John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Miracle of Opening (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Sermon preached at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church on September 9th, 2018. Lectionary gospel reading from Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV).

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

“What is a miracle?”

This is the question I’ve had on my mind this week as I’ve reflected on the lectionary for today. Our gospel reading contains two stories which are typically called miracles, even if the label is not used in the text. In one, a demon is exorcised; in the other, hearing and speech are restored.

Impressive, right?

But here’s the question I want to explore with you now: what is the point?

Of what should we be impressed? What is the shape of the pressure of these stories on our hearts?

Some might say the point is in how these supernatural powers reveal the divinity of Christ. I wonder though. For a first-century audience, 2,000 years before our time, miracles and healings were a) commonplace, and b) not “supernatural” at all—they were considered part of the normal functioning of the world.

Jesus was hardly the only teacher known to multiply food, evict demons, raise the dead, or heal diseases or injuries. Maybe because of this, his miracles rarely seemed to surprise people or function as proof of anything more than his membership with a certain class of spiritual people.

Without rigorous and documented understanding of cause and effect or laws of nature, there was no surprise that what we moderns call “the order of nature” could be set aside. So the questions became focused on the meaning of an event or performance rather than the fact of its occurence. The same would apply to its being recorded in a testimony such as our Gospel of Mark.

Now two millennia later, many of us have the opposite problem tackling these miracle stories. Most of us have certain reliable expectations of the natural order. Raised in the middle ground between scientific education and the claims of supermarket tabloids and cult leaders, we are naturally skeptical about these claims. We want to know “how?” and we ask “really?” However, I invite you to consider the same solution our ancient ancestors applied, and consider deeper questions of meaning, purpose, and teaching.

In this light, when we turn to today’s two stories, maybe we can consider them as philosophical or psychological tales which happen to be using miraculous elements merely on the way to exploring certain themes.

When I turned my own attention in this direction, here is what caught me this week:

In the first story, the focus of the narrator is on Jesus’ exchange with the Gentile woman. The question is not of power but of will—does this outsider deserve help? The answer is “yes,” and her humble refusal to accept anything else changed the course of Israel’s mission. But the actual act, the exorcism, is handled casually. Jesus speaks at a distance, the demon leaves, and no one remarks in surprise.

The second story is different. The man born deaf, with resulting speech difficulties, is an obvious and uncontested candidate for healing. But Jesus labors over this one. He draws the man aside in private, just as he does with raising the dead, and begins an involved and very earthy ritual.

Jesus reaches out and inserts his fingers within the man’s ears. Then he spits—whether directly or transferring the spittle on his fingers—and smears his own saliva onto the man’s tongue. Then he raises his eyes to the heavens, implying maybe an appeal for power, or connecting to the transcendent, before breathing out in a deep sigh: “Ephaphatha!” Be opened.

Our narrator assures us that immediately the man hears, immediately his speech is intelligible, and despite the precautions of Jesus, bystanders are in awe and the word about his power spreads.

Why? Why is this second miracle so powerful?

Maybe it had to do with the first-century assumption that defects from birth were already divine interventions from God (rather than later curses which could come from demons), and that this healing showed a different level of power.

However, whether originally intended or not, I hear a different message from the inclusion of this story in our gospel. And I think it has to do with the very human (rather than demonic) trouble with hearing.

We struggle with hearing. Not just receiving sound waves, but actually having these waves echo in our hearts. Hence the plaintive cry of Isaiah in mourning ears which do not hear and hearts which do not feel.

The miracle in the first story is not the eviction of the demon but the opened ears of Jesus which heard the voice of God from the mouth of a Syro-Phoenician woman and allowed his heart to change and expand.

In the same way, it would be miraculous for a Zionist Israeli to be able to truly hear the plea of a Palestinian citizen. It would be a miracle if our entrenched partisan sides in this country today could hear each other beyond rhetoric and slogans. It is a miracle every time a socially conservative parent is able to hear the heart of their gay or transgender child. It can take a miracle for those blinded by addiction or depression or other mental health issues to hear those who are trying to help. It can take a miracle to truly believe and trust in love at the deep core of our being.

It is harder to open our ears to that which will break us and heal us than it is to quarrel over whose teacher is right or whose tribe is best. Jesus knows this very well, and he longs to whisper “be opened” into your heart—will you open your ears?


Children of the True Light, Illume the Eyes (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Sermon preached at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church on March 11th, 2018. Lent 4B reading from John 3:14-21, Ephesians 2:1-10, and Numbers 21:4-9.

Ok, so I know Bible verse memorization is not as big in the Episcopal Church as it is in the evangelical world, but my guess is that there are some of you here who are familiar with this reference: John 3:16. Right? Can anyone join me in reciting it from memory, with the caveat that I know it best in the King James? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Whether you can recite it perfectly or not, I imagine most of us are familiar with the general idea or at minimum have seen the reference frequently on billboards, signs at sports events, or in other contexts. According to “,” which claims to sort Bible verses by frequency of use on the internet, it is the #1 most popular verse. The site goes on to claim that it is the third of only eight individual verses in the entire Bible which provide “the story of God's plan to restore his relationship with us.” I do hope the editors of our Lectionary don’t take that too seriously, as I enjoy having more than eight verses to preach on each year!

In 2008 the prolific evangelical author Max Lucado—called “America’s Pastor” by Christianity Today magazine—launched the “3:16 Movement” on the 700 Club saying: “John 3:16 has always been that one verse that I thought summarizes, encapsulates, [and] carries the heart of the Gospel like no other verse.” In an accompanying book, he “addresses such questions as ‘Don't all roads lead to heaven and God?’ and ‘What must we do to gain everlasting life?’ and also devotes chapters on heaven and hell.” He goes on to say, "This life is so brief. We are here to make a decision about where we spend eternity – either with God or apart from God. That is assignment No. 1. It's really just a warm-up for the world that is to come."

Implicit in all this are two things: 1) an assumption that this verse stands alone out of its context both in John and most of the rest of the Bible and 2) that there is one simple way to understand what is being said. My concern is that, if this verse is truly this significant—and it certainly is if only in how heavily it’s used—then surely it must be speaking at a deeper and more layered level in order to sum up vast quantities of Scripture. And I really don’t think we can get at that until we understand this verse within its surroundings. Rather than making 1 verse speak for all 31,102 of them, let’s at least expand out to 21 verses for context!

So—we find the sixteenth verse of John chapter three in the middle of eight verses read from our Lectionary assignment today, in the latter section of a broader dialogue starting with chapter 3 verse 1, and beginning a section which many scholars believe is a short commentary by the Evangelist on the afore-mentioned conversation. This section of narrative introduces a character named Nicodemus, a member of the lay reformation movement of the Pharisees and a man with influence and power in Judea. Nicodemus has apparently heard of the great signs Jesus has been performing, including producing wine for a wedding and clearing out the temple, and wants to meet this new celebrity. John very clearly tells us that he comes at night, in the darkness, but there’s no implication that it is a clandestine visit. After all, this is a time of feast and festival around Passover. I picture an evening under the Jerusalem stars, maybe some lamb barbecue going, plenty of wine at hand and a hum of conversation and laughter in the distance. Jesus is relaxing near the fire, light flickering over his face, as a special visitor climbs the stairs up to the rooftop hangout of this new Rabbi and his band of followers.

Nicodemus bows, greets Jesus with a Shalom 'alekem, and is answered with 'Alekem shalom and a proffered tumbler of wine. As Nicodemus settles into a reclining position opposite the fire, he gives high honor to this new preacher, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you have come as a teacher from God; for no one can produce these signs you perform unless God is with him.” He is confident in his welcome as an equal, if not superior, maybe expecting a complimentary note in return, and seems eager to get to know this newcomer and share ideas.

Jesus replies, according to my paraphrase, “Look, um, you may have missed something. The public signs are not the real point, right? I’m focused on the kingdom of God, that which can only be seen by eyes reborn from above.”

Nicodemus is totally confused. “Wait, what? Rebirth, like another birth after the first birth? I’m kind of old for that kind of thing, so’s Mom, and frankly the mechanics are suspect.”

Jesus doubles-down: “I tell you, unless a man is born of water and wind, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. Flesh bears flesh, but Spirit bears spirit. Why are you surprised? The spirit blows where it will, but you do not see its origin or destination.”

Nicodemus is absolutely bewildered. Jesus continues, “You, a great teacher, have not yet experienced these things and made them part of your knowledge?” [paraphrase by Sanford based on Greek ginosko] Jesus is disappointed but unsurprised. He has met yet another representative of a religious institution who has not experienced that which it was founded on. Memorization of texts has not led to transformation.

“Look,” Jesus says, “it’s just like Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, right?” Nicodemus, eyes wide and head shaking, is trying to decide if the man is simply insane. First rebirth, then water and wind, now snakes on a plane—er, sorry, stick? Jesus tries a final attempt: “It’s about the life eternal, life of the age-to-come, that which God promised.”

And here we get to that special verse, as our narrator takes over, leaving Nicodemus in either despair or ridicule: “For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have the life of that Age.” (DBH) John continues on, explaining that God did not come to judge because judgement has already come, for men have loved the darkness more than the light—and only those who act in truth approach the light.

Ok. So in our larger context we have rebirth from above, flesh and spirit, water and wind, snake-banners, an invisible kingdom, judgement (but not from God?), darkness and light, and “acting in truth” to add to verse 3:16’s love, cosmos, only son, faith, perishing, and life eternal. No wonder poor Nicodemus was looking shell-shocked. He came for a casual fire-side chat, maybe some comparing notes for next Sabbath’s sermon, and got...well, this!

Now, there’s enough here to back up the popular narrative our friend Lucado prefers: “Jesus came so those who believe in him can go to heaven after they die while the rest go to hell.” But just as Jesus tries to push Nicodemus beyond a simple, literal, surface understanding, I think there’s something marginally related yet very different going on under the surface. Let’s take a step back and consider, just briefly, another reading on a more inward and symbolic level.

Jesus says that seeing the kingdom, the truth of what he is saying, can only be accomplished by those who are reborn, from above. Imagine, instead of a human mother’s womb, the very womb of God! Our passage is depicted as through water and pneuma—a Greek word meaning both wind and spirit, just like the Hebrew ru’ach. In symbolic terms, water is moist, dark, womblike, cool, and feminine. It overcomes all obstacles through gentle strength. In this way it is related to the Chinese yin. Wind symbolizes a penetrating force, which can rip up and destroy but also bring life-giving rain. It is the dynamic, spermatic yang. In Jungian analysis, water most often represents “the unconscious, a life-giving energy emerging from our depths that heals and brings life,” while wind “enters our dream-houses, creates disturbances, and produces numinous effects.” Wind has been called “the creative irrational masculine force of the psyche, coming from a source within us so deep and so connected to the power of life itself that we are justified in calling it the Spirit of God.” [compare to Job's "whirlwind]

In John 3:5 Jesus describes the rebirth as “out from the center of” water and wind, making passage through a dark and narrow tunnel—buoyed by a passive but irresistible medium and pushed by an active, penetrating force—resulting in spiritual transformation.

