The Impossible Puzzle: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In my house, there are two jigsaw puzzles framed and hanging on two separate walls. The puzzles achieved “frame and wall-mount” status because they were both very difficult to put together; each demanding months of time, and in one case, a few years. If you’re not a puzzle person, then I may have just lost you, and it’s quite possible you think I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy; my fellow puzzlers may/will attest to this: puzzles often take massive amounts of time depending on the complexity of the picture.

One puzzle that’s hanging is a large picture of a massive group of penguins in the different stages of molting from furry to sleek. That’s it. ALL. PENGUINS. The other puzzle that’s hanging (and this is the one that took me a few years) is a bit more complicated. It has no edge pieces, the image is repeating, each piece is cut the same, and, wait for it, there are 5 extra pieces thrown in. The puzzle is rightly part of a series of puzzles called: “Impossibles.”

These are not puzzles for your average puzzler; they will surely weed out the puzzling mice from the puzzling humans. It does this weeding because there’s no way to do this puzzle according to normal puzzling conventions. There are no edge pieces to find. Sorting in any constructive way is pointless; you get (about) three piles: black cat pieces, white cat pieces, and pink marble background pieces. And with every piece cut the same and that there are extra means: pure puzzling mayhem.

In order to complete the puzzle, you must let the puzzle tell you how to put it together. It reveals its puzzle-self to you and contradicts everything you know about puzzles. The wisdom of the puzzle doesn’t make sense; it completely defies puzzling common sense. By all means, it’s foolishness…

For the word (proclamation)[1] of the cross (on one hand) is foolishness to the ones who are being destroyed (on their way to ruin), (…)[2] 

The word of the cross is foolishness from our human perspective because it’s counter-intuitive to our common sense. It contradicts everything we hold to be true. Justice defined as retribution makes sense; justice as reconciliation… Come again? The first, the powerful, the rich, the strong should be first and blessed; what is this about the last, the meek, the poor, and the lame being first and most blessed in the Kingdom of God? “God helps those who help themselves”; nope, God helps those who can’t help themselves because they are burdened by systems of oppression.

There’s very little in the proclamation of the gospel that isn’t cacophonous to my ears that are strained toward the solo of self illusion. Me. Tell me more about me, and then I’ll listen. What makes sense to me, what coincides with my reason about myself and about the world and even about the divine is what I want to hear. Let me be content with the image of God I’ve constructed, and thus the image of humanity with it. Share with me whatever it is that won’t tear back the protective layers of my cozy cocoon. Keep me comfortable and well sedated on the continual drip of saccharine sweetened words of self-affirmation. Tell me everything’s okay, even if it’s not. Tell me not to worry, even when there’s ample reason to worry and worry a lot. Lie to me.

The proclamation of the cross is a direct assault on our common sense and our self-centered orientation. In fact, it’s a flat out revolution against us. It’s such an assault that it causes offense, great offense. Our knee jerk reaction is to reject the message and continue on our way to destruction and ruin. We are not hard wired to the good defined by the word of the cross; we abhor it and thus reject it. It’s clearly foolishness.

However, the validity of the proclamation of the cross rests in the divine wisdom behind it and not in whether or not I agree.[3] Thus, my rejection of the proclamation of the cross is the declaration that I believe it to be a lie. If the proclamation of the cross is actually divine wisdom,[4] then my foolish human wisdom and I both stand condemned and continue on our way to destruction and ruin.[5] Continuing on my way to destruction and ruin is surely folly, but the power of the lie that blinds me is strong.

…but (on the other hand) to the ones being[6] saved, it is the power of God to us.

But there’s good news in verse 18. For those who have been encountered by God in the event of faith, the proclamation of the cross is life. The revolutionary word of God in the proclamation of the cross is revolution against my lies and those of the world; it is oriented toward life. It is, to quote Paul, “the power of God to us.”

Paul presents two distinct groups of people: those who are on their way to life and those who are on their way to destruction. Those who are on their way to destruction are doing so by depending not on the wisdom of God but on the wisdom of the world, on their own wisdom. But those who are “being saved” are so because God is operative[7] in them through the proclamation of the cross. They have been exposed by the illuminating word of God and have been brought through the death to self that is the ash-bed of new life. They are on their way to being saved and to living life rightly oriented to God and to neighbor.

In God’s self-disclosure in the word of the cross, the one who is encountered therein in the event of faith is transitioned from the folly of the wisdom of the world and is ushered into the wisdom of God that is the form and substance of the kingdom of God. And, thusly, this wisdom of God, the word of the cross, is the constitutive power of those who are being saved and the constitutive element of living as disciples in the kingdom of God.

Those who are disciples in the kingdom of God cannot devolve back toward the self-deceptive lies of the wisdom of the world and obsessive orientation of the self toward the self[8]; this is a skin that no longer fits or feels comfortable. Death and destruction are not befitting a creature created for life and blessing.

For it has been written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will declare invalid the intelligence of the intelligent. Where is the wise? Where are the scribes? Where are the debaters of this world order?[9] Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Now, the bad news of that good news we just discussed is that I can’t get there from here, especially of my own intellectual efforts. I spent the first part of this sermon talking about how my own conceptions of what is right, sensible, and wise are the sure path to destruction and ruin because they are in contradiction to the wisdom of God. Apologetics fails here. Natural theology fails here. Reasonable arguments fail here. The cross is offensive and appalling and foolishness until I can see it otherwise. Apart from divine intervention and illumination in God’s self-disclosure,[10] I cannot see the truth and goodness of the divine activity in the world as proclaimed by the word of the cross.

The key to the divine intervention and illumination that I need is expressed here in v.19, where Paul quotes from Isaiah 29:14, “‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will declare invalid the intelligence of the intelligent.’” And also in verse 20d, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” My wisdom and I need to be destroyed, my intelligence and I need to be declared invalid. The world needs to come into conflict with the divine word of the cross and suffer its death throes. I need to come into conflict with the divine word of the cross and suffer my death throes. And it’s in the encounter with God in the event of faith that this destruction, invalidation, and death throes occur. But it would not merely be death working for death’s sake (this would be the trajectory of the wisdom of the world), but in operation for the sake of new life (the power to those who are being saved). [11]

The word of God is destructive, specifically the word of the cross. And here in lies a distinction and a demand: destructive destruction or creative destruction? You are going to be destroyed one way or another, would you like to be destroyed unto death or destroyed unto life? No one who is encountered by the word of the cross is left untouched. There’s no part of the person in the event of faith that is not razed to the ground. We, the liars are exposed as liars.[12] The cross is a word of death. For the hearer who is encountered in the event of God’s self-disclosure in Christ and the conflict that ensues within the person in this event of encounter a demand is felt and that demand is to die to the self, to self-empty, and to self-abandon[13] and to let go. But this letting go and self-emptying and self-abandonment is not into a dark abyss of nothingness (destructive destruction) but into God and God’s self (creative destruction).

