Not Isolated Monads

Sermon on Acts 8:14-17

Psalm 29:1-2 1 Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Introduction

We are not isolated and autonomous monads[1] floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

I know that it is tempting to think I am. There are times it feels like I can do whatever I want at any moment, and times I’m convinced I’m the master of my own destiny, that I control things with my will and reason, and that I live autonomously, laying hold of what is “mine”.

As we view our presence in the world in an isolated and autonomous way (as in: we are “laws unto ourselves”) we will fall to the notion that we must cling to, grab, seize, and take for ourselves that which we need and want…at the expense of our neighbor. We will seize for ourselves food, space, land, money, even God in terms of our doctrines and dogmas, our holiness, righteousness, forgiveness and grace, purity, and worship. (This is mine, not yours!) As soon as we wrap our hands around anything with a vice like death grip, we will position ourselves above others and will then be fine with sacrificing our community, our friends, our partners, our children, any other human being to this having and grasping. But this is death because, to quote one of my favorite scholars, Frau Prof. Dr. Dorothee Sölle, “Everything that we grab hold of and cling to means death. Life destroys itself wherever it is based on having, on privileges over against those who have nothing. Because we grab hold of it, it perishes.”[2] As soon as we drag whatever it is (even God) into our realm with our vice like death grip, it is dead; and so too are we.

Lynnda Ebright shared with me a part of a poem she read one morning:

“…feel your naked belly button where
you were tied to your mother. Kneel and thank
her for your jubilant but woebegone life. Don’t
for a moment think of the mood of your parents
when you were conceived which so vitally affects
your destiny. You have no control over that…[3]

“Mom and Dad” by Jim Harrison

We do not spontaneously generate into the world without genetic or ancestral history. We are born into a story—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—with an origin prior to us and which will continue to be told beyond us. Any notion that we are autonomous persons without profound connection to the world and to others is lie sent to destroy the fabric of vibrant and healthy community (this goes for any ideology centering an “us v. them” mentality). From our birth into our family of origin to our rebirth into our family of spiritual origin, we are bound one to another in our humanity.

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

Acts 8:14-17

Now, after hearing that Samaria received/welcomed the word of God, the disciples in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to them, those who went down and prayed on behalf of the Samaritans in order that they might receive the Holy Spirit…Then John and Peter were laying hands upon them and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.[4]

Acts 8:14-15, 17

In our passage from the book of Acts, we get a brief glimpse of the interconnection inherent in the early community of Christ. Luke gives us a few lines speaking to profound spiritual connection between the disciples in Jerusalem and the newly converted in Samaria. Learning Samaria received and welcomed the word of God, the disciples—so moved by God’s Holy Spirit—sent two of their own to visit with the Samaritans and ensure they also received the baptism of the Spirit.[5]

It is important to point out that what looks like a secondary step for the Samaritans is actually a primary step for Peter and John coming from Jerusalem.[6] It’s not the Samaritans who must be yoked to the disciples in Jerusalem by the baptism of the Spirit; rather, it’s the disciples from Jerusalem who must see they are yoked, by God’s love, to the new believers in Samaria—those who were unclean and forbidden from mixing with the Israelites are now part of God’s people. The Samaritans are accepted and declared clean, they’re received and welcomed in the very core of their being and bodies. In one quick rush of wind, the Israelites and the Samaritans became one body.[7] What was segregated is now desegregated.

