Thursday, July 29, 2010

Everything is Changing

Everything is Changing
Col. 2:6-15[1]
We are a people obsessed with securing ourselves in any and every possible way. We protect ourselves and our possessions in more ways than we can count—we have gated communities, alarms on everything from our cars to our laptops, and even software on our cell phones that if stolen can lead police to the thief! We really don’t like the notion that we human beings are vulnerable. We don’t want to be hurt; we want to fend off tragedy and pain and sorrow as long as we can. It seems to me that one of the things we fear the most is change. We live under the illusion that if we take the right steps, if we are careful enough, if we make a thorough plan, we can keep things pretty much just the way we want them.
But the idea of nothing changing is not a new one. It is a myth that’s been around for centuries. You can even cite chapter and verse from the Bible: “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). What we don’t realize in our techno-secured world is that living as if “nothing ever changes” is a way of life that keeps us from experiencing freedom, and joy, and love, and in a very real sense keeps us from living life to the fullest. I think that the people of St. Paul’s day understood that. The people he was addressing in the letter to the Colossians were living under the belief that the “spiritual powers” in the universe essentially controlled every aspect of their lives (Col. 2:8).[2] So they basically lived their lives “on eggshells,” trying to appease these “powers” with spells and rites, trying to predict where they might next strike down unsuspecting mortals.
But as we have seen, one of the major emphases in St. Paul’s letters is to show how the good news of Jesus the Christ explodes all the myths that have reigned supreme over our lives, keeping us bound to the same old chains and stuck in the same old ruts. One of the most important messages St. Paul had for the people of his day was that, contrary to popular belief, there was only one “power” in the cosmos, and that was the God “who bears a human face” in Jesus Christ![3] And rather than threaten us with pain and suffering if we step out of line in the least, this God is the one who in Jesus Christ has acted definitively to set us free from all that.[4]
On the basis of what God had done in Christ, in contrast to the myth that “nothing ever changes,” Paul proclaimed the good news that everything is changing! And he gets very specific about these changes: to those who felt empty and vulnerable, Paul said that in Christ the God who fills everything has filled you (Col. 2:9-10). To those who felt as if they were simply enduring a living death, Paul said that the God who raised Jesus from the dead has made you alive (Col. 2:12-13). To those who felt burdened with the guilt of a life that had gone astray, Paul said that the God who in Jesus canceled all debts on the cross has extended to you complete and total forgiveness (Col. 2:13-14). These are just the highlights—truly Paul was convinced that in and through our Savior Jesus the Christ God is in the process of changing everything![5]
For some of us, that is the best news anyone could ever give us. For others it sort of bounces off the layers of protection we have built up around our very souls to fend off the pain of this world. Many of us are so closed in on ourselves that we never experience the wonderful transformation St. Paul was talking about. The “down side” of the good news—if you want to call it that—is that you have to be vulnerable to experience the changes that God is in the process of making in this world. That’s why the most vulnerable people in our world seem to have a way of pointing us most clearly to what God is doing. They are the ones who are most open to the changes our God is in the process of making in this world.
I can think of no better example than the story of L’Arche—the movement founded by Jean Vanier that operates facilities for mentally handicapped people to live with their caregivers. What most people don’t realize is that this movement is based on the premise that mentally handicapped people are not “defective.” In fact, they are the ones who are not “encumbered” by all the defense mechanisms and facades that we use to “get around” in life. They are the ones who teach us what it means to be happy, to find joy in simple things, to love, to be present, to be human!
Those who have had the courage to take the step of helping the handicapped at L’Arche even for a short time bear witness almost unanimously to the life-changing experience they have. They almost unanimously report how the handicapped people they live with open them up in surprising ways to the presence of God’s Spirit.[6] And when God gives us the Spirit in that generous way that God does (Luke 11:13),[7] it is a gift that creates everything afresh and renews the whole world—it changes everything![8] And that includes you and me!