Thus, the word of the cross is also the word of life for we must hold in conjunction with the event of the death of Christ on the cross, Christ’s resurrections. Thus, the word of the cross is life for those who have been brought to death (for those who are being saved). If there was ever a moment for tabula rasa[14] in the life of a person, it’s at the very intersection of death into new life. New life lies in entering into that darkness, into death, being destroyed by the word of God. But rather than the flat-line being the last thing the we hear as we enter into the darkness of death, we hear the trumpet summoning us awake, resurrecting us from death in to new creation and new life.

Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“…[God] is already ‘with us on the scene with his Spirit and his gifts’. He has already bound himself to us indissolubly in Jesus. The victorious battle has already been waged on the Cross and made secure, so that destruction, wickedness, the devil and death do not have the last word, but life, light, and the promise of God. There is not only a promise for a distant future. He fulfills already the promise in the midst of the unchanged world through liberations now, through fellowship with God now, so that now we do not merely hope fore eternal life, but again and again experience new life, and can bear witness not merely to the future of a new life at the end of the old world, but to the presence of the new life in the midst of the old world—and on these grounds can go forward into stronger hope.”[15]

Our new life marked by the proclamation of “a Christ crucified,” by the proclamation of the cross takes on a decidedly active cruciformity. Our new life’s peculiarity is marked by a revolutionary and new orientation:[16] others rather than me, giving and sharing rather than taking and holding, last rather than the first, the weak rather than the strong, the meek rather than the powerful, reconciliation rather than retribution. [17]

The wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world are in radical contradiction, in fact (as mentioned above) the wisdom of God articulated in the proclamation of the Cross is a full blown revolution against the wisdom of the world. [18] Thus, it is necessary that Christians, because of their encounter with God, will also exist as revolution and in contradiction to the wisdom of the world. As the world walks in one direction according to its wisdom, we, through our encounter with our “resurrected Lord” are “‘[forced]…into a totally different direction’”[19] that is the wisdom of God. Proclamation of the cross is not strictly preaching about the word of the cross from the pulpit, but is also (and especially?) the living out the word of the cross[20] in both word and deed.[21] It’s about living and speaking dangerously in distinction and in opposition to the natural inclinations of humanity and of the world.[22]

Because the foolishness of God is wiser [than the wisdom] of humanity and the weakness of God stronger [than the strength] of humanity (I Cor. 1:25).

God’s wisdom reveals itself to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And in this self-revelation we are brought into and through destruction into new life that retains the characteristics of the God who has breathed life back into the ashes of ourselves. God is the impossible puzzle, you cannot determine God from your common sense and worldly wisdom; God discloses God’s self.

And in correspondence with God (and God’s activity in the world), the church and the disciples of Christ are impossible puzzles in the world; revealing God in the proclamation of the crucified Christ to the world. And in that proclamation revealing themselves to the world rather than being defined by worldly wisdom and common sense. And because we as a church and as disciples are created and sustained by the proclamation of the cross, sustained by the wisdom of God which is the power of God to us who are being saved, let us live and love radically. Let the entire world and all of humanity know us by our [radical] love and [revolutionary] life.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NRSV).

 

 

[1] Anthony C. ThiseltonThe First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2000. “Since της μωριας describes του κηρυγματος in v. 21 where the two aspects of thought are parallel, we may justifiably assume that proclamation most adequately conveys the aspect of λογος which Paul has in view. Message of the cross…risks too narrow a concentration on cognitive or informational content. Such content is certainly included but it tends to point away from the transformative dimensions of proclamation.” 153

[2] The 1 Corinthian passage translation in the sermon is my translation.

[3] Thiselton 155. “The proclamation is folly unless God, not human wisdom, stands behind it to validate and to underwrite it.”

[4] Thiselton, 154. “But, as Conzelmann correctly notes, the contrast between being on their way to ruin and being on our way to salvation does not correspond to the antithesis between human folly and human wisdom; it reflects the contrast between human folly (μωρια) and divine power (δυναμις θεου).”

[5] Karl Barth CD II.1 “Because the foolish are without faith in Him and therefore do not belong to the true people of God, they can obviously see in the news of the death of Jesus Christ (either with or without that of His resurrection, and even more so with it) only the news of a further demonstration of the meaninglessness of human life; and probably indeed the proclamation of the paradox that the meaninglessness reveals here too is as such its true meaning. So then, as I s described in Acts 17:32, they turn away in impatience or alarm from this foolish Gospel. But they do not realize that by doing this, and by making this judgment, the are already condemned, exposed and revealed as the mother of the dead child.”

[6]Thiselton 156 “The temptation to assume that Christians have already ‘arrived’ nourishes a mood of self-congratulation which is entirely at odds with the proclamation of the cross: a Christ wounded, humiliated, and done-to-death. Hence ‘It is highly characteristic of Pauls’ soteriology that he does not speak of “the saved” (which would be “sesosmenoi”) but of those who are being saved (sozomenoi). Salvation is not yet gained in its totality.’” (Hering qtd in).

[7] Thiselton 156. “The cross, then, constitutes the point at which, and/or the means through which, God’s presence and promise becomes operative as that which actualizes and transforms. It differs from human weakness and folly not in degree but in kind…a merely rhetorical or psychological exercise in communicating some belief system remains empty if it fails to engage with the cross precisely as a saving proclamation…”

[8] Thiselton 157. “The latter brings illusion and self-deception which marks their way to ruin, for recognition of one’s ignorance and one’s need to continue to learn and to grow marks our way to salvation. However, unlike the tradition of the Greek sage, Paul bases everything on the proclamation of the cross. By its very nature this determined the pattern of Christian disciples as living for others, at whatever personal cost.”

[9] Thiselton 165 “In Jewish and Christian eschatology the phrase occurs most characteristically to set in contrast ‘this age’ from ‘the age to come.’ But if we translate this age, we encounter a lack of contextual understanding brought to the text by modern readers who may have little understanding of a Jewish eschatology of the two ages of apocalyptic.”

