Hearing unto Life

Romans 5:12-19 (Sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Deuteronomy 30:6ff

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

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

[10] Deuteronomy 6.

[11] John 1

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

[13] Deuteronomy 30:6

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

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

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

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

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

Forde and the Bound Will

Gerhard Forde, Theologian of the Cross, Luther’s Bound Will

The following is a post I’ve thrown together from notes and underlines made for preparation to teach on Luther’s conception of the bound will using Gerhard Forde’s On Being a theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. I figured: why not share it with you, Beloveds 🤓

Gerhard Forde,[1] considering theses 13-17 in “The Problem of the Will,” asks the question, “If we are overwhelmed and captivated by grace alone, can we claim to play a part in the matter?”[2] In discussing the role of the will of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith, he contends with the notion that we do a “little bit,” which, for Forde, is the claim of the theologian of glory. The idea: if we do our best, God will give us the desired grace.[3] “Can we or will we by our own natural powers, doing our best, prepare for the reception of grace? Are we free to will that?”[4]

Forde’s answer to the question posed is a resounding: no. There are reasons for this:

“If there is to be salvation, it cannot come by the will’s own movement. That means that there must be a death and a resurrection. The cross stands behind the question of the will. The cross itself is the evidence that we did not choose him but that he, nevertheless, chose us (John 15:16).”[5]

For Luther, and thus for Forde, the idea of the electing God is—at its roots—abhorrent to us. We abhor the good; unlike Aquinas’s argument that we are always in search of the good and are ontologically connected through our intellect to the being of God (thus seeking God)—Luther strikes a different chord. We aren’t looking for the good or God and we are content to do as we please. In other words: we are very content to keep ourselves as Lords of our small kingdoms. “We can’t accept an electing God. We will not will it.”[6]

Thesis 13 “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin.”

“Free will” at best is a concept and not an empirical truth and certainly not a “God gave us free will it’s in the bible” type of claim. To argue for the actuality of “free will” is to argue, according to Forde, against the electing God. Even just a “miniscule” amount will work against the electing God and this proves Luther’s point that we abhor the idea of the electing God (and are in bondage of the will). That the will does not will to hand itself over to death, it is, since the fall “an empty name.”[7] It is free to will what it wills (itself) but not what it will not will (the electing God), thus it is not free.[8]

And this gets us to:

“Thesis 14: Free will after the fall has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.”

As is the case with anything that or anyone who is bound, they need liberation that comes from the outside. When we are stuck, we are in a passive capacity and need help from a non-stuck source (i.e. not ourselves).[9] This coincides with the dialectic of death and life prominent in the kerygma of Christ. Christ does not resurrect himself from death but is resurrected; same to for the Christian in the encounter with God in the event of faith: she is brought through death into newness of life not of her doing but of the Lord’s.[10]

“Thesis 16: The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty”

“Thesis 17: Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.”

Forde highlights that we grow uncomfortable as the theses drive home that we are not free not to sin but very much free to only sin and do “evil.”[11]

“The theologian of glory in us is beginning to cry out in frustration and despair! There is nothing to hold on to, no support left, nothing to do. Then the last-ditch defense is tried. ‘If all I do is sin, why not just quit? Why not just forget it all and sink into complete indifferent?’”[12]

For Luther and for Forde, there is a deep need to let God be God. There’s no claim we can put on God by our works as if we can hold God to a deal: If I do my part then you will *have to* do your part.  This is an objectification of God. If God is to be wholly other and we are to throw ourselves completely and totally depend on this wholly other God, then we cannot bring anything to the table. (And are we even at the table? Or, do we need to also *be* encountered by God?)

