Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Seven)

Part Seven

What is the “right” name for this parable? I want to name it “The Parable of the Generous Father.” The father gives everything to each and to both of the sons. That’s why part of the “punchline” for the parable comes in the father’s encouragement to the older son. “Child,” the father says with tenderness, “you always are with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). The father holds nothing back from either son – neither stuff, nor forgiveness, nor love.

This the Parable of the Generous Father. This is a portrait of the Generous God embodied and proclaimed by Jesus.

Each of the sons, however, created and projected an image of their father that served their prejudices and pet projects. The younger son saw the father as his personal piggybank. The older son saw his father as his slaveholder. Just as the sons created and projected images of their father to suit themselves, so we create and project images of God to serve our interests.

Miroslav Volf talks about two of these images in his fine book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. He describes “God the negotiator” and “God the Santa Claus.” I want to discuss these images in reverse order because I think that’s how they appear in the Parable of the Generous Father.

“A Santa Claus God demands nothing from us,” Volf writes, “A divine Santa is the indiscriminately giving and inexhaustible fertile source of everything that is, and everything that is to come our way” (page 27). Of course, God is indeed the source of all that we are, all that we have, and all that we need. But, Volf asks, is it indeed the case that God demands nothing? No, he argues. In fact, God “demands” that we would grow into the fully flourishing human beings that God has created us to be.

“Here is what we do as worshipers of a Santa Claus God,” Volf continues. “We embrace the conviction that God is an infinitely generous source of all good, but conveniently forget that we are created in God’s image to be in some sense like God…To live well as a human being,” Volf suggests, “is to live in sync with who God is and how God acts” (page 27).

For me, the connection between this image of God and the image the younger son had of the father is obvious. The younger son took his stuff and wasted it. He didn’t use it to make himself into the person that he could be. Instead, he used what he got to diminish himself – financially, physically, socially, and emotionally. The parable makes clear that the only one impoverished by the younger son’s behavior was – the younger son himself.

What is the difference between a Santa Claus God and a gift-giving God, Volf asks? “The bare-bones answer is this: a Santa Claus God gives simply to we can have an enjoy things; the true God gives,” Volf concludes, “so we can become joyful givers and not just self-absorbed receivers” (page 28). To become joyful givers is both to imitate the real nature of God and to grow more and more into what God has created us all to be.

The other image Volf describes is “God the Negotiator.” I think this is the image the older son brings to his relationship with the father. The older son’s image of that relationship seems purely transactional. He has worked like a slave for his father. He’s always been obedient but has never been rewarded for that obedience – not even with the gift of a young goat so he could party with his friends. The younger son has violated the terms of the agreement, as the older son sees it. Yet, the father has rewarded that behavior by throwing a gigantic party.

The older son wants to sue his father for breach of contract.

How many of us, Volf wonders, see our relationship with God in those purely transactional terms? Volf suggests that its not a very smart arrangement, if in fact this is how things work. We have nothing with which to bargain, since God needs nothing that we have to offer. Even if we could negotiate such a deal, Volf continues, we can’t make God fulfill any contract. And before we even get to the negotiating table, God already has expectations of us as God’s creatures.

But God is not a negotiator. God is the Giver. Volf writes that “the God hanging on the cross for the salvation of the world is not a negotiating God! On the cross, God is not setting up the terms of a contract that humans need to fulfill in order to get what they want” (page 26). Instead, God is most fully God (to play a little fast and loose with our language) when God is giving us what we could never get for ourselves – what Luther calls “forgiveness, life, and salvation.”

The father in the parable is neither a fool nor a fraud. The father is generous, no matter how the sons may regard him or treat one another. God is neither Santa Claus nor negotiator, neither fool nor fraud. God is the giver. When God is imagined as Santa Claus, God is described as loving in order to get approval. When God is imagined as the Negotiator, God is described as loving in order to get obedience. But God doesn’t love in order to “get” anything. God loves in order to give.

Volf takes us to Luther’s description of God’s love as we find that description in thesis 28 of his work for the Heidelberg Disputation.

The best discussion of God’s love in the thesis comes from Tuomo Mannermaa’s monograph, Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. In thesis 28, Luther argues that “God’s Love does not find in its object what makes it lovable but rather creates it. Human Love, by contrast, turns itself or is oriented toward that which already ‘is’ something in itself and as such is good and beautiful “Kindle Locations 134-136).

