Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches

INTRODUCTION: ACCEPTING, BLOCKING, AND STATUS

From the church’s perspective, is the state a promising offer, or a threatening one? At the risk of breathtaking oversimplification, Anglicans have tended to adopt the former perspective, leading to accommodation, and Anabaptists the latter, resulting in separation.[1] Following Samuel Wells in his theological appropriation of terms from theatrical improvisation, the Anglican tradition has tended to respond to the promising offers (invitations to respond) of the state by accepting – maintaining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[2] The historical legacy of the Church of England has given Anglicanism, as Anderson notes, an “inheritance of a strong loyalty to the state and a conservatism that has led the church to promote the status quo more often than it agitates for reform.”[3] This inheritance from the established Church of England has coincided with a dual tendency to adopt a high status (a strategy for getting one’s way), in terms of relative privilege and political optimism, and a low status, in terms of frequent subservience in church-state relations.[4]

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

However, the Anabaptist tradition has tended to respond to the threatening offers of the state by blocking – undermining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[5] For many contemporary Anabaptists, as Joireman summarizes, “[T]he state has the function of ordering the social world, and the church should be the visible witness of believers, the primary affiliation of Christians, and separate from the state.”[6] Passively, blocking the state can be “a choice to shut oneself away and keep oneself unsullied by the world.”[7] Most often, drawing upon their sixteenth-century inheritance of facing persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike, Anabaptists have adopted a low status as somewhat of a fringe movement. Actively, however, blocking can be “a choice to take up arms,” as seen during the (admittedly rare) example of high status Anabaptist opposition during the Münster Rebellion of 1534.[8]

QUESTIONING GIVENS

Continue reading “Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches”

Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?

Theology is confusing enough, much more so when you attempt to summarize it all in a single essay! Nevertheless, such was my assignment in seminary in 2015. Here are the results.


“At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann[1]

Theology in Outline: A[n Attempted] Summary of the Christian Faith

We believe that, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, God died on a Roman cross.[2] We also believe that, the third day thereafter, Jesus of Nazareth – the same person who had been crucified – rose again from the dead.

How can these things be?

How can the immortal, transcendent, omnipotent One come to a weak, immanent end?

How can a dead human leave his grave, living?

At this point, we face a crucial choice between:

  1. the posited “God” of metaphysical theism and
  2. the revealed God of the Christian faith.[3]

Should we choose the former, our Christ, canon, and confession are irreducibly docetic – the true “God” is aloof, and merely play-acting, at best.

Yet, should we choose the latter, God is irreducibly, ineluctably Triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe, we trust that the Triune God is who God has revealed Godself to be. Continue reading “Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?”

Faithful Faith in a Faithful God: Romans 1.1-17

I. Introduction: The Prodigal Son, Part 2

What a relief, to get out of that house.

Ordinarily, Jude would have scoffed at his father’s request to purchase farming equipment from the next city – a three-day journey!

But ever since Ethan, that rascal (you might even say that prodigal) brother of his, had returned, Jude could not stand to be in either man’s presence for long.

So he relished the chance to forget about his family tension on this farming errand.

But now he was almost home, and the painful thoughts came rushing back.

“Dad has changed. Perhaps it was early-onset dementia that caused him to forget the blessed closeness of our years together, alone, when I was not just the firstborn, but the only son. Sure, I had never been perfect, but I thought that my father was finally proud of me. That, after years of hard lessons learned, I had become the man he wanted me to be.

And then Ethan threw it all away. Continue reading “Faithful Faith in a Faithful God: Romans 1.1-17”

The Prodigal Son, Part 2: Introduction to Romans

An apocryphal introduction to my sermon on Romans 1:1-17.

What a relief, to get out of that house.

Ordinarily, Jude would have scoffed at his father’s request to purchase farming equipment from the next city – a three-day journey! But ever since Ethan, that rascal (you might even say that prodigal) brother of his, had returned, Jude could not stand to be in either man’s presence for long.

So he relished the chance to forget about his family tension on this farming errand. But now he was almost home, and the painful thoughts came rushing back.

“Dad has changed. Perhaps it was early-onset dementia that caused him to forget the blessed closeness of our years together, alone, when I was not just the firstborn, but the only son.

Sure, I had never been perfect, but I thought that my father was finally proud of me. That, after years of hard lessons learned, I had become the man he wanted me to be.

And then Ethan threw it all away.

Actually, you know what, as it that weren’t bad enough, dad threw it all away…for Ethan!