 

So, we obtain Grace through humility and not by “doing what is in one.” Humility is when we do not plead our case or try to self-justify but when we just confess and wait for justice (faith) which never comes in the form we expect. It arrives in absolution in grace in life—we are brought *out of* death in *into* new life. This type of humility must be differentiated from the “humility piety” (i.e. the “humbling the self” in an effort to save the self); this would render humility to be a work.[13]

One could argue that self-inflicted humility piety is not even humility. Humility is a death of the self and needs an active action of God for resurrection. We can be humbled; we don’t actually humble ourselves.[14]  “Humility in this context means precisely to be reduced to the position where we claim absolutely nothing.”[15] And, “The law humbles, grace exalts. Something is done to us.”[16] Humility is coming to the end of the self and the self’s ability to justify the self but it is here where we are encountered with mercy and grace. When the self (and with it the will) is brought to the end of itself it is free to confess and in this freedom to confess it is—for the first time—doing what it should: being honest. Or, in good Luther terms (what it means to be a good theologian of the Cross): calling a thing what it is.[17]

“Thesis 18: It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”

The distinction here is how to properly define “despair.” Forde explains, that this despairing is despairing of the ability of the self to receive God.[18] Forde,

“It is itself possible only because the grace of Christ has brought new hope…At the same time it is true that such preaching brings about the final surrender of faith in self, the ‘utter despair of our own ability’ that is inspired by and prepares to receive the grace of Christ. Ultimate despair is due to the temptation to believe that there is no hope beyond our own abilities. Despair itself then becomes ultimate and so leads to death. Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so lead to life. This subtle nuance points to a fundamental theological divide.”[19]

In this “utter” despairing we are brought to the foot of the cross in confession and are received and receive Christ as absolution/forgiveness. “Utter” despairing is not “ultimate” despairing, which leads to death unto death (the domination of toil and “actual”). “Utter” despair brings life out of death (the dominion of work and “possible”). If we are using our works as a means to self-justify, we are entering further into the realm of toiling (works in domination over us) and this is a battle we will not win. But to come to, to be brought to the end of ourselves and confess is to gain the entire world including ourselves in fullness and freedom and our works back as just works in their right place under our dominion.

 

[1] This is a book I’ve been reading since I’ve been teaching it to a group of students, introducing them to the concept of the bound will as it comes from Luther. Most of my students are more exposed to the concept of the free will and are briefly exposed to determinism. So, I thought it would be helpful to dive in a bit deeper to nuance some of these claims more. What follows here are from my underlines and notes made in the book in preparation to teach the class.

[2] Gerhard Forde On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation 1518 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 49.

[3] Forde 50.  “Luther’s teachers were from a particular branch of late medieval scholasticism (Nominalism) that held that if we ‘do what is in us,’ that is, if we do our best, we can be assured that God will not fail to give us the desired grace.”

[4] Forde 50.

[5] Forde 51.

[6] Forde 52; Determinism rejected because of willing the things below in free choice. We do what we want no matter what we hold philosophically speaking.

[7] Forde 52-3. “There must be some free will, no matter how minuscule. But the very claim is itself evidence of bondage over against the electing God…The theological of the cross…sees that that is exactly the problem, and therefore recognizes and confesses that, since the fall, free will does not exist in reality. It is an empty name.”

[8] Forde 54. “The will is bound to will what it wills. After the fall, it is bound by sin, hence not free.” And, “…when the will, bound to its own self, tries to do its best, it only commits deadly sin. It commits deadly sin because it refuses to recognize the power of God to save and cuts off from grace…We refuse to live by the cross.”

[9] Forde 55. “In its passive capacity the will can do good when it is acted upon from without but. Not on its own, not in an active capacity.”

[10] Forde 55. “Since will after the fall is dead and bound to do deadly sin, it can be rescued only from without, as is indicated by the fact that it could not bring life out of death but could only be commanded from without by our Lord.” Same concept applies, for Forde, to Thesis 15 and remaining in innocence in the Garden.

[11] I’d like to add that this “evil” in relation to our actions of our bound will is about our desire to add to the vertical realm our activity and actions as a means to participate in a type of self-justification either in the place of or alongside of the grace of God which justifies us with God. This is not that our horizontal works are “evil” and thus should always be avoided, but when we try to use those as a means for our justification with God is when they become “evil”.

