Hands in Solidarity

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50

Psalm 124:6-7 6 Blessed be the Lord! [The Lord] has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth. We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

Introduction

In an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, a 20-year-old man comes to the ER because he’s attempted to cut off his right hand due to “sin”. Per the directives of Jesus, he explains to the doctor, this besetting sin (revolving around self-pleasure) involved his hand, and since it was a stumbling block, he tried to cut it off. A literalist, this young man took Jesus’s words as they were: the word of God as command to be obeyed. The doctor assisting him, April, tries to convince him not to take the text that literally. The young man replies in such a way to indicate that the word of God is true or it isn’t and then if it isn’t true, then he’s wasted his entire life following Jesus and believing in him and God. Then I scream into my pillow: context is king!

Just like doctors who cannot watch doctor shows, I cannot handle watching media portray religion in general and Christianity in specific.  While I think the episode did a decent job presenting space to the viewers to ask more profound questions about faith and belief, sacred text and sacred dogma, it still rendered the image of Christianity and Christians with it in simplistic and literal terms, leaving behind the profoundly rich potential for nuance and creativity.

The binary that something is true (read: factual) or it isn’t (read: hard lie), isn’t a binary that exists. Something can be true and not factual or real; something can be factual and built of lies. There’s variation between two polarized things; there is a shade of gray that is so dark that it looks like it’s the shade black, but it’s not. It’s very very very very very very very dark gray. And so, we must be willing, especially as those encountered with God in the event of faith, to investigate doctrines and dogmas and ask many, many questions and bend toward creativity. We are humans, given rich inquisitive and creative minds; not robots prewired and coded to obey without thought and question.

So, in that spirit, we must ask: what does Jesus mean when he commands the disciples to cut off the appendage that is causing spiritual stumbling? Let’s look.

Mark 9:38-50

And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it is better for them if a donkey’s millstone lies around upon their neck and be thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is good for you to enter life without a hand than arrive in the unquenchable fire of Gehenna having two hands. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is good for you to enter life maimed than to be thrown into Gehenna having two feet. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out; it is good for you to enter the kingdom of God one-eyed than be cast into Gehenna having two eyes.[1]

Mark 9:42-48

Mark continues the conversation between Jesus and his disciples picking up with John ratting out a stranger for doing an exorcism in the name of Christ and telling Jesus they tried to stop him but failed.[2] The cliquishness[3] and exclusivity[4] of the disciples are exposed in this moment of “impulsive hostility” toward an outsider who was unknown to them.[5] Jesus responds quickly to disarm and defang such cliquishness and excluding behavior by correlating the powerful deed done in Jesus’s name with a future inability to speak ill of Jesus. According to Mark’s Jesus, this outsider is an insider and on the right side by virtue of their activity done in the name of Christ.[6] So, why get in their way? Why intentionally try to cause them to stumble in their activity?

Jesus then mentions that if anyone were to give you even the most simple and basic thing (a cup of water, which, in that context, was a common and expected thing to do[7]), specifically because you bear the name of Christ, then there is reward that won’t be lost. With the anyone,Jesus does what the disciples can’t do: extend the boundaries of the group from a circle of twelve to a potentially ever-expanding quantity of people. Where the disciples want to limit the group to exclusive membership that looks a particular way (this person wasn’t following US), Jesus, like Jesus does, tears down the wall. Even that small act of a fellow journeyer[8] to one of those of Christ is seen and acknowledged; to see Christ in another person and act on it for their livelihood (even if basic) is to be on the right side.[9] The disciples see themselves as part of a sect, but Jesus has called them to be a church.[10]

He then moves straight into the declaration that it would be better to have a millstone put around one’s neck and thrown into the sea than to cause “one of these little ones” to stumble. As if in juxtaposition to the simple and common act of giving water to even one such as these, Jesus makes another very similar statement, but this time in the negative. To give water to one of these who bear the name of Christ is worthy of reward; but to make one stumble is worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck. A quick death is better than the actual punishment deserved for causing one of those who believe in Jesus to stumble; the actual punishment, Jesus mentions, is eternal torment (vv. 43, 45, 47).[11] Jesus continues to speak of hands, feet, and eyes that cause you to stumble. It’s better, he says (rhetorically, according to the structure of the Greek text), to cut them off or pluck them out than to keep all of your appendages and organs and be thrown into the eternal torment of the unquenchable fire of Gehenna.

Conclusion

There’s nothing in this passage about sex or personalized sin habits; it’s about solidarity.

All of this is part of a larger context–beginning last week—and makes sense in conjunction with the wider context of the discussion between Jesus and his disciples. An indicator is the “little ones” (μικροί), which correlates these statements back to the conversation about “who is the greatest…” Jesus is building from that discussion by calling all followers “little ones”. And Jesus care a lot about the μικροί who are the children of God. Whoever receives one such as this child/little one in my name… Anyone who does anything life-giving to another child of God for the name of Christ, is one with God. In this way, the first is last, and servant of all. In this way, to be greatest is to be smallest, humbly following Christ and walking with other fellow journeyers on the way; not tripping up others or tripping up yourselves—no matter how long we’ve been walking, we are all able to be tripped up and to trip up.

In order to walk this way, Jesus is exhorting the disciples not only to think bigger about what parameters form the group, they must also re-evaluate what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple.[12] It necessitates continual self-examination and openness;[13] taking seriously life-giving and not death-dealing. Thus, those who follow Christ must not be stumbling blocks to other people or stumbling blocks to ourselves. It’s such a serious thing that Jesus attaches hellfire and quick death to it. Intentionally getting in the way and being a stumbling block to oneself[14] and others is a capital offense for Jesus.[15] We are to be in solidarity with other children of God, which and in light of God so loving the entire cosmos, puts us in solidarity with all other people, especially those who are suffering from oppression and marginalization and with whom Jesus stood in solidarity with.

The Rev. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz brilliantly defines Christian solidarity,

The preferential option at the heart of solidarity is based on the fact that the point of view of the oppressed, ‘pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality…’…The preferential option for the poor and the oppressed makes it possible for the oppressors to overcome alienation, because to be oppressive limits love, and love cannot exist in the midst of alienation. Oppression and poverty must be overcome because they are a ‘slap in the face of God’s sovereignty’ The alienation they cause is a denial of God. Guitierrez refers to the profoundly biblical insight of a Bolivian campensino: ‘an atheist is someone who fails to practice justice toward the poor.’[16]

Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology 91

Jan made brilliant reference last week to us being the hands and feet of Christ in the world, loving others actively in deed and word. And I can’t help but see her imagery here in this text. If we are to be the hands and feet and eyes of Christ in the world, shouldn’t we take all pains to ruthlessly examine ourselves and our bodily presence in the world and how we are or are not in solidarity with others? For it is better to suffer the pain of awareness and confession, then to go about life oblivious to how I’m hurting others and delighting in my own comfort.

To be the church in Christ’s name, we must extend our definition of beloved children of God to embrace all those who bear the mark of divine love. For we are called to love as we have been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] See fn4

[3] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 378, “The cliquishness which too easily affects a defined group of people with a sense of mission is among the ‘worldly’ values which must be challenged in the name of the kingdom of God.”

[4] France Mark 377 “What John is looking for is not so much personal allegiance and obedience to Jesus, but membership in the ‘authorised’ circle of his followers. We should perhaps understand ἠμεῖς here as specifically the Twelve, regarded as having an exclusive link with and commission from Jesus, so that other people’s association with him must be through their mediation. Even if such a possessive doctrine is not explicit, it fits John’s restrictive action and explains the terms of Jesus response.”

[5] RT France Mark 376 “The impulsive hostility to an outsider revealed in this incident (cf. Lk. 9:54) perhaps gives some basis for the otherwise puzzling epithet Βοανηργές (see on 3:17). If the imperfect tense of ἐκωλύομεν is correct…it probably indicates an unsuccessful attempt rather than the repeated prohibition of a persistent offender’.”

[6] France Mark 377 “First, the fact that the man is able to work a miracle in Jesus’ name shows that he cannot be an enemy…There is no suggestion that the man is personally known to Jesus; rather, he has associated himself with him by using his name, and his choice of that authority, together with the fact of his success, marks him as being on the right side. Such a person cannot in consistency go on to speak as his enemy, and so there is no justification for Jesus’ disciples to oppose him.”

[7] France Mark 378 “This phrase thus brings the series of ‘name’ formulae to a climax where the actual name is spelled out: ὃτι Χριστοῦ ἐστε. It is that name which gives this kind act its specific significance and justifies the reward. This is not mere benevolence, but the demonstration that a person is ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν by means of practical help given specifically to those who belong to Jesus.”

[8] France Mark 378-9 “The three sayings collected in vv. 39-41 thus illustrate in different ways the open boundaries of the kingdom of God, where both committed disciple and sympathetic fellow traveler find their place. The unknown exorcist represents this outer circle, and is to be welcomed as such. There are indeed opponents and ‘outsiders’, as we see repeatedly in the rest of the gospel, but disciples are called on to be cautious in drawing lines of demarcation. They are to be a church, not a sect.”