God’s proclaimed word of good tidings rumbles through the land like an earthquake. The epicenter is the activity of God in the event of the cross and resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ. From there, like waves, the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ raised, moved through Jerusalem into the wider area of Judea and then through the human made boundaries separating Israel and Samaria, the clean from the unclean (Acts 1:8). The great overhaul of the Beloved of God began the moment the Holy Spirit transcended human made boundaries erected to keep out those who are deemed unworthy, unclean, unloved, unrighteous, un-pious, un-whatever; boundaries built to contain the supposed purity of the elite and the sacred things of the privileged by forcing out the poor and disenfranchised; boundaries designed to draw deep lines in the sand keeping good bodies in and bad bodies out. As the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings writes,

“…God will draw near and give lavishly in an intimate space created by bodies and created for bodies. God’s drawing and claiming of the beloved creation continues, reaching through the apostles … from Peter and John through Philip and now to the Samaritans. The Holy Spirit has come.”[8]

Willie James Jennings

The Holy Spirit has come and has highlighted the very real fact that we are all connected one to another; none is better than the other and no one is more loved by God than everyone. According to Luke’s record of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, all bodies are the target of God’s divine love unleashed in the world through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Being ones who are called beloved by God, we must see that this yokes us to those others who are also the beloved of God. We cannot cling to this thing we call God as if God is our own and only for us, We must see that God is for those who are not us. We, like Peter and John, must be converted out of desperately clinging to that which is “mine” thus dead and be brought into communion with others thus into the living.

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

Conclusion

The presence of the Spirit disabuses us of this notion that we are isolated and autonomous people, fighting to keep our own as our own. “Disciples of Jesus,” says Jennings, “must be convinced not only of God’s love for the world but also God’s desire for people, especially peoples we have been taught not to desire.”[9] Our dwelling in God and God’s dwelling in us by the power of the Holy Spirit yokes us intimately to other human beings and the divinely created world; we can’t not love that which God loves. We share in the very Spirit of God—the same Spirit that fueled the ancient prophesies of God’s love for the suffering and grieving, those who mourn and weep, those who struggle and fight under oppression and threat of death; the same Spirit that moved in Jesus’s body and through his words and deeds into his world and context, that caused him to seek and save the lost who were isolated and abandoned.

And we are connected not only in a theoretical way but in a physical way; it is good to tell people that God loves them, but I pray that we can go the extra step with our feet to show them this divine truth with the deeds of our hands. The spirit of God in us causes us to transcend our own social boundaries of clean and unclean, in and out, through the laying on of hands…not just in terms of blessing in a religious sense or setting apart in a sacred way, but in the real practical way of lending our hands to ease the burdens of our neighbors, those close and those far, those here in this room and those outside of it.

“As long as life continues to be grounded and secured in the privilege of having, it destroys itself. Life is life only when everyone belongs to it with equal right and with equal share…If grabbing hold means death, then sharing and communication mean life. No one can save himself alone and no one is forgiven alone, if forgiveness is taken seriously in the sense of being born anew.”[10]

Dorothee Sölle

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone; we are the beloved of God, intimately and profoundly yoked together by the Spirit of God in us, charged to love our neighbor as ourselves and as God loves us. We are the beloved exhorted out of our curved in, dead state, called into the new upright posture of new life in the Holy Spirit, and caused to see others as the beloved, too.


[1] “In metaphysics, an individual and indivisible substance.”.

[2] Dorothee Sölle Political Theology Trans. John Shelley. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1974. 103-104

[3] “Mom and Dad” by Jim Harrison

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 80 “This is a beautiful moment orchestrated by the Spirit. The journey begun in baptism will now continue with the Spirit. A processional has begun. Peter and John travel to Samaria from Jerusalem, and now gifts will be given.”

[6] Jennings Acts 80. “The delay of the Spirit was not for a defect of faith or of life for the Samaritans. Could it be that God waited for Peter and John so that they could watch the intimate event?”

[7] Jennings Acts 80 “Here and now these disciples, especially Peter, will see a love that extends into the world. They will watch as God stretches forth divine desire over the Samaritans. They must see again the Spirit descend and sense afresh the divine embrace of flesh.”

[8] Jennings Acts 80

[9] Jennings Acts 80

[10] Sölle Political Theology 104

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.

“Sign of the Gospel”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 303 ft. W. Travis McMaken

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

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

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

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

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

Recommended reading:

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

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

Recommended reading authored by Dr. W. Travis McMaken:

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

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

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

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

McMaken’s Recording Mediums:

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

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

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”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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