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.

In Rags and Wood

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sign of the Gospel”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 303 ft. W. Travis McMaken

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

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

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

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

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

Recommended reading:

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

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

Recommended reading authored by Dr. W. Travis McMaken:

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

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

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

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

McMaken’s Recording Mediums:

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

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

Get Your Stoic On

Sancta Colloquia Episode 205 ft. Juan Torres

In this episode Juan Torres (@orthoheterodox1) and I talk about his recent pursuit of understanding Stoicism. What’s neat about this episode is that it’s a different perspective and a different discussion than the one I had with John Marc Ormechea (Season 1, Episode 2, linked below). I met John-Marc as is: a Stoic. But I met Juan as a dyed in the wool Moltmannian protestant and now, three years later, he’s deep in Stoicism. I was intrigued with what looked like a shift to me. So, I decided why not talk to Juan and figure this out. And Juan demonstrated the deep connection that Stoicism has with things like a basic understanding of the New Testament and that one of his favorites (Rudolf Bultmann) engaged with the concepts of Stoicism. Juan says, “Bultmann compares Christian understanding of freedom with the stoic understanding of freedom.” So, he started tracking down this line of thought. And he makes many valid arguments for the inclusion of the study of Stoicism to have a well-rounded engagement with the bible. Juan explains that Stoicism is about freedom based on reasoning one’s way through life by making the best possible choices in life, and that virtue is the only good. We are, according to Juan, to do what is right. But not in an individual way. He demonstrates that in Stoicism there’s a strong social aspect and this social aspect influences our use of our reason. Stoicism was originally a communal endeavor like “church”, the young stoic was always guided by the older and wiser stoics. At the end of the day, Juan is trying to give the philosophers a fair hearing and implement their thought into his daily life in practice. What I love about this conversation is that Juan demonstrates what it is to be truly openminded and a full-embodied student to the nth degree. He reminded me: stoicism was first to the scene and then Christianity; when it comes to borrowing it’s only in one direction, Christianity borrows from Stoicism ::micdrop::

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (@seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (@ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (@SanctaColloquia).

Juan C. Torres is nothing more and nothing less than what some call a ‘lay-theologian”. He’s never gone to bible college, seminary, or on of those fancy religion/philosophy scholars’ conferences. All he has is an abiding interest/concern for the core matters of the Christian faith, in particular, he has always been immersed in theodicy and eschatology. Main thinkers who have molded his thought: Barth, Bultmann, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Tillich, etc. (Yes, he has read books/articles by women and people of color, but not the extent that he can list them and talk about their work.) By trade, he is a middle school math teacher. By passion, he is a theologian (in the broadest sense of the word) and most recently a stumbling but practicing Stoic.
You can find more by Juan Torres (and do some extra reading and listening) by visiting his blog and podcast:
https://thecheerfulstoic.com/ (Twitter: @CheerfulStoic1)

Hearing unto Life

Romans 5:12-19 (Sermon)

On Ash Wednesday, Rev. Kennedy and I placed ashes on foreheads and whispered the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The alb became our sackcloth, the stole a millstone, and our words reminders that the wage and curse of sin is death. We anointed fragile and vulnerable people not with the oil of life, but with the ash of death.

The sermon carried a glimmer of hope, yet I was taken by the deep tenor of the service. Life eclipsed by death. The moment driven home when I placed ashes on the foreheads of my own children. My hands, my voice, my body–which gestated, nurtured, sustained, warmed, comforted and consoled my babies–delivered their sentence: death. Woven through the reminder of return to dust was the maternal apology that from this I cannot protect them. The great reaper knocks on every single door and collects.

Just as through this one person sin entered the cosmos and through [this] sin death, and in this way death spread into all humanity, on the basis of one all sinned. (Rom 5:12)

In Romans, Paul marries together sin and death in such a way that (grammatically) to tear one from the other would be to destroy both. The presence of death is evidence of the presence of sin.[1] That we die is, for Paul, evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. How has this come to be?

To answer, Paul, in vv. 13-14, yanks Adam out of Genesis 3 and makes him stand trial. Paul makes it clear it is not the Law that caused sin. (As if we could just get rid of the law to get rid of sin, if we did would only eliminate the exposure of sin.[2]) That there is death, which existed before the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, there is sin because death is before the Law was.[3] For Paul, before there is the Law there is death, before death there is Adam and with him the “sin.” Before the manifestation of the “sin,” there is the problem.

What is this “problem that thrust all of humanity into the cold, boney arms of death?[4] It’s not an issue of will, it’s an issue of hearing.

The language Paul employs talking about the “sin” of Adam sounds more like mis-stepping and slipping[5] than willful disobedience. It’s aiming but missing the mark. It’s trying to walk but falling down. It’s being well intentioned and making a huge mistake. You can love and cause pain.

In v.19 things get interesting. It’s here we get the first reference to “disobedience” and “obedience.” Again, the words chosen for the discussion are built from the concept of hearing.[6] And herein lies the problem that precedes the “sin”: hearing wrongly v. hearing rightly. (Shema O, Israel the core of Jewish liturgy and would have been coursing through Paul’s veins.) Paul creates a scene where Adam misheard and (thus) mis-stepped.

Going back to Gen 3, to the intellectual cage match between Eve and the serpent, something revelatory occurs. When tempted with the “forbidden” fruit, Eve without hesitation tells the serpent, “‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die,”’” (Gen 3:2-3). Do you hear the problem? Eve misquotes the prohibition to the serpent.

In Genesis 2:15-17, Adam is created out of dust and is inspired by God’s breath. Then he’s brought into the garden to work and have dominion over it. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,’” (Gen 2:15-17). Who received the prohibition? Adam.  According to the narrative fluidity of the two chapters, who relayed it to Eve? Adam. What was the problem resulting in the situation at the tree? Not the ingesting of the fruit, that’s the wage (the fruit) of “sin” which partook of death. The problem: someone misheard.

Adam was spoken to first. And then Eve. One of them or both of them misheard. Did they love God? We can assume they did. Did they want to do poorly? No. They intended well and mis-stepped because the fundamental problem of humanity is hardness of heart resulting in a stiff neck preventing the hearing of hearing,[7] hearing so deeply that you do (Shema). We can be God-inspired, God-breathed creations, placed in paradise, and still have massive hearing problems.

Martin Luther explains that part of the original sin we are born into is not only a lack of uprightness in the entire (inner and outer) person, but a “nausea toward the good.”[8] Why is the idea of good, of God, so loathsome? Because it’s an issue of hearing. I hear God as a threat to me because I mishear. That God is and reigns comes to me as threat: threat to myself, my will, my reason, my perception of what is good, etc. The proclamation that God is is flat out offensive to me; it means I am not the queen I think I am.

Thus, when the law comes, it exposes my predicament, plight, and problem. In the Law’s ability to expose, I blame it for my predicament; ignorance is bliss. Had the law never come, I’d not know I was stuck. But now in seeing that I’m stuck, I’m angry, and I blame the law for my stuckness, which I was before the law came. But I blame wrongly because I hear wrongly.[9]

This is the original sin that we are born into. We are not evil and horrible, willfully bent on disobedience and destruction. Rather, we’ve genetically inherited poor hearing and this results in disobedience, missing the mark, and mis-stepping, and thus into death. To hear wrongly is to die; to hear rightly is to live. We need to be caused to hear rightly. The great Shema O, Israel[10] goes forth, but who has ears to hear so deeply that they hit the mark, step rightly, to walk and not slip?

Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. It is he who hears rightly, steps rightly, hits the mark and walks without slipping. He is God incarnate, the word made flesh[11] who proclaims the word of God, obeys the word of God, and performs the word of God he hears. Jesus proclaims the reign of God, he lives the reign of God, he is the reign of God. This is the one who is baptized by John in the river Jordan and hears God proclaim him as God’s divine son. This is also the one who has heard the word of God so well he will defeat the attacks of the evil one, being successful where Israel wasn’t. Shema O, Israel.

Just as we who are born of flesh are born into Adam’s imperfect hearing resulting in disobedience and death, we are reborn by hearing through the giving of ears to hear in the proclamation of Christ Crucified. In this encounter with God in the event of faith (hearing), we are brought through death and are recreated into Christ’s perfect hearing resulting in obedience.[12]

When God acts on behalf of God’s people, God doesn’t merely contend with “disobedience” (that’s what we do). God contends with the problem by giving the free gift of new, circumcised[13] hearts and spirits which lead to obedience.[14] God gives the free gift of the grace of and righteousness of God in Christ Jesus, making the unrighteous righteous. It is the grace of Christ that eclipses the sin of Adam;[15] it is the life of Christ that drowns out the death of Adam; it is the perfect hearing of Christ that resurrects all who are stuck in the death of the mishearing of Adam.[16] It is the supernova of Christmas and Easter that engulfs and swallows the sting of death.

It is Christ, the righteous one, who heals those who are lame, declares clean those who are unclean, gives sight to those who can’t see and hearing to those who can’t hear. It is Christ who is the free gift of God’s grace and righteousness.[17] It is Christ who speaks to those condemned to death as criminals with his pronouncement of acquittal and restores them to life. This is the substance of the church’s witness to the world in her speech and sacraments. In hearing rightly, we speak to and act rightly in the world. In hearing rightly, we are brought to the font and table, witnessing to our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. And there we are anointed not with ash but with oil, sealed as Christ’s own and into his obedience, fed by Christ’s hand, hearing the comfort of the divine whisper, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[18]

 

 

 

[1] Luther LW 25. 298. “…if death comes by sin and if without sin there would be no death, then sin is in all of us. Thus it is not personal sin that he is talking about here. Otherwise it would be false to say that death had entered by sin, but rather we ought to say that it came by the will of God.”

