Hypostatic Hype

June 24, 2007

I just visited another church.  My last visit [two blogs ago] proved to be a very ‘hip’ experience–lots of cool people in their twenty’s and thirty’s–without much hospitality.  This week, however, people were more intentional about welcoming, but still not particularly attentive…  Alas… Mrs. Carrick, my son’s sixth grade teacher sat next to me, and shared how she and her husband had been plugged into a small group.  She said that for the last thirty years her husband has not participated, nor shown any interest in church; and yet with this group, he’s suddenly moved and more curious than ever.  Another gentleman, on the church’s council, told me where to find the restrooms and a brief snippet of the congregation’s beginnings.  Philip’s teacher also mentioned that many from the Manito Presbyterian split had drifted into this congregation’s ranks for healing.

Anyway, what hooked me in the worship was the pastor who introduced his sermon by talking about the “hypostatic union” of Jesus Christ.  Ouch!  This term, for those who are interested, arose in the fourth century as the church grappled with gnosticism and tried to settle issues related to Jesus’ personhood.  As may be obvious from the previous blog, I am very passionate about this subject!  And yet, in the hands of this preacher/teacher I realized that whenever we teach about the two natures of the God-man we often forget that this jargon is a Greek overlay of a Hebrew narrative.  What I mean is by pontificating incessantly about the fully divine and fully human composition of Jesus of Nazareth we often miss the point of the story in the text itself.  In this case, John 2 and the wedding at Cana. 

The point is the abundance of God.  Jesus encounters a situation in which there doesn’t appear to be enough.  A scarcity of wine at a first century, Palestinian wedding would have been a scandal.  O, the shame of running out…   And today, we can relate in that we are often worried about not having enough health, not enough income, not having enough intelligence, not having enough bravado, not having enough beauty, not having enough friendships, not having enough functional family connections…   Could it be that, amid all this lack, the person of Jesus offers more than we might imagine?   Yes, that’s it.  We don’t GET blessings as if they came from God at a discount.   We don’t GET blessings as if they were commodities, which we buy and sell.  We don’t GET God by believing the right things, or by doing the right things.  [The teacher this morning said that Obedience plus Obedience Equals Blessing.]  Blah!  That formulaic faith thrwarts the Spirit.  The Living God we experience in Christ is not some abstract principle.  We don’t plug in numbers or people and GET the miracle that we want.   Moreover, when we talk about the hypostatic union of Christ as if we have to believe it, or else we’re not a deep thinker, what are we really saying?   Aren’t we puffing ourselves up as those who can really handle the heavy-duty theology and classical philosophy while the rest of the Christian neophytes muddle through with mere Bible Stories?  Blah!  And blah!

The formulation of doctrines, creeds and confessions do not constitute the end-goal of faith in the person of Jesus.  On the contrary, when we believe him to be the Christ–and then to be fully God and fully human–we venture on to wonder about what that may mean for our personal stories as they relate to the other stories which are being told and re-told and tweaked and twisted in the world.  Christians, in this regard, cannot pretend to know the only story that’s out there.  We cannot pretend to know what actually happened beyond the shadow of a doubt.  What we do is testify.  What we do is tell and transmit the tale of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and begin the mysterious process of living out the implications of that tale.  Amen!  Those implications involve messy people and messy histories and messy, fuzzy-headed thinking and feeling.   Those implications involve the hope of a new heaven and a new earth.   Amen!  And Amen! 

And yet, beyond that we must beware of metaphysical speculations ad infinitum!  What is the point of arguing about hypostatic natures?   Is it to fix an understanding of Jesus in our minds and then say to ourselves (however unconsciously) ‘Aha, I have him now!’   We never, ever, ever HAVE Christ!   The point of Luke 24 and many other passages is that he has us!   He tells and re-tells our story of lack and scarcity and feelings of emptiness and makes it a story of more and abundance and feelings of fulfillment!

My visit to this church taught me what I want to proclaim about Jesus, and it’s not the hypostatic hype of 451 AD.  It’s the story of someone who turns away from that hype and that push for cerebral consensus.  Instead he offers himself lavishly and we taste that we belong with him always.   I dream of Latah Valley as a fellowship in which we are not coerced into believing the right things about Jesus, but into drinking with him at the party.



[Warning:  The reader is going to have to THINK about this]

I.       Imagine the outer reaches of Proxima Centauri, a solar system many light years away.   A spacecraft from the forlorn and failed planet earth has requested permission to land there, prompting this exchange:

PC3:  Just a moment.  It is still necessary to establish your C-type.   We are C1’s, that is first order consciousness.   Through the centuries we have learned by painful experience that there are at least two other C-types, C2’s and C3’s.    C1’s and C3’s are benign.   C2’s are dangerous.   Which are you? 

Earthship:   Say again.   What’s the difference? 

PC3:  A C1 consciousness is a first order consciousness, or what you would call a preternatural consciousness… something like the consciousness of a child grown mature and sophisticated but maintaining its innocence permanently and avoiding the malformations of self-consciousness, enjoying the beauty of our planet and each other and our science and art without weariness, boredom, fear, guilt, or shame… 


Believe it or not, this is how the late, great novelist, Walker Percy, contextualizes the person of Jesus of Nazareth.   That is, in a world where self-consciousness might find expression in so many mutations—The Amnesic Self, The Self As Nought, The Nowhere Self, The Fearful Self, The Misplaced Self, The Promiscuous Self, The Envious Self, The Bored Self, The Impoverished Self and more—the historic Palestinian Jew waits in the wings for his cue.   Carl Sagan, in his award-winning, public television series, Cosmos, may long for extra-terrestrial help.  But in Lost In the Cosmos; The Last Self-Help Book, Percy wonders what has made Sagan so lonely in the first place.   Meanwhile, much to the chagrin of the anxious earthlings, the PC3 representative goes on to explain how C2 consciousness “falls into the pit of itself” and does not know what to do.   By contrast, C3 consciousness has “become aware of its predicament, sought help and received help” (p. 209—214).   So—the inevitable and unenviable questions:  Have you sought help?  Has help arrived?   Have you received help? 

This, it seems, has been the goal of Percy’s erratic parody all along:  not to speculate as to the whereabouts and temperament of intelligent life on other planets, but to approach the Genesis 3 catastrophe by way of Star Trek, Star Wars and the mythic ideology of perpetual progress.   Taking a more direct and confessional route are the likes of Generation X guru, Douglas Coupland.   He writes in Life After God,

“Now here’s my secret…  I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love” (p. 359).

