The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6), June 18, 2023

June 2, 2023 | by Thomas Hermans-Webster

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 18:1-15 Psalm 100 Romans 5:1-8 Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9:23) Exodus 19:2-8a Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19

Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is often read as referencing today’s Genesis passage. In the icon, three figures are seated at a table, an oak is over the left shoulder of the central figure and a building is over the head of the figure on the reader’s left, table’s right. A chalice sits on top of the table. In preparation for the Feast of the Trinity, I wrote that we can read Rublev’s famous icon as an invitation to join the seated ones in the empty space; except that the space of invitation is not, as we read today, fully empty. On the front of the table, faintly written between the legs of the left and right figures, is a carpenter’s square.

Today’s epistle reading contains some of Pauline literature’s more famous claims: “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” and “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” and “for, while we were weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” and “but God proves God’s love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Process theology and congregations familiar with process theology may not regularly use language like “justified by faith” and “Christ died for the ungodly” and “character produces hope.” We are, however, very familiar with the themes that Paul is addressing: faith, hope, love, relationality, suffering, sin, and reconciliation.

Regardless of denominational affiliation, the preacher who pays attention to the epistle reading today will have to engage the phrase “justified by faith,” so it’s worth taking some time to consider how we might think theologically within the process tradition. This phrase, for some, encapsulates the gospel message itself. To be justified is to assume previous wrongdoing that has been or is being made right. In Microsoft Word and other word-processing software, to be justified is to adequately form the text so that line of text connects both margins of the page. While Paul was obviously not writing his Epistle to the Romans on MSWord, this image may be helpful today as we think about “justified” within a relational frame rather than in the modern individualist frame that interprets the word as “rationalization of my actions whether or not the rationalization improves our relationship.” In word-processing software, justifying text unites margins so that a solid connection exists across the page. Another image that may be helpful as we think about “justified” as “making the relationship between a and b right or well” is the image of the carpenter’s square. In carpentry, pieces of wood are aligned with one another at the precise angle needed to build and support the furniture or building that emerges from the skilled hands of the craftsperson.

Process theology invites further reflection on justification that recognizes the possibility of relatedness and connectivity between parts of life that seem disconnected, disparate, or disappeared. Each of us have experienced broken relationships and suffering. Each of us have sinned. Each of us have needed endurance and character. How each of us act with one another matters for how the church witnesses to Love in the world and how we as a social body hope for the world that beckons us beyond present sufferings and sins. At the heart of hope, to move Paul into the present age, is the very possibility that the world can be otherwise than how it is right now. This is a lesson that has been known and taught for generations in communities that have regularly suffered and continue to suffer the oppressions of eurocentric colonialism in the modern age.

Endurance and character do not speak to a redemptive suffering, for oppression is neither necessary in the cosmos nor is hope an escapist opiate from the present. Brought into right relationship with one another, Christ, and the world, the faithful endure because the church cannot ever separate itself from its world nor its life in God through Christ and the Holy Spirit because it shares in the world’s suffering, need, sin, and death. We become together as a self-aware entanglement of God and creation and point toward justice for all of creation through the increase of abundant life in Christ. Hope, for the process preacher, can be characterized as a social imagination that accounts for who we have been, who we are, and where we could go within and towards Love-in-action shed abroad the cosmos.

What’s more, process theology gives us the chance to recognize the organic connections of hope and love with faith, of future and present with past. “To be justified,” as discussed above, is not the full phrase. What might it mean for us “to be justified by faith”?

In preparation for last week, I wrote,

Today’s Genesis reading shows that Abraham’s faith, that Abram’s faith, was not some intellectualized consent to some or all of a shopping list of propositions. Abram’s faith was an active and intimate journey with God into an uncertain future.

When we read Abram’s faith in such a way, we challenge modernist interpretations of faith as an intellectual assent to various propositions as true or untrue for one’s life. Faith as an active-and-intimate-journey-with entails a trusting relationship that emerges over time, informing the present through meaningful actions in the past and casting a vision for a future in which the relationship is thriving in even healthier ways than it is in the present. In today’s Genesis reading, we experience this kind of faith in Abraham’s encounter with the three, with Sarah, and with God.

This kind of faith remembers the beauty and life-giving love that has enlivened and sustained relationships in the past and seeks to make it present in fresh and meaningful ways now. In traditional Christian language, this kind of remembering has been called “anamnesis,” for it is a deeply organic memory that plunges beyond mere intellectual recall of facts, feelings, or fables. Anamnetic memory is a stirring from within the life of God that roots current life with God while encouraging our journeys-together toward the transcendent edge of the present. It is faith precisely because it can only be through the witness of others that any particular person can come to experience and grow in reconciling, overcoming, transforming, luring, and beautifying Loving. It is gracious, then, to be justified by faith, for we come to experience and embody the reconciliation of discordant realities and relationships through the hospitality of others, human others, other-than-human creaturely others, and divine others.

Maybe, when Andrei Rublev wrote his icon of the Trinity, he was responding to tropes of final and finalizing judgments and damnations that failed to communicate the grace into which we are each invited and justified. Maybe he wrote of an Inviting Blessed Three who justify the one who joins the meal. Maybe the Inviting Blessed Three invite each of us into a new way of holiness and love that brings forth joyful noises, gladness, singing, laughing, and belonging.

“As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Mt 10:12-14). Process thinking helps the preacher approach faith, hope, love, and justification by faith through grace through a frame of organic and dynamic relationality. In our present ministries, churches face tremendous challenges of our own making and beyond our control. In the United States, however, these tremendous challenges are not hatred or persecution of Jesus-followers. Many of these challenges are reasonable responses to previous generations of Christians who, for whatever reason, failed to embody the transforming and beautifying love of God for the life of the world in their midst.

You have been called into your context through the faith that has made holy spacetime for your experience of and life in Love. Let your peace come upon your context through humble discernment of the gifts of the world around you, of the suffering that people experience, of the needs that you have as a congregation and that your community has as a society of societies. Help your people recognize hospitality when it is offered to them, and help them offer hospitality to all who you encounter. In so doing, live into the grace that remembers, embodies, and envisions the reconciliation–that is, the justification–of the whole of creation.

Tom is the son of Alabama Methodists whose experiences of Christianity have led him to ordination and ministry in theological education. He earned his PhD from Boston University School of Theology, where he developed a process theology of Holy Communion in a sacramental ecotheology from Norman Pittenger, Theodore Walker, Jr., Monica Coleman, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Mary Elizabeth Moore, and others. Currently, he serves as the Acquiring Editor at Orbis Books in Maryknoll, New York, and on the steering committee of the Open and Relational Theologies Unit of the AAR.