A God Who Does the Same Great New Thing

crossRedVeil1Right after dramatically recalling God’s deliverance of the Jews from the Red Sea, Isaiah proclaims that God is “about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43: 19) By his time, the Red Sea deliverance was an old thing, something the Jews repeatedly recalled, especially at the celebration of Passover. But at the time of that deliverance, it was a new thing that had sprung forth. Delivering escaped slaves through turbulent waters just wasn’t in the play books of deities at the time. God had changed the play book and revealed the hitherto unknown truth that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful.

The new thing that Isaiah was proclaiming was another deliverance, this one from the Babylonian Exile. In this respect, the new thing that God was doing was a lot like the old thing: both were acts of deliverance from powerful and tyrannical rulers and both involved leading the people through a desert. One could say that God was actually doing the same old thing that God had done centuries earlier. During the ensuing centuries, the Jews repeatedly recalled the old deliverance, especially at times of crisis such as the Babylonian captivity, bringing the old act into the present in hopes for a repeat performance. Psalm 44, for example, recalls “the days of old” while complaining that the people had been “scattered among the nations” and had become “the derision and scorn of those around us.” Where are the deeds of old? The Psalmist asks. Isaiah replies that the deeds of old have returned, have become “a new thing,” a new act of deliverance. Isaiah affirms that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful. The old thing is a new thing.

In our time, we might be tempted to think that both of these new things are old things, But we need to keep bringing them into the present time, making them new by realizing that God is always making these deeds new. When we don’t, we backslide. One of the most egregious ways we backslide is by becoming the oppressors of the poor and vulnerable that the Egyptians and Babylonians were. That is what happened between the two great “new” things God did for the Jews. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets denounced just such oppression. They were making clear that one of the principle ways of making the old things new and present is to imitate God by delivering “from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer. 22: 3)

St. Paul proclaimed another great new thing accomplished by God: the death and resurrection of Jesus. In comparison with this, Paul declared everything else, most especially his accomplishments, as rubbish (to use a polite term). All Paul wanted was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3: 10–3) This may seem to be a different thing, even a radically different thing than the earlier “new” things God had done. What is particularly new is that instead of delivering victims and outcasts by mighty acts, God in Jesus Christ died on the cross, thus becoming a victim. In doing this, God subverted the power of oppressors from within their system. Rather than inflict violence on them such as drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea or sending the Persians against Babylon, God in Jesus Christ died at the hands of his oppressors. It is out of this death that a new life was inaugurated by God when Jesus rose as the forgiving victim. There are times, not least in Romans 5, when Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus in cosmic terms, but here in Philippians, he proclaims it in personal terms. The great new thing God had accomplished is inside of him. God’s solidarity with victims in Christ has completely overtaken everything else in Paul. Paul himself will prefer to be a victim rather than an oppressor or a mighty avenger who destroys armies. Christ Jesus has made Paul “his own.” (Phil. 3: 12)

A woman pouring ointment all over Jesus to prepare him for his upcoming burial (Jn. 12: 7) may seem an eccentric act but hardly a significant one, hardly a great new thing done by God. But up to that time, how often had any person done such an act of outpouring generosity, giving everything she had in doing it? This looks like God in Jesus Christ completely making this woman, Mary, his own just as much as God in Jesus Christ made Paul his own. This is indeed a great new thing accomplished by God. Will we ourselves be part of this great new thing?

 

See also: A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus

Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyWe are so used to passing the collection plate in church that we easily overlook the importance of the collection Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15 and elsewhere. The emotion and enthusiasm that gushes from Paul’s pen tells us that the collection was of the upmost importance to him. It behooves us to consider how important it was.

Many times, Paul speaks about the joy of giving, not only with money (which Paul had in short supply) but in time and energy and concern for others. It is Paul who passed on Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) while exhorting the Ephesians to help the weak through hard work. This concern for the weak in Jerusalem is one of the factors that inspired the collection. The joy Paul would have us take in giving is accentuated when we consider that Paul’s word for giving generously and joyfully is hilaritas. That is, we should give with hilarity.