[10] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion II.ii.20, “Because these mysteries are deeply hidden form human insight, they are disclosed solely by the revelation of the Spirit. Hence, where the Spirit of God does not illumine them, they are considered folly.” 280. And Karl Barth CD IV.2.350, “Where the Holy Spirit intervenes and is at work between Him and us as the Spirit of Jesus Christ, as the self-activation and self-revelation of the living Jesus Christ, we can believe and confess it in face of that hard antithesis.”

[11] Thiselton 161. “……in the wisdom of his own purposes God chose to reverse what was perceived as wise in an event which appeared to consist in weakness and failure. But would lead in the longer term to new beginnings and to a chastened, transformed, people.” And, 162, “Here the semantic contrast functions in relation to God as power (v.18), as denoting that which is effective, valid, operative, and capable of achieving its goal. Against the background of Isaiah 29 the contrast suggests a parallel between the vulnerability and fragility of time spent devising strategies for self-preservation or self-enhancement as against seeking alignment of the self with divine purpose.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.390 “And it is as He attests the truth, Himself, in this form, that He unmasks us as liars. It is in this form of suffering, as the wholly Rejected, Judged, Despised, Bound, Impotent, Slain and Crucified, and therefore as the Victor, that He marches with us and to us through the times, alive in the promise of Spirit. In this form he is at the core not only of the kerygmatic theology of Paul but also of the kerygmatic accounts of the Gospels.”

[13] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 16. “Only by self-emptying in encounter with what is alien, unknown and different does [a person] achieve selfhood…trust in the hidden and guaranteed identity with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) makes possible the self-abandonment, the road into non-identity and unidentifiability, which neither clings to ancient forms of identity, nor anxiously reaches out for the forms of identity of those one is fighting in common.”

[14] Karl Barth, CD II.1.435, “‘Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world?…There is none. By the very fact of what God has done through this Gospel He has made tabula rasa of all that is published in the world as wisdom but is not.” I’m applying this to the person in the event of justification.

[15] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life. 63.

[16] Thiselton 166. “…the event of the cross is like the new frame of reference brought to the sick by health, or to children or to the unsound in mind by full, rational maturity.” I think it’s more than just a new frame of reference. Due to the destructive and re-creative nature of the encounter with God in the event of faith, I’m not merely handed a new key to the world, but recreated to be oriented in a different way within the world.

[17] Thiselton 162. “Paul invites his addressees to say what is left of a human wisdom which Gods saving acts have left high and dry in the light of a cross. The cross places giving, receiving, and serving above achieving or ‘finding the right formula.’”

[18] Thiselton 169. The wisdom of God “…stands in antithetical opposition to the wisdom of this world order, which is fallible, temporary, short-term, and self-absorbed. The links with apocalyptic verdict, whether in the cross or at the end time, cannot be avoided. For what some may perceive as foolish is in fact definitive, and will expose its transient opposite as deceptive and illusory.”

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

[20] Thiselton 167. “‘The word kerygma…here means not the act of preaching itself, but the content of that proclamation…The point is worth making, first because the emphasis falls on the limits of natural human inquiry and discovery. Second, Schrage places the emphasis on the divine decree and its basis, not on the mode of communicated as such, and on the difference between gospel proclamation and human discovery. It has nothing to with whether the mode of communication is in a pulpit rather than variety of modes which may or may not include lectures, dialogue, disputation, or living the gospel out.”

[21] See fn17.

[22] See fn17.

The Truth Makes Free: A Homily on John 8:31-38

Jesus says, according to John, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32). And again, a bit later, “‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (8:34b-36). According to the words of Christ as recorded here by John, truth and freedom are inextricably linked. In other words, truth and freedom are so connected–one to the other–that no matter how hard and how long you looked you wouldn’t be able to find a point of entry with which to separate and disentangle them. The truth makes free, full stop.

But I want to be clear about something: this “truth” is not merely “honesty is always the best policy.” For such a simplistic correlation would render Christ’s statement trite: “just tell the truth.” But that’s not what Christ is saying here, there’s no “moral of the story” that you walk away with employing as you go about your day. Also, “honesty is always the best policy” places you in the subject position. Rather, you’re the intended recipient of this truth with its resultant freedom. In this situation, you are the hearer and the one being freed, not the speaker and the liberator. Plus, none of us here would ever really employ “honesty is always the best policy” for certainly if we did we’d have few if any friends and no need for SnapChat and its filters.

No, the type of truth that is being referred to here by Christ is the word of truth that exposes. The word of truth exposes us as we are (sinners) and exposes our situation (enslaved). Living under the burden and weight of darkness and lies in the enslavement to sin is exhausting. And by “sin” I don’t mean just the mistakes I make or the lazy and often selfish choices I make. By sin I mean the desperate appeal to myself to fabricate myself. In other words, when I live into the burden of creating and maintaining an image of myself that I present to you for you to see and promote the illusion that I am in control and autonomously so, this is when I am a slave to sin.[1] When I try to define and create myself by myself, I am a slave to sin. When I try to strike out on my own and neglect what God has done for, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I am a slave to sin.[2] And to live as a slave and burdened in such a way causes me to curve in on and become consumed with myself; I become disfigured as my human likeness wanes.

And I speak of this not because I’ve spent some time studying theology and concepts surrounding what it means to be a person in light of faith (though I have). But because I know personally how exhausting, and burdensome, and how death dealing it is to live a life that is for all intents and purposes a sham, a life that is a complete and total sham.[3] Living a false and sham life in trying to present to the world a version of me that I deemed was the right version, the acceptable version, the demanded and expected version of me nearly crushed me. I know what it’s like to run the race of self-performance and self-proving, I know the pressure to try to live up to unattainable self-imposed and others-imposed expectations and demands; I know the fear of being exposed a sham; I know the weight of a life that lacks the mark of real life: joy, laughter, and heart felt gratitude. I also know that you know, too.

The good news is that this false and sham life can only persist for so long, enslavement to sin lasts for only a period of time. Jesus say, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (John 8:31b-32, 36). And you have been made free because truth has come and truth cannot be untruthed by our sham existence, by our lies and falsehood no matter how hard we fight against truth in our false and sham existence. The truth is the truth, and according to Jesus, it sets those it encounters free.[4]

The word of truth is the light in the darkness, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). The light of truth illuminates the thick darkness and exposes the one darkness has enveloped, pushing darkness back away from the one who is the object of the desire of the light of truth, the one who has long been enslaved by darkness. “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’” (John 3:16). And all of this is done in love and that is why the truth that exposes brings life and not death, brings absolution and not condemnation: because love loves the unloved into the beloved and the beloved is free, free indeed. “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3c-5). Where light is, darkness ceases; where truth is, lies are obliterated; in the activity of love (the harbinger of freedom) the sham life succumbs to true life.