Human love seeks to get something from the object of that love. I don’t think Luther viewed all human beings as psychopaths. But human love is always focused on the object of that love – something or someone that already exists. Just think about how hard it is to love someone for them instead of for me. Human love tends to be possessive, obsessive, and acquisitive. “In other words,” Mannermaa writes, “human beings always seek their own, that is, their own good, in the objects of their love” (Kindle Locations 145-146).

That’s not Divine Love. God’s love creates, gives life to, that which God loves. God loves, by definition, in order to give. “Just as God has created everything out of nothingness and caused what is not or what does not exist to come into existence-to be,” Mannermaa suggests, “in the same fashion God’s Love calls its beloved out of nothingness and surrounds its object with its own goodness and good things” (Kindle Locations 152-153).

God, the Giver, loves Creation into life. That’s why the Parable of the Generous Father is a resurrection story. Twice, we are reminded that the younger son was lost and is found, was dead and now is alive. The father proclaims that resurrection first to the servants as they scurry to round up the ring, the robe, the shoes, and the fatted calf. The father proclaims that resurrection again to the older son to demonstrate that in the light of this miracle, some celebration was required.

God’s love makes us and all of Creation into what God longs for us all to be – ourselves as fully flourishing creatures. As fully flourishing creatures, we are then equipped to love like God loves: not for what we can get but rather for what we can give. “In other words,” Mannermaa writes, “God’s Love helps human beings, first of all, to love God as God and not only the goodness received from God, and, second, to love other human beings for themselves and as persons, instead of loving only their precious qualities and for what could be gained from them for the benefit of the one who loves” (Kindle Location 201).

Volf correctly notes that when we are fully flourishing creatures, we participate in God’s loving. That’s really the plea, I think, from the generous father to the older son. Come into the house and be a part of the loving! “Your brother,” the father pleads with the older son. “It is not just that Christ sends the goods to flow into us,” Volf writes, “Christ makes the goods flow from us as well, truly indwelling, motivating, and acting through us” (page 51). As Mannermaa would argue, Christ is present in us through faith.

“The flowing of God’s gifts from us to others is the overflowing of those very gifts that Christ brought into us with his presence,” Volf observes. “The flow of gifts both in and out of us happens when we receive the one Gift of God: the Christ who dwells in us and works through us” (page 51). In Luther’s words, the plain fact is that God never works in us without us.

Thus, we find ourselves as both sons of the Generous Father. We often squander what we’ve been given, only to find ourselves welcomed back to the family table to try again and to do better. And when we’re at that table, we are invited to be partners in the Giving, growing ever more fully into the image and likeness of God renewed in us through Christ by the power of the Spirit.

“Faith receives the good deed of Christ, and the task of Christians is to love God and God’s will without self-interest and to be Christ to their neighbors,” Mannermaa writes, “This means, to do for their neighbors as Christ has done first for them: to give the good gifts they have received to their neighbors in need, and to relate to the neighbors’ sins, weaknesses, and needs as if these were their own. In this way,” he concludes, “Christ, Christians, and their neighbors form one body in God and God’s love” (Kindle Locations 401-402).

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Text Study for John 1:1-18 (Pt. 2); January 2, 2021

In and Among

“And the Word became flesh and tabernacled in us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the Only-begotten from the Father, full of gracious truth” (John 1:14, my translation).

Translation requires choices. The old Latin proverb is “Traduttore, traditore” – “The translator is a traitor.” As long as we can stick with the original language, we can maintain the ambiguity, double entendre, the multivalent and multivocal meanings of particular words.

But the moment we translate, we have to choose. There is rarely an absolute one to one correspondence without remainder between words in different languages. And that lack of correspondence is often biggest in the littlest words.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

In John 1:14, the phrase in Greek is “en hemin.” It is usually translated as “among us.” This is the translation preferred, for example, by the NRSV. It’s an accurate and acceptable translation, but I’m not sure it’s adequate. The most basic meaning of the phrase is “in us” rather than “among us.” I think that most basic meaning is the more helpful translation at this point.

Why does this matter to me? I think that “among” shades pretty quickly, in our minds, into “with.” The Matthean declaration that Jesus is “God with us” colors, I believe, our understanding of the Incarnation as described in the Johannine prologue. And “with” leads many of us to focus on the Divine accompaniment of the cosmos – God alongside us, keeping us company, reassuring us when we feel alone.

I’m not criticizing that understanding. It is certainly part of what we Christians mean to say when we talk about the doctrine of the Incarnation. But I don’t think it encompasses what the Johannine author seeks to communicate. I would suggest that in the Prologue we meet the Incarnate One who not only accompanies but always empowers us. The Incarnate One is not only among us but in us.

I would suggest that this is one of the reasons the Johannine author uses the verb, “skenoo,” here. Elizabeth Johnson, in her workingpreacher.org commentary notes that “the Greek verb translated ‘lived’ in this verse is skenoo, which means more literally, ‘pitched his tent.’ Just as God traveled with the people of Israel in the wilderness by means of the ‘tent of meeting’ in their midst,” she continues, “John announces that God has chosen to ‘tabernacle’ among us in an even more radical way, by the Word embodied in human flesh.”

In the Exodus account, the living presence of God moved from Sinai into the Tent of Meeting (which becomes the Tabernacle). Certainly, the living presence of God was “among” or “in the midst of” the people, although the Tent of Meeting was really located outside the camp. More than that, however, the living presence of God was powerful in and through Moses and the people and led them on the way.

It seems to me that an emphasis on the Incarnate Word as tabernacling “among” (with) us, tends to focus exclusively on the “Person” of Christ. Thus, it leads us to sermons about the nature of the Incarnation and descriptions of Trinitarian relationships. By noticing the “in” character of this presence, we can focus on the “Work” of Christ to empower disciples to put their trust in him and to participate in the mission of the Church.

I don’t think this is an either/or conversation. All I’m saying is that translation forces us to choose one word where several probably would be better. Let me move to the end of the Johannine gospel to illustrate what I mean.

When Jesus appears to the disciples the first time in the locked room, they rejoice when they realize that their Lord is with them again. That is the beginning of the interaction, however, not the end. Jesus then breathes into them the Holy Spirit which empowers them to embody the Divine Life in their relationships with one another. The Word takes on flesh in them and in their reality as community.

I think that the Johannine intertextual reference is obvious here. Just as God breathed the Breath of Life into the nostrils of the first man in Genesis, so Jesus breathes that Breath of Life into the disciples, and they are put on the path to full and flourishing humanity. That gift is certainly among them, but it is also in them. They become walking, talking tabernacles, or as Paul would put it, temples of the Holy Spirit.

It is, therefore, no accident that the Gospel of John is the primary anchor point for the Christian traditions that emphasize theosis (divinization) as the path of the Christian life. These, primarily Eastern, traditions, call us to see not only what God does for us and with us in Christ but also what God does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift of truth to which we are called and into which we grow for now and for eternity.

As I have noted in other posts, this perspective finds a home in Lutheran theology in the notion of “Christ present in faith.” Tuomo Mannermaa reminds us that when Luther discusses the theology of faith in his Preface to Romans, he refers to our passage as an illustration. “Faith, however,” Luther writes, “is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God…” (Kindle Location 467).

Luther continues his description thus. Faith, as this divine work, “kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men (sic), in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.” Then comes the sentence that is often quoted without this theosis context. This faith “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing,” Luther writes. “It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly” (Kindle Location 472).

In the Incarnation, Jesus is filled with the gracious truth of the Father. Colossians 1:19 would tell us that in him “was pleased to dwell all the fullness [of the Deity].” Luther argues that Christ “lives and works in us, not speculatively but really, most presently and most effectively” (Kindle Location 480). “According to Luther,” Mannermaa writes, “faith is the right way of becoming a partaker of God because it possesses the whole fullness of the essence of God in Christ” (Kindle Location 489).

The logic of the Reformer’s thinking is as follows,” Mannermaa concludes: “In faith, human beings are really united with Christ. Christ, in turn, is both the forgiveness of sins and the effective producer of everything that is good in them” (Kindle Locations 675-676). The gracious truth we receive from the Incarnate One is that we are restored to full and flourishing humanity and are called by God in Christ through the power of the Spirit to live according to that humanity.

The Incarnation is, therefore, both “comfort” and “call.” We can receive that call or reject it, as we noted in the previous post. Receiving that call makes us children of God who put our trust in His name. That call doesn’t come from any human agency but rather from God, present in Christ through faith.

I rejoice in the presence of the Incarnate One among us as the source of comfort and hope. I rejoice all the more in the presence of the Incarnate One in us as the source of good works that embody that presence and shape me more and more in the likeness of the Incarnate One.

References and Resources

Johnson, Elizabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-3/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-9.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification Kindle Edition.

van Deventer, Cornelia. “Performing John: the participatory nature of the Fourth Gospel.” Neotestamentica 53.3 (2019): 517-534.


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Text Study for Mark 12:28-36 (Pt. 3); October 31, 2021

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

How is the foremost commandment – to love God with one’s whole self – connected to the second-most commandment – to love one’s neighbor as oneself? In his book, Two Kinds of Love, Tuomo Mannermaa puts it this way.