He received much more love than I ever did. I used to get punished for much slighter infractions than throwing my entire life (along with our hard-earned savings) away! I never got a banquet when I broke Sabbath…I got a beating!”

At this point, Jude’s unpleasant thoughts were interrupted by the sight of the homestead on the horizon.

The first thing he noticed was the amount of trash bags on the front porch. Not much later, the smell hit him. Odors he’d only ever experienced in faraway marketplaces, and therefore that much more memorable.

Barely believing his eyes and his nose, Jude took a closer look at the trash.

Grilled pork chop remnants.

Crusty booze bottles.

Bacon pizza fragments.

Ashen cigarette butts.

The slimy shells of shellfish.

His blood pressure rising, Jude spit on the refuse-pile and stormed in the front door.

“Dad! Where are you!? He’s done it again! Brought his dirty Gentile friends into our home! Dad?!”

A very obviously hungover Ethan stumbled into the main room, nibbling on a piece of bacon. “Jude! You’re back…”

And Jude broke:

“Damn you, Ethan! You ethnoi, you Gentiles! How can you continually scorn our father’s, the Father’s, righteousness!?

First, you go and throw away your life and our life-savings to run away with swine?! Then, after the Father somehow took you in – adopted you like some bastard, orphaned children – you bring the swine back into this house?!

You think you’re so strong, so powerful, but you’re weak! You think you know who the Father is, what he’s like, but you’re wrong!

We’re strong! We’re the firstborn sons of God! Who in the hell do you Gentiles think you are?!

If you really loved God, you would follow the Law and keep the traditions…

How can the Father love you people? It’s embarrassing, really.

We never should have allowed you back into this house.”

By now, Ethan was boiling over as well:

“Damn you, Jude! You judaioi, you Jews!

How can you continually forget our father, the Father’s grace?!

Don’t you realize by now that all your stupid rituals, all your hard lessons learned, were a complete waste of time!? We Gentiles and God have moved on into the age of grace!

You Jews have forgotten the point of God’s grace, and so He’s practically forgotten you! We’re the firstborn, best-loved sons now. We’re the strong ones, and we outnumber you all at least three to one, so shut up and deal with it!

You’ve screwed up so often, you got kicked out of your land! And you didn’t learn any lessons then, because you got yourselves thrown out of Rome!

How could Nero have let you people back into this city? It’s shameful, really.

We never should have allowed you back into this Church, you…”

[KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK]

Someone at the door.

The Roman Christians – Jew and Gentile alike – froze in fear.

Ethan looked at the other Gentile leaders.

Was it a centurion? Had their gathering been reported? Would they be asked to bow the knee, to offer a sacrifice, to the new emperor, Nero? If they weren’t willing to do so, would this be the end?

Jude glanced at his wife, their children, and the other Jewish families.

Had they already outstayed their recent welcome back to the city? After exile, they’d spent four hard, hard years rebuilding their life in Rome. Would they again be driven from their homes? Where would they go?

The slaves in the room – and there were many – anxiously retraced their steps throughout the day.

Which one of their fellow slaves had discovered their secret? Had followed them to this meeting? Had told their master? Would they merely get whipped again? Or had their master’s patience run out?

Jude whispered to Ethan, “You’re in charge here, get the door.”

He trudged to the threshold and pulled it open.

A hooded figure stepped through, walked to the middle of the room, and pulled the hood back. Long brown hair flowed down.

The woman said “Christ is Risen!”

“…He is…risen…indeed,” they all stammered in reply.

She smiled: “He is risen indeed. For twenty-five years now, in fact! Greetings. My name is Phoebe of Cenchreae.”

Rummaging in her pack, she began to explain:

“I bring something for all of you from Paul, the apostle… It’s in here, somewhere. No, not this theology textbook. No, not this to-do list… Ah! Here it is, a letter.”

Morning Prayer Homily: Mark 8.11-21

A homily on Mark 8:11-21 (ESV):

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

In an interview, published in 1974, with famed thinker Bertrand Russell, Leo Rosten asked Russell the following:

“Let us suppose, sir, that after you have left this sorry vale, you actually found yourself in heaven, standing before the Throne. There, in all his glory, sat the Lord—not Lord Russell, sir: God.”

Russell winced.

“What would you think?”

“I would think I was dreaming.”

“But suppose you realized you were not? Suppose that there, before your very eyes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was God. What would you say?”

The pixie wrinkled his nose. “I probably would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’ “

In Numbers 14:11, YHWH says to Moses:

“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”

As we return to consider our passage from Mark 8, keep in mind that in the region of Tyre, Jesus has just performed a long-distance exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (7:24-30). He has just healed a deaf mute in the region of the Decapolis (7:31-37). He has just fed at least four thousand people with just seven loaves of bread in a desolate place (8:1-10).

