Posts Tagged ‘revelation’


// January 4th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

This coming week marks the end of Christmastide, which culminates in Epiphany on Monday. In Advent, we anticipated the coming of the Incarnation, the Anointed One of God, who will make everything new and set everything right. There is a great mystery in Advent, wonder and awe at what might be. Then the baby is born. As many new parents have probably experienced, it changes a lot of things. More than that, it changes constantly. I’ve observed a lot of parents and there is still a lot of wonder and mystery: What does she want? Why is she doing that? Who is this child? Who will she become? What is my part in this? A babe has been born to the world; now comes the real work.

I’m sure all parents – and all people doing new things, really – hope that there will come a time when it all makes sense. Some days are better than others. You might be pretty sure she’s hungry, but that doesn’t always work. Maybe she has an earache. You hope nothing is really wrong. Even with all the books out now, every child is a special, crying snowflake. And then you hand her a shoe and she’s happy as a clam. It’s a small victory, but it’s an epiphany. You had it right, just that once. Maybe you do know something, after all.

An epiphany doesn’t tell us everything. And the things it tells us probably feel more certain than they actually are. After all, there is living to be done. This is just the beginning: of revelation, of what we know, of work, of life, of love. Epiphany tells us who this child is and it feels like a victory. We should celebrate! But it is just the beginning. Who will this child become? What will the world be for his presence? What is our part?

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about what it means to have God with us and what we might know about it. Remember, we also have our monthly community meeting at the end of the service where we will vote on the operating budget that was presented at our last community meeting in December. Hope to see you!

Grace and Peace,

Biblical Authority as Subjective Encounter

// October 16th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

For my family and sexuality in the Bible class, I was asked to reflect on how I viewed biblical authority.  In the spirit of laying my cards on the table and to cap the How to Read the Bible series, I thought I might post it.  Sorry it’s so long.  — Scott


Certainly, my current understanding of the authority of Scripture is shaped in reaction to my upbringing in a fundamentalist church.  Scripture was thought to be inerrant and God-breathed.  Further, the Bible was thought be a monolithic text with a clear narrative arc and consistent theological view.  Most importantly, the Bible was the center of our faith.  In spite of the problems I saw, I was assured and comforted that it all really made sense if I could just see how, if I could just read it with the Holy Spirit.  College ended that.  Not only did the factual problems I had noticed gain credibility from real scholars, but I started to see how my worldview centered on Scripture actually excluded and harmed a lot of people.  In trying to find a church to attend during college, I discovered that my questions were unwelcome.  I gave up on the whole thing – not just church, but Christianity as a whole.  The journey back lasted twenty years and travelled through the writing of Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg.  I discovered that I still loved the Bible after all that time and those authors gave me a glimpse of other possibilities, other ways to read that revealed the God that I never stopped seeking.  They set me on the path back to church and on to seminary where my views on the Bible have coalesced.  Today, I view the Bible as a valuable dialog partner with whom I engage in mutual self-revelation to be transformed toward the presence of God.

In order to get to an understanding of the Bible as a dialog partner, we must first understand the Bible as symbolic.  I do not mean “merely” symbolic, but a very specific and rich definition of symbol drawn from Ricoeur and masterfully articulated by Sandra M. Schneiders.  She defines a symbol as “a sensible reality which renders present to and involves a person subjectively in a transforming experience of transcendent mystery.”[1]  According to this view, a symbol mediates between sensible, embodied reality and the transcendent.  It does so by rendering that mystery present, but only as an instantiation of a relationship between subjects.  Thus, the Bible, when engaged subjectively, can be the very presence of God as a subject.

The Bible as subject opens itself, reveals itself, bares itself.  It is the precise opposite of the Bible as an object of study.  Objects are necessarily bounded.  They can be examined, measured, explained, and quantified, but they never speak.  They provide information, but not revelation.  This information can be useful, but it does not matter in an ultimate sense.  One’s being is not at risk when experiencing an object.  But a subject opens onto the vast mystery of the Other.  One risks destruction in the presence of the Divine, but finds truth.  The possible points of connection between two subjects are almost limitless.  As Schneiders points out, a symbol does not merely point to a single reality in a one-to-one correspondence, but to a multiplicity of interpretive possibilities.[2]  She goes further, saying that this plethora of possibilities necessarily keeps the encounter open-ended.[3]  The Bible does not provide information, a narrow meaning to be grasped and held.  It is an ongoing encounter of revelation.  It can never be closed down.  If it can be entirely accounted for, it bears no relation to the Divine.  The Divine does not simply deliver answers to waiting, receptive minds.

No, an encounter with the Divine is a dialog.  God confronts a person, calls out, and awaits a response.  Similarly, we call out constantly for God and await a response.  Intrinsic to true dialog is openness to the other.  The Bible, as encounter with the Divine, speaks to me and I speak to the Bible.  We may view each other skeptically because there is something at risk.  We must take care of each other in this vulnerable space.  Someone could get hurt. But if we give ourselves to the encounter, we are both revealed.  We both become who we truly are.

