Divine Love Song

Luke 1:46-55 (Homily)

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1)

 

Music moves and keeps me. I absolutely love music. I study to music, write to music, live to music, and even my classroom often welcomes students with music. I’m one of those people who definitely has multiple soundtracks to her life; one for each era, if not one for each year. My workout play lists have everything from Taylor Swift to Childish Gambino, and I’m not even sorry. I prefer the Orchestra to the Symphony and some of my favorite instruments are: guitar, piano, and the cello (which I’m comically trying to teach myself to play). I love music.

I love how music has the ability to get to our subterranean layers of our person and being. I love how with or without words music can draw up in us emotions we’ve had or are having a hard time articulating in word and deed. I love that when I’m happy, there’s a song on my lips. I love even more that when life has dragged me into darkness and an existential crisis and its cousin depression seize the fibers of my being, there’s a song on my lips then, too. When I’ve struggled with saying the words, “I believe…” my voice through worship and song cries out, “…help my unbelief.”

And it’s not just humans who sing and make music. But the whole world does, too. The cacophony of a vehicle-infested metropolis is music as much as is the cricket and grasshopper symphony surrounding the farm stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The trees make music, the birds, the stars in the night sky, and the sun at noonday, even the creeping and crawling things along the ground. All of it is song and music. Dogs barking, cats meowing, horses neighing, all of creation sings. Harmony is everywhere. The cosmos is a song; a song sung over us and to us. And we have no other response than to sing back and to join in the great song of creation.

The biblical story is no stranger to songs. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, songs weave and wend through the story of God’s love for God’s creation. The biblical narrative is wonderfully decorated with songs about the work and activity of God almighty on behalf of God’s people and the world. We sing to God and God sings to us. The great song of the cosmos was set in motion and is sustained by God’s love song sung over us, like a mother rocking her new-born child to sleep using her voice to soothe and comfort this child she loves so very dearly.

Or like a mother who understands the heavy burden that is on her unborn son’s shoulders: God’s love for the world, reconciliation and redemption, love and sacrifice, mercy and justice and peace.

“‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (v.47). Mary begins to sing. “…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” (v.48). Mary’s voice isn’t unique here; her voice pairs with those of the other noble women of Israel: with Miriam after safe passage through the red-sea (cf Ex. 15) and with the barren Hannah who longed for a son and received one (cf 1 Sam 2). “…for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (v.49), Mary continues, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (v.50). Mary declares the character of the God she worships, of the God she knows intimately, of the God who is about to overturn the world as she knows it.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (v.51). Mary’s song here in v.51 turns from praise of God’s mighty historical deeds to prophetic utterances (what God is about to do). “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (vv.52-3). And here I can’t quite distinguish whose voice I’m hearing; is it Mary the mother of Jesus who is praising God? Or is this God’s song over us? “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’” (vv.54-5).

And maybe that’s the point? Maybe that I can’t distinguish between the song of this young woman to God or God’s song over the world is the tension where I need to be located, where we need to be located. Because it’s here in that tension where we see our role in the story. Mary sings to God of Jesus, but Jesus sings through her voice to the world: I am coming low to bring liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. Jesus is the royal[1] son who will cast off his royal robes and stoop down[2] to take on the role of a servant, a lowly servant to redeem and reconcile humanity to God. It is Jesus (God of God, Light of Light) who will associate with sinners and tax collectors, with the sick and the lame, with those who are far-off and those who are abandoned and thus declare to the world: blessed are these![3] Jesus is the one who lifts the faces of those who are cast-down, gives dignity to those society has declared barely human, and brought the light to those who feel trapped and hewed in by darkness; and this activity becomes the very definition of the reign of God, of the good news, of God’s activity in the world in Jesus Christ, this man who is God. [4]

And it is this lowly servant who is the fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants and this is how that promises will be fulfilled: Jesus will die for our sins and be raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Mary’s song of praise of what God has done and will do, and that which is God’s song over us, is also Jesus’s funeral march;[5] this is the song that will sound in the background as Jesus climbs Golgotha to his sacrificial death on our behalf to reconcile us to God. Just as the cross hangs in the background behind the manger of the baby born, so to do Mary’s tears lurk behind her words of praise and prophecy.