[12] Forde 60.

[13] Forde 61

[14] Forde 62

[15] Forde 62

[16] Forde 62

[17] Forde 64. “Despair would rather come if one is falsely optimistic and tells them that they don’t need a physician while they steadily decline toward death. …The theologian of the cross knows that we do the world no good by playing the role of pious or sentimental optimists. One must ‘say what a thing is.’ One is given the courage to be honest.”

 

[18] Forde 65

[19] Forde 66-7.

Invigorating Gospel Proclamation

Tripp Fuller and “Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic…or Awesome?”

If there was ever a book that captured the essence of Tripp Fuller, I imagine Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic…or Awesome?* is it. I’ll be honest, I’ve not read all Fuller has written and so my claim may be a bit presumptuous. However, I’ve seen and listened to a number of his excellent interviews, and from what I can tell of his enthusiasm and energy in those encounters, it seems he’s remained true to himself in these pages. But it’s not merely himself that he communicates to the reader; such a result would defeat the purpose of the book. Rather, Fuller causes Jesus to jump off the page and into the reader’s lap in all his freaking awesome and zesty divine and human glory. Fuller reminded me, chapter after chapter, why I, too, love Jesus the Christ.

The book is broken into eight chapters and each chapter provides a really good intellectual engagement of the various aspects of Christology while making the reader chuckle and smile throughout. Fuller’s approach to discussing these conceptions is accessible to the average Christian. By that I mean, you don’t need a few master degrees and a PhD to discover the intricacies Fuller is presenting in his work. He has the knack of distilling heady concepts into accessible ideas that the reader is then encouraged to mull over and contemplate.

For instance, in chapter 4, Fuller explains the historicity of the gospels and the early church’s reception of these various stories about the Christ. He works in Tatian (!)–whom I just learned about this year–Quelle, Mark’s foundational relation to Luke and Matthew, and does a find job letting John stand on his own. He addresses the conflicts and tension between the gospels, but then by dispelling the fear of errancy, leaves the reader with a more robust conception of the text thus a better relationship to the text. I have to say that everything Fuller covered in this chapter could have taken place in my classroom with high school students; in fact, these discussion did happen and do happen. And I can firmly say: Tripp, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

One thing that I was most impressed by was not only his good representation of Luther’s theological impact in the reformation in just a few pages of chapter 5, but his consistent effort and commitment to being ethically minded. Every chapter gave the reader some sort of actual problem plaguing our society that Christians can and need to engage. Whether he’s advocating for the need for the church today to listen to the various voices of multiple people groups, or asking for concerted concern for the environment and our world, Fuller brings a demand to his reader: what will you do? This is a level of holy conviction that I think often goes missed in much preaching these days.

In the final chapter of the book, Fuller engages with a host of thinkers: Sobrino, Motlmann, Cobb, and Johnson (all of whom show up in substantial form in previous chapters). In doing this, he pulls together everything that comes before and pulls the various concepts discussed together to form a coherent end. On page 164, Fuller writes,

Moltmann developed a theology after Auschwitz, Sobrino is arguing for a theology in Auschwitz, recognizing the crucified people of our present global situation as Yahweh’s suffering servant. Theology’s job is not primarily to explain the world, but to unmask it.[1]

Yes, we as theologians and preachers and teachers must do better to use our platforms to unmask the world and point to where the problems are. We need to provide ample opportunity for an encounter with God in the event of faith for not only those who are suffering and oppressed but for those causing suffering and oppression. To quote Fuller,

The way forward for the church must move us toward the poor and the planet. The needed change is not simply instrumental, like changing lightbulbs, eating less meat, or carpooling. Humanity, and in particular those in power, need a conversion, an existential change, the cultivation of new desires. ..As we start to wake up to the tragedy surrounding us, the theological challenge will be continuing to risk thinking after Christ—to wager putting our present system and the privilege and perks it provides before the cross.[2]

