus was not static but dynamic, so to are we made to be dynamic and not static. We weren’t able to get there from here, but God met us. And we are to bring this encounter out and beyond the four walls of this church. We are not to be lights dwelling with other lights; we are to be lights unto and into the world, casting away darkness with the light of life. We who have been encountered by a wholly other God go forth into the world making a wholly other society.[18] As we are fed with the bread and water of Christ by faith, we go out and literally feed those who are hungry, clothe those who are naked, shelter those who are homeless, befriend those who are lonely, and reunite those who have been separated. We are drawn unto God and exhorted to live wholly different in a world that is tethered to it’s own addiction to the status-quo, controlled by the myths circulating and running amuck and oppressing people with fear, stuck in an incessant need to meet real hunger and thirst with things that never bring relief and only bring death: death to those who are starving from consuming and death to those because they are being consumed. We are left in our encounter with God without reason or excuse not to be about the business of upending injustice.

By the movement of the Spirit in our lives and because we have heard and have seen and have eaten and have tasted, we are to be humans in a world that behaves and acts rather inhuman.[19]

Borrowing from the words of Paul to the Ephesians,

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (4:31-5:2) 

Let us go forth into the world, bringing the very life and light we have received here in hearing and seeing and partaking of Christ through faith in Christ to a world that is desperately in need of life and light. Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the spirit, proclaiming to a hungry and thirsty world: We couldn’t get there from here but God has crossed the divide, God has come to us! Let us go forth in to the world proclaiming, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!” (Psalm 34:8).

[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). v.27 “This warning is again delivered against the background of Johannine ‘dualism”’ It is open for all to understand; for it is addressed, as of the living water, to man’s will for life. It brings home to man that life is not assured by human food; for such food is perishable as is the life which it gives. If man wants eternal life, he must find the food which endures. But what is this miraculous food, and where is it be found?“ p. 222

[2] Bultmann, “For here the bread of life which the Father gives by sending the Son from heaven (vv. 32f.) is the Son the Revealer. He gives (v. 27) and is (vv. 35,48,51) the bread of life, in the same way that he gives the water of life (4.10) and is the light of the (8.12), and as the Revealer gives life to the world (v. 33; cp. 10.28; 17.2)—to those, that is, who “come” to him (v. 35; cp. 3.20f.; 5.40), who believe in him (v. 35; and cp. 3.20f. with 3.18). In all of this there is no need for a sacramental act, by means of which the believer must make the life his own.” p. 219

[3] Bultmann, “On the other hand vv. 41-46 again form a closely-knit unit. The Jews’ unbelief, which finds expression in their murmuring (vv. 41f.), is traced back to its metaphysical roots: the possibility of faith is given only by God (vv. 43-46). The reference to faith here as “coming to Jesus” gives the theme of “coming” its organic place within the dialogue, and vv. 36-40 would doubtless most appropriately follow on vv. 41-46.” p. 221. And, Έγώ-είμι “…shows Jesus as the true bread of life and confronted man with the decision of faith in the form of a promise. In the second part the express theme is the possibility of faith….” p. 229

[4] Bultmann, “’In the έγώ-είμι statements Jn. 6.35, 48, 51; 8.12; 10.7, 9, 11, 14; 15.1, 5 we clearly have recognition formulae, even if in the source they were perhaps intended as presentation or qualificatory formulae. For in the context of the Gospel the έγώ is strongly stressed and it is always contrasted with false or pretended revelation (cf. 6.49-51; 10:10, 11-13; cp. also 5.43). On the other hand 11.25, and perhaps too 14.6, are probably identification formulae.” 226fn3

[5] Bultmann, “Jesus’ reply (v. 35), expressed by means of the revelatory formula, έγω είμι, says that what they are looking for is present in his person…” p. 225

[6] Bultmann, “In the promise the fulfillment of man’s desire for life is split up into the stilling of man’s hunger and the stilling of his thirst…symbolic meaning of άρτος, and the identity of the bread of life and the living water.” p. 227fn3