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/25/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX..
[2] A. T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:565-66, 627-28.
[3] Lincoln, “Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:609.
[4] Cf. Holly Diane Hayes, “Colossians 2:6-19,” Interpretation 49 (July 1995): 287, “Those who respond to this grace through faith can now stand on their own two feet and live freely within the created order, rather than in subservience to it.”
[5] It is a change no less radical than the one promised by the prophet Hosea: those to whom it was said, “Not my people” will be changed into “Children of the living God” (Hos. 1:10). Cf. Gale A. Yee, “The Book of Hosea,” New Interpreter’s Bible VII:218-19.
[6] Cf. Krista Tippett, “L’Arche: A Community of Brokenness and Beauty,” on Speaking of Faith April 2, 2007: larche/index.shtml .
[7] On the Spirit as the greatest of gifts, cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, 914; John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 632.
[8] Ps. 104:30. See Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 41; cf. also ibid., 304-5 where he connects the outpouring of the life-giving Spirit with the experience of being “transformed into [Christ’s] likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1.489, where he stresses the connection between faith in the Spirit as creator and redeemer. Cf. further, James L. Mays, Psalms, 335, 337; and Virgil Howard, “Psalm 104,” Interpretation 46 (April 1992): 179, “Because it is God's spirit-breath that goes forth, there can be creation and re-creation …, new creation, transformed creation.”