[2] Luther LW 25. 303. “And thus it is not understood to mean that sin existed until the Law came and then ceased to exist, but that sin received an understanding of itself which it did not possess before. And the words of the apostle clearly indicate this interpretation: ‘But sin was not counted where there was no law,’ as if to say that through the Law, which it had preceded, sin was not abolished but imputed.”

[3] Luther LW 25. 298. “…sin was in the world before the Law was given, etc. (v. 13). Actual sin also was in the world before Moses, and it was imputed, because it was also punished by men; but original sin was unknown until Moses revealed it in Gen. 3.”

[4] Luther LW 25. 299. “Note how at the same time it is true that only one man sinned, that only one sin was committed, that only one person was disobedient, and yet because of him many were made sinners and disobedient.”

[5] Α῾μαρτα´νω: I miss the mark, I sinned, I made a mistake. η῾ παρα´βασις: the going aside, deviation, overstepping. το` παρα´πτωμα: the trespass, false step, lapse, slip, sin.

[6] Η῾ παρακοη´: the hearing amiss, by implication disobedience; imperfect hearing. η῾ υ῾πακοη´: obedience, submissiveness, compliance.

[7] Deuteronomy 30:6ff

[8] Luther LW 25. 299. What is original sin, “Second, however, according to the apostle and the simplicity of meaning in Christ Jesus, it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness, a flight from and an abomination of all good works, a pursuit of evil…”

[9] Luther LW 25. 307. “And this is true, so that the meaning is: the Law came and without any fault on the part of the Law or in the intentions of the Lawgiver, it happened that it came for the increasing of sin, and this happened because of the weakness of our sinful desire, which was unable to fulfill the Law.”

[10] Deuteronomy 6.

[11] John 1

[12] Luther LW 25. 305. Luther makes reference later to 1 Corinthians 15:22.

[13] Deuteronomy 30:6

[14] Ezekiel 36:24-27, Jeremiah 31:31-34

[15] Luther LW 25. 306. “This gift is ‘by the grace of that one Man,’ that is, by the personal merit and grace of Christ, by which He was pleasing to God, so that He might give this gift to us. This phrase ‘by the grace of that one Man’ should be understood of the personal grace of Christ, corresponding to the personal sin of Adam which belonged to him, but the ‘gift’ is the very righteousness which has been given to us.”

[16] Luther LW 25. 306. “Thus also original sin is a gift (if I may use the term) in the sin of the one man Adam. But ‘the grace of God’ and ‘the gift’ are the same thing, namely, the very righteousness which is freely given to us through Christ. And He adds this grace because it is customary to give a gift to one’s friends. But this gift is given even to His enemies out of His mercy, because they were not worthy of this gift unless they were made worthy and accounted as such by the mercy and grace of God.”

[17] Luther LW 25. 305-6. “The apostle joins together grace and the gift, as if they were different, but he does so in order that he may clearly demonstrate the type of the One who was to come which he has mentioned, namely, that although we are justified by God and receive His grace, yet we do not receive it by our own merit, but it is His gift, which the Father gave to Christ to give to men, according to the statement in Eph. 4:8, ‘When He ascended on high. He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.’”

[18] These final few thoughts in this paragraph are influenced by the profound work of Dr. W. Travis McMaken in his book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth Emerging Scholars Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. It was difficult to find one quotation to demonstrate how I was influenced—the entire book is a masterpiece. However, for the sake of space, I think this gets at the thrust of it: “The objective-subjective character of baptism as a mode of the church’s gospel proclamation confronts those baptized with the demands of the gospel thereby proclaimed. As mode of the church’s gospel proclamation, baptism confronts those baptized with the message that they were baptized in Jesus Christ’s baptism, died in his death, and were raised in his resurrection. This baptismal proclamation calls those that it confronts to, as Paul puts it, “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Such an exhortation requires neither a baptismal transfer of grace nor a baptismal ratification of personal commitment; rather, it flows from the objective-subjective and holistically particular installation of the church’s gospel proclamation within the history of those baptized.”233-34.

Like Midwives

Luke 2:22-40 (Sermon)

To listen:

Introduction

There are longings in the heart we cannot define with words. We yearn for something or someone so much that our hands shake and our fingers ache to touch, feel, grasp and embrace, tightly. We cannot speak; caught in moments of deep longing, words do more violence than good we merely groan. We groan in the presence of love and desire, we groan under the weight of expectation and waiting, we groan under the pressure of demand and captivity.

When we feel we are stuck, we groan: another bill, *groan*, the car needs more repairs, *groan*, the house remains in disarray, *groan*, the fight happens…again, *groan*, the job steals more of your life, *groan*.  Shame and regret, grief and sorrow, your nightly bedfellows…*groan*

Nationally and globally, more groaning: another bomb, another shooting, another threat, another fear, another contentious election just in time to divide families for the holidays. Many people in the world and in our country groan from hunger, cold, isolation, sickness, poorness, from racism, sexism, classism (etc.), from real captivity and physical oppression. *Groan*

Human existence is hard. So, we groan. When will this end? Some of us try to fight the feeling of doom through a positive attitude–faking it until we are making it. Some of us stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to hear the cries and groans of others (surely ours are loud enough). And some of us slip off into entertainment and extreme forms of destructive self-soothing (drugs, alcohol, food, money, sex, etc.). “The less I can see and hear, the less real the fear is,” goes the lie. “Ignorance is bliss!” proclaims desperation. Everything around us is burning down and we’re all, “To blessed to be stressed!” Human beings are remarkable creatures especially when we do not want to face the truth.

So, we numb. Check out. Look the other way. Stop caring. But numbing only works for a moment and isn’t a long-term solution. Before too long we need more and more and more….and in this numbing we deny our humanity because part of being human is suffering in the realm of compassion and empathy: to hear the cries of others, to acknowledge our own.

Something kinda sad about/The way that things have come to be
Desensitized to everything/What became of subtlety?
How can this mean anything to me/If I really don’t feel anything at all?
I’ll keep digging/Til I feel something
It’s not enough/I need more
Nothing seems to satisfy
I said I don’t want it/I just need it
To breathe, to feel, to know I’m alive[1]

Jesus Presented at the Temple

Luke tells us that Jesus’s parents, in obedience with the Law,[2] bring him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord–it was custom for parents to bring their first-born sons. In the Passover event, God claimed all the first-born sons of Israel—from then onward—as his own.[3]  The redeemer has to be redeemed not because he is sinful; he’s not. He has to be redeemed because he is a first-born son of Israel.[4] For the meager price of the lives of two turtle doves,[5] Jesus’s poor parents[6] and the young Jesus participate in the divine rescue plan for the cosmos.[7] Luke is clear to portray this small family has followed the law: Jesus is the son of God and the son of Humanity.

Enter Simeon.

And there was in Jerusalem a man whose name (was Simeon) and he was a righteous and God-fearing man who was awaiting/expecting the consolation/comfort of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him. (Lk 2:25)

Luke tells us Simeon is righteous and God-fearing; and, he was awaiting and expecting the comfort[8] of Israel. One could say that Simeon wasn’t merely hoping for or occasionally thinking about this one to come, but was actively looking, eagerly waiting, anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of the warning from God made to him in v.26.[9] (Simeon was warned to keep an eager eye out for the one to come who is the Christ, and this anxious awaiting would be his duty until that day came.) That day has come. A humble couple shows up at the temple with their son; Simeon lays eyes and hands on the long yearned for Messiah. Luke establishes Simeon as the reliable witness[10] to this first-born son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth: this one is the consolation of Israel, the light unto the nations, the salvation of the world.

In fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, Jesus will not be a comfort to all; there will be those who come into conflict with the Christ, the savior of the Lord.[11] Just like the prophets of old who stood in the midst of Israel calling out the rampant injustices and oppression caused by the leaders and rulers of Israel, so will Jesus. There are those in Israel who will trip over his teaching and his actions like a stumbling block;[12] there are those in the nations who will consider his words and life foolishness. In ushering in the consummation of God’s divine dominion of peace and justice,[13] mercy and humility through waging a cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death, Jesus, the Lord’s Messiah[14]—God of very God—will come face to face with those who oppose the will of God. Thoughts will be exposed, deeds and intentions revealed,[15] no one will be spared. Not even Mary herself can step in between her baby boy[16] and the fate of some yet unknown sapling.

Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2)

The sword of God goes forth, brandishing its strength and power in steel and edge, dividing the people of Israel and the Nations, some on the left and others on the right. And the dividing line drawn will be between those who cause the will of God to go forward and those who stand in opposition. In Luke’s narrative account of the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and raised, it’s best to side with God’s will and never against it, for the oppressed and marginalized and not against them. “The way of the love with which God has laid hold of our hearts, and led us into tribulation, is the way of a hope that cannot be disappointed and will not be disappointed.”[17] God deals justly with those who oppose him and oppress his people.

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:3-4)

The light of God shines brightly, illuminating with penetrating rays the just and unjust alike, revealing who is who. This light Immerses the world in the brightness of the reign of God, exposing our sickness and desperate situations, moving the world into light out of darkness.[18] While in the dark we cannot tell who is who, in the light our deeds are exposed. We see the ground under our feet revealed for what it is: a mire from which we cannot become unstuck by our own power.