Of course, either way, we have our context.   Transcendent help, if there is such a thing, must address the problem of self-consciousness.   It must address the problem in the first century, before the Enlightenment efforts to explain it rationally, and in whatever century we might imagine ourselves making contact with the residents of Proxima Centauri.  Moreover, if Jesus of Nazareth constitutes the very incarnation of help, which has arrived, is arriving and will mysteriously arrive soon, John 15:26—27 might supply the corresponding means of appropriating that assistance.   It’s there (among many other places) that the evangelist recalls and proclaims the authentic self-consciousness of the Galilean carpenter.   He is the One Sent, which identifies him with the meta-narrative of Israel’s corporate past.   But not only that.   Jesus is also the One Who Does The Sending of “the Advocate,” who is “the Spirit of Truth… from the Father.”   While this explicit vocabulary may have accrued later, within the Johannine community, the historic Jesus himself may have turned the page of this chapter in the Messianic storyline.   We’ll see.

In the meantime, it seems prudent to clarify what this analysis means and does not intend to mean with a nebulous concept like the self-consciousness of Jesus of Nazareth.   

First, that he was a unique, historic individual who had a profound impact on those who met him, especially following his baptism in the Jordan.

Second, that Jesus was neither a composite figure, like John Doe, nor a fictitious person, like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Third, that he primarily understood himself through the means of his own indigenous culture—that is, as a Jew who lived on the other side of two pivotal events in the life of all Jews:  exodus and exile.

Fourth, that New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension have not been crafted for the general use of a general audience to improve society at large, nor as a symbolic means to some other end.

Fifth, that specific passages in the canonical scriptures lead us to infer that Jesus’ own understanding of purpose grew as time went by, that he did not always comprehend unfolding events and that the Messianic and Christological titles of the text were not designations that he applied to himself directly.

Sixth, that the self-awareness of the Christ Jesus, to whom the Spirit and the church gives witness is to be radically and passionately differentiated from the mythic autonomous individual of the Enlightenment, and from the conflicted human psyche and from the indomitable human spirit. 

And seventh, that Jesus of Nazareth is the relational presence of God. 

II.      With these caveats in mind, we note the theoretical starting point of Karl Rahner’s arranged marriage between Christology and evolutionary theory, one that Jurgen Moltmann cites as follows:

“Just as God’s creative self-communication already makes itself known in self-transcendence of matter, so at the peak of human development human self-transcendence and divine self-communication coincide in ‘the Saviour’” (The Way of Jesus Christ, p. 298). 

Given this statement, Jesus of Nazareth either stands or falls at some sort of cosmic nexus.   He embodies the saving help of God inasmuch as he born to Mary, is baptized by John in the Jordan, faces temptation in the wilderness, gathers disciples, preaches, teaches, heals, performs miracles and finally sets his course for Jerusalem, where he becomes obedient to the point of death.   So far, so good.   But how might the self-consciousness of Jesus himself play a part in salvation history?   Clearly, on the cross, he had no notion of being “at the peak of human development.”   And when it comes to “divine self-communication,” Jesus’ recitation of Psalm 22 speaks more to the trauma of God’s cold indifference:  “Why have you forsaken me…?”   The challenge we face in Christological analysis therefore resembles that adventure the Jesus himself presumably lived and for which he died—to seek out moments, locales and relationships, which will render the utterly unique identity of One chosen and sent by God available to all generations.   To accomplish that, however, we must engage in historical criticism in which we ourselves are left open to critique.   That is, if we stipulate that Jesus acted imaginatively within history as if he were Messiah, Son of Man and Son of God—we must also confess an appalling lack of imagination in grabbing and dogmatically insisting on those same titles for him.

In this regard, Marcus Borg has invited the popular reader to picture Jesus of Nazareth as the quintessential sage.   But is this the type of help we truly seek?    Borg himself claims that seeing Jesus in the sapiential tradition of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes might actually assist the church community in subverting the status quo.   To document this knack, of course, we have the itinerant, against the grain, aphorisms of the synoptic gospels.  “Leave the dead to bury the dead” (Luke 9:59), “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24), “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24)—all resemble the pithy, but provocative, phrases of Proverbs (21:16; 16:18; 8:15).   Complimenting this proclivity for short sayings, Borg believes that the Parables and the Beatitutudes provide a narrative forum for the enlightened  transformation of individuals who have been placated by the ideology of the temple cult.   Perhaps steeped in the counter-conventions of Ecclesiastes, Jesus eats, drinks and finds enjoyment in toiling under the sun (3:13).   Commensurate with the book of Job’s first chapter, he may see himself and his companions as ultimately winning the wager between God and Satan, but penultimately, riding out the tensions of theodicy that are evident in chapters two through thirty nine:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God…” (Job 19:25, 26a). 

With poetic verse like this, however, we uncover a blurring of categories.   If Jesus, like the character of Job, adhered to a future, invasive redemption of present circumstances, that would place him in league with the prophets.   But which prophets?N.T. Wright prefers the covenantal variety, as in Elijah and Elisha, when he comes to this conclusion:“There was the way of wisdom and the way of folly.   Conventional wisdom said, of course, that the way of the Messiah would be the way of fulfillment and self-aggrandizement:  those who wanted to gain their lives would have to fight for them, and the devil take the hindmost.  Jesus’ most subversive teaching, in both form and content, consisted in just this:  that the way of wisdom meant taking up the cross, dying in order to live…” (Jesus And the Victory of God, p. 315). 

Wright’s point here seems to be that Jesus viewed himself as a non-conformist in every respect, even with respect to the sapiential tradition itself.   Furthermore, rather than adjusting or adapting to the revolutionary spirit of the post-exilic age, his way of the cross would not produce the best results.

Ben Witherington III, in contrast to Wright, pays careful attention to the influences of the apocalyptic tradition—the likes of Daniel—when he writes,

“an investigation of the wisdom material and other relevant Jewish literature shows that  although the wise man may be called God’s son, he is not said to be sent by God, and although human messengers may be sent by God, they are not called sons of God, and although angels may be called sons of God, this is always in a collective context.  If Jesus saw himself as God’s sent one as well as God’s Son, this would set him apart from these other categories”  (The Christology of Jesus, p. 123). 

