SPIRIT-MINISTRY OF THE WEAKEST LINK
As we gather to celebrate around the Pentecost fire again this year, we also have the bittersweet task of saying goodbye to one another as pastor and congregation. This has been a wonderful seven and a half years of sharing ministry together. Where does one begin in summing up all that we've shared this past seven-and-a-half years? How does one count the blessings from God? How do we also look ahead to wish one another Godspeed for the ministry yet ahead as we choose separate paths, yet we are all held together in Christ for a single destination? We can't expect to be able to sum it all up.
As we gather around this Pentecost fire, however, I would like to first suggest one verse from Scripture by which I'd like you to remember my ministry and what I hope it is about. It's this one verse, 1 John 1:5 [displayed on large poster]:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.That God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. It is such a simple verse, but I'm not sure we appreciate how truly radical it was for the New Testament writers like St. John to come to this conclusion about God. Why is it so radical? Because we are so inclined to want gods that have some darkness in them.
What do I mean? Consider our first two lessons from scripture today. St. Luke feels compelled to retell the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 with his telling of the story of Pentecost. He not only completely reverses the gist of the story, but he does so in light of this God in whom there is no darkness at all -- a different God, I think, than the one we meet in the Tower of Babel. The Genesis story is characteristic of the Bible in being very honest about human sinfulness, of the human pride and rivalry which pulls it apart. But this story also gives us a picture of God's response in these terms:
And the Lord said, "Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.I don't know about you, but the God I meet in this picture has some darkness in him. It is a jealous god, a wrathful god, a punishing god. It is the kind of god we read about in Greek mythology. It even uses the plural like Greek mythology: "Let us go down and confuse their language..." It sounds like something Zeus would say to the other Greek gods before going down to wreak some havoc among the peons at the foot of Mt. Olympus.
St. Luke retells this story with the gracious God we finally come to know most completely in Jesus Christ, the gracious, forgiving God who gathers us instead of scattering us. In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, those who were scattered across the face of the earth, with their differing languages and customs and cultures, were now able to come together and understand one another as if they all spoke the same language. This is the God, I believe, whom St. John proclaimed as light and in whom there is no darkness at all. It is a God of grace and mercy and forgiveness and salvation, a Good Shepherd who gathers the entire flock which has, over and over again, managed to find itself scattered.
So what do we say about the jealous and punishing God we meet in Genesis 11, or in many other places in the Bible? To me, this is a big part of the grace and forgiveness we see in Jesus Christ, namely, that God is seemingly forever patient with us when we have continued to get wrong who God is. We have continued to worship idols. Even as God has acted to show us who he is -- through the calling of Abraham and Sarah, and the liberation out of slavery with Moses, through the reign of David and challenge of the prophets, and finally through Jesus Christ -- we have continued to hear and see only part of the story. As the Living God reveals the light of the divine self to us, we have continued to see and hear of a god of darkness along with the light.
In order to see how radical this verse from St. John is, I think we finally need to see how we have continued to allow darkness into our picture of God, even after the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ, even after St. John was able to proclaim: "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all." In the Old Testament, we can at least allow for the fact that they were getting to know the Living God before Jesus Christ came into this world. But what about us? What is the excuse of Christians who have continued to let darkness back into our experience of God even after Jesus Christ? That's the crucial question still facing us today.
If we had time this morning, I could show you how the darkness crept back in to the Christian God slowly over the centuries. (1) But, as Lutherans, we're familiar with the fact that by the time we get to Martin Luther in the early 1500's, the darkness is fully back into God. That's what Luther's revolution of faith was all about, wasn't it? The God Luther himself had come to know through the church of his day was one that he was terrified of. Talk about darkness! The God he had come to know was seemingly all about wrath and punishment for his dark sin. Luther finally came to see the light and say, 'No! We have to get back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom we encounter a God of mercy and forgiveness.' Luther called the church to get back to what he called a "theology of the cross," a theology that comes to know God through the love and salvation of the cross. Luther helped us to take a big step forward once again to the message that St. John proclaims in this verse, that God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all.
But you've also heard me say in the past that I think something is afoot in the church today that is even bigger than Luther, and so I'd like to share with you one last time some of the insights that have set me on fire with the Holy Spirit. Some of these insights have even come very recently, as I've taught a class on Lutheran Theology for the synod. I would like to put it to you this way: Luther took a big step forward, in returning to 1 John 1:5, but he didn't quite yet go all the way. Perhaps we just weren't quite ready to come all the way back to a God in whom there is no darkness at all. Whatever the case, Luther did let some of that darkness remain, in what he called the hidden part of God. He let the jealous, wrathful, punishing God somehow remain in the hidden part of God, pushed back behind the god of mercy and love that we see in the cross of Jesus.
This is important because I think there have been some terrible consequences to this move by Luther to let darkness remain in some hidden part of God. The terrible consequences have been what they have always been when we let that darkness remain: namely, we can usher out that dark god at our convenience when we need a god to justify the terrible, dark things we human beings do to each other when we are jealous and wrathful and punishing with each other. Luther himself was able to use this dark, hidden part of God when he talked in violent, hateful ways about Jews. He was able to let nobles and peasants do terrible things to each other during the so-called Peasant's War of his day without speaking out against it by referencing this hidden, dark part of God.