Conclusion

Human existence is hard. So, we groan. But rather than numb that groan, let us be lifted by the vocal vibrations, and, like a woman in the throes of labor, let us groan and push new life into a world being overrun by hopelessness, canceling, and just plain quitting. Let us be the midwives of God, participating in the divine glory[19] established on earth by the first born of God, Jesus Christ through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and coaxing and urging new life into the world like the Hebrew midwives did so many 1000s of years ago as they stood in defiance of the oppression and tyranny and genocide of Pharaoh.[20]

We who are encountered by God in the event of faith have active and abundant hope. As Rev Kennedy preached a few weeks we are defiant lights in the darkness bringing hope into the world. To build on the image, we are also verbal and active swords soberly battling against the powers of sin and death with and in God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because, everything here and in the cosmos belongs to God[21] due to the totality of what Christ did…for the entire world.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;  for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:19-21)

“For now already God’s Spirit is at work in us,” writes Helmut Gollwitzer, “…and through him the love of God which fills our hearts, our wills, and our thoughts, and sets them in motion.”[22] We are bound and united together with Christ through the proclamation of the gospel, and it is this word that renders us to dust and recreates us into newness and fullness of life,[23] into the absurd messengers of hope–the name of Jesus Christ[24]–and thrusts us into the world to follow the footsteps of our Lord as the children of God. To quote EbonyJanice Moore, “[The] Earth is in literal pain waiting for me to show up.”[25]

Beloved, the earth is pain waiting for you to wake up and show up. So, Let us love as we have been radically loved.

 

 

 

 

[1] Tool “Stinkfist” Aenima 1997; I took the liberty to reorder the chorus after the 2nd verse.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK 2010. 41, “Throughout his Gospel, Luke presents Jesus as obedient to the Law and to the observances of Jewish religion. The one significant and repeated exception is when such observances, or the Law itself, are used to subvert God’s main commandment of love, in which case Jesus refuses to allow the Law to be used in such a way.” But his family are in fact good and faithful Jews.

[3] Gonzalez 41-2, This particular law that is being obeyed here: “In this particular case, the requirement was that every firstborn male child be redeemed—bought back—from God. This was based on the story of the Passover, when the angel of the Lord brought death to all the firstborn among the Egyptians, but ‘passed over’ the houses of the children of Israel, whose doors were sealed with the blood of a lamb. As result, God claimed possession of every firstborn male in Israel…” (Num 3:13).

[4] Gonzalez 42, “Curiously, Luke tells us that the Redeemer has to be redeemed, has to be bought back. This is not because he has sinned, but simply because he is a firstborn, and all the firstborn in Israel belong to God.”

[5] Gonzalez 42, “The paschal lamb that was sacrificed is a type of Jesus. Jesus himself is the new Passover, for in him God shows mercy to us. According to Luke and the other Synoptic Gospels, the last meal of Jesus with his disciples before the crucifixion is a paschal meal. It is there that he instituted the Lords Supper or Eucharist Here, at the presentation in the temple, another Passover theme appears: Jesus the firstborn is to be redeemed by the sacrifice of two turtledoves, and he will then redeem all humankind by his own sacrifice.”

[6] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Ed. Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 141; Douglas qtd in Green. “Here Luke portrays Mary as faithful to the law, and his family as not wealthy. ‘Following the birth of a son, the mother was impure for one week after which she was bathed as a means of purification. Following this, she remained at a secondary level of impurity for thirty-three days, during which time she could touch nothing holy. She then presented an offering—if she were poor, two turtledoves or two pigeons (Lev 12:8; cf. 12:6).’”

[7] Green 140-1, “Hence, these ‘normal’ occurrences are laden with narrative purpose, redirecting attention to the plan of God, revealing again that Mary and Joseph are willing supporters of God’s aim, and certifying that Jesus will operate from within God’s purpose.”

[8] παρακλησιν

[9] And there was a warning by God to him by the Holy Spirit that he will not see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.

[10] Green 144, “This may be why the focal point of the characterization of Simeon in this narrative is his believability, In multiple ways-a character reference (from the unimpeachable narrator) supporting his piety, his status as an agent of the Holy Spirit, his physical location in the Jerusalem temple, and his capacity to borrow heavily from Isaiah to express his praise to God—Simeon presented as a reliable witness.”

[11] Green 143-4, “In particular, Simeon’s prophetic utterances surface Luke’s emphasis on the universality of the effects of Jesus’ mission. Simeon also introduces in the clearest way thus far the motif of conflict that will pervade the Lukan narrative. Not all will take the side of God’s salvific purpose; some, in fact, will oppose Jesus, God’s salvific instrument.”

[12] Green 145, …God’s mighty work exalts some, humbles others (1:52-53; cf. Isa 40:3). The vocabulary is absent, but the well-known image of God as the stone that causes God’s own people to stumble is echoed in Simeon’s words (cf. Isa 8:14-15; 28:13, 16).

[13] Green 145, Consolation as restoration of Is. Under reign of God used here specifically “Undoubtedly, then, this usage rests on the Isaianic context that is otherwise resoundingly echoed in Simeon’s Song. This anticipation is theocentric, emphasizing God’s intervention to deliver Israel from its enemies and so to usher in the epoch of peace under the peaceful, just dominion of God.”

[14] Green 146, “The ‘consolation of Israel’ of which Isaiah spoke was promised by God and related to his own, personal intervention in world affairs. For Simeon, who speaks for God, the coming of the ‘consolation of Israel’ is construed as the appearance of the Lord’s Messiah. It is still God’s aim reaching its consummation, but that purpose is being realized in the coming of God’s Son, the ‘Lord’s Messiah.’”

[15] Green 149, “Simeon emphasizes the identification of Jesus himself as this point of crisis, the one destined within God’s own purpose to reveal the secret thoughts of those who oppose the divine aim (cf. Luke 12:1-2).”

[16] Green 149, “The image of the sword, then, relates to Jesus’ mission of segregating those within Israel who embrace God’s salvific will from those who do not. In fulfilling this divine role, he will be opposed, just as God’s aim is opposed; indeed, the opposition will be such that it will reach as far as the experience of Mary.”

[17] Gollwitzer 104

[18] Green 148, “Through God’s agent of salvation, people do not merely see evidence of the advent of God’s dominion, they are engulfed in it; they are, as it were, led from the dominion of darkness into the light.”

[19] Jürgen Moltmann “Claremont Lecture” qtd in Stephen D. Morrison Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English. Columbus, OH: Beloved Publishing, 2018. 213. “The key promise for the development of my eschatology is to be found in Isaiah’s vision: ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’ (6:3)”

[20] Exodus 1:15ff

[21] Moltmann qtd in Morrison, 222. “The confession of Hope has completely slipped through the church’s fingers…There can be no question of God’s giving up anything or anyone in the whole world, either today or in eternity…The end has to be: Behold, everything is God’s Jesus comes as the one who has borne the sins of the world.”

[22] Gollwitzer 105

[23] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: An introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017. 157. “The church exists as an earthly-historical community insofar as it is gathered together by this message, that is to say, insofar as this message penetrates through people’s privilege and produces new forms of life. These new forms of life are a necessary consequence of hearing the gospel message.”

[24]Helmut Gollwitzer “Hope for the Hopeless” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. Trans. David Cairns. Edingburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. 103. Jesus Christ is a name of hope “And now with this hope, whither are we going? Not directly to heaven, but back into our earthly life, and that means into tribulation, into hopes that can be disappointed, into battles into which he sends us as his disciples, into the unpeaceful world as peacemakers, in to solidarity with the hungry and the enslaved and the prisoners.”

[25] Layla Saad The Good Ancestor Podcast Ep. 003: #TheGoodAncestor EbonyJanice Moore. Feburary 13, 2019. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/good-ancestor-podcast/e/58754729?refid=asa&autoplay=true

Come and Follow Me

Luke 10:38-42 (Sermon)

Introduction

One of the temptations in addressing this Lukan gospel passage, is the temptation to create a dichotomy between Mary and Martha. You’ve likely heard the moral of the story expressed as: Be “Maries” in a world of “Marthas”—an exhortation to Christians to prefer passive, private, quiet worship life like Mary, rather than a life filled with activity and motion and doing that coincides with Martha’s. [1] If you’ve ever heard this dichotomy between the sisters and felt a certain amount of tension and frustration, good news: you are not wrong.

It’s a bad application of the text. It throws shade on Martha that she doesn’t deserve and puts Mary in a position she hasn’t chosen. If we fall to the temptation to draw the line between Martha and Mary—substantiating the former with bad and the latter with good—we end up pitting the sisters against each other in a way that will plague us with a burden insidiously destructive to our discipleship—it’ll make any form of the law look like a fuzzy little kitten.

If we are dead set on this dichotomy between the sisters, let’s be warned: we’ll miss out on the wonderful story of what it means to be fully human; we’ll miss Jesus’s verbal deftness rendering the law in service to the gospel; we’ll miss witnessing the powers of sin and death collapsing under the weight of the invasion of God into our world in Christ—bringing to ashes our categories and expectations based on divisions; [2] we’ll miss the moment when the Christ takes from our weary shoulders the domination of toil and replaces it with the light burden and easy yoke[3] of the activity of discipleship, of following after this One who is the first of new creation. If we are dead set in pitting Mary against Martha, we’ll forfeit a word that is dynamic and life giving for a word that is static and death dealing.

And as he journeyed with [his disciples], he, he entered into a certain village; and a woman whose name [was] Martha received him as a guest. (10:38)

The story opens up with Jesus on the move with his disciples. Luke adjusts the focus and the disciples recede into the background. [4] Jesus enters this town and this woman, Martha, receives him. Hold still here. I don’t want us to miss this small moment in this brief story because we want to move quickly to the activity of Mary and Martha. Jesus is being intentional here. He enters this certain village and is received into this particular home. Luke asks us to listen: Do you hear it? God comes. Christ inaugurates everything occurring from here on out; everything is set in motion by the divine One who has come into our world, in to the very heart of our homes. We asked for none of this; in fact, we weren’t even looking for it and certainly not in this way. God comes.

And she had a sister called Mary, and [she] was seated at the feet of the Lord and listening to his word. (10:39)

Luke moves the narrative along quickly: Jesus has arrived at this home and Martha and her sister Mary are introduced. Martha takes the lead to receive Jesus as we read in the last verse, and Mary is imaged in what seems as a more passive role: the one who is sitting and listening. But, again, if we move to quickly to the action of the story, we’ll miss what Luke wants us to hear and see.