And yet, in the region of Dalmanutha, the Pharisees have the audacity to demand a sign from heaven, to test Jesus in a manner not unlike the Adversary tested him in the wilderness (Mark 1:13).

Why does this demand exasperate Jesus? Surely, given his recent actions, he is not averse to the supernatural in-breaking of God’s kingdom as demonstrated in his miracles. Instead, he astutely recognizes the incompatibility of this sign-seeking pharisaical power-play with true trust, true faith.

As Catholic scholar Mary Healy rightfully observes:

“to insist on irrefutable evidence is really a demand for control, as if to say ‘Force us to believe, so that we will not have to trust you or change our hearts.’ But faith that is compelled is not faith at all” (The Gospel of Mark, 153).

I am here reminded of the twin-error of fundamentalism and liberalism when it comes to biblical and theological studies: the insistence that we will only believe what is scientifically verifiable according to the standards we have inherited from Enlightenment Rationalism. The former group thinks everything can be verified, the latter group, very little.

Sure, OK, but we’re not fundamentalists or liberals, at least not on our good days. But, following the example of the disciples in the second half of our passage, don’t we often pine for various other kinds of bread while we misunderstand and ignore the true bread of heaven among us?

Will we be satisfied by God’s faithful provision of Word and Sacrament to nourish our faith? Or will we long for the more extraordinary manifestations? (As if Word & Sacrament were ordinary!)

Now, can we, should we long for miracles, for healing?

Yes.

Can God, will God continue to work wonders, heal sickness, and reverse death in our midst?

Yes.

But we must be constantly vigilant, first, that we do not begin to value the healing more than the Healer, the wonders more than the One who works them.

And, second, that we do not, like the Pharisees (and even the disciples, for a time!), close our eyes, ears, and hearts to the miraculous things that God, in Christ, is already and always doing.

Whether we can discern it or not, God is making the world right again. He will not be thwarted in this mission.

Friends, God knows that we need some sort of sign, that we cannot keep the faith on our own, unaided. So he has given us sign-seekers His very self, His very Son!

He will not bow down to our demands for verification, but he will graciously meet our every need. He will give us enough to trust him along the road to cosmic redemption, even when that road passes through the deepest, darkest valley of doubt.

So, as we rightfully pray that God’s Kingdom would come, that His will might be done, let us pray to be satisfied in our King, in God’s Son.

Amen.

Morning Prayer Homily: Mark 1.29-45

A homily on Mark 1:29-45 (ESV):

And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him,“Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go,show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

Today’s Gospel lesson consists of at least three distinct episodes.

  1. In Mark 1:29-34, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law before a night-long, town-wide round of healings and exorcisms.
  2. Then, in Mark 1:35-39, Jesus absconds to a desolate place in the early morning hours to pray. When Peter and the others find him, he reaffirms the preaching focus of his ministry, before taking the disciples along with him as he proclaims the kingdom in Galilee, and demonstrates the kingdom by casting out demons.
  3. Finally, in Mark 1:40-45, a leper courageously and somewhat scandalously approaches Jesus, asking to be made clean. Jesus, moved with compassion, grants his request, makes him clean, charges him with silence, and – partially because the request for silence went unheeded – is forced to remain in desolate places to avoid the growing attention his ministry is receiving.

Now, what to make of these things? As ministers within the Church, as followers of Jesus, I think we naturally (and rightly) tend to place ourselves in the place of Christ’s disciples when we work our way through Gospel texts.

However, with today’s episodes, I’d like us to consider what we can learn about our vocations from Peter’s mother-in-law, from Jesus himself, and from the leper. These, I believe, demonstrate the importance of service, prayer, proclamation, and worship

First, as with several of Jesus’ miraculous healings, Peter’s mother-in-law is raised from her bed as a foreshadowing of Christ’s resurrection. And although the use of the verb diakoneo to mean “to serve, to wait upon,” is perfectly within the term’s semantic range, we should not fail to notice that the woman provides an apt example of the Christian life: just as she was raised from her bed and began to serve Christ and the disciples, we are raised from our sickness of Sin and Death for a purpose, unto a life of service within Christ’s Church.

Secondly, after an eventful night of healings and casting out demons, Jesus demonstrates for us the sustaining importance of prayer, even and especially in the lives of ministry big shots, by retreating to a deserted place in the early morning hours to pray to the Father. This lifestyle of prayer is what sustains his healing ministry, and also, thirdly, it sustains his preaching ministry.

