The Two “How’s” – On Multiple Causality

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“So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labor on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favoring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbor in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, I have saved the ship, but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labor to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labor, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.” – Origen, De Pricipiis, 3.1.18

One of the many criticisms laid at the doorstep of theists is that we attribute to God that which seems to be easily accounted for by natural factors. A person suffering from a great illness recovers after consulting a physician and undergoing the physician’s recommended treatments. A husband safely navigates icy roads to come home to his concerned wife. A student, after long hours of study, finally passes the last exam and wins for herself degree and title.

If the patient, man, and woman are theists and devout, they will thank God for the outcome.

This seems like foolishness to those who believe firmly that we live in a world of simple efficient causality. In a mechanistic universe where no room for freedom exists, no room for multiple causality can exist. But the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or any other religious person, need not hold to a purely mechanistic universe. And, even if we did, the causation of God’s intent would still by no means be ruled out.

Let us put aside the question of mechanistic/non-mechanistic universes and consider a thought experiment with regard to causation.  We will see if we cannot get at what theists mean when they attribute to God some good event.

Imagine a man walking down a mountain path, hurrying to bring medicine to his daughter which he has acquired in a nearby village. The man is suddenly set upon by a mountain lion, and prays to God for help. In what seems a miraculous event, a fall of rocks at that moment crushes the mountain lion, allowing the man to pass by safely and rescue his child’s life. And so begins the story of a young woman who grows up to save her nation from poverty, despair, and invasion.

In a mechanistic appraisal of these events, we might say that the events could not have happened any other way. What appears to us as a shocking and favorable coincidence is, indeed, just one of the many patterns that emerges from the complex interaction of the factors of the universe. Those rocks would have fallen at that moment whether the man’s prayer had happened or not. Perhaps they would have fallen even if the man and mountain lion had not been there. Perhaps the motions or weight or sound of the mountain lion shook them free. Indeed, we could trace the physical causes of those rocks, that lion, and that man back through billions of years of determined causality to the moment of the Big Bang and say that the “why” of that moment was the exact formation of the energy and matter that first expanded in that principal moment.

Yet, we may see the events in another way. The “how” of the rocks falling and killing the mountain lion is also that I, the story teller, have made it happen. I have told the story, not putting the Big Bang first and leading up as a result of its form and matter to the inevitable encounter between man and mountain lion. Instead, the man’s experience, or the daughter’s life of heroism, are the center of the story. The story goes outward from there, and we follow it back to give it context and history. The “how” on this level of the events is my will and act of creating the story. It need not “begin at the beginning” if by “beginning” we mean the first chronological event.

Both “how’s” can exist together, simultaneously, but the mechanistic “how” exists due to the “will and act” how. This leaves out entirely the question of “why.” The why is also my will, but perhaps then it is my will that the young woman should save her country, or that the man should save his daughter, or that the wife of the man might not be widowed. In each case, though, the efficient causes are human efforts, or natural events.  Each person would be right in saying that, though they did their part, the accomplishment of their goal was given by the author of the story.

Benedick and Beatrice spar their way toward each other, but it is the Bard that is to be thanked for their marriage. Frodo may put in the very last of his strength to climb Mount Doom, but it is Tolkien who has ensured that the task is complete.

That we live in a story and not an accident of random events is a matter of perspective. One cannot demand scientific proof that we are in a story any more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might. There is no experiment to run to tell us if we are in a narrative prepared with vast cosmic backdrop for our little lives of love, hatred, jealousies, nobilities, defeats and victories. One either considers the many elements and recognizes the master hand of the master storyteller, or one does not.

But it is clear that it is not contradiction or foolishness when, as the much maligned giant of Christian thought, the second and third century theologian, Origen, relates the situation of sailors above. For it is rooted deeply in the mystery of St. Paul’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13).

It is in the will of God that Christians identify their salvation in both mundane and spiritual things. This is not merely theologizing, for the idea itself is contained in the scriptures. For St. Paul speaks from the Areopagus speaking of God as the one “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).