A striking aspect of this verse is that there is no way Mary is passive here. While I usually don’t spend time explaining words in their original biblical language, I must do so here because our English translation is painfully lacking. The text reads, “Mary was seated at the feet of the Lord…” However, we must understand the past tense participle (παρακαθεσθεισα) translated as “was seated” would be better rendered as: “Mary got up and placed herself at the feet of Jesus…” The radicality and boldness of Mary’s movement is lost in our translation. Thus why we want to make the bad dichotomy between Mary and Martha. Mary is as active as Martha is.

When Jesus enters the room, Mary stops what she is doing, moves toward him, and assumes the (active) role of being a disciple[5] to this one who is the Christ, the word made flesh, the apocalyptic invasion of God in the world. Nothing, neither the Law nor some societal gender expectations, [6] will keep Mary from being close to the one she adores, the one she loves, the one who has called her and the one whom she hears. She’d rather suffer the consequences of bucking expectation and assuming a position that was not hers to assume or seize[7] rather than not be near Jesus whom she loves.

This isn’t about active equals bad and passive equals good; Mary and Martha are equally active. This is about something bigger than we think. It’s about God’s cosmic battle with the powers of sin and death through the arrival of the good (Christ)—the good we weren’t looking for but need.

And Martha was troubled greatly about all of the service. Now, she stood before [Jesus] and said, “Lord, is it not an object of anxiety for you that my sister has abandoned me alone to serve? Therefore, tell her for the purpose that she may lend me a hand. (10:40)

Martha is burdened by what has to be done and her sister, according to her, has “abandoned” her to do all the work of service for their guest. So she asks for help. Now, both sisters are before Jesus. One has seated her self to listen and one who has stepped close to cry out for help. How are either of these positions is wrong? Martha, under extensive anxiety, forsakes her independence and goes straight to the one who can help. Thus the supposed dichotomy between the sisters (activity/bad; passivity/good) diminishes more.

Rather than looking where we want to look, let’s look in the direction Luke is asking us to look; what’s the real distinction Luke is trying to make here? The distinction Luke is making with this story is orientation; orientation as a result of hearing; orientation as a result of hearing that manifests in love of the One who has come. One is oriented and one has to be reoriented.

Martha calls out from the depths of her humanity, burdened by the weight of the demands and cares of the laws placed on her, oppressed by the many anxieties weighing her down she cries out. She needs help, and she goes to the one she knows can help. She calls Jesus’s attention to the storm in her life, like the disciples did in Luke 8 when their dingy was threatened by raucous waves and roaring winds. “Master, we are going to drown!”, they cried out. “Lord, I’m going to drown!”, cries Martha. “Do something, Lord!”

Martha wants Jesus to intervene in a way that forces Mary to come and help her with the tasks of table service. She wants him to right the situation and put it back to normal; she wants him to make it that makes sense to her. [8] Jesus will help her and will make things “right,” but not in the way she expects. When does God work within our systems and according to our plans? When is the word of the gospel forced to serve the things conceived and born of ash and dirt? When has the Reign of God given way to the kingdom of humanity?

When Jesus speaks, everything will change, will become topsy-turvy and flipped around; including Martha.

And the Lord answered her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled in mind about many things, but there is one need; for Mary picked for herself the good portion which it will not be taken away from her.” (10:41-42)

Jesus speaks. The Word words himself. Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for her anxiety and burdens, but loving calls her (thus the double use of her name). The first Martha gets her attention, and the second one draws her deeper into himself. Like a mother would her anxious child. The voice she knows of the one who loves her so very much speaks, and when he does so in love and not condemnation. Martha’s orientation shifts from what must be done to the Lord sitting before her. And Jesus doesn’t tell her to stop worrying. He calls her by name. He doesn’t shush her, tell her she’s ridiculous, or shame her for feeling burdened. He merely reorients her to him and does so by calling her by name. That’s the gospel gospeling itself: love loving.

Then, he exposes her. First he flips her words. Martha asked Jesus if it was causing him anxiety that she was abandoned to serve. Jesus aren’t you upset my sister isn’t doing what she is expected to do? Jesus’s reply? Nope. I’m not. You’re the one, Martha, who is anxious to fulfill the relentless beast of burden of what is expected. Second, he intensifies her state: And it’s more than just this particular table service that’s causing you anxiety, Martha; it’s many things. It’s the demand upon demand placed upon her by the things of her world that are weighing her down. Martha is burdened to fulfill what is expected of her, but notice that this isn’t what Jesus expects. [9] Jesus isn’t upholding and isn’t going to uphold the law created and sustained by the old age, the very age God is putting to an end in Christ’s advent.

As Jesus addresses Martha, he highlights that discipleship isn’t worrisome obedience to “domestic performance” as one scholar called it, but about orientation toward the one who is the revelation and disclosure of God’s great cosmic rescue plan. [10] And this rescue plan—the cosmic invasion of God to contend with the powers of sin and death in the world—doesn’t incorporate thrusting people back into systems and structures that have only left them bound and gagged and laboring unto death (that’s the old age). Jesus is not the Lord who deals death, but the one who speaks and the dead come to life. He is the word of life and the body of living sustenance. The gospel is not in service to the law, but the law in service to the gospel; the tablets of stone serve the embodied Son of God who came to save the world.

Martha lost herself in the many things being demanded of her according to custom, but there is only need: the Word made flesh. In trying to serve her guest according to the rules and laws of the old age, Martha renders herself incapable of service to the Lord, to Jesus the Christ. Thus the contrast between Mary and Martha is orientation: Martha has her eyes to the old age; Mary to the new one inaugurated by Christ. Discipleship and its service is to be oriented toward the divine activity in the world following closely to the path initiated by Jesus. Our faith with our works are to be oriented to Christ and the Reign of God taking place in Christ; not to our objectives, our systems, our common sense, and our dogmas.[11]

Conclusion

The paradox of humanity in this small potent story of Luke 10: we are both Martha and Mary. You can’t pick sides here. You are not one or the other; you are both. I am both. We’ve been called and we’ve heard, but we also need to be called and to hear continually. We run through our days and perform in our rate races, fretting over the demands upon demands upon demands of our age: rest is a complete and total illusion here. Being oriented to the old age and its demands and trying to appease it so to silence it is a worthless endeavor because those systems and demands are insatiable. We will never be able to have or do enough to settle all the anxiety and silence the cacophony of demands. When we look to the old age to bring us hope, we are hopeless.

Rather, in the reign of God inaugurated by the advent of Christ Jesus, the cessation of the old age and the beginning of the new age, is the only means by which we will have true peace and rest. Paul writes in Colossians,

“[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (1:15-20)

Following Christ: freedom; taking up his yoke: liberty. It’s not about activity being bad and passivity being good, but about our orientation in our activity. In Christ, we are called by name unto him who is life and are brought out of the death of toiling and into new life of work. We receive freedom and liberty for us and for others who are also dying as we were dying. The way Luke structures chapter 10 of his gospel, we cannot isolate Mary’s active love of Christ from the active love for the neighbor of the Samaritan. [12] For him, work and worship are not separated. Chapter 10 is an exposition of the entire Law told in story. According to Luke, we cannot walk by our neighbor who is dying on the side of the road, beaten and bruised, and claim to love God.

We don’t need to justify ourselves to God through our incessant and frantic activity trying to appease the demands of the old age. [13] We are justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) by God’s grace (alone) and not by means of any of our toiling. We are called by name and we look; we are called by name again and we step closer. The one calling, the one proclaiming himself, puts an “it is finished” to the enslavement of the condemnation of the powers of sin and death, and he ushers in the comfort of the powers of love and life with “Come; come and follow me and I will give you rest.”

 

 

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997. “Although long interpreted as establishing the priority of the contemplative life over against the active one, the interests of this brief narrative unit lie elsewhere. Luke’s narration is manifestly concerned with the motif of hospitality.” 433. I’m not drawing out the specific theme of hospitality, but that should be incorporated into my discussion of the next albeit rather subtly, snuggled in between choosing the good part and discipleship.

[2] Gonzalez 141. “They must read within the context of Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom and radical obedience. In the chapters immediately preceding, Jesus has been teaching about the demands of the kingdom and of discipleship. In the coming of Jesus, something radically new has happened and this radically new thing demands an equally radical obedience (see, for instance, 9:57-62). The parable of the Good Samaritan calls for a radical obedience that breaks cultural, ethnic, and theological barriers. The story of Mary and Martha is equally radical. First of all, we often do not realize that the first one to break the rules is Jesus himself. He is the guest, and against all rules of hospitality he rebukes Martha, who is his host. And Mary too breaks the rules. Her role as (most probably) a younger sister, or as one living in the house of her sister, is to help her in her various chores. Instead, she just sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him.”

[3] Matthew 11:30

[4] Green 435; Also, Luke is intentional here: the “they” and “them” fall out of view once Jesus is received as a guest into Martha’s home.

[5] Green 144, “By means of this juxtaposition [with 10:25-37], Luke illuminates his overarching concern with genuine “hearing” of the word of God (cf. 8:4-21)…Now, Mary is depicted as one who has begun the journey of discipleship by acknowledging through her posture her submissiveness to Jesus and by ‘listening’ to his word. Martha’s ‘doing,’ on the other hand, is censured, rooted as it is in her anxiety as a host rather than in dispositions transformed by an encounter with the word.”

