T is for Tensed

Returning to the divine alphabet, I say: T is for Tensed. I say this for two reasons.
    First, God being the creator of everything means that created things cannot make God who he is. God, we say, is unchanging, eternal, timeless, and so forth. All of these words for God have one point, and that is to deny that anything could thwart God or keep him from being fully God. Nothing can happen that will change God.
    The obvious objection is: Doesn’t the Bible tell us that God loves righteousness and is angered by sin? If I do something evil, doesn’t that change God?
    Here’s the reply: It doesn’t change God in himself, but rather changes the relationship I have with God. When I sin, God’s eternal, unchanging love towards me is experienced as anger or judgment or condemnation. This, I think, makes sense and is true as far as it goes.
    But it carries a danger. When we realize that God cannot be changed by us, we are tempted to think of God in terms of rocks or other hard, solid, unmoving things. We are tempted to think of God as a placid Buddhist “force” or “spirit” who is unmoved by transient reality. And this is equally wrong. That God is unchanging does not mean he is static. To the contrary: God is life and action beyond all our knowing!
    It seems to me the way to speak of God is to say that he is “tensed”: There is something analogous to past-present-future in God’s own being. He’s not in time, but something like time is in him.
    And there is something of an analogy to be made between the persons of the Trinity and those three tenses. Theologian Robert Jenson, for one, liked to speak of the Holy Spirit as the future of God.
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    The second reason is, I say, that God is tensed over evil.
    Let me clarify. There is no question that, in the end, evil will be defeated and put away for ever. But like many a story of whose outcome you are assured, in the story of creation there can still be tension as we await to see how precisely it will turn out. It seems to me we should not deny that God knows just such creative tension.
    When someone is faced with a choice that may change his or her life for good, we who are nearby pray and hope that that person makes the right choice!
    The angel came to Mary and told her what plans God had for her. Mary asked for more information. The angel supplied. Then there was silence, and in the silence the angel waited, all the angels waited, God himself waited, to see what Mary would say. She could have said no—she was free, after all, perhaps freer than most people (the intuition of her freedom is behind assertions concerning her own conception)—and if she had said no, God’s design would not have been thwarted; he would have found some other way.
    When Jesus asks one of his friends if he would betray him with a kiss, it is a real question. A question implies a relationship, and a relationship implies possibility. Had Jesus not been betrayed, God’s plan would not have been thwarted.
    God is Tensed in this way too: He is very interested in what we are in fact going to do as this story works its way to its assured consummation: the end of sin and death, and the life of the world to come.
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    Out & About. Trinity Sunday, May 30, I am to preach at St. Anne Episcopal Church in DeSoto, Texas, at both the 8 and 10 a.m. services.
    Sunday, June 6, I am teaching on C. S. Lewis’s essay “The Weight of Glory,” at Incarnation in Dallas at 10:15 a.m. No sign up necessary, and for those who are fully vaccinated, no masks required.

 

He's Up

    Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Church had a new, young assistant priest who, like many young, assistant priests, was in charge of the youth group and an Easter morning sunrise service. So (of course!) he had T-shirts made for the occasion, showing Jesus on water skis. Underneath were the words: “He’s Up!”
    It’s corny, yes, but not, I think, irreligious.
    Easter’s been going on for forty days now, for about the two thousandth time commemorating an event that occurred once and only once. Long ago yet oft remembered, Jesus’ resurrection can seem like a moment caught in history, something unexpected and yet understood, like that World Series which the Cubs won—an event no one ever expected to happen. Yet even the Cubs had won the Series before, and every year there’s another. (Does it count if you win during Covid?) That’s how we understand historical events: by memory and by association.
    But Jesus’ resurrection should not be sticky in history that way. So to shake up the ruts of memory and remind us of the complete strangeness of the resurrection, why not put him on water skis? Indeed, there is excitement on the water! And life!             
    He’s up!
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    There is another sense in which Jesus is up: he has ascended into heaven.
    The feast of the Ascension is the poor sister of Easter Day. Easter gets lots of attention: eggs, chocolate, bonnets, even a non-parade “parade” on Fifth Avenue. But the Ascension is just as important. Jesus did not merely rise from the dead, he ascended in his body to take up his authoritative place at the right hand of the Father, where he sits as supreme judge over all earthly judgment even today.
    Read that last sentence again, and then try to say that the Ascension has trivial importance!
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    He is not here. He is, as theologian Douglas Farrow says, really absent. It is important to avoid sacramental sentimentality. The Real Presence of the Eucharist is not the whole story about Jesus and us today. We need also to reckon with the fact that we cannot see him, touch him, or hear him speak to us as an embodied human being. For that, we await his coming again at the end of all things.
    This is good news, even though every one of us would love to see Jesus in the flesh! It is good news that he has assumed his seat of authority; good that from heaven he has dispatched to us his Holy Spirit; and good that he will come again.
    All these good things come from that wonderful reality: He’s up!
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    Out & About. Trinity Sunday, May 30, I am to preach at St. Anne Episcopal Church in DeSoto, Texas, at both the 8 and 10 a.m. services.
    My sermon on John 15 was another opportunity for me to carry on about friendship. You can find it here (the sermon begins about 14 minutes in): https://www.facebook.com/StMatthewsCathedralDallas/videos/827108787895874

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."