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Faithful is the Word – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

2 Timothy 2:8-15 & Luke 17:11-19

The patterns of life help us predict and control the chaos of creaturely existence. But there arises inevitably the unforeseen variable. The variable may visit in the form of a disruption in a system; as a tipping point or breaking point. Or a sudden reversal or unexpected contradiction can interrupt the flow of a familiar pattern. We witness this in all fields of human experience, from economics to meteorology to evolutionary biology to poetry. The loss of control that accompanies such variables can be truly terrifying. But there is another law of creaturely existence to bear in mind: without the unforeseen variable, genuine change cannot emerge. Without the couplet at the end of the sonnet that unlocks the poem’s meaning, the reader will remain unmoved by the galloping rhyme and meter that brought her there. For us, the Holy Spirit is this change agent. The Holy Spirit is made known within us as what theologian Karl Rahner called “an interior pressure by which we become more.” Such moments are usually the cumulative effect in our praying consciousness of many seeds of grace planted and forgotten, tended in the nourishing darkness of God. Moments of becoming unfold in real time as the fruition of a pattern, but what they point to is something altogether unpredictable. We can witness them if we have eyes to see. They break upon our hearing if we are attentive to how we listen.

The authors of scripture were well-attuned to the basic momentum of the Holy Spirit, that “interior pressure to become more” pulsing within the collective life of Christ’s new Body. They interiorized and recorded the testimony of those who had witnessed, at firsthand, the great unforeseen variable of The Resurrection. The cross and empty tomb together represented the sudden reversal by which God’s wisdom and power shone forth in the least likely, promising, or predictable ways. I want to explore the ways our Epistle and our gospel text show us this relationship between the pattern and the unforeseen variable in the shape of Christian life.

We are given a precious glimpse of this in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Paul quotes a fragment of what was almost certainly an early Christian hymn, a source text known to Christian communities by heart and probably used in their common worship. Here again is the portion recorded in the letter: 

If we have died with him, we will also live with him 

If we endure, we will also reign with him 
If we deny him, he will also deny us 
If we are faithless, he remains faithful –
For he cannot deny himself. 

The hymn’s structure has an undeniable rhythm and logic structure. “If we have died with, we will live with; if we endure, we will reign with.” Applied to our relationship with Christ, it is mysterious and awe-inspiring to consider this new logic – a logic far removed from that of the world, but also more reliable. Our life of rebirth and discipleship in Christ is an intimate sharing in his own crucified-and-risen Life. However abstract that may seem, there is a tangible law of action and consequence at work in these verses that helps us to take hold of it. The third verse makes it clear that this law works both in forward and reverse: “If we deny him, he will also deny us.” “Deny” here means something like “choosing to have nothing to do with” someone. It is the disavowal of a relationship rather than factual evidence. But it is the final two verses that I find most captivating, because it is here that we find the sudden reversal: “If our faith lapses or falters, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.” This is an unexpected contradiction to the pattern. We might logically expect, “If we are faithless, he will prove faithless to us.” Everything in the preceding verses drives in that direction. Here, it is as if God switches the whole train to a different track, and the logic – if we can use such a flimsy word for it – is the irrefutable logic of God’s inner being. “This is a trustworthy saying,” Paul writes as he introduces this hymn: pistos ho logos, “Faithful is the Word” – the words in ink on parchment, the words sung aloud in the liturgy, and the living Word who is their source, whose nature is to entrust Godself. Faithfulness is the continual, imperturbable pattern by which God entrusts us with God. This is the pattern our patterns cannot hold, but only weave a dance around. It seems that much of the time, we only know God’s pattern when the inbreaking of grace rearranges ours. 

            Enter Ten Lepers. 

For all functional purposes, a unit, practically a single organism; a Greek chorus with identical masks, movements, and motives, intoning the same petition: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Or perhaps they are a regiment of foot soldiers: faceless, nameless, numbered and marching, manning trenches in some forgotten territory far, far from home. The Ten keep their distance in that between-region, a limbo within stone’s throw of the living. 

Jesus gives a simple instruction: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Go – and they go. “And as they went, they were made clean.” As a unit, a chorus, a regiment, they accept new marching orders, a new choreography. Except somehow, for Leper Number Ten. It is as if the mask falls off, the standard issue dog tag slips to the ground, and with it, a pattern that no longer serves Life.

In fact, this man cannot obey the instruction. He is a Samaritan (we are told twice) and so cannot show himself to the priests with Lepers One through Nine, who are Jews. His leprosy is only skin-deep; his Samaritan-ness is forever. He does go, or begin to go – maybe out of sheer group instinct, or trusting obedience to the Healer – but it is in the turning back that the true healing begins. 

The verbs are vivid and crackle like sparks: saw, turned, praised (loudly), prostrated, and thanked. In fact, he doesn’t just praise – he glorifies God. And he doesn’t just prostrate – but falls on his face at Jesus’s feet. It is a full-body reaction, a total breaking of the mold. Lepers One through Nine have been transferred from one pattern to another pattern, a track that will lead them to social integration and familiar community. It is a path of life. But the Tenth Leper is now ready to lay hold of the one who is Life. 

Jesus says to him: “Arise.” The clear association with the Resurrection – anastasis – must have made the ears of the earliest Christians tingle with recognition as they heard Luke’s gospel aloud, perhaps not far from the river or font where they themselves had risen. “Your faith has made you well.” Obedience made the tenth leper clean. The act of faith made him well. 

Our faithfulness consists in the cumulative weight of all the moments that we entrust ourselves to the faithfulness of God. The result is a participation in God, what the ancient Church came to call theosis. This transfiguring faithfulness is hinted at again and again in the pages of the New Testament. Of the saints, the Revelation to John tells us “They shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads.” The first Epistle of John reads, “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians reads “all of us with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.”

If we have died with him, we will also live with him 
If we endure, we will also reign with him.

 If we have come to participate in God, we are bound up within a matrix of action and consequence with metaphysical significance. In this light, these verses from Second Timothy are less about paying the price of entry and receiving a divine reward, or making an investment and reaping its return. Instead, it may be more that our most fundamental choices in time become manifest in eternity, in God’s eternal now. We live in a strange space between two deaths: the death of our baptism and our bodily death. That space itself is a foretaste of the world to come – in it, we are “dead to sin and alive to God” through Jesus Christ. We live within the embrace of Christ, whose arms are nailed to the cross. What we say and do, and even what we think and feel and intend – all these are saturated with meaning, supercharged by a renewable energy source whose Power holds us in being. But this is just a different way of saying something we say all the time: that “in these holy mysteries…we are living members of the Body of your Son.” 

We are not card-carrying members of an institution called the Church. We are organs within a living organism, the mystical Body of Christ, an organism that evolves in response to the patterns of every successive age. Each moment we see, turn back, praise loudly, prostrate and thank, we grow in our capacity to mirror the faithfulness of God and make the evolution of the Body manifest. The loss of control that accompanies the variable of life can be truly terrifying. The variables facing the life of the Church can often seem more numerous than the constants. But when the constancy of faithfulness rises up to meet the unforeseen variable, genuine change is born – and with it, unprecedented Life. The Head of the Body will not fail us, for he cannot deny himself.

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