Monday, May 27, 2013

Suffering and Discipleship

The Trinity Sunday lectionary texts included the following from St. Paul, which I focused on in yesterday's sermon:
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
I argued that the focus here is on suffering as a consequence of our decision to follow the way of Jesus. We can embrace suffering, not as an end in itself or even a means to an end, but as a result of our determination to resist evil.  This opens us up to suffering in two senses:  1) the breaking of heart that occurs when we allow suffering into our awareness, rather than denying it, avoiding it, justifying it or projecting it onto others and 2) the resistance we encounter in our attempt to ameliorate suffering; in particular the suffering that we endure when we refuse to resist this resistance with anything other than love.  The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

Thus, St. Paul can speak of boasting in suffering in the same breath with which he speaks of boasting in our sharing in the glory (the reputation) of God.   God in Christ suffers with us for our salvation.  Suffering for the sake of the new creation, the in-breaking reign of God, is something we may choose.  It is in this sense that St. Paul can say, "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."  (Colossians 1:24).  This is quite different from suffering that is imposed on us, or the suffering we experience willy-nilly simply by virtue of having been born.  

Such suffering is not "necessary" or required by God.  It is contingent upon our decision to follow Jesus.  John Howard Yoder powerfully expresses the relationship between suffering and discipleship when he writes,
The believer's cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded.  The believer's cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity.  It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost.  It is not, like Luther's or Thomas Muntzer's or Zizendorf's or Kierkegaard's cross an Anfechtung, an inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come.  The Word: 
"The servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me they will persecute you."  (John 15:20)
is not a pastoral counsel to help with the ambiguities of life; it is a normative statement about the relation of our social obedience to the messianity of Jesus.  Representing as he did the divine order now at hand, accessible; renouncing as he did the legitimate use of violence and the accrediting of the existing authorities; renouncing as well the ritual purity of noninvolvement, his people will encounter in ways analogous to his own the hostility of the old order . . .  
It is quite possible to refuse to accept Jesus as normative; but it is not possible on the basis of the record to declare him irrelevant. (Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd edition, 1994, pp. 96-97)
North American Christianity in nearly all of its expressions has cut the nerve between suffering and discipleship.  We've retreated into social withdrawal or conformity to established authority; or what is even more tragic - and ironic - we've opted for a new Crusade (the line between established authority and Crusade has become blurred since 9/11).  Jesus was faced with these same options as well, but chose instead the path of nonviolent resistance to evil in solidarity with the victims of "authorized suffering."

On Memorial Day, it is important for us to remember this other path and to honor those who have suffered and died for the sake of the reign of God.  The Church does not exist for the celebration of "Heroes," but for the formation of saints and martyrs.  "Do this in memory of me."  The "this" is the way of the cross.  That is what we need to remember.  

God is not god: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Holy Trinity Icon of the Written Stone

One of the most important guiding principles of Christian theology was referred to in the medieval period as the maior dissimilitudo or “greater dissimilarity.”  The fourth Lateran Council stated it nicely in 1215 when it decreed:  “Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.”[1]

What this means is that all language about God is inadequate, because God is not an object within our universe.  Our language about God is at best analogical:  we speak of God as being like a “rock,” a “firm foundation,” or a “mighty fortress,” understanding that whatever similarities these descriptions reveal between God and creation, God is, nevertheless, more unlike these things than he is like them. 

James Alison points out that this is true even of the word “god,” which is a perfectly good pagan word – theos derived from Zeus – connoting the rivalry, violence, and decadence of the cult of divinities.  As Alison observes, “what we mean when we apply that word to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is much more unlike ‘god’ than it is like it.  Or it you like, the word ‘god’ is a deeply misleading starting place for us with which to begin to talk about God, but the one we have which is least inadequate.”[2]  God is not “god,” anymore than God is “he” or “she” or “it.”

Alison goes on to argue that the principle of “greater dissimilarity” presupposes that it is only by God’s grace that we are able to speak of God at all.  That is to say, God has made himself available to us at our level in such a way as to subvert our ways of understanding “god.” “God takes us starting from where we are, with our words to do with god, and worship, and sacrifice, and love and enables us to turn them into something quite else, something which is not full of the fear, ambivalence, violence and frenzy which characterize those words in their ordinary usage.” And what is more, God must really like us to have made this possible. [3]

So before we talk about God as Trinity, we have to remember the “greater dissimilarity” principle that governs all language about God.  With that caveat in mind, we can begin to see that the language of the Triune God is a way of speaking about God that tries to account for God’s “making himself available at our level” while still being God.  It is a way of speaking about God without denying the Mystery of God. 

