Archive for the ‘The Rev. Dr. Robert Neville, Dean Emeritus of Marsh Chapel’ Category

November 29

Have Courage

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Isaiah 64:19

1 Corinthians 1:39

Mark 13:2437

Click here to hear just the sermon

When I was a young adolescent, I thought the following was an outrageously funny joke. A man saw three holes in the ground and said, “well, well, well.” Nowadays, I suppose, nobody thinks of wells as holes in the ground, but it was very funny back then. Today I want to talk about holes in our intellectual ground. I’m going to speak of these holes abstractly, but they are not only abstract. As Christians we recognize them as holes in the Trinity: of the Son, of the Spirit, and even of the Father. Other religions have alternative means of expressing these, but I am going to focus on Christianity.

Isn’t it astonishing, however, to refer to the Trinitarian Persons as “holes”? After all, those Persons name the basic contours of the faith. All the other doctrines, stories, songs, and celebrations are elaborations of the Persons of the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Father. The usual order to list them is Father, Son, and Spirit. But I am going to change that to start with the Son as the most distinctive doctrine of Christianity, the Spirit as the pervasive presence that animates the religious community, perhaps even many communities, and the Father as the universal Creator acknowledged by many if not all communities. Instead of seeing these Persons as the most positive general doctrines of the faith, I see them as holes. How astonishing! But consider.

Belief in Jesus as the Son of God is the most distinctive of Christian doctrines. Of course, it is extremely varied. The Gospel of Mark treats Jesus as adopted by God for a larger purpose and made special in that way. The Gospel does not even have a proper post-resurrection scene and makes the calling of Jesus by John the Baptist extremely important. The Gospel of Matthew was addressed to the Jews who surrounded Jesus and focuses mainly on how Jesus amended the Jewish teachings. It traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham and calls attention to spreads of fourteen generations to David, fourteen more to the deportation to Babylon, and fourteen more to Jesus. The Gospel of Luke was addressed to gentile followers of Jesus and traces his ancestry back to Seth, Adam, and God, with claims for Jesus universality. The Gospel of John tells a very different story from the first three Gospels, beginning with a metaphysical sermon on the creation that claims that the Word or Logos that God spoke was itself incarnate in the person of Jesus, but then moving to a very personal account of Jesus’s friendships and enemies, ending with a very long sermon, Jesus’s crucifixion, and then his appearances first in Jerusalem and then at the Sea of Tiberias. Paul wrote about Jesus almost exclusively as a metaphysical antidote to the judgment of the Jews, the Second Man Adam responding to the First. He said almost nothing about the biographical details that interested the Gospels. The other New Testament writings depicted Jesus in the large cosmic roles given credence in Jewish thought, often extending beyond Judaism. In Post-Testamental times, Jesus was interpreted in the terms of Greek thought with many variations in how he could be both God and man. Augustine recognized the difficulties of giving a straightforward interpretation of the scriptures and interpreted Jesus according to his own categories. Aquinas adopted many of these strategies of interpretation and embedded the highly interpreted Jesus in his dense fabric of ethics. Schleiermacher treated Jesus as the best example of a God-intoxicated person. Bultmann thought of Jesus as an historical figure who was given a highly sophisticated interpretation by the thinkers of his context. But in all of these, from the Gospellers to the twentieth century, Jesus was interpreted as the Son of God, whatever that might mean. Some of you long-time members of this church have heard my interpretations of Jesus over the years, drawing heavily on Tillich though set in a much wider context.

Without for a moment suggesting that a consistent story is true about Jesus, I want to make clear that I have a consistent story, beginning with John’s Gospel that swings from metaphysics to friendship and that has nearly always two story-lines: one that is for the masses and one for sophisticated Christians. I follow that through history to our own day. But is this not still only speculation? So I have an interpretive point of view, for which I can argue vigorously, is it still not merely an argument? Don’t I recognize the power of many other interpretations, particularly more fundamentalistic ones? Don’t I recognize that the finer my interpretations, the fewer people agree with me? Of course I do.

Moreover, the existential meaning of Jesus is itself speculative. How many people have believed that faith in Jesus will get them into Heaven? I don’t even believe in Heaven as a place for after-life experiences. How many people have believed that Jesus is the judgment of God, rewarding the good and punishing the evil? I don’t believe that evil is something worth punishing. How many people have believed that everyone is saved in the end through faith in Jesus? I’m a little shaky even on salvation. How many people go along with Jesus’s rather apparent pacifism? In the short run I’m dead set against it.

Now I’ll bet a lot of you share my doubts about Jesus. In church, everything is fine because we know that the language of the liturgy, even of the preaching, is mainly metaphorical. But when pressed, how much can we affirm that Jesus is Son of God? Not much. And this is where the doctrine of Jesus as Son of God has holes in it. Your holes might be different from mine. Nevertheless, at some point, when pressed, or at night, or when faced with Covid 19, I bet you just get quiet and say someone else had better figure it out.

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is equally full of holes. It began with the Gospel of John’s introduction that took the form of a special midrashic sermon based on two texts. The primary text was the first part of Genesis that said that the universe was created by God speaking. Was God whole while silent but also while speaking? That gives rise to a rather simple view of God as a person. Or was God whole prior to speaking so that the creation of speech was the beginning of creation? This gives rise to a very sophisticated view of God prior to speaking and then a determinate situation once speech began; on this view the speech was divine and was that through which all things were made. This was the view held by John and the Christians, and it was acceptable within Judaism up until the Babylonian Talmud in the fourth century; then the Jews defended more strongly the first interpretation according to which God is like a person, first silent and then speaking. John’s second text was the reference to Lady Wisdom in Ecclesiastes and the intertestamental writings as being around and ready for heeding but being neglected. Finally God made his speech or Logos incarnate in the person of Jesus who was himself treated very badly. But then John’s text shifts to the biographical details of Jesus’s life. Nevertheless, Jesus promised to send the Logos, or divine speech, or the Holy Spirit to guide the disciples after he had died.

The Book of Acts records how on Pentecost day the Holy Spirit descended to the disciples in tongues of fire on their heads, giving them wisdom and the power to speak in all the languages represented in their audience. This marks the beginning of an association of the Holy Spirit with the Church that has come down to the present day. All sorts of stories exist in which the Holy Spirit comes to individuals. But mainly it is to the Church that the Spirit comes. Paul Tillich went so far as to say that the Church is not the real Church, but is a phony church, unless the Spirit is present, which leaves him with the problem of identifying the true Church. If you eliminate the separation of the Holy Spirit and the Church, don’t you have only the Holy Spirit?

If you have only the Holy Spirit, what are its marks? How can you tell?

The holes in the Person of the Holy Spirit have lapped around the doctrine since its beginning. It is easy to claim the Spirit for the side that wins the debate, which is what happened. But then the losers of the debate also claimed it. Schleiermacher had perhaps the best version of the doctrine insofar as he gave a theoretically rich interpretation of the experience of the Holy in nearly (or in fact in) every person. But his interpretation rested upon a metaphysical distinction at the root of experiential process between the passive and the active, and not many people agree to that. I think Schleiermacher’s tack is good so far as it goes, but it needs to go much farther, and perhaps will turn around and prove that just the opposite is the true, that the confusion of the passive and active proves there is no Holy Spirit. When we look to the Holy Spirit to give us a divine authority for something we want to say, it is full of holes.

The Person of the Father is the most universal of Christian doctrines. Backing off from the Son and the Holy Spirit, it is extremely general. The adoption of Greek thinking gave the Christians plenty of room to speculate on God as Creator. Aquinas defended the Neo-Platonic view that God is infinite and that the creation is finite and made from the infinite. Calvin too said that God is infinite. Schleiermacher and Tillich were somewhat vague about whether God is full or empty, limiting himself to God’s creation. West Asian religions have tried to carry over the personal characteristics of intentionality and wisdom to God, even when God is beyond real characters. South Asian religions have taken the intentionality line to be unfavorable and have pushed for consciousness in some pure state to be the nature of God, even when God is beyond nature. The East Asians have given up just about all uses of the metaphor of the person for God and have talked about nature giving rise spontaneously to determinate things. The Chinese have been naturalistic rather than theistic in their theology. All have admitted that some line of finite characteristics remains with God, even when substantial form is denied it. At least, this is the way I read the intellectual progress of religions.

I don’t know how far you want to go with me on this adventure of conceiving God. Most Christians want to hold on to some kind of intentionality in God and are reluctant to give up a vague claim that God acts with purpose or has hopes for us.

But remember the intellectual pressures pushed to an extreme, remember the dark night, remember Covid-19. Perhaps you would be willing to give up the view that God is a being, a thing, however infinite, and consider God to be an act of creation. God as act is known only with the creation and could not be considered anything before the act. The act is eternal because all time is created. But any thing to be honored, prayed to, or located as present or absent is part of creation. God is God only because of creation.

To my mind, God is good only because the act creates determinate things, all of which are good, each in its own way. God is the source of evil only because these goods inhibit one another and conflict. The goods and evils of human life are all rather local and we do the best we can, although what we can do and fail surely counts. But we count only proximately, not ultimately. Ultimate we all are good in just the way we are.

So I agree with John that God’s speech is separate from God’s reality, though God’s reality is nothing unless he is speaking. All that is metaphorical.

Mine is a fairly extreme view. If you go with me, welcome. If not, I encourage your belief. But remember this is all just speculation, however sophisticated. It is the best that I can do. I presume on the basis of past experience that it is an hypothesis that will be superseded by a better hypothesis some day. From my standpoint, all previous hypotheses have fallen short and been superseded. Why not mine?

Surely there are holes in my hypothesis of the Father as the ultimate sheer act of creation, inseparable from the creation itself. I do not know what they are, but I fear them. By happy days I work on my hypothesis. But when pressed ultimately, in the ultimate dark, or even ultimately depressed by the virus, I am ultimately afraid. Of course, now it is daytime and light, and so I am only referring to my fears, not exhibiting them.

What did Jesus say about this situation? He said, “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” According to John, he said this toward the end of his long speech at the last supper, a speech so complex and contradictory no one understood him. “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” He said it after warning that his disciples would face persecution, as we all do whether we believe anything or nothing. “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” He said it whether or not we believe in his later resurrection after crucifixion. “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” He said it whether or not he actually said it, which he probably did not. “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” He said it even if the whole story of his life, even if the rumors of the Holy Spirit, even if his belief in the Huge God beyond all reckoning is false. “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” He said it even if there are holes in our best theories, even if there are holes in the roots of our life’s determination, even if there are holes in the God beyond gods. “Take courage; I have conquered the world.”

Even if there are holes in every theory we have thought, in every theory we now think, in every theory anyone shall ever think, Jesus says “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” “I have conquered the world” refers to the past to what Jesus has done and endured. Whatever happens in his future, including crucifixion and resurrection, and looking down from Heaven on his Church, count as nothing because he has already conquered. “Take courage” refers to his disciples, to us, and to everyone from then on: it means that whatever happens comes from God and is good, and that we should anticipate it with joy. Even if the world is ultimately destroyed, we have had enough. Even if my ultimate hypothesis according to which God is the act of creation and the creation is ultimately good is mistaken, we have had enough. We have had enough in our local circumstance, even if we are locally evil, and we have had enough in ultimate perspective. Do not give up when things go bad. Have courage.

Well, well, well. Three holes in the ground. Three holes in our best understanding of what is ultimately real. So we should be modest in our claims as Christians. We should be strenuous in our attempts to do better. We should engage our local projects with determination and our ultimate end with thanksgiving. “Have courage; I have conquered the world.”