[9] France Mark 378 “The language of reward, which is so prominent in Matthew, appears explicitly only here in Mark (though see 10:28-30 for the idea). It is a paradoxical term to use in connection with a gift of water, which is so basic a feature of Eastern hospitality as to require no reward. But even so small an act betokens a person’s response to Jesus in the person of his disciples (cf. Mt. 25:31-46), and as such will not be unnoticed.”

[10] France Mark 379

[11] France Mark 380 “To be the cause of another’s spiritual shipwreck is so serious an offence that a quick drowning would be preferable to the fate it deserves; the μύλος ὀνικός the stone from a mill ground by donkey power, far heavier than that of a mill, ensures an immediate death. The stone is rather grotesquely pictured as ‘placed round’ (περίκειται) the neck like a collar, rather than hung from it (Mt. 18:6, κρεμασθῇ). καλόν ἐστιν μᾶλλον indicates a comparison: the drowning is not itself the appropriate fate of such a person…but rather serves as a foil to set off the greater severity of the actual punishment merited…What that punishment is will be indicated in the language of γέεννα and πῦρ ἄσβεστιν which dominates the following verses.”

[12] France Mark 380 “The whole little complex of sayings, like the preceding pericopes, focuses on the demands of discipleship, both negatively and positively.”

[13] France Mark 383, “Christians who disparage ‘hell-fire preaching’ must face the awkward fact that Mark’s Jesus (and still more Matthew’s and Luke’s) envisaged an ultimate separation between life and γέεννα which demanded the most drastic renunciation in order to avoid the unquenchable fire, and that he did not regard even his disciples as immune from the need to examine themselves and take appropriate action.”

[14] France Mark 382-3 “The extended warning of w. 43-48 picks up the theme of ‘tripping’ from v. 42, but the victim is not now someone else (a ‘little one’) but oneself, ‘tripped’ by one’s own hand, foot, or eye. Danger comes to the disciple not only from outside but from within. The metaphor is not explained; it is for the reader individually (the savings are expressed in the singular throughout, except for the αὐτῶν derived from the LXX in v. 48) to determine what aspect of one’s own behaviour, tastes, or interests is a potential cause of spiritual downfall, and to take action accordingly.”

[15] France Mark 381, “Disciples of any age are potentially vulnerable to such ‘tripping’. After the disciples’ abortive discussion of τίς μείζων (v. 34) it is very appropriate that μικροί be used to denote disciples in general. And it is the μικροί who matter so much to Jesus that to trip even one of them up is more than a capital offence.”

[16] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 91

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 6: “Solidarity”

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

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

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

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

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

Page 89

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

page 91

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

Page 95

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

Pages 98-99

God is Love

1 John 4:7-21

Psalm 22:24, 29 My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him… My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’S for ever.

Introduction

I’ll confess that over the past few years I’ve found it easier to say, “God is dead” than, “God is love.” It seems we are daily forced to navigate a world decorated with the placards of death and destruction, mischief and malice, greed and grief. With a single swipe up, we easily witness death’s toll rise as our sisters and brothers are seized by pandemic, suffocated in the grip of hatred and prejudice, and neglected for the preference of self-indulgence. It is hard to reconcile the manifold tragedy we see all around us and the claim “God is love.” The world feels absent love especially at a cosmic level. God feels gone.

I wish I could say (with confidence): even though the world feels divested of divine love, the church stands as a bastion of the perpetuity of this love. Sadly, I cannot. The very institution charged to carry on the precious treasure of the life-giving message of God’s love is also the institution that participates—by word and deed—in the same violence and destruction of so called “secular” institutions. It seems that the proclamation God is love and its twin “God loves us” are trapped under systems of the necessity of right thought wedded to faulty interpretations of what it means and looks like to be a follower of Christ. We’ve become mesmerized by our image and not God’s and what makes us feel pious and good. We’d rather quibble over fabric, wood, stone, and precious metal than throw open doors and arms tossing religiosity to the wind to embrace the “least of these.”

With so much pain and turmoil around us, maybe it would be better to throw in the towel, admit the failure of this divine experiment, and confess, with the 19th century genius existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche,

“…Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead.”[1]

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another because Love is from God; all who love both have been birthed from God and know God…In this way the love of God was manifested in us, because God sent forth [God’s] only begotten son into the cosmos so that we might live through him. In this is love: not that we we[2] have loved God but that [God God] has loved us and sent [God’s] son as atonement for our sins. Beloved, if in this way God loved us, also we we ought to love one another…We we love because [God God] first loved us. [3]

1 Jn 4:7, 9-11, 19

According to John’s first epistle, love is from God because God is love. He goes so far to say that those who love are the ones who have been birthed of God. Then he quickly moves to describe how divine love is brought forth in those who have been born of God and thus of love. Harkening to the imagery of the gospel of John chapter 3—“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” (v.16, NRSV)—the author articulates: the love of God precedes our love for God. [4]

Pushing the imagery further, we can also say, in accordance with Gen 1, that the wind of God hovering over the formless void and the face of the deep is the same as love.[5] Everything about the cosmos is embedded and submerged in divine love. Divine love is the creative force animating the cosmos; the very fabric of our material being is nurtured and produced from love. Thus, even as God’s love predates our love for God. Love itself is older than time and recorded human history. We neither know of a time nor can conceive an era when love didn’t exist. (As Rev. Teri pointed out last week: God loved and loves the dinosaurs!) Our scope is cosmic: God loved and loves without end.[6]

And as God loved the cosmos into being so to does God in God’s love rescue the cosmos and its inhabitants from the plight of humanity by entering that very plight unto death. It is for this reason the epistle writer uses the events of Good Friday through Easter as the lens to comprehend the preceding and continuation of God’s love from one end of the cosmos to the other. God’s love is so profound that not only can it create but it can recreate. That which is dead can be made alive. Christ died on the cross, was buried, and then walked out of tomb. God’s love produced what is (creation) and then went beyond that to grant us the possibility of what could be (recreation).

The epitome of divine love is manifest in standing in solidarity with suffering and stuck humanity threatened with death and destruction and liberating them from it even if they brought it upon themselves. This is unconditional love, and therefore divine love can exist into eternity because it’s based on the eternal source that is God and not conditioned on this or that behavior of the beloved. Conditional love isn’t love; it’s a contract. There is no contract in God’s love language. God just loves because love loves. Where there is love there is God.

Conclusion

Going back to the quotation above from Nietzsche. The quote is only in part. The Parable of the Madman is more profound than the portion I referenced.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

Far from pessimistic, Nietzsche’s words partake of possibility and hope. God is not dead because we cannot kill Love. What Nietzsche refers to as “God” isn’t “God” but what we’ve crafted and fashioned to be “God.” And this “God” is dead. The false idols we have constructed of God and propped up in the name of God are the ones that are being exposed as monsters and must be torn down. The death and destruction we see abounding around us isn’t because God is dead; rather, it’s because we’ve baptized (in the name of God) the death dealing and life destroying structures and systems we’ve built and curated and these we must destroy because they are putrid and septic. The god we’ve presented to the world in our own flesh is a god who has been found wanting and we must kill this “God.” And the only way to do that is to love, to love to the fullest extent of the word and in the most radical interpretation. For where we love there is God, where God is there is life and light and liberation.

“The gravity of her situation settled in on her, closing in on her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Would she put the chains back around her neck or let them go and step forward into love? Her heart beat right up into her throat. She tried to swallow it down, but her mouth was suddenly dry. She sat perfectly still but within she was a child, flailing about, trying to push love away; until another part of herself pulled it to her, holding love out to her. It’s not what you want, it’s what you need. She stopped writhing and pushing and looked at it. She reached out and took love, still afraid. She held love in her hands, not knowing if she held it right…Tell God you are afraid. And thank Him. She couldn’t’ find a way to say she was afraid, but she could at least hold her fear and the love she feared out to Him. So she held our what He was forcing her to carry, her commitment to carry love without even knowing what that meant, her fear, all of it, and took one step forward, making herself say aloud, ‘Alhamdulilah.’”[7]

Laury Silvers The Lover

You are the beloved not because it’s a nice sentiment but because Love started this entire thing and sustains it, always in search of the object of love: you, the world and everything in it from the very small to the very big, the entire cosmos. You are the beloved because you’ve been wrapped up in this ancient and present activity of divine love. You’ve been swept up into the current of the activity of divine love, Beloved. You are the beloved because God is love and is not dead; praise be to God.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman” The Gay Science Trans Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974 (trans). Original publication Die frölich Wissenschaft 1887.III.125.181-2.

[2] The double pronoun use here and following is due to the use of the pronouns with the verb in Greek which indicates an emphatic emphasis on the pronouns. It’s stressing that we did not love God but that

[3] All translations of the text are mine unless otherwise noted.

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.555 “…aorist indicates past time with reference to the time of speaking.”

