Love + Action = Freedom

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Galatians 5:1,13-25

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

(Gal 5: 1, 13-15)

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Dorothee Sölle writes,

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

Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Translation mine, unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

Our Stories This Story: The Old

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here, (“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here.

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

Psalm 126: 5-7 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Introduction

“I have enough years under my belt to feel the conflict of knowing what I’m doing and not knowing what I’m doing. Or maybe I should say: I’m old enough to know I once thought I knew what I was doing. Now, I’m not so sure I did. I wish I had done some things differently, maybe thought a bit longer about certain things? I don’t know. Age has its benefits, hindsight is 20/20, and my body really hurts. … Yes, I’ve seen humanity get through war and violence; I’ve seen social unrest sooth; I think I’ve even seen progress made through struggle and fight, but now I don’t know…did I imagine it? Gosh, my heart breaks for the younger generations; I feel their pain so deeply. I wish I could share hope, but I don’t know if they’d listen, or if they even want to hear from me… Sometimes I feel like they just don’t have a use for me or for my stories or my experience and learned wisdom…I just feel pointless, shuffled off to the side, in the way, my fire and flame are gone, I’m burnt out.”[1]

We’ve become a people who passes on utility rather than story.

We do not treat our older generation as well as we should. It seems our society has decided that if you can’t work, you aren’t worth anything. If you can’t participate in productive society, pull your weight, carry your load, bear your burden (physically), then you aren’t worth anything to the group. So, off you go! The voices of experience pushed to the fringe, just like slower drivers get pushed to the side. If you can’t keep up, get off the road! In a fast paced, strong-only, autonomous society, where does our older generation find its place?

In the telling of their stories.

But we’re a society that’s sacrificed our storied nature to unhealthy relationships with toil, to forced isolation of the middle age of parenting, to silencing the youth. We’ve grown so backwards in our relationships that we have forgotten how to allow ourselves the time to sit at the feet of those wiser and more storied than we are. We’re so separated from one another—generationally speaking—that we fight against each other rather than listen, criticize each other rather than see the likeness, blame each other rather than receive.

And yet…the irony. We’re genetically constructed material stories of generations long, long past. The way our face is shaped, the color of our hair, the sway of our walk, the way you kick your leg when it’s crossed over the other one, that look he gives when he’s appalled, the way they say that word…it’s all passed down; potentially decades and centuries of mannerisms and genetics and traits passed down and we—each of us—are that miraculous material story. And here we are disregarding the story-tellers…

In priding ourselves in our strength, ability, productivity, and usefulness we’ve lost sight of the necessity of the guidance and hindsight of those who have walked this earth longer than we have. When we focus so much on the accolades of our utility, we won’t have time for the story-tellers because doing is better than listening; activity is better than passivity; to be able is better than to be unable; to give is better than to receive. But this mindset creates a sick and malnourished people, trapped in the hubris of the façade of our various strengths and autonomy, caught in the hierarchy of doing and abledness that perpetuates the fear that when I can’t any longer, I’m pointless.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone thinks to have another confidence with respect to the flesh, I [have] more. Circumcision on the 8th day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, according to the law, a Pharisee, according to zeal a persecutor of the congregation, according to righteousness which came by the law, blameless. But whatever gain it was to me, these things I consider loss through Christ. But more than that, I consider all things to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, through whom all things I have lost, and I consider refuse so that I might gain Christ and I might be found in him…

Phil. 3:4b-9a

When it comes to a contest of perfection, Paul knows exactly where he’d fall: the top of the heap, lead dog of the pack, the honcho of honchos. Make no mistake, Paul was exactly what he claimed to be: excellent, according to law and status. He had and was all that his society esteemed as excellent, good, right, the “who” of “who’s”. While we may want to cast stones at him for bragging too much; let’s hold off for a moment. Rather, let’s see what he’s saying in this context to this audience, the Philippians.

Paul had everything; this is his confession first and foremost. Hey, Philippians, I was the cream of the crop! But he doesn’t stop there because it doesn’t mean anything to Paul now… But now, he counters, I count it all—every accolade, every achievement, every accomplishment, every status—as dung. In a world where status, strength, doing, and achieving are everything, Paul calls BS (and yes, that word “refuse” or “dung” can also be translated in a more vivid way…). In other words, for Paul, all of that emphasis on doing and achieving, being able and strong, top and best, perfect in the eyes of others and according to human made structures, means absolutely, positively nothing. It’s garbage. It’s refuse. It’s dung. It’s… whatever word you want there.

Paul desires not to be known by what he can do; rather Paul wants to be known by what Christ has done. Paul desires not to be known by his achievements, doing, and abledness, but by this crazy story of God incarnate loving humanity and the cosmos so much that God would not only take on flesh, but would also suffer on the hard wood of the cross—an instrument of death of the state—judged as the least and lowest of society, unworthy of life and liberty…worthy only of death. This is the story Paul wants decorating the hallways and aisles of his mind and body, of his history and future. Paul opts for this story as the thing to pass on; not his accolades and achievements. He desires to pass on his weakness and not his strength.

Conclusion

We need to do better by our story tellers. As Christians, we’ve no excuse in giving preference to the capable able-bodied, the strong doers, the decorated achievers. I’m not saying that we now treat those who can poorly; rather, we must treat all of us with the same dignity and equality, the same love and reverence, the same importance and need as we treat those who are able to carry their own.

Dr. Dorothee Sölle in her book, Suffering, argues for an understanding of Christianity highlighting this errant dichotomy between those who can and those who cannot. She articulates that Christianity isn’t for the abled, but for the unabled.