I bring this last point up because some people who have not read much from the ancient world have an assumption that many of Christianity’s arguments are newly minted to defend an old system. But the argument for mechanism/fate is older than Christianity. The Stoics, as best I understand them, held a fatalistic view of a mechanistic universe. Origen, quoted above, lived at the end of the second century into the third century.

The debate is an ancient one, one that Christianity has been very active in from the beginning. And from the beginning we have maintained a very clear idea of (at least) two “how’s” of causality.

 

 

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Subjectivity and the Hypostatic Union

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One of the major difficulties in thinking through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the problem of single or dual subjectivity. The first holds that the subject of every action in the Incarnation is the divine Word of God. Thus we say that God is born, God eats, and God dies and rises. If we were to ask Jesus who He is, in His response of “I AM…” the “I” is the “I” of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity.

This causes some problems and seems to lead us toward a deficient humanity in Christ. The human “I” that each of us is, seems to be lacking in Christ. There is an “I” but it is a divine, not a human self. We find ourselves slipping into a kind of Apollinarian viewpoint in which the self-determining rational mind of Christ is replaced by the Logos.

To check this, we do all we can to buttress the humanity of Christ, insisting on a human spirit and mind, but then finding ourselves in a position in which we are now very close to seeing this collection of elements that make up a human person, doing exactly that. Jesus’ humanity, it seems, must be self-determining to be really human. The “I” of the human Jesus appears to need to be the “I” of a human person otherwise we lose the full humanity of Christ.

But of course, if we follow this well trodden road, we now have two subjective elements, the divine “I” and the human “I”. This falls into the serious problem of the nature of the union between God and our nature. How is it accomplished? If the “I” of Jesus is not divine, how does his life, death, and resurrection help us?

Doctrinally, of course, the Church holds to the Neo-Chalcedonian enhypostatic formula of the human nature of Christ being personal (a person, a subjective ‘I’) in the Logos. A single subject. Yet, if we are sympathetic, we can hear the validity of the concerns of the “two-sons” theology of Antioch.

Perhaps of course, the answer to our conundrum does not lie in trying to refine our formulas to try to explain which elements are maintained and which are lost in the union. Perhaps the answer lies in the deeper mystery of divine Subjectivity.

The “I” of human nature appears to be fundamentally exclusive. It is the “I” that says that I am I and you are you. I am I by not being the “I” that you are. This is, of course, a source of terrible suffering, for selfishness, domination, and abuse all come from the over emphasis of this distinction. But it also is the opportunity for all charity, altruism, and empathy. I cannot have charity if there are no others to love.

This firm distinction of self, however, may not be what is at the base of all creation. The Triune God who is the Father’s self-giving to the Son and Spirit, dwells as the root and base of all self. In the Trinity all self is wholly given away, nothing held back, and no boundaries set up. Distinction, not separation, is the law of love in the Trinity. While we must affirm the “non est” of the Father/Son distinction, we must also more firmly hold to the Dominical mystery that “I and the Father are One.”

One God, not three Gods who share a divine nature. One mystery of three interpenetrating selves giving themselves away wholly and with abandon, patterned on the Father’s foundational gift of self to the Son.

The Self then in the divine life is wholly integrated into the other, or the one who is distinct. We can see the pattern played out Christologically in the Dominical commandments to love our enemies, to give all we have to those who ask, and to love all as brothers and sisters. The divine broadness of selfhood is also revealed in the mystery of the last judgment in which all good and evil done to the least are done to Christ.

It is through these lenses then that we must consider the hypostatic union of single subjectivity that preserves and maintains the fully humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. Only by thinking the whole self-giving and self-identification of the Trinity, and thinking the whole self-giving and self-identification of the Christian life, can we begin to contextualize the mystery of a single subject in Christ.