[5] Gen 1:1-2 NRSV

[6] The statement here is based on the conception of the aorist verb used in the verse translated. This portion reads, “…αλλ’ οτι αυτος ηγαπησεν ημας…” the ηγαπησεν is an aorist active indicative 3rd person singular verb. Daniel B. Wallace explains that the aorist is best understood as, “as taking a snapshot of the action…” as opposed to a moving picture. And here, “The aorist tense ‘presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence.’” (554).

[7] Laury Silvers The Lover: A Sufi Mystery Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019.254

Behold, Christ’s Feet

Psalm 4:1 Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard-pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. (27)

Introduction

I’m not afraid of physical pain—the sore and strain of bones and muscles.[1] As an athlete, one must endure pain to be good. To build muscle, muscle must be torn down and rebuilt, a painful process. I am eager to learn new skills, so, know the demands for discomfort that comes with learning. It’s physically awkward to learn new moves, new postures, new holds. I wasn’t afraid to enter 14 hours of heavy contractions without medication as my son Jack attempted to make his debut on a hot August day in 2008. (With every contraction, Jack hit every bone he could before the midwife called the c-section—his head being too big to pass through my structure.) I’m that ridiculous person who says: no pain, no gain. If something is too easy, I immediately think: what am I doing wrong. Always looking for the next level because, to quote Will-I-Am as Pedro in the animated movie Rio: “Come on! This ain’t the level. The next level is the level.”

However, throw in a sudden shot of mental anguish and everything changes. While I won’t flee from physical pain, mental anguish is something altogether more painful to me. The mind takes over and anxiety surges in the body. Chaos starts to swirl in my mind and around me; my refuge of safety—my mind palace—is under siege. I am ushered into the crevasse opening under my feet, threatening to swallow me. Trying to fight against the discomfort (working, reading, running, tasking, scrolling, etc.) or pretending that everything is just fine (#fakeittillyoumakeit), makes it worse. The harder I fight and ignore, the worse the discomfort gets. I am no match to resist this Apollyon[2] seeking to destroy me on this journey, eager to drive me to the brink and edge of myself into oblivion.

Luke 24:36-48

Now, as they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood in the middle of them and said to them, “Peace to you.” But being terrified and becoming full of fear, they were thinking they were looking at a spirit. And Jesus said to them, “Why are you disturbed and why are thoughts coming up in your hearts? Experience my hands and my feet that I am[3] myself. Touch me and experience that a spirit has not flesh and bones just as you behold me having.” Then after saying this he showed them [his] hands and feet.

Luke 24:36-40

Luke is clear about the mental anguish of the disciples when Jesus appears in the middle of them.[4] He is clear: Jesus showing up didn’t immediately bring the comfort we might think/hope it would. The language Luke uses is thematically like the language Mark used to describe the women arriving at an open tomb on Easter morning. Divine movement in human time and space is terrifying even if it’s good.[5],[6] Divine activity here always alters reality as we know it—there’s nothing comforting about this. When God moves, things will change; we don’t like change, especially when it destroys what we know to be true. The tomb is opened; the women were terrified and seized with fear. The Crucified Christ shows up; the men are terrified and full of fear.

Jesus declares: Peace to you! Yet, fear and trembling persisted. Even if this declaration of peace was understood as the shalom that is peace with God thus salvation, it wasn’t all that the disturbed disciples needed.[7] These men were in mental anguish; speaking “peace” wasn’t enough. Jesus recognizes this. His response? He names what is going with these men: why are you disturbed? Why are reasonings coming up in your heart? I am myself![8]In other words, I see you and feel you. Jesus is truly there with them; in solidarity with them. But calling a thing what it is isn’t all Jesus does.

He knows something else must happen to relieve the disturbedness. Behold my hands; gaze upon my feet; see for yourself that I am who I am and that I am here with you! These terrified people needed to touch Jesus to know he was real. It wasn’t enough for Jesus to speak peace; he needed to show them his wounded hands and feet. He stood among them and held out his hands, experience the holes from the nails that held me to the cross; gaze at death’s feeble attempt to keep God and my beloved apart; behold, not even death can exile you from me. And they touched him. When they did, their terror and fear turned to doubt because of joy (v.41); this was too good to be true. Doubt still existed, but it’s source was the good news they felt with their hands as they touched the body of Jesus.[9] They reached out with trembling hands, like the shepherds did back at Christmas, and touched the very flesh of God and were not reduced to dust but into new life. The Lord is Risen!

Conclusion

The only way the disciples moved from their fear and terror at Jesus’s presence was through and not around. So it is with us. The only way for me to pass through my mental anguish, my fear and terror, my panic and anxiety is to sit and feel, to face and acknowledge, to look it in the eyes, touch it, call it for what it is, and exist there. Referring to the EnneaThought for this past Friday, “…if we stay present to our discomfort, we will also feel something else arising—something more real, capable, sensitive, and exquisitely aware of ourselves and of our surroundings.”[10] The beginning of release comes in facing the reality of what is and moving through and from there; this becomes our sure foundation: embracing the truth, naming the feelings, and admitting our weakness and problem.

When Jesus walked the earth, he overturned condemning material systems birthed from human judgment. In his resurrected material[11] life, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, flips time and space—like he did tables in the temple—and brings with him the women and men whom he encounters into the divine reign. Christ’s resurrected material presence on earth among people indicates that God’s reign is not merely spiritual, but physical, too; this (all) is God’s good creation.[12]

The rest is in making our home where we live and standing in solidarity with our neighbors rather than escaping it through fighting against Apollyon and turning blind eyes.

The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark
And no dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart

I took the stars from my eyes, an then I made a map
And knew that somehow I could find my way back
Then I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you[13]

Florence and the Machine “Cosmic Love”

The material presence of Christ with the disciples makes it impossible for us to reduce problems and their solutions of our world to the spiritual. In other words, our presence in the world toward our neighbor must be more than “thoughts and prayers” or the ludicrous assertion people should pull themselves out of their suffering and oppression by their own bootstraps. We must look at the violence in our country and call it what it is: life denying and anti-human. To quote the biblical scholar, Justo Gonzalez, “The Lord who broke the bonds of death calls his followers to break the bonds of injustice and oppression,”[14] that which causes death. The material presence of Christ with people after his resurrection is a sure sign that, to quote womanist theologian, The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas of Union Seminary,

The resurrection asserts the sanctity of human life as it overcomes all the forces that would deny it. The resurrection in effect makes plane the ‘wrongness’ of the crucifixion, and thus of all crucifying realities. It shows that death does not have the last word. [15]

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground

In our encounter with God in the resurrected Christ of Easter in the event of faith, we are made into new people in the world. In our new life in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to love God with our whole selves and to also love our neighbor as ourselves. In this encounter we are remade and reshaped (the product of repentance[16]), we will be “wholly transformed” through death into new life to conform to the image of Christ in the world.[17] If we think this means merely speaking peace and not attempting to perform this divine shalom into the world, then Jesus is still in the tomb, and we follow phantoms.

But we don’t follow a phantom; we follow the materially risen Lord Jesus Christ who fully affirms life (for all people, and especially the oppressed and suffering people[18]). Hope is not lost; faith is not abandoned. Prayer informs our praxis, rendering the space of our activity divine space. We are indwelled with the holy spirit, God of very God. Where there is death, we bring life; where there is midnight, we shine light; where there is hunger, we bring food; where there is terror and fear we, the beloved, bring comfort to the beloved. Our hands extend to the downtrodden and we lift up, behold Christ’s hand. Our feet stand in solidarity with black and brown bodies threatened at every turn; behold Christ’s feet.


[1] I’m not including here physical pain from chronic illness. I group that under mental anguish because of the toll it takes on the mind and body. Also, as someone who has not suffered with chronic illness, I cannot speak to it. I wanted to add this here so people know I’m aware of the physical pain of Chronic Illness.

[2] Reference to the antagonist in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

[3] The εγω ειμι here is a loaded term, so I emphasized it. The Greek reads “…εγω ειμι αυτος” thus a literal translation would be “I, I am myself.” Whenever you see the personal pronoun with the verb in Greek there’s a needed emphasis. I also think Luke is intentional with the wording and order; the great I AM is with them. God is with the Beloved.

[4] Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds. Ay Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 279 “The theological emphasis of this passage lies on the true, physical resurrection of Jesus. The disciples think that what they are seeing may be his ghost, a story parallel to the reaction of other disciples in Acts when Peter returns to them unexpectedly.”

[5] Joel B. Green TNICNT The Gospel of Luke Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997. 852 “…the Evangelist [Luke] places a premium on ‘seeing.’…Initial points of contact with accounts of angelic appearances signal the wonder of this moment, while points of contrast indicate the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. …Luke’s narrative affirms a resurrected Jesus over against these other options for the afterlife current in the Hellenistic world.”

[6] Green 855, In re Luke’s use of “Joy” “What they were experiencing was simply too good to be true.”

[7] Green 854, “Within the Third Gospel, ‘peace’ is metonymic for ‘salvation,’ so that, in this co-text, Jesus’ greeting takes on an enlarged meaning. The Emmaus travelers imagined that his rejection and crucifixion had rendered Jesus incapable of serving as Israel’s redeemer; here, following his death, though, he communicates or transmits continue salvation to those gathered.”