In the ancient world, the serpent represented both evil power and chaos from the underworld and fertility, life, and healing. In the Epic of Gilgamesh it is the skin-shedding snake who gains the everlasting life the hero worked for. Today, it represents healing in the caduceus of physicians. For dream therapists it can “symbolize the uncanny, objective, natural way in which our unconscious works to either bring about our undoing or our healing.” The serpent lifted up becomes for the Israelites in the wilderness a symbol of that which is killing them, upon which gazing will bring in turn deep healing, just as in gazing upon the Christ we humans continually crucify can be convicting and transformational.

Our text tells us that there is judgement, but not from God. The sentence is chosen already by those who avoid the harsh, unforgiving light of Christ for the comfort of concealing darkness. This is the natural bent of the human, to avoid looking at our shadow nature. John says we agape, we love the darkness! In this context, darkness stands for that which “darkens the mind, brings ignorance, moral and psychological obtuseness and unawareness;” whereas light symbolizes that which brings consciousness, illumination, knowledgeableness, enlightenment.

The great 20th century spiritual psychologist Carl Jung said that, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious.” The Church Father St. Clement of Alexandria wrote in the 2nd century: “Let not us, then, who are sons of the true light, close the door against this light; but turning in on ourselves, illuming the eyes [the unconscious], and gazing on the truth itself, and receiving its streams, let us clearly and intelligibly reveal such dreams as are true.”

This is not easy. It takes real work to act in the truth, to live genuinely with integrity, fully within the truth about ourselves. “To live by the truth is to live with inner self-honesty, exposing oneself and one’s actions to the light.” In this way we are opposed to rationalization, blaming, or projecting our shadow onto others. It is only in this way that we can enter fully into what is commonly, but misleadingly, translated “eternal” or “everlasting” life. This life, more literally in the Greek read as the “life of the Age,” is not a future, after-death destination, but an entering into the life of the Eternal One in the present. To live in that moment of Eternity with each breath we take.

This journey is not as simple as the reading we started with. It will take great courage and fortitude. We may find benefit from having a Jungian analyst or spiritual director to walk with us through the Valley of rebirth. But we also have been promised that it is love which draws us, love which has gone before us, and that love will be reborn in us as fierce energy that gives us strength. It is this journey that leads us to salvation—from the Greek root sozo which means healing and wholeness. To be on exodus from imprisonment to liberation requires a journey through the wilderness filled with rebellions and reversals, just as the Jewish Paschal Feast remembers, but we know that God is always with us and promises great things for us.

We will end our alternate consideration of this passage today with one more thought from St. Clement: “The power of the Word, given to us...brings our whole system into unity.”


NOTE: Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst John Sanford's book Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John was a great resource and source of quotes for this sermon. Raw reading notes available in this document for more detail on the ideas contained here.

Photo "Darkness is Not an Option!" (Diwali at Dehradun, 2012) by Arun Kapoor

The Wilderness After Epiphany (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Preached at my sending parish, Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs AR, on February 18th, 2018; Lent 1B. Gospel reading: Mark 1:9-13.

Last week, your preacher talked to you about mountaintop experiences. Today, as we transition from the revelation and excitement of Epiphany to the introspection of Lent, I would like to ponder what often happens after we descend from the mountain.

Our Gospel reading begins with Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan river. Mark’s account is characteristically brief and rough with few of the details contained in other accounts, filled with a sense of urgency and immediacy and a focus on disciples of Jesus who are called to heavy responsibility but often bewildered as to what it all means. As we work through the immense series of events contained in these brief, staccato verses, let us see if the Spirit may speak through our imaginations as we are first introduced to the Christ as yet another poor first- century Jewish man being submerged in the waters of a border river in Roman Palestine by yet another crazy-sounding, disheveled, insect-eating, charismatic prophet preaching reformation and the coming of a messiah figure at some unspecified but soon-to-arrive time.

As Jesus reemerged from the turbulent, muddy flow, roughly wiping water and hair out of his eyes, suddenly the sky was rent across, a deep tear ripping across the azure blue. The darkness of the cosmos poured through and he felt the fingering movements of the Ru’ach, the Breath, the Spirit, settle upon him just as it had brooded over the face of the deep on the first day of creation. The plea of the prophet Isaiah, “Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down!” (Is 64:1) was being answered. What had long been sealed was being flung open!

A voice echoed out of the heavens, whispering into Jesus’ ears alone, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I have delighted.” The language of the commissioning of a Jewish king or anointed deliverer from bondage was being applied to a Galilean peasant from Nazareth!

“And immediately”—everything in Mark’s Gospel happens with great urgency—and immediately the same force which had enveloped him with presence and words of love in the water seemed to turn against him. Described with the same language of forceful motion that depicted Jesus’ later exorcism of demons, it pulled him out of the Jordan and cast him out into the wilderness.


What does that word evoke in your imagination? Do you see cool sunlit forests, craggy mountains, or windswept landscapes of sand, rock, and cactus?


What do you feel when you hear this word, when you swish the syllables around in your mouth? Are you excited, or are you nervous? Do you yearn for it, or fear it?

Wilderness is the place of the wild ones. Here the great beasts of the prophets Daniel and Isaiah roam, the lion and the adder, which the Jewish exegetes understood as the embodiment of demons—haunting the tumbled stones of the condemned Jerusalem during the Exile. The Hebrew midbar describes land outside civilization, where the environment is inhospitable to humanity. In Greek, the word eremos describes a deserted place, empty, abandoned, lonely; originating in separation and division. Here is where the residue of the primeval pre-creation chaos that threatens human life can still be found. The wilderness is where we are not in control any more, where we are separated from community and loved ones, subject to greater forces which seem at best dismissive of our existence and at worst set toward our destruction.

Into this vast alienation Jesus stumbled and roamed, beset by the voice of the Accuser, the Adversary, h’Shatan of the steppes of the soul, surrounded by the howls of the great beasts, for forty days. Mark tells us only of the simultaneous isolation from human community and overabundance of spectral forces: Spirit, Shatan, beasts, and angels. He gives us no details other than the mention of a “test” that Jesus is put to by the Adversary.

Why does the Spirit take Jesus from the momentary peak high of the baptism so immediately to let him linger so long in the barrenness and alienation of the wilderness? While I can only imagine what might have been Mark’s longer explanation, I can also draw on my own experiences in response. After a year and a half of intense academic study, formation, and exegetical papers, I can give you my own word for “wilderness” . . . “seminary.”

I experienced my first year at Virginia Theological Seminary as truly being cast out into the wilderness. I had come off of the mountain-top experience of worship at Grace, being mentored by Stan, and finally appointed as postulant by the bishop in a process I had been pursuing for several years at that point. I was ready for the hard work of questions and discernment and doubts to be over so that I could fully engage in the joy of the theological education I had been looking forward to for so long. Yet by a few weeks into my first semester I felt like I had fallen off the side of a cliff rather than being set free to soar.

My faith, formation, and calling were repeatedly challenged both directly and indirectly. All the theology and Biblical studies I had worked so hard to rebuild in previous years seemed at odds with where my fellow students seemed to be and the sources from which my first professors taught. The Accuser in my head whispered, “You’re not enough. You don’t belong. They don’t like you. You wouldn’t last here anyway. You don’t have anything to offer—who are you to think you could be a priest?”

And I listened. I withdrew even further from community, isolating myself in an attempt to shield myself from future hurt. I kept myself distant and internally mocking as my classmates planned and discussed. In the second semester I switched degree problems from the Master of Divinity to the academic-focused MA and withdrew from the ordination process with the Bishop. Nothing helped. Not looking for design jobs, not picking up my passion project of translating the book of Amos with a favorite professor, nothing. I was lost, seemingly irretrievably, in the wilderness of my soul.

Many Christian theologians, from Saint Augustine to Saint John of the Cross, have described this wilderness experience in various terms. Philosophers and psychologists have described the journey as “stages of faith,” as moving toward a “second naïveté,” as Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” or in theories of spiral dynamics. The Franciscan Father Richard Rohr calls it liminality—the place between no-longer and not-yet, a transitional place of great power. In Everything Belongs he wrote: “We have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place there...where we are betwixt and between. There the old world is left behind, but we’re not sure of the new one.”

He continues, “This pattern of falling apart precedes every transition to a new level of faith. If one is not prepared to live in that temporary chaos, to hold the necessary anxiety that chaos entails, one never moves to deeper levels of faith or prayer or relationship with God.”

While it seems wrong, twisted, and incomprehensible to the one in the midst of the wilderness, these wise guides tell us that there is something intentional about God casting us into the wilderness. While the events which often make up or shove us into wilderness remain tragic and legitimately painful and often destructive, the path through these experiences can teach us something about ourselves and our calling, can break down and rebuild us in new forms. The Bible scholar and pastor Walter Brueggemann writes: “If we do not experience the pain, rage, and disease that goes with such disequilibrium, we may be missing out on our call.”

What about you? Can you see wilderness in your past, or are you in wilderness now? Are you living in a time of between-ness, where sometimes God feels absent, where darkness is a more faithful friend than the light?

What I can promise you is that every authentic human journey toward maturity goes through wilderness. Our entry into it goes by many names other than “desert”—maybe university, or illness, or tragic loss, or job transition, or depression. Maybe you have or will experience it as a complete loss of your religious faith or an abandonment by God. But we can also have confidence that not only is it an inevitable and “normal” part of the human experience, but it is something our savior and guide Jesus the Christ entered into and continues to lead us into and then out of. That even, and maybe especially, in the midst of wilderness and darkness God is with us.

The great 20th century Catholic monk and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote of this wilderness experience: “It is in the lonely place, where Jesus enters into intimacy with the Father, that his ministry is born.”

In our Gospel Jesus had an amazing mountain-top-style encounter with God, only to be immediately thrown out of that encounter, out of the fellowship of John and the Baptizer’s disciples, out of civilization, out of the promised land itself, into a sense of the absence of God in the dwelling place of forces hostile to humanity. In the end, as Mark tells us, it is out of this experience of the wilderness following revelation that Jesus emerged with his proclamation of the Gospel—that the kingdom of God is already present if only we have eyes to see!

It is out of my seminary wilderness that my calling has been broken, refined, and clarified. It took a combination of medication for depression, therapy, wise voices outside my own head, and simply the process of time to eventually lead me back into both the MDiv and postulancy. Now as we collectively pass from Epiphany to Lent, let us always remember God is found in the darkness as well as the light, in the seeming absences as deeply as in the euphoric moments of presence. Amen.

Photo: "Ojito Twilight" from John Fowler.

Kingdom: See, Trust, Act (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Sermon: Epiphany 3B (John Lein, 1/21/2018, St. Aidan’s). Preached on Mark 1:14-20.

I have a confession: I’ve been trying to cheat on this sermon from the beginning.

It started with scheduling a preaching slot over lunch with my supervising priest. I began scanning through the lectionary for upcoming passages that would particularly inspire me. “Oh,” he said, “you get to pick your own texts now?”

A seminarian should get used to working with assigned texts rather than picking and choosing. So we picked the today’s date and then checked the lectionary. To my surprise and delight I felt like I had won the lottery. I get to preach Mark 1:15!

This passage—this verse—is special, one I’ve spent a lot of reflection on. After all, it’s the earliest recording of the first-ever proclamation of Jesus’ self-understood mission and purpose that would guide his life and all his teachings: the gospel!

Jesus came to Galilee saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

It sounds simple on the surface. The time has come, the kingdom of God is “at hand,” and in response Jesus calls for repentance and belief. Yet the layers can be complex.

