You Are Good

Sermon on Luke 19:1-10

Psalm 119:140-142 Your word [, God,] has been tested to the uttermost, and your servant holds it dear. I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments. Your justice is an everlasting justice and your law is the truth.

Introduction

We’re submerged in the waters of identities and self-conceptions anchored in being exceptional—as if our worth and dignity are dependent on it. I think it’s one thing participating in our distinction from animals. Even with their individual quirks and personalities, I don’t think—as far as I understand them—dogs wonder much about their identity or if they are exceptional. My dog, Angie, spends what seems like zero minutes being concerned about her place in the world, if she has status, prestige, and power. I mean, she’s 97% Pitbull, so she’s got plenty of power. She isn’t wondering if other dogs think she’s dogging in the right way—her goodness isn’t dependent on what these other dogs think, I don’t even think it’s dependent on what she thinks. In general, Angie dogs around, chases light reflections, barks (relentlessly) at the mail woman, the fed-ex guy, and the UPS person—she doesn’t even care if it’s completely cliché to do so. She just dogs—wags her whole entire body when her family comes home, obeys any command for a treat, and loves stealing mama’s warm spot on the bed early in the morning. Cats cat. Horses horse. Spiders spider. Flies fly. Elephants elephant.

People do anything but just people around. How can we? We’re not only born into but are stuck on a relentless hamster-wheel of identity and dignity defined by our exceptionalism, our actions, our works, what we bring to the table. We are told that we are not good unless we…. (fill in the blank).

I find myself exhausted from endless pursuits trying to validate myself through and defend how special and good I am. The more I pursue, the more I’m terrified of it ceasing. If I stake my claim to the right to life on my virtue, what happens when that goes away and I become unvirtuous? Do I lose my right to life? If I stake my identity on my ability, what happens when that goes away and I become unable? Do I lose my identity? If I stake my importance on my work, what happens when that goes away and I am unable to work? Do I become unimportant? If I stake my indispensability on my intelligence or creativity, what happens when either of those things go away? Do I become dispensable? If everything I stand for depends on me being right, what happens to the ground under my feet when I’m wrong? Do I lose everything? If my goodness and lovability come through being exceptional in some regard, what happens when I cease to be exceptional in any regard? Do I cease to be good and loveable?

Am I less worthy of respect and love, am I not good if I have absolutely nothing exceptional to bring to the table but my vulnerable body and empty hands?

Luke 19:1-10

Now Zacchaeus stood and said to [Jesus], “Behold, half of my possessions…I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded a certain one, I return fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come into being in this house, in what manner he, he is a child of Abraham. For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.”[1]

Luke 19:8-10

Luke introduces an infamous character of Gospel proportions, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector but the chief of tax collectors. So, according to many a Pharisee, the worst of the worst.[2] Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus with reference to stature was little. He struggles to see through and around the crowds when Jesus enters Jericho and passes by. His struggle may mean he was short in height or too young. What is likely is that he was short with reference to status in his community, and the crowds presented an obstacle to him because they didn’t care to let him through. The crowd prevented him from seeing Jesus and coming to know who he is.[3] Even as wealthy and powerful as he was, he was blocked from seeing Jesus because he was the chief tax-collector. In other words, he and his wealth were despised.[4] In the eyes of the crowd, he had no dignity or worth. He wasn’t good.

Zacchaeus, determined to know who Jesus is,[5] ascends a tree. Now! Now I have a clear view of Jesus…and Jesus has a clear view of him.[6] In a moment, Zacchaeus went from disgraced tax-collector to graced host of the Christ when Jesus sees him and announces he’ll be staying with Zacchaeus that day—Jesus chooses Zacchaeus as if the crowd wasn’t even there.[7] The crowd was determined to push Zacchaeus out, now they find themselves on the outside as Zacchaeus proudly and happily hosts Jesus in his home. To whom were they an obstacle? Themselves or Zacchaeus? Who here is lost to destruction and who has been sought out of it?[8]

As Zacchaeus hosts Jesus—while the people grumble about Jesus staying with a sinner[9] misunderstanding the divine mission of the Christ[10]—he immediately addresses his wealth.[11] Pulling no punches—as if knowing his means of acquiring wealth were troublesome—Zacchaeus is compelled to explain himself.[12] He blurts out, Okay, I know,…I know I’m not the greatest guy and a bit trapped in this system, but I give half of my gain to the poor and if I ever take by means of exploitation, I give it back fourfold. I wonder if Jesus was taken aback from the sudden confession—he certainly wasn’t looking for one, nor was his presence in that home dependent on such a thing. Jesus just loved Zacchaeus. I imagine Jesus smiled right before he said, Today salvation has come into being in this house…For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.