[8] Green 854-5, “…Jesus is now represented as alive beyond the grave as an embodied person. Jesus’ affirmation is emphatic—‘it is I  myself!’ ‘It is really me!’—intimating continuity between these phases of Jesus’ life, before crucifixion and after resurrection.”

[9] Green 855, “Nestled between these two demonstrations of materiality is a transparent indication that such exhibitions are insufficient for producing the desired effects This is consistent with the emphasis through ch. 24 on the inherent ambiguity of ‘facts’ and, thus, the absolute necessity of interpretation. Not even controvertible evidence of Jesus’ embodied existence is capable of producing faith; resolution will come only when scriptural illuminate is added to material data.”

[10]The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 37

[11] Gonzalez Luke 279, “The Jesus who repeatedly ate with his disciples, with sinners, with publicans, wand with Pharisees now eats his last meal before leaving his disciples in the ascension. He does this in order to prove that he is not a just a vision or a ghost, that he has really conquered death.”

[12] Gonzalez Luke 279, “The one whose life the church shares in Word and Sacrament is not a ghost or a disembodied spirit. He is the risen Lord. Those who serve him do not serve a moral or religious principle, nor just the natural spiritual urges of humankind; they serve one like themselves, yet Lord of all.”

[13] Florence and the Machine “Cosmic Love”

[14] Gonzalez Luke 280, “And, because his resurrection is not a merely spiritual matter, they cannot limit their service to purely spiritual matters. The Lord who showed his resurrection to his disciples by eating with them invites his followers to show his resurrection to the world by feeding the hungry.”

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013. 187 Here’s the full paragraph for context: “The resurrecting power of God is made fully manifest in the defeat of the ultimate power of evil represented by the cross. The resurrection is God’s definitive response to the crucifying realities. It clarifies the essential character of God’s power—a power that values life. The resurrection of the one who died such a hideous and ignominious death firmly established that God does not in any way sanction the suffering of human being. The resurrection asserts the sanctity of human life as it overcomes all the forces that would deny it. The resurrection in effect makes plane the ‘wrongness’ of the crucifixion, and thus of all crucifying realities. It shows that death does not have the last word.”

[16] Green 858, “Repentance’ will be a key term describing the appropriate response to the offer of salvation in Acts, and connotes the (re)alignment of one’s life—that is, dispositions and behaviors—toward God’s purpose.”

[17] Green 854, “‘Heart’ has already been used in vv 25 and 32, reminding Luke’s audience of the importance in these sense of the need for the inner commitments to these persons to be reshaped in light of the resurrection of Jesus. They must be wholly transformed—in disposition and attitude, cognition and affect, as well as practices and behaviors—but they continue to lack the categories for rendering this new experience of Jesus in a meaningful way. As with Jesus’ companions on the road to Emmaus, they are obtuse, slow of heart (v 25).”

[18] Douglas Stand Your Ground 188 “What the resurrection points to…is not the meaning of Jesus’s death, but of his life…The resurrection of Jesus thus solidified God’s commitment to the re restoration o life for the ‘crucified class’ of people. It reveals that there are ‘no principalities or power’ that can frustrate or foil God’s power to overcome the crucifying death in the world that not only targets but also creates a ‘crucified class’ of people  To restore to life those whose bodies are the particular targets of the world’s violence is to signal the triumph over crucifying violence and death itself….The crucifixion-resurrection event points to the meaning found in Jesus’ life, not his death. By understanding he resurrection in light of the cross, we know that crucifying realities do not have the last word, and, thus, cannot take away the value of one’s life. The meaning of one’s life, in other words, is not found in death and is not vitiated by it.”

For All People

Sermon on 1 Cor 9:16-23

Psalm 147:5-7 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp. (44)

Introduction

For Quinn’s 7th birthday, we brought him and a few friends to see Frozen. At the time I didn’t know the hit it would be. A week later nearly every 1st grade girl sang the lyrics to Let it go! at the top of their lungs, and I knew. While I believe the movie has a profound inherent quality (of message and story), what seemed to grab the attention seven to eight year-old girls was one particular moment: Elsa breaking free from the strictures of an oppressive environment preventing her from being who she truly is.

After an angry display of her powers, Elsa hurries off. Nothing holds her back; she’s been revealed, and her only choice (so she believes) is to head off alone into the cold, dark, snowy night. And here web receive that song of liberation. As Elsa heads through snow, she shrugs off what was and embraces her newfound liberty. She’s done with everything and now: freedom. She sings while creates as she moves through snow…

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free[1]

Frozen

She creates a castle, releases her hair, and transforms her drab sensible clothing into a stunning dress made of snow and ice. This moment activated chills of every person watching it deeply longing for freedom that is freedom to just be as is! I, too, found myself caught up in the momentum as Elsa’s rejected her captivity to what was.

Let it go, let it go/Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go/Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

Frozen

Elsa finally gets to just live as she wants to as she is. Elsa is the self-proclaimed queen of her kingdom of ice-olation. She’s free. Or is she?

1 Corinthians 9:18-19, 22-23

Then what is my wage? So that while preaching good tidings I might establish the good news without expense in order not to make full use of my personal ability and power in the good news. For being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people, so that I might gain many more people (1 Cor 9:18-19).

In the Corinthian situation of chapter 9, Paul is still addressing those whom he addressed earlier in chapter 8. In view are “the strong”—those who feel confident in what they know to be true and in their faith, and those who are economically and socially empowered to participate in this or that event or meal.[2] Chapter 9 is Paul’s further clarifying what he means about the freedom of the gospel for the one who is justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works.

Paul explains to the Corinthians that he received the gospel freely—the good tidings came to him of no charge and was not a product of his own doing (he didn’t earn it or produce it of his own works). He confesses he is without boasting here[3] because he received this gift freely, and he is compelled[4] to preach this good news because he’s been entrusted with this proclamation in word and deed.[5] As Paul freely receives, he freely gives—not from threat of hell or reward of heaven, but just because he cannot do any other in his conformity to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who is the foundation of his faith.[6] He hinges it all to this purpose: so as not to make full use of my power and ability in the good news. In other words, Paul has not employed all of his rights to receive wages for his work, which he has entitlement to; he foregoes those by working with his hands to support himself. [7] Thus he exhorts the strong[8]: forego your own entitlement just as I have. [9]

And then with grand emphasis Paul dives deeper into the concept of gospel founded freedom: being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people (v.19).[10] I love studying languages. The more I study different languages, the more I enjoy my own language and the nitty gritty of grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. So, here I am compelled to highlight the importance of prepositions and cases because Paul is intentional with them. To speak of gospel freedom, for Paul, is to speak not only of freedom from other people (Ελευθερος…ων εκ παντων, the genitive prepositional phrase of belonging) but precisely that this freedom from is hardwired toward freedom to and for other people (πασιν, the dative case carrying with it the “to/for” prepositions, the case of the indirect object).[11]

For Paul, to be truly free is seeing your freedom from as freedom for and to other people. For “the strong” in Corinth this means that their freedom, if it truly is freedom, is not about an ardent insistence for their entitlements and rights. Rather, it’s for the weaker: those who don’t have what they have, those who don’t have access to what they have access to, those who are restricted in their ability to move about and do this and do that because of their dependence on other people and institutions.[12] Paul tells “the strong”: to/for the weak I became weak in that I might gain the weak (v.22). And then he concludes with …to all people I became all things so that I might rescue some. It is anathema for Paul that the believer would use her freedom to secure her entitlement. Instead, for Paul, his freedom from having to justify himself through works of the law is now freedom for those trapped in totalitarian religious and social systems. For Paul, this is the definition of what it means to act like Christ;[13] this is cruciform humanity in encounter with God in the event of faith that produces true freedom.[14]

Conclusion

So, back to Elsa. Is Elsa free when she tromps off into the wild winter night? Is she free as she constructs that stunning palace and her new persona unburdened by demands and expectations of others? No. She’s not free. She’s not acquired freedom but imprisonment. Freedom from when it stops there becomes a prison of the self. In order to maintain that type of freedom you must always pull back and away until you’re isolated. Then you must defend that isolation because freedom (strictly) from can never be free in the presence of another person. If my freedom is defined solely as freedom from (the law, from others, from obligation, from demand, etc.) then I’m not free because I can neither participate in those things nor not feel threatened by their presence indicating my limitedness. I’m not free if I’m limited by the threat of external things; this is the definition of enslavement. If I must have my way, I’m not free.

Elsa doesn’t become truly free until she figures out how to use her power in the presence of other people. Once she realizes love is the controlling factor, she’s released unto real freedom and can exist as is with others—not in her freedom from fueled by anger and rage keeping her isolated but freedom from that is drawn by love to be freedom to and for other people. Compare what she creates to protect herself from others and what she creates for others: in her freedom from she builds an ice palace, locking her away from others and in her freedom to and for she summons a summer snowfall, lays out an ice skating rink, and a snow cloud to protect Olaf.

