PT Forsyth for Our Time

Sancta Colloquia episode 202 ft. Ben Nasmith

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I finally get the chance to talk with someone I’ve wanted to talk with for a while: Ben Nasmith (@BNasmith).  Ben and I have connected over the work of PT Forsyth. I don’t know a lot about Forsyth, but what I’ve read I always love. Specifically, what I love about PT Forsyth is that his work is the type of theology resonant with my own theological motto: if the gospel is true then it is true in the darkest of dark, the solitudes of solitudes, the weariness of weariness, and the despair of despair. In this episode, Ben puts flesh on the man and makes him real for me, and this makes Forsyth’s theology even more powerful, in my opinion. After offering a good biographical sketch of Forsyth and the progress of his study and work, Ben offers insight into what make Forsyth tick: the severity of the Cross. Taking the liberal theology he studied in the later part of the 19th century, Forsyth, according to Ben, makes it practical by rediscovering the gravity of the cross event in order to heighten the sweetness that is the proclamation of the gospel. Ben explains that the treasure of the Christian faith is the cross. When we forget this, we lose the very fabric that is the event of encounter with God in faith. “As we interpret the cross, the cross interprets us,” says Ben. “We can’t nail [the event of the Cross] down; it’s a continual process.” It’s true; when we think we’ve figured it out, figured out the event of the cross, figured God out, that’s when lose what it is we really truly need: a wholly other God who is always outside of our grasp but in whose fingers we are grasped. There’s no way to look at the event of the cross and come into encounter with the active will of Jesus under this severe condition and not be changed. And repeatedly so. We never figure it out; we are always being encountered. Faith is new every morning, just like God’s mercy is also new every morning. Ben drives home the reality that PT Forsyth is for us weary travelers on this journey of life…yesterday and today. I’m grateful that Ben took time from his own work to come talk to me. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

 

At the moment Ben teaches undergraduate physics at the Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario, where He’s also a PhD candidate in mathematics with a focus on algebra and exceptional structures in combinatorics. Theology is a passion but not a profession for Ben. A couple years ago, he completed a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Briercrest Seminary in Caronport Saskatchewan. Ben wrote a masters thesis on the role of experience in theology according to the philosophy of Paul Moser. After graduating, while keeping his day job, he’s been working with the same Paul Moser of his master’s thesis. They have collaborated on a couple of theology projects, including a new collection of hard to find Peter Forsyth essays with Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock (entitled “God of Holy Love”).

Also from Ben as part of his biography:

“The driving interest behind this project and others is a concern for the role of experience, especially moral experience, in theology and the Christian life. My religious upbringing was in a Canadian evangelical tradition, the Associated Gospel Churches, and I also attended an evangelical seminary. In seminary I came across the theology of Peter Forsyth and completed a directed reading course on his work. Forsyth was just what I needed to hear at just the right time. My faith has evolved a great deal in the meantime, but I still turn to Forsyth for inspiration, encouragement, and an existential challenge.”

Recommended and mentioned reading:

I maintain a collection of PT Forsyth writings here: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/category/pt-forsyth
Paul Moser also has lots of Forsyth writings: http://pmoser.sites.luc.edu/ptforsytharchive/
An excellent way to find PT Forsyth writing is to search the internet archive (I’ve uploaded dozens of new items and there was already a lot there): https://archive.org/details/experientialtheology?and[]=creator%3A%22peter+taylor+forsyth+%281848-1921%29%22
The very helpful PTF article on the atonement is here: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/255
The article “From a Lover of Love to an Object of Grace”: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/133
The article “The Disappointment of the Cross”: https://archive.org/details/PTFDisappointmentofCross
The article “Sacramentalism the True Remedy of Sacerdotalism”: https://archive.org/details/ForsythSacramentalism1898

“Have Mercy on Me!”