[6] Green 435, “She is positioned ‘at the Lord’s feet,’ signifying her submissiveness, particularly her status as a disciple (cf. Acts 22:3). The latter nuance is commended by her activity at his feet: she ‘listened to his word’ For the Third Gospel, to listen to the word is to have joined the road of discipleship (e.g., 6:47; 8:11, 21; 11:28)—in spite of the reality that, in this period, Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”

[7] Green 435fn142, While some Law was learned it was only in regards to those laws that controlled the feminine realm and were taught by mother to daughter.

[8] Green 436-7, “…Martha’s address to Jesus takes an unexpected, perhaps unconscious turn; while she engages in the irony of self-betrayal, her attempt to win Jesus’ support in a struggle against her sister ends in self-indictment. The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one’s guest, yet Martha’s speech is centered on ‘me’-talk (3 times). Though she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord,’ she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from him his.”

[9] Gonzalez 141, “Here Jesus rebukes Martha for doing what is expected of her, and commends Mary, who is eschewing her traditional woman’s role.”

[10] Green 434, “As high a value as Luke puts on service (by which he often denotes leadership, cf. 22:24-27), service grounded in and brandishing moral intuitions other than those formed through hearing the word is unacceptable. The welcome Jesus seeks is not epitomized in distracted, worrisome domestic performance, but in attending to this guest whose very presence is a disclosure of the divine plan.”

[11] Green 437, “…his status as Lord identifies him as the one whose design transcends self-oriented or conventionally correct plans and whose message takes precedence over the same. Thus, over against the attempt of Martha to assert the priority of her enterprise over that of her sister, Jesus provides his own two-sided valuation of the scene before him. Martha is engaged in anxious, agitated practices, behavior that contrasts sharply with the comportment of a disciple characteristic of Mary. Martha is concerned with many things, Mary with only one. Hence, Martha’s behavior is negatively assessed, Mary’s positively. What is this ‘one thing,’ this ‘better part’ Mary has chosen? Within this narrative co-text, the infinite range of possibilities is narrowed considerably: She is fixed on the guest, Jesus, and his word; she heeds the one whose presence is commensurate with the coming of the kingdom of God. With Jesus presence the world is being reconstituted, with the result that (1) Mary (and. With her, those of low status accustomed to living on the margins of society) need no longer be defined by socially determined roles; and, more importantly in this co-text, (2) Mary and Martha (and, with them, all) must understand and act on the priority of attending to the guest before them, extending to Jesus and his messengers the sort of welcome in which the authentic hearing of discipleship is integral.”

[12] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: 2017. “Theological commitment to the true socialism of the kingdom of God and engagement with socialist analysis of capitalist social structures, which are antithetical to that kingdom, coalesce in Gollwitzer’s thought to make the fundamental point that Christians must take sides on political issues, and they must take the side of the oppressed. Many of those Americans today who think of themselves as Christians feel very uncomfortable when faced with this demand. As Gollwitzer correctly notes, however, taking sides ‘sounds terrifying only to him who is blind to the fact that the empirical church has actually always taken sides.’ Christians have, by and large, sided with the status quo, But the gospel’s call to repentant conversion—to metanoia—‘reaches into the politico-social dimension,’ and ‘as long as we shrink from revolutionizing [that dimension], we have not really heard’ the gospel’s call. That is, we have not encountered the God who loves justice, and who is consequently served through the pursuit of political love.” 146

[13] Helmut Gollwitzer “Fellow-Workers With Love” The Way to Life Trans David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. “When we no longer defend and justify ourselves, then God, who is greater than our heart, defends us, and holds us fast…and we can breath again; we are not rejected as we deserve to be, we are still accepted by the love of God.”132.

An Encounter with Jesus, An Encounter with Hope

Luke 8:26-39 (Sermon)

Introduction

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here…[1]

This song would put Liza to sleep as an infant. While lying in our bed trying to catch my couple of hours of nighttime sleep without a baby, I would listen to my husband sing this song to my daughter as he would rock or walk her. I’m sure it was the mellow octave and slow rhythm that lured Liza to sleep, but the words would often keep me up. Man, I know this feeling. The song is about addiction, the loss of a dear friend to that addiction and the longing for that person to return, but everything seems too far-gone. The wish remains only a wish; hope seems lost.

Hope seems lost today. Via social media timelines and various news outlets, chaos seems to reign, violence is everywhere, people are dying, angry is the mood of the hour, and anxiety is the new normal. Bringing it to a personal level, we’re driving ourselves into isolation through our gadgets and screens. We’ll sacrifice people on the altar of materialism, burning brothers and sisters as a pleasing aroma to a false idol; and if that reward is good enough, we’ll sacrifice ourselves. We speak pleasing words but they lack substance; they’re hollow husks. We’ve been disabused of the notion that anything could ever be different or, God forbid, better, so we plug our ears, close our eyes, abide by system, and keep our heads down. We’re in chains thinking we’re living our best lives now, but we’re comfortably numb, more dead than alive.

Is hope lost? Are we just deaf, dumb, and blind?

Luke 8:26:39

And they sailed down into the region of the Gerasene which is on the opposite shore of Galilee. Now, after going out [of the boat] upon the earth, a man, having evil spirits, met him who was from the city, and for a considerable amount of time was not clothed in a robe, and he was not abiding in a house but in the tombs. (8:26-27)*

Our passage is from Luke 8 and participates in the meta-theme Luke is building. [2] He writes, “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (8:1). And Jesus does just that: travel and proclaim the word of God; where he steps and to whom he speaks causes radical change.

Jesus tells the crowd[3] gathered around him the parable of the sower. The word of God falls on various soils with various results (8:9-14). The conclusion, “But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (8:15). Jesus’s emphasis is this: they who have ears to hear, hear and respond.

Not hiding the light of lamps (8:16-18) is tied up with this theme, “Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away” (8:17). As well as Jesus’s definition about his true mother and brothers (8:19-21): “But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (8:21). The refrain goes out: they who have ears to hear, hear and respond. [4]

Luke has Jesus get in a boat with his disciples to head over to the other side of the lake (8:22). On the way, a storm presents and literally threatens the lives of the disciples as well as the other fishermen. The disciples panic and wake Jesus up. Jesus shouts at the wind and the waves commanding them to “Be still!” At the sound of the divine yawp, the “the winds and water” (8:25) immediately obey Jesus and marvels at his disciples who don’t seem to know God when they encounter him. Again, those who have ears to hear, hear and respond.

Luke is a master storyteller. By linking vignettes he builds his meta-theme. The kerygmatic aspect, Luke’s proclamation of Christ crucified through these stories puts the audience in contact with the Christ and asks his audience the same question Jesus will ask his disciples in the next chapter: who do you say that I am? (9:20). That answer will determine everything; have you really heard?

Luke really wants his reader to hear and to know who this is who will set his face to Jerusalem to bear the sin of the world and be raised to new life in victory over death and captivity. [5] Luke is building a capable case for the Christ; he is stockpiling narrative artillery to get his audience to answer that question rightly. They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

Luke’s meta-theme sails across the lake to non-Israelite territory, and we land on the shore of our passage about the Gerasene Demoniac. As he exits the boat, Jesus’s foot strikes the dry ground of unclean territory: the region of the Gerasenes, a Gentile territory.[6] Where that foot strikes, chains fall. Freedom from the bondage of sin and liberty from oppression is not for Israel alone, “‘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’” (Jn 3:16). [7] The seed of the parable of the sower has come to the region of the Gerasenes, and Luke wants his reader to hear what happens when it hits the fertile soil of a desperate human heart and not only rebellious wind and the water.[8]

And after perceiving Jesus, [the man] shouted and fell down before him and in a great voice he said, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus the Son of the Most High? I beg of you, do not torture me.” For [Jesus] was commanded the unclean spirit to go out from the person. (For many times it had dragged him by force and he was bound by means of chains and shackles for his feet while being guarded and when tearing asunder the bonds he would be driven into desolate places by the evil spirit.) And Jesus inquired of him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” because many evil spirits entered into him. (8:28-30).

Notice Luke uses a specific Gentile to demonstrate how far Jesus’s liberating grace can and will go: to the unclean of the “unclean.” [9] Jesus goes to the margins of society, to the back alleys of civilization and finds fertile soil. Not among the civilized (the well dressed abiding proper etiquette) but among those bound by chains and not in their right minds. The fertile soils are those who hear because they know their dire state, [10] know they are bound, know their enslavement, know the burden of the fruitlessness of the rat-race of life, who know what it feels like to be ostracized and excluded, who know the crushing aspect of systems bent on the destruction and demolition and dehumanizing[11] of the person, those familiar with grim and with death.[12] They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

And [the evil spirits] were exhorting him that he might not command them to go away into the abyss. Now, there was a considerable herd of swine being pastured in a mountain in that place. And they were exhorting [Jesus] in order that he might allow them to enter [the herd of swine]; and [Jesus] allowed them. Now, when the evil spirits came out from the person, they entered into the swine, and the herd hastened from the precipice into the lake and was drowned (8:31-33).

When Luke brings Jesus across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes, he wants his audience to see how far, how deep, how wide, how cosmically powerful[13] the love and grace of God is in Jesus the Christ (to see how compassionate and powerful God is). This is Jesus, the one who was baptized by John in the river Jordan and the son with whom God is well please (Lk 3:21-22), this is Jesus the one who bested the devil in the wilderness (Lk 4:1-13).[14] This is Jesus who commands not only the wind and waves but also a legion (a military term designating 5,600 men) to flee a hopeless man.[15]

The evil spirits knew who it was standing before them and their paltry position by relation.[16] The evil spirits knew when Jesus spoke they had to obey, thus the pleading to be relocated into the swine and not into the unfathomable abyss thus death. They knew the power and the compassion (!) of the one who stood with the man among the tombs. Luke asks: do you know? They who have ears to hear, will hear and respond.

