John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

The Power of Women and the Heart of the Law (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

For many of us individually, and certainly for our larger community, the events and debates of these last few weeks have been very difficult. They have brought into question our values, our identities, and what worth we give to those around us. Setting aside party allegiances or abstract policy commitments, I think it is fair to say we are all worse off after the weeks that ended with a confirmation yesterday, but women in particular have lost the most.

It was with these events in mind, and with a heavy heart, that I turned to our lectionary passages today. Both our Genesis and Mark readings have something to say about the relationship between man and woman, and both have been used for harm and for good throughout the centuries of first Jewish and then Christian tradition.

Miracle of Opening (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

“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?

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

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

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 “TopVerses.com,” 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!

The Wilderness After Epiphany (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

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!

Kingdom: See, Trust, Act (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

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!

(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

“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.

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.