In order for this type of substantive conversion and change to occur, Fuller makes mention that something else has to die (in order for there to be life, a death must first occur). This something else is what Fuller calls “therapeutic believing” and defines it as:

Therapeutic belief is about the existential shape of one’s faith and not (primarily) about its content. It begins by accepting the ‘as is’ structure of our world, church, and self and then asks how we can function better as individuals and how we can make our world a bit better than we found it. In doing so, it takes for granted the very world we received and ignores the kin-dom’s[3] challenge to religion, culture, and politics.[4]

One of the problems I have with some modern gospel proclamation is the use of the gospel to numb rather than to invigorate. There is a way to preach the gospel that ends with the person feeling at ease within themselves and blind to what is going on outside of them in the world. The gospel can become a rock under which believers can live and pretend they can’t see the pain and suffering of the world around them. The gospel can be proclaimed in a way that upholds the status quo rather than challenge it. There’s a significant difference between being soothed and being numbed, the former will result in substantiated selves and the former will still be beholden to the shackles that bind. We need to check our proclamation.

The gospel is the word of liberation that sets the hearer free from the controlling mythology of the day within the world, which traps the person in a relentless cycle of creation worship rather than Creator worship. To come into encounter with God in the event of faith, assisted by the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ crucified and raised, is to be propelled into the world as liberated and active and political creatures. There is no need to abstain from such activity for fear of trying to self-justify oneself, because justification happens only through faith in Christ. Activity then becomes just activity; but that activity matters horizontally as those who are silenced and oppressed and marginalized need people who have eyes to see their oppression and ears to hear their cries—we can’t see and hear anything if we’re numb to everything.

Fuller is right to call out the problems of therapeutic believing. From how St. Paul describes the work of the Holy Spirit that binds us together in a bloodline and fellow heirs with Christ, we can’t ignore when our fellow brothers and sisters suffer (we are in a family now). We aren’t afforded the comfort to look the other way to be only concerned with our own salvation. When you hurt, I hurt; only when you are free will I be free, too.

Tripp Fuller has written a very engaging and inspiring work. I’m better for reading it. I learned not only new things, but also found ways to rephrase some things I’ve said before. I recommend taking the time to read this book.

*I was encouraged to read this book after viewing this review from Dr. W. Travis McMaken: http://derevth.blogspot.com/2019/05/jesus-lord-liar-lunaticor-awesome-video.html

Tripp Fuller Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord Liar, Lunatic…of Awesome? Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.

 

[1] Fuller, 164. I did question the comparison between Moltmann and Sobrino, but I lack sufficient knowledge of Sobrino to push back.

[2] Ibid, 168.

[3] For why the “g” is dropped, chapter 3, p. 57ff explains Fuller’s reasoning.

[4] Fuller, 170.

Absurdity of Faith

Albert Camus and “The Myth of Sisyphus”

What if there’s no reason or purpose to anything? What if being alive necessitates an awareness that life is rather pointless? What if all there is, all we can actually know is the absurdity of our existence? And, what if that’s okay?

“What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But , on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divest of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his stetting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.”[1]

I have an entirely new respect for the absurd after reading The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. In fact, Camus gave me words to identify something what has followed me most of my conscious life: what is the purpose? Not merely: What is my purpose? But: What is the purpose of anything? There are times I contemplate beauty and question its reason for being. Think of the multitude of flowers–the vast variety of not only classification but of variations of color, form, size, and smell within each classification—there’s some absurdity there. I get that there’s something explanatory embedded in the theory of evolution, but at the same time the sheer multiplicity of variation betrays that not even the theory of evolution can address why this rose is this way and that one that way any better than just cuz.

Even all of our best efforts to explain all the nuances of creation (of our and the world’s) through the apologetic of the existence for God have never satiated the question. Every apologetic for God and for our purpose has consistently left me with my question still in tact and on my lips, …but why? The only explanation that has ever made any sense was that none of it makes any sense. Even with the notion that God is love and God loves and thus that love–being dynamic and creative–created this world as an object of God’s love, and all that is in it and of it is representative of that love…the reason for God’s love movement is still baffling and doesn’t make sense. It’s alway and everywhere: just because.

One of my very bright and capable of students made reference in one of his papers to the idea and the certainty of the Christian claim that God is love and loves us specifically: why would an almighty being like God deign to care about puny humans? He’s right; it’s rather absurd to think and to make this claim as true. But maybe the underbelly of God’s activity and presence is less about sense-making, but absurdity. Maybe God is absurd. The gift of God’s grace to people who do not earn it (justification by faith in Christ alone)[2] and the righteousness of God that is righteousness that makes righteous,[3] are absurd. The gospel is offensive because of its absurdity and not because it makes sense.

“Any though that abandons unity glorifies diversity. And diversity is the home of art. The only thought to liberate the mind is that which leaves it alone, certain of its limits and of its impending end. No doctrine tempts it. It awaits the ripening of the work and of life. Detached from it, the work will once more give a barely muffled voice to a soul forever freed from hope. Or it will give voice to nothing if the creator, tired of his activity, intends to turn away. That is equivalent.”[4]

Rather than being the fodder of an existential crisis, absurdity, as Camus presents it, is the stuff of radical living. It’s like being able to give up all of your coveted doctrines that you cling to as reason for believing in whatever God you believe in and just believing in that God. It’s scary as hell, but once embraced the freedom is unparalleled. The dark night of the soul is the wrestling with the pointlessness of life and the nonsense of existence and finding in that moment sense and point: just because. The question shifts from …but why? to …why not? The former slows to numbing slumber upon slumber while the later propels into existence upon existence (in quantity[5]). The way Camus plays his philosophy out, the person who sees and performs the absurd of existence is the one who is liberated and thus the one who is given a present defined through revolt, freedom, and diversity. The mundane and banality of the everyday becomes glorious, because that’s the paradox of the absurd, the paradox of grace.

“All that remains is a fate whole outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought, ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics—in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and, like it, inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the territorial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.”[6]

 

Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays Trans Justin O’Brien. New York, NY: Vintage International, Vintage Books (Random House) 1955. Le Mythe de Sisyphe France: Librairie Gallimard, 1942.

[1] Camus 6

[2] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians vol. 26 LW pp. 113-4, “I am saying this in order that we may learn the doctrine of justification with the greatest diligence and distinguish most clearly between the Law and the Gospel. On this issue we must not do anything out of insincerity or yield submission to anyone if we want to keep the truth of the Gospel and the faith sound and inviolate; for, as I have said, these are easily bruised. Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, b of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business. The Law, too, deserves a hearing, but in its proper place and time. When Moses was on the mountain speaking with God face to face, he neither had nor established nor administered the Law. But now that he has come down from the mountain, he is a law giver and rules the people by the law. So the conscience must be free from the Law, but the body must obey the Law”

[3] Eberhard Jüngel, Jüngel, “Living Out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency.” Theological Essays II. (Ed. J.B. Webster. Trans. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995). 243. “What follows will therefore try to explain the extent to which the message of justification brings light and life not only into our hearts and our church but also equally into our world. It is no doubt for this reason that the synod has placed its work under the title: ‘Living out of Righteousness: God’s Action—Human Agency’. Yet already at this point I stop short. The subtitle of this theme can potentially blind us to a decisive point of the message of justification at the outset. For it suggests that human agency directly and exclusively corresponds to divine action. Thus one is given the impression that the relevance of divine action for humanity is ethical and only ethical. But thereby something decisive of what the gospel of justification of sinners has to say is lost. If God’s righteousness brings forth life, new human life, then the question of our being has priority over the question of our agency. And prior to both questions is certainly the question of God himself.

[4] Camus, 116.

[5] Ibid, 72ff. I’d argue that it is both quantity and quality as long as quality doesn’t mean scarcity but substance. I see quality playing out with the reference to Don Juan. And quality is not antinomy to quantity.