Friday, July 23, 2010

It's (Not) My Life

It’s (Not) My Life
Col. 1:15-20[1]
I think perhaps one of the most destructive myths to define our lives is the notion that “it’s my life, I’ll live how I want.” Despite the fact that the vast majority of us live that way, it is a formula for life that pretty much completely undermines all chance of real happiness. When we live from the standpoint of “it’s my life,” we have to define who we are in competition with others. Our stubborn insistence on living as if “it’s my life” leads us to the foolish thinking that if I’m going to win somebody’s got to lose. And that kind of win-lose scenario means everybody loses.[2] The real truth of our existence is that we were made to live in community with God’s whole creation, which means we were made for a higher purpose than “it’s my life.”
If we have eyes to see them, we’re living with two very obvious demonstrations of the fact that “it’s my life” doesn’t work. The first is the global economic meltdown. It was triggered in part by the fact that banks gave mortgages to people who had no business buying their “dream house.” It was also caused by the fact that just about every bank out there was trying to “hedge” their loans by dumping some of the risk on somebody else. When the whole thing came crashing down, it was all too easy for us to point the accusing finger at the financial industry, but the reality is that we’re all responsible. As author Parker Palmer puts it, “Who doesn’t know that an economic system that encourages us to live beyond our means and refuses to regulate greed is one in which our avarice will come back to bite us?”[3] If you doubt that we’re all responsible for the collapse, take a look at your own spending habits. If you’re like me, unless you’re one of the people who have lost your home and livelihood, your spending habits haven’t changed much.
The other very obvious demonstration that “it’s my life” doesn’t word is the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Despite the fact that BP appears to have stopped the well, we still have thousands of barrels of oil poisoning the Gulf of Mexico and habitats from Texas to Florida. I don’t even like getting a few drops of gasoline on my hands when I fill up—think of having a coating of heavy crude over pretty much everything around you! We can point the finger at BP or at their partners in this country, or at the federal government, but once again the reality here is that we are all responsible. Again, if you doubt that, ask yourself whether this catastrophe has lessened your use of gasoline. Here is a disaster that has not only destroyed whole swaths of the natural environment, but also thousands of lives all up and down the Gulf Coast. And will continue to wreak havoc around the Gulf of Mexico in other countries for months if not years to come. Yet, as awful as it is, it hasn’t really lessened my consumption of the nasty stuff!
These are two very stark illustrations of what happens when we think we can just go on living as if “it’s my life.” In our lesson from Colossians for today, St. Paul reminds us that we were made for something different. He reminds us that we were literally made for Christ; we were made to live our lives in service to others. [4] The perspective St. Paul takes on human existence is one defined by the conviction that we are part of “the whole” (Col. 1:16, 17).[5] This implies that we were made to live our lives in loving relationship with God and others. We are part of a community that includes not only the whole human family, but also the whole of creation. And if we doubt that’s the case, then St. Paul also reminds us that we were restored to wholeness in Christ (Col. 1:20). So not only were we made for community, but we were also “re-made” through Jesus Christ for community with God’s whole creation.[6] In a very real sense, this means that “it’s not my life to do with as I please.”
This means that we can no longer do what the people of Israel did so long ago—enslaving the poor for silver and trading the needy for a pair of sandals (Amos 8:6). [7] If we take seriously the conviction that we were made—and “re-made”—to live in community with God’s whole creation, then we must always ask ourselves “what effect does my lifestyle have on others?” [8] For some this will be oppressive and confining. For others, it will be liberating. When we live out of the perspective that we are accepted by God—completely, unconditionally, irrevocably—then we can be freed from the need to find meaning and value to our lives by competing with others in a win-lose game. Then we can find true freedom though giving ourselves away in love; then we can find fulfillment through living in community with God’s whole creation.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/18/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] As sociologist Robert Wright observes, “the world seems to be set up in such a way that either humans make moral progress in the sense of expanding their conception of compassion and love more broadly or they pay the price of social chaos and collapse. Interview with Krista Tippet, “The Evolution of God,” broadcast on Speaking of Faith March 4, 2010; see http://speakingoffaith.public
[3] Parker Palmer, “Trusting Our Deeper Knowing: On Cataclysms, Contemplation, and Circles of Trust,” accessed at 2009/rv-palmer/palmer-deeper_knowing.shtml; this essay was discussed in an Interview by Krista Tippett, “Repossessing Virtue: Parker Palmer on Economic Crisis, Morality and Meaning,” broadcast on Speaking of Faith July 23, 2009; see .
[4] Cf. A. T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:570: Christ “is the one to who all creation is directed, the very purpose of its existence”; of course, I think on one level we can take that at face value, but at another level we have to unpack what it means that Christ is the “very purpose” for the existence of all things.
[5] He uses the phrase ta panta, which in Greek literature referred to the whole cosmos; cf. Bo Reicke, “pas in the NT,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament V:893-96; A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 34.
[6] Cf. Lincoln, “Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:610-11: “If reconciliation of all things in Christ is at the center of God’s purposes, then the pursuit of peace and acts of reconciliation by Christians serve these purposes.” In fact, he says that this means that “the most urgent task of Christians is to play their part in making the church a place of healing for broken relationships, where divisions caused by class, race, wealth, education, age, gender, nationality, or religious tradition are overcome, and an agent of peace and justice in situations of conflict, whether in the home or the workplace, at the national or the international level.” Elsewhere Lincoln comments on a similar phrase in Eph. 1:10, God’s “ordering of history focuses on Christ and involves the bringing together of everything in the universe into a state of harmony in Christ.” See Lincoln, Ephesians, 42. Cf. similarly Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 274-286: “the church prefigures and foreshadows the temple of the Holy Spirit which the whole cosmos is destined to become” (276). He says that the ultimate goal of NT Christology is “a reconciled, Christ-pervaded cosmos” (278).
[7] Cf. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Prophets and Social Justice: a ConservativeWord and World 28 (Spring 2008): 159-168. Agenda,” in
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 85, 106-108, 164-74, where he discusses the idea that the church is to be the “social form of hope” and the initial demonstration of “the world as it is changed in the Kingdom of God,” (164) which includes how we live our lives in terms of economics, politics, and culture. Regarding the former, he says that a commitment to Christian faith “includes turning away from the lethal tendencies inherent in our present economy and towards a life which overcomes death” (173). Among other things, Moltmann suggests that this means Christians must “choose the path that leads away from the ruthless satisfaction of demands to community.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nothing Special