So I “cheated” for the second time in preparing this sermon. I’ve had an interpretation of this verse and its context for some time. The Rev. Baker got an earful of it unasked in the middle of a seminarian interview last year. Yet when it came time to write the sermon this week I hesitated. Do I really know what I’m talking about, on this central proclamation and its object: the Kingdom? Will I present it accurately?

My go-to move is the seminary library. There are plenty of volumes on the topic and I spent the week—Tuesday through Friday—reading some of them. Here’s what I found:

For the last few centuries, scholars have been in unanimous agreement that the focus of Jesus’ life and teachings was the Kingdom of God. They have also been remarkably clear on one other thing: that nobody knows what precisely it is! Wait, let me rephrase that: there are many scholars who are absolutely convinced they alone have found the right definition and they write hundreds of pages to tell their colleagues so.

Over the last century we’ve heard that Jesus talked about the Kingdom as a prediction of soon-coming reestablishment of the earth after the final judgement and therefore he was mistaken. Others say that the anticipated Kingdom is embodied now in the Church. Others say that the Kingdom was and is Jesus, and that in his life the old world ended and the new has begun to be fulfilled. Popularly, most preachers have either focused on the kingdom as a synonym for an afterlife heaven, or on the fulfillment of the kingdom as the Social Gospel. Some deny Jesus ever taught in this predictive sense while others are obsessed with predictions of the still-coming end times.

So again I had sought control and failed. As of 8 pm last night I had plenty of notes and new theories lodged into my brain but not a single line of a sermon written.

From the beginning this one verse, even this phrase “the kingdom of God,” was my focus. Yet the setting is important, as much as we can gather from Mark and other sources.

It begins with Joshua—Yehshua in Aramaic—a common name. He’s from an impoverished and oppressed region of the powerful Roman empire called Galilee, from a disreputable little town called Nazareth. He’s a day laborer, most likely illiterate and uneducated by the standards of the scholarly class, speaking only Aramaic, and apparently estranged from his family. He’s sought out a charismatic and popular teacher known as John the Baptizer, and as this story begins he’s about 30 years old.

John has been living out to the wilderness beyond the Jordan River to reenact the entry into the Promised Land through water immersion. Unlike the elaborate purity cleansing rituals near the Temple, these are in muddy waters. Jesus wades out into those same waters and submerges below the churned-up surface under John’s rough hand. As Jesus emerged spluttering, he saw the heavens being rent apart and the Spirit descending as a dove. A heavenly voice said: “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I have delighted.”

This revelatory experience changed everything. In Mark’s rough and rapid text, Jesus immediately is cast out into the wilderness for 40 days, is tempted by the Accuser, and lives with the beasts until his old mentor John is imprisoned. Jesus returns to Galilee, announcing his good tidings, and then immediately calling disciples who immediately drop everything—their families, livelihoods, possessions—to follow him.

So what did Jesus see in that moment, what did he go on to teach, that 2,000 years ago started a movement that has taken over a third of our world?

Ever since a brief three generations of undivided kingship a millenia previous, and through all the wars and exiles since, this phrase summed up all the hopes of the Israelites: both of a reestablished political regime and a restored relationship with their God.

But our modern debate over “kingdom” is nothing new. Various books of the Hebrew Bible argued for obedience to God’s commands to convince God to restore the kingdom while others focused on care of the marginalized and poor. The school of the Sadducees and Temple priests sought to perform proper worship ritual according to the written Torah, and the lay revival movement of the Pharisees taught people to live in compliance through their oral interpretative traditions. The Essenes focused on extreme holiness and purity rituals, withdrawing out into desert compounds like very strict monks.

Others were less spiritual in their aims. The Herodians sought power and wealth by allying with the Romans while the Zealots became assassins and warriors attempting military overthrow.

It was into this ongoing conversation that Jesus emerged with a unique answer: the kingdom is here. Even in this short sentence there are four concepts easy to miss in translation.

The “time” which he proclaimed as fulfilled is not chronological time, the Greek chronos but what is called kairos—a word rich in meaning, something we have no English equivalent for, signifying a pivotal eternal event which is to be seized at the appropriate moment. This moment has been filled to overflowing, and is within grasp of his audience.

Jesus then calls for a response of “repentance” and belief. Translating the Greek metanoia into English as repentance has been described as "an extraordinary mistranslation," "a linguistic and theological tragedy," and "the worst translation in the New Testament." Rather than sorrow or remorse, it is a plea to change one’s mind to the depth of a reorientation and inward transformation which expresses itself in outward action. Jesus is announcing his proclamation as an alternative to other routes of the kingdom, and asking for followers to commit their allegiance, pistos, which is often translated “belief.”

Another way of saying this might be:

“The eternal moment is fully charged;
the reign of God has drawn near to us.

“See with your deepest being, reorient your life to this truth;
now place your trust in this joyful proclamation!”

Jesus is walking into the middle of this centuries-long debate about what his community can do to get God to return and establish the kingdom. And his answer is: stop trying: God is already here, the kingdom has come to us, but you need to see it, believe it, and act in fidelity to this good news in order to be consciously part of it! He then set out on his itinerant mission, preaching the gospel and calling people into experiencing glimpses of the life of the kingdom through healing, partying, and feeding.

See, trust, and act.

Scholar and priest Bruce Chilton writes, “Like the prophets, Jesus taught his hearers how to see the Kingdom, as well as how to act on the basis of what they saw.” It is a matter of vision, of perceiving God’s justice in the present and anticipating its complete emergence in the future AND it is a matter of ethics, of what we will do to make God’s will work. A power exerted within human beings—vision and practice. A flowing process of shaping humanity that we are called to immerse ourselves into.

In Luke we read Jesus saying, “The Kingdom does not come as something one observes, Nor will persons say, ‘Look: Here it is’ or ‘There it is’ for look: The Kingdom of God is within you.” And the Gospel of Thomas records that his disciples said to him, "When will the kingdom come?" and he responded "It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it."

The fact that I’m preaching in front you today, with a sermon, is due to two things: first: a late night and early morning of typing and second: a last-minute acceptance that what I’ve been given is enough, for now at least. I have a glimpse of something that makes my heart soar, something I don’t need to work to earn, and I need to trust in this even if I don’t always fully understand it.

What we are all looking for, the wholeness and healing promised in this gospel, is not something we need to obtain from the outside but an internal revelation and trust. God is within us, calling us to see that our feeling of disconnection from life, love and the divine is an illusion and to act on that unveiling. It is freely offered, but the invitation must be accepted in order to take effect. The radiance of God is no longer centered in the Temple as Jesus’ contemporaries often thought, but shines out from every transformed heart.

This is not something that can be achieved through force of will or action alone. We cannot grasp the kingdom through intellect and study alone, as I am often guilty of attempting, nor does it come from good deeds alone: it is a gift of the Spirit. The revelation of the kingdom already existing in our hearts is something we seek through spiritual practices, through community, through meditation and in ways beyond reasoning and logic.

Today as we join together again in reenacting Jesus’ favorite symbol of the kingdom, the meal of Thanksgiving, let us renew our observation of this present reality in our hearts and those around us, trust in its power, and then set out again in our world as reflections of that glory.


(Mis)Translations That Matter: Eden Narrative edition

J. Elliott LeinComment

Think you know the Bible's Creation story pretty well? What if I told you it doesn't include people named either Adam or Eve, that it doesn't position women as secondary, and God doesn't use any ribs in the process?

I prepared a reading for our church's Adult Formation class on the Eden Narrative (Genesis 2:4b-3:24) and I now have plenty more content for another round of “Mistranslations That Matter.” I used Everett Fox's amazing translation as the foundation of the text, then made changes based on commentaries and looking carefully at the underlying Hebrew in consideration of what I wanted to emphasize. What came out was 1) a pretty decent little retelling (IMHO) that attempts to honor the original Hebrew words and feel as much as possible, and 2) a new list of commonly mistranslated words! Here we go...

Is Christ King? (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Welcome to St. Aidan’s on this Feastday of Christ the King! Let’s start out with a rousing chorus of “Christ is King!” Can you say it with me? “Christ is King!”

Wait, what did we just say? Christ is the King? Are you all sure about that? What does it even mean for us to say Christ is King, and is it a true statement in our world? What is this supposed to tell us about our reality? These are the questions I want to explore with you today from our Gospel reading.

(Mis)Translations that Matter - Part 1

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

The Christian faith is founded on the Hebrew Bible and additional Christian books that make up our Holy Scriptures, yet too often our doctrines have arisen from mis-translations of the original languages these texts were written in. Here are a few examples:

El Shaddai (אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י)

One of the labels for God in the Hebrew Bible, El Shaddai has been (mis)translated as "God Almighty" since the pre-Christian translators of the first Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) mistakenly thought that "Shaddai" came from the root shaddad that meant "overpower" or "destroy." This pattern was followed in Jerome's first translation into Latin with the Vulgate as Omnipotens which is our root for "omnipotence."

Today Jewish rabbis point to Jacob's blessing in Genesis 49:25 to show how El Shaddai is paired with a different root word, that for the breast of a woman (שַׁד). Rather than the connotation being of an omnipotent deity, here we would understand El Shaddai as "God of Sufficiency and Nourishment" as in the one who promises to multiply Abraham's offspring (Genesis 17:2).

El Shaddai means God Nurturer.

Basileia Theou

This phrase is traditionally translated "Kingdom of God" (Matthew uses the alternative "Kingdom of Heaven"). However, the Greek basileia simply indicates any politically defined region. This could be a kingdom, but is not required by the word. Since Jesus spoke of God in intimate familiar terms as "Abba" (linguistically similar to our "Dada", "Mama", or "Papa"), we could understand this phrase as intimately as "Home of Papa." And given Jesus's aggressive reinterpreting of leadership as servanthood and equality, "Divine Commonwealth" would be another good translation.

Rather than Kingdom of God, the Gospel is that the Home of Papa or Divine Commonwealth has come near to us (Mark 1)!

Anionos Zoe

Many Christians have understood the Gospel as offering "eternal life," and often assumed this to be speaking of a post-death experience. However, the phrase translated "everlasting" or "eternal life" is anionos zoe which has nothing to do with unending life. It's speaking literally of an "age" or "eon" (from the Greek "aon"!) which is defined as having both beginning and end.

If the authors of the New Testament wanted to talk about unending eternity they could have used αἰδιος (as Paul does in Romans 1:20), but when talking about the life offered in God they spoke of αἰωνιος — a subtle but vital difference.

Many scholars say this phrase is intended to denote quality more than quantity of life: this is "life of the age of God". Jesus came to offer us "life that overflows", life in all its fullness, abundant life (John 10:10).

It's not eternal life, it's Life of the [Commonwealth] Age or Life Divinely Saturated.

(Related: Matthew 25's "everlasting punishment" is more literally "age of pruning/correction.")

* Thanks to John Cobb's "Jesus' Abba" for pointing some specifications around the first two of these mistranslations.

Girard's Decalogue (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Sermon preached at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA for Proper 22 in Year A (2017). Lectionary text is Exodus 20:1-4;7-9;12-14.

“Thou shalt not!”

Negative commands aren’t our favorite things these days. This list of ten is more stereotypically Fundamentalist than Episcopalian, isn’t it?