Thus, reading the Bible is an ongoing process of mutual self-revelation.  A great deal of the dialog is discovering the difference between the embodied and the transcendent.  This is not to break down the symbol into some hypothetical “essential” reality.  Nor is it to reject that which is temporal and finite.  No, it is to understand it as a whole, to be open to all that it is, in all its truth and beauty and brokenness.  I want to know the collective fears and hopes that produced the text.  I want to live in them because I already do.  The Bible asks me right back: What do you hope for?  What do you fear?  Who do you love?  Who do you turn away from?  Who do you destroy?  As an object, an artifact of centuries of human effort, we can study these things, learn these things, but as a subject we can encounter the Divine, we can know our fears, our sin, and be transformed.  This, for me, is the ethical authority of the Bible.

This authority cannot be regarded so trivially as an object.  It must be interrogated, viewed critically, asked to understand itself.  When the Bible understands God to destroy every living thing in a worldwide flood, what anguish and despair and frustration is revealed?  What is hoped for?  Most importantly, are these things mine?  When the Bible speaks of the gendering of humanity, whose interests are furthered?  Probably mine.  Who is harmed?  Probably someone I care about.  Probably someone who calls out in anguish and despair and frustration.  When I encounter that person, my ethical obligation is to make present the God who rebukes evil to bring forth life.

Because this is not an objective process, it is not easy.  Growing up, I was told that the Bible had all the answers.  Now, I think it has a lot of really great questions.  Maybe it has a few really big, really important answers that help us work on the rest.  But, ultimately, the essence of ethics is making decisions as a real, embodied being.  No one has ever been precisely where I am right now.  No one has ever had the collection of experiences I have.  But if I open myself up to the address of the other, we can render God present.  We can find that space between that is both and neither and so much more.  That is the space in which we can be transformed into people equipped for every good work.  Rather than considering our options, weighing the costs and benefits, appealing to an abstract principle of the good, we can simply spend time with one another in God and act with love, justice, and compassion.  That is the Scripture that is written out in our lives.  That is the authority.  That is God’s presence.

The Bible then, is one of the ways we might render God present, to engage in an encounter of ongoing, mutual self-revelation and transformation toward the Good.  I no longer see it as a guidebook, filled with answers about how to live my life today.  Instead, I understand it as a symbol that I must approach as a subject.  We give ourselves to each other and see who we truly are.  We share our fears and our hopes and meet God.  In so doing, we are transformed.

[1] Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 2003), 66.

[2] Schneiders, 67.

[3] Schneiders, 67.

John’s Church, Our Church (Program and Sermon)

// June 6th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff


When I initially planned this series, I did not realize it would start on Trinity Sunday.  Probably no one else did, either.  I’m sure many don’t know there is a Trinity Sunday.  I’m certain that many don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity.  I certainly don’t and I’ve taken half a dozen classes on it.  It’s all tied up with philosophical abstractions, like “essence” and “substance,” “person” and “perichoresis.”  And, in the end, as it often does, the Church punts and calls it a mystery.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all one, but somehow distinct.  We don’t know how, but we know it must be true.  And even though they call it a mystery, that doesn’t stop people from continuing to ask the questions.  In some sense, it is at the root of the current controversy between the American nuns and the Vatican.  Men who ask those questions are okay, but women who do so are not.  So I won’t try to explain the doctrine today.  As my professor, Dr. Theo Walker says: “If we’ve been asking the same question for 2000 years, maybe it’s the wrong question.”

Instead of talking about three persons and one substance, I’d rather talk about life in God.  At its root, this is what the Trinity is about.  African theologian Okechukwu Ogbonnaya suggests that, because some of the earliest Christian theologians were African, their understanding of the Trinity was influenced by African concepts of community.  John Mbiti says it this way: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”  This is could be thought of as just the nature of reality; we are all who we are because of the web of relationships in which we participate.  But for John, there is more than just the tribal and familial relationships, the social constructs into which we are born.  John is concerned with the relationships we choose,  [fix this]

John is typically thought of as the “spiritual Gospel” or the “theological Gospel.”  It holds the clearest statements about the oneness of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit of all the Gospels.  It is relied on heavily in “proving” the doctrine of the Trinity.  But some things curiously get left out.  As Jesus is the son of God, we are given the power to become children of God.  So whatever it means for Jesus to be one with God by virtue of being God’s son, we also have that opportunity.  When Jesus gives the Spirit of God, he is giving himself, his Spirit, to us, so that we may become like Jesus, children of God.  It’s not about metaphysics and it’s not about the magic number three; it’s about participating in the life of God.  Because we are Christians, we call participating in the life of God “being a Christian.”  We might even call it “Church.”

The Gospel of John is not typically looked at as a guide to the Christian life.  Matthew is very concerned with righteousness and has a lot to say about what to do and what not to do.  John does not.  John is the way to get people in the door – just believe! – but that’s about it.  Once you’re in, look elsewhere.  There are no beatitudes, no parables, no exhortations to care for the poor or heal the sick or release the captives.  If you want to know what to do about divorce or wealth or an eye that causes you to stumble, John is not your book.  In John, the commands are simple.  In fact, there is only one: “Love one another.”  That’s it.  Of course, it’s simple to say, but very hard to do.