Now, after the ones who were feeding saw what had happened, they fled and announced [it] to the city and to the country. And they came out to see what had happened, and they went to Jesus, and they saw sitting near [his] feet the person from whom the evil spirits came out having been clothed and being of sound mind, and they were afraid. And the ones who saw announced how the one who had been possessed by an evil spirit was saved. And altogether the crowd of the neighboring country of the Gerasenes asked [Jesus] to go way from them, because they were seized by a great fear. And he turned back and stepped into the boat. Now the man from whom the evil spirits had gone out of was begging [Jesus] to be with him. But [Jesus] set him free saying, “Return to your house and fully relate what great things God did for you.” And [the man] went away toward the entire city proclaiming what great things Jesus did for him. (8:34-39).

While we don’t know exactly why the swineherds and the townspeople were seized with a great fear, we can guess. Jesus did send a lot of profit over the precipice into the lake. [17] But the emphasis in this final portion is on what had happened. So, both the now cured pork products and the cured former demoniac are in view. [18] This event was a massive encounter with divine power that upset the region in a myriad of ways (as divine power does: it upsets what humans build and prize).

There’s something else in view: the juxtaposition of the crowds’ fear and the fear of the man from whom many evil spirits came out. The crowd is seized with fear that’s closer to terror and they want Jesus to get out, fast; they lack faith; they’ve seen but they’ve not heard. [19] The man is seized with fear but it’s the fear that comes with hearing, the type of fear of the event of faith in the encounter with God. The man’s encounter with God has upended his existence: being possessed by evil spirits he is now possessed by faith and by the love of God, possessed by grace alone; he was naked, now he’s clothed; he was out of his mind, now he’s in his right mind; he was ostracized and excluded now he’s befriended and included. He has gone from being judged forsaken by God to being declared beloved by God; he came out of certain death into true life and hope.

Conclusion

The former demoniac hears and responds: he desires to follow Jesus. But Jesus tells him to go and do: Proclaim the freedom and the liberation God has given you. And he does just that: let me tell you about Jesus the Christ…Let me tell you about a man who told me everything about me… The most absurd people become God’s favorite messengers of a most absurd message: God does so love the whole entire world, a light shines so bright that darkness cannot overcome it, the good part is here and will not be taken away, Jesus is the Christ who died for our sin and was raised for our justification, that we matter to a wholly other God—who flung the stars in to the sky, who made the high mountains of the earth and the deep trenches of the sea—who has abolished death!

Our lives speak to this fantastic and absurd message; we are part of God’s motley crew of absurd messengers encountered by God in the event of faith in the proclamation of Christ and pulled out of ourselves and reoriented in and to the world[20]—not in a meek way, but in a dangerously helpful one.[21] For where we go, so to the proclamation of Christ Jesus who is love and divine grace and righteousness, who sets the captives free from their chains of bondage, who brings freedom to those enslaved by the demonic powers of a world and its systems oriented to it’s own self-destruction, like possessed pigs careening off of a precipice. We have come through certain death into true life and hope; how can we not bring this life and hope to a world fast loosing life and hope?

Jesus proclaimed gives birth to hope because “[t]hat is the meaning of the name Jesus Christ, a name of hope, a meaning of hope…The way of the love with which God has laid hold of our hearts…is the way of a hope that cannot be disappointed and will not be disappointed.”[22] Those of us gathered here today, who have ears to hear, are sent out from here with the hope given to us in Christ proclaimed. We are thrust back into a turbulent and hurting world and are caused to be witnesses to the mercy and justice and love of God in a world[23] seemingly devoid of such things. Mercy, justice, love, peace, and hope are not only for us who sit here and hear, but also for the people out there who long to hear.

The world groans restricted by the chains and shackles of the cage, held in bondage to the myths and lies of our systems and dogmas and longs to hear the message of Jesus Christ who brings hope to the hopeless, freedom to the captives, and love…

Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
There is a design,
An alignment to cry,
Of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be[24]

 

*Translation mine.

[1] Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. “Although this narrative unit is part of the sequence of scenes held together by these references to a journey, then, its position at the midpoint of this sequence and its identification the goal of Jesus’ intended trip (v 22) portend its identification of the goal of Jesus’ intended trip (v.22) portend its particular importance in this chain of episodes.” 335

[3] The text indicates that the crowd was comprised of many people from town after town . “When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable” (8:4).

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. About Luke 8:19-21, “…the point is that those who hear and do the Word of God are a new family of Jesus and of God.” 106.

[5] Gonzalez, 107. About 8:22-25, “…the central theme of this entire section, which is power of Jesus over demons. It is important for Luke’s narrative to stress that power as a prelude to the entire section on the passion in which that power seems to be brought to naught. Thus four miracle stories serve to remind us of who this is who will set his face to go to Jerusalem and there suffer and die The first of these stories shows the power of Jesus over the demons that wreak havoc through the elements.”

[6] Green, 335. “The one who shares center stage with Jesus has no name in the narrative- his foremost characteristic is his bondage to and release from demonic power (cf. 4:18-19). If these variations on a theme help us to identify the melody, then the countermelody is recognized in the assorted clues that this is the first time Jesus has crossed over into predominantly Gentile territory.” See also Gonalez, 108. “Although there are textual problems in this passage, so that it is impossible to tell exactly where the miracle is said to take place, it would seem that we are now in a Gentile area where large herds of swine were common…Thus one of the added dimensions of this story is that it is an early indication of the power of Jesus beyond the world of Judaism.”

[7] Gonzalez, 108. “Jointly, the three narratives serve to announce that the one who will soon find himself in Jerusalem refused, mocked, and crucified is Lord over all powers of evil, including disease and death, and is yet loving and compassionate. Separately, they point to various aspects of the lordship and compassion of Jesus.”

[8] Green, 336. “On a fundamental level then this text concerns the crossing of boundaries in Jesus’ mission, and more particularly the offer of salvation in the Gentile world. Within the larger narrative setting of this account, this emphasis is striking for Luke thus portrays how the lessons of the story of the sower then (8:4-21) appropriate to the Gentile world too. Here is a man, first full of demons then saved who responds as a disciple and becomes the first person to be commissioned by Jesus for missionary activity grounded in his own.”

[9] Gonzalez, 110. Bigger theme here, “It is the theme so prevalent in Luke, of the outsider being brought back in and of the restoration of community when this happens. The Gerasene who lived in the tombs is restored to his home and community. The woman who, of her hemorrhages, was considered unclean and was therefore excluded from community is now cleansed and restored. The girl restored to her family. In all three stories Jesus seems to go beyond borders of propriety: he heals Gentile; he commends an unclean who has touched him; he touches a corpse… The demons that Jesus conquers not only those of disease and but also those of isolation exclusion.”

[10]Gonzalez, 110. “As a whole the three stories warn us against being too systematic and dogmatic about the nature of the Christian mission. It is mission to Gentiles but also to those who should be part of the community but are excluded. At points it is a mission inviting to witness; and at other points it is a mission inviting some to be silent! It is a mission among crowds; but it is also a mission of personal touch. It is a mission of joy and restoration both to those who have long been oppressed by evil and to those who have suddenly discovered its demonic and life-destroying power.”

[11] Green, 338. The way Luke sets up the story, the audience is given a clear and upfront view of this man who used to be “normal” but now—for some reason—wasn’t, “In fact, his adverse condition is so advanced that he had crossed the boundaries of human decency. He had lost any claim to status’ naked and living in the tombs he was scarcely even human.”

[12] Green, 338. “Uncontrollable out of his mind, he was chained and guarded as a societal menace, like a wild animal. The strength of the evil forces at work inside of him is further underscored by Luke’s observation that attempts at containment had been unsuccessful. The destructive power of the demonic on this man could hardly be portrayed more strikingly. Completely displaced from his community living among the tombs he might as well be dead.”

[13] Green, 338. So many mentions of Demons/Evil Spirits, “…an encounter of cosmic proportions.”

[14] Green, 338-9. “The demoniac’s actions, now under diabolic control, signal the tension of the moment of encounter. Falling before Jesus is a sign of reverence, submission 70 but the demoniac’s loud shout suggests a defensive posture even resistance 71 The demoniac uses a question to issue a defensive directive: Let me alone! Within the Lukan narrative the demon correctly identifies Jesus as God’s Son, just as the devil had done (4:1-13); and, in particular as ‘Son of the Most High God’…”

[15] Green, 339. “Rather than immediately departing the man, this demon attempts to negotiate with Jesus and, indeed to gain ascendancy over him. Jesus counters by demanding and receiving the name of the demon: Legion from the Latin term legio, designating a military unit of some 5 600 men. The significance of this term in this co-text is signaled immediately by the narrator, who interprets the demon’s reply to mean that the number of demons who had entered the man was ‘many.’ With this the confrontation opposing powers has reached its zenith, with Jesus the victor. Not only does the compassion of Jesus expand to include the Gentiles then but so also does his power and authority.”

[16] Green, 339. “This demon finds himself in the presence of one related to “the Most High God” is one more powerful than he, and more powerful than the one he serves…That is the demon’s address is motivated by his recognition of his own inferior position. “

[17] Gonzalez, 109. “Then there is matter of the reason why the people in the area wish Jesus to The text mentions only ‘fear.’ Is it fear of the unknown and surprising power that has been manifested; or is it fear that Jesus will upset the economic well-being of the region, as he has already done drowning the swine?”

[18] Green, 340, Presence of Swineherds functions as testimony: other people saw these events. “Their return to the ci (from whence the man hailed, v 27) provides for the additional witnesses of what Jesus had done for this man. Hence the repeated phrase ‘what had happened’ must be taken to mean both the drowning of the pigs and the healing of the former demoniac.”