-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville, Dean Emeritus of Marsh Chapel

February 24


By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to entire service

Gen. 45:3-11, 15

Ps. 92:1-4, 12-15

1 Cor. 15:35-38, 42-50

Luke 6:27-38

Click here to listen to the sermon only


With deep gratitude, I thank the Rev’d Dr., Professor Dean Hill for the invitation to preach today. One of the best things I’ve ever done was to be instrumental in hiring him to improve the preaching when I finished my terms as dean here. Beth and I have been associated with Marsh Chapel since the fall of 1988 and we have seen many changes. Robert Thornburg was the dean in those early days, and his ministry focused on undergraduates, especially the athletes. He went to nearly athletic contest. He was succeeded by the Rev’d Hope Lucky who focused on undergraduate women evangelicals. I succeeded Hope in 2003 and focused on making Marsh Chapel’s pulpit a leading intellectual voice for Christianity in the nation. When Bob Hill came in 2006, he actually did make it a leading intellectual voice. Ray Bouchard came here with me and he now presides over what is most likely the most ambitious university chapel in the country. Scott Jarrett came with Hope Lucky and, with Justin Blackwell, has now made our music program second to none in New England. Many on our staff now, including Brother Larry Whitney LC+, were around as students during my time or, like Jay Reeg and Mark Gray   began coming during my tenure. What a great privilege it is for me to see so many more of you, so many new, since my days as dean! The changes have been wonderful!

To be sure, some things seem not to have changed. Some of you have been coming since the days of Bob Thornburg. Thornburg was himself the third Bob to be Dean of the Chapel, I’m the fourth, and Bob Hill is the fifth. The acoustics of this chapel remain great for music and wretched for the spoken word, despite many improvements in loudspeakers and microphones. There are five levels of floors in the building, making real elevators almost impossible. We are stuck with the outside lift that Thornburg installed. Still, even these seemingly unchanged things have changed at least by getting older. Some of you have knee joints that agree with me.

Let me call your attention to our three scriptures about for today, one about an incident in one of the world’s most dysfunctional families, one about Paul’s bizarre ideas about resurrection and immortality, and one about Luke’s strange portion of his Sermon on the Plain.

The Genesis reading is part of the story of Jacob, the part where his son Joseph reunites his family. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the first schlemiel in recorded history, to my knowledge. Isaac as a boy was almost killed by his father to prove Abraham’s faithfulness to God. As an old man, Isaac was tricked by his wife and Jacob into giving his blessing to the wrong son. Jacob as a young man was strong, if not particularly ethical, and did plot to secure his father’s blessing that belonged in Esau. Isaac sent Jacob to his Uncle Laban to get one of his daughters as a wife; the candidates were Jacob’s first cousins, if you keep track of biblical family practice. He fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel and served Laban seven years to pay for her. But on the wedding night Laban substituted the veiled older daughter, Leah, for Rachel and so Jacob was married to Leah. Wanting Rachel instead, or as well, Jacob worked for Laban another seven years and finally married Rachel too. The two wives constantly fought. Leah bore Jacob the sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. With a concubine, Bilhah, Jacob had Dan and Naphtali. With another concubine, Jacob had Gad and Asher. Leah became fertile again and bore Jacob sons Issachar and Zebulun. Then, last, Rachel bore Jacob Joseph and Benjamin. You will note that the sons of Jacob were ancestors to the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob’s name won from his fight with the angel. With all those warring mothers, the sons of Jacob were hostile to one another, but especially to Joseph, the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. You remember how they were offended by Joseph’s coat of many colors and sold him to Midianites who took him to Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph worked his way up from slavery to friendship with the Pharaoh who made him Prime Minister of the kingdom.

This is where our story today takes up. During a great famine, Jacob’s other sons except for Benjamin came to Egypt to beg for grain. Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. He sent them back home with instructions to bring him Benjamin, which they did. And as you can see from our text, Joseph, after some trickery, reconciled himself with his brothers. They brought their father to Egypt where Jacob enjoyed the greatest hospitality and reunion with Joseph. The good times of Jacob’s family in Egypt lasted for generations until there is a pharaoh “that knew not Joseph.” The moral of the story is that, at least for a few generations, the enmity within Jacob’s family was overcome and they lived reconciled with one another and in the good graces of the Egyptians. What an extraordinary change! Everyone changed! In the time of famine the Egyptians became super-generous and the household of Jacob was happy.

A moral of this story for us is that the enmity between nations, between parties, between families can indeed be overcome. Appearances to the contrary, those of us who have been aggrieved because of race, nationality, religion, or anything else can change to have the spirit of forgiveness, and forgiveness can bring about peace and happiness. Remember Joseph said that his brothers ought not think of themselves as guilty for doing something horrible to him, but that God used this to put Joseph in the high position where he could help them. Joseph not only effected the vast change of reconciliation in his family, he changed his older brothers from guilty to being instruments of great good.

Of course, we don’t really know what happened in the Jacob story; even the part about Joseph being the prime minister of Israel does not have verification from any other source. We know only what the biblical sources say. The case with Paul’s discussion of immortality in 1 Corinthians is very different. We know a lot about the range of opinions about that topic in Paul’s day.

The basic Jewish view prior to the encounter with Greek thought was that death of the body and its decomposition meant the death of the person, with no separable soul that lasted long. Some people thought that the soul lasts a short time in Hades after death and then dissipates like smoke. In Jesus’s time, the Greek-influenced Pharisee party that Jesus followed believed in the resurrection of the dead, not the dissipation of the person. The old school Sadducees teased Jesus and the Pharisees about this; remember when they asked Jesus whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection who had married several brothers. Some people believed that only the fortunate would be resurrected by God and that the others would just die. The few who would be resurrected had to be given a new embodiment either immediately upon death or at a later Last Judgment. Others believed that the human soul is separable from the body and is itself naturally immortal. For these natural immortalists, some people found a new life in heaven, but if they didn’t merit heaven there had to be a hell for them to go to. Later Christians in medieval times elaborated the place for the next life to include limbo for unbaptized infants and purgatory for the purification of sinful souls that eventually would get to heaven; no one in Jesus’ time, however, would think about limbo and purgatory.

St. Paul accepted the natural cosmology of his day that said that the universe exists in layers with different physical properties for each layer or plane. On the plane of the earth, people had physical bodies that die and decay. The higher levels had incorruptible physical properties, like layers of angels, all the way up to God. Planes lower than the earth had tormented physical bodies where the demons were. Souls sometimes can traverse from one plane to another. Remember his hymn in Philippians where Christ lives at the top with God but then descends to Earth where he takes on a corruptible physical body as a slave. In Corinthians, Paul said that the afterlife consists in obtaining an incorruptible body and that Jesus assures that those who believe in him will be given an incorruptible body at the Last Judgment. Paul believed the Last Judgment would come within his lifetime, although some Christians had already died. The souls would exist bodiless from the time of death until that Last Judgment resurrection. Many Christians today believe this, but many other Christians also believe that people are raised with incorruptible bodies immediately after the death of their corruptible physical bodies. Either of those theories is a version of reincarnation that was almost universally assumed in South Asia and that came to Israel through Greece.

All of these opinions concern the afterlife as coming (or not) within time after the end of historical, temporal life. The authors of Ephesians and Colossians, whom scholars believe now to have been students of Paul, developed what scholars call a “realized eschatology.” This is the belief that it’s not the future but an eternal and present relation with God that counts. Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection with Christ and now already live rightly related to God. Therefore, those letters say, we should live with love and generosity now in this life, not worrying about any life to come. Eternity does not mean something that last forever, like two people and a ham (my wife told me to tell that joke). Eternity is rather the creative act that creates all moments as future, all as present, and all as past, all together, eternally together although temporally unfolding. Given what we know now about the dependence of the soul on the brain, body, health, and socialization, many of us now do not believe in life after death but rather in an eternal relation to God that we live out within the days of our temporal life. I myself believe that our day to day temporal life is but an abstract part of our real concrete life that is eternal within God’s eternal creative act. The realization of this eternal identity transforms our temporal lives in mind-blowing ways. My book, Eternity and Time’s Flow, explains my theory with lots of arguments and illustrations. Acceptance of any of these views of immortal or eternal life, however, causes huge changes in how we live day to day. We come to live before God, not just within the world of our interests.

I don’t know what you believe about these matters about which Paul wrote. All of them have biblical warrant, and they are all hard to believe. It is much easier to focus on Christianity as about how to live now, which is the position of the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke. In keeping with Dean Hill’s emphasis on comparative gospels, I urge you all to look up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount that encompasses three long chapters, five through seven. Read that against Luke’s chapter six, beginning with verse 17, a terse rearrangement and reinterpretation of the earlier text Matthew and Luke have in common that neither Mark nor John has. Matthew was writing for a mainly Jewish audience of Christians and so emphasized how Jesus sharpened Jewish law and attacked hypocrisy regarding Jewish practice. Luke was writing for Greek Christians, pretty much ignored Jewish law, and interpreted Jesus’ saying simply as how to live before God.

For Luke, the Christian life is not so much about obeying God’s law in our heart as it is about being like God in what we do. Because God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, so we should love our enemies, be good to everyone including sinners, and lend without expecting to be repaid. For Luke, Christian life is not so much about being good citizens of God’s law-governed kingdom as it is about being “children of the most high.” Children succeed by taking on their parents’ work, and we should continue the work of God who loves everyone, even the sinners. The Greek Christians can understand that without knowing much about the Kingdom of Israel. So can we.

Is it not shocking to learn that we should become children of God and heirs to God’s work? What greater change can we be called to than to behave like the merciful creator who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked? The Bible of course had no conception of justice as the attempt to change social structures to eliminate poverty or prejudice. It even had nothing against the social institutions of slavery. Those insights did not arise until the modern era and we late-modern Christians can add them as part of what we need to do to be just in the world. Luke would remind us that God loves the billionaires and racists, and loved the slaveowners, no matter how bad they are in a calculus of good and evil. A condition of us loving the wicked is that we forgive them, as we must do to be like God. What a change in the way we ordinarily think about justice!

Our three texts today are about changes. Joseph finishes the Jacob story by reconciling his family and turning his older brothers’ guilt into God’s instrument for reconciliation. Paul’s  understanding of Christian salvation is exchanging our perishable bodies for imperishable bodies so that we can rise with Jesus to the plane of God and enjoy fellowship with the divine. The journey upward through different planes of reality might not be how you think of a right relation to God, but there is surely a change from living in ordinary history to living in a history that is part of the eternal creation. Luke’s understanding of true Christian life is not just to be good by worldly standards, nor even to be obedient to divine commands, but to become children of God acting like God in daily life. How different that is from the way we ordinarily live!

These three texts draw a distinction between the steady way things are and the constancy of change. Forget about the way things are. Pay attention to how they are changing. By the imitation of God, make the changes for the better that lie within your means. Look for ways to make changes that you otherwise would not notice. See that in making these changes you are part of God creating with love even for the ungrateful and wicked with whom we are intimately bound. Remember that we have two bodies, as Paul would say. Our historical body lives day to day with all the ambiguities of life, our successes and our failures. That historical body is only a part of our eternal body within which we are connected with all other things, including the past and future, within the eternal act of God’s creation. When we realize that today’s body is only a part of our eternal body, we can accept the fact that what we do today, obligated as it is to be just, cannot escape the love of God even if we do what we ought not. Who knows? Our best intentions today might be great evils that will be shown up in future generations. We can take comfort that even the worst of us are part of the eternity of God’s creative act. Today we must act. In eternity we just rest in the bliss of God creating. Change exists in eternity.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Dean of the Chapel, 2003-2006 




November 15

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 13:1-8

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Dr. Neville

Dr. Jarrett, Bach’s cantata, “Bleib bei uns,” or “Stay with us,” worries a very old theme, the need for light.  It is hard to think of a time when the troubles call for light more than now.  The incomprehensible violence, the tragic deaths of innocents, the rage that knows no containment, of the Paris terrorist attacks has cast the world in darkness.  They were acts of war by a regime that does not distinguish its politics from religion, though by no means are those acts of war condoned by other Muslim regimes.  Will France of necessity declare war on the Islamic State?  How can that war be fought if the Islamic State soldiers live among people whom they have conquered?  Will NATO go to the aid of France?  Will the US? How can our Middle Eastern neighbors in Europe and the US not be under suspicion? Will such suspicion turn friends into enemies?  These are political and moral problems.  But the depths of the troubles press against the limits of our very being and so these are religious problems, for all sides, including us.  Where is the light in these increasingly dark times?

