Marriage, Unity and The Trinity (A Sermon)

I recently gave this sermon at a wedding I officiated.

 

Marriage, Unity and the Trinity

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

(Philippians 2.1-11, ESV)

 

Paul here writes to the church in Philippi from prison exhorting them to unity. For Paul, unity is not achieved through abstracted propositions and ideals that we can all agree on, but unity is found fully embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. This is why Paul builds up in this passage to direct his reader’s attention to Christ, to direct their gaze onto the man who is the concrete image of the invisible God (Col 1.15); in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 2.19); He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb 1.3); the eternal Word from the beginning (John 1.1) made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.14). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes what we are called to:

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”

Pay close attention to the end of that passage: Over all, through all and in all. To be called by God is to be drawn into the beauty and splendor of the life of the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is three in one, in perfect union. The Father who is over all, the Son who is through all and the Spirit who is in all. This is on full display at Christ’s baptism:

Every act of God is inaugurated by the Father, effected by the Son and perfected by the Holy Spirit. It also reveals that God’s love is always entirely sufficient in itself; the Spirit receives and returns the love of Father and Son, and so witnesses, enjoys and perfects it, the Spirit is also the one in whom that love most manifestly opens out as sheer delight, generosity and desire for the other. (DBH, The Beauty of the Infinite)

We see in the life of Jesus the perfect union of the eternal triune communion of love, and through His life, death, resurrection and by the power of the Spirit, the church is to be caught up into this loving communion, and as we are knitted together into unity, through weekly participation in church worship, by the Spirit, our love and desire for the other, i.e. our neighbor, overflows from our very existence. Being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind is to have our affections and desires fundamentally orientated towards the reality that already is available to us in Jesus Christ. That is, as Christians we are becoming what we already are. The Greek word used for “being in full accord” is the word ‘sumpsuchos’ (soom’-psoo-khos), which is made up of two words “sun” (together with), and “psuchos” (soul, self, inner life, desires, affections) which can be translated to: harmonious in soul, souls that beat together; in tune with Christ and with each other. If we live by the Spirit, as Paul says to the Galatians, let us keep in step with the Spirit. To participate in the Spirit, to have fellowship in the Spirit is to have our fruit in the Spirit, of which the first is love. Love is the foretaste of our ultimate union with God, graciously given to us now and we share that with one another.
When Scripture says that God is love, it is not a vague sentiment about the presence of God in our emotions, but describes the very life and essence of God. To participate in the Spirit is to participate in the very life of God, which is an eternal triune communion of love. John tells us to love one another:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. (1 John 4:7-14)

This is good news! He abides and perfects his love in us. We love because he first loved us! We do not need good advice, but we need to hear the good news that God has taken action towards us not because of anything we had done, but because of His great love for us. This is the beauty of the gospel; that God took on our flesh. He plunged into the disorder and chaos of our sin, over the infinite ocean of darkness that separated us from Him, He bound himself to us ‘in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself.’ (T.F. Torrance) All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself (2 Cor 5.18), making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1.20)

In your marriage you will face trials, struggles, fights and countless other moments that seek to work against you. But in this remember that God is for you, and for your marriage. In Jesus Christ God has actualized his infinite love for you, and in the beauty of this love seek to orient yourselves and your marriage around this truth.

May your marriage be a continual proclamation of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered the sins of the whole world; to reconcile all things to himself by the blood of the cross, whether in heaven or on earth.

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The Death of God & Transcendence

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

“The true God is the hidden God”

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, 193

In reflecting about the death of God we want to read a certain kind of atheism back into the haunting words of Nietzsche. We want to view him the same way we view guys like Dawkins and Hitchens, but this is ultimately a mistake. If we put him in the same category we do to the New Atheists, we would miss the weight of his words. The death of God for Nietzsche is a cultural event. This poses an opportunity and a catastrophe, wherein the belief in transcendence has come to an end and when the culture wakes up to this reality, nihilism (infinite meaninglessness) will come creeping in. Nihilism, for Nietzsche, must be overcome. This is where his Übermench rises and overcomes.