[7] Bultmann, “The whole paradox of the revelation is contained in this reply. Whoever wants something from him must know that he has to receive Jesus himself. Whoever approaches him with the desire for the gift of life must learn that Jesus is himself the gift he really wants. Jesus gives the bread of life in that he is the bread of life. Yet he is the bread of life surely because in his person he is nothing in himself, but is present in the service of the Father for man. Whoever wishes to receive life from him must therefore believe in him—or, as it is figuratively expressed must ‘come to him.’” p.227

[8] Bultmann, “The murmuring of the Jews (v. 41) is directed against the decisive έγώ είμι in ν. 51. The claim of revelation provokes the opposition of the world. It takes offence at the fact that the revelation encounters it in history; it is offended by the fact that the man, whose father and mother they know, claims to be the Revealer (v. 42).” P. 229

[9] Bultmann, “…God’s revelation destroys every picture which desires make of it, so that the real test of man’s desire for salvation is to believe even when God encounters him in a totally different way from that which he expected.” p. 228

[10] Bultmann, “The contrast is first made in general terms. The manna could not give life; the fathers who ate it the bread of heaven (v. 50). This is again followed in v. 51a by the word of revelation: ‘I am the one who fulfills that which is said about the bread of heaven’.” p. 229

[11] Bultmann, “V. 32 had stated that only God gives the bread of heaven, and v. 33 added that the bread of God is the Revealer; vv. 47f. now completes the argument by declaring, “I am he!” What is true in principle has become historical reality in Jesus’ person.” p. 229

[12] Bultmann, “Since hearing and learning from the Father are basically nothing other than faith, i.e., coming to Jesus, the statement is a paradox which makes clear the nature of faith. It means that only he who believes, believes; but this is to say that faith has no support outside itself; it sees what it sees only in faith….For faith is related to its object; it is a relationship to that which is believed and as such it has its own security, which can rest only in the object of faith: τον ερχόμενον πρός με ού μή εκβάλω εξω. Faith is sure of only as it seizes hold of the promises made to it.” P. 232

[13] Bultmann, “Thus the Jews with their objection do not see that the divine cannot be contrasted with the human in the confident way in which they say, ‘How can an ordinary man claim to be the Revealer!’ For this is the very absurdity which the event of revelation proclaims; and the condition of its understanding is that [humanity] should relinquish the assurance with which [humanity] believes [humanity] can pass judgement on the human and the divine as objectively determinable phenomena.” p.230

[14] Bultmann, “It is not that [one] has the possibility of a special and direct relationship to God; for this can be said only of the Revealer; any other relationship to God must be mediated by the Revealer” p. 232

[15] Bultmann, “…faith becomes possible when one abandons hold on one’s own security, and to abandon one’s security is nothing else than to let oneself be drawn by the Father….[This drawing] is not a magic process, nor is it governed by rigid laws like the laws of nature. It occurs when man abandons his own judgement and ‘hears’ and ‘learns’ from the Father, when he allows God to him. The ‘drawing’ by the Father occurs not, as it were. Behind man’s decision of faith but in it. He who comes to Jesus, however, receives the promise, ‘I will not reject him’.” pp. 231-2

[16] Karl Barth CD III.2.45.213 “…and most powerfully of all Jn. 651 Tells us that ‘the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give —a saying which finds as exact parallel in the well-known verse Jn. 316, where we read that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.’ What Jesus is ‘for us’ or ‘for you’ in the narrower circle of the disciples and the community He is obviously, through the ministry of this narrower circle, ‘for all’ or ‘for the world’ in the wider or widest circle. And in the majority of the relevant passages this action of Jesus for others (His disciples, His community, the many, ail, the world) is His death and passion. This is the primary reference of the more general expressions which speak of His self-offering for men.”

