Keeping your mind on what’s REALLY above – Sermon pt. 2

…What we needed was not a positive balance on our moral bank ledger; what we needed was life. Because we were dead. And that system of accounting moral plusses and minuses was never going to give that. Only being united to Christ through faith could make us alive.

We get a clearer picture of this at the end of ch. 2 which was not part of last week’s reading but is important in how it sets up ch. 3. Paul says, “So then, if you have died with Christ to the standard procedures of the world (that is, the accounting of rights and wrongs as a way of measuring your relationship to God), why do you live as if you were still under the legal demands?” Then he goes on to list some of these “regulations” most of which are the same sort of rules about touching or eating clean and unclean things that Jesus set aside when he said, “It is not what goes into a person that makes him clean or unclean, but what comes from the heart—things like lies, sexual immorality, greed—things that Paul is going to talk about in a minute. But for now Paul says, “These are all human commands, destined to perish with use. All these regulations have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and neglect of the body, but they do nothing to prevent self-indulgence.”  In other words, following all kinds of pious rules will never set you free from temptation, bring you life, or make you free from the powers of the world.

Now the very next thing Paul says is the beginning of our lesson: Therefore if you have been raised with Christ set your mind on things above…not on things that are of the earth.” Paul’s most immediate context for what counts as “of the earth” are all these regulations. All the rules that you can follow that make you look like a good person—observing church holidays, being nice, giving to charity—in the end, on their own, have no power to bring life or to set us right with God. In fact, as Paul said before, if you have been set free and raised with Christ, why do you keep falling back into the mindset of the very system Jesus threw out and nailed to the cross? The system that was against us, the tallying of our good and bad actions was a game we could never win.

So this brings us to our second surprising point. Remember the first was that for Paul, the main thing that faith does to save us is that it connects us to Jesus so that we are raised from spiritual death to spiritual life, and that that life of Jesus now flows through us. The second surprising point is this: the things that count as “from below” or earthly and that Paul wants us to turn away from and ignore are not just what we might think of as “fleshly sins”—the sort of things he lists off later in today’s reading—sexual immorality, greed, anger, abusive talk, etc.—but more insidiously, the things that look good—the things that look pious and religious and like they will be helpful for us to curb our temptations—in fact, it is that whole focus on what we do, that focus on our tally sheet of good things and bad things, that Paul counts as “earthly and from below.”

So what does Paul tell us to focus on instead? What is the thing that is “above” or Higher than these things? Christ who is your life. Christ who is eventually going to be revealed at the end of time. Then, Paul says, because you are connected to Christ you also will be revealed with him in glory, not because of your positive moral tally sheet but because you have Christ living in and flowing through you.

This is why you “Put to death” all those immoral things that Paul mentions—not because you are worried about improving your balance on the moral tally sheet, but because those belong to the old person, the old way of life that was put to death and buried with Christ in baptism. Doing good now comes from “having stripped off the old self with its practices and having clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Faith in Christ brings a new life, a new person who looks more like what God intended humans to be—that is “in God’s image,” as Paul says quoting Genesis 1 and the creation of the first man and woman. In Eden before the first sin, the man and woman were happy to “walk with God in the cool of the day”—that is to spend time in the things that help us experience God’s presence such as prayer, Bible study, and worship. They were happy to care for the garden—to serve in the little area of the world that God had put them in and given them responsibility for. They were happy to be honest and caring toward each other—so much so that they could be unashamed and not fearful with one another. This is the kind of life, on a practical level, that Paul says we are being renewed into—joyous love for God, service to the world around us, and relationships with one another that are not characterized by fear and shame and inequality, as we are reminded in the last verse: In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.

And why is this? Because Christ is all and is in all! In all of us through faith, so that we are becoming and have become new people, with Christ’s life filling and flowing through us.

Thanks be to God.

Keeping your mind on what’s REALLY above – Sermon pt. 1

Since some of you asked, here is the text of the first half of the sermon I preached earlier this month–my first. Part two will be posted tomorrow.