Beloved, you’re free. God in God’s freedom freely descended because God so loved the world, the creation, the cosmos, so loved you to rescue everything and everyone from the powers of sin, darkness, and death; this is the content of the gospel, of the good news made flesh in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. That divine freedom is now our freedom from the powers of sin, darkness, and death to be free by faith and not works into grace, light, and life for and to others who are also the objects of divine love. To “share in the nature of the gospel” [15] is to stand with the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering and hurting, the wounded and sick, the hindered and ostracized. (There is no better expression of freedom than to willingly stand in solidarity with struggling humanity.) Where there are the sick, we become as the sick to rescue the sick from death; where there are those fighting for the right to breath, we become as those fighting for the right to breath to rescue those who are fighting for the right to breath from death; where there are those who have been displaced, we become as those being displaced to rescue the displaced from death. In our freedom from we count it not for us to seize for ourselves but for and to others; for it is this very thing God did for us.


[1] Let it Go! From the move Frozen Written by: Kristen Anderson-Lopez / Robert Lopez Performed by Idina Menzel

[2] And all of this is a further elaboration of chapter 6 where Paul addresses the body and what to do with it.

[3] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 695, “Paul has explained that the can glory or boast only where the principle of ‘freely you received, freely give’ operates, and when a renunciation of ‘rights is entirely voluntary. This cannot apply in his particular case to the act of preaching alone or to proclamation itself, for, like Jeremiah, in every account of his call Paul insists that God’s compulsion presses upon him.”

[4] Thiselton 696, “It is agony if Paul tries to escape form the constraints and commission which the love and grace of ‘the hound of heaven’ presses upon him. With this further logical step glorying (καυχημα) begins to slip back subtly into boasting.”

[5] Keep in mind that as Paul exhorted the Corinthians to treat their bodies well because they are the temples of God (the Holy Spirit), so to is Paul. And, thus, as Paul has received the good news, he has received it as the scribe and the scroll, as the messenger and the message in a bottle. This is why Paul is under Holy Spirit inspired compulsion to proclaim the good news: he is the temple of God proclaiming the good tidings of God (this links him with the great prophetic tradition that precedes him).

[6] Thiselton 697, “The whole argument hinges on sovereign grace, and that it is in freely giving in response to God’s free gift that καυχημα, grounds for taking delight in what one gives, becomes possible only within a framework where pressure and law do not apply: free gift in response to free gift. It is in giving that the believe receives, not as some ‘external’ reward, but through the internal grammar of the blessedness of giving which is a stamp of identification with the cross.”

[7] Collins qtd in Thiselton 697, “‘The object of Paul’s boasting is not the preaching of the gospel…Pauls’ boast is that he has not made use of the rights to which he is entitled…to support himself by the work of his own hands.’”

[8] Martin qtd in Thiselton 698, “‘Paul’s pointed surrender of his eleutheria and exousia (as one of the strong) is therefore…directed precisely at those who have these things and resist giving them up, that is, those of higher status.’”

[9] Thiselton 697, “This verse explicates the point just made above. Only by gratuitously proclaiming the gospel gratis can Paul go beyond the preaching which God has pressed upon him as an inescapable, not voluntary, task, and there by go the extra mile.’ To do this, however, he must forego a right, as he pleads with ‘the strong’ among his readers to do.”

[10] Thiselton 700, “Since ελευθερος is so strongly emphatic, we may retain the positive term free … to denote the Corinthian catchword taken up by Paul, but also combine it with NJB’s subtle use of the negative though I as no a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people…”

[11] Thiselton 701, “Paul very subtly but also emphatically presses in what precise sense Christian believers and Christian leaders are free and in what sense voluntary slavery performs a wholesome, even essential, saving purpose in Christ-like obedience and love for other.”

[12] Thiselton 705 “In this context the weak may mean those whose options for life and conduct where severely restricted because of their dependence on the wishes of patrons, employers, or slave owners.”

[13] Thiselton 706, “The weak stand in contrast to those with ‘social power, influence, political status…ability to competence in a variety of areas’ and by contrast have ‘low social standing’ and crave for identity, recognition, and acceptance. Paul’s foregoing of his rights to a ‘professional’ status by functioning as a religious rhetorician for a patron and toiling as an artisan demonstrate his solidarity with the weak both as a missionary and pastoral strategist and in Christlike behavior.”

[14] Thiselton 708, “Paul does all that he does to make transparent by his everyday life in the public domain the character of the gospel which he proclaims as the proclamation of the cross…, which derives its character, and not simply its ‘benefits,’ from Christ himself.”

[15] Thiselton 707, “To stand alongside the Jews, the Gentile, the socially dependent and vulnerable, or to live and act in solidarity with every kind of person in every kind of situation is to have a share in the nature of the gospel, i.e., to instantiate what the gospel is and how it operates.”

Are You Free?

Sermon on 1 Cor 8:1-13

Psalm 111:1-3 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Introduction

I was taken with the idea that love never participated with law. I was deeply invested in pursuing what seemed a clear and eternal divergence between divine command and promise, following closely to a specific reading of Martin Luther’s theology—the distinction between law and gospel. In this scheme, to be in a loving relationship with someone else means never making any demands on them. Here, Love is about creating space for that person to be as they are wherever they are whenever they are; this was the liberty of God’s grace, the freedom in Christ: true rest from the demands to “perform” and “people please” and “earn righteousness through work” and thus “true life”. While some of these ideas find some grounding (albeit with intentional nuancing), the underbelly of this theology wasn’t rest, freedom, and life but increased suffering, burden, and death. Well, it was rest for one group and toil for everyone else not in that group.

Then one day as I stood in a large church auditorium like sanctuary, watching a video of people talking about the liberative experience of this specific interpretation of God’s love and grace, I saw it. It was the last video. A married couple was sharing their story. The husband spoke about how wonderful this conception of grace was because now he comes home from work and there is no expectation on him to help with the kids or other events, he can rest if he wants to—fall back on the couch, kick shoes off, grab a beer, and watch some tv. Then the camera turned to the wife. “Yeah…,” she said half-heartedly. “It’s great because now when he helps, he wants to.” While her words affirmed her husband’s experience, her face and her eyes told me everything I needed to know. She was not free. She was not rested. She was exhausted, burdened, and suffering by being stripped of any ability to ask for help and to confess pain and discomfort because it would be “law” to him and thus “condemnation.” She was dead. When you see death, you can never unsee death.

That image—her face, her desperate eyes—fuels my academic and pastoral pursuits now as I’ve walked away from that destructive theology.[1] Liberty and freedom in Christ brings liberty and freedom to all and not at the expense of another’s body, mind, soul, and spirit. A relationship is only loving and free where both people in the relationship are mutually engaged in each other’s thriving not in turning a blind eye to things. Where both step into the exposing light of love calling a thing what it is and are willing to do self-reckoning work.

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Now, “food of any kind will not prove us to God.” Neither if we do not eat are we lacking, nor if we eat are we over and above. But discern carefully this power to act of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9, translation mine

Paul proclaimed that the believer is justified by faith in Christ (ευαγελλιον) apart from works of the law. She need only faith in Christ, and this becomes the sole foundation of her justification and righteousness with God—there are no works of the law that can justify or make righteous as completely as faith does. Thus, the believer is liberated from the threat of condemnation and death that leads to death and is now free to love God and neighbor. There is nothing that can or will separate her from the love (presence) of God—not even hell. This is the freedom Paul proclaims to his fledgling churches: freedom inherent in the event of encounter with God in faith liberating into life and living. God in Christ comes to the believer, calls her, and rescues her from death into new life in the Spirit. This is grace.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul pumps the freedom brakes. He details guidelines for the Corinthian believers finding themselves in a conundrum. Some believers are fine eating meat “associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[2] They are whom Paul refers to as “the strong”—a phrase referring to both those confident in their faith and who were wealthy and had access the occasions to eat such meat.[3] Paul writes, while it is true that neither eating nor abstaining from this meat has an impact on their presence before God, it may have an impact on those “weaker” brothers and sisters—those who were both insecure in their faith (unsure about what is okay and not okay) and lower in social status.