Tomáš Halík, in his wonderful book ‘I Want You to Be’, argues that Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead” can be seen maybe “not as only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us.” (p. 20) In this chapter Halík is writing about God speaking to us, and how often we only stop at God’s first word to us. Halík says this is a mistake. Like Abraham, who ‘at the moment God was hidden from him in incomprehensibility’ waited to hear God speak to him for a second time. Hope, no matter how small or incomprehensible, says Halík, is the chink in the armor through which the “still small voice” of God’s message can reach us. (p. 21)

We live in the shadow of Nietzsche’s Madman’s proclamation to the death of transcendence, Halík argues that this should be viewed as only the first sentence to us, which like Good Friday (the death of Christ), must be followed by a second sentence. Good Friday is an important message to us from God, but it certainly was not the final one. Here Halík offers his most lucid analysis:

“‘God is dead!’ That sentence uttered at the end of the nineteenth century continued to fascinate for the next hundred years. Maybe it was not only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us. A God who has not endured death is not truly Living. A faith that does not undergo Good Friday cannot attain the fullness of Easter. Crises of faith –– both personal and in histories of culture –– are an important part of the history of faith, of our communication with God, who is concealed and returns again to those who do not stop waiting for the unique and eternal Word to speak to them once more.” (p. 20)

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us much the same:

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:15)

David Bentley Hart thinks the time we live in the death of God, which is the death of a god that did not exist in the first place, is an opportunity to reclaim the true transcendence of God. For Hart the death of God was the death of the God of modernity and nihilism. In his essay “Impassibility as Transcendence”, Hart takes on both Thomists and modern fundamentalists alike. For him the language within the Thomist scheme of transcendence does not actually speak to God’s utter difference and transcendence, but falls short and looks as modern as any theology does today. The statement Hart seeks to give an answer to comes from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:

“God determining or determined: there is no other alternative.”

God, under both the Thomist  and the modern fundamentalists scheme, cannot avoid the problem that Lagrange puts forth, because He is simply another being among beings and is thus caught in the scheme of finite existence and causes. This is a grave mistake because God properly defined within the classical theistic metaphysical tradition is that God is the ground and source of all being. Hart expounds (at length) on the definition of God’s transcendence:

“God’s being is necessary, that is, not simply because it is inextinguishable  or eternally immune to nothingness, but because it transcends the dialectic of existence and nonexistence altogether; it is simple and infinite actuality, utterly pure of ontic determination, the “is” both of “it is” and of the “it is not”. It transcends, that is to say, even the distinction between finite act and finite potency, since both exist by virtue of their participation in God’s infinite actuality, in which might be always supereminently is. God is absolute, that is to say, in the most proper sense: he is eternally “absolved” of finite causality, so much so that he need not––in any simple univocal sense––determine in order to avoid being determined. His transcendence is not something achieved by the negation of its “opposite””.

He ends his scathing essay calling for Christians to see to it that this god remains dead:

“It is principally the god of modernity––the god of pure sovereignty––who has died for modern humanity, and perhaps theology has no nobler calling for now than to see that he remains dead, and that every attempt to revive him is thwarted: in the hope that, in becoming willing accomplices in his death, Christians may help to prepare their world for the return of the true God revealed in Christ, in all the mystery of his transcendent and impassible love.”

For Halík and Hart alike, the death of God is something to be seen as a hopeful event, because the death of this particular god is not the transcendent Triune God revealed in Christ, but a god who has never existed in the first place. Let us see it as an opportunity, not a catastrophe, that the true God revealed in Christ will once again speak His eternal Word to those of us who wait patiently in the midst of His seeming hiddenness and silence.

Beauty

“Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

-Hans Urs von Balthasar, THE GLORY OF THE LORD: A THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS, VOL. 1 -SEEING THE FORM

Lenten Reflections on Restlessness and the Gospel

“Properly speaking it is Gospel when it preaches Christ; but when it rebukes and reproves and gives commands, it does nothing else than destroy those who are presumptuous concerning their own righteousness to make room for grace, that they may know the Law is fulfilled not by their own powers but only through Christ, who pours out the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

They who interpret the term ‘Gospel’ as something else than ‘the good news’ do not understand the Gospel, as those people do who have turned the Gospel into a law rather than grace and have made Christ a Moses for us.”

-Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans

An Anthropology of Restlessness

The Lenten season calls us to reflection in our hearts and bodies about what we cling to and rely on for our day to day existence. These things often look different than we otherwise would like to believe. It is not so much “you are what you believe” rather it is you are what you love. The rhythm of our days seek to shape us into certain kinds of people for specific kingdoms. This is based in the fundamental truth as human beings, we are first and foremost desiring beings. As James K.A. Smith observes:

“We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 40)

Liturgical practices, for Smith, is the various habits embedded in our daily existence. “Habits (precognitive dispositions) are formed by practices: routines and rituals that inscribe particular ongoing habits into our character, such that they become second nature to us.” (Ibid, p. 80) Moreover “the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it.” (Ibid, p. 47) If we understand ourselves first as primarily “lovers” before we are “thinkers” we will have to re-evaluate what it means for us to be influenced since we often believe that ideas are the way in which we are most heavily influenced. Take an example from Perelandra, the second novel in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy:

“As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle to the good and find that it also is dreadful? …Here at last was a bit of that world from beyond the world, which I always supposed that I loved and desired, breaking through and appearing to my sense: and I didn’t like it, I wanted it to go away.” (Perelandra, p. 19)

We suppose we love God and ultimately claim to desire Him, but what if a small amount of God and His holiness appears before us (whatever that looks like I’m not sure) and we shrink in horror that it is not at all what we had supposed? I will contend that the Lenten season gives us the space to reflect on the habits and rhythms that shape our days, and ultimately our hearts. If we continually participate in the consumerist narrative of work, consume, sleep and repeat we will be in a continual state of restlessness. The Gospel is good news for us, the Gospel is the good news of rest in a restless age.

Rest for the Restless

For Martin Luther, everything depends on a merciful God and not on someone’s will. The debates about freedom of the will are endless, and at times verge on out living their usefulness as it pertains to reflections on faith, but we must be cautious when we speak about the conversion of someone from a non-Christian to a Christian. Much of the language used, especially when we talk about the nature of free will, often becomes contentious because we tend to give into the modern notion of certainty about the things we believe. We over conceptualize, place the emphasis on one thing (human choice) or the other (God’s choice) and when we reduce the issue to either tends to distract us from the truth of God’s unconditional action towards the human race.

Karl Barth, in his second volume of his Church Dogmatics, writes about God’s love as love that is ‘concerned with seeking and creating fellowship for its own sake.’ (II.2, p. 276) This love is an outpouring of God’s abundant goodness He is in Himself. Perfect Triune loving fellowship and in ‘loving us, God does not give us something, but Himself; and giving us Himself, giving us His only Son, He gives everything. The love of God has only to be His love to be everything for us.’ (Ibid) Barth further elaborates that ‘God’s love is not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side…the object of the love of God as such is another which in itself is not, or is not yet, worthy of this His pleasure.’ (Ibid, p. 278) Here Barth is getting at the point I want to make: God’s love is unmerited and unconditional towards us, and we find it fully realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the action of God that saves us, not anything we have done on our own part. Our salvation is truly secure not in our cognitive recognition of it, nor is our belief in our belief what secures us, but the objective work of Christ fulfilling the promises of God secure our salvation and reconciliation.

Peter Leithart in his book ‘Delivered from the Elements of the World’ has a chapter titled “Justified by the Faith of Jesus”. In it he explores Paul’s use of the term justification. He writes ‘in contrast to some standard Protestant soteriologies, though, Paul treats this judgement not as a mere verdict of “righteous” that is the basis for liberation, but as itself an act of deliverance… sinners have the righteous status of Jesus himself by faith, by trusting in Christ and entrusting themselves to the Father, by self-abandonment and loyalty to their Savior.’ (Delivered, p. 181) Leithart here wants us to grasp that justification is not merely a legal status change, it is not ‘merely a matter of ordo salutis or application of redemption; it is also, and most fundamentally, an event in the historia salutis. “Justification” occurred two thousand years ago.’ (Ibid, p. 183)

In this season of Lent as we seek to abandon the habits and rhythms that are forming us for another kingdom, and abstaining from eating or drinking certain kinds of meat or alcohol, let us reflect on the goodness of God coming in Christ out of the abundance of the Triune communion seeking us out to give us Himself, which is to give us everything.

Shallot Acrobats and The Joy of Creation

“The Christian apprehension of creation requires and involves the principle that creation is benefit. It shows us God’s good pleasure as the root, the foundation and the end of divine creation.”

-Karl Barth, CD III.1 p.331

“God’s gracious action in creation belongs from the first to that delight, pleasure, and regard that the Trinity enjoys from eternity, as an outward and unnecessary expression of that love; and thus creation must be received before all else as a gift and as beauty.”