Jesus does not lose focus in the midst of growing crowds. He takes time to be alone, to pray – and he relentlessly proclaims the coming Kingdom of God to the people. May we strike the same balance as our Lord in our ministries today.

Service. Prayer. Proclamation. And finally, Worship.

Notice the leper, condemned to a life of painful illness and perhaps even more painful social exclusion. Taking the risk that Jesus might recoil in horror at his presence, like countless others would have, the leper boldly asks, notice, not primarily for physical healing, but for restoration to the worshiping community!

We must keep the biblical, and not the clinical, meaning of “clean” in mind here: acceptable and ready to worship the living God! Jesus reverses the normal contagion movement, transferring his cleanliness to the unclean man, restoring the leper to a life of worship. A beautiful exchange, one which Christ is still willing to make with us today! However, are we as eager as the leper to be healed in order to worship God? To serve God? To pray to God? To proclaim God’s Kingdom?

Let us not make healing a self-centered occurrence. Christ offers us healing and restoration for this fourfold purpose: service, prayer, proclamation, and worship.

Morning Prayer Homily: James 2.1-13

A homily on James 2.1-13 (ESV):

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

The verse immediately preceding this morning’s lesson, James 1:27, says this:

religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

So, purity from the world on one hand, social justice for the oppressed on the other. And yet, in a world which is stained by rampant injustice, these are not two different pursuits, but different facets of the same agenda. Just as we must not allow the manifold sins of the world to stain our souls, we must take care to not allow the deathly and selfish perspectives of the world to stain our vision!

The world says that this [slaps Bible] is just a book. We disagree, and see much more.

The world says that this [slaps altar] is just a table. Just bread. Just wine. We disagree, and see much more.

This [gestures to room] is more than mere meditation. Our God is more than a divinized delusion.

We have wiped the world’s mud out of our eyes, to see more clearly.

Very good!

The world says that a poor, homeless, drug-addled woman is a broken human being. We agree.

The world says that a rich, well-dressed, influential man is a less-broken human being, or at least broken in a more comfortable way.

We agree. Or at least we’re constantly tempted to in the everyday moments of our lives! Sure, theoretically, in the midst of a homily perhaps, we’d give the right answer. But practically, brothers and sisters, we’re partial. Our vision is still stained.

We’ve been wooed by the world’s wisdom.

We allow the stratified contents and contours of the world around us to dictate the distinctions among us.

We make evil judgments – very subtle, to be sure, but just so, that much more evil judgments! – based on the way things are.

We are naïve newcomers to the law of liberty – to the law which gives freedom from the way things are, from the way things have been as long as we can remember, and freedom for the way things once were, in a garden unstained by Sin and Death. A freedom for the way things ought to be, and will be in a city illuminated by Christ himself.

Christ himself, the One of whom Isaiah spoke thus:

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

“And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins” (Isaiah 11:1-5).

Friends, the rich are not inherently evil because of their possessions. We know this. They, we, have their own pains and problems, which we will need to address thoughtfully as a church providentially located in one of the world’s most affluent communities – and this is no easy task.

But it would be easy for us to allow the stratified realities around us to stain our vision, to keep us short-sighted, to keep us complacent that it would be just as unusual for the homeless and shabbily-clothed to join our community (really join us, not just visit), as it would be for the rich and well-dressed to have joined the earliest Christians, or many of our impoverished brothers and sisters around the world today.

Let us fight hard against this subtle temptation.

Let us consider how we should best love and welcome those the world calls, and treats, and sees as “the least.”

Let us disagree! And see much more!

Let us treat them as “the loved.”

Amen.

Jesus is Not Just "One of Us"

NOTE: The audio of the following sermon, preached on July 05, 2015 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, can be found here. (I began with a bit of a mic issue. Ignore the garbled first 10 seconds or so!)

Introduction

The “hometown,” “home court” advantage is a very real occurrence in many areas of life. Familiar fans and supportive surroundings help us humans to perform better at many tasks, from singing to sports.

But not in sermons.

There is very seldom a home court advantage in preaching!

Family and close friends may inspire us to make the game-winning shot, or hit the highest note, but when it comes to the intimate affair of preaching God’s Word — of transcending the divide between there & then and here & now, making it clear how the words of Scripture should enlighten, encourage, confront, and challenge us — when it comes to preaching to family and friends, it’s hard.

Granted, it might be easier to impress, to invigorate, to lay on the rhetorical relish with grandiose gestures, dazzling diction, and absolutely awesome alliteration.