“Christianity exists for slaves. It is the religion of the oppressed, of those marked by affliction. It concerns itself with needs. People are pronounced blessed not because of their achievements or their behavior, but with regard to their needs. Blessed are the poor, the suffering, the persecuted, the hungry…I am not referring to the religion of slavery which perpetuates slavery, but rather to the religion of those unfortunate for a time to time to whom life is promised. Their suffering, their rights, their truth are expressed.”[2]

Dorothee Sölle “Suffering” 159-160

Blessed are the weak, blessed are those who receive, blessed are those who can’t any longerBlessed are those whose bodies hurt, whose eyes have seen, whose hands have done, and whose stories hold deep and profound truth, wisdom, and hope.  

No life is more valuable than another based on placement in time; no body is more valuable than another based on what it can and cannot do; no one is more valuable than another based on strength and accolades. If we want a human society worthy of the declaration “truly human” we must make more room for our story-tellers; we are nothing without them. They, holding hands with the youth, form the basis of hope and possibility for those of us caught in the middle. 

The story we have been given, the one we are walking through right now affirms the nobility, dignity, and beauty of bodies and lives and people, of flora and fauna, of creation and cosmos. Christ came to give life to those who were deprived of it. Christ came to liberate the captives. Christ came to unburden the burdened. Christ came to give humanity a better story than the one they’d written for themselves and deemed good. Christ came to give them a story that is very good. Christ came to give us—all of us—a story that brings each of us, no matter where we are on our journey, life…life abundant.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Sölle Suffering 159-160; see also pages 161-162, specifically, “It is in fact the religion of those who have been disinherited and condemned by life. Contrary to all vitalism and all worship of the healthy and strong, Christianity sees life better preserved by those who have already died once. God ‘will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick’ (Isa. 42:3, NEB)—contrary to all principles of selection.” See also Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s text, Our God Loves Justice, p. 176, quoting Helmut Gollwitzer, “The goal of the disciples’ service is a society that gives equality to their unequally endowed members and gives each member the chance for a full unfolding of life: where the strong help the weak, where production stands in the service of all, where the social product is not siphoned off by privileged minority so that only the modest remainder is at the disposal of the others, a society that ensures appropriate regulation of freedom and of social co-determination for all, the development of social life for the common task and for rich purpose in life for all members of society.”

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 6: “Solidarity”

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

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

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

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

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

Page 89

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

page 91

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

Page 95

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

Pages 98-99

In Rags and Wood

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sign of the Gospel”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 303 ft. W. Travis McMaken

If you’ve ever wanted to know all things Baptism, I’ve got you covered. In this episode (and the next one), Dr. W. Travis McMaken joins me to talk about his book The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. I have to be honest and point out up front that this episode is (in my opinion) a bit different than my other episodes. It’s less casual and more formal due to the structure and flow of the questions I asked Dr. McMaken ahead of time. So, there’s a strong pedagogical feel to the episode. McMaken does the lion’s share of walking through the history of Baptism, from the early church to the Reformation, and, finally, landing squarely at the feet of one of the greats of the early to mid 20th century: Karl Barth. Thanks to McMaken’s depth of knowledge and experience as a professor, this episode is an excellent exposure to sacraments, sacramental theology, church history, and the implications our church life has for our political life. Understanding some of the traditions of Christianity can help us to revisit and review those traditions in a new light: baptism is exceptionally political. Those who say otherwise are pulling the wool over your eyes, keeping you from good activity on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized (maybe even from good work on behalf of yourself).

So, if you thought that Baptism is just that thing that happens at church where you watch and then go eat cake, you’d be a wee bit right but way more wrong. It’s the event of Baptism especially where Jesus Christ is preached, that moves not only the baptizand but also those who stand around the baptismal font (family, God-parents, fellow parishioners, etc) into their active role in the world. Baptism isn’t just about a few sprinkles of water (or about whether or not it should be “full immersion”), but about activating the person through the event of faith in the encounter with God to love their neighbor as themselves in the world. Baptism transcends the four walls of the church and the reception hall (housing that cake). The gathered community becomes the sent community; the church body gathered to hear Christ preached, who witness baptism (over and over again, because it’s not a singular historic event but one that repeats in the encounter with God in the event of faith) becomes the body of Christ in the world, thus, participating in the breakdown between the distinction between church and world. The work of the baptized, of those who have encountered God in the event of faith, become those whose actions, in the proclamation of Christ, become as divine action, especially as it pertains to radical acts of loving others materially, economically, politically, socially, with justice, peace, humility, and grace. There’s so much packed in this interview, that I’m breaking it into two parts—I really did not want to cut too much; when it comes to pedagogy, Dr. McMaken is excellent.

The episode will air in two parts. The second part will go live in two weeks (the link for that part will appear below the link for the first part in this post).

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

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W. Travis McMaken (@WTravisMcMaken), PhD, is Associate Professor of Religion and Assistant Dean of Humanities in the School of Humanities at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. He is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). McMaken’s writing engages primarily with 20th century theology (esp. Protestant theology, with specialization in Karl Barth, Helmut Gollwitzer, and T. F. Torrance) while working constructively on the subjects of sacramentology, ecclesiology, and political theology. His blog is: http://derevth.blogspot.com/. Also, you can find his work here at Lindenwood University:  https://www.lindenwood.edu/academics/academic-schools/school-of-humanities/our-programs/philosophy-and-religion/philosophy-and-religion-faculty/w-travis-mcmaken/

Recommended reading:

Susan K. Wood’s One Baptism: Ecumenical Dimensions of the Doctrine of Baptism (Liturgical Press, 2009).

Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology (Fortress, 1988).

Recommended reading authored by Dr. W. Travis McMaken:

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013). 

W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017).