The language of God as Triune is more intuitive than rational.  It is, as Fr. Greg Mayers notes, an Arcanum – a densely coded image, the meaning of which is unavailable to the discursive mind.[4]  It communicates to us at the level of the heart, and cannot be grasped; rather, the meaning of the Triune God grasps us as we learn to imitate God by embracing the pattern of life revealed in Jesus the Christ. 

Jesus the Christ is the “place” where God comes to meet us on our level as a real human being, while remaining fully God.  In Jesus we are given to know something of what God is like, and what we human beings are created to be like in God’s image.  And what we are given is not an idea or concept about God, but rather a life.  The reality of God is known by becoming willing to allow that life to give shape to our lives.

What does that life, the life of Jesus, look like?  It is a process of self-emptying, of pouring one’s self out in love without reservation.  This outpouring creates resistance, tension, even conflict giving rise to suffering, but Jesus embraces suffering in complete trust that love wins.  Jesus does not resist resistance, but rather embraces it in a reconciling love that births a new creation.  This love conquers sin and death, giving rise to new life.

Jesus is the manifestation of the very life of God.   God as Father is absolute love poured out into creation.  God as Son is absolute receptivity to this outpouring in reciprocity rather than resistance.  God the Holy Spirit is absolute creative energy overflowing from this exchange of love at the heart of the divine life.   Richard Leach gives poetic expression to this reality in his hymn, Come Join the Dance of the Trinity:  “Come, join the dance of the Trinity, before all worlds begun – the interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.  The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.”

We come to experience the creative dynamism of the divine dance, come to know God as Triune, as we let go of our resistance to love in imitation of Jesus.  It is in the act of letting go, of entrusting ourselves to the dance, that the barriers to love are broken down and we discover ourselves becoming part of a new creation, a way of understanding God that is radically different from our usual ways of speaking of god. 

Yesterday morning I was returning home from the farmer’s market only to discover that, yet again, someone was parked in front of my driveway.  This has gotten to be a real pet peeve of mine, and I was not happy.  I got of out my car and pointed out to the driver that she was blocking my driveway despite the clearly posted sign and told her not to park there again.  This was said, of course, in the nicest way possible: with barely concealed contempt.

Now, it so happens that Auntie Fe was out in front of the church next door as part of her regular Saturday gardening gig.  She observed this exchange and came up to me afterwards, threw her arms wide around me and said, “You need a hug.”  She laughed as she embraced me, sighing, “Ahh, city living!”  Her reconciling embrace cut right through my resistance to love in that moment.  I was able to let go of my resentment, entitlement, and self-centeredness and rejoin the dance because Auntie Fe saw someone who needed a hug, rather than a priest being a jerk. 

Jesus meets our resistance to love with a great big hug, and invites us to let go of everything the keeps us from participating in the divine dance.  Like Auntie Fe, we imitate Jesus when we create space for others to let go into the dance.  This “act of letting go” is what St. Paul calls “faith”:

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.[5]

The act of letting go, of entrusting ourselves to the dance in imitation of Jesus, makes available a peace and a grace that is a sharing in the very life of God.  It sweeps us up into the dynamic outpouring of love that embraces suffering willingly because of our trust that love wins: a trust born of our experience of love overcoming our own resistance to love and making us new.  We come to know the Triune God as we do that which God does, from before all time, world without end: pour out love.

St. Paul rightly observes that our faith in God – our entrusting ourselves to the divine dance – is a gift, a function of willingness rather than willfulness.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  We initiate nothing and secure nothing by our self-will.  The issue is our response: resistance or receptivity.

As we come to imitate Jesus more fully, becoming more and more transparent to love, we pour ourselves out more and more.  We become “selfless” because we know that we have nothing to secure or defend.  We can then choose suffering for the sake of love in confidence that nothing can finally separate us from love; not even death. 