But that’s not preaching. That’s a show.

Preaching takes guts… It takes bravery to do the necessary hard work at the intersection between the stuff of God and the stuff of life.

Because, if what we Christians believe is TRUE, everything changes, and a preacher’s job is to make that clear.

However, when it comes to family and friends, it’s difficult to preach repentance to those who changed your diapers, calmed your tantrums, kept your secrets.

But every stressed out seminarian, every nervous young pastor preparing to preach to the home crowd, can take heart that the very One we preach, Jesus the Messiah, faced a similar challenge during his earthly preaching ministry.

Mark 1-5

Please turn with me to the Gospel of Mark, beginning on page 836 of your pew Bibles.

To understand today’s Gospel text from Mark 6, we first need a bit of context from Mark chapters 1 through 5. Please follow along with me in your Bibles, glancing at the pages as I summarize these chapters.

The biggest thing I’d like us to note is that Jesus is on a roll.

Mark’s Gospel takes off quickly into the narrative of Jesus, who, after he is baptized by his forerunner John, is affirmed of his identity by the very voice of God. He is then driven yet sustained by the Spirit through the wilderness testings of Satan.

Jesus then returns from the wilderness and begins his preaching ministry in Galilee — boldly:

“proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” (1:15)

He then calls his first disciples, who join him in his whirlwind ministry of preaching and teaching with authority, healing the sick, and casting out demons. So much for chapter 1!

In chapter 2, he challenges Jewish conceptions about the forgiveness of sins, fasting, and keeping Sabbath.

In chapter 3, we witness the first hints of outright opposition to Jesus on account of his unorthodox Sabbath practices, yet this is immediately followed by a description of Jesus’ growing crowd of followers.

Unfazed, Jesus calls and appoints the twelve apostles. He challenges the experts in Jewish Law, and scandalously stretches the boundaries of family.

In chapter 4, he teaches in parables, before commanding and calming the wind and the sea.

In chapter 5, he upsets an entire region by casting out a legion of demons. And before we get to chapter 6, he reverses death itself for the sake of a synagogue official, and reverses disease for the sake of a woman with a discharge of blood.

In the face of FAITH,Jesus tells the dead to get up. He calls the physically, financially, and relationally destitute one “daughter.”

Jesus is on a roll.

Jesus is up to something BIG, something NEW. He is bringing in the very kingdom of God, unexpectedly centered around HIMSELF, and NOTHING, NO ONE –

  • not winds,
  • not waves,
  • not Pharisees,
  • not scribes,
  • not disease,
  • not destitution,
  • not demons,
  • not even DEATH – can stand in his way.

Well, maybe one thing can.

Our Text: Mark 6:1-13

We’re now on page 841, Mark chapter 6 begins this way:

“He [Jesus] went away from there and came to his hometown [Nazareth], and his disciples followed him.

And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”

And they took offense at him.”

Now, before I get to two negative aspects of the Nazarenes’ reaction, let’s consider two positives:

First, in verse 2, they are asking the right questions.

They recognize that Jesus has wisdom, mighty works, mighty hands – things which should have reminded them of God himself:

The God who, according to Jeremiah (51:15),

“made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.”

The God who, according to Deuteronomy (4:34 and 7:19), rescued Israel from the house of slavery with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Jesus’ wisdom and mighty deeds should have persuaded them that God was up to something big, something new.

The Creator was re-creating. The Redeemer was rescuing and restoring — like Jesus had just done with Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman in chapter 5.

Second, in verse 3, everything the hometown crowd says is factually correct!

  • Jesus was in fact a carpenter by family trade.
  • And although it’s perhaps a slur, or a reference to Joseph’s prior death, Jesus is in fact the “Son of Mary.”
  • He did in fact have siblings.
  • He was in fact from Nazareth.

So, what’s wrong with the hometown reaction? Let me focus on two things:

First, their reaction shows us that you can ask the right questions with the wrong attitude.

Sure, Jesus’ wisdom and mighty deeds should have persuaded them that God was up to something big, something new – and that they might have to change their lives because of it.

But instead, they ask their questions with incredulous skepticism:

Just who does Jesus think he is?

What right has he to say these things? To act this way?

We know who he really is. We watched him grow up!

He’s just one of us, a normal Nazarene.

Second, then, their reaction shows us that you can know the facts and miss the point.

In fact, sometimes, you can use the facts in order to miss the point!

You can miss Truth with a capital “T” by focusing on the lowercase.