The metaphor of light arises on the first page of the Bible, as the very first thing God says: “Let there be light.” And there was light.  This implies that darkness is the primordial, the aboriginal, situation.  The narrative also implies that prior to speaking, God is just part of the darkness.  Presumably God could have eliminated the darkness altogether, but instead arranged the light and darkness in the alternation of day and night.  So darkness is always with us or just around the corner.

In biblical times there was much debate among both Jews and Christians over whether God and God’s speech are one thing or two.  On the one hand, in the human analogy we ordinarily say that a speaker and the speaker’s speech are one; a human being is an agent or actor and speaking is one kind of acting.  Perhaps we can conceive of God on the analogy of such an agent, existing in some sense in the darkness before light as an agent ready and able to speak, but just not yet.  The difficulty with this analogy is that the creation of the world, beginning with light distinguished from darkness, is such a vast change that it is difficult to think of God as an agent at all without some equally primordial world to work on.  God is radically changed by becoming a speaking God whose first words create light.

On the other hand, many people have allowed that there are two things, God not speaking prior to creation, and the divine Word that comes into being as God speaks and in fact structures the whole of creation.  This view was elaborated in the sayings of Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, who affirmed that she was present with God at the creation but complained that people did not pay enough attention to her and did not live in the light of God’s creative Word, which had moral connotations.  The Prologue to the Gospel of John lays this out in a familiar way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1:1-5)  According to John, Jesus was the incarnation of the original divine Word spoken by God in creation and the condition for all things created, a Word characterized as light.  The Word of God came into being as God spoke it in creation; it was phrased for human beings in the Sinai covenant, though too many people rejected it; it was present in common sense as Lady Wisdom, but too many people ignored it. So then God caused this Word to become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the foundation of John’s theology, and it generally won the day in Christian theology overall.  To say that Jesus is the Light of the World, in the sense Bach’s libretto meant it, is to say that he is the embodiment of the divine Word in creation that begins by saying “Let there be light.”

Dr. Jarrett, Bach seems to buy into this identification of Jesus with the Light of creation, although in our cantata there still seems to be a troubling darkness for which the Light of Christ needs yet to cover.  Is this right?

Dr. Jarrett

The second in our series of Easter cantatas is “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden” – ‘Stay with us, for evening comes.’ Scored for choirs of oboes, strings, and voices, Bleib bei uns draws both title and subject from the 24th Chapter of Luke in which Jesus appears to a group of disciples on the road to Emmaus.

As we have come to expect from Bach, the full range of human experience and emotion is everywhere explored and considered. And, as much as Bach acknowledges human frailty, the doubt of our conviction, and the daily crisis of faith, he provides clear paths for musical and theological reconciliation. Consider the Bach passion settings – in particular, the St Matthew Passion which we perform later this year in February – Bach provides an astonishingly accurate mirror of our human circumstance. He knows how each day, we become Judas, or a Peter, or a Pilate. In today’s cantata, we connect instantly with the hapless disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Stricken with grief that their leader has been tragically cut down in the events just days before in Jerusalem, their eyes remain blind to the true identity of Jesus until he breaks bread with them – a theological reminder of Christ’s presence in the sacrament.

But references to the Luke 24 story remain allegorical in Bach’s 1725 cantata for the second day of Easter. Here, Bach focuses on the sadness, fear, and even anxiety at the loss of Jesus. In a sense, Bach connects us to the end of the John Passion as Jesus has been laid to rest in the tomb. With sarabande rhythms and a melancholy C Minor, the final chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ lays an elegiac garland on the heavy tomb stone. In cantata 6, the same C Minor music reveals the crisis of loss with low pulsing string parts, all of which yields to a frenetic fugue depicting both the disarray of the Jesus movement, but also our growing fear as darkness encloses.

The progression of arias begins with a courtly petition for Christ to stay longer. With alto oboe and alto singer, the entreaty is marked by both an upward ascent in the vocal line to accompany the text ‘highly praised’ and descending whole-tones to depict the encroaching darkness.

The central aria is a chorale setting, reminding us that Word and Sacrament are, indeed, the light. And the final aria, scored for tenor and strings, reminds us that the image of Christ and his passion are the surest way to avoid the pathways of sin.

The theology, of course, is that even though Jesus ascends to heaven, having fulfilled the prophesy, we are shored up by the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Jesus’s return. But the challenge of daily faith is very difficult without the true presence of Jesus. How will we continue? How can we remain Christ-like in our living without his daily presence? The answer is the renewal, affirmation, and cleansing purity of word and table, table and word.

Though we perform an Easter cantata today, the extraordinary need for the light of Christ to dispel the gloom and shroud of sin, calls us to an advent penitence. In the timeless words of the Psalmist: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

Dr. Neville

Yet we seem to have little light for our path these days.  This is why it is so important continually to advert to those things that bear the light, even in dark times.  The sacrament of the table habituates us to gratitude and hope, even when we don’t pay it much attention.  The Word in scripture, in preaching, and of course in the founding structure of the world solicits our attention to the important things even when it is obscurely understood, mumbled, and apparently incoherent.  What are the important things in a crisis riding on blind terrorism?  To remember that our first thought about enemies is that they need to be loved by us.  To be kind always, which includes sharing the grief of those under attack.  To contain rage with disciplined moderation.  To insist, against all our darkened passions, that moral and religious judgment belongs only to God.  To understand that what little light we have allows us only fallible plans and purposes in matters of war and peace.  To wait in hope for the joy that comes in the morning when the light of creation dawns again.  Amen.

--Rev. Dr. Robert Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, Boston University

--Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

April 19

Embracing Fear and Great Joy

By Marsh Chapel

Each year Dean Hill focuses the Lenten preparation for Easter by considering the special insights brought by some important Christian author.  This year it has been John Calvin.  Several weeks ago I had the special privilege of preaching the Sunday morning service at Marsh and drew attention to Calvin’s claxon insistence on the transcendent glory and beauty of God.  Although Calvin began his Institutes with the claim that any consideration of God immediately reflects on the wretched human condition, and any consideration of the human condition directs the light back to the unmeasurable perfection of God, for him the real point of religion is God, not the human condition.  Martin Luther, the other great Reformer of Western Christianity, said in effect that it’s all about human beings, their salvation, and how God brings about that salvation.  For Calvin, religion is all about God who, incidentally, brings about salvation. People concerned for their own salvation and the renovation of the world in justice find Calvin austere. They take little comfort in his claim that from God’s point of view the whole creation is beautiful and that God’s justice is glorified as much in the punishment of the damned as in the heavenly welcome of the saved.  Calvin is rarely associated with feel-good religion.  But Calvin was indeed concerned with the human condition and in fact wrote far more about how we ought to behave within the divine economy than he did about God per se.  So I feel obliged tonight to preach the Word through Calvin’s warm and fuzzy side.  Only a Methodist would attempt such a thing.  And if you are thinking that this means a very short sermon, think again.

The Easter Vigil is an appropriate occasion to seek God through Calvin’s understanding of the human condition.  It is a time between the crucifixion, which symbolizes the worst in the human condition at its most depraved, and the Easter resurrection, which symbolizes the best that can happen.  Officially after sundown on Saturday we are in Easter day as the Jews reckon the beginning of days, and we all know about the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounters with the Risen Christ that are coming in the morning’s symbolism of our liturgical year.  But this service is still a vigil, a waiting for what has not yet arrived, albeit promised.  The side of Calvin that is so genuinely empathic with the human condition, the side that has drawn people to him despite his abrasive austerity, is his recognition that life every day is like the Easter Vigil.  The catastrophic judgment of Good Friday is past and the fulfillment of Easter resurrection is only promised.  This is the condition in which we actually live.  We can pretend that we in fact

live face to face with God dying for our salvation as symbolized by Calvary.  But that is not in our personal experience.  It happened in the past and perhaps it has been misinterpreted.  If we are honest we worry.  We can pretend that we actually live fully resurrected Easter lives, that our souls are purified and that our institutions guarantee justice and flourishing for all.  But of course that is simply mistaken.  Theologians protect their hinder parts by saying that we now live in anticipation of the fulfilled resurrection triggered by God’s saving act in the crucifixion, an “already but not yet” resurrection.  This is called “proleptic consummation,” a great phrase to remember for cocktail parties.

Dean Hill tomorrow, I wager, will talk about signs and manifestations of resurrection.  “Christ is Risen!” we will sing.  But what about us?  How are we risen? Tomorrow we will know deep down that it is still only promises.  Easter morning is still only promises, just like the Easter Vigil tonight, and any honest heart knows this.  Every day is still the Vigil.  When we face up to this with an honest mind, and look carefully to see who we really are and what our world really is, we have cause to worry in this Vigil.  Only preachers who are realistic about the vigil-character of Christian life offer honest comfort.  This is the warm and fuzzy part of Calvin because he is with us in what we know in our hearts to be true.  His honesty is the beginning of true comfort.  Let me call this “deep” warmth and fuzziness.

Calvin’s own theology is quaint, offensive to our usual understanding of Christian kindness, and out of date because his mythic understanding of the world is premodern.  But permit me to sketch the logic of his theory of the human condition.  He began with St. Paul’s claims about law and grace in the fifth chapter of Romans, the chapter just before our Epistle tonight. Paul drew the language of law from the Jewish Torah and Calvin drew it to extremes from his own background as a lawyer.  What they both meant, phrased more generally, is that the created world has moral standards, whether expressed as laws, or better and worse policies, or better and worse choices, or ways of life.  No matter how hard we try, we come short of perfection as measured by those standards.  Calvin was a Renaissance humanist and knew as well as anyone that there are great human accomplishments and that some people are better than others.  But from God’s point of view, according to Calvin, any moral imperfection is a failure to meet the standards and thus is sin: we are depraved.  “Depravity” is a good Calvinist word for the ineluctable tendency to sin.  That we are moral failures was as empirically obvious to Calvin as it is to us. Why we think perversely and behave badly is in part because of bad intentions and choices, but why we make bad choices despite our best will to the contrary is a deeper problem.  Calvin’s mythic understanding blamed it on the original sin of Adam from which we inherit an irresistible tendency to sin.  Our own mythic understanding more likely looks to deep psychic contradictions, incompletely suppressed infantile urges, bad upbringing, neurologically damaged impulse control, economic deprivation, dysfunctional families, and wicked social structures.  From a compassionate human point of view we readily make allowances for our behavior. “Sarah surely is a selfish person, but look where she came from; and she is not half as selfish as her brother.” But for Calvin, the human point of view is not the relevant one.  It’s God’s point of view that counts and part of God’s perfection is perfect justice. If a person fails to meet the moral standard the person deserves to be punished in Calvin’s juridical imagination.  We all fail, and thus we all deserve to be punished.  Because no one is perfectly justified, everyone must be condemned according to God’s justice.  In Calvin’s mythic world, God is anthropomorphized to be a judge as depicted in the great paintings of the Last Judgment and people are mythically conceived to have a natural afterlife that must embody their just reward, Heaven or Hell.  Because everyone is guilty, everyone belongs in Hell, according to Calvin  (and Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, and Paul).