Paul challenges the knowledge (γνωσις) of “the strong” resulting in their liberty to eat what they want and do what they please. Paul declares that knowledge (alone) puffs up and inflates and lures toward being an imposter; but paired with love it builds up authentically edifying both the beloved and the lover (vv. 1-2).[4] In other words, “the strong” should keep γνωσις yoked to αγαπη (love): even if they are free to eat, they should care more for their “weak” brother or sister who didn’t have the same access to such food and security in the liberty of their actions.[5]

Paul makes it clear that this love isn’t self-generated but imparted in the encounter with God in the event of faith (v.3). To love God is to be loved by God and known by God; this becomes the foundation for the love fractal. As we are loved by God, we love that which and those whom God loves seeing and knowing those whom God loves by seeing and knowing them, too.[6]

Paul’s point isn’t to side with the “strong” Corinthians or the “weak”, but to say: the composition of the conscience (secure or insecure) can lean toward a miscalculation about what is right to do and what is wrong.[7] Operating out of fear is as problematic as operating out of abundance of confidence. Paul warns “the strong” that their supposed liberty isn’t a reason for autonomous activity without considering the effect on others. [8] It’s not strictly about intent for Paul, these Christians may truly believe they’re free. Impact must also factor in here. For Paul, this is done with freedom wedded to love. Just because you can, says Paul, doesn’t mean you should because it may cause others to be polluted by being tripped up by your actions. [9] For Paul, a future forward ethic keeping in mind the potential impact of one’s actions/words on other brothers and sisters is the definition of freedom

Conclusion

For those who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan and for those who have ears pricked and heads turned hearing Christ call them by name, what is freedom for you? To follow Jesus as disciples means that freedom is going to take on an orientation toward the other. A cruciform freedom puts “weak” brothers and sisters before us. This is not to the loss of our freedom as if we lose ourselves, but in that we have received ourselves in the love of God in the encounter with God in faith, we enter into the plight with our brothers and sisters. True freedom for me is actualized only in freedom for you; if you are not free, am I free? [10] It becomes about mutuality. Mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explains,

“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter. It involves all aspects of one’s life and demands a lifelong permanency. The way in which the commitment is lived out may change. From time to time one maybe less passionate about carrying out the implications of mutuality, but somehow to go back and place oneself in a position of control and domination over others is to betray others and oneself. Such a betrayal, which most of the time occurs by failing to engage in liberative praxis rather than by formal denunciation, results in the ‘friends’ becoming oppressors once again and in the oppressed losing their vision of liberation.”[11]

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology p. 100

If I in my strength cannot tame my liberty and walk with you so you can have your liberty, then I’m not free. If I cannot deem the liberties and freedoms of others as important as mine, then I have not freedom but bondage. If I am threatened by you having as much liberty and freedom as I do, I’m not free. If my autonomy must eclipse and ignore your need; I’m not free but captive.[12]

To be free, to be truly free isn’t to claim your rights as absolutes and acting on them no matter what. To be free, to be truly free is to say with Christ: into this I can enter with you. (This is solidarity.) Freedom can both break the law and obey it because it knows when to do which. If we’re free, then we are free–free to share in the burden of existence while trying to alleviate the yoke of suffering without losing our freedom. If stepping into the anxiety, fears, and concerns of our neighbor means we’ve lost our freedom then we didn’t have freedom to begin with. If we are unable to hear the cries of the weak, to listen to their stories of suffering, and affirm their lived experience, we’re not strong. So, beloved of God, you who are sought and called and loved by God: Are you strong? Are you free?


[1] I give credit for the start of this journey to two colleagues: Dr. Dan Siedell and Dr. W. Travis McMaken.

[2] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 620

[3] Thiselton “ε`ιδωλο’θυτα And the Scope of the Corinthian Catchprhases” 617  “…if Theissen and the majority of specialist writers are correct in their sociological analysis of the identities of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak,’ the issue of eating meat, together with its scarcity for the poor and the variety of social occasions for the rich, has a decisive bearing on Paul’s discussion.”

[4] Thiselton 622 In re γνωσις Gardner “[compares] the contrast between ‘knowledge’ and love in this verse with the parallel contrast between 13:1-1 and the two chapters on ‘spiritual gifts’ which provide its frame. He sis that γνωσις is practical; but its nature and its relation to love can profoundly determine what kind of practical effects it set in motion.” And, “Love, by contrast, builds solidly, and does not pretend to be what it is not. If it gives stature to a person or to community, that enlargement remains solid and genuine.” “knowledge inflates” “φυσιοω suggests the self-importance of the frog in Aesop’s Fables, or something pretentiously enlarged by virtue of being pumped full of air or wind.”

[5] Thiselton 622-3 “Rather than seeking to demonstrate some individualist assertion of freedom or even victory, love seeks the welfare of the other. Hence if ‘the strong’ express love, they will show active concern that ‘the weak’ are not precipitated into situations of bad conscience, remorse, unease, or stumbling. Rather, the one who loves the other will consider the effect of his or her own attitudes and actions upon ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.”

[6] Thiselton 626  “The kind of ‘knowledge which ‘the strong’ use manipulatively to assert their ‘rights’ about meat associated idols differs form an unauthentic Christian process of knowing which is inextricably bound up with loving.” And, “…it is part of the concept of authentic Christian knowing and being known that love constitutes a dimension of this process.”

[7] Thiselton 640, “Paul sides neither entirely with ‘the weak’ nor entirely with ‘the strong’ in all respects and in relation to every context or occasion. For the self-awareness or conscience of specific persons (συνεδησις αυτων) does not constitute an infallible guide to moral conduct in Pauls’ view….someone’s self-awareness or conscience may be insufficiently sensitive to register negative judgment or appropriate discomfort in some context…and oversensitive to the point of causing mistaken judgment or unnecessary discomfort in others.”

[8] Thiselton 644, “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience.’ Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’….must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin.’ This ‘freedom’ may become ‘sin against Christ (8:12).”

[9] Thiselton 654 “By projecting the ‘weak’ into this ‘medium” of γνωσις, the ‘strong’ bring such a person face-to-face with utter destruction. What a way to ‘build’ them!”

[10] Thiselton 650-1, “For in the first case, ‘the weak’ or less secure are tripped up and damaged by the self-assertive behavior of the overconfident; while in the second place it is putting the other before the self, manifest in the transformative effect of the cross, which causes the self-sufficient to turn away….True ‘wisdom’ is seen in Christ’s concern for the ‘weak” and the less secure, to the point of renouncing his own rights, even to he death of the cross.”

[11] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 100.

[12] Thiselton 657-8, “Chrysostom comments, ‘It is foolish in the extreme that we should esteem as so entirely beneath our notice those that Christ so greatly cared for that he should have even chosen to die for them, as not even to abstain from meat on their account.’ This comment captures very well the key contrast through this chapter between asserting one’s own ‘right to choose’ and reflecting with the motivation of love for the other what consequences might be entailed for fellow Christians if self-centered ‘autonomy’ rules patters of Christian attitudes and conduct. It has little or nothing to do with whether actions ’offend’ other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just ‘knowledge’ but Christian character and Christian community.”

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.

Liberating the Captives

Sancta Colloquia Episode 207 ft. Robert Monson

 

#BlackLivesMatter✊🏿 #SayTheirNames #GeorgeFloyd #BreonnaTaylor #AhmaudArbery #SeanReed #TonyMcDade #TrayvonMartin #BlackTheology #WomanistTheology #LiberationTheology #Resist #Resistance #Equality #Liberation #Revolution #Protest #Justice #HumanRights #Activism #SpeakOut #SilenceisCompliance #SilenceisViolence

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia @SanctaColloquia), I had the opportunity to sit with my friend and colleague, Robert Monson (@robertjmonson). Robert and I discussed one overarching theme–The God who liberates black people–in two points: the necessity of practical theology and the need to redefine the term “Theologian.” At first, one may think that these ideas are single concepts disconnected from each other, but, after talking with Robert, it is easy to see how these two ideas are twin ideas. Monson explains that “Practical Theology” is, simply put, the academic discipline of theology brought to the ground level. In other words, Practical Theology answer the question: “How does this [academic] theology inform our orthopraxy?” Monson explains that concepts of God are lofty, and when the person listens to academic papers about God (often described and defined (wrongly) through and with whiteness) the question is: “Who cares?” So, Practical Theology bridges the gap between knowledge and why we care. Practical theology breaks into the very echo chamber that renders us lethargic and useless and attempts to bridge the gap between heady, academic, ivory-tower language and every day real people. Along side this is the term “theologian”. What or who is a theologian? Standard ways of defining such a concept or “person” cause us to imagine theologians as old, cis-het white, men (almost like our go to images for God). Monson informs us, “What we define as ‘theologian’ is harming how we see both theology and God. ‘Did God only speak through white men post Martin Luther?’” He makes an important and rather startling point that “Even CS Lewis gets a pass” as a theologian (an untrained cis-het white man). However anyone falling outside of the “rule” (women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+) has to verify and demonstrate and be approved by the ruling class to claim the name for themselves. Even when the minority goes through the hoops to become a “theologian” they are then called a heretic because they stray and push back on “theology proper.” As mentioned in the introduction to the show, even if we do meet the “standard” we won’t because, to quote Dr. Callahan, “we weren’t meant to be there in the first place.” Case and point: Dr. James Cone. Robert informs us that Cone’s theology is not that radical, he’s actually looking at the text and seeing practical things: God liberates people and didn’t just give them an abstract future hope that maybe one day they’ll be liberated…in Heaven. By arguing for “black theology” and for the equality and beauty and rights of black people, Cone gets charged with heresy because he’s not towing the white-theology line of the ruling authority. Even though new definitions and change are scary, Monson says, we need more diversity at the “theologian” table…maybe that table should look more like our communion table…

Intrigued? You should be.

Listen here: 

 

Robert Monson is originally from Illinois and grew up talking people out of their faith in Christianity only to be converted in a powerful encounter in college. He has many years of experience in cross-cultural missions, church planting, and college ministry. Additionally, while in Bible College undertook the task of learning two foreign languages, teaching himself piano and guitar, and becoming well versed in various cultural settings.