Of special interest in these remarks is how the author speculates about Jesus’ growing use of a variety of categories, none of which will entirely suffice.   Jesus is neither guru, nor cynic.   He is more than human messenger and more than “son of God” as it had been commonly understood.   Wright claims that the rambunctious prophet grieves over Jerusalem at the eleventh hour of Israel’s rendezvous with Roman devastation.   Witherington maintains that Jesus acts as one who bestrides the chasm between two very distinct eons.   Regardless, we are venturing well beyond Borg; the eschatological kingdom is alive and well.

          And yet, if Jesus of Nazareth knew his place and his role in history, or at least within the history of Israel (and its role as a light to the Gentiles), what is there to say about the ekklesia?   Did he, in fact, have this hodge-podge assortment of Jews and Gentiles in mind when he originally spoke about being sent and about sending the Spirit?   Probably not.   Nevertheless, what gathers momentum around the first century churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Asia Minor and Rome is the incredible notion that the contingent consciousness of Christ has been bequeathed to believers.   So, we can offer this:   just as Jesus believed himself to be God’s humble servant (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 12:37; 22:27), the fellowship at Philippi sings hymns and receives exhortations to have the “same mind” (Philippians 2:5—8).  

This thinking with, I submit, is akin to what the apostle Paul also declares in Galatians 6:2 as “the law of Christ,” and in 2 Corinthians 4:9 as “the death of Jesus,” which is carried in the body so that “the life of Jesus” may also become visible.    In other words, the earliest Christians sought out moments, locales and relationships, which might manifest the saving help of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.   They imagined the world as if he were the Lord of history and creation, and then acted according to that subversive imagination.     Indeed, as David Bosch comments, in spite of all their failures, at critical points, the ekklesia opted “to live up to the logic of Jesus’ own ministry and transcend all barriers” (Transforming Mission, p. 46).  

          In fact, the “barriers” themselves may provide the very conditions for the Advocate’s most mysterious work.   Jesus had said in John 15:27, not only that the Spirit of truth would “testify” on behalf of his role in Israel’s story (v. 26), but that “You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”   Who exactly might be represented by, or included in, that plural, second person pronoun?   What constitutes their testimony?   And how might we construe the clause, “with me from the beginning”?     The answers are not as straightforward as they may appear (we will explore in Section III).  

          For example, might the “untimely born” Paul be considered along with the original twelve?   Might  Barnabus?  Silvanus?  Priscilla?  Aquila?  Timothy?  Chloe?  Onesimus?   Raymond Brown echoes other scholarship, which emphasizes that the witness of the Paraclete and the witness of the disciples is one and the same (The Anchor Bible Commentary, p. 700).   That is, the Holy Spirit speaks to and through the missionary community, who proclaims the saving help of God in the person and work of Jesus.    Yet, my interest remains focused on the peculiar and ephemeral experiences of the believers who do not accompany the historic Jesus.   To the extent that these encounters would be cross-cultural, how would the testimony carry the same authoritative weight as it may have had within the context and confines of ancient Palestine?   Given the diverse socio-economic and religious environs of the expansive Roman Empire, how would the self-consciousness of a barmitzvahed Jesus be communicated?

III.    Well, in Romans 1:1—6, the apostle Paul introduces himself with a furious flurry of amazing credentials—none of them his own.   He writes,

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David, according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring abut the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”  

The montage of salutary phrases here is overwhelming, especially as we consider introductory remarks in other epistles.   First and Second Corinthians mention the sheer, but sparse, “will of God.”   Galatians explicitly differentiates Paul’s authority as being derived through “Jesus Christ and God the Father” rather than mere “human commission.”   Philippians and First Thessalonians simply name Paul with a companion or two.  The Letter To Philemon describes the physical and symbolic condition of the apostle as he writes as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”   And yet, in Romans alone do we find a veritable plethora of verbal and adjectival clues to the transition facing the church at large.   In Romans 1:2,3, for instance, Jesus is decidedly within the mainstream of “the prophets in the holy scriptures.”   As such, he is also the same “beloved Son” who is announced along the shores of the Jordan River.   He is “descended from David, according to the flesh” and so, representative of Israel.   But, in order to make that leap into the world of the goyim, Jesus must be “declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness…” Moreover, and lest we forget, this entire string of fragmented sentences comprises the long, swaying bridge that Paul must cross if he is to speak to and hear from the “beloved in Rome.”

          What’s fascinating about this particular correspondence is that it seems crucial to the apostolic agenda of pressing westward to Spain (Romans 15:23,24)—while simultaneously lifting up the collection for “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (v. 26).   Paul will also spend a great deal of time and energy in detailed analysis of the eschatological place of Israel’s rejection of the gospel (chps. 9—11).   When Bosch tests this tightrope, which connects the two steep slopes of the chasm between Jew and Gentile, he also calls attention to the radical “debt of gratitude” which the churches and which Paul are willing to pay.  This ethic or this ethos is not—and will never approach—compensation for God’s grace and new life.   Far from it.   In fact, my contention is that the churches in Rome aspire to make manifest the same consciousness of the declared Son of God.   This was their testimony (and perhaps ours)—that the story of every seemingly isolated person, every family, every community, every culture, and indeed the cosmos is bound up with the as-of-yet unfinished metanarrative of the exiled nation of Israel and its Messiah, Jesus.  

          But let’s back up a minute.   Testimony is a metaphorical term.   Walter Brueggemann breaks it down as follows:

“The proper setting of testimony is a court of law, in which various and diverse witnesses are called to ‘tell what happened,’ to give their version of what is true.  In any trial situation the evidence given by witnesses is a mixed matter of memory, reconstruction, imagination, and wish.  The court must then determine, with no other data except testimony, which version is reality.  It is on the basis of testimony that the court reaches what is real” (Old Testament Theology, p. 120). 

So how may we conjecture about the words, deeds and silences of the first Jewish and non-Jewish Christians?   What is the nature of their witness?

          In Jesus The Christ, Walter Kasper cannot forgo the defense of ontology, which he claims we ought not to be pit against mission:

“The new interpretation of the title of Son and Son of God emerging in stages in the New Testament is usually described as a transition from a more or less functional to a mainly essential and metaphysical Christology.   This is true, at least to the extent that the older strata of the New Testament do not yet show any interest in ontological statements in the later sense.  In older two-stage Christology it is a question of the appointment of Jesus as Son of God ‘in power’ (Rom  1:4)…  But the Transfirguration pericope already speaks of a transformation of the figure of Jesus (Mk 1:2), which implies an ontological understanding of the Son of God title.   With the conception by the Holy Spirit it is wholly and entirely a question, not only of a function, but of the being of Jesus…(p. 165).   