Zacchaeus knows who he is, so he now knows who Jesus is. He knows that his wealth must lovingly[13] serve his community, that he should not exploit others, and that he is unworthy if based on his own accomplishments. He can’t measure up. Zaccheaus cannot justify himself; he knows he is irreligious, despised,[14] and small in the eyes of his community.[15] If God’s love is dependent on these things, he falls short. Then Jesus shows up. Into this moment of confession of smallness, Jesus pronounces a divine bigness upon Zacchaeus: he’s very much a worthy child of God[16] and a son of Abraham.[17] Not for any reason other than love: Zacchaeus is loved and loves; Zacchaeus is good.

As it frequently is in Luke’s stories, it’s those who are small who are big, it’s those who are lost who are found, it’s those whose are weak who are strong, it’s those who strive to see Jesus who finally see who they are, it’s those who seek their dignity and worth in God who know that they have dignity and worth apart from their actions. It’s those who feel the farthest away who are the closest. It’s those dead set on their unloveliness who are the lovely. It’s those made to feel bad because they don’t measure up who are called good by God in Christ.

Conclusion

Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah, I think that I might break
Lost myself again
And I feel unsafe

Be my friend
Hold me, wrap me up
Unfold me, I am small
And needy, warm me up
And breathe me[18]

Sia “Breathe Me”

It’s when I’m small when I experience the fullness of God surrounding me. It’s when I’m weak, when I give up, when I realize I have nothing, when I look around and see hopelessness, when I look deep into the mirror and know that I’m only a random collection of muscles, bones, sinew, and blood—nothing exceptional—that I need to be reminded by this tremendous love story between God and humanity that I’m worthy apart from what I can offer anyone else other than basic existence. It’s when I realize I don’t care for being exceptional (because that standard is so death dealing), that I rather prefer being loved for no other reason than just because and beyond what I can bring to the table. In the quiet of letting go, releasing my grip, giving into gravity, and falling, surrendering, I’m caught in the love of God manifest in Christ encountered in the Spirit. In that encounter, in hearing God’s love proclaimed to me again (and again) in word and deed, I’m unfolded, made warm, and comforted. In that moment everything becomes quite exceptional, I’m found, I’m saved, I’m reborn. I’m good.

Beloved, you do not need to prove yourself to God. You do not need to get your act together, strive for some abstract conception of perfection, kill yourself in a human made system thriving off of your livelihood, your energy, your quickly depleting spirit. You do not need to be exceptional by any human standard. That you exist—in that your being and your life is a huge miracle—you’re amazing. You are loved for no other reason than juts because. You. Are. Good.[19]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 221-222. “Tax collectors in general were despised as collaborators with the Roman regime, as exploiters of the powerless, and as often contaminated by ritual uncleanness. Major tax collectors had others performing the same duties under them. That Zacchaeus was rich implies that he was not just one of many tax collectors, but an important one. A sinner among sinners!”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 670. “Thus, it is not simply that Zacchaeus cannot see over the crowd; rather, the crowd itself is present as an obstacle to him. On account of their negative assessment of Zacchaeus (cf. v 7), the people refused him the privilege of seeing Jesus as he passed by. Whether short or young, then, Zacchaeus is presented as a person of diminutive status in Jericho, thus rendering him as a member of the unenviable association of the lowly…”