“God’s Love helps human beings, first of all, to love God as God and not only the goodness received from God, and, second, to love other human beings for themselves and as persons, instead of loving only their precious qualities and for what could be gained from them for the benefit of the one who loves” (Kindle Locations 201-203).

Mannermaa suggests, in other words, that human love is connected to and even mirrors God’s love when we love “for nothing.” That is, God loves not for what God can gain but rather for what God can give. When human love functions in the same way, it is a product of God’s love.

Photo by Daria Liudnaya on Pexels.com

Mannermaa roots this discussion in the final thesis Martin Luther proposed for debate as part of the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation. That thesis reads, “God’s Love does not find, but creates, that which is lovable…to it. Human Love comes into being through that which is lovable to it ” (Kindle Location 133). God’s love is given to something or someone which can produce nothing in return or is, in fact, nothing in itself.

Human love, apart from God’s love, is always focused on that which can and does produce something in return. Human love on its own, at its best, is seeking the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. In simpler terms, human love on its own gives in order to get. Mannermaa argues that “human beings always seek their own, that is, their own good, in the objects of their love” (Kindle Locations 145-146).

Mannermaa is not being overly cynical about the nature of human love. Nor is he judging any particular instances of human loving. Instead, he is describing the nature of love possible for a creature on its own. This is how we are able to love apart from God’s love in us. It’s not bad in and of itself. It’s just not all there is. And it’s not the full love for which we were created.

This notion of loving “for nothing” or “for something” fits in with one of the overall directions of the Markan composition. Think back to the two times that Jesus puts a child in the midst of the disciples. Jesus tells us that unless we receive the Kin(g)dom of God like a child, we will not be able to enter into it. Remember that this is not about childlike innocence or any other romantic notion. This is about welcoming God among us “for nothing.”

We are called to welcome God among us “for nothing” because that is how God welcomes us. This is the Good News that Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts in his mission, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. Remember that Jesus comes as the Son of Man, not to be served but to serve, and to give his life. God does not come in Jesus to get. God comes in Jesus to give.

“God’s Love is not oriented toward ‘what is’ but rather toward ‘what is not,’” Mannermaa writes. “That is why God’s Love does not desire to gain something good from its object but rather pours out good and shares its own goodness with its object” (Kindle Locations 149-150). What God’s Love pours out is the presence of Christ in the hearts of those who trust in Christ, as we saw in the previous post.

Paul follows up his assertion in Romans 5:5 with a description of our condition when that “pouring in” takes place. Here we are – weak, ungodly, sinners, enemies of God – and Christ dies for the love of us. That love creates something where there was nothing. That’s what it means to be in bondage to sin – to be reduced to the nothingness of death. But that’s where God does God’s best work.

It’s for that reason, backing up a bit further in Romans, that Paul uses Abraham and Sarah as an illustration. Abraham was, Paul says, as good as dead. Sarah was barren –her womb was empty. Out of that nothingness, God creates new life. Out of that death, God brings resurrection. Trust in Jesus is trust in precisely that God, who handed him over to death for our trespasses and raised him for our justification.

“God’s creating love is especially manifest,” Mannermaa argues, “when God-and and those human beings in whom God’s Love dwells-loves the sinners who are wicked, foolish, and weak, in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong” (Kindle Locations 154-155). Mannermaa reminds us of a great Luther quote at this point. “Therefore sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”

Thus, God loves us “for nothing.” That’s the nature and definition of God’s grace. “Because God’s Love does not find but creates that which is lovable to it, it is not determined by the attributes of its object,” Mannermaa notes. “It does not choose its object on the basis of these attributes, nor does it depend on human opinions, according to which the object of love always should be something” (Kindle Locations 157-158).

God loves us “for nothing,” and creates in us the capacity to love God “for nothing” in return. That’s a sort of operational definition of faith. We Christians would say that this capacity comes to us as Christ lives in us and through us. When our love for the neighbor is “for nothing,” that is, for the sake of the neighbor rather than for our own benefit or advantage, then our neighbor love is a reflection of and response to our love for God.

Mannermaa notes that Lutheran theology, and especially analyses of Luther’s theology, tend to downplay, or even ignore Luther’s thinking on God’s love and human love. But this thinking is critical to understanding Luther’s work and the Markan composition at this point. It’s not that we can use human love to help us understand God’s love. It is, rather, that God’s love is the standard by which all human love should be judged.

“God loves human beings by giving them Godself fully, that is, by giving them God’s full ‘nature’ with all of God’s characteristics.…” (Kindle Location 398-399). This is the “joyous exchange” I mentioned in the previous post. God’s love is always more than a feeling. It is the gift of God’s very self, given to us in the living and transforming presence of Christ within us.

