The present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord, who is yet contending against the Principalities and Powers, should determine how we define the meaning of faith (pistis)

The pistis word group can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But if the stage we occupy in the Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then, as Matthew Bates argues in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the strongest and clearest definition of pistis is allegiance. 

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him; he cared whether they were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not affectation but allegiance.

Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

To be allegiant subjects of this King is not to coerce others into obedience but to conform ourselves in obedience to him, an obedience that might itself call out and invite others to become a part of his people. Added to the scandal of particularity is the scandal that what God has done through a particular crucified Jew is for all people. That Christ’s Lordship is a claim for and over all people; however, does not mean as his subjects we’re tasked with subjugating all people to that claim.

As John Howard Yoder says:

“Our faithfulness to Jesus the Lord entails becoming locally explicit about Jesus” not through Christendom coercion (or attractional manipulation that profits from the vestiges of Christendom) but through “the reign of God being concretely and locally visible in laces around the world.”

“The primary task and indeed mission of the church is its own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Virtually all of the epistles are written to that end. As such, however, the church as a converted and converting people is also itself a constant invitation and call to the citizens of the wider world to enter the life of the people of God.”

Put another way, Christians did not change Rome by attempting to change Rome. Christians changed Rome by living faithfully within Rome as subjects of a different Caesar.

Consider how our own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can be conveyed through the liturgy simply by retranslating pistis as allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed could be rephrased so it became more obvious what is at stake in the profession: “I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

And at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…” 

At the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”

Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis in alignment with our confession that Christ is Lord: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.

Or this week’s lectionary Gospel: “Whoever has allegiance [to me] the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.” That’s a mighty word when you remember Jesus has in mind King Herod who, at his despotic whim, had a mountain moved for his palace.

Stanley Hauerwas identifies the essence of Christianity thus:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bulls@#$.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos and the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge and the power of the practices of the Church to call BS becomes more apparent when we translate faith in terms of allegiance.

 

     “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord…you will be saved”

– Romans 10.9-10

     As Matthew Bates points out in his great book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means “a public declaration of fealty.” In other words, what Paul says will save you for God is the equal and opposite expression of what Rome said would save you from its wrath by confessing “Caesar is Lord.”

Notice:

Paul doesn’t say “If you confess that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to David (or Abraham), then you will be saved.”

Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God incarnate then you will be saved.

Nor does Paul say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins.

When it comes to salvation and the necessary confession of faith for it, Paul focuses squarely on one specific stage of the Gospel: the Lordship of Jesus.

Why?

Why does Paul fix our participation in God’s salvation to the confession of Jesus as Lord? Why not confess that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; believe and be saved? Why not while we were yet sinners…put your faith in what he’s done for you and you will be saved?

Why does Paul say that in order to be saved we must confess Jesus not as Savior or Substitute or Sacrifice, not as Son of Man or Son of God, but as Lord?

Because, for Paul, the incarnation and crucifixion, the resurrection and reconciliation- those are all past perfect events.

     The present Lordship of Christ is the stage of the Gospel we now occupy.

What Paul summarizes as the Gospel in Romans 1 he spells out in 1 Corinthians 15. The Gospel he receieved which he in turn handed to the Church in Corinth has 8 parts to it or stages. Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus:

  1. preexisted with the Father
  2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promise to David
  3. died for sins in accordance with the scriptures
  4. was buried
  5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
  6. appeared to many
  7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord
  8. and will come again as judge.

Note the shift, both in Paul’s Gospel and in the Apostles Creed, from the past tense to the present tense. Paul says that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus is Lord because that’s where we are all at in the story.

It’s a non-negotiable part of the Gospel. Jesus is Lord right now, currently in residence as Lord and King to whom God has given dominion over heaven and earth.

To accept that present-tense point in the Gospel is to acknowledge the other parts of the Gospel that preceded it; likewise, to deny Jesus’ Lordship is to devalue the Gospel that precedes it. The enthronement of the crucified and risen Jesus to the right hand of God to be Lord isn’t ancillary to Paul’s Gospel but is the climax of it. The cross and resurrection aren’t ends in themselves; they are the means by which God establishes Jesus as the Earth’s true and rightful Lord.

As Abraham Kuyper said:

“There is not a square inch now in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ who is Sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!””

     When we deemphasize the Ascension of Jesus, we immediately neuter the Gospel of the only present-tense element to it.

All that remains is the Gospel’s past and the future tenses. We demote Jesus from Lord of the cosmos to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs, which produces a false distinction between Jesus as a personal lord and Jesus as Lord of the Cosmos.

Salvation then becomes the promise of a future reality we access by agreeing to propositions about what Jesus did in the past rather than salvation being a present reality into which we’re incorporated by baptism and in which we participate already as subjects of the Lord who reigns now.

If this sounds like a picayune grammatical distinction, then consider the qualitative difference for discipleship:

“Jesus taught 2,000 years that we should love our enemies.”

   Versus:

“The one who taught us to love our enemies 2,000 years ago is, this very moment, Lord of heaven and earth.”

Without Ascension, the Sermon on Mount can remain safely in the past, leaving us free to argue with it or agreed to it. If the Preacher on the Mount is right now Lord, suddenly his sermon becomes less about assent and more a matter of obedience.

    This weekend I went back to preach at the church where I first came to the faith as a teenager, Woodlake United Methodist Church. They’re in the midst of a sermon series called ‘Curveball: When Life Doesn’t Play Fair.”

Here’s my sermon on Matthew 6.1-13, the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives the disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

I’ll post the video when I have it.

God’s Not Throwing You the Curve

     It’s strange and exciting to be preaching here today. I want to thank you all for the opportunity.

I mean, it only took incurable cancer and 20-something years for you to get me here but who’s counting? At this rate I’ll have to contract the Zika virus to get invited back.

Other than a shot-gun wedding I attended as a kid, where even the crucifix on the altar wall looked like Jesus had misgivings about the bride’s and groom’s chances, I’d never darkened the doorway of a church until my mother forced me to come to Woodlake Church one Christmas Eve when I was a teenager.

As I tell my congregation all the time, I’m your fault.

Dennis Perry, my associate pastor at Aldersgate, is the one responsible for me being a minister today. But you all are the ones responsible for making me a Christian- just in the nick of time too, I think.

I want to thank Gordon for the invitation to preach for you today.

I feel like Gordon is a brother from another mother (unless my mother was up to things I’m not aware of). Not only is Gordon a hardcore Nationals fan like myself, Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, is also the pastor who started this church so both Gordon and I know what it’s like to clean up after Dennis.

I was confirmed here at Woodlake 23 years ago.

23 years- it was a different world. Things were completely different back then.

For example, back then, 23 years ago…

The White House was mired in scandal and being chased by a special prosecutor because of a President who might also a sexual predator (those jokes go over better inside the Beltway).

And back then, the Republicans held both houses of Congress yet seemed incapable of any legislative wins.

Meanwhile, Russia had just invaded a neighboring republic and was undermining American interests abroad and OJ Simpson’s legal troubles were all over TV and Talk Radio.

Like I said, it was a completely different world!

I remember my first confirmation class. After beginning with a spaghetti dinner, the Reverend Dennis Perry taught our lesson.

Back then, Dennis Perry wasn’t yet the white-haired, humor-less, passion-less, husk of his former self he is today.

No, back then everything was different.

Back then, Dennis obviously was into fashion (look at that sweater) and progressive gender roles.

Back then, Dennis was bold. Bold enough to wear Wilfred Brimley sunglasses even before the age of 65. I’d never wear those sunglasses, but that’s because I’m a coward. Dennis- back then Dennis was brave.

23 years ago I was confirmed here.

Because I hadn’t grown up in the Church, I was about 5 years older than any of the other confirmation students, which meant- by default- I was smartest one in the class, which meant I loved confirmation.

I was different back then.

I remember that first class. Dennis wheeled in a dry erase board. I remember, he seemed ill-prepared, like he was just shooting from the hip.

He sketched a scribble-scrabble drawing on the board, trying to help us conceive of the difference between eternity and creation.

And then in his terrible hand-writing, Dennis wrote a funny, little word on the board:

immutable.

     ‘That means,’ he said, ‘God doesn’t change.’

We might change. The world might change.

The circumstances of your life might change.

But God does not change. Ever.

Then he said the word again and underlined it.

Immutable.

God doesn’t change.

That’s a lesson I learned when you all confirmed me into the faith 23 years ago.

And when a curveball called cancer nearly destroyed my life 2 years ago, it’s the lesson that saved my faith.

Immutable.

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That was 23 years ago. And the world does change.

23 years ago, according to Gallup, 40% of Americans had attended a worship service in the previous 2 weeks, and 20 years ago if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was 8%.

It was a different world.

Over 30 years ago, the year this church was founded, 50% of Americans, according to Gallup, attended worship every Sunday.

And the year this church was founded, 30 years ago, if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was just 4%.

It was a different world. It is a different world.

Just last year, 20% of Americans checked ‘None’ when asked about their religious affiliation.

One-fifth of everybody.

If you count those between the ages of 20 and 30 the percentage- emerging adults- jumps up to over 30%.

Over 40% of that age group report that religion ‘doesn’t matter very much to them.’

Not only does the Church exist in a completely different world now, the Church is also carrying a great deal of baggage into this new world.

    According to a Barna study of those between the ages of 20-30, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:

91% checked ‘yes’ to the description ‘anti-homosexual.’

87% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’

85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical.‘

72% checked ‘yes’ to ‘out of touch with my reality.’

70% checked ‘yes’ to ‘insensitive.’

64% said Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’

All that together adds up to one very large millstone Christians are putting around our necks today.

A millstone whose message is clear, if unintended: God is against you.

     Who wouldn’t check ‘None’ if that god was the other option?

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As familiar as the Lord’s Prayer is, what’s often forgotten is the reason Jesus gives the disciples this prayer in the first place. Because it’s not that they didn’t know how to pray.

As uneducated 1st century Jews from backwater Galilee they knew how to pray better than all of you, and they did so more often. As 1st century Jews, the disciples would’ve had all 150 Psalms memorized, ready to recite by heart.

3 times a day (sundown, sunup, and 3:00 PM) they would’ve stopped wherever they were and whatever they were doing and prayed.

They would’ve prayed the shema (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’). They would’ve prayed the amidah, a serious of 18 benedictions.

And they would’ve recited the 10 Commandments.

3 times a day.

So Jesus doesn’t give the disciples this prayer because they didn’t know how to pray. They knew how. This prayer isn’t about the how of prayer it’s about the who:

‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’ 

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The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed.

The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.

And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.

In order to please and placate god.

To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.

You see, the pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.

The who the pagans prayed to was:

An auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve. An accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.

The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן.

Ha-satan.

What we call Satan.

In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork. In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil. In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means.

Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.

The reason Jesus gives this prayer isn’t methodology.

It’s theology.

It’s not the how.

It’s the who.

Because the pagans got who god is so completely wrong, they didn’t know how to pray. They went on and on, thinking they needed to change god’s mind about them.

Jesus warns us not to be like the pagans not because he’s worried we’ll prattle on too long or call upon the name of Zeus.

No, Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan.

Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved. Jesus gives this prayer so we won’t ever slip into supposing that God is against us.

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Actually, it’s not really Jesus’ prayer.

It’s the Qaddish.

An ancient Jewish prayer the disciples would’ve recognized and been able to recite themselves. And because they would’ve known it, they would’ve instantly noticed how Jesus changes it.

He changes it right from the beginning. Rather than starting, as the Qaddish does, with ‘hallowed be his great name’ Jesus changes it to ‘Father in Heaven.’

And, of course, Jesus has in mind not just any father, not ‘father’ in the abstract, not anything analogous to your father or my father but his Father.

The Father who, Jesus says, sends rain upon the just and the unjust. The Father who, no matter what we deserve, just sends love. The Father who forgives for we know not what we do. The Father who never stops waiting and is always ready to celebrate a prodigal’s return. The Father who reacts to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You see, Jesus changes the Qaddish so that from the outset we are pointed to someone far different than who the pagans prayed to.

We’re pointed to his Father. And that’s the second change Jesus makes to the Qaddish: the number. Jesus takes it from the singular and makes it plural. It’s not just his Father; it’s our Father now. We’re brought into his relationship with his Father. We’re adopted.

One way of making sure we never get wrong who it is we’re praying to is to remember we’re praying to Jesus‘ Father. He made it plural. We’ve been included. And Jesus‘ Father never cast blame on him, never accused him, never acted like a satan, never did anything but love him.

The last change Jesus makes to the Qaddish is to the end.

Jesus adds on ‘deliver us from the evil one.’

In Greek that’s ho-ponerous. In Hebrew, it’s ha-satan.

Deliver us from the accuser.

In other words, the very concern that prompts Jesus to give this prayer in the first place is tacked onto the ending of it.

When we pray, whenever we pray- Jesus says, which for him means 3 times a day- when we pray, we should pray to be delivered from ever thinking of God as our accuser, from ever thinking of God as one who casts down upon us, from ever thinking that God is against us, that God is the one throwing curve balls at us.

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A year and a half ago, I woke up from emergency abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, ultimately incurable, cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. No matter how many Hallmark cards you get telling you that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, you can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting.

When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And, when you’re as narcissistic as me, you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

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I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized it, here at Woodlake Church because, you know, might as well come full circle.

I pictured the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this sanctuary is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream folks send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like Lily Pulitzer exploded all over it.

In my daydream there’s flowers all over and the pews are packed.

Its standing room only out in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Gal Gadot.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis Perry, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the piano Michael Berkley plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Michael Berkley, all the while, is chagrined, wishing I’d instead chosen Elton John’s Candle in the Wind for my funeral service.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar, my casket is followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the Bishop Sharma Lewis slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late but Stephen Hawking assures her in his Speak-N-Spell voice that she can sit next to him.

After the opening hymn, when Michael Berkley finishes, Dennis gets up to preach.

And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Gordon and Gordon, first, he reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then Gordon looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, an ensemble choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the singers veer off key because Michael Berkley’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it.

So the choir, even if they’re singing off key, they’re singing their heart out enough that Scarlett Johansson leans over to ask Dennis if she can borrow a tissue.

‘Can I have one too?’ Penelope Cruz asks Dennis just as the singers belt out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali, my wife, chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me.

She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at Woodlake swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

And as God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to the reception where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture.

Of me.

But I digress.

My point is-

     For a long time, I thought this malady in my marrow, this curveball called incurable cancer, was going to kill me quick.

And I daydreamed.

And I raged. And I despaired.

And I asked questions- I asked a question.

You know the question:

Why is God doing this to me?

Usually, as a pastor, I’m not the one asking that question; usually I’m on the receiving end of the question.

The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-

LIFE HAPPENS.

LIFE THROWS YOU CURVE BALLS.

-and we think…God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

That this curve ball coming in on us because God is against us.

Life happens and we want to know why. Why is God doing this to me?

And of course we don’t have answers to the why. Any one who tells you they do is a liar.

But we do have an answer about the who.

The 1 answer Jesus gives us, the answer Jesus gives us again and again, is this one:

     The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God. 

God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that. Our Father isn’t like that. Don’t be like the pagans.

And just in case you forget, here’s this prayer.

When you pray…pray this way.

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Very often the god we pray to, the god in the back of our minds, the god we unwittingly proclaim is a kind of satan.

A little ‘g’ god who throws lightening bolts and curve balls at us because of this or that sin.

While I was sick and in intense chemo for a year, I wore this prayer Jesus gives us thin and threadbare I prayed it so much.

I prayed it constantly because, on the one hand, I didn’t have the strength to come up with my words or wishes of own, but mostly I prayed it because I needed this constant reminder.

The reminder that is the reason Jesus gives this prayer.

The reminder in that strange word Dennis Perry at Woodlake Church first taught me.

The reminder that God doesn’t change.

God’s never changed. God will never change.

God just is Love and unconditionally in love with each of us.

Dennis taught me that when I was confirmed into the faith, but when a curve ball called incurable cancer upended my life, it saved my faith too.

God doesn’t change.

And so God never changes his mind about us. You.

God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

God doesn’t change.

God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.

As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God.

We can’t change God because God doesn’t change.

God- Jesus says- sends rain upon the just and the unjust.

God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve.

God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.

God is an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable,

a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep,

a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father-

who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’

God is for us. You.

Always.

Nothing can change that.

Because God doesn’t change.

And if God doesn’t change, then God isn’t the one throwing you the curve.

The god you think is throwing you curves isn’t God.

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I like to think I’m unique in all things; the cancer I got is incredibly rare.

The chances you’ll get what I got are tiny.

But the chances you’ll have some curveball or another upend your life- those odds…

are dead-nuts around 100%.

And even if you make it through life without a curveball you won’t make it out life alive.

So remember.

Remember what I was so grateful to remember that I’d learned here.

That 1 word I remember Dennis teaching me: immutable.

Or maybe instead to help you remember, whenever you pray…

Pray like this…

 

 

 

Since The Donald ascended to the oval office in January, I’ve heard progressive Christians yearning for a contemporary incarnation of Reinhold Niebuhr, a public theologian who can offer, with clarity and conviction, a Christian critique of the current regime. I’ve also heard fellow clergy ask- with not a little self-seriousness (myself included)- if the threat The Donald poses to America is sufficiently analogous to the threat posed to Germany by Hitler such that what the Church in America needs now is another Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a righteous voice to lead a confessing minority of Christians against a contagion of fascist ideology.  Increasingly, I’m convinced the Church in Trump’s America needs neither a Niebuhr nor a Bonhoeffer and that the longing for either may be self-righteous to the point of obscuring the Gospel which we’re called to proclaim in word and deed.

Last week the progressive pastor Rev. Dr. William Barber made news by arguing on MSNBC’s AM Joy that clergy who prayed for or with The Donald committed “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.” Conservative clergy responded in kind that Barber’s assertion did not project love for his Christian brothers and sisters. In response to the story, pro and con tweets followed by Christians all over social media, each abiding by the red or blue hue of their flavor of Christianity.

