With Christ, With Others

Sermon on John 2:1-11

Psalm 36:5-7 5 Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep; you save both human and beast, O Lord. How priceless is your love, O God! your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

Introduction

One of the things that has been most on my mind as I’ve walked into 2022 has been the idea and concept of “presence.” I know this is not a new concept; the self-care industry has been talking about this forever. It’s a concept I’ve talked about as a mom, partner, teacher, and priest. So why talk about it again?

Because this year it feels different to me.

Historically, presence was a stillness of the whole person. Body and mind take a rest in a particular moment. A seat. A kneel. A pause. A static moment. And these are all great aspects of the concept of presence and ways I’ve definitely employed the idea in my work/life balance. But what occurred to me recently was the idea of presence in motion and movement. I’ve been thinking about how this idea of presence in motion envelopes my relationship to others and to time. I can define this relationship by asking this question: Can I just be here right now with this person?

I think about this question a lot as I walk with Liza two miles to school and then again on our way home in the afternoon. There are times the two miles feels massive…about 40 minutes of time. In a society that demands me to validate each and every minute and submit my time sheet of productivity, it is hard to realize 80 minutes of the day are me, just walking with my daughter. But here I am, walking 80 minutes with my daughter at least 4 days a week. There are mornings where I’m consumed about the time it’ll take me to walk back before I can get to work on various projects—the stress about what needs to be done builds. There have been mornings with the temperature low that the many, many steps—comprising “there and back again” a Larkin tale—feel daunting, and I long for yesteryear when school was just down stairs.

And lately the question—Can I just be here right now with this person?—has grown louder and louder. Can I walk in this moment with Liza without thinking of what is ahead of me and what is behind? Can I just walk, one foot in front of the other, one minute at a time, not rushing and not dragging and not internally complaining? Can I just be here right now in this moment and activity with this person? Can I forget about the time and the distance and just be here, walking with this beloved?

John 2:1-11

Now there were placed there six water pots made of stone each holding a two or three anaphoras [8.75 liters]—in accordance with the purification of the Jews. Jesus said to [the servants], “Fill the water pots.” And they filled them to the brim. And Jesus said to them, “Now draw out and bring forth to the master of the feast.” And they brought [it] forth. Now as the master of the feast tasted the water having become wine …[1]

John 2:6-9a

Jesus is physically and emotionally present at this wedding in Cana. He’s not aloof and above such a scene. One might assume that wine running out at a celebration would be exactly what the Son of God would and should prefer. Aren’t we too holy for such potentially ruckus camaraderie? Apparently: No, we’re not. Instead of informing the servants that water will be just fine because *casually gestures around the room* Jesus adds to the distribution of wine (a lot! 3 anaphoras was about 30 liters, and there were six of these vessels!). Jesus allows the party to go on. In this I hear a question…Why?

An ordinary wedding in Cana is certainly not the place for one’s first miracle. It’s by all definitions very, very ordinary. Yes, weddings can be fun and great, but if you think about it they’re rather common place. (We all breathe a sigh of relief when we finally leave “wedding season” of adult hood.) John the Elder records this story because it’s Jesus’s first publicly performed miracle. But it’s not that extra-ordinary. The miracle here is merely the transition—the transubstantiation—of water into wine. Water, by the word of Christ, becomes wine. That is what happens here. Nothing more; nothing less. For the man Jesus who is the Christ, who is God, this is nothing. Yet it’s here in this very basic act of turning water into wine where Jesus reveals the glory of God.[2] And this is the point.

What is the glory of God being revealed? It is not merely in the water turned wine, but the essence of the why: God’s love for God’s people manifested here at this wedding, in this revelry, in this way, by the presence of Jesus. What John the Elder highlights for his reader (both then and now) is that the gift being given isn’t the wine, but the very real and whole presence of Jesus himself, God of very God, the bread and wine of life.[3] Jesus isn’t just present in a spiritual way in this story. Rather, Jesus is actively present in the lives of all the people invited into this celebration of union and life. A reflection of what comes in the great celebration of the union of God and God’s people. The very celebration started the moment Mary pushed and the angels heralded the shepherds.

Conclusion

A story about a miracle at a celebration revealing the glory of God, which is God’s love for God’s people, has really big ramifications for our lives. This isn’t merely a story that we look in upon, but one into which we are invited. We are called in as guests, with Jesus, to this wedding to see, hear, and experience the joy of new and best wine being revealed at the end of the celebration. We are asked to see Jesus present with these people, and imagine and be reminded that Jesus is with us, too.

You, by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, walk with God in Christ. Every moment. God is not hiding from you as if you have to hunt and seek for God. You are in Christ (a location) by faith. And the last I checked, it is really hard not to be where you are. You are always here; you are always in and with Christ.The love of God comes to you, reveals to you God’s love for you,[4] enfolds you, wraps you up in the swaddling clothes of love, and you are held in the arms of God. We are in Christ’s presence and with Christ. And Christ is in us by the power of the Spirit and with us by the same power.

In a sermon, “On Being a Good Neighbor”, Martin Luther King, Jr., said,

“The ultimate measure of a man [Sic] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”[5]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In being located with and in Christ means that others are there, too. This location of being in Christ is one we share with others. And we are all here in this now in Christ, in this presence being given a present. In Christ we are alleviated of the drudgery of the past and the threat of the future, and we can be here now; we get a present tense not just for us but especially for our sisters and brothers in Christ, those sharing this location. We walk with them, one step at a time, one minute at a time, and we bear with them their burdens, their pains, and their sorrow for they live with us. As Christ resided with those whom he counted as his brothers and sisters according to his flesh, as Christ was present at that wedding, so are we present with others, elevating them, to quote Dr. King, “to a higher and more noble life.” In other words, if “‘Christ is the [person] for others’”, then “the [person] for others is the [person] after God’s heart.”[6]

We, the beloved, are gifted with the revelation that by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit we walk with God in Christ… with God not behind and afraid, but with God. God is with us, all of us, and thus we are called to the other of the beloved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray and RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 1971. 119. “For the Evangelist the meaning of the story is not contained simply in the miraculous event; this, or rather the narrative, is the symbol of something which occurs throughout the whole of Jesus’ ministry, that is, the revelation of the δόξα of Jesus. As understood by the Evangelist this is not the power of the miracle worker, but the divinity of Jesus as the Revealer, and it becomes visible for faith in the reception of χάρις and ἀλήθεια; his revelation of his δόξα is nothing more nor less than his revelation of the ονομα of the Father (17.6).”

[3] Bultmann John 120. “…the Evangelist’s figurative language refers not to any particular gift brought by the Saviour Jesus, but to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as is true of the images of the living water, the bread of life and the light, as well as of the shepherd and the vine; equally the wine refers not to any special gift, but to Jesus’ gift as a whole, to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as he is finally visible after the completion of his work.”