I grew up in Minnesota. My ancestors both distant and immediate have always been “earthy” people—peasants. Immigrant farmers mostly. Not surprisingly, my mom has always been a practical person. The sort of person who got things done and didn’t hold with a lot of nonsense. The sort of person who, if she met or heard about a person who was very pious and who spent a lot of time in prayer and Bible reading, might be prone to characterize that person as “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” There are things to be done, and pondering the profound and ineffable would likely distract one from the tasks at hand that God had set you there to do.

I don’t know what my mother thinks about today’s epistle lesson from Col 3, but I’m guessing there might be some of you out there who, like her, may be thinking, “People don’t need any encouragement to waste time pondering ‘things above.’ What we need is something practical.”

But working out of today’s Epistle lesson, I see two things that Paul says that are, I think, pretty surprising and in the end, practical. We’re going to look at these by starting at the beginning of today’s lesson and then tying it back to last week’s lesson.

So we start right there with verse 1 of ch. 3: “If therefore you have been raised together with  Christ….” Now, your version printed in the bulletin is the NRSV version, and the scholars who worked to translate the Greek (which is the language Paul wrote in)—to translate that into English, they tried to make a nice smooth, readable version for people. Now that has its advantages for reading, but one of the casualties of that procedure is that they often left out some of Paul’s connector words that might make an English version a little clunky to read. Here we have a case of that. Your version of 3:1 starts out, “So if you have been raised together with Christ…” The translators chose to translate a little three-letter Greek word—oun, which means “therefore”—with a sort of throwaway connector of “So,…” This is too bad because one of the first bits of wisdom for Bible interpretation that you learn is that “if you see a ‘therefore,’ you’d better find out what it’s there for.” Corny, yes, but it reminds us that when a writer uses “therefore,” he is trying to alert the readers that what he is about to say follows logically from what he has just said and that you can’t properly understand what’s coming up if you didn’t get what just happened. So what has Paul just said?
In last week’s epistle reading you heard most of Colossians ch. 2. There was a lot going on there, but let me highlight a couple things that are important for catching what Paul is up to in today’s lesson.

The key passage is 2:12-15: “you were buried together with him [that is, Christ] in baptism and you were also raised together with him through the powerful (or effective) faith from the God who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the written account of our debt which, with its legal demands, stood against us. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross, disarming the rulers and authorities and making a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

Let’s pick this apart a little bit. The first thing to notice is that Paul’s main idea here is that you were dead but now you’re alive. Before you had faith in Jesus, you were in a kind of living death, being trapped in sin. But through baptism, you died to that life of death—Paul says that, in baptism you were buried with Christ and participated in his death—but then through faith you were joined to Christ, and so “God made you alive together with him.” You became a participant in the resurrection life that flows through Jesus, that in fact overflows out of him. This is the same idea as the beautiful image from the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” The idea is that faith joins us to Jesus and his life flows through us just like sap flows through the branches of a tree because they share in the life of the trunk. That is what salvation is.

So this is the first surprising idea: Salvation is not so much having our debt to God paid or our punishment taken, but it is being joined to Christ, so that we now participate in all the things that are his—eternal life, righteousness, being a child of God. Or as Paul says elsewhere, we become new creations and the righteousness of God in Christ.

So let’s look at what he says here: he says that in the cross Jesus took the written record of our failures—the writing that, with its legal demands, stood against us—and he set this aside, nailing it to the cross. Basically Paul is saying, “That whole system of keeping track of sins, of tallying up what we did right and what we did wrong, Jesus took that whole accounting system and threw it out the window.” Why? Because all it did was produce death. That was how we were dead in our trespasses and flesh. And when he did that, he triumphed over those powers that held us. Not just the power of sin in our lives to tempt us to do wrong but the power of the whole system. Jesus’ death on the cross both triumphs over them—shockingly, unpredictably—and also displays the futility of the system “Making a public display of them,” basically mocking them—and disarming the power of that system. What we needed was not a positive balance on our moral bank ledger; what we needed was life. Because we were dead. And that system of accounting moral plusses and minuses was never going to give that. Only being united to Christ through faith could make us alive.

Creation and Dominion

Much of last weekend was spent driving through Midwestern countryside picking my son up from one camp, driving him to another, and then driving home. As often happens, I was struck by the overwhelming amount of green—trees and grass and crops and vines and bushes and weeds—everywhere, green. And while there were plenty of thriving farms and small towns, there were also lots of abandoned farms, homes, barns, rusting cars, and cast-off farm equipment. While the implements of human dominion of creation were decaying from the forces of nature, creation’s power seemed unabated. Through rust and rot, nature seems, in some places, to be taking back lost ground.

Often now when we talk about God’s stated intention and command that humans “have dominion” over creation, we are told or it is implied that that command has been fulfilled. Humans have come to dominate nature in ways that are exploitive and destructive. We now need a different paradigm for our relationship to creation, one of stewardship. While I certainly think that old models and understandings of “dominion” missed the point of Gen. 1 and 2 (stewardship or benevolent care and governing consistent with being in God’s image was always the point!), I also think that the idea that we have attained dominion of creation is amazingly hubristic and also the product of fairly selective recollection and, on some level, a lack of imagination. The idea that we now dominate creation seems based on equal parts insulation and self-delusion.

First: insulation. If there is some germ of truth to the idea that we now dominate creation, it is in the way we in the West (or at least the urban West) have been able to insulate ourselves from experiencing the vicissitudes of natural phenomena. The international macro-economy means now that a crop failure in one part of the country or world causes, at least for us, probably nothing more than higher prices or limited availability rather than starvation.

When I teach undergrads the book Luther on Vocation, one of the difficult tasks for them is to imagine the world into which Luther was writing—a world where one literally did not know from year to year if there would be food to eat or whether another plague would ravage the land or if you would be injured and die from blood loss or infection or, if you lived in the countryside, whether from day to day you would be attacked by wild animals. Life was precarious. Serving your neighbor rather than looking to your own good was a risk. This is hard for students to comprehend. For them and for us, service is often conceived of as coming from our situation of security and abundance. We serve because we have been blessed. But for most of the history of the church, there was little security, and the call to service has been in the face of uncertainty and the ever-looming possibility of death at the hands of the forces nature, not to mention other humans. But as Luther notes, vocation (service to the neighbor) which involves no risk of loss on our part is not really service because it does not force us to trust in God, but gives us the opportunity for pious self-congratulation and thus deepens our sense of security and our trust in our own power. We imagine we are insulated from risk because we now have fertilizer and insecticides and irrigation systems and antibiotics and cars that carry us safely through dark and lonely backroads where animals are more scared of us than we are of them.[1]

Second: self-delusion. Our security is mostly illusory, however. Our unwillingness to recognize that we do not, in fact, have dominion over most of creation becomes apparent in the panic evident when that illusion is shattered—when epidemics break out or tornadoes rip across the plains or floods inundate the river valleys or coasts or earthquakes or volcanoes erupt, almost none of which could be predicted very far in advance much less prevented. It is no surprise that most popular apocalyptic scenarios play on the horror of natural, uncontrollable forces rather than the spiritual conflict. These are a horror to us because they shatter our bubble of security, they remind us that our “dominion” of creation is an illusion, that we are vulnerable, and that in us against the world, we are unlikely to win. Existence remains a battle. The benevolent, ruling stewardship we were intended to have was lost with the other elements of primordial harmony and shalom. What should have been (Gen 1 and 2) is not what now exists. There is now enmity between the humans and animals and even between humans and the very dirt from which they were taken.[2] After Eden, pretensions to dominion over creation are mostly either perverse dreams or intellectual pacifiers to help us cope with the very real uncertainty of life.

Nature plays a long game, and the cards are, honestly, stacked in her favor. If we play dirty, we will lose one way or another. We will never attain dominion in this age because it is not ours to attain. It can only be given, and will only be given again in a restored eschatological context. In light of this, it’s best that we play nice. All the collapsing barns and Pompeiis of the world should remind us of this.

[1] Except for moose and elk. PSA: Do not mess with them no matter how big your vehicle.

[2] Gen 3:14-19.

What the Parable of the Sower is Not About–Maybe

As 20th century research on biblical and extra-biblical parables showed, the term “parable” (parabolē) could be applied to a wide range of expressions, from terse aphorisms to riddles seemingly pregnant with significance to extended stories such as we usually think of when encountering the term.

A number of helpful insights came about from the rather intense attention that parables received in the 20th century. One distinction among parables that I have not heard made is one that I’m finding more and more helpful in my own thinking: that is the distinction between parables that explain how something is and parables that encourage a certain kind of action or change in behavior—what we might call explanatory versus exhortative parables.

Had I had this distinction in my mental pocket 20 years ago, I might have (sadly) avoided one of my favorite and most memorable arguments. It was with a professor for whom I was a T.A. and the argument was over the interpretation of the Parable of the Sower. He complained that most of the sermons one hears on this parable end with “So, be good soil!” as if “soil” had or could have any role in generating its own fertility and thus producing fruit, his point being that only God can make us good soil, prepared to receive the word and produce much fruit. I argued that point of sermon is indeed to warn people about allowing their hearts to become hard or choked with the cares of the world. Actual soil is inert, true, but we are not. Neither of us would budge on our interpretation. That professor remains one of my best colleague-friends and an unfailing advocate of my work.

If I had had in mind the distinction between explanatory and exhortative parables I might (might!) have been willing to concede that the parable seems to be far more explanatory that exhortative, although I think it treads the line.[1] Some parables are clearly exhortative (the Good Samaritan ends with, “Go and do likewise”) and some seem to be almost strictly explanatory (the parable of the Net [Mt 13] seems simply to be about the comprehensive nature of the judgement that will happen at the coming of the kingdom and the fate of those judged).

The Parable of the Sower (or Seeds or Soils) on the one hand invites hearers to consider what sort of soil they might be and whether they are producing fruit and if not why not. Yet, on the other hand, assuming that the readers are supposed to identifying on some level with the disciples, then Jesus’ statement that “To you has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom” certainly sounds as if the disciples have received the word and do not have the blind eyes and deaf ears that prevent both repentance and fruit-bearing (typical of bad soil). In that case, particularly when one looks at the whole pericope including the rationale for parables and the allegorical interpretation, the parable seems to be essentially explanatory. Although I still maintain that its explanatory point is not our inability to do anything to become good soil.

[1] This without even taking into account the not-altogether-clear explanatory point of the parable. Is it simply instructing the disciples (and us) that the word is sometimes productive and sometimes not? Is it mainly explaining why some people seem to receive the word and others not (or seem to receive it but not to the point of producing fruit)? Is it explaining the rejection of Jesus’ message by those of his own time, particularly the religious leaders?

Ekstasis and Wisdom, or Why Athena is Beside Herself

So, the Athena of the title of this blog stands as a symbol of the rational, philosophical, technical, and (the inevitable) strategically combative aspects of this blog. She is, above all, sound-minded and reasonable.

In fact, sound-mindedness was a high value in the ancient world, and this value shows up in the New Testament as well, as we can see in the many positive uses of words with the σωφρο– root.[1] Being sound-minded was not just an intellectual virtue, it was a moral marker. The opposite was to be out of your mind (usually because of intemperate indulgence in emotion), lacking self-control, or even (in the case of the two gospel uses listed below in note 1) to be possessed. The opposite of sound-minded was to be “ecstatic.” Ekstasis means “standing outside [one’s self],” hence its frequent translation in the past as “beside yourself.” Ekstasis was the realm of the irrational, the mystical, the prophetic, and the oracular.[2]

One might imagine that the New Testament would paint ekstasis in a negative light since it stands as the opposite of the well-regarded sound-mindedness. There are times when both the noun form and the verb form can mean, essentially, out of one’s mind, as when Jesus’ family are concerned that he is “beside himself” (Mk 3:21), but usually it means to be amazed to the point of being out of your mind with awe such that you are without reason, particularly in the face of the miraculous.[3] It can also mean a mystical vision or supernatural revelation, the kind that God gives to dislodge God’s followers from entrenched ideas.[4] So it seems that these are opposites in some sense, but complementary opposites. Paul says to the Corinthians, “For if we are out of our minds, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (2 Cor 5:13). These opposites need each other. Paradoxical though it maybe, Athena needs to lose her mind sometimes just as much as the Oracles need rationality and technē to pull their shadowy pronouncements into beneficial usefulness. Hopefully this blog can tread that line—or perhaps swing that pendulum—aright.[5] Sometimes you have to stand outside to have the right perspective on being inside.

