Prayer of Love and Solidarity

Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

Psalm 85:7-8, 10 Show us your mercy, God, and grant us your salvation. I will listen to what God is saying, for God is speaking peace to God’s faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to God. Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Introduction

Over the two decades being Christian I have had both robust and sickly relationship with prayer. On again, off again. It makes sense, it doesn’t make sense. I feel God’s presence; where’d God go? Yes! This is an important part of my Christian spiritual expression!; Gah! What the heck am I doing, this’s nuts. I wish I could claim a prowess and steadfastness in prayer, but I can’t.

I think the moments of prayerless malaise stem from my early Christian experience that’s marked by a heavy influence of both malnourished charism and ardent evangelicalism. My naiveté and lack of biblical and theological training was easily manipulated by friends who were more “experienced” in their journey with the Lord. I was influenced by fellow lay people taking matters into their own hand, and I loved the idea of being fueled with a spiritual power that was akin to wizardry. Faith, if you had enough, earned you things you wanted. Prayer—when prayed hard enough, hungry enough, claimed enough—produced the answers and results you desired.

My best friend at the time, the one who brought me to Christ, showed me that the faithful named and claimed things, believed beyond material evidence otherwise, and all of it applied to material things—even future spouses (as if they were things to get). According to this friend, prophecies in the first testament were “for me”, if you happened upon them playing bible-roulette. Words of wisdom and knowledge were events worthy of future expectation (things that will happen…if you don’t doubt). Prayer was a necessary expression of how much you wanted something and the more you prayed and the longer you prayed the more you showed God your commitment and faith and the more God would see to fulfilling your request.

When things didn’t go my way? Well…eventually this malnourished charism grew exhausting to uphold. I just couldn’t. With so many unanswered claims and prayers, I guess I was just a faithless person, maybe it wasn’t my thing. Thus, I’ve wrestled with prayer.

So, this week’s gospel, had me all:

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I’m truly human; I must both laugh and cry when challenged to confront some of my own spiritual trauma and walk through death to get to the other side into new life.

So, I’m asking: why pray? I believe Jesus shows the better way.

Luke 11:1-13

And it happened while he was in a certain place as he was leaving off praying, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, please teach us to pray, even just as John taught his disciples.” And [Jesus] said to them, “Whenever you pray you say, ‘Beloved Parent, let your name be purified; please let your kingdom come; please give to us our bread for the coming day in accordance with the day. And release from us our failures, just as we ourselves release all [people] owing to us. And do not lead us into calamity.”

(Luke 11:1-4)

The transition from chapter 10 (ending with “Mary picked out for herself the good part [and] it will not be taken from her whatsoever.”) to “And it happened while he was praying” feels like one of the worst transitions ever. But it isn’t. Moving from a conversation about what it looks like to be neighborly (having mercy) and to love God (choosing that which is living over that which is dead) to a conversation about prayer actually makes sense.[1] Orientation toward neighbor and God impacts the activity of our worship, and our worship impacts our orientation toward neighbor and God.[2]

So, Luke tells us this next event happened right as Jesus finished praying. One of Jesus’s disciples asks him for a prayer like the other rabbis give their disciples.[3] So, without missing a beat, Jesus says, Okay great, whenever you pray say this… And then we have “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer is “The prayer of the Lord’s Disciples” and sets Christ’s followers apart from other schools of thought,[4] functions as a means to formation (inwardly and outwardly), and identifies them as Christ’s disciples.[5]

What are the key characteristics that now mark Christ’s disciples?

  • God is close and personal, like a parent, so we should address our prayer to this loving God elder/parent, who is intimately identified and identifies with us.[6] (Our Father)
  • We ask for God’s name to be hallowed (sanctified/purified) among us and in the world around us; we desire not to profane God’s name or to have God’s name profaned by others. (Let your name be purified)[7]
    • This entails justice and not injustice, equality and not inequality: the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the widowed cared for, the oppressed liberated, the homeless homed…[8]
    • Thus we also pray that God’s reign comes in this way…(let your kingdom come)[9]
      • Specifically in (but not limited to[10]) the form of giving us real bread to satisfy real hunger; if we are satisfied, we say “us” so that bread is provided to all who need it (give to us our daily bread)[11]
      • Not given spontaneously generate apart from us but with and through us and our participation[12]
      • In accordance to ways rejecting the violent systems established by the kingdom of humanity[13]
    • Help us to spread your love in the world through being reconciled and reconciling, being restored and restoring, being forgiven and forgiving,[14] for we know the activity of divine love is not static but active (forgive us our debts as we forgive those who have debts against us)[15]
  • And, finally, please assist us not to fall into the traps and temptations in the world that cause us to return to the old age of death dealing narratives and systems (lead us not into temptation).[16]

Then, as we follow Luke’s narrative weaving, Jesus offers two examples intimately connected to what was just discussed. The imagery of the midnight request for bread in the first story links what follows to the request for daily bread in the prayer. However, the idea that it’s strictly about asking and asking and asking for things we want—which was how it was taught to me—is antithetical to what is actually going on in light of Jesus giving the “Lord’s Prayer” to the disciples. In fact, it’s not about “perseverance” as much as it’s about a lack of shame in praying for something for your friend. ἀναίδειαν is about being shameless in your request not how many times you ask—not for yourself but for others[17] (thus the link back to chapter 10: loving God is loving the neighbor). The man asks one friend who has bread to give him bread so he may supply bread to the friend who’s shown up because he doesn’t have bread to give (intercessory request).[18]

So, according to Jesus’s teaching on prayer, to pray is not to pray for only yourself and what you want but what is needed so that basic human needs are met. More specifically, looking at the structure of the Lord’s Prayer—which shapes the follower’s praying and living in the world toward neighbor and God—we rarely pray strictly for me and mine, but for we and us, for things we all need. Thus, if I’m not in need but pray God to supply us our daily bread, I pray in solidarity with those who do need it.

Conclusion

In this prayer and in the stories that follow, the disciples are exhorted to see their umbilical link to their neighbors: they hurt when the neighbor hurts, they are hungry when the neighbor is hungry, they are cold when the neighbor is cold…In this way God’s name is purified and not profaned, God’s reign comes, and divine love continues to sweep through the world capturing the captives unto liberation and life. And not of our own doing. Praying in this way is to bring this solidarity among humans to the One who is in solidarity with them: Jesus the Christ of Nazareth, this human who is God, this neighbor who is God, this one who knows us and our needs, our pain and our sorrow, our hunger and dependence, our vulnerability and death.

So, back to the introduction and the question: why pray? Because I love you. Because I love those whom God loves. Because I want people to know and the world to experience the divine love of God. Today, I pray not because it gets me anything, but that it brings you everything. Lifting each other up in prayer knits us in tight solidarity with each other as we weep with those who weep, hunger with those who hunger, sorrow with those who sorrow, get angry with those who are angry, and even rejoice with those who rejoice. And all of it, by prayer, is done in the presence of God whom we draw close as we shamelessly dare to face God and boldly ask: please, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 438. “The Lukan account of Jesus’ interaction with Martha and Mary, then, prepares for Jesus’ teaching on the [parenthood] of God by focusing on one’s disposition toward authentic hearing in the presence of the in breaking kingdom.”

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 142-143. “Action shapes attitude, and rite shapes belie: Historians often refer to this with the Latin phrase lex credenda est lex orandi, ‘the rule of worship (or prayer) is the rule of belief.’ … In Our everyday experience we know that the simple action of smiling often leads us to want to smile. In the life of faith, faith leads us to worship; but worship also leads us to faith.”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 143. “At the time when Jesus taught this prayer, many other rabbis and teachers proposed certain prayers for their disciples to repeat.”

[4] Green, Luke, 440. “Jesus’ followers pray in this way because this is a distinctive practice of Jesus’ followers. Such practices nurture dispositions appropriate to the community of Jesus’ followers; through its repetition, the message of this prayer would engrave itself into the life of the community.”

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 143. “So the Lord’s Prayer is also the prayer of the disciples of the Lord the prayer by which these disciples are formed, and which serves as the mark of their identity.”

[6] Green, Luke, 441. “Though often carrying connotations of authority (and, thus, of the response of obedience), in this case ‘father’ actualizes other properties of this metaphor as well-for example, love, nurture, mercy, and delight.” This is why I am opting for another name for this intimacy because Fatherhood and Father have often been abused as authoritative rather than nurturing.

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 143. In that passage, as in the Lord’s Prayer, the main consideration is the name of the Lord. The Lord’s Prayer begins with, ‘hallowed be your name,’ and the prayer in Proverbs ends with the concern not to ‘profane the name of my God.’ What Proverbs says is that injustice and inequality that lead the poor to steal profane the name of the Lord, and that abundance that leads to self-sufficiency ignores that very name….” And, Green, Luke, 442. “God’s eschatological work to reestablish the holiness of his name, then, invokes shame on the part of his people and invites them to embrace practices that honor him.”

[8] Green, Luke, 440. “Within the practice of such prayer, a premium would be placed on the infusion of a worldview centered on the gracious God, on dependence on God, and on the imitation of God, all understood against an eschatological horizon in which the coming of God in his sovereignty figures prominently.”

[9] Gonzalez, Luke, 143. “Thus the petitions ‘hallowed be your name’ and ‘your kingdom come’ are not independent from the one about daily bread. This is not a list of petitions. It is a single, ardent call for the kingdom in which God’s name is hallowed, and in which all have what they need.”