[17] Karl Barth CD III.2.45.214 “It must not be forgotten that as the New Testament sees it man Jesus who was given up to death is identical with the Lord now living and universally visible return is for the community the sum of their future and of that of the world. He has overcome death in suffering it. He has risen again from the dead. And it is in this totality that He is ‘for men.’”

[18] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). “That is, [Gollwitzer] clarifies for us that there is no such thing as 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.” pp. 166-7.

[19] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). “What is the mission of Jesus? To make men human, to make inhuman men human, brotherly, for the sake of God’s brotherliness, because in humanity and unbrotherliness is destroying all of us.” p. 21.

Blessed are the Ordinary

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (Sermon)

One of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had is being a parent, specifically being a stay-at-home-parent. It’s probably not hard to imagine why I’d say such a thing; either you personally relate to such a statement because of experience or you’ve witnessed the grueling task being performed by another. Being the primary care provider for little and rather irrational human beings demands a certain amount of mental and physical and emotional fortitude; not to mention the exponential increase therein as you have more kids. Maneuvering through (what seems like) the endless minefield of demands and needs and still retaining some sense of self at the end of the day is the feat of feats.

But it wasn’t just the tasks that sent me into my own personal pressure cooker and crucible, but the monotony of the tasks. The day in and day out of doing the exact same thing over and over again often felt soul crushing and dehumanizing. I had gone from a well-decorated seminary student with a bright-star-esque academic future, to rinsing off yet another poopy cloth diaper. The rocking chair and my nursing infant tethered me to the nursery. This. This is my life. Nursing and diaper changes. Peanut butter jelly sandwiches and massive tantrums.

 I watched as my peers reviewed proofs of their books, traveled to exotic locations to proclaim the gospel, start ministries and plant churches while I was stuck changing my shirt for the fourth time that day because of projectile spit-up. My inner monologue featured the twin thoughts: “I’m capable of so much more!” and “Good Lord, I’m a shell of a human being…”

One day, while I was reading one of the volumes of Luther’s Works, I saw my plight clearly defined.

This punishment [in Genesis 3:16], too, springs from original sin; and the woman bears it just as unwillingly as she bears those pains and inconveniences that have been placed upon her flesh. The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, defends his possessions, tills the soil, builds, plants, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home…so the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household, as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and that concern the state. She does not go beyond her most personal duties.[1]

On that day, as my eyes moved over Luther’s words, I felt the very long tentacles of the curse uttered way back when cinch and tighten around me. I was a nail hammered so deep into a wall that the only hope to recover the nail would be to tear the wall down; the only other recourse would be to just admit the nail was lost forever. I wasn’t special, I wasn’t a bright-shining star; I was just a mom stuck in the monotony and banality of #momlyfe.

And I know I’m not alone, and I know that what I experienced isn’t merely a stay-at-home-parent thing. We all suffer from the monotony and banality of our lives. Very few of us here are as famous and special as we thought we would be when we were kids. And even if we are, monotony and the mundane plague every one’s life. The same people keep sitting in the same chairs at our dinning tables, ranting about the same things. We drive the same route in the same traffic there and back from work. Our lunches are packed with the same foods and in the same manner; the only change being that the store ran a sale on pink lady apples so you didn’t get the Fuji you normally get. Ooooo. Fancy.

While routine can bring comfort, it will also bring disdain; no one likes being in a rut or in the thick of existential crises surrounded by the doldrums. At some point in the last 7 days—more likely than not—you said or thought something to the equivalent of: is this all there is for me? Or you felt stuck, stuck like a nail driven deep into a wall, nothing special.

And then the apostles were called together to Jesus and they reported to him everything that they did and everything they taught. And then [Jesus] said to them, “Come! You yourselves privately to an empty place and rest a little.” For the people—who were the ones coming and the ones going—they were not even having an opportunity to eat. And they (Jesus and the disciples] went away in a fishing boat into an empty place privately. And then they saw them [Jesus and the disciples] going away and many people recognized [them] and then together they ran from all of the towns and they were ahead of them [Jesus and the disciples]. (Mark 6:30-33)

There’s nothing really special about our Gospel passage either. In fact, it’s remarkably dull and mundane. Neither my exegetical work nor any commentary provided me with that: “Oh, wow! That’s really cool!” moment we preachers so desperately desire. The text is as a bland in the original Greek as it is in the English; you’re not missing out on anything.