[6] Ibid, 117-8

The Toxicity of Toxic Language

When “Toxic” becomes Toxic

Here’s the thing about “toxic” relationships: it’s not always restricted to one person being *the* “toxic” person that needs to be excised from the group or broken off with. Though, this is commonly what is conveyed in the dialogue of aftermath of relational split: “that person was toxic; so glad that person is gone. Now, we/I can go on being/becoming more healthy.” While I don’t have a very high anthropology (meaning: I still question the inherent goodness of human beings but not the inherent dignity; plus, I’m a Luther theologian, it comes with the terrain), I still believe that *anyone* can be “toxic” in *any* given situation. It’s the mix of personalities in their potential for toxicity. Potential for toxicity can be other wise dubbed as the beloved and oft used term: “brokenness.” However, in common parlance, it’s not just “brokenness” (because general brokenness is acceptable for the most part), “toxicity” is like the dark underbelly of “brokenness,” the thing that is the deal breaker and can’t ever be tolerated by anyone. Thus, people who have otherwise standard issues and problems and “brokenness,” get labeled as “toxic” and should be avoided at all costs because they bring “toxicity” to everything. They’re essentially and inherently harbingers of poison to every relationship they touch; they’ve been ontologically defined as poisonous.

(Side note, I’d like to argue that it is better to render “brokenness” as “bentness” in order to adhere to the inherent dignity of human beings. “Brokenness” can indicate being useless and worthy of being trashed; all human beings are never ever, never ever of that category.)

“Toxic” is the new “co-dependent.” One of the problems of the language of toxicity becoming so popular is that it has lost its actual definition and impact (there are legitimately toxic people, things, and places in our lives). It has become easier to label someone as “toxic” because they are causing us *any* discomfort. Also, It has become all the rage to label someone, some-place, something as “toxic,” in order to scapegoat our own problems on to someone else, some-place else, or something else. It’s easier to just cut someone, some-place, something out of your life, rather than take a long hard look in the mirror and realize you are fucking up your own life. (I say this as someone who was caught too long in “toxic” this-and-that language and finally had to come to terms that *I* was (me and my trauma narrative) more of the problem than any other person, place, or thing.) Rather than knee-jerk reacting and labeling someone, some-place, or something as “toxic,” it might be worth slowing the roll and asking: why is this causing this reaction in me? Therein answers lie.

Another problem is, from my perspective, we all carry within ourselves potential for acting caustically[1] toward others; our potential for this activity can be actualized by other people acting out of their issues and trauma (and vice versa). Also, our caustic behavior can be actualized by another person’s otherwise normal personality traits because we’ve had some sort of trauma associated with those traits even if they’d never be considered categorically “problematic” by any professional. It’s rarely the fact that only one person is the “toxic” source, but rather the mix of personality traits we have that conform and collide with others. Conformity with others creates a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, but this does not mean collision is out of the question nor does it mean that when collision occurs it’s a deal breaker and the other person is now “toxic.” Collision occurs as conformity becomes bedrock in a relationship. When the honeymoon of a new relationship wears off, it’s then where we start to see how different we are from each other and also the potential for triggering and being triggered. (And I am not speaking of small things like a disagreement and miscommunications that run standard in any relationship. Rather, I speak of the big collisions, the ones that demand terms like forgiving and forgetting.)

When collision happens, it’s a time for introspection and dialogue. The normal and healthy response in situations where collision has occurred—in any way—is: discussion, both interpersonal (what happened and what can we do together to grow and move forward with our relationship (if possible)?) and intrapersonal (why did this action trigger this response in me?). Granted not all relationships are or need to be carried forward, some are mutually too caustic (as a whole) to be continued; not because one person is inherently “toxic,” but because the unit doesn’t work and we are both mutually bad for each other because we trigger each other, you trigger me, or I trigger you. None of us wants to be in relationship that is primarily collision and strife. None of us want to be causing the caustic reaction. (I’m a firm believer that not all personality types should be anything more than cordial acquaintances because the relational scales tip too much in favor of the potential for collision and triggering.) Often times, though, a good conversation will allow for light to be shed on issues that either or both people in the relationship were blind to, where acceptance of your own and the other person’s contribution to the issue can be owned, and create the space for solutions to move forward to be implanted and embraced.