The subjective “I” of the Logos does not unite itself to any reality to expel that reality from itself. Grace comes to complete, not to destroy. Far be it then that the Logos, in its most perfect union with human nature, should cast out any element, even the human way of saying “I.” Indeed, the Logos unites itself so closely to our nature that our nature can say “I” in the person of the Logos in the way that it says “I” in every other human being. It’s psychology, though unfallen, functions as a human psychology, not driven out by the Logos, but in perfect union with it.

It is a mystery. The perichoretic selves of the Trinity, and indeed the perichoretic selves of Christians, tear down the diabolical demand that I and Thou must always mean different things, while resisting the misunderstanding that they must wholly collapse into each other. Distinction without division is the rule.

These, then, appear to me to be the tools with which we must work at our understanding of the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Let the doctrines of Trinity and Christian love shine a light on the doctrine of the incarnation so that it might shine greater light in return on them.

Why Suffering 2: After Goodness

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Last week’s blog attempted to explain why, on a natural level, there must be some level of pain, if only very minor, in the process of becoming like God. This week I want to look at why I think that in our present state, it must involve more than simply that small act of letting go of our natural desires and involve real suffering. But first I want to revisit that transcendence of the natural desire for a moment.

We might imagine that for the first unfallen humans, not killing a particular animal or not eating the fruit was as easy as any other task. I think we would be wrong in saying this, for there are two kinds of commandment. The first, which we are more familiar with, involves keeping us away from doing what is really evil. “Do not murder” is always true everywhere. “Do not lie in court against your neighbor” is never untrue. However, “do not slay the white hart, for in the day you do Camelot will fall” is a different kind of command.

On its surface, it is a kind of magic. As long as the fruit is uneaten, or as long as the hart bounds through the forest, the magical land holds. When the rule is broken, the magic fades. But there is a deeper reality to the rule. It calls creatures onward and upward into God’s life. Each time the first people saw the fruit or the animal or whatever they were forbidden, there must have been a process of putting down a natural desire for it. That denial would have been an effort. It would probably not have been very hard, but it would have had to have been conscious for the magic to work. For in denying the natural good of this one thing, they see the better supernatural good of God.

But they did not do this forever. They fell. They broke the magic, and the garden fled. Or, perhaps, it is better to say that the garden was only a garden and not a wild jungle of dangers because those who walked in it were immortal gods for as long as they were obedient to the command. Lions will be lions, but their fangs mean nothing to Apollo. We need not claim that the world became wild only after sin, but that we, after long ages of evolution, came to be men and women with the immortalizing of our spiritual and rational elements as they were given to our newly immortal bodies. To such ones even the saber toothed tiger would be no more dangerous than the housecat . . . even less so.

However we say it, the gods became mortal, and sin entered the world. This sin, which is no different than the sin that lives in each of us, takes from us the easy joy in the other’s good, and sets us in fierce competition with each other. It makes the desire for things a terrible lord over our hearts. It sets jealousies and desires where there should not be. The lusts for sex and pleasure are set in a kind of disorder, but terribly worse is the lust for power and domination. To set our wills above the wills of others, to engorge ourselves by making others slaves or mere extensions of ourselves, is the direct product of our sin.

To be in this state is to be in a state opposed to God. And how can it not be suffering to turn from all of this? One might say that it would be only joy to do so, and in the end I would agree. But in the beginning it involves pain. Firstly, because it involves the giving up of that which we desire with disordered longing. Strengthened by sin, this desire is not only disordered but ravenous. The denial of such ravenous desire must be pain. We have gone beyond the simple natural desire for the fruit that we imagine must taste good, or the animal which would give us hearty chase. Those desires might be overcome with only a small denial of self. But these desires, these lusts after power, possession, and dominance, can only be resisted with effort and pain. Secondly, because we have identified ourselves with these desires, to turn from them is to turn, in some ways, from ourselves.