The Gospel of John is also seldom seen as being concerned about the Church.  Matthew is called “the Church’s Gospel” because of the appointment of Peter in 16:18-19: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  John tells a different story where Mary Magdalene alone is given the Easter message and, in 20:18, announces – that is, preaches – to the disciples that she has seen the risen Christ.  She is the apostle for John.  For a Church concerned with apostolic authority and excluding women from that authority, John is not helpful.  However, John is written and edited continuously within a community over a long period of time.  Much of its material may come from someone who knew Jesus, but the final chapter was added possibly as late as the early 2nd century.  Though this community did not feel it necessary to talk a lot about being a church, they lived together as Christians for a very long time.  Through being cast out of their families and synagogues, through tension with other churches, they lived together as Christians.

Maybe the life of the Christian and the way of being church isn’t a list of dos and don’ts.  Maybe life in God is more complicated and more difficult than that.  Maybe it can’t be precisely set out in advance.  In 3:8, John’s Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Life in God, like life in any relationship, is a little unpredictable.  Relationships are unique from moment to moment.  When we truly open ourselves to the other, we are changed.  And vice versa.  So we are all, all the time, changing in relationship to one another.  Whenever we know a person, we know that there is always something more to know, something new to see.  And that’s why we do it.  Relationship is a process of revelation, an ongoing mutual self-revelation and self-giving.  This is life in God and life in the Spirit.

And this is the point of the Gospel of John.  John uses a lot of “knowledge” words: know, understand, see, believe.  Jesus is the light of the world that shines in the darkness.  Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life.  The book of John was written that we might believe.  But when John talks of “knowing,” he most often means knowing like one knows a friend.  It’s not intellectual or informational, but relational.  All of these knowledge words have to be kept in the context of that ongoing revelation.  God reveals Godself to us and we reveal ourselves to God.  For example, when we see in John the phrase “believe in” it would be more accurately translated as “believe into.”  It’s a phrase that the author of John invented to invite us into the progressive revelation of the life of God.  You don’t simply accept a statement of fact and go on with your life.  You commit yourself to a new way of being, a way of being in the Spirit of God.  Being a Christian, and being church, is a posture of openness to the ongoing revelation of God.

When Jesus breathes on the disciples and asks them to receive the Holy Spirit, it is only the further revelation of God.  That is, it’s not something new; it is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, come to be with us forever.  God is revealed in the person of Jesus, but Jesus is a human being, bound by all the limitations that bind all humans.  He is a male of a particular class in a particular time and place and he died.  But the Spirit, the one Jesus calls the Advocate or the Helper, is with us forever.  The Advocate will teach us – reveal to us – everything.  If we want to know anything, such as how to be a church or how to be a Christian or what to do about divorce or wealth, the Spirit is here to teach us, to reveal to us the life of God.

John’s Gospel tells us all of these things.  There are no simple directives: “do this” or “don’t do that.”  The life of God is openness to the revelation of the other and the willingness to reveal ourselves, to be ourselves as God made us to be.  Church is (should be) the space where that is possible.  We accept each other as children of God.  We participate in the life of God together.  Church is the place where we share the same Spirit.  Church is the place where we love one another, as Jesus commanded.



For the next three weeks, we’ll be looking at the character of the life of God in more detail.  Jesus gives some long speeches in John’s Gospel.  One of those long speeches is called the Farewell Discourse, in chapters 14-17.  This is where he tells the disciples that he will be leaving and that the Spirit will come in his place.  There is where he tells them how to be Christians, how to be church.  We’ll look at three things that, I think, characterize Church in the Cliff: friendship, love, and oneness.  My hope is that this will reveal to us who we are together as a church and that we see that as a part something eternal and beautiful.  What has always been will always be, and we are in the middle of it.

John’s Church, Our Church

// June 1st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

When we read the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – it is clear that one of these is not like the others; one of these does not belong.  And, hopefully, if you went to four churches, including Church in the Cliff, you would think the same thing.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Maybe it is the influence of our good friend, Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, but I have always felt that our church and John’s church were of a kind.

The bulk of the Western church tradition is rooted in the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Matthew, in particular, is singled out as “the Church’s Gospel.”  In these Gospels, we find ideas of service, sacrifice, and righteousness.  However, too often those traditions turn into abuse, powerlessness, and judgment.  And there is considerable warrant for such things in the Synoptics if read through a particular lens.  John offers a different vision of the Church and the Christian life.

We’ll spend the next four weeks exploring John’s vision of the Church as friendship, love and oneness.  We’ll start this week with an introduction to John, particularly focusing on John’s alternative story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in John 20:19-23.  Through this story, we will come to understand John’s idea of the Christian life as one of ongoing mutual self-revelation and self-giving in community.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler.

Grace and Peace,