More powerful than John

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December 09, 2018

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

He will baptize you with God.

Who is speaking?  John the Baptist, who “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee,” received the word of God and went out to tell the world about it, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” we are told.

How powerful was he?  Plenty.  John was a prophet, and prophets have been thought to speak for God. “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Amos chapter three, the seventh verse. Prophets see or hear what God is doing, it is said. They fascinate us that way. 

I have an odd little book by a respected Catholic theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar.  (Imagine trying to make it through first grade with that name.) The book title is A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr.  Dr. Adrienne Von Speyr was a physician or whom Father Von Balthasar had served as spiritual director and confessor, through the course of many years

Here is how the book begins.

“This book is an eyewitness account… It is not intended as publicity or propaganda, but rather as a source of objective information.  I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements.  There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom ‘nothing can be which ought not to be.’  There will be many others who will at once attempt to ‘illuminate’ the entire matter through the methods of depth psychology and so make it supposedly understandable or who will dismiss it all as completely ‘out of date’ and therefore neither interesting nor credible.  Finally, there will be those who will be very annoyed about a charism[i] – should it prove to be a charism – which does not conform to the conventional trends in Christianity today.  To all these persons I must say in advance that (in the sense of 1 Cor 4:1f) their opposition does not trouble me, for, when I state the facts known to me… I am simply doing what I must do…”[ii]

Well, that’s got my attention. What sort of doubtful, annoying, or otherwise objectionable information is Von Balthasar preparing his readers to encounter?  Here goes:


[i] Charism means “divine gift.”

[ii] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1968), 11.

That as a very young child, Adrienne had received religious instruction directly from an angel “who showed her what to do, and what not to do, how one prays, or how one can, in all simplicity, be with God.” [i]

That at age six, on Christmas Eve, though she was not a Roman Catholic, “she had a mysterious encounter with St. Ignatius while walking up a steep street of La Chaux-de-Fonds.[ii]

That on a November morning, 1917, “Mary appeared to her, surrounded by angels and saints.” [iii] 

That, one night “as she was driving home from her office, she suddenly saw a great light in front of the car (a pedestrian also jumped aside in fear…)” and she heard a voice: “Tu vivra au ciel et sur la terre  (You shall live in heaven and on earth.):[iv]

That her medical practice became host to “sudden inexplicable cures which were the talk of the town….”

That she had been given to know – it had seemed to her – that her gift was strong enough to deliver the impossible, but she had a declined this in favor of something better still. One night,  “when, beside the coffin of a child whose death had caused one of her friends infinite sorrow, Adrienne knew precisely: intense prayer could storm the omnipotence of God and bring back this life, but there was a higher possibility: to renounce miraculous power and to submit in silence to the will of God,” [v]

That by night, as she lay sick in the last weeks of her life, God took Adrienne on “travels,” she was “transported in prayer” to places where her praying presence was needed, “into concentration camps… convents… confession booths “where the manner of confessing was false or lukewarm…” and more.[vi]

That in 1941 an angel came to her bedside at night to prepare her for a Holy Saturday experience of Christ’s passion.  These were to be repeated, and deepened, year after year, “revealing in ever new ways a variety of theological relationships.  These passions were not so much a vision of the historical scenes of the suffering that had taken place in Jerusalem  -- there were only occasional glimpses of these, as if for clarification – rather, they were an experience of the interior sufferings of Jesus in all their fullness and diversity…”[vii]

A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr: you can read the book.

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with… God.

 I couldn’t say how God drove John the Baptist out into the wilderness, down into the river, but it isn’t hard to see how a prophet might be able to draw a crowd.  Wouldn’t we go out to see Adrienne Von Speyr?  Did we have something better to do Saturday afternoon?  Christmas shopping?

John talked rough:  “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruits meet for repentance.”[viii]

That’s a sermon I’ve never tried to preach: the one that begins with my calling you a brood of vipers.   I would have to be told to do it, shown how, and – not that I want it – I don’t have the gift. As the Hogwarts professor said of Miss Hermione Granger, I have no aptitude for divination, so I desperately cling to books.

I’m fine with that. You can learn a lot from books.  Almost anything an angel would tell you, you could dig out of a good library. You shouldn’t doubt that you could teach the average angel a thing or two about one thing or another.  Had it not occurred to you that angels may find us just as fascinating and amazing as we find them? 

They are reported to like music.  Karl Barth said that when the angels in heaven are on duty worshipping God, they listen to Bach, but on their own time they ask Mozart to play for them,  (and the Lord sits in too and listens with special pleasure.) I’m not able to guess what the angels do with Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.

O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

I was talking about what you can learn from books.  I’ve learned a lot about God from books.  I’ve learned a thing or two about myself.  And I’ve learned a surprising thing about “sin.”  S-I-N: sin. What I’ve learned is that even the very notion of sin is joyous.

I had to get pretty deep into the stacks to discover this funny little piece of truth, which is the one that helps us see why Adrienne found herself transported to confession booths, where the confessions and pardons were lukewarm, done by rote, where both priest and penitent were missing an opportunity for joy.

That is correct: confession of our sins, done right, sincerely, is joyful. It is when we don’t believe in sin that our misdoings hold us in a kind of bondage.

When I lie, when you cheat, when we steal, defraud, lose our temper with our wife or husband, let down our parents or our children or our friends  -- when we take advantage of our neighbors, when we deprive them of their opportunities, their just dessert, or take away their joy, or simply spoil their good clean fun, then we are stuck with it forever.  Yesterday’s gone: whatever we did, is done  -- but for better or worse, we still bear the result.  Jesus bore the marks of his wounds even beyond the grave.  We certainly bear the marks of one another’s good or bad behavior, throughout our days. Julie and I have been married more than forty years, and can still be sore about things that happened when we were seventeen.

Our deeds stay with us:  whether we believe in God, or not.  We can be good, or bad whether we believe in God, or not.  We bear responsibility for what we’ve done whether we believe in God, or not. In a hundred ways we never do escape our past.

But call it “sin,” and you have opened a window on an entirely other realm of meaning—more demanding, yes, but also more forgiving. In our evolved history as a species, for the longest time, there was no such thing as “sin.” There was grabbing what you could, keeping what you got away with, maybe sharing some with friends. But there wasn’t “sin.” 

Before the law, said Paul, there was no sin. Then came the divine law which, according to the books, is the first form of grace. Its final form is mercy.

Today, still, apart from faith, there is plenty of give and take, but no such thing as sin, because to believe in sin we must believe in grace first. It takes grace to know ourselves as sinners  -- the same grace in which there is forgiveness, healing, always and forever.

There is only one relationship in which you live, in which you’ll find no end of opportunities to get it right. That is the relationship with the one in whose image you are made, who loves you better than you love yourself, with whom every day opens with an invitation to a fresh start, a new beginning in his Spirit.

For the one who is more powerful than John, is come.


[i] P. 19.

[ii] P.21.

[iii] p. 22.

[iv] 34

[v] p. 34.

[vi] P. 40.

[vii] P. 35.

[viii] Matthew 3:7

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.





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