Where there is light and not darkness, where there is truth and not lies, there is freedom. There is freedom in being exposed in love by the light and by the truth that is the word made flesh (John 1:14), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), Jesus the Christ, the Son who makes you free (8:36). Where Christ is there is truth and freedom and “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). And if truth and freedom and grace upon grace, then those exposed and encountered by Christ are made to be the sons and daughters with Christ by faith in Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if sons and daughters then not slaves enslaved to the sin of the false and sham existence but freed sons and daughters unto true life—true, free, and vibrant life; a life marked by joy and laughter and gratitude in all that we undertake; a life bearing the marks of love’s success.[5] A life freed from the domination of proving and fabricating ourselves and freed into authentic human existence working in the world, unleashing the same truth and the same freedom we ourselves have experienced in our service of love.[6]

 

[1] Eberhard Jüngel, 233, “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. “The human drive to possess becomes theologically problematic only when human persons wish to take possession not merely of something—even if it is a great deal—but rather of themselves. And this is precisely what modern human persons want.”

[2] Working backwards from this thought from Karl Barth (CD IV.1.743-4), “If a man believes, this means that he has found in Jesus Christ an object which does not merely concern him and concern him urgently, which does not merely call him to itself and therefore out of himself, which does not merely claim him, but which is the one true object, which concerns him necessarily and not incidentally, centrally and not casually. It means that he has found in Him the true centre of himself which is outside himself. It means that he must now cling to Him and depend on Him, that he finds that he belongs to Him.”

[3] Jüngel “Becoming” 232, “In the end, it is the gospel of the justification of sinners by faith alone without the works of the law which identifies the conviction that humans can constitute themselves through their own acts as persons and, by taking possession of themselves, become free people, as an untruthful existence.”

[4] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.476, “But as the truth cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the falsehood of [humanity], the reality of the grace God and the man freed by Him and for Him cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the image in which it must represent itself to lying man s the ground of so much pain…As the reconciliation of the world to God, the justification and sanctification of man, is the reality, and indeed the living and present reality in Jesus Christ the true Witness of its truth, a limit is set both to the falsehood of man and also to his decay and destruction, to the disintegration of his existence under the dominion of the pseudo- reality of that image.”

[5] Helmut Gollwitzer “The Way to Life” Invitation to Joy, “The real meaning of a call to gratitude is ‘You should open your eyes and acknowledge what ahs happened to you in this man’s friendly approach, then you will be grateful and laugh’. It is s call to acknowledgment, so this call ‘Let us give thanks and be joyful!’ is a call to acknowledge the friendly approach which has been made to us, God’s friendly approach to us”

[6] Building from Karl Barth CD I.1.457, “Free as the servants of God…No less plainly the ‘law of liberty’ referred to in Jas. 1:25; 2:12 is the order which is directly contrasted, but positively so, with the law of the Jews, an order under which a man stands who is not just a hearer but also a doer—and in James this means, not a forgetful nor a merely reputed hearer, but a real hearer of the Word of God who is claimed in his life-act, in his existence…His freedom to by Himself, what is at issue here is a man’s freedom for God, for the ‘glorious liberty’ of the children of God (Rom. 8:21), the analgia fidei of the divine freedom which alone really deserves to be called freedom”

Life as Descent: Homily on John 6:41-51

“‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’” (John 6:51).

I stood cloaked in white alb, wearing a red deacon’s stole. I held the plate of Eucharistic wafers, nervous. I had just been ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and this was my first time participating in the distribution of the Eucharistic elements. With some apprehension and a whole bunch of “Just don’t drop the plate, Lauren,” I approached the first person kneeling at the railing. “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” I said as I held up and then handed the wafer to the adult kneeling in front of me. And then I did it again, and again, and again.

By my fourth pass by my half of the rail, I’d grown quite composed and quite confident. I grew comfortable with the eye contact and the pastoral moment that was this brief encounter with the individual congregants at the Cathedral. “Huh…” I thought, kind of surprised. “This isn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be.”

The last group of individuals knelt at the rail, and I started the last distribution of the bread. “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…The body of Christ the bread of heaven…” I rounded the corner of the rail and continued, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…The body of Christ, the bread of heaven…”

And then my eyes landed square on the big blues of a small child; his chin just cleared the rail. I stood looking down at him; actually, I was looming over him—I rarely loom over anyone. I paused while I held his eager gaze and watched him grip the railing with his hands, pull himself forward, and open his mouth for me to place the wafer in it, as he had watched me do with his mother a few minutes before him.

I couldn’t reach him from my position looming over him. I took the plate in one hand, grabbed my alb with the other, and brought my self all the way down to eye level with him; my right knee had to rest on the floor. I held up the wafer and made eye contact with him again, his big blues locked on me. “The body of Christ…” I said looking at him, holding his gaze, “…the bread of heaven.” And fed him.

“‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’” (John 6:51).

The Word of God, the word made flesh, the living bread of life, Jesus Christ, descends to us. The manna Jesus refers to in our passage (6:49) is mentioned in Exodus 16. This “manna”—a fine, flaky, white-like-dew substance that appeared on the ground for Israelite consumption—was the bread of heaven that God promised to send in Exodus 16:4[1] to satiate the starving people. They were in the throws of sever hunger pangs and cried out. And God heard; God acted. His word descended and fed the people; in this event, the Israelites were to encounter the power of God and see, hear, and to have faith. Jesus is clearly referring back to that part of Israel’s history with God, pointing the Israelites to recall God’s divine activity for them. Make no mistake about it; in correlating himself to the manna descended from heaven, Jesus intentionally proclaims that that historical event is happening at that very moment, in him, with him, and by him.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-14 it is written,

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Christ—who is the bread of heaven—descends to us so that we do not have to ascend to heaven to search for it. It is Christ who comes walking across the sea to us so that we do not have to cross over the sea to get it. Jesus is the word made flesh and is the bread of life, the true bread of heaven that has come down into the world so (the word is near) so that we hear (deeply, inwardly digest the word) and have faith in him. In Christ we see that God has heard and that God acts.