We have used and abused the word “toxic” in all its forms, and the results prove disastrous. We are all bent, traumatized individuals making our way through this journey of life. Even the most integrated of us still has plenty to work on and will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and bother other wanderers. The most we can do is admit our own weaknesses, realize when those weaknesses are not beneficial to others, and realize where we can and need to become strong.

Something that I loved learning about when I started studying Luther and his conception of justification and the proclamation of the Gospel, was not that he let me off the hook of the law of God, but that he put me on it. Far from being a therapeutic hedonist, Luther has a high view of the law both as it plays into the believer’s relationship before God and in the believer’s life. No, sin boldly isn’t the same as: you do you as you please at whatever expense and at whomever’s expense. It’s about the reality that you are, by encounter with God in the event of faith, right before God, that this event-encounter is not born of your particular activity but does have significant bearing on your present activity. Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel and the need for the good theologian to be able to distinguish between the two is never about being given the license to avoid the law at all costs and to reject all people and things and words that give off even the hint of personal discomfort and conviction to us. Rather, it’s always about being able to really *see* with our own eyes what is the law and what is the gospel, what brings death and what brings life, and to act accordingly—not to avoid it but to enter into the event, to be encountered there in by God and God’s grace.

Sometimes, we must enter into the death present and terrifying in relational collision (to face it head on, eye to eye, word to word) in order to be brought into something so much more beautiful and alive than it could ever be if we had sidestepped the entire problem in the name of comfort. I will be more alive, you will be more alive, and even the relationship (either sustained or terminated) will be life giving (even if there is grief and pain as a result of termination). With God all things are possible, even abundant life out of what feels like and looks like certain death.

 

[1] I like “caustic” rather than “toxic” because there is an allusion to a chemical reaction, neither chemical is bad in it’s own state, but when combined the reaction is bad.

Blessed are the Ordinary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] France, p. 265.

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

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

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

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

The Silence of God, God of the Void: A Reflection for Holy Saturday

Silence is disturbing. Personally, I’d rather know bad news than sit with myself in the midst of silence of reply. I’d rather a verbal explosion go off, leaving word shrapnel strewn about; that’s something I can tangibly make sense of, examine, create order with. Give me baskets piled high of “what-you-actually-think”, and no matter how much pain I may have, at least I have something to work with and to fight with. The whole idea that “no news is good news” escapes me; I find no comfort in having nothing with which to do battle against. I can’t kick against silence; there’s nothing to fight in the void.

God gifted me with the ability to be a very good and efficient problem solver. A MBTI INTP, I live to order chaos, to make precise connections over vast intellectual distances, to build and construct and expand and to push and to see just how far this *thing* can go (be it object, idea, or my own person). Thus I would naturally expect that God would meet me as I am: give me riddles to solve, puzzles to put together, ask me to follow along a trail of thoughts dropped by God’s divine hand so that when I arrive at the end I can, as if by intellectual paint-by-number, assemble these thoughts to get the full picture I’ve been desiring.

But rarely is this so. Rarely?…Better yet: never. That I expect God to meet me in such a way is my own demand on God, it is my own form I’m forcing God into. I forget that God self-discloses God’s self. The reality is that my encounter with God in the event of faith is often in the midst of total silence, where I feel as if I am suspended and hovering above a void and an abyss that it is threatening to take me into it. Where my repeated whispers of “Why?” are pulled from me only to float off into the distance and seemingly evaporate like a lone cloud does as it floats over the dry Colorado desert. Where my “Where were you when…?” stack up and collect dust and become brittle, like old books long forgotten. Where the word “hope” has no value and where doubts of God seem to ontologically define my spirituality and my personhood.

