Faith: The Engine of God’s Creative Redemption

Incarnation and Imitation

The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example,”Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”

Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.

What’s Faith Got To Do With It?

This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible yet, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.

“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.

In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).

The Victory of Faith

There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5: “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text andJohn 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!

Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.

Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.

It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.

(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself. )

Public Virtue

 

Daily, public figures reveal their lack of basic human decency. This shame of our age displays itself constantly through the hour-long news cycle, with a sexual assault by an actor revealed at noon just before a politician’s unethical exploits hits the wire at 1:00, to be followed by shady dealings of the media itself in the 2:00 hour. Later that day we’ll find the failings of a sports star deliciously paired with the current faux pas of a B- list producer. By the evening, boorish comments from a social media star will begin to register, and there is sure to be some backlash. The evening will certainly bring troubled news from a corporation whose PR machine can’t keep the wrong story out of the news.

A portion of the deluge can be chalked up to the purveyors of news, whose responsibility to fill the networks’ time slots with controversy must impose a heavy burden. This week, I was at the gym on the stationary bike, and thus subjected to the cable news networks dueling stories. CNN and Fox News were competing for my attention with ticker crawls proclaiming “Fashion becomes Political”, and “Twitter Comments Spark Outrage”. They can’t churn out enough real news to pay the bills. I couldn’t pedal fast enough to escape.

There is more to the story than the coverage, though—the exhibits of bad character littered thought the public square are simply what happens when people who neglect character formation remain on display for longer than they can maintain the façade. Of course, few of them were given status because of their character in the first place. We give people fame and power in exchange for a very narrow set of skills (or because they have risen through serendipitous circumstances), and are surprised that such persons fail in tests of character. This surprise is perhaps the most hopeful part of the equation—perhaps something survives within us that truly does desire to see goodness from people.

And yet character formation remains neglected, not only by the famous folk, but by most people. Too few people have mentors helping them develop character, too few have practices that cultivate virtue and which restrain our vices. Humanity seems to recognize the importance of character, but to ignore the paths that lead to its formation.

This, too, makes me believe in the critical mission of the church.

From the Shadows Walks the Enemy

The evil is among us. It bides its time in shadow. It feeds, trades in subtleties, plays in encoded rhetoric, and waits for a moment to stride into the light. It hopes to command the day, hoping to have won enough to its sympathies through years of slow-burning lies and nudged hatred. It wields those tools, hoping they will work like water dripping through a cave hollows out some spaces and leaves deposits of minerals hanging from the ceiling and piled up on the floor. It uses small sufferings and inflates them, wishing to lead unsuspecting fools to see other people through the shadows of their own pain, and learn to see them as the source of blame.

Evil wants to turn the volume up on the anger of the self, on the arrogances of desire and rage. It seeks to drown out the cries of any other by a misguided sense of justice, by pettiness and by stringing together loose ideas that can only be connected by a will for the self.

When it comes into the light, some people will be repulsed by it, seeing it for the gross distortion it is. Others will feel themselves drawn to it, as by gravity, for they have been formed and groomed for the moment by ingesting a lot of poison, unconsciously. Others will see it and be perplexed, desperately looking for ways to see the turmoil as not all that much to be worried about.

The evil that was on display on Charlottesville this past weekend was not unique or new. It’s been here. It chose this particular moment to step into the light. It will claim its victims, do its harm, gather its sympathizers, then likely retreat again. It will hide, and seek to build its strength again for the next assault. The people who are the face of the darkest powers in this moment may not understand this strategy, and indeed many are emboldened to think that they are now coming into the light for good. I think they radically overestimate their hand, and that they will be forced to retreat again for a while, but I also believe it is very dangerous to underestimate both their capacity for harm and the evil that underlies it.

When evil comes into the light, it matters greatly how people respond to it. But it also matters immensely what we do when it retreats and hides. It matters greatly how we feed and nourish ourselves in the moments of relative peace. For how we are formed in those “meanwhiles” determines how we respond in the next moment of crisis.