[10] Green, Luke, 443. “However polysemic Luke’s phrase may thus seem, this does not detract from what is most clear about this petition-namely, its concern with the reliance of Jesus’ followers on God’s provision for the basics of daily life.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 144. “Is this about physical, edible bread, or about spiritual bread? The Question itself reflects a dichotomy that is alien to the biblical text. Eating is a spiritual act, and discipleship is reflected in eating and in sharing food. Furthermore, the very ambiguity of the word translated as ‘daily bread’ points to both the physical and the spiritual… In the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for exactly that sort of bread—bread of justice and of trust in God.”

[12] Green, Luke, 442. “It is God’s kingdom that will come; only God can overturn the powers at work in the world and establish his universal reign, so the faithful do well to join persons like Simeon and Anna in their hopeful anticipation of the decisive, divine intervention 2:25, 38). At the same time, with the coming of Jesus the kingdom is already being made present, necessitating lives oriented toward serving the divine project and restorative practices that participate in and further the reach of the new order being established by God…”

[13] Green, Luke, 443. “The prayer Jesus teaches his followers embodies the urgency of giving without expectation of return that is, of ripping the fabric of the patronage system by treating others as (fictive) kin rather than as greater or lesser than oneself.”

[14] Green, Luke, 444. “As in previous texts (esp. 6:36), Jesus spins human behavior from the cloth of divine behavior, the embodiment of forgiveness in the practices of Jesus’ followers is a manifestation and imitation of God’s own character.”

[15] Gonzalez, Luke, 144. The implication is that our sins are like unpaid debts-perhaps even unpayable debts-and that while we pray God not to collect on us, we also commit not to collect on others. Connecting this with what has been said above about the kingdom and bread, those who pray for the kingdom and serve it commit not to claim for themselves more than is due, and at the same time, recognizing that they are not always faithful to that promise, to forgive those who take more than is their due.

[16] Gonzalez, Luke, 144. “Finally, the petition about the time of trial” may be an eschatological reference to the final judgment, and also a reference to the temptation not to trust God for daily bread.”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 144-145. “One could therefore say that the parable is about intercessory prayer. It is not about my asking God for what I want, but rather about asking God tor what others need. When on that basis we ask, we are given; when on that basis we search, we shall find; when on that basis we knock, the door will be opened. Significantly, at the end of the passage Jesus does not promise his disciples ‘good things,’ as in Matthew (Matt. 7:11), but rather ‘the Holy Spirit.’ What Jesus promises his disciples who ask is that they will be given the Holy Spirit, who in turn will help them ask on behalf of others.”

[18] Gonzalez, Luke, 144. In this story, the theme of bread serves as a link with the Lord’s Prayer. The story is not about ‘perseverance in prayer’ as the NRSV titles it. Actually, the word that the NRSV translates as ‘persistence’ in verse 8 can also be understood as ‘impudence’ or ‘shamelessness.’ So the story is about a man who is sufficiently concerned about the friend who has arrived unexpectedly to dare wake another friend in the middle of the night. It is about one who asks on behalf of another. The one caught with no bread when the friend arrives is also caught between two principles of conduct: hospitality to the unexpected guest on the one hand, and respect for the friend who sleeps on the other. To him, there is no choice-he must call upon the friend who has bread in order to feed the one who has not.

Called, Reoriented, and Resurrected

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42

Psalm 52: 8-9 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. I will give you thanks for what you have done and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence of the godly.

Introduction

I’m intense, and I like to do things well, really well. More to the point, I like to do a lot of things and all of them really well. I take my calls and tasks seriously—my whole person is always invested—“dial-it-in” isn’t in my vocabulary even when I’m burned out, tired, and exhausted. When I was a stay-at-home-mom, I did it with everything I had; when I was an athlete, I spent hours perfecting each move; as a priest, I make sure I’m 100% invested with you; as a student, I hold myself to exacting standards, putting forward my best at every turn, without excuse.

While often this intensity and tendency toward perfectionism is just my neutral mode, every so often the two collide in a horrific accident resulting in the tragedy of oppressive anxiety. I know I’m not alone here. I know you know what I’m talking about. Anxiety sneaks in through an unlocked inner door, illuminating the lack of control. Then, as the lack of control sinks in, fear of failure oozes in through the same door. The burden of both collapses my inner world; my imagination runs wild; my pulse races.

In these moments, I’ve become too associated and tightly bound up with my works and tasks. They’ve started to define me existentially (as a good mom, as a good student, as a good priest, as a good athlete) and eventually ontologically as a human (if I do these things I’m good, my being in the world is good, my essence is good). Anxiety surges; I’m made aware there’s no remedy for it within myself—because it’s my “self” that’s affected. I can’t help myself, because I’m the one who’s anxious. I’m backed into a corner, squeezed in on all sides, and brought to the confession: Help! I’m not in control!

No matter how hard I try, I cannot depend on myself in this moment. I must be called out of myself and called to another; I need to be redirected, reoriented, and realigned. In these moments, I’m lost and must be found; I’m dead, trapped in the tomb of myself, and must be resurrected.

Luke 10:38-42

Now Martha was being troubled greatly by much service; and she stood near and said, “Lord, it concerns you not that my sister left me behind alone to serve? Therefore command her so that she may lend a hand to me.” And [Jesus] answered her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and are being disturbed about many things, but one [thing] is a need; for Mary picked out for herself the good part [and] it will not be taken from her whatsoever.”[1]

(Luke 10:40-42)

Our master-storyteller is at again. Following the good Samaritan story redefining what neighbor love looks like, Luke launches into a (seemingly) disconnected story featuring Jesus, Martha, and Mary. Here, Jesus shows up at Martha’s home and Mary is there, too.[2] Jesus is being intentional here. He enters this certain village and is received into this particular home.

Then, as Jesus enters, two things happen: Martha jumps into service to host the guest she’s welcomed (ὑπεδέξατο, “she received as a guest”) into her home, and Mary gets up, walks over, and sits down at Jesus’s feet (παρακαθεσθεῖσα[3]). This isn’t a case of work v. rest or active v. passive; it’s a case of stone and flesh, death and life. Which part will you choose: that which is dead (turning toward stone) or that which is living (turning toward flesh)? The distinction Luke is making here is orientation: one is oriented and one has to be reoriented.[4]

Martha does exactly what’s expected of her according to the law, tradition, and etiquette; Mary, not so much.[5] Martha grows more and more burdened (περιεσπᾶτο, “she was being greatly troubled”) by the demands of hospitality while her sister just sits there, abandoning her. So, Martha—pushed beyond what she can take—goes to Jesus. Now, both sisters are before Jesus.

Martha wants Jesus to command Mary to come help her with the tasks of table service. She wants him to right the situation, putting it back to normal; she wants him to make it make sense to her.[6] Jesus will help her and 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 life forced to serve the things conceived and born of death? When does the Reign of God give way to the kingdom of humanity?

When Jesus speaks, he doesn’t condemn Martha for her anxiety and burdens; he loving calls her (Martha, Martha). The first Martha gets her attention; the second one draws her into himself. Like a mother would her anxious child: the voice of love speaks, and when it does it brings love and not condemnation. Then, Martha’s reoriented from what to whom: God with her—from stone to flesh, from death to life. Jesus doesn’t tell her: stop worrying. He calls her by name. He doesn’t shush or shame her for feeling burdened. He reorients her to him by calling her by name; she is resurrected out of death into life, from dead stone to living flesh. That’s the gospel gospelling itself: love loving.[7]

Where Martha expects Jesus to side with her (which, according to custom, he should), he sides with Mary.[8] As Jesus addressed Martha, he highlighted discipleship isn’t worrisome obedience to “domestic performance,” (to dead traditionalism) but about (re)orientation toward the One who is the revelation and disclosure of God’s love and life. [9] And this love doesn’t incorporate thrusting people back into systems and structures that leave them bound and gagged, laboring unto death (that’s the old age). Jesus is not the Ancient One who deals death, but who speaks and brings the dead into life. Love isn’t in service to the law, but the law in service to love; the tablets of stone serve the fleshy Son of God.

Martha lost herself in the many things demanded of her according to custom, but there is only one need: The Word made flesh. In trying to serve her guest according to the rules and laws of the old age, Martha rendered herself incapable of service to Jesus the Christ. 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 and reoriented toward the divine activity in the world following closely to the path initiated by Jesus, the path of love. Our faith and works must 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.[10]

Just as before, so to now: following Christ, participating in the mission of God in the world, partaking and promoting divine love in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit will look very different than our expectations. To love our neighbor is to have mercy; to love God is to reject that which kills and choose that which brings life and light into the world.[11]

Conclusion

The paradox of humanity in this small potent story is this: we’re both Martha and Mary. You can’t pick sides here. We aren’t one or the other (no Maries in a Martha world); we’re both. We run through our days and our rat-races, fretting over the demands of our age—rest is a complete illusion here. Being oriented to the old age, its demands, and trying to appease 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. So, while we’re called and we heard, we need to be called and to hear…again (it’s why we come here every Sunday).

It’s not about activity being bad and passivity being good, but about our orientation and reorientation in our activity. In Christ, we are called by name out of ourselves, out of death and unto God and life. We receive freedom and liberty for us and for others who are also dying as we were dying. Then we, in the power of the Spirit, go forth and call others by name, too, intersecting their deadly inner narratives with a word of hope and life that is the Word of God (the Gospel).

We cannot isolate Mary’s active love of Christ from the active love for the neighbor of the Samaritan.[12] Work and worship are not separated (no dualism). Luke 10 is an exposition of the entire Law: to love your neighbor is to love God; to love God is to love your neighbor (in this story Jesus is both God and Neighbor).

Beloved, we don’t need to justify ourselves through incessant and frantic activity trying to meet the demands of the old age. [13] We’re justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) by God’s grace (alone) and not by any toiling. We’re called by name and look; we’re called by name again and step closer. The one calling, God of very God, ends enslavement to and silences condemnation of the powers of sin and the old age by reorienting us in the life-giving powers of love and the age of Christ. We’re resurrected out death into life.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 140. “It is important to note that the home is Martha’s, and that Mary is simply her sister. Although one might surmise that Mary also lives there, it is not the home of May and Martha, but the home of Martha, who has a sister named Mary.