Robert’s main passion is seeing people grow in their faith in a way that is not burdensome. He is passionate about studying and learning from a variety of different faith traditions, authors, etc. and disseminating that information to others.

Further Reading and referenced links:

James Cone interview with Terri Gross: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89236116

Youtube Video: Panel Discussion | Black Public Womanist Theology: Reflection on the lives and legacies of Dr. Katie Cannon and Aretha Franklin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRPB8rLy34c&t=924s&app=desktop

Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass

My Soul Looks Back by James Cone

A podcast I would recommend that does good work: Truth’s Table (https://www.truthstable.com/)

I work here: Subcultureinc.org

And my writing and podcasts can be found here: subcstudents.com

 

 

Photo Credit: Nate Sparks

The Love of the Lover

John 15:12-17 (Homily)

A few years back, on a cold winter afternoon, I received a phone call from my across-the-street neighbor.

She wanted to give us some home-made rolls, fresh baked. Of course, I couldn’t resist. So, I put on shoes, grabbed my new born son, Jack, in my arms–wrapped in a blanket–and headed out. I didn’t even pause to consider our front porch stairs and the effects of the recent (that day) winter weather. As I stepped on to that first stair, I hit a patch of black ice. My feet went out from under me. I grabbed the railing to stop my fall, but to no avail, I still fell. I landed three stairs down. My heart raced. Was Jack OK?! I looked at him, still cradled in my arms; he let out a huge shriek. I then examined him from head to toe…not one scrape or bump or possible bruise did I find on his fairly small, 12 week old, newborn body. I did, as one does, praise the Lord.

Somehow, during the fall, my maternal instincts kicked in; somehow, I was able to contort and twist my body so that I was the one who absorbed the fall–between me elbow and me bum–and protected my baby. I didn’t think about it…it just happened. I have often wondered what I would do should I slip down the stairs carrying one of my babies…I have never been able to come up with a good “exit” plan. You don’t get training for such an event; you just hope it never happens. And, in that very real moment, love for my child poured forth un-summoned and I took the entire fall with my body.

I bore the pain in my body for my son when we fell. Love actively takes the other into its safe keeping because the well-being of the beloved is the well-being of the lover. Love bonds one to another in such a way that the beloved’s pain is the lover’s pain; the beloved’s joy, the lover’s joy. The lover grieves with the beloved, gets angry with the beloved, rejoices with the beloved. It is a full and embodied presence of the lover with the beloved, otherwise, it would be impossible for the lover to feel the grief, the anger, the joy of the beloved. As people encountered by God in the event of faith, we are deeply and intimately connected one to another, like a mother and her child. Your pain is my pain; your joy, my joy.

And so it is with Christ. Christ has loved us with a full-embodied, self-giving, love-gift.  In this gift of love the love of God is given to us (to you, thus, to me), and the love of one for another. John’s Christ declares, 

“‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another,’” (John 15:12-14, 16-17).

The love of Christ for the world, drives him to take on flesh and to be born into the human predicament, the human problem. The Christ came into the world to identify in a real and embodied way the plight of humanity, the plight of the oppressed and marginalized, those stuck in situations dominated by the powers of sin and death. The pain of the beloved the lover feels; when Saul is persecuting the church, Jesus reveals himself to Saul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting…me?” Not: the followers of the way, or the young church….but me. In love the beloved is united to the lover and the lover feels to the core the pain and suffering, the joy and celebration of the beloved.

In your pain and in your suffering, you are not alone. In your joy and in your celebration, you are not alone. Not only are your family and friends here, and your teachers, but, more than that, almighty God of the cosmos is also present with you by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in you and among you, uniting you to the Christ by faith by God’s grace. To gaze upon the cross is to see God united in solidarity with you even in your suffering, with the suffering of all humanity, with the suffering of the world. To gaze upon the cross is to see love at work, love loving the beloved, in an embodied full way unto the depths of human experience: suffering unto death.

Beloveds, you are you are heard, you are seen, you are loved; you are the beloved.

 

 

 

Solidarity in the Jordan

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (Sermon)

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Amen  (Psalm 29:2)

According to the Enneagram, I’m a 5. When you look up the description of any type, there’s always one word that describes the type: 1s = reformers; 2 = helpers, etc.). 5s are “Investigators.” We are the “thinkers”, the “pontificators”, the ones who wax eloquently about everything (You’re welcome). We’re the people that make you mumble, overthink things much? We’re the type where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is never what the therapist suggests.

A really fun (and endearing) thing about 5s in general is that we, without fail, think we’re exceptionally clever and always right. Always. And if you don’t agree with us, *shrug*, clearly you weren’t listening. The irony is hard to miss: I’m an ordained priest given the authority to preach and teach. I’m allowed to get in this elevated pulpit and tell you all my clever thoughts, and you are held captive in those pews (to leave now would be weird!). 

But I’m not supposed to.

I’m supposed to be intellectually humble and led by the Holy Spirit. It’s like putting a toddler in a room with a bunch of candy out in the open and then saying, but don’t eat any of it…mkay? Okay, Lauren, we’re going to ordain you, but don’t let any of it go to your head, even when it threatens to do so…which will be all of the time.

One of the main reasons I resisted being ordained was because I felt the potential for this hot mess. I was terrified to be ordained because I knew the mix had the potential to become a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious type of hot mess. In other words, a big bunch of NOPE. When told (repeatedly for years): you should be ordained; I replied (repeatedly for years): get behind me, Satan. No. Nope.

I feared what I knew I could become: more full of myself and more disconnected.

When the day came and I found myself getting ordained to the priesthood (and the walls of the Cathedral hadn’t caught on fire), I felt this fear with every heart-beat, with every breath: Good Lord, keep me…keep me from myself. So, when the time came for me to lie prostrate on the ground, I felt led to do something else. I knelt down. I reached behind my head, gripped the two big clips holding back all of my hair, and pulled them out. My hair unfurled, and I bent forward, forehead to the ground. My hair spread out around me. 

I pulled into my ordination the story of the sinful woman forgiven—the woman who uses her hair and expensive oil to anoint Jesus for his burial. While I was being ordained into the great commission to care for God’s people and to proclaim the Gospel, I wanted to remember who I am: forgiven. And I wanted to remember that my charge was to be for the people, for you with God.

I am one of you yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I never ever want to forget my solidarity with the very people I am here to minister to, to love, to comfort, and to care for in the name of God. You and I, we’re not very different: bone of bone, flesh of flesh, desperate for a love that always endures, and in need of the comforting word of reconciliation and absolution, in desperate need of Jesus. If I am different in any way it is not that I’ve been called further up and further out of the people, but further down and further in. And I share the crisis of judgment: will I follow the devices and desires of my own heart or will I follow Christ into and out of the waters of the Jordan?

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you downGo tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler
The gambler
The back biter
Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down[1]

And while the people were expecting and considering in their hearts concerning John, whether or not he was the Christ, John answer saying to all of them, “I baptize you [with] water; but the one who is mightier than I comes, of whom I am not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals; he will baptize you in with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand to cleanse thoroughly his threshing floor and to lead together the grain into his granary; but the chaff will burn up in unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:15-17)

In chapter three of the gospel of Luke, John has stirred up an “eschatological crisis”[2] among the people who came to him to be baptized in the Jordan. John declared to the people: judgment is coming and there is nowhere to run or hide! Just as the Old Testament ends with the judgment oracle in the book of Malachi, John opens his prophetic ministry with judgment. The people who hear are not only thrust under water in John’s baptism of repentance and water, but into an existential crisis: on whom will judgment fall? And the answer that dawns on their minds and in their hearts is: on us. All the people (the regular yous and mes and the tax collectors and the soldiers) rightly panic and ask: what should we do!?

John tells them what to do and in doing this incurs their private curiosity as they wonder if he is the Messiah because they don’t honestly know at this point;[3] it’s unclear and they are thrust further into existential crises and chaos. John senses their internal question and proclaims: no, I am a man—one of you—not the Christ. I have merely baptized you with water, cleaning only your outside.[4] But He who is mightier than I am is coming, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire and this will cleanse you to the core. The long awaited fulfillment of the promise spoken by the prophet Ezekiel comes, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). Where water can’t go, the Holy Spirit can; where water can only clean and make “new” the outside, the Spirit with fire can clean and make new the inside.[5]

John’s call to baptism with water and repentance sets the stage for the baptism that is to come with the Messiah.[6] As mentioned above, John has set the people into an eschatological crisis: judgment is coming. And all the people are forced to make a choice:[7] repent and be baptized with water thus be for God and purified by the baptism of fire and the holy spirit, sealed as Christ’s own forever, collected like grain in a granary; or, reject repentance and the baptism with water, thus reject and be against God, thus endure the fires of judgment of the baptism of the holy spirit and be burnt up like useless chaff.

A decision must be made at this juncture. What will you do? Asks, John. Will you be for God or against?

Well my goodness gracious let me tell you the news
My head’s been wet with the midnight dew
I’ve been down on bended knee talkin’ to the man from Galilee
He spoke to me in the voice so sweet
I thought I heard the shuffle of the angel’s feet
He called my name and my heart stood still
When he said, “John, go do my will!”