“Faith receives the good deed of Christ,” Mannermaa continues. Notice that we are back to what it means to receive or welcome the Kingdom of God. Faith receives God’s love in Christ poured into our hearts by the Spirit. And we receive that love, trusting that we are loved “for nothing” and not “for something.”

I know far too many people who are certain that they can only be loved “for something.” They are convinced that they have to produce, to provide, to be used and exploited in order to receive anything that looks or feels like “love.” Most of us live this way most of the time. My chaplaincy supervisor said that most of us believe that “bad breath is better than no breath at all.” We settle for being loved “for something” rather than risk not being loved at all.

The joy of the Gospel is the realization that God loves me “for nothing,” that is, for me just as I am – not for what I can produce or provide, not for my perfection or pretense. I only get brief glimpses of that Good News in my heart now and then. But when I do, it is, to quote Luther, as if the gates of Paradise have opened wide.

The second-most commandment, then, comes out of the foremost – but applied to our neighbor. “This means, to do for their neighbors as Christ has done first for them,” Mannermaa argues, “to give the good gifts they have received to their neighbors in need, and to relate to the neighbors’ sins, weaknesses, and needs as if these were their own. In this way,” he concludes, “Christ, Christians, and their neighbors form one body in God and God’s love” (Kindle Locations 400-402).

Reflect on those moments in relationships when you have felt most loved. I suspect those are moments when you experienced love that was for you as you were, not as you were expected to be. When we have someone in our lives who loves us that way, it is the greatest of all gifts. That’s the sort of love that changes people, makes people better, makes people closer to what God has created us to be. That sort of love is a means of God’s love for us.

Is it any wonder that when the scribe affirms Jesus’ words here, Jesus says that he is “not far” from the Kin(g)dom of God? The scribe doesn’t stick around, however, for the way this works out in reality. After all, self-giving love – loving “for nothing” – is always suffering love. This love is always on the way to the cross and resurrection.

“Because of the nature of God’s love,” Mannermaa writes, “all God’s action in the world has the form and shape of the cross” (Kindle Location 489). Therefore, if our love is to be “like” that love, our action in the world will also have the form and shape of the cross. Again we come to Luther’s formulation of the Golden Rule – “Do to your neighbor what Christ has done to you.”

“These are the true Christian works,” Luther says in a sermon, “that the Christian falls and plunges into the mud where the sinner is, and is immersed in it as deeply as the sinner is; and that the Christian takes the sinner’s sins upon oneself, and rises up again with the sinner, acting as if those sins were one’s own.”

That’s what Love’s got to do with it.

References and Resources

Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 201-203). Kindle Edition.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 15:1-11 (Pt. 3); 5 Easter B 2021

I will always remember the wondering of an ex-offender who came to faith in Christ and was enthusiastically baptized. Not long after, he came to me with a question that troubled him. He was worried about “backsliding” and falling away from the faith. He was tempted by his old ways of life and didn’t want to risk losing out on salvation. Wouldn’t it be better, he wondered, if the Lord took us to heaven right after we were baptized? After all, why risk anything further?

That question represents the hidden wondering, I suspect, of many western Christians. Once we get past Holy Week and Easter, what’s the rest of it for? Now that Jesus has done the important stuff, perhaps all that comes after is sort of beside the point. Is Jesus good for anything more now than a label for our particular club and the Divine signature on our eternal life policy?

The Vine and the Branches can allow us to think a bit about this question. It may seem that we’re going to engage in some theological mumbo-jumbo, but we need that clear and disciplined thinking to make sense out of this. We can talk for a bit about the “Person” and the “Work” of Jesus Christ and what that means for our life as people of the Spirit-filled Resurrection. What happens “after Easter” seems like a good topic for reflection and proclamation this week.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

Many Protestant Christians know a fair bit about the “work” of Christ. The Work of Christ refers primarily the justification of sinners which God brings about through the victory over death won by Christ on his cross and in his resurrection.

In a simple sense, the Work of Christ is what God does in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit for us. In that Work, God sets us right with God and one another so we can be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with the whole cosmos.

We tend to think less about the “person” of Christ. The Person of Christ refers to the presence of the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the cosmos and in each creature. Again, in a simple sense, the Person of Christ is what God does in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in us and through us.

In classical (and over-simplified) Lutheran terms, the Work of Christ is justification. The Person of Christ is about sanctification. We can debate about this description, as Lutherans have for 500 years. But it’s close enough for our purposes here.