[3] aorist, passive deponent, participle, feminine, nominative, singular. The first principal part is: παρακαθίζω. This verb carries with it an activity that is lost in the English translation “she sat”, might be better to say, “got up and sat down beside” to emphasize that Mary intentionally chose to sit at Jesus’s feet with the purpose to listen to his words. This plays well with the last part in Jesus’s statement to Martha: Mary picked out for herself the good part…

[4] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 338

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 140. “Martha does what is expected of her when a guest comes to the house. Mary simply listens to Jesus.”

[6] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 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.”

[7] Cardenal, Solentiname, 340. “I: ‘We might say, then, that what Jesus is saying here is that the only important thing is love.’”

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

[9] 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.”

[10] 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.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 141. “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.”

[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.

Love + Action = Freedom

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Galatians 5:1,13-25

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

(Gal 5: 1, 13-15)

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Dorothee Sölle writes,

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

Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Translation mine, unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

Paradoxical Elastic Love

Sermon on John 13:31-35

Psalm 148:13-14 Let them praise the Name of God, for God’s Name only is exalted, God’s splendor is over earth and heaven. God has raised up strength for God’s people and praise for all God’s loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near God. Hallelujah!

Introduction

I know that considering God’s love for us—for all of us—is complicated. So, let me make it a bit easier to understand…

God’s love is the inconsistent consistency.
God’s love is an ambiguous certainty.
God’s love is the unknown known.
God’s love is a same difference and a different sameness.
God’s love is comforting discomfort and discomforting comfort.
God’s love is disrupting stabilization, and stabilizing disruption.

There. Did that help? All clear?

I didn’t think so.

God’s love for the world and humanity is profoundly paradoxical, always, and elastic. It goes there and here and in that it is there it is still here. God loves us no matter what happens or who we think we are or what we have done, are doing, or will do, in whatever time period we find ourselves, in any town or city in those time periods. God loves that other person over there in just the same unconditional ways God loves you and me, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And, believe it or not, that creates a tension…

…for us…

…not for God.

If the person is like us, then we can see why (and how) God would love this other one; clearly, they’re pretty great. However, what happens when we try to comprehend God loving an other who is not like us, one who is in fact different, and maybe even opposite to us in some way or many ways? The reality of the elasticity of the substance of paradoxical divine love drives us crazy because we really want God not to love those whom we do not and cannot love. We really want God to find those people appalling whom we find appalling. We really want to think that something about us is so unique that God loves us and since that other person over there is very different from us then God’s love stops at our handmade boundaries of separation and exclusion. (comment about classroom catholic and protestants.) We want God’s love to have limits, to have an end…not for us….but for them over there.

However, God just loves whether or not we actually and fully comprehend the depth of the profundity of that loving. God just loves—without limits, without end—and as we are encountered by God in the event of faith, we are caught up in that elastic paradoxical divine love, love-just-loving-because-it-can-do-no-other…always.

John 13:31-35

Very dear little ones, I am with you yet a little while; you will seek me, and just as I said to the Israelites, “Where Ι, Ι depart [to], you, you are not able to come,” I say to you now. A new command I give to you (all), that you love one another. I loved you so that you also love one another. In this all will know that you are disciples to me, if you have love in one another. [1]

John 13:33-35

Our assigned gospel reading is quite familiar. It’s so familiar that if I was a betting woman, some of you may have checked out a little already, because yeah…yeah…yeah…love one another; got it…can we go get coffee now? The more familiar a passage or concept is to us, the less we notice something new unless we slow down and look at it again. So, let’s do that.

Jesus begins by speaking of a reciprocal and mutual and equal glorification between Jesus and God the Creator. In a way that bends time and twists space, both God and Jesus are glorified and will be glorified; in other words, in what Jesus is doing and will do, God’s name will be hallowed here and in heaven.

He then moves on to say something classically “Jesus-in-the-Gospel-of-John” cryptic, I’m going away and you can’t come. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that cryptic for one person to tell another they are going away…alone. However, the emphasis adds another layer of odd: I, I am going away, and you, you cannot come. Thus, the emphasis falls on “this is for Jesus alone” and those who have been following cannot follow him—anymore—to his next destination (the cross). The prophesied absence immediately thrusts the disciples, all those who are listening and following Jesus, into disruption[2]: where can he go that I can’t also go? Their faith must fill that silence.[3]

Jesus cannot be held by them, and they cannot force him to stay as he is with them; in Jesus removing himself to a place where they cannot follow, the disciples are yanked out of their existence in the present tense and dropped into another that is not theirs to control.[4] They are brought face to face with a new reality, one embedded in a reversal of anxiety about the self to concern for the other.[5] Jesus exhorts those listening, love…love each other, love one another, love because I loved you. The great moment of the uncoiling or turned-in human beings occurs in the divine exhortation to love one another because God has loved them.[6]

Jesus then yokes the loving of one another to witness in the world: by this love the others will know you are my disciples. This is more than merely love that exists within a community of like and familiar and friend; Jesus’s conception of love is the proclamation of the good news that loves and in loving it liberates and in this way it is new from what has come before it.[7] This isn’t warm fuzzies or happy feelings; this is divine love that does, love that acts, love that turns lives around, that pushes religious zealots off donkeys and over hauls the piety of those who thought they knew and understood but didn’t.[8] It is this love (active and participatory) that will become the characteristic by which the world will know these who follow the man who is God, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. They will know because this love liberates rather than possesses and this will be strange to the world[9]—this love affirms the material of the world and condemns the works of humanity and their sinful and oppressive kingdoms, built to keep some lifted up and some pressed down, some in and others out, preferring some and disparaging others. It will be love that exceeds the wisdom of knowledge and dogma, slips from the grasp of religious tyranny and private piety, only to be realized by those who are encountered by God in the event of faith, those who succumb to the divine love summons to follow me.[10] And in this way, Jesus never leaves those whom he loves.[11] In this way God is never finished with those whom God loves.

Conclusion

“Don’t it make you get teary? The world looks dreary
When you wipe your eyes, see it clearly
there’s no need for you to fear me
If you take your time and hear me
Maybe you can learn to cheer me
It ain’t about black or white, ’cause we human
I hope we see the light before it’s ruined;
my ghetto gospel”[12]

Tupac Shakur “Ghetto Gospel”

These lyrics are from Tupac Shakur, an American rapper born in 1971 and shot and killed in 1996. The song is titled, “Ghetto Gospel.” As far as contemporary prophetic voices go, Shakur’s reaches ranges I don’t encounter in the church or the world. While this song was produced in 2004, I am mesmerized in 2022 by Shakur’s understanding of the extent to which divine love must go if it is divine love. For the good news to be the good news it must bring good news to the oppressed, those trapped and threatened by systemic violence and suffering under hate, fear, and looming death. Shakur reminds me that as we are caught up in the elastic paradoxical divine love, we are not dropped into a reality that makes sense to us and our privilege and status; rather, we are dropped into the reality as it is for another, whom God loves, too.

Later in the song, Tupac raps,

“I make mistakes but learn from every one
And when it’s said and done
I bet this Brother be a better one
If I upset you don’t stress, never forget
That God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Tupac Shakur “Ghetto Gospel”

Listening to Tupac’s interpretation of divine activity on his behalf, the way that God loves him, the way he sees himself as a divine work in progress, challenges any notion that there is one type of person whom God loves and that someone how we are affirmed in the way we were before our encounter with God in the event of faith. God isn’t finished with me yet are the words of paradoxical elastic divine love for humanity. God’s love is the love that never gives up, never abandons, never says that’s it too far! Divine love is the love that seeks and seeks and seeks, that stretches and stretches and stretches, that keeps yoking together human beings from this walk of life to that walk of life, love that closes gaps across boundaries and over tracks destroying anything meant to keep people apart.

God’s paradoxical elastic love is perpetually in the business of disrupting us so that we never grow stagnant and stuck. And as we are disrupted, we can move forward with God’s good news of the liberating proclamation of Jesus Christ on our lips and bring (and participate in!) God’s love: the good news of Beloved, the good news of liberation, the good news of life, and the good news that God is never finished with anyone because everyone has possibility in light of divine love.

Beloved, do not lose hope, God isn’t finished with us yet.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed; RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. German: Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964, 1966). 524. “What now lies in the past does not guarantee the future, but is called into question by it. Jesus, in whom they believed, disappears from them, and they are left with no security.”

[3] Bultmann John 524 “His own will miss him; they will not realise the full significance of that νυν immediately. Their faith has to stand the test.”

[4] Bultmann John 525. “The future is subjected to an imperative! Their anxiety is centered on their own actual existence, but not they are directed towards an existence that has the character of an ‘ought.’ The illusion that they possess him in such a way that he is at their disposal is confronted by another kind of possession: one which consists in fulfilling a command.”

[5] Bultmann John 525. “Their despairing gaze into the past that is no more is redirected to the future, which comes and lays its obligation upon them. An unreal future, which would only be a persistence in the past, is made into the real future which demands faith. And in so far as the content of the εντολη is ινα αγαπατε αλληλους, the care for oneself is changed into the care for one’s neighbor.”