I should know, since I was raised Fundamentalist in Arkansas. In a little town where a building owner put up an enormous “10 Commandments” banner right across from my office window a few years ago. In the same state where a monument to them was mounted at the courthouse this year. (It was also run over immediately afterward and I can’t deny I cheered.) After all, Jesus didn’t seem to be about this negative talk, and the strident call to remember these Commandments is often associated with oppression of the marginalized in our country.

And yet...

When we read this passage in our Sunday lectionary it may not be immediately obvious how central it is in Scripture. If you were to ask a Jewish person what the center of their faith is, they’d tell you it’s the Exodus from Egypt, deliverance from oppression.

The number 40 is very significant in the Bible, and the Book of Exodus has 40 chapters. And if you are a Bible geek like me you might know that these Ancient Near East storytellers crafted their texts in very specific ways, including sometimes placing the pinnacle of a lesson in the very center of a text. And here we are, reading from Exodus chapter 20.

That’s right. The text we’ve read today is the heart... of the heart... of the Jewish faith that Jesus lived out in his time on earth.

Maybe it’s worth another look. Maybe there’s something more here than some 3,000 year-old nomads obsessed with rules.

Take yourself back in time. Recall that at this point in the story the Israelites have been enslaved for several centuries of hard labor and have just managed to escape with their lives (and some sweet, sweet looting) but with no religious grounding. They had even forgotten the name of their God. Here they are in the wilderness with few moral, cultural, or social bearings, and they need to establish a way of living and working together without conflict and violence. Fortunately for them there’s a mountain, some smoke, Charlton Heston, and a solution: ten commands written in stone.

But why these? How is this supposed to ground them?

In search of one possible answer, I’ve drawn on two resources: a 20th-century French- American Roman Catholic literary critic and anthropologist named René Girard...and Facebook.

So, how many of you have heard of, or experienced, “FOMO”?

This “Fear of Missing Out,” the sensation that your life is empty and that others are having all the fun, is rooted in something called “mimetic desire.”

You see, we humans are built to learn from mimicry rather than born with instincts. One of the things we learn by copying is what is worth pursuing and possessing. We learn what is desirable by watching what others desire, as if in a mirror.

You can see this in small children when they have no interest in a toy until another kid comes up and demonstrates desire for it. Every time we ask someone for a recommendation, or read reviews for a product, we’re using mimetic desire. We decent what we should desire based on what others desire.

Of course, advertisers are fully aware of this and use it on us all the time. How often have we found ourselves buying a product not because we need it, or because it’s the most practical choice, but because we’ve been shown that others desire it? Whether it’s a celebrity endorsement or a random actor demonstrating their desire for this product, it hooks directly into this mechanism that is one of the foundation of what makes us uniquely human.

Imitative desire can be understood at a deeper level as a yearning to be the Model, “because of a profound sense of the radical insufficiency of one’s own very being.” Here then is our human pathos, a perceived emptiness at the heart of our being that moves us to desire the fullness we believe lies in others. Our “Fear of Missing Out.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end here. Mimetic desire all too often leads to mimetic rivalry .

Here the idea is fairly simple. When there are two bowls of oatmeal set in front of an adult and a child, the child learns to desire the oatmeal based on observing the adult’s desire. Depending on your personal thoughts about oatmeal you could see this as a prime learning opportunity, or a dirty trick. But assuming children buy into this desire, what happens when one child has a bowl of oatmeal and a second child does not? Now there is a conflict, as the limited resource is desired out of proportion to its ability to satisfy all at the table. It’s all fine and good when the fancy new ultra-light backpacking tent I have been told to desire is available for me to order at my leisure, but what happens if there’s only one left on the shelf on Black Friday?

So I think you can see what happens when this rivalry moves away from children desiring delicious bowls of oatmeal and creates conflict over unique relationships, commodities, jobs, and geography. Girard proposes that it is this very coveting which underlies individual, societal and national violence.

Now if we continued on, we could explore how societies have attempted to solve this violence through ritualized scapegoating until a man named Jesus of Nazareth turned

the whole system on its head...but now we’re getting ahead of the story, so let’s go back to Exodus to see how this might all fit together with Moses in the wilderness.

Download handout.

Let’s begin at the end, the final Commandment. Do not covet your neighbor’s... house, spouse, slave, Roomba, ox, don’t covet your neighbor’s ass, or anything that is your neighbor's. The Hebrew here translated covet is chamed, which is linked to envy and simply means “desire” or “take pleasure in.”

Do not desire your neighbor’s... anything.

Now work our way up the second half of the list: Do not defraud your neighbor through the courts, do not steal their possessions, do not steal their spouse, do not take their life. When we pursue our mimetic desires without constraint or concern for the other, attempting to fill our own emptiness, violence is the result.

The problem is laid out in stark terms. Now for the solution.

The fifth commandment: honor your elders, your spiritual mentors, those who have gone before; look for what they desire.

Pattern your life rhythm after God’s creative acts, join in religious tradition in sanctifying your calendar.

Do not attempt to take possession of God through oaths or objects.

Finally we have arrive back at the first commandment. This God, this mysterious and uncontainable “I will be-there howsoever I will be-there,” who brings people out of bondage, demands to be placed first in worship, in desire.

This God is always beyond what we can grasp, always deconstructing the idols we create in an attempt to fill our emptiness. This is the God the 14th century German mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart points to when he says, “I pray God to rid me of god.”

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

When Jesus was asked what was most important in the Law, he said: “Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor equal to yourself.” In this he did not overturn the ten Commandments but rather summarized them through concentrating on the first and tenth: the last describing the root of the human problem and the first pointing to deliverance from our oppression.

15 centuries ago, Saint Augustine wrote of God, “You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.” When we can place our ultimate mimetic desire on God, as Jesus showed us, only then can we overcome the rivalry that spawns violence across our world. Only once we recognize that we are and always have been loved as we are, that our perceived emptiness is an illusion, then we can be set free from bondage to our desires and rejoice instead in enjoying them alongside our neighbors.

Remember that simply having desire is not inherently bad—it is part of what makes us human. However it’s also true that desire naturally distorts into rivalry with our neighbor as envy sets in. This desire makes us feel empty, and we seek to fill ourselves by thinking that if we just had what they have, we could be happy and content. By looking to the saints for structuring our desires, by partaking in community ritual, by meditating on the God who sends rain to the good and bad alike, the God beyond the gods we erect, the God who is known ultimately in unconditional love and complete grace, who lives out of abundance rather than lack, we have a chance of following Jesus into selfless love of both ourselves and others.

Maybe “thou shalt not” is less of a burden and more of a gift.

NOTES: Interpretation indebted to René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning; Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled; James Williams, The Bible, Violence and the Sacred.

True Wisdom of God — 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 Exegesis Paper

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

The following is an exegesis paper I wrote for New Testament class last December. The assigned text was 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 which is a classic text for radical theologians so I was eager to explore it.

“True Wisdom of God”
1 Corinthians 2:1-16 Exegesis (NT Interpretation)
John Lein — December 7, 2016

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church addresses specific pastoral concerns undergirded by his conviction that the believers there have not understood the subversive and radical wisdom of God made known specifically through the crucifixion of the Messiah. In this exegesis of the second chapter, we will focus on what Paul might have intended to be understood in the context of his time and place as he contrasted the wisdom and power of the God revealed through Christ with the world’s understanding of these attributes.

The first-century church in Corinth was located within “the heart of Roman imperial culture in Greece.” (1)  Based on textual references and content, it’s likely that most of the congregants here were both Gentile as well as familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Both Greek philosophy and Roman training in and enjoyment of rhetoric would have been part of their cultural experience. It’s clear from the text of the letter that there is a mixture of social groups in the church made up of upper class and lower class populations. These cultural backgrounds come into play in our passage.

Our sixteen verses are located near the beginning of Paul’s letter but are difficult to treat separately from the previous section found in chapter 1 starting in verse 10. Here we see Paul address divisions in the church attached to specific teachers. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul sets up the thread he will argue throughout our passage: “For Christ did not send me to baptize [individuals in his own name] but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” Paul is concerned that the gospel for the Corinthians has become an abstract set of ideas which is debated intellectually on the level of Greek or Jewish philosophy rather than the deeply subversive and radically transformative event Paul has experienced. For Paul, the gospel embedded in the cross cannot be understood through the wisdom of Gentiles or the theology of the Jews—it is a destructive force breaking apart these approaches of meaning-making in the world.

Any attempt to understand the impact this letter would have had on Paul’s original audience requires further background for a modern audience. Christian readers in particular have been so over-exposed to the theological memory of the cross after 2,000 years of preaching that it fails to generate the reaction it would have had at the time.

Crucifixion developed as a “barbarian” execution, and was even recorded as such by Greek and Roman historians to distance themselves from its formulation. It was a punishment reserved primarily for crimes seen as a threat to the empire. It was reserved largely for lower class non-citizens, especially slaves, to the point that it was widely known as “slaves’ punishment”. The practice varied somewhat, but typically began with torturing the victim and then placing them high on a “stake” for an extended often days-long death by exhaustion and thirst in full exposure to mockery and the elements. Beyond the physical aspects of torture and an excruciating death, it was explicitly a means also of shaming and dehumanizing the victims.

Pagan writers in the immediately following centuries show their distaste for this specific element when reflecting on the Christian religion. They accuse Christians of worshiping “a criminal and his cross” in a “perverse and extravagant superstition.” They think them insane, counseling one husband that it was best to leave his Christian wife alone “...persisting in her vain delusions, and lamenting in song a god who died in delusions...”. (2) Not only is the god of the Christians dead, but executed as a criminal in the most shameful way. 20th-century German scholar Walter Bauer wrote: “The enemies of Christianity always referred to the disgracefulness of the death of Jesus with great emphasis and malicious pleasure. A god or son of god dying on a cross! That was enough to put paid to the new religion.” (3) Beyond the struggles of Gentile believers to understand a savior crucified would be the insistence of Jewish scripture that one way to be sure if a messenger was from God or not was in their death. If they were “hung on a tree” in public execution, then you would know God had cursed them rather than endorsed.

The message of the cross is one that early Christian communities truly struggled with. Early theologians came up with theories like docetism to soften the offense. It seems that the Corinthian community’s focus had also moved from the scandal of the cross to more philosophical debates and community rituals. Yet Paul insists on beginning his letter with an emphasis on this shameful and embarrassing element of the new religion. For him, the gospel itself can be summed up in one offensive and cringe-worthy phrase: “Christ and him crucified”.

Paul sets up a contrast in between what he calls the “wisdom of the world” (Greek: sophia) and the “folly of God”. It is important to recognize that this is not a simple description of how God is so wise he makes our wisdom look foolish. No, there is a reversal going on here. Paul contrasts the ideas of wisdom, civilization, power, nobility, and honor contained within the “current age” of Greek thought and Jewish theology with the folly, barbaric, weak, ignoble and shameful event found in the event of the cross. Later in the letter he emphasizes how we must become fools according to the age in order to be truly wise according to God (3:18).