Nothing Special
Col. 1:9-12; Lk. 10:25-37[1]
My Grandmother’s sister, Ruth Jackson, was the first woman to become an orthopedic surgeon. Anywhere. In fact, the association of women orthopedists in the AMA is called the “Ruth Jackson Society.” She was quite a gutsy lady—just becoming a doctor was hard enough for a woman in those days. Her passion combined with her compassion for people who suffered led her to break into one of the most elite “male’s only” clubs in that day. When she was treated for a neck injury, she was displeased that orthopedics in that day was a “hands-off” discipline. So she pioneered a “hands-on” approach to treating neck injuries. She literally wrote the book on it—a book that went through 4 editions and was the standard text around the world for many years.
Growing up with Aunt Ruth was both wonderful and difficult. She could be incredibly demanding of a boy who she wanted to follow in her footsteps. In fact, the whole family expected me—both implicitly and out loud—to do something “spectacular” just like Aunt Ruth. They didn’t insist that I go into medicine—though she applied a great deal of “arm twisting” to get me to do just that. But whatever field I went into, it was clear that I was expected to rise to a level of national if not international renown. I realize this all sounds pretty incredible, but I assure you every word of it is true.
To some extent I still struggle with that legacy. As a minister, it has been my passion to make a lasting contribution to the body of Christ. It was fairly easy to see myself doing that as a professor of the largest theological seminary in the world (at that time). These days, I struggle sometimes with that notion that I’m supposed to do something spectacular. I think this serves as a kind of follow up to the “myth” that “I can’t really make a difference.” In a sense, it’s the flip side of that idea—that you have to do something “spectacular” if you want to make a difference. I think this is especially the case in our culture where we worship “celebrities.” How many of our kids dream not of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher–but rather a famous actor or musician? For some people, that notion becomes almost an obsession—you have to do something spectacular if you even want to be valued by those you love.
I think that our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Colossians this week gives us some help at this point. He talks about a perspective on the Christian life that is pretty down to earth. It’s a matter of “bearing fruit” and doing “good deeds” and living with “perseverance” and “patience.”[2] These and other incredibly mundane activities are what it means to “walk worthily” of the one who redeemed us.[3] It sounds like the life that Paul envisions for those of us who would follow Christ is really nothing special. That might seem too cliché to merit our attention, until you think about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. After all, what did the Samaritan do that was so “spectacular”? All this kind soul did was to notice the one who was wounded, and then to care enough to bind up the wounds and to provide for his recuperation. It was simply a story of mercy in action, compassion that goes the second mile. But it made all the difference in the world to “the one who fell among thieves.”
It seems to me, contrary to our culture that is obsessed with all things “spectacular,”[4]that it is when we are engaged in the most mundane activities that we make the most difference in another person’s life.[5] When you get right down to it, that’s the only place we can really make much of a difference in the life of another human being. We mortals rarely achieve the level of influence that can truly make a difference for hundreds or thousands of people out there. For the most part, we have the opportunity to touch a life here, a life there. It is through the quality of our character, not anything “spectacular” that we may do, that we make a difference in another life. It is through the way in which we conduct our relationships, not through any great “achievement,” that we really have an effect on another human being.[6] From that perspective, the Christian life is “nothing special”—it’s a matter of simply living out the grace and mercy and compassion of God. But then that’s what makes it so important for us to live like that.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/11/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See G. C. Berkouwer, The Church, 322-25, where he discusses “the concreteness of holiness.” Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:595.
[3] For those of us who have a way of making a burden out of the simplest things in life, I would remind you that “bearing fruit” from a Christian perspective is not a matter of our own efforts, but rather is a natural result of the life of faith in the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:594.
[4] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 100, where he compares this to the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness!
[5] Nouwen, Here and Now, 103: “The compassionate life is mostly hidden in the ordinariness of everyday living.”
[6] Cf. Nouwen, Here and Now, 98-99: “It is not ‘excelling’ but ‘serving’ that makes us most human. It is not proving ourselves to be better than others but confessing to be just like others that is the way to healing and reconciliation.” Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, who conceives of Jesus’ relationship with us and our relationship with each other in terms of “friendship,” which he defines as (115-16) “an unpretentious relationship” and an “existence with others” that “unites affection with respect,” “combines affection with loyalty,” and “springs from freedom, exists in mutual freedom and preserves that freedom.” See also ibid., 316-17.

Friday, July 09, 2010

What Can I Do?