Luke 17:11-19 (Sermon)

Introduction

God is hard to pin down and figure out because, as Bishop Owensby said, “God is a who and not a what”; a person, not a thing. So, our knowledge of God is limited; it seems we live in the tension between the book of Numbers and the held breath of the Easter Vigil. The chaotic and terrifying book of Numbers highlighting God’s bold activity emphasizes that no one puts God in a corner; this gives way to the deafening silence of the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Movement then silence and stillness. More movement…more silence and stillness. It’s part of the story of Israel in the midst of exile and return; it’s part of our story, too. There are times when our hearts grow weary, on the brink of fracturing under the weight of yearning under the twin questions: where is God? Who is God? I wish I could tell you I’ve never doubted; I have. I wish I could tell you that I always stand on the firm bedrock of my faith; I don’t. I question, I weep, I long. Where is beauty? Where is justice? Where is peace? Where is love? Where is God? If God has come, and God’s will is being done, then why isn’t earth as it is in heaven? Sadly, it’s often hard to think about giving thanks.

I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me!

vv.11-14

Jesus is on the move in our gospel passage. Luke tells us he travels into Jerusalem, taking a middle route between Samaria and Galilee (v.11). As Jesus enters a certain village a group of ten men encounter him; but they keep their distance (v.12). They kept their distance because they suffered from leprosy—it was a divine curse and they were ritually unclean. [1] These leprous men knew their plight and the commands of Torah: one must steer clear of family and community, [2] and one must announce their unclean presence. [3] But these men weren’t without hope: lepers could be healed and welcomed back. [4]

And hope comes near; and they recognized hope when they saw him. And they lifted up their voices and cried out when they saw this hope. “Jesus!” They called. “Master, have mercy on us!” Desperate, they called out to the one they knew could help them, who had the miraculous power to rid them of this curse and make them clean.[5] (Otherwise, why ask?) Calling Jesus “Master” is not only a term of respect; they saw and recognized in Christ the power of God to heal and reconcile.[6] And their desperate hope and plea is met with an answer from Jesus: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And they got up and went. On the way they were made clean (v.14).

If we stop here, we might be tempted to make faith into a work. (Have (enough) faith and be healed!). When that happens, faith no longer saves, it no longer flies with the wings of mercy and hope but is a mere dead stone dropped into the deepest part of the sea. If we stop here, we will make this moment of sudden healing of the ten leprous men the dénouement. But it’s not. This is:

Now one of the men when he saw that he had been healed, returned with a great voice giving glory to God, and he fell upon his face on the feet of [Jesus] giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan…and [Jesus] said to him ‘Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” (Luke 17:15-16, 19)

Gratitude.[7] Gratitude is pushed to the front. Hiding behind all the other players on the stage, gratitude steps forward and speaks. And Luke uses a leprous Samaritan voice,[8]the voice of a double outcast, to do make a point. It’s the Samaritan who understands what has happened in his event of encounter with the merciful one. His leprosy is gone and he is clean, and something bigger occurred: he’s healed (v.15). Luke changes the verb “they were made clean”[9] in v. 14 to “he had been healed”[10] in v. 15.

The comparison here is not between one having faith and the others not.[11] Rather, the comparison is between only hearing and really hearing so deeply that you do (shema). All ten were made clean; one realizes he’s healed. They all believed; one saw and heard.[12] Would not a double outcast know the depths of rejection and being marginalized?[13] Would not a double outcast know not only the miraculous healing, but also the bigger miracle being healed by Jesus, the good Rabbi, a Jew? [14] The Samaritan Leper is accepted and received across socio-political lines. It’s doubly not about clean and unclean with Christ. It’s about cosmic healing and this Samaritan man sees it. It’s the word of acceptance, of mercy, of hope, of beloved that he hears—words having long gone silent and still. And he hears so deeply that he can only do one thing: return with magnificent gratitude to the one who is the priest of priests in the temple of temples. And it is this priest and this temple that know no dividing walls and exclusion, but only unity and inclusion.[15] And he is grateful! He falls on his face at Jesus’s feet:[16] loving the Lord his God “with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind…” (Lk 10:27).