In a blog post earlier this week, I noted how both Rev. Barber’s critique of The Donald and Trump-loving Christians appeared to have little use for Jesus, who commanded us not only to pray for our enemies but to forgive them and, even, to love them.

More than a few readers messaged me to extol Rev. Barber’s “brave Christian witness against the Powers” and his “radical politics.” It’s possible I failed to articulate my point with sufficient clarity; it’s also possible that progressives have become so enmeshed in their own blue-hued, generic civil religion, too enthusiastic about their own State Church of the Left, that my point was too specifically Christian to be obvious to them.

Rev. Barber’s politics are not radical enough.

Christianly speaking.

I don’t think the Church in America needs a Niebuhr or a Bonhoeffer because I worry The Donald is a character of such exaggerated and self-evident flaws he’s exacerbated our very human and (sinful) tendency to draw lines between moral and immoral people, as though the line between good and evil dotted the borders of mutually exclusive ideologies rather than running through every human heart.

Christianly speaking-

You cannot have a truly radical politics without a radical doctrine of justification by grace.

As my friend Dr. Jeffrey Pugh mentioned in passing during our recent live podcast, what the Church in America needs is not a Bonhoeffer nor a Niebuhr nor does the progressive wing of the Church need a blue-hued version of what it detests on the Right.

Only an understanding that ALL are under the Power of Sin, all stand condemned, NONE is righteous, and that there is no distinction between any of us- only such an understanding can produce a radical politics.

What the Church in America needs Jeffrey observed is another Will Campbell.

And I couldn’t agree more.

For those of you who don’t know, “Brother Will,” who recently died, was a controversial figure- just note that fact, the “radical” Rev. Barber is not at all controversial among progressive Christians.

Originally from Mississippi, he returned to live there after graduating from Yale Divinity School, and he founded an organization called the Committee of Southern Churchmen. This organization published a journal called Katallagete, which means “be reconciled.” Brother Will was one of the very few white people who escorted the “Little Rock Nine” into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was also there when Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Will Campbell believed with all his heart in the cause of Civil Rights. But he also believed, equally firmly, that Christ died for the racists as much as he died for the victims of racism.

Fleming Rutledge tells this story about Will:

“Will attend[ed] the trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowers is believed to have ordered several killings, the most conspicuous of which was the assassination of the black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in his own home.

At the Mississippi trial held almost 40 years later, the large Dahmer family sat on one side of the courtroom. Sam Bowers sat alone on the other. As the trial proceeded, Will sat with the Dahmers some of the time and with Bowers some of the time.

A baffled reporter asked him why he did that.

Will growled:

“Because I’m a damn Christian.”

When his fellow activists got angry with Will for spending time with members of the Ku Klux Klan, he said:

“I’d identified with liberal sophistication, and had lost something of the meaning of grace that does include us all.

I would continue to be a social activist, but came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

It’s laudable, for example, that Christians and clergy near my alma mater in Charlottesville recently protested against the presence of the Klan, but- I wonder- was their witness radical? Christianly speaking? Might a more distinctive witness been offered, one made possibly only by faith in the Gospel of grace- had some Will Campbell Christians, protest signs in hand, also embraced those on the other side?

In his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, Campbell writes of watching a documentary of the KKK with a group of like-minded progressive activists:

“I felt a sickening in my stomach [to the viewers’ response to the film.] Who were they? Most of them were from middle and upper class families…they were students or graduates of rich and leading universities. They were tough but somehow I sensed that there wasn’t a radical in the bunch.

For if they were radical how could they laugh at a poor ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right. If they had been radical they would have been weeping, asking what had produced him.

I began my speech to them, saying: “I’m Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansmen because I’m pro-human being.”

His “radical” audience all left, outraged, threatening him harm. Will concludes his memory saying:”

“A true radical would ask how do we humans get to be the sort of humans we are.

Just four words uttered- pro-Klansmen Mississippi Baptist Preacher, coupled with one image, White, had turned them into everything they thought the KKK to be- hostile, frustrated, angry, violent and irrational.

I was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansmen is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with the person, the other with an ideology.”

Not Niebuhr.

Nor Bonhoeffer.

I yearn for a truly radical voice like Will’s.

His colleague at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas, says that all theology is but preparation for prayer. Almost as an illustration of what Hauerwas means, in Episode #104 theologian Norman Wirzba discusses creation, gratitude, and the food industry, encouraging Christians to exhibit food practices such that when they say grace they can truly say Amen (“May it be so”) to the agricultural and labor processes that led to the food on their table.

Dr. Wirzba convicted me and got me thinking about other interesting questions such as ‘Will there be food in heaven?’ I commend his work, such as his book Food and Faith, to you. You can find his books here.

Raised on a farm in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, Wirzba is a Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke University. He writes and makes public presentations on a wide variety of topics ranging from environmental philosophy and ethics to food studies and sustainable agriculture from a theological point of view. He hopes to show that Christian faith is a lot more interesting and compelling than people might think.

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This past weekend Rev. Dr. William Barber described praying for Trump “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.” Certainly, if what Rev. Barber has in mind is the sort of QVC Christendom prayer captured in this picture above, then I agree.

Here’s a story from the Washington Post

Looking at the clergy gathered around the Donald, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve shut their eyes not out of piety but, like Indy and Marianne in Raiders of the Lost Ark, out of terror, afraid that the holiness of God will smote them for their idolatrous acts. Let’s not kid ourselves. This isn’t an image of God-fearers beseeching God for God’s providence or peace; it’s a picture of sycophantic partisans wanting Religion, like holiday bunting, to decorate, and so to bless, their culturally-derived agenda. It’s a still captured image of collective cognitive dissonance, seeing the Donald as either a Cyrus-like agent of God’s mysterious ways or just willfully ignoring the Donald’s manifest immorality, narcissism, and ineptitude.

Still, if what Rev. Barber condemns is instead the sort of prayer the Book of Common Prayer gives us, then I’d argue that it’s theological malpractice to judge even the Donald as so beyond the pale to be exempt from our practice prayer:

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States…and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear… Amen.

And if what Rev. Barber has in mind is this sort of prayer from the BCP, then he might be the one flirting with heresy:

O God, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you…Amen.

On MSNBC’s “AM Joy,” Barber added:

“When you can P-R-A-Y for a president and others while they are P-R-E-Y, preying on the most vulnerable, you’re violating the sacred principles of religion.”

Citing the Prophet Amos, Barber suggested:

“What leaders ought to be doing is challenging the president, challenging McConnell Ryan, and challenging these senators and others and not trying to appease them. Instead, they’re acting like priests of the empire rather than prophets of God.”

Never mind that some of God’s prophets (Isaiah, Nathan) were in fact priests and scribes of the King’s court and that the actual ultimate indictment of prophets like Amos- idolatry- would twist secular progressives’ sphincters into a knot.

I think it’s revealing who Rev. Barber does not mention in this discussion of the president and prayer:

Jesus.

Notice how Rev. Barber referenced the sacred principles of (generic and abstract) “religion” rather than (the inconveniently specific) Christianity.

While I sympathize with his antipathy, Barber commits the same crimes of civil religion perpetrated by his peers on the religious right; that is, his argument is insufficiently Christocentric.

Just as ‘God bless America’ cannot be so easily transmuted into ‘Jesus Bless America’ or ‘God hates fags’ cannot be rendered as ‘Jesus hates fags” it’s difficult to argue that Jesus would not want his followers to pray for a man who, for progressives- admit it- personifies the word enemy.

Given his first sermon in Nazareth, a shameless cribbing of Isaiah, I’ve no doubt Jesus concurred with Amos’ condemnations of the affluent and their consequent apathy and that Jesus would take a dim view of Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian worldview. But when Jesus stands on the mount like Moses and gives his disciples, the New Israel, a New Law, one of the commandments he issues instructs his followers to forgive, love, and pray for their enemies.

In such a partisan, divided culture, where political ideology continues to prove such an attractive religious idol, it’s difficult to believe the Donald isn’t for progressive Christians exactly the sort of enemy Jesus had in mind. For that matter, Donald-loving partisans just might be the neighbors that Jesus also commands progressive Christians to love as much as they love themselves or pretend to love God.

It’s one thing to pray for an enemy comfortably overseas who will never impinge on anything in your life but the newsfeed on your iPhone; it’s another to beseech God for sufficient civility to love the ignorant, possibly racist, definitely xenophobic neighbor with whom you actually have to make a life.

Barber warns that it borders on heresy to pray for the president, an odd comment from a clergyman.

Surely Rev. Barber knows that 1 Peter instructs Christians “to honor and pray for the emperor” just as surely as Rev. Barber recalls from Church History 101 that when Peter issued that command for Christians to honor and pray for the emperor he had the Emperor Nero in mind, for whom the Book of Revelation marks with the number 666- not a very popular president.

Christians should not be chaplains of civil religion, praying for the president in the partisan sense of festooning his political agenda (to the extent he has a discernible agenda) with the appearance of divine blessing.

But neither should Christians be so captured by their own blue-hued civil religion that they are willing to qualify their allegiance to the Lord’s commands.

             Blessed are the poor. Check

             Pray for your enemies. _______

I agree with Rev. Barber that Americans should agitate against an agenda that would harm, callously so, the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

Unfortunately, Christianity has “sacred principles” in addition to the principle that we should care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and comfort the victims of our indifference- and caring for the poor, let’s face it, is a principle that is hardly unique to Christianity.

Another sacred principle, not of generic, generalized religion but of the offensively particular Christian Gospel, is that God loves not the good people who care for the poor and welcome the stranger (nor the ones who at least think the government should care for the poor and welcome the stranger for them) but the ungodly.

God loves not just the victims of our indifference but God loves the victimizers too. Indeed God loves them enough to die for them, especially for them. 

How can we not pray for someone like Donald Trump then when, Christians believe, Jesus prayed for someone just like him: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

To exempt someone like the Donald from the command upon us to love our enemies risks our forgetting that while we were enemies of God, God died for us.

Just as prayer should not be used as a strategy by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Richard Jeffress to advance their own independently derived agenda, praying for our enemies is not a strategy.

It is instead part of our own ongoing conversion to- which is to say, exorcism from the Red and Blue idols in our hearts- the Lordship of Jesus Christ who commanded us to do so. Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. Rather, in a world of violence whose injustice, poverty, and loneliness is made possible by seeking to determine our enemies for us, the  Lord has called us to be his subjects who love enemies.

We do this not because it ‘works’ but because Christ is the Lord to whom we owe our allegiance.

In this episode of the lectionary podcast, we talk about Genesis 28.10-19a, Isaiah 44.6-8, Romans 8.12-25, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43.

Should the altar call come before or after the sermon? Is it better to be like the stars in the sky or the dust of the earth?

These and more questions on this episode of Strangely Warmed.

You can leave us a review too. Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

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“Most of us who go by the name of “Christians” ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian—at least, if by that word one means not simply someone who is baptized or who adheres to a particular set of religious observances and beliefs, but more or less what Nietzsche meant when he said that there has been only one Christian in human history and that he had died on the cross. In that sense, I think it reasonable to ask not whether we are Christians (by that standard, all fall short), but whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. And I think the fairly obvious answer is that we could not…

Most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.”

In this episode, I continue my conversation with my man-crush muse and former teacher, David Bentley Hart. Here, he discusses his upcoming translation of the New Translation, the melodies of McCartney, and baseball as the Platonic Ideal.

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     Some folks have commented about our summer sermon series and how they’re surprised that the Power of Sin/Death/Satan has figured so significantly into my preaching.

It seems awful old-fashioned and superstitious, the obvious implication conveys. Maybe so.

But necessarily so, I’d argue.

Lordship, which Paul highlights as the climax of the Gospel and identifies as the necessary confession for faith, is also the most frequent self-attestation Jesus makes in the Gospel narratives. By my count, at least 26 times in the Synoptics Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man prefigured in Daniel 7.13-14.

In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, it’s Jesus’ declaration that he’s the promised Son of Man that provokes the plot to undo him, and it’s at the end of Mark’s Gospel- at his trial- that Jesus, alluding to Daniel 7 and Psalm 110, refers to himself as the Son of Man again, causing the chief priests to tear their garments and accuse him of blasphemy.

They condemn Jesus to death for claiming that God soon would install him at God’s right hand as the King and Lord of the cosmos.

Two features emerge from the Son of Man texts Jesus cites.

1. ) The scope of the Son of Man’s Lordship will be cosmic and universal: “…to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion…” 

2.) Also, the Son of Man will establish his dominion as Lord by wresting dominion from God’s enemies: “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool at your feet. (Psalm 110.1)”

     Caesar understood what Christians so often forget even though it’s obvious in the scriptures Jesus applies to himself: to be allegiant to one Lord is to content against another Lord.

When Paul tells the Romans that in order to be saved they must confess that Jesus is Lord, Paul leaves unsaid the necessary correlative confession: to name Jesus as Lord is to name the Enemy from whom Jesus has delivered you. If we contribute anything to our salvation, perhaps it’s only our knowledge of the one against whom the battle we call salvation is fought.

Christ’s Lordship is cosmic in terms of the universal, creation-vast scope of his reign.

Christ’s Lordship is cosmic because it’s a dominion being wrought in opposition to alien Powers that are themselves cosmic.

 

What God has done in Christ, enthroning Jesus as the Lord prophesied by Daniel, becomes unintelligible if we reduce the dramatis personnae of the salvation story to 3: God, Christ, and Humanity.

To understand the cosmic claims of Christ’s Lordship, the Gospel story requires 4 characters:

God, Christ, Humanity.

And the Enemy.

Whom Paul calls variously Sin, Death, the Powers, and Satan.

The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him; you certainly can’t confess “Jesus is Lord” in the fullness meant by the church fathers. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.

To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them, as the Enlightenment has taught us to do, is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”

     As much as he was a teacher or a wonder worker, a prophet or a preacher or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.

And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary without who there is no Gospel. Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us. It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.

According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.

It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another.  We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

It’s true that when we call Jesus ‘Lord’ we confess he’s Lord of all creation, but the underside of our confession, the necessary correlative to it, is that the creation of which Jesus is Lord is held in bondage by a Captor.

To confess Jesus as Lord of Creation is to profess that Jesus will free the creation from the Powers that contend against him and hold creation in captivity. 

As Paul himself points out at the end of his summary of the 8 part Gospel: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the Kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15

The place in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul most often confesses Jesus as Lord, the Letter to the Romans, is also the place where Paul devotes the most attention to the anti-god Powers that would rule in opposition to God. As the ancient commentator, Ambrosiastor,  observed about Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “The entire letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.”

 

In this lectionary conversation, Taylor and I look at Genesis 25.19-34, Isaiah 55.10-13, Romans 8.1-11, Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23.
What if we’re stuck with the soil we’ve got?
What if our entire lives are about wrestling with God?
These questions and more in this episode of Strangely Warmed.

One reviewer in iTunes recently thanked us, saying she “was starved for some adult conversation about what it means to live as a Christian in these times.”

You can leave us a review too. Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

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If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on one of Paul’s most famous (and most significant) passages, 7.14-25:

“For I know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under Sin. I do not understand our own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things we hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the Law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me. 
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a Law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the Law of God in my inmost selves, but I see within me another Law at war with the Law of my mind, making me captive to the Law of Sin that dwells within me.
Wretched creatures that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death? Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!”

     “I’d seen women who admitted to having an abortion receive forgiveness, and I’d noticed how women who had kept their babies seemed somehow harder to forgive. But the more I thought about abortion, the more I knew I couldn’t go through with it. 

     In my view, abortion is taking a life that belongs to God alone, and I couldn’t do that. I chose what I believed to be the good; I didn’t know all this would follow from my decision.” 

Maybe you read the story in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. Or maybe you caught it on CBS, Fox, or CNN (FAKE NEWS).

Maddi Runkles, soon to be a freshman at Bob Jones University, is an 18 year old graduate of Heritage Academy, a private Christian high school in Frederick, Maryland.

She’s also in her second trimester and due in the fall.

According to her own first-person account in the Washington Post, Maddi Runkles was a straight A student at Heritage Academy. She sported a 4.0 GPA and she played forward on the school soccer team. She was president of the Student Council and vice-president of the Key Club.  She volunteered every Sunday in her Baptist Church’s nursery and taught at Vacation Bible School every summer. Maddi was by her own testimony an over-achieving, brown-nosing, not just a good but a perfect student.

She out-Wobegoned all the children of Lake Wobegone. She was successful at everything except thing.

She failed to keep her chastity pledge.

She was born again and soon to give birth.

When Maddi Runkles confessed her secret to her parents late this winter, they bucked the stereotype of conservative Christian parents. They did not scorn their daughter. Her Dad even told her: “God is in this somewhere with you and we’ll be with you too.” 

Before you smile and tear up, let me tell you about her school.

As word of Maddi’s sin got out, Heritage Academy convened their school board for an emergency meeting where they moved to strip Maddi of all her leadership positions in the student body. They kicked her off the soccer team. They suspended her. They even told her she could not attend her younger brother’s baseball games.

They didn’t hand her a big, fat red A for her letter jacket, but they did they ban her from campus until after she delivered her baby.

The school board even called a school-wide student assembly where Maddi confessed her transgression to her peers, expressed repentance, and asked for their forgiveness.

Nevertheless, the school board informed Maddi that while they would permit her to receive her diploma, they would not allow her to walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony.

That was the straw.

The board’s decision to exclude Maddi from her graduation provoked a public outcry, which emboldened Maddi’s family to fight the graduation ban. When Maddi’s story went viral and the school started to receive mocking press coverage, her community’s reflex was to protect the school.

Eventually, her community turned on her, making the Runkles family the object of nasty emails, inflammatory social media posts, rude remarks in public, and dangerous threats in private. Some of Maddi’s friends from Heritage Academy, seeing their school in danger, said she was spoiled and seeking publicity.

They slut-shamed her.

They attend bible class at Heritage Academy for an hour every school day.

In a letter to the parents, the principal of Heritage Academy wrote that Maddi was “being disciplined not because she is pregnant but because she is immoral…the best way to love her- (pay attention to the words) the good we can do for her right now- is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.” 

     The best way to love her…the good we can do for her.

According to the New York Times, Maddi Runkles keeps an ultrasound photo of her baby on her nightstand. It’s a boy. She refers to him as a “blessing.”

Nevertheless, Maddi confessed to the reporter:

“I chose life. I chose (pay attention to the words) the good, but now that I see what my decision has produced…sometimes it feels like it wasn’t worth it.”

For that very reason, that Maddi Runkles would even entertain regret over what she believed had been the good and right act of not seeking an abortion, pro-life organizations like March for Life and Students for Life rallied to her side.

As Jeanne Mancini, President of March for Life pointed out to the Post:

“In the manner they held Maddi accountable, Heritage Academy, a vigorously anti-abortion school, has made it more likely that future students like Maddi will choose to have an abortion.”

     The theologian Karl Barth said that preachers should approach the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. What Barth meant was that the world, as its described in the Good News of the Gospel- becomes clearer to see when you find it confirmed by and corroborated in the pages of your newspaper.

    Here’s what readers of both the newspaper and today’s scripture text should ask:

In choosing the good of carrying her baby to term, did Maddi Runkles seek to split her school and community apart?

In holding Maddi accountable did Heritage Academy mean to shame and stigmatize her? Was it their goal to encourage other students to opt for abortion in the future?

Did the Heritage school board intend to undermine their school and do its reputation damage by enforcing what they took to be the integrity of the honor code?

Of course, the answer to all of the above is “No.”

The bitter irony- the bitter biblical irony- is that everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good. Everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good.

But through them…

     Through them, a different outcome entirely was worked.

     And the passive voice there reveals everything.

——————-

     If the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans was a play instead of an epistle, it it was a script with a Dramatis Personnae at the beginning, then it would be obvious even before you read it that in Romans Sin has a starring role.

Now, I know, if you all wanted to hear about sin, you wouldn’t have fled your Baptist and Catholic upbringings for a denomination where our only strong conviction is that ‘God is nice.’

You all don’t want to hear about sin; no one wants to hear about sin anymore.

But the drama of Paul’s Gospel story of rectification by grace is unintelligible without Sin as a primary cast member. Paul’s plot is incomplete without Sin as a main character.

Don’t buy it?

In all of his letters, Paul uses the word sin (hamartia) 81 times, more than he uses any other word. Of those 81 times, 60 occur in his Letter to the Romans. Over 2/3 of those usages occur right here in this chunk of Romans, chapters 5-8.

I realize you don’t want to hear about sin in church, but you need to realize the sin you don’t want to hear about in church is not sin as Paul most often uses the word in Romans.

Sin, for Paul, is not primarily a behavior. Sin is not something we do. Sin is not pre-marital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or self-righteously slut-shaming a teenage girl.

Sin is not something we do; Sin is a Something that Does.

Sin is not a lowercase transgression. Sin is an uppercase Power. A Power that ensnares and enslaves and stands over and against God. Sin is a Power whose ultimate defeat the cross and resurrection portend. Sin is an Agency- a Power synonymous with the Power of Satan. It’s Sin with a capital S.

Just notice how Paul here in Romans 7 doesn’t use Sin as the verb we do but as the subjects of its own verbs: “…it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.”

And again in verse 20: “…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that dwells within me…” 

Literally, in the Greek, it’s:

“…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that has set up a base of operations within me.”

It’s a military term. Just as he has in the preceding chapters, the language Paul uses here in Romans 7 is the language of battle and war.

Sin isn’t an attribute of us; Sin is an Antagonist against us.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you- that’s the sin no one wants to hear about in church.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you. Sin is cosmic terrorist that can invade even you.

Sin is an Enemy that can set up a base of operations within you.

  ———————

     Notice what Paul doesn’t say in Romans 7.

     Notice that Paul doesn’t say he is unable to do the good that he wants to do.

Paul doesn’t say he is incapable of willing the good he wishes to accomplish.

The problem isn’t that he’s impotent to will the good. The problem is not that he knows the good in his head but he can’t bring his heart or his hands to choose it.

No, that’s not it. The problem isn’t that he’s impotent. The problem is that he is not.

He wills the good that he wants to do- he is able. He does the good he wants to do, but, in doing the good, what he produces, what his good act accomplishes is unrecognizable to his intention.

No good deed goes unpunished, we say. But what Paul is saying: every good deed turns out as a kind of punishment. Every good deed ends up destructive.

     “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I accomplish.” 

     Don’t let the switch to the first-person singular in chapter 7 fool you. Paul hasn’t changed the subject. Paul’s not describing his inner conflict; Paul’s describing an invasion.

His problem isn’t a divided self but a self enslaved to Another. As he says plainly in verse 14, he’s talking about the Self bound to a Slave Master.

Paul’s not narrating shock at seeing what he has done despite his best intentions. He’s narrating the shock at seeing what Sin has done through him, disguised in his best intentions.

William Faulkner said the theme of all lasting literature is the human heart in conflict with itself. Faulkner may be right about literature, but Paul is not writing fiction.

Paul isn’t writing here about the human heart in conflict with itself. Paul doesn’t mean that there is an alter-ego within each us, contending against us. No, Paul means that there is an Antagonist at work in the world, contending against God, an Alien Power that can reach as far down as into us and twist even our good works to evil.

We can will Life, Paul says, but through us Sin can will Death.

And not just through us- Paul says the contagion of Sin’s reach extends even into God’s own Law:

“The Law is holy and just and good. But Sin, seizing an opportunity in the Law, deceived me and through the Law killed me.”

     You see, this is why Paul argues so aggressively against requiring Gentile converts to obey the Jewish Law. It’s why he’s so adamant that requiring Gentile converts to follow the Law is in fact a false Gospel.

It’s not because the Law in and of itself is bad or evil. And it’s not simply that Paul wants to lower the bar for admission because adult circumcision is a tough sell.

It’s that the Law has been taken hostage by the Power of Sin such that the faithful religious person in their service to God actually serves the Lordship of Sin.

That’s the awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here in Romans 7.

It’s not the mystery of the human heart in conflict with itself.

It’s the mystery of God’s Law and God’s People twisted, unwittingly, into conflict against God.

It’s the horror that the Power of Sin can co-opt and contravene even the religion God gave us; so that, the outcome of our faithful actions ends up in contradiction to their intent.

     The awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here is that even in serving God the religious person can in fact be serving God’s Enemy.

And if you need an example of what Paul has in mind by this awful mystery, Exhibit A is hanging on the altar wall.

Look at that and listen to Paul again:

      “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I produce.” 

     Evil is not it’s own agency. Evil is what the Power of Sin does through the minions it fools and conscripts as accomplices. Through the Law, through Religion, through People of Piety.

For 6 chapters, the Apostle Paul has been narrating Sin’s long resume. He’s called it a Power. He’s called it a King. He’s called it a Wage-Master and a Slaver-Taker. He’s given it adjectives like Dominion and Lordship. He’s given it synonyms like Death and Satan.

But on Sin’s resume, Paul saves this talk of the Law and the Enslaved Self for last.

Paul saves the worst for last.

He saves the Law and the enslaved “I” for last because for Paul there is no more awful accomplishment of Sin, no grosser testament to the demonic Power of Sin than Sin’s ability to pervert even the best of our piety, to make a wretch of the most sincere religious person, to take even our godly obedience- even our obedience– and twist it to ungodly ends.

Paul saves the worst for last. The Power of Sin is so insidious that the biggest threat to your soul…is you.

     Show of hands-

     Heritage Academy’s Principal, David Hobbs- how many of you think that he heard about Maddi Runkles’ pregnancy and said to himself “I think I’m going to shame and stigmatize a student today.”

Do you think Principal David Hobbs woke up one morning and said to himself “I think I’d like to drag my school’s reputation through the mud, make its leaders look like hypocrites, and make our religion look ridiculous and shallow.”

Do you think he and his school board members put their heads together and chose to be the bad guys in the story?

If your reaction to this newspaper story is to villainize the principal and the school board members as stigmatizing, self-righteous, slut-shaming sexists, if your immediate impulse is to judge them, then you’re not hearing the Apostle Paul today.

     It’s only in comic books that villains choose to be villains.

And only in comic books do the villains know they are villains from the get-go.

     The rest of us, St. Paul says, we set out to serve the Good.

We set out to serve God.

And only later discover ourselves to be serving his Enemy.

By all accounts Principal David Hobbs is a much experienced and much more beloved educator.

He and the school board reached their decision to discipline Maddi only after “much prayer and scripture-study and spiritual discernment.”  In an interview, Principal Hobbs said:  “We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there is no accountability.” 

And guess what? He’s right.

Forgiveness is not the opposite of accountability; in fact, forgiveness without accountability is what the Church calls cheap grace.

In that same interview, Principal Hobbs explained: “We teach our students about the beauty of marriage and that sex inside marriage is what Christians believe God desires for marriage and is one of the attributes that makes it beautiful.” 

Again, he’s right. That is what the Church teaches, what all Christian traditions teach.

     The good that David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board pursued is a godly good.

     And yet- and yet…through them…

As Kristen Hawkins, President of Students for Life, said to the Washington Post:

     “What this school is doing in advocating for Christian morality is the antithesis of being Christian.”

What they’ve done is the antithesis of what they sought to do.

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it: “Sin, seizing an opportunity in their Religion, deceived them and through them…” 

Maddi Runkles and Heritage Academy Christian School- that’s just one small story ripped from the newspaper.

Never mind what Karl Barth said, you don’t need the New York Times. 

     Just think about your own daily domestic destruction- we do the most damage to the people we love most and, most often, the damage we do we do in trying to do them good.

Or rather, we don’t do them damage.

But through us…through us…

The Power that has set up a base of operations within us…

Can pervert even our best and most faithful and loving intentions.

——————-

    Christians like Principal David Hobbs, Christians like the school board members at Heritage Academy, Christians like Maddi Runkle’s slut-shaming friends- they’re all the kinds of Christians who make Non-Christians write off Christianity.

Let’s face it-

That’s how Maddi’s story made it into outlets like the New York Times; it’s a salacious story that undermines Christianity in the public eye.

But frankly, I’m sick and tired of people who try to dismiss Christianity because every Sunday Christians like you are just as petty and racist and passive aggressive and sexist and corrupt and apathetic and hypocritical and greedy as everyone else.

Really, Christians like Principal David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board members and the straight A, born again slut-shamers…

Imperfect and immoral and hypocritical Christians like you-

You’re not an argument against Christianity

You’re the best argument for Christianity.

Because if St. Paul is right

If the Power of Sin is so insidious it can pervert even the best of our piety

Twist our most godly acts to ungodly ends

Then that means absolutely NO ONE

No one can claim that they do not need Jesus Christ.

If the Power of Sin is such that it can turn God’s saints into unwitting servants of God’s Enemy, if even the best of us cannot be good, then nothing you do can be relied upon to make you right with God, to rectify the balance sheet of your life, to justify you before the judgement of God.

If Paul is right about the Power of Sin, then nothing you do- not your piety or your prayers, not your religion or your resume, not your good deeds or your good name, not your charity or your character or your career or your church attendance, not your beliefs or your bible study- nothing you do can be relied upon to justify you before God because in all of it, Paul says, you could just as likely be serving God’s Enemy.

If Paul is right, if the Power of Sin is such that it can pervert what we do for  God for the Enemy’s own ends, then we can never trust what we have done.

We can never trust what we have done to justify us.

We can only ever trust what God has done for us.

Imperfect, impatient, petty, immoral, hypocritical Christians- you’re the best argument for Christianity because if the Power of Sin is such that it can corrupt even you then NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE, NOBODY can say that they do not need the justification that God offers us by grace alone in Jesus Christ.

No one-

No one here

And no one who would never be caught dead in here

No one

Religious or Irreligious

Secular or Spiritual

Christian or Non-Christian

Sinner or Supposed Saint

     No one can say they do not need the grace offered in Jesus Christ.

Because no one can say for sure that in serving God…

They haven’t actually been serving Another instead.

The fact is- you don’t need to believe Paul.

The truth of it is all over the newspaper every day.

We can never be certain which Lord we’re really serving.

Which makes you- me- the perfect argument not against the Gospel but for it. Because the Gospel message is that no matter what you have done, because of what Christ has done, regardless of what Lord you have served, our Lord declares you in the right. As a gift.

That’s good news.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Doug Powe recently stepped into a new role as the director of the Lewis Center at Wesley Theological Seminary. In this episode, we catch up with Dr. Powe to talk about urban theology and ways churches can rally together in times where most UM churches are trying to brace for what is to come.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got a cross-over 4th of July podcast with Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. 

Stay tuned.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Podcast partner Teer Hardy and I were guests on Tripp Fuller‘s Home-Brewed Christianity Podcast recently to talk about Patriotism, Idolatry, and Allegiance to Christ our Lord.

Tripp needed some members of the Hauerwas Mafia so obviously he called us.

Check it out here.

 

 

 

Freedom is Free

Jason Micheli —  July 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

Jesus Christ, the Predestined One, is the only fully free human being.

Christ is so liberated as to free others from their captivities and deliver them into the divine freedom we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For God to be free is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

Likewise, as creatures made in this God’s image, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for’ others NOT freedom ‘from’ external constraint or obligation to others.

Liberty is not independence but rightly ordererd dependence on God.

We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ that is God, in which we all move and live and have our being.

We’re free in that we share in Christ’s freedom by our baptism and through our faith.

That freedom is freedom in Christ and, like Christ, is freedom for others reminds us that how normally think of the word ‘free’ (to have a will independent of any other agent) involes a false, idolatrous notion of God, for it pictures a god who inhabits the universe, existing alongside creatures, sometimes interfering with their lives and other times no, leaving them alone to be ‘free.’

Yet everything that exists exists- at every moment of its existence- because of the creative act of God.

Nothing that is can be except because of God, including our free spontaneous choices.

God is the Source of our free actions; therefore, there is no such thing as a human action independent of God. Our free acts are also, part and parcel, God’s creative acts. This does not constrain us; it is by them that we are ourselves.

Free will then cannot mean our acting apart from or independent of God acting upon us. Rather, like Christ, freedom means fully cooperating with the action of God.

Freedom is embracing grace, the free gift of God in Christ. As the Apostle Paul says, we are most free in slavery and conformity to Jesus Christ.

     My colleague Karla Kincannon lost her Dad late Saturday morning. I filled in for her at the last minute, continuing our summer series in Romans with 8.32-39.

I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Caesar not only knew how to dig a sewer, pitch an aqueduct, and make a killer salad, Caesar knew better than most of you the fundamental claim of Christianity.

Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Caesar of his day, the Roman Emperor Trajan.

In the letter Pliny sought to offer explanation to Caesar for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he had encountered. These people called Christians.

Some of these Christians Pliny punished.

Some he tortured and executed.

Still others, those who were Roman citizens, like Paul, he transferred back to Rome.

But not every Christian kept the faith. Not a few offered to go cold turkey and give up the faith in the face of persecution. What about them?

What did Pliny do with them? What did Rome require of them?

————————

     You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.

To prove to Caesar that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense- in other words, a sacrifice of worship- before a statue of the Emperor.

And while you did so, before the image of the Emperor, you needed to confess.

To profess: “Caesar is Lord.”

And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renunciants to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private.

Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession.

Pliny didn’t invite them to close their eyes, bow their heads, and raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar in their hearts.

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

    What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to it.

Pliny saw with cold clarity what many Christians today miss:

that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as sovereign Lord is not only the climax of what God has done in cross and resurrection, confessing Jesus Christ is Lord is also the fundamental claim of Christianity.

So it’s not just roads and sewers and salads Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding:

The core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

What Rome required for Christians to exit their faith is exactly what St. Paul says is required for Christians to enter it.

Two chapters later in his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord…you will be saved” (10.9-10).

And the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means, literally: “a public declaration of allegiance.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say If you confess that Jesus fulfills the promise to Abraham, then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God in the flesh then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as your Substitute. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as Sacrifice, Savior, Son of Man, or Son of God.

Paul gives an altogether different kind of altar call.

When it comes to salvation, Paul focuses squarely on a single, specific confession: the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Because, that’s the chapter in the Gospel story we now occupy.

That’s the point in the Apostles Creed where we all live. The incarnation and the crucifixion, the resurrection and our reconciliation to God- those are all past perfect events.

But right now, present-tense, Jesus sits at the right hand of God and to him the Father has given dominion over the earth.

He is. 

     Now. Lord.

     “If you confess…

“If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord…then you will be saved” Paul says.

Rome helps us see that Christianity is about choosing.

Choosing between rival claims upon us.

If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is Lord was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then the logic follows:

to repent and confess that Jesus is Lord was to reject and condemn other lords.

And Pliny points out, you cannot offer allegiance in a vacuum.

To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Like we rehearse in baptism, affirmation is always a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes other powers contending and vying for your loyalty.

The word allegiance is unintelligible without an enemy.

     If God is for us, who is against us? Who will bring any charge against us? Who will condemn? Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?

     No matter how you’re accustomed to hearing this crescendo in Romans 8, Paul’s not asking rhetorical questions. It’s more like a fill-in-the-blank. The Apostle Paul has already supplied you with the answers.

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

Come on, that’s not even a Tuesday crossword kind of question.

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

The Power of Sin, that’s who.

Sin with a capital S, an alien, enslaving Power, whose power, Paul has already told us, we are all under and from whom not one of us is able to free ourselves.

    Who will bring any charge against us? Who is to condemn us? 

Again, they’re not rhetorical questions. The answer is obvious to anyone who’s been listening to Paul.

The Law will bring charges against us. Or, if it’s easier to understand, instead of Law call it Scripture or Religion. Scripture will condemn us.

Religion, the Law, which, Paul has already told us, the Power of Sin has hijacked and now wields like a weapon against us, so that now the very gift God gave to make us righteous only indicts us, all of us- all for short- as unrighteousness, indicts us, even, as ungodly.

    Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? 

The answer, obvious to anyone who’s been following Paul’s argument thus far: Death.

Death will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Death with a capital D, a Power, Paul says, that from Adam onward advanced through all the world like an invading army.

Death with a capital D, a Power that Paul makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, both of which, Paul reveals at the end of his letter, refer to the Power of Satan, whom Paul calls at the end of his summary of the Gospel the Last Enemy.

“For Christ our Lord must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15

     Who is against? Who will condemn us?  Who will separate us?

They’re not rhetorical questions.

The very reason Paul testifies that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers in the world at work against us to do just that.

The Power of Sin. The Power of Death. The Law.

     All of whom- pay attention now- Paul personifies as reigning monarchs, as exercising dominion, as lords.

Kurios.

The same word Paul uses when he says: “If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as kurios…then you will be saved” Paul says.

————————

     Pliny understood that to pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord was to be against another lord, that to accept Jesus’s Lordship was to reject another’s.

But Pliny did not understand what Paul saw.

Caesar, Rome- they’re manifestations of a bigger, more cosmic enemy contending against God to separate us- indeed all of creation- from God.

Here at the end of chapter 8, after Paul has been speaking of life in the Spirit and the freedom we have in Christ, after Paul has led you to believe all this talk of the Power of Sin and the Power of Death is behind you-

Here at the end of Romans chapter 8 Paul doubles back again.

But this time spins it out onto a wider horizon, naming the circumstances where the lords of Sin and Death manifest themselves in our world:

Hardship

Injustice

Persecution

Famine

Nakedness

War

Paul asks ‘Can these separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?’ because Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen- they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death work to do just that.

Separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Because it’s easy to look at Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and become disillusioned.

It’s easy to look at unending war in Afghanistan and terror in Europe and another shooting- this time in Little Rock- the opiod epidemic, hunger in school kids not two miles from here, homelessness no further, the Washington Nationals Bullpen.

     Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War-

They are the ‘statues of Caesar’ before whom a Power who is not God would us bow in allegiance.

Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen, Paul says- instead they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death tempt us to break faith.

To break allegiance. To become loyal to them.      On Thursday, I went with my good friend Brian Stolarz, a member here at Aldersgate, to the steps of the Supreme Court for a teach-in against the death penalty.

There I listened to Brian agains the story he’s told here of getting an innocent man, a mentally handicapped man, a black mentally handicapped man, it usually goes without saying, off of death row.

There was a crowd of exonerees gathered there in front of the Supreme Court with stories similar to Brian’s, stories of persecution and racism.

There was a petition passed around to stay the execution this coming week in Virginia of a mentally ill man.

It’s hard to go to an event like that, where the injustice seems rampant and the odds for change seem long indeed, and not feel disillusioned.

Not feel like you’ve pledged allegiance to the wrong Lord.

On Friday, Dennis and I went to Mt. Vernon Hospital to be with Karla Kincannon and her family as Karla’s Dad slowly died.

We talked and we prayed and we kept quiet as Chuck’s wife of 70 years whispered to him and caressed his cheeks and kissed his forehead.

And watching her cry it became obvious what a lie we tell when we call death ‘natural’ or when we try to label a funeral a ‘celebration of life.’

No, that’s a lie.

Paul’s right, Death is an enemy.

The Enemy.

And it surrounds us such that it’s easy to lose heart.

———————

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 33Who will bring any charge against us? It is God who rectifies. 34Who is to condemn? 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If you just stick this passage from Romans 8 onto a Hallmark card, if you just gild it with sentimentally at a memorial service, you completely miss Paul’s point.

As my New Testament teacher at Princeton, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, points out, these verses here in Romans 8 it’s trash-talk.

It’s Paul trash-talking the Powers. It’s Paul talking smack against the Power of Sin.

It’s trash-talk.

Paul widens the horizon to encompass all of creation and there Paul sees all the tragic circumstances in which we live. And he sees behind them not the work of enemies like Caesar or Trajan or Pliny but the Enemy. And against the Enemy, the Power of Sin and Death, Paul musters up as much confidence as he can for his Roman Church and he declares defiantly that God will have the last word.

It’s Paul encouraging allegiance to Christ the Lord in the face of rival lords who would lure away your loyalty.

Because, let’s face, it seems like they’re in charge.

It’s trash-talk.

It’s Paul shaking his fist at the Power of Sin and Death.

It’s Paul talking smack at Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War.

     It’s Paul staring them all down, thumbing his nose, and giving them all the finger.

It’s trash-talk.

None of you- not Death, not Famine, not Racism, not War, not Poverty, not Addiction- has the power to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

“No power has the power like Christ’s power!” Paul says literally in the Greek.

Or, as we might say, you’re going down.

You see, if Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and all the rest- if they’re the ways that Sin and Death seek to lure your loyalty away from Jesus the Lord-

Then that means that to give in to despair or disillusionment, to lose heart, is to give your allegiance to rival lords who have been working against you for that very outcome.

You pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, therefore, not with your head looking up but with your eyes fixed straight ahead at the world as it really is.

And you pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ not with your hand over your heart but with your fist shaking at the sky and your middle finger sticking straight out.

Flipping off the Powers and trash-talking all the other lords who would pull you away from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” in Dallas is following up last Sunday’s worship idolatry “Patriotic Sunday” with a concert at the Kennedy Center this Saturday. I blogged about it here. Along with President Trump, Jeffress will debut the new “praise” song “Making America Great Again.”

Where’s Woody Guthrie when you need him?

‘Pastor’ Jeffress’ golden calf shenanigans this week got me thinking of Monty Python and Pliny, the Roman Governor, in that order.

I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Rome not only knew how to dig a sewer and pitch an aqueduct, they knew better than many Christians today know the fundamental claim of Christianity.

Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia  in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor, Trajan, offering explanation for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he’d encountered called Christians.

Some he punished. Some he tortured and executed. Still others, those who were like Paul, Roman citizens, he transferred back to Rome.

But what about those Christians who, in the face of persecution, offered to cease being a Christian?

You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.

To prove to Roman authorities that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense before a statue of the Emperor while confessing “Caesar is Lord.”

And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renouncing Christians to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private. Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession. Pliny didn’t gather them all together, have them close their eyes and bow their heads, and ask them to raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar.

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

When so many Christians today think being a Christian is about inviting Jesus into their hearts to be a personal Lord and Savior (whatever that means) or having faith in him, and when so many others think it’s primarily about following Jesus’ teachings or, even worse, that it’s about belonging to an institution, Pliny saw that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as present-tense Sovereign Lord was the fundamental claim of Christianity.

What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to their faith.

Christianity, Rome helps us see, is about choosing between rival and irreconcilable claims upon us.

If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is ‘Lord’ was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then it follows that to repent and confess Jesus meant to reject and condemn the another’s lordship.

So it’s not just roads and sewers and medicine and peace, Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding that the core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

And allegiance, Pliny points out for us, cannot be offered in a vacuum. To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Affirmation is a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes an other contending for your loyalty.

Most often defined as faith or belief, the pistis word group in the Greek New Testament can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But, as Matthew Bates argues in his new book, if the stage we occupy in the Creed and Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then the strongest and clearest definition of pistis/faith is allegiance.

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him.

Caesar cared whether his subjects were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not trust so much as allegiance.

Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works,’ a personal Lord and a Cosmic Lord, moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

Imagine what becomes possible when in recasting pistis in terms of allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed makes more obvious what is at stake in the profession:

“I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

It works at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…”

And at the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”

Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.

Or Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who gives allegiance.” 

If faith is a matter of believing in Jesus, then Christians can disagree about the relative importance of racism, immigration, or poverty, dismissing it as ‘political.’

If faith is a matter of allegiance to Jesus, then how we address those issues might be debatable but that they merit our attention is no longer negotiable.

Translating pistis as allegiance just might be the way to make the Christian faith great again.

Stanley Hauerwas asserts that the essence of Christianity is:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bull@#$%.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos then the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, an allegiance that requires a readiness to call BS when we see it.

You do not have to believe in Jesus’ Lordship to know that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

Or, simply working to dilute, confuse, or qualify our allegiance.

Again, witness Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” of Dallas

When the Risen Jesus commissions the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he tells them the way they will manifest his lordship is by baptizing and making disciples of all nations; that is, Jesus commissions to plant churches. The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge.

The ordinary practices Jesus has given us are the ways we stand before all the golden calves, be they statues of Caesar or Robert Jeffress’ civil religion pageantry, and call BS.

My man-crush muse David Bentley Hart asked to return to the podcast so he could get some gripes off his chest about the new president, critics of Pope Francis, and the role Christianity in the public square. DBH’s essay on Donald Trump and the Devil which I quote at the beginning of this episode can be found here.

If you don’t know already from the blog, David Bentley Hart was my first theology teacher when I was a first year undergrad at UVA and a relatively new Christian. He is the author of significant books such as the Beauty of the Infinite, the Doors of the Sea, and the Experience of God.

Be on the lookout for the second part of this conversation where David discusses his forthcoming translation of the New Translation and what he learned by going back to the Greek text without the presumptions modern translations have given him.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got a cross-over 4th of July podcast with Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. 

Stay tuned.

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If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

And here I caught flack over bringing a goat into a worship service. Dr. Robert Jeffress somehow managed to shoot off fireworks in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Then again, to call it a sanctuary misleads, for it’s evidently not the God of Jesus Christ First Baptist “Church” worships. At the very least, Jeffress isn’t monogamous.

This past Sunday Jeffress’ ‘church’ celebrated Patriotic Sunday, a display of devotion to an idol that could make the golden calf a jealous god.

Many Christians wrestle with whether sanctuaries should have flags in them all as the primary belonging of the baptized is to the Body of Christ to whom by faith we pledge our ultimate allegiance.

For Patriotic Sunday, First Baptist ‘Church’ handed worshippers flags to wave during the service. Fire works shot up from the floor. Flags festooned the walls and, on the altar wall- you know, where a freaking cross might go, the presidential seal.

Baptists like Jeffress often seem obsessed with whatever # of the 613 commandments is the levitical stipulation against same-sex intercourse, which is ironic given that they broke the first and most important commandment with an abandon that would’ve made the golden calf jealous.

Consider Jeffress so prioritized this expression of idolatry that First Baptist celebrated Patriotic Sunday not on the Sunday of Fourth of July weekend (when few attend worship) but on the Sunday before the long weekend.

Most Christians, even those who have little problem with a flag as part of the furniture in the sanctuary, aren’t as promiscuous in their fidelity as Jeffress’ tribe at First Baptist ‘Church’ in Dallas. Still, Independence Day is a delicate time for Christians not because love of home and heritage is contrary to Christian confession but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service (“Freedom isn’t free”) can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.

I’ve experienced enough patriotic liturgies at baseball games to bet the house that many in Jeffress’ house of ‘worship’ last Sunday were crying sincere tears. I’m sure it was a profound and moving religious experience for them. That’s the freaking problem.

As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger of patriotism for Christians: it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.

Like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.

Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.

If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.

Except

People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

Why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?

How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?

It’s just this kind of equivocation that produces a ‘church’ like Jeffress’ First Baptist in Dallas and makes possible an idolatrous display like Patriotic Sunday.

It’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for Christians that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free (past perfect tense) from the present evil aeon” (present tense).

Paul uses the language of time all the time.

According to Paul, the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.

Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation. Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time: the New Aeon inaugurated by Jesus Christ.

No wonder he didn’t celebrate Patriotic Sunday on the 4h of July weekend.

Dr. Jeffress doesn’t seem to know what time it is.

He pulled his earbuds out.

He was working out on the crotch machine. You know the piece of equipment. The one where you exercise your thighs by pushing in and out like the levers of a pinball machine; the one that appears designed for no other purpose than to equip the exerciser for feats of ecstatic prowess.

“I was just listening to your sermon from Sunday.”

‘You can listen to sermons while you work out?’ I said.

You listen to my voice while you’re sex-ercising?! I thought.

‘Yeah, I listen to you guys’ sermons every week when I come here.’

‘It’s not repetitive, hearing it all over again a second time?’

‘Repetitive?’ he asked confused. He added another 10 lbs and started a second set on the crotch machine, and then my assumption about his Sunday attendance washed over his face, “No, I haven’t been to Sunday Church in forever. Just so busy, you know? Work. Kids. Soccer and Lacrosse.’

He closed his eyes and, in the words of Salt N’ Peppa, pushed it real good. ‘That’s why the podcast and the online giving are so great. I can get the message whenever wherever I am and I don’t need the offering plate to make my contribution.’

‘That’s great’ I said to him.

‘That’s not great’ I thought in the same instant and walked off to the locker room for what became a long sobering shower.

In fact, I run into people like him all the time. At the grocery and the pool and the barber shop. Even the chemo ward. In the checkout aisle and in the mens room at the local pizza dive, people tell me they listened to my sermon on their phone.

The numbers bear out their testimony. In my 12 years in this parish, total worship attendance has remained stable at around 600 per Sunday; however, in that time frequency of worship attendance has declined precipitously. The average worshipper now attends on Sunday morning only twice a month, every other Sunday. This trend is perhaps the most inclusive attribute of our congregation as it cuts across every age and demographic. It’s not just the soccer moms and little league dads skipping Sunday am. It’s the empty nesters too who have over the last decade decided to snuggle up in that nest and sleep in on Sundays.

The Google Analytics confirm what I see from the altar. By the following sabbath, the MP3 downloads of my Sunday sermon will be double compared to the people who listened to it live. And, I can tell from Google’s creepy stats, many in this diaspora of sermon downloaders live right here in my city.

If ‘online community’ is even an intelligibly Christian category- and I’m not convinced- ours exceeds those who gather on Sunday morning.

The factor is even larger for those church folks who interact with me through this blog; meanwhile, every season yields a greater percentage of our operating budget given not in the brass plate but from the dropdown menu on our church website.

The upside in all of this, obviously, is that stable total attendance with decreased frequency in attendance means more total people are worshipping with us. It means people who would never join a bible study will email me a question about a blog post or a podcast. It means my church’s cash flow is healthier in the lean summer months the more we don’t need to rely on the plate offering.

So, there is upside.

But what sent me slinking off into the locker room was the gut check realization that the downside is real too.

You can download my sermons from your phone. For free. In less than 3 seconds. With DC traffic, you can check off the sermon on your To Do list on the way to the store. All alone in your car.

I wonder- in the zeal to create online constituencies, nurture e-engagement, and offer convenience and constant connection have we let slip a more fundamental claim upon us?

Have we made too easy for people NOT to show up for Sunday worship and, in making it too easy not to show up, have we forgotten that we previously asked them to vow to do just that?

In the United Methodist Church, the first vow the baptized make when joining the local expression of the Body of Christ is their presence. They covenant to show up. They promise to be present for the purpose of praise.

Not to blunt the matter, Christians have a holy and sacred obligation to participate in the community’s worship and glorification of God. Consider our fascination with the Social Principles. United Methodists do not hesitate to use the language of duty when it comes to ethical issues so why are reticent to speak of duty when it comes to the liturgical?

Our reticence is even more problematic when you recall that for Christians the ethical and the liturgical are not two distinct, exclusive, or complementary forms of faithfulness. Rather the one produces the other. The one is the necessary condition for the possibility of the other. What gets lost about the Apostle Paul’s diatribe in Romans 1 is his larger point that false worship of God produces vices while right worship of God forms us in the virtues such that repentance of our vices is possible.

Worship of the true and living God, therefore, is the only condition for right conduct.

The liturgical act makes possible, over time, the ethical act. It produces in us the habits that promise the possibility of becoming virtue. In other words, the commitment to show up and worship is the necessary condition for the creation of a people who can live out the social principles. As Paul says elsewhere in Romans, it’s through the Gospel proclamation that God rectifies us, puts us to rights.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism echoes Paul’s point about the formative necessity of worship. The very first article of the catechism answers that the chief end of man is “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 

Chief end.

As in, telos.

Worship is where we discover and live into the end for which God has made us and towards which our lives, properly ordered, are directed. To make it plain, worship is where we learn how to be human.

The God you connect with in nature or on the golf course on Sunday morning never will be the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Such a God will not insist you confess your trespasses every week nor is it likely the God of the golf course will command you to do something as counterintuitive as loving your enemies.

The insufficient ‘God of creation’ produces insufficient creatures.

Only in the context of gathered worship does the Living God speak.

Why would we be shy about insisting that Christians have a duty and obligation to listen? As the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.

In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.

But-

If it’s just a preached word in your earbuds absent the reception of the listening community, then it might be a good talk or a helpful teaching or an inspiring story about something God said but it is not a Word God says.

Sermons in the context of worship are live events not simply because the preacher is preaching in the moment but because this is the event in which the Living God speaks.

Here’s what’s scary in a Post-Christian context where we’re desperate for any level engagement from people:

Without the moral formation alone made possible by liturgical formation the Christians who populate that Post-Christian landscape will never have sufficient characters to be compelling advertisements for the Gospel.

 

The only consistent thing on this podcast has been the soulful voice of Clay Mottley.

I’ve been good friends with Clay Mottley since O.J. was speeding down the highway in his white Ford Bronco. He’s a sensitive and caring friend, but just as important he’s a singular songwriter. Without cliche, simple or forced rhymes, Clay captures the power and the seduction of perfect pop songs.

Clay agreed to an NPR All Songs Considered format where he’d be interviewed AND play/sing whatever occurred to us in the moment.

Including, Cancer is Funny: The Song.

And a depressing version of the Beatles’ Help.

He’s been letting us use his music gratis on the podcast so we thought it would be appropriate that he was our special guest for the #100 Interview.

#100 Interviews?!

WTF.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got at least 3 maybe more conversations with David Bentley Hart.

We’ve got Lisa Sharon Harper from Sojourners.

We’ve Emma Green the Religion Writer at Atlantic Magazine.

We’ve got the one and only Walter Brueggemann.

Plus my minion intern interviewing our pod-friend Tripp Fuller. Stay tuned.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Here then is Clay.

For the love of God, go over to his website and buy some music.