I always think it is interesting how smells can trigger memories. Though I was nine when my grandfather stopped smoking a pipe, yesterday as I was sitting outside, I smelled that distinct odor, and images and memories flooded my mind. It was even more interesting that it happened this week, as we approach Ash Wednesday. Now, my grandfather probably never made a big deal of Ash Wednesday, as traditionally, this was a day that was not emphasized by the Presbyterian Church. However, the core of my grandfather’s theology was the very first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, which he had to memorize when he was confirmed.
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
All the reformed catechisms start in a similar way, and most theologians would look at this question as foundational to everything that follows. But as we think of it within the context of the season, Lent, by its own definition, is a time of preparation much like that of Advent. In Lent, we are preparing to find real acceptance of Christ, so that when we come to Easter, we can truly celebrate the Resurrection.
This means that a big part of Lent is about reconciliation, both with God and each other. This is why we are taking on the study of social justice through this Lenten season. At the core of this question is the self-reflective activity of thinking deeply about one’s relationship with God and asking if we are really ordering our life not based on what we want, but rather what God wants. It also reminds us that no matter what we go through, we belong to God, and God will grant us salvation.
In Ash Wednesday, we look to the ashes as a reminder of our mortality. People had a good idea about how the body decomposed, and that after a while, what was once living would again turn to dust. And from that dust, one day, more living would arise. So, for us, ashes are a reminder of our human mortality, and that like those before us, our earthly bodies will die, BUT we have hope! Because no matter what happens with our bodies, our souls are protected because of the promise of the Resurrection and the life everlasting.
This is why my grandfather loved this passage so much. No matter where he found himself, or in what situation, he could look back to this question and refocus his priorities. In Lent, this is what we are called to do, and when we refocus our priorities right, we can truly begin to live!
Growing up in the ’80s, two of the biggest things for boys were GoBots and Transformers. Personally, I liked GoBots better, but both had the same general principle. When push came to shove, they would transform into something else. Most of the time it was cars, but sometimes buildings, rocks, and so on. For the longest time, when I heard the story of the Transfiguration of Christ, I always thought of the GoBots I played with as a kid.
On one hand, this was good imagery for the Transfiguration. On the mountain, Jesus is transfigured in front of Peter, John, and James. Jesus changes from a man into something more, right before their eyes. However, that is where the analogy kind of falls apart. The Transfiguration is not really a moment where Jesus goes from one state of being to another; it is more of a revelation of how Jesus was the whole time.
For the three, it was a significant moment when they saw that Christ was much more than who they thought he was. Yet, as the story lets us know, they still could not fully understand what they were seeing. To their eyes, Christ was in something like an ordination ceremony, but it would have been the ceremony to end all ordination ceremonies. Still, they did not make the connection fully. Even though Jesus explained to them what had gone on, their future actions revealed the disciples’ continued lack of understanding.
Instead of thinking of this as a transformation, I like to see this as more of a revelation. Jesus brought the disciples to a place where he could be fully revealed to them. The truth of the passage is that, other than a light show, nothing changed; Jesus was the same going up the mountain as he was coming down. Even in the moment of transfiguration, one could justifiably argue that there is no real change.
The line, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white,” points to something that has much more to do with the nature of the event than to some magical metamorphosis. I liken it to watching a child see a parent who has been deployed for over a year. Seeing the emotion on the child’s face change from boredom or confusion to pure joy is amazing! Here, Christ is being reunited with his father, and registers the joy which comes from that reunion. So why the clothes became white, who knows, but it does not signify a change in the person of Christ, rather in his state of being.
Here is the interesting thing: by explaining the story with analogies like the GoBots or, as I have also used in the past, butterflies, the emphasis of the story is put in the wrong place. Christ has always been, and always will be, the same. Thus, the basis of this story has less to do with the change that happens in him than it does with the change that happens in us. When we make the story be about magical things that happen, we remove ourselves from the world of belief and enter into the world of unbelief. When we see this passage as a revealing, we are forced to ask ourselves how many times Christ, God, the Holy Spirit have revealed themselves to us, yet we were either blissfully ignorant, refused to understand, or neglected to care.
The truth is that when Christ is revealed in our lives, it is not some magical transformation. Christ is not hiding somewhere, waiting to transform into something big and powerful. Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is there with us each and every day, and when we believe, we can see the full beauty of our Lord, now and forever.
Striving for a Greater Love
You’re probably expecting a mushy article about love, being that today is Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, I am unable to deliver that today, for there is a far more pressing issue at hand. The greeting card companies have co-opted the notion of love, and have reduced it to the passion between a man and a woman. In culture, through movies, television, and other media, society has equated love with sex. During children’s sermons, when I have asked children about love, a common response is “Ewww!” Who knows what they are thinking, but it points to a misunderstanding of love. When I ask what love is, how do you define it?
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, expresses love as the greatest of gifts.