Conclusion

We may think that in this age of pain and suffering, this level of gratitude has gone the way of the horse and buggy. But I don’t think it has. I think each and everyone of us knows the depth of gratitude that changes lives forever: the partner who took us back when we didn’t deserve it; the friend who forgave us; the parent who embraces us upon our return even when we were convinced things were too far gone; the sibling who actually did pick up the phone finally. We know this depth of gratitude. And our hope for ourselves and for others—not only those seated here with us right now, but for the whole world—is based and embedded in this simple thing: gratitude.

Gratitude is the basis of our ethic because gratitude remembers and recalls and retells the story of when: when we were too far-gone, when we were lost, when we were in doubt, when we were angry and then God.[17] Christ came near. God in Christ comes near to those who think they are too far-gone, he seeks those who are lost, he believes for those who are in doubt, and comforts those who are angry.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 38-39)

As we tell our stories here and proclaim Christ crucified for us, we encourage each other and carry each other and bear each other up. We then spill out from this building into the world. And as we go we carry with us our absurd gratitude and our absurd stories into a world that is convinced God has gone completely silent and completely still, questions of where and who still fresh on suffering, hurting lips. But God is only silent and still if we remain so; God’s silence and stillness is only true if we forget who we are and whose we are: we are the apple of God’s eye, we are the beloved of Christ, and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Where we go, so too does God; where God goes, so too do we.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:11b-13)

It is God in Christ Jesus who is our story, the one we remember, recall, and retell. Christ is our faith, hope, and mercy—not only when we cannot muster these but especially when all we can do is: I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me! And he does; over and over again never ceasing and never failing.

Hallelujah!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the Lord! (Ps 111:1-2)

[1] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). “‘Leprosy’ was a term used to designate a number of skin diseases, so the fundamental problem of these ten was, in all likelihood, not a malady that was physically life-threatening. Instead, they were faced with a debilitating disorder. Regarded as living under a divine curse and as ritually unclean (whether they were Jew or Samaritan, it does not matter), they were relegated to the margins of society.” 623.

[2] Justo Gonzalez “Luke” Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. “To be a leper was not only to suffer a physical illness, but to be cast out from family and society.” 205.

[3] Gonzalez 204-5, Numbers 5:2 (lepers ostracized from community by law); Leviticus 13:45-46 (lepers announce their uncleanliness).

[4] Gonzalez 205, “Since various diseases were included under the general heading of leprosy, allowance had to be made for those whose symptoms disappeared. For them, the law provided a detailed procedure, which included an examination by a priest, and then a complex ritual of cleansing (Lev. 14:2-32).”

[5] Green 623, “Used elsewhere in the Third Gospel, ‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power, and this is its meaning here.”

[6] Green 623, “What is clear is that, in naming him as master, these lepers place themselves in a position of subordination to him in the hope of receiving from him some form of benefaction. This benefaction, they seem to believe, will have its source in God; in effect, they request from Jesus a merciful visitation from God.”

[7] Gonzalez 204. “The theme of gratitude for God’s wondrous and unmerited gifts connects it with the previous parable, about the master owing nothing to the slave. In this case, the Samaritan who returns is grateful for what Jesus has done, while the others seem to take it in stride, almost as if it were their rightful due.”

[8] Gonzalez 205-6, The one who returns is a Samaritan and it is assumed the other 9 were Jews; the Samaritan is leper (outcast) and Samaritan (double outcast).

[9] Greek: εκαθαρι᾽σθησαν

[10] Greek: ια᾽θη

[11] Gonzalez 205, “We tend to ignore these nine, or to classify them as unbelieving ones; but the text says (or at least implies) that they believed Jesus, and even that they obeyed him by continuing on their way to see the priests.”

[12] Green 626, “What separates the one from the nine, then, is not the nature of the salvific benefits received. Rather, the nine are distinguished by their apparent lack of perception and, then, by their ingratitude. They do not recognize that they have been healed. This may be because leprosy was as much or more a socio-religious stigma as a physical malady. For it to be effective, cleansing must reach more deeply than the surface of one’s skin, and it may be precisely this added dimension of restoration that the nine fail to comprehend. More evident in the distinction between the behavior of the one and the nine, though, is the failure of the latter to recognize that they had received divine benefit from Jesus.”

[13] Gonzalez 206, “One could even say that there is a hint that the reason why he was doubly grateful for his healing was that he had a double experience of exclusion, and that he therefore could be doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing—not only a leper but a Samaritan leper! Thus the great reversal takes a new twist: those who are most marginal and excluded are also able to be most grateful to this Lord who includes them. Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”

[14] Green 624-5, “Unlike the other lepers, this one perceives that he has been the recipient of divine benefaction—and that at the hand of Jesus. Of his three actions—praising God, falling at Jesus’ feet, and thanking Jesus — the first is expected within the Lukan narrative, the second two quite extraordinary. Praising God following a miracle is the appropriate response in the Third Gospel; indeed, this former leper joins many in the narrative who witness God’s mighty acts, then return praising God.”

[15] Green 626, “Worded differently, one appropriately gives praise to God via one’s grateful submission to Jesus as master or lord, the ‘location,’ so to speak, of God’s beneficence. Here, Luke’s Christology reaches impressive heights as he presents Jesus in the role of the temple – as one in whom the powerful and merciful presence of God is realized and before whom the God of the temple (whether in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim!) can be worshiped.”

[16] Green 625, “’Falling at the feet’ of someone is an act of submission by which one acknowledges another’s authority; it signifies reverence, just the sort of response one might make toward a person regarded as one’s benefactor. Gratitude, too, is expected of those who have received benefaction. Because the former leper recognizes Jesus as the agent of the inbreaking kingdom of God, there is nothing incongruous in his actions: Both praising God and to his request for the merciful visitation of God.”

[17] Karl Holl The Reconstruction of Morality. Eds. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense. Trans. Fred W. Meuser and Walter R. Wietzke. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1979. “But whence comes this duty to love God? Luther did not fail to answer this question in his Lectures on the Psalms. We are bound to love God because God is the given and sustainer of life who daily, unceasingly, and bountifully blesses us with his gifts. It is therefore the feeling of gratitude form which Luther derived the sense of obligation. Now we see why the New Testament imperative, in all its majesty and inexorableness, stirred him so deeply. He accepted it not only on authority; its essential meaning wrought conviction. If we owe God everything, then even by ‘natural right’ [iure naturali] we must give ourselves wholly to God.” 48.

A Unique Draw

Luke 6:20-23 (Homily)

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
(Luke 6:20-23)

I remember clearly the evening we had to break it to our boys that we were leaving Colorado to move here, to Louisiana, for me to take this job. The news of the move swung like a wrecking ball into their lives: everything they had previously known to be regular and normal was now flying through their atmosphere in scattered pieces and shards of what was.

As the news sunk in and the pieces and shards started to hit their ground, their eyes told us we were in for a full blown verbal assault: YOU’RE STUPID! I WISH I WAS NEVER BORN! I HATE YOU SO MUCH! I WISH YOU WERE NEVER BORN! And so on. Doors slammed, immense pain and hatred vented, tears shed, plea bargains offered, more doors slammed.

The pain of our boys hit us hard. Their words seemed endless; their physical anger appeared nearly unrestrainable. But what broke us most was neither their verbal attacks nor the physical tantrums, but that their hearts were broken. They fired their verbal shots, and we only nodded in agreement, “I know. I know, buddy….I know.” Silent nods.

And even though we knew we had to be the strong and steady ones in the equation, we couldn’t help but cry with them. I wiped away the warm tears that broke through to the surface and rolled down my cheeks. I cried because these human being, the ones that my body spent months growing and nourishing, these human beings were in pain and I couldn’t have any other response than to cry with them.

Their pain was my pain; their grief was my grief; their sorrow and mourning was my sorrow and mourning. The only thing I could do then, in that moment, was stand as close as possible and be present, creating space for them to let out the depths of their emotions and take as much of it as I could.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” How are those who weep to laugh? How are those who weep, blessed? Because in the thick of their pain and sorrow and grief, God is with them. Blessedness comes from the presence of God. And the radical aspect of God’s blessedness is that it comes to us not as we are clean, and tidy, and happy, but when we are at the bottom, in the lowness of life, when everything hurts emotionally, mentally, physically because life has dealt us its blows one more time.

Our God doesn’t shy away from the radical pain and hurt and suffering and sorrow and grief of the human life. Just the opposite.  “For [God] knows how we were made,” writes the Psalmist. “[God] remembers that we are dust.” Our God is a God “whose property is always have mercy,” to have mercy especially when and where all hope seems lost. And God’s mercy is expressed in that God entered into our humanity and suffered under that weight by being born, living, sorrowing, and suffering pain even death on the cross.

Our suffering and grief and mourning has a unique way of drawing us to this God who is love, who is not far off when we are at our saddest, our angriest, but who has come close—Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us!  Suffering has a unique way of drawing us to the Suffering God who suffered for us on the cross, who was raised from the dead, and who has declared that the suffering of this life will not last forever, that the suffering of this life does not have the final word, because God has conquered it. 

Your suffering, your sorrow, your grief, and your pain are not indicative that God has turned his face from you; He hasn’t, you have not been abandoned. It’s just the opposite: He loves you so very, very, very much; so much so he has laid down His life for you because he hears your cries, because God knows. And God’s not mad if you are ticked and angry, sad and grieved.

Any notion that you would bear any sort of curse for being upset with the trauma life can bring, is a lie. If I could bear the anger of my sons, how much more can God—the one whole loves the beloved fully and completely, better than any earthly mother and father—how much more can this God bear your pain and suffering and anger and grief?

Blessed are you who mourn because the God of the universe is with you, has taken on your plight. Blessed are you because there is no dark night of the soul that is too dark to cloak you from God’s eye; there is no pain so great that would cause Christ to just shrug his shoulders and yawn; there is no sorrow so deep that would cause your pain to be outside of God’s knowledge.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:34-39).

Blessed are you who mourn, grief, sorrow, who are angry and upset, for God is present with you.

Even From Dust

Ash Wednesday (Sermon)

I have a confession: I don’t like Ash Wednesday. Now, some of you may be shocked to hear this. Some of you may not be shocked. And some of you may even (secretly) agree with me. But, nonetheless, I don’t like Ash Wednesday. So, when I was told I was preaching Ash Wednesday, I smiled and said “yayyy.” But on the inside, I cried just a little bit.

You see, Ash Wednesday puts a hard stop to the festivities that culminated in yesterday and last night (the final night of) Mardi Gras. Ash Wednesday throws open the door to a season of some sort of self-denial and fasting that is the season of Lent. None of us really like days that end our celebration and start us about our task of taking life seriously. Ash Wednesday, in some respect, is the Monday of all Mondays in the liturgical calendar. And who really likes a Monday?

But it’s not only the Monday-esque vibe that Ash Wednesday brings to our liturgical life and calendar that I don’t like. It’s not the inauguration into season of self-denial and fasting of Lent that I don’t like. It’s the part that constitutes and substantiates the inauguration of Lent that I don’t like. And it’s that very part that we love to forget to talk about as we transition from celebration to fasting. Dialogue surrounding Ash Wednesday moves swiftly and deftly from what I did last night and all the fun I had to, “Yes, I’m giving up _____” for Lent. But something else needs to happen before I so smoothly move from Mardi Gras to Lent and that is the form and substance of Ash Wednesday; I must be forced to reckon with myself as I am and not as I portray myself to be.

Ash Wednesday is less like an average Monday and more like that one Monday where it was already bad and then you got pulled over and instead of the Police Officer handing you a ticket, she handed you a stack, a ticket for every infraction you’ve ever committed known and unknown to you.

Ash Wednesday is not a day of celebration; Ash Wednesday is the 4th step of the 12 Step Program for Sinners.[1] It is a day for us to take a fearless and ruthless moral inventory of ourselves that results in our throwing ourselves prostrate on the ground crying out, “Lord, Have Mercy! Have Mercy on us!” And knowing that our lives, our very lives are fully and completely dependent on that divine word of “Mercy.” It’s a day to wake up to the dire reality that apart from God’s mercy, we are only dust.