The fool (μωρός) of the ancient world was a figure of popular ridicule. The local audience would have pictured someone of disfigured and ugly appearance as played by mimes, subject to spitting and abuse by the play-actors. He would be considered slow and confused of speech and thought, a simpleton, with a lack of self-control and civility in public. And he would be a penniless vagabond, on the level of prostitutes and thieves, a mockable parasite on the streets of the town. The fool would be considered the very opposite of the aspiration of beauty, intelligence, self-control and wealth sought as the pinnacle of humanity in the ancient Greco-Roman world. John Barclay writes: “We can now appreciate why Paul would associate crucifixion not only with weakness but also with folly. The crucified victim is the degraded human, the subhuman, an object of ridicule and contempt at the moment when he is ejected from the company of humans. Physically tortured and deformed, he is stripped of every last remnant of human dignity, debased to a condition in which all rational speech and thought are rendered impossible, and all emotions and bodily functions out of control.” (4)

This, then, forms the foundation of both Paul’s gospel and our passage in the letter to the Corinthians. His audience listening to it being read out loud would be appalled and disgusted by the dichotomy set up by this preacher of the “good news” in such deliberate contrast to the eloquent rhetoric and discourse of the other teachers they each appealed to. For Paul, the gospel hinged not on the philosophical tradition of the Gentiles nor on the system of signs and wonders of the Jews nor even on moral teachings, mystical encounters or the resurrection of classic Christianity, but in a concrete this-worldly event of monstrous physicality, torment and shame.

For radical theologians this text functions as a deconstruction of the systems of meaning that we religious humans seek to find in the world. Barclay writes: “The crucifixion is not just a temporary aberration in an otherwise well-functioning system: it is the clearest possible proof that the norms which pass for ‘wisdom’ are completely unable to grasp what God is doing in the world. To read the crucifixion with the eyes of Paul is like reading the systems of justice in the old American South with the eyes of Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird): it is to expose a whole system of evaluation, a matrix of norms and judgments that prides itself on its advanced state of civilization, as blind, corrupt, and barbaric, utterly worthless in its judgment of worth.” (5)

For Paul the scandal of the cross puts into question all our assumptions about how the world is constructed and understood. Through this event, he has come to see the world with new eyes, revealed directly by the Spirit of God rather than human wisdom or religious texts. When we return to the stories of Jesus in the written Gospels with this lens in place we can see this system of reversal and subversion also in place. In Matthew chapter 25 he says you will find him, the savior of the world, in the body of the impoverished, homeless, and imprisoned. He insists that traitors of the people (tax collectors) and prostitutes will precede the righteous and the worldly-blessed into the kingdom. John Caputo writes: “A theology of the cross, pursued without compromise, requires a deconstruction of the metaphysics, the mythology, and the politics of power. Its watchword is the revolutionary texts of 1 Corinthians 1, where God systematically takes his stand with everyone on the lower end of these binary systems—with foolishness instead of wisdom...with weakness instead of power.” (6)

For us today in the United States, we might apply this lens by looking first at our prisons, our military operations, our homeless populations, our bankrupt sick and uneducated, and those outcast from our churches as mirrors that show the truth of our system of civilization. As the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” Paul points us to understand the true depth of the gospel as found in the very midst of what we pride ourselves on as “civilization”, and calls us to see the subversive, radical wisdom of God that shows the wise of the world to be fools engaged in foolishness by the standards of the self-giving love of Christ. Instead, we are called to be fools for Christ, the “refuse and scum” of the world in 1 Cor 4. 

Notes and Bibliography

  1. Lander, Shira. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 287
  2. Felix and Porphyry quoted in Hengel, 3-4
  3. Quoted in Hengel, 19.
  4. Barclay, Kindle Locations 336-339.
  5. Barclay, Kindle Locations 364-369
  6. Caputo 2015, Kindle Locations 719-722

Barclay, John M. G., “Crucifixion as Wisdom: Exploring the Ideology of a Disreputable Social Movement.” In The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: First Corinthians 1-2 in Theological Exploration, edited by Christophe Chalamet. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.

Caputo, John D., “The Weakness of God: A Radical Theology of the Cross.” In The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: First Corinthians 1-2 in Theological Exploration, edited by Christophe Chalamet. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.

Caputo, John D. The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2016.

Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1977.

Lander, Shira. Introduction to 1 Corinthians in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Rollins, Peter. Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine. New York, NY: Howard Books, 2011. 

The Political Message of Jesus

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

This post comes out of a Facebook discussion about whether Jesus's message had anything to do with political reality and if we as followers should be involved in political matters.

What had been covered so far is:

  1. Jesus, as a Jew, was the inheritor of an earthly promise (Abraham), was formed by stories of deliverance from political oppression (Passover, the Pharaoh and Moses) and was of the legacy of earthly reformers (the Prophets, like Amos).
  2. He announced his mission as about the Kingdom of God, from beginning to end. He regularly resisted earthly abuse by the religious and political (though the references in writing are more subtle due to danger). He taught his disciples to pray for the kingdom to come to earth.
  3. He was killed by Rome as a non-violent but very real political threat.
  4. His followers wrote about him with titles stolen deliberately from Caesar: "Prince of Peace", "Savior", "the beginning of the Good News (Evangelion)", "Son of God", "Lord", "High Priest". See more here and here.
  5. The book of Revelation is from beginning to end an intentionally cryptic and encoded allegory (of the odd literary genre known as "Jewish apocalypse" or "unveiling", like part of the book of Daniel) of the Roman Empire being defeated by Jesus's kingdom. The overall pattern of the story is based on a Roman foundation myth, but with characters reversed! 666 is a standard 1st century letter replacement code for Nero, the Mark of the Beast (Nero's nickname) refers to a requirement to mark your forehead with ash from sacrifices before entering the market (signifying your acceptance of the Caesar as both political and religious leader), and in the final chapters we see heaven coming down to earth and establishing a city from which the faithful go out to provide healing for those who are suffering. Not a picture of a post-Earth Earth in the future, but a picture of the purpose of the community of Christ established on Earth 2,000 years ago.

See, right now we're inheritors of a Western Enlightenment tradition of "spiritualizing" religion. Yet in Jesus's time, and for much of the world, religion cannot be separated from the rest of our lives. Religion speaks of the shared life, which means it is inherently political (Greek "polis": of the city or society). Maybe it's time to change how we approach this complex issue.

I don't believe Jesus's message for us is about establishing a political entity in his name with physical borders and an army ala David. His message goes much deeper and broader.

We are called to fight against the "powers and principalities": that means the systems of domination and oppression that earth-born empires use against their citizens. We are to be advocates of heaven-born systems of justice, mercy, peace, and well-being for all, especially the poorest and weakest among us.

We are to be the leaven in the dough (not replacing all molecules of the dough!) which makes life more flavorful and better for all.

Jesus spent his life ministry showing us what "the life of the polis" is supposed to look like, under any national regime: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, advocating for those oppressed by the military and the religious.

We must be careful not to confuse this by taking on the banner of being a "Christian nation" in the sense that we use Jesus's name as a weapon against others (which has been our entire history right up to 9/11 and going to war in the Middle East). But I believe we followers of Jesus are called to work toward all nations being "Christ-ian" (like Christ) in the sense that our society looks like Jesus did: healing the sick, feeding the poor, making peace and refusing war, etc.

And I believe that with every action we take toward this end, Jesus returns and his Kingdom becomes more established (Matthew 25). This is what we might call "participatory eschatology".

You see, back in Jesus's day, there were many groups trying to establish the Kingdom. Jews had been under division and exile and empire oppression for centuries with little break. They were wondering how the promise of God that they would be a kingdom that blessed all other nations (Abraham) was to be fulfilled. And they had different solutions toward that end:

  1. The Pharisees were a lay reform movement: if we just start doing right as a people, God will deliver us.
  2. The Sadducees trusted in temple ritual: if we get sacrifices right, God will deliver us.
  3. The Essenes focused on purity: if we separate ourselves from the world and become pure, God will deliver us.
  4. The Judaizers looked to power: get in good with the ruling authorities and we'll be saved.
  5. The Zealots wanted violence: start the fight in full confidence and God will end it for us (didn't go so well in 70 and 132 AD).

I see Jesus walking into this conversation and having a different answer to the same question. His answer was to look at the vision of the prophets for what the kingdom would be like, and then having faith that if we all started living as if it was already real it would come to life around us. Again, feeding, healing, protecting, comforting. And teaching his disciples to do the same (not converting people to a new ritual system, but to a new way of living).

Toward this end he called on people to "repent, and believe this good news". This is the same phrase the 1st century historian Josephus used when trying to convince his band of rebels to follow his plan rather than their plan. It simply means "turn" (the word often translated "repent" literally means turn, change) and follow this new path instead of the one you've been on. Be a follower of Jesus's Way (as the early church called themselves) rather than the way of others.

He also confronted Rome's message that violence brings peace. Walter Wink calls this the "myth of redemptive violence". Rome had coins with the motto: "peace through victory", yet Jesus refused that model. In direct opposition to Rome, his "Evangelion" or "Good News" was that peace was obtained from the bottom up, not the top down. Paul played a lot with this motif, the reversal of human wisdom and how Christ made fools of earthly models of power in ways that are still counter-intuitive today.

On Inerrancy and Interpretation in Scripture on Sexuality

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

I've been having some conversations on Facebook in which the topic of inerrancy* has come up. Some conservative Christians have expressed an opinion that you must reject the inerrancy of Scripture to be able to affirm gay Christians. Here is what I have given in reply, which I hope is helpful to others.

* Before we start, you may want to look up the definition(s) and historical background of the term inerrancy as applied to Scripture. Personally I no longer find this word useful for my study of the Bible, but it's important for many.

When we read and study the Bible, we must go beyond a simple claim of inerrancy to understand the text. I look at the layers of study like this:

1) The Original Text ("the received word/original text"): we no longer have access to this layer which is what the Chicago statement on inerrancy claims as the inerrant Scripture.

2) Transcription: the Scriptures were then passed down through the generations by scribes. Some say that at least certain of the texts were likely exchanged orally for a long time before being written down at all.

3) Canonization: Somewhere during the periods of passing down the texts through transcription, religious communities decided which texts qualify as Scripture. The Hebrew Bible (Ta-na-kh) went through 3 rounds over the centuries, in descending levels of sacredness (the Law "Ta-", the Prophets "-na-", and the Writings "-kh"). It's possible that books such as Ruth, Esther, Psalms and Proverbs (some of the "Writings") weren't yet officially considered fully Scripture at the time of Christ, though they were highly valued writings. The Christian Bible was formally agreed on a few centuries after Christ (though debate continued still for centuries), and then re-formed by first Martin Luther (who wanted to get rid of James and Revelation and moved the deuterocanonical books to a separate section) and the Scottish Bible Society in the 1800s (removing those inter-testamental period books for most Protestants for publishing cost reasons).

4) Manuscripts: the most original writings we have, which we base our modern Bibles on, are collections of ancient manuscripts from various sites and periods of time. These show a variety of variations from the transcription process, from minor word changes to missing sections like the ending of Mark's Gospel and John's story of the woman caught in adultery. The inerrantist view in the past has often dismissed these claims, I believe, while the infallible view says God has guided the process to ensure we have the truth. I don't think any of these variations diminish the Scriptures, myself. (Dallas Theological Seminary professor Daniel Wallace writes that he counts around 400,000 variations in manuscripts, and that there are more variations amongst the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Most are minor and easily understood though).