[4] Bultmann John 121. “The story then will teach us that the help for all man’s perplexity is to be found in the miracle of the revelation; but the event of the revelation is independent of human desires and cannot be forcibly brought about by man’s supplication; it comes to pass where and how God wills, and then it surpasses all human expectation.”

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “On Being a Good Neighbor” Strength to Love Minnesapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 26-27

[6] Dorothee Sölle Theology for Skeptics : Reflections on God Trans Joyce L. Irwin. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995. 96. “[Jesus] let this light shine through himself,  he did not hide it in the depths of his soul, he gave it out. He was the man [Sic] for others because he was the man of God and knew himself to be so borne up by God that he did not fall out of God, not even when he felt himself abandoned by God. The old formula ‘true man’ is rendered by Bonhoeffer as ‘man,’ where being ‘true God’ is called by Bonhoeffer simply being there ‘for others,’ because God is for others the God of love. Thus the sentence, ‘Christ is the man for others,’ is the old Christological formula ‘true God and true man’ in contemporary speech which refers to God without using religious formulas. The man for others it’s the man after God’s heart.”

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

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.”

On the Way

Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

Psalm 34:1-3 I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth. I will glory in the Lord; let the humble hear and rejoice. Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord; let us exalt his Name together. (44)

Introduction

Our gospel reading today reminded me that our encounters with God change us. I know that for me, this is the case. While the encounters vary from one to another and are difficult to pin down as this thing or act, an encounter with God in the event of faith brings me from a moment ago when I was this version of myself to now where I am this new version because of the encounter with God in the event of faith.

The most profound experience was when I became “Christian”. I was at the end of my rope, falling apart in so many ways, lost, chaotic, upside-down in all the ways one could imagine. I was devouring myself from the inside while I was letting the world have at me from the outside. And then…Jesus. I met Jesus in the isolation of my apartment in Hoboken, NJ, and left everything on the ground and took hold of his outstretched hand. And then I followed. I couldn’t not follow. My life was changed; I could see, I could hear, I could think, I could speak, I could feel in new ways; words and thoughts and deeds became fruitful seeds dropping into soil rather than weeds needing to be pulled out.

Other experiences of God-encounters in faith have come and gone. Many significantly smaller and simpler than the very first logged in the books by my own hand. Maybe it’s in the first sip of coffee, or the succumbing to exhaustion at the end of the day; in laughing with old friends and crying with a new one; in making bread in my kitchen and breaking bread at this table here in this church; in placing food into hands covered in dirt because that mud was too enticing and placing spiritual nourishment into hands that have seen so much; from moments outside these walls and moments inside these walls, the encounters with God in the event of faith are prosperous in possibility. There is no formula for them; they just happen, and they always catch me by surprise and change me as I find myself, once again, transitioned from was to is while taking hold of that outstretched hand of Christ and following.

Mark 10:46-52

Now, he, throwing off his cloak, rushed in and came toward Jesus. And then Jesus answered him and said, “What do you wish I would do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Teacher, that I might recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Depart, your faith has healed you.” And immediately he recovered sight and was following [Jesus] on the way.” (Mk. 10:50-52)[1]

Jan mentioned last week that all these stories and the discussion of what it means to be a disciple are leading up to Jesus arriving up to Jerusalem. She’s right. Mark doesn’t always mention the specific location when he tells a story. Sometimes it feels as if Jesus is teleported from here to there. However, this time, we get a clear and intentional geographical location: Jericho. This is the last stop before Jesus arrives at the outer limits of Jerusalem, just a day’s travel from Jericho.[2]

Mark tells us Jesus came to Jericho and as he is leaving, he encounters one who, having no sight and no belongings, recognizes who he is: Jesus, the son of David; this is no small claim. For all intents and purposes, this “son of David” was equivalent to “Christ” (Χριστός) but with more national and royal identity; according to this blind beggar, this is Jesus, the Messiah.[3] And here we begin to encounter a new facet to the discussion carried through the text. Not only do those who follow Jesus need to re-examine what it means to be a disciple of Christ, but they will also have to contend with their commonsense expectation of who Messiah is and what Messiah will do as Jesus’s ministry becomes more public.

Mark continues to tell us that this blind beggar, Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus—after being chided and rebuked by the crowd to be quiet—shouted all the more and all the louder, Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me! Once again, Jesus doesn’t tolerate chiding and rebuking and sides with the one calling on him.[4] Jesus doesn’t only acknowledge him, but he halts (himself and most likely the crowd) and tells the crowd to call the beggar to him. Immediately the chiding and rebuking crowd become eager and encouraging as they tell Bartimaeus to go to Jesus.[5]

Bartimaeus, the blind beggar publicly declaring Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel, throws off his cloak and rushes to Jesus. Jesus asks him, what do you wish I would do for you? Bartimaeus is clear in response: I wish to completely recover my sight. Done. Go, Jesus says. Your faith has healed you. Bartimaeus immediately regains his vision; he can do nothing else but follow Jesus, the one who gave him his sight, the one who gave him his life, the one who took his nothing and gave him something.[6] Bartimaeus ignores the command to go (ὕπαγε[7]) and chooses instead to follow Jesus as a disciple on the way (to Jerusalem).[8]

Conclusion

The interesting thing about Bartimaeus is how Mark juxtaposes him to the Rich young man (Mk 10:17ff). Prior to Jericho, the rich young man was the last and more likely recruit. Yet, he couldn’t do that final thing: abandon his privilege and follow after Jesus. Here, Mark highlights a blind beggar who, like the rich young man, recognizes Jesus, and who, unlike the rich young man, chooses to follow Jesus at the very last minute.[9] Both men encountered God, but only one was transformed by that encounter and thus experienced God in his self. One had everything and needed nothing; the other had nothing and needed everything. It is the poor, blind beggar—with nothing in this earthly life to lose who encounters God and is transformed in the encounter—who does the only thing that now makes sense because of that encounter: follow. The rich young man had too much to lose to let that make sense at that time. And Bartimaeus isn’t following Jesus as Jesus is growing in popularity but follows Jesus as Jesus is about to enter the most public and more devastating part of his ministry: his betrayal, his suffering, and his death.[10]

According to Mark, the way of the disciple is thus: follow Jesus deep down into the human experience, to be identified with the pain of others, to stand in solidarity in the fight for life and liberty of the captives, it is to weep with others who weep, too. And in it all, it is here where you find yourself, in the nitty gritty of human life, growing more in love with God and more in love with your neighbor.

As I think upon my own encounters with God, the most intriguing things is that after my first profound experience of encounter with God in the event of faith, I believed that this encounter would lead me up and out of the world, more into the heavenly, celestial, saintly realms of spirituality and purity. However, the reality is that I am, as I follow Jesus, lead deeper down and into the world, into the depths of human suffering and sorrow, into the nitty gritty of life in ways that I didn’t care for and didn’t desire. As a follower of Christ, I have felt more pain and more sorrow and more sadness than I have ever felt before when my life seemed decorated with such things. As a follower of Christ, I have felt the weight of my love for God and for others increase, driving me to reach each and every little one with the love of God, to tell them how loved they are by this God of love. In this deeper in and deeper down into the human experience, I find I’m given the gift of knowing who I am, specifically who I am in Christ. The more I walk with Christ, the more I encounter God and my neighbor—in both small and big encounters, both good and bad encounters. The more I encounter God and my neighbor the more I know who I am; and the more I know who I am the more I know who I am for you and in God. And the cycle repeats.

We, as disciples (united and individual), are called to go deeper in and deeper down, to see our call and our purpose in going out into the manifold masses, proclaiming—in word and deed—God’s profound and real love for them as the beloved when things are good and when things are bad, when things are big and when things are small. Those of us who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan have been and are encountered by God in the event of faith, we have been and are loved as we are, where we are, in every mundane day. I pray we bring this very love and encounter to others who may not have the ability to meet us here; may we meet them out there, on the way.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 421-22. “The preparation of the disciples for Jerusalem has already reached its climax in v. 45, but this final incident on the way moves the plot on from the vague geographical information of 10:1 to a specific location, Jericho, the last town before the traveller reaches the environs of Jerusalem, a mere day’s walk away. So we see Jesus and his disciples, with a growing crowd of fellow pilgrims, leaving this last town for the strenuous climb up from the Jordan valley to the city more than 1,000 metres above. But as they set out, the company is augmented by a further and unexpected recruit.”

[3] France Mark 423. “For Jewish people it would be functionally equivalent to Χριστός but the voicing of David’s name increases the loading of royal and nationalistic ideology which it carries. Peter’s recognition of Jesus as ὀ Χριστός in 8:29 would have given a sufficient basis for the disciples to use such language, if Jesus had it (8:30). But they have observed the ban, and so its first use now by an outsider is remarkable. No other onlooker has interpreted Jesus in messianic (as opposed to merely prophetic) terms in this gospel. Whether we should think of Bartimaeus as having unusual spiritual insight or as simply aiming to gain attention by the most flattering address he can think of, his words open up a new phase in the gradual disclosure of Jesus in Mark. For it is now time, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, for the messianic aspect of his ministry to become more public…”

[4] France Mark 424. “Like the disciples in 10:13, they (πολλοί, not just the disciples this time) rebuke someone of no status who wants to gain access to Jesus — and like the disciples they are overruled….but whereas in those instances it was Jesus who thus prevented disclosure of his identity, here it is the crowd who try to silence the ‘messianic confessor’, and Jesus who takes his part against them.”

[5] France Mark 424. “Given Jesus’ urgency in 10:32, his stopping (and presumably bringing the whole crowd to a halt) for a beggar is remarkable. The crowd’s sudden and complete change of heart indicates the authority of Jesus: they are now as enthusiastic as before they were dismissive, and become the medium for Jesus’ call to Bartimaeus.”

[6] France Mark 424-25. “The ‘privileged’ status which Mark has given to Bartimaeus allows him not only to call on Jesus as υἰὲ Δαυίδ but now also allows him to address him already as we might expect a disciple to do.…The request is expressed simply and boldly; the aorist subjunctive ἀναβλέψω looks for an instantaneous and complete recovery of sight (as in fact happens in v. 52), rather than the more protracted process we have seen in 8:23-25. Jesus’ reply uses terms already familiar from other healing stories….”

[7] ὕπαγε is the present active imperative 2 person singular of ὕπαγω. Thus, Jesus commanded him to depart (as he’s done with other recipients of divine healing), but Bartimaeus doesn’t. But that’s fine. France explains, In 5:19 ὕπαγε marked a refusal to allow the healed person to become a disciple, but in other cases it is simply a recognition that the person is now cured and may go, so that there is no need to see a conflict here between ὕπαγε and Bartimaeus’s deciding to follow Jesus.”

[8] France Mark 425. “The two terms ἀκολουθέω and ἡ ὁδός both speak of discipleship, and the prominence of the latter phrase in Act Two ensures its occurrence at the end of that Act reminds us of this central theme. Bartimaeus, now set free from his blindness, represents all those who have found enlightenment and follow the Master. So as the pilgrim group sets off again up the Jerusalem road, with one additional member, the reader is prepared to witness the coming of the Son of David to ‘his’ city, and challenged to join him on the road.”

[9] France Mark 422. “The last potential recruit we met was an admirable, respectable, and wealthy man (10:17-22), but to the disciples’ consternation he has not been welcomed into Jesus’ entourage. Now we meet a man at quite the other end of the scale of social acceptability, a blind beggar. And it is he, rather than the rich man, who will end up following Jesus έν τῇ ὁδῷ, with his sight restored, nothing to sell, and so his commitment can be immediate and complete. While we hear nothing of his subsequent discipleship, the fact that Mark records his name and his father’s name suggests that he became a familiar character in the disciple group.”

[10] France Mark 422. “…so now his extended teaching on the reversal of values in the kingdom of God is summed up in the recruitment of the least likely disciple, the ‘little one’ who is welcomed, the last who becomes first. As Bartimaeus joins Jesus έν τῇ ὁδῷ he functions as an example of discipleship, with whom ‘Mark encourages the reader to identify’.”

Divine Silence and Suffering

Sermon on Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm 19:1-4 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.

Introduction[1]

“For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:32-33

On September 11th, 2001, at around 7:30 in the morning, I walked from the PATH station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located 20 street blocks (about a mile) from the station in midtown, Manhattan. I walked through Times Square, weaving and wending by the command of traffic lights; walked by St. Pats, by the windows of Saks 5th Avenue, Rock plaza, and arrived at 53rd and 5th avenue. The walk was brilliant; the air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. This Tuesday seemed to promise perfection. Nothing could have prepared me for the next few hours.

What felt like moments later and just settling into the glorious banality of office life, a coworker showed up, wide eyed at my desk. A massive passenger plane flew into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like…into,” was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible? Was it an accident?

I worked on the analyst floor with the guru of gaming and leisure stocks; we didn’t have TVs enough to manage the crowd, so we headed downstairs to the “Floor” (the Trading Floor). We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings comprising our skyline take the foreground, rendering that bright blue sky as a frame for destruction. As we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the South Tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were immediately dismissed from work and released into the streets of New York City … But to where? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could enter or leave.

Proverbs 1:20-33

“Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.”

Proverbs 1:20-23

After getting to the entrances of Morgan Stanley (47th and Broadway), where my father worked, I was told, “We sent everyone home a while ago,” said the officer holding guard. Thinking fast, I pulled out my PalmPilot to check his address and doubled back heading over to my big brother’s apartment near Grand Central Station. The crowd of people was thick. Yet there was a calm about everything. Cellphones didn’t work, because the towers were down… We just moved as we could and as kind as we could. You’d think it would be crazy, like movie crazy but it wasn’t; fear like that manifests in disbelief; disbelief mixed with fear is very quiet.

I entered the apartment building and before I could say anything, the door man took one look at me and said, “Go; he’s looking for you. Go!” 7 floors later and I was embraced by the biggest hug I’ve ever received and given.

By a little after noon, Manhattan was quiet. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big city was very silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed down large avenues, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to Ground Zero. I could (and did) walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’d do such a thing.

Manhattan and the surrounding areas would never be the same. We couldn’t go back to “normal” because that didn’t exist anymore. “Back to” isn’t the trajectory for “normal” when you’re constantly reminded of the horror and tragedy when walking by walls, bus-stands, and bulletin boards, plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried. Months and months, well into 2002; images of the once living haunting and following us until we were numb to their frozen smiles and twinkling eyes.

I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me, God was dead or at least appeared to be.

“Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.”

Proverbs 1:24-27

All the tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering we experience individually and collectively draw up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind desperate questions. Why? Where were you? Where are you God? Why didn’t God stop the tragedy? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where is God when we are in pain? Where is the Divine Comforter when our hearts are torn asunder through loss? Where was God on 9/11? And as fast as the questions arise so do the answers die.

I’ve spent most of my academic life in the pursuit of the question: where is God when we suffer? Where is comfort in divine silence? And there are times—like 9/11—where I come up wordless. The only I answer I have is the tears I shed because suffering is real; and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving? Is this suffering divine judgment?

“Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.”

Proverbs 1:28-31

But there are times when I see clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has only that last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows[2]; God is in the rubble.

Conclusion

Woman Wisdom in our Proverbs passage speaks not to us—those caught in earthly calamity and suffering—but to death and his foolish lackeys: pain, suffering, grief, sorrow, violence, evil, horror, disaster, etc., and anyone who follows death’s lead. Fear of the Lord will not protect me from earthly pain and suffering, sorrow and grief; but it is my life amid them. The cosmic battle is lopsided, leaning in the favor of the God of life.[3] God of Life, Love, comes for God’s people and raises them into God’s self, into life; and therein death, pain, suffering, grief, sorrow, violence, evil, horror is condemned while Wisdom watches and laughs.

God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quake. And the only reason I can say this is because Jesus the Christ, hung on a cross in solidarity with those who suffer in this world. Jesus was raised on the third day to be the fulfillment of the promise of life to those with whom he is in solidarity. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. This is one of the most radical things about the Church’s gospel proclamation: Jesus the Christ, God of very God, suffered in solidarity with the suffering and brings life to them.

God does dwell with those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer for they are in the fullness of God; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is amid God’s people as we gather, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the many services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed, but more: when they showed up.  

God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.


[1] The following is adapted and expanded from this: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2018/09/14/god-is-in-the-gallows-god-is-in-the-rubble-homily-on-luke-28-20-in-honor-of-9-11/

[2] Inspired by Jurgen Moltmann and Elie Wiesel; Moltmann in The Crucified God articulates a powerful story from Wiesel about the hanging of three Jews in a concentration camp. 273-4

[3] Bruce K. Waltke The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 TNICOT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004. 204

Like Beloved Children

Psalm 130:4-7: I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Introduction

For 11 years, I was a stay-at-home parent. My favorite and least favorite part of being a stay-at-home parent was watching how my mannerisms, colloquialisms, and habits were reproduced by my children—for better or for worse. Somedays it would be Liza who would see to her duty of unpacking the pantry I just packed after a run to the store. Or it was Quinn who would use a spare calculator as a cellphone and walk around the house, like I did when I was on the phone, yammering to some unknown person while imitating my intonations and inflections. Or, in Jack’s case, it was making use of my penchant and fondness for polysyllabic words.

Of all the stories I have about Jack’s ability to command language and his artistic ability to render it to his will, my favorite was an encounter with our mailman on a warm summer day. Playing out in the gated front porch, both boys were busy with paints and bubbles. The mailman climbed the two flights of stairs to our mounted mailbox. As he was putting the mail in the mailbox, he greeted the two toddlers with a happy smile and a warm, “Hey guys!” Quinn, my shy extrovert, smiled and whispered a hello in reply. Jack, a little over two and wearing nothing but a bulky cloth diaper, looked at the mailman, pointed at him, and—assertive and confident—said, “Do not antagonize our cat, Joe Joe!” The mailman was a bit taken aback by both the prohibition and from whom it came. He laughed and assured my son, “Don’t worry, buddy, I won’t!”

It didn’t take but a second to figure out where Jack had learned that polysyllabic word: me. Day in and day out I would use various words to exhort the boys to stop (verbally) fighting—some more colorful than others, but always words natural to the way I speak. And, “antagonize” was one of those words targeted at the boys locked in verbal fisticuffs. Thus, Jack had not only made note of it, he learned when to use it. He didn’t need to memorize the word; he just heard it enough in specific situations to absorb it and imitate it to an innocent mailman making rounds.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Let all bitterness and outbursts of negative passion and impulsive vengeance and clamoring against others and abusive language be removed from you with all malice. Now be kind with respect to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God forgave you in Christ. Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and handed himself over for our sake, as an offering and sacrifice for a fragrant odor to God (Eph 4:31-5:2)[1]

Ephesians 4:31-5:2

The author of our love letter to Ephesus continues with the exhortative nature initiated at the start of chapter four. As we pick up in v. 25, neither lose the beseeching to walk worthy of the call to which you were called (v.1), nor the imagery of being the reborn children of divine Love. What we have in our portion from Ephesians today is a dive into what it looks like to walk in this worthy way, as those beloved children of God—heirs with Christ of the fulfilled promises—sealed by the Holy Spirit. Being reborn of God in and by love, we are to reflect that divine genetic material of love into the world; the old life being shed, we are new.[2] This new person and worthy walk, according to the author, is what it means to be a new person born into the reign of God in the world.[3]

What will this new life reborn of love look like? The first thing is removing falsehood from our language. This isn’t about threatening others with condemnation if they lie; it’s about pursing what is genuine and real, rejecting what is in opposition to genuine and real.[4] We not only seek honesty with others, but we are also honest with ourselves. We live in reality and not in some mythical approximation that makes us feel comfortable. We can twist and bend our words and language about the world however we want, but this exhortation is about calling things as they are for what they are. We owe others truth because we are linked together with them in our humanity and as objects of divine love—both in and outside of our common gathering on Sunday.[5] In this way, to propagate falsehood does harm to us as it is does to others. Perpetuating the myth and lie of the kingdom of humanity keeps us all trapped in complicity and captivity of the myth and lie.

Closely linked with putting aside untruth, we’re exhorted to be angry in a life-giving way and not in a death-dealing way. As we’re called to see things as they are, we will become angry when we see people suffering and being held captive by oppression and injustice perpetuated by the myth and lie.[6] In this righteous anger over pain and suffering,[7] we’re to aim at the mark: remedying the situation and not exacerbating it. We are prohibited from missing the mark (“sin”), thus in the negative prohibition is the positive command: do the right thing, fight for those who need to be fought for, ally with those who are being pressed and killed by greed, and overturn violent institutional and systemic oppression as if they were tables.[8] Concurrently, we must prevent our anger from festering for too long and becoming septic.[9] This is why it’s important to channel the energy of anger toward life; festered and septic anger brings death.

The next two exhortations—to work with hands and not steal and the call to speak edifying words and not “worthless” words—address the orientation of heart of the new person as the beloved child of God. Both exhortations are directed to the neighbor. While we may think thievery is anyone who steals what they have not purchased, it’s more than that. It’s about greed. A poor person steals bread to eat because they have a desire to eat; a rich person steals not for lack but because of a desire to satisfy greed. A loquacious person may speak many words, but not all of them will be edifying. In both commands the heart of the believer is exposed. We must keep watch over ourselves and our tendency to fall prey to the myths of our society that convince us we can say what we want and take what we want to the detriment of the neighbor. We must remember that our material existence and the material of our words are not ours; rather, they are of God because we are reborn of divine love.[10] We use both our work, our material existence, and our words[11] to benefit those in need, bringing the love of God to them in real and tangible ways. Thus, the Holy of Spirit of God (in you and in whom you are sealed[12]) rejoices and is not grieved.[13],[14]

Conclusion

We are to remove from us a bitter attitude, negative outbursts of passion, destructive anger, clamoring against each other, and abusive language. In other words, our attitude, disposition and manner of speech,[15] must resist participating in death-dealing. This is the way of humanity, bent on its desires to consume until everything is gone, bent on its own destruction, bent on gain and greed even if it means the end of the world, of humanity, and of themselves. Rather, we are to pull close to our divine parent, to gaze upon God in Christ. We are to look so ardently and listen so well (shema) that we, like the beloved children of God that we are, mimic Christ in the world. The more we gaze upon Christ, the more we hear about God’s activity and speech manifest in Christ for us and the entire creation and cosmos, the more we will reflect those things into the world and all for the love of God and for our neighbor.

The more we understand God’s compassion for us and the world, made tangible in Christ, the more compassion will take root, grow, and flourish in our hearts, minds, and bodies in word and deed.[16] As we see and hear God weep with us in our grief and sorrow, so will we weep with others who grieve and sorrow. As we see and hear God relieve our hunger and thirst, so will we relieve the hunger and thirst of others. As we see and hear God present in our pain and suffering, so will we be present in the pain and suffering of others. As we see and hear God ally with us in our captivity and get angry about it, so will we ally with those who are being held captive and be angry about it. As we see and hear God forgive us for missing the mark, we will forgive others who miss the mark, too. As we witness by eye and ear God’s gracious and free gift of Grace in Christ to us, we will reflect this free gift of grace into the world.[17]

Like beloved children of Love, let us know God’s love for us and the cosmos in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can’t do anything else but mimic and imitate this divine love into the banality and monotony of daily life, boldly communicating this profound love to others in word and deed…even to the unsuspecting mailperson making their rounds on a warm summer day.[18]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 615. “Having established the believers position as a new person, the inferential conjunction Sid points to the desired application of this position. The lifestyle of the old person is integrally tied to the person and so the lifestyle and the position of the new should be integrally bound together. Once the new person had been put on at conversion, one’s subsequent life should reflect what he or she is.”

[3] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974 511  “In what follows Paul presents examples to show what specific deeds and attitudes are rejected when the ‘0ld Man’ is castaway.”

[4] Hoehner Ephesians 615-616, Pseudos “…in all contexts this word is used as the antithesis of truth…. Falsehood connotes that which is not genuine or real. The lifestyle of the old person was one of deception (v. 22). This kind of lifestyle has been laid aside.”

[5] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard Ephesians Belief: A Theological Commentary Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011. 188, “Truth is owed to the neighbors because of our social solidarity with them. It is also a bit surprising that the text does not say that we are members of the ‘body’. The ‘body’ is not mentioned. Perhaps it is also too obvious to mention. But perhaps the reference the ‘body’ is left out because ‘the neighbors’ to whom we are to ‘speak the truth’ evidently include those who are not members of the body, not members of the church. The exhortation was not simply that we should tell the truth ‘to one another.’ Truthfulness is not just owed to other members of the church, but to any and all neighbors.’ The ‘truth’ in Jesus of our social solidarity, that ‘we are members of one another’ points beyond the church to the universal community that is God’s plan.”

[6] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 190, “Anger at injustice is permitted. Indeed, an injustice not only prompts anger; it requires it When we see the poor oppressed, we should get angry. When the ‘other’ is demeaned or insulted, we should get angry. But anger can be an occasion for sin, for seeking revenge instead of justice, for holding a grudge instead of seeking reconciliation. It is sin that is renounced.”

[7] Barth Ephesians 513, “Among the saints who are ‘God’s imitators’ (5:1) such anger cannot be excluded any more than in God himself (Rom 1:18; 2:5, 8; 5:9) or in the Messiah (Mark 3:5, etc.). ‘Wrath against a brother’ draws judgment upon the angry man (Matt 5:22; cf Gen 45:24), but ‘indignation on behalf of others is one of the common bonds by which society is held together.’”

[8] Hoehner Ephesians 619, We Anger “Since the word sometimes is in reference to Gods anger it cannot be said that anger is intrinsically evil. Hence, the next command is important. The imperative is from ὰμαρτάνω, meaning in classical Greek ‘to miss the mark’ such as when throwing a spear or ‘to miss’ the way. Generally it means ‘to fail to accomplish ones purpose, go wrong.’”

[9] Hoehner Ephesians 623, “This is why Paul does not want believers to give the devil an opportunity by their anger. The devil twists and distorts the truth. If there is no quick restoration between parties, further anger mounts and dissension and revenge often result.”

[10] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 192-193, “There is the sort of theft to which the poor and powerless are tempted, but there are also the subtle forms of stealing that tempt the rich and powerful. It is a kind of theft when the rich get richer at the expense of a decent wage for laborers or by taking advantage of slaves. It is a kind of theft when merchants ‘make the ephah small and the shekel great’ (Amos 8:5). It is a kind of theft when a judge takes a bribe. And it is a kind of theft when the wealthy do not recognize that what they call “their own” is really God s and an opportunity to practice justice and generosity. It is a kind of theft when the rich ignore and dismiss the legitimate claims of the poor upon them, when they do not share with the needy what is due them by Gods justice. It is likely that the latter sorts of theft are in view here in Ephesians rather than the first. Then one need not suppose that there were a lot of petty thieves and shoplifters in the churches of the Lycus Valley.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 631, “Paul states that believers are accountable for what they say. In fact every word is accountable. Care must be taken that each word is not useless or unprofitable but is beneficial for the building up of the body. While the preceding verse dealt with the physical needs of believers, this verse speaks to their spiritual needs.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 633, “In conclusion, verse 30 revolves around the person of the Holy Spirit. Believers are reminded that he has sealed them for the day of redemption. They are warned against the use of worthless words because they not only hurt the body of Christ but also grieve the Holy Spirit.”

[13] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 194-195, “The motive here, the motive to do an honest days work, is not simply to earn a living for oneself and one’s family, honest enough motives, to be sure. The motive is surely not to accumulate enough possessions to pretend one has achieved by oneself and for oneself security and an identity. The motive, rather, is simply ‘to have something to share with the needy’ (4:28). That will include those who do not have work.”

[14] Barth Ephesians 522, Blaspheme “This term may have been chosen in order to show that one’s fellow man is under God’s protection: he who reviles his brother by using profane speech shouts obscenities against God.”

[15] Hoehner Ephesians 636, “To summarize, first noun ‘bitterness’ in verse 31 deals with attitude. The next two nouns ‘anger and wrath’ deal with disposition, and the last two ‘shouting and abusive’ refer to the manner of speech.”

[16] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 200-1, “Compassion (eusplangchnos; NRSV ‘tenderhearted’) is the second in this triad of virtues. Compassion is a visceral response to the suffering o£ another. It is to share the suffering, to ‘suffer with’ (com-passion) another. Compassion will seek to relieve the suffering of another, even if the only way to relieve it is to be present to it, present to the sufferer, lest the sufferer be abandoned to the desolating loneliness of suffering….. In solidarity with that Christ, we hope for the day of resurrection, the day when death will be no more, when there will be no more suffering. But meanwhile we share in Christ s death. And if we share in that death in baptism and the Supper, then to refuse to share the suffering of another is quite unfitting, quite unworthy of our new identity and community.”

[17] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 206, “Nevertheless, the broader meaning should not be neglected here. Both God’s forgiveness and the practice of forgiveness within the church are, after all, works of grace. Moreover, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness—and the whole set of renunciations and exhortations in this section—find their final motive and basis in the grace of God made known in Christ Forgiveness, surely, but also kindness and compassion, follow upon this affirmation of the gospel, that “God in Christ has been gracious to you.’”

[18] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 206-7, “Love is the mark of God s own life, both in the relations of the Trinity and in Gods creative and redemptive relationship with Gods creation. But here, no less than in Johns epistle, ‘we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:16). We are to imitate God by living in accord with Christ’s love. We imitate God by following Christ; we are to ‘walk [peripatetic] in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Eph. 5:2). Here, no less than in John’s epistle, the implication is that ‘we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16). That imitation of God, that following of Christ, may mean first; as in 1 John, something as mundane and commonplace as helping the needy in the community (Eph. 4:28; c£ 1 John 3:17).”

Born of Love

Sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16

Psalm 51:9-11 Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Introduction

Of my three children, Liza was by far the most active in utero. I felt her quick and swift movements early and often up until the very end of her 41 weeks. I’m not sure what she was doing, but Daniel and I often joked that she was busy building extra rooms and additions in her 98-degree cave. She was here, she was there, she was … wait, how did you get there?! Even our obstetrician had difficulty locating her heartbeat early on so that we could hear it for longer than a few seconds. You’d hear the rapid thump-thump-thump draw close to the doppler and then *poof!* like magic, she was gone. As she grew larger (she’d be about 10lb when she was born), I’d literally rock with her full-bodied movements. She didn’t just kick, she lambadad about, with a flamenco thrown in here and there.

It was just a few weeks out from what was to be her birthday, and I busy capitalizing on the quiet house with both boys off at school until 3:30pm. I sat at my computer and worked, writing up some notes on Thomas Aquinas. I felt her roll about. I rocked in response to her motions. And then, out of the corners of my eyes as I was typing, I saw my belly go left and right at the exact same time. I went from round to oblong because #theogbg decided she was in the mood for a full body stretch. I immediately put my hands to my now football shaped belly; I felt her hands and her feet. She was in there and I was out here, and we were one but not, but so much one in our distinction and symbiosis in love.

While birth would relocate her into her my arms and eventually in front of me, I knew that deep connection wouldn’t break once the link of the umbilical cord was broken. The symbiosis and distinction would take on new and vibrant colors and encounters, yet that very moment was the initial of a myriad of fractals of love in action as I would continue to stretch around her: through her activity, in response to her growth, and with her self-discovery and disclosure. And as she grows more and more, more and more will that bond of love, that realm of love adjust to bear the weight of the transformation of her, of me, and us together as one.

Ephesians 4:1-16

Therefore, I, the prisoner in and because of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you were called, with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering, enduring one another in love; being eager to keep guard over the unity of the Spirit with respect to the bond of peace. One body and one spirit, just as even one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who [is] above all both through all and in all. Now to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the free gift of Christ.[1]

Ephesians 4:1-7

Our author begins chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians with a powerful “Therefore” tightly linked to an urgent beseeching for the Ephesians to walk worthily. What preceded this exhortation of exhortations is not now forgotten but is the foundation and motivation of the exhortation. The author hasn’t ceased to preach the gospel to focus on the community. Rather it’s the articulation of the gospel of Christ in imperatives[2] into the community; the emphasis is still on the divine activity[3] now manifest in the faith and love of the community. [4] The divine love in action toward humanity—unifying people previously separated and unifying God to God’s people—is now translated by its own self-disclosure into the community.[5]

There’s no way around it, what came before in the first three chapters is the fuel of the liberating power of divine love. It is in this way: The encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit[6] changes us forever because we are enwombed in the totality of divine love and birthed into love’s service as this community of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.[7] This is the rebirth that Jesus speaks of in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. In hearing the profundity of divine love for us as we are, we are transformed…forever.[8] We can’t unhear and unsee what we now hear and what we now see. We are bound to the source of our new life in love and now our activity with each other and in the world will be different than it was. Therefore, the author uses the seemingly small and subtle adverb, “worthy,” with the infinitive, “to walk”. Rather than just getting up and walking as you have been, walk like you’ve seen and heard the love of God for you and the cosmos. And necessarily we walk in community; our union with God in the event of faith is corporate as we are grafted into the body of Christ by faith and the power of the Spirit.[9]

What does this worthy walk look like for the community reborn of God symbiotically connected by divine love? The author urges his audience to walk with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit with respect to the bond of peace (vv. 2-3). Rather than being turned inward toward themselves, they are turned outward, with their faces lifted high, brazened by the glory and love of God, and turned toward their neighbor, to one another,[10] seeking and seeing the highest love for and in the neighbor for no other reason than they have first been loved.[11] Humility rejects the Ego’s assumption that it is more than it is and orients the eyes toward those of the neighbor; I don’t just see me, I see you and me. Gentleness isn’t weakness but rightly ordered self-control, knowing when and where to use force and when not to; I will ally with you in the fight and in rest.[12] Being realistic about the burden and demand of community, the community acknowledges the burden and shows up in that burden to walk with their neighbors through their trials and tribulations, to bear with the neighbor in their captivity and oppression, and to allow for the differences that exist in community; I will love[13] you as you are because I’ve been loved as is;[14] that’s what the miracle of love: it just loves.[15] And all of it oriented toward the unity of the community where love and the Spirit of peace stretch out over it, bringing it closer while allowing it to grow and expand.

Conclusion

What if I’m far from home?
Oh brother, I will hear you call.
What if I lose it all?
Oh sister, I will help you out.
Oh, if the sky comes falling down
For you, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do.[16]

The humble enamored author of Ephesians directs us to see that we are grafted into this body of Christ through love and the Spirit, and reborn of this love thus of the same family with a familiar history with those in Ephesus and with each other. We, like those members of the early church, have been knit together in the womb of divine love, submerged in the amniotic fluid of love, and birthed anew into a new age of the reign of God with the first breath of divine love in our new lungs. And like those first followers of the way so long ago, we are urged by this divine Love to love the world: it’s wonderful and various inhabitants of flora, fauna, and anthrop[a].

In the ever expanding ὺμᾶς of the letter, once penned to a small few in Ephesus, we are caught up in the call to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called. We are called to be one in the unity of the diversity of community—not isolated but knit together sharing a common history and hope. We are called to know and feel the divine love of God for us manifest in Christ present in us by the power of the Holy Spirit and then to love as we’ve been loved.[17]

Love is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, or distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and is the material substance dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves—amid the closeness of intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity…Love loves the beloved and the beloved loves.[18]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted in the text.

[2] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974 457, “A close look at the details of Pauline ethics will discover that the structure, the intention, and the individual parts of Paul’s admonition are invariably informed and determined by the grace which the apostle proclaims and to which he subjects himself and others. Christ is the key, the touchstone, the scope of all. Proclamation of Christ is made even when imperatives abound. It is beyond dispute that Pauline ethics are based upon, and implicitly contained in, his Christology and soteriology. Even if Paul had written nothing at all about ethical questions, imaginative interpreters might still have derived the Pauline ethics by inference from the Pauline kerygma. But it can also be shown that his ethical utterances contain the whole gospel.”

[3] Barth Ephesians 451, “Here ecclesiology and ethics are so completely identified that they can neither be separated nor distinguished. In the second, vss. 4-6, the contents and the fact of the church’s confession are called to mind to demonstrate how essential is oneness to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as confessing church. In the third, vss. 7-12, it is shown, by means of a comment upon a Psalm text, that the exalted Christ himself gives the church diverse gifts. Each of her members benefits from the gift given from above.”

[4] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard Ephesians Belief: A Theological Commentary Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011. 133, “The pattern is rather that the gospel comes to us in both the indicative mood and in the imperative mood? To be sure, the indicative is frequently (and appropriately) first and the imperative second, but in both the gospel is proclaimed. As an apostle and as a pastor Paul was always proclaiming the gospel, ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ (Rom. 1:16). He did not stop proclaiming the gospel when in Romans 12:2 he urged the Roman Christians to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds,’ or when in Romans 15:7 he urged them to ‘welcome one another.’ Such imperatives are not a mere addendum to the gospel. They are the gospel in the imperative mood, calling for ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), summoning the churches to perform the gospel.”

[5] Barth Ephesians 426 “When the conjunction ‘therefore’ is used, at the beginning of a second, hortatory part of Pauline Epistles, it bears great weight; it emphasizes the logical dependence of ethical advice upon the preceding doctrinal statements….the content of Eph 1-3 is doxological rather than dogmatic. The direct connection of the ethical chapters with the praise of God rather than with a doctrine of God is a specific feature of Ephesians. The verb translated by ‘I beseech’ can also be rendered ‘I exhort,’ ‘I encourage,’ ‘I comfort,’ ‘I warn.’ While it includes a direct request (customarily expressed in Papyri epistles by the verb ‘I ask,’ erotao), the word preferred by Paul signifies a will of the writer that is at the same time personal, and urgent Its sense is stronger than that of the English verb ‘I exhort.’”

[6] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 520-1, “In concluding this section two observations should be noted. First, the Trinity is an integral part of this treatise on unity. The one body of believers is vitalized by one Spirit, so all believers have one hope. That body is united to its one Lord (Christ) by each member’s one act of faith, and his or her identity with him is in the one baptism. One God, the Father, is supreme over all, operative through all, and resides in all. All seven components are united in the Trinity. Some scholars such as Kirby think that baptism is central1 and some like Hanson think that faith is central, but in reality the Triune God is the center and model for unity- This is in keeping with the rest of Ephesians is known for its abundant references to the Trinity (cf. 1:4—14, 17; 2:18, 22; 3:4-5,14-17; 4:4-6; 5:18-20).”

[7] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 132-3, “In Ephesians (and in the Pauline Epistles generally) ‘therefore’ signals a link, not just a transition. It is a moral theology in the first three chapters, announcing the ‘immeasurable greatness of [Gods] power’ (1:19), attentive to the grace and the cause of God, but always already with an eye toward the implications of the gospel for the lives of Christians and the common life of the churches. And it is a theological morality in the last three chapters, announcing the gospel now in the imperative mood, attentive to the sort of conduct, character, and community that are empowered and required by God’s grace and cause.”

[8] Hoehner Ephesians 504, “The aorist tense is ingressive, indicating that lifestyle of the believer. The aorist tense is ingressive, indicating that believer is to change his or her conduct from what it was previously. The adverb ἀξίος, ‘worthy, worthily, suitably,’ literally means ‘“bringing up the other beam of the scales/ ‘bringing into equilibrium,’ and therefore equivalent’” or “worthily, a manner worthy of, suitability.”… In Phil 1:27 its connotation is that the believer’s life should be worthy of the gospel of Christ and in Col 1:10 its connotation is that the believer is to live a life worthy of the Lord (cf. Rom 16:2; 1 Thess 2:12). In the present context the emphasis is on conduct that is in balance with or equal to ones “call.’”

[9] Hoehner Ephesians 504-5, “In the present context, the reference is not only to salvation by election and adoption by the Father (cf. 1:4-5), but also to their union into one body, the church. Therefore, the call to walk worthy of the calling refers not only to the individual believers but also the corporate body of believers.”

[10] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The focus on ‘one another’ is significant. This word occurs forty times in Paul’s letters. Christians are part of each other and are to receive one another, think about one another, serve one another, love one another, build up one another, bear each other’s burdens, submit to each other, and encourage each other. Christianity is a God-directed, Christ-defined, other-oriented religion.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 510, “This kind of love seeks the highest good in the one loved, and more particularly for the believer, it has the idea of seeking the will of God in the one loved. It is an unconditional love that does not seek a response in kind.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 507 (Barclay qtd in), “Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of selfcontrol, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the of power for the purpose of retaliation. Barclay states it well when he writes, ‘The man who is praus is the man who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.’”

[13] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The Christian life is a life of putting up with other people, and this tolerance finds its ability and motivation in love (cf. Gal. 6:2). ‘Love’ and ‘putting up with each other’ are intertwined and mutually explanatory. Both are ways of valuing the other person.”

[14] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The focus on love is an extension the emphasis on love in 3:17-19. That is, the love experienced in Christ must be extended to others. The noun agape was rarely used outside Jewish sources and the Christian writings. A few secular occurrences ate now known, but clearly Christians injected the word with new content to talk about love relation to God—first love from God, then also love for God and for other people because of God. This love does not have its origin in human motivation; it is a choice made because of the love of God.”

[15] Hoehner Ephesians 509, ἀνέχω “- It means ‘to take up, to bear up, to endure,’ In the LXX it occurs sixteen times and in the canonical books it appears eleven times. It is used of Gods endurance of the Israelites’ vain offerings (Isa 1:13) or Jobs endurance through great trials (Job 6:11, 26; cf. also Isa 46:4). It also has the idea of restraint, as when God withheld the rain (Amos 4:7; Hag :10) or restrained himself from destroying people (Isa 42:14; 63:15; 64:12 [MT & LXX 64:11]). …In addition, it is used when Jesus asks how long he should bear with the disciples (Matt 17:17 = Mark 9:19 = Luke 9:41) or when Gallio bore with the Jews’ accusation against Paul (Acts 18:14). … Hence, this word has reference to bearing or enduring with respect to things or persons. In the present context and in Col 3:13 Paul asks to bear with those in the assembly. Thus, to translate this word ‘forbear’ is appropriate. Robertson suggests that it is a direct middle meaning ‘holding yourselves back from one another.’ In other words, differences between believers are to be tolerated.” And Marcus Barth Ephesians 461 “The neighbor—even the one who is a burden and whose character and behavior prove cumbersome…He is its very material. Love is not an abstract substance or mood that can be present in a man’s heart even when there are no others in sight and no confrontations are taking place. It does not exist in a vacuum, in abstracto, in detachment from involvement in other men’s lives. Rather it is a question of being surprised by a neighbor, accepting him, going out to him, and seeking solidarity and unity just with him even if this should mean temporary neglect of, or estrangement from, others. Such love is an event that takes place exclusively when one meets and lives with specific men, women, children, old people, relatives, and strangers. Love is always love of this or that person, love here and now, love shown under ever new conditions in ever original forms. Where there is love, there this and that person in his uniqueness is “borne” and fully accepted. Therefore “love” should not be defined as a virtue of the soul, not even as the highest virtue. It is an ever-new miracle which has to happen again and again just as the filling with the Spirit spoken of in the book of Acts was an ever new experience given whenever there was need of a spirited testimony. In Rom 5:5 the gift of love is identified with the gift of the Spirit, and in Gal 5:22 love is listed as the first “fruit of the Spirit”.

[16] Avicii True “Hey Brother” https://genius.com/Avicii-hey-brother-lyrics

[17] Snodgrass Ephesians 198, “Christians must maintain the unity of the Spirit because everything they hold of any significance they hold with other people. Seven items are preceded by the word ‘one,’ and in each case the oneness expresses both the uniqueness of the item and its foundational value for unity. All seven express reality that there is only one gospel and that to believe that gospel is to enter into the unity it creates. Christianity is a shared faith. No separate or merely individual faith exists, nor is there a different salvation.”

[18] Taken from a goodbye message delivered to the Seniors and Juniors of Ascension Episcopal School upon my resignation. Text and video here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 6: “Solidarity”

In this episode, Sabrina and I discuss Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s book Mujerista Theology, specifically looking at chapter 5: “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the Twenty-First Century”.

In this chapter Isasi-Diaz brings the word “Solidarity” under examination highlighting how often human beings, specifically those of us in the dominant culture, have a fondness for this word but miss the praxis aspect completely. Solidarity isn’t just a nice feeling of community, but a legitimate standing with the oppressed groups, identifying with them. Not in the terms of becoming as the oppressed but in terms of standing with them as you are. This distinction is a difficult one to walk through, but it’s necessary. In this discussion, Sabrina and I take up the mantle of Isasi-Diaz’s definition of and ethical for solidarity, her criticisms of “charity”, and her definition of sin as “alienation.”

Sabrina and I discuss some of the primary themes of the chapter and drive home the recurring theme that our praxis as Christians matters…And as Sabrina reminds us at the end, it shouldn’t be about “guns blazing” which leads to alienation but to listen and see what is necessary to communicate in that moment.

Here are some quotes from the chapter we look at specifically:

“From a Christian perspective the goal of solidarity is to participate in the ongoing process of liberation through which we Christians become significantly positive force in the unfolding of the ‘kin-dom’ of God. At the center of the unfolding of the kin-dom is the salvific act of God. Salvation and liberation are interconnected. Salvation is gratuitously given by God; it flows from the very essence of God: love. Salvation is worked out through the love between God and each human being and among human beings. This love relationship is the goal of all life–it constitutes the fullness of humanity.”

Page 89

“But why are the poor and the oppressed those with whom we must be in solidarity? Why does overcoming alienation demand a preferential option for the oppressed? The reason is not that the poor and the oppressed are morally superior. Those who are oppressed are not personally better or more innocent or purer in their motivations than the rest of us. The preferential option at the heart of solidarity is based on the fact that the point of view of the oppressed, ‘pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality. Because the poor suffer the weight of alienation , they can conceive a different project of hope and provide dynamism to a new way of organizing human life for all.’ This contribution , which they alone can give, makes it possible for everyone to overcome alienation. The preferential option for the poor and the oppressed makes it possible for the oppressors to overcome alienation, because to be oppressive limits love, and love cannot exist in the midst of alienation. Oppression and poverty must be overcome because they are ‘a slap in the face of GOd’s sovereignty.’ The alienation they cause is a denial of God. Gutierrez refers to the profoundly biblical insight of the Bolivian campesino: ‘an atheist is someone who fails to practice justice toward the poor.’”

page 91

“Mutuality of the oppressor with the oppressed also starts with conscientization. To become aware that one is an oppressor does not stop with individual illumination but requires the oppressor to establish dialogue and mutuality with the oppressed.[..] Oppressors who are willing to listen and to be questioned by the oppressed, by the very action of listening begin to leave behind their role as oppressors and to become ‘friends’ of the oppressed.”

Page 95

“But this does not mean that we can wait until we have a perfect strategy or a perfect moment to act. No strategy is perfect. There are always internal problems and inconsistencies that need to be worked out. All strategies involve risk. This should never keep us from acting; it should never delay our work to try to establish mutuality, to create a community of solidarity committed to change oppressive structures, a community in which no one group of oppressed people will be sacrificed for the sake of another. This is what mutuality, the strategic component of solidarity, will accomplish.”

Pages 98-99

In Rags and Wood

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Love of the Lover

John 15:12-17 (Homily)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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