That’s what they’re doing here. The scandalized hometown crowd is bringing up the familiar, comfortable aspects of Jesus’ existence to give themselves a way out from underneath Jesus’ powerful claims on them and their future.

After all, they don’t have to repent in light of the coming Kingdom of God if this “King Jesus,” what with his preaching and working wonders like some kind of prophet, is really just the homeboy handyman who’s out of his mind, right?

So, Jesus responds:

“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”

And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.

Citing a familiar proverb of the day — something close to “familiarity breeds contempt” – Jesus steps into a long tradition of rejected prophets — those sent by Yahweh to diagnose the sins of his people and point them back to covenant loyalty, but repeatedly rejected because of their intensely unpopular proclamations.

Hear the haunting words of 2 Chronicles 36(:15-16). Commenting upon the faithlessness of Judah, it says:

“The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.

But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”

(…speaking there of the Babylon exile)

Friends, Jesus is the remedy! He is Yahweh’s true Prophet! He brings us back from exile. He is the King in the Kingdom of God, with dominion over demons, disease, and death! 

And yet, in the face of stubborn unbelief at Nazareth, Mark is willing to say that Jesus was UNABLE to so a mighty work there.

Sure, he healed a few sick people, but whereas elsewhere in the Gospels it is the crowds who marvel at the mighty words and works of Jesus, here he himself is STUNNED by their unbelief! 

Conclusion:

Sisters, brothers: You can know the facts, and miss the point. Because FACTS aren’t FAITH. 

FAITH is not merely intellectual assent to true propositions about Jesus. Look back at Mark 5, to Jairus and the bleeding woman!

Faith is about entrusting yourself, your entire life, to Jesus as your King – your only Hope, your only Lord.

When you hear “faith,” think “faithfulness.” Think “trust.” Think “loyalty.”

Faith is something absolutely necessary for a relationship to exist. This is true with humans, and it’s true with God.

Knowing the right things, having the Creed memorized backwards and front, is not the same as life-changing loyalty to Jesus Christ.

And, to be sure, faith cannot merely be produced by sheer force of will. We would be nothing but faithless were it not for God’s grace.

But faith does involve our wills, our entire selves. It is something we commit to. It is something that, by God’s grace, we participate in.

And it is something that can be rejected.

Now, there are some in the world who would be perfectly comfortable to come right out say “I reject and refuse Jesus as Lord.” Unbelief can take the form of outright opposition to Jesus. In the Gospels, we see this in those who want Jesus dead.

But that’s not the rejection Jesus receives here at Nazareth. And, my guess is, that’s not the refusal he receives from me, from you, either.

Because, see, we’re prone to the subtler (and therefore greater) rejection of Jesus by making him to “just one of us.” 

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Jesus was and is fully human. He doesn’t save us from a distance. He dove from heaven’s heights into the muck and mire of our sin-stained existence to bring us back to God.

But this salvation involves repentance. It requires turning away from our faithless pursuit of Sin and Death. And it requires the faithfulness of turning toward our faithful God.

Salvation does not require us getting back to God on our own efforts or merit, but it does entail complete and utter dependence on and allegiance to Jesus as King.

But, as we’ve seen, we can escape total allegiance to King Jesus if he’s “just one of us Nazarenes.”

Friends, King Jesus is not “just one of us“!

He has his own agenda of cosmic redemption. He has his own approach, which often appears upside-down to us, because it involves repentance and self-sacrifice, because it includes suffering on a bloodstained Cross before the triumph of the Empty Tomb.

King Jesus is not “just one of us“!

So the uncomfortable question stands: Are we loyal to King Jesus above all else? Or are we loyal to a “Jesus” we’ve made in our own image?

King Jesus is not “middle-to-upper-class-American-Jesus.”

Don’t get me wrong, he cares about the welfare of those around the world and those in this country more than we do. His agenda surely has implications for life here in the United States of America, and it very well might require the hard work of being faithful with many resources and possessions.

But, hear me:

King Jesus doesn’t just want to add a pearly gate to our picket fences. He doesn’t just want to stamp a Jesus-approved ticket to heaven on our pre-existent American Dream.

He wants us to crucify the American Dream!

He calls us to abandon our self-centered agendas of upward mobility, and instead to take up our crosses! To adopt his others-focused agenda of self-sacrificial love!

And just like it was for Jesus’ hometown crowd back then, our easiest way out of this required repentance now is to make Jesus’ message a little less demanding and his mission a little bit more like our ownuntil finally, faithlessly – though we may worship Jesus with our lips – in our hearts, we worship only ourselves.