I don’t like Ash Wednesday because I’m the one that has to bring you to that place with my words. Rather than using my priestly office to bring you hope and comfort and to bless you and bring you life, I have to use it in a way that reminds you of the curse of sin, and that the wage therein is death. I have to anoint you not with oil, but with ash. I have to remind you that you are dust and that, as it stands now, to dust you will return.

We are dust because we have failed. And this failure is nothing to gloss-over as we are wont to do. This failure surely pulverizes us to dust because this failure encompasses our activities and the orientations of our heart and mind. We are fully incriminated: body, mind, and soul. We have not acted the way we ought to act, we have not spoken the way we ought to have spoken, we have not thought the way we ought to have thought, and we have not loved as we ought to have loved. We have failed to uphold God’s good and righteous law. What I mean by failure to uphold God’s law is our failure to live according to this:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

And, failure to uphold this:

“…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18b)

There’s no escaping what feels like (and is) the crushing weight of condemnation of Ash Wednesday and it’s demand to self-reflection and fearless and ruthless moral inventory. You can’t side-step this event. Today you will be bombarded by the words of the liturgy and of the prayers. Today the voices of the prophets of Israel ring in our ears anew:

“The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
thus they pervert justice.” (Micah 7:2-3)

“Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1-2)

“Gather together, gather,
O shameless nation,
before you are driven away
like the drifting chaff,
before there comes upon you
the fierce anger of the Lord,
before there comes upon you
the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (Zephaniah 2:1-3)

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

You have failed. You have failed God and you have failed your neighbor; you have failed God because you have failed your neighbor. The homeless go unsheltered. The hungry go unfed. The marginalized and oppressed continue in their bondage and slavery. Let this active word of God spoken through the prophets present itself to you not as mere historical fiction spoken to others of long ago, but as a very present reality in its veracity. Let this word of God touch you: let it break your heart, let it trouble your conscience, let it be the encounter with the divine that strips you of “…all agreeable self-deceptions…” and causes you to face the truth of your failure: you are people of unclean lips in the midst of people of unclean lips (Is. 6ff).[2]

And not only are you incriminated in this verdict of guilty, but I, too, am convicted and condemned. I’ve remained silent when a voice was needed; I’ve intentionally stepped back and hidden from the call to step up and act. I have professed love of God and then turned a blind eye to the turmoil, oppression, and suffering of my neighbor. I have not fed the hungry, housed the homeless, or clothed the naked. For this I am guilty and judgment comes; judgment comes from God and I am guilty. The encounter with God in the words of the prophets burns and I am rent to dust.

From dust we were taken and to dust we shall return.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:8-14).

There is hope yet still and this I must proclaim alongside judgment lest our hearts grow too weary to beat and our mind too burdened to conceive of hope and our bodies too feeble to make it to our feet. “For he knows how we were made,” writes the Psalmist. “[H]e remembers that we are dust.” Our God is a God “whose property is always have mercy,”[3] to have mercy especially when and where all hope seems lost.

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18).

Paul exhorts us in the place of Christ and with an urgent entreaty in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, “…on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” [4] God’s justice is not retributive; it is merciful and reconciliatory and thus restorative. Being rent to dust by the heat of judgment of the divine words of the oracles of the prophets and the law may seem like the final nail in the coffin, but with our God it’s just the beginning.

In the beginning God created out of nothing, and out of nothing God will create a new beginning. There is hope in the creative and long-suffering mercy of God.

We throw ourselves in our manifold convictions and guilt and failure at the feet of a God who is merciful—not “maybe will be,” “might be,” or “could be,” but is merciful. We throw ourselves down at the feet of a God who has reconciled and restored us to himself in his mercy through the sending of his son out of self-sacrificial love for us.[5] This is the God we come into contact with in Christ, the God by whom we are touched in the words of proclamation of Christ and yet we live because of God’s mercy and reconciling us to himself.[6] This is the God we encounter in Ash Wednesday.