What Can I Do?
Gal 6:1-10[1]
It’s been forty years since the images from the Apollo missions to the moon forever changed our understanding of our place in the universe. The now-famous image of the earth “rising” over the moon, while remarkably beautiful, represents a world that looks shockingly small. And that’s just the viewpoint from the moon, the closest object in the scarcely comprehensible vastness of space. You may have seen another set of images—of size comparisons between the earth and the other planets in the solar system. In comparison with an image of Jupiter the size of a volleyball, the earth looks like a marble. In comparison with a similar image of the sun, Jupiter looks like a marble, and the earth looks like a single dot. And the perspective changes dramatically when you compare some of the closest stars in the galaxy—against which the sun looks like an English pea. Even Jupiter is invisible from that perspective, and the earth is smaller than invisible!
This relatively new perspective of our place in the universe has had a variety of effects—some positive, some not-so-positive. Among the latter, I would suggest that our sense of “smallness” in comparison with even our closest neighbors in space has generated a “whatever” outlook on life. I don’t mean to be discriminating here, but when you look at the work ethic of people who were born before and after the momentous moon landing, I think the difference is not entirely coincidental with our significantly altered sense of our significance. It seems that there may be a great many people of all ages who, as a result of these dramatic images, have adopted the view that “I really can’t make a significant difference.”
One of the ironic effects of the images comparing the size of our planet to other celestial bodies is that it has brought the world closer together. Internet and world-wide cable TV have had a similar effect. But surprisingly, I think all of this has also made us much more aware of what a staggering number of people 6.8 billion is! Faced with such vastness, some will “think globally and act locally,” but it seems that there are many in our world who have decided that they can’t really make a difference, so they have stopped trying and retreated into their own world.
But we really don’t have to take this point of view as our starting point to find it difficult to avoid “growing weary in doing what is right” (Gal. 6:9). The people Paul addressed still believed in large part that the earth was the center not only of the solar system, but of the entire creation! And yet he found it necessary to encourage them to recognize that the work they do for the Kingdom of God is work that has lasting significance. The way Paul did that was to remind them that God’s work is like a harvest that will one day be finished. The people of Paul’s day knew a lot about harvesting. There is a right time for it—if you try to harvest before that, the fruit isn’t ripe, and if you wait too late it will spoil. And there is a sense of inevitability to the idea of a harvest. The rhythm of planting and harvesting creates the expectation that harvest follows planting like day follows night.
I think we would have to agree that there is something built into the very nature of a life of sacrificial love, a life of bearing one another’s burdens, a life of loving your neighbor as yourself that is “wearying.”[2] You give and give and give some more, and never really know if any of what you'regiving is doing any good at all! But Paul recommends that we take a longer look when we find ourselves getting discouraged. We need to look at things from a broader perspective when we feel that our work is insignificant. [3] In a very real sense, our “bigger” perspective of the vastness of the universe and our place in it needs the “broader” perspective of the Kingdom of God that continues to grow and produce fruit until the final harvest day. The harvest that our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ saw as ripe already is one that will be completed in God’s good time
I wonder whether part of our problem may be that we get distracted by results, or the lack thereof. Churches in our day have become obsessed with their own efforts at creating an image that will produce success, which is one way of reading what Paul means by “sowing to the flesh.” Those of us who cannot rely on such things must continue to “sow to the Spirit” in faith and hope[4]—which is the only way to maintain a life of self-giving love over the long term. We need the confidence that “your work in the Lord is never wasted” (1 Cor. 15:58, New Century Version).

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/4/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Luther’s comment in his commentary on Galatians: “It is easy enough to do good once or twice, but to keep on doing good without getting disgusted with the ingratitude of those whom we have benefited, that is not so easy”! On the weariness that goes with a life of loving service, see also John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 179-80. Compare Calvin’s more positive approach that we need the patience and other qualities articulated in 1 Cor. 13 in order to do this; Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.7.6.
[3] Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, says it this way: “the deepest motivation for leading our brothers and sisters to the future is hope. For hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death.”
[4] Cf. Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” in New Interpreter’s Bible XI:339 says “Only work that is the fruit of the Spirit will be of value at the time of the eschatological harvest.”

Friday, July 02, 2010

Love Means ...