“So, You Want to Read Karl Barth?” http://derevth.blogspot.com/2007/06/so-you-want-to-read-karl-barth.html

“So, You Want to Read Helmut Gollwitzer?”  http://derevth.blogspot.com/2018/03/so-you-want-to-read-helmut-gollwitzer.html

McMaken’s Recording Mediums:

Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-zJjJ64hu-f1OGp1fq43ZQ

McKrakenCast: https://wtravismcmaken.podbean.com/

“Our God Loves Justice”

Sancta Colloquia episode 109 ft. Sabrina Peters (Talkin’ “Our God Loves Justice” by Dr. W. Travis McMaken)

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I had the honor and privilege of sitting down and chatting with a friend from Twitter, Sabrina Peters (@sdrp_). I’ve always really enjoyed the content Sabrina produces both through her tweets as well as one her blog (listed below). She’s very insightful and completely human: she loves and lives in a way that is authentic (she isn’t virtue posing, this woman gives a damn about you and your life). So, when Sabrina posted a book review about Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s most recent book, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (#OGLJ), I couldn’t help but notice and want to talk to her about it. There are two reasons: McMaken’s book is one of my favorites (as I express in the show), and I knew that Sabrina would have an embodied response to the work and the implications of Helmut Gollwitzer’s Political Theology and Theological Politics. My conversation with Sabrina about this book proved me right: Sabrina is postured in the world toward others as her theology demands her to be: fighting against oppressive systems and finding ways to dismantle the kyriarchy.* For Sabrina, the Gospel is not a tool of oppression as it is all too often used. Objectivist Neo-Capitalism has infiltrated gospel proclamation, and what we have is, as Sabrina makes mention, a disembodied message (ironic since the Word of God is also the incarnate Christ, Jesus of Nazareth) that is only a saccharine word of numbing “comfort” for a very small group of people: those who are elite and privileged. (In other words, you aren’t actually getting comfort in this proclamation; you’re being lulled to sleep in the midst of your pain and the pain others.) Sabrina makes it clear that the word of God, when we are encountered by it in the event of faith, brings a bit of crisis and crisis brings embodiment. When you are under exposure you become very aware of your body (flesh and blood). And as this crisis plays out with the encounter with God in the proclamation of the Gospel it isn’t just a crisis that ends with exposure unto death but one that ends in life, new embodied life. To think this event only involves some sort of soothed conscience so that you can just continue to live in a disembodied way is a lie: the creative word of God in the proclamation of Christ Crucified is a word that reconstitutes the entire person (mind, soul, heart, and body). The mind and the body matter. Freedom and rest are not freedom and rest if you merely think you are; freedom and rest are truly freedom and rest when you are free and at rest. I was honored to have Sabrina on the show and I believe you’ll agree with me that she doesn’t pretend to be smart, she’s hella smart and insightful.

*Kyriarchy: Sabrina explains it as anything that maintains systems of power and oppression like Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia to name a few

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).

Sabrina reads lots of books (mostly comics and theology books lately), drinks lots of tea, pretends to be smart on Twitter, and ponder how to destroy the kyriarchy. She lives in the passive-aggressive, beautiful Seattle, with her spouse and his mostly clever, somewhat corny jokes. She currently serves as a Eucharistic minister at a local Episcopal church, and is re-exploring her vocational direction, dusting off the MDiv she earned six years ago. For the personality junkies out there, she is most likely a 5w6, and every MBTI test ever taken has been inconclusive, save for the “I” for “introvert”. Her blog is: https://sdrp.me/

The following are links to highly recommended videos/podcasts where Dr. W. Travis McMaken discusses his book Our God Loves Justice:

With Stephen Waldron (@stephen_m_w) on his podcast Theology and Socialism (@TheoSocialism) cohosted with Benjamin D. Crosby (@benjamindcrosby): https://t.co/sFA3IDWHV1

With Tripp Fuller (@trippfuller) on Homebrewed Christiantiy (@HomebrewedXnty & https://trippfuller.com/): https://trippfuller.com/2018/04/17/our-god-loves-justice-with-w-travis-mcmaken/

With Dean Dettloff (@DeanDettloff) and Matt Bernico (@spookymachines) on their podcast: The Magnificast (@themagnificast & https://themagnificast.com/): https://m.soundcloud.com/themagnificast/ep-54-our-god-loves-justice-w-w-travis-mcmaken

And this video with one of my previous guests, Liam Miller (@liammiller87), on his youtube channel (youtube.com/user/MQUT) for his blog/podcast: Love, Rinse, Repeat (@RinseRepeatPod):

Recommended Reading/Works Mentioned in the Podcast:

There’s a free study guide for Our God Loves Justice; you can read about it here on Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s blog (DET): http://derevth.blogspot.com/2018/02/free-study-guide-for-our-god-loves.html

Evangelical Theology, by Karl Barth: https://books.google.com/books/about/Evangelical_Theology.html?id=8iQgolN1WTMC

Wisdom Ways, by Elisabeth Schüller Fiorenza: https://g.co/kgs/StgzoA

Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision by Randy S. Woodley: https://books.google.com/books?id=cB5qKv72Jz0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=shalom+and+the+community+of+creation&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjI6ur8pZniAhXKs54KHa-ODUsQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=shalom%20and%20the%20community%20of%20creation&f=false

Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, by Heath Carter:  https://g.co/kgs/SnA8bR

You Can’t Get There From Here

John 6:35, 41-51 (Sermon)

“You can’t get there from here,” I said to the person sitting in their car.

“But isn’t this Pine Street?” They asked, a bit desperate.

“Yes,” I assured. “It is Pine Street. But the part of Pine Street you’re looking for isn’t connected—in any way—to this segment of Pine Street. You actually have to go down this road, take a left, go up two blocks, take a right, then you take the next life, follow that road for a few blocks, take a left, and then take your next left, then drive a few blocks, and then you’ll see the part of Pine Street you’re looking for on your right.” I finished on a very confident note.

The driver of the maroon sedan looked over his left shoulder and down a small portion of Pine Street clearly visible through his back window. “But, isn’t it just right there?” He pointed to a cluster of trees and a dead-end no more than 50 yards away. His eyes communicated his confusion and maybe even a small amount of panic. Good Lord. What dimension have I fallen into??