Christ, who is God of very God, not only descended in casting off his own divine royalty, humbling himself in being born in human likeness and form (Phil. 2:6-8),[2] but he descended to us and for us. The divine activity in Christ is the event encounter of God and humanity. The word made flesh descends low to be the lamb of God to redeem the world (John 1:29), descends low to demonstrate his glory in making the mundane (water) grace filled (wine) (John 2:1-12), descends low to be the event of love of God for the whole world to bring life abundant (John 3:16ff), descends low to recline against a well to encounter an ostracized Samaritan woman (John 4), descends low to heal those who are seemingly incurable, defies the existing authority structures, and is the apocalyptic event of God’s power in the world (John 5).

This proclamation of the gospel in the gospel of John (John 6:41-51) is the recounting and retelling of the descent Christ—the bread from heaven and the word made flesh—who is the divine once-and-for-all, established-forever divine activity of God for God’s people and the world. And in this recounting and retelling of Christ’s descent from heaven and the corresponding event encounter between God and the world, we—we—are pulled into the story and become the object in the encounter of that event—just as we are the objects of the gift of Grace by faith in Christ apart from works by the power of the holy spirit, so, too, are we the object of the divine revelation of God in Christ.[3] We, by hearing the proclamation of Christ, are pointed to Christ, to God, and, thus, we are encountered by God who has descended to us.[4] Jesus is the bread of life descended from heaven not only for his immediate disciples or his historic community. But in that he is such for them and that the proclamation of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension has moved from generation to generation for the past 2000 + years means he is also for us, for all, for the world. [5]

Christ came to you to give you life abundant. And this life that is given to you is life that is marked not by ascent upward out of the earthly realm or fleeing the brokenness of the world by crossing the sea, but by descent. As we have seen Christ do and as we’ve experienced in event encounter with God in Christ by faith, our lives are marked by the same deep descent by transcending society’s boundaries[6] to those who are oppressed, to those who are burdened, to those who are seeking refuge, to the voiceless. As we have been nourished, so we nourish. As we have been provided for, we provide. As we have been clothed, we clothe. As we have been encountered, we encounter. We are commissioned by Christ to be the preachers sent into the world to descend low, bringing our knees to the ground to give the bread of life to the least of us scattered all through out our society and the world (Matt 25:31ff). [7]

[1] “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.’”

[2] “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

[3] Dr. W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017): “Dialectical theology’s enduring contribution, then, is affirming that Protestant theological epistemology must be decisively shaped by protestant soteriology so that just as Christians can in no way merit saving grace, theologians can in no way merit revelation by finding it already embedded in the structures of human intellect or creation as a whole…Just as saving grace is an alien grace that comes to sinners from outside of themselves, knowledge of God is likewise an alien knowledge that comes to sinners from outside of themselves. Salvation and revelation thereby become two sides of the same event of God’s gracious activity” 55. To purchase this book, which I highly recommend you do, click here. To follow Dr. McMaken on Twitter: @WTravisMcMaken.

[4] Ibid, 72n61: McMaken quoting Helmut Gollwitzer, “‘there is no way to the event, to the act of God which is called Jesus, that circumvents the word of proclamation with its corresponding answer of faith.’ The kerygma ‘points beyond itself to the living God who encounters us in the proclamation but is more than a title for the word-event itself’…”

[5] Karl Barth, “What Jesus is ‘for us’ or ‘for you’ in the narrower circle of the disciples and the community He is obviously, through the ministry of this narrower circle, ‘for all’ or ‘for the world’ in the wider or widest circle. And in the majority of the relevant passages this action of Jesus for others (His disciples, His community, the many, all, the world) is His death and passion.” CD III.2.45.213-15.

[6] McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, 77: Explaining how Gollwitzer develops the concepts of “Brotherhood” (and “Sonship) found in the New Testament, McMaken writes, “Brotherhood designates a new Spirit-empowered sociality that ‘transcend[s] race and class.’ And this transcending cannot be limited to the realm of personal feeling, for that only serves to insulate the powers that be from the transformative power of the gospel Rather, ‘brotherhood transcending race and class in the New Testament means: actual life together in actual equality, that is, in a new classless society. A system of injustice legitimated as a system of justice is being abolished.’”

[7] ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”

Rain, Rain Everywhere: Homily on John 3:1-15

“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’” (John 3:5-8)

There is something absolutely marvelous about a standard downpour of rain. When the skies open up and release every single droplet of water from a supersaturated atmosphere, there is a magnificence that must be reckoned with.

You might not agree with me; but then again, unless you’ve spent nearly three years in the desert, you might not have the awe I have when rain falls. When you live in Western Colorado, in the high-dessert, you can get the clouds that look like they’ll release heavenly water, but they don’t. The clouds move on, blown by the dry winds and the grass and plants and other sensitive foliage turns browner. Or, you may casually watch a storm front dissipate before your very eyes as you watch it travel east to west, burned and dried out by the dry, dry, dry heat of the sun and air.

I love the rain. And we get some really great rain here. And last night, when the rains fell for a second time, and dinner was almost but not quite ready, I opened the front door and stepped outside. Large water droplets fell all around me, hitting the ground–liquid staccato allegro. Large water droplets broke into smaller droplets as they hit the ground, covering my feet with rain. I stretched out my arm and let the rain hit my hand, and in that moment I was struck by the renewing and cleansing and refreshing that this rain was. The earth was being watered: renewed, cleansed, and refreshed.

And I was reminded of my own renewing and cleansing and refreshing that is daily manifested in my own life as I remember that I am baptized. And not only baptized with water but also of the Spirit; by this baptism I have been grafted into the history of Jesus Christ and thus if into His history then my future is located therein where the promises of God are yes and amen and this is my present tense reality. Each raindrop seemed to carry with it sweet whispers of reminder that while I was born of the flesh at one point in time, I am born anew by the spirit and have been given eyes to see the kingdom of God and enter it, and the ears to hear the loving summons of my Savior that calls me outward toward you. Each drop, a soothing reminder that the promises spoken by God that are fulfilled in and by Christ are mine by faith. Each drop, a refreshing reminder, a new beginning that all that was and is washes from me.[1] As it is written in the second letter to the Corinthians: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ…” (2 Cor 5:17-18b).[2]

While everything around us looks hopeless, while hatred and evil stomp and tromp around leaving what feels like an infinite number of victims in its wake, while our own lives and minds are plagued by turmoil, anxiety, stress, sadness, doubt, and maybe even disbelief that God actually loves and cares for us, we have been given a tangible reminder of God’s love for us. That Jesus Christ’s free and obedient giving of himself on the cross, his being lifted up on the cross is that event to which we turn our heads.[3] As John writes, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

And every time we recall our baptism of water and spirit, we are brought to this event of Christ being lifted up to die for our sins and to be raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). We are brought to the fulfillment of God’s promises that are yes and amen in Christ Jesus. We are brought to the heart of God’s love for us, you are brought to the heart of God’s love for you, for each and every one of you.