But because God loves us, because God loves the world, this dirge, this funeral march doesn’t end in the grave. Rather, it leads to life, resurrected life for those who have been brought low; resurrected life for us not just in the future but now. And all of us are of the lowly, no matter what car you drove here or what brand your watch is, or the amount of money in your wallet or in your bank account: none of us escape being the lowly, the ones who are brought low. And as we are made aware of our lowliness and our need of Christ and the Cross,[6] the same gospel that has laid claim to our faith lays claim to our activity in the world; that which characterizes Christ’s reign, characterizes the activity of his disciples. That we—through our movement from death into new life by faith—have become a people whose interest is not on ourselves but on our fellow human beings, our neighbors. [7]

We have been commissioned into the commission of Christ to bear the trajectory (the intended direction) of Mary’s song of good news for the world through the death and resurrection of Christ, and with Christ we are called, to quote the major Prophet Isaiah, “To bring good news to the afflicted…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners…To comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1b-3a).

The good news comes to you today singing over you, incorporating you into the story, into the greatest love song ever recorded: The song sung since the beginning of time about the long awaited son of God, the babe born of Mary, who is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the cross, which is the word of comfort for the afflicted, rest for the burdened, freedom for the captives, and the word of life to those who are dead.

Praise be to God, Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Karl Barth CD IV.1.278 “…the distinctive solidarity of the man Jesus with the God who in the eyes of the world—and not merely the ordinary world, but the moral and spiritual as well—is also poor in this way, existing not only in fact and practice but even in theory, somewhere on the margin in its scale of values, as the mere content of a limiting concept. In fellowship and conformity with this God who is in the world the royal man Jesus is also poor, and fulfills this transvaluation of all values, acknowledging those who (without necessarily being better) are in different ways poor men as this world counts poverty.”

[2] Karl Barth CD V.1.277 “The God who stoops down to man… in judgment and mercy, slaying and making alive, is Himself supremely and most strictly an object of desire, joy, pleasure, yearning and enjoyment…”

[3] Karl Barth CD V.1.277 “It is of a piece with this that—almost to the point of prejudice—He ignored all those who are high and mighty and wealthy in the world in favour of the weak and meek and lowly. He did this even in the moral sphere, ignoring the just for sinners, and in the spiritual sphere, finally ignoring Israel for the Gentiles.”

[4] Karl Barth CD V.1.277-78 “Throughout the New Testament the kingdom of God, the Gospel and the man Jesus have a remarkable affinity, which is no mere egalitarianism, to all those who are in the shadows as far as concerns what men estimate to be fortune and possessions and success and even fellowship with God.”

[5] Karl Barth CD IV.2. “It is this merciful and redemptive visitation of Israel by God, in faithfulness to Himself and His people, which forms the subject-matter of these hymns. But in the mind of the authors, or at any rate in the mind of Luke, who incorporated them into his text, this visitation is indirectly identical with the life and works and passion and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whose story he is concerned to tell…But they are indirectly identical (at any rate in the mind of Luke), we are forced to say, because the introduction of these hymns could serve no literary purpose if they did not speak (at any rate in the mind of Luke) of the Son of Mary whose way was prepared by the son of Zacharias as the prophet of the Most High; and of this One as the One in whom the new act of the faithful God of Israel to His people has found its human correspondence, in whom the divine visitation has become an earthly history.”

[6] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans: David Cairns (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981.) “Who will free us for discipleship, for imitation of God? For he is the one who does not hold on to his privilege’s, who did not remain on the throne of Lordship, but spent himself and gave himself to sinners, to the men of privilege, to free them from enslavement to their privileges.” p. 82

[7] Ibid, 146 “From [people] whose interests centre in themselves, to make us people whose whole concern is for other people – that is the great concern of Jesus, that is the great change that God wants to bring through the Gospel into our way of life.” p. 146

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.