The story is as follows: the disciples have returned to Jesus and tell him what they’ve been doing (Mark doesn’t take the time to be specific, it’s merely: they tell Jesus all the things, no one story being significant to tell in detail). Jesus then suggests a retreat, and they all get in a boat to go to a remote place for rest. This attempt is thwarted because: people. Jesus loves the people and teaches them. That’s it. There’s nothing very remarkable here.

The reality that Jesus is popular or that he is very concerned for the physical and mental state of his overworked disciples[2] isn’t new; Mark is consistently pointing out both.[3] Even the destination for the disciple’s retreat is not even worth mentioning in detail: it’s merely a deserted, remote place without a name located somewhere on the northwestern portion of the shore.[4] And, according to the commentary I read for this passage, v. 33 points out that Mark has, “…oversimplified the process by which so large a crowd came to be in the ε῎ρημος τόπος looking for Jesus.”[5] Mark, in his quick and immediate style, merely informs his reader that there were a lot of people, these people recognized them, and they ran to meet Jesus on the other side of the shore. V. 33 has a lot of information collapsed into it; none of it particularly all that fascinating.

To make matters more bland, the main point of the remainder of chapter 6 falls not with this failed attempt at retreat and rest, but on the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’s walking on the surface of the water.[6] But guess what? We weren’t even offered the good part. According to the Lectionary, we go from v. 34 straight to v.53 and read about another boating endeavor and Jesus healing everyone everywhere. The lectionary intentionally dropped those two big, fat miracles out of the reading. And, just like our boring lives, what we’re left with is a big dose of: meh.

Wedding the lectionary’s scriptural omission to the conception that Mark’s is very concerned with (and has been for a few chapters now) the “Christological question…‘Who is Jesus?’”[7], we find ourselves in a bit of an intellectual conundrum. We’re faced with the question: how does this handful of disconnected verses offer illumination into Jesus? How are we, through the text, brought into an encounter with God? And surely the crisis of the need for food and being encountered by your rabbi walking on water provides a more than adequate means for a textually centered encounter with God. In my very human opinion, the miracles seem to be a seraphic announcement: Jesus is God! But what we have seems more like divine mumbling, huh? what? I didn’t quite catch that.

And then when he [Jesus] got out he saw a large crowd and he felt sympathy upon them, that they were as sheep not having a shepherd, and then he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Rather than being overwhelmed by the largeness and the magnificence of the grand miracles of vv. 35-52, where we can point and say: See?! This is God; there is God in Christ! We are left being rather underwhelmed with mundane minutia and commonplace statements about Christ. But maybe that’s the point?

Maybe by not being dropped into midst of the grandness of the big miracles but shoved to the outside margins and fringes, we are being asked to reconsider how we view the ordinary? Being forced to focus on the text surrounding two major miracles and not on the miracles themselves demands that we broaden our typically narrow Christological answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” We are forced to incorporate the small, the mundane, and the banal of life in our answer. Whatever we say of Christ applies even in the monotony of the everyday.