For a sinless person, a turning from things that are bad would be ease and joy. But a sinless person need not turn from such things. Her trial comes in denying the good things which have been forbidden her because better things have been offered. But a sinful person suffers greatly when turning from her sin. She reaches once more for the old evil, pulls her hand back, kills the self again, weeps, and cries out for aid. The process involves tears. They are the tears of the desperate, the one in need of strength, not merely the contrite. The hunger for evil does not simply go when she has “cried it all out,” but remains until it is cut out of her.

Here we must remember the distinction between “a sin” and “Sin.” A single sin, or a bundle of sins, may be set aside with contrition (here I do not stand with my Catholic brethren, for I do not think that attrition is needed, or, if needed, is wholly dealt with by the cross). However, Sin, that destructive power that lives within us, cannot simply be wept away. No, remaking is necessary there, and that process must involve some level of suffering, for it involves death. Who and what we were will be unmade to be made again. The unmaking of a thing certainly is not a pleasurable process, and that must come first. Perhaps it will all come in the cancer or fire that take our lives. Perhaps.

All of this has been theology of reason. It takes what has been revealed and what is in our experience and considers its ramifications. I want to turn next week to the tradition of the church. For it does not seem to be the consensus of those who have gone before us that the suffering that will purge us from all sin is simply our natural death.

 

Image: “Garden of Eden” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1621

Why Suffering – 1. The Natural and The Supernatural

My post “Jesus: On Our Side” generated a single question: Why am I so sure that the process of becoming like Christ’s idea of me will involve pain? Why will it not be, as it sometimes is, a delightful enfolding of love? I have been asked for a clear reason as to why I think the God of love will cause us suffering in the process of moving toward Him. Is God not the great healer? The great source of love? Why then shouldn’t God make the change one of, not suffering, but a kind of catharsis? When we are swallowed up in love, might we not weep away our sin until we are clean?

Intending to write a single blog post, I realized that this is in fact five posts. So I will be posting, perhaps once a week, a single reason why I believe the process of becoming like Christ involves suffering.

Week 1: The Natural and the Supernatural

Week 2: After Goodness

Week 3: Authority

Week 4: Spoken Aloud

Week 5: The Ever Higher Hill

The following is, I hope, if not a convincing argument as to why the process must involve suffering for us, a satisfactory explanation as to why I believe it must.

There is a debate, especially among my Catholic brothers and sisters, about the question of the relationship between nature and grace. If we can’t be fully satisfied by natural things, we are in some way owed God’s gracious gift of Godself (this is based on a philosophical concept from Aristotle). For a creature must be able to attain its own ends. However, if our own natural ends satisfy us so much, why should we care about God’s gracious gift? We could, it seems, reject it without any violence to our nature.

I find the debate to be difficult at best for a number of reasons, but primarily because, once you get into some of the higher philosophy and theology of it, it predicates of God distinctions that are not meaningful. The God presented in the debates is too anthropomorphic, making one decision “after” another, and setting divine freedom against divine necessity. (These are also the problems inherent in the philosophical debate about God’s freedom starting from Leibniz until today).

However, what is useful for our discussion is the focus on the distinction between human nature and God’s grace. I, siding with St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and many others and hold firmly that the human being is made primarily for fellowship with God. Our hearts are restless until we do. Yet, I also hold that the divine call to grace is a supernatural one. Nature points us in one direction, and the gracious call of God pulls us in another. There is pain in leaving the natural path; a giving up of many of our natural inclinations for supernatural commands. Indeed, following the commands will bring joy, or, when we are at our best, are joy themselves. But that does not remove the fact that by doing them, we are giving up something we would also like to be doing.

Anyone who has come from a relatively happy family, or at least a family of love (for a loving family is not always happy), and gone away to college, knows the feeling. You know you are doing what you must, what you should; even what you want. You know that joy waits just around the corner. But there is a wrench, a tearing, and a suffering that comes from that parting. You are leaving something natural, the home, for something less natural, the dormitory. Those of us who successfully went through the process will say without question that the process is worth it, and that untold joys have been the result. But that does not make the suffering not suffering.

