Could This Be Easier?: 1 Peter

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 25, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

COULD BE EASIER

Sometimes I wonder if this thing we do, this faith, would be easier if we didn’t have Jesus.

Think about it: Isn’t the concept of God enough to try to wrap our heads and lives around without adding on this story of a man who maybe wasn’t entirely a man who, some far away sources say, came back to life and is yet around?

That is a lot to take on, a lot to take in, which is evidenced by the lack of agreement Christians—as in Christ-ians—have on what really happened to Jesus and what the stories about his death and resurrection mean.

Though a lot of thoughtful, devoted Christians have tried.

RANSOM

Take, for example, the early African theologian Origen.

Origen, was born in around 184 in Alexandria and died in what we now know as Libya around 253. This puts his birth within 150 years of Jesus’ death.

Origen is one of the most important, if not the most important, of the so-called “Church Fathers,” in part because of the volume of his writings on God, Christ, and Bible, and because of his theology of Jesus.

In what is known as the “ransom theory of atonement,” Origen posited that Jesus had to die because Adam and Eve, in eating of the tree of knowledge, sold us to the devil and God needed repayment. In other words, Jesus’ death was the repayment of a debt all humans were born into. The ransom theory of atonement dominated in Christian communities for about 800 years. So, for 800 years, and still to this day, Christians understood themselves to be born deficient and bound to devilishness, in need of Christ’s ransom for their souls.

Consider how that paints a person’s worldview: All humans are horrid and God accepts blood payments.

It also seems to make irrelevant, or just confusing, everything that Jesus did before dying. What point was the healings and feedings if death was the goal? Do we just ignore them now?

Fast forward many hundreds of years and James Cone would say no.

BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Cone, an African American, was born in Arkansas in 1936, so deep into the Jim Crow era, a time of lynching regular and unpunished. He came of age before Black Americans had civil rights. When he died last year, Cone was a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary.

In his foundational work, A Black Theology of Liberation, a continuation of the liberation theology developed by Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, Cone writes that in order to know who Jesus Christ is now, we have to know who we was way back then.

2019.8.25 whitenessFor Cone, that was someone whose one and only role was to heal and liberate the oppressed (p. 112-113).  Cone’s evidence is Jesus’ birth into a humiliated and abused class, which Jesus then claimed proudly in his baptism with sinners in a river beyond the city (p. 115). Jesus signaled that, “The kingdom of God is for the helpless, because they have no security in this world” (p. 117). But they do have freedom.

In Jesus’ resurrection, Cone writes, God frees the oppressed to say no to all who oppress them, even if death looms, because God says yes to them. God’s yes to the oppressed is an act of liberation (p. 118).

So with this understanding of the historical Jesus, and theology of the resurrection, Jesus Christ today is black. Black as the color of skin, yes, and black also as the signifier of oppression, as the adjective that describes where healing and liberation in this nation is still needed.

By naming the resurrected Christ black, Cone makes Jesus concrete, present, and a reminder that black people may, through God’s yes, do whatever they need to “affirm their humanity” (p. 124). This also means that the kingdom work of God in this era is not here, not in this white church, but within the black community (p. 125). Cone doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the contemporary Christ, it just means we are not part of the contemporary Christ if we sit only here in isolated whiteness.

Which Catherine Keller affirms, with slightly different language.

X AS PROCESS

Keller is a white American woman who was born in 1953, so she was born into the right to vote but not to have her own credit card or the ability to prosecute marital assault. She is currently a professor of constructive theology at Drew University.

In her work On the Mystery, Keller describes Jesus as a parable. Jesus himself is like all of those open-ended stories that teach us about what matters, about “how to discern our priorities” (p. 140, emphasis hers). She describes Jesus as caring not about souls in abstraction, like Origen, but souls embodied, like Cone, souls embodied in relation to all other souls embodied. In that way, the meaning of our lives is in relation to the most poor and despised, just as it was for Jesus (p. 144).

Jesus as parable, she continues, is a joyous and urgent lure to make possible what the world would call impossible—the reconciliation that proceed liberation for us and for our planet. The Christic lure to that work is everywhere, but the work itself is in places of cruelty and neglect.

WRESTLE THE STONE

So that’s how three people have wrestled with the questions Jesus’ ministry, murder, and mystery evoke. Three of, oh, millions. Billions, even, because each of us here, though we are not paid theologians, come to different conclusions, different implications over our lifetimes.