Briefly notice with me that, in Mark 6:7-13, Jesus sends out his disciples to do what he himself had been doing: preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick.

King Jesus’ followers carry forward his mission. Do we?

Will we, in faith, entrust our entire lives in allegiance to him? No matter the changes? No matter the costs?

Will we refuse to make Jesus into “just one of us”?

King Jesus has dominion over disease, demons, and death. Does he have dominion over our dreams and desires?

By God’s grace — given to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord — By God’s amazing grace, may these things be so, may we follow him faithfully.

Amen.

Pentecost: Songs and Scripture

Listening to the first episode of the excellent new podcast, LectioCast, helped to orient my thoughts toward tomorrow’s readings for Pentecost Sunday. I’ve reproduced the first lesson, psalm, second lesson, and Gospel reading below, but I’d also like to call your attention to three powerful songs.

Song #1: “Dry Bones” by Gungor

The first song is “Dry Bones” by Gungor. Read the Ezekiel passage and psalm below, and give it a listen.

First Lesson: Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NET Bible)

The Valley of Dry Bones

Continue reading “Pentecost: Songs and Scripture”

What does it mean to be human?

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

A clue to the answer lies in the asking of the question, for this act presupposes both a [human] subject and object in a dialectic of self-transcendence.

As Robert Jenson notes, “in asking this question, we somehow take up a vantage outside ourselves to make ourselves our own objects, get beyond ourselves to look back at ourselves.”1 The mystery of human existence is “that I am the subject of the object I am and the object of the subject I am.”2

But what do I see when I look at myself? At others? At God?

On our own, this self-transcendence leaves us humans at the mercy of our own divided desires – searching for definition. But with God, we receive our true humanity in the midst of divine discourse – finding significance in God’s recognition that we are true human beings. The failures of the former approach highlight the successes of the latter.

DIVIDED DESIRES

What Do I See When I Look at Myself?

One driven by desire.

Based upon human behavior, Sigmund Freud rightly notes that the primary human desire is for happiness, which involves the avoidance of the pain and the pursuit of pleasure.3

However, I quickly discover that my own body, the external world, and human relationships oppose my pleasure-drive.4 These oppositions help me to distinguish myself from that which is not me. For example, I am not the ground which hurts when I fall upon it. I am not my parents who fail to provide me with food the moment I desire it. I am not the external frustration and pain which I encounter. I am the one with the frustrated desires.

Despite the necessity of unfulfilled desires for human development in Freud’s framework, he recognized the unavoidable tensions which human beings experience as the result of two competing drives: Eros and Death.5

The former, Eros, is synonymous with libido, the desire for objects for the sake of preservation; while the latter, Death, leads to guilt when internalized, and aggression towards others.6

What Do I See When I Look at Others?

Ones who both inform and frustrate my desires.

Now, on one hand, this is necessary and beneficial for development. As a child, I learn to desire to eat and speak like my parents.

However, as Rene Girard observes, when these imitative or mimetic desires are frustrated, they lead to rivalries.7 When I desire something my neighbor possesses, and my neighbor prevents me from obtaining it, my desire for the object increases. Yet so does my neighbor’s desire, which produces tension between us.

Therefore, imitation distinguishes human desires from animal instincts for natural needs, yet simultaneously causes the conflicts of human existence. Mimetic desire “is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it.”8

Without a goal or telos to distinguish between right and wrong desires, I can only take cues from my neighbor and hope for a relative peace. Soon, “choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good,” as “all desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume.”9

When desire is turned in on itself, the pursuit of things (and not even the things themselves!) becomes my temporary respite from the restlessness of my existence. Since I cannot define myself, I go shopping instead.10 And yet, I cannot shop forever.

What Do I See When I Look at God?

If human self-transcendence in search of definition is an enclosed circle, the most I will ever see is a personified, projected “god” who is the opposite of my weaknesses and the abstracted absolute of my strengths.

Why even bother positing such a “God”? Because I live my life as a narrative awaiting a conclusion – death – which, although it grants meaning to the plot, prevents me, its main actor, from ascertaining its final significance!

As Jenson dryly observes, “if the conclusion of our play, hidden as we play our temporal stories in the impenetrable future of death, is nevertheless already enacted, then it can only be enacted in something like the mind of an author, standing above the play and holding what in the play are past and future in a superior present, in the ‘all-at-once-now’ of eternity.”11

And so I trade places with the indefinable God of past theological formulations, defining him against the contours of my own mysterious existence, which I expect him to justify and underwrite.12 Yet if I worship a mere projection, I am left on my own.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

To be at the mercy of our own divided, conflicted, and frustrated desires.