This mythic understanding of God as an anthropomorphic judge, and of human life as naturally immortal with a destiny for Heaven or Hell, has lost its hold on most of us.  I don’t anthropomorphize God at all nor do I think about a natural or supernatural afterlife.  But I do know that in ultimate perspective I and maybe everyone else fail our moral standards and thus are ultimately guilty, however proximately worthy we are.  I don’t need to imagine an anthropomorphic divine judge in order to know what the ultimate judgment ought to be. I don’t need to imagine a Heaven or Hell to know that we are in a broken relationship with God as the ultimate Creator and that this broken relationship is ultimately the most important thing about us.  And I don’t need a belief in an historical Adam causing all his children ultimate grief to know that however much we might improve our relationship with God, we still cannot make it perfect.  What is your mythic understanding of all this?  I suspect most of you have mythic visions somewhere between Calvin’s and mine.  Calvin’s point was that, however you mythologize your broken relation to what is ultimate—a danger of frying forever in Hell or being ultimately estranged, if we take life seriously we are in ultimate trouble.  Most non-Calvinist Christians find ways of saying it is ok not to take life seriously.  Calvin was serious.

Now, the Christian Gospel is that God is not only perfectly just but also merciful.  Although everyone deserves to be damned to eternal punishment, however that is imagined, God sent Jesus Christ his Son to take the punishment for us.  Therefore, although we deserve to be condemned, in fact we are reconciled to God by Jesus Christ.  Notice the strict logic here: God’s justice condemns us all and God does not have to save anyone; but God does save us, at least some of us, and this is pure merciful grace on top of justice.  This is the sense in which Christians from Paul to Luther and Calvin understood the meaning of salvation: by the Law we are condemned but by Grace in the sacrifice of Jesus we are saved.

What happens, for Calvin, when we recognize God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ?  Do we become perfect?  No, not at all.  We do not need to become perfect because God saves the already condemned.  Instead we just need to get better.  Recognizing that we are saved by God in Christ, sin loses its hold on us and we can work at improving our lives.  For Calvin this meant building more loving communities and more loving relationships.  In his time, this was a directly political task and he set up a theocratic state in Geneva.  To determine how to be more loving he set up laws of thought and behavior, and more laws.  The state-church appointed elders as officials to administer pastoral care, which consisted in finding sinners and correcting their behavior. This passion for enforcing love is what seems so terrible to us today, an invasion of privacy, an authoritarian dictatorship, all in the name of helping the graciously saved to improve.

Looking around, Calvin saw a lot of people that simply didn’t seem to be working at becoming more moral and loving.  Some of them rejected the whole idea that they were naturally damned or that Jesus Christ makes them righteous in God’s system of justice.  Many nations never heard of Jesus Christ.  So it seemed to him that only some people are saved by God’s grace, manifests God’s freedom.  That God’s mercy saves some does not mean that God’s mercy has to save all.  There are passages in the Bible that talk about God’s elect and Calvin concluded that God elects some for salvation and leaves the rest to the damnation everyone deserves.  From the human point of view this seems terribly unfair and the great Calvinist Karl Barth said that, although God does not have to elect everyone,  he does.  For Calvin, what counts is God’s point of view and God’s justice is fulfilled as much in the punishment of the non-elect as in the salvation of the elect.  This famous Calvinist conclusion is repugnant to most modern mythic sensibilities and is a good reason to flee from his theological anthropomorphism, which actually is inconsistent with his other emphasis on God’s transcendent beauty and immeasurable perfection.

The consequence for Calvinists of Calvin’s conclusion about selective election is to raise the horrifying question, am I among the elect?  I try hard to do better, but still sin, as Calvin said even the elect would.  But then what is the difference between me as elect and me as a continuing reprobate?  The answer has been to work harder.  Take life seriously and work on being more loving.  Work, work, examine your conscience, work more.  Somehow working to be more loving became associated with working to be richer, but I’ll leave Dean Hill to deal with that.

Suppose we reject Calvin’s mythic world of an anthropomorphic God saving some and damning others to Hell.  Suppose instead we ask whether we are estranged from God and also somehow reconciled.  How can we tell whether we are reconciled?  What are the empirical marks of being reconciled with our ultimate Creator?  Methodists look to experiences of emotional assurance; the theologian Paul Tillich says to look to ecstatic experiences.  But can we be sure?  Need we be sure?

Tonight’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans, that comes after the Law and Grace chapter, says that as Christians we already have died with Christ in our baptism and have risen with him to new spiritual life.  Paul was talking about the Romans as they were then, not about an afterlife, although he also expected some consummatory afterlife.  The quality of being a Christian is to die to the bondage of sin and to rise with all the powers of God that might flow through us like rivers of grace to live well and better in the world.  Forget about whether you are elect and instead live with the bounties of grace that abound around us.  Don’t worry about others who might not be elect.  Point out to them the graces that abound.  Get up and do better, as Calvin said.  Forget about the salvation problem and just live abundantly.  This is the deeper message of Calvin, the deep warmth and fuzziness.

Back at the Easter Vigil, through which we watch every day, what is the gospel of promise?  According to Matthew, the women who discovered the risen Christ were filled with fear and great joy, which is what we should feel tonight and live with always.  The women at the tomb did not know what to expect, and neither do we.  But they had seen the reversal of death in this life and so were filled with great joy.  What did they fear?  Calvin is associated with the fear aspect of faith.  But contrary to what many people think, he did not say that we should fear that we might not be saved.  Rather he said that we should fear that we do not take all this seriously.  It is possible to go through life inattentive to what is ultimate.  It is possible to construe Easter as just good times and no worry.  What Calvin tells us is that we must keep close attention to the ongoing affairs of our lives, ready always to make an advance in love and to build a better community, because this is the way to pay attention to God.  The beauty of God is to be found in the details of life, however horrific and exhausting they might be.  Calvin and many Calvinists used outrageous and even cruel means to call our attention to the duties of this life, including threats of hellfire and brimstone.  But we are beyond that mythic worldview.  Calvin’s point was that concerns for some final salvific fulfillment are misplaced: we cannot know it, or do anything about it, and the concerns only illustrates the folly of living life from the selfish human point of view. Forget about the fulfillment of mythic promises because they only tempt our self-centeredness. Live rather in the Easter Vigil mode, baptized in Jesus’s death to whatever would hold us back and raised in Jesus’s new life to live filled with God in our attention to the everyday.  Life in the Vigil mode fears inattention to the seriousness of the fact that God is in everything we do and enjoy.  Life in the Vigil mode is also filled with great joy, celebrating not our victory but the fact that God is to be enjoyed in every detail.  The warm and fuzzy Calvin comforts us only when we crucify both the quest for salvation and the hope for victory in worldly terms, and discover the depths of our daily lives that are adazzle with the gratuitous and astonishing glory of God.  The Easter Vigil lets us know that life is charged with God in its details, in its responsibilities and simple pleasures. In the worst of sufferings, in the most humiliating failures, in the shortness and long-term vanities of life, what counts is the ever-present beauty of our Creator, which is the only warm and fuzzy comfort worth preaching.


~Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

March 23

Deep Thirst, Living Waters

By Marsh Chapel

Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm 95

John 4:5-42

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.


I thank Dean Hill for the privilege of sharing as a preacher in our Lenten observance.  It’s good to be back in this pulpit.  Dean Hill wants us to think through Lent with the eyes of John Calvin whose theology is not always in accord with the Wesleyan tradition of Marsh Chapel.  Our texts for today illustrate some of the principal issues of Calvin’s theology.  God is imagined many ways in the Bible, and Calvin picks up on most of them, from the most anthropomorphic to the most sublime.

Our Exodus text is from the saga of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt to take possession of Canaan, which they viewed centuries later when composing these texts as God’s Promised Land for them.  The relation between God and the Israelites was not a happy one, as they told it.  God did not consult them concerning their departure from Egypt, and you remember the desperate flight in front of the Egyptian army that God miraculously destroyed at the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea).  This hair-raising escape was enough to make them nervous, especially since they had stolen all the goods they could from the Egyptians, at God’s command (they reported), and now had great herds of animals that needed to be fed and watered.  Shortly before the incident in our text, the Israelite company had run out of food and the people angrily asked Moses why he had led them away from the fleshpots of Egypt, that is, the diet of meat and a plenitude of bread, to die of hunger in the wilderness.  That’s when God send the manna from heaven, a nourishing special condensation of dew.  But traveling on they ran out of water and complained to Moses again.  God was royally provoked but stood on the rock which Moses struck with his staff and water poured out, saving the people.  This satisfied their literal thirst and that of their flocks.  But God was indeed provoked by their lack of faith in his providence and their complaint that they should never have left Egypt in the first place.  We know from our responsive reading, the 95th Psalm, that God therefore determined that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years until all the adults who had complained about thirst would have died.  That included Aaron and Moses. Only afterward were the Israelites allowed into Canaan.

The image of God here is plainly primitive.  We tend to read the later image of God as love back through these parts of the Hebrew Bible. The practice of giving a “spiritual reconstruction” of the Bible based on the theological principle that God is Love was common in Christianity from the earliest times up to the Reformation. Those stories of God’s pettiness and genocidal ways were construed to be allegorical expressions of something else, something consistent with an orthodox Christian theology of God’s perfect justice, mercy, and benevolence. But this is in fact to be inattentive to what the Bible says. The Reformers, Calvin as well as Luther, said our theology should be based on a careful reading of the Bible, not the other way around where the reading of the Bible is based on a preconceived theology. Read straight, God in Exodus is arbitrary in choosing the Israelites over the Egyptians and Canaanites and is jealous about the Israelites’ loyalty, which was shaky.  God is depicted as one deity among others who wanted to prove his superiority to the Egyptians Gods, and later to the Canaanite ones.  To prove this God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so as not to let the Israelites go until afterGod had killed all the first-born of the Egyptians.  This was genocide of untold numbers of innocents.  But it is hardly worse than God killing off nearly all the animals and people on Earth at the time of Noah. Read straight, the God of these stories is a primitive tribal deity whose crimes against the humanity of everyone except the Israelite tribal ingroup are atrocities.  He was even tough on the ingroup, as I say, requiring the deaths of all those who complained before letting them enter the Promised Land.  Later Jewish and Christian interpreters had to find ways of taking these stories to be not true literally but symbolic of something closer to the God of justice, mercy, and love.  There is a story I’ve heard of from the Jewish Talmud, for instance, about the angels and deities in Heaven having a party after the drowning of the Egyptian army and rescue of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds. But they noticed God standing off the side weeping. “Why are you not rejoicing at the salvation of your people Israel,” they asked him.  “I’m weeping for my people Egypt,” God replied.

For all his Biblicism, Calvin did not escape imposing his own consistent Christian theology on the Bible.  For instance, he was a super-monotheist whereas much of the Hebrew Bible is polytheistic. Calvin has a lesson for us here, however.  Realistically, the world is not balanced and just.  Some people are rich and others poor.  Some nations are favored, at least for a while, and others are swept aside. Some people move easily into a life of general benevolence with only minor setbacks while others damn themselves again and again despite a heart-felt will not to do so. Calvin’s God is arbitrary, creating a world where some are saved and others are damned.  The imbalance in the world must be the result of divine creation, said Calvin, because God is sovereign and somehow everything that happens, even the bad stuff, is the result of the divine will.  Perhaps we do not like this and want to attribute a generous loving spirit to God.  But then, given the realities of unequal life, God would have to be blind or inept, or not personal at all, or at least not sovereign.  Calvin says, do not close your eyes to the shocking inequalities and injustices of the world and assume that God is really behind the scenes trying, without much success, to make it right.  Life sometimes runs out of water.  When God supplies the water, as at Rephidim, it often comes at a great price: death before the Promised Land.  Sometimes God’s water is a deadly flood, as the Egyptians discovered.  God is Wild, knew Calvin.

