Turns out, DT isn’t the OG.

Harding and Trump have much in common. They are among the most allegedly corrupt presidents in U.S. history. Their Cabinet teams have been racked by scandal. Like Harding, Trump’s personal morals are the antithesis of what religious Christians profess to demand.

But, like Harding, Trump maintains the support of the faithful because of his policies and the attention he lavishes on Christian voters and their faith leaders. Both presidents sought religion-based immigration bans. They criticize international organizations, avoid broad alliances and insist on America first, last and only.

And they use the Bible to justify their policy proposals. Trump, like Harding, praises the devout, advocates policies consistent with evangelical readings of the Bible and seeks to use his office to advance evangelicals’ theological agenda.

Donald Trump isn’t the first President with whom Christians went all in, using their mutual fear of the other to justify and excuse all manner of corrupt behavior. Before there was The Donald, there was Warren G.

Dr. Sutton recently wrote an article in the Washington Post that got our attention for this episode.

You can find it here:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/11/21/explaining-unbreakable-bond-between-donald-trump-white-evangelicals/

Matthew is the Edward R. Meyer distinguished professor of history at Washington State University. The author of award-winning books, including American Apocalypse, and the recent book, Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War, he lives in Pullman, Washington.

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Here’s my review in the latest issue of the Christian Century. I confess that it was both a treat and a terror to review a book by the likes of DBH.

You can find the article here:

https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/david-bentley-hart-s-polemic-against-alleged-doctrine-eternal-hell

Some years ago, I co-officiated at a burial in Arlington National Cemetery along with a megachurch pastor who was famous for his pithy radio spots aired in the Washington, D.C. area. A fundamentalist member of the immediate family had insisted on the participation of a pastor “from a Bible-believing church.” When parts for the brief liturgy were doled out, this pastor told me, “I’ll just say a few words.”

The deceased man had died too early and far too slowly of cancer. After I prayed and read from the First Letter of Peter about the promise of an imperishable inheritance, my co-officiant stepped to the head of the casket and, after acknowledging the deceased man’s bravery and accomplishments, informed us that he had nonetheless “failed his most important mission.” 

“He’s lost forever to us— and to God— because he never accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior,” the pastor said. Then he invited all of us gathered by the grave to “treat this tragedy as God’s way of giving you an opportunity.” 

I wondered whether the horror on the widow’s face was directed at him or at the God of whom he spoke. Only later did it occur to me that nothing this pastor had said to us about God and eternity had been biblical. It had sounded Christianish, sure, but none of it came from the Bible he’d waved in the air. By contrast, the ancient liturgy I’d celebrated was really nothing more than a pastiche of promises straight out of scripture, beginning with the very last of Christ’s words of grace: “I died and behold I am alive forever more, and I hold the keys of hell and death.”

In his little book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart recalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent his wife or any of his four children from being swept to their deaths. The father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here . . . he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father in the moment of his deepest grief, what should you say? Hart argues that only a moral cretin would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation: “Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Most of us, Hart says, would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. Hart then takes his point to the next level: “And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” 

His point is as prophetic as it is pastoral. If we mustn’t say such things to a father in grief, we ought never to say them about God. Indeed, if we are able to utter such things about God, it’s a sure sign that scripture has been conscripted into the service of a dogmatic tradition and, thus, religion has corrupted our conscience. 

Beating at the heart of That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation is this same righteous indignation. As readers of his previous work will anticipate, the book displays the diverse range of Hart’s intellectual gifts. It is at once a theological argument, an exegetical examination, a patristic study, a metaphysical inquiry, and an astringent and often playful polemic against the alleged doctrine of eternal hell. But behind the turns of logic and philosophical jargon, That All Shall Be Saved is primarily a work of a stirred and unyielding conscience. 

Hart insists that the transcendent God of absolute Love and infinite Goodness would not bring into existence a world in which one or more human beings might be condemned to everlasting misery and suffering. If this key claim is true, then it surely follows that “the God in whom the majority of Christians throughout history have professed belief appears to be evil (at least judging by the dreadful things they say about him).” 

The elegance and erudition of Hart’s sometimes overwrought prose can prove misleading. Whereas Flannery O’Connor employed bizarre characters and grotesque plot turns to shock her readers awake, Hart deploys syllogisms and writings of the church fathers to the same end. Readers who would place Hart nearer to Plato than, say, Amos have not grasped the pathos behind the writing. As much as the prophets, Hart thunders against the corrosive effects of Christianities rendered cruel through their incoherence. In doing so, he alerts readers to a simple but often forgotten truth: if the behavior or character of the deity you describe would elicit moral revulsion when attributed to any other creature, then the god in question is but a creature. It is not the Creator. 

His theological arguments and scriptural exegesis aside, it really is that simple for Hart— just as it was, he argues, for more of the ancient Christians than their posterity has permitted us to remember. The Father is not less merciful than the Son enjoins his disciples to be, nor does the Spirit sow fruit in us that is absent in or incongruent with the Father’s own attributes. God is good, as we teach our children. And we can teach our children that God is good because our conception of the good is analogous to the God who is Goodness itself and who has been disclosed to us in the self-giving of Christ. As Gregory of Nyssa taught, “the Word and he from whom he is do not differ in their nature.” 

Because the fullness of God dwelt in the Word made flesh, our words—words like good, love, and justice—are not empty. And if they are empty and correspond to nothing ultimately true, then Hart is right to conclude that there is no meaningful distinction between perfect faith and perfect nihilism. When our theological language has been so emptied of true corollaries in God, and when terms like justice and eternal punishment are paired together, “the boundaries of the rational have been violated.”

The brevity of That All Shall Be Saved is itself a feature of Hart’s argument for universal reconciliation. For Hart, the argument against infernalist and annihilationist understandings of hell and for the salvation of all is straightforward. It’s a simple matter because the gospel is really quite uncomplicated. 

For the evangelists, the epistle writers, and the earliest of the church fathers—who, unlike Augustine, could read the original language of the New Testament texts—the unambiguous story of salvation is that of “a relentless tale of rescue, conducted by a God who requires no tribute to win his forgiveness or love.” The good news proclaimed by the earliest church fathers was a story not of God rescuing us from himself but of God delivering us from death, the consequence of a broken creation. The gospel for the first Christians, who were best positioned by time, place, and language to understand it, was the “epic of God descending into the depths of human estrangement to release his creatures from bondage to death, penetrating even into the heart of hades to set captives free, recall his prodigal children, and restore a broken creation.”

At the beginning, Hart frames That All Shall Be Saved as a postscript to his recent translation of the New Testament (The New Testament: A Translation, 2017). Understanding the connection between the two is necessary for understanding his book, for Hart believes that once the accretions of interpretative bias are peeled away from the biblical texts, the all-ness of God’s saving will and work is obvious. Hart is unequivocal in his argument and unsparing in his polemic because he insists that belief in eternal hell relies upon assumptions which are foreign impositions—born of bad translations of the biblical texts—upon the original glad tidings of the church. 

Hart’s rhetoric is unbending because belief in the infinite torment of a finite soul, or even the permanent loss of that soul through annihilation, is only possible once you’ve confused the kerygma which inaugurated the church. None of the earliest expositors of the faith, Hart points out, incorporated into the gospel “the discordant claim that innocent blood had to be spilled to assuage God’s indignation.” Instead the God who is the creator of all is determined to be the savior of all. Death, not sin, is his enemy, and the aim of his incursion in Christ is not the appeasement of his wrath but the healing of all that he had formerly declared very good. 

But what about the verses about “the gnashing of teeth” and about the sheep being separated from the goats? Hart anticipates the question, playfully noting that “if Paul really believed that the alternative to life in Christ is eternal torment, it seems fairly careless of him to have omitted any mention of the fact,” and that Jesus “in the gospels simply makes no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering.” These rejoinders come between Hart’s painstaking excursus, verse by verse, through the Greek of the texts in question. Along the way, Hart notes how the term “hell” itself is not present in any of the scriptural texts; it’s an Anglo-Saxon word that translators attach to the specific, geographic, time-bound places used in the texts. In those few texts, Hart also notes, it’s always deployed in passages that are narrative, pictorial, and hyperbolic and thus meant to be received as metaphor. In contrast, whenever the New Testament speaks of the universality of God’s salvation in Christ (47 times by Hart’s count) it does so in bald theological assertions (as in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life”) which can be taken in no other way but literally. 

Hart’s stroll through the relevant texts comes in the second of the four meditations which comprise That All Shall Be Saved. In the first meditation, “Who Is God? The Moral Meaning of Creatio Ex Nihilo,” Hart argues that the doctrine of creation is not merely an explanation of origins but is an eschatological claim, every bit as concerned with our whither as our whence. Precisely because that whence is sheer gift, the whither—if God is indeed Good—can only lead to one end, himself. Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. To preach fire and brimstone one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image . . .”) into the past tense. Creation from nothing, as church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate—as in teleological—relation to creation.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is already and eternally sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not nature but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity. Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God “needs” for creation to reveal his goodness. Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God “must” bring to fruition his purpose in creation. 

“In the end of all things is their beginning,” Hart argues, “and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.” What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate, Hart claims, borrowing from Gregory. Creation is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day six of creation, but names the plot of the entire salvation story. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God “created” when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good. Belief in an eternal hell, in which some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost, forsaken, or annihilated, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated without all of humanity included in it.

“What Is Judgment? A Reflection on Biblical Eschatology” is Hart’s second mediation, in which he recovers the hell he believes the first Christians and church fathers anticipated, a fire of God’s judgment that is neither retributive nor eternal but is, as Malachi prophesies, a refining fire. Purgation is not damnation. A finite creature could never justly merit an infinite punishment. The gospel is that God in his love and justice is “dragging all of sinful creation unto himself,” and this means that prior to the consummation of all things every sinful soul will come before “the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds.” 

Hart turns to Gregory of Nyssa’s conception of the imago dei in his third section, “What Is a Person? A Reflection on the Divine Image.” Quite simply, we are not persons in isolation. The person I am is literally inconceivable apart from the people in my life. We are who we’ve loved. From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion: hell for some would be hell for all. If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven when they are in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me. Or if memory of them was blotted out from me to spare me the pain of knowing of their suffering, then the part of me they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, made shadows of their former selves, as C. S. Lewis famously sketched the souls in hell. Such a hell would require that the heavenly host be eternally lobotomized. 

Finally, in “What Is Freedom? A Reflection on the Rational Will,” Hart directs his ire against the most popular and admittedly compassionate defense of eternal hell. Many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity. God does not consign creatures to hell, the thinking goes, God merely consents to hell. God accepts the risk, inherent in any loving relationship, that some creatures will reject his love and choose hell over him.

Despite the tempered, rational appearance of this approach, to Hart’s mind it is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s respect for it, the argument sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage to sin and death. The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks, Hart argues, is that it employs an understanding of freedom that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear. 

The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom. For the church fathers, indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is not a sign of freedom but of a lack of freedom. It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin, not our liberty from it. 

For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will, and it is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well. We are most free when our will more nearly corresponds to God’s will. And just in case readers can’t connect this point to the issue of perdition, Hart continues: “It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”

If it’s true that we can choose hell rather than God, and forever so, then for those who do, Christ is not their redeemer. And if Christ is not their redeeemer, then he was not. And if he was not for them, then he was not for any of us, and the god who purportedly took flesh for the redemption of all captives is a liar and maybe a monster. In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.

During that burial at Arlington National Cemetery, to my shame I kept my mouth shut as the megachurch pastor speculated about the eternal torments that were now the deceased man’s just reaping. I maintained a respectful silence. I was cowed by the prejudice that his was an acceptable, coherent rendition of Christianity’s happy tidings. Though I suspect most do not actually believe in it (or else we too would be on street corners with bullhorns, trying to save souls), eternal hell remains the default doctrine among Christians, who believe that the Bible and the theology which emerges from it require them to believe it.

 Having done something like 500 funerals, I know that most people’s moral intuition tells them that, in the fullness of time, even the elder brother will join the father’s feast for the prodigal. Most of the time this moral intuition gets expressed in sentimentality. Just yesterday I was told, “Mom now has her wings with glitter all over them, soaring around with Dad.” We resort to kitsch to express what our gut tells us to be true because the church too often has been reticent to assert what scripture and tradition give them permission to profess.

Though at the beginning of the book Hart declares that he has no expectations of convincing readers, his is an argument that, frankly, I find irrefutable. But it will be sufficient to the church’s work and witness in the world if readers merely find Hart’s arguments plausible, and theologically and scripturally sound. If Hart can clear this meager bar, I’m confident that That All Shall Be Saved will send readers scurrying back not only to the Bible but to the ancient church fathers in the hopes of meeting Christians who unabashedly believed what they quietly confess. In the end, Hart’s book is a work of practical theology, equipping Christians to trust in the God of Love in whom most— if only furtively— already believe. 

Jason Micheli is pastor at Annandale United Methodist Church in Annandale, Virginia. He is the author of Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo and Living in Sin: Making Marriage Work between I Do and Death.

In many ways, Advent is a season that pivots not only between two aeons, the old and the new, but between testatments, old and new, and faiths, that of Christianity and Judaism. After all, Advent is largely the time when Christians anticipate the second coming by rehearsing the anticipating of the first coming found in Israel’s prophets. Therefore, this might be the perfect time to release our conversation with Jewish author and financier, Scott Shay.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Scott A. Shay has had a successful business career spanning Wall Street, private equity, venture capital, and banking. He co-founded Signature Bank of New York and has served as its Chairman since its formation. He has been a provocative commentator on many financial issues, including among others, how the banking system should best function to help society, the implications of a cashless world, and tax reform. Scott called for the re-imposition of Glass-Steagall and breaking up the big banks at a TEDx talk at the NY Stock Exchange in 2012. Throughout his life, he has been a student of religion and how religion ought to apply to the world outside of the synagogue, church, or mosque. In addition to authoring articles relating to the Jewish community, Scott authored the best-selling Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry (Second Edition, D evora 2008).

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Christian Politics

By Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University

A Sermon for Annandale Methodist Church

November 24, 2019

Jeremiah 23: 1-6

Colossians 1: 11-20

Luke 23: 33-43

I do not know about you but I have found going through these last three years exhausting.  One of the reasons I have found them exhausting is I have no idea what is going on.  Or it may be I think it is obvious what is going on and I do not have the slightest idea what could be done to right the ship. Something seems to have happened to our world and few of us have any idea how to put in back together.  

That I am a theologian should make some difference.  I have spent a life time reading books that should give me insight into the world in which we find ourselves. For example consider this passage from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

“For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity.  He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community.  While he declares himself before the masses to be one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual.  He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid, he considers them weak and they become weak, he considers them criminal and they become criminal.  His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare- faced cynicism.  In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god.   Contempt for humanity and idolization of humanity lie close together.  Good people, however, who see through all this, who withdraw in disgust from people and leave them to themselves, and who would rather tend to their own gardens than debase themselves in public life, fall prey to the same temptation to contempt for humanity as do bad people.”

Bonhoeffer wrote that sometime between 194l and 1943 while staying at the Benedictine Abbey Ettal.  The secret seminary he directed had been closed by the SS and many of the young men he had trained had been drafted only to be sent to Russia.  The passage I just read is obviously Bonhoeffer’s reflections on Hitler and the Nazi takeover of German life.  That it is so may mean it is not relevant for our situation because being ruled by a bore is not the equivalent to being ruled by a totalitarian murderous thug.  I suspect, however, it is all too relevant to our situation. 

I am aware that to begin a sermon with these kind of reflections risks offense.  I am visiting preacher.  I will say what I have to say and then get out of town.  I do not have to pay any price for a sermon, and some may wonder if it is a sermon, that seems far too political.  But then I hope to convince you that one of our failures as Christians has been our unwillingness to acknowledge and preach the politics of the cross.      

There is also the problem of using a sermon to support or criticize particular political opinions.  I obviously am not a big fan of Donald Trump while many of you may well think him as inspired leader for our time.  Yet you do not get your view in play because I am in the pulpit and you are in the pew.  I win.

Of course we try to avoid acknowledgment of the politics of preaching by underwriting the dogma that religion and politics do not mix.   It is assumed my negative view of Trump and those with more positive views should keep those judgments to themselves particularly when they are in church.  The only problem with that strategy, which I take to be an attempt to avoid conflict, is the importance of recognizing that few claims are more political than the phrase “religion and politics do not mix.”

That is particularly true when the attempt to keep politics out of the sermon is reinforced by the distinction between the public and the private.    Most of us are well schooled by the general presumption that religious convictions are “personal” or “private.”  “Private” means it is not incumbent on anyone else to believe what I believe.  

That commitment is assumed to take the politics out of religion.  Of course as the great historian, Herbert Butterfield, observed some years ago there is usually enough conflict in any church choir to start a war.  But that is a politics internal to the church .  No one, moreover, takes such a politics seriously.  The only problem with the relegation of religious convictions to the private means is that when what we believe is so understood what we believe is seldom thereby thought to be true.

By now I may have tested your patience to the breaking point. You came to hear a sermon and what you have gotten seems more like a lecture about religion and politics that you can well do without.  Where is the good news in these problematic generalizations about the relation of the church and politics?      

Here is the good news—“There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.”  Today we celebrate the feast day of Christ the King.  It does not get more political than that.  The temptation, of course, is to use the language of kingship to make the cross a religious symbol that has no political implications.  We are after all Americans.  We have never had a king or queen and we have not seemed less for not having monarchs.  Was not the War of Independence fought to free Americans from the reach of a king?

We are in the generic sense democrats.  Democracies do not have kings.  At least they do not have kings that actually rule.  We are, moreover, a liberal democracy which is dedicated to the project of making each of us our own tyrant.  To be an American means you have to do what you want to do.  

Jesus may have been a king but we will not be ruled by a king.  We will not be ruled by a king or queen unless we have learned to live as if we are each a monarch of our lives.  Yet the desire for freedom without limitation leads, as Bonhoeffer’s analysis presupposes, to servitude.       

But this is Christ the King Sunday.  If Christ is king it must surely be the case that there is no way to avoid the fact that there was and still is a politics in play that climaxed in his crucifixion.  The one who tempted him in the desert was revealed in the crucifixion as the false ruler that tempts us to be more than creatures of God’s good creation.  

It is not accidental that the feast day of Christ the King was established by Pius XI in 1925 in his encyclical Quas primas.  Pius was so concerned by the murderous reality of WWI he reasoned that the only hope of avoiding future conflicts depended on the public recognition and celebration of “Christ the King.”  We become a people incapable of killing one another through the recognition that Jesus is king. 

To be sure the politics we experience are democratic.  It is also true that there are few examples of the politics of democracy in the Bible.  Jesus is nowhere addressed as “Mr. President.”  Nor does he seem to be someone who might try to win an election.  Take up your cross and follow me does not sound like a winning campaign slogan.  I concede that there is one democratic moment in the Gospels—the people choose Barabbas.

I think the problem of articulating the politics of the cross in modernity is not because we are stuck with kingship language in a democratic social order.  No, I think the problem is Jesus.  In Colossians we are told “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.”  All things have been created through him—dominions, rulers, or powers.

What are these “powers?”  They are givens of God’s good creation that were meant to make our lives possible.  But they are fallen giving us the illusion that we are in control of our lives.  They were meant to make us cooperative and at peace with one another but they are now used to assert our will over each other.

But they have been exposed and thus redeemed by Christ making it possible for us to live in peace. What does it mean to say they are redeemed?  It is to say that the pretention that we are our own creator has been unmasked by the cross.  It is to say that if there did not exist a people who worship a crucified king then the world Bonhoeffer describes is never far from reality.    

Christ is king.  Christians accordingly must be the most political of all God’s creatures but our politics is not “out there.” Our politics is first and foremost here in this bread and wine.  Here we become for the world a people of peace in a world of violence.  Such a people are made possible by the forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness makes possible the acknowledgment that we can confess the sins of the past without trying to justify what was so wrong nothing can make it right.  Slavery was sin.    

There can be no question for us who worship a crucified savior—religion and politics do mix.  Indeed they do not mix but in fact they are one.   There is no politics deeper than the community that is gathered around the cross of Christ.  For it is assumed such a community has nothing to lose by acknowledging the truth about our failures to follow this Lord is about truth.  

We live in a dangerous world made more dangerous by our unwillingness to obey anyone other than this strange king of the Jews.  Do not be afraid but rejoice in the fact that you are a citizen of the kingdom of this crucified king.        

                   

Our guest this week is United Methodist pastor Parker Haynes who joins us to talk about his essay “Remember Our Story: Is the Future of Methodism, Anglican?” in which he argues that United Methodism has run aground not because of disputes over sexuality but because, in many core ways, the story of Methodism has come to an end. Our reason for being, that is, is no longer a reason to be a distinct set apart from the Church whence we came.

Here’s Parker’s piece here:

Does our future as United Methodists lie in returning to the global Anglican communion whence we came?

Here’s a reflection that comes to us from a friend of the podcast, Reverend B. Parker Haynes:

As The United Methodist Church has been consumed by an idolatrous focus on sex over the past decade, the Church has failed to see that in a few years this conversation will be null and void. The future of The United Methodist Church is in doubt, not because it is considering moving from an orthodox position of sexuality to a heretical one (the traditional view), or because it has oppressed LGBTQIA Christians and its position on sexuality is antiquated, patriarchal and hetero-normative (the liberal/progressive view). Instead, I offer that the future of our Church is in doubt because we have forgotten who we are. That seems like an overly simplistic and naive statement that cannot possibly get at the heart of the issue. But let me suggest that the central reason we are where we are is because we can no longer identify what it means for any of us to be a distinctly United Methodist Christian. What is at stake in the 2020 General Conference and beyond is not whether we will take a traditional or progressive position on sex, but whether or not we can reclaim our story as United Methodists.

 

The Church in the Modern Age: A Story Forgotten

Perhaps the most significant reason we have forgotten our story is because of the rise of modernity. Former United Methodist and now Episcopalian theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has said that the project of modernity is an attempt to produce a people who have no story except the story they chose when they had no story. In other words, modernity is an attempt to convince people that since we are rational, enlightened and autonomous individuals, there is no story, no narrative and no tradition that determines our lives except the one we choose for ourselves. Yet despite modernity’s attempt to be story-less, it too is a story. Modernity did not arise out of darkness ex-nihilo; it is a tradition that traces its roots to Christendom. But it is a story and a tradition that is false because human beings do not get to make up their own story; we have been “storied” through being formed as a community called the Church. We have been created, redeemed and sustained by the Holy Trinity. Our past, present and future have already been decided for us.

 

Ronald Beiner has sought to articulate the way liberalism, which is produced by modernity, has been able to convince us that we are a story-less people whose only identity is the one we create for ourselves. In his book “What’s The Matter With Liberalism?” he argues that in liberalism, we cannot distinguish between what is good and what is bad because human beings are reduced to individual consumers in which the freedom to choose is itself “the good,” meaning the true way of living our lives to the fullest. Therefore, nothing should restrict my freedom to choose how I live my life, including my own sexual preferences.

 

At first glance, this seems to be a traditionalist victory in the opening skirmish. But the problem is that liberalism is the air we breathe; we are all liberals. We all make up our lives believing we can define for ourselves what it means to be Christian. Conservatives, traditionalists, progressives and liberals all live in what Charles Taylor calls “The Age of Authenticity.” No one can tell me how to live my life or what to believe. In order to be authentic to who I am, I must figure those things out on my own. Even those of us who claim orthodoxy and submit to the Church’s teachings and the Book of Discipline first came to this understanding through a liberal trajectory. Traditionalists, like progressives, choose the ethics and biblical interpretations that fit their narrative rather than a wholesale subscription to historic orthodoxy. The reality is that we cannot go back to the pre-liberal, pre-modern era. To believe that we can defeat liberalism and reestablish the traditional values of the premodern church is exactly to believe the lie of modernity. We are not in control, we do not make up our lives and we cannot go back in time.

 

Virtue As A Way to Remember Story

This is not to say that all is lost. The true liberation of our enslavement to liberalism is not tighter restrictions, or more rules about who can do what as the Traditional Plan lays out. Liberation will only come through a return to the practice of virtue in the Church. As Christians, it is Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit who unites us into a common life and has given us shared practices that compose our fundamental identity as a whole, which we call the Church. The penalties and restrictions of the Traditional Plan cannot form us into a common life because we no longer acknowledge or render authority to the Church as our common life. One of Methodism’s best theologians, Stephen Long, professor of ethics at Perkins School of Theology, has done much critiquing of liberalism, but has also noted that the Traditional Plan turns the Church into a nation-state that attempts to enforce laws, which are then enforced by authorities. However, the Gospel of Jesus is not a coercive message that forces others to believe in God; it is a persuasive one that seeks to articulate God’s love for the world. We cannot participate in a common life together through coercion. Relearning virtue, on the other hand, can reconstitute us as a community with shared practices that united us as the Body of Christ.

 

Aristotle first articulated the idea of virtue thousands of years ago in Athens. For Aristotle, the virtues were the practices that held together the common life of all Athenians. Rather than trying to determine how you would act in a certain situation (the starting place for most modern ethics), Aristotle believed you should focus on developing character through habituated excellence (virtue) that would give you the skills necessary to act rightly in that situation. Furthermore, this character would help you to lead a truly good life, good not only for yourself as an individual, but good for the community as a whole. For Aristotle, the individual and the community did not have a different telos, as if what is good for me is not necessarily good for all, but rather what is good for me is good for all and vice versa. Thus, our chief end is to develop the kind of character through the practice of the virtues so that, rather than competing against one another through violence, we might engender a common life together.

 

In modernity, we do not live in a world that values virtue, much less one that cultivates it. Such a statement is proof since Aristotle had no conception of “value” as we use it today. That we use the word “value” to describe the things that are important to us demonstrates that modernity has created a world in which everything can be seen as an investment that has a price and can be bought and sold as a commodity in a liberal market economy. Thus we cannot even begin to return to virtue unless we, The United Methodist Church as a whole, can form the kind of habits that will produce people who can articulate that rather than being creators of our own story, we have been storied through the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ. We did not make ourselves Christians, we were made by others. We did not make up the tradition, we received it from others. Our belief in God is not an individual choice that gives meaning and value to our life. Instead, since God raised Jesus from the dead, we cannot do anything but believe and live in the community of saints.

 

Formed Through Liturgy

In order for us to cultivate virtue that will allow us to engender a common life as the community of saints, we need to first develop habits that will lead to the development of virtue. I suggest that these habits must be most significantly developed through our worship. James K. A. Smith has written extensively on worship as the arena through which our desires are properly shaped and directed toward God. There is no more effective habit-producing mechanism than liturgy. Liturgy is not only found in the Church’s worship, but everywhere from an NFL football game to a presidential address at a U.S. military base to a concert of a popular rock band. The liturgy found in the Church’s worship as the gathered Body of Christ centers around the eucharistic table to consume the Lord Jesus must be the liturgy that habituates us, shapes our desires, and lays the foundation for our story as United Methodists.

 

Unfortunately, in The United Methodist Church today, a majority of us have forgotten why the celebration of the eucharist is central to our community. Liturgy is a bad word in some congregations, and at the very least an outdated term that will hinder church growth. It is argued that today our worship needs to be relevant, entertaining, or a “fresh expression,” not boring, old or traditional. Most of our churches continue to celebrate the eucharist only once a month even though modern transportation has long allowed ordained clergy to lead worship every Sunday. When we shape our worship to be exciting, entertaining and only occasionally include the eucharist, we are creating habits that shape our story as a people who worship the god of modernity who caters to individualistic desires and provides optimism in a world of suffering.

 

One possibility of cultivating the kinds of habits through worship that would develop virtue might be to emphasize services of Word and Table with weekly communion. I would also suggest an emphasis on the Book of Worship or the Book of Common Prayer as a whole as a way to pattern our worship. Although it has been argued that one of the beauties of Methodism is our diversity in worship and style, I would argue that is an attempt to allow entertainment or excitement to form us. In actuality, there is much flexibility and room in the liturgy and a service of Word and Table can be adapted to appropriately reflect culture or the season of the year.

 

A counter argument might be that more liturgical traditions like Catholicism or Anglicanism are suffering decline similar to The United Methodist Church, and we must not be foolish enough to think that we will instantly be sucked out of our denominational struggles. Modernity and liberalism have formed us so deeply that it will be a long and difficult journey home and we will lose many along the way. But if we can develop the habits and virtues the early Church once had, maybe when we get to the end of all this chaos, we will at least be formed enough to know how to move forward and where the God of Jesus Christ is calling us.

 

The Future of Methodism: Returning to the Fold

As Methodists, we rightly celebrate John Wesley as the leader of our movement. Despite the number of references to Wesley today among Methodists, we forget many of the most important aspects of his ministry. Wesley remained an Anglican priest until he died and never wanted to start a new church outside of the Church of England. His intent was to reform the Church and reinvigorate it with the Holy Spirit. The question must be asked: When will the reformation be over? Where we stand today, we have lost more than we have gained. For most of our Methodist Christians in America, our Anglican heritage is unknown. Our distinctive theological emphases, worship practices, ecclesiology and social ethics are so muddled that most of our seminary students should not pass board examinations, but they do because of our growing need for clergy. How many of us can articulate what is it that makes Methodists distinct from Anglicans? In what ways are we more aligned with the Spirit, faithful to God’s call or ethically pure? We have lost sight of Wesley’s vision and forgotten our story as Methodists.

 

Our future lies in returning to the fold of the Anglican Communion. This does not mean that we must abandon all Methodist distinctives or emphases; we can seek ways to rejoin the family that allow us always to remember our heritage. But we can no longer remain separated and divorced from the Church that birthed us. We have forgotten our story because in many ways it has come to an end. Many of our protests against the Church of England have been heard and acted upon. There is no reason to continue protesting when the reforms have been conceded. Wesley never desired for us to exist as an end unto ourselves. It may be argued that the Episcopal Church has suffered a church split and declining membership so why would a move toward liturgy and unity better our chances? If our greatest need is numbers and increased church membership, then unity will not help. But if our greatest need today is remembering our story, who we are and why we began, then unity is the only answer.

 

Here’s a sermon on 1 Samuel 17.1-11, 32-51 and Revelation 12.7-12 from my intern David King, a student at Haverford College.

I remember sitting in Sunday school some years ago and hearing the David and Goliath story for the first time.  I’m sure most of you remember it too.  It ran something like this: 

David was a little shepherd boy working for his father. He’s the underdog that everyone can root for. He’s a good boy who follows the law. He is the youngest of the sons of Jesse. He’s the unlikely one of the bunch, handsome and ruddy, small and unassuming in stature. You get the picture. 

The Sunday school teacher described the meaning of the story in three steps. 1) David was chosen and went to the river to get five stones. 2) “David is like you,” he said. “God has given you great gifts.” 3) like David, he went on, if you use those gifts, you can defeat your Goliath. 

As the saying goes, God sometimes puts a Goliath in your way so you can find the David within you. Thankfully, I had the great advantage of not having to look far to find David. 

Point is, much like me, my namesake isn’t the center of the story. In the ancient church, David was interpreted in light of Christ, as what St. Augustine calls a ‘prefiguration.’  This means that what occurs in David is an imaginative advance of what is accomplished in Christ.  David is the vessel by which the good news is communicated.  What my Sunday school teacher missed was not that David was a sinner, though the curriculum skipped over that for the most part as well; no, what my Sunday school teacher missed in the telling of the story, in the centering of David in the narrative, was Jesus.  

That the early church was committed to understanding the story of the Hebrew scriptures as the same continuous revelation of Christ meant that they were also committed to a rather creative reading of the text. If the Hebrew Scriptures were gesturing towards the fullness that is the Son of God, then they supposed that it could not be referring to our action. That is, David was never viewed or interpreted as a person we were capable of emulating, who was faithful to God, who lived a good life, who did all the right things and followed through when the time came.  He was not a moral example.  David stood in as a characterization of what occurs in Christ. 

The early church understood the opposition between David and Goliath to be an opposition between Christ and humanity in its captivity to sin.  The valley into which David descends to face Goliath is interpreted as Christ’s descent into hell.  He wrangles the devil, kills the death that holds us captive, and opens to us the life in him.  The battle of Revelation that is our second scripture is played out in the Davidic narrative.  

Now, bear with me here.  Let’s go through the story again.  Let’s listen to what the early church might have heard: Goliath, the giant of the time, the dominating force in geopolitics, decked out in the latest and greatest of armor and weapons, challenges the Lord and his people Israel.  He presumes to be God.  Goliath, you might begin to recognize, is a lot like us.  Goliath does not mince words: he is here to deny God’s presence and covenant, for as he says, “today I defy the ranks of Israel,” today I “curse David by my gods.”  David, the prefiguration of Christ, remains unmoved.  He announces Goliath’s defeat even before he approaches the battlefield, saying to Saul that “the battle is the Lord’s.”  David descends into the valley of death in order to meet Goliath head on – just as Christ condescends in the flesh to deliver us from the death that holds us captive.  The stone David launches at Goliath is the proclamation of the Gospel – Christ knocks Goliath off his feet with the full message of God’s steadfast determination to disallow Death a victory.  

With that stone, David denies us the ability to identify with him.  The stone he throws is “the stone the builders have rejected that has become the cornerstone.”  David, the early church saw, was to be identified with Christ, not ourselves.  David knew that Israel needed to be saved.  

Like it or not, we don’t need more Goliaths.  We don’t need more Goliaths because we already have more in common with him than we do with David; we don’t need more Goliaths because we can already see ourselves in him.  We defy God everyday.  We sin.  I mean, we armor ourselves with language and structures of security and its corresponding violence.  Everyday, we praise the gods of this world, giving them the honor and glory that only Christ deserves.  Everyday, we make the mistake of thinking ourselves to be a David, when the reality is we are a Goliath, to our neighbors and to ourselves.  How we treat our neighbors deeply how we treat God, and who among us can say that they have truly loved each and every one of their neighbors? 

Let me put it bluntly: the Revelation scripture today, through which we read the narrative of David, declares in unrelentingly militant terms that Jesus is Lord and that the powers of this world have been overcome.  Goliath has been defeated, struck dead by this truth.  The grip of sin on the world is no longer; Jesus has taken the violence that orients our lives and thrown it on its head.  David’s act prefigures Christ in the radicality of its claim: there is but one Lord, and it is God.

In 1916, Karl Barth declared that the church should not be a place of refuge, but rather a place of disturbance and crisis.  This is not because God is not our shelter in a time of storm; it is not because God does not care for us in our weakness.  The church is a place of disturbance and disruption precisely because of the Lord it proclaims.  The church is the place that witnesses to the overcoming of the powers of the world that is found on the cross and in the empty tomb.  The church ,constituted through its word and sacraments, is where the world is reminded that its violence will not be returned with violence but with the truthful speech of the grace of God.

The church is where we die to our goliath’s, where we die to ourselves.  St. Augustine notes that Goliath’s forehead, being the only part of his body not covered in armor, notably does not have on it the sign of the cross; that is, Goliath has, in all his armor, left himself vulnerable to the truth of the Gospel message, and it smacks him in the face.  The church is where we hear the Gospel that reminds us, ever so gently as a rock to the forehead, that in our armor of the world we have indeed sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  

However, as Revelation declares, this stone is also the stone that gives us new life, for in it “the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down.”  In this watery death, the death inaugurated by “the blood of the lamb,” we are invited into the life that is Christ Jesus.  The baptism we share wraps us into the truth that sets us free.  That is, our baptism is into death, setting us free from the clinging to life that is the narrative of this world.  We can, therefore, truly proclaim the goodness of God, we can rejoice with all the heavens because we have been released from captivity to sin.  We need not cling to life anymore, even in the face of death, because God in Christ has thrown down the great Dragon that accuses us before Him.  

Apart from God, we are resigned to the woe of the earth, to the devil’s wrath, to the self-absorption and endless failure of pretending to be God.  Without Christ Jesus, we are liable to identify ourselves with David, rather than with Goliath.  Without the God who descends in Christ and is crucified on our behalf, the kingdoms, empires, and nations would have final say in our allegiance.  

For apart from God, David reminds us, we have no hope.  There is no sword or power that can overcome the Devil: it is the blood of the lamb and the proclamation, the speech, that overcomes.  

Apart from the mercy of Christ and the truth of his freedom we are impotent to be ministers of the kingdom.  David reminds us of this – he is not a glorious majestic figure in the story.  The strength that ultimately defeats Goliath is not his own, for “the battle is the Lord’s.”  In fact, David strips of all armour and safety, taking with him only the markings of a shepherd, the markings of that same shepherd who is nailed to the cross: he makes himself vulnerable to the violence Goliath wishes to enact because the Lord does not save by sword and spear.  David, as the prefiguration of Christ, approaches Goliath with only the truth of the cross, the conviction that, truly, God does not return our violence with violence, but with the ever disruptive word of forgiveness and grace, the word of Easter.  

David is denuded, made to appear naked in front of Goliath’s menacing figure.  This nakedness is constitutive of a people who follow Christ, a people whose lives are marked by the truth of the cross.  Revelation shows us that the time of the devil is short, because he has been thrown down by the cross.  It is the cross on our foreheads and on our hearts that reminds us of the glory of God that makes us naked in the truth.  No pretensions can be held.  So, let us come, naked and free, to worship with Michael and all the angels, glorying in the forgiveness and love that is given to all creation by the blood of the lamb and the word of that testimony.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.  

Daniel 3, Philippians 4

     A couple of years ago now, my wife, Ali, my mother, and I were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the mauve exam room where my oncologist had just handed me the results of my latest PET scan. 

     I’d finished my 8th round of chemo 7 weeks earlier, about a year after getting a call from a GI doctor who started by asking me if I was sitting down. 

I’d been getting these double-over stomach pains for months. 

The following day I was waking up from emergency abdominal surgery to my wife kissing my forehead and telling me they’d taken an 11×11 inch tumor from my intestine and that I had a rare, incurable cancer called Mantle Cell. 

Just like Catniss Everdeen, the odds weren’t ever in my favor, and I thought I was going to die.

     I’d staggered across chemo’s finish line like a runner who hadn’t practiced on enough hills. 

     “So…other than my… what am I looking at?” I asked with bated breath, holding my most recent PET scan in my hand. 

    “You’re as clear as a “bell”, my friend,” the doctor said, punctuating the news with a warm, knowing smile. “All the tumors you’d had all over you are completely gone.” 

———————-

     The chemo had killed off the cancer in my body, but we all knew I still had Mantle Cell percolating in my bone marrow, which, in the absence of the chemo treatment, would soon-to-eventually return lumps and masses throughout my lymph system. 

     “What the scan doesn’t show,” the doctor said, scooting the little round stool closer to us, “is the level of activity of Mantle Cell in your marrow. We’ll need to do a bone marrow biopsy for that.”

     The reality that the cloud of cancer would never be completely removed from my body or our lives reasserted itself and hung over us. We nodded. 

     “Knowing the level of activity in your marrow will help us to gauge how we approach your maintenance chemo over the coming years.”

     “We’ll do it here in the exam room. We’ll drill down into the center of your hip bone and extract a couple of vials of marrow.”

     “Come again?” I asked. 

     “Did you say drill?!”

     “Yes, drill” he said, oblivious. 

     “And am I, like, awake during this drilling?”

     “Yes, but you needn’t worry. You’ll feel only a quick, momentary discomfort.”

I nodded, calming down.

          “Well, I do plan on giving you a prescription for oxycontin to take before you come in that morning.”

     “Oxycontin? I thought you said it would be only a momentary discomfort?” 

     He didn’t reply. 

     ‘Can I just go back to dying?’  

     He slowly drew a smile across his face and then threw his head back in what seemed with hindsight, less hearty and more a diabolical laugh. 

————————-

     I returned a week later for the bone marrow biopsy. 

     I held out my arm for the lab nurse to draw my blood work. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said, sliding the needle into me seamlessly, “for most people, after chemo, their hair grows back thick…”

“Very funny.”

     The nurse drew the needle out. 

     “It looks like I’ll be back with you for your biopsy today.”

     “Awesome,” I said and then shared with her how the oncologist had described it as a momentary discomfort only then to prescribe a dangerous opiate normally associated with right wing radio hosts and gin-slinging country club wives. 

She smiled like a preschool teacher. 

“You took it though, right?” looking at me, suddenly sober. 

     “I didn’t even fill the prescription.” I said, “I forgot.”

     “This should be…memorable,” she said, putting a cotton swab and tape over the puncture in my arm. 

     “For you or for me?” I asked. 

“Both,” she was back to smiling. 

     “What’s it feel like?” 

     She was putting labels on my vials of blood. “Some people scream.”

     “Some? What about the others?” 

     “They usually pass out.”

     “But what does it feel like? There’s no nerves inside the bone there so it can’t hurt, right?”

     She was, I could tell, thinking about something, remembering. 

She chuckled to herself softly, glanced over into the lab to see if her supervisor was listening and then said: “This one guy- he said it felt like a Harry Potter Dementor sucking his soul out of his rear end.”

     I’m not sure why but that struck me as probably the most terrifying thing she could’ve said. 

      

———————

     Laying down on my stomach in my birthday suit, I squeezed the corners of the mattress. He pressed his large left hand on my back, in between my shoulder blades, pushing down on me, and grabbed a screw-shaped needle big enough to throw light off the corner of my eye. 

     “You’re going to feel a little bit of pressure,” he said euphemistically as he started to twist the needle down into my bone. 

     “You’ve got strong bones.” He grunted. 

     “That’s probably because I breast fed until I was 12.” 

I heard the nurse giggle. He did too. 

He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. 

He was covered in sweat too. 

The nurse squirted some water into his mouth like he was a boxer in the late rounds. 

     “Okay, are you ready?” he asked. 

     Just then it felt like a cord was being pulled deep inside me, from my heel all the way up my spine. My legs both kicked involuntarily, like I was a corpse with a last bit of life in me.

     “Good,” he said, “now only 2 maybe 3 more times.” 

     When he finished, I stood up from the exam table, too tired even to pull my pants up. “You were right about that Harry Potter thing,” I said to the nurse breathlessly. 

     I was so sweaty that pieces of butcher paper were stuck all over my arms and face, like I’d just had the worst shaving accident in history. 

     The doctor patted me on the shoulder. “You’ve been through the fire, Jason. You’ve been through the fire.”

       “Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” I joked. 

     “Well, let’s hope there’s no lion’s den in store for you,” he said, patting me on the back.

———————-

My oncologist— it’s not his fault. 

He doesn’t know the Bible all that well. He grew up a Methodist. 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re not thrown into a lion’s den. 

They’re made to suffer an oven. 

A fire from which we get the word, holocaust.

What made the Babylonians unique among ancient oppressors is that, upon invading and conquering neighbor nations, they did not simply kill the best and brightest of their neighbors. 

They exiled their enemy’s best and brightest back to Babylon and forced them to become Babylonians. 

They gave them new names and new gods.  

They made them pagans. 

And, so Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re Jewish exiles, conscripted into the civil service under Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan King of Babylon. 

They’re Jews, but the names with which they’re named by Babylon pay homage to Babylon’s pagan gods. 

Shadrach (his Hebrew name had been Hananiah) is named for the pagan god of the moon. 

Meschach (his Hebrew name had been Mishael) is named for the pagan god, Aku. 

And Abednego (his Hebrew name had been Azariah) is named for the pagan god of wisdom. 

You see— for Jews, for whom the first and most urgent commandment is “You shall have no other gods but the one, true God,” to bear the name of a false god is a grave sin indeed. 

To carry the name of a pagan god is to expect that the true God has forsaken you. 

Or, worse, it’s to expect that whatever suffering comes to you has been sent by the God you forsook. 

     In the story, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are denounced for refusing to submit to the gods of Babylon and, by implication, for refusing to submit to the authority of Nebuchadnezzar. 

     So Nebuchadnezzar orders the three exiles gagged, bound, and cast into a fiery furnace but not before the king instructs his men to crank the oven up to seven times its normal heat, and seven— you should note the surprising clue— is the biblical number for perfection or completeness and, thus, it’s a number that foreshadows the presence of God. 

     The furnace gets so hot that the heat obliterates the guards who come close enough to the fire to toss the prisoners inside but not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 

     According to Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar and his courtiers can see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, walking around, unbound and unburned. 

     What’s more surprising, the bystanders report seeing a fourth person there in the fire. 

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and who exactly? 

“The fourth has the appearance of a son of God,” the counselor reports to Nebuchadnezzar. 

     The story in Daniel ends with a typical Old Testament flourish when King Nebuchadnezzar, having brought Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire, unsinged, throws off his former affections and declares: “…there is no other god like this Son of God!”

In other words:

There is no other god who meets us in the fire.

There is no other god who meets us in the crucible of suffering. 

———————-

    

     Here’s the thing— pay attention now:

Despite what so much of our God-talk implies, God is not the passive, inactive, fixed-point center of the universe to whom it’s your job, through prayer and piety, to grow closer. 

Jesus Christ is not just a God who suffers for us, for our sins. 

Jesus Christ is a God who suffers with us, with sinners like us— that’s what it means, as the Gospel promises us, for Jesus to be a friend of sinners. 

God doesn’t just take on our suffering in Jesus Christ. 

God joins us in our suffering in the Holy Spirit. 

It’s not on you to grow closer to God. 

God is already closer to you than you are to yourself. 

No matter what you’re going through in you life, God is completely active and present in it. 

That we don’t always perceive God’s presence in our troubles and suffering has less to do with God— even less with the strength of our faith— and more to do with where we think God is allowed to act in our lives. 

We lay down all these laws about where God’s allowed to act in our lives. God can be present in our worship, we think, or God can work through Bible study or prayer. 

We can find God, we think, in spiritual disciplines or in acts of service. 

But in our desperation? In our doubts? In our anxiety or addiction? In our suffering?

Surely God’s absent in our suffering, we assume. 

That we think God can only work in our lives through proper, pious channels but shows how we persist in construing Christianity as a religion of Law. 

But, it’s a religion of the opposite.

It’s a religion of grace.

It’s ironic how we don’t expect to discover God in our suffering anymore than Peter and the disciples expected to discover a suffering God. 

———————-

While I’ve not been burned or singed by flames, I do have the belly scars and the needle marks and the monthly nausea and the weekly panic attacks and the medical bills to prove to you that I am in the fire. 

     

     Here’s what Jason the Patient learned about the fire that Jason the Pastor didn’t appreciate. 

Just as learning I had Mantle Cell meant mourning the loss of the life I had and the loss of the future I’d envisioned, so too— paradoxically— finding out that I hadn’t died (just yet) meant mourning the loss of the life I’d found living with cancer. 

     This surprised me.

 

     As much as I wanted the nightmare called cancer to be over, I found a part of me grieving the news that I would (sort of) get my old life back. I found myself grieving the life I’d learned to enjoy with cancer. 

     What I had happened upon, without knowing it, is what the Protestant Reformers, starting with Martin Luther, termed a theology of the cross. 

Bear with me now. 

A theology of the cross is not the same as a theology about the cross. 

A theology about the cross says “While we were yet sinners, Christ on his cross died for us.” 

A theology of the cross says “My life was in ruins of my own making. 

My marriage was blown apart. My job was lost. My self-image was shattered by shame. My diagnosis trashed all my hopes and dreams. I thought God had forsaken me. I thought God must be punishing me. 

But God met me there in the crucible of my pain. God met me there in the crucible of my shame. God met me there in the crucifixion that was my suffering. 

A theology about the cross says “This is how God in Jesus Christ saves you from your sin.”

A theology of the cross says “This is where the God who has saved you in Jesus Christ meets you.” 

This is where God meets you in your own life. 

In your suffering. 

In your sin!

In your shame and your pain. 

A theology about the cross says “Christ and him crucified has taken away the handwriting that was against you.” 

A theoloy of the cross says “Jesus Christ joined me in my darkest moment when all I could do was stare at the handwriting on the wall.”

The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Jesus never chooses any other means to meet us than condescension into our suffering. 

That’s how Paul today can declare to the Philippians “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” 

Paul’s behind bars when he writes to the Philippians. 

Paul thinks he’s about to be executed. 

Paul can say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because the Christ who strengthens him is with him there in the fiery furnace. 

Christ has joined him in his suffering. 

The cross is not what lies at the end of Jesus’ journey.

For every one of us, the way to Jesus Christ goes through a cross.  

The cross is not simply the message we proclaim. 

The cross is the means God uses to get to us. 

As sure as I’m standing here today, I met Jesus Christ in the crucible of cancer. 

Or rather, Jesus Christ met me there. 

And I’m not special. 

Neither are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

This is how the Living God works. 

He meets us in the fire. 

     As my friend Chad Bird, writes: “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility and suffering, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.” 

     Bird just puts more politely what Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation where Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, God condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine and happy parts of our lives but in the steaming piles of you-know-what in our lives. 

    Blank happens we say, but a theology of the cross says wherever it happens, God happens, too. 

———————-

    

    When I first got the diagnosis of something for which I’ll never be in remission, I reminded my parishioners over and over again that “God is not behind this. God is not behind my cancer.”  

The paradox of the theology of the cross, however, is that though God is not behind my cancer, God is behind my cancer.

 

That is, God is not behind my cancer in terms of culpability, but God is behind my cancer in terms of condescension, wearing my suffering like a mask or a wedding veil, real enough to bring Nebuchenezzar to his knees and declare, “There is no other god like this!”

     I’d never foist my diagnosis an another, yet, at the same time, I’ve found God hidden behind it, present in what others might perceive His absence. 

You see, how preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient. 

In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed. By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer. 

No, God is to be found in our suffering.

     While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” anyone who insist that God isn’t in suffering. 

Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering, God is hidden, present, and there with us. 

Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel. 

Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace. 

“Where is God in my suffering?” 

It can be the worst question to ask because it implies God’s not present in our suffering. 

But then again, “Where is God in my suffering?” can also be the very best question if you’re looking for where God is in your suffering. 

Because’s he’s there. 

Because the Son of God who joins Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace is the same God who meets you in your own suffering. 

————————

     In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy. 

Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.

     The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

     Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses:

“Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. And all at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze and back away slowly. One is not bold in an encounter with God.”    

    

The doctor and the husband— they’d become theologians of the cross. 

    

In the past half-century, few theologians have shaped the landscape of American belief and practice as much as Stanley Hauerwas. His work in social ethics, political theology, and ecclesiology has had a tremendous influence on the church and society. But have we understood Hauerwas’s theology, his influences, and his place among the theologians correctly? Hauerwas is often associated―and rightly so―with the postliberal theological movement and its emphasis on a narrative interpretation of Scripture. Yet he also claims to stand within the theological tradition of Karl Barth, who strongly affirmed the priority of Jesus Christ in all matters and famously rejected Protestant liberalism. These are two rivers that seem to flow in different directions.

In this episode, theologian David Hunsicker offers a reevaluation of Hauerwas’s theology, arguing that he is both a postliberal and a Barthian theologian. In so doing, Hunsicker helps us to understand better both the formation and the ongoing significance of one of America’s great theologians.

You can find the book here.

Before you listen, go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com. Click support the show to become a patron of the pod, or check out our online store where you can get your very own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit T-shirt.”

 

 

Here’s my review for the Christian Century magazine of David Zahl’s book Seculosity:

Last Halloween I lit some logs in the fire pit, put a chair in the driveway, and passed out candy to the many versions of Elsa, BB-8, and Captain America who crept up my sidewalk. We’d just moved to the neighborhood. Sometime after dusk gave way to dark, a neighbor ambled up to the fire. We’d exchanged pleasantries a few times before. Noticing the bumper stickers on our cars, we’d congratulated each other on both graduating from the University of Virginia. Otherwise, we’d remained strangers.

He offered me a postcard announcing a Dessert with Democrats gathering. “We’d love to have you there,” he said, and asked about placing some campaign signs in my “ideally positioned” front yard. When I demurred on using the parsonage lawn for political advertising, he spoke of the stakes come November.

“Thanks, really,” I tried, “I’m just not . . . I’m . . . independent.”

“Are you one of those evangelicals (the word sounded rancid on his lips) who voted for Trump?”

“No, I’m not an evangelical,” I said. “I’m just not that interested in politics.”

He looked stricken, as if I was sheltering Nazis in my basement or had stolen kittens from children. “I just don’t understand,” he said, shaking his head, “how a good person—like you seem to be—could not be invested in politics and making a difference.”

“I’ve just got a different religion,” I said.

If David Zahl is correct, this Halloween encounter with my proselytizing neighbor is a slice of all of our lives. Seculosity names the religion-saturated culture in which we find ourselves increasingly angry, judgmental, and exhausted. The religions we adhere to are no longer the conventional Sunday morning varietals. They’re religions grounded in our stances on politics, food, parenting, and leisure—areas of life which would seem to be secular.

The fact that worship attendance continues to decline and an increasing number of people check “None” next to religious affiliation does not mean that Americans are done with religion. “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God,” said Augustine, no stranger to shifting religious landscapes, and no matter what Gallup finds in its polling, Augustine wasn’t wrong. The restless quest for what only God can give, Zahl shows, continues apace and is expressed with the zeal and fervency of the newly converted.

The irony exposed by Seculosity is that while churches wring their hands at their dwindling numbers, “we’re seldom not in church anymore.” The many articles announcing the decline of religion in America are not so much wrong as myopic: they are looking to the places where religion once thrived instead of to the places where religiosity has migrated. As the ability of Christianity to shape people’s lives wanes, people turn to secular activities “to provide the justifying story of our life.”

Justify is the key term. Zahl is not arguing that our convictions about politics or our investment in an exercise class are forms of idolatry, although they may be. Rather, they are activities from which we’re unconsciously attempting to derive our ultimate value. Religion, as Zahl defines it, is “what we lean on to tell us we’re okay,” to impute to ourselves the sense that we’re enough. A seculosity is a religious striving for “enoughness” that is directed horizontally—to career, technology, or politics—rather than vertically to God. Because the religious impulse cannot be quenched, we pursue enoughness outside of the traditional vertical mechanisms. We do so to the detriment of our well-being and that of our neighbors.

A quick foray into any thread about politics on social media will illustrate Zahl’s point. Discussion quickly devolves into self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and anger. The horizontal dimension cannot supply what the heart is wired by its Maker to seek. Ever restless by design, we’re increasingly exhausted by default.

In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor explains the explosion of secularity as unwinding in stages, beginning with the Reformation and culminating in the late 20th century with the rapid diversification of alternatives to traditional belief. “We are now living in a spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane,” Taylor writes. Using illustrations that are both funny and frightening, Zahl offers a kind of detailed ethnography of life in the spiritual supernova, that effulgence of religiosity that has followed the explosion of traditional religion.

The religious impulse cannot be quenched—only pursued outside the traditional places.

One effect of the supernova is that we’ve simply traded pieties. Whereas our predecessors could say, “I’m baptized,” we say, “I’m so busy,” and hope that the state of busy-ness is enough to justify our lives. Whereas ancient Christians apprenticed themselves to the saints, we count our exercise steps and Facebook likes to validate ourselves. We don’t pray to icons that serve as windows onto the divine, but we carefully stage and edit images for Instagram that will be windows for others to gaze upon a more perfect version of ourselves.

We might not believe any longer in a God who visits the sins of the parents upon their children, but we seem to believe that the achievements of our children will be reckoned as our own. Exhibit A is actress Lori Loughlin, who was indicted for using a bribe to get her daughter into a selective college. The language of righteousness strikes our ears as hopelessly archaic except when it comes to our political or other causes. We’re seldom reticent to excommunicate someone who commits heresy against our preferred ideology.

Seculosity shines its light upon on the conditional “if/then” construction of the promises seculosities make. If you eat organic and sustainably sourced food, then you will be enough. In the language of the apostle Paul and Martin Luther, the oughts and shoulds of seculosities pledge the very same promise that is at the heart of any religion based only on law. The promise is predicated entirely on our performance. Seculosities ultimately lead to exhaustion because we can never measure up to their ever-shifting standard of performance. They also lead to judgmentalism: the fact that we ourselves fall short of the standard doesn’t stop us from pointing out how others fall short.

By the conclusion of the book, readers are in on the joke of the subtitle “and What to Do about It.” Doing is exactly our problem. We’re busy producing, earning, climbing, proving, striving, and performing. We’re chasing our enoughness “into every corner of our lives, driving everyone around us—and ourselves—crazy.” The law is inscribed, Paul says, not just on tablets of stone but on every heart.

The remedy is to be found not in another exhortation about something we must do but in the proclamation of something that has been done for us. The conclusion of Seculosity is a contemporary companion to Luther’s thesis in the Heidelberg Disputation: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

In other words, relief from all our replacement religions just might be found in the opposite of religion—the promise of the gospel. Unlike religions of law, Zahl argues, Christianity does not instruct us in how to construct our enoughness. The language of earning is antithetical to the gospel. Christianity rather invites us to receive our enoughness, which is Christ’s own enoughness, as sheer gift. Our Christian activities are the organic fruit of our enoughness, not the stuff by which we earn it.

Much of Christianity in America has been construed according to the if/then formula. The gospel of grace has gotten muddled with the law. On social media you can find Christians making pronouncements like “If your church isn’t preaching about the border crisis this Sunday, you need to find another church.” Pastors make promises about the spiritual transformation, deeper discipleship, or fruitful marriages that can be gained through the prescribed practices or simple steps their church recommends. The message from many pulpits in America boils down to either “You can build a better world” or “You can build a better you.”

“Whether the goal is personal holiness or social justice,” Zahl contends, “the same dynamic holds sway: faith serves as a means to end, a spiritual method of producing such-and-such result.”

As much as I agree with Seculosity, I have the nagging suspicion that my agreement stems in no small part from my identification with its author and the culture he describes. Like Zahl, I’m a fortysomething, relatively affluent white guy. The replacement religions he identifies are the familiar pursuits of my demographic tribe.

We are enough. Our Christian activities are the fruit of this fact, not the stuff by which we earn it.

Being a foodie is not cheap. Apple’s AirPods are as much conspicuous consumption as they are earphones. The boxing gym my teenage son attends works hard to appear authentic and costs a pretty penny to do so. By definition, only the well-off have the luxury of investing food and leisure pursuits with the significance of a religious performance.

I note this sociological fact not to criticize Zahl but to suggest that his argument may go even deeper than he admits. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that the law increases the trespass, so it follows that seculosities would function not only as replacement religions but as vehicles for sin. That same letter indicates that an intractable feature of any religion is the propensity of its sinful adherents to make distinctions among people. We should not be surprised then that seculosities grounded in food interests, leisure activities, and parenting styles are not just secular outlets for religious impulses but secular ways to wage sin. They’re overt but socially acceptable ways to express how we’re superior to other—usually less affluent—people.

If the cultural landscape is rife with religions of law, and this religion surfaces even in the church, then perhaps the remedy is a return to the Protestant distinctives of “grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone.” Zahl writes in his conclusion:

The ultimate trouble with seculosity has nothing to do with soulmates or smartphones or tribalism or workaholism or even our compulsive desire to measure up. The common denominator is the human heart, yours and mine. Which is to say, the problem is sin. Sin is not something you can be talked out of (“stop controlling everything!”) or coached through with the right wisdom. It is something from which you need to be saved—even when the nature of sin is that it lashes out at that which would rescue it.

But one problem with the Protestant mantra of grace alone is that it can neglect the formation of a community of people who witness to God’s ongoing creation. As Stanley Hauerwas has argued, the gospel requires communities that perform the message being proclaimed. In that sense, performance need not be a bad word.

Furthermore, if people aren’t seeing around them a Christian community that plausibly invites them to perform their lives in the belief that Jesus has been raised from the dead, it’s more likely they will seek their righteousness in replacement religions. In a world without foundations, Hauerwas says, all we have is the church. To put it another way: in a world after the explosion of traditional belief, we all seek communities that make our lives and our religious impulses intelligible.

Over the past year I’ve gotten to know my neighbor down the street, and I’ve learned he’s more than the enoughness he gets through his political views. He’s a lonely man, and he also values the community he’s found in his political work. Through his progressive tribe he’s found friends who, he says, “just might show up when I’m about to die.”

As every pastor knows, participation in religion has as much (and usually more) to do with belonging as it does with belief. From what I can tell, communities built around CrossFit or politics can be better at building a community of accountability, challenge, and joy than many churches. Zahl, whose wonderful and nerdy first book was about rock music, can probably empathize with how people find secular communities of affinity to be vessels of communion.

As I finished Seculosity, I felt saddened by the thought that so many people are exhausted and unhappy in replacement religions because Christianity has failed to be for them a religion of grace. I also felt chastened to realize that some of my friends and neighbors are not unhappy with their new religion at all.

A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “What is religion now?”

Does our future as United Methodists lie in returning to the global Anglican communion whence we came?

Here’s a reflection that comes to us from a friend of the podcast, Reverend B. Parker Haynes:

As The United Methodist Church has been consumed by an idolatrous focus on sex over the past decade, the Church has failed to see that in a few years this conversation will be null and void. The future of The United Methodist Church is in doubt, not because it is considering moving from an orthodox position of sexuality to a heretical one (the traditional view), or because it has oppressed LGBTQIA Christians and its position on sexuality is antiquated, patriarchal and hetero-normative (the liberal/progressive view). Instead, I offer that the future of our Church is in doubt because we have forgotten who we are. That seems like an overly simplistic and naive statement that cannot possibly get at the heart of the issue. But let me suggest that the central reason we are where we are is because we can no longer identify what it means for any of us to be a distinctly United Methodist Christian. What is at stake in the 2020 General Conference and beyond is not whether we will take a traditional or progressive position on sex, but whether or not we can reclaim our story as United Methodists.

The Church in the Modern Age: A Story Forgotten

Perhaps the most significant reason we have forgotten our story is because of the rise of modernity. Former United Methodist and now Episcopalian theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has said that the project of modernity is an attempt to produce a people who have no story except the story they chose when they had no story. In other words, modernity is an attempt to convince people that since we are rational, enlightened and autonomous individuals, there is no story, no narrative and no tradition that determines our lives except the one we choose for ourselves. Yet despite modernity’s attempt to be story-less, it too is a story. Modernity did not arise out of darkness ex-nihilo; it is a tradition that traces its roots to Christendom. But it is a story and a tradition that is false because human beings do not get to make up their own story; we have been “storied” through being formed as a community called the Church. We have been created, redeemed and sustained by the Holy Trinity. Our past, present and future have already been decided for us.

 

Ronald Beiner has sought to articulate the way liberalism, which is produced by modernity, has been able to convince us that we are a story-less people whose only identity is the one we create for ourselves. In his book “What’s The Matter With Liberalism?” he argues that in liberalism, we cannot distinguish between what is good and what is bad because human beings are reduced to individual consumers in which the freedom to choose is itself “the good,” meaning the true way of living our lives to the fullest. Therefore, nothing should restrict my freedom to choose how I live my life, including my own sexual preferences.

 

At first glance, this seems to be a traditionalist victory in the opening skirmish. But the problem is that liberalism is the air we breathe; we are all liberals. We all make up our lives believing we can define for ourselves what it means to be Christian. Conservatives, traditionalists, progressives and liberals all live in what Charles Taylor calls “The Age of Authenticity.” No one can tell me how to live my life or what to believe. In order to be authentic to who I am, I must figure those things out on my own. Even those of us who claim orthodoxy and submit to the Church’s teachings and the Book of Discipline first came to this understanding through a liberal trajectory. Traditionalists, like progressives, choose the ethics and biblical interpretations that fit their narrative rather than a wholesale subscription to historic orthodoxy. The reality is that we cannot go back to the pre-liberal, pre-modern era. To believe that we can defeat liberalism and reestablish the traditional values of the premodern church is exactly to believe the lie of modernity. We are not in control, we do not make up our lives and we cannot go back in time.

 

Virtue As A Way to Remember Story

This is not to say that all is lost. The true liberation of our enslavement to liberalism is not tighter restrictions, or more rules about who can do what as the Traditional Plan lays out. Liberation will only come through a return to the practice of virtue in the Church. As Christians, it is Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit who unites us into a common life and has given us shared practices that compose our fundamental identity as a whole, which we call the Church. The penalties and restrictions of the Traditional Plan cannot form us into a common life because we no longer acknowledge or render authority to the Church as our common life. One of Methodism’s best theologians, Stephen Long, professor of ethics at Perkins School of Theology, has done much critiquing of liberalism, but has also noted that the Traditional Plan turns the Church into a nation-state that attempts to enforce laws, which are then enforced by authorities. However, the Gospel of Jesus is not a coercive message that forces others to believe in God; it is a persuasive one that seeks to articulate God’s love for the world. We cannot participate in a common life together through coercion. Relearning virtue, on the other hand, can reconstitute us as a community with shared practices that united us as the Body of Christ.

 

Aristotle first articulated the idea of virtue thousands of years ago in Athens. For Aristotle, the virtues were the practices that held together the common life of all Athenians. Rather than trying to determine how you would act in a certain situation (the starting place for most modern ethics), Aristotle believed you should focus on developing character through habituated excellence (virtue) that would give you the skills necessary to act rightly in that situation. Furthermore, this character would help you to lead a truly good life, good not only for yourself as an individual, but good for the community as a whole. For Aristotle, the individual and the community did not have a different telos, as if what is good for me is not necessarily good for all, but rather what is good for me is good for all and vice versa. Thus, our chief end is to develop the kind of character through the practice of the virtues so that, rather than competing against one another through violence, we might engender a common life together.

 

In modernity, we do not live in a world that values virtue, much less one that cultivates it. Such a statement is proof since Aristotle had no conception of “value” as we use it today. That we use the word “value” to describe the things that are important to us demonstrates that modernity has created a world in which everything can be seen as an investment that has a price and can be bought and sold as a commodity in a liberal market economy. Thus we cannot even begin to return to virtue unless we, The United Methodist Church as a whole, can form