Rain, rain everywhere, and in every drop a thirst quenching drink: “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16).

 

[1] Karl Barth CD IV/2 p. 563 “…in relation to everything that [I] previously was or otherwise [am] it is a new beginning newly posited by God.”

[2] This particular portion of the sermon is me playing around with the insights and scholarship of W. Travis McMaken as found in “Definitive, Defective or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4” IJST vol 17.1 Jan. 2015. pp. 102-114.

[3] Karl Barth CD IV/1 p. 166

Frankenstein’s Requiem: A Sermon on Romans 6:1-11

Introduction

I’d like to open with a quote from one of my favorite theologians, Eberhard Jüngle,

“That Jesus Christ was made sin for us by God means that the destruere et in nihilum redigere [to destroy/demolish/tear down and to reduce/drive back/render into nothing/ness] which is enacted in and with our sin is revealed in Jesus Christ, as he and he alone dies the accursed death which we live. Jesus’ death on the cross is grace, since it reveals that in the midst of life we are in death. He makes manifest the nothingness which the sinner celebrates under the illusory appearance of being. Or at least Jesus’ death on the cross reveals this when we allow it to speak for itself (that is, according to the law).” Eberhard Jüngel[1]

The best way for me to explain what Jüngel is saying is: apart from Christ we are the walking dead. I think Paul in Romans 6:1-11 is saying something similar (and lucky you, that’s the passage we’ll be looking at this morning). St. Paul writes, “Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, in this manner we also might walk in newness of life” (v.4; translation mine). If we are in Christ as the living, walking in the newness of life, then apart from Christ we are the dead, but yet we move and exist in this state, thus, we’re the walking dead. Yes, we’re essentially zombies apart from Christ.

Let me quote Jüngel once more here,

“For part of human actuality is our striving to realize ourselves and thus to determine our own being through our own achievements. Expressed in biblical terms, the whole of our life-context is qualified by the reality of sin, which does not just simply make the human person bad—that would be the moralistic understanding of sin!—but rather which exposes human persons to the illusion that they can make themselves good.”[2]

While I think the image of zombies is a good one, I have to confess: I think our state apart from Christ, apart from the event of justification is actually far worse than merely a zombie existence. It’s a sham existence. Let’s be clear, in no way shape or form are zombies giving any thought about making themselves good, and they are certainly not trying to strive to realize themselves through their own achievements. They are the dead, the barely animated, they just act from a primal, base, neurological response from the bottom of the brain-stem.

We, on the other hand, are worse off because we are actively trying to self-realize (striving to do so), to make ourselves good. A better image maybe be: we’re hack humans, random parts thrown and sewn together, products of the scientist Frankenstein gone mad who is locked in our minds, who is each of us. Apart from Christ and on our own, we stumble about, alone, turned inward, bent on our own justification.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)

Paul begins chapter 6 in the book of Romans by asking a question, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v.1b). In other words, should we desire to do evil in a way that causes grace to abound? And before anyone gets the chance to reply, Paul answers his own question, “By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (v.2). Very literally, the Greek here means: hell no; absolutely, positively not; in no way shape or form is this a plausible thought; never, ever, ever think this.

Paul has such a strong response to the question, because, as Martin Luther writes, “…this idea [desiring to do evil to make grace abound] is absolutely contrary to the work of grace”.[3] God’s grace given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit by faith (also a gift) doesn’t manifest itself in our lives as that which desires to do evil; rather its presence brings about the opposite. For Paul, that which participates in the realm of death has no business meddling in the realm of life.[4] And if we’re taking the Easter story seriously, which I believe we should, then those of us who are Christ’s own by faith and who have received God’s grace are the resurrected thus the living and the living aren’t dead.

It’s simple logic, but let it sit in.

Not only does Paul give a fixed “Ah, hell no!” to his question, he furthers the intensity of his response with a “how”, a “how” that is a densely packed argument that illuminates that the train of thought—that we should continue in desiring to do evil in order for grace to abound—doesn’t have an engine. Paul’s argument: that thing that you’ve died to and have been resurrected from you can never go back to because your resurrection in Christ has defeated it, returning is an impossibility.

Also, nothing we do makes grace abound; we weren’t the ones who caused it or brought it in the first place. Grace, divine grace, is strictly divine territory. When it comes to making grace abound, He got this.

But before I move on, I want to add that Paul isn’t arguing that now as Christians we are never sinning or are without sin, that would be a lie (1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”). “We,” according to St. Augustine, “…are in sin until the end of our life…‘Until our body is raised to life and death is swallowed up in victory, our evil desires will afflict us’.”[5] There is always the war that wages between that which we desire to do (the good) and that which we do do (the evil). The brilliant aspect of the divine deposit of faith and the Holy Spirit lies in the shift in our desires; in Christ, we now desire to do the good although we still do evil. Paul will drive this point home (in a number of places) but specifically in the very next chapter in the book of Romans, chapter 7, when he writes,

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. retched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv.15, 21-24).

Jesus himself says, “‘…the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’” (Mt 26:41b; also, Mk 14:38b). The desire to do good should not be brushed off, counted as nothing, for here in this desire of the spirit to do good by the Spirit is where good works are born.

And we can have assurance of this spiritual deposit because, as Paul says vv.3-4, returning to our text in Romans 6,

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Luther writes, “…the threefold dipping of Baptism signifies the three-day death period and the burial of Christ, into Christ Jesus, that is, by faith in Christ Jesus, were baptized into His death, that is through the merit and power of his death”.[6] This is why baptism is tantamount for Luther, this is why throughout his life he returns to his baptism (recalls it) in times of trial because in this simple act, what seems like a simple act, is the outward sign of an inward reality: we have died with Christ and in dying with Christ we are raised with Him; as He dies we die, and as he lives we live. In baptism, in this death,

“is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is released and separated from sin and the body is separated form corruption and through grace and glory is joined to the living God.…For to this kind of death alone belong in an absolute and perfect way the conditions of death, and in this death alone whatever dies perishes totally and into eternal nothingness, and nothing will ever return from this death because it truly dies an eternal death. This is the way sin dies; and likewise the sinner, when he is justified, because sin will not return again for all eternity, as the apostle says here, ‘Christ will never die again’”[7]

This is Luther’s way of explaining the “destruere et in nihilum redigere” mentioned by Jüngle at the beginning of the sermon. What occurs in our baptism, what occurs by faith, what occurs by Christ’s advent and death and resurrection is the destruction, the demolishing, the tearing down and the reducing and driving back and rendering to nothing/nothingness all that belongs to the realm of death. All of our suffering, grief, sorrow, pain, fear, sin, condemnation, and death itself receives the divine verdict: no, no more. And over that verdict, in a louder voice do we receive our divine verdict: yes. In this yes to us and no to death we lose our (old) lives and thus receive our (new) lives, we find our lives in Christ by faith “‘and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).