[6] Bultmann John 525. “But since it is precisely this becoming free from the past and form oneself that is subjected to the imperative, the future that is grasped as command coincides with the future that is promised for loyalty of faith for it was freedom from that past and from oneself that was promised to the believer. Thus the imperative is itself a gift, and this It can be because it receives its significance and its possibility of realization form the past, experienced as the love of the Revealer…”

[7] Bultmann John 527. “But Jesus’ command of love is ‘new,’ even when it has been long-known, because it is the law of the eschatological community or which the attribute ‘new’ denotes not an historical characteristic but its essential nature. The command of love, which is grounded in the love of the Revealer received by the disciples, is ‘new’ in so far as it is a phenomenon of the new world which Jesus has brought into being,…”

[8] Bultmann John 526. “Jesus’s love is not a personal emotion, but is the service that liberates; and the response to it is not a mystical or pietistic intimacy with Christ, but the αλληλους αγαπαν”

[9] Bultmann John 527-528. “v.35 states that the new world becomes reality in the community: reciprocal love within the community is the criterion of the discipleship of Jesus for those outside. The fact that the command of live is fulfilled there demonstrates the strangeness of the community within the world, and results in the world calling those who love, the disciples of Jesus. Not just because theirs is a community in which love is both an injunction and an actual practice. Much rather because love itself there takes on a form that is strange to the world. In the community the command of love is grounded in the love of God which is encountered in the Revealer, and this means that its fulfilment must bear the nature or world-annulment; by it all human love is peculiarly modified, in a way that both limits and broadens it.”

[10] Bultmann John 528. “The associations with Jesus, therefore, is not realized by possessing articles of knowledge or dogmas, nor in institutions or experiences of individual piety, but in ‘pupil-hood,’ in obedience to the command of love.”

[11] Bultmann John 528. “How does the departing Revealer remain present for his own? By vitality of the gift of his love in their love of each other, and by their representation within the world of the new world, which became reality through him.”

[12] Tupak Shakur Ghetto Gospel produced posthumously by Eminem feat. Elton John. 2004

From One Degree to Another

Psalm 99:2-3, The Lord is great in Zion; [God] is high above all peoples. Let them confess [The Lord’s] Name, which is great and awesome; [God] is the Holy One.

Introduction

When I consider the glory of God I always imagine it just outside of my reach: something external to me. Something forever out there and never in here—in my body, mind, heart.

I think part of the problem is that I’ve been too well schooled in the idea that God is other, some wholly other, existing strictly outside of me, something I gaze upon; someone I encounter from without. At times, this imagery takes on historically protestant tones as God becomes all knowing, all powerful, all pure, while I am the complete opposite: utterly ignorant, completely weak, and totally depraved. I think our holy text with its stories and myths and narratives also contribute: God speaks and the people listen, God causes the rains or the sun or the rainbow, God dwells in a tent or a tabernacle or the holy of holies of the temple.

Even though I know the Holy Spirit dwells in me and believe firmly in the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer, I’ve not thought of the Spirit’s presence in my mind, heart, and body to be particularly visible apart from manifesting certain actions (typically rendered as “good” or “holy”). In other words, my deeds and works—my active love in the world for my neighbor—bring glory to God—but I am still separate from that glory; glory is God’s and has nothing to do with me. What I haven’t considered until now is that by God’s grace and love I participate in God’s glory. I mean, as God’s Spirit dwells in me, as God’s love dwells in me, so, too, does God’s glory.

God’s presence in Spirit, love, and glory work together to bring me (more and more) into sanctification, otherwise known as “transformation”/“transfiguration”. I don’t have to self-apply God’s glory through my “good” actions. Rather, God’s glory—like God’s Spirit and love—is already working in me and bringing me in closer alignment to being like Christ in the world.

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

“Therefore, having hope such as this, we take advantage of great confidence…Now the Lord is Spirit. And where the spirit of the lord is [there is] freedom. Now, we, we all—with faces having been unveiled—looking at the glory of the lord as if in a mirror are being transformed/transfigured into the same likeness from one degree of glory to another just as from the Lord who is Spirit.” [1]

(2 Cor 3:12, 17-18)

It’s Paul’s confident and humble words to the Corinthians that caused me pause this week. The language of “such a hope”, “confidence”, “the Spirit of the Lord”, and “freedom” coupled with a vibrant discussion of the movement of God’s glory from one place to another and always all-encompassing and never forsaking made me realize how interconnected are God’s presence by Spirit, God’s love, and God’s glory.

This part of Paul’s letter encapsulates both the first testament story from Exodus—describing Moses’s encounter with God and the divine glory remaining (temporarily) on his face—and the story of Jesus’s transfiguration told in the Gospel passage. In this way—unintentionally or intentionally—Paul draws a line from one transfiguration to another and lastly to another: from Moses, to Jesus, to us. This line that Paul draws is not one meant to humiliate Moses or cause one story to be inferior to another; rather, it’s meant to highlight the activity and movement of God in God’s presence with God’s people: from concealment to openness.[2] God’s glory moves from God’s self and presence made temporarily visible on Moses’s face which is then veiled to the brilliant transfiguration of Christ on the mountain in the presence of a few disciples, and then to those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan (both literally and by faith).

I can’t help but consider the transition of God’s glory from a specific location (God’s self) that is shared in a limited[3] manner with the people (in this case: mediated to Israel through Moses behind a veil), to the divine glory culminating visually and physically in God’s self-revelation in God’s son: this man Jesus of Nazareth who is God’s Christ, and then settles upon God’s people directly through the presence of God’s Spirit in the minds and hearts of the believers.[4] This movement coincides with God’s presence which moves from one locale to another ultimately ending in the hearts of those who encounter God in the event of faith.

The stories of God’s presence with Israel have a boundaried feel: God is always present with God’s people, but in this tent, that tabernacle, this temple and holy of holies or that cloud/fire (even a burning bush!). God’s presence is limited according to what is written: the people could not be directly in God’s presence without potentially burning up (think of Uzzah dropping dead for touching the tabernacle[5]). Then, in Christ, God’s presence is still contained but in a free way: Jesus the Christ moves about as God’s son—God of very God—and communes, touches, and rests with the people directly. It’s recorded that death did not come to those who touched Jesus or whom were touched by Jesus. Then, after the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God descends and takes up bountiful residence in the hearts and minds of believers unrestricted.

God’s presence and Spirit moved from concealed to opened, from limited to bountiful. Moses’s veil and the curtain of the holy of holies is abolished in Christ by the presence of the Spirit in us. God is not restricted to one location. Thus, where God’s presence and Spirit[6] go, so, too, does God’s glory. In this way we participate in God’s glory in Christ by faith not only by our works but by the presence of the Spirit of God in us and the freedom and liberty, [7] confidence and boldness, love and compassion that shines forth as a result.

Conclusion

When we consider the transfiguration of Jesus, we must see it as more than just about Jesus—though this is important. If we see it only as something unique and special to Jesus, it will remove Jesus from us further, and we are already very prone to treat Jesus as if he cannot be touched by us because he is elevated and we aren’t. But we must see that Jesus is and has been and will be always among the people. So, when we consider the transfiguration, let’s see the comprehensive movement of God’s love, and glory, and presence into and among the people. For after Jesus’s transfiguration he descends the mountain and continues his divine mission to seek and save the lost, to liberate the captives, to bring peace to the anxious, and proclaim comfort and freedom to the poor and oppressed.

Beloved, the glory of the Lord is among you and with you and in you. God has claimed you as God’s own in God’s never stopping, never giving up, bountiful love for you, the beloved. In this claim you are immersed and drenched in the grace and glory of God. In the presence of the Spirit with and in you, God’s glory is a part of your person as the result of your encounter with God in the event of faith; you cannot shake it because it lives in you because God lives in you. This is the foundation of your hope for the present: God’s presence and love and glory and grace and mercy are unconditionally and bountifully present for anyone and everyone.

Such a hope as this brings confidence and boldness—even if we are transfigured and sanctified from one degree of glory to another, day by day by nearly immeasurable increments.[8] This boldness and confidence is not only in relation to oneself and to God, but especially in relation to our solidarity with others through out the world. As we are more and more in Christ—more in more embedded in God’s glory and love and embedded in the presence of the Spirit—our inner lives are transfigured and transformed and our minds and our hearts are renewed. In this way our actions begin to align with the activity of divine love for the world in “Christ-like” behavior. [9]

If we are to be more Christ-like in our transfiguration and transformation by the presence of God’s Spirit, glory, and love, then this necessarily means that we participate in the divine mission of Love in and for the world. We, with Christ and by the power of God’s Spirit, proclaim good news to the poor, bring liberty to the captives, unburden the oppressed, and rescue the threatened from death. Even if our actions right now seem small and insignificant in light of the magnitude of current world events, it is the boldness of our hope and the confidence of faith founded in our liberative encounter with God in the event of faith that makes us more impactful than we realize. For we are bold to pray for, we are confident to stand with, and we can dare to act for those stuck and terrified by threat of war and violence, loss and death, starvation and thirst, nakedness and homelessness.

We are the glory of God spreading in the world; as we praise God let us participate in God, and spread God’s love and glory from one degree to another.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A Hagner (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 296. “The contrast Paul draws between himself (and his associates) and Moses is not that of boldness (παρρησία) as opposed to timidity (Moses’ ‘meekness’ [Num. 12:3] should not be equated with fainthearted diffidence), nor straightforward honesty in contrast with devious deceit, but rather openness as opposed to concealment, with no necessary implication of duplicity in that concealment.”

[3] Harris 2 Corinthians 300. “On this view the purpose of Moses’ veil was to prevent preoccupation with outward δόξα (cf. 5:14) and to point to the temporary character of the whole Mosaic system of covenant and law…”

[4] Harris 2 Corinthians 313. “It was the privilege of Moses alone to glimpse Yahweh’s glory when he saw his ‘form’ (Num. 12:8) and his ‘back’ (Exod. 33:23), but now all Christians without distinction are privileged to witness that glory. Moreover, although Moses’ face was unveiled when he was conversing with God and was reporting God’s words to the congregation, it was thereafter veiled until he returned to the Lord’s presence (Exod. 34:33-35). Christians, however, see the divine glory with permanently uncovered faces.”