We live in this encounter because there’s an exchange[7] occurring between Christ, and us as Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We live because Christ willingly and voluntarily and lovingly resolves to head to Jerusalem to die and to be raised up (Mark 8:31).[8] We live because God is so merciful that God will bear in God’s own self (freely intervening by his own being from both sides)[9] on the cross our sin and become so indistinguishable from that sin.[10] We live because the sin bearing sinless Christ—who knew no sin in any way, shape, or form–dies and in his death so to goes the death of our death, so to goes the dust of our dust. And from the dust of death: life.[11] Our lives are given back to us because God is merciful to take our affairs in this world so personally that he makes himself responsible and burdens himself with our failure and guilt and evil ways;[12] That is the extent and power of God’s love for us; that is mercy and this is our merciful God: the God who in “[Christ] is the [one] who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.” [13]

Speaking about Isaiah’s encounter with the divine in Isaiah chapter 6, which applies here to our situation in Ash Wednesday, Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“A miracle happens, the miracle of all miracles, that this impure being, impure in the midst of the pure creation, that this intolerable being is permitted to live. The annihilating encounter with God becomes for him a life-giving encounter. Without his co-operation, entirely on the initiative of this other power that ought to have meant his death, that which must be death for him is turned into new life; the miracle of forgiveness. He who can no longer purify himself is purified…Death is taken away, the death which I bear in myself because of my contradiction, my impurity is covered by the encircling life-giving love to him who was the prey of death.”[14]

From dust we were taken and to dust we should return; but our God is a merciful God and there is life even out of dust and ash.

[1] “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

[2] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981. “The bible in fact believes that things would be just the same with everyone one of us, as it was with this man Isaiah, confronted with the final truth, with the divine life which fills the creation, everyone of us is stripped of and must acknowledge himself as the dark blot in the creation, that must be removed in order for the creation to join with clear and pure voice in the great joyful hymn of praise of the angles. That is for us the intolerable truth, which we try to disguise from ourselves with all kinds of inventions, a truth which we face when the word of God touches us.” 41. (cf Is. 6)

[3] BCP Prayer of Humble Access

[4] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 447. “But here neither verb denotes a dispassionate and detached request but rather an impassioned and urgent entreaty. The second us of υπερ Χριστου links the δεησις with the ambassadorship: whether performing the general role of envoys (πρεσβευομεν) or issuing a specific entreaty (δεομεθα), Paul and his colleagues were acting υπερ Χριστου, “for Christ,” on his behalf and in his stead. Moreover, this repeated prepositional phrase suggest that the principal role of Christ’s ambassadors is issuing the evangelistic treaty to be reconciled to God.”

[5] Ibid, 447. “The aorist imperative passive form καταλλαγητε is unlikely to be a reflexive passive, ‘reconcile yourselves (to God),’ whatever allowance be made for synergism (Cf. 6:1-2), because whenever this verb is applied to the atonement, God, and only God is the reconciler (see above v. 18). While it is possible that this passive is permissive, ‘let yourselves be reconciled (to God),’ it is more probably a true passive, ‘be reconciled,’ or, to bring out the ingressive sense of this aorist, ‘get reconciled,’ with God as the implied agent.”

[6] Ibid, 449. “In the divine economy, the declaration of ‘the message of reconciliation’ (v.19), or, in other words, the preaching of the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18, 23) with the attendant entreaty to be reconciled to God, is the link between the objective work of reconciliation accomplished by Christ and the subjective appropriation of its benefits by the sinner. Paul saw himself and everyone who proclaimed reconciliation in Christ as trustees of a message (v. 19), ambassadors for Christ, and mouthpieces for God (v.20).”

[7] Karl Barth CD I.2.156. “…in the likeness of flesh (unholy flesh, marked by sin), there happens the unlike, the new and helpful thing, that sin is condemned by not being committed, by being omitted, by full obedience now being found in the very place where otherwise sin necessarily and irresistibly takes place. The meaning of the incarnation is that now in the flesh that is not done which all flesh does…[(5.21)]…does not mean that He made Him a man who also sins again—what could that signify ‘for us’?—but that He put Him in the position of a sinner by way of exchange (καταλλασσων, in the sense of the Old Testament sin-offering).”

[8] Harris, 2 Corinthians, 451. “Although ποιειν can mean ‘make something into something (else),’ the meaning here is not ‘God made the sinless one into sin’ … but ‘God caused the sinless one to be sin,’ where ποιειν denotes causation or appointment and points to the divien intiiative. But we should not forget that matching the Father’s set purpose to deliver Christ up to deal with sin (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:32) was Christ’s own firm reolsition to go to Jerusualem to suffer (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:51). Jesus was not an unwillling or surprised participant in God’s action.»

[9] Karl Barth CD II.1.397. “This sending means a self-offering grounded in the free will of the Father and the Son in fulfillment of the divine love turned towards the cosmos and the world of man. But it is the case that God in this offering or sending of His Son, and the Son Himself in accepting this mission and allowing Himself to be sacrificed, has exposed Himself to an imposition. In His love God has been hard upon Himself, exacting a supreme and final demand…in a self-emptying, in a complete resignation not of the essence but of the form of His Godhead, He took upon Himself our own human form—the form of a servant, in complete likeness to other men…allowing himself to be found in fashion as a man…Like all men He was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). But what does it mean to take the place of man, to be Himself a man, to be born of a woman? It means from Him, too, God’s Son, God Himself, that He came under the Law…that He stepped into the heart of the inevitable conflict between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of man. He took this conflict into is own being. He bore it in Himself to the bitter end. He took part in it from both sides. He endured it from both sides. He was not only the God who is offended by man. He was also the man whom God threatens with death, who falls a victim to death in face of God’s judgment. If he really entered into solidarity with us—and that is just what He did do!—it meant necessarily that He took upon Himself, in likeness to us…the ‘flesh of sin’ (Rom. 8:3). He shared in the status, constitution and situation of man in which man resists God and cannot stand before Him but must die.”

[10] Harris, Second Corinthians, 454. “We conclude that in v.21a Paul is not saying that at the crucifixion the sinless Christ became in some sense a sinner, yet he is affirming more than that Christ became a sin offering or even a sin bearer. In a sense beyond human comprehension, God treated Christ as ‘sin,’ aligning him so totally with sin and its dire consequences that from God’s viewpoint he became indistinguishable from sin itself.”

[11] Ibid, 455. “So γινομαι may be given its most common meaning (‘become,’ ‘be’) and points to the change of status that accrues to believers who are ‘in Christ’ and that is the ground of the ‘new creation’ (v.17). ‘To become the righteousness of God’ is to gain a right standing before God that God himself bestows (cf. Rom. 5:17; Phil. 3:9). It is to be ‘constituted righteous’ in the divine court…As a result of God’s imputing to Christ something that was extrinsic to him, namely sin, believers have something imputed to them that was extrinsic to them, namely righteousness.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “But the great and inconceivable thing is that He acts as Judge in our place by taking upon Himself, by accepting responsibility for that which we do in this place. He ‘who knew no sin’ (2 or. 5:21)…gives Himself…to the fellowship of those who are guilty of all these things, and not only that, but He makes their evil case His own. He is above this fellowship and confronts it and judges it and condemns it in that He takes it upon Himself to be the bearer and Representative, to be responsible for this case, to expose Himself to the accusation and sentence which must inevitably come upon us in this case. He as One can represent all and make Himself responsible for the sis of all because He is very man in our midst, one of us, but as one of us He is also very God and therefore He exercises and reveals amongst us the almighty righteousness of God. He can conduct the case of God against us in such a way that He takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and compromising and burdening Himself with it.”

[13] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “It is no longer our affair to prosecute and represent this case. The right and possibility of doing so has been denied and taken away from us. What He in divine omnipotence did amongst us as one of us prevents us from being our own judges, from even wanting to be, from making that senseless attempt on the divine prerogative, from sinning in that way and making ourselves guilty. TIN that He was and is for us that end is closed, and so is the evil way to that end. He is the man who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.”

[14] Gollwitzer Way to Life 41.