In v. 34, Christ has compassion on the crowd because they are sheep without a shepherd (a clear Old Testament reference).[8] The imagery of the sheep without a shepherd, “…denotes the ‘untended’ state of the ordinary people of Galilee… which arouses Jesus’ compassion and to which he responds as in 4:1-2 by an extended period of teaching.”[9] Jesus has compassion on a group of people, a large group of ordinary people with ordinary lives. Jesus, in the big and in the small, is “‘the one who cares.’”[10] This one who cares is the one who the ordinary people encounter on the shore, and it’s in this encounter where the ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary because the ordinary comes into contact with the extraordinary. And, that’s what the grace of God does and this extraordinary alteration is the essence of the reign of God.[11]

In the economy of the reign of God: what was last is first, what is made low is brought high, what is poor is rich, what is unclean is made clean, what is rejected is accepted, and what is dead is made to be alive. In all of the gospel accounts of Christ, Jesus is recorded as upending the status quo and in doing so he overthrows the controlling myths of the world. When being strong and powerful and rich and satiated was considered to be the manifestation of blessedness, that God had looked upon you and smiled, Jesus said the opposite,

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.’” (Luke 6:20-22).

Blessed are you who are ordinary for yours is the extraordinary grace of God. Because it’s in the throes of existential crisis of monotony where you realize you are completely incapable in yourself to be anything but ordinary and commonplace, where the lie that you have to be the richest of the rich, or the powerful of the powerful to affect change in this world is exposed. God, in Christ, has looked upon you and has had compassion. And we know that it is the character and quality of God to have compassion because Christ is compassionate here and elsewhere; this is as marvelous and powerful (and maybe more so) as stilling and quieting the wind and waves, as magnificent as walking on water and feeding the 5,000. This is the extraordinary and compassionate God the ordinary people of Galilee encounter on the shore.[12]

In this event-encounter with God everything changes by the paradoxical grace of God. The rejected becomes the beloved, the sick become the well, and the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

A friend of mine wrote a very excellent book on the life and theology and politics of Helmut Gollwitzer, a theologian of early 20th century Protestant Germany. He writes about Gollwitzer’s death,

“Helmut lived for another seven years and more, until October 17, 1993. He died when he fell down the stairs of his house. This may seem like an odd detail to include here. I must admit that when I first learned how Gollwitzer died, it struck me as an unjustly ignoble death for one who had lived the life and survived the circumstances that he did. From another perspective, however, that Gollwitzer survived what he did only to die in such a mundane way is perhaps the greatest possible testament not only to his strength and character, but also the grace of God that characterized his life—grace upon grace.”[13]

When I first read how Gollwitzer died, it didn’t make sense to me that my friend was seeing it as a great testament to the grace of God. Considering my friend to be one of the better theologians I currently know, I knew there was something I was missing in the connection. What was he seeing that I couldn’t see?

Finally, it dawned on me that I could ask him, especially when he was standing next to me at AAR. When I asked him how Gollwitzer’s death—caused by falling down stairs—was “grace upon grace,” he explained to me that it was the paradox of grace. The grace of God changes the mundane tasks and events of life; it’s in the mundane tasks and events of life where the grace of God is exposed for what it is: truly remarkable. It’s in the non-miraculousness of life where the paradoxical grace of God shines brightly—we expect to see the power and grace of God in a miracle, but not so much in the everyday. It is here in the mundane and monotonous aspects of life where we encounter God and the question, “Who is this?” about Christ is answered with a “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). The drab gray background of our common and ordinary lives highlights the bright colors of God’s grace. God is glorified in the ordinary.

Our regular tasks and the things we do day in and day out, the very things we think are hindering the grace of God are the very vehicles for the grace of God, where we encounter God in the event of faith. We don’t have to be monastic monks to experience the grace of God. We can experience God’s grace in the common. Changing diapers is divine, holding an average steady job to provide for your family is divine, putting meals on the table over and over and over again is divine, studying or grading papers is divine, just getting up and being present in your life in whatever capacity you can participate in is divine, even death is divine; in all of these things we are brought into event-encounters with God and with each other. This is surely divine.

In these event-encounters we are brought into life out of death because now everything harbors the beauty of divine possibility for encounter with God with an other. We don’t have to be strong and powerful and rich to be of any good in the world (and often times these things fail and hinder us in this regard). Rather, all we need to be is wonderfully and unremarkably ordinary human beings doing wonderfully ordinary human things with other ordinary human beings. We are the ones who have been the beloved objects of the God who cares and has compassion on us, who will never leave us or forsake us.

Luther was wrong (and make note: I rarely say it). We are not nails driven so deep in to a wall, rendered stuck in our respective environs and social platforms. We are the very ordinary creatures set loose upon the world to love and act radically as the very ordinary humans we are in Christ. We don’t have to focus on trying to make ourselves special because we already are in Christ. Blessed are those who are ordinary because they are the beloved people of an extraordinary God freed unto and into the world to set the captives loose.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23:1-6)

 

[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. LW. V. 1. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958. p. 202-3.

[2] France, p. 263. “υ῾μει῀ς αυ᾽τοι´ is unusually emphatic, and places the focus on the need of the disciples themselves: they have been serving others; now they themselves need to be cared for.”

[3] France, p. 263. “At the same time it reinforces the repeated emphasis of Mark both on the uncomfortable popularity of Jesus…and on his habit of taking his disciples away from the crowd…for periods of relief and of instruction.”

[4] France, p. 264. “Mark does not tell us where this particular ε῎ρημος τόπος was, but Luke locates the incident at Bethsaida (or rather presumably in its neighbourhood, since he, too, calls it an ε῎ρημος τόπος).” However, it is better to not credit Luke with geographical accuracy and “…assume that Mark has in view a place on the northwestern shore (such as the traditional site at Tabgha) not too far from Capernaum and on the same side of the Jordan inflow…”

[5] France, p. . The description in v.33 of the crowd and their goings-on seems to be that “…Mark has oversimplified the process by which so large a crowd came to be in the ε῎ρημος τόπος looking for Jesus.” Specifically as it relates to the coming miracle (that is skipped by the lectionary) in the feeding of the 5k.

[6] RT France The Gospel of Mark NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002). p. 260. “The initial focus of the pericope is on the abortive attempt of Jesus to organize a ‘retreat’ for his disciples on their return from their mission (vv. 31-32), but the whole weight of the story falls on the feeding of the *unwanted_ crowd who frustrated that plan.”

[7] France, p 263. “But the patent symbolism should not lead us to miss what is surely the primary purpose in Mark’s inclusion of this story, the sheer wonder of an ‘impossible’ act, and the testimony which this provides in answer to the growing Christological question of this part of the gospel, ‘Who is Jesus?’ He is not merely the healer of afflicted individuals or the rescuer of endangered disciples; he is one who is not bound by the rules of normal experience of what is possible and impossible. In following him this representative group of Israelites, no less than those who followed Moses in the wilderness, will find all their need supernaturally supplied, for God is again at work among his people.”

[8] France, p. 265. “ω῾ς προ´βατα μη` ε῎χοντα ποιμε´να is an obvious metaphor for lack of care and leadership, and one used in the OT for Israel in the wilderness after Moses (Nu. 27:17, where the problem is solved by the appointment of Joshua), for Ahab’s army after his death in battle (1 Ki. 22:17), for the people of God when their appointed leaders have failed in their trust (Ezk. 34:5-6), and for their helplessness when their (messianic) leader is taken away (Zc. 13:7).”

[9] France, p. 265.

[10] France, p. 265. Reference to the 10th chapter of Best’s “Story”. “The only subject of whom the verb σπλαγχνιζομαι is used in the NT is Jesus (apart from parable characters who represent Jesus or God). It is not a common verb in Mark (especially if we are right in not reading it in 1:41), but it occurs in the accounts of both feeding miracles (8:2); combined with the simile of sheep without a shepherd it presents Jesus above all as ‘the one who cares.’”

[11] h/t David W. Congdon via Twitter

[12] David W. Congdon The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). p. 27fn11, “Traditional accounts of theology want to make the Christ-event an exception to the way God acts elsewhere in the world. Here I take radically christoscentric approach and argue that God acts elsewhere only in the way God acts in Christ, since the Christ-event is definitive, even constitutive of who God is and how God acts.”

[13] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). p. 48