Love Means …
Gal 5:1, 13-25[1]
I think some of the goofiest myths that define our culture surround the notion of love. For example, there are many people out there who live their whole lives looking for “the one.” You know, the single solitary individual out of the roughly 2000 cities the size of Houston that could contain the population of the world! Another is “happily ever after.” It is the fairy-tale ideal that when you find “the one” you will spend your lifetime in honeymoon bliss. One of the silliest love-related myths must have come from the tagline to the 1970 film Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” What in the world does that mean? If you’re human, you will always be in a position of needing to say you’re sorry. If anything, love means you always say you’re sorry, and you keep coming back and saying you’re sorry no matter what!
These myths about love keep many people spending their lives looking for their own personal holy grail of love. It seems to me that once again we’re missing the whole point. St. Paul, reflecting on the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, says that the whole essence of life is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). I think a big part of what Paul was trying to say is that the true path to fulfillment in this life is through giving yourself away to others.
I’m afraid we have some problems with this as well. In our culture, we are told that you have to beware giving too much of yourself away. While I would say that kind of thinking is mostly motivated by the self-interest that permeates our world, there is a genuine challenge here. How do you lose your life for the sake of the kingdom of God and for the sake of others without losing your whole sense of self? I think at least part of the answer is that we can only give ourselves away in love when we are connected with a community that becomes a tangible embodiment of God’s unconditional love for us.[2] In a very real sense, we have to be free in this way in order to love others by giving ourselves away.
I would have to say that we’re going from the frying pan into the fire here. We as a culture are also confused about freedom.[3] We think freedom means “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to.” We confuse freedom with “license.” License means you don’t care about anybody else, so you have no qualms about doing whatever you want, regardless of how it affects others.[4] It’s a matter of indulging yourself however and wherever you please. But what that misses is that there are always consequences to our actions and choices. Pure self-indulgence never results in real freedom.[5]
This was a problem for the churches in Paul’s day. They had determined that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ meant that God had done all that was necessary for their salvation. That meant that no one had to try to earn their salvation by any kind of works—whether Eastern astrology or Greek virtue or Jewish obedience to Torah. But as in most cases where people get a taste of freedom for the first time, they had a hard time figuring out what it meant to be truly free.
You might think that we’re just going round in circles here. The true meaning of love is found in the freedom to give yourself away. True freedom is what you get when you live your life in loving service to others. But I would say that it’s not so much a vicious circle as it is a paradox. The only way to truly find freedom is to give yourself away in love, and the only way to truly give yourself away in love is when you are free.[6] St. Augustine said it this way: “love, and do what you will.”[7] I think he was saying that if you truly love God and truly love others, then you are free to do whatever you want, because what you want will be—in so far as it is humanly possible—an expression of love toward God and others. And as St. Paul said it, there is no law against that (Gal. 5:23)![8]
Now, I will be the first to admit that it’s incredibly difficult to live at this level of love and freedom all the time. We all have a variety of influences within us that keep us from the freedom to give ourselves away to others in love. It seems to me that part of the challenge faced by Jesus’ would-be disciples in our Gospel lesson today (Lk. 9:57-62) is that they really weren’t free enough to give themselves away in love. I think that most of us spend a lifetime learning what it means to live like this, and then only a very few ever really attain it. What St. Paul wanted the people of his day and ours to know is that what God has done for us all in Christ Jesus enables us to explore what it means to have the freedom to love others in a community of people who are also free to live and to love.[9]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/20/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Jacques Ellul, “Christian Responsibility for Nature and Freedom,” Cross Currents 35 (Spring 1985): 50 , where he says that Christians are free, but that “this freedom is inconceivable without a conversion to God and a life within the love of God and neighbor. People become individuals, yes, but this change is viable only if together with others they form a new community.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83-85; and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:310: “freedom in Christ manifests itself through the formation of concrete communities where the old barriers of nation, race, class, and gender are overcome in communion at the one table (cf. 3:26-29; 5:13-15).”
[3] See Karen Engle Layman, “Galatians 5:1-15,” Interpretation 54 ( Jl 2000): 297-299; she quotes Hans Küng, “The illusion of freedom is to do what I want. The reality of freedom is to want what Almighty God does” (from Freedom Today, 41).
[4] John Paul II, in “The Gospel of Life,” 19.3, said that we have “a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them.” See J. Michael Miller, C. S. B., The Encyclicals of John Paul II, 808.
[5] Cf. Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 107-110, where he discusses various alternative versions of “freedom.”
[6] See especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit; this is a theme that runs throughout his discussion of the church’s identity and calling; he begins the idea that Jesus establishes the freedom of God’s kingdom by sacrificing himself for others (117), by breaking the powers of oppression through the resurrection (98-99), and by assuring us that we are accepted by God, and therefore enabling us to accept others (188-89); therefore Moltmann understands the freedom of God’s kingdom as that which enables us to serve one another in the effort to bring freedom to others (84, 195, 278, 283-84, 292); he construes this life under the concept of “friendship” which Jesus models and we are called to emulate those who are “open for others” and who “love in freedom” (121, 316). I would suggest that this idea of freedom to love is a central theme in Moltmann’s understanding of the Christian life.
[7] Augustine, Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John;; See John Caputo, On Religion, 3-7, 24-28, 109-116, 134-36, 139; cf. similarly, John Calvin and W. Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 160 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc): “He who loves will render to every man his right, will do injury or harm to no man, will do good, as far as lies in his power, to all.” See further, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:732-33.
[8] See R. N. Longenecker, Galatians, 247, who puts it more positively: “where the new life in Christ by the Spirit is present, no law is required to command it.”
[9] Cf. Frances Taylor Gench, “Galatians 5.1, 13-25,” Interpretation 46 ( Jl 1992):290-295; see also Cousar, Galatians, 110: “The person who trusts the faithfulness of God is then in a position to take risks about everything else in life.”