Yo Racists: A Word to the Wickedness

It is super lame to put a veneer of intellectualism on something stupid, and to pretend something evil has a layer of morality. There is no nuancing away racism: if you feel like your race is superior to the others, or should have more rights or privileges or power than others, or will to side with people whose skin looks like yours, or think its best that your empowered race maintains institutional preference or control until things simmer down, those things are signs of the sin of racism. It’s a foolish affront to the Creator, and has caused massive injustice to flourish. Whenever we find it in our hearts, or face the shame of having someone else point it out in us, we are compelled to repent.

I hate it when I find it in myself, and I’d rather explain it away. But instead, I have to confess it, again and again. I have to repent, again and again. Oh Lord, may it, and all sin, be rooted out and destroyed!

Psalm 55: A Poem of Betrayal

The scriptures in general often emphasize facets of the story outside our attention, drawing theological pictures that don’t immediately appear to us when we come to them with a different set of theological questions. The phenomenon occurs in the gospels as well as the other parts of scripture, and perhaps it’s particularly poignant in the story of Jesus’s death. Our approach to the story has been so thoroughly conditioned that it’s too easy for us to enter the passion narratives with heavy expectations of the kind of things we’ll find there, and thus miss points that the story itself is giving us.

One such undervalued facet of the story is Jesus’s experience of betrayal and abandonment. The gospel narratives explore the theme thoroughly—I worked on Mark’s depiction in the sermon on the video below, but the theme exists in the other three gospels as well.

The custom in our church is to open each week’s worship with a Psalm, and for me the choice for this week was simple: Psalm 55. The Psalms capture human experiences and emotions, and demonstrate what it means to lay those experiences before God. Psalm 55 captures beautifully the anguish of betrayal, which is a profoundly common (universal?) human experience.

The poem opens with a cry to God, expressing the poet’s distress over “the noise of the enemy”, and the “clamor of the wicked”, and then elaborates:

My heart is in anguish within me,
    the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
    and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.
(Psalm 55:4-8, NRSV)

Having described the anguish in terms many other Psalms might use, this Psalm then plays its twist: the enemies are actually the poet’s friends.

It is not enemies who taunt me—
    I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
    I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
    my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
    we walked in the house of God with the throng.
(Psalm 55:12-14, NRSV)

The psalmist begins to call for God’s response before further describing the experience of betrayal:

My companion laid hands on a friend
    and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
    but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
    but in fact were drawn swords.
(Psalm 55:20-21, NRSV)

The cries for help and the poet’s statements of trusting the Lord in the face of distress are similar to what we find in other laments throughout the Psalms. However, this one’s way of evoking empathy from the reader (or worshipper) is by the dramatic unfolding of a painful reality—it is indeed our friends who can hurt us in the deepest way possible. This psalm hold that card and then slaps it down on the table with the authority of experience, and all those who hear it can only wince and grieve alongside of the one who has tasted bitter betrayal.

How might we respond to such a psalm? With empathy for the betrayed for sure, but also I think a deeper commitment to be faithful friends who avoid dealing out this kind of bitterness to others. There is, after all a beautiful reality on display even in the bitter sadness—we experience betrayal only because friendship and faithfulness really do matter to us. The depth of our anguish and sorrow reveals our capacity to love and the role of companionship and community in a full human life. It is the shadow side of something we deeply value—even if we don’t know how to do it right. So in its own way, a Psalm like this with its tragic experience of betrayal is leading us to a more careful, vibrant experience of community, full of the sort of friendship that marks a flourishing humanity.

The Psalm also provides its own way forward, the laying of such a naked human experience before God. It is a raw prayer of pain, but also holding a latent hope that such wrongs will be made right. If the psalmist’s prayers are a bit too vindictive for us, we can at least laud the poet’s trust in the Lord to avenge the harm rather than taking vengeance personally.