[4] Green, Luke,  668-669. “By way of analogy with other Lukan texts, however, it is clear that Zacchaeus is thus presented as a person of advanced status, even if only among other toll collectors. More specifically, as a ‘ruler’ in the Greco-Roman world Zacchaeus would have enjoyed relative power and privilege, though from the perspective of the Lukan narrative we would anticipate his opposing the mission of Jesus. That Zacchaeus is wealthy is emphasized within the narrative by its being enumerated separately, as a quality distinct from that of the others. Within the larger Greco-Roman world, possessing wealth was an ambiguous characteristic. Although wealth was required if one were to reach the upper echelons of nobility, how one got one’s wealth was equally determinative. Zacchaeus’s fortune was not ‘landed wealth’ but was the consequence of his own entrepreneurial activity; hence, it would not have qualified him for enviable status. Within the Lukan narrative, such ambiguity dissipates rapidly, since the wealthy are thus far repeatedly cast in a negative light. Most recently, Jesus had remarked on the impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom of God (18:24-25).”

[5] Green, Luke, 669. “He is not interested merely in ‘seeing Jesus’ but wants to know ‘who Jesus is’ (cf. 10:21-22). He goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his quest, even enduring the probable shame of climbing a tree despite his adult male status and position in the community as a wealthy ‘ruler,’ however notorious. That he goes to such lengths is illustrative of his eagerness, to be sure, but is also a consequence of the crowd, which has positioned itself as a barrier to his endeavor.”

[6] Green, Luke, 667. “We discover at the outset that Zacchaeus is on a quest to see who Jesus is, only to learn in the end that, in accordance with his divine mission, Jesus has been on a quest for Zacchaeus, to bring him salvation.”

[7] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010.  505. “ALEJANDRO: ‘Other times we’ve seen Jesus against the rich, but here we see he wasn’t a prejudiced man or a fanatic. He chooses to stay in a rich man’s house without getting an invitation. He invites himself. Even when there were plenty of other places where he could stay, because there were swarms of people welcoming him.’”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “He is one more example of the lost that have been found.”

[9] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “I: ‘They don’t criticize that he’s gone to stay with a rich man but that he’s gone to stay with a sinner. This rich man belonged to the class that were then called ‘publicans,’ people who weren’t religious and who were despised by the Pharisees even though they were rich. You have to keep in mind that in that society … the ruling class wasn’t people that just had money, like Zacchaeus, but people that belonged to a religious caste which had money as well. The scandal is that Jesus has gone to stay with someone who isn’t religious, and it seems that’s why Jesus sent to his house.’”

[10] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “TOMAS: ‘People didn’t understand or even know what Jesus was looking for. They didn’t know his mystery. He was coming to save sinners, not to destroy them. That guy that was on the edge of the pit, he came to pull him back and set him on the good road.’”

[11] Green, Luke, 671. “Zacchaeus answers first, not with reference to behaviors or commitments that might mark him as acceptable according to standards developed heretofore—for example, fasting, praying, tithing (cf. 18:11-12), or even his choice of knowledge of the messages of John (esp. 3:10-14) and Jesus regarding economic justice and almsgiving. That is, he lists behaviors appropriate to those who have oriented themselves around the kingdom of God.”

[12] Green, Luke, 672. “According to this reading, Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus’ evaluation his current behaviors regarding money. He even joins the narrator in referring to Jesus as ‘Lord.’ Jesus’ reference to ‘salvation’ (v 9), then, signifies Zacchaeus’s vindication and restoration to the community of God’s people; he is not an outsider, after all, but has evidenced through his economic practices his kinship with Abraham (cf. 3:7-14). Zacchaeus thus joins the growing roll of persons whose ‘repentance’ lies outside the narrative, who appear on the margins of the people of God, and yet who possess insight into and a commitment to the values of Jesus’ mission that are exemplary.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “When it comes to the use of possessions, it is not just a matter of setting aside a certain proportion to give to the poor—be it 100 percent as in the case of the ruler, 50 percent as in the case of Zacchaeus, or 10 percent as in the practice of tithing-and then claiming the rest for oneself. It is not just a matter of obeying a commandment—be it the tithe or giving all to the poor. It certainly is not just a matter of some token almsgiving. It is a matter of free, liberal, loving giving. And it is also a matter of being willing to recognize the possibility that one’s wealth may be unjustly acquired. In short, it is a matter of love and justice entwined.”

[14] Green, Luke, 669. “On the other hand, Zacchaeus is a toll collector. Within the Greco-Roman world, he would have belonged to a circle of persons almost universally despised.”