Even so, something in the postmodern matrix rebels and revolts against any ontic claims about Christ.   Enlightenment foundations are crumbling.   And when we re-examine the Transfiguration accounts, it is unclear exactly what Peter, James and John are experiencing.   Do the synoptic gospels here testify to the essence, substance or hypostatic union?   Or do Matthew, Mark and Luke render their own communities’ needs for an inspired interpretation of “him” in history?      

These and other inquiries never dawn on Kasper in 1976.   And conversely, when we turn to the likes of Jon Sobrino, crafting his Christology at the Crossroads out of Latin America left-overs, the praxis of Jesus finds its only relevance in the eventual “morality” of his followers:

“We have already seen that Jesus becomes the Son through his work of bringing about the kingdom.  In that sense it is clear that the object of morality includes and requires personal morality.   It is not a matter of considering whether or how the Christian, as an individual, is a good person.   That question is equivalent to the age-old question as to what one must do to be saved, a question to be found in any ethics.  The specific question of Christian morality is how individuals become Christians through their efforts to fashion the kingdom into a reality” (p. 114).  

By contrast, in texts like 1 John 1:1—7, the absence of kingdom morality cannot invalidate the testimony of the fellowship.   Rather, individuals who “walk in darkness” provide a false testimony to which others may stand in contrast.

At any rate, with the exhaustion of the ontological and pragmatic approaches to Christology, we ought not to jettison the insights of Chalcedon and El Salvador entirely.   Indeed, scattered and shattered pieces may be all that those original Spirit-sent disciples were meant to work with from the beginning.   Colin J. D. Greene offers this summary:

“The verification principle is this:  we simply must not balk at the holocaust of the cross.   The death of the Logos incarnate means that everything is broken.  Primarily, the eternal fellowship of the triune God is broken.  The space—time continuum, which is itself dependent on the Logos marking out the horizons of the creation, is therefore broken; ontology and the possibility of metaphysical representation is broken; history and the ability to link past, present and future as a meaningful episode of human endeavor is broken; epistemology, the heuristic efficacy of mental constructs, and the desire to know aright is broken.  Hermeneutics and the promise of imaginative interpretation is broken; the structure of language and the meaning of meaning is broken; semiotics and the relationship between the signifier and the signified is broken.   As the creation story suggests, nothingness hovers at the margins and meaning is constantly deferred” (Christology In Cultural Perspective, p. 377). 

And this, at last, is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2).   With the recognition of the thorough brokenness of systems and symmetry comes the return trip to the poetic utterance of the biblical text itself—plus our attempts to make sense of it.   Jesus of Nazareth, I suggest, imbibed this rhythm with every breath, even his last.   Likewise, when John 15:27 depicts him as commissioning that inclusive “you… because you have been with me from the beginning,” it could be argued that the cadences of chaos and creation are what he had in view.   Robert Alter describes the uniquely Hebraic cultural offering to the discipleship/apostleship project: 

“In the Illiad, the consciousness of life’s brief span is the occasion for asserting a code of heroic action.  In the Bible, where it is set against the consciousness of God’s eternity, it becomes the occasion for a new kind of inwardness, one element of which is a recognition of the tenuousness, the dependence, the impotence of man’s existence” (The Art of Biblical Poetry, p. 125). 

          Now, to the extent that Jesus himself epitomized the same ‘inwardness’ and to the extent that his first oral witnesses did not worry about what to say but relied upon the defense of the Spirit, the apostle Paul’s scribed rhetoric in Romans does not appear as brazen as it may have initially.   That is, by articulating what the resurrection event had “declared,” Paul has tapped into a familiar stream of consciousness.   A stream of metaphors like “Messiah… Son of Man…  Son of God…”  The former persecutor of the church had himself been swept up in this current when he had been confronted and struck blind with the self-consciousness, “Jesus of Nazareth…” (Acts 22:8).   His conversion to Christ as well as his call in Christ came together in that crisis moment.   And so, perhaps, did his manner of witness.   Andre Resner refers to Paul’s modus operandi, especially with the Corinthians, as “reverse ethos” (Preacher And Cross, p. 183).    My argument is that the apostle does not so much react against the oratory stylings of Aristotle, Cicero or other heroic speakers, but that he proactively asserts a poetic authority under the auspices of the Spirit.

Alan Roxborough has written about poets as “the articulators of experience” for the community in crisis, and within this broad category, we might imagine Paul as the quintessential, proleptic poet.   He is not the resident expert in terms of metaphor and parallelism—but as the one who names the “Son of God,” and as one whom the “Son of God” names and credentials, he is to be emulated by Spirit-sent disciples everywhere (1 Corinthians 4:16). 

IV.     With this in mind, however, there is still a great deal of the centuries-layered, waxy veneer to be stripped away.  Despite the apostolic witness, the very person of Jesus is presently so encrusted with metaphysical residue that the church of modernity has often rendered him in the guise of Superman.   With his presence reduced to cartoonish proportions, there remains only one alternative:  Christological analysis must evacuate the ghettoized Christian subculture, along with its supporting academic institutions and engage the questions of the work-a-day world.   It is here that Jesus-the-carpenter speaks.   It is here that the Spirit declares his understanding of self-with-and-for-others.   And likewise, it is here that Christians and non-Christians may meet the incognito Christ, without his uniform and seemingly without his often-distracting super-powers.

The Daily Planet is the name of the news organization whose employment provides the cover for Superman, alias Clark Kent.   And similarly, in order to re-cover the distinguishing mark of Jesus’ own self-consciousness, Hans Frei explains why the obedience of Christ can often be overlooked:

“His obedience exists solely as a counterpart to his being sent and has God for its indispensable point of reference.   Jesus’ very identity involves the will and purpose of the Father who sent him.  He becomes who he is in the story by consenting to God’s intention and by enacting that intention in the midst of the circumstances that devolve around him as the fulfillment of God’s purpose.   The characterizing intention of Jesus that becomes enacted—his obedience—is not seen ‘deep down’ in him, furnishing a kind of central clue to the quality of his personality.  Rather, it is shown in the story with just enough strength to indicate that it characterized him by making the purpose of God who sent him the very aim of his being” (The Identity of Jesus Christ, 149). 

Frei’s uncompromising emphasis on the narrative quality of Jesus’ identity is striking.   He will go on to insist that if and when Jesus shares himself with us, it will come neither in the form of propositional truth-claims, nor orthopraxis.