I turned to look in the direction he was pointing. I smiled, chuckled, and said, “Yup. It’s right there. Someone could easily throw a rock and hit that house you want to get to.” And then I turned back to look at my confused traveler. I smiled as reassuringly as I could, and said, “Welcome to Pittsburgh.” I sent him on his way and encouraged him that he’ll eventually get there, but that he’ll also probably have to stop and have this very conversation a few more times. But, hey! Isn’t life about being on a meandering journey and making many new acquaintances on the way?

Pittsburgh was notoriously hard to navigate via car. I don’t think I ever audibly uttered the sentiment, “If I just had a horse, this whole thing would be easier,” more than I did when I lived in Pittsburgh. At one point in our little-more-than-a-decade there, I was convinced that Down Town Pittsburgh itself, the actual city of Pittsburgh, had a magical force field around it. If you didn’t hit it just right, you’d bounce off it and be sent into a long and major tunnel that would drop you off somewhere else where you’d whisper while curiously looking around and out of all the angles of your windshield, “Huh, I didn’t know this was part of Pittsburgh…” Then 40 minutes later and finally having found a place to turn around (legally or illegally, desperation gets the best of all us), you’d find yourself headed back for round two, “Hold on, Kids! Mama’s breaking through this time! Children’s Museum or Bust!”

You can’t get there from here.

Jesus said to them, “I, I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me will not hunger, and the one who believes in me will not thirst at any time…And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not grumble with one another. No one is able to come to me if the father, the one who sent me, does not draw them…It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ All the ones who heard and learned from the father come to me (John 6:35, 43-45; translation mine)

The tension of the paradox embedded in this portion of our Gospel passage is palpable. Jesus explains in v. 35, “The one who comes to me will neither hunger nor will they thirst ever again…” And then Jesus adds, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws them.” This is the divine, “You can’t get there from here.” “Come to me but only if you’ve been called.” “I’m calling your name, but only if you’ve been given ears to hear me.” In this verbal moment, those who are listening to Jesus are all stuck in a maroon sedan, unable to get to the location they want to get to: satiating bread and thirst quenching water. The destination is so close and also so far away, it’s right there within reach and just beyond their grasp. These verses highlight that the people Jesus is addressing are very much in a bad way; they’re stuck. Like Nicodemus before them in John 3, “How can anyone…?”

We’re stuck, too. We spend most of our days endlessly running and running and running, and the entire time we are going absolutely nowhere. Days bleed into each other, the same thing over and over and over again, the distinction that used to be big and bold between Thursday night and Friday night has nearly vanished—weekdays and weekends are all just days. Demands come and demands are met; and again, tomorrow, those same demands will come trouncing back in to our lives, asking to be met with the same answers and actions. Day in and day out we are chained to the treadmill of life that forces us to run at a demanding pace, that causes us to slowly and surely turn in on ourselves so much that we eventually begin looking like tightly coiled springs that are made of flesh and bone.

We live in the paradox of being “alive” but also very dead at the same time. We’re stuck in an endless cycle that is death pretending to be life—we joke, “Life, am I right?” We comfort others and ourselves as we run about this rat-race with contrite phrases and some version of “misery loves company” and console ourselves into accepting that this living death as living life. But it’s not, it’s no joke, and it’s certainly no comfort. And, I ‘m not speaking of the monotony of life that I referenced a couple of weeks ago. And, I’m not speaking against various forms of self-improvement. What I’m speaking of is the striving after our own self-justification, the desperate activity we employ to make ourselves “ok” not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God; I’m speaking against our frantic and frenetic activity that is the hallmark of the sham existence that is desperately trying to stave off the reality that death (in its myriad of existential forms) comes and you’re helpless against it. No matter how much food we eat or how much water we drink, death still comes; [1] to think we can avoid death through any of our own actions is to attempt to grasp oil with the hand. This type of striving and living is a sham living, is a barely alive version of death; and it is very real. We’re the walking dead and no wonder most of us were riveted to that show for months and months—it strikes very close to home.

The worst part of what I’ve been describing is that we’re hopeless to remedy the situation of our living-deadness in and of ourselves; we’re helpless to help ourselves out of this death like living. No Zombie can unzombify itself; the walking dead have no hope apart from the quick activity of a sharp blade. No one stuck on this treadmill of life can just turn the treadmill off and take a break because this treadmill doesn’t have an on/off switch or a pause button; and it’s ill advised to just step off because that way lies either certain disfiguring injury or death. We’re stuck, very stuck unless someone trips us up and throws our incurvatus in se focus out of alignment. Anyone who comes to me will never thirst or hunger again…but the ones who come only come because the Father draws them. Apart from some miracle of radical intervention, we can’t get there from here.

‘…Not that anyone has seen the father except the one who is from God, this one has seen the father. Truly, truly I say to you, “the one who believes has eternal life.” I, I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This one who came down from heaven is the bread, in order that anyone may eat of it and not die. I, I am the living bread, the one who came down from heaven…’ (John 6:46-51a, translation mine)

We need an intervention and that intervention necessitate having our dire state exposed and revealed to us. It’s not until we get the right diagnosis that we can then get the very help we need. In our gospel passage from John, Jesus is the one who has come down from heaven to reveal to us God and to give the dry bones, the walking dead life, true life—not the living deadness we call life. Jesus is the Revealer, the one who has descends into our plight, exposes our dire situation, calls us to him, feeds us with the bread of life, quenches our thirst with living water (John 4), sends the darkness permanently fleeing with his light (John 1:5), and summons the dead to life. [2]

Deuteronomy 30 verses 11-14 we read:

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ either is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

We can’t get there from here. But the good news is God crosses the vast distance to us. The incarnate word, the word made flesh, Christ the Revealer, descends from heaven and crosses the sea to us. No matter how much we think that demand rests on our shoulders, it doesn’t. You can’t climb up into heaven and you can’t walk across water. The paradox and tension embedded in our gospel passage is real, but it is of great comfort, too. God has descended. God has come down from heaven and has entered into our world, not hovered a bit above it or dwelled about over in the sidelines, but into it, in it, in the midst of the people.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:14, 16-18).

Just a few chapters before our gospel passage we read about the “Samaritan Woman” who has trudged off to the well to fetch water under the heat of the noonday sun. There at the well, she encounters Christ who is sitting on the ground reclined against the well. Jesus the incarnate word is physically down low; the word made flesh dwells low in a Samaritan village talking to a Samaritan.

“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?…Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’” (John 4:10-15)

Descent is exactly the verbal thrust of what “incarnation” means and is. It doesn’t mean that God took on flesh and then remained out of reach; it means God was very much in reach, touchable by us as we are. It means: we might not be able to get there from here, but sure as heck God can.

Because God has come to us, because God has descended from heaven and has traversed the sea to get to humanity, to get to us, faith is now possible[3] because the author of faith, God, has come to us to create that which God desires. The static voice of the law couldn’t generate faith, only something dynamic—something living, breathing, thirst-quenching, hunger-satisfying—could generate faith. Not the commands of God but God in God’s self in Christ Jesus comes down into the world to dwell among humanity, calling humanity unto God’s self. To gaze upon Christ is to gaze upon God; [4] the great “I am” walks among the people and calls them to him thus to God; this is who is speaking, the one we desire and long for. [5]

We do not receive of some measly bread loaves and a couple of fish and wash it down with a bit of water drawn from a human made, earthy well—these items mentioned by Jesus symbolically represent that everything we desire, our deepest needs are met in God by faith.[6] In faith in Christ we receive more than what any bread or water could ever give us: we receive God, thus life.[7]

And this goes against everything that makes sense to us; in fact it’s an offense to us and to the world.[8] Jesus, the “son of Joseph and Mary”, is the Revealer, is the έγώ-είμι that walks about on the earth encountering humanity, up-ending our expectations and desires, and putting a cessation to our demands. We are stripped down of all of our false beliefs and comforting myths; not even our real hunger and our real thirst will save our hide.[9] Everything we are striving after is as if we are striving after the wind. We need the real manna[10] (cf. Ex. 16) from heaven and the waters from the real Rock (cf. Ex. 17): “…the bread [and water] of God is the Revealer who comes from heaven and gives life to the world.” What Christ reveals is that we need him.[11]

In that we are made to realize in the revelation by the Revealer, by Christ, that we do not need more bread and water, but that we need him, we find ourselves falling to our knees with empty hands outstretched and eager to partake of Christ—because Christ is the both the foundation and orientation of faith.[12] We find ourselves forfeiting our rights to ourselves and to our self-justifications and our sham existence.[13] In this moment of our desperation, in the coming-to-the-end of ourselves, and in being completely undone, we paradoxically find ourselves—in the event of faith—fully alive in this wholly other, we find ourselves fully alive in God by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.[14] When we let go of ourselves and suffer that death, we find ourselves called back to life by the voice of God in Christ.[15]

“I, I am the living bread, the one who came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live into eternity, and also the bread that I, I will give—my flesh—it is for the sake of the life of the world” (John 6:51, translation mine)

The love of God can neither be contained in heaven, nor can it be contained within God’s self alone. It’s a love that is both dynamic and active and moves and goes to the furthest recesses of the world to seek and save the beloved: you and me, the disciples way back when and all who are to come, the whole entire world. [16]

“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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) 

It is a love that descends and hovers over the surface of the waters and the land as it did way back when in Genesis (cf. Gen 1:1-5). In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, in the totality of who Christ is and what Christ did, Christ is for all of humanity.[17] And in that we have heard and seen, in that we have partaken of the living bread and living water given to us in Christ received by faith, we are sent forth in to the world moved by the Spirit who’s mission is to continue to reveal to the world this man Christ Jesus who is God and to draw all people unto God through faith in Christ.

Just as the love of God manifest in Christ Jesus was not static but dynamic, so to are we made to be dynamic and not static. We weren’t able to get there from here, but God met us. And we are to bring this encounter out and beyond the four walls of this church. We are not to be lights dwelling with other lights; we are to be lights unto and into the world, casting away darkness with the light of life. We who have been encountered by a wholly other God go forth into the world making a wholly other society.[18] As we are fed with the bread and water of Christ by faith, we go out and literally feed those who are hungry, clothe those who are naked, shelter those who are homeless, befriend those who are lonely, and reunite those who have been separated. We are drawn unto God and exhorted to live wholly different in a world that is tethered to it’s own addiction to the status-quo, controlled by the myths circulating and running amuck and oppressing people with fear, stuck in an incessant need to meet real hunger and thirst with things that never bring relief and only bring death: death to those who are starving from consuming and death to those because they are being consumed. We are left in our encounter with God without reason or excuse not to be about the business of upending injustice.

By the movement of the Spirit in our lives and because we have heard and have seen and have eaten and have tasted, we are to be humans in a world that behaves and acts rather inhuman.[19]

Borrowing from the words of Paul to the Ephesians,

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (4:31-5:2) 

Let us go forth into the world, bringing the very life and light we have received here in hearing and seeing and partaking of Christ through faith in Christ to a world that is desperately in need of life and light. Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the spirit, proclaiming to a hungry and thirsty world: We couldn’t get there from here but God has crossed the divide, God has come to us! Let us go forth in to the world proclaiming, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!” (Psalm 34:8).