Now we move beyond the original words of the text itself:

5) Translation: every translation is an interpretive act, especially when moving from a millennia-old "dead" language of 6,000 words with no vowels or punctuation (Hebrew) to a modern language of 1.2 million words (English). Even the Bibles in use by the early church were translations, from Jesus's Targum (Aramaic) to Paul's Septuagint (Koine Greek).

6) Interpretation: Once a text is translated there is an additional layer of interpretation as we try to figure out what the text is intending to say for us today. For both layers of interpretation, we must account for the ancient contexts that the Bible was originally spoken into, and then the modern context that it is being received into. Scientific discoveries also inform this layer, as we see clearly in the geocentrism vs heliocentrism debate of the 1500's (both Luther and Calvin saw heliocentricism as a direct threat to the authority of Scripture).

7) Application: It is only after all these steps are taken (by ourselves directly, or through the acceptance of our community's work) that we take the final step of direct application in our society or individual lives.

So when it comes to discussions of Bible teachings like on human sexuality we have a lot of layers to consider.

Inerrancy or infallibility only cover the first four steps. Those conservative Christians who have not read the affirming scholarship are often unaware that none of these layers are critiqued in many affirming interpretations of Scripture. Inerrancy is fully compatible with much of what is called "revisionist" scholarship.

Briefly, here is what we argue (no evidence, just the premises):

1. Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) is a clear mis-application (#7), since the story has nothing to do with condemning sexuality (violence and inhospitality to the stranger, not caring for the poor in Ezekiel 16:48-50, etc).

2. Leviticus 18 is a mis-interpretation (#6) and mis-application (#7), since it's likely specific to sexual pagan worship practices. "Abomination" does not designate all lasting prohibitions anyway, in its 118 uses throughout the Bible.

3. Leviticus 20 is also a mis-interpretation (#6) and mis-application (#7). The command to execute all those condemned is a tip-off that we're most likely talking about sacred cult prostitutes involved in idol worship practices. Also, do we really want to stone all gay people to death?

4. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is a mis-translation (#5) as well, since no one knows exactly what Paul's word invention arsenokoites means. A good case can be made for it to be describing men who purchase services of male prostitutes.

5. 1 Corinthians 6:9 is another mis-translation (#5) of both arsenokoites and malakos which mistakenly assumes that ancient pederasty or male prostitution can be equated with modern same-sex relationships.

6. Romans 1 mis-interprets (#6) Paul's rhetorical speech as if it's his own argument, and mis-applies (#7) it as a prohibition all gay people rather than against those (as he explicitly describes) who start by worshiping physical idols, then abandon themselves to lusts which are too great to be satisfied by heterosexual relations, and end by becoming people who are "full of all wickedness" (this description does not depict the gay Christians I know).

7. Using Jesus's explicit and clear condemnation of divorce (which actually appears in 3 distinctly different versions in the gospels and yet one more in Paul's writings) to be authoritative over same-sex marriage is a mis-application (#7).

Therefore, the affirming argument cannot be dismissed simply by claiming inerrancy is on your side, since inerrancy only talks about layers 1-4 and cannot address the admittedly human layers of translation, interpretation, and application.

Photo credit Adriel Ifland, 2007

On The Role of Scripture in the Church

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

For nearly two thousand years, Christians have believed that the Old and New Testaments are in some form foundational to our faith. In this we share some identification with the other Peoples of the Book, Jews and Muslims, yet in addition to our distinct differences with these other faiths we have large divides on how to approach the Holy Scriptures within our own faith.

While one of the unique attributes of the Anglican tradition is that we value unity and diversity over uniformity on many topics which results in a broad range of understandings of topics like "the Word of God", there are some core perspectives we share as distinct from many other Christian denominations. To explore this I will contrast my upbringing within the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) with my new home in the Episcopal Church.

Refuting Five "Myths" Against LGBT Relationships

Inclusion, LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

Today I saw an article titled "5 Myths People Spread About Jesus, Sex and Gay Marriage" by pastor Kenny Burchard at

He specifically asked for interaction and dialogue, so I thought I'd write a response to his "myths". (One note on the word "myth"—while it's commonly used to describe "made-up false stories", I prefer to think of a myth as a story that teaches a truth deeper than the surface details. Minor quibble.)

I've broken out each of his five "myths" and grabbed a bit of his argument for each, though you'll need to visit the full article for all of his statements.

1. Jesus never defined marriage as one man, one woman.

When Jesus talked about married people, he spoke of “a man … [and] … his wife” inMatthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7.

Jesus went on to use the language “ … the two shall become one.”

Jesus quoted the text of Genesis 2:24 as the foundation of His teaching on marriage. This is the biblical doctrine of “origins.” Jesus even used the clause “from the beginning it was not so” when talking about divorce.

Read full argument here.

It seems to me that this argument attempts to use Jesus's teaching on one very specific issue and apply his words to a different one. In context, Jesus is directly speaking against the dissolution of marriage. He quotes Genesis to emphasize the sacred nature of the marriage bond. I would counter that, rhetorically, it is a speculative stretch to apply his words to defining the gender make-up of a marriage. He may well have applied the same verse to do so if asked, but that is not recorded in Scripture.

So my conclusion is that the conservative position on this passage is a reasonable extrapolation of a possible teaching, but it is not in fact a strict reading of the text.

2. Jesus never specifically mentioned homosexuality in His teaching on marriage, so we should not make a big deal about it either.

So the idea that because Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality somehow means that it isn’t a point of human brokenness is a fallacy.

Another key observation is that any time Jesus mentions a husband, He mentions a wife. And any time He mentions a wife, He mentions a husband. 

This should provide the eager seeker of ”what Jesus taught” valuable insight. He seemed to believe that a husband belongs with a wife, and a wife belongs with a husband. A husband is a “he”—and a wife is a “she.”

Read full argument here.

True, it is a logical fallacy to make the lack of a statement into a positive argument in favor of acceptance of LGBT people in the church. Of course, I would want to point out that this same pushback could be made on your previous point.

As you say, just because Jesus only encountered and was familiar with traditional marriage in his Jewish cultural context does not have anything to say pro OR con about gay marriage.

However, the fact is that people of his time would have been very aware of Greek and Roman homosexual relationships. They would have been aware of the teachings in the schools that were established in Israel, and would have seen the common relationships between philosophy mentors and Roman legionaries with their male servants (possibly, though speculatively, behind the Roman centurion's relationship with his servant in Luke 7—the man Jesus called out as having more faith than all of Israel). The argument that this didn't seem to concern Jesus at all seems to have some weight against the current conservative insistance that homosexuality is a particularly bad sin (shown in the fervency of activity around this issue, even if claimed its a sin like any other).

3. Jesus's, and Paul's, attitude toward marriage

According to Paul’s teaching, marriage for Jesus (and even himself) would have been a distraction because …

… a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife. —I Cor. 7:33

It is true that during His human, earthy ministry, Jesus did not get married. But interestingly, there is New Testament imagery of Jesus being a “bridegroom” (male person in a marriage relationship) who is preparing to come for His bride (female person in a marriage relationship).

Read full argument here.

This argument is far more complex, and I don't have time to do it justice here. However, it seems difficult to use the teachings of Jesus and Paul to affirm the centrality of the nuclear family and exaltation of one-man/one-woman marriage today.

For example, nowhere in Scripture is there a prohibition against polygamy. Both Jesus and Paul allow the assumption to continue that this is a healthy form of marriage. Only in one verse much later on in the epistles is there a recommendation that the overseers of pastors ("bishops") have only one wife.

For most of Paul's writings, he "allows" marriage if you have to have it, but would really prefer the followers of Christ to remain unmarried. Jesus also does not appear to value marriage as an ambition for his followers, even though he does confront the cultural assumption that the man is in control of the relationship and supports the rights of the woman by speaking against no-fault divorce on the man's part.

As for the image of Jesus as bridegroom, that's an interesting analogy to use in support of traditional marriage. After all, the imagery seems to transcend our notions of gender, and affirm that both men and woman are united to Jesus in this "marriage", the same Son of God who is revealed as a male on earth.

In Galatians Paul insists that in Christ there is "no longer male or female". Our cultural divisions are no longer valid in the kingdom of God. His teaching in Ephesians does not focus on the differences between genders, but in fact on the need for equal treatment and that self-giving love is the true picture of Christ's love. There is no contextual indication that this depiction of love is only valid based on gender, simply because the example comes from the common form of marriage Paul would have been familiar with.

4. Jesus reached out to and accepted people into His circle who did not fit the “traditional marriage” model.

Two case-studies of this position are often brought up when talking about Jesus and marriage. The first is the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4). The second is the woman caught in adultery (see Jn. 8:1-11).

What can we make of these two stories? Is it something like …

Jesus speaking: “Hey, there’s a serial-divorcee, and an adulteress. I’m going to invite them to become members of my circle of people just so I can show people that I accept people like this.”

Yes! The truth is that Jesus was reaching out to them, but not without a call to leave their sexual/relational dysfunction behind them.

Read full argument here.

You use two stories here to illustration your point. May I break them apart and tackle them one at a time?

a) Samaritan woman at the well

As I've studied this passage, I've found that the common understanding of John chapter 4 isn't actually in the text. While Jesus uses his knowledge of the Samaritan woman's marital situation to declare his authority, he doesn't actually call it out as sin or ask for repentance. The woman's reaction, both at that moment and when she returns to her village, shows no evidence of shame or contrition.

Of course, that could be because it's likely she is barren, and the victim of the contemporary patriarchal system which would justify her being divorced from each man in turn (which Jesus confronted the Pharisees about) and ultimately forced to live with a man who would not marry her just to survive since it was rare for a woman to be able to make a living on her own in that culture without turning to prostitution. So maybe he didn't confront her sin because she wasn't sinning? (I first heard this interpretation from a conservative Reformed professor at a conservative evangelical university last year, for what it's worth).

b) The woman caught in adultery

I would like to point out two things with this story. 

First, adultery is the opposite of a committed relationship, whether inside or outside of marriage. I have not heard a pro-LGBT argument trying to claim that God is fine with LGBT relationships because Jesus is "okay" with the breaking of heterosexual relationships. We're talking about opposites here. We all agree the breaking of relationship is wrong.

Second, this particular story was hugely controversial in the early church and was contested as a legitimate passage for a long time BECAUSE it was seen as too forgiving of the woman! The church did not want to accept that Jesus would withhold punishment of this woman. The story was eventually accepted as an authentic story of Jesus, though both liberal and conservative scholars agree it was likely added to the manuscript of John sometime after the original writing (maybe migrating from one of the synoptic gospels).

(In general, this is only one of two stories in the entire collection of Gospels wherein Jesus says "go and sin no more". The other is a crippled man in the same Gospel, with no description of his sin. Calls to individual repentance of individual sins simply weren't a focus of his teaching. Now, calls to community repentance and repentance of judging and condemning others were certainly something that came up more.)

5. These are the kind of people Jesus would reach out to if He were here today.

Yes, Jesus would reach out to every kind of person. He would tell them of God’s love, and He would call them to repent of their sins. He would call murderers, thieves, liars, adulterers, homosexuals, gossips and racists.

And He would lead them out of their sin and into a new life with Him.

Read full argument here.

I'll try to keep this one brief. Your assumption is that being created gay while having the same need we all have for human relationship is sinful, and your list of sins seems to reflect a conservative and incorrect translation of certain terms. For more on that, you might be interested in the full in-depth study I did on these verses, which you can find freely online.

Also, this argument fails to take into account the Spirit-filled lives and testimonies of LGBT Christians and the widely acknowledged failure of the "ex-gay" movement.


I hope this helps you understand a little more about the other side's position. I appreciate your post helping me think through these things more for myself.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in return Kenny. Thanks for the invitation to dialogue. Grace and peace!

Equality and Spectrum in Creation

The Bible, InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

Here's another excerpt from the book I'm writing. It's a shortened version of a previous post, with additional coverage added. It's going in the new "Marriage" Appendix.

There are two creation accounts in the book of Genesis, and they are often used to as proof that God meant every marriage to look exactly like a heterosexual marriage.

The First Creation Account

Then God said, “Let us make adam in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created adam in his image,
     in the image of God he created them;
     ish and ishshah he created them.
    — Genesis 1:26-27

In the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1-2:4), both man (ish) and woman (ishshah) are created in God’s image equally as humankind (adam).  We could consider “man and woman” to be a form of speech called a merism which uses two ends of a spectrum to include the entire range, similar to God creating the “heavens and the earth” or calling God the “alpha and omega”. This could allow for room to say that intersex, transgender, and other non-traditional gender forms from birth are also included in God’s good creation. Certainly the emphasis is on the image of God implanted equally in all humanity regardless of gender.

The Second Creation Account

then the Lord God formed the adam [human] from the dust of the adamah [ground/humus], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the adam became a living being.

Then the Lord God said,
     “It is not good that the adam should be alone;
     I will make him a helper as his partner.”
    — Genesis 2:7, 18

In the second creation narrative starting at Genesis 2:5, at first only one human is created: the adam (human) from adamah (ground/humus). Then the Lord God remarks that it is not good for the human to be alone, and a corresponding companion is sought for him among the animals. When this is not found, a suitable partner is formed by forming another human out of the side of the first. While the traditional rib is likely better translated side, regardless it’s important to note how the origin was from a place of equality. 

The KJV’s “helpmeet” has been misunderstood to imply “assistant/lower partner” instead of “appropriate partner.” In fact, the Hebrew phrase is used for one who comes in support of, as God or an army coming to reinforce in battle. Equality and equivalency are the primary emphasis in this account.

“This at last is bone of my bones
     and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ishshah [woman],
     for out of ish [man] this one was taken.”
    — Genesis 2:23

The passage concludes with the man and woman coming together to make one flesh. The particular is subsumed in union.

In neither narrative is marriage mentioned, nor are any other models of relationship described in negative or positive terms. To use these stories as prescriptive for every relationship seems to take the meaning beyond what is written. Since procreation was important to the story at the time, and marriage understood in the context of inheritance and multiplying, heterosexual relationships seem to be the assumed model. If anything, it seems to me that there is a de-emphasis on the importance of being either male or female, and a focus on our shared humanity.

Merisms and the Non-Duality of Creation

InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

This is another rough-draft excerpt from the book I'm currently working on, about God calling us to include the full spectrum of creation in the church. It's at the beginning of the chapter on "Biblical Marriage"

The first creation narrative in the Bible (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) moves from the beginning with God alone to the grand finale with humankind. There is no reflection on a specific pair of humans, nor on marriage, but we can see that humans are the focus and end goal of the creative act.

“In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth...”
— Genesis 1:1 (NRSV variation from translation notes)

Some understand the phrase “the heavens and the earth” as a metaphorical description of “everything”, as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth...”. We may think of it as a spectrum, with everything on every plane of our world, every string-theory dimension of reality, and both physical and spiritual understandings originating with God, the “alpha and omega” (again an inclusive spectrum concept). Some call this a “merism”, a figure of speech used in law, rhetoric, biology, and Biblical poetry:

“In rhetoric a merism is the combination of two contrasting words, to refer to an entirety. For example, when we mean to say that someone searched thoroughly, everywhere, we often say that someone searched high and low... 
“Merisms are conspicuous features of Biblical poetry. For example, in Genesis 1:1, when God creates “the heavens and the earth” (KJV), the two parts combine to indicate that God created the whole universe. Similarly, in Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows ‘my downsitting and mine uprising’, indicating that God knows all the psalmist’s actions.”

This grand, majestic and poetic account cummulates in the making of humankind in the image of God (“our image, our likeness”):

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
— Genesis 1:26a, 27

What do we know from this creation account? We know that humans are made in the image of God, not God made in the image of humans. That all humanity is created in the likeness of God the one and the formed-in-relationship (“our”). That all humanity, the spectrum included in “male and female”, are declared good:

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
— Genesis 1:31a

Why could it be helpful to recognize a “spectrum” instead of a binary designation in the phrase “male and female”? Consider those who are born as Intersex (the “I” in the longer acronym “LGBTQIA”) with inconclusive genitalia. Or some transgender folks who have the physical genitalia of one gender, and the chromosomes and brain-structure of another. If we are all created in the image of God, and declared good, then maybe “male and female” is a non-dualistic container, a merism, of the variety of the good creation even while we recognize that the majority of people are comfortable closer to the traditional two ends of the spectrum.

To conclude our first passage, note that the entirety of the first self-contained creation account is about “humankind” in general, with no mention of a particular pair nor a description of marriage. There is also no hinting at any change in God calling his creation “good”. That comes in the second creation account starting immediately afterward.

To be continued...

Thanks to Alan Hooker for the original insight.

Inclusion of a Sexual Minority in the Family of God

InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

In Acts 8 we see the early church beginning to face persecution from a man named Saul, and the apostles are forced to move outward from Jerusalem. The Apostle Phillip is directed by a message from an angel to set out on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he encounters a man who is outside of the parameters of acceptance into God’s people, according to Phillip’s Judaic upbringing.

This man is a sexual minority, a eunuch, who is also an Ethiopian. Males were commonly made into eunuchs for particular government roles to keep their loyalty undivided with a family, and this one was the royal treasurer. He had come on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even though according to the Law he was prevented from being a part of worship due to his physical body.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
 — Deuteronomy 23:1

The blessings promised to a faithful Israel were described as the possession of land and the promise of descendants, consistent with ancient Near East cultural values. Yet being a eunuch meant that you had no descendants, and therefore no one to pass on your land to. You were quite literally cut off from the blessing of God (which also shows how painful infertility would be).

This very powerful individual, treasurer to the queen, made a pilgrimage in an upper class chariot all the way to Jerusalem (1,582 miles by air, 2,733 miles by foot according to Google Maps, maybe a two month-long journey), only to be excluded from worship.

Note that we don’t know exactly how this person is a eunuch, since Jesus referred to those who are born, made, and choose to be eunuchs as all under that label. But it’s likely given the man’s position that he has been made a eunuch surgically.

Phillip is compelled by the Spirit to approach the eunuch’s chariot, and as he does so he hears him reading from the book of Isaiah:

“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.”
 — Isaiah 53:7-8 (NRSV)
“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?”
 — Isaiah 53:7-8 (ESV)

Phillip asks him if he understands the passage, and the reply is “How could I, unless I have someone to guide me?”. The eunuch urges Phillip to join him and explain what he is reading. He asks: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:34).

Why might this eunuch be so interested in this particular passage from the Prophets? 

Maybe the language of shearing and being cut off would resonate with him. The passage speaks of one who has his future taken away (no progeny?), in a perversion of justice. Maybe he would identify and relate to this imagery in a deep way, and wonder who the prophet could possibly be referring to in such validating language: “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;” (Isaiah 53:12)

Phillip takes this cue to relay the gospel of Jesus. Here we see a man who was rejected by his people, stripped and humiliated, cut and wounded with scars that do not fade, one without physical descendants.

As they go along, the eunuch spots some water and asks:

“Look, here is water! 
What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Can you imagine that question being asked in a trembling, insecure voice? As from one who is desperate to be included, yet knows that tradition and Scripture are against him as both a foreigner and a eunuch. He had just returned from Jerusalem where he would have been denied entrance into worship. As an Ethiopian he would have been limited to the Courts of the Gentiles, yet as a eunuch even that would have been denied to him. After a two-month journey of devotion, he would have been forced to stare into the temple in longing, but feeling rejected by the God he was pursuing.

Author Brian McLaren, from whom I first heard this application, paraphrases the man’s question:

“I have just been rejected and humiliated in Jerusalem, but you have told me of a man who, like me, has no physical descendants, a scarred and wounded man who like me has been humiliated and rejected. Is there a place for me in his kingdom, even though I have an unchangeable condition that was condemned forever by the sacred Jewish Scriptures?”
 — Brian McLaren, “A New Kind of Christianity” p 183

Phillip’s reaction in the text is breathtaking in its simplicity and audacity. As the horses are pulled to a stop in swirling dust and creaking of wood and leather, he answers not a word, but immediately leads the eunuch into the water to be baptized in equality before God.

They emerge dripping into a Spirit-filled new reality. Phillip is whisked away to the seashore by the Spirit of the Lord while the eunuch boards his chariot for home, rejoicing in this amazing and unexpected inclusion into the family of God.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
— Isaiah 56:3-5

Photo credit: "Priest at Ientelos Iesus on Lake Tana, Ethiopia" — SarahTz on Flickr

Loving is listening

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

During my recent conversations around LGBT and faith on Facebook, while discussing a linked articled called "Distorted Love: The Toll of Our Christian Theology on the LGBT Community" a concern around who defines "love" was brought up:

"If I take your last response and article at face value, then I must conclude that it is gay advocates (Christian & otherwise) who ultimately define love, with no room for dialogue or dissent. What a sad place for the Church."

Here is my response, an off-the-cuff set of ramblings on how I might attempt to answer that question.

Love. My thoughts.

Love cannot be defined solely by the giver, but must be affirmed by the receiver (and generally recognized by outsiders who see a net benefit in the long term).

A simple example is the "5 love languages". If the giver insists on using the language of "service" because it's what they resonate with, but the recipient values "touch", then is it self-less or self-ish love?

A more complex example would be the idealist's conviction that an action is loving based on their values, but which is experienced by the recipient, communities with other values, and/or by history as having a damaging result. For example, I think of Saint Augustine and John Calvin supporting the torture and/or death of what they saw as heretics because they thought it was more loving to ensure that the remainder would gain eternal salvation as they understood it. I can understand and empathize with their motivation. I can see how they thought it was love. I can understand that the civil law, cultural understandings of the time, and social pressure from their own religious group would influence their perception and that I might have done the same in their place. But I personally cannot define that as love from where I stand, based on the recipient's experience.

White American slave owners in the 1800's were convinced that they were loving their slaves by providing food, lodging, moral direction and steady work. It's clear that they had a high moral conviction around their policies if you read the declarations of secession or other documents by the southern states. Over half of published Christian sermons before the War supported this position by appealing to both general morality and to Scripture.

"In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law."
           — from A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union.

Many national leaders we now see as morally troubled made decisions motivated at least initially by a conviction that they were in the best interests of others, yet because they did not listen to opposing voices or accept challenges to their worldview, we now see them as "evil" (Mao, Lenin, Hitler, etc could all fit into that category on some level I think as extreme examples).

If an expression of love from the giver ends in obvious, provable harm for the receiver (setting aside exceptions such as restraining the receiver from hurting others), then we need to ask some serious questions about whether that is actually love.