          In effect, the obedient living and dying of Jesus can only become available and efficacious to us “from a distance”—a distance that the Spirit of truth will both insinuate between the church and Christ—and travel for us.   Without this differentiation, and without this reconciliation, the testimony of witnesses becomes mere hear-say.   “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,” says 2 Corinthians 5:19.   Yet, when the church’s estimation of Jesus’ power is misconstrued as the very self-consciousness of Jesus, the help of the Advocate is pre-empted and sometimes thwarted altogether.   Examples abound.   Here are a few, which represent the predominant North American bias.   Joel Osteen, pastor of the 30,000 member Lakewood Community Church in Houston, Texas, offers this emphatic advice:

“Understand this:   God will help you, but you cast the deciding vote” (as quoted in Christian Century, p. 21; July 12, 2005, Jason Byassee). 

Tom DeLay, upon hearing his pastor proclaim that “the war between America and Iraq is the gateway to the Apocalypse,” rises to make this affirmation, which is broadcast live on Christian radio and television stations across the country:

“Ladies and gentlemen… what has been spoken here tonight is the truth of God” (as quoted in Harper’s, p. 33; August, 2005, by Bill McKibben). 

          Or perhaps it’s the tip of the iceberg!  

          Beneath the surface, undoubtedly, looms the Enlightenment project’s idolatrous hold on the ecclesial, industrial, economic and political institutions of western society.   ‘Full speed ahead,’ say the experts in church growth.   ‘Maybe it’s time that we re-arrange the deck chairs,’ say the mainline mavericks.   ‘Abandon ship!  Professional clergy first,’ says the Board of Pensions (PCUSA).

          In this tongue-in-cheek scenario, the only alternative might be to retrace our Christological steps back down to the boiler-room.   Once there, we not only call for a full-engine stop and begin the process of deconstruction; we also brace ourselves for a cataclysmic collision.   Colin J.D. Greene observes,

“… that the crisis in Christology that has dominated modernity is almost entirely due to the way successive theologians, and the theological trends inspired by their work, were aligned with the particular paradigms that sanctioned the legitimacy of the new worldview.   But, when do paradigms become myths?  Only when their plausibility structures wane and the ideological sub-text that authorized their legitimacy is exposed, repudiated, or denounced.  This is postmodernity’s achievement” (p. 350).  

          The next item on the agenda, however, seems oddly familiar—almost uncannily reminiscent of the eschatological activity of the first century ekklesia.   We must galvanize our hope in the resurrection of the dead—which is to say, we must debunk and de-emphasize the notion of Jesus, dying for our sins in order that  human beings might get into heaven.   On the contrary, the expressed concern in Thessalonica is that believers were dying before the parousia of Christ.   Paul’s response, in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, is that “we who are alive will by no means precede those who have died”—with the result that we will be with “the Lord” together.   In Corinth, since many enthusiasts thought of themselves as already living the resurrection life—perhaps something like the Christian consumers of today’s prosperity gospel—the apostle must straighten out their chronology: 

“But each in his own order:  Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.   Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power…  When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:23—28).  

          In this passage, Jesus’ own self-consciousness has become “Christ the first fruits” of the resurrection, who becomes “the Son,” who is presently in the business of destroying cosmic powers who oppose him and of bringing into subject everything else, which in turn will be handed over to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is also the great I AM WHO I AM.   But this succinct scheme can be very deceiving inasmuch as Christians still must operate amid messiness of the powers’ false bravado.   Moreover, to say that Jesus has become “Christ,” who becomes “the Son” is not to suggest that God morphs the crucified Savior as time goes by.   Rather, through the entire gamut of obedient life that comprises the sending of Jesus the Christ, and through the church community who survives and thrives on that same sending Spirit, oppressive and sickening ideologies will be vanquished once and for all.  

          N.T. Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God, highlights this as the ultimate goal of the Christian faith and goes to fantastic lengths to show that the early church truly adhered to the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead.   Such a statement is no excuse from work at The Daily Planet, but rather:

“To use the phrase ‘son of God’ for Jesus, in a sense which constituted an implicit confrontation with Caesar, was thus part of an affirmation of the goodness of the created order, now claimed powerfully by the creator god as his own.   The resurrection of Jesus, in the full bodily sense I have described, supplies the groundwork for this:  it is the reaffirmation of the universe of space, time and matter, after not only sin and death but also pagan empire (the institutionalization of sin and death) have done their worst.  The early Christians saw Jesus’ resurrection as the action of the creator god to reaffirm the essential goodness of creation and, in an initial and representative act of new creation, to establish a bridgehead within the present world of space and time and matter (‘the present evil age’, as in Galatians 1:4) through which the whole new creation could now come to birth.   Calling Jesus ‘son of god within this context of meaning, they constituted themselves by implication as a collection of rebel cells within Caesar’s empire, loyal to a different monarch, a different kyrios.   Saying ‘Jesus has been raised from the dead’ proved to be self-involving in that it gained its meaning within this counter-imperial worldview…” (p. 729, 730).                          

V.      Self-involving.   At this point in our Christological foray, we must turn to the practical implications of what such hyphenated concepts would mean.   We do so with “fear and trembling” in that we must avoid the Freudian trap of doing psychotherapy on Jesus and his followers.   So, the question is framed like so.  How does the fact that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected as a unique self  offer tangible help to all those mutations of self that Walker Percy examines in Lost In The Cosmos?   My argument has been that the good news of Jesus as Lord and Savior must look and sound very different from the ways it has been presented in the “paradigms” of the past (Bosch, p. 181, 182).   And to be clear, an attempt at recapitulation of the first century “apocalyptic” mindset would be utterly naïve and counterproductive.   In an age of space shuttles and stem-cell research, we cannot very well return to the cosmology of a three-tiered universe or the medicinal application of mud to the eyes.  Instead, I propose a risky, poetic testimony, which acknowledges the well-documented benefits of science and technology, but with regard to Jesus’ self-consciousness, shuns full explanations, isolated systematics and utilitarian formulas for success.   

          “The radio stations all seemed to be talking about Jesus nonstop,” says Douglas Coupland, describing his car trip through the United States.

“and it seemed to be this crazy #### of projection, with everyone projecting onto Jesus the antidotes to the things that had gone wrong in their own lives.   He is Love.  He is Forgiveness.  He is Compassion.  He is a Wise Career Decision.  He is a Child Who Loves Me.  I was feeling a sense of loss as I heard these people.  I felt like Jesus was sex—or rather I felt like I was from another world where sex did not exist and I arrived on Earth and everyone talked about how good sex felt, and showed me their ########### and build their lives around sex, and yet I was forever cut off from the true sexual experience.  I did not deny that the existence of Jesus was real to these people—it was merely that I was cut off from their experience in a way that was never connectable (Life After God, p. 183). 