The figure of speech we know as “The Vine and the Branches” is more about the Person of Christ than it is about the Work of Christ. It is more about sanctification than it is about justification. It is more about being “right” (righteous, whole, fully human) than getting “right” (righteous, whole, fully human). The figure of speech is more about how the Vine works in us and less about what the Vine does for us.

That in-dwelling, especially in John’s gospel, is always a mutual relationship. Christ dwells/abides/remains in me, and I dwell/abide/remain in Christ. That mutual relationship can produce some convoluted sentences to try to describe the connections.

In fact, the image of the Vine and the Branches conveys the relationship far better than the prose descriptions in John (which tend to sound like theological word salad in English). And that image reminds us that our mutual indwelling with Christ mirrors the mutual indwelling between the Father and the Son (and, by implication, the Spirit).

As I have noted in other contexts, I find the work of Tuomo Mannermaa and his Finnish school of Luther interpretation both helpful and exciting in this regard. Mannermaa points to Luther’s assertion that Christ is present in the justified sinner by faith.

I am not only “declared righteous” (thank God, that is most certainly true). In addition, and as a result, I am being “made righteous” as Christ works in me by the power of the Spirit (thank God, that is also most certainly true). In language that our Eastern siblings would well understand, we are both saved once and for all, and being saved day by day.

Mannermaa points to Luther’s 1535 commentary on Galatians as one of many locations for this line of thought. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God,” Paul writes in Galatians 2:19. The outcome of this death is that “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh,” Paul concludes, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Mannermaa describes this as “Christ present in faith.” He doesn’t mean a symbolic or metaphorical presence but rather a real, ontological presence. That’s important for the discussion here. “Christ in me” isn’t merely a symbol or a metaphor. It isn’t something I accomplish through devotion or thinking or imagination. That’s what actually happens when we are baptized into Christ.

The “I” of sin, of being curved in on oneself, is put to death in the cross of Christ. That “I” is being replaced with Christ who lives in me. Paul doesn’t mean that, somehow, I am obliterated as a person. Rather, he means that through the presence of Christ, I am being made into the fully human person I was created to be. The fully human person I was created to be is made for union with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

Mannermaa puts it this way. “It is important to appreciate that the conquest of the forces of sin and destruction takes place within Christ’s own person. He won the battle between righteousness and sin ‘in himself,’” Mannermaa declares. “Sin, death, and curse are first conquered in the person of Christ, and ‘thereafter’ the whole of creation is to be transformed through his person. Salvation is participation in the person of Christ” (Kindle Locations 317-319, my emphasis).

My righteousness is certainly a declarative (“forensic”) justification. It is also, Mannermaa asserts, a performative (“ontological”) justification. Luther often talks about this reality as the “Wonderful Exchange.” Christ takes the powers of sin, death, and the devil that live in me and absorbs them into himself. There, those powers are defeated. In exchange, I receive forgiveness, life, and salvation for Jesus’ sake and through his presence.

Mannermaa writes, “What takes place here between Christ and the believer is a kind of communication of attributes: Christ, the divine righteousness, truth, peace, joy, love, power, and life, gives himself to the Christian. At the same time,” he notes, “Christ ‘absorbs’ the believer’s sin, death, and curse into himself” (Kindle Locations 329-330).

I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus tells his disciples. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It is hard to articulate a closer actual and physical connection than that between the vine and the branches.

The branches draw their life from the vine. In a physical, as well as theological and spiritual, sense, the vine is present in each and all of the branches. This is the relationship Jesus promises, offers, and creates in all who follow him.

Therefore, according to Luther, the Wonderful Exchange is not only a removal of sin, death, and the devil, to be replaced by forgiveness, life, and salvation. What happens is, in fact, a “communication of attributes.” This is a technical theological term that up until Luther was typically applied to the relationships between members of the Trinity. But for Luther, it describes what happens to us when we mutually indwell with Christ in faith.

“It is precisely the Christ present in justifying faith who communicates God’s saving attributes to the believer in the ‘happy exchange,’” Mannermaa writes. “God is righteousness, and in faith the human being participates in righteousness; God is joy, and in faith the human being participates in joy; God is life, and in faith the human being participates in life; God is power, and in faith the human being participates in power, and so forth” (Kindle Locations 397-400).

This understanding of our relationship with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit helps me to hear “The Vine and the Branches” as sweet gospel rather than merely an opaque metaphor. Jesus makes this promise of himself to the first disciples and to all disciples who come after.