So, Paul Continues…

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:5-8)

Through what Christ has done for us, by his advent and death and resurrection (and ascension) and our encounter with the living God, by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we escape death, and, to quote Luther again, this “…means to enter into a life which is without death.”[8] Though our body dies, for now, we live as those who walk in the newness of life because that which has been sentenced to death–not us–is dead (for good) because it has not been raised–like we are. We have been “spiritually” planted “with Him who was planted bodily” by a death like his which is signified by baptism.[9]

We’ve not been sentenced to death in Christ, but to life: we’ve been given life, and life abundant not only in the future, but, more importantly, in the here and now.[10] Because, our old selves have been “crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6); thus, we are no longer slaves to sin in that our old selves and the sinful nature no longer have dominion over us.

By the grace of God, we are free, in the truest sense of the word: free, liberated, loosed from that which has bound us, healed (albeit imperfectly now) of the “extremely deep infection of this inherited weakness and original poison, by which a man seeks his own advantage even in God Himself.”[11] By the grace of God, we are united together with Christ in his death and thus in his resurrection and life, and we are free from sin and its accompanying threats and condemnation. (vv.7-8).

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:9-11).

Now that death has no dominion over Christ (he will never die again), death ought not and does not have dominion over us.[12] According to Luther, “[Christ] is our life, and through faith He flows into us and remains in us by the rays of His grace. Therefore, just as Christ is eternal, so also the grace which flows out of Him is from His eternal nature.”[13] And this is what it means to be justified by faith apart from works: our eternal reception of God’s eternal grace.[14] The event of justification, that word of absolution heard (perpetually) by the hearer, parts space (like God did through Moses parting the sea) and stills time (like Jesus did the tumultuous stormy waves with one word) and the hearer is reborn (created out of nothing) into the present by the word of promise and sustained therein by the words of promise.

The past can no longer condemn you and your future is secured, rooted in the one that defeated future’s condemnation which is death. And this gift of the present, new life, and the word of promise by faith in Christ is given to you every day; this is what is actually given to you daily and, once for all (v.10); it will never be taken away from you (cf. Lk 10:38-42). “Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me” writes the Psalmist (Psalm 69:18). And God has answered us; God in Christ has answered us once and for all.

Having the entirety of what Christ offers to us by his life, death, and resurrection by faith alone, we walk in the newness of life. And this newness of life is not particularly simply and merely for us ourselves alone. Justification unifies with others, with our neighbor—my justification doesn’t occur in a vacuum, isolated from other people. This unifying event of justification with our neighbor means that not only are we united to Christ but we are also no longer on our own, stumbling about, alone, turned inward, bent on our own justification. Justification is a social event, the tie that binds me and you to each other in an intimate way. Make no mistake, this is the vital and manifested aspect of walking in the newness of life.

Correspondingly, just as Jesus suffered as His people were being persecuted by Saul (Acts 9), so to do we suffer when our neighbor suffers. In that we are bound to our neighbor in the event of justification, their pain is our pain, their oppression our oppression, their injustice our injustice. “From now on…regard no one according to the flesh…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:16-17).  Not only is our relationship with God under a new heading, reconciled, so is our relationship with others. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not merely just for me, but for you and thus for me and for us and between us.

Being a new creation—remade by the work of God alone by faith alone—and walking in the newness of life means not only that which is of death has been sentenced to death and that which is of life shall live, but also that we have been given new eyes, new ears, a new heart, and new words to speak. In other words, to be a new creation walking in this gift of the newness of life is to have a radical and altered perspective that is rooted in the spirit and not in the flesh. There is (now) a radical discontinuity between who we were outside of Christ and who we are in Christ. When we used to see/think of only ourselves, we now see/think of/act and fight on behalf of others.

We are now no longer monstrous creations of the scientist Frankenstein. We are not thrown and sewn together, brought to life by the happenstance of nature’s electrical current. We are beautifully and wondrously remade by the intentional and consistent and life-giving word of God in Christ Jesus. We are, in every sense of the words, new creatures. Because, in light of being reconciled to God and our neighbor through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in light of the things of death (our old selves) being sentenced to death we have received our lives, our very new selves marked not by condemnation and slavery to sin but by divine grace and freedom and union with Christ and our neighbor.

And with this reality our voices can join with Jeremiah’s, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of the evildoers” (20:13).

[1] “The World as Possibility and Actuality: The Ontology of the Doctrine of Justification” Theological Essays. Translated by J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. (108)

[2] “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. (231)

[3] Luther’s Works: Lectures on Romans, vol 25 Hilton C. Oswald ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1972. 50.

[4] Ibid, 50.

[5] Ibid, Augustine qtd in Luther 308-9.

[6] Ibid 50.

[7] Ibid 310

[8] Ibid 311

[9] Ibid 51

[10] Luther “…that is, in resemblance of His death, because we have been buried into a mystical death” thus, “we shall certainly be raised, to a spiritual resemblance with Him, in a resurrection like His, that is, we shall become like it” (51)

[11] Ibid 313

[12] Ibid 52

[13] Ibid 315

[14] Ibid “…this expression ‘once for all’ (semel) does not determine the number of acts of repentance, but rather it is a commendation of the eternal nature of grace, and it denies the possibility of some other kind of righteousness, so that the meaning is that whoever has been baptized o has repented has already so escaped sin and acquired righteousness that never again for eternity is it necessary to escape sin or to acquire another righteousness. But this single and only righteousness is sufficient forever” (315-6).

Not So For You: A Mother’s Day Post.