The Cross is a symbol of love for Jesus’ followers because it was chosen freely.  It is the image of God’s continual pouring out of love in the face of all that resists love.   But here we must be careful.  Suffering is not chosen as an end in itself or even as a means to and end, as if God required it.  Rather it is embraced as a byproduct of the resistance to love that we experience as disciples of Jesus.  As Jon Sobrino notes,

Spirituality based on the cross does not mean merely the acceptance of sadness, pain, and sorrow; it does not mean simply passivity and resignation . . . rather it is a spirituality focused on the following of Jesus.  Not all suffering is specifically Christian; only that which flows from following Jesus is.[6]

Suffering in imitation of Jesus results from opposition to suffering that comes from resistance to love.  It is suffering that comes from refusing to resist resistance with anything other than love. 

Elizabeth Johnson captures the relationship of suffering to the imitation of Jesus, which opens us to sharing in the life of the Triune God, when she writes that

. . . God intends to put an end to the all the crosses of history.  If so, soteriology [the understanding of salvation] shifts from the model of God as perpetrator of the disaster of the cross to the model of God as participant in the pain of the world.  In Jesus the Holy One enters into solidarity with suffering people in order to release hope and bring new life.[7]

We might even go so far as Hilary of Potiers, who said, “It is not inaccurate to say that God became weak and powerless and suffered and died on the Cross.”

With Hilary of Potiers, we have indeed come a long way from understanding God as one of the gods.  God is not god.  The Triune is an abyss of love continually poured out into creation, a dynamic exchange of love that overcomes the otherness of the other without destroying it.  Nothing finally can separate us from this love; not even our resistance to it.  The Triune suffers with us because God refuses to coerce us in any way; otherwise, love would cease to be love and nothing could be reconciled.

God’s love has been poured into us through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  To accept this love, to imitate it, is to realize the Triune in our own lives.   We can pour ourselves out in love, because love never ends.  The Trinity is an invitation to join the dance.

[1] James Alison, Worship in a Violent World, p. 1.
[2] Alison, p. 1.
[3] Alison, p. 2. 
[4] Arcanum, talk by Fr. Greg Mayers recorded at
[5] Romans 5:1-5
[6] Quoted in Terrance Rynne, Gandhi & Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence (New York:  Orbis Books, 2008) p. 147.
[7] Quoted in Rynne, p. 147.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Listen to the Wind


Listen.  Listen to the wind of God.

In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.[1]

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with them in the ark.  And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.”[2]

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea.  The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.  The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.[3]

Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  I prophesied as he commanded me, and the wind came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.[4]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting . . . All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.[5]

God is not done creating.  From the “In the beginning” of Genesis to the “new heaven and new earth”[6] of Revelation, the biblical witness consistently insists that God is bringing creation to its fulfillment.  When chaos, oppression, and alienation threaten creation, the wind of God blows again.  God will not leave his creation alone.  God is absolutely relentless in his commitment to all that he has made.

At the heart of the biblical narrative is the beating heart of God. God is not an “ unmoved mover,” not a god who winds up creation like a clock and then lets it tick on, unconcerned and disconnected. God is passionately in love with all of creation.  It is God’s love that holds it in being: that keeps the wind blowing new life into it again and again.

The conflict driving the biblical narrative is that between the human creatures, who resist the Creator’s desire for creation’s fulfillment, and the pathos of God, who continually suffers with and for these recalcitrant creatures.   The moment we turn and hide from God, we hear him crying out in the Garden, “Where are you?”[7]  When our alienation from God breeds rivalry and violence, reducing creation to chaos again, God is grieved to his heart.[8]  But he remembers Noah and the wild and domestic animals with him in the ark.[9]

When we were slaves in Egypt – whenever imperial ambition and greed destroys the dignity of the creatures of God – the Lord says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them.”[10]  When we imitate the very oppression we sought to escape in Egypt, the pathos of God reaches its dramatic climax in Hebrew Scripture:
How can I give you up, Ephraim? . . . My heart recoils
within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. [11]

God remembers that he is God, even if we forget that we are created in God’s image.  He cannot, will not, abandon his creation to destruction. 

It is God’s compassion that Jesus reveals to us.[12] In the face of human resistance to love, a resistance that leads finally to the Cross, God continues to do a new thing, surprising us with grace.  Jesus, who was crucified, is risen.  His resurrection takes the form of forgiveness and his Spirit, the very wind of God, now blows upon us with fresh urgency, drawing us into God’s desire to reconcile all things to himself.[13] 

St. Paul recognized the Risen Christ as the realization of God’s passionate determination to bring the creation to fulfillment:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.[14]

The story of Pentecost gives us a glimpse of what this new creation looks like through the lens of the first ambassadors of Christ.   As the Spirit blows over the disciples like a mighty wind, we see a new creation coming into being, reversing the chaos into which the old creation had fallen.   Pentecost is the anti-Babel.