Indeed, all steps away from the natural involve suffering. Christianity, or even religion, is not the only one to lay claim to such things. Let us take marriage for example. The Christian position on marriage is varied, but I will consider here the view held by Catholics, Orthodox, and most Anglicans: that marriage is a sacrament. As a sacrament, marriage is called to a supernatural level. It not only puts two people together in a binding contract with all due legal rights, but calls them to an “unnatural” relationship. They “forsake all others” and swear that the union will end only when their mortal  lives come to an end. This is an unnatural state for humans to be in, as we are constantly reminded by our culture. On the other side, we can see the growing movement of polyamory and open marriages (two distinct practices). These lifestyles, as best I understand them, hold that having only a single partner is not the situation that makes human beings the happiest.

In the middle is the system of the old Roman Republic. Two people make a contract together, and remain together as long as that contract is profitable to them. Hopefully the profit is joy, children, and a richer life, but that is not always the case. Then, when the contract is done, they go their own way to make another contract. Breaking of the contract is forbidden, but happens too often anyway. This system is very much like our own, and is, from a natural level, preferable to our own as it acknowledges that this kind of marriage is a purely natural institution that can and should be left naturally without much in the way of suffering.

What the Christian and the Open Marriage positions have in common is that they both call us to deny certain natural tendencies. The person in the Open Marriage must find his way through the jungle of jealousies and natural reactions to his mate being with other people. Sex aside, one must deal with the touch of the cheek, the affectionate hand holding, and the private jokes that, if all is well, they will be let in on but not in the same way as the two originators. There is a killing of the self that takes place in such situations that is done with the hope that, when these parts are dead, something better will be achieved on the other side. The Christian is in the same position, but on the opposite side of things. There is a death involved every time we meet someone truly wonderful who we might have loved deeply with Eros. We look at what might have been and we say “no,” knowing that we have committed ourselves to a choice. Our partner might be the best person for us, or he might not. Perhaps he is too loud, too angry, too lazy. And yet the Christian call is a supernatural call, one that calls us to deny our natural desires at times. Instead of killing the part of ourselves that wants exclusivity, we must kill the part that wants choices after our decision has been made.

Interestingly enough, both positions claim to draw their adherents to a kind of arch-natural state. Those who insist that human beings do not naturally have only one partner are no less claiming a “rightness” to their position than the Christian who claims a “rightness” to sacramental marriage. Both say that on the other side of the death of the “natural” level, there is something more natural and more life-giving.

The differences between these two positions are obvious and need not be gone into here in detail. But where they are similar is what is important. They both draw us away from our natural state, and this involves a fair amount of self-sacrifice and suffering. For no one has seen the one they truly love looking deeply into the eyes of another with equal love and not felt pain. And, conversely, no one has looked into the eyes of another and though “he . . . he would have made me far happier” and not suffered the shock of loss.

Another way of demonstrating this natural/supernatural dichotomy is from Scripture. The story of the Garden of Eden contains within it a special commandment. The man and his wife are not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a commandment given in a mythical setting, and I am fairly certain that the tree and commandment represent some other commandment given to humanity at its inception. Perhaps it was “do not kill creature X, for in the day that you do, you will surely die”. Or perhaps it was even a command not to eat a certain fruit. But whatever it was, it was not a natural commandment. If it lined up perfectly with the nature of the human creatures, it would have needed no commandment. God did not need to tell Adam not to eat rocks, Adam’s biological tendencies had that well in had. Instead, the command was itself a call to supernatural life: trusting that God is good, and that there is more for us than the natural world.

Obeying the commandment would have been almost nothing, a small self-denial for something much greater. But the self-denial must have involved some small level of suffering, else it could not be self-denial. Something must die in the giving up of what we want, even if the desire is small. If God had told us, “you shall not wear the color yellow” it would be only a small loss for me (though perhaps for others a deep loss). Yet, on those days when wearing yellow might seem best, it would involve a small, perhaps almost (but not quite) meaningless leaving of the self.