[15] Gonzales, Luke, 221. “From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had clashed with those who presumed on their piety and their obedience to the law as guaranteeing their salvation, and insisted on a great reversal that would result in great joy at the conversion of sinners and the finding of what was lost.”

[16] Green, Luke, 670. “In this respect, Jesus’ use of the term ‘today’ is highly suggestive, since elsewhere in Luke’s narrative it is used to communicate the immediacy of salvation. Because of the association of ‘joy’ with news of divine intervention and salvation, that Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus with joy (NRSV: ‘happy’) signifies genuine receptivity on the part of Zacchaeus, intimating that he is one who embraces the values and claims of the kingdom of God.” And, “Rather, since the Lukan narrative has redefined status as a ‘child of Abraham’ with reference to lowly position and faithful practices. Jesus assertion vindicates Zacchaeus as one who embodies the qualities of those fit for the kingdom of God.” 672.

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “Zacchaeus stands in contrast with the fool that thought his possessions were truly his, and with the ruler who was saddened because he wished to hold on to what he had. This story also corrects the sell all and give it to the poor. He decides to give to the poor half of his possessions-not all, as the ruler was told. He adds that, if any of his wealth is ill-gotten, he will repay it fourfold. Jesus accepts this as a true act of repentance, and announces, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’”

[18] Sia “Breathe Me”

[19] Thank you to the podcast “You Are Good” discussing movies and feelings. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/you-are-good/id1527948382 The theme of this sermon was completely and totally inspired by the work they do. Thanks Sarah and Alex, you make this world better!

God’s Near

Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

Psalm 62:6-7 For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

Introduction

I never paid much mind to the impact of my voice. I spent a lot of time not wanting to talk in public. I was safer staring out the window of the backseat of the car as a kid, retreating to the back of the classroom and hiding as a student, and sitting in the pew furthest back as a new Christian. I’ve only considered my voice to be merely a voice to me and my inner circle but lacking weight apart from carrying words into the air. I didn’t put much thought into the reality that we come into the world knowing one voice well: the voice of the one who carried us for a little over nine months. It’s the first voice we know; the second being that of the other parent but in a muffled way. I recall with clarity the screeches of my babies quieting across the OR as soon as I spoke: it’s okay little one, mama’s here.

I put even less thought into the impact the voices of my children would have on me. I recall vividly standing amid a large group of moms at a birthday party for Jack when a child’s yelp and cry sounded from across the park where dads and kids were splashing in a shallow creek. We all went quiet listening. And then I took off. No other mom ran, just me because it was my kid and none of theirs. I knew that voice because it was the voice of my child, and he needed me.

While I learned something about the power of my voice by becoming a mother, this knowledge isn’t relegated to motherhood. The voices of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren, friends, lovers turn our heads and bring warmth to our insides; it’s their voices we miss terribly when they walk this timeline no more. We also love and miss the sound of the barks, meows, oinks, baaas, maaas, neighs, and moos (etc.) of the animalkind we care for.

Mark 1:16-18

And while passing by alongside the sea of Galilee [Jesus] saw Simon and Andrew–the brother of Simon—while throwing nets into the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Come (!) behind me, and I will make you to become fishermen of people.” And immediately they dropped the nets and followed him.

(Mk 1: 16-18, translation mine)

Mark wastes no time getting us from the announcement of the divine son Jesus the Christ (1:1), into the waters of the Jordan (1:9-11), dropped into the wilderness temptation (1:12-13), and to the calling of the disciples (1:16-20) by way of briefly articulating the good news (ευαγγελιον).[1] The thrust of chapter one is the announcement that the ευαγγελιον has come into the world; it’s this good news that John the forerunner of the Christ proclaimed waist deep in water, and Jesus, the Christ, fulfills[2] as the divine herald.[3] For Mark, the content of the ευαγγελιον: “…the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is has come near; repent[4] and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15).[5]

Mark isn’t mindlessly rattling off details about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; Mark is writing to disciples who are presently facing persecution and is eager to show them what it means to be a good disciple. Thus, the calling of disciples accentuates none of this is their doing but God’s. Mark’s people heard the voice of God call them and responded rightly[6] by following just like Jesus’s disciples did. Therefore, they like these men, are with Christ amid the suffering and persecution. Mark establishes that faith and following are inextricably linked; hold steady, little church, Mark maternally comforts, keep the faith; God hears your cries and comes; God is with you.