[19] Green, 341. “Fear in the face of evidence of divine activity is expected in the Gospel, but the fear of these people is not portrayed as a positive response. Have gathered from city and country (v 34), and now all from the region share in a common verdict. In fear they reject Jesus. The offer of good news rebuffed, Jesus departs. Unlike the disciples in the boat (8:22-25), in spite of the unambiguous evidence of divine intervention before them in the form of their transformed acquaintance, these people seem not to have any faith at all.”

[20] Corresponds with the definition for Dialectical Theology provided by Dr. W. Travis McMaken on this podcast hosted by Stephen Waldron, http://theologyandsocialism.libsyn.com/our-god-loves-justice-interview-with-w-travis-mcmaken-on-helmut-gollwitzer

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

[22] Helmut Gollwitzer “Hope for the Hopeless” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. 103-4. “And now with this hope [we go] back into our earthly life, and that means into tribulation, into hopes that can be disappointed, into battles win two which he sends us as his disciples, into the unpeaceful world as peacemakers, into solidarity with the hungry and the enslaved as prisoners…When we are struck to the ground, we rise again and again, and even at the grave we raise our hopes again…”

[23] McMaken, 148 “Christians are called to bear political witness to the God they have encountered—a God of peace, justice, mercy, and ultimately, of love.”

[24] Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More

“Our God Loves Justice”

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

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

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

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading/Works Mentioned in the Podcast:

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

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

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

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

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

Christ our Crisis

Luke 4:1-12 (Sermon)

I remember my first existential crisis. I was five and staring out of a window at a massive cornfield on the other side of the road from our house in Minnesota. My eyes focused on the window screen. As the cornfield blurred, I examined the screen. Then my eyes refocused again, but this time their focus was my nose. This broke my five-year-old brain. For the first time I was aware of what I considered to be a distinction between mind and body, and I felt my disembodiment. Lauren was in this particular body…but maybe I could’ve been in another body? Born to a different family? Living in a different house?

Cue the crisis.

I’m not alone here in existential crises. I’m happy assuming that many of you have had one or two or one once a week. An existential crisis occurs because something external has radically altered the way we see our existence, which challenges us and causes us to doubt the permanence of our existence. The crisis is the bright light that shines into the dark recesses of our existence and exposes the truth of who and what we are: dead person walking with no way to escape the things that plague sleep, that cause fear, that wake regret. No matter how much make-up we wear or what suite we put on, we are that person and that person we are.

Lent is a that which points us to our crisis. Lent is not a feel-good-about-yourself-because-you-gave-up-sugar-for-40-days event. To borrow and expand the apt imagery Rev. Montgomery employed on Ash Wednesday: Lent is cleaning house. It’s not merely straightening up the rooms that will be seen by your guest, but going under the bed, to the back of your closet, even into the attic and basement and dragging out those boxes where you keep the stuff you’d never want exposed by the light of day. Lent is to be a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of yourself, to quote the 4th step of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without the crisis of the self in death, we have not the self in life; without Good Friday, there’s no Easter.

Cue the crisis.

Then Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was lead by the Spirit into the desert, in order to be tempted forty days by the Slanderer (devil). 4:1-2a

Our gospel reading from Luke forms a bridge between Jesus being baptized in the Jordan and the beginning of his ministry.[1] Thus, I’m picking up where I left you: in the Jordan with Jesus, with the one who stands in solidarity with God and with Humanity and who answers the divine question posed to humanity: whom will you follow and with whom will you stand?

Being filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus exits the Jordan and is ushered into the desert (the wilderness[2]), thus, steps into the solitude of a desolate wasteland. The focus is solely on him; this then becomes the locus of our eyes and the orientation of our ears. We are to look and listen, being quiet visitors because it’s not (primarily) about us, it’s (primarily) about Jesus, the assumed son of Joseph who is (and has been equipped to be) Jesus the Christ.[3] We watch as the battle wages in a realm that is cosmic in proportions[4] as the Slanderer takes on the Christ.[5] And this battle will establish in concrete terms what Jesus proclaimed in his baptism in the Jordan: I am for God; I stand with God.[6]

As in the Jordan and in this battle with the Slanderer in the wilderness, Jesus is not only Christ standing in solidarity with God but Jesus the Christ standing in solidarity with humanity—the overlap with Israel is no accident.[7] Where Israel failed, Jesus triumphs. Where Israel grieved the spirit after their baptismal event (crossing the ground of the Red Sea between two walls of water); Jesus follows the leading of the Spirit after his baptism event in the Jordan. Where Israel clamored and complained about hunger, Jesus resists the temptation to feed himself; where Israel spent 40 years, Jesus spends 40 nights; where Israel was God’s son disobedient, Jesus is God’s son obedient.[8]

The first generation of Israel, liberated from the captivity and bondage of Egypt’s oppression and enslavement, was sentenced to death for their disobedience, never to enter into the Promised Land. Jesus will enter the Promised Land, the presence of God, and establishes that he is the Promised Land: he is the Son with whom God is well pleased. And where this Son goes so too does the presence of God, for where he stands there established is holy ground. And as the presence of God does, so too will Jesus: illuminate and expose the people for who and what they are.

Cue the crisis.

And he ate nothing during those days and when they had completed he was hungry. The slanderer said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone so that it may become bread. And Jesus answered him, “It is written that humanity will not live by bread alone. 4:2b-4

The first temptation is rather basic: the Slanderer plays off of Jesus’s hunger. Jesus, you need food, so, being the Son of God, just turn this stone into bread.[9] The Devil here is addressing a very basic human need: hunger. In his hunger, Jesus stands in solidarity with humanity in his flesh. He is hungry. Jesus’s answer doesn’t create a dichotomy between flesh and spirit; it’s not as if Jesus has suddenly become an airatarian or that he thinks that the flesh is bad and only needs spiritual food. He doesn’t. The picture is larger than that. Jesus’s hunger is a real and present need; however, it’s not only by bread that humanity is nourished, but primarily by the word of God. For forty days and forty nights Jesus existed in the wilderness with nothing but the word of God. [10] There was no manna this time; there was just the word of God.

Also, it’s the word of God that sustains the entire cosmos,[11] from the wheat that grows and is turned into the bread we eat to the heartbeat of the one whose hands made that bread. Everything is sustained by the all-powerful, creatio ex nihilo, word of God. This is Jesus’s claim. Drawing some sort of hierarchy between spirit and flesh would do disservice to the incarnation as a whole and negate the depth of the temptation.

Being hungry reminds us of our humanity and our utter and total dependence on something outside of ourselves to live. We don’t actually “earn” our own food; for without the one who prepares the food, we are up a creek without a paddle. We think we are “self-made,” and when God withdraws his sustaining word, we drop to the ground like flies mid flight. If the earth stops turning, you can neither run fast enough to budge it nor will you have the air to fill your lungs to do so. We believe the illusion that we’re autonomously functioning particles. And the dastardly thing is we perpetuate the illusion by repeatedly demanding others (less fortunate than ourselves) to function as such. We do not and cannot go it alone; how dare we ask others to do so.

Cue the crisis.

And the Slanderer lead Jesus and in a moment of time pointed out to him all the kingdoms of the inhabited earth, and he said to Jesus, “I will give to you the authority of all of this and the glory of these, for it has been handed over to me and to whom I wish I give it; therefore if you might worship in my presence, it will all be yours. And answering, Jesus said to him, “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and you will serve only him.” 4:5-8

In his letter to Theophilus, Luke already mentioned, in 2:1 and 3:1, that the “emperor” is the authority of the kingdoms of earth. Now, it’s the Slanderer who actually has authority.[12] Luke pulls back the veil: the kingdoms of humanity are under the authority of the Devil. On top of that, the Devil can offer these kingdoms to Jesus all he wants, but they’re only the Devil’s as a higher authority (God) delegates them to him.[13] Comically tragical.

Jesus’s answer is short and sweet: I worship God alone, and him only do I serve. And considering Jesus’s divine standing as the Son of God, these kingdoms are already his. But God does not work within Devil run systems and structures that work against God’s plan.[14] Just because these kingdoms will be and already are Jesus’s kingdoms does not mean that they are as they should be or that they’ll stay standing. In Christ, a new reign is being ushered in and it will look vastly different. What has been considered blessed (wealth, power, strength, popularity) will be flipped on its head.

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 6:20-26

Cue the crisis.

Then he brought Jesus into Jerusalem and placed him upon the edge of the temple and he, the Slanderer, said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written that he will command his angels concerning you in order to protect you and that by their hands they will carry you, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” And answering, Jesus said to him, “It is said and written that you will not put the Lord your God to the test.” 4:9-12

Jesus is brought to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and then is told, by the Slanderer, to test God. The Slanderer uses the “It is written” formula for himself. He uses Psalm 91 to try to recruit Jesus to his plan to test God. Here’s the portion of Psalm 91 in play,

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. 91:9-12

Psalm 91 is not about testing God to see if God is faithful to God’s word. Rather, it’s about those who find their allegiance to God and are in God’s presence. It’s about obedience to God.[15] While Israel was courted by infidelity and succumbed to the temptation, Jesus won’t.[16]

But there’s more to the Psalm. Here are the next two verses:

You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name. 91:13-14

There’s divine rescue through suffering mentioned here and not merely from it.[17] Jesus calls the Slanderer out because it’s not about protecting his foot from striking a rock, but that that very foot will crush the head of the serpent prophesied long ago in Genesis 3:15. The Psalm the Devil uses is the Psalm of his demise. Jesus’s “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test” may as well be, “Check mate.” The Offspring of the Woman has been born and that Offspring is Jesus the Christ. Devil best run. And he does.