-David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 249

Being a father of two young children you come across things you would not otherwise discover if you didn’t have kids. In particular we came across a wonderful cartoon called “Sarah and Duck”. It is a British cartoon in which a 7 year old girl lives life with her pet duck named “Duck”. They do very quirky and fun things in each episode, all filled with the joy of existence. What I enjoy most about the show is how everything in creation (bugs, the moon, clouds, rainbows etc) all are charged with a personal existence, and joy is an essential part in which Sarah and Duck participate in. It sees the ordinary as something deeply joyful and magical; from shallots desiring to be acrobats, to bugs playing in a bluegrass band for a bug party, or Venus rearranging the stars; all of creation is important and interesting.  Creation here is not something accidental, but purposeful, good and meant to be explored and enjoyed. Here is a little clip of the show. I highly recommend it.

In a way the show reflects something very true about creation and the way we should see it and experience it. To see creation the way God sees it we must become like children; to enter the kingdom Christ says we must become like little children. (Matthew 18:3) Moreover, David Bentley Hart in his book ‘The Beauty of the Infinite’ gives us some reflection on creation and delight:

“The delightfulness of created things expresses the delightfulness of God’s infinite distance. For Christian thought, delight is the premise of any sound epistemology: it is delight that constitutes creation, and so only delight can comprehend it, see it aright, understand its grammar. Only in loving creations beauty — only in seeing that creation truly is beauty — does one apprehend what creation is.” (p. 254)

Growing Old

“It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

G.K. Chesterton, in a post I shared earlier, says that God “has the eternal appetite of infancy” and we have sinned and grown old. I came across these words of Chesterton’s months ago, and I can’t seem to get them out of my head for even one day. Possibly because it reveals so much in myself about my condition and how I spend my days running from the truth of who I have become. I have sinned and grown old. The days are spent looking at screens, and going to bed looking at screens. Even though a lot of my time looking at screens tends to be for school and writing, even now as I write this post, it is still shaping my idea of what delight is. Or it is eroding whatever delight I have left in me for the ordinary things around me. More than this I feel the aching of longing for Christ to return and restore the beauty and peace creation began with. I no longer take much true delight in the gift and beauty which creation is.

Recently I finished reading the second novel in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy “Perelandra”. Lewis has a way of penetrating through and cause you to live in wonder with his writing even if it is for just a moment. This theme of growing old comes up when Ransom (the protagonist) meets the Green Lady (Eve). The Green Lady represents what humanity was before the fall. Ransom is sent to Perelandra (Venus) by Maleldil to keep Green Lady and the King from falling the way of the people on Thulcandra (Earth). When Ransom encounters the Green Lady he struck by her radiant beauty and innocence. He struggles to find the words like “evil” in her language, because she does not know of sin and evil. In their conversations the Lady says that their conversations make her grow older. A phrase she uses is “come, let us grow older” in reference to conversation and knowledge. As the story moves on, sure enough evil finds its way to Perelandra in the form of Ransoms nemesis Weston. “It”, as Ransom refers to Weston’s body, attempts to get the Green Lady to lived on the fixed land because Maleldil has forbidden it. In the end, spoilers, the Lady and the King do not go the way of Adam and Eve, and are crowned at a year long ceremony. The King makes an observation about growing old properly and growing old like Adam and Eve. Maleldil caused them to grow older in a way that was not corrupting.

We however have grown old in the corrupted way. What we need is the Word to take up residence in our hearts and make us young again. Through growing in knowledge of Christ (2 Pet 1:3, 2:20, 3:18) we will escape corruption and be fashioned in His image. In this way we may begin to see creation as a gratuitous gift overflowing from the eternal Triune love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Rhythm

Bonhoeffer in his wonderful book ‘Creation and Fall Temptation: Two Biblical Studies‘ in which he comments his way through the first three chapters of Genesis dealing with creation. When Bonhoeffer comments on verses 4-5 in which God separated the light from the darkness, he writes that for us the ‘creatureliness and miraculousness of the day has completely disappeared. We have deprived the day of its power. We no longer allow ourselves to be determined by the day. We count and compute it, we do not allow the day to give to us… for technology is a campaign against the day.’ (Creation Fall, p. 28) For Bonhoeffer the six days of creation do not mean days in a computable sense, “it thinks of it in terms of the power of the day which first makes the physical day what it really is, the natural dialectic of creation”. (ibid, p. 29) What Bonhoeffer means by this what the day in its rhythm points to:

“In the morning the unformed becomes form and then by evening sinks back into formlessness. The bright polarity of light dissolves into unity with the darkness. Living sound grows silent in the stillness of the night. An expectant awakening in light follows sleep… The rhythm- repose and movement in one -which gives and takes and gives again and takes again, which thus eternally points towards God’s giving and taking, to God’s freedom on the other side of repose and movement- that rhythm is the day.” (p. 29)

Shallot Acrobats and Communion

What does this all have to do with a children’s cartoon? Well, everything. To delight in creation the way a child does is the way we begin to see it the way God intended for us. We live in the aftermath of the fall, in the brokenness and mire. The good news is that God became man, and in becoming man broke into our existence to reconcile all things to Himself, and to consume the world with His presence like the burning bush. Let us pursue delighting in what God has made, and what He is currently in process of reconciling and restoring. Let us be like the little children. Shallot acrobats point us to the eternal pleasure, delighting and communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Caesar or Christ: Worship as Resistance and Rejection of the Empire.

In May of this year I had attended a lecture given by R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, in which he discussed how we are now living in a “dissolving age”. He first began attempting to diagnose the problems he sees that are affecting our current political cycle, mostly the issue of Donal Trump and his popularity. Reno sees a fundamental problem of “homelessness” as a pervasive, deeply rooted issue in our current context. Personhood and nation state historically have been linked together, and he senses that the dissolution of the nation state has created this feeling of homelessness amongst a wide group of people. He attempts to argue for the return to a stronger nation state to curb a lot of the problems brought on by the liberalization of the 19th and 20th centuries. He also spoke to the tension found in Christianity in the push for human unity on the one hand, and the respect for grounding of humans in a diversity of cultures. This was the most interesting point brought up in the whole discussion, but alas the talk was extremely disjointed, and his frustrations with the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) leads him to think a strengthening of a nation state can bring a sense of belonging to a culture void of a home, and that the Church is not up for that task.

From the outset I think his solution is profoundly problematic with respect to going back to a strong nation state as the answer to the problems we see in our culture. The reaction against strong nation states is a justified one, given the blood bath of the 20th century by supremely strong nation states. These governments can be diagnosed with being driven by a dogmatic materialist metaphysics in which the human person is just a by product of accidental material processes and nothing more, and in that they can be shaped a molded into something better and this is the job of the State to control and influence the future for the better. I think this very same materialist metaphysics is still in the drivers seat in respect to the culture. Even within our current modern American Christian community we find not so much an actual classical trinitarian Christian faith, but one of the worship of a  desitic-demigod, along with sacrifices at the altar of consumerism and moralism. In this I think Reno statements about the Church are partially correct, it is not currently up to the task. What strikes me as  odd was his persistence on the importance of a strong nation state, and somewhat abandoning (though not entirely he claims) the place of the Church in giving a home for the homeless.

My concern, and critique of his project, is that we are still culturally driven by a materialist/naturalist metaphysics. For as much as we want to argue that we live in a post-modern context, I would argue we are still very much steeped in modernity.

“The state does not take a merely temporal regulatory role and leave salvation in the hands of the church; rather, the modern state seeks to replace the church by itself becoming a soteriological institution. It is in this sense, then, that the modern state is a parody of the church: “The body of the state is a simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ” (RONT, 182). As a result, while political rhetoric may suggest that the state is confined to a “public” sphere or that the reign of the secular is circumscribed, in fact the modern state demands complete allegiance, and the reign of the secular does not tolerate territories of resistance. The state is happy to absorb all kinds of private pursuits under the umbrella of civil society, but it cannot tolerate a religious community that claims to be the only authentic polis and proclaims a king who is a rival to both Caesar and Leviathan. In such a case, this community’s allegiance to its king ultimately trumps its allegiance to the state or empire, and its understanding of the nature of human persons does not fit the normative picture of liberalism. This the state cannot tolerate. It is in this sense that “every worship service is a challenge to Caesar.”

-James K.A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy

Redemption & Freedom in “Stranger Things” (SPOILERS)

“Thus into our house of bondage, Jesus brought the freedom of God’s sons and daughters through living a life that broke through the bondage and slavery of our sin into the liberty of a sinless humanity rejoicing in the love and faithfulness of God the Father” 

-T.F. Torrance, Incarnation, p. 121,122

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

-1 John 4:18,19 ESV

If you have not watched the Netflix Original ‘Stranger Things’, I highly recommend doing so. It is a wonderful story about a small town in Indiana in 1983 that is plunged into mystery surrounding a young boy named Will Byers who vanishes and is no where to be found. This event brings people together in a way that they never could have anticipated. Spoilers from here on out!