"Love your neighbor as yourself". You have to get to know your neighbor pretty well before you know how to love them to the level that you love yourself (whom you know pretty intimately). 

I'm not saying any of this is empirically true of any particular non-affirming Christian or the traditional absolutist position on marriage. However, if we do not allow the gay recipient of a person's love to voice their sense of how it feels to receive that love, then how do we judge if it truly is love? Whose interpretation of the Bible "wins"? Just the one that's been around longest? Then we have to wrestle with the Scripture-supported "curse of the Jews" anti-semitism which began in the 1st century, was supported in the Inquisition and by Martin Luther and cumulated in the Holocaust before we finally returned to re-read the Bible in a different way (see Southern Baptist ethics and holocaust scholar Dr. David Gushee's work on this).

That's what the article we have been discussing is saying, I think: 

"The recipients of your love aren't agreeing that they feel loved or respected, even when you share the same faith and love for the same God, and neither do independent observers around them. Why?"

Us "gay advocates" are just asking our fellow Christians to take the time to listen more carefully to the recipients of the traditional language around marriage, and to think and pray carefully about how God would want to us to respond. I personally failed to find a way to do so without changing my mind (and after I did, I came to a new understanding of Scripture that seemed clearer and more literally accurate than before).

To be honest, some of this may challenge some particular understandings of theology on a larger level, which is part of what I've gone through in the last couple of years. Yet there too are many different approaches available from that very same Bible we share and love.

Well, that's my opinion. Maybe it helps you understand better where I'm coming from even if you disagree.

Becoming a LGBT-Affirming Christian

J. Elliott LeinComment

Over the weekend I shared on Facebook that I have been on a three-year journey towards affirming LGBT Christians and same-sex marriage. I'm reposting some of what I said for the blog.

Here are some of my reasons for changing my mind, in no particular order, and without attempting to be a completist:

1) History

I found that the church has a history of repenting of what appeared to be clear Scriptural teachings supported by centuries of tradition after being confronted with the pain they cause (over 50% of preachers in 1860 supported slavery based on Scripture and they won the debates from a literal exegesis; teaching that the Jews were a cursed race based on clear verses from the gospels was an ecumenical Christian doctrine for 1,900 years until we saw the results of the Holocaust; interracial marriage and desegregation were strongly resisted by Biblical texts; etc). Today we find this ridiculous, but that's because we don't live in or often understand the past very well.

2) Translation/Interpretation

Interpretation and translation are human endeavors which cannot be separated from cultural assumptions and biases. The modern translations we use today, like the NIV or ESV, make verses seem very clear that are actually quite ambiguous or different in the original languages. There was a marked change in translation of certain words in the 1970s, just as fear of the "gay agenda" was growing (the word “homosexual” was first used then in translation, 100 years after it was introduced scientifically and just before it was removed as a disorder by medical professionals). For example, “wantons” (GNV), “effeminate” (KJV), and “male prostitutes” (NIV 1973) are quite different from “men who have sex with men” (NIV 2011), all of which are translations of the Greek “malakos” in 1 Cor 6 which literally means “soft” (used to describe Herod’s soft clothes in Matthew 11), metaphorically “morally weak” or “associated with feminine things, sometimes describing a womanizing heterosexual who loves women too much” (hence, “wantons” in 1599’s Geneva Bible).

Screenshot from my work-in-progress book on the topic.

3) Experience

Our faith is founded on the experience of God and recognizing the movement of the Spirit. It started with Abraham having an encounter with God, and being blessed to be a blessing to all the nations before he was given any rules to follow or rituals to perform. Christianity is based on a small group of Jewish peasants directly encountering the incarnate God, and radically reinterpreting their entire theological understanding and view of their Scriptures based on that undeniable experience. Paul, the most learned and devoted to the Hebrew Bible of all our apostles, rejected Jesus and the Way completely until he encountered the living Christ. In Galatians he appeals primarily to the experience of the people in the Spirit, not references to Scripture, in resisting the Judaizers encouraged by the culterally-accomodating Peter (accommodating religious exclusivity by his friends, not inclusivity of the world). Earlier, Peter baptizes uncircumcised Gentiles against his belief system because he witnesses the Spirit at work (Acts 10). In Acts 15 the Jerusalem Council reluctantly sets aside their tradition which they understand from the Scriptures due to the testimony of the works of God amongst the Gentiles (think how "icky" an unclean Gentile was in that culture!). The Ethiopian eunuch, a sexual minority, was baptized by Phillip in contrast to the tradition he knew (males with deformed genitalia were excluded from religious involvement by Scripture). Jesus said the “Spirit will guide you into all truth”. Paul said “we see through a glass darkly”. I think we continue to learn and grow in our understanding of God and the Bible, as we remain willing to hear the Spirit speak through people around us. I see the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in the LGBT Christians around me, and this experience has changed me. I believe this is completely orthodox Christianity, especially if we look back at point #1.

4) Movement 

I’m not alone. There are many long-respected leaders in the Evangelical Christian world who have recently changed their minds on this one issue. Tony Campolo, David Gushee, Ken Wilson, and others have recently shared their long and careful journeys to embracing sexual minorities in equality. They do so in full knowledge of how much rejection they face from their own religious culture, their friends and family, as I have as well (nothing compared to the rejection many church-raised, Jesus-following LGBT Christians face though).

5) Love 

Jesus said "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another". It seems like that says the people outside our community would look in and say that we are really loving according to how they understand love, which at this point doesn’t seem to be the case. I believe love is defined by 1 Cor 13. The second greatest command is "love your neighbor as yourself”. I believe we can only love people by being in relationship with them. To get to know their story and their heart before we earn the right to tell them how to change, because only then can we love them in the way we would want to be loved if we were them. I believe same-sex relationships have equal portions of companionship, emotional intimacy, self-giving love, and sexual desire that heterosexual ones do - with equal variation on an individual basis. Paul wrote: "Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that 'all of us possess knowledge.' Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him." (1 Cor 8) Anyone who loves God, is known by him. If “God is love”, and “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4), then love reveals where God is. And love cannot exist as an abstract concept, but must be a lived experience, in relationship. “Loving sinners” cannot be done without relationship. 

6) The Prophets 

I believe that the testimony of the prophets and Jesus were to turn our hearts from doing ritual worship and rule-following for God, and to care for the oppressed and hurting among us. I believe that Isaiah, Amos, Malachi, and Jesus told us that God is worshipped and glorified when we care first for the people around us. Without that, he doesn't listen to our prayers, our "hands are full of blood" (Isaiah 1).

7) Where's the harm?

There’s a lot of information that seems to say there is inherent harm in LGBT relationships, and we should protect people from that by telling them to give up hope of ever having the kind of family and loving relationship we heterosexuals take for granted is available to us. Yet, researchers aren’t finding this. All professional medical associations, who are pledged to “do no harm” (and who by the way, are happily condemning pedophilia), endorse same-sex marriage. Studies show that kids who are adopted into same-sex families (so much better than not having families at all, right?) do at least as well if not slightly better than in heterosexual relationships (it’s a very deliberate choice, no “accidents”!), individual anecdotes aside.

8) What is biblical marriage? 

None of us follow “biblical marriage” if that’s defined as following the pattern we see in Scripture. We mostly see polygamy (only ever restricted from Bishops/“overseers of pastors”), and there is plenty of acceptance of concubines, having relations with your slave women, and marrying your sister-in-law to continue the inheritance/genetic line. None of that is explicitly overturned. Jesus and Paul seemed to have a much higher view of celibacy than marriage. Acts describes something that looks more like a hippie commune than family units. Early church fathers declared people heretics for saying that marriage was even equal in importance to celibacy. Some castrated themselves in devotion to New Testament teaching. Others went the other direction, with clerical polygamy legal until the 8th century. Marriage wasn’t a church sacrament until the fifth century and not part of Catholic cannon until 1547, and Martin Luther wanted to keep it an entirely civic matter. Our current understanding of the nuclear family as superior and set apart from community comes from the 1950s culture. Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad (though even TGC’s Kevin DeYoung warns about the idolatry of the nuclear family in the modern church in his new book on homosexuality), but it’s certainly the product of our culture not the Bible. Procreation ability is not a criteria for heterosexual marriage, and some of these couples have already been together for 70 years.

9) “Gay lifestyle”?

I see this word used often in conservative concerns, yet many gay people are baffled by this phrase. Sure, there are a fair share of promiscuous, outrageous LGBT people, but there are plenty of heterosexuals like that too. And if what you’ve been told all your life is that you’re an abomination, inherently flawed in your desire for relationship, is it a shock when some people live that out? I’m so excited about this new generation who can begin openly providing examples of God-honoring, healthy same-sex relationships, which our Evangelical churches have never encouraged or supported.


Finally, if self-loathing, depression, substance abuse and suicide are the results of preaching the gospel, then it is not Good News. I have a very high view of the "Euaggelion"!

So, there's a bit of my story. It’s hard to condense the 50k words or so I’ve already written during my research. I'd be happy to dialog any time in person or electronically. I'm not interested in fighting, but I love respectful conversation about two of my loves, the Bible and Jesus Christ.

Overall, please remember I’m just a supporter who is learning, and making mistakes. If you really want to understand why many of us think the Spirit is speaking to the church from where we would have thought was the most unlikely place (like the eunuch and Gentiles in Acts), listen to the people who have everything at stake and know this intimately, like Matthias Roberts, Patrick Berquist, Matthew Vines, Brandon Robertson, Gene Robinson, Dale B. Martin, and many others.


J. Elliott LeinComment

I find the assigned lectionary reading for this Sunday eerily powerful and relevant to our past week. We had two rulings come through, one which stood for the right of all to have access to medical care regardless of economic status, the other which affirmed the equal value of a minority and historically socially-outcast population.

The following are my reflection notes, as I have been pouring over the text in preparation to lead discussion for the first time during our church's adult formation hour in the morning.

Proper 8B — Mark 5:21-43

In today’s lectionary, there are two healings interwoven into one narrative that challenges the status quo. A woman who had lived in complete social isolation, community rejection, suffering and poverty for twelve years is paired with a young girl who presumably spent those same years in relative privilege and joy.

It begins with the humbling of a member of the elite, leader of the synagogue, as he falls before the itinerant rabbi returned from the unclean Gentiles and grovels on behalf of his beloved daughter. The journey to healing is interrupted, fatally, by a community outsider of the lowest caste and value, who dares to enter into the crowd and lay claim for healing from the rabbi. When asked, she publicly recites her story in front of all, acknowledging what appeared to be a cursed judgement on her life. The rabbi raises the outcast’s status to “daughter”, and proclaims that her faith has made her well and at peace.

Once this is complete, Jesus returns to the original task of healing the young girl. He insists on the removal of fear and the gaining of confidence. He willingly touches a dead body, his second embrace of the unclean today. She too is raised, but in a quiet and low-key way as if to not draw more attention to the second than to the first healing.

Jesus proclaims access to  healing for everyone, regardless of who can afford it.

He lowers the status of the elite, and raises the status of the outcast.

He does not heal the fortunate before caring for the unfortunate.

He proclaims healing and affirmation of worth and value to those who are brave enough to step out in faith.

He enters into uncleanness, and societal disapproval, to bring healing.

He calls us to follow him. The first shall be last, and the last first.