This plays out more obviously when we think about the demon of competition. We consider a good that we want, and that is not unlawful or harmful: a job, a friend’s time, a particular book on a shelf. We reach for the thing and find that another wants it. If it is someone we love, we naturally want them to have what they want. If it is a stranger, we may feel quite magnanimous to them. If it is an enemy, we may feel exactly the opposite. But how, even in the first two situations, are we to want their good if it conflicts with our good? How can I wish you to have the same job that I wish for myself?

The commandments of Christ demand from us that not only are we to wish good for all three of these people, our enemy not less than our loved ones, but that we are to give them the very thing we desire if they desire it. It is a giving away that involves suffering because, if we truly desired the job, or the treasured hour with a friend, or the hard to find book, we cannot lose it except with some level of suffering. Having worked for years to be ready to take the job, we find that another has it. How can we not suffer? Having been parted for a year, and having endured many sorrows, we find that the coveted moment is stolen from us when we might embrace our friend, and for a time hear his laughter and bad jokes again because another needs his time more. How can we not suffer?

Yet, we are called by God to go beyond these natural inclinations into joy. They can’t help but be suffering for us, and yet we must let them go. We must not stamp our feet and insist that the job is ours, or that our friend turn his back on someone in need. We must kill that part of ourselves and grow. I do not mean here into “mature adults” who can simply bear the pain, but into sons and daughters of God who give thanks that another has received good. This all involves pain.

But the fact that it involves quite as much pain as it does is strange. Should these things not be small “almost-nothings” that we give away easily? The fact that they are not will require another blog post.

Jesus: On Our Side

Recently a very good friend of mine, Father Ben Wallis, reposed a “Coffee with Jesus” that he liked very much. The comic strip is here:

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The strip references a few different theological ideas. First, the common perception that Jesus must be judgmental. Second, that Jesus did not come into the world to judge the world, but to save it (John 3:17). And finally, that Jesus, not coming to judge people, is indeed on their side.

Far be it from me to argue with the author of the Gospel of John. Indeed, I believe John’s gospel has a depth of understanding that comes from the decades of reflection on the man Jesus and the events of his life, death, and resurrection that the other three Gospels simply do not display.

Coffee with Jesus, on the other hand, does not quite have the apostolic authority that the fourth Gospel lays claim to. And it is their reading of the first two theological points, and their conclusion with the third that I want to consider and perhaps nuance.

First, the idea that Jesus judges people is something I’m familiar with only in Christian circles. Outside of those circles, it is Jesus’ followers that appear to be the ones whose judgment people do not want. If “Kevin” in the comic strip is meant to be a non-Christian, I think this whole message is off. He might, if he were like the non-Christians I know, say something like “Jesus, you seem OK, but your followers really suck,” or, “Hey man, I don’t even think you existed” or “strange how you and Mithras share the same birth story” (there may even be  Coffee with Jesus strips that do these very things, I don’t know). Indeed, amidst all of the criticisms of Jesus that I have heard, few if any have been about how judgmental that Jesus guy was.

However, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that “Kevin” is a Christian. He has been told that Jesus is coming to judge the living and the dead (something we hold as dogmatically true by the authority of the Nicene Creed). This man, “Kevin” doesn’t want any of that. Who needs judgment?

Jesus’ response, that he didn’t come to judge the world, is certainly johannine in origin. However, it does not tell the whole story about judgment in the New Testament. Indeed, also from Jesus mouth is the coming judgment of the world from Matthew 25. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:10 speaks of the judgment seat of Christ.

But more damning to this simplistic view is the rest of the Johannine witness. Jesus makes it clear that he does indeed judge in John’s Gospel. The fifth chapter speaks clearly about Jesus’ judgment coming from the authority of the Father. Even more confusing is John 9:39 when Jesus says he “came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’”

John’s Gospel then seems to have conflicting information. Jesus did not come into the world to judge it, but he also came for judgment. Clearly “Coffee with Jesus” is taking one side of a somewhat murky problem.

