Something to Do

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139
Romans 8:12-27
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A couple of weeks ago our family moved about 180 miles south and east to Dayton, OH, In the spring, I had been offered and accepted a job teaching Christian ethics to business students at the University of Dayton. I have been out of full time work for two years.

To get this job was a homecoming: I was now “Lecturer in Christian Ethics” at a good university. What’s more, in coming to this position I am being welcomed by friends—friends associated with the EP, as it happens. Who I am, what I have to offer, has been affirmed by persons who know something of me. Given the specific nature of the position, I was being affirmed not only for what I had done, but for what they believed I could do.

The contingency of not knowing the future during the last two years has been fruitful. By wondering what new track my life might take, I was forced to consider deeply the nature of my vocation as teacher of Christian ethics. But there was a constant, sometimes urgent, pressure from above and below, taking the form of such questions as: ‘What is my life for?’ ‘What am I to do?’

Recently, I was talking to a much younger friend, who himself had just gotten a good job, about what meaning getting this position held for me. What it if hadn’t worked out? How is a Christian to deal with radical uprooting and disappointed expectation? We can turn to death—Christ’s, our own—as a way of making some peace with such events of discontinuity, I said. But, then, what is one to do with oneself?

These questions about work and calling go to the roots of identity, which itself is rooted in habit and formation. Aristotle remarks that we are not by nature determined to one sort of character or another, but it is our ‘nature’ to develop a form or character through action. But character, as we develop, marks us and becomes stable. To switch gears after years of dedication and formation to teach Christian ethics, as one good friend put it to me, “would be really hard.” We don’t remain clay all our lives.

While listening to Norman Wirzba last Thursday at the annual EP Gathering in Chicago, I was struck anew by a sense of the blessing of my new position: “I have been gifted with something to do!”

Wirzba was explaining that the grammar of the word “creation” is rightly displayed not in a line of thought flowing from the question, “How did it all begin?” Rather, the word “creation” resonates in answers to the query, “What is the character of this world?” Why would such a thought occur to me at such a time?

In this week’s passage from Romans, Paul speaks of a transformation: from debtors to the flesh to children of the spirit. What kind of transformation is presented here? In Karl Barth’s reading, the letter has the theme of “the New Man” running throughout. In the first place, this new human being is none other than the resurrected Jesus. But each of us may take a place in the power of Jesus’ resurrection by dying and being reborn into Christ’s death and rebirth—that is, through baptism into Jesus’ death. From dying to rising we pass.

Barth’s central point, or at least one of them, in the celebrated Epistle to the Romans seems to be that God knows us. He often seems to be meditating on the words of Psalm 139, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me,” and, in addition, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

In other words, the reverse relation, that we might know God, isn’t the case. Moreover, Barth seems well aware that this knowledge of God’s is terrifying for us, as well as liberating. We are sinners, awaiting judgment in God’s sight. We are debtors to sin, to the flesh, and yet….God credits us with righteousness, balancing (and more) the account.

But again, what is it to die in Christ if there is not yet some purpose running through it all, some thread linking up the parts of one’s life? That is, what ground is there for grace to take root in, if there is not something to do?

To put this differently, I see here a risk for Christians to interpret our death and rebirth in Christ as issuing in a disembodied “salvation.” Here, Norman Wirzba’s point in his plenary, that the logics of creation and redemption must intersect, is a helpful reminder, and it points a way forward.

Consider these words from a New Testament creation story:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:15-17)

The logic of creation, and of our redemption through death and resurrection, are summed up in Jesus.

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col 1:18-20)

I rejoice that these EP friendships provided the context for helping call me to fitting work. My hope in this post is that our care for one another as new creatures in Christ would provide an analogy for our care of non-human creatures in which the logos of God is active. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Rom 8:19)

One Response to “Something to Do”

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  1. Debra says:

    Beautifully said, Mark. Thank you.

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