[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). v.27 “This warning is again delivered against the background of Johannine ‘dualism”’ It is open for all to understand; for it is addressed, as of the living water, to man’s will for life. It brings home to man that life is not assured by human food; for such food is perishable as is the life which it gives. If man wants eternal life, he must find the food which endures. But what is this miraculous food, and where is it be found?“ p. 222

[2] Bultmann, “For here the bread of life which the Father gives by sending the Son from heaven (vv. 32f.) is the Son the Revealer. He gives (v. 27) and is (vv. 35,48,51) the bread of life, in the same way that he gives the water of life (4.10) and is the light of the (8.12), and as the Revealer gives life to the world (v. 33; cp. 10.28; 17.2)—to those, that is, who “come” to him (v. 35; cp. 3.20f.; 5.40), who believe in him (v. 35; and cp. 3.20f. with 3.18). In all of this there is no need for a sacramental act, by means of which the believer must make the life his own.” p. 219

[3] Bultmann, “On the other hand vv. 41-46 again form a closely-knit unit. The Jews’ unbelief, which finds expression in their murmuring (vv. 41f.), is traced back to its metaphysical roots: the possibility of faith is given only by God (vv. 43-46). The reference to faith here as “coming to Jesus” gives the theme of “coming” its organic place within the dialogue, and vv. 36-40 would doubtless most appropriately follow on vv. 41-46.” p. 221. And, Έγώ-είμι “…shows Jesus as the true bread of life and confronted man with the decision of faith in the form of a promise. In the second part the express theme is the possibility of faith….” p. 229

[4] Bultmann, “’In the έγώ-είμι statements Jn. 6.35, 48, 51; 8.12; 10.7, 9, 11, 14; 15.1, 5 we clearly have recognition formulae, even if in the source they were perhaps intended as presentation or qualificatory formulae. For in the context of the Gospel the έγώ is strongly stressed and it is always contrasted with false or pretended revelation (cf. 6.49-51; 10:10, 11-13; cp. also 5.43). On the other hand 11.25, and perhaps too 14.6, are probably identification formulae.” 226fn3

[5] Bultmann, “Jesus’ reply (v. 35), expressed by means of the revelatory formula, έγω είμι, says that what they are looking for is present in his person…” p. 225

[6] Bultmann, “In the promise the fulfillment of man’s desire for life is split up into the stilling of man’s hunger and the stilling of his thirst…symbolic meaning of άρτος, and the identity of the bread of life and the living water.” p. 227fn3

[7] Bultmann, “The whole paradox of the revelation is contained in this reply. Whoever wants something from him must know that he has to receive Jesus himself. Whoever approaches him with the desire for the gift of life must learn that Jesus is himself the gift he really wants. Jesus gives the bread of life in that he is the bread of life. Yet he is the bread of life surely because in his person he is nothing in himself, but is present in the service of the Father for man. Whoever wishes to receive life from him must therefore believe in him—or, as it is figuratively expressed must ‘come to him.’” p.227

[8] Bultmann, “The murmuring of the Jews (v. 41) is directed against the decisive έγώ είμι in ν. 51. The claim of revelation provokes the opposition of the world. It takes offence at the fact that the revelation encounters it in history; it is offended by the fact that the man, whose father and mother they know, claims to be the Revealer (v. 42).” P. 229

[9] Bultmann, “…God’s revelation destroys every picture which desires make of it, so that the real test of man’s desire for salvation is to believe even when God encounters him in a totally different way from that which he expected.” p. 228

[10] Bultmann, “The contrast is first made in general terms. The manna could not give life; the fathers who ate it the bread of heaven (v. 50). This is again followed in v. 51a by the word of revelation: ‘I am the one who fulfills that which is said about the bread of heaven’.” p. 229

[11] Bultmann, “V. 32 had stated that only God gives the bread of heaven, and v. 33 added that the bread of God is the Revealer; vv. 47f. now completes the argument by declaring, “I am he!” What is true in principle has become historical reality in Jesus’ person.” p. 229

[12] Bultmann, “Since hearing and learning from the Father are basically nothing other than faith, i.e., coming to Jesus, the statement is a paradox which makes clear the nature of faith. It means that only he who believes, believes; but this is to say that faith has no support outside itself; it sees what it sees only in faith….For faith is related to its object; it is a relationship to that which is believed and as such it has its own security, which can rest only in the object of faith: τον ερχόμενον πρός με ού μή εκβάλω εξω. Faith is sure of only as it seizes hold of the promises made to it.” P. 232

[13] Bultmann, “Thus the Jews with their objection do not see that the divine cannot be contrasted with the human in the confident way in which they say, ‘How can an ordinary man claim to be the Revealer!’ For this is the very absurdity which the event of revelation proclaims; and the condition of its understanding is that [humanity] should relinquish the assurance with which [humanity] believes [humanity] can pass judgement on the human and the divine as objectively determinable phenomena.” p.230

[14] Bultmann, “It is not that [one] has the possibility of a special and direct relationship to God; for this can be said only of the Revealer; any other relationship to God must be mediated by the Revealer” p. 232

[15] Bultmann, “…faith becomes possible when one abandons hold on one’s own security, and to abandon one’s security is nothing else than to let oneself be drawn by the Father….[This drawing] is not a magic process, nor is it governed by rigid laws like the laws of nature. It occurs when man abandons his own judgement and ‘hears’ and ‘learns’ from the Father, when he allows God to him. The ‘drawing’ by the Father occurs not, as it were. Behind man’s decision of faith but in it. He who comes to Jesus, however, receives the promise, ‘I will not reject him’.” pp. 231-2

[16] Karl Barth CD III.2.45.213 “…and most powerfully of all Jn. 651 Tells us that ‘the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give —a saying which finds as exact parallel in the well-known verse Jn. 316, where we read that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.’ 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, ail, the world) is His death and passion. This is the primary reference of the more general expressions which speak of His self-offering for men.”

[17] Karl Barth CD III.2.45.214 “It must not be forgotten that as the New Testament sees it man Jesus who was given up to death is identical with the Lord now living and universally visible return is for the community the sum of their future and of that of the world. He has overcome death in suffering it. He has risen again from the dead. And it is in this totality that He is ‘for men.’”

[18] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). “That is, [Gollwitzer] clarifies for us that there is no such thing as a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” pp. 166-7.

[19] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). “What is the mission of Jesus? To make men human, to make inhuman men human, brotherly, for the sake of God’s brotherliness, because in humanity and unbrotherliness is destroying all of us.” p. 21.

Blessed are the Ordinary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] France, p. 265.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, 114.

“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done”: Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

There is nothing better than good news. Wouldn’t you agree with me? Is there anyone here that would dare say: “eh, no…give me that good ol’ bad news…nothing like a good dose of bad news to make someone feel alive!” I doubt it. Good news invigorates us. Good news spreads a smile across our face and brightens our eyes. Good news results in various forms of physical celebratory habits like embracing, grasping, jumping up and down, and and a hearty #squee.

Good news can bring relief, especially if there was a possibility of bad news. Good news alleviates our fears: what could have been bad isn’t and won’t be. This type of good news is that which drops us—fast and hard—to our knees in gratitude with tears of joy, with a sincere, “Oh, thank God!” that whispers past our lips. Same, too, for the good news that springs itself upon us and breaks the long, dry season of silence and disappointment. The kind of good news that will radically recalibrate our world; good news can drag us out of the valley of despair and place us on the mountain top of joy, long suffering hope materialized.

And isn’t this what Advent is all about? Isn’t Advent about our waiting, longing, desiring, and hoping for good news? Our liturgical calendar thrusts us back into the story of the Israelites; we are caused to sit and listen and imagine and to bear that history as part of our own. We are asked to recall and remember the longing of the people of God. We are asked to recall and remember the hungry and the thirsty people of God who are waiting for their God to intervene on their behalf, who are longing for their God to hear their cries and liberate them from oppression, who are desiring to be resident with their God as his people in God’s Kingdom come, and who are hoping for alleviation of the toil, suffering, sorrow, and brokenness in the fulfillment of the one who is to come, the Messiah.

We are asked to feel the heavy weight of Isaiah’s words,

“A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’” (Is. 40:3-5)

We are asked to let our desperate hearts, our burdened minds, and our exhausted bodies cry out, “so be it!” and let our voices join in the great chorus belonging to the people of God.

We are asked to hear (again) the proclamation of the advent of God in our world in the word incarnate, the savior, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and to be encountered (again) in the event of faith.

Thus, let us hear and turn our heads to the proclamation of Mark,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1).

The gospel of Matthew begins with the who’s who of Christ’s genealogy; characters ranging from the very good to the very “colorful.” The author of Matthew begins the gospel in this way to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is of the line of David and is the long awaited messiah, Emmanuel, “God with us” (Mt 1:22ff).

The gospel of Luke begins with an account of the conception of both John the Baptist and Jesus as a pronouncement that the long awaited liberty and rescue for the captives has come, the long awaited son of God, the “savior for us” (Lk 1:69a), the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to his people, is here.

The gospel of John, being the most abstract and theologically dense of all four gospels of Christ, begins with the connection that the God who hovered over all of creation in the beginning is one and the same with the incarnate Word; the Word went forth and created as it went and the Word goes forth (now) creating as it goes, forcing away the darkness and illuminating the world (Jn 1:1-18).

Mark’s gospel starts off with the clear proclamation that there’s good news: Jesus Christ is the Son of God and with the advent of Christ in our time line so to the inauguration of the time of the reign of God with him. (The whole of the written book that is Mark’s gospel is a proclamation about Jesus Christ and his kingdom in the fullest sense of the word proclamation.)[1] Mark steps out into the streets ringing his bell and shouts: Hear, Ye! Hear, Ye! Hear ye the good news: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is come!

And be not mistaken, Mark is very much concerned with the advent of Christ and with the concurrent coming and inauguration of the kingdom of God.[2] Our author is being politically polemical in his introductory language. The Hellenistic religious use of the word ευαγγελιον («good news») had the «connection with the cult of the emperor, whose birthday, accession to power, and the like, even a forthcoming ‘royal visit’, were hailed as ευαγγελιον.»[3] The author of Mark isn’t pulling any punches. He coopts and uses intentionally political language to grab the attention of his audience. The audience being not only Christian disciples, but also roman authority.[4]

Again, place Mark and his announcement in the streets. The one who thinks he’s divine (the human emperor) isn’t; Jesus Christ is. Mark points at the human ruler and says, essentially, «Not my emperor.» And he invites his audience—the people suffering under the harsh rule and demoralized under the oppression of the powers that be—to see the distinction between the human emperor and the Christ, the true emperor. He invites them to locate themselves in the coming of the kingdom of God and to see that this new location[5] demands a confrontation with the way the regime and reign of the human emperor operate because the hearer of the good news of Jesus Christ can see them for what it is: the current regime is sham, the human emperor is naked.

For Mark (and for anyone willing to listen) there’s a new emporer in town and this emporer is the emporer who is going to tear down the current regime and reign and usher in a completely new one. The new reign and regime that comes in with Christ’s advent will not be marked by oppressive systems and structures designed to keep the low low while granting unfettered power to the powerful. It wont bear the traits of despotic rule. It won’t use the coercion and subjugation and enslavement of human beings to reduce them to mere cogs in a machine or objects to be used, abused, and left for dead. In fact the kingdom of God cannot be marked by these things because these things are antithetical to the character of God and thus to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

With the immediate reference to the announcement of John the Baptist, Mark intentionally draws the audience into the realization that Jesus Christ is truly divine, thus ousting the human emperor from his self-proclaimed divine status,

«[John] proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mk 1:7-8).[6]

This new emporer is truly divine (the true son of the true God) and thus the new reign and regime, the Kingdom of God, that Christ ushers in will have the characteristics fitting of a divine kingdom: divine restorative and transcending justice, peace that surpasses all understanding, reconciliatory mercy.[7]

With the Son of God on the throne, the kingdom of God is very much at hand and the Christian disciples are baptized into this new reign and regime, into this new emperor and his good kingdom. Thus, not only the kingdom bears these divine traits of justice, peace, and mercy, but so, too, the citizens of this new kingdom. The Disciples of Christ bear these traits by their baptism both of water and of the Holy Spirit and in their life in the world.