Karl Barth best describes the failures of self-definition:

“[T]he enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ (to justify our existence) is avenged by its success. […] Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire. By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us. […] And now there is no higher power to protect [humans] from what they have set on high.”13

My idols (whether myself, my neighbor, or my “God”) exhaust and finally crush me. The attempt to establish my own identity isolates me from myself, whom I do not know; my neighbor, whom I love to hate; my “God,” whom I project; and God, whom I ignore.

DIVINE DISCOURSE

Who am I? What do I see when I look at God?

To solve the enigma of my own existence, I must reverse the latter question and expand the former.

What Does God See When He Looks at Me?

As Barth rightly inveighs, God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him.”14 Therefore, humans “ought not to be independently what they are in dependence upon God.”15

And because of this, I cannot define myself on my own, but merely describe the characteristics and tensions of my life. My self-transcendence has value only when it transcends the self in the context of a divine discourse.

As Eberhard Jüngel claims, “it is only as the human ‘I’ is addressed in such a way that it is simultaneously claimed by something outside itself, that one is really speaking about the human ‘I’ as such.”16

I am told who I am by God, and thereby enabled to exist in proper relationship to God, to others, and to myself – the very relations that I jeopardize in self-definition.17

Barth rightly insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place: the encounter between God and humanity. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return.”18

In Jenson’s terms, humans are unique in that God relates to us as “his conversational counterpart,”19 and this divine address to us “is the Son, who is the human person Jesus of Nazareth.”20

Therefore, as Barth puts it, “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus.”21 To be human is to be with God in the person of Christ.22

God Sets Us Free, for Himself and for Others

If true, the grounding of humanity in divine discourse is a profound liberation, for “our acts [and our desires] cannot determine our being. Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.”23

And the Incarnation decisively reassures us that God recognizes us as human beings. Indeed, “the truly human person is the person who is definitively recognized by God, and in that way one who cannot be discredited by anything or anyone, not even by him- or herself.”24

Once I see that the real God has, in Christ, broken through the veneer of my projected “God” to secure my humanity, I no longer have to drive myself mad trying to secure my humanity. I am freed to worship the true God, enabled to respond to his address in prayer and worship.25

I am also liberated to relate to my neighbor, not in conflict as a model/rival, but in love as a fellow human.

This is the ineluctable result of God’s incarnational address in Jesus Christ, for “to receive myself from God and be directed toward him is therefore to receive myself from and be directed toward a fellow human. And it is to receive myself from and be directed toward a human person who precisely to be himself brings others with him.”26

Because he provides the standard by which human desires are evaluated, Christ, who exists completely for God and for others, calls and enables me to reorient my desires toward human flourishing, “the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God.”27

I can now recognize the dignity of each fellow human, not as a means to my distorted ends, but as one whom God loves, one for whom Christ died.

As Martin Luther concluded:

“as Christians we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. […] As Christians, we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.”28

This is self-transcendence as it was meant to be. Divine discourse encompasses God, the self, and the other, grounding both anthropology and ethics.

(For an overview of what I believe, check out my essay: “Theology in Outline.”)

CONCLUSION

What does it mean to be human? On my own, I am unable to answer the question.

In my efforts to secure my own existence, I can only describe my incoherent estate at the mercy of my divided and frustrated desires. I am a mystery to myself, I love to hate my neighbor, and I project a “God” to comfort myself in light of death.

Yet with God, I am enabled to receive my humanity in the midst of divine discourse, and to respond to his address to me in Christ through prayer, worship, and love of neighbor.


NOTES:

1 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.

2 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 64.

3 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 27.

4 Freud, 28.

5 Freud, 103.

6 Freud, 94-103.

7 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 8-13.

8 Girard, 16.

9 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 13.

10 Cavanaugh, 34-5.

11 Robert W. Jenson, A Religion Against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 18.

12 Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” in Theological Essays II, ed. J.B. Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeld-Fast and J.B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 223.

13 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, 6th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 51.

14 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), II/1: 285. Henceforth all references to the Dogmatics will be in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”

15 Barth, Romans, 247.

16 Jüngel, 220.

17 Jüngel, 221.

18 CD II/1, 284.

19 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 95.

20 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

21 CD III/2, 132.

22 CD III/2, 135.

23 Jüngel, 236.

24 Jüngel, 239.

25 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 58-9.

26 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

27 Cavanaugh, viii.

28 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, eds. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, 3 rd. ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 423.