The story of Babel comes at the very end of the primeval history in Genesis.  God’s struggle to bring creation to its fulfillment is not going well.  Human resistance remains strong.  Fear and the illusion of control trumps trust in God’s gracious sovereignty.  What is at issue is the relationship between unity and diversity. 

The tower of Babel is emblematic of humankind’s rejection of the divine mandate to fill the earth and care for it as stewards of God’s blessing.  Rather than finding their unity in obedience to God’s command to care for creation, they seek to “make a name for themselves” by building a city with a great tower.   Their unity is founded on imperial ambition, imposing unity through uniformity.  They fear being scattered.[15] 

But God’s intention is precisely that they be scattered.  Unity grounded in obedience to God’s gracious command is perfectly consistent with a diversity of peoples uniquely fitted to act as stewards of God’s creation in particular times and places.  Such diversity reflects and nurtures the creative efflorescence of life in all its dazzling variety.  The diversity of human cultures is an adaptation to the limits of sustainability in particular environments.  The recognition of limits is in the serve of life and is the way in which creation comes to fulfillment in its rich variety.[16]

The tower of Babel represents a failure to accept human limits, an arrogant abrogation of the purposes of God designed to preserve creation as a blessing within the boundaries established to foster life.  This usurpation of God’s sovereign grace is rooted in fear and distrust, leading to anxiety and attempts to impose an illusory sense of security. 

As with all such attempts to establish unity and security through imperial ambition, human diversity – expressed through language – finally undermines the Babel project.  Work on the tower ceases, and the people are scattered.  Now, however, the scattering represents human social fragmentation and disunity, rather than a creative diversity rooted in God.  Creation is devolving again into chaos.

The critical verse here is Genesis 11:7:  their language is confused so that they did not listen to one another.[17]  Unwilling to be obedient (listen) to God, people are unwilling to listen to each other either.  When we do not listen, we cannot respond to God’s creative word to us, much less to one another.  God’s word is always gracious and inviting, never coercive, respecting the freedom and dignity of the creature.  We can ignore it; refuse to listen; and resist God’s intention for creation.

But God keeps speaking, keeps creating.  The disciples gathered in Jerusalem, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer,”[18] attentively listen for the sound of the mighty wind of God making all things new, and are filled with its power.   They hear and respond to God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to himself through Christ.

Their response shows how clearly God’s project contrasts with the Babel project.  At Pentecost, the diversity of languages is honored; it is not a barrier.  Each person is able to hear – to listen – to the disciples in their own language.  Unity grounded in God’s reconciling love embraces human diversity.  It opposes all human attempts at a unity that denies and destroys difference. 

These ambassadors for Christ hold open the possibility that God will yet bring creation to its fulfillment; not through coercive uniformity, but through patient listening and responding to God’s gracious word, God’s vision for his creation; and not just for some elite, but also for everyone of every language, people and nation.  The wind of God blows on all flesh, sons and daughters, young and old, even upon slaves.[19] 

As we renew our baptismal vows this morning, we recommit ourselves to being ambassadors for Christ, carrying the message of God’s reconciling love for the whole world.  We listen and respond to the wind of God blowing through the whole creation, finding our unity in obedience to the One seated on the throne who says, “See, I am making all things new.”[20] 

Listen.  Listen for the wind of God.  God will not leave his creation alone until it comes to its fulfillment.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Genesis 1:1-3.
[2] Genesis 8:1.
[3] Exodus 14:21-22.
[4] Ezekiel 37:9b-10.
[5] Acts 2:1-2, 4. 
[6] Revelation 21:1-7.
[7] Genesis 3:9.
[8] Genesis 6:6.
[9] Genesis 8:1.
[10] Exodus 3:
[11] Hosea 11:8a,c-9.
[12] John 3:16-17.
[13] Ephesians 1:1-10; cf. Colossians 1:11-20.
[14] 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
[15] Genesis 11:4.
[16] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2010), p. 99.
[17] Brueggemann, pp. 18, 102-103.
[18] Acts 1:14.
[19] Acts 2:16-18.
[20] Revelation 21:5.