Now Calvin and I are not supposed to be talking this way.  We are supposed to deflect attention away from the primitive God to the spiritualization of the metaphor of thirst.  We are spiritually thirsty, and God can satisfy this spiritual thirst.  This is the background orientation for the text from John’s Gospel.  Jesus turns his own human thirst at the well into a spiritual interpretation of the thirst of the others for the water of life.  The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is chock-full of boundary-crossing elements—talking with a Samaritan, talking with a woman, describing her dubious sex life without moral judgment, and offering her the water of life when he had originally only asked her for a drink from the well for himself. I presume you have heard a multitude of sermons based on this text about how we have a spiritual thirst that is far more important than physical thirst.  Jump from John 4 to John 6 and you find Jesus claiming to be the bread of Heaven, quenching a spiritual hunger that he contrasted with the mere physical hunger satisfied with manna from Heaven.  You all know how to think about the spiritual life in terms of the metaphors of thirst and hunger and you have my permission to rehearse in your mind’s ear what you would say if you get bored with the rest of what I am about to say.

Calvin’s greatest genius was to see that religion is about God more than about us.  For Luther, and for most other Christian theologians, religion is mainly about our salvation, including God’s role in it through Jesus.  Calvin paid lip service to the salvation problem and wrote many pages about how Jesus is our savior.  But the main intentionality of his vision was focused on God.  He had the largest conception of God in Western history. For him, God is unmeasurable, glorious beyond imagination, so radiant in beauty that of course God is sovereign. Nothing can compare with God.

So what Calvin would lift up today from the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is Jesus’ shocking dismissal of the tribal and religious differences between the Jews and Samaritans.  Forget about whether one should worship in Jerusalem or on the Samaritan mountain. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  Jesus does not dismiss cultic differences, and says that the Jews know whom they worshipp whereas the Samaritans do not.  But he relativized cultic differences.  Real worship is a spiritual matter that should not be limited to cult.  Calvin would read John 4 as testifying to the transcendent sovereignty of God.  Just glimpse God and you are blown away.  Worship in spirit and truth is something that can only be approximated from a cultic base.

Of course, this is unmanageable theophany. It seems we need to domesticate conceptions of God for them to be to useful.  Calvin then turned to the Bible for finite things to say about this infinite and sovereign God.  He tried to make out a consistent biblical set of affirmations about God and about commandments for human life.  Like his symbolically interpreting predecessors he was reading in more than he was reading out.  But he assembled a rather detailed special interpretation of what the Bible is supposed to mean that has organized his Reformed tradition ever since.  Because we cannot live up to God’s beauty in creation, human beings are utterly depraved, Calvin said; this is not a politically correct position today.  Most of us take offense at that part of Calvinism.

Even worse, by subordinating the project of human salvation to the transcendently beautiful glory of God, awkward consequences such as predestination of some to salvation and others to damnation have followed since the Geneva days.  In the Synod of Dort at the beginning of the 17th century the Calvinist divines had to decide whether God offers salvation to anyone with free will who takes it up, or whether God determines in advance whether you are saved regardless of what you think you choose.  The former group, led by Arminius, was followed by the Methodists who continue to believe in free will.  The latter group won out at the council and so Reformed people, that is, Presbyterians, are supposed to believe in total predestination.  This put subsequent Calvinists in a panic to discover whether they were predestined for salvation or damnation. For Calvin, all these sometimes awkward consequences were not half as important as acknowledging the sovereign majesty and beauty of God.

This transcendent beautiful sovereignty of the infinite Creator cannot be described in words.  Some theologians had said that God is the fullness of reality that is whittled down in finite form to create the world.  Calvin said yes, but more, God’s creation cannot be understood as the domestication of divinity.  It is the wholly new creation of the world that embodies the divine beauty.  Every thing in creation is good, if you could but see it with God’s eye.  The swell of the oceans, the transience of the sunrise, the special thisness of each bird chirping in the bush, the vastness of the cosmos, the remote radiant heat of the Big Bang, the supernovas destroying worlds, the flooding of the coastal peoples, the parching of the deserts, the wars for dominance, the numbing poverty of our economic system, the blighted lives of the oppressed, the sick with poor care, the dying on our doorsteps, our own deaths coming anytime—all, all, bespeak the strange beauty of God.  What a horrible thing to say, we think! Moral protests abound against Calvin’s vision and Calvinists themselves have been at the forefront of movements to relieve suffering and transform the world to a more nearly just comportment.  But in a profound sense, perhaps only glimpsed from the corner of the eye, the Calvinist vision says sit down and shut up. It’s not about you, it’s about God. May I whisper softly, Calvin had it right in the long run?

No one can bear this stark vision of divine glory for long, so think back to the human side, as Calvin suggested at the beginning of his Institutes.  For what do we truly hunger and thirst?  Forget the metaphor that we are spiritually empty vessels longing to be filled with divine substance.  Our ordinary condition is to be spiritually filled with mediocre satisfactions.  The ordinary metaphors of thirst for God’s living water can too easily be turned to consumerism: we are needy—so we think of God as the resource to fulfill our needs.

Calvin blows this off.  Forget human needs!  Look to God’s glory: this will create a need for satisfaction you had never imagined.  Look to God’s beauty: you will be drawn with an infinite passion that will strangely show you beauty in life’s smallest details and worst horrors.  Look to God’s sovereignty and you will develop a thirst beyond your parchest history, a thirst deeper than any moral plumb line, a thirst that leaps over any water brook for which you had panted, a thirst that forgets your own proximately valid priorities, a thirst that brings us up short to gape without guile at God’s glory in the “thises” of creation.  Calvin dares us to look at God through the corner of the eye, through thick filters prepared for eclipses, and to be blown away.

Although Calvin in fact gave all sorts of suggestions about Lent and the moral life, suggestions that have their place, his fundamental message was, forget about it!  Ultimately, we are not important enough to worry about.  So you need more discipline, ok, get a program.  So you need to practice forgiveness, ok, get on with it.  So you need to confess, oh, duh, yes, yes, we know you are sorry and will do better next time.  Or not.  For the glorious God in whom we live, it does not make much difference.  Forget yourself. Forget whether you are saved or damned.  Forget for the moment the need to fix the world. Instead look to God whose beauty will create in you a thirst of inhuman proportion.  God beauties forth in all creation.  Beauty elicits the thirst and the more you crave the closer you come to God.  Calvin knew God does not satisfy thirst: God increases the craving.  The whole creation is God’s living water.  The more we smell that water, the thirstier we become for God.  Forget satisfying the thirst.  Intensify it.  God’s immense, transcendent, and immanent beauty calls forth the deepest thirst that unites us to God.  So, flee from spiritual satisfaction. It’s not about you.  Increase your thirst. It’s about God. Calvin understood something, didn’t he?



The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

March 30

Coming to Ourselves

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 24:1-12

The real text for my sermon this evening is the two verses preceding the official text from Luke, namely, Luke 23: 55-56.  “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.  Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.  On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” Matthew and Mark agree that after Jesus was dead, the women gathered spices but had to wait out the Sabbath before they could embalm Jesus.  John differs by saying that Nicodemus already had embalmed Jesus with spices before he was placed in the tomb.  But they all agree that the Sabbath was a time through which the disciples just had to wait.  Our Easter Vigil symbolizes that waiting.  But unlike the disciples whose wait looked back toward the Good Friday death and desolation, ours points toward the joy of Easter.

Jesus’ original disciples spent the Sabbath in traumatized disorientation.  They did not know who or where they were after the shock of Jesus’ arrest, the hurried denials and evasions by the leading disciples, and the crucifixion.  The text says they rested, but that was because of the commandment regarding the Sabbath.  I can’t imagine it was a peaceful rest.

Consider this theological point.  There is a profound sense in which Good Friday and Easter are always simultaneously with us, not the latter succeeding the former.  Every day we orient ourselves to follow Christ by picking up our cross. Some days are worse than others but life is a continual minefield of crosses.  Likewise every day we enjoy the new life of fulfilled orientation to God as in Easter.  Every day grace abounds if we but have the eyes to see. Part of the maturation of spiritual life is keeping our feet on the ground as we traverse the minefield of crosses while keeping our eyes on heaven where we already live in God’s light and joy. But I want to say that the experience of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting after desolation and before joy, is also a dimension of every day.  Every day we live in a condition of profound disorientation, just like the first disciples, and we require a spirituality to embrace that too.

We orient our lives by a great many things, but I believe they fall into five ultimate categories.

First, we orient ourselves by how we deal with the choices in our lives.  Each of us every day faces value-laden possibilities, and how we choose determines our moral character. We all make bad choices sometimes and it is common for us to think of ourselves as sinners who need forgiveness and mercy.  We are disoriented with regard to our obligations when we do not know how to live with ourselves and our bad choices.

Second, we orient ourselves by how we deal with the need for wholeness and integrity in our personal lives.  Sometimes we are quite literally broken with illness, disability, or other crippling conditions that inhibit our integration.  In deeper senses, becoming whole means coming to terms with the important components of our lives, our talents and career dreams, our families of origin, God bless them, our social conditions such as race, class, wealth, and intelligence, the major historical issues of our watch, and a host of other things.  Each of us has a wrangle of internal conditions that are integrated one way or another but often in ways that are contradictory, fragmented, and deadening.  The quest for wholeness is deep and unending.     Third, we orient ourselves by how we relate to other people and to the institutions and natural ecologies of our environment.  In some respects, these others are internal to our own experience and we treat them according to how they lie in our orientation to personal wholeness.  But that is also to miss the very point of their otherness.  Those other things are not just part of us but exist in their own right.  Every religion says that we should love those other things.  Loving other people is not the same thing as loving institutions or loving various things in our natural environment.  But love involves some kind of appropriate respect for those others precisely as other than ourselves but equally creatures of God.  Jesus was particularly strong on the commandment of love.

Fourth, we orient ourselves by how we find worth and meaning in life.  Some of our value consists in how we integrate our lives’ components.  But we also have effects on others for better or worse, effects that they have to integrate into their lives in ways beyond our control.  We have impacts on the institutions in which we live.  Our very metabolism impacts the environment.  Our value-identity in ultimate perspective is not only what we have integrated into our lives but the effects for better and worse we have on others who have to integrate our effects into their own integral reality.

Fifth, perhaps the most important domain of orientation is how we relate to the very existence of our world, especially of ourselves and place.  Do we affirm the creation in gratitude and joy?  Or is there a low-voiced bagpipe drone of resentment at having to navigate that minefield of crosses, at having to live life so full of failure and suffering, of struggling alongside Job to respond to his wife’s advice to curse God and die?  Sometimes our orientation to life is to give up, and that temptation is nearly always with us.

The problems of righteousness, quests for wholeness, relations with others, what our lives add up to, and how we relate to our Creator are ultimate conditions of human existence. They define us existentially in ultimate ways.  To the extent we have symbols and practices to engage these ultimates, we are religious.  In one sense, everyone is oriented in all these ways.  But often we are oriented badly.  Sometimes the loss of those symbols and practices disorients us. I wager each person here has suffered ultimate disorientation at least momentarily when the religious path gets lost.

Consider the first disciples on the Sabbath.  They had been galvanized to transform their lives and follow Jesus by coming to adopt something like the following story.  Jesus brought them into a radical reordering of their religion’s moral life by saying it was a matter of the heart, not just behavior, as in the Sermon on the Mount.  Joining with him in this movement healed them in various ways and made them more whole.  The journey for which he was the new Moses required them to love one another, more, to love those outside their ingroup, indeed to love their enemies, and they were slowly learning such love.  Their lives were given transformative meaning because of their participation in this story of the incoming of the kingdom of God where Jesus would rule and the Twelve Disciples would be his viceroys over the tribes of Israel.  God in this story was not only the creator but the triumphant king who would bring about justice, destroy evil, and reward his followers with love and mercy.  Something like this is what they believed, and many Christians believe this today, indeed think it is the meaning of Easter.