Thursday, July 01, 2010

All Children of God

All Children of God
Gal 3:26-29[1]
Growing up in small-town Texas means being a football fan. I’m not talking about the small cities that we’re familiar with—I’m talking small town Texas, where they still only have a four-way stop at the main crossroad. In those towns, your whole life is punctuated by Friday night football games. And there really is no question whether or not you’re going to cheer for the home team. Everybody cheers for the home team. There’s no possibility that someone might like the line-up or the coaching staff of a rival team and cheers for them instead. Everybody cheers for the home team.
Unfortunately, there are football fans and there are football fans. Most people in a small town are loyal supporters—they show up at every home game, and even go to some of the away games. But occasionally, you ran into the people who took it too far. You know, the ones who thought cheering for the home team means that you hate the other team—all the other teams, and their fans as well. They were the ones who would start fights and throw rocks at the other team’s bus and slash the fans’ tires.
Of course, that kind of “us against them” thinking has pervaded human culture. It would seem that regardless of time or place, regardless of status or faith, the human family has a deeply ingrained need to differentiate themselves from others they can look down on.[2] Whether it surfaces in wars between nations, ethnic and racial hatred, or social discrimination, it seems we are obsessed with defining our own worth in competition with others.
I’ve never really understood the blatant, mean-spirited racism that infects some people on this planet. I don’t understand how anyone can look at another person and think of them as some kind of sub-human animal. And yet I have to admit that I share the human tendency to think that I am superior to others who are different. I’m not particularly proud of that fact, I just acknowledge it. And strive to overcome it. But what disturbs me deeply is when people take those notions and turn them into a badge of loyalty or a mark of patriotism —or even into a medal of faith! For many people, it seems that Christian faith just becomes another way of justifying our cherished prejudices.[3]
But once again I must insist that is not the way in which the Bible presents the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the God and father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. The God of the Scriptures is the God who is concerned about “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).[4] With that in mind, and given Jesus’ acceptance of all people, we might want to believe that the church would be a “hate-free” or “discrimination-free” zone. Unfortunately it is not. Apparently, it wasn’t even in the days of St. Paul.
Part of the situation Paul was addressing was a church in which Jewish Christians joined together with gentile converts. In order to understand the problems that caused, we have to understand that one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity was the belief that they were chosen by God. It would seem that many of the Jewish people in that day and time thought that their election meant privilege rather than call. So they believed that God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people). Of course, if the gentile “sinners” wanted to, they could convert and become Jewish, and they would be part of the privileged people. Otherwise they remained outsiders and should stay outside.
Well, when the Christian gospel started bearing fruit among all the people groups outside Judaism in the First-Century world, the Jewish Christians had some challenges with it. In fact, some of them insisted that people must first convert to Judaism before they became Christians! But Paul saw that for what it was—not only an affront to the Gospel but also an affront to the God of Abraham, who called Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants for the benefit of “all the families of the earth.”
Following that logic, Paul extended the language of election to include gentiles who converted to Christian faith. This was a major leap for any Jewish person in that day. It reversed the whole language of election. It meant that those who were privileged were now just like everybody else. It meant that those who had been outsiders were now insiders, and in some cases that those who had been insiders were now outsiders. It turned the world upside down![5]
I think in our day and time, we should follow Paul’s lead and extend his thinking to include the whole human race as God’s chosen people. If we’re honest with ourselves and each other, we would have to admit that we have taken Paul’s scandalous overturning of the system of privilege and discrimination and turned it into a whole new means of looking down on others. We have turned our Christian faith into an exclusive mark of superiority over all “non-believers.” But it would seem to me that the God who created all things and all people, the God who called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants for the benefit of all people, and the God who in Jesus Christ came into this world to redeem all people, is the God who has chosen to love the whole human family. Truly, in and because of Christ Jesus, we are all beloved “children of God”; we are all chosen to be “one in Christ Jesus.”[6]
When it comes to this enterprise called faith, just as much as in life and work and all other areas of human endeavor, we are all in this together—and that includes Muslim imams and Catholic nuns and Jewish rabbis and Buddhist priests and Hindu monks—along with people of every other stripe and variety. We can no longer look at others as “other;” we can no longer look down on “outsiders.” Rather when we look at another human being—any and every human being, we must see that person as one whom God has chosen to love every bit as much as you or me.[7] The Good news of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is that God has chosen us all without exception!