Chief Hopper (Redemption)

We meet the Chief (played by David Harbour) waking in the morning. He had been passed out on his couch with the television on, disheveled and his house is a mess. From the moment you fall upon the scene, there is immediately a sense of brokenness within Hopper. As the story moves forward, we discover that he has suffered a devastating loss in his life, and has haunted him ever since. Throughout the episodes we discover a little more of what happened to him, and towards the end of the season we discover he had a daughter who fell ill with cancer. In the finale, as Hopper and Joyce Beyers discover Will in the upside down, and a gripping moment ensues. We witness the death of Hoppers daughter as he stands by unable to do anything for her. Will has been held captive by the Demogorgon, and as they free him they discover Will is not breathing. Chief tells Joyce to breathe in Will’s mouth for three seconds in between Chief pumping into Will’s chest. This scene is playing out as the death of Hoppers daughter is coming in and out, and you hear the sound of the beeping as Will begins to breathe again.

Truly a gripping and emotional scene, we discover that Hopper is so invested in finding Will that he is willing to give his life to save him. He is unwilling to allow Joyce Beyers to go through the pain and suffering of losing a child as he did. In the end we discover that Hopper offers himself as a deal in some way with the company that essentially released the Demogorgon, which we will learn more in the second season of the show.

The story for Hopper is one of redemption. He is stuck in his own despair, and the case of Will Beyers brings him into a greater narrative that shows him a way out of his own suffering in the means of giving himself for someone else. Giving up his own life for the life of another. He participates in a greater event than what he is fully aware of. In the gospel of John, the Lord Jesus speaks to his disciples on the greatest love of all; “…that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) In the narrative Chief finds himself called into a greater story than his own, and in this he finds the freedom and power to move forward in action. Karl Barth reflects in CD VI.1 on what it means when we say “God with Us”, and he talks about what ‘God with Us’ describes;

“It means Jesus Christ again when it describes the event of ‘God with Us’ as a redemptive event; as the fulfillment of man’s being by participation of the divine being which comes to him by the grace of God”. (CD VI.1, p. 18)

It is in the person of Christ that we find ourselves reconciled to God, and thus thrusted into a greater narrative of God’ action in the world as one of reconciliation. Our neighbor, as John Webster puts it;

“…my neighbor is no longer a threat or an obstacle, nor a function of my self-interest. My neighbor is the presence to me of a truth which obliges me to act in his or her regard… Love is a counter-movement to our runious pride.” (Holiness, p. 96)

Eleven “El” (Freedom)

The story of Eleven is a heart breaking one. We discover that her mother had been tested on for months, and was told that she had miscarried the baby. Eleven is then held captive by Dr. Martin Brenner because of her abilities. She only knows existence as a prisoner with a number. Dr. Brenner puts on the act of caring for her, but as we come to discover he only cares about her powers for his own gain and prestige. Eleven  is the one who opens up the gate to the upside down and releases the Demogorgon that captures Will. We see various testing that is done on her, and she refuses to comply at certain times, and is thrown into a dark and confined room for punishment for not listening.

Eleven escapes from her prison, and is on the run as she runs into our main heroes of the story (Mike, Lucas and Dustin). Mike takes her into his home, and hides her from the rest of his family. Their relationship begins to grow, and she slowly starts to learn what it means to be in a mutual loving relationship with another human being for the first time. Mike earns her trust by showing her unconditional love and gentleness. He even lovingly gives her the nick name “El”, by that giving her a name that is in effect far more humanizing than just a number.

As the season continues, we begin to see El begin to trust Mike and in the series finale use her powers out of love for her friends rather than fear of punishment. In here lies a wonderful and beautiful truth that echoes the apostle John; “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) In loving El with gentleness and trust, El learns how to love them in return, and out of that love moves in action to rescue them from the Demogorgon who she had such an overwhelming and paralyzing fear. Even more we can hear the apostle John; “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) El had her fears cast out by the love of Mike, and in this we see her set free from the slavery which had gripped her the whole story up until that point.

Stranger Things is a story of redemption. It is a story of being set free from fear through the love of others. It is a story we all know far to well, it is our story.