But by the first Holy Saturday this story was in shambles.  The moral purification of his Judaism was ground to pieces in the underhanded collusion between its leaders and the feckless Pilate.  The sense of personal healing was destroyed by the failure of the renewal project and manifested in the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus by the disciples.  The relation to the world that was supposed to be loving was slammed back in the dirty politics leading to crucifixion, snapping Jesus alleged kingship like a twig.  Jesus was not going to be king and rule in justice in the divine kingdom.  And the Creator sent no angels, did not take away the cup, and was just absent: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?!!”  Nothing that previously had oriented the disciples in ultimate ways was left.  That story was false.

Sometimes we suffer from a similar disorientation.  For instance, think about the Church.  One of the ancient images of the Church is that it is the Ark, like Noah’s Ark, that can carry us to salvation. The Ark is an orienting metaphor.  But then, when we realize that our Church in the 21st century denies the full humanity of large groups of people, for example homosexuals, or in the 20th century denied the legitimate findings of science in the name of a culture-bound misappropriation of the Bible, or in the 19th century defended the enslavement of large numbers of people, or in the Middle Ages whipped up crusades to kick ass for Jesus, the leaky Ark can no longer provide ultimate orientation.  Now, I could have referred to the crusades as “passionate devotion to hastening the Kingdom of God,” as they spoke of it then.  But they were so mistaken as to be vulgar, and my vulgar phrase is more appropriate.  When the aura of our customary communal orientations to salvation turns from holy to vulgar, we feel something of the disorientation of Holy Saturday.

Or consider your more personal senses of ultimate orientation.  Have you ever thought that some choice you made was so evil in its consequences, wicked in its motivation, and culpable regarding your moral character that you wouldn’t accept forgiveness if it were offered?  Have you ever felt so broken and contradictory to the core that you abandon hope for personal integrity of any sort?  Have you ever felt that your failure to love, not the heroic love of enemies that Jesus commanded but the simple love of friends he said was easy, is so egregious that you hate yourself?  Have you ever thought that all the things you believed make life meaningful are delusions fit for children?  Have you ever raged against the God, or the accident, that gave you life because it’s just not worth it?  I suspect all of us have even if we usually hide those feelings under an apple-butter layer of piety.  I suspect we have these feelings thrumming away in our psyches all the time.

In themselves, these feelings are part of life and are not disorienting.  What is disorienting is not to have religious symbols, beliefs, and practices that acknowledge them and give them proper orientation.  The problem with these feelings is that they undermine and show up as shams so many of the domestic orienting structures of our religion.  Holy Saturday symbolizes the pervasive and profound sense that our religion is in shambles.

I said at the beginning that we, unlike the first disciples, abide Holy Saturday with an orientation to Easter morning.  Now let me tell you what Easter is not.  Easter is not an affirmation of some old story that postulates victory so as to erase the desolation of Good Friday and the disorientation of Holy Saturday.  That triumphalist theology has been common in Christian history but it is just whistling in the dark.  Easter is not the happy ending of a story that had some dark moments.  In fact, Easter is the demonstration that, despite our many stories that give life proximate meanings, ultimate orientation cannot be in a story at all.  The problem is the belief that any story can give ultimate orientation.  One of the meanings of Good Friday is that the actual story of each of us is that we inevitably lose and die.  One of the meanings of Holy Saturday is that no story ultimately can justify our moral lives, or our brokenness, or our estrangements, or our despair, or our hatred of existence. The Easter gospel requires us to give up on stories for ultimate orientation and come to ourselves in God irrespective of our stories.

The resurrection means that God is never absent after all, despite how it seemed to Jesus on the cross.  The astonishing thing about the symbolic power of the resurrection is that it says that ultimate orientation for us all comes from finding our center in God the Creator, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  What happened in Jesus’ story and in ours, is not ultimately important, and this is ultimately important to recognize.  As sources of orientation, our stories are to be relativized in light of our fundamental orientation to God our Creator.

The problem with our stories, true as they might be, is that they make it seem as if we are the centers of our lives.  But to the contrary God is the center of our lives.  God’s creation is the ultimate cosmic reality, and our own parts in it are only proximately important and then only to us.  Easter is not about Jesus beating Pilate, or the Devil.  It is not about God rescuing his Son from a sticky situation.  It is about the glorious reality of God everywhere and always grounding and holding all our stories, a truth so easy to forget when we live under the illusion that our stories are ultimately rather than proximately important.

Our Easter joy is to accept our moral lives for what they are, including our failures, and to tunnel beyond morality to God the creator of an immensely value-filled universe.  Easter joy is to accept the brokenness of our lives and meditate into to the wholeness of God who gives us our complexities. Easter joy is to accept our estrangements and enter into God’s glorious fecundity in the Other anyway.  Easter joy is to accept the fragmentations of life’s so-called meanings and receive the depths of God who creates all things, even those that do not add up.  Easter joy is to accept the world as it is and consent to being in general because this is God’s act.

So you see that, with the truly ultimate orientation to God, our Easter joy brings a sense of humor to the proximate stories of our moral adventures, quests for wholeness, fumbling attempts to love, concerns about what we are worth, and essays to say whether life is worth living.  Because of God, whatever we do and are ultimately is just fine.  Life is a comedy after all.  Easter is a riot of laughter, from God’s perspective.

With such an ultimate orientation, decentering ourselves and centering our orientation on God, of course we should go back to ordinary life and try to do better morally, to become more whole, to love better, to enrich the world as best we can, and to love the God who gives us life.  Let’s hear it for sanctification! These proximate stories are the actual content of the life we must engage, the stories of our watch. Because of the Easter orientation to God we can start afresh in each of these ways.  But the Easter theme of “new life” is consequent upon coming to ourselves in God rather than hunting for ourselves in our stories.  Our ultimate identity is manifest when we take ourselves ultimately seriously with a sense of humor.

Have you ever wondered why our religion emphasizes Jesus as so meek and humble?  Why does it emphasize Passion-week which is the story of the failure of his regal story?  Why do we preach Christ crucified?  It is because we believe our true orientation is in God and not the historical victory of some regal divinity. What did Jesus do?  Beat the Romans?  Purify Second Temple Judaism?  Heal everybody?  Make proper theologians of the disciples?  Bring righteousness to Zion?  Behave like a proper Messiah?  No, he accepted the cross and commended his soul to God.

The Easter joy in which we come to ourselves in God allows us also to inhabit the particular stories of our lives with their Good Friday minefields of crosses, but with a sense of humor.  It also allows us to acknowledge our disorientations that come with the ambiguities of morality, integrity, engagement, meaning, and life-affirmation; we can abide Holy Saturday with a laugh—who needs all that story-orientation to be ultimate anyway?  With Easter joy we consent to God in our small ways as God consents to us in the great creation of which we are humble parts.  Amen.

~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

January 7

Jesus and His Beloved Disciple

By Marsh Chapel

John 13:21-26

John 19: 25b-27

John 20:1-10

John 21: 7, 20-24

You might wonder about the selection of passion, death and resurrection texts for a marriage homily. Aside from the fact that marriage is about as important as death and resurrection, I have a different point in mind for these texts, namely, what they say about the love between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple.

Most people articulate the depths of their identity in terms of stories to which they relate.  Children relate to the stories of their parents and their roles in the community.  People define themselves in terms of the stories of their friends, of their neighborhood, of their livelihood, and sometimes of their historical situation.  Christianity has long claimed that the most important story to relate to is that of Jesus.  Among the most important things about us is that we are sinners judged by him and redeemed by his love.  I remember being told as a small child that if I sat on Jesus’ lap he would love and cuddle me, along with all the other children, even if my parents were put out with me.  The stories of Jesus tell us how to relate to the strong and the weak, the wise and the innocent, the hypocrites and the desperate seekers.  John’s stories of Jesus in particular focus on how he would have us love one another and bear up under stress and betrayal.  Although the stories of Jesus say very little about sex, the Church from early on took Jesus’ story to be that of the bridegroom of the Church itself.  Christians corporately and individually are to find our deep identity by imagining ourselves to be married to Jesus, a stretched metaphor if there ever was one!

Gay men and women have been frustrated in the attempt to understand their own narrative in terms of the stories of Jesus because the Church has taught in so many times and places that same-sex desire is bad, idolatrous, unnatural, sick, or something else that deserves to be condemned as impure.  Those negative teachings about same-sex desire have now been debunked biblically, philosophically, psychologically, anthropologically, medically and in every other way except in the disgust reactions of some people who have been brought up poorly.  But it is time for people whose deepest identity includes same-sex desire to be able to find their story in the story of Jesus.  For the Church not to offer this is for it to deny the full humanity of gay men and women, and all others whom it puts off with bigotry.

So I want to speak about the part of Jesus’ story that has to do with his boyfriend, the Beloved Disciple.  Of course we know very little for sure about Jesus’ sex life, or about the sex life of most of the other characters in the New Testament, for that matter.  But I bet there is not a person here who by the age of ten had not wondered about Jesus snuggling on the dinner couch with the man called the Beloved Disciple.  When I was growing up, this was not talked about, and the Beloved Disciple was mentioned only as the traditional author of the Gospel of John because of the remark in the last of the texts I read that he wrote down a lot about Jesus. The tradition of authorship is no longer viable among scholars even though it lingers in the iconography that represents the author of John as young, beardless, and attractive, as in the Marsh Chapel statues, a resonance with the part of the story of the Beloved Disciple reclining on the breast of Jesus.

We don’t really know who the Beloved Disciple was.  Obviously not Peter because they are often depicted together.  The other major disciples such as James and John, Andrew, Philip, and Thomas are referred to in John’s gospel and likely would have been named as the Beloved Disciple if they fit because they were important in the later Church. People have speculated about Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lazarus, and the young man in Mark’s gospel who flees arrest naked, but we just do not know.

But we do know some things about the Beloved Disciple if not his name.  First of all, he was accepted by the inner circle of disciples as Jesus’ special friend.  They accepted his position with Jesus on the dinner couch and in fact looked to him for pillow-talk information about Jesus, as in the incident of Peter asking about the identity of the betrayer. The disciples were not homophobic.  Second, the Beloved Disciple did not compete with the others for leadership in the community, as James and John, and Jesus’ brother James, did with Peter.  Peter was the acknowledged head disciple and the Beloved Disciple showed no interest in a leadership role.  Third, the Beloved Disciple was on good terms with Peter and they did things together; this suggests to some that the Beloved was Peter’s brother Andrew, but you would think he would be so named.  Fourth, the Beloved Disciple was not a source of any special doctrine speaking for Jesus, did not ask famous leading questions like several other disciples did, and was not mentioned at great revelatory moments such as the Transfiguration (which is not recounted in John’s gospel, the only gospel that mentions the Beloved disciple), in the dialogue of the Farewell Discourse, or Thomas’ post-resurrection confession. He may have been there but was not mentioned.  It seems that the only role the Beloved Disciple played in the gospel story was to be the one Jesus loved in a special way, his boyfriend.

What do we learn from our four texts?  In the first, the identification of the betrayer, the most obvious lesson is the intimacy of the Beloved, reclining on Jesus’ chest, leaning forward to talk with Peter, then falling back on Jesus to ask him about the betrayer.  Jesus does not answer directly but says, “Watch what I do—it’s the one I feed.”  The Beloved obviously did not relay the message to Peter, or Peter would have stopped Judas from leaving.  The text has another message as well.  Judas the betrayer is within a hand’s reach of Jesus, surely at the next couch, when Jesus feeds him.  The point is that the people close to you, perhaps closest, can be betrayers.  But the Beloved is with Jesus all the way, closer than Judas, and closer than all the other disciples who will abandon Jesus when he is arrested.  The point for a marriage homily is that you two should be closer to each other than to all the others in your respective public careers with their ups and downs, successes and disappointments, colleagues and betrayers.  And you can talk with one another about all these hopes and despairs, jealousies and pettiness.  Think of yourselves as reclining on one another, leaning forward to engage the public world, and then leaning back to take stock together.