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/20/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 188-89, where he talks about the principle of “like cleaves to like” as an expression of the need for self-justification and self-corroboration.
[3] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 182-83, where he talks about this facet of racism in human society.
[4] See especially Romans 3:29-30; 10:12; cf. Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 84 and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible XI:278. See further Elsie McKee, “Calvin and Praying for ‘All People Who Dwell on Earth’,” Interpretation (Apr 2009): 130-140, referring to a reference in Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.20.38.
[5] Cf. Cousar, Galatians, 81: “The new unity discovered in fellowship with [Christ] replaces the old lines of demarcation which included some and excluded others.” Cf. also Hays, “Galatians,” 278-79. See further Moltmann, Church in the Power, 106: “In the church of Christ the religious, economic and sexual privileges that obtain in the world around lose their force.” Cf. ibid., 292-93, where he speaks of the Christian community as “the sign, the instrument, and the breaking-in of the new order of all things” and therefore not as “the exclusive community of the saved,” but “the initial and inclusive” expression of “the world freed by the risen Christ.” Cf. Similarly, Hays, “Galatians,” 272: Paul sees the church as “an alternative community that prefigures the new creation in the midst of a world that continues to resist God’s justice.”
[6] Cf. Cousar, Galatians, 85: Christ’s coming as an “eschatological event” was “world-changing; it inaugurated the last times. Though not every individual has been aware of that event and its implications, the event is nevertheless true and impinges on the lives of all.” Cf. especially Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, 2.2, 115-17. See also ibid., 59-60, 101, 103-105.
[7] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 188: “The Christian fellowship in which the one accepts the other, just as he is himself accepted by Christ for the praise of God (Rom. 15.7), is the social form of justification by faith.” Cf. further ibid., 189: “For Christianity the basic principle of liberated humanity can only be the principle of the recognition of the other in his otherness, the recognition of the person who is different as a person.” See further Samuel K. Roberts, “Becoming the Neighbor: Virtue Theory and the Problem of Neighbor Identity,” Interpretation 62(2008):146. eLibrary. Web, 17 June 2010; E. Louise Williams, “The Broken Walls of Galatians 3:28,” in Word & World 20 (Summer 2000):227-31.