[5] Ref. 2 Sam 6:7

[6] Harris 2 Corinthians 312. “…Paul adds (dé, “and”) that the Spirit to whom people turn in the new dispensation brings them freedom. Wherever the Spirit of the Lord (God) is present and active, liberty is enjoyed and compulsion is absent.”

[7] Harris 2 Corinthians 312-313. “It is significant that ἐλευθερία is unqualified, which suggests that Paul would not wish to exclude any type of freedom that is implied in the context, such as the freedom to speak and act openly (= πασρρησία, V 12); freedom from the veil (vv. 14-16) whether the veil of spiritual ignorance concerning truths of the new covenant or the veil of hardheartedness (vv. 13, 14); freedom from the old covenant (v. 14) or from the law and its effects (v. 6); freedom to behold God’s glory uninterruptedly (v. 18) or to conform to Christ (v. 18); Or freedom of access into the divine presence without fear.”

[8] Harris 2 Corinthians 316-317. “In stark contrast with the radiance on Moses’ face that faded (3:7, 13), the glory of the Lord that is reflected in believers’ lives gradually increases. Justified at regeneration, believers are progressively sanctified until their final glorification at the consummation…”

[9] Harris 2 Corinthians 315-316. “Although it is now the whole person rather than the face alone that reflects God’s glory, Paul must be thinking principally of the transformation of ‘the inner person’ (4:16b), the whole person as a ’new creation’ (5:17) and as a participant in the life of the age to come, for he observes that the outer person,” the whole person as a mortal creature, is being worn down (4:16a), not transformed. When Jesus was transfigured, the change was outwardly visible (Matt. 17-2), but when Christians are transformed, the change is essentially the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2), and becomes visible only in their Christ-like behavior.”

The Greatest of These…

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Psalm 71:1-2 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me.

Introduction

I never cease to marvel at the mystery that is love. How is it that we can come to love another person or animal or thing? No one can command love. I can clamor until I’m blue in the face that Christians should love one another, that you should love each other, but it would be in vain. I cannot command you to love one another or other people as much as I cannot tell the very humans that came from body to—for the love of God—love each other. Love really is mysterious. Love exceeds my control.

To be honest, I’m not sold that I choose love. I hear it a lot, especially in regards to marriage: every day I choose to love this person. Ehhh….maybe. *shrugs* I think you choose to follow through on the vows, or choose loyalty, faithfulness, steadfastness, commitment, and maybe even choose to act lovingly. But I’m not sure I choose love. In the same breadth I’ll add: love is more than a feeling. You can feel in love and you can feel not in love. However, I’m not sure that means you don’t love in that moment or that you aren’t loved in that moment—it just means you don’t feel it. Love exceeds my reason and rationality.

I think a hick-up in our conception of love is that we try to define love from our limited human perspective. When we do this, we render love as something we can squish between two small pieces of glass and slide under our microscope, or something we can slice open and dissect with our scalpel. In this scenario we are the determining subject, and love becomes the determined object, the other, the thing to be examined, dissected, and defined. This top-down evaluative approach is why we end up with ideas and definitions of love that are bitter on the tongue and less permanent than cotton candy. Love exceeds my examining gaze.

Love is truly mysterious.

What if all we need to get a better understanding of love is to change our perspective? What if I just reverse the direction between us and love? What if Love is the subject and we are the object? What if love is the subject and the verb, and we are the direct and indirect objects? Maybe love defines, examines, reveals, determines me? Maybe we can’t choose it because it chooses us? Maybe we can’t command it because it commands us? And if you have ever been wrapped up in intense feelings of love, that’s exactly what it feels like: a force presenting itself in our world and our hearts and minds that drives us toward each other and the world.

Love loves the beloved toward the beloved.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love perseveres, love acts gentle, love does not burn with envy, love does not vaunt itself, it is not inflated with its own interest, it does not act improperly, it does not demand things for its own interest, it is not exasperated into wounded vanity, it is not reckoning evil (in the wildest sense), it does not rejoice over the unrighteous but rejoices over the truth; there is nothing love cannot face, there is no limit to its faith, hope, and endurance.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The first thing I noticed when I was translating this passage was this: I am not the subject of these independent clauses. Love is the subject. While I know this may appear like a very rudimentary grammatical and intellectual moment, stay here with me. In English it sounds like a noun being modified by adjectives. For instance, I could say: The tree is tall. This is a descriptive construction about an object. *I* am doing the describing of the tree. So, as we read the English translation of the text, it sounds like Paul is describing this object “love” with these other adjectives. But here’s the thing: those aren’t adjectives. They’re verbs whose subject is love. The “is” comes from the fact that the verbal form is present tense.

ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται.

1 Corinthians 13:4

The word for love is in the subject position (it’s the feminine, nominative, singular) and the verbs are present tense and in the 3rd person singular. Thus, in accordance with the subject of the sentence doing the action of the verbs: love perseveres, [love] acts gentle. When we shift the tone of the words away from adjectival into verbal, we move from love as one more objective emotion, to love being a principal actor in our narrative. Love does this and not that.

Without love, Paul declares, he is nothing but a clanging symbol even if he can speak in tongues of humanity and angels (v. 1); without love, Paul exclaims, even with all the knowledge and all the faith, he is nothing (v.2). Yet, with love, with love acting through him the tongues turn from clanging symbols into gentle words; with love moving into and through him, he is something.[1] For Paul—holding close to Christ crucified and raised as God’s divine act of love in the world—love alters everything because love as the divine operative in the world is always oriented toward the other, toward the beloved.[2]

What Paul is describing here is not his conception of love but the activity of God in the world as the word incarnate—the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Love made manifest by God in Christ acts for the livelihood, welfare, and concern for the object of love, the beloved.[3] For Paul, who is wrapped up in the overwhelming reality of God’s love for the world and for him, launches into a poetic string of statements about what this Love present in the world looks like. He is not speaking of the way he loves or indicating that by doing such things he or the Corinthians obtains love; rather, he is proclaiming God’s love in the world for him and for the Corinthians.

Conclusion

If love is the subject performing the actions of persevering, being gentle, not burning with envy, not centering the self over and against the other person, and standing firm capable to face anything, without limit of faith, hope, and endurance, then what is the object?

You are.

The divine substance that is love seeks you and loves you to no end. From this edge of the earth to the other, in the worst and the best moments, in highs and the lows, you are loved by this divine love, by God. *You* are the beloved. And in being loved in such a way (unconditionally and completely) there is nothing you can do to lose that love; it’s not yours to lose because you are not the subject here, but the beautiful and wonderful object of love’s action in and for the world. Receive this truth; rejoice in this truth.

And if you are the beloved—the object of God’s love—then you are wrapped up in this force of love surging through the world and ushered into this realm of divine love for the world. In being so wrapped up and ushered in, you find yourself in the love of God erupting into the here and now as we are moved to love one another.[4] Love catches us up in its momentum into the world in search of more beautiful and wonderful beloveds.

We do not acquire the object of love by acting in this way or that way or avoiding this or that action; we do all of that for our own gain. Rather where there is perseverance, there is Love for the beloved; where there are gentle acts, there is love for the other; where burning envy is absent, there is love for the neighbor; where self-boasting is lacking there is love for the friend; where arrogance is missing, there is love for your brother; where there isn’t an exasperation unto wounded vanity, there is Love for your sister; where there is endurance, hope, faith, willingness to stand up and face anything no matter how scary, there is Love for God and the beloved.[5]

I’ll conclude with recourse to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The greatest of all virtues is love. Here we find the true meaning of the Christian faith and of the cross. Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of his [sic] generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. By uniting yourselves with Christ and your brothers [sic] through love you will be able to matriculate in the university of eternal life. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.[6]

“Paul’s Letter to the Americans”

Beloved where you have hope, where you have faith, where you see the humanity of your neighbor be assured—even in our chaotic, tumultuous, and violent world—there Love is and there God is. For where you are, there, too, is God. For you who are in Christ by fait,h where you are there Love is.


[1] Thiselton Corinthians 1045. “The first person subject is now merely implicit, but the reference is clear enough from the context. The logical (as against grammatical) subject is the series of acts which build up from the familiar to a projected climax: all this counts for nothing. Petzer’s analysis of defamiliarization applies. What seemed ordinary and obvious now appears in a new, unfamiliar light, which produces shock. These wondrous gifts and triumphant victories all amount to nothing, unless love directs them, with its Christlike concern and regard for ‘the other.’”

[2] Thiselton Corinthians 1049. “Paul hammers home the incompatibility of love as respect and concern for the welfare of the other and obsessions about the status and attention accorded to the self. How much behavior among believers and even ministers is actually ‘attention seeking’ designed to impress others with one’s own supposed importance? Some ‘spiritual songs’ may appear to encourage, rather than discourage, this preoccupation with the self rather than with others and with God. Here is Luther’s antithesis between theologia crucis and theologia gloriae…”

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1035 “Second, as we have noted, love (ἀγάπη) denotes above all a stance or attitude which shows itself in acts of will as regard, respect, and concern for the welfare of the other. It is therefore profoundly Christological, for the cross is the paradigm case of the act of will and stance which places welfare of others above the interests of the self.”

[4] Thiselton Corinthians, 1035. “First, love represents ‘the power of the new age’ breaking into the present, ‘the only vital force which has a future.’ Love is that quality which distinctively stamps the life of heaven, where regard and respect for the other dominates the character of life with God as the communion of saints and heavenly hosts. The theologian may receive his or her redundancy notice; the prophet may have nothing to say which everyone else does not already know; but love abides as the character of heavenly, eschatological existence.”