I’m not alone in this particular encounter with God in the event of faith. According to one scholar, Elie Wiesel has a similar conceptualizing of God,

“For Elie Wiesel the struggle of the survivor is not merely an inquiry with the mind while knowing in the heart but a shattering of that knowledge, that trust in God. Wiesel’s God is not a God who gave man freedom in history but rather a God who promised deliverance and remained silent in the hour of Israel’s greatest need, a God who made it impossible to believe in the promise of future deliverance. Wiesel’s theodicy is a theodicy of the void. His God is a God of silence. Wiesel’s struggle is to live in the face of the void.”[1]

Everything that has been held dear is shattered and rent asunder. Like Wiesel, everything I’ve put my “hope” in is and has been demythologized. The stories become like playground taunts to my pain and suffering, to my deep abiding questions. The God I’ve historically worshipped is, in the silence and in the face of the void, demythologized; and I come face to face with God’s Thou-objectivity as it is and not as I assume it to be. I’m exposed as the one who has worshipped the stories and not the one to whom the stories point: God. Thus, I am demythologized.

Recently I was reminded of a concept Luther articulates early in his lectures on Galatians and one that I use frequently with my students when explaining the journey of faith. Faith is a journey into darkness[2] not up and into the light but down and into the darkness, being lead by the hand and not by our own sight. Luther writes,

“Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business.[3]

In the event of faith, we are ushered out of the light and into the darkness; we are completely undone unto death of the self that was. Where faith is undone unto it’s own death. Where our self-created depictions of God are undone unto their death. Where we are thoroughly and completely brought to nothing in the divine silence and in the void.

“Therefore we are nothing, even with all our great gifts, unless God is present. When He deserts us and leaves us to our own resources, our wisdom and knowledge are nothing. Unless He sustains us continually, the highest learning and even theology are useless… Therefore let no one boast or glory in his own righteousness, wisdom, and other gifts; but let him humble himself and pray with the apostles (Luke 17:5): ‘Lord, increase our faith!’”[4]

In the silence, stalwart faith turns to haunting doubt; hopeful stories are exposed as hopeless myths; reason is exposed as enemy; and I am left naked and exposed and in what feels like certain death. I let go of the things I’ve had a death grip on and give in to the pull of the void. Arms clinging to unsubstantial things go limp and unfurl to the left and right; head drops back and eyes close waiting to be sucked in and all the way down into nothing, in to the void.

But in this silence, in this seemingly deathly void, there is life. The “I am who and what I am” is. I am in God’s intimate embrace, locked deeply in the divine kiss summoning me from death–resurrection from the dead–and as I wake and the divine kiss pulls back, one word, “hope”, remains, trailing on my lips.

We rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday clinging to the stories therein as if these were our only hope. We skip over Saturday because it has no story to offer us, no story for us to anchor our faith in, no words that we can cling to when we face doubt and despair. We skip over Saturday because silence is disturbing and the void feels most threatening. But maybe, maybe it’s the silence of Saturday that is the most divine because we are brought deep into the darkness, into the silence, into the void and asked to die to everything we’ve held on to for life.

To have faith in God’s activity in the world depicted in the stories handed down to us makes sense but is not the substance of faith but of the rational. Rather, to have faith in the wake of the cessation of divine activity, when words aren’t spoken and heard, where there’s nothing to cling to but God’s ambiguous and alarming “I am” is the substance of faith. To have faith today, when it doesn’t make sense because all seems lost and gone, is the substance of faith. And this is the substance and demand of the silence and void of Holy Saturday.

 

 

[1] M. Barenbaum “Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel”. See also, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God and his reference to Elie Wiesel’s Night, pp. 273-4.

[2] Dr. David W. Congdon mentions this concept of Luther’s (via Rudolf Bultmann) on this episode of Whit Hodge Podcasts: https://soundcloud.com/whitehodgepodcasts/s2-e1-everyone-be-saved-dr-david-congdon

[3] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4 LW vol. 26. Pp. 113-4. Emphasis, mine.

[4] Ibid, 114.