by Rev. Linda Lee Nelson
Visiting professor of history and theology
The work of Jesus Christ, writes Edward Schillebeeck, is to give people back to themselves.
The work of Jesus Christ is to give you back to yourself.
Mother-in-law of Simon, I take your hand and lift you up; I give you back to yourself.
Leper, I choose to make you clean. Paralytic, your sins are forgiven. I give you back to yourselves.
Man with the unclean spirit, man with limbs and a tongue directed by a perversion you do not understand, I give you back to yourself.
Women and men of Capernaum, people of Galilee, Watchers of these wonders of God come near: you, too, I give back to yourselves. Crowds, propelled by a new fervor for the presence of that which astonishes: I am giving you back to yourselves.
Back to myself. At first thought, this does not sound like much of a gift: waking up again in this body and in this world I call my self, this tiny temple of preoccupation, fear, and worries, this mundane world in which my habits and patterns impede the rhythms of grace. Waking up to myself again. Is this the freedom I was promised and reach for? Born guilty and trained by upper Midwestern Lutherans, this is good news I fight.
At the same time, I know that people use this phrase to portray a release from the hold of suffering: the doctor gave me back to myself; when my depression lifted, I found myself again; after I left that relationship, I felt like myself again; with the help of a therapist, I rediscovered myself. Do these words reflect anything more than a return to uncomplicated, self-defined, self-controlled normalcy?
I return again to the words of this great scholar of Jesus Christ: the work of the Healer is to give people back to themselves.
Why is this good news?
I begin to see an answer to this question in the emotions of Mark's text. What do these people feel as they are given back to themselves: astonishment, surprise, amazement, immediacy, spontaneity. Do you recognize the people who live from these emotions? Who is this self that Jesus gives back to us? I begin to see an answer in the activity of the wonder-watchers: they become story-tellers; his fame spreads. Do you recognize these people who live from the power of story?
These emotions, this activity, bring to mind a definitive biblical paradigm: the child.
Returning to us is the children we were; returning to us is the children we are to become.
I hear Jesus. Unless you become like a child; I give you back to yourself.
I hear Rahner. The challenge of discipleship is to become the child you were. In the child, a man, a woman begins who must undergo the wonderful adventure of remaining a child forever.
I hear Schleiermacher. To be converted is to become as a child again.
I hear Barth. The child models the freedom of those who live from the promise: needy beginners, eager learners, showing playful and utterly objective freedom for God and with neighbor.
I hear the ancient writers of philosophy and the church use childhood life as a window to God. They write of creation as a result of God's play, a spontaneous, freely-given activity. God's activity is the activity of the child; for both, work and play are never divided. God's work is always play: joyous, spontaneous, completely free.
I hear Plato's description of the child-Logos who holds the sphere of the world in his playing hands. I hear the church father describe the incarnation as a children's game that shatters the boundaries of natural limits. I hear the church fathers bring the child-logos into the trinity: the infant logos eternally enacts a game before his father.
What is this play modeled and commended: what is this play restored in those healed? The child plays from a commitment to worlds beyond this world; they are prepared for the transcendent, the miraculous to burst forth at any moment. They play as jazz musicians among us: creating rhythms and pattern where others see nonsense; seeing the language of childhood and the playful tongue of God in the surprise of the scat. Their play is relentless, their most important work. It calls them anew in each moment. They play in total openness to the Holy One alive in their stories. In short, they deliver themselves over to mystery; in their ritual play around the altar, they know that the bread and wine hold so much more.
The Logos-child invites you: come to the sacred play of the table, as the child you were, the child you are to become.
Meet here forgiveness: you are given back to yourself as child of God, filled with morning knowledge. You are given back to yourself, fresh from the play of Christ, the sweetness of the first fruits of creation linger on your lips.
Then go and play: there are games to be finished, stories to unfold, boundaries to leap over, there are transcendent worlds to embody and proclaim. Go and play, there is work to be done: hands to hold, birds to rescue, secrets to share, streets to dance in. Go and play like those who never tire, even as the mothers call all the children home for their baths, even as holy arms carry them to rest, for an evening, or eternity, the saints at play protest: We are not tired. We are not tired.
Mark 1: 21-28