[5] Thiselton Corinthians 1057. “Paul declares: Love never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up. The fourfold never with four negative actions provides rhetorical force to Paul’s fourfold all things…”

[6] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” Strength to Love Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 153.

Not Isolated Monads

Sermon on Acts 8:14-17

Psalm 29:1-2 1 Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Introduction

We are not isolated and autonomous monads[1] floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

I know that it is tempting to think I am. There are times it feels like I can do whatever I want at any moment, and times I’m convinced I’m the master of my own destiny, that I control things with my will and reason, and that I live autonomously, laying hold of what is “mine”.

As we view our presence in the world in an isolated and autonomous way (as in: we are “laws unto ourselves”) we will fall to the notion that we must cling to, grab, seize, and take for ourselves that which we need and want…at the expense of our neighbor. We will seize for ourselves food, space, land, money, even God in terms of our doctrines and dogmas, our holiness, righteousness, forgiveness and grace, purity, and worship. (This is mine, not yours!) As soon as we wrap our hands around anything with a vice like death grip, we will position ourselves above others and will then be fine with sacrificing our community, our friends, our partners, our children, any other human being to this having and grasping. But this is death because, to quote one of my favorite scholars, Frau Prof. Dr. Dorothee Sölle, “Everything that we grab hold of and cling to means death. Life destroys itself wherever it is based on having, on privileges over against those who have nothing. Because we grab hold of it, it perishes.”[2] As soon as we drag whatever it is (even God) into our realm with our vice like death grip, it is dead; and so too are we.

Lynnda Ebright shared with me a part of a poem she read one morning:

“…feel your naked belly button where
you were tied to your mother. Kneel and thank
her for your jubilant but woebegone life. Don’t
for a moment think of the mood of your parents
when you were conceived which so vitally affects
your destiny. You have no control over that…[3]

“Mom and Dad” by Jim Harrison

We do not spontaneously generate into the world without genetic or ancestral history. We are born into a story—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—with an origin prior to us and which will continue to be told beyond us. Any notion that we are autonomous persons without profound connection to the world and to others is lie sent to destroy the fabric of vibrant and healthy community (this goes for any ideology centering an “us v. them” mentality). From our birth into our family of origin to our rebirth into our family of spiritual origin, we are bound one to another in our humanity.

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

Acts 8:14-17

Now, after hearing that Samaria received/welcomed the word of God, the disciples in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to them, those who went down and prayed on behalf of the Samaritans in order that they might receive the Holy Spirit…Then John and Peter were laying hands upon them and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.[4]

Acts 8:14-15, 17

In our passage from the book of Acts, we get a brief glimpse of the interconnection inherent in the early community of Christ. Luke gives us a few lines speaking to profound spiritual connection between the disciples in Jerusalem and the newly converted in Samaria. Learning Samaria received and welcomed the word of God, the disciples—so moved by God’s Holy Spirit—sent two of their own to visit with the Samaritans and ensure they also received the baptism of the Spirit.[5]

It is important to point out that what looks like a secondary step for the Samaritans is actually a primary step for Peter and John coming from Jerusalem.[6] It’s not the Samaritans who must be yoked to the disciples in Jerusalem by the baptism of the Spirit; rather, it’s the disciples from Jerusalem who must see they are yoked, by God’s love, to the new believers in Samaria—those who were unclean and forbidden from mixing with the Israelites are now part of God’s people. The Samaritans are accepted and declared clean, they’re received and welcomed in the very core of their being and bodies. In one quick rush of wind, the Israelites and the Samaritans became one body.[7] What was segregated is now desegregated.

God’s proclaimed word of good tidings rumbles through the land like an earthquake. The epicenter is the activity of God in the event of the cross and resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ. From there, like waves, the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ raised, moved through Jerusalem into the wider area of Judea and then through the human made boundaries separating Israel and Samaria, the clean from the unclean (Acts 1:8). The great overhaul of the Beloved of God began the moment the Holy Spirit transcended human made boundaries erected to keep out those who are deemed unworthy, unclean, unloved, unrighteous, un-pious, un-whatever; boundaries built to contain the supposed purity of the elite and the sacred things of the privileged by forcing out the poor and disenfranchised; boundaries designed to draw deep lines in the sand keeping good bodies in and bad bodies out. As the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings writes,

“…God will draw near and give lavishly in an intimate space created by bodies and created for bodies. God’s drawing and claiming of the beloved creation continues, reaching through the apostles … from Peter and John through Philip and now to the Samaritans. The Holy Spirit has come.”[8]

Willie James Jennings

The Holy Spirit has come and has highlighted the very real fact that we are all connected one to another; none is better than the other and no one is more loved by God than everyone. According to Luke’s record of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, all bodies are the target of God’s divine love unleashed in the world through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Being ones who are called beloved by God, we must see that this yokes us to those others who are also the beloved of God. We cannot cling to this thing we call God as if God is our own and only for us, We must see that God is for those who are not us. We, like Peter and John, must be converted out of desperately clinging to that which is “mine” thus dead and be brought into communion with others thus into the living.

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

Conclusion

The presence of the Spirit disabuses us of this notion that we are isolated and autonomous people, fighting to keep our own as our own. “Disciples of Jesus,” says Jennings, “must be convinced not only of God’s love for the world but also God’s desire for people, especially peoples we have been taught not to desire.”[9] Our dwelling in God and God’s dwelling in us by the power of the Holy Spirit yokes us intimately to other human beings and the divinely created world; we can’t not love that which God loves. We share in the very Spirit of God—the same Spirit that fueled the ancient prophesies of God’s love for the suffering and grieving, those who mourn and weep, those who struggle and fight under oppression and threat of death; the same Spirit that moved in Jesus’s body and through his words and deeds into his world and context, that caused him to seek and save the lost who were isolated and abandoned.

And we are connected not only in a theoretical way but in a physical way; it is good to tell people that God loves them, but I pray that we can go the extra step with our feet to show them this divine truth with the deeds of our hands. The spirit of God in us causes us to transcend our own social boundaries of clean and unclean, in and out, through the laying on of hands…not just in terms of blessing in a religious sense or setting apart in a sacred way, but in the real practical way of lending our hands to ease the burdens of our neighbors, those close and those far, those here in this room and those outside of it.

“As long as life continues to be grounded and secured in the privilege of having, it destroys itself. Life is life only when everyone belongs to it with equal right and with equal share…If grabbing hold means death, then sharing and communication mean life. No one can save himself alone and no one is forgiven alone, if forgiveness is taken seriously in the sense of being born anew.”[10]

Dorothee Sölle

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone; we are the beloved of God, intimately and profoundly yoked together by the Spirit of God in us, charged to love our neighbor as ourselves and as God loves us. We are the beloved exhorted out of our curved in, dead state, called into the new upright posture of new life in the Holy Spirit, and caused to see others as the beloved, too.


[1] “In metaphysics, an individual and indivisible substance.”.

[2] Dorothee Sölle Political Theology Trans. John Shelley. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1974. 103-104

[3] “Mom and Dad” by Jim Harrison

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 80 “This is a beautiful moment orchestrated by the Spirit. The journey begun in baptism will now continue with the Spirit. A processional has begun. Peter and John travel to Samaria from Jerusalem, and now gifts will be given.”

[6] Jennings Acts 80. “The delay of the Spirit was not for a defect of faith or of life for the Samaritans. Could it be that God waited for Peter and John so that they could watch the intimate event?”

[7] Jennings Acts 80 “Here and now these disciples, especially Peter, will see a love that extends into the world. They will watch as God stretches forth divine desire over the Samaritans. They must see again the Spirit descend and sense afresh the divine embrace of flesh.”

[8] Jennings Acts 80

[9] Jennings Acts 80

[10] Sölle Political Theology 104

Two Tiny (nearly) Weightless Coins

Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

Psalm 146:1-3 Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it. Unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil. It is in vain that you rise so early and go to bed so late; vain, too, to eat the bread of toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Introduction

I spent the week thinking about how exhausted and isolated and sad many of us feel. If it means anything, I feel it…in my bones. This pandemic seems endless as we cruise into wrapping up year two. It’s still wreaking havoc on our world, on our country, on our state, on our county, on our families and friends, and on our own bodies (heart, mind, soul). On top of that the political divisions and consistent social unrest feeling like threats of WWIII—this thanksgiving and Christmas we can gather with extended family…or can we? (It might be safest yet to speak of only religion at those tables!) And let us extend our view to our larger society: as crises continue to rise, our brothers and sisters struggle to make ends meet, put food on the table, to exist in the world. I want my kids to go freely to school and their myriad activities without having this extra weight on their shoulders. I want you, the people of God entrusted to my care, to live your fullest lives infecting others with the holy and divine love of God…not a potential life-threatening virus. Truly, the psalm I just prayed echoes through my exhausted body eager to rest, to just exist, to just live…in person…with others, without threat, without fear, without hyper-vigilance, without divisive divisions.

So, this week, maybe even more than last week, I believe we need love amid our sadness, our isolation, our exhaustion, our fear, our sicknesses; we need to marinate in the divine love of God. We need to keep this divine love we receive as the focal point of our days-in and days-out. Love is active as I said last week. And that’s true, it is; love’s language is always action…in some form.

The thing is…it doesn’t have to be grandiose and massive, as if to catch everyone’s attention. It can be small. Simple. That’s the thing about love’s language as action: the full extent of love is there even in the smallest seemingly most simple thing…Like two tiny, weightless coins slipping unnoticed into the treasury.

