Friday, March 30, 2012

The Triumphal Entry: Liturgy of the Palms B

I love the year of Mark. Besides studying under David Rhoads and editing some of Joanna Dewey's work, I did my MA thesis on Mark 11-13. Sunday's readings set us at the "triumphal entry" that Mark provides for Jesus -- the closest thing we have to an original for that text, which Matthew sets out to "improve." And then we'll wind up skipping over the good stuff in the middle, Jesus' prophetic Temple teaching, and jump right into the Passion propers. But that's as it should be -- this first trip into the city doesn't belong to the rest of Mark 11-13. It sets the audience up for the fall.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Conditional Sentence in John 12:26

For Jen, irritated by the NRSV (and anyone else, too!).

John 12:26, NRSV:
Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
John 12:26, MAF:
The one who wants to wait upon me must follow me; that way wherever I am, my attendant will also be there. The Father will honor anyone who waits upon me.
John 12:26, GNT:
ἐὰν ἐμοί τις διακονῇ, ἐμοὶ ἀκολουθείτω, καὶ ὅπου εἰμὶ ἐγώ, ἐκεῖ καὶ ὁ διάκονος ὁ ἐμὸς ἔσται· ἐάν τις ἐμοὶ διακονῇ, τιμήσει αὐτὸν ὁ πατήρ.
What we have here in John is a very nice conditional sentence using the subjunctive, imperative, and future indicative. (We haven't yet gotten out of the indicative, but I'll explain as we go.)

It has five pieces, three before the colon, and two after.
1. ἐὰν ἐμοί τις διακονῇ
2. ἐμοὶ ἀκολουθείτω
3. καὶ ὅπου εἰμὶ ἐγώ ἐκεῖ καὶ ὁ διάκονος ὁ ἐμὸς ἔσται

4. ἐάν τις ἐμοὶ διακονῇ
5. τιμήσει αὐτὸν ὁ πατήρ

Thursday, March 22, 2012

God Gives Better Than You Have

To hate your life in this world -- what a disturbing phrase. To detest, despise, genuinely hate something -- and not your lifestyle, not your way of life, not the things you have, but your "soul," the thing that makes you a living, breathing, human creature. This isn't usually what we mean when we say, "I hate my life." And when it is, when we have utterly despaired of being alive, when living itself has become horrible to us, we are in deep danger of taking our own life.

I don't feel so pressingly driven to speak to that first, more banal "I hate my life," though I still have a word for you if you're in it. But today's gospel is for the real, desperate anguish of the despairing. Which scares me more than a little, because I know I'm not adequate to the task. But God is. And the gospel for today is that God loves you. That no matter where you are, God hears you. That surrounded by the threatening nothingness as you are, God is there with you. And no matter what happens, no matter how it feels, God does not leave you. The love of God is planted deep inside of your heart, and the Spirit of God is with you in your every breath.

The Redeeming God: Lent 5B

God promises the people in exile a new covenant, a better relationship with the loving and forgiving god of their fathers. We are right to seek this, because God is gracious and merciful, and even after we have gotten the consequences our actions deserve, we can trust that God will restore us back to a right relationship. Even those far away from the land of promise -- and even we gentiles -- are right to trust in this God, who draws us together with all things into the glory of the divine Name in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The "Satis Est" as Dogmatic Ethics

As often happens, Jason Goroncy has said something interesting, and at the same time poetic, about the Christian life. What it stirs in me won't be nearly so poetic (unless Charles asks me to put it in haiku). And that's at least in part because "doxastic practice" is an ugly and unlovable phrase. "Belief-forming mechanism" is no better.

But the eucharistic meal, and the gospel that it proclaims in tangible signs of earthly reality taken up into God's own life, is exactly that. And so one joy of the foundational marks of the church -- what we call the satis est in view of the Latin text of the Augsburg Confession -- is that they teach us who we are in the most elementary sense in our baptism into Christ and community. From AC 7:
It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.

For this is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that there the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity with the divine Word.
Who are we as church? We are the adopted community in Christ, Christus als Gemeinde as Bonhoeffer describes the communion of saints, the community that exists in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ, who is the Kollektivperson, the total embodiment of the spirit, mind, and life of the community of those who trust in God in him. But we are not purely this, while we live. We are this in trust and hope, and we are this by the unfailing fidelity of God shaping our reality toward just creaturely life -- which means that we are this also by the administration of the given means of grace, and our faithful reception of them.

You see, word and sacrament are not a preserve of the clergy, not a means by which we emphasize the human order of the church. We cannot help but derive either some false contempt for them, or some false reverence for them, if we think they come from the pastoral office -- usually a mixture of both! These means of grace do not, in fact, belong to the church. The church belongs to them. It is constituted anew, moment by moment, wherever they are given -- no matter how fallible the creature who delivers them -- because it is God who gives them, and in them we receive God. They are (to lean on Barth in ways that might violate his own sacramentology) the self-revelation of God, just as all revelation of God is self-revelation by God. The real, educative presence of God with us in creation. And in that revelation we learn, moment by moment, who we truly are.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

For No Other Reason Than That God is Good

John 3 presents an interesting problem this week. Do we believe him? Do we believe that Jesus came into the world to save those who were good enough, or unselfconscious enough, to have their deeds exposed to the light? This isn't just a John thing, either -- Matthew does something not too far different. The salvation of those who both recognize and accept Jesus for what he is -- and the judgment to death of those who recognize Jesus and refuse him, or refuse to recognize him.