“Here, I live”: a birthday reflection

Birthdays can cause us to take that self-reflective pause in which we examine our lives. In that pause, we take stock of what’s happened over the course of the past twelve months. We are like late night Netflix addicts, rewatching all those life episodes to which we already know all the lines and all the outcomes. We watch and (maybe) relive the great moments, the heart-stopping moments, the difficult moments, and even the moments where we thought our worlds were going to explode and implode at the same time….but didn’t.

We hear Birthday’s haunting and incessant questions: are you where you want to be? Are you where you thought you would be? Are you who you want to be? Who you’d thought you’d be? Are you happy with who and where you are? Birthdays aren’t very good at having their questions ignored; most of us will at least whisper some response, and we all know silence is itself an answer and rarely a positive one.

This past year, I’ve had some tremendous ups and some tremendous downs. But those specific events (the ones replaying in my head as I review this past year) will not be the substance of this post. The details of the events–at this point–mean very little to me because they’re dead and gone. The totality of those details, the mega-form they took, what as a whole they left me *is* what matters. In my opinion, what has remained with me in the aftermath of those events is more important than merely the petty details of this thing or that, of the he said-she said, of what went up or down. Because it’s in this aftermath where I looked at what I had and built from there. (We never really start over from scratch, we always build from what we’ve learned.)

From the very wonderful, amazing, heart-stopping, I-Can’t-believe-this-is-happening-right-now events to the dreadful, horrible, gut-wrenching, I-Don’t-see-how-I’ll-ever-make-it-through-this events, what has remained with me, over and over and over again is: life. In every way that word can be used type of life. Because no matter how much my knees knocked because of nerves or my stomach churned because of emotional turmoil, I kept stepping forward. And each and everyone of those steps drilled home the reality that I am very much alive.

I don’t credit myself with this aliveness, though I’m aware that I did play both an unconscious and conscious role in the process of stepping. (Some synapses have to be firing intentionally for a mind and body to engage in the act of stepping in a specific direction.) I do give some credit to really neat friends who refused to let me keep rehearsing the same lines of my favorite trauma script…even when it’s all I wanted to do. They used their words to turn my head in the right direction and urged me forward and not backward. Mostly, if not entirely, I give credit for this aliveness to my daily encounter with God in the event of faith. Because it’s here, in this encounter where I’m brought face to face with God, where I am wrenched from and out of a world that demands my allegiance and obedience and has me scrambling for some modicum amount of control, stripped of all that I *think* I am and of all that I let control and define me, and made painfully aware that there is no other way to embrace the future but through my pained confession that I do not know what comes.

All I know in this event encounter is God (all other knowledge, presuppositions, ideas, and conceptions have been exposed and burnt up by the friction of this encounter). And this knowledge, this face to face encounter undoes me completely, renders me to dust, brings me into crisis with everything around me. It’s in the crisis where the crucible is formed and my faith made to be as pure as gold; for in the tension I’ve nothing but what faith will locate itself in and that is God. Thus, all I can know is God, I cannot stand on my own here, and it brings me to death. Here, I die.

But yet even though I die, it is not merely unto death or to indulge the wicked intentions of a sadistic god. The God I believe in is the God of love and life, mercy and peace, humility and justice and in abundance. What has been proclaimed to me, shown to me, made known to me in the word and wisdom of God–the proclamation of Christ crucified–is that the activity of God moves from death to life, life in the here and now in vibrant, remarkable, awe-inspiring ways. Life out of death is resurrection.  My feet are (daily) planted firmly in this wholly other God on whom and in whom I am wholly dependent and that is life and life abundant; I’m alive. Here, I live.