Mark 12:38-44 

And then after sitting down in front of the treasury, he was gazing at how the crowd cast copper/bronze into the treasury. And then many wealthy people were casting [in] great things; and then came one destitute widow, and she cast [in] two very small pieces of money, which is ¼ of a Roman monetary unit. And then calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Truly I say to you that this destitute widow cast in a much greater value of all those who are casting into the treasury. For all people gave from their overflow/left-over, but from her need/want of all she had, she cast [in] her whole/complete life.”[1]

Mark 12:41-44

Moving forward in Chapter 12, Mark tells us that Jesus (generally and polemically[2]) drags the bulk of the scribes—excepting, I’m sure, the one who is not far from the kingdom of God (v.34). It seems scribes had some reputation, according to Mark, for liking the finer things in life and the power coming with their prestigious position in the community. They desired[3] to strut about in their long and fancy robes,[4] greeting[5] each other in the public places, sitting in the most honorable—”the chief most”—seats in the synagogue and at the banquet table of the evening meals.[6] It brought them pleasure to do these things (ἔρος). However, Jesus goes on: it’s not just that they like the finer things in life—the things afforded to them due to their role and privilege in their society—but that they did it at the expense of the disenfranchised, the ones who consume the house of widows…(ἔρος run amok). A scribe couldn’t claim ignorance to how much God detested “defrauding” widows; it was woven through the scriptures.[7] Thus, the end for these scribes is, according to Jesus, a much greater divine condemnation.[8] They know better. Shema O Israel!

And then Jesus sits down in front of the treasury in the Court of the Women[9]—the nearest point of the temple building open to women.[10] Jesus’s rebuke of the scribes comes with divine force; so, too, does his sitting down in front of the treasury—like a judge. Many people came and cast their offerings into the treasury: clinks and clanks of copper and bronze, of gold and silver coins[11] echoed as they hit the trumpet chests; fiscal support for the work of the temple.[12] The bigger and more substantial the offering, the bigger and louder the sound and spectacle.

But then a destitute widow comes in. A “little-one” (Mk. 9:42) comes in—whose bodily presence would go unnoticed by the crowd, as well as her meager offering of two small copper coins smaller than a centimeter in diameter and worth less than 1/100 of a denarius.[13] On any other day, these two small coins would slip into the treasury without garnering attention and respect, just as she would slip into the temple with the same response. But this day was like no other day. God saw. And God loved.

God sat opposite the treasury and saw this humble human give her whole life[14] to God.[15] Her faith—her love for God—sounded louder than any other gift dropped into the treasury at that moment as she dropped her whole life into that treasury. She gave not from an overflow of excess, but from her need, from her want, from all she had. This is not a treatise on tithing or a rebuke of the wealthy;[16] this is a declaration of love. It’s this destitute widow who hears and loves God with her whole heart, whole mind, whole soul, and whole strength; she—not the fancy-pants, privileged scribes or the wealthy giving from their extra—she is the one who satisfies the command to love God and to love one’s neighbor as themselves (cf. Mk 12:28-34). Where the scribes have succumbed to negligent ἔρος in consuming the livelihood of widows, she, a destitute widow, is consumed with ἀγάπη. Her small, miniscule offering was born out of big, massive love. Because love’s language is always action, even if it’s as small as two tiny, nearly weightless coins slipping unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!

Conclusion

Our isolation, our exhaustion, our sadness isn’t going to magically disappear any time soon. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can’t. We are here, and here we’ll be until we are no longer stuck in this atmosphere and environment of virus and anger. But I am not hopeless. Why? Because…love. Infinite Love in its most finite form keeps popping up. A note. A smile. A gift. A hand to help. A meal. A hello. A moment. A kindness. A presence. A giggle. A brief connection. A look of knowing. These are the small things our community is dependent on right now. While our bodies are forced into distances and our persons experience continued isolation, our love and our hope doesn’t have to. We can overcome the distance and separation in new ways, in abstract ways, in small ways.

As we give into what is demanded of us right now, we need not lose hope. Hopefulness gives way to hopelessness when we keep our eyes fixed on what was and we keep trying to rebuild what was. Rather hopefulness is born of love in this very moment, right here and right now, in what is. Accepting the strain and drain, the exhaustion and isolation, even the grief and sadness isn’t succumbing to the forces of evil and giving up unto nothing; it’s the very opposite. For in that weakness of accepting point-blank what is as it is, is the source of the strength of humanity in God, of God in humanity. Embracing now, allows us to unleash the determined, the dogged, the tenacious, the carpe diem and live new, exist new, connect new, to love new—not in big and grand ways, we don’t have the energy for that or the stamina; but we can love new in small and simple ways, in sustainable ways.

Like Jesus asks his disciples to reexamine what it means to give, what it means to love, what it means to lead, what it means to be a disciple, we, too, must hear these questions addressed to us. We must reexamine what it means to love right now as those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem. We must reexamine what it looks like to love God and to love others right now. Because it might just look like slipping two tiny, nearly weightless coins unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] France Mark 489. “In this context the effect is to offer the crowd a choice as to the sort of leader they will follow, and Jesus pulls no punches in exposing the shortcomings of scribes in general. How far this constitutes a valid and ‘objective’ assessment of first-century scribes may be debated; certainly 12:28-34 with Jesus’ recognition of some tenets of scribal teaching (9:11-13; 12:35) points in another direction. But this is polemics in the context of a highly charged and potentially fatal confrontation, and a suitably broad brush is applied.”

[3] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 490. “θέλω, often a rather colourless word, here has a strong meaning (BAGD, 355b, 4.a, ‘take pleasure in’): these are the ambitions of the scribes.”

[4] France Mark 490 “A στολή is not an everyday garment, but a festive or celebratory robe (cf. Lk. 15:22; Rev. 6:11; 7:9) and suggests ‘dressing up’.”

[5] France Mark 490. “Deferential ἀσπασμοί are a mark of social standing (Mt. 23:7-12 expands the point).”

[6] France Mark 490-491.”For the social significance of the front seats in the synagogue (i.e., those in front of the ark, facing the congregation) cf. the comments of Jas. 2:2-4 concerning the Christian συναγωγῆ, and for the best couch at a dinner cf. Lk. 14:7- 10; see Josephus, Ant, 15.21 for flattery by means of the best seats and greetings. Cf. Jn. 13:1-17 for a graphic repudiation of a similar preoccupation with status and reputation among Jesus’ own disciples.”

[7] France Mark 491. “The vulnerability of widows is a recurrent theme in biblical literature, so that to defraud them is particularly despicable.”

[8] France Mark 492. “Similarly, while κρίμα sometimes means the act of judging, its normal meaning of ‘condemnation’, ‘punishment’ is demanded by the context here. The reference cannot be to an earthly or human judgment (which would hardly take cognizance of ostentation as a punishable offence), but must be to God’s eschatological judgment, of which Jesus has spoken so vividly in 9:42-48.”

[9] France Mark 492. γαζοφθλάκιον “Its reference here to the collecting chests in the Court of the Women is demanded by the context, which has an ὄχλος including a woman, ‘throwing in’ donations.”

[10] France Mark 489. “The scene is in the Court of the Women, so-called not because it was specifically for women but because it was the nearest point to the temple building proper which was open to women. Here stood a range of thirteen ‘trumpet chests’ (m. Seq. 2:1; 6:5; so-called presumably from their shape) designed to receive monetary offerings, including not only the half-shekel temple tax but also ‘freewill offerings’. The half-shekel was obligatory for men, but any contribution to the other chests was voluntary, and would be noticed by anyone who, like Jesus and his disciples, was watching…Perhaps it was a recognized tourist attraction.”

[11] France Mark 492. “χαλκός is strictly ‘copper’ or ‘bronze’, and the widow’s two coins would be of copper. But the large sums donated by the rich would presumably in silver or gold coins (as were the half-shekels for the temple tax, which had the sense of ‘money’.”

[12] France Mark 493. “All contributions were therefore for the work of the temple; charitable donations for the poor were made separately.”

[13] France Mark 493. “There is no reason to think that she was the only such person present, but Jesus singles her out as an object lesson. The λεπτόν (Hebrew peruta) was the smallest denomination of currency in use, a copper coin less than a centimetre in diameter and worth less than one hundredth of a denarius (which was itself half the value of the half-shekel temple tax). Mark identifies its value by reference to the Roman κοδρἀντης; (a transliteration of quadrans, which was the smallest Roman coin, a quarter of an as).”

[14] France Mark 493. “The point is laboured in the wording of v. 44: her ὑστέρησις (destitution) is compared with their περίσσευον, the spare change which will never be missed…she has given πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν (cf. the example of the disciples, 10:28, and the failure of the rich man to do likewise, 10:21); it is ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς, and yet she voluntarily gave both coins, rather than just one! While Jesus was not averse to exaggeration to make a point, it is quite possible that in first-century Palestine the donation of two perutot would have left a poor widow without the means for her next meal (cf. the widow of Zarephath, 1 Ki. 17:12).”

[15] Working from the literal translation of: ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς. ὅλος (whole, complete, entire) is also the word used in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe about the foremost commandment in Mark 12:28-34. I’m working with the idea that this story follows to exemplify what it looks like to love God with the entirety of one’s self and love your neighbor as yourself.

[16] France Mark 489-490. “Jesus’ comment on the widow’s offering is not an attack on wealth or the wealthy as such, but rather on the scale of values which takes more account of the amount of a gift than of the dedication of the giver. It develops further the new perspective of the kingdom of God which Jesus has been so assiduously teaching his disciples on the way to Jerusalem…But this private teaching agrees closely with the tenor of his public rebuke of the scribes, whose desire for public honour typifies the superficial values of conventional society.”