          Given this brief window into the disconnected North American soul, we again observe how the estimation of Jesus’ power must be differentiated from Jesus himself.   But we also note the apparent absence of contact or experience with Jesus whatsoever.   This is the downside of Karl Barth’s legacy—a monolithic wall of theological “Otherness,” which may inhibit us from venturing into the bastion of beat-nik poets and into the genre of Generation X slackers.   But, as witnesses sent by the Spirit of truth, is this arena truly off-limits to us?   Doesn’t the self-consciousness of Jesus speak of his paradoxical absence—and might we speak of it and still consider ourselves aspiring Christians?

          John 16 continues the Advocate line of thinking that has outlined our entire discussion.  Verse four depicts Jesus teaching like this:

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.   But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” 

Okay.   So, at this juncture in the long, tedious history of Christian mission, we’re asking.   We’re finally getting around to asking:  Where are you going, Jesus?   Where have you gone?   And why is your identity and presence so elusive?   Peggy Rosenthal, in The Poet’s Jesus, describes the imaginative ways that many secular and religious poets are grappling with these very questions.   It is this grappling, which I submit, is our best chance of making an evangelical connection in the postmodern paradigm:

 “When they try to get into the feel of what the experience of humanity must have been like for Jesus, it isn’t into the feel in Romanticism’s psychological sense so much as into the feel, for Jesus, of his ontological status as incarnate God, as embodiment of transcendent Presence” (The Poet’s Jesus, p. 167).      

VI.     Of course, as we mentioned in section IV, “the feel” for the ontological status of Jesus is a far cry from the thought of his ontological status.   Or from the assumption that a gifted individual or a privileged group might have the inside track on that ontic status.  Claims to know the absolute and essential nature of God in the abstract soon wreak the havoc their utopian architects had intended to ward off.   Furthermore, when Frederick Nietzsche abandons such epistemological claims, he merely replaces them with something extremely worse:  the natural will to power of the human subject.    Socially speaking, the influence of this philosophical outlook has been subtle, but pervasive.   From the Nike advertisements, which exhort sports enthusiasts to “Just Do It” to the sloganeering of the Canon Camera, which declares, “Image Is Everything” to the average beer commercial in which jovial buddies consume their favorite beverage with the toast, “It doesn’t get any better than this”—we are bombarded with countless, consumer choices.  

Might Christ be one of them?   Or might the megachurch which packages Christ in the most appealing way be one of them?    As innocuous as this atmosphere appears, the strange story that Jesus tells in Matthew 12:43—45 offers an ominous insight.   There is the “unclean spirit,” which may correspond to Christendom’s rise in the western world.   There are “the waterless regions”—similar to the postmodern wilderness in which the post World-War II generation meanders today.   But then, predictably, comes the will to power of the original demon (see verse 44)—plus “seven other spirits more evil than itself.”  Ouch!  

Fortunately for us, one of the primary activities of Jesus of Nazareth (which we have not discussed thus far) is the exorcism of demonic forces.   To demythologize here would be to miss the point in a profoundly tragic way.   N.T. Wright maintains that “battle” was a huge component of Jesus’ own self-awareness.   That is, Jesus had a peculiar war of to wage with evil as it expressed itself locally.   As an example, Wright breaks down the allusions of Mark 5:1—20 and the healing of the demoniac among the tombs.  The key allusion is the term, “legion,” which the “inhabitants” of the troubled person claim for themselves as a camouflage; Wright’s suggestion is that although “legion” may belie certain associations with pagan Rome,

“it is the satan and his hordes who are deceiving Israel into thinking that Rome is the real enemy, so that she (Israel) may not notice the reality” (N.T. Wright, Jesus And The Victory of God, p. 195—196).     

          So, is it possible that the ancient demonic ruse is once again afoot in the contemporary world?    And if so, how might the self-consciousness of Jesus help to expose and perhaps cast out those idolatrous ideologies, which distract us from the real battle that we must confront?   Before answering the latter question, I’d like to quote Douglas John Hall in his effort to reply to the former.   He writes in an ecumenical collection of essays, edited by Walter Brueggemann:

“Although the ultimate cause of all human anxiety must be located by Christians in the mystery that is signified by the word sin, at least in the realm of the penultimate it is necessary to posit a clear causative relation between the covert despair of the possessing peoples and the perennial hopelessness of the dispossessed.  In their refusal, or their inability, to confront openly the reality of their hidden despair and the loss of meaning in which it is grounded, the possessing peoples of Earth perpetuate—and in their most powerful institutions foster!—the status quo of the two-thirds world…  To make a real step toward such solidarity, the possessing peoples of the planet would have to engage in a process of self-knowledge that very few of us can manage, and perhaps none of us implement (“Despair As Pervasive Ailment,” Hope For The World, p. 91).   

          Hall is undeniably correct in his lament over the paucity of those who might engage in this process of self-knowledge.   But there is One who may yet teach us—the Advocate.  And it’s ironic to note that the self whom the Spirit of truth may teach us to explore is far, far, far removed from that autonomous, vacuous individual of the Enlightenment.   Just as Jesus had intimated to his disciples and to us in Matthew 10:39, “Those who find their life (ie., self) will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”—so the inherent relationality of self-consciousness comes to the fore.   According to Lesslie Newbigin, it was the notion of mutual relationality that Augustine applied to his thinking about God’s Self, and that Athanasius developed further:

“The ultimate reality, according to this new view, is not to be understood as a timeless, passionless monad beyond all human knowing, but as a trinity of Father, Son and Spirit.   This understanding is not the result of speculative thought.  It has been given by revelation in the actual historical life and work of the Son” (The Open Secret, p. 26). 

Building on the work of Lesslie Newbigin and others, Philip D. Kenneson delves even deeper into the possible linkage between the doctrine of the Trinity and human personhood.   At a conference in November of 1998, when three-persons-in-one and perichoresis had been challenged as just more in the same imperialistic, human construct, he clarifies that doctrines are like rules of grammar and not the objects of Christian belief.  Then, offering “a coherent strategy about what to do next,” he writes:

“Rather than continuing to do the best we can within the present dichotomy—which is to assert that the truth of the gospel must be presented as public truth for all, a truth that we assert with universal intent—we might be better off rejecting the dichotomy at the very beginning.   We might, for example, given what was said above, begin with the assumption that truth is always ‘intersubjective,’ and hence (if we must use spatial metaphors) not so much ‘out there’ or ‘in here’ as ‘between’ persons” (“Trinitarian Missiology:  Mission as Face To Face Encounter,” in A Scandalous Prophet, p. 81).