“To bring children into the world and slowly to birth one’s death and to accept it rather than to get it over with, quickly and if possible without awareness of it–as our shabbiest fantasies would have it–are acts of participation in creation. They refuse to fall in love with the alien reality of money and violence that has laid hold of life. The pain of birth encourages and convinces us of life. Just as a piece of bread can convince us of God, so this pain is a sacrament, a sign of God’s presence. How could we ever have lost it?” – Dorothee Sölle – Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian

 

During a conversation about summer break awhile back, my second son casually offered, “Well, mommy’s always on summer break.” The statement was like a needle scratching across a record; the party went silent. My eldest son sat up straight and gave his brother the look of, “Dude, you’re on your own now…” as he scooted down the bench at our dinner table, creating a healthy distance for/from the wrath he expected to land in his brother’s lap. My husband was in the kitchen slicing something; the slicing stopped as his eyes–filled with what I would call a healthy (and proper) dose of panic–darted from my second son to me, back to my second son, back to me. The toddler babbled about something; she saw the whole thing as an opportunity to shove the remainder of her dinner on to the floor… “oooops…fressert pweeze?”… <<giggle>>.

 

The one who uttered the statement looked around; everything about the tension in the air told him he’d just said something wrong. Very wrong. He realized it. His head slowly turned, and his blue eyes slowly met mine.  I was calm–let’s be more honest about that–I was as calm as I could be on the outside. In a cool and very controlled tone–the tone that my children know as the tone of sit-still-say-nothing-nod-amply–“Summer break?…Really?” I asked him. He nodded. I knew why he’d assumed that and even why he said it…out loud. “Just because I don’t leave to go to a job or go to work, doesn’t mean I’m not working at a job. If you really want the truth, Mommy doesn’t get summer break and she barely gets a vacation. Not even my sleep is mine. Mommies are at work every hour of every day, every day of every week, every week of ever year… Summer break?” I chuckled, and shook my head slightly. I poked around my dinner plate with my fork. “Not even close, buddy.”

 

No this isn’t a post about the unsung heroism of the stay-at-home-mother’s work day. Though, these works should be praised. The myriad of things I do every day from the hours of 4am to 9pm (when I practically fall into bed) to keep this house running, to keep #TheLarkinThree alive, and to maintain the barely existing heartbeat of my own professional work is worthy of applause. But I don’t want applause. I hate applause. (Anyone who knows me well enough knows just how much I hate applause and praise.) So, I’m not writing to be told I’m doing a good job or to be told that being a stay-at-home-mom is a noble choice…if I hear that one more time when I meet someone from my husband’s office, I’ll lose it.

 

I told the story above because what dawned on me (much, much later) is that if my son thinks I’m always on summer break, then maybe I’m doing my job right and well.  That he doesn’t see me as working hard or that I’m always burdened by them, is indicative of a daily aspect of motherhood most don’t see in operation until death.

 

You can look upon my body and see the scars of having become a mother. From the moment a plastic stick tells me I’m “with child” my body starts to change.* My brain chemistry will alter (forever); I’ll be hardwired from here on out to put an other before myself. When he cries, I’ll come. When he stumbles and falls, I’ll scoop him up. When he’s troubled, I’ll comfort. When he runs away, I’ll run after. During pregnancy my body will betray me. My own body will choose him over me. My nutrients course through my body first to him and whatever is left, I’ll get. My mind and my body sacrifice me for his life; way before holding him in my arms, I’ll go through a multitude of deaths to bring forth life.

 

Not least of which is laboring to deliver. In labor I am confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And I’ll confront death alone. No one takes my hand and guides me through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; I will come close to and growl at death, bring it, Death! I’ll stare it down. My life for his! I’ll cry. And I’ll bear the wound of this battle in my physical body.  (Wounds that will later allow men to judge me as unattractive and unappealing, judgments I’ll absorb and utter against myself as I look over my body reflected back to me by the bathroom mirror).

 

I could bring up the continued wounding of my physical body–how my breasts are now oddly shaped because of years of nursing, expanding and contracting; how my weight fluctuates depending on the time I have to take care of myself; how the nutritional values of my meals is skimpy because I’m gleaning from left overs remaining on little plates by little people. But the reality is that it’s not merely my physical body that incurs the wound, pain, and suffering, of being a mom. As I said, you can look upon my  body and see the scars and disfiguring of being a mom, but there’s more you can’t see unless you not just look but also listen.  For the suffering and pain of being a mom isn’t merely restricted to my body, but also to my mind and my soul. My body–inside and out–is continually broken for these children of mine.**

 

“The real question the pain of birth gives us would be how we might come to understand pain as birthing pain, labor pain as doors opening, groaning as ‘the onset of the glory of the freedom of God’s children.’ How do we approach our pains so that they do not torment us like pointless kidney stones, but, as pains of labor, prepare the new being?…We need a different theology of pain that finally feminizes the questions and relates our pain to the pain of God. The question then will be: How does our pain become the pain of God? How do we become part of the messianic pain of liberation, part of the groaning of a creation that is in travail. How do we come to suffer so that our suffering becomes the pain of birth?” – Sölle***

 

But there’s more beyond the inner and outer breaking of my body. There is something you can’t see or hear, because this war that wages is one that is mine alone. This battle is between me and the age that has come before me on behalf of the age to come. And it wages everyday I walk the earth; it’s the battle I’ll take with me into the grave. (And, truly, if I fight well, you’ll rarely see the effects or feel the impact of this war.) It’s more than just a my-life-for-his: it’s: his-life-will-be-free. Free from all of the generational shit that has been repeatedly passed down over and over and over again. Free from pain and suffering that should’ve never have happened…ever. Free from anxiety, stress, fear where there should’ve been peace, tranquility, and comfort. The battle is one that is not about a body breaking but the very opposite; it’s about a body strong, resilient, being a stronghold in the time of disaster. Like a dam holding back tons of water threatening to wash out and drown what lives peacefully in its shadow and protection, my body will hold back what has come crashing into it from the repetition of history to protect those who live and depend on my protection. Everyday I will awake and make intentional choices, decisions, and actions that repeat my motherhood-mantra: it will not be so for you. And, this shit ends with me; I’ll wrestle it into the grave it so deserves. Everyday, I will utter the divine “no more” that has infiltrated my language because of my encounter with Christ who defined love as suffering, love as a body broken, love as freedom where there was oppression, love as comfort where there was fear, love as tender embrace where there was abuse, love as acceptance where there was rejection, love as new life as a gift to us out of/because of Christ’s death and resurrection.

 

 

 

 

*In rather imperfect terms (needing some renovating and updating) I’ve written more about the process of death to life as it relates to the very beginning of motherhood here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/08/12/death-to-life-in-fertility-to-birth/

 

**I’ve written here about the inner body breaking: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/06/22/my-body-broken/

 

***Thank you to David W. Congdon who supplied me with the quotations from Dorothee Sölle.  You can follow him on twitter @dwcongdon; I’d recommend it. 🙂