And when all the temptations finished, the Slanderer kept away from him until a point in time. 4:13

As the Slanderer flees until his next appointed time of engagement with the Christ, keep this in mind: Jesus will now go forth and begin his ministry by calling those who shouldn’t be called according to our standards, and engaging with those who are relegated to the fringes and margins of society. The world is about to be turned upside down.[18] Christ’s foot will step and strike the cornerstone of the kingdom of humanity, rendering it to dust because of dust it was made, and he will establish himself as the new cornerstone of the Reign of God—through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.[19] Those in charge, those wielding power and authority for their own gain, those turning a blind eye to the poor and hungry, naked and homeless…they best run.

Cue the crisis.

In your encounter with God in the event of faith you become aware you are grafted into the story of Israel: the story of failure upon failure upon failure. This narrative moment in the gospel of Luke is hardwired to transcend time and space, confronting all whose eyes are turned and ears perked by the scene before them: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, being tempted by the Slanderer and winning.

Witnessing this event, we are brought to the reality that we would not have won, that we would have succumbed to each and every one of those temptations, and would have given far more for far less. We are exposed for wanting. We would have conjured the bread from stone, we would’ve sought our own power and fame no matter the cost, we would’ve tested the Lord our God. And we do these things. Everyday.

Cue the crisis but don’t fear the crisis. According to this story: Christ is the crisis. And if Christ is the crisis, then he’s in the crisis—he’s with you in the thick of it. It’s the crisis that brings you to the fullness of your humanity—body, mind, and soul—because it’s in this crisis where you realize you need an other. Christ is the incarnate Word of God who sustains your very life, who is very God of very God worthy of your worship and obedience, who surpasses all testing because he’s the fulfillment of all promises. God dwells in your crisis as God dwells in the gallows, with the dry bones, with those who are dead in their trespasses because God’s righteousness is that which calls to life what is dead.

“A miracle happens, the miracle of miracles, that this impure being, impure in the midst of the pure creation, that this impure being is permitted to live. The annihilating encounter with God become for him a life-giving encounter…Death is taken away, the death which I bear in myself because of my contradiction, my impurity is covered by the encircling life-giving love to him who was the prey of death.”[20]

Cue the crisis because crisis is the heart of Lent, the heart of the Great Litany. Cue the crisis and throw yourself at the feet of God whose property is to always have mercy, and find life.

 

 

 

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 191. “Luke 4:1-13 presents a number of key elements linking it, some almost subliminally, to surrounding material, helping to ensure its interpretation as a bridge scene moving Jesus from his endowment with the Spirit to his public ministry.”

[2] Karl Barth CD IV.1.59.260, “On the old view the wilderness was a place which, like the sea, had a close affinity with the underworld, a place which belonged in a particular sense to demons. It was to encounter there that He was led there and kept His fast there. For Him as the Son, the One in whom God was well pleased, this had to be the case. …His way will never be at a safe distance from the kingdom of darkness but will always be along its frontier and finally within that kingdom. But already at the outset it brings Him into confrontation and encounter with it.”

[3] Green 191, “He was baptized, the Spirit descended upon him he was the assumed son of Joseph-these all portray him in a passive mode. Now he becomes the deixic center, the one around whom the narrative and its actants are oriented, the one preparing to take the initiative (4:14-15) for which he has been equipped.”

[4] Green 192, Pericope is a clash of “cosmic proportions” the devil takes on Jesus, God’s son, who is full of the Holy Spirit, “This account thus exhibits the basic antithesis between the divine and the diabolic that will continue throughout Luke-Acts.”

[5] Green 191, Luke’s narrative emphasis lies on the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus, thus, “Empowered by the Spirit, Jesus is full of the Spirit, and inspired by the Spirit. His central, active role is therefore fundamentally as God’s agent, and it is this special relationship and its implications that lie at the root of Jesus’ identity in Luke-Acts. Not surprisingly then it is this that will be tested in the encounter between Jesus and the devil.”

[6] Green 191-2, “Luke 3:21-38 was in its own way integral to the demonstration of his competence indicating his possession of the requisite credentials, power, and authority to set forth on his mission. But these are not enough. They must be matched with Jesus’ positive response to God’s purpose. Hence here Jesus will signal his alignment with God’s will in a way that surpasses the evidence already provided by his display of submission to God at his baptism. In the OT and in subsequent Jewish tradition fidelity to God was proven in the midst of testing whether direct activity of the devil. In the present scene, the testing conducted by the devil seeks specifically to controvert Jesus’ role as Son of God either by disallowing the constraints of that relationship or by rejecting it outright.”

[7] Green 193, “The similarities are sufficient in scope and quantity to show that the narrator has drawn attention deliberately to Jesus in his representative role as Israel, God’s son.”

[8] Green 192, “Correlation to Israel’s testing in the wilderness:

  1. divine leading in the wilderness (Deut 8:2- cf. Luke 4:1);
  2. “forty” (Exod 16:35; Num 14:34; Deut 8:2, 4; cf. Luke 4:2);
  3. Israel as God’s son (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; cf. Luke 4:3, 9);
  4. the testing of Jesus is analogous to that experienced by Israel and the scriptural texts he cites derive from those events in which Israel was tested by God (Deuteronomy 6-8); and
  5. though Jesus was full of the Spirit and followed the Spirit’s guidance, Israel ‘rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit’ (Isa. 63:10)”

[9] Green 193, “These ingredients of ‘setting’ are in fact integral to the first test. Jesus’ fasting has resulted in his near starvation and this foregrounds an immediate need, the provision of food.”

[10] Karl Barth CD III.2.44.67, “It is only apparently the case that the Matthean text says less and is more reserved, as though in the phrase ‘not by bread alone’ Jesus had recognised that man does indeed live by bread too, but that he also needs the words proceeding from the mouth of God. For in this case the trite application that man has not only bodily but also spiritual needs is so obvious that the explication is a priori brought under suspicion. The fact is that during the forty days in the wilderness Jesus did not live by bread at all, but according to Mt. 42 He was an hungred, and yet in spite of His hunger He was still alive. Again, His answer to the tempter is a quotation from Deut. 83. But in this passage ‘living by bread’ is not one necessity to which ‘living by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’ is added as a second. On the contrary, the reference is to the miracle effected by the World of the Lord, which consisted in the fact that for forty years God led Israel through the desert, and that where there was no bread, and the people seemed likely to die of hunger, He nevertheless sustained them, namely, by the manna which neither they nor their fathers knew. It was in exactly the same way (except that now there was no question even of manna) that God sustained the hungering Jesus in the desert.”

[11] Karl Barth CD III.2.44.67, “This divine communication brings it about that He lives and is sustained, nourishing and quickening Him. Even the bread which, if He were not in the wilderness, He might sow, reap, grind and bake, or even purchase or steal, could not give him life as [humanity]. This is given Him by the almighty Word of God, whether he has bread or hungers in the wilderness.”; see also CD III.4.55.347

[12] Green 194, “At the outset it is worth noting two sources of irony present in Luke’s description of this setting. First we have been led to believe that ‘all the world’ was under the charge of the Roman emperor (2:1; 3-1)- Now however, in a way clearly parallel to the scenario painted in Revelation 13, we discover that the world of humanity actually ruled by the devil.”

[13] Green 195, “Whatever rule the devil exercises is that allowed him by God; he can only delegate to Jesus what has already been delegated to him. What Jesus is offered, then, is a shabby substitute for the divine sonship that is his by birth.”

[14] Green 194, “The perspective he thus outlines is fully at home with the language of reversal and portrayal of hostility characteristic of Luke 1-3, even if it goes beyond them in identifying the activity of those human and systemic agents that oppose God’s plan and God’s people as manifestations of diabolic rule.”

[15] Green 195, “Fundamentally the issue here is akin to that in the first test. Jesus is radically committed to one aim, God’s eschatological agenda; the devil has an alternative aim a competing agenda. He wants to recruit Jesus to participate in a test of the divine promises of Psalm 91. In doing so, the devil overlooks the critical reality that the psalm is addressed to those who through their fidelity to God reside in God’s presence; even in the psalm faithful obedience to God is the controlling need.

[16] Green 196, “Jesus does not the deny the promises of God the devil quotes at him but he “…does deny the suitability of their appropriation in this context. He recognizes the devil’s strategy as an attempt to deflect him from his single-minded commitment to loyalty and obedience in God’s service, and interprets the devil’s invitation as an encouragement to question God’s faithfulness. Israel had manifested its doubts by testing God. But Jesus refuses to do so (cf. Deut 6:16).”

[17] Green 196, “Moreover the devil fails to recognize an even deeper mystery known already to the believing community of which Luke is a part, that divine rescue may come through suffering and not only before (and from) them.”

[18] Of note, from W. Travis McMaken’s Our God Loves Justice (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017). “Appendix 1: Must a Christian Be A Socialist (Helmut Gollwitzer 1972)” trans WTM. “The goal of the disciples’ service is a society that gives equality to their unequally endowed members and gives each member the chance for a cull unfolding of life: where the strong help the weak, where production stands in the service of all, where the social product is not siphoned off by a privileged minority so that only the modes t remainder is at the disposal of the others, a society that ensures appropriate regulation of freedom and of social co-determination for all, the development of social life for the common task and for rich purpose in life for all members of society.”

[19] Karl Barth IV.1.59.264, “We cannot ignore the negative form in which the righteousness of God appears in the event handed down in these passages. This is unavoidable, because we have to do with it in the wilderness, in the kingdom of demons, in the world unreconciled with God, and in conflict with that world. It is unavoidable because what we have here is a prefiguring of the passion. But in the passion, and in this prefiguring of it, the No of God is only the hard shell of the divine Yes, which in both cases is spoken in the righteous act of this one man. That this is the case is revealed at the conclusion of the accounts in Mark and Matthew by the mention of the angels who, when Satan had left Him, came and ministered unto Him. The great and glorious complement to this at the conclusion of the passion is the story of the resurrection.”

[20] Helmut Gollwitzer “Forgiveness are One” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). 43.