The Second is This

Sermon on Mark 12:28-34

Psalm 146:1 Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Introduction

What is love? I’ve spoken on it, taught on it, read about it, and preached on it, and all I can say is…I don’t know. It’s absolutely sublime, paradoxical, inexplicable, unfathomable, and, apparently, eternal—it’s never out of fashion. I know in our English vernacular we have one word to describe love: love. That’s it. When I think of love I like to think in the Greek forms and words for love: ἔρος, φίλος, and ἀγάπη. It’s nice having three terms to define three (generally) different ways to define love.

The first, ἔρος, often gets a bad rap being equated to lust and negligent desire, but it’s merely the type of love that is akin to bringing into oneself; in other words, this is the type of love that generates a sense of pleasure in your own body. The second, φίλος, is love that exists between equals, often used of friends. The third, ἀγάπη, is the touted love of loves, the divine love. This love is best defined as the love sourced from within ourselves and moves outward toward the object of love who/which becomes the beloved. I promise, I won’t break out into a treatise on love…just yet. Suffice it to say, I don’t like creating a hierarchy between these various conceptions of love. I prefer to let them exist where they need to, often letting them intermingle and twist, giving different flavors at different times.

But still they are different in that they have different actions related to them.

I love my kids. A lot. Like: mama-bear love them, lift cars-ablaze to protect them, scare off threatening mountain lions type of love. You know, though, I also love jellybeans. A lot. Like a lot a lot. Jellybeans are the one candy that will stop me in my tracks and cause me to grab a few for my travels. But there’s a difference in the type of love I have for my kids and for jellybeans. If I threw myself on a pile of jellybeans to protect it from oncoming traffic, you would have every right to drag me off and bring me to the nearest hospital and (especially) therapist. It’s okay for me to enjoy eating jellybeans and it’s okay for me to desire to risk my life for the lives of my children because the loves speak in specific actions. Jellybeans bring me a certain amount of pleasure as I take them into my body; this is ἔρος. My kids draw out of me an action of love that is oriented toward them manifesting as nurture, comfort, and protection (to name a few); this is ἀγάπη. Love spoken of and not articulated in action, deserves to be questioned if it is love. If I said I loved my kids or jellybeans, but never once acted in a way that communicated that love, you would be right to be circumspect about my supposed claims of love; this is because love’s language is always action.

Mark 12:28-34

And the scribe said to him, “Rightly, teacher, you said truly that ‘[God] is one and there is not another except [God]. And ‘to love [God] from the whole heart and from the whole understanding and from the whole strength’ and ‘to love the neighbor as oneself’ this is the greatest of all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And then Jesus having seen him that he answered wisely said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (translation, mine)

Mark 12:32-34b

The Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer asks us to jump from the end of chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel to chapter 12. What’s jumped over is Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the temple, and a visit to the temple where Jesus’s authority is questioned by the chief priests and scribes and elders. Chapter 12 opens with Jesus telling the religious authorities of Israel—the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders—a parable. Following this, the Pharisees and then the Sadducees embark on a quest to trip-up Jesus with tricky questions. However, Mark’s Jesus is presented as triumphant[1] in this portion of his journey to the cross. So triumphant that a certain intrigued and sympathetic Scribe[2] comes near to overhear Jesus’s answers to various authorities testing him. Mark tells us that the Scribe thought Jesus answered the questions well—not merely cleverly but that he answered rightly—and is encouraged to ask Jesus his own question.[3]

And he does. His is not a trick question aimed to cause Jesus to stumble; but it does have a litmus-test type feel to it. “Of what sort is the most important commandment of all?” It’s kind of tricky because, according to the Scribes own reckoning as a scribe, there are 613 mitzvot/commands in the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses) varying in type: heavy/light, more essential/less essential, etc.[4] So, how does Jesus reply? Which one does he choose? None. Rather he summarizes the entire law while ranking two concepts as above the rest[5]: The first is Shema O Israel, Love God with your whole being and presence; and the second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. It is neither this summary that is surprising nor is it the idea of the love of God and love of neighbor.[6] The surprising part is Jesus ties together—in an indissoluble divine union—Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.[7]

Jesus takes the heart of Jewish Liturgy—the Shema[8]—and the command to love the neighbor from the book of Leviticus—the book of laws, burnt offerings, and sacrifices—and uses them to summarize the decalogue in terms of ἀγάπη: love God and love the neighbor.[9] Essentially, Jesus is saying this: the love of God is the basis for the love of neighbor;[10] you can’t have one and not the other, they are profoundly linked and are more important than any offering, sacrifice, or ritual deed. The love of God will grow itself into a profoundly personal love of neighbor. For Jesus, this is the logical trajectory of the love of God: love your neighbor as yourself. The love of God breeding love of neighbor will, if we keep following Jesus in this narrative, define itself quite radically in word, and, more importantly, in deed. Because love’s language is always action.

Conclusion

As 1 John 4:19ff asks, if we say we love God and do not love our neighbor, can we actually say we love God? If God loves the cosmos and all the flora, fauna, and humanity with it, and you love this God, then isn’t it loving God to love that which and whom this God loves? According to the relationship of loving God and loving neighbor Jesus establishes—not only in his statement to the Scribe but primarily in his actions toward and for humanity—to love God is to love the neighbor; the love of neighbor is the manifestation of the love of God. It’s not that you love God in your own piety and spirituality and reverence toward God (full stop). This is nice, but it’s not the full story—it’s secondary. Rather, it is this (active) love of God resulting in caring for, defending, providing for, nurturing, comforting, loving your neighbor.

And don’t we all need love? Real, tangible, material love? How else does God’s love get communicated to other bodies and minds and spirits if not by those who have been loved by God and who love God? We are currently consumed with an isolated and further isolating world; people seem to be drifting further and further away from each other. Lines are being irreconcilably drawn in the sand, turning into fissures in the ground and gaping expanses separating people one from another. But it doesn’t have to be like this; we can reach for each other rather than leave; we can love each other rather than turn a blind eye.

To love God and not the neighbor is akin to loving God for one’s own pleasure (ἔρος); no different than loving a pile of jellybeans because they give one pleasure. In other words, it is not truly loving God; it might be nice, and it might be acceptable, but, according to Jesus in Mark 12, it is not the full extent of what it means to love God. Rather, we are to love God in a way that mirrors the self-sourced and self-giving love (ἀγάπη) of God for us manifest in the activity of Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and driven home by God the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, causing us to love as we have been loved in word and deed. Because love’s language is always action.


[1] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 476. “Mark’s way of narrating this episode suggests that in the contest which has been taking place since 11:27 it is Jesus who is now emerging as the clear winner. He will then follow up his advantage with some caustic comments on the scribes (who have been part of the group opposing him since his arrival in Jerusalem) and on other influential people in the temple.”

[2] France Mark 478. “…Jesus, the teacher in the temple, is the fixed point while others come and go. But whereas other questions have been posed by groups, giving the impression of official delegations, this comes from an individual, and it soon becomes clear that his attitude is not that of the majority of the γραμματεῖς; He comes already favourably disposed towards Jesus, and leaves even more so. Such an open-minded enquirer prefigures the minority support which Jesus and his followers will find even in the Sanhedrin…His favourable impression derives from listening to the previous dialogues.”

[3] France Mark 479. “καλῶς in this context means not just ‘cleverly’ (so as to escape the intended trap or even to win the argument), but that Jesus’ answers have been good, wholesome, satisfying, leading the scribe to hope for an equally enlightening (not just clever) answer to his own more fundamental question…”

[4] France Mark 477. “Given that there are, according to scribal reckoning, 613 separate commandments in the five Books of Moses…the question of priority could not be avoided. The rabbis discussed which commandments were ‘heavy’ and which ‘light’, and sometimes ranked certain categories of law as more essential than others.”

[5] France Mark 478. “Jesus is asked which commandment is πρώτη, and he responds by listing the two love commandments as πρώτη and δευτέρα, but then goes on to speak of these two commandments as ‘greater’ than all others (cf. Mt. 22:38, where πρώτη is apparently equated with μεγάλη). His questioner, in agreeing with him, declares such love to be περισσότερον than the ritual commandments of sacrifice. This evaluative language is not typical of the rabbis, who spoke of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ commandments, but on the understanding that all are equally valid and who, while they might look for summarizing principles, do not seem to have ranked individual commandments as ‘first’ or ‘more important’. The difference may not have seemed great at the time, but the sort of language Mark uses here lends itself to later Christian discrimination between elements in the law, particularly with regard to the continuance of animal sacrifice. The scribe’s ‘demotion’ of the sacrificial laws below the obligation to love, and Jesus’ warm reception of this view as indicating closeness to the kingdom of God, could not but hasten the Christian abandonment of the ritual elements of the Torah.”

[6] France Mark 477. “There was a natural desire for a convenient summary of the law’s requirements, a single principle from which all the rest of the Torah was derived (the rabbis used the term kelal for such a summarizing principle).”

[7] France Mark 477-478. “So, while these sources vary in date and do not all represent Palestinian thought, it seems likely that the gist of Jesus’ response to the question would have caused no surprise. But for his explicit linking together of these two very familiar OT texts we have no Jewish precedent.”

[8] France Mark 479. “…not only makes the text more instantly recognizable as the opening part of the Shema but also grounds the ‘first commandment’ in the essential tenet of Jewish belief, monotheism, and so establishes Jesus’ theological orthodoxy.”

[9] France Mark 480. “Jesus was asked for one ‘first commandment’, but responds with two, which together hold the preeminent position. The two are linked both by the key verb ἀγαπήσεις and by the fact that they represent respectively the first and second parts of the decalogue.”

[10] France Mark 480. “…but here, where what is requested is a general statement of priorities, both ‘tables’ are represented, and with a clear priority between them, πρώτη and δευτέρα: love of other people finds its true place only on the basis of a prior love of God.”