Paul describes love, saying:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
Notice that Paul’s definition of love is not tied to relationships; rather, it is a way of life. It is something that we as individuals strive for, though we often fall short.
Paul recognized that this agape or “Christian love” is powerful but different from philo, which is an emotion. Thayer’s Greek lexicon points to this relationship being one between a love that is a choice and a love that is brute emotion. In fact, when God speaks of love, God is speaking in terms of agape love. The same is true of Paul, as when he expresses love, he does so without emotion. For Paul, this love is a choice, one that all Christians are called to choose.
The struggle between the emotional love of philo and the thoughtful agape is central, since agape love points to something which transcends time and space, whereas philo love is linked to the passion of the moment. In essence, philo love is the love that we often think about this time of year. It is a love within the confines of the moment, time, place, or person. In relation to our Christian understanding, philo love is valid and part of agape love, but philo love does not encompass all of agape love.
Agape is like what the mother feels when her six-year-old son breaks a piece of her good china. The emotion that the mother holds is far from the philo love. Instead, the mother is alarmed because her son was climbing the cabinet after she had told him not to, pulling down the pretty piece of china to its doom. Here, the mother’s love transcends the moment, and turns to one of care and protection.
Agape love is also the love that the father has for his daughter when she gets into her first car accident. Though it was clearly her fault, the father sits by her bedside nursing the daughter’s needs, not telling her what she already knew. The father’s love is one of patience and hope for recovery. Any momentary anger about the accident is put aside to offer comfort.
Striving for this agape love is so crucial for our society to rediscover. It is the love that learns to care for others, even when you don’t necessarily agree with what they do with their lives. It is the love that looks for solutions, and not blame; the love that calls us to community, working together for a common good.
So as we celebrate this day devoted to love, remember that what we celebrate today is the philolove of the moment, but what we strive for as people of faith is a greater and more excellent love. It is a love of patience and kindness. It is a love that is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It is not selfish, irritable, or resentful. It doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoings. It rejoices in truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. It is a love that surpasses time, place, and person. Agape is the love found with our God in heaven.
Remember, it is the agape love that Christ calls us to when he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”(John 13:34).
Sin, in its simplest definition, is that which separates us from God. This sin is the condition caused by being human, with the desire to protect one’s self at all costs. Calvin refers to this as total depravity, and the theology that results from it helps us to understand how we need to order our lives. In other words, because our nature is to please ourselves, we must set aside time think about God, and we must second-guess our interpretations of scripture and the world to see if they are in alignment with both being part of the body of Christ and how God calls us to act. More importantly, we must question interpretations which create hierarchies and persecutions in the human situation.
As I mentioned in my sermon Sunday, one of the best examples of this can be seen in the story of “the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.” The original story was one focused on the question of offering hospitality and welcome. The issue was that the people of those cities were so self-absorbed that they could not and would not welcome others. Interestingly, it is only in the rabbinical interpretations that we begin to see the connection between homosexuality and the Sodom and Gomorrah story. (In fact, the direct connection only occurs in the Quran.)
To make homosexuality a scapegoat for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two devastating things happen. First, rather than focusing on hospitality, this interpretation introduces human judgment. Paradoxically, that accomplishes the exact opposite of what the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is speaking against. Because of this, governments and individuals have used this passage as justification to persecute, torture, even kill in the name of “righteousness.”
As sad as the first point is, the second is even more amazing. Often when the Bible calls us to offer hospitality, we find a way to make it about something else. It is understandable; welcoming the stranger is not easy. Although one of the most consistent and recurring themes of the Bible is just that, in almost every circumstance, interpretations and readings have come along to take the biblical mandate and twist it into something else, often something more comfortable for the majority population.
To be honest, this is exactly the point that that many agnostics and atheists make against the church, because we often rely more on other people’s interpretations of scripture than looking at what the story actually says.
It is important to note that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not the only occurrence of a mandate of hospitality and welcome in the Bible. It is also not the only time that someone’s interpretation flipped the meaning of the passage from communal responsibility to self-serving.
It took the very public moves of our current president to reveal a movement that has actually been underway for years. As our country has been creeping closer and closer to an isolationist mentality, we have made it harder and harder for many groups to come in, especially those unwilling, or perceived as unwilling, to assimilate into our culture. In a very real way, we are on track to becoming a new Sodom and Gomorrah because of our isolationist trend. For years our denomination has been struggling with this trend. It is important that we follow biblical guidance and look at the many narratives calling for welcome and a more just community. That is the basis for our current stance on immigration and refugees:
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessor denominations have consistently called the church to welcome refugees in the name of Jesus. This call began when the 160th General Assembly (1948) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America called for the resettlement of persons made refugees and displaced by World War II and continued through the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) statement calling the church to “respond to the ancient biblical directive to provide for the stranger and the sojourner.”
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen