The “three/one” visitor declared to Sarah and Abraham that they would have a son and heir, an impossibility for them in their old age. Sarah giggled at the impossibility. Before they departed the “three/one” visitor posed a question to the aged couple: “Is anything impossible for God?” The question is left unanswered in the narrative. It is, moreover, left unanswered so that people of faith should be durably haunted by the question. It is still for us a haunting question: “Is anything impossible for God?” This question is persistent and prescient for our time as all of us face the pernicious effects of years of systemic racism horrifically illustrated once again by the killing of George Floyd. “Is the end of racism impossible for God?” The intersections of systemically underprivileged groups by our capitalist system ask the question of intersectional oppression: “Is the wellbeing of all people impossible for God?” With the inequity of deaths mounting from the global pandemic of the novel coronavirus, “Is the end of this virus impossible for God?”
Early on in his great Church Dogmatics (I. 2, pp. 1-10), Karl Barth pauses over the tricky relationship between possibility and reality. He observes that when we begin with the “possible,” we reduce “reality” to that which fits our idea of the “possible.” And when we define the “possible” according to the requirements of modern reason we end up with a very truncated notion of “reality,” including the “reality” of God. Thus if we conform to modern Enlightenment rationality, the “possible” will seem to us only what is that modern logic can allow. If, however, we begin with the “reality” of our faith and our confession of the freedom of God, our embrace of the “possible” is opened up well beyond modern logic. Thus at the outset Barth sees that we must resist beginning with our notions of the “possible” and begin with the gospel reality of creation and Easter that permit and require a very different shaping and imagining of the “possible.” Thus in the Genesis narrative Sarah and Abraham have decided that an old couple cannot have a child: it is not possible! But the question of the visitor intends to challenge that assumption and at least leave open the chance that what the old couple took to be impossible is, by the faithfulness of God, fully possible. The visitors do not press the point and do not foreclose the question. They do, however, leave it open for Sarah and Abraham, and for us.
We might begin our reflection on this text with the recognition that the notion of the “possible” among us is defined by our best scientific learning, by our most trusted experience, by our best logic, by our most advanced technological capacity, and above all by our reckoning through the capitalist economy. We can recognize, then, that the “possible” has clearly defined limitations. So let us imagine that people (including the preacher) come to worship with a tacit awareness of all of these limits. And then in the context of Christian liturgy, these other affirmations are mouthed: “The Lord is risen.” “You are forgiven.” “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” According to the logic with which many of us come to church, all of this is “impossible.” But in church we appeal to “reality” that lies beyond the limits of our “possible.” Thus the Christian liturgy (and all parts of the life of the church) constitute a practice wherein the “possible” is recharacterized by appeal to “reality” that will not be contained in that “possible” with which we arrived. It is no wonder that Christian practice puts us in crisis about the assumed “possible” with which we arrived. It was just so for Sarah and Abraham. Their “possible” was shaken by the question. The Bible is the story of the way in which that haunting question continues to jar our best assurances about the possible in a world that is limited by our experience, logic, learning, economics, and ideology.
Because the conviction of gospel “reality” that places in jeopardy all of our notions of what is possible has been peculiarly entrusted to the church, the church is a venue for attesting the new possibility that the world judges to be impossible. Because of the task of bearing witness to the “impossible become possible,” the church is inherently subversive, surprising, and transformative. When the church is contained in conventional notions of the possible, every part of its life becomes anemic:
The prayers of the church become anemic. They are deferential and cautious about daring to ask for much and reluctant to tell the truth before God and to God.
The preaching of the church becomes anemic and contained in what conventional society will accept, variously moralistic, sentimental, or just clever and entertaining.
And when the prayers and preaching of the church are anemic, it is predictable that the mission of the church will likewise become anemic, remaining in the safe boundaries of social convention, but without transformative energy and without courage for any new question concerning justice and mercy. The anemic practice of the church becomes a close parallel to the anemic expectation of Sarah and Abraham who are ready to live within the bounds of settled society.
The question left open by the visitor for Sarah and Abraham lingers in the Jesus story as well. Jesus becomes so dangerous to settled society because he refused conventional characterizations of what is possible. When he summarizes his work for John, moreover, he offers an inventory of transformative actions that lie outside conventional possibility:
The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them (Luke 7:22).
Nobody thought it was possible that the blind could see, or that the lame could walk, or that the deaf could hear, or that the dead could be raised, or that the poor would have good news. Nobody thought any of that possible, until made possible by the performance of the new future of God in the person and presence of Jesus.
Twice in the Jesus story the question of the impossible is posed. At the outset the angel Gabriel declares to Mary the coming birth of John to Mary’s kinswoman, Elizabeth:
And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren; for *nothing will be impossible with God*** (Luke 1:36-37).
The narrative clearly alludes to our Genesis text. And second, after Jesus summons the man with many possessions to radical obedience, the disciples can recognize how demanding is God’s new future. They despair of anyone being able to meet the requirement of the new governance. But Jesus reassures them:
For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; *for God all things are possible*** (Mark 10:27).
What the world holds to be impossible is made possible by the transformative capacity of God.
There is in the Jesus narrative, however, a severe qualification is transformative capacity that I have termed a “cruciform caveat” that we cannot disregard. When Jesus prayed in the garden before he was arrested by the authorities, he prays for deliverance from his coming suffering for his obedience:
My father, *if it is possible,** let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want* (Matthew 26:39).
Even in his prayer for deliverance, however, Jesus is prepared to be fully obedient. As it turns out for Jesus, he cannot avoid his “cup of suffering.” (See Mark 10:31 on the same “cup of suffering” offered to his disciples.) That was not possible for him. It was an impossibility that could not be overcome. And so he suffered to death. This is the one impossibility that could not be made possible. It is not possible for Jesus (or his disciples) to live a new life in contradiction to the old world without paying a deep price. Even in its hope, the gospel is deeply honest about the matter!
We may judge that “virus time” is indeed a time for new possibilities among us:
It is time for student debt to be cancelled.
It is time for health care to be assured to all.
It is time for economic relief to be assigned to the unemployed.
It is time for the waiver of insurance premiums.
It is time to mobilize economic resources for the most needy.
It is time to recover a passion for neighborly reality among us all.
These are all impossibilities! They are dramatic violations of the protocols of conventional capitalism. The disciples reckoned that entry through the “needle’s eye” would be impossible. (See Peter Brown, Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD).
The question of “the possible” comes up for us acutely amid the killing of George Floyd. We wonder whether a move beyond white racism is possible, whether the rule of justice is possible, whether a move beyond enraged violence is possible. The gospel answer to our query is possible, of course is “yes”; all things are possible. Nothing is “too hard” for the Lord of history. It is possible to move beyond white supremacy; it is possible to move beyond systemic injustice; it is possible to move beyond violence to neighborliness. But the caveat of Gethsemane pertains! All of this is possible, but
not without honesty concerning our protracted history of racism;
not without relinquishment if the privileges of whiteness so long coveted;
not without expose of the benefits of our political, economic racism;
not without public repentance and resolve for a new and righteous life.
This is the “impossible possibility” of the gospel for our moment to be proclaimed by the church. It is the secret route to our future, a secret laden with risk, a secret the traces the way from the Friday of violence to the Sunday of new life.
Mother Sarah and Father Abraham knew that a son for them was impossible. Such newnesses are impossibilities made possible by drinking the cup of contradiction for the sake of the reality of God’s coming rule among us. Such impossibilities amount to a vigorous summons to the church away from anemic prayer, anemic preaching, and anemic mission. The entire story depends upon the impossibility. It was so back in Genesis. It was so in the life of Jesus; it is so now. The future depends upon drinking “the cup” for the sake of God’s coming new world among us.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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