God has heard the cries of God’s people; the good news is on the move.[7] And where does it go? To the downtrodden and exhausted. Jesus goes neither to the religious teachers and elders nor to those who are wealthy and lead, but to the simple men, throwing simple nets, to catch fish.[8] Jesus goes not to the temple but to the sea. Jesus goes not to the powerful rulers but to the powerless ruled—from these he calls his disciples; to these the kingdom of God comes near. It’s here among this imperfect, rag-tag, group of laborers smelling of sweat and fish and sea where the kingdom and kingship of God is secured.[9]

Jesus doesn’t ask them to follow; he commands it.[10] It’s a command commanding the action in its entirety (now): Come behind me! (Now!) Unlike other rabbis who were sought by future students, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.[11] These disciples will ask not: can I sit at your feet, rabbi? Rather they will have to self-reckon: Will I come behind Jesus? Will I follow Jesus? The crux of the predicament being the necessity of an overhauling and upending of their lives as they know it. Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as James and John (vv19-20) are called into apprenticeship that demands leaving everything they knew as is to become was in order to embrace what will be.[12]

This is the core of what it means to “repent” (μετανοιετε) proclaimed in the good news. It’s not about some verbal “sorry” or about professing how wretched you are. Instead, it’s about being called to reconsider things, to change your mind/purpose in the world, to align with the will of God and not the will of humanity—these two things rarely aligning (if ever). Jesus tells Peter and Andrew they’ll no longer fish fish to eat but fish people out of harm’s way. If they follow their lifestyle will change.[13] If James and John follow, they’ll leave behind their father and his way of life.[14] These fishermen are the epitome of what it means to repent and believe: they heard the voice of love—who spoke the cosmos into existence—and they turned, dropped their nets, and walked with God. To repent and believe is not about verbal self-flagellation because of God’s wrath in some desperate attempt to make God love you. It’s about being made aware God’s love comes to you lovingly calling you into God’s presence like a mother seeking and calling her beloved child to her bosom. It’s okay little one, mama’s here.

Conclusion

Simon, Andrew, James and John heard love call them into love’s presence and couldn’t do anything else but drop their nets and follow love. They didn’t follow an abstract concept of elusive warm feelings, but a tangible, fleshy, active, living and breathing love walking in the world. They won’t follow perfectly, but perfection isn’t the point; Love walking in the world is. It’s this living, breathing, active love they’ll proclaim after Jesus leaves and sits down at the right hand of God. It’s this living, breathing, active love that’ll cost them not only their livelihood, but also their life breath as they proclaim a love that upended and overhauled their society and their status-quo. Following this active, living, breathing love and asking the self-reckoning question that day on the shore, changed not just their lives but the lives of many others.

This love, this active, living, breathing love set the world in motion, keeps it in motion, and comes near and calls us today. The same love that walked along the wet sand of the sea of Galilee, walks on the frozen ground of this Ute land at the base of the National Monument calling us. We are the sought, the Beloved. And, we, like the disciples, must ask the same question: will I come behind Jesus? Will I follow after Jesus?

To follow will upend your life; to follow love, God, Jesus, will overhaul everything you know to be true about the world. If you drop your nets, you’ll walk away from that which is rendered “what was” to embrace “what will be.” The encounter with God in the event of faith—working out through “repentance” and “believing”—is death to the old age and old person and new birth into the new age as a new person (not as “sinless and good” but as “new and filled with divine love of God’s spirit”). The kingdoms of humanity rage against the way of love of the kingdom of God. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to behave as if God’s eternality eclipses the mortality of our human institutions.[15] He asks them to follow love so that through them and by them something new comes forth from death. “For the external structures of this world are slipping away,” (7:31b).[16] It’s okay little ones, Paul comforts, God’s near. The new age is populated with new creations perpetuating love and life and light into the world and letting that which is of the old age slip away so that something new can be built in its place, letting the divine phoenix of life break from the ashes of death.