The Father tends the Vine in order to give life to the Vine, and in that life, we branches find and have our life as well. We are invited to abide in the Valid Vine as Beloved Branches, to remain connected and nourished and growing in him. With that mutual exchange of life and love, we can bear fruit. We can become all that God created us to be from the beginning. Why would we wish for anything else?

I wish I had come across the work of the Finns sooner, but I’m glad to find it now. The presence and power of the Messiah is present in us and in me by the power of the Life-giving Spirit. We draw our abundant life from the Vine.

We are made of the “same stuff” as the Vine as well! For Mannermaa, this means that Luther’s view was relatively close to the Eastern view of salvation as theosis, becoming more and more like Christ (“divinized”) in our union with him.

What is our life after justification good for? The Love of God is poured into us. But it is also poured out through us. That’s why we’re here – to be fruitful branches. In that fruit-bearing, we find more and more of the abundant life promised to us.

Life on the Vine (there’s a sermon title for you — no extra charge) is intensely personal and intimate. It is also of necessity communal. Jesus doesn’t say I am the vine, and you (singular) are a branch. We are branches together.

I can tell you that the last thirteen months of pandemic piety have confirmed both realities in me. I have been nourished as a branch through deeper study, reflection, and prayer. I have been reminded that life as a solo branch cannot be enough to sustain me for the long haul. We are branches together.

You can certainly use the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as an illustration of what happens when we’re brought into Life on the Vine. The second reading has some great lines as well to flesh this out (pun intended) further.

References and Resources

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-5.

Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018)  https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.  Kindle Edition.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-4.

Text Study for 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Transfiguration B 2021 (part two)

Part two: Shining with Resurrection Light

In his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright comments on this passage and 2 Corinthians in general, from the perspective of the Resurrection. He notes a shift in that perspective from 1 Corinthians to 2 Corinthians. “But whereas in 1 Corinthians the movement is primarily towards the future, straining towards the resurrection and discovering what needs to be done in the present to anticipate it,” he writes, “in 2 Corinthians the movement is primarily towards the present, discovering in the powerful resurrection of Jesus and the promised resurrection for all his people the secret of facing suffering and pain here and now” (page 300).

Wright reminds us that when Paul uses the “new covenant” language in 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, he is taking us back to Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. God’s new covenant is not written on stone tablets like the first covenant. Rather it is, as the prophets promise, written on human hearts. Those hearts are not made of stone themselves but are rather the soft hearts of flesh.

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Pexels.com

The first covenant, the “ministry in service of death” as he describes it in 2 Corinthians 3:7, was “chiseled in letters on stone tablets.” The new covenant is written by the Spirit on human hearts – on the hearts of the Corinthian Christians. Paul tells them in verse three that they are “a letter of Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (NRSV).

So, Paul is a minister of the New Covenant. That covenant has a different kind of glory, a glory unlike that on the face of Moses as he received and transmitted the first covenant. It’s not that the first covenant had no glory but rather than the New Covenant outshines the first in its brilliance. Paul’s argument, Wright suggests, “is that his ministry has ‘glory’ even though it does not look like it.”

It is not like the glory of Moses’ ministry because it “involves life rather than death, justification rather than condemnation, permanence rather than transitoriness” (page 304). That glory is the reflection of the Messiah who is both crucified and risen. That glory shines in and through the Jesus follower in life-altering ways. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror,” Paul writes in 3:18, “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

The word Paul uses for “transformed” here is the same as Mark uses to describe the change in appearance the disciples witnessed on the Mount of Transfiguration. That’s another reason why I think it is best to read the text beginning at 3:17 in our worship services. These verses offer a powerful and enthralling description of what we should expect in our lives as Jesus followers. We should expect transformation, or as Wright notes, New Creation from the same Spirit who wrought Creation in the beginning.

“The god who said ‘let light shine out of darkness,” Wright proposes, in other words, the Genesis god, God the creator – has shone in our hearts, [Paul] says, to give ‘the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus the Messiah.” It’s to clear to Paul and to us that some cannot (or will not) see this glory because they have been blinded by “the god of this world.” But, Wright notes, that is no fault of Paul or Paul’s gospel. Instead, it is a failure of vision on the part of those who cling to appearance rather than reality.

The Transfiguration is a far more important event and text in the Eastern Church than it is in the West. This is because of the Eastern emphasis on salvation as “theosis,” which can be translated as “deification” or “divinization.” The classic statement of this doctrine comes from Athanasius in his treatise on the Incarnation. Athanasius, almost in a throwaway line near the end of the book notes that “God became human in order that humans might become gods.” The Western Church has an allergic reaction to that idea since it might lead to either the idolatry of the human or some sort of collapse in the distinction between the Creator and the created.