This is what we popularly call the "come to Jesus moment" -- a moment of confession in which what you've done is exposed. The demand that you trust Jesus -- because if you don't, well, sentence has already been passed on you, and justice will be done. But is that justice? Is that God's justice? Or is it simply human grief in the face of persecution, lashing out in response to those who refuse to honor our path to God?

Friday, March 16, 2012

"And I, When I am Lifted Up...": Lent 4B

Mishaps on the path of redemption, salvation from the paths of deviant sinners, and the apocalyptic messiah lifted up on a pole like a shining poisonous serpent. Thank God for everlasting kindness!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Things All Too Familiar: Lent 3B

I felt a bit too much familiarity-bred contempt for the lessons this week -- it's kept me from digging too deeply into today's lectionary for most of the week. (Well, that and every other job I have conspiring together to keep me busy.) The gospel reading and the Torah portion are almost caricatures of themselves: the "cleansing of the Temple" in John and the "Ten Commandments" in Exodus. Plus we have Paul's declaration of the creativity of the cross outside all messianic and apologetic expectation. Which is cool, but I've done it before. But there has to be something here, underneath the familiar exteriors...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Atonement by Redemption in Romans 3

Let's put a few nails in the coffin of Latin atonement, shall we?

We get ourselves into so much trouble because of a single word: hilasterion. "Expiation" vs. "propitiation" vs. "mercy seat" ... all of which are mistakes that cause us to lose sight of what Paul is actually doing. And so, to get at what is really going on in Romans 3:21-26 (Paul's key insight and the ground of Romans 5-8), it's going to take a deep, context- and syntax-attentive look at the Greek text -- not its Latin or Hebrew interpretations.

I'm inspired to do this because of James Dunn's translation of the relevant text, Romans 3:24-25, from The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 213:
They are justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God presented as an expiation (through faith) in his blood, to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over (paresin) the sins committed in former times, in the forbearance of God, to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, that he might be just and the one who justifies him who believes in Jesus.
And, for comparison, the translation in the NET Bible:
But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus' faithfulness.
We've taken the reasonably unique term, hilasterion, and made from it either an object reference -- the kapporeth or "mercy seat" as a component of the Temple sanctuary in a Priestly context -- or a function reference, whether expiatory or propitiatory, in explaining the doctrine of the atonement. Dunn does both, importing the entire Jerusalem Temple cultic apparatus in order to discuss sacrificial compensation for sin; the overwhelming majority of modern Protestantism merely does the latter. I propose that it's none of these things, though it is still an object reference rather than a function reference. But the only way to get to that is to go through the Greek of this passage in the context Paul establishes in Romans -- not the context common to 4 Maccabees and Hebrews in their usage of hilasterion as a LXX gloss for the Hebrew cultic term, or the context common to English reliance on the Vulgate's gloss, propitiatorium.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Redeemed and Empowered Toward Trust

The law sermon I'm not preaching is entitled "Get Back In Line."

It kind of misses the point. Jesus didn't set out to teach self-denial. The gospel reading for today begins with Jesus laying out his way of the cross, not ours. And he does in fact lay out the whole plan -- all the way out to resurrection. It isn't as though there's a dearth of messianic glory, here. But it's God who gives the glory, not God's people. And that mismatch is entirely the point.

And Peter didn't set out to illustrate that mismatch -- I think he knows it, too. But it remains true today that you cannot kill a heresy. You can only outshine it with the truth. And so you cannot defeat the Church in the errors of its ways, any more than Jesus was about to defeat the Temple establishment or Rome in the errors of theirs. It's been tried time and time again -- holy violence only begets unholy destruction and grief. God cannot vanquish sin and triumph over it in martial victory -- that sort of thing always leads to destroying good and precious creatures in the depths of their failures.

This was, in fact, the object lesson behind the covenant with Noah last week. And so God erects an eternal memorial to his promise, a sign built into the very physics of water as a reminder that the way of destruction is eternally closed. God will never again attempt to take the best of creation and start over on a clean sheet. God will always deal faithfully with creation as it is, in every unpleasant state of its life. God will always deal faithfully with you, faithful in spite of judgment passed on your good and bad deeds, because at your worst as well as your best you are a good and precious creature. God grieves over your pain and loss, and has vowed never to lose you. Your life is precious -- what, indeed, could you trade for it? How could losing your life be of any benefit?

Children of Abraham: Lent 2B

In last week's readings, we saw the covenant with Noah; this week, we see the covenant with Abraham. Last week, the promise of a grieving God in the wake of destruction; this week, the promise of a God setting about the ultimate redemption of the whole world. And from that promise, a nation of adopted children -- and then many more children adopted, children neither of Abraham's house nor purchased by his people, but redeemed by God into Abraham nonetheless. And in the gospel, a return to the moment before we started on this Lenten sojourn, to the moment when we thought we knew what was going to happen better than God in his own flesh did. A humbling week, and a reminder of where we goyim stand because of the baptism that was last week's focus.