The second text is the crucifixion scene.  The Beloved Disciple is at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother and aunt and with Mary Magdalene.  No other male disciple is around.  Jesus sees him and, most remarkably, tells the Beloved Disciple to take Jesus’ mother as his own, and tells his mother to take his Beloved as her son; she moves in with the Beloved Disciple from that day on.  What is remarkable is that Jesus had plenty of brothers, and also sisters, and at least one aunt, who could take care of his mother, all as part of the natural extension of his family.  But he creates a new, non-kinship, family for his mother and Beloved.  It’s as if Jesus and the Beloved were married and, with Jesus’ death, the Beloved takes over the responsibility for the mother-in-law.  Jesus was the first son, and so care-taking responsibility for the parental generation falls on his spousal family; the Beloved Disciple takes up that role when Jesus gives it to him.  The first century was a long time before Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage.  But if there were an analogue for a same-sex marriage in Jesus’ time, one major test of its solidity would be acceptance of responsibility for in-laws.  The point here for a marriage homily is that you two are adopting each other’s respective families into your own new and fragile one.  The other side of this point is that the in-laws accept your family by coming into it.  The point is unremarkable for heterosexual marriages, a commonplace even though it is difficult to live up to even there; you know the jokes about in-laws. The public validity of same-sex marriages finds its strength in intergenerational acceptance and support.

The third text is about the Beloved Disciple and Peter running to the tomb after Mary Magdalene had told them it was empty.  The Beloved races ahead, doubtless frantic with worry and confusion, but he cannot bring himself to look for his lover’s bloodied body.  Take-charge Peter goes right in and says the body is not there and everything is cleaned up so the Beloved can finally go in. This gives some clue as to what the Beloved Disciple must have been feeling, watching his lover be arrested, tried, whipped, and crucified, writhing against the nails and dying finally by suffocation.  Grief, rage, hurt, panic, helplessness, helplessness, helplessness.  I pray that neither of you will ever have to watch the other suffer grievously.  But if you do, know that it’s ok to feel grief, rage, hurt, panic, helplessness, and not have to be in charge.  That’s how Jesus’ Beloved felt about him and if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you.  You do not have to be strong, only unfailing in the love that clings to the breast.  Another marriage homily point.

The final text is from the resurrection story of the Last Breakfast.  The Beloved Disciple is offshore with the others on the fishing boat when he recognizes Jesus as the man who had been giving them instructions about casting their net.  After fixing them breakfast, Jesus goes off with Simon Peter to reinforce his love and to give him instructions about leading Jesus’ community.  The Beloved Disciple is walking behind, just out of earshot.  The text specifically reminds us that the Beloved Disciple is the one who ate reclining on Jesus whom Peter asked about the betrayer. Peter asks Jesus, “What about him?”  Jesus answers three things.  First, that it is Jesus’ will that the Beloved remain until Jesus comes again.  Second, that this matter is no business of Peter’s.  And third that Peter should follow Jesus and attend to his own public ministry.  When this was reported later on, some people in the community thought that Jesus would guarantee that the Beloved Disciple not die until he returned, but obviously he did.  Jesus only said that it was his will that the Beloved Disciple not die, meaning presumably that he wanted to continue their special relation upon his return.  Surely that is what Jesus would be expected to hope for his Beloved, but who knows what will happen?  The point here for a marriage homily is that your marriage in the last analysis is a private matter and at some point you might have to tell others to back off.  Of course a marriage is also a public legal arrangement, witness this ceremony.  We invoke a community to support your marriage.  It extends out into a much larger set of families.  You two will function as a couple in many contexts relevant to your careers.  The line between the public and private in a marriage is ambiguous and sometimes tense to draw.  But in this final scene of Jesus’ story, when he charges Peter to invent the Church to feed all those people hungry for love and God, Jesus’ last words were to remind Peter that what Jesus and the Beloved Disciple had going between them was their own affair.  According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words were about his special Beloved, whom we may call his spouse.  This is my last homiletical point about marriage.

In matters of sex, love, and marriage, let me affirm as a priest of the Church that you can find your story, the story of your heart’s desires, the story of your union together, in the story of Jesus.  All those who would deny you his story, let them be anathema!  May Jesus’ love of his Beloved be a song in your hearts all your days!  Amen

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

April 7

Tensed Time In Eternity

By Marsh Chapel

Romans 6:3-11

Mark 16:1-8

The Easter Vigil occupies a tense time in the liturgical calendar, clinging to the cusp between adamantine grief over the death of Jesus and suppressed joy at his anticipated resurrection.  The tension between finitude and death on the one hand and the transcendent joy of life above death on the other makes this a liturgical occasion like no other.  Note that I am speaking about liturgical time here, not historical time.  On the historical Saturday after the crucifixion the disciples knew only the death part and had no clue about resurrection.  For all of Saturday they were immobilized by the restrictions of the Sabbath observance and could not move to bury Jesus properly until first-light on Sunday.  Mark’s gospel says that the women on the way to the tomb were fretting about how to get the stone door moved so they could embalm his body. That was a depressing fretfulness, not a tension with hope.  Heavy grief, heavy depression, heavy stone.  When they arrived, they found the stone already moved and a young man looking for all the world like Legolas the Elf sitting in the tomb.  He said Jesus had been raised and ordered them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus up north in Galilee.  But the women were terrified, fled the tomb, and contrary to what they were told said nothing to anyone out of fear.  Heavy. No tension.  Just a world weighted down with ending and loss.  Adamantine boundaries on everything finite and good—nothing crosses over into morning except another day like the last. This is historical time.

In the liturgical time of our Vigil we already know about the Easter outcome balancing the Good Friday.  Liturgical time, with its yearly round, views historical time from the standpoint of eternity made time-like by repetition.  Liturgical time is tense with the contrast between the immeasurable fullness of eternity and the limitations of finite life, which is as resurrection is to death.  From the standpoint of liturgical time, every temporal moment is ripe with that tension and in the Christian liturgical calendar the Easter Vigil is the ripest of all.

Good Friday is emblematic of the limitations of finite life.  Jesus was too young to die.  He had a following filled with enthusiasm for the reform of his religion but they scattered and denied him when things got tough. And they weren’t very good as disciples anyway, especially in Mark’s estimation.  Jesus was unjustly accused, mocked as a fake king, and executed as a criminal, naked in humiliation before his mother, her friends, and the disciple who was his beloved: Jesus was not a hero.  His body was rushed without honor into a tomb before the Sabbath observance.

This is high drama, Jesus’ Passion story.  Our own lives are usually not so extreme.  But each of us has crosses to bear, even we favored ones gathered here.  Imagine life in Darfur!  Each of us has ambitions, many of which are fulfilled but others of which are frustrated, and nothing lasts.  We have friends and enemies, successes and failures, victories and defeats, ambitions and compromises, health and sickness, a span of life and an adamantine end of that span one day.

The truth of historical time is that our lives are filled with good things and bad and then end.  Within only historical time we face the weightiness of finitude with some courage and hope.  Sometimes within historical time our hopes are justified.  But when things are really bad, they are not.  Think of African Americans who hope for the end of racism but know it will not be in their lifetime.  Think of the gay, lesbian, and other sexual minority people who hope for full acceptance but know it will not be in their lifetime.  Sometimes hope is foolish.  Paul hoped for Jesus to return in his lifetime and it did not happen.  By the measures of only historical time, Christianity is an empirical failure.  In the despairs of historical time we hope for surprises and sometimes they simply do not come.

From the standpoint of the eternity of liturgical time we can accept all this.  Life is this hard and Jesus’ crucifixion is a good emblem of this.  But from the standpoint of the eternity of liturgical time, historical time is only a facet of the moments of our lives because we also live in the context of God’s creation in which our finitude, failures, and short spans are part of the immeasurable value of the created cosmos.  In the Christian story, this is the resurrection theme of Easter balancing the death theme of Good Friday. The resurrection theme is articulated within the future tense of historical time: after death comes resurrection. After terrible Good Friday and heavy Holy Saturday comes joyful Easter.  In common Christian symbolism we look for resurrection after death.  We translate the eternal meaning of Jesus’ life into a story with past tense antecedents in the early history of Israel, with the liturgical re-presentations of Jesus actual life into the round of his present tense activities, and with the maneuvers of resurrection and ascension to get Jesus out of the way so that the Church can be Jesus’ future tense continuation.  We have mythologized the historical Jesus so that the glorious eternity of real life within God’s creation can be expressed as if it were a matter of historical time.  If the story of Jesus were not mythologized, if it were taken as existing in only historical time, it could not bear the tension of the historical and eternal.  It would be a story only of failure.  The heart of religion, any religion, including Christianity, is whatever sustains the tension in daily life between the adamantine failures of finitude and the joy of eternity that gives hope for carrying on despite historical hopelessness.  Every religion has its myths that attempt to sustain that tension so that life in history can be lived with the joy of eternity.

The mythology of Jesus has sustained many traditions and pockets of authentic life in the direst of historical circumstances.  But by and large the Jesus mythology has lost its ability to sustain the tension between the finite and infinite for many people in Western cultures, especially since the European wars among Christian nations in the early 20th century.  Extraordinary attempts have been made to provide retellings of the Christian myth and I want to mention four of the most influential in order to illustrate how important mythic form is as the bearer of the truth of the eternal.

The original Star Wars trilogy was standard science fiction that affirmed God front and center as the Force that could be accessed through discipline but used for good or for evil.  For the Star Wars mythology, life is a fight of well-intentioned people and fetching beasties against an evil will; but the course of that fight centers on reconciliation, first of brother and sister separated at birth and then of father and son, the latter being representatives respectively of the Dark Side and the Light.  Standard religious themes of discipleship, mentoring, testing, courage, skill, and inventiveness were given delightful expression, much to the edification of a generation.  The good guys win, of course. Most strikingly, the follow-up Star Wars movies were prequels, not a sequel mirroring the Church living in ambiguous resurrection time.  Instead the prequels explored the fall, the development of the evil Darth Vader out of the best and brightest, and told a story of failed mentoring.  Alas, the victory of the good over the evil in Star Wars seemed too easily fore-ordained to be an emblem of our lives.

Easy victory is not the problem in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  I asked a recent class whether they received their moral and spiritual orientation from the Bible or the Lord of the Rings and the Rings won by at least three to one. Gandalf is a Jesus figure for them, rising from the dead.  Mostly, however, the books display the noble virtues of friendship across unlikely differences, fierce loyalty through protracted failure, patience and true grit, sacrifice for the success of others, and reluctant devotion to the duties of your watch.  The little people win. Unlike the Jesus story, resurrection is a tactical step toward leading one’s party to victory.  No one important and good dies except in ennobling circumstances.  Although Frodo’s early wound never quite heals, it does not keep him from physical and emotional heroism and he gets to sail off into the happy land of the elves at the end.  Gollum seems an interestingly ambiguous character but his murderous greed in the end nails down the victory for the righteous. For all the apparently desperate struggles, victory is complete in launching the glorious new Age of Men within history.  The lessons of the Lord of the Rings are that serious redemption does not happen, that only true grit wins the victory, and that there is nothing like a Church that has to translate with great difficulty an eternal victory into the ongoing affairs of time. This myth is not the Christian one, despite its intent.