I don’t know if our faith really would be easier, as I suggested at the beginning, without Jesus. God isn’t such a breeze to understand alone. So maybe that is the gift of the Christ: a human implicated in holiness, a bridge between God and us. Or, in Peter’s words in today’s passage, a living cornerstone, a place solid and yet responsive to the day.

2019.8.25 faithBecause despite the resurrection story we are still living in a devilish, oppressive, and depraved reality. We have not yet through our theological formulations found a final application of faith that will eliminate the human will to sell each other, negate another’s humanity, to be lured into selfishness rather than selflessness.

If we continue to take seriously the questions Jesus Christ evokes, we may someday come to take seriously the questions we evoke. Like the question of climate change, the question of white nationalism, the question of the legacy of chattel slavery, which we will commemorate at 2 p.m. at our bell tower today.

Maybe it isn’t a leap of faith we need to make, a leap across a chasm of theological uncertainties, but a small step onto a living stone. A stone where the holy and human might intersect. We do this by accepting Peter’s invitation to rid ourselves of “all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” all of our un-neighborly ways. For in such a life as that, whatever the truth of God and Christ Jesus, we will never be ashamed.

AMEN

God’s Credit: Acts of the Apostles 13.1–3, 14.8–18


Delivered at Ames UCC on May 12, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.5.12 heartCREDIT
What do you credit God for in your life?

I am not talking about when things went well and then to assign God the credit. You know how sometimes when things go poorly for others we say “there but for the grace of God go I”? That makes me very uncomfortable because it implies that God has denied grace to others.

Instead, have there been times in your life when you knew peace, breath-taking love, or unexpected strength? It likely lasted only moments and you may not yet have the words to explain it.

Or maybe nothing comes to mind.

Maybe your experience of God is at enough of a distance, or comes with enough skepticism, that giving credit to a holy other feels uncomfortable or even wrong. After all, I’m the one always saying God isn’t a master puppeteer so how could God be behind or within the minutia of our daily lives?

I will assume, though, that because you are here today, you have felt something. You have had an awareness of a something that does not fit into any other category and you are open to calling it God.

But which God?

WHICH GOD?
Out-of-town apostles, Paul (formerly known as Saul) and Barnabas, eager evangelists for their new understanding of God, come to Lystra, part of modern-day Turkey. There they encounter an unnamed local who cannot walk. Paul speaks to the paralyzed man, softly enough that his words are not recorded. Then Paul gives the Lystran an assessing gaze, and now with a voice now loud enough for all in the crowd to hear, Paul tells the Lystran to stand. The man who had never walked, now stands steadily on his feet and moves about.

While that miracle is shiny and dramatic, it is nothing new.

Remember that Jesus also healed a paralytic, in the gospel of Matthew, also in front of a crowd. In that case, the local leaders who were present reacted with shock and suspicion, but the rest of the crowd was moved to glorify God. The Lystrans are different in that there is no skepticism recorded, but they are otherwise the same in their response: Look at what the gods have done! Get the priest, get garments of honor and an animal to sacrifice, let us praise our gods! When the people of Lystra see the same power in Paul that those of Israel had seen in Jesus, they likewise identify that power as divine and want to show proper thanks and obeisance.

The problem that emerges for Paul and Barnabas, is that rather than the God of Moses and Ruth, the god of Eden and Exodus, the Lystrans see the miracle as coming from the god of Olympus, Zeus, and Zeus’ divine herald, Hermes. In both Israel and Lystra, witnesses are quick to identify that something greater than themselves is at work, it’s just that their framework for how to describe the greater-than diverges.

FREAK OUT
Which freaks Paul and Barnabas out.

They were simply doing as they had been commissioned, spreading what we call good news about God in Jesus Christ. They seem unprepared for their audience to not understand who or what they represent. Apparently shocked that the Lystrans, people of a different land and culture than either of them, would fall back on their own divine classifications, would give credit to their own understanding of divinity, the apostles begin running around and rending their clothes. They try to explain that, no, they are not Zeus and Hermes, the reversal of paralysis was not the work of the Olympians. What the Lystrans witnessed was the living God at work, the author of creation and giver of sustenance.

In their panic, it seems for Paul and Barnabas that if the God of Israel does not get credit for this healing, all is lost.

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