In our own day, one of the most pressing question for Lutherans is how could millions of German Lutherans have supported Hitler's wholesale slaughter upon Europe and especially upon the Jews? I would suggest to you that they followed the founder of their denomination by letting some darkness remain in God even after we have come to know God through Jesus Christ.(2)
And in our day something has come along, I firmly believe with all my heart and soul, that can help us to take another step back toward the radical message proclaimed in 1 John 1:5. Luther gave us a "theology of the cross" to help us take a first step. What we now have is an "anthropology of the cross," which can help us to take the next decisive step. An anthropology of the cross is essential to a theology of the cross because it helps us to know more clearly who we are as human beings and how it is that we so stubbornly cling to our idols, our dark gods. We cling to them so that we can continue to perform our dark deeds against one another and somehow feel justified in doing so. Luther was right to move a theology of the cross to the forefront, but as long as he left the dark parts of God somewhere "hidden" in the background, he or his followers have been able to trot that wrathful God back out when needing to play the age-old human game of justify dark deeds. The next decisive step, therefore, is to clearly confront that age-old human game and thus take a step to more fully return to St. John's decisive proclamation about God. Jesus came into this world, and onto the cross, so that we might more clearly see who God is by more clearly seeing the nature of our idolatry. God became flesh and dwelt among full of truth and grace so that we might finally see and hear once and for all that the darkness we project onto our gods is our darkness. We are the ones who do to one another just the very sort of dark things we did to God's Son. The darkness is not of God. It's never been of God. For God is Light, and in God there is no darkness at all.
So does this anthropology of the cross remove all the mystery from who God is? No, Luther was right to recognize that there will remain some mystery to who God is for us. Exactly where the darkness comes from is also somewhat of a mystery -- though, I think, less so when one has an adequate evangelical anthropology which more fully reveals our "original sin" (i.e., the nature of our sin since our origins). When we more clearly see our own responsibility for the darkness, and the gods we cling to in order to justify our darkness, then we can come to see that the mystery of who God is always moves in a vector toward the light. It always moves in the direction of being amazed by God's grace and peace and healing and forgiveness and love and life and so much more. And when we encounter mysteries in life, when dark things continue to happen, we can have faith in a God whose mystery remains in the promises of light and life in the face of the darkness. We can no longer let a mysterious, dark, hidden part of God remain, as Luther did. I implore you with all my heart to keep this proclamation of St. John before you, that God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all.
So what do we say about our Christian lapses back into a God with darkness and the terrible consequences of our sin? Well, first of all, we proclaim God's amazing grace once again. That God is able to patiently, with infinite loving forgiveness, able to wait for us to finally get it: that God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all.
But we can also begin to see what Jesus was talking about in this morning's Gospel with the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who "will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you." Jesus sent us this Spirit of Truth to continue guiding us when he went to his Father in heaven through the Cross and Resurrection. St. John's name for the Holy Spirit, behind our English word Advocate, is the Greek title Paraclete. Who was the Paraclete? Basically, the Paraclete was the Advocate for those Accused like Jesus. The Paraclete is the one who stands up for those whom we justify leaving out or pushing out because of our jealousies and wrath and violence.
And I would like to leave you this morning with one further image by which to both understand the working of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, and to remember how that Paraclete has worked through us in our ministry together these past seven-and-a-half years. Here's a common length of chain. If we were to exert a great deal of stress on this chain -- securing it between two pick-up trucks, let's say -- where would it break? The answer, of course, is that it would break at the proverbial "weakest link."(3)
Now, let's think about human communities and cultures through the ages. When they are under great stress, how do they end up staying together and surviving the stress? Answer: by choosing the weakest link and getting rid of it. We even have a TV show by that title, "The Weakest Link," which dramatizes this, using a woman with a German accent who prompts me to recall the hideous Nazi version of this in expelling, exterminating, the Jews as their chosen weakest link. We have it dramatized to us in other popular virtual reality shows, like "Survivor." Each week, a community of folks chooses a "weak link" among them and throws them out.
Well, this is the human way since the beginning of time: choose a weak link and get rid of it. It's the way that scattered human beings across the face of this earth with many languages and cultures. But it is also the way that Jesus Christ, with ongoing help from the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, came to begin to reverse. Jesus let himself be chosen as the weakest link and expelled in order to finally reveal to us the real truth of how to survive our human crises of jealousy, wrath, and violence. We survive not by choosing and rejecting the weakest link but by coming to the aid of the weakest links in love, and by strengthening those weakest links. Jesus came to show us the truth of that age-old proverb, "We're only as strong as the weakest link." We'll only survive in peace as we learn to care for those weakest links in the chain of life.
At its best, that's what Christian ministry is always about, reaching out to those most in need. And over these past seven-and-a-half years, I give thanks for all the ways in which we've been able to carry out just such a ministry.
[Conclude with singing WOV #649, "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light."]
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 2-3, 2001
1. See chapter 2, "Imitatio Diaboli," of Anthony Bartlett's new book Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2001). I am also indebted to Bartlett for the following insights into Luther's mistake of the "Hidden God."
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one Lutheran who was able to maintain Luther's "theology of the cross" in the face of Nazism. (Bartlett ends with Bonhoeffer in his book cited above as a clear example of someone who came to experience the God of light in whom there is no darkness at all.) But the fact that so many Lutherans failed is a good clue, I think, to the fact that a "theology of the cross" is not enough by itself. The Incarnation, God's becoming human, might be another, more positive, clue that anthropology is also needed. Jesus Christ is both truly human and divine so that we might have a revelation of what is both truly human and divine.
3. The image of the "weakest link" comes from colleague Steve Samuelson during our weekly lectionary study.