[1] A probably-not-exhaustive list: Mk 5:15, Lk 8:35, Acts 26:25, Rom 12:3, 2 Cr 5:13, 1Tim 2:9, 1 Tim 2:15, 1 Tim 3:2, 2 Tim 1:7, Tts 1:8, Tts 2:2-6 (four times), Tts 2:12, 1 Pet 4:7.

[2] If the ecstatic had had a patroness for the Greeks (as Athena was for the rational and sound-minded), it might well have been the Oracle at Delphi (and her kin elsewhere, the Pythia)—the prophetic and oracular priestess of the ancient world.

[3] Mt 12:23; Mk 2:12, 3:21, 5:42, 6:51, and 16:8; Lk 2:47, 5:26, 8:56, and 24:22; Acts 2:7, 2:12, 3:10, 8:9, 8:11, 8:13, 9:21, 10:45, and 12:16. The words with a θαυμά- root aren’t included here, but the connection is not unimportant especially in its seeming overlap in the NT with the terms we’ve been discussing here and its positive use in philosophical literature. Look for a blog post in the future on this topic.

[4] Acts 10:10, 11:5, and 22:17.

[5] Since a good deal of this blog will be about interpretation, some readers may wonder why we have not invoked Hermes, since we are fiddling around with such things. Well, all I can say is, it’s been done, and those with ears to hear will have already realized he has been the patron here of no small bit of thievery in these first two posts. Though I prefer to think of it as standing on the shoulders of giants.

Welcome to Athena Ekstatika

This is a blog whose name and approach needs a bit more exposition than the usual “about” page. These first couple posts will be an extended “about” and introduction to some of the topics I imagine this blog will take up.

The first aspect that needs exposition is the invocation of the goddess Athena as a sort of patroness of our discussion. Perhaps patroness is too strong, but in Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess of wisdom, among other things. As such, she stands for a certain ideal when it comes to theology and biblical studies. This ideal values both rationality and practicality, or perhaps a practical rationality, and so is connected to the wisdom traditions of both the Greco-Roman world and the Israelite-Jewish traditions.

This ideal might be broadly called “philosophical.” and since philosophy is the “love of wisdom,” Athena stands as the patroness of this approach. In our reflections, philosophy will be connected to our subjects not only through what is generally understood as the philosophical aspect of theology but also more subtly through attention now and again to the influence of philosophical ideas in the original writing and later interpretation of biblical texts, as well as in the consideration of hermeneutics (the philosophy of interpretation).

Wisdom and philosophy aren’t Athena’s only areas of interest. She is also the patroness of crafts. Not to worry: this will not become anything resembling Pintrest (although I think she is the patroness of that as well). Her patronage of crafts does include those of homemaking, but it is also the patronage more broadly of technē—skill, technical knowledge of a craft. A master of his or her craft has technē. Athena’s favored technē was weaving, and she is sometimes depicted at the loom. Our reflections here will aim to bring the best of the technē of biblical studies and related fields to bear on our conversations and to weave a variety of strands together into something useful.

Finally, it cannot be ignored that Athena is also the goddess of war. To stand under her formative influence means that sometimes there will be battles. But Athena is not Ares. Ares is the patron of the rage of battle, blood-thirst, will to conquer, and vengeance. Athena is the strategic, tactical side of war: Must we fight? Is our cause just? If so how will we win, and win with honor? Athena does not lose her head. She is self-controlled, knowing that there are heroes and honorable persons on both sides of any battleline.

The next post will explore the second aspect of this blog: standing outside yourself.