          Between persons,” lest we forget, is the venue from which Jesus of Nazareth had cast out the unclean spirits of old.  Disturbed individuals, who actually bore in their bodies and minds the symptoms of a chronic social disease, then and there, came into the personal space of the Triune Fellowship of God.   If they spoke out of turn—naming Jesus as the Son of God directly—he silenced them.  Therefore, not claiming to fully identify that presence now, I will add to the proposed “strategy” of Philip D. Kenneson the disciplined practice of exorcising those powers which inhibit our relational opportunities.   To act in concert with the self-consciousness of Jesus here is not to launch a huge, centralized missionary program; but it is to act locally against what Jean Baudrillard calls the “simulacra” of the technological and informational age.   

          Here, finally, we must return to the science-fiction forum in which the good news of Christ became contextualized by Walker Percy’s Lost In The Cosmos.   Almost in dialectical opposition to the novelist, the French philosopher, Baudrillard, conjures up a bleak picture:

“Until now we have always had a reserve of the imaginary—now the coefficient of reality is proportional to the reserve of the imaginary that gives it is specific weight.   This is also true of geographic and spatial exploration:  when there is no longer any virgin territory, and thus one available to the imaginary, when the map covers the whole territory, something like the principle of reality disappears.   In this way, the conquest of space constitutes an irreversible crossing toward the loss of the terrestrial referential.  There is a hemorrhaging of reality as an internal coherence of a limited universe, once the limits of this universe recede into infinity.  The conquest of space that follows that of the planet is equal to derealizing (dematerializing) human space, or to transferring it into a hyperreal of simulation.   Witness this two-bedroom/kitchen/shower put into orbit, raised to a spatial power (one could say) with the most recent lunar module.  The everydayness of the terrestrial habitat itself elevated to the rank of cosmic value, hypostatized in space—the satellization of the real in the transcendence of space—it is the end of metaphysics, the end of the phantasm, the end of science fictions—the era of hyperreality begins” (Simulacra and Simulation, p. 123, 124). 

But not so fast, says the Advocate!   The Terrestrial Referential  has risen!

VII.    The implications of this study in Missional Christology, of course, will not have to wait for that desperate exchange in the void of interstellar space.   As mentioned earlier, the local confrontation with the powers and principalities of the age can begin today.   All that is required is the renunciation of the professional aegis under which the role of pastor now labors as technician, therapist and manager.   With the subsequent loss of status we then may anticipate the “help” for which we have always longed, ached and sighed. 

Walter Brueggemann recommends that preachers in the United States  adopt the posture, perspective and skill-set of the Old Testament scribes—those imaginative persons of the scroll (or the book) who interpreted the raw facticity of ancient events in the Persian and Hellenistic period.   He notes that this was a time “after the withdrawal of kings and prophets”—which meant that scribes never spoke truth directly to power, but hunkered down behind the text and behind the process of re-texting the people of God.    Moreover, in this regard, Jesus himself utters this curious bit of wisdom in Matthew 13:52,

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  

This saying does more than redeem the sorry image of scribes, who are often lumped in with Pharisees and hypocrites; it also suggests that Jesus of Nazareth had been referring to himself as the vanguard of this new breed of scribal refractors.   And if this is so, I would argue that this is the time for the scribes of the Spirit to step forward (“Four Proclamatory Confrontations In Scribal Refraction,”  in Scottish Journal of Theology 56 (4), p. 418).  

          The self-consciousness of being sent by God remains as awesome and as elusive as ever.   No scholar in academia and no clergy in the life of the church are going to channel the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as he himself submitted to those events.   Nonetheless, given the radically active and passive obedience that radiates from Matthew to Revelation, we become acutely aware of three things:

1.    that Jesus of Nazareth may be alive at this moment and reading us into his story; and

2.    that without him sending us into face-to-face relationships we have no story that’s worth telling, or living; and

3.    that others in the world will have something to say in response to this story, and we should listen to their stories.

We may even become conscious of a new kind of self, but shhh…  Don’t tell anybody.  Not yet.  









Just Visiting

June 13, 2007

I visited a church last Sunday.  Usually there is no way for me to do this.  Either I’m preaching at another congregation, or, as in the previous ten years at Crossroads Presbyterian in PA, I’ve been busy leading.  So.  It’s cool to have the time to check out what the Spirit of God is already up to.  LATAH VALLEY doesn’t start to worship officially until December 9 of this year, and consequently I may not have another window like this open up in a long time.  So.  So, you might be wondering how it went, and I’ll tell you…

I got out of my car and ventured across the parking lot.  I walked through an assortment of people, conversing and catching up.  I hesitated at the information table, near the door, and grabbed a bulletin and other bits of literature.  I got myself a cup of coffee and found a seat in the twelve rows of seats, which had been arranged nicely in a semi-circle.  (You may notice that I’ve used the first person singular to refer to what I did for the last few sentences.) 

After that I waited.  I read the materials that I gathered.  I watched lots of really interesting people mill around.  They were obviously enjoying their fellowship with one another.  I tried to make some friendly eye-contact with a few of them.  Many were young, about ten to twenty years younger than me.  (I thought to myself, This must be where the hip young people worship!)  

Then the worship began with a young woman reading a few paragraghs about not being passive.   Three men and one woman led some very passionate praise music.  Words and images flashed on the darkened walls.  Candles burned on the communion table, on which rested the bread and the cup of the Holy Sacrament.  The pastor, who played the bass, set down his instrument and engaged the gathering of approximately 200 men, women and children.  His tone was winsome and welcoming.  After allowing others to share personal stories and prayer requests, he launched into a casual message on First John and loving one another.   The message seemed to captivate almost everyone’s attention, and when it didn’t he told a story or two to liven things up.  Finally, this pastor motioned to the table and invited us to approach and take a piece of bread when we felt like it.  We didn’t have to wait in a line.  And we didn’t have to receive it from another person’s hand.  The band played.  I went up, partook of the body and the blood of Christ, and returned to my seat…   Others around me also ventured forward.  I saw some tears and some solemn expressions.  I observed friends, hugging and holding hands.  Yes, Amen!  The atmosphere in that worship space had everything that I’ve dreamed about for LATAH VALLEY.   (But why was I so incredibly lonely?)