Another statement by Jesus in John’s Gospel adds more information, but does not really clarify the situation.

“I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” (John 12:47-48)

The word Jesus has spoken will judge. How Jesus’ word is both connected to him and distinct from him is not fully clear. However, we will leave the issue open, where it must be. Jesus judges, but has not come to judge.

So what then of Coffee with Jesus’ conclusion? Jesus’ last words in the comic “I’m on your side, Kevin” are very interesting. Those of us who do not hold to a limited atonement, who believe that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension were really for every person who has ever lived and will ever live, must believe that Jesus is really on our side.

But, while this is a beautiful truth, it is not the whole truth in a world stained and darkened by sin. Because the people we are, the people we identify ourselves as. the goals and opinions and self portraits we have, may be diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Insofar as we identify ourselves with those things, and not His love and teaching, Jesus is very much not on “our” side. Indeed, the thing we call our “self”, doing all it can to not love our neighbors as Christ loved them, to not forgive, to not hold our lives lightly, and to gather goods, money, fame, and power, and to beat down others so that they have less than we do, can never be said to have God on its side.

God must and will kill that thing. He will stamp it out; tread it underfoot even if it strikes him in the heel. He will cast it into a fire of hell until it dies the last death. All of this will be very painful to what we call our “selves”. While the process is going on, it will seem very much like God is on anyone’s side but our own.

Then, when that false self is slain, when the shade that hid the man or woman is banished by the burning light of judgment, which is to say the light of truth, for judgment is only calling a thing what it is, the true man or woman will stand forth before all of creation and declare rightly that Christ was always and everywhere on his side.

For Christ is for the woman or man as they are meant to be. He is for you in a way that you are not for yourself. He is for each person even if they would slay him to keep him from bringing out of them the good that they will be so that they can keep the evil that they are.

It is wrong to say that Christ is for the slightest sin done with the best intentions by the holiest of saints. Insofar as that saint is allied with the sin, Christ would pay the dearest price to have the sin out, and the woman who committed it no longer linked with its evil. He will have it dead and cast into hell. And insofar as she identifies with it, she must go to hell as well until it is out.

But it is right to say that Christ is for even Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers, and every rapist, child molester, and murderer. He is for the very humanity in these people and their dearest friend, for no power can save them from the evil that they have made themselves but His.

And as far as it goes, all who allied themselves with the sins of their fellows, which is all of us, are not really on the sides of those we call our closest friends. We are against them when we help them to become less themselves, which is to say less God’s idea of them, and become more the sin. In fact, insofar as we are all broken, all falling short, all complicit, we have never really been on each other’s sides. No one has ever had a true friend in the sense that every movement of every action was always for their good.

Except for this man, Jesus.

So yes, though it is over simplified, and perhaps easily misunderstood, Coffee With Jesus gets at one of the deepest truths of reality. Jesus is on our side. But we must remember and tremble at remembering, that while he is on our side, we may not be.

 

You can find all of the Coffee with Jesus strips here: http://radiofreebabylon.com/Comics/CoffeeWithJesus.php

Fire Upon The Earth

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Sermon for Hope Lutheran Church in College Park, MD 8/18/2013

Texts:  Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews: 11:29 – 12:2
Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

Our age is obsessed with the natural world.  We have learned how to manipulate it, control it, and we have delved many of its secrets.

Of course there are many secrets which we have only just scratched the surface of.  But the fruits of the pursuit of scientific knowledge are obvious and abundant.

But we have become so transfixed with our knowledge of the world that we have mistaken this kind of knowledge for all kinds of knowledge.  This kind of reality for all kinds of reality.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel today do not make sense in a purely naturalistic world, where there is only nature, but no supernature.  Where only the natural exists, the Gospel fails.  For Christ did not come to organize communities, or to set up societies.