And if this is all true for those initial hearers of Mark’s gospel, so it is true for us who listen today. By our baptism with water and Spirit, we have been grafted into the history of Jesus Christ and thus if into His history then our present and our future is located therein where the promises of God are yes and amen and this is our present tense reality. We are reminded that the promises spoken by God that are fulfilled in and by Christ are ours by faith.[8] We are born anew by the spirit (all that was and is, is washed from us),[9] and we have been given the ears to hear the loving summons of our Savior that calls us to an encounter with God in the event of faith.

Also, if Mark’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is for us, thus, so too is his political polemic. In hearing this proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we have been given not only ears to hear the proclamation but also eyes to see that we are—in the event encounter—located squarely in the kingdom of God. And if located therein, then citizens: active, participatory citizens. Citizens who are not removed from society, but live a radical and different (and maybe even dangerous?)[10] existence in society. We are a voice for the voiceless and resist oppression; we create space for the alien and the refugee; we fight for freedom for all because if our neighbor isn’t free, then we aren’t free. Our neighbor’s pain is our pain, our neighbor’s plight our plight, our neighbor’s suffering our suffering. We are marked by the characteristics of our God: mercy, justice, and peace, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

We profess our faith in Christ, the Son of God and push forward the good rule of Christ into the entire world, this is the mission of the church, and this is church as event rejecting the status quo and defending and advocating for the defenseless.[11] We preach Christ crucified and risen. Jürgen Moltmann writes,

“Wherever Jesus is acknowledged as the Christ of God, Christian faith is to be found. Wherever this is doubted, obscured or denied, there is no longer Christian faith, and the riches of historic Christianity disappear with it. Christianity is alive as long as there are people who, as the disciples once did, profess their faith in him and, following him, spread his liberating rule in words, deeds and new fellowship.”[12]

We, today, are asked to remember the advent of the long awaited messiah of Israel, the fulfillment of all the promises of God. We are asked to hear (again) the proclamation of the advent of God in our world in the word incarnate, the savior, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ the Son of God, and to be encountered (again) in the event of faith. And we, along with Mark’s audience, are asked to participate in the kingdom of God and to be a force in the world that must be reckoned with.[13] We are asked to step out into the streets with our verbal and physical proclamation of the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come, forgiveness and reconciliation are here, and so too God’s kingdom and “liberating rule.”

[1] R. T. France The Gospel of Mark TNIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. “Mark’s book is intended, therefore to pass on the god news about Jesus. This news has been hithero the subject of primarily oral declaration (Mann therefore appropriately translates ευαγγελιον here as ‘Proclamation’), but Mark’s book is an attempt to communicate it in written form (though probably with a view to its being read orally in the congregation. Ευαγγελιον denotes the content rather than the form of the book» 52-3.

[2] Karl Barth CD IV.2.64.197-8, “Again, ‘the kingdom of coming with power’ of Mk. 9:1 could be calmly replaced by ‘the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ of the parallel Mt. 16:28. ‘The Gospel’ in the preaching of Philip in Ac. 8:12 is the kingdom of God, and (the και is surely to be understood epexegetically in all the passages) the name of Jesus Christ. According to the last verse of Acts (28:31), Paul preached ‘the kingdom of God,’ and taught ‘those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.’ According to the great voice from heaven in Rev. 12:10, the βασιλεια of God and εξουσια are given to His Christ. The references to the kingdom and to Christ are obviously to be understood in the light of each other in all these passages.”

[3] Ibid 52.

[4] Lauren Ellis. Final Paper on the Gospel of Mark, “There is a two sided approach to addressing who was reading (or who needed to read) Mark’s Gospel. The first audience to consider is Christians who were enduring suffering—they can read about suffering in context and see a meaning for their suffering. A second audience is the people in Authority in the empire. Christians are not what Tacitus and Nero thought they were; thus, if the Empire takes Christianity seriously, they will not only see the truth but also see that Christianity would help to make the world better. The modern reader can see the two fold apologetic aspect of the Gospel.”

[5] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: Fortress 2017. “As Ulrich Dannermann and Matthias Weissinger put it, ‘social analysis and social criticism are a theme of theology work. Theology can only adequately speak to the real world, to real people, when it tries to plot society…on the horizon of the coming kingdom of God’” 92-3.

[6] Karl Barth CD IV.4.56, “The different aspects of the event which according to this preaching is directly imminent are as follows. According to Mt. 3:2 what is at hand and at the doors, can take place any moment, is the βασιλεια των οθρανων, the establishment on earth of the divine dominion already set up in heaven. What breaks in is also God’s penetrating and divisive judgment. (…) Just as distinctively as the kingdom, no less majestically than the threatening judgment, there also comes in and with the judgment something very different, namely, remission, the legally effective taking away and setting aside of the sins of Israel, which are not overlooked or taken lightly, but which are brought under the grace of God (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 1:77; 3:8).”

[7] McMaken, Our God Loves Justice, 89-91.

[8] 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.

[9] Karl Barth CD IV.2.563 “…in relation to everything that [I] previously was or otherwise [am] it is a new beginning newly posited by God.”

[10] McMaken Our God Loves Justice. 149-151. Specifically, referring to Gollwitzer, “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 dangers church because a church that is not dangerous I no help at all” 150-1.

[11] McMaken Ibid, 16. “Just as God cannot legitimately be objectified, so also the church cannot legitimately by objectified. The true being of the church occurs as it responds in faithful obedience to its encounter with God’s though-objectivity, which necessarily includes renunciation of its privilege and political advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.”

[12] Moltmann The Crucified God New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1974. 82.

[13] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “The kingdom of God is the ‘revolutionary, eschatological, and social determination of the present’; it is ‘the revolution of all revolutions, that is, the eschatological revolution’” 118.