The tragedy of my visit to that congregation which I will not name is that no one knew my name.  In fact, no one bothered to ask.  No one looked away from those they already knew to know someone new.  Moreover, only one person–a teacher from Whitworth, whom I had known previously from fifteen years earlier–even made the effort to say Hello.  So…  I visited a worship service, found myself impressed by almost everything about the community.   I heard about Christ, sang some great songs, feasted on a holy meal.   And yet, apart from my own initiative in greeting the guys around me, the 200 or more twenty-something crowd all-but-ignored my presence in the room.

Hmmm.  It’s a good thing I was just visiting.

If there is anyone here this morning who wants to buy a vineyard, please allow me to discourage you.  Now is not the time to buy.   According to the Portland Business Journal, for example, “revenue and earnings were down in the first quarter of 2007 for Willamette Valley Vineyards, Inc.”   And the reason for this predicament is “the continuing high demand from out of state distributors for the company’s pinot noir and pinot gris” varieties.  The demand, in other words, has outstripped the actual number of vine plantings and therefore “drawn down the inventory.”  So, if you’re thinking about purchasing a share in some vineyard, that decision may not produce the results you’re looking for. 

Somewhere along the border between Germany and Luxemburg, my wife’s sister and her husband recently bought an ancient vineyard that had been in the previous owner’s family for years.   They went through with the deal only to learn about acres and acres of old, rotting vines that needed to be torn up and new ones re-planted.  My wife’s brother-in-law is pushing seventy years old, and told me recently what he plants now will reap results in thirty or forty years, when hopefully his children will make a profit.   

So, it seems to me that now is not the time.  The time to own and operate a vineyard is yet to come.  And this statement is true, not only with regard to Willamette Valley and Northern Germany, but with the passages from the Bible that we’ve just read.Think about this.  The difference between the story of Naboth’s vineyard and the parable of Jesus couldn’t be more striking.  In 1 Kings 21, Jezebel asserts command and takes passive-aggressive control.   She tells her husband, King Ahab, to essentially steal the land that has been in Naboth’s family although Naboth has refused to sell.  You see, this is not only the way many despairing people may want to own and operate a vineyard.  This may also be the way that many despairing people live their lives.  By contrast, in Luke 13, the gardener offers this advice to the owner whose fig tree has not produced any measurable results: “Let it alone… for one more year.”   

Now, since I have no intention of buying a literal vineyard anywhere anytime soon, and since I’m going to assume that you will heed my advice, I’d like to consider these two strategies as lush metaphors for the life and ministry of the church.   

Again, one strategy that we observe at the level of the institutional church is for us to take what we want and achieve almost instantaneous results.   The benefit of this kind of congregation is that people will see the number of people who attend worship and assume that we’ve had a real impact on the world.  The other strategy, I’m afraid, will make no overt guarantees and require loads of patience.  In this “manure” strategy, there is no way to measure.  Plus, it has the distinct disadvantage of becoming very messy:  “Sir, let is alone, for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good, but if not, you can cut it down.” In one of his books, William Willimon talks about an Evangelism Program that his local congregation bought into.  Essentially, they trained teams of folks to go into the neighborhoods and to knock on doors.   He said that on the predetermined day they gathered and received final instructions.  “Gladys, you go down Main Street and turn left on Elm…  Did you hear me, Gladys, turn left…”    

Well, it turns out that Gladys had been a little deaf in one ear and so, of course, she and her team of evangelists turned the wrong way on Elm.  Instead of turning left to the affluent, suburban neighborhood with all the three car garages, they crossed the tracks and came to the bad end of town.  Anyway, everyone returned to the church parlor with stories to tell.  And Gladys, in particular, said that she discovered one interested person, by the name of Verleen.  This is what happens, explained Willimon, when you don’t follow instructions.  You get Verleen promising come to Bible Study on Thursday morning from the bad side of town.  Not exactly the results for which he and the church had hoped. Well, amazingly, Verleen showed up and the ladies presented her with a Bible.  Pastor Willimon taught lesson on temptation.  And when he had finished speaking he asked a question like this:  “Who here has experienced temptation, and with God’s help, resisted it?”  There was the inevitable silence, and then one of the women said that she had not been charged for an extra loaf of bread at the check-out line.  She contemplated not telling the clerk, but then she thought better of it.  Everyone nodded their heads in approval.  “Does anyone else have something to share?” invited Willimon.  Verleen spoke up, saying,“When I was hooked on crack, me and my old man used to rob the convenience store for cash.  He wanted me to do it with him again, and I told him NO.  He beat the Hell out of me, but still something inside me told him NO… ” 

I love this story primarily because it illustrates the results—the net results—that only God can give.  Think about it.  If Mark Chaves and other sociologists are correct:  “The biggest churches of the moment are overtaken by a new cohort of churches that have caught the latest cultural wave and ridden it to the top, and then those churches are overtaken by the next wave, and so” (Supersized, p. 20, Christian Century, Nov. 28, 2006).   All of this analysis is easily explained in terms of generational trends and demographical data.  What cannot be explained, however, is the messy and mixed-up life of Verleen and her dramatic willingness to change. 

“The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (v. 3).   This is how Naboth responds to King Ahab’s initial offer.  The Samaritan monarch had actually promised to exchange the property for better piece of land elsewhere.  He even gave him the option of settling for cash.  And yet, Naboth is like Verleen.   Something inside of this Jezreelite says NO.   

Could this be the result we’re looking for too? 

The real intrigue in the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 13 is the context in which he tells it.  Apparently, just prior to talking about the vineyard and the fig tree and the gardener with the manure, there was a lot of anxiety about the Galilean body count and the politics of Pilate.  Likewise, there was also a lot of stress about “the tower of Siloam” that fell over and killed about 18 people.  And, you see, it’s in immediate proximity of this bleak news that Jesus “comes looking for fruit” in the parable.    

Could this be the result we’re looking for too? 

Today, as you at Millwood start up your Farmers Market, the chances are very good that you will gather a consistent crowd.  Men, women and children will come to buy and to sell, to eat and to drink, to work and to play.  But when they arrive at the market, they will bring and take away something more than money.  They will bring with them their anxieties and hopefully exchange them for a story about a vineyard.  Something is growing here at Millwood Presbyterian.  No, it’s not necessarily your membership rolls.  It could be your integrity in Christ.