No, instead, Christ tells us exactly what he came to do in this week’s reading.  He came, it says “to bring fire to the earth.”  But no, that’s not right.  The Greek reads “I came to throw, or cast fire upon the earth.”  Christ comes with a violent intention, to burn with fire, and to break like a hammer.  He has come to cast fire on the earth.

Now, fire consumes, fire destroys.  Where there is only the weak, fire fully destroys.  But where there are things that are made, not to resist, but to be refined by fire, it purifies.  The fire that Christ comes to cast upon the earth is like this.  It burns to purify that which is eternal by destroying all that is too weak and temporary to belong to the kingdom of God.

As George MacDonald, the great Scottish Preacher and Writer announces, God “will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakable may remain: he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal.”

It is a supernatural fire that comes with Christ.  For He is the supernatural man.  He is supernatural in two ways.  First, in that he is God come into humanity to stand among us while remaining the living and Eternal God.  Secondly, He is man, come into the Godhead to make a place for us women and men.  He is the bridge that lays itself down that all might come to the Father.  And like all bridges he connects the two lands, and has some share in both.

The supernatural man, then, does supernatural things.  He heals, he raises the dead, he says to the storm “be still!”  He commands the earth as its rightful Lord, for he is above it, and greater than it.

And here, he comes to cast a burning upon the earth, and how He wished in that moment that it was already kindled!  Why?  What is this burning that he wants to send into the world?  Is it the Holy Spirit?  Well, to some degree that is right, but we know that the Holy Spirit was already active in the world from the very first day.  Is it the kingdom?  He was at that time preaching the kingdom that was to be an image of the very country from which He came where love rules and peace is permanent.

If not these, then what?  What is the fire upon the earth?

Look to your left and your right.  There, in the pew ahead of you, and the one behind you.  There is the fire that Christ has hurled to the earth to burn it.  The Church, set ablaze by the Spirit who was given at Pentecost, living the kingdom that He has established, stands as fire upon the earth.

We are God’s fire, for we are in the Son, the Word that is like Fire, as Jeremiah tells us.  The fire given to us in the Holy Spirit is the same fire that was in Christ, the heart and mind of Christ that sets the world ablaze.  The Church, for whatever we think of her, her failings, her stumbles, her empty pews and petty infighting, is under all of that, the very heavenly life that God has become human to establish here.

The fire that comes is the fire of the Trinity, lived supernaturally in the lives of natural people.  The computer programmer, the bank teller, the construction worker, the lawyer, the bartender, and the retail worker all are elevated to the life of the burning fire of God.

But lest we be deceived, we must understand the nature of this fire.  It is a relentless destroying fire, for it burns away all that is natural to replace it with that which is supernatural.  It conforms that which is passing away into that which is eternal.  And what does the eternal look like?  Is it a conquering majesty of armies, of haughtiness, of those who lord it over one another?

No . . . it is a kingdom of forgiveness.  It is the reign of love and mercy.  The supernatural confounds our natural desires.  The Lord Jesus does not come like the captain at the head of his legions of angels.  He could have, but that is not His character, for it is not His Father’s Character.  Instead, he comes meekly, calling us to the same humble life of service to one another.  Come and take up his yoke, come and obey him, come and follow, taking up your cross.  God is meek and lowly of heart, He forgives all offenses, he does not repay evil for evil, he has mercy  at every turn.

Come good people and live in the life of the trinity given now to you as fire upon the earth, and burn away all enmity, all hatred, all grudges, all judgment, all jealousy.  Be fire that burns with generosity and love, and convert the world with your peace.  We are to be a blazing light of obedience.

This is the good news, that God is beyond our petty quarrels, and has called us to his life.  Do you worry if you will be justified before him?  Cast that worry aside and cling to Christ in obedience.  For the Good Master is indeed Good, and no news is better than that He is Himself, this very man, Jesus the Christ.

Rejoice, forgive your enemies, and which may be harder, forgive those you love,  and be fire upon the earth until all else is burned, and only the eternal remains!