And when all the people were baptized and when Jesus had been baptized and while he was praying the heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form as a dove, and a voice from heaven came: you are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased. (Luke 3:21-22)

Jesus’s baptism is not the focus here in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism; rather, Luke’s focus is a bit more specific: the endowment of the Holy Spirit and God’s affirmation of Jesus as his son.[8] This affirmation is specifically placed at the end of the entire event. Luke’s ordering is intentional (as Luke is in his gospel): all the (regular) people are baptized first, then Jesus gets baptized, and then while Jesus is praying the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends, and God speaks. “’You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

The ordering draws the ear of the hearer: The last to be baptized is the first of New Creation, of the New Order, who is the New Adam.

The Old Adam, the first of the Old Order and of the Old Creation was commissioned to care for the creation and to trust God. In Genesis 3, at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, both Adam and Eve are presented with a choice: will you be for God or for yourselves? Will you choose to define good and evil according to yourselves or follow with God’s definition of good and evil? And we know how this story ends: Adam and Eve opt for the fruit to make them wise. They choose to be for themselves. With this fateful choice—with the man and the woman he created—God was not well pleased.

Here in the waters of the Jordan with John, the choice is presented again: will you be for God or will you be for yourselves? Will you stand with God or with yourself? But this time it’s not just any old Adam answering, it’s Jesus, the son of God, who answers. Jesus enters the waters and stands among the people and is baptized by John, and he answers the divine question posed to humanity: I am for God; I stand with God.

But, again, this isn’t just any old Adam answering. It’s Jesus the Christ, the divine son with whom God is well pleased. Also, this divine son is also the son of humanity. Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ stands in the Jordan praying after having been baptized and thus stands in total and complete solidarity with the very people he came to rescue. Like those who had come out to be baptized, to be about God, to be reoriented to God, so did Jesus.[9] But this is also God incarnate in solidarity with humanity; Jesus is for God and for them, the regular people who stand with him in the Jordan. Jesus is the answer to the divine question posed to humanity and is the divine proclamation that God is for humanity.

In Christ, heaven and earth have become one. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[10] and with humanity in its plight.[11] The one who is the Beloved of God is the love that has come into the world to save the beloved whom God loves. Following Jesus in this moment:  to love others is to love God; to love God is to love others. There is no distinction between the two. Jesus does both in the moment he is baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan; thus we are confronted with the same crisis: whom will you follow? With whom will you stand?

Here in the Jordan, God’s solidarity with humanity and humanity’s solidarity with God is made tangible and manifest in the person and work of Christ. When the people hurt, God hurts. When the people suffer, God feels that suffering. When the oppressor oppresses God’s people, the beloved, God feels that oppression. When the Pharaoh in the beginning of Exodus enslaved and tormented the Israelites and the Israelites called out under the weight of immense suffering and oppression, God heard and God knew in an intimate way and God acted. When Saul reigned terror upon and persecuted the fledgling church, Jesus showed up: “’Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?… I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:4-5). You can’t mess with God’s people and think God won’t notice and won’t act. Mess with the least of these; mess with him.

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light
You can run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Judgment has come to the world in the waters of the Jordan in the person of Jesus the Christ. Humanity is exposed for who and what they are and who and what they are not

“With His existence there will fall upon them in all its concreteness the decision, the divine and ultimate decision. What will become of them? How shall they stand?”[12] You stand implicated under this judgment in this crisis: whom will you follow? With whom will you stand?

More than you, those of us in leadership called and employed to be servants to the people of God, we stand doubly in crisis and doubly judged. Bishops, priests, and deacons of the church bear the burden of the millstone and the deepest part of the sea if we do not stand with the people thus follow God. Whom will I follow? And with whom will I stand? The answer must always be God and the people; my collar demands this.[13]

Christ came because God loved; he came to save us; to save the lost. He came to graft us into his story and to cause us to partake in his mission to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love justice, mercy, and peace. He came to make us his brothers and sisters thus heirs with him. And if heirs then sons and daughters of God Almighty, the ones who make up the manifold children promised to Abraham in Genesis 12, the children who make up the nations blessed.

And we are the ones who rest in the fulfillment of the promise that the love of God will never ever be taken from them because the promised son of David, Jesus, sits forever on the throne. And our baptism with water and spirit is through which we are made participants in this story and where Jesus’s history becomes our history[14]–we with our histories are grafted into the history of Christ; where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[15]

While I pray you always stand with the One who stood with those people in the Jordan and pray you stand with the one who stands with you in your baptism, you are faced with the dilemma anew today and everyday. Being grafted into this story of Christ’s history by the event of faith in the encounter with God: whom will you follow? When the man comes around,[16] with whom will you stand?


[1] Johnny Cash “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”

[2] Joel Green “The Gospel of Luke” The New Internationl Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. “John’s provocation of eschatological crisis (3:7-9) elicits two forms of questions from his audience. First, they inquire how they might ready themselves for impending judgment (3:10-14). Now, they query whether he is the Messiah.” 180.

[3] Green 180, “For them, the meaning of ‘Messiah’ is manifestly fluid at this point; hope is present but ill defined. They do not know if John and the anticipated messianic figure fit the same profile, and this allows John to begin the process of outlining what to expect of the Messiah. At the same time, he is able to identify his own relationship to the coming one. According to the narrator, John’s answer is to all the people- everyone receives the invitation to accept his baptism and receive the baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

[4] Green 180-1, “John addressed the people by characterizing the Messiah in comparison with himself…(1) The Messiah is superior to John in terms of status. John does not count himself worthy even to serve as the slave by removing the thong of his sandals.73 (2) John characterizes as the messenger or prophet who prepares the way for the coming one using language that echoes Mai 3:1’ 4:5, thus embracing the role anticipated for him in 1:17,76; 3:4-6. (3) John designates the Messiah as “more powerful’ than himself—a comparison that apparently resides in his superior status and above all in his mode of baptism. The character of John’s baptism has been articulated in 3:3-14 as repentance-baptism, a cleansing by which one’s life is oriented anew around the service of God…”

[5] Green 182, “…[John’s] his baptism forces a decision for or against repentance, and this prepares for the Messiah’s work (cf. Ezek 36:25-26).”

[6] Karl Barth CD IV.4 (53), “What took place according to their account is thus more than an independent and materially alien preface to the history of Jesus. As they see and present it, it is the prologue which opens and characterizes the whole of this history, setting it in motion here from both with a definite direction and towards a specific goal. The baptism of Jesus, as His baptism is in a sense the point of intersection of the divine change and the human decision. In the main character in the event who here enters upon His way, who, one might almost say, stands here at the beginning of His Christian life, the two aspects though plainly distinct, are directly one and the same. In this direct unity this person is the subject of the life-history which follows, the history of salvation lived out for all men. At this point however, the particular interest of the event is that it was the exemplary and imperative baptismal event. In this respect, too, it is a point of intersection. For here baptism with the Holy Ghost, which may be regarded as the epitome of the divine change effected on a man, meets baptism with water which represents here the first concrete step of the human decision which follows and corresponds to the divine change.”

[7] Green 182, “Although the image described here is generally taken to be that of winnowing—that is, tossing harvested grain into the air by way of allowing wind to separate the wheat from the chaff—the language John uses actually presumes that the process of winnowing has already been completed. Consequently, all that remains is to clear the threshing floor, and this is what John pictures. This means that John’s ministry of preparation is itself the winnowing, for his call to repentance set within his message of eschatological judgment required of people that they align themselves with or over against God’s justice. As a consequence, the role of the Messiah is portrayed as pronouncing or enacting judgment on the people on the basis of their response to John.”

[8] Green 185, “Luke is less interested in Jesus’ baptism as such, and more concerned with his endowment with the Spirit and God’s affirmation of his sonship.”

[9] Green 185, The three infinitive phrases in parallel, “The initial dependent clauses lead into the focal point of this pericope by stressing Jesus’ solidarity with those who had responded positively to John’s message- by participating in the ritual act of baptism, we may recall, they (he) communicated their (his) fundamental orientation around God’s purpose.”

[10] Green 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.”

[11] 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.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.1 (217), But, of course this involves judging in the more obvious sense of the word, and therefore pardoning and sentencing. Thus the solemn question arises: Who will stand when the Son of God…into the world, when He calls the world and therefore all men (and every individual man) to render an account and to make answer for its condition? Quid sum miser tunc dicturus, quem patronum roguaturus, cum vix justus sit securus? All other men will be measured by the One who is man as they are under the same presuppositions and conditions. In His light, into which they are nolentes volentes betrayed by His being as a fellow-man, they will be shown for what they are and what they are not.

[13] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life “What is this mission that makes him ready to let himself be sent thus into that which men can do to him? What is the mission of Jesus? To make men human, to make inhuman men human, brotherly, for the sake of God’s brotherliness, because inhumanity and unbrotherlines sis destroying all of us.” 21.

[14] 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

[15] Ibid, 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.”

[16] Johnny Cash “The Man Comes Around”