The Chronicles of Narnia by Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis draws the opposite lesson from that of the Rings.  It has its share of martial derring-due and a sacrificial hero, Aslan, who dies to redeem someone else and rises again.  But in the concluding Narnia novel, The Last Battle, the good side loses in a slaughter and the forces of evil are victorious until Aslan destroys the world and time.  In dying, the good people and animals retreat through a stable door into a heavenly land beyond history.  History is a lost cause.  But the good people run higher and higher up, farther and farther in, and at each stage the colors get brighter, the sounds clearer, and their vision broader.  In a most remarkable rendition of heaven, Lewis depicts the transition to greater eternal reality, more intense, more deeply real.  Narnia and its history are not half so real as the world in eternal perspective.  But by and large there is not much moral ambiguity in Narnia, as there is not in the Rings.  Good people have straight doubled-edged swords like the English and bad ones have scimitars and worship an evil god from Tashkent.

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is far more sophisticated about moral ambiguity, starting from the childish dualism of evil, as in the murder of Harry’s parents, vs. the good of those who support him. As he ages Harry takes on the increasingly complicated issues of ambiguous heritage, competitive friendship, and the dark side of his best intentions.  Whereas in the Rings, the bad guys are ugly and the good ones beautiful (or at least cute like Gimli and the hobbits), in Rowling’s saga the deformed and ugly are the virtuous ones and the evil humans, the Malfoys, are classically beautiful, like Legolas.  Professor Snape, bitter in his heart because of unrequited love, oscillates in seeming a villain or a hero, again and again, and generally is hated by Harry and his friends. But Snape summons the courage to kill Dumbledore, his only friend, out of love and loyalty for Dumbledore and he ultimately brings Harry to his duty, dying himself in defense of Harry whom he also hates.  Harry learns, as he matures, that he has a piece of the evil Voldemort within himself accounting for his own evil intentions and, ironically, sets out on a quest to murder Voldemort by destroying all the things that contain the guarantees of Voldemort’s life.  Harry’s penultimate lesson is that he himself has to die in order for Voldemort to be killed.  This is not like Gandalf’s or Aslan’s sacrifice where their own virtues cheat death. Harry’s death is because of the evil in Harry himself.  Harry has to die to his own evil.  Then his ultimate lesson is that he has the choice to remain out of the world as a pure spirit or to re-enter and finish the combat, which he does.  For Rowling’s version of the Christian mythology, we have to die to the evil within us before we can face the evil powers outside.  And then we have to choose again to face those evils of finite life before we find the proper tensions of finite life and transcendent victory. For Rowling the end of the story is not heaven, not reconciliation, not a new age, but carrying on the next generation which might have to face the same perils at Hogwarts that Harry did when he first went.  As a re-mythologizer, Rowling alone of these four knows that baptism into Christ means than we too must die in order to bear the eternity of resurrection in the midst of daily life.

The liturgy of the Easter Vigil displaces onto the story of Jesus the tenseness of the lives we all live, balancing the heaviness of our lives considered only historically with the levity of our lives considered eternally within the life of God.  Each moment of our historical lives is lived also in eternity, together with our past and future, together with the companions of our youth and maturity, together with the saints and others, together with a cosmos so vast we barely can imagine it.  Each of our moments bears eternity and so we always live in resurrection from the adamantine limits of the situation.  But each of our moments also has to be lived on its own account in historical time, with its choices, hopes, frustrations, and pains.  The Easter Vigil calls us to enter into our moments with full participation, engaged to the fullest, vulnerable to suffering and joy.  If we can see ahead to accomplishment and fulfillment, so much the better.  But if all we see is the need to complete an embalming, that is still our place and we can see that as part of eternal life.

A few weeks ago I fell into a diabetic coma and would have died if it weren’t for my wife’s quick action.  Happily I was quickly rebalanced and back at work but for several days the sky was bluer and the colors were brighter than I ever remember, as if I were higher up and further in. Christians shouldn’t need shocks like that.  Day by day we live in tensed historical time, relating to the past, to the future, and to the present circumstances that might be as joyful as the wedding in Cana or as grave as the Saturday after crucifixion.  Having been baptized to death and life with Jesus, we should know that there is more to being in God’s creative life than living with the tenses of past, present, and future.  In every moment we are lifted with those tenses into the eternal life of God in which the living verbs are in the infinitive form.  The tension of this Vigil’s drama confronts us, like waking from a coma, with the shock that living in time is also living in eternity, that the tensed historical time of past, present, and future is also the eternal time of resurrection.  Jesus was mythologized into a story of eternity in time that can be our story.  Because of that, we are resurrection people day by day.


~Dean Robert Neville

September 5

The Potter’s Vessels

By Marsh Chapel

On behalf of Marsh Chapel let me welcome all the new students who are moving in here this weekend, preparing for matriculation tomorrow and classes the day after. Even more warmly we welcome your parents who are here to help with the move-in. May your aches and pains from carrying books and TV sets temporarily obscure your sadness at losing your children to a university that is separate from your home. Like potters molding clay, you have molded your children until now. From now on, different potters will be at work. The foundational shape you have provided is far more important than anything the academy can do. Yet your children now move into a new world with new potters.

The Bible has many wonderful images for God, who of course in a literal sense is beyond imagination. The central controlling image is that God is creator of heaven and earth, of everything visible and invisible, as the first chapter of Colossians puts it. This is a paradoxical image because it says, in effect, that God literally cannot be imagined. Anything that can be imagined is something in heaven or on earth, something visible or invisible. That covers everything that is some one thing rather than something else. Anything that can be imagined is something created. The majesty of God the Creator, whose praises we sing, is that everything imaginable derives from God’s creation. In everything imaginable, God is present as creator. But to identify God with any imaginable thing is idolatry. I want to put this point about divine transcendence in the front of our minds as we think about the image of God as a potter.

All the images of God are metaphors and symbols, which means that we make a point in using them, but should not say that they describe God outside the context of making that point. The Psalms say that God is the rock of our salvation, and we know what that means without ever literally thinking that God is a rock to be studied by geologists. The 23rd Psalm says God is a shepherd, and we know what that means without thinking that God runs an agribusiness. When Jeremiah speaks of the hand of God, or Isaiah of the hem of God’s robe, or Exodus of Moses seeing God’s backside, we know that these are metaphors of a divine body when God is really not a body. Yet we can use those metaphors without flinching or misusing them. When so many books of the Bible imagine God as speaking and mention the Word of God, Jews, Christians, and Muslims sometimes forget that this too is metaphorical. In Exodus, God is imagined as a warrior who leads the Israelites out of Egypt, and in 1 Samuel and other places God is imagined as a king. Hosea spoke of God as a lover with an unfaithful wife. In Job, God is likened to an architect when it comes to laying the foundations of the natural world. Jesus often spoke of the “Kingdom of God,” and yet he imagined the head of the kingdom as a father rather than a king. Many of the images of God represent God as a person of some sort. And yet John says that God is love, not a lover but love itself. Metaphors like these are necessary to relate the Creator of heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible, to the affairs of human life, and we need to keep track of the contexts in which they apply and those in which they are obviously false in a literal sense.

Jeremiah’s image of God as potter has application in the context of God creating and shaping people and nations. In the first chapter of Genesis, the famous first creation story, the natural world arises out of God speaking like a king laying down the law. But in the second chapter of Genesis, more detailed about the creation of human beings, God is imagined to be a potter. God takes mud and molds it into the form of a man, like a ceramic doll, and then breathes into it to bring the doll to life. St. Paul describes God as a potter, in Romans 9, when he wants to make the point that the creator can do with us what he wants. What do we learn from the image that God is a potter and that we are the potter’s vessels?

The chief lesson is that we can look to the things that shape us and see God in them. The hand of God, to use that image, is in all the things that give us life and form. When I was a teenager I worked in a Scout Camp during the summer and loved to lie out on the parade ground on clear nights when everyone else slept and groove on the stars above. I felt them as my most real and awesome environment. Under the vastness of that sky I was absolutely, ultimately, nakedly myself before God on that hill outside Irondale, Missouri, and I loved God the Creator who made me in that place in the heavens and earth. One such night, knowing that I was already God’s because I lay within the potter’s hands, I decided that the way to be myself in God was to be a minister. Many of you too, I suspect, find yourselves most cosmically and intimately shaped by such experiences of God as the one who places you within the vastness of creation.

Many other parts of nature shape us as well, and thereby reveal how the Potter-Creator works. We are not clay, yet we have evolved out of the elemental physical properties of the earth. Our blood is about as salty as the ocean from which our distant ancestors emerged. Humans are social beings, and the history of society and civilization is part of the shaping process. Our own communities are powerful forces for shaping us with cultures that make us somewhat akin and somewhat different. A few minutes ago I alluded to the ways our families shape us, like a potter giving us form. We are also shaped by our friends and enemies, our schools and work, and by the accidents of history during our watch. The technical theological term for all these formative influences is “prevenient grace.” God is to be found in all the things that “come before” and shape us.

Jeremiah reminds us of the downside of this, however, namely, that sometimes the pots do not turn out well and the potter has to remake them. Planets collide and suns flame out. The natural evolution of the human species was at the cost of countless species that died out; maintenance of human metabolism requires enormous expenditures of the energies of others things. Human societies make high civilization possible but they also do horribly unjust things. Families are not perfect and friends sometimes lead us into great harm and evil. Christians believe that everyone is born and shaped with flaws.

Christians also believe, however, that everyone can be repaired like a pot thrown back onto the wheel to be reshaped. This too happens in many ways as people learn what is right and wrong and events force serious judgments on behavior. Institutions of moral and spiritual education are in every civilization, and they all can be construed as agencies of the divine Potter, more grace.

The specifically Christian agency for the repair of broken vessels is discipleship to Jesus Christ. Our gospel text from Luke indicates that this is no small thing indeed! Discipleship requires total commitment. Jesus says that potential disciples need to count the cost beforehand to see whether they want to enter onto the Christian path. Luke quotes him as saying that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” These are extremely sharp words and run directly against Jesus’ message emphasized elsewhere that we should love all these people, and strangers as well. In Matthew’s version of this saying, Jesus says that whoever loves their relatives more than they love Jesus cannot be his disciples, not that they actually have to hate their relatives. Nevertheless, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying he has not come to bring peace but a sword a
nd that being his disciple will in fact set people against their families.

Jesus’ point, I believe, is that for us to repair our broken lives we need to attach ourselves wholeheartedly to his way of living in a community of love. This does not mean that we have to leave our families or friends—these are the sources of our strengths. But sometimes our families, friends, and social habits are the very cause of our failings and we need to go back to basics. We need to accept being thrown back onto the potter’s wheel to be reshaped. The Christian life day by day is lived on the potter’s wheel, always in process of being reshaped. This means always hunting for means of grace to be better vessels, better people. The technical theological term for this is “sanctification.” As we seek out and live among the shaping influences of sanctifying grace, we are able to re-establish relations with family and friends, bringing out the best in all. Flawed children from broken homes in an urban ghetto can be made whole and new by a long trip to the country where they can lie on their back at night under the stars and feel that God creates even them, along with all the points of light. Prodigal sinners can return to their homes and find love that makes them new. Confused young people can come to the university and find the gracious love of learning that turns them away from their own problems to serve the world and God. The comforting thing about being a broken vessel is that even the flawed pot is part of God’s creation. Creation continues until all are redeemed, every broken vessel.

Now I invite you to Jesus’ table to partake in the ancient meal that feeds the soul and heals it when distressed. Come to this table to feel the Creator’s grace that shapes us through the heavens and the earth. Come to this table that inherits all the graceful powers of civilization. Come to this table where families are purified and fulfilled as the family of Jesus. Come to this table where the comfort of God can be felt in every influence of the Potter’s hand. Come to this table to find your own work as a divine influence on your friends and world. Come to this table, a potter’s wheel, where you can become a perfect vessel of the divine Potter. In Jesus’ name, come. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville