Thomas McKenzie is a church-planting Anglican priest at Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s also the author of the Anglican Way and a recent Lenten devotional on the Desert Fathers. He also knows, as few seem to know, that Battlestar Galactica is a far superior show to Game of Thrones.

Check out the video we mention in the show.

 

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If you’re in the Roanoke, Va area come on out for our Live Pubcast on Wednesday, June 19 at Ballast Brewing. Our theme will be “Incompatible” and our guests will be Jeff and Steve Mullinix, a married gay clergy couple from Ohio.

No, we’re not talking about Westeros and Winterfell. On the heels of Holy Week, Johanna brings her questions, which are your questions, about how Grace invites us to think of the antagonists in scripture (and in our own lives).

Help support the podcast!

Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on “Support the Show” to become a patron for peanuts.

 

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued this weekend with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21.

“What do you think he’ll do when he comes back?” Jesus asks on the eve of his own destruction. 

“When he comes back, what do you think he’ll do?”

And they said to him: “When he comes back (when he comes back to judge the quick and the dead) he will put those wretches to a miserable death.” 

“What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do when he returns?” 

Here’s another question—

Since today is the fifth Sunday in Eastertide, here’s a resurrection question for you. 

Why is the very first reaction to the Easter news fear? 

Across all four Gospels, the immediate response to the news Christ is Risen isn’t Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia! It’s alarm and abject terror. Why?

Mark and Matthew, Luke and John— none of them tell the Easter story in the same way.

Except for the fear.

Fear is the feature Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree upon. 

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear. The women, come to anoint the body, run away, terrified. The disciples lock the door of the upper room and cower in the corner. 

When he comes back, everyone— they’re white-knuckled terrified. 

Just what do they think he’ll do?

—————————————

      Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in the Book of Daniel, chapter twelve. 

     And the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection: 

“Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall be raised up, the righteous to everlasting life, and the unrighteous to everlasting shame and contempt.”

It’s a double resurrection the Bible anticipates. A resurrection to reward, or a resurrection to punishment.Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God in God’s Kingdom. 

But those who’ve committed suffering by their sins— they might be on top now in this life, but one day the first will be last. God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to its everlasting opposite.

The “good” news of resurrection in the Book of Daniel is predicated entirely upon your goodness. 

Resurrection was not about yellow peeps and metaphors for springtime renewal; resurrection was God coming back with a list of who’d been naughty and who’d been nice in order to mete out to each according to what they deserved. 

Resurrection wasn’t about butterflies. Resurrection was about the justice owed to the righteous and the judgment owed to sinners. In the only Bible the disciples knew, the Old Testament, resurrection was good news. If you were good. If you weren’t, if you were wicked, resurrection was the first day of a miserable and wretched fate. 

———————-

They all respond to the Easter news with fear not because they fail to understand resurrection but exactly because they do understand. 

They know their Bible— better than you. They knew resurrection was good news or godawful news depending on where you fell according to the righteousness equation. And they know that as God’s elect People in the world God had called them, Israel, to be tenants of God’s vineyard. 

And they know all too well that when God set them apart as his peculiar, pilgrim People, when God gave to them the Law on Mt. Sinai, they promised God not just their effort or their obedience but perfection. 

“All of this we will do and more,” they swore at Sinai, “we will be 

perfect before the Law as our Father in heaven is perfect.” 

When they weren’t—

When they failed to return God’s love with love of their own, when they chose to be like the other nations instead of a light to the nations, God sent them his messengers to call Abraham’s children back to the righteous life owed to God as God’s chosen People. 

First, God sent them prophets. 

And what did the People who’d promised him perfection do the prophets?

Zechariah, who told them that God would redistribute their wealth for the sake of the poor, was killed by the King of Judah on the altar of the Temple. Jeremiah criticized them for turning a deaf ear to lies and making an idol of their politics. They shut him up by stoning him to death. And Isaiah was sawn in two near the pool of Siloam for speaking truth to power. “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah said, “I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”

They killed the prophets— and those are just three examples.

So next this God of second and third and sixth chances, he sends them still another. 

A final prophet. 

And this messenger makes a way in the wilderness. And he baptizes in the Jordan with a baptism of repentance, and he calls God’s wicked tenants a brood of vipers. 

Wearing camel-hair, he hollers about God’s axe lying near, but in the end he’s the one on whom the blade falls. A king of the Jews serves his head on a platter as a party gag.

Yet this God is not a Lord of ledgers but a Father of compassion. 

After he sends his People prophets, after he sends them John the Baptist (it makes no sense at all) God sends them his only-begotten Son. The Kingdom of God comes in the flesh and our response is my will be done.  God’s People say “We have no king but Caesar.” And then they scream “Crucify him!”

His own disciples—

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail. They’d let the wicked world sin all its sins into him. 

And then they left him forsaken on a cross. 

———————-

When the owner comes back— and the word Jesus uses there is kyrios, meaning Lord— when the Lord comes back, what do you think he’ll do?

Everyone in the Easter story responds to the news that Jesus is longer dead with dread because they expect the Lord to put wretches like them to a miserable death.

For the Bible tells them so. They lock the doors. They run and hide. They faint and cower because, according to scripture, resurrection for sinners means judgment. They have every reason to expect the Lord who’s come back to condemn them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me. I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink. I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending me a stranger.

If Jesus was risen indeed, then there weren’t any alleluias for them. Resurrection could only mean one awful thing for wicked tenants like them. 

But no—

When he comes back, he doesn’t pay them the wages their sins had earned. He doesn’t put wretches like them to a miserable death. The Lord who’d sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, slips past their locked doors and he doesn’t give them payback. He gives them pardon. 

“Peace,” he says. 

When he comes back, he doesn’t give them what Daniel promised they have coming to them, everlasting punishment. No, he gives them his Holy Spirit that he had promised would come to them. 

He gives them his Spirit. 

He gives them his pardon. 

And he gives to them the ministry of pardon. “Wherever you forgive the sins— any sins— of anyone, their sins are forgiven,” Jesus commissions them. 

Even Peter, who’d lied and denied the Lord thrice, when he comes back to wretched Peter, he doesn’t indict Peter and condemn him. He invites Peter to confess his love for him. 

Three times. 

A do-over:

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

When he comes back to his wicked tenants…

Wait—

WHERE’S THE BRIMSTONE?

Resurrection is supposed to be a double-edged sword. Resurrection is about reward and punishment. Resurrection is about the justification of the righteous and the judgment of the unrighteous. 

The Bible tells them so— that’s why they’re terrified. 

But when the Lord returns to his vineyard, his tenants do not receive what they deserve. 

They receive what only he deserves.

As though, resurrection isn’t a double-edged sword so much as an exchange.

———————-

Eight years ago exactly to the day, I was in Old Town Alexandria shopping for a black tie to wear for the funeral of a boy I was burying. He’d been a little younger than my youngest boy is now. In a closet filled with Lego pieces and action figures, he’d done it himself with a fake leather belt bought at Target. 

It was a couple of days before the day that Harold Camping, a huckster preacher and president of Family Christian Radio, had predicted the world would end, in judgment and fury, the twenty-first of May. 

Standing on the corner of King Street, blocking my path, were four or five of Camping’s disciples. A couple of the “evangelists” of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of God’s wrath and damnation. 

I remember one image— an image borrowed from the Book of Daniel— was of an awful-looking lion with scars on its paws. At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women and children, looking terrified to be caught in their sins by Christ come back.

A young twenty-something man tried to hand me a tract. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us. He gave me a syrupy smile, and said, “Did you know the wicked world is going to end on May 21? The Lord is coming back in just two days. What do you think he’ll do when he returns? To sinners?” 

Then he started talking about the end of the world. I flipped through his brochure.  

“Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots,” I mumbled. 

“What’s that?” he asked. 

“Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.”

Now, I’m still new here at Annandale United Methodist Church. Maybe you don’t yet know. Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm. Sometimes, my sarcasm is of the abrasive varietal. But that day, the day before I had to bury that boy who’d died by his own foolish hand, what I felt rising in me was more like anger. 

Because evangel in scripture means literally good freaking news.

And these “evangelists” weren’t dishing out anything of the sort.

“Lemme ask you something,” I said, “since you seem to know your Bible.”

The evangelist smiled and nodded. He looked electrified to be, all of a sudden, useful. 

“Doesn’t the Bible call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world?” I asked, feigning naïveté. 

He nodded a sanctimonious grin. 

“Well then, which ones did he miss?” 

He looked confused, as shoppers pushed past us to get to the bus stop. 

“Sins,” I pressed, “which sins did Jesus miss?” 

I’d raised my voice now, my pretense falling away and my righteous anger welling up in the teardrops at the corner of my eyes. “Did Jesus take away all the sins of the world, or did he only get some of them?” 

No sooner had he started to mouth the word “all” than I was back down his throat. 

“Really?! Because from your signs and pamphlets, it sure as hell looks like Jesus missed a whole lot of sins, that he’s none too pleased with folks who can’t get their act together.” 

He started to give me a patronizing chuckle, so I pressed him. 

“And, wait a minute, didn’t Jesus say, whilst dying for the sins of the whole world, ‘It is finished?’ Isn’t that, like, red-letter?”

He nodded and looked over my head to his supervisor behind me. I was shouting now. 

“And doesn’t it say, too, that in Jesus God has chosen all of us from before the foundation of the world?” 

“I think so,” he said. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, damn straight it does,” I hollered. “Ephesians, and, looking at you all with your bullhorns and pictures of lions and dragons and brimstone and judgment, I’m just wondering how, if God’s chosen us all in Christ from before the beginning of everything, you think so many of us with our puny, pathetic, run-of-the-mill sins—which have all been taken away already—can gum up God’s plan?”

“Riddle me that,” I shouted.

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic. 

“I’m not sure you understand how serious this is, sir,” he said to me. 

“Oh, I got it, all right.”

He suddenly looked like he was trying to remember the safe word. 

“I get how serious it is,” I said, “I just think it’s you who doesn’t take it seriously, not enough apparently to take Jesus at his word that when he comes back he’ll come back already bearing every sin we’ve ever sinned in his crucified and risen body. The Judge has been judged in our place. It’s not about reward and punishment anymore. It’s about promise. The Gospel promise that he has gotten what we all deserve and we’re given gratis what he alone deserves.”

You wonder why I repeat myself Sunday after Sunday—

It’s because this “evangelist,” this preacher, just stared at me like he’d never the Gospel before. He hadn’t.

“The only basis on which God judges now is not our works— not our behavior, good or bad (thank God)— but our belief.  Our faith. The only basis on which he judges now is on our simple trust that he’s gotten out of the judgment game. It’s in your Bible, man: “There is therefore now no judgment for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

“It’s “There is therefore now no condemnation not no judgment.”” he tried to correct me.  

“It’s the same word,” I said. “Krima. Judgment. Condemnation. Krima. Same word. And when St. Paul says in Christ Jesus, he’s talking not about behavior but about baptism.”

It was right about then I became aware that I was creating a scene.

But I didn’t care.

Standing there, needing to buy a necktie I could wear beside a four-foot coffin for a boy I’d baptized, let’s just say, it was not an academic debate.

———————-

“When the owner of the vineyard comes back, what do you think he’ll do to those wicked tenants? And they said to Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

And Jesus doesn’t respond: WRONG ANSWER.

Pay attention, this is important.

Jesus tells all of his parables of judgment in the space of four days before his crucifixion—

that’s the interpretative key to them. 

We’re supposed to read the parables of judgment as pointers to the cross. 

You see, it’s not that after three years of preaching about God’s bargain free grace and bottomless forgiveness Jesus suddenly gave up and decided to preach instead like John the Baptist. The Gospel is not a bait and switch. Jesus doesn’t take away with these parables of judgment the grace he already gave with his left-hand. 

The judgment at the center of these dark parables is the cross. 

When you read them in light of the cross, you discover that the parables of judgment, every bit as much as that one about the father and the fatted calf, are Gospel not Law. 

The cross is our judgment— Jesus already told you that at the very beginning of the Gospel: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness.” 

He’s talking about the cross. 

It’s likewise with Paul. “God made Jesus to be our wickedness,” Paul writes, “…and through the cross God put to death— krima’d— the enmity between humanity and God.” 

The cross is our judgment. 

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” they tell Jesus. 

And Jesus doesn’t correct them or contradict them because they’re right. We’re all put to death in him. “Do you not know,” the Bible promises, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…we have been buried with him by baptism into his death for sins so that we might be raised up with him.” 

That promise is no different than the promise with which Jesus ends the parable today. 

Our judgment on the cross is the cornerstone of God’s new creation.

All that the world has to do now to escape judgment is to trust that in Jesus Christ you’ve already escaped it. 

That’s it. 

And that’s red-letter: “God the Father judges no one,” Jesus says, “God has given over all judgment to the Son…and he who trusts in him is not judged.” 

Let me make it plain.

GOD’S NOT MAD AT YOU. 

Even if God should be.

God’s forgiven you for every single thing— and that thing too you’re now thinking about in your head.

God’s not mad at you.

It doesn’t matter who you are. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve left undone. 

On account of Jesus Christ— propterChristum, the first Protestants liked to say— God literally doesn’t give a damn. 

After Jesus Christ announces from his cross “It is finished,” there is now— for those who trust it— nothing but the “blessed silence of his uncondemnation.” 

No matter who you are or what you’ve done. 

There is no case against you. There is no indictment filed. There is no evidence locked away in storage. There’s not even a courtroom for you to exhibit all your good works. 

There is therefore now no judgment.

Because when the Judge came back to his vineyard, he came carrying not a gavel in his hands but nails. He returned wrapped not in a Judge’s robe but naked. 

Forsaken. 

For you. 

What Jesus says at the end of this parable is dead on— the indiscriminate acceptance of his uncondemnation, it crushes those of us who persist in our stubborn belief that God’s judgment is about rewarding the rewardable. 

God’s free grace isn’t just a stumbling block to those of us who insist on supposing that being well-behaved is more important to God than just trusting his forgiveness. 

It breaks people like us to pieces. 

It kills people like us who’d prefer to think of ourselves as good than loved. 

In the end, that’s what’s so scary about this parable of judgment. 

You and I— the quick and the dead— we’re slow to believe that all he’s ever wanted was for us to believe. 

 

     

 

In this episode, I talked with Amy Laura Hall of Duke University about her upcoming work on muscular Christianity, her most recent book “Laughing at the Devil,” Julian of Norwich, and our mutual affection for Stan the Man.

Oh, and we also talked about Cowboy Churches (that’s really a thing, I’ve seen one), Cormac McCarthy, and Larry McMurtry. Amy Laura Hall is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University Divinity School. She is the author of Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love; Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction; and Writing Home, With Love: Politics for Neighbors and Naysayers

If you like what we do, do us a solid. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click “Support the Show” and pay it forward.

 

The Gospel lection coming up for this Sunday comes from John 13 where Jesus engages in an enacted parable, washing his disciples’ feet and then dishing out a new commandment on us. Here’s a little reflection on it…

The most high Lord reveals himself to us as the most low.

The night we betray him to a godforsaken death, this son of a carpenter takes off his outer robe. He stoops down on his knees. The fingers that crafted the universe bear callouses. No longer content to paint the cosmos, they wash our feet painted with dirty and stink and sweat.

When Jesus stands up, a bowl of brown water beside him, he says he’s just given us an example.

Of love.

Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel that the two greatest commandments in the Law are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The problem though— the Bible also says that Christ is the end of the Law and its commands, including that bit about loving God and neighbor like we love us.

It’s not that love isn’t important in the New Testament. The apostle Paul tells the Romans that all of the ten commandments are summed up by loving others while St. Peter writes in his own letter that loving others covers a multitude of our sins.

But if Christ is the end of the Law, then is the love commended by Peter and prescribed by Paul the love commanded by the Law? Is it the same love like we love ourselves love?

Notice what Jesus says in John 13, notice exactly how he puts it: “A new command I give you (this is something different). Love one another as I have loved you.”

NOT as you love yourself.

Love one another as I have loved you.

Christ is the end of the commandments, even the greatest commandment.

Christ is the end of a love that need not go further than self-love as the standard.

The old commandments are over and done. Christ has given us a new command, and it’s no wonder Peter didn’t want God washing his feet. The way he has loved us is nothing like the way we love even ourselves. Jesus broke bread with those he knew would betray him with a kiss. Three times he forgave Peter who cheated him on thrice. 

Christ gave his life not for the good but for the ungodly.

The golden rule and all the rest are bygones from a covenant Christ has closed with his cross.

The good news is that Jesus isn’t a liar. He really does give us a burden that is lighter of obligations. The bad news is that the only obligation attached to Jesus’ yoke is what Christians call grace, which is a lot less amazing when you’ve got to give it.

Because, by definition, everyone to whom you give it is undeserving.

Love like this, Jesus says.

The apostle Paul summarizes that sort of love by saying that in Christ God was in the world not counting our trespasses against us. The new command isn’t to remember to love another as we love ourselves; the command of Christ is to love with a love that remembers to forget the sins sinned against us.

The Christian life would be hard enough if the love we talk about when we talk about love was the love of the Law, love with self-love as the standard. Unfortunately, it’s even harder. It’s a love that leaves the ledger book behind— and those ledgers would have plenty of ink spilt in them if we could hold on to them.

Forgive but don’t forget goes the cliche, but for Christians there’s no distinction between the two, for forgiveness just is forgetting— forgetting to count the slights and sins suffered by way of the other.

This is the new law of love Jesus commands.

This is the love into which we’ve been drowned by baptism.

Therefore, there is no other clearer way of imitating the love revealed to us in Jesus Christ than in the divine amnesia you practice, however imperfectly, on others everyday.

This new command of Christ— a love that forgets how to count— henceforth it makes your day-to-day relationships more of a ministry than any soup kitchen or service project.

.

 

To speak words of grace, we must first name the powers and principalities that hold us captive.

The Christian Century asked me to write a long review article on what I thought were the best theology books of the past year. Check it out here.

This coming Sunday’s Gospel lection is from John 10:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

We’ve also recited “thy rod and thy staff” so many times we no longer hear the oddity of Psalm 23 or the offensiveness of it. 

“The Lord is my Shepherd…”

To profess that the Lord is your Shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep. 

A lamb even. 

We’re all so grateful not to be a goat (we presume) that we forget. Lambs are lame. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into valleys. Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd. Sheep need to be led and guided and protected by their shepherd. 

There aren’t any stories, epics, or legends called Dances with Lambs. 

No, sheep are stupid. 

By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves.

To hear that God is your Shepherd is to be told that you are a sheep, and to hear that you are no better than a sheep is offensive for us who rate our worth by our resumes. Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they’re completely useless. 

     Sheep aren’t like other animals. 

     Sheep aren’t like asses. 

Sheep don’t do any work by which they merit their worth.

Sheep don’t bear a burden like mules do. Sheep don’t pull a plow like oxen do. Sheep don’t lead a wagon like horses do. Even goats do work by which they earn their value. Even goats graze down briars and thickets to earn their worth.  

The only real work- if you can call it work- a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice. 

If you measure animals’ worth by the work they perform, sheep are useless and, thus, worthless. Unlike other animals, the value of a lamb is intrinsic to the lamb. In its lamb-ness. It’s worth isn’t in the work it does; it’s worth is in who it is as the creature made it to be. It’s worth is its wool and its meat. 

In Matthew, Jesus spins a yarn about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of 99. We forget how the parable of the lost sheep is Jesus’ way of responding to the disciples’ attempts at elbowing each other out of the way in importance. The parable is his answer to their question “Who is the greatest in the house of the Lord?” 

Notice- 

Jesus doesn’t answer their question about their worth in the Kingdom with an exhortation about the work they must do. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who do the things that Jesus did, those who love their enemies and turn the other cheek and clothe the naked. 

No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who actively accomplishes absolutely nothing. The sheep in Jesus’ story is nothing but the passive recipient of the Shepherd’s finding. The parable is an odd way to answer a question about greatness because you don’t need to be a ranch hand to know that a lost sheep is a dead sheep just as surely as a lost coin is a dead asset. 

How impressive can the House of the Lord be, after all, if the only ticket you need for greatness in it- much less for admission- is your lostness? 

Not only is the parable an odd way to answer a question about worth, the parable is just as offensive as the psalm because the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” (that’s what the header in my Bible calls it) isn’t really about the sheep who gets lost at all. 

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost. 

All the other verbs belong to the Shepherd. 

     The sheep doesn’t search out the flock. 

     The sheep doesn’t scramble out of a thicket and wander back to the fold. 

     The sheep doesn’t even bah-bah-bah until its voice is heard by the Shepherd. 

And once it’s found, the sheep doesn’t even so much as repent of its getting lost. 

We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd. It’s not about the work the sheep does to get itself to a findable place. It’s about the Shepherd’s work of finding.

It’s about the Good Shepherd’s gracious and saving determination to rescue his sheep from death. 

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost, which is to say, the only “work” the sheep does in the parable is to know that, apart from the gracious folly of the Shepherd to find him, death has the last word. 

The Shepherd though gets all the good verbs in the story, including the last ones where the Shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries it back to his house and calls together his friends and his family and his neighbors and, like a fatted-calf-killing Prodigal Father, says: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.” 

As if- it’s our sins and not our goodness, our wretchedness and not our worthwhile work, that most commend us to the grace of God. 

Sheep are strange. 

They can’t carry a Christ into town to shouts of Hosanna. They can’t bear a Samaritan’s friend to safety. The only “work” sheep do is to trust the Shepherd’s voice. 

And as God’s frightened flock in a scary world- that’s our work to do too. 

We’re always the valley of the shadow of Death, and Jesus invites us to trust the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who promises that by his substitution for us God forgets all our sins— all our sins— in the darkness of our graves. 

Trust the Shepherd’s voice when he tells you that his cousin John the Baptist was right: he is the Lamb who bears all our sins away such that in the House of the Lord God remembers our iniquities no more. 

Trust the Shepherd when he promises to you by his cross and his empty grave that in the power of the resurrection he finds us lost to death and he puts us on his shoulders and he carries us back to his friends with rejoicing. 

Trust the Shepherd when he spins these yarns where there’s not a single note of our earning or our merit, not a hint of rewarding the rewardable or saving the salvageable. 

Trust the Shepherd for if its not about our worthiness, there’s absolutely no need for our worry. 

All that is lost will be found because of his gracious folly to raise the dead to new life. 

.

     

     

We started a new sermon series on Jesus’ parables that will take us through the summer. First up, Matthew 18.21-35, the parable of the unforgiving slave.

 I presided over a wedding yesterday here in the sanctuary. The bride and the groom, both of whom were in their sixties, said “I do and when we were all done, I went up to Starbucks to write my sermon. I had my clergy collar still strapped around my neck. I sat down at a little round table with my notes and my Bible, and before I could get very far a woman crept up to me and said: “Um, excuse me Father….could I?”

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me. 

     “Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______” I started to say but she just looked confused. 

     “Never mind” I said. “Sit down.”

     She looked to be somewhere in her fifites. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red. 

     No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts. 

     “Maybe this is a mistake. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…”

     She fussed with the button on her shirt while she rambled, embarrassed. 

     “It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.”

     “Put what down?” I asked. 

     “Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.” She fussed with her hair. 

     “Beginning at the beginning usually works,” I said. 

     “Yeah,” she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head. 

     And then she told it to me. 

     About her husband and their marriage. 

     About his drinking, the years of it. 

     About his lies, the years of it. 

     She told me about how he’s sober now. 

     And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never be paid back what she spent. 

     Then she bit her lip and paused. 

     And so I asked her: “Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’

    “No, I know I ought to forgive him” she said. “Our priest told me years ago —he said I should forgive but not forget.”

“He told you to forgive but not forget?” I asked. 

She nodded.  

“Well, that’s why God gave us the Reformation,” I said under my breath. 

“What was that?” 

“Nevermind— what’s your question then if it’s not about forgiveness?” I asked.

     “I’ve forgiven him— at least, I’ve tried, I’ve told him I have— but…why can’t I just wipe this from my slate and move on?”

And when she said that (“Why can’t I just wipe this from my slate?”) I excused myself and I walked to the restroom and I closed the door and I threw my hands in the air and I shouted: 

“Thank you, Jesus, for, as reliably as Papa John’s, you have delivered 

unto me this perfect anecdote for tomorrow’s parable!” 

Just kidding. 

But without her realizing it, I did tell her about the slave in today’s text, who even before you get to the parable’s grim finale is in a cage he cannot see. 

———————-

When Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. 

     Peter’s a hand-raiser and a rear-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer. 

After all, the Jewish Law commanded God’s people to forgive a wrongdoer three times. Seven times no doubt struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness. Not only does Peter double the amount of forgiveness prescribed by the Law, he adds one, rounding the total to seven. Because God had spoken creation into being in seven days, the number seven was the Jewish number for completeness and perfection. 

Peter might be an idiot, but he’s not stupid. Peter knew seven times— that’s a divine amount of forgiveness. Think about it— seven times:

Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as a for instance. 

     Imagine someone gossips about you. 

And you confront them about it. 

1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. 

Fool me 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

“What’s the limit, Jesus? Where’s the boundary?”

And remember, Matthew 18 is all one scene. 

It’s Jesus’ yarn about the Good Shepherd, who all but abandons the well-behaved ninety-nine to search out the single sheep too stupid to stay with the flock, that prompts Peter’s question and the parable that answers Peter’s question. 

How many times should the lost sheep be sought and brought back, Jesus?

How many fatted calves does the father have to slaughter for his kid?

How many times do we have to forgive, Jesus?

     And Peter suggests drawing the line at seven times. Whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery or synagogue shooters, seven is a whole lot of forgiveness. Probably Peter expected a pat on the back and a gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one. 

Notice what Jesus doesn’t do with Peter’s question. Notice— Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s question with another question. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter “What’d they do?” Jesus doesn’t say “Well, you know, it depends— the forgiveness has to fit the crime. Roseanne Barr and racist tweets, maybe four times forgiveness. But Trysten Terrell at UNC-Charlotte…”

No, Jesus takes it in the other direction: “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times.”

Seventy-seven times— pay attention, now, this is important. 

Jesus didn’t pull that number out of his incarnate keister. 

———————-

By telling Peter seventy-seven times forgiveness for those who sin against you, Jesus hearkens back to the mark of Cain and the sin of all of us in Adam. 

In Genesis 4, after Cain murders his brother Abel, in order to prevent a cyle of bloodshed,  God— in God’s mercy— places a mark on Cain, and God warns humanity that whoever harms Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. They will receive seven times vengeance, God warns. 

Later in Genesis 4, after civilization is founded east of Eden on the blood of Abel, Lamech, Cain’s grandson, murders a man. And in telling his two wives about the murder, Lamech plagiarizes God’s promise for himself and Lamech declares that if anyone should harm Lamech then vengeance will be visited upon them— guess how many times— seventy times. 

If you don’t get this, you won’t get it. 

When Jesus tells Peter he owes another seventy-seven times forgiveness, Jesus is not fixing a boundary, albeit a gracious and superabundant boundary. No, Jesus is saying here that in him there is no limit to God’s forgiveness because his is a pardon powerful to unwind all of our sin as far back as Adam’s original sin. 

Seventy-seven times— he’s not simply raising the ceiling even higher on Peter; he’s saying that there is no floor to God’s grace. Seventy-seven times. God’s forgiveness for you in Christ is bottomless. 

Make no mistake—This is the radicality and the scandal of the Gospel. This is the beating heart of Christianity. 

I know I’ve said this before, but I also know that not everyone who shows up on a Sunay morning is a believer so I’m going to say it again. 

What makes Christianity distinct among the world’s religions is that, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a religion of do. Christianity is not even a religion, for that matter, it’s an announcement— it’s news— that everything has been done. 

And Jesus gives you a hint of that here in his response. Jesus reframes Peter’s question about the limits of the forgiveness we ought to do by alluding to the forgiveness God will do in him. In other words, Jesus takes Peter’s question about the Law (what we ought to do for God) and he answers in terms of Grace (what God has done for us). 

Think about it—

When you make Christianity into a message of do this instead of it has been done, you ignore the trajectory of the parable Jesus tells where it’s your failure to appreciate just how much you’ve been forgiven that produces in you unforgiveness for another. 

The road to hell here in this story is paved not with ill intentions but with amnesia. What damns this slave is not his sin but his forgiven sin getting forgotten. 

“Lord, how much do I have to forgive?” And Jesus responds: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…“ 

As if to say, the very question “How much forgiveness do I have to give out to those who owe me?” reveals you’ve forgotten how much mercy has been given to you.

Ten thousand talents worth. 

The key to this entire text today is in the numbers. 

Seventy-seven times of forgiveness. 

Ten thousand talents of debt.

———————-

As soon as Peter and the disciples heard Jesus say that the Kingdom of God is like a slave— a slave— who owed his king ten thousand talents, they would’ve known instantly that Jesus is taking forgiveness out of the realm of do and recasting it in terms of done.  

In case you gave up Lou Dobbs for Lent and are rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

This slave owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 170,000 years worth of debt. The Kingdom of God is like a slave who owed his king a zillion bitcoin, that’s how Peter and the rest would’ve heard the setup. 

What’s more, ten-thousand was the highest possible number expressible in Greek; it was a synonmyn for infinity.

“What’s the limit to the forgiveness we ought to give, Jesus?”

“There was a king who had a slave,” Jesus says, “and that slave owed that king infinitely more than what Nick Cage owes the IRS.” 

     Ten thousand talents. 

It’s a ridiculous amount he owes his king, which makes the slave’s promise to the king all the more pathetic: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you back everything.” 

I’ll pay you back? To infinity and beyond?

This is what heaven sounds like to God: I’ll make it up to you, God. I’ll do better. I’ll get my act back in the black. Give me another chance, God. Be patient with me. This is what heaven sounds like—a cacophony of our pathetic pleas all of which drown out his promise that a debt we can neither fathom nor repay has been forgiven. 

Look, it’s great that God, as the Bible promises, is patient and slow to anger, but God giving you another chance is not what you need. God’s patience is not what you need. You need pardon. Jesus’ point right at the get-go here in his parable is that God’s patience will not really remedy your ultimate situtation. 

This is why the Church doesn’t charge you admission because of all the outlets in the world only the Church is bold enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Your problem is infinitely bigger than your best self-improvement project. No good deed you do can undo your unpayable debt. Before God, you are like a slave so far in the red it would take a hundred thousand lives to get it AC/DC.  

Or, it would take just one life. 

———————-

Seventy-seven times, ten thousand talents— one life. 

Remember the amount. 

It’s a kingdom’s worth of cash the slave is in hock to the king. So when the king forgives the slave’s debt, the king dies. 

In forgiving his servant, the king forsakes his kingdom— he forsakes everything— because there’s no way the king can dispose the servant’s debt without the king also sacrificing his entire ledger. 

The king’s whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is earned and deserved the king DIES to that life so that his servant can have new one. 

     But notice. 

     After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score?

    No sooner is the slave forgiven and freed than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about three months wages. Not chump change but small potatoes compared to his infinite IOU. 

    He grabs the servant, demands what’s owed to him, and he sends the man to prison, turning a deaf ear— notice— to the very same plea he’d pled to the king: “be patient with me and I will pay back everything…”

How many times do we gotta forgive somebody, Jesus?

     When the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received, the king gives to the slave exactly what the slave wants. 

You want to keep living your life keeping score? Even though I died to score-keeping? Fine, Have it your way. But that way of life— I gotta warn you— it’s torture. 

You see, even before the slave ends up in prison, that slave was already stuck inside a cage he couldn’t see. 

———————-

“Why can’t I just wipe the slate clean and move on?” the woman at Starbucks asked me.

     I sipped my coffee. 

“Look,” I said, “provided you’re willing to be exploited for the purposes of a sermon illustration some day, I’ll give you the goods, straight up, and you won’t even have to pay for the refill on my coffee.”

She smiled and nodded.

“It’s not about wiping your ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the life of ledger-keeping altogether— it’s about dying to it. The ledger is the whole reason you’ve forgiven him but still don’t feel free.”

And I paused, wondering if I should tack on the truth:

“And my guess is as long as you’re holding onto your ledger it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve told your husband you forgive him— my guess is he doesn’t feel very free either.”

She bit her lip. 

“When the Bible says “Christ is the end of the Law,” I said, “it’s just a pious way of saying that Jesus is the end of all score-keeping. He’s gotten rid of all it— the sins and the spreadsheets both.”

And I could tell what she was about to counterpunch me with so, being an Enneagram 8, I interuppted her and talked over her: 

“We say “forgive but don’t forget,” sure. 

But Jesus says: Don’t forget— you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten all your sins in the black hole of his death. Ditto for whomever has trespassed against you and whatever was that trespass against you. Remember that you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten everything— remember that and, eventually, you can forgive and forget.”

She took off her glasses and wiped the corners of her eyes. 

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, “that doesn’t sound fair.” 

“Of course it’s not fair,” I said, “if God were fair we’d all be screwed.”

And then her phone rang and she had to leave as quickly as she’d came.

———————-

The woman at Starbucks and the slave in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger. 

Admit it—

Some of you excel at Excel, carrying around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you. 

Names of people who’ve taken something from you. 

       Names of people who’ve wronged you. 

    People that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book. 

  Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you. 

Jesus says with his story that in order for you to enjoy your forgiveness his death makes possible you’ve got to die too— to that whole way of living that produces questions like “How many times do I have…?” 

No— just as there is no empty grave without a cross, there is no salvation for you without your death. 

You’ve got to die to your life of book-keeping.

Limitless forgiveness— of course it sounds impossible. 

I get it.

Forgiveness without limits comes so unnaturally to us it first had to come to us as Jesus. 

And— no less than then— Jesus comes to us still today. 

Jesus comes to us in his word. He comes to us in wine and bread 

And Jesus comes to us preaching the promise of this parable:

The promise that those who know how much they have been forgiven— ten thousand talents— in the fullness of time, through word and wine and bread, much will they be able to forgive. 

So come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see that God is not fair; God is gracious. 

Come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see and enjoy your forgiveness, for the promise that everything has been done for you— that promise alone has the power to enable you to do for another.

THE POWER TO DO IS NOT IN YOU!

THE POWER TO DO IS IN THIS PROMISE OF DONE. 

So come to the table; so that, you might become what you eat.

           

“Orthodoxy is historically defined according to the creeds, and there is nothing at all in the creeds about human sexuality.”

Steve Harper, author of the new book, Holy Love, published today, is our guest for Episode #206. Steve is a former Professor of Historical Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, which is— mind you— the UMC’s most conservative school. Steve was also a leader in traditionalist movements like Good News and the Confessing Church Movement. In 2015, though, Steve’s understanding of sexuality in light of scripture changed.

His new book is a concise primer for all folks but especially those like his former self. He’s a warm and wise man with whom I felt honored to speak.

Here’s the blurb I had the opportunity to provide for the publisher:

In all our church fighting about what is and is not incompatible with Christian teaching, Christians seem to have forgotten the core of Christian teaching; that is, we’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Not one of us is found compatible— we are made compatible by God’s grace. In Holy Love, Steve Harper reminds Christians that married love is holy precisely because it’s an arena where life with another exposes the stranger you call you to the unmerited forgiveness of the other who knows your worst self.  The experience of such grace makes us holy— different— in a culture premised on merit alone. Marriage, as the wedding rite makes clear, is about sanctification; therefore, to deny committed couples, gay or straignt, marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine. Holy Love provides pastors and parishioners the biblical and theological resources to have a holy conversation about how that medicine may be administered to same-sex couples too and how their marriages might also serve as parables for how God loves us all.

You can order his book from Cokesbury. 

If you like what we do, do us a solid. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click “Support the Show” and pay it forward.


We’re working our way through the alphabet one stained-glass word at a time. Next up: Unity.

In a world (and even a Church) that appears anything but what does the Bible mean when it promises that, by the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are one in Christ?

Do us a solid.

Go to our website, click on “Support the Show,” and become a patron of the podcast.

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I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.*

*Note: No mention of sexuality

The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled Friday on portions of the so-called Traditional Plan passed at General Conference. The “gayness test” for clergy and clergy candidates was struck down by the JC so I guess my Tori Amos records are safe for now. The substance of much of the plan was affirmed by the UMC’s ruling body. Thus many ministers like myself will spend time and energy talking about sexuality in gross disproportion to the concern given to it by scripture and the creed.

Speaking of the creed, Christians already centuries ago established the boundaries by which we determine who is and who is not a legitimate Christian. Put another way, the creed alone outlines for Christians what is worth fighting over between Christians— if it’s not in the creed, it’s not an urgent concern to warrant ostracizing or scapegoating those who are different or those with whom we disagree.

Sexuality, as being fundamentally about us, has nothing to do with Christian orthodoxy while the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave, as being fundamentally about the character of the Father and the truth of the teachings of the Son has everything to do with it.

 

In the same week that United Methodists will again obsess over sexuality

(gayness test…really?!)

the president of a (once prestigious) mainline seminary, Union in New York City—

where Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, and Cone formerly taught—

gave an interview to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (here) wherein she dismissed Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession.

 

“What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.”

Surely President Serene Jones has read St. Paul, according to whom Christianity is actually a sinful, pathetic lie if God has not raised Jesus from the dead.

Worse, says scripture, if the resurrection is not true, then Christians commit idolatry by worshipping Christians.

 

She adds to Kristoff: “The empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”

That this is how the Easter news gets distilled to the New York Times— to a symbol…not even a symbol for God but a symbol of us— that this is someone charged with training preachers of the Gospel reveals our ecclessial infighting over sexuality to be a giant adventure in missing the point. To paraphrase Paul, if we have the right position on sexuality but have not the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our justification, then we have nothing and we are nothing.

Don’t buy the fake news:  The United Methodist Church specifically and the mainline Church generally are in hastening decline not because of our position on sexuality but because we proclaim an emaciated theology that’s become unmoored from the Gospel that “brings into existence the things that do not exist.”

Christianity, don’t forget, is not— properly speaking— a religion at all. It’s news. It’s a message about something that happened in history, making Christianity the only “religion” that is potentially disproveable.

 

To the extent we forget or downplay that Easter is a claim about something true in history, God is right to reduce the United Methodist Church into extinction.

 

Contrary to Jones, belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy. You can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us)

I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.

 

Christian speech falls apart without Easter.

Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.

Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.

 

Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but— think about it— we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

Actually. Really. Truly.

 

If the resurrection is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.

Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.

 

In other words- in John Howard Yoder‘s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.

In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality. 

Put another way, that the teachings of Jesus become unintelligible or worse without the truthfulness of the Gospel’s teaching about Jesus suggests that, regardless of our debates about sexuality, liberal United Methodists and conservative United Methodists cannot afford to lose the witness of one another.

In a culture of performancism, virtue-signaling, enoughness-chasing, and what Barbara Eihreneich calls the “tyranny of positivity,”  Nick Lannon’s new book tells us the good news that Life is Impossible (and that’s the good news).

Nick is an Anglican priest in Louisville, a movie buff (he corrected me on High Fidelity) and sports buff, and a contributing writer to Mockingbird Ministries and Liberate. You can find his book here.

Before you listen— or while you listen— do us a solid and help us pay the bills! Click HERE to become a patreon and support the podcast. If you’re too miserly, then go to our WEBSITE or our FACEBOOK Page, like something, share something, leave a comment, and tell others about the podcast.

With “Doubting” Thomas slated for the Gospel lection this Sunday, here’s this from the vault of my still unfinished and long neglected catechism:

You can find the previous posts here.

15. What do we mean by faith?

Faith is primarily imitation of the Faithful One, Jesus Christ, so by faith we mean obedience, loyalty, belief, trust and sharing in God’s self-knowledge.

While faith refers to all these characteristics and is always more than mere belief, it also means we take a particular belief to be true. If someone held a belief ‘on faith’ but showed complete indifference to any evidence for or against that belief, we would not think that person had faith just as the opposite is true too. If someone of faith is completely preoccupied with reasons for or against their belief, then it’s not clear that person of faith really has faith.

Of course faith is more than judging a proposition to be true, but it is at least thinking it true.

Christian faith is at least belief that there is no conclusive argument to disprove Christian belief. Faith in the resurrection, for example, includes the belief that no evidence can be proffered to disprove the ressurection.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” 

– Hebrews 11.1

16. Must we have faith to be a Christian?

Yes.

Not necessarily because faith is a kind of litmus test distinguishing Christian from pagan but because faith isn’t simply the means by which we accept the Christian story.

Faith is itself a key element of the Christian story.

Faith is necessary to be a Christian because one of the beliefs Christians take ‘on faith’ is faith itself, the ability of faith to move mountains and bring about things which do not exist: the faith of Abraham to journey towards an unknown land, the faith of Israel to abide in the wilderness, the faith of Mary to bear shame and messiah, the faithfulness of Jesus unto the Cross.

“As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed–the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” – Romans 4.7

17. Is belief wishful thinking?

Of course.

Then, most of our opinions, to one degree or another, are wishful thinking.

Christian belief, like most beliefs, is wishful thinking not in the sense that we force ourselves- delude ourselves- to think a certain way but in that we decide to think according to Christian belief.

A Christian who believes the creed to be true decides to live as if it’s true while someone who doesn’t believe the creed is true wills to live according to a different creed.

Christian belief is wishful thinking just as my love for my spouse is wishful thinking; that is, I will to love my wife. The only difference is that with my wife I seldom need to think too hard about willing my love while with God I often need to will such love.

One could say that Christian belief is wishful thinking because the Christian life is learning to love God such that willing love is no longer conscious or necessary.

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” – Romans 7.15

The first Easter wasn’t just a day. The Risen Jesus hung around for fifty days, teaching and appearing to over five hundred people. Seven days after the first Easter Day, Jesus appears again in that same locked room as before and Jesus says ‘Peace be with you.’

And this time, this time Thomas is there. Jesus offers Thomas his body: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

And Thomas reaches out to Jesus’ body.

And Thomas touches Jesus.

And Thomas grabs at the wounds of Jesus.

He grasps Jesus’ wounded feet.

He holds his hands against the holes.

Puts his hand on Jesus’ pierced side to see the proof for himself…

Actually…no.

He doesn’t.

That’s the thing- We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds. Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands.

Duccio drew it that way.

Caravaggio illustrated it that way.

Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way.

Artists have always shown Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.

And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations.

Yet, read it again, it’s not there. The Gospel gives us no indication that Thomas actually touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands. John never says that Thomas peeked into Jesus’ side.

 

The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.

 

No.

That’s got to be important, right?

I mean, the one thing Thomas says he needs in order to believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to mention. What Thomas insists he needs to see is the one thing John doesn’t give you the reader to see.

 

Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: ‘My Lord and my God!”

Which- pay attention– is the first time in John’s Gospel that anyone finally and fully and CORRECTLY identifies Jesus as the same Lord who made Heaven and Earth.

“Doubting” Thomas manages to make the climatic confession of faith in the Gospel.

 

After so many stories about the blind receiving sight and those with sight stubbornly remaining blind to who Jesus is, “Doubting” Thomas is the first person to see that the Jesus before him is the God who made him. And “Doubting” Thomas makes that confession of faith without the one thing he insists he needs before he can muster up faith.

 

St. Athanasius says that Christ, as our Great High Priest, not only mediates the things of God to man but Christ also mediates the things of man to God.

Including- especially- faith.

 

We think of faith as something we have, something we do. We think of belief as something we will, mustering it up in us in spite of us, despite our doubts. Believing is our activity, we think. Our act.

But-

If we think of faith as something we do or possess, as an autonomous act within us, we’re not speaking of faith as scripture speaks of it.

In scripture, faith- our faith- is made possible only through the agency of God: “Lord, help my unbelief” the father in Mark’s Gospel must beg Jesus, as we all must beg.

Jesus doesn’t just put on our flesh and live the life we live. He puts on the belief, lives the faith and trust in God we owe God as creatures of God.

Jesus doesn’t just stand in our place when it comes to our sin.

He stands in our place when it comes to faith too.

 

What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf.

The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ.

Our faith, our belief, is made possible by him.

It’s his work not ours, and like a parent’s hand grasping a little child’s, our faith, such as it is, is enfolded within his perfect faith; so that, in him, enclosed within his faith, our faith is mediated to God the Father.

That’s what the New Testament means by calling Christ ‘the author and the finisher of our faith.” The faith we possess is the work of the Son within us not our own, but the faith by which the Father measures us is the Son’s not our own. So often preachers make the point of this passage a kind of permission for us to have our doubts, that its okay we’re all like Doubting Thomas, that “doubt is a part of faith” goes the cliche.

But John would not have you see here simply Gospel approval for your doubts. This is the freaking climax of the Jesus story where someone finally and fully and correctly calls upon Jesus as his Lord and his God.

 

“…but its okay to have your doubts too.”

What kind of crappy whimper of an ending is that?!

 

That’s not the takeaway John intends Thomas to leave with you. No. John wants you to see Jesus, the Risen Lord. The same God who created from nothing. The same God who called Israel- who had been no people- to be his People. The same God who, Paul says, calls into existence the things that do not exist.

John wants you see the Risen Christ bringing into existence in Thomas, who had insisted unless I can touch his hands and feet for myself, a faith that can confess Christ as Lord and God.

Doubts are okay, sure.

I’ve got plenty of doubts and, I’ll bet, I’ve got more reasons to doubt than you do.

Sure, you’ve got doubts. Big deal. That’s not very interesting.

If faith is Christ’s work in us then doubt is just our natural human disposition, like Adam and Eve wondering in the Garden “Did God really say?”

Thomas’ doubt is not what John would have see. What John would have us see:

Is that Thomas’ faith-

It’s the work of the Risen Christ.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith. Think about it: that puts all the onus on you. It makes faith just another work. Your work. It empties the cross of its saving significance and it makes his substitution in your place partial. Imperfect because its incomplete with out your faith.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith. The Good News is that you are saved by faith by grace.

By the gifting of God. By the agency of God. By the mediating activity of the Risen Christ.

Who is every bit as present to us now as those 10 disciples hiding behind locked doors.

You are saved by faith through the gracious work of the Risen Christ, who can compel you- against your natural disposition to doubt- to call upon him as your Lord and your God.

Such that whatever has brought you, Whatever of the Gospel you are able to trust and believe, Whatever Word from the Lord you can hear in this sermon, Whether your faith is as meager as a mustard seed, Or as mighty as a mountainside

Your faith is NOT

YOUR doing.

It is a miracle. Grace. An act of the Risen Christ. In you and upon you and through you. And it makes you- even you! It makes you exactly what Thomas insisted he required. It makes you proof that he is risen. He is risen indeed.

You.

You’re why John ends his Gospel the way he does. You’re the reason John doesn’t need to write down everything Jesus did among those disciples. Because Jesus is neither dead nor disappeared from this world. He’s alive and still doing work among his disciples. And for proof you need look no further than your own faith, your own ability to call him your Lord and your God.

Explaining Easter

Jason Micheli —  April 21, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 20.1-18 — Easter 2019

Morning has broken— like the first morning of what St. Paul calls the Second Aeon.  It’s the first day of God’s new creation and already, just three days since they’d all sworn at the last supper never to forsake him, the Church is down to one member. 

Mary Magdalene.

Only Mary has come— as the Jewish Law requires— to sit shiva with the body of her dead rabbi. The reason they anoint Jesus’ dead body with oils and perfumes is because the Law requires them to sit with his dead body for seven stinking days. Only Mary comes to sit shiva as they all should under the Law. 

According to the Law, in order to sit shiva with the dead, the mourner must wear a keriah, an outer robe that will be torn in ritual lamentation. According to the Law, in order for shiva to commence the grave of the dead must be completely covered with earth or stone. But the Law leaves unsaid the obvious. You can’t sit shiva with the dead in their tomb if the dead ain’t there. That’s why Mary becomes upset a vandal has stolen his body. Without him, she can’t do what the Law requires she do for him. 

So when Mary sees the stone that had sealed Jesus in his grave— a stone which, mind you, bore Caesar’s image— rolled away, she guesses the worst. 

She runs to get Peter and the Beloved Disciple. 

And they rush to the new hewn tomb. 

They crawl into the grave. 

And they see it’s empty. 

And they see the linen with which Nicodemus had wrapped his body. 

And they see the cloth that had covered his thorn-cut head— folded neatly now. 

But they don’t see him. 

His body. His speared and spat-upon body. His crucified body. 

They don’t see him.

Not seeing is believing, John says. 

The disciples enter the tomb and they see that it’s empty. The disciples enter his tomb and they don’t see him. And they believe, John says. 

They believe. 

And, why not?

Why shouldn’t they believe? 

Remember a little over a week ago the disciples had witnessed Jesus wrest his friend Lazarus, who’d been four days dead, from the grave. “Lazarus, come out!” Christ had commanded the corpse, as sure and certain as God Almighty saying “Let there be light!” 

Why shouldn’t they believe? 

They’d seen his power over the Power of Death. They already had, therefore, everything they needed to know that he had power over those Powers who derived their power from the fear of Death.  And now, not seeing is believing. 

“They believed,” John says matter-of-factly. 

They believed that the one who declared to Lazarus’ grief-stricken sister “I am the Resurrection” had been resurrected. They believed that the One who had promised “I am Life” had put Death to death. 

“They believed,” John reports, “and then they went back home.” 

———————-

Wait— hold up— they went back home? 

What in the hell are they thinking?

Was there a Jerusalem United game kicking off soon? Did they have to get back to check out King Herod’s latest tweet storm? 

“The disciples saw and they believed…and then they went back home,” John says. 

Can you even imagine?

Can you imagine hearing the Gospel good news that Death has been undone, that the Power of Sin has been defeated— and with it, all your sins (past, present, future) forgiven, gratis, forgotten forever in his grave. Can you imagine hearing that the crucified and risen Christ is Lord, not of your heart but all of creation. Can you imagine hearing that God has vindicated everything he said and did and taught, for when God raises him up from the grave, God also exalts with him— in him— everything he said and did and taught; such that, now the sermon on the mount isn’t just some rabbi’s strategy for the world. No, the resurrection of this particular rabbi reveals that his cheek-turning, enemy-loving forgiveness is the very grain of the universe.

Can you even imagine?

Can you imagine hearing and believing the Gospel, and then just going home for brunch? 

Who does that? 

What would Jesus think of such people if he were still alive?

The Son who emptied himself of heaven, forsook his Father’s inheritance, and journeyed into the Far Country of Sin and Death. He was lost but now is found. He was dead and now he’s not dead for never again. He’s come back to the Father and to his brothers, and they just go home? Where’s the fatted calf?

The prodigal has been ransomed from the Pharaoh of Sin and Death by the God who raised Israel from bondage in Egypt. 

He is risen. 

And they what, go home?

This was centuries before GameofThrones so what’s their excuse? 

The victory is won. The battle is over. The war is ended. The clock on the Old Age has run down, St. Paul says.The Enemy— Sin, Death, and the Devil— is defeated, Paul says. It is finished, just as he said.

And now they’ve got to be getting on?

They believed, John says. 

He hadn’t vanished into memory. He’d been remembered by God. God had vindicated his life— his way of life— by resurrecting it from Death and rendering unto this King what belongs to God alone. Everything. God’s given him all dominion.

Easter is the answer to all of Good Friday’s questions. 

“What is truth?” Pilate had asked him before washing his hands of his death.

Now, the answer is as obvious as the shroud folded neatly next to where his dead body no longer lays— he is the Truth and the Way and the Life God gives back from the grave.

“Are you the king of the Jews” Pilate asked on Friday. 

“You say so,” Jesus had said to him. 

But now, God says so too. By undoing Death and rolling away the rock stamped with that other king’s face, God repeats himself: “This is my Beloved Son, what’s it gonna take for you to listen to him!” 

“You forgive sins?” the chief priests had asked, incredulous, “Only God can forgive sins!” 

On Friday Christ stood silent, but today the stones of his empty tomb cry out: Yep, only God can forgive sins. 

It’s Easter that answers Friday’s questions; which is to say, the cross has no meaning apart from the empty tomb. His death is empty if his tomb is not, if God has not resurrected him from the dead.  

These two disciples— they believed God had resurrected him, John says. 

But then they go back home. 

———————-

What a strange way to tell you the story if it’s just a story John aims to tell you. 

These two disciples seem almost as stupid as those other two disciples in Luke’s Gospel, who say they’ve heard the good news that Jesus, having been crucified, had been raised by God from the dead, yet they’re on the road home to Emmaus. 

I mean, you’ve got to wonder how people as dumb and dull as the disciples could have ever concocted something like the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

For the record— 

Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names have been lost to history. Remember too that the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in a man’s resurrection. Take those two facts together, and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Of course, we’d prefer, like those two disciples, to see for ourselves, or, like Thomas, we’d rather even to touch his wounds— to hold the evidence of resurrection in our hands. 

Seeing is believing, we say; except, John in his Gospel has already told you that seeing is not necessarily believing. 

Just a week before his crucifixion, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, John reported that a whole crowd of Jews witnessed the miracle firsthand. And some of them believed, John said. But as many did not believe and immediately then went to the chief priests to hasten his murder. 

Seeing is not necessarily believing, John warns us. 

Nevertheless, not seeing for ourselves— if we’re honest with ourselves— we suspect the resurrection story must’ve gotten hatched. Not seeing for ourselves, we’re tempted to think it must’ve happened something like this. 

The disciples began to remember together their time with Jesus: 

Wasn’t it exciting? Remember when he threw that Temple tantrum and flipped over all the money-changers’ tables? And then there were all those miracles, lepers and Lazarus. His teachings— they really gave you something to think about, didn’t they? 

You know, just thinking about it now makes you feel like he’s still here with us. If we just remember him, it’ll be like he never left. Yes, he’s never truly gone— he’s never really dead— if we keep him alive in our hearts.

Even though that’s not Christianity (actually, it’s Spock’s death scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), we’re tempted to think this kind of post-crucifixion conversation happened. 

Of course our suspicions that such a conversation took place among the disciples only prove that we are like those disciples; that is, like the two disciples here in John’s Gospel and like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we would like to get on with our lives as though resurrection does not mean that the world has been turned upside down. 

We’d like to be able to celebrate Christ’s empty tomb, but then go on living with the assumptions and the habits that sustain our lives in a world that neither sees nor believes. 

This is Church, the one place we’re free to tell the truth, so let’s be honest. 

The reason we’re tempted to explain the resurrection is because we don’t want to live in a world turned upside down by resurrection, for if the grave is empty, then it’s people who bear crosses not people who build them who are working with the grain of the universe. 

In other words, explanations for the resurrection are the way we, like Mary Magdalene, attempt to keep a hold on Jesus. 

We hold out, wanting an explanation for the resurrection, as a way to keep a hold on Jesus in order to keep him from demolishing the world we’ve made in our image. 

Because if God really has vindicated this rabbifrom the grave, then that means we’ve already learned more of God’s will for our lives then any one of us are willing to do. 

So often we attempt to explain the resurrection as a way of keeping a hold on Jesus. 

Because if he’s not really risen indeed, then we don’t need to bother about what Mary calls him here and what John calls him fourteen times in the final chapters of his Gospel. 

———————-

Fourteen times— that’s no accident; that’s the Jewish number for perfection. 

Fourteen times— John all but tells you point blank: 

Pay attention, readers, this is the point of the resurrection. 

Fourteen times— John, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and eventually event Peter call him— fourteentimes— they call him Lord.

Kurios.

Lord over all. 

That’s no incidental piety in a world where the pledge of allegiance was “Caesar is Lord.”

Notice— the climax of the story— Mary Magdalene doesn’t rush from the empty tomb saying “I have seen a miracle!”  She certainly doesn’t say I have seen a metaphor for springtime renewal or I have seen a symbol for life after death. She damn sure doesn’t rush from the grave that is empty asking Who knows how to draw a butterfly?

No, instead of sitting shiva, she runs saying “I have seen the Lord,” God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

Fourteen times, after he comes out of the grave, alive again, someone comes out and confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord.

You see—

The Gospels are not interested in explaining how Jesus came to be resurrected. The Gospels are instead interested in explaining how Mary Magdalene et al came to worship Jesus as Lord.

By definition, we cannot explain the resurrection. 

Think about it— if there was an underlying theory that explained the resurrection, then we should worship that theory and not the godforsaken son of Mary.

The Gospels do not— cannot— explain Easter. 

But the point of the Gospels is that Easter explains us—the particular, peculiar people called Church. 

For as St. Paul says in his Gospel announcement, if Easter is not true— if the crucified Jesus is not the Risen Lord— then, of all the people in the world, we are the most pathetic; which is to say, Easter dares us as Christians to live lives that make no sense if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead and made him Lord.

Easter dares us to live lives that are unintelligible if the one who taught us to bless those who curse us and to forgive— even love— our enemies is not the Living Lord. 

———————-

What does that mean?

What does that look like?

Victoria Ruvolo joined the company of heaven two weeks ago at the age of 59. You may remember hearing about her in the news 15 years ago. In 2004, Victoria had been watching her niece sing in a recital and was driving home on Portion Road on Long Island. Her friend Louis Erali sat next to her in the passenger seat of her Hyundai. 

As Victoria’s car approached from the opposite direction a car with three teenagers, one of the teenagers, Ryan Cushing, threw a twenty pound frozen turkey (purchased with a stolen credit card) through the open window of the back seat. The turkey crashed through Victoria Ruvolo’s windshield, crushing the bones in her skull, caving in her esophagus, and traumatizing her brain. 

Only after a year’s worth of surgeries could she return to work. 

Authorities had wanted to prosecute Ryan Cushing for first degree assault and other offenses, which would have given him over twenty years in prison. But Victoria Ruvolo wanted to forgive him. 

At his sentencing hearing, Victoria gave a statement in which she said: “Vengeance does not belong to me. It belongs to Christ the Lord, and he teaches me that I should forgive you.”

Ryan Cushing served six months. 

Prosecutors and many in the public thought his sentence and her gesture of grace ridiculous.

Hearing the news of her death, Ryan Cushing told the New York Times: 

“Her ability to forgive me, when forgiving me made no sense at all, it had a profound effect on me. It changed my life.”

Her surviving sister, meanwhile, told the press: 

“Not all of us would be that way, but that’s how Victoria was…she’s a Christian…she’s an example of forgiveness in a vengeful world.” 

When it comes to resurrection, it’s not about explanation. When it comes to resurrection, it’s about exemplification. 

She’s an example, Victoria’s sister could’ve said, of the people that God, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, has put into the world. She’s an example of the people that God has created out of the nothingness of an empty tomb to live lives that look ridiculous— maybe even wreckless— if Christ is not risen indeed. 

And if it’s true what the Bible promises, that Christ has been raised for our justification— that is, for us to be in the right with God, with all our sins forever swallowed up in the black hole of God’s own forgetting— then when God raises Jesus Christ from the dead God, in God’s patience, literally gives us all the time in the world to learn how to live lives that can be explained only by the resurrection.

Good Friday: The Seven Last Words

The First Word

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

One of my friends, a member of my former church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Bob was on a group text thread with his cross-country and track runners as they fled. 

And bled.

Bob messaged me the night of the shooting to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery. He asked me to pray for them. He asked me to add them to the church’s prayer list. “Pray for Maddie,” he texted, “she has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.”

I saw the text bubbles bounce on the screen of my iPhone as Bob typed more I couldn’t see until it came all at once:

“I’m not in denial or shock. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did. Don’t talk to me about forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t enough. How does forgiveness make this right? There has to be a cost. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Just before the soldiers strip him naked and shoot dice for his clothes, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” 

We of course believe such a prayer for the Father’s forgiveness sounds like something Jesus would pray to the Father; after all, we take Jesus to be so patient and kind a teacher of love that, if we’re honest, we’re not sure why anyone wanted to kill Jesus. 

Yet our presumptions about Jesus don’t square with what Jesus says immediately before Jesus prays “Father, forgive them for they not what they’re doing.” 

On his way to be crucified at the place called The Skull, Jesus turns around to face the crowds who taunt him from behind.  

Don’t forget— this happened on the sabbath, on a passover weekend. 

Like Americans who took picnic baskets to watch the slaughter of Civil War battles, these crowds who mock him have chosen to spend their holiday by turning his torture into an entertainment.

And Jesus unloads on them in a way that sounds unlike the Jesus we think we know: 

“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore.””

Blessed will be the barren— Jesus’ words are uncharacteristically harsh, especially so if Jesus is right that they know not what they are doing. 

But is Jesus right to impute ignorance to them? 

It certainly seems like they knew what they were doing. 

And Judas and Peter too. 

Ditto the clergy and the soldiers and Pontius Pilate— if Pilate didn’t know what he was doing, then why did he wash his hands of the whole affair?

No matter what Jesus says from the cross, they all know precisely what they’re doing; for that matter, that they all know what they’re doing— that is, the fact that their sin is not unwitting sin— is precisely why Jesus is on the cross. 

This is important—

All those obscure sacrifice rituals prescribed to Israel in Leviticus and Numbers, all those passages that frustrate every sincere effort to read the Bible cover to cover— if you ever get through them all, you might notice the attribute that holds them in common. 

All those sacrifices in the Old Testament were given for Israel to atone for unintended sin. The only atonement mechanism available in the Old Testament was for the sin you did when you didn’t know what you were doing. 

There is no sacrifice in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. There is no mechanism in the Old Testament for the forgiveness of sin when you knew exactly what you were doing. 

There is no sacrifice that makes atonement for deliberate sin. 

Not one. 

Until now. 

This is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews means when it describes Christ’s cross as the sacrifice for sin, once for all. For unwitting sin and for willful sin. This is the shock of the Apostle Paul’s announcement that while we were yet (willful) sinners Christ died for us. 

For us. 

For the ungodly, Paul preaches.

A sacrifice for the sin you sinned when you knew exactly what you were doing.

So it matters not whether Jesus is right or wrong about them knowing not what they do, for he himself is the final form of forgiveness for all wrong, witting and unwitting. 

Those like my friend Bob are right. There is indeed a cost to be paid for the wrong we wreak in the world. The God who says “vengeance is mine” bears that cost in his body, turning the other cheek all the way to a cross. 

It matters not if the people for whom Jesus prays knew or knew not what they were doing. 

The matter that matters is what the Father is doing in Jesus, for the Jesus who prays “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” is the Father’s prayer for the world. 

Jesus is the Father’s prayer for the world. 

And the people formed by him who is the Father’s prayer, the people that God puts into the world to be shaped patiently by his forgiveness and peace, they are God’s answer to the prayers of people like Bob, crying out for the wrong we wreak to be made right.

That is to say—

God’s justice is Jesus.

The Second Word 

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk in charge of an abbey in Algeria. After the rise of Islamic radicals in 1993, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to leave their monastery because they refused to cease serving the community’s poor. 

Anticipating his murder— he was beheaded by radicals in 1996– Christian left a testament with his family to be opened upon his death. 

His letter is a moving sacrament to our faith, which he concludes by addressing his would-be executioner:

“And to you too, my dear friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ ‘[go with God] in whose image you too are made. May you and I meet in the kingdom of heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our Father. Amen! Insha Allah!”

Now consider—

If Christian de Cherge expresses hope that he’ll meet his murderer in paradise, the two of them thick as thieves by God’s grace, we likely judge it a beautiful gesture of faith. 

Flip it—

If the murderer asks the monk “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” and if the latter promises the former “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise—my Paradise” how would we judge the exchange? 

Likely, we’d think the criminal a fool, asking a rabbi for what’s not his to grant, and I suspect we’d say worse about the rabbi making promises upon which only God can deliver upon. 

We’d chalk both of them up as crazy, foolish heretics.

Both Luke and John, who give us this second word from the cross, would want us to hear the irony in the exchange. 

Jesus is nailed to a tree, not only helpless but, according to God’s own Law, godforsaken (which is why all his friends abandon him), and yet— the makeshift sign above his head has him right— he reigns from his cross as a King, granting admission to his Kingdom to…who exactly?

Most translations say that Jesus dies alongside two “common criminals” but, in Luke, Pilate tells you all you need to know. 

The two crucified with Jesus— and so, presumably Jesus also—  have been convicted of “perverting the people,” the term used by Pilate for insurrectionists. 

The two crucified with Jesus are zealots, activists who believed the Kingdom of God could be achieved by arms, making it all the more ironic that the unmerited admission they receive into that Kingdom comes from Jesus, the King who takes up a cross rather than a sword.

Though Luke would have us understand the revolutionary at Christ’s side as having been unfaithful in much, here he is faithful in more: “Jesus,” he asks, “remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” 

Only a Jew schooled in the psalms would know to ask that question of the crucified Jesus. Such a Jew schooled in the psalms would know also the problematic nature of a cross-bearing King. 

Like Paul, such a Jew would recall that according to the Mosaic Law crucifixion identified the crucified as accursed by God— this is why his own disciples have all abandoned him. 

They’ve done so not because they believe his Kingdom mission ended in failure; they’ve done so because they believe by their own scriptures that his Kingdom mission has ended in godforsakeness. 

This is why the two disciples on their way home to Emmaus— two disciples who, Luke makes sure to tell us, have heard the Easter news— don’t hasten to his empty grave. 

Resurrection or not, they’re too godfearing to have anything to do with a crucified King. 

And this is why the Risen Jesus, when he encounters them incognito on the way to Emmaus, must re-teach them the entire Bible. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Luke tells, “Jesus taught to them the things about himself in all of the scriptures.”

“Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your Kingdom?” 

Knowing what this Jew knows of the Bible, about the accursed nature of crucifixion, this is something more than a foolish request. 

The question only makes sense if Jesus can fulfill such a request. 

This thief beside him can already see what those two on the road to Emmaus require the Risen Christ to reveal. 

The crucified Jesus is the promised one to redeem Israel and through Israel, the world. 

This thief, schooled as he is to look past the cross to discover the King, likely would know he’s not put the question precisely right by asking Jesus “Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your Kingdom?” 

Such a Jew would know the Kingdom of God is not a place— a point Jesus has attempted to make in parable after parable. 

The Kingdom of God is not a where but a who. The Kingdom of God is not a place but a person. Of course, this is why Jesus can grant his request. 

The crucified Christ is not only the King. 

The crucified Christ is the Kingdom. “I am the Resurrection and the Life [eternal]” he tells his friend’s grief-stricken sister. Jesus is paradise. 

This happy thief beside Jesus has already received the answer to his prayer.

The Third Word 

“Woman, behold thy son! 

    When first she learned of God’s mercy made flesh in her belly, ex nihilo, Mary erupts into song: 

“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

Every line of Mary’s song is laden with the scripture Mary would’ve learned as a girl. 

She sings not because God has given her a child but she sings because of what that child will mean. She praises God for cracking open the heavens and pouring out justice upon a world thirsty for it. 

She extols the Father for the Son, her son, will be the One to relieve the proud and powerful of their swelled self-importance and he will be the One to fill the poor with more than money can buy. 

It’s a dangerous song. 

It’s a seditious song. 

It’s a cry from the bottom of the social ladder.        

     Except when Mary hears the news that she is to be a Second Eve bearing the New Adam, Mary takes all the future-tense “wills” of her Bible and she puts them in the past perfect tense for her song. 

She takes all the promises from her scripture and sings of them as though they were as good as done. 

She takes the hopes of her people and sings of them as having already been accomplished: “He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

To sing such a song spontaneously can only mean that someone taught Mary the song— Hannah’s song— making it likely that Mary taught Jesus to sing too “He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

But now his disciples have all scatteed and Mary is brought low, watching as her boy is lifted up on a cross to be emptied and sent away from this world by the proud and the powerful still in their thrones. 

Mary watches as they fill his hungry mouth not with good things but gall. “He has shown strength with his arm,” Mary had sang, but now she watches as they break his bones to quicken his death because the passover sabbath is hastening. 

When he was twelve, she’d lost her boy on the journey home after they’d celebrated the passover in Jerusalem. 

She loses him again in Jerusalem during the passover.

Only, this passover Mary’s firstborn son is the lamb. 

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is taken away from her by the sins of the world.

The blood of the passover lamb is sprinkled not on the doorpost but on a cross. 

The passover script always begins with the children asking the parents “What does this mean?” but now Mary likely is the one asking that question of the Father. 

“What’s the meaning of this!?”

Unlike Isaac for Sarah, there’s no ram hidden in a bush. 

The Father who is the Son does not spare himself the sacrifice.

Standing there amidst the mob, hearing him cry out that God’s forsaken him and beholding him naked and bleeding from having told Caiphas and Pilate and all the priests and Pharisee that he’s actually the One with power and wisdom and authority— as she beholds him, I imagine Mary wishes she’d never taught the Son to sing “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts/he has brought down the powerful from their thrones/and lifted up the lowly.” 

The Fourth Word

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  Fill in the blanks:

If I say “The Lord is my shepherd…”

You say___________.

If I say “Yea though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…”

What do you say next?

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and…”

And what?

Almost everyone knows the twenty-third psalm by heart. It’s like “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey. 

You hear it everywhere— certainly almost every time someone dies. 

So what would Mark have us make of this line from Psalm 22 when Jesus dies “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Does Jesus stop believing on the cross? 

Or rather, does his cry of anguish suggest that Jesus believes God has abandoned him?

You know the twenty-third psalm from memory because you’ve had occassion to hear it and recite it over and over again. 

But what if I told you that, as Jews, the audience gathered at Golgotha would’ve had all 150 psalms committed to memory. 

As Jews, they would’ve sung the psalms, working their way in order, a minimum of three times a day. The psalms were an integral part of the daily office. The psalms were taught to children, orally, from before the children could form for themselves the harsh consonants of Hebrew. 

The Jews at the foot of his cross would’ve recognized the psalter’s line about godforsakeness. They would’ve known the song that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” like I stubbornly know all the words to Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” 

They would’ve known  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line from the twenty-second psalm. 

And they would’ve known the next line of the psalm sings: “Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” 

Christians typically reads Jesus’ cry of forsakenness to proof-text an interpretation of Christ’s substitutionary death as penal; that is, we hear this verse of song as suggesting that our sin must be particularly serious and the Father’s wrath especially serious for the Son to suffer even the suffering of complete godforsakeness. 

God has abandoned Jesus, we conclude, just as God would abandon sinful were it not for Jesus, the vicarious sinner. 

Jesus on the cross is alone in the most existential possibility of the word, we imagine, he’s experiencing something worse than betrayal and torture, the sheer and total separation from God that is rightly due all of us woebegone sinners. 

But as all the Jews who heard Jesus would surely know “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is only the first line of Israel’s twenty-second psalm. They could’ve sung the rest of Psalm 22 right along with Jesus, and maybe those near the cross that Friday.

Jesus’ listeners would’ve known this psalm which begins with godforsakeness ends—it builds towards is more like it— on a different note entirely. 

The psalm that begins with an anguished cry of godabandonment concludes with confidence in God’s vindication: 

“You who fear the Lord, praise him!

For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

It is not Christ’s final cry from the depths of a suffering we sinners deserve. 

It is the first line of Christ’s faithful affirmation that Death is being defeated, and that his faithful life unto death— even death on a cross— will be vindicated. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

It’s not hell made audible. 

It’s an overture to Easter.

The Fifth Word

“I thirst.”

The first bedside where I ever sat watch and waited for death to take someone: it was at a hospital outside of Philadelphia. 

     I was just a student pastor at the time.

All I knew of death came from books. 

     He was an old man. His name was on the church roll, but he’d never really been a part of the congregation. I hadn’t even met him before.  I didn’t know what I was doing. 

I was prepared for all sorts of highbrow, wide-ranging philosophical conversations about life after death. The way I had imagined it in the car— it would be something like Tuesdays with Morrie but with a little Kierkegaard and John 14 thrown in for good measure. 

     I didn’t know enough to know that discussions like those are for the living. 

The dying, literally, can’t waste their breath on speculation. 

     I sat next to him in his hospital room for what felt like hours and I held the cold, translucent skin of his hand in mine.  

     In the hours I kept vigil with him all he ever had the strength to say was: ‘I’m thirsty.’ 

So instead of giving him my wisdom on eternal life, I gave him some water.  

     Instead of offering absolution, or even a prayer, I offered him a drink- with a pink sponge at the end of a white, plastic straw on cracked dry lips that barely had the strength to open. 

      “God I’m thirsty,” he said in a rasp that rattled out from somewhere hollow in his chest. “I’m so thirsty.”

In the garden last night, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew a sword, hoping to resist them. 

And Jesus rebuked Peter: “The cup the Father has given me,” says Jesus, “am I not to drink it?” 

     Now, on the cross, Jesus says he wants a drink.  And he says it, John tells us, “to fulfill scripture.” But, which scripture exactly?

Some say— 

     Jesus intends to fulfill Psalm 69. 

     Psalm 69 is a poem for all those who suffer unjustly, and in the twenty-first verse of the Psalm the poet writes: “…for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink…’

     Others say—

     It’s Psalm 22 again that Jesus fulfills. That same Psalm laments “I am poured out like water/my mouth is dried up like clay/and my tongue sticks to my jaws/you lay me in the dust of death.”

     Of course, the answer is all of the above. 

Jesus intends to fulfill all of it. Not just Psalm 69 or 22 or 42 or 102. 

     

But all of it. All of it from Genesis to Golgotha, from “Let there be light” to “Let not your hearts be troubled. And everything in between.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called “the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.” 

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” 

The blood of Jesus, says Luke, “makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.” 

And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was “destined since before the foundation of the world.”

     The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross. 

When Jesus says “I thirst” everything God has ever intended is at last coming together. 

     It’s just two words: I, thirst. 

     But it’s everything. 

     And it CLAIMS everything. 

     I spent a year working as a chaplain at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. Altogether there were probably ten or so chaplains, and we all came from different traditions.       

     

     In our training, we were told the policy of the chaplaincy department was that we must never impose our personal religious beliefs on a patient. Actually, we weren’t even encouraged to share our beliefs with patients. Instead we were expected to practice a “ministry of presence.” 

Not until you’re older and know what you’re doing do you realize that such a ministry of presence is what Stanley Hauerwas means when he says “Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”

     As chaplains we were expected to treat faith as something that was only useful. 

We were not expected to treat faith as something that might be true. 

     Every week or so I had to work an overnight shift as the on-call chaplain. 

I remember one night. It was well-past midnight and my pager summoned me to the CCU: a man in his sixties had suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. When I arrived at his room, he was unconscious and surrounded by beeping monitors. 

    His wife was sitting next to him. Just like I’d been trained, I offered comfort. I empathized. I asked open-ended questions, and I helped her process the swell of emotions she was experiencing. 

     

She had an insistent sort of Southern accent. And I remember how she said she wasn’t afraid of her husband dying. She didn’t want him to suffer and, sure, she wanted more time with him, but that she wasn’t afraid of him dying. 

     And like a good chaplain, I asked her what she meant. 

     

She explained how Jesus’ death on the cross had defeated Death so even if her husband couldn’t be with her, she knew he’d be with God. 

     Like a good chaplain, I said: “Is that what’s true for you?”

     And she looked up at me and sort of raised her eyebrow and said: “True for me? Son, the way I see it— the Gospel’s like gravity. It’s true for all or it’s true not at all.”

     With Jesus’ “I thirst,” John wants to confront you with the claim that all of this was planned before the foundation of the world. For the healing of the world. 

    The cross lays some uncomfortable claims on us. 

     You see— if the Gospel is true— it’s not simply true for me or true for you. 

It’s the true story about the world and everybody in the world. 

It’s the truth that from before creation began the heart of God has been bent towards the cross and that in Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross we witness as much of God as there is ever to see. 

Of course, the rub is that if the non-violent love of Christ reveals the grain of the universe, then there is no way we can truthfully resort to coercion to convince others of that truth.

The Sixth Word

“It is finished.”

It’s important that Jesus announces “It is finished” in the Gospel of John, for its in that Gospel that John litters the story of Jesus’ passion on passover to allusions to another holy day, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

     According to the instructions God gives to Moses in the Book of Leviticus, Yom Kippur revolves around the high priest who represents all of God’s people. After the minutiae of necessary preparation, the high priest is brought two goats. 

Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done. 

     One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple— the Father’s house— of sin. 

     The second goat is brought to him alive. 

     The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel. 

The priest removes all the people’s sins and places them on the goat. 

     And after the priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the wilderness.The wilderness symbolized exile and forsakenness and death. 

         Yom Kippur isn’t about God wanting to punish you for your sin. Yom Kippur is about God wanting to remove your sin. 

     The Day of Atonement is not about appeasing an angry God. It’s about God removing that which separates us from God.     

     While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.       

     When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness. 

So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel. 

Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job. 

     That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head- red that symbolized sin. The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word ‘scapegoat.’ 

     Ahzahzel means “taking away.” 

    The Gentile would lead the scapegoat into exile while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’ 

     Take it away. Take our sin away. 

John’s Gospel places Jesus’ death on the passover— that’s why there’s no last supper in John’s Gospel, for Jesus is the passover lamb. 

     But it’s not as simple as that. 

     John’s Gospel tells you the calendar says Passover, but what John shows you looks an awful lot like the Day of Atonement. 

     The Gospel shows you Jesus being arrested and brought to whom? The high priest. 

     The Gospel shows you the high priests accusing Jesus of blasphemy, placing what they say is guilt and sin upon him when, in reality, all they’re doing is transferring their own guilt onto him. 

     The Gospel shows you Pilate’s men ritually humiliating this “King of the Jews.” Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes off him. And then wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it. 

     The Gospel tells you that the calendar says Passover, but what John shows you is Pilate holding Jesus out to the crowd. And Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus? What do the crowds shout? Not “Crucify him!” Not at first. 

     First, the crowds shout “Take him away!”

     Then they shout “Crucify him!” 

     Ahzahzel 

     And then he’s led away, like an animal, to Golgotha, a godforsaken garbage dump. 

     John’s Gospel tell you its Passover, but what John shows you isn’t just a Passover Lamb but a Scapegoat, one who, as John the Baptist said, ahzahzels the sins of the world.

         Every year after the ahzahzel goat was led into the wilderness the red cord that had been tied around the goat was taken off. 

And the cord was hung on the altar in the temple where, over the next year, Jewish tradition says the cord would turn from red to white, signifying God’s forgiveness of the people’s sin. 

     However, according to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD that red cord stopped turning from red to white. The Talmud, I should add, was written by Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah. 

     According to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the temple was destroyed, the lot cast between the two goats on Yom Kippur no longer was able to discern a scapegoat. The whole process of atonement stopped working. 

     It was no longer effective, says the Talmud. 

     70 AD – 40 AD = about 30 AD. 

     In other words….

     Around the time Jesus was led away to Golgotha while crowds shouted ‘ahzahzel’ the atonement that had been repeated year after year since Moses met God on Mt Sinai- stopped working. 

     Says the Talmud. 

     Or maybe you could say it stopped working because it had already worked perfectly. 

     Maybe you could say it had worked once and for all. 

There’s a reason you don’t see any goats around here— it is finished. 

The Seventh Word

“Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

“And having said this,” Luke concludes for us, “Jesus breathed his last.”

Or, as the King James Version puts it: “Having said thus, Jesus gave up the ghost.”

Just as it sounds odd to hear that in her belly Mary bore the Maker of Heaven and Earth, it should strike us as every bit as odd to hear that Jesus Christ is dead. 

John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that no one can see the Father apart from the Son, which means when Jesus is dead, God is as good as gone. 

Jesus has told us that he alone is the way, the truth, and the life— that no one can come to the Father except by the Son— but now his way has led him to a cross. 

His way has been done away by the way of the world.

God is dead.

Elected over Barabbas, Jesus becomes the persecuted for righteousness’ sake. 

Giving up his spirit, Jesus becomes the poor in spirit.     

Dying on a cross, Jesus becomes the Beautitudes.

The Beautitudes are Jesus. 

And we are the antitheses.

In all our theologizing about the story, we conveniently forget— Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.  

And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. 

The people who get Jesus to give up the ghost— Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem— they were all from the best of society not the worst. 

     And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. Even the chief priests’ reasoning, if we admit it, is right: “It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…” 

That’s a perfectly rational position. 

It’s the position around which we’ve ordered the way of the world. 

     The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves. 

     

     But in the end, what Luke gives us is different, plainer and more troubling. 

Luke gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us. 

     The theologians give us theories about why Jesus had to die, but Luke just leaves us with Jesus giving up the ghost and wondering if the cross is the best we can do? 

Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to push him out of the world on a cross? 

     Luke gives us the painful irony—

Those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in. 

     And I think that is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail. 

     They make the cross seem almost reasonable. 

     They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin. 

     Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God. 

     They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are. 

That’s why the crowds are always smaller on Good Friday. 

     We don’t want to confront the truth that, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. When the Living God comes close inevitably we defend ourselves.  Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross. 

We leave in silence on Good Friday because there’s not yet any good news here.

There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this:

A confrontation with God— a God who wills only to be gracious— that ends with Jesus dead. 

     The Gospels leave us with the bitter irony that the only person who can touch us and heal us and forgive us and make us whole is dead. 

Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. 

     Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.

     

          

     

Martin Luther said that God loves to hide himself behind his opposites. Though we prove time and again to think we need to strive and succeed so that we might be found acceptable by God or, in succeeding, find God in God’s glory, the God who condescends to us in the suffering Christ never stops so condescending, meeting us not in our triumphs but in our struggles, suffering, and failures.

Friend of the podcast Chad Bird, is back to talk about his new book Upside Down Spirituality: The Nine Essential Failures of a Faithful Life. You can find it here

In our age when the church can too often seem like a poor copy of the world, Chad Bird challenges us to reclaim the astounding originality of our ancient, backward faith. Where the world stresses the importance of success, Bird invites readers to embrace nine specific failures in the areas of our personal lives, our relationships, and the church. Why? Because what human wisdom deems indispensable is so often an impediment to our spiritual growth, and what it deems insignificant is so often essential to it.

With compelling examples from the Bible and today, Bird paints an enticing picture of the counterintuitive, countercultural life that God wants for us. He helps readers delight in all of the ways that Jesus turned the world upside-down, allowing us to experience true freedom, not from our weaknesses but in the midst of them.

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Holy Thursday — Matthew 26.17-29

“For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano— on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob. 

On a recent morning, my neighbor Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickens the Fergusons keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop. 

In her Newsweek story “Divided We Eat: What Food Says about Class in America,” writer Lisa Miller notes the the language of worship and devotion in how her neighbors,  the Fergusons, refer to themselves as “disciples” of Michael Pollan, who wrote the 2006 book which made the locavore movement a national phenomenon. 

Miller writes:

“[Alexandra Ferguson] believes that eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to their existential happiness—and, indeed, to the survival of the planet.

“This is our tithe. This is my offering to the world,” says Alexandra,we contribute a lot. What’s on the table represents our goodness— our efforts to be good and do good.”

Lisa Miller goes on in “Divided We Eat” to demonstrate how food is the first form of conspicuous consumption in American history that’s divisive. 

The excesses of America’s elites have always been open to critique; however, their indulgences have always simultaneously united Americans. The cool car, the big house, the luxury fashion brand— the lifestyles of the rich and famous have traditionally unified people because people who didn’t have those things aspired to have them. 

Conspicuous consumption has always united Americans, Lisa Miller argues, because the have-nots have always wanted what the haves have.

The Food Culture, though, is different. 

Food is uniquely divisive in America, Miller suggests, because people who eat Big Macs instead of local kale don’t want the local kale. Worse, the Big Mac eaters resent the cleaning-eating, all-organic crowd’s disdain and self-righteousness.  

Food has always been inextricably linked with Judaism and Christianity, but in America Food has become a rival religion— what my friend David Zahl calls a seculosity— and it’s an idol that has inverted the symbolism of the table for those more ancient faiths. 

In our politics today we speak often of everyone having a place at the Table, but in our new religion— the religion of Food— only the faithful are welcome.

Thinking ourselves advanced, Miller says, we’ve gone backwards and made the Table an icon of division. 

———————-

What Jesus does with his last meal, however, undoes what we’ve done to the ancient iconography of the Table. 

After all, Jesus’ last meal is Jesus’ last meal because Jesus has been betrayed by Judas, yet even before the supper has been served Matthew wants you to know that Judas remains welcome at Jesus’ supper table. Betrayal unto a god-forsaken death on a cross apparently makes for awkward dinner conversation. 

As soon as Jesus sat down in the upper room, Jesus prophesied his imminent passion: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 

Matthew tells us that upon hearing this prediction the disciples became “greatly distressed,” the very same language John uses to describe Jesus praying before the grave of Lazarus who’d been four days dead. 

Greatlydistressed, the disciples respond one after another “Surely, not I Lord?”

Surely not I, Lord!?

So Jesus elaborates: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” 

The bowl to which Jesus refers is the basin of water required by the Law for the ritual hand-cleansing prior to the passover meal. The bowl was part of the prescribed place setting; the handwashing happens near the top of the script for the holy supper. 

That is, Jesus outs his betrayal by Judas just as Jesus passes the bowl of water— family style— around the table. 

Judas is still holding the bowl, both his hands and the towel damp, as Jesus drops the truth of Judas on Judas: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”

And Judas passes the basin and towel to the next disciple and says: “Surely not I, Rabbi?”  

Notice, Judas does not call Jesus “Lord” like the eleven; he calls him “Rabbi.” Judas can be a traitor because to Judas Jesus is not the Lord. Judas’ treachery is made possible because to Judas Jesus is not the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and the firsborn of creation. 

To Judas— as he is to many today— Jesus is but another teacher among teachers. 

“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me,” Jesus says. 

Look, here’s the point:

The handwashing happens at the start of the passover script. Matthew doesn’t even pick up the story again until they’re in the middle of the meal.

They wash up. 

Jesus airs the dirty secret about Judas ratting him out.

Judas responds by lying and— noticeably— not calling the Lord Lord. 

And then what?

And then Jesus serves him supper, that’s what. 

Jesus eats and drinks with sinners even if it kills him.

Medieval painters always depict Jesus giving over the gossip about his betrayl as the moment of shock at the Last Supper, but that just goes to show how few Jews those artists knew. 

The moment of shock at the supper comes later in the meal. 

———————-

This Last Supper is the twelve’s third passover meal with Jesus. It’s the third time they’ve marked the doorframe with the blood from a lamb— just as the script instructs— blood to remind them the cost of their deliverance was death. 

It’s the third time they’ve set the supper table for Jesus. 

Just as the script instructs, they set the dinner table not with a single cup and a lone loaf but with four cups of wine— that’s why they fall asleep later in the garden, they’re hammered. 

Each cup, according to the supper script, symbolizes of a part of Israel’s life with the God who brought them out of Egypt. 

This last supper is the third passover they’ve laid out with the ingredients the Bible commands:

   

Nuts and Fruit Shaped to Look Like Bricks to Remember Their Forced Labor Under Pharaoh

A Plate of Bitter Herbs to Recall the Bitterness of their Slavery in Egypt

A Bowl of Saltwater Symbolizing the Tears Shed During their Long Captivity

Unleavened Bread to Remind Israel of the Haste with which they Fled for Freedom

And Lamb to Point Back Towards the Cost of their Freedom

There’s always lamb on the supper table, sourced according to the rules of scripture for the sake of righteousness. The lamb is the star of the supper. 

The lamb is the main if for no other reaon than the sound and the smell of lamb was unavoidable for the passover pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. Passover week you couldn’t come to Jerusalem for the supper without being aware of all the lambs. 

The Jewish historian Josephus writes that two million Jews crowded into Jerusalem each year to celebrate the Passover. 

Two million people: teeming like tourists, filling all the hotels, arguing over tent space on the Mount of Olives, and all of them- all two million of them— searching for, sourcing and shopping for the right ingredients to keep the feast.

Now, according to the script given by God in the Bible, it takes at least ten people to celebrate a Passover supper.

You do the math: a couple million divided ten ways. 

That’s 250,000 lambs in Jerusalem when Jesus entered it donkey-back on Palm Sunday— lambs clustering into gateways, lambs bursting down passageways, lambs pouring into barns and shelters, and lambs making markets chaotic. 

One-quarter million lambs— imagine the sound for most of that week. 

The constant all during holy week would’ve been the bleating of all those baby sheep being readied for supper. It’s a wonder that anyone heard him when he shouted “You’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves!” 

And any foodie would know— it wasn’t just the sound but the smell. 

The morning of the supper (straight through that Thursday afternoon) every single householder would’ve brought their lamb to the Temple where they’d kill it with their own two hands, taking care not to strangle it.

Just as the script demanded.

There at the Temple two long lines of priests, robed in their vestments, would’ve received the blood of every one of those 250,000 lambs in a cup. Like an assembly line, each cup is passed from priest to priest through the Temple until finally it’s splashed upon the altar.

By the time the twelve are setting the supper table for their third meal with Jesus, the blood of all those lambs has flowed from the altar and out through pipes in the Temple floor and into the Kedron River; so that, by the time Jesus hosts the supper for the last time, the river has turned to a red, moving sludge— just like the Nile before Pharaoh let God’s People go. 

The lamb was the most obvious ingredient. 

The lamb was the icon of the table. 

And yet—

At this last passover, Jesus changes the script, and he deletes the line about the lamb. According to the script, about a quarter of the way in to the meal, Jesus is supposed to take the bread and scrape it together with the lamb and he’s supposed to say “This is the body of the Passover.” 

“This is the body of the Passover.” This— as in, this lamb is the body of the Passover. That’s what Jesus, the host, is scripted to say. Instead Jesus says “This is my body broken for you.”

That’s what Leonardo should’ve painted because you can be damn sure that’s where the needle on the Bible record scratched off. “This is my body broken for you.” 

And then— Jesus changes the script again and sticks himself in it. 

When Jesus pours the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption, the cup that remembers the deliverance God worked all in Egypt, Jesus doesn’t say as scripture scripts him to say: “This is the blood of the Passover.”

   No, you know our script. 

He says: “This is my blood poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” 

Not the blood of the passover. This is me. 

He never mentioned the lamb because, like the bread and the wine— he’s it.

On this third and last time, with wine and bread, with his betrayer to Pharaoh seated beside him— I mean, Caesar— Jesus says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” 

This body of the passover is me.

Which is not only a way of Jesus saying with wine and bread “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” but it’s also a way of  Jesus saying “These creatures of wine and bread— they are the Creator, who has and who is and who will deliver you from captivity.”

With bread and wine, Jesus signals that he is both the cost of the passover and the Living God who carried it out. In doing so, Jesus undoes what Judas attempts to do— what we so often attempt to do— that is, with bread and wine Jesus makes it impossible for us to separate the person of Christ from the work of Christ. 

Because he’s given us the bread and the wine, no longer like Judas can we call him “Rabbi” without also confessing him as “Lord.” Christ does not simply point to the truth by his teaching— indeed there is no such thing as “truth” that lies behind Christ to which Christ might point— Christ just is the way, the truth, and the life. 

Just as Christ binds all of himself to the bread and the wine, those who eat it accept all of him. That is to say, to eat of the bread that is his body and drink of the wine that is his blood means you cannot have this Jesus as your Teacher without also having him as your Lord and Savior. 

Likewise, the bread and the wine mean that you cannot have Christ as your Lord and Savior without also having Jesus as your Teacher. 

For in declaring by bread and wine that he is the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt, Jesus simultaneously declares that through bread and wine we are made the Israel of God. 

To get hung up on material questions like “How can the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ” is to miss the more fundamental transformation of the meal; that is, through the body and blood of this passover, Christ makes us his pilgrim people. 

The invitation to eat and drink of the Lord who is our passover, therefore, is an invitation to be initiated into the New Israel, who witness to a reality otherwise unavailable to the “real” world. 

———————-

“You are what you eat,” we say, which is a frightening thought considering it makes me alot more Big Mac, Beer, and Flaming Hot Cheetos than Kale or Quinoa, yet even more frightening is that, after tonight, there is no Gospel without those who eat and drink this bread and wine.  

With this bread and this cup, Christ makes it impossible for there to be a Gospel apart from the People constituted by eating and drinking the Gospel. 

We cannot separate the person and work of Christ, the Church has always taught, but we ourselves— the Church— are the work of Christ who cannot separated from his person. 

Which is to say— what the Church has always said— that outside the Church there is no salvation. Or, better put: without the Church there is no salvation. 

Without the Church, there is no salvation. 

For as Jesus declares here with bread and wine, and as Jesus teaches again and again in the Gospels, salvation is his Kingdom People feasting with him at Table. 

“People will come from east and west, from north and south,” Jesus announces in Luke, “and they will feast in the Kingdom of God.” 

“The Kindgom of God is like a wedding feast, with wine and food…” Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. 

“Drink from this, all of you;” Jesus invites us tonight, “for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Truly, I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”

Until that day when I drink it new with you…

Without the Church, there is no salvation because salvation names what only this Table heralds. 

Until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.

We always leave off this last line, but the emphasis in any good sentence falls at the end. Jesus would have us do with this meal the opposite of what we so often do with this meal. 

We sometimes think, especially on a day like Holy Thursday, that Christ gives us this bread and wine so we can look backwards in time to what Christ has done for us. “Do this in remembrance of me,” the communion celebrant always says at our table, yet notice how Jesus does not say any such thing at his Table. 

Jesus does not speak of remembering at all. 

Jesus speaks of anticipating. 

Jesus does not point backwards. 

Jesus gestures forwards. 

To the extent we remember anything at all in the eucharist, we’re remembering the future.

Indeed the future is the only direction for us to go if this new passover in fact make us his new Israel. If he is to make us his new Israel with this meal, then he does not give us this bread and wine so that through them we might remind the world of Christ, as though he is dead. 

Rather, if Christ our Passover aims to make us his Israel then at this Table we are fed by Christ so that we might become Christ’s memory for the world in order for the world to be reconciled. 

Christ is in the world, in these things, bread and wine, so that through his Body, the Church, all things might be reconciled to him. 

And so this Table tonight is not like so many of our tables. 

It is not a Table of division. 

It is not a Table set aside for the righteous or the clean, the faithful or the good. 

While we are yet sinners, this is a Table where Christ our Lord dines with the ungodly and, by doing so, unites us together until Christ comes back in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

The bread and the wine— they’re not a memorial. 

They’re binding agents.

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“Father forgive them for they don’t understand what they’re doing.”

Really? They don’t understand?

And what does the Christian tradition mean by claiming that understanding proceeds from faith rather than being the means by which we arrive at faith (or unfaith)?

Working our way through the alphabet, Johanna, Teer, and I talk about Understanding in the latest installment.

 

Here’s a conversation I had with the wonderfully thoughtful and freeingly vulnerable, Carrie Willard. We talked about parenting, pastoring, Law and Grace, anxiety, and irreconcilable relationships in families.

Carrie is an attorney who works for Rice University and moonlights as a speaker and writer for Mockingbird Ministries. She’s also a clergy spouse. It’s one of the conversations for which I’m deepy grateful. The Mockingbird talk we reference in the conversation is here.

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