Paul shamelessly spurs the Corinthians on to a bit of competitive generosity by boasting of how the Macedonians gave even beyond their means while urgently pleading “for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people” (1 Cor. 8:5). Competition has its problems but I don’t think Paul is holding a contest for who could give the most to the collection. Rather, Paul is holding up the Macedonians as an example to follow, hoping that their enthusiasm will inspire a like enthusiasm in Corinth.  What Paul is urging is a chain reaction of generosity that will spread throughout the churches.

Paul emphasizes the importance of sharing out of abundance, or at least having enough for sustenance, with the hope that such generosity might be reciprocated if the roles were reversed. This is what Paul is getting at in advocating “equality.” In a helpful online article, Sam Marsh suggests that the reason this equality is important to Paul is because he does not want to set up anything resembling a patron-client relationship between the Gentile churches and Jerusalem. The Roman institution of patronage is one of many ways power remained entrenched with those who already had it. Paul is envisioning something very different: a matrix of mutual giving where there is need where everybody takes turns in giving and receiving.

The unity of the church also emerges as a principal motivation for the collection. When Paul met with the elders in Jerusalem, as reported in Galatians 2, Paul said he was admonished to remember their poor, which he very much wanted to do. The debate over admitting Gentiles without circumcision was decided Paul’s favor but later correspondence shows much lingering tension over the issue. If the Gentiles of Macedonia, Ephesus and Corinth should send what money they can spare to Jerusalem, it would be a powerful sign of fellowship uniting one church in Christ.  Paul’s making sure that representatives other churches accompany him to Jerusalem is another indications of mistrust of Paul in the church of Jerusalem.

Most important is the Christological dimension to the collection. Contributing with enthusiastic hilarity is modeled on Jesus who though he was rich, for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty could become rich (1 Cor. 8: 9). This verse has been enshrined in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in one of the collects for saints who followed the religious life. We can’t help but recall the famous verse in Philippians where Christ humbled himself to enter the human condition and suffer the same vulnerabilities, including death, which humans suffer from. This is a far cry from the billionaire who writes a few tax-deductible charity donations from the comfort of his or her mansion. We can’t compete with Christ in generosity but we can at least empty ourselves of what we do have for the sake of others.

Given the eschatological overtones of Paul’s hope for union of Jew and Gentile, this collection may well have had eschatological significance for Paul, not in an otherworldly way, but as a seismic shift in human culture. The Jewish prophets exhorted the rich to give alms to the poor, but this is the first instance in human history that I can think of where a collection of money was taken up for the relief of those in need. Paul started something momentous. It is up for us to finish the job.

The Name of Names

crecheOne important feature of a name is that it identifies us and sets us apart from other people. Names do not just identify us individually; they also give us context, such as where we come from. Medieval names such as Francis of Assisi were like this. Names also identify the culture we live in and come depending on where we have German names, Japanese names or Scottish names such as mine. Within a national identity, our names tell others what families we come from such as the Smith family or the Bach family. Not only the surname but our first and middle names often repeat names used in the family. My baptismal name Robert is also my father’s name, for example. In mythology, deities tend to have names such as Zeus, Thor or Vishnu. These names designate distinctive personalities which are basically human, if writ large. The thing about names in all these cases is that each person who has a name, whether a dog, a human, or a deity is finite, a part of the world.

When it comes to speculating about what being may have created the world, we suddenly become very shy about names. We might use a term such as The Father Who Made us All or a term such as God which precludes having a particular name such as Zeus. When Moses asked the deity who spoke to him out of the burning bush for a name, the answer was Yahweh, which really was a non-name as it meant something along the lines of: “I am being what I am being.”

These considerations make the following verse from Luke’s Gospel astounding: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” This boy was/is also the Logos who was with God in the beginning and without whom nothing was made that was made according to the Prolog to John’s Gospel. The term Logos is another example of not naming the unnameable creator of the universe and yet this same Person without a name “emptied himself” as Paul said in Philippians, so as to be born as a human being. As a human baby, the unnameable was named, a name stamping him with a particular culture and a particular family. The circumcision of this body is yet one more cultural marker.

So deep was the Word’s immersion in humanity, that he humbled himself and was “obedient unto death, even the death of a cross.” The result of this descent was that the crucified Logos was raised up and the ordinary Jewish name he bore has become “a name above every name,” a name to which all humans should bow. And yet it is because the unnameable became human and nameable that this name is so exalted and awesome to us, all the more awesome in that we resist the lowliness of the Logos through whom we ourselves were made.