Yet, we can find this notion in Paul’s conversation about our transformation and glorification. On the Mountain of Transfiguration, Eastern theologians tell us, we can see the humanity of Christ radiant with divine glory. And we can see the divinity of Christ shining through his humanity without defacing or destroying it. In fact, the glimpse we get on the mountain is not merely of glory. Rather, in this Eastern line of thought, what the disciples see is the fulfillment of the Image of God – a revelation of how God intended humans to exist from the moment of Creation. The Transfiguration reveals, therefore, not a detour but our destiny in Christ.

This understanding of the Transfiguration is not far from the thought of Martin Luther, even though that strand of Luther’s theology has often been discounted, ignored, or even rejected as an aberration. I have become a “fan” of the work of the Finnish school of Luther studies led by Dr. Tuomo Mannermaa. His work, and that of his colleagues, is brought to us in large part in the translations and expositions offered by Dr. Kirsi Stjerna. I would recommend that readers consider studying Mannermaa’s work – particularly his book, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.

We Lutherans know God’s justifying grace as a declarative reality – that God declares us in right relationship with God for the sake of Christ. The Holy Spirit invites us to accept and embrace that declarative reality and to actively trust in that reality by the Spirit’s power. But Luther has more in mind when it comes to justification. In particular, Luther often talks about the “wonderful exchange” – that Christ takes our bondage to sin, death, and the Devil, and gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Mannermaa demonstrates, in Stjerna’s words, that “Luther can talk about righteousness as a human being becoming one with God through a real exchange of attributes between the sinner and Christ” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Locations 113-114). Justification is not just a change in “legal” status (the declarative understanding). Rather, justification is a change in our being human, our ontological makeup and experience (the performative understanding).

Mannermaa argues that Luther’s understanding of justification has much in common with the Eastern Church’s doctrine of theosis. Stjerna suggests that Mannermaa “argues for and centers on Luther’s radical insight about justification being a godly act of divinization that changes a person’s relationship with God ontologically. Arguing in light of the Orthodox teaching of theosis,” she continues, “Mannermaa proves through systematic reading of Luther that the idea of divinization, which happens because of Christ and in faith, is at the heart of Luther’s theology” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Locations 153-155).

What are the benefits of life with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit? In his catechisms and elsewhere, Luther uses the language of “benefits” to talk about what justification produces in the life of the believer. It’s a grand thing to know that we have been declared righteous and that at the last day we shall have our sins set aside for the sake of Christ. My internship supervisor’s wife often teased him by saying, “Your reward will be in heaven, honey.” He would tease in return, “Yes, but I want it now.”

Paul says, if Mannermaa is correct, that we get it both ways. Not only are we declared righteous by God’s favor, Mannermaa says, we are made righteous by God’s gift. This helps us to make sense of Paul’s imagery at the end of 2 Corinthians 3, that we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Salvation is not only a legal declaration, Mannermaa argues. “Salvation is,” he concludes, participation in the person of Christ” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Location 319).

It is certainly not the case that Christ followers are immediately transformed into the full divine image. If we follow Paul’s argument further in 2 Corinthians, we shall see that we carry this treasure in the clay jars of our humanity. Even though that is the case, however, if anyone is in Christ, there is New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). The One who shines light in the darkness shines that light into our hearts and through our lives. “Faith communicates the divine attributes to the human being,” Mannermaa writes, “because Christ himself, who is a divine person, is present in faith” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Location 393).

I find this perspective exciting and energizing for at least two reasons. The first reason is the hope for real transformation in this life here and now rather than the formalism of forensic justification. I long to be and strive to be a “contemplative theologian of the cross.” Union with Christ is not a metaphor but rather an actual thing that I can expect to have concrete impact on who and what and how I am in the here and now.

The second reason is that this transformation is unlimited and unending. We can expect in the New Life to continue being transformed from glory into glory. We cannot exhaust God’s gracious and creative potential for us and for all of Creation in the cross and resurrection of Christ. We will never say to God, as Rowan Williams notes, “Oh, now you’re repeating yourself.” Our transformation is and will be never-ending.

I won’t try to unpack all of Mannermaa’s work here. But I hope the reader might consider pursuing this line of thought and research if it is new to you. And I pray that you will find it as refreshing and encouraging as I do.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Kim, Yung Suk. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-5

Levin, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). London, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malcolm, Lois. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-4

Mannermaa, Tuomo, and Stjerna, Kirsi Irmeli. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-92-9-3

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Works, Carla. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-3