What has proven itself time and time again over the past 365 days is: it’s in this event-encounter with God that I am made and caused and given the strength to stand and withstand the events (good or bad) that have come my way and will come my way because I am not dependent on the outcome (good or bad) or on myself. My dependence is on and in God alone by faith alone by grace alone. These events that happened to me only pushed me into a deeper dependence on God, which resulted in resilience, confidence, and strength that define me today. It is in and has been in the good and bad events of my small and short yet large and long life where I have experienced God in God’s self-disclosure as, “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Is. 9:6).

Thus, I’ll close by answering Birthday’s questions early in the day:

Am I where I want to be? Yes. The view from where I am is wonderful

Am I where I thought I would be? No. I could only have have hoped to be here.

Am I who I want to be? Yes, and there’s still room for more improvement.

Am I Who I’d thought I’d be? No. I don’t think I had the wits to see her coming.

Am I happy with who and where I am? Yes. 100%, yes.

 

Heath Carter and “Union Made”

My mom has never been very religious but always very concerned about my earning potential. She was worried when I became a Christian and started to entertain church work as a vocation that I’d end up destitute. The church didn’t fit my Wall-Street, southern Connecticut based upbringing and family. However, relief was allayed: I was getting ordained in The Episcopal Church. “Oh!” she said, “The Episcopal Church is a very wealthy church! You’ll be paid well!” The comment went in one ear and out the other; I never fully thought to question why that was even a thing or if it should bother me.

But it does bother me. And now, after all this time since that first conversation, I’ve been instructed in why it bothers me. I give credit to this enlightenment to Heath W. Carter and his book, “Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.” This book by Carter is a tour de force of the battle for economic equality and the development and fight for the “Union Made” Social Gospel in Chicago’s history. The rise of material wealth in Chicago brought with it the evangelical clerics and their churches. Being able to purchase expensive preachers and pay them handsomely moved the church from a position of working alongside the average working person to a member of the elite class. As the capital trend went, so did the pulpits. Carter deftly explains the ebb and flow of what was the constant struggle for the working/earning class against capitalism’s monstrous appetite that consumes everything even the gospel.

Carter focuses on a specific era of Chicago’s history—roughly the era encompassing the ante-bellum to the early 1900s, tracking the formation and establishment of and the need for (!) unions for wage-earners. The reality is, the thrust of Carter’s work isn’t restricted to that handful of decades. To a significant degree Carter is using history to shine the light on the reality of our current era. That reality is: there is currently a constant struggle against capitalism and an elite and privileged version of the gospel that is plaguing the western world in this 21st century. Thus, while I am convicted and saddened by this reality (and by the part I play and have played in it), I am also very optimistic for the future because this book exists.

To preach the word of God is–for the preacher–to actively engage in proclaiming to all of God’s people the radical and revolutionary wisdom of God, which is in contradiction with the wisdom and the status quo of the world and against oppressive power structures and elite hierarchies. God and God’s word will always side with those who are oppressed and marginalized, with the far off and rejected, with the homeless and the hungry, and the naked. To engage in this preaching, to enter into pastoral ministry for any reason—especially for financial gain—is anathema to the Gospel and an offense to God.

This book is a must read if we want to actually learn from history and not just about it. This book is a must read if we want to embrace the reality that the cries of the oppressed and marginalized cannot be chalked up to or pushed away as mere echoes of a bygone era. Carter writes at the end of his “Epilogue”,

“Now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, American capitalism appears once more poised to overwhelm American democracy…It remains to be seen whether present-day believers will quietly abide this state of affairs, or whether it will at some point call forth a nation of prophets comparable to those that visited Gilded Age Chicago” (182).

For those who are losing their lives in this constant battle and fight against Capitalism, we, gospel believing, Christ following Christian disciples have no time to lose; let us heed the call.

 

 

I recommend you follow Dr. Heath Carter on Twitter; to do so, here’s his handle: @heathwcarter. And his blog is here: https://heathwcarter.com/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[21] See fn17.

[22] See fn17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Deuteronomy 30:11-14 it is written,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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