[1] RT France The Gospel of Mark NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: 2002. 88. “The narrative moves on rapidly from scene to scene, carrying the reader on by its own momentum rather than by any formal structural markers.”

[2] France 90, “For now the reader is expected to know it already, or must simply take it on trust. There is no place here to spell it out, since John himself is no longer in focus, and to delay over the details of his story at this point would distract attention from his successor, who now takes, and will retain, his place in centre stage. The role of the forerunner is over; the time of fulfilment has come.”

[3] France 90-1, “There is an important element of continuity between John and Jesus. The same participle κηρυσσων which described John’s ministry (v.4) now describes that of his successor, and at least one of the elements in that proclamation is the same…[the overlap being the ‘forerunner motif’] but also the messianic herald of Is 40:9 52:7; 61:1 whose role is to announce ευαγγελιον…and who is himself the Spirit-endowed Messiah.”

[4] Μετανοιτε (first principle part: μετανοεω) in v.15 it is an imperative 2nd person plural verb: a command to repent. The verb can also be translated as: you change your mind/purpose. It can also carry the idea of changing the inner person in regards to the will of God. It’s as if you were going in one direction and you are caused to change your direction.

[5] France 90, “Verses 14-15…play a crucial role in Mark’s story, as the reference point for all subsequent mentions of the proclamation initiated by Jesus and entrusted by him to his followers. Here is the essential content of the ευαγγελιον to which the people of Galilee are summoned to respond.”

[6] France 93, “With the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, therefore, a new era of fulfilment has begun, and it calls for response from God’s people”

[7] France 90, “Down there, people had had to make a special journey to John, but now Jesus is going to where people are, in the inhabited areas of his own province.”

[8] France 94, “…the Messiah himself refuses to assert his authority by an impressive show of divine…pomp and pageantry. The kingdom of God comes not with fanfare but through the gradual gathering of a group of socially insignificant people in an unnoticed corner of provincial Galilee.”

[9] France 94, “They [the disciples called] may, and often will, fail him and disappoint him, but their role is crucial to the achievement of his mission, for it is through this flawed and vulnerable group of people that God’s kingship will be established.”

[10] δευτε οπισω μου: come (!) after me. Δευτε is an aorist active imperative 2nd person plural verb indicating the action being commanded is being commanded as a whole.

[11] France 96, “Rabbis didn’t call their followers; rather the pupil adopted the teacher. Jesus’ preemptory summons, with its expectation of radical renunciation even of family ties, goes far beyond anything they would be familiar with in normal society. It marks him as a prophet rather than a rabbi.”

[12] France 96, “Simon and Andrew are being called to follow Jesus as their leader, in a relationship which went beyond merely formal learning to a fulltime “apprenticeship’.”

[13] France 97

[14] France 97

[15] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 585, “…‘Paul’s point is not the transiency of creation as such….but the fact that its outward pattern, in social and mercantile institutions, for example, has no permanence.’ To combine Barrett’s emphasis on social, political and commercial institutions with the notion of outward appearance with Hering’s ‘disappearing across the stage’ we translate the sentence as For the external structures of this world are slipping away.”

[16] Thiselton 585, “The crumbling of the present world order is indicated by παραγει γαρ το σχημα τοθ κοσμου τουτου…Paul’s eschatological frame indicates a dynamic cosmic process. Hence we translate, For the external structures of this world are slipping away.”

Refiner’s Fire

Sermon on Acts 19:1-7

Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy/Set apart for You,
Ready to do Your will

I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.

Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord

Acts 19:1-7

…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”

Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine

The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions.[1] When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission.[2] Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Wellokay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.[3]

For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ. [4] John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[5]

“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mk 1:8

The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.”[6] In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[7] and with humanity in its plight.[8] This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.

In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history[9]–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[10] It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?

Conclusion

To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19),[11] like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.

This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism[12] deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.

Willie James Jennings writes,

Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.[13]

The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist[14] theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,

It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.[15]

For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.


[1] Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”

[3] Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”

[4] Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”

[5] Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”

[6] Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”

[7] Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[8] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[9] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[10] McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[11] Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”

[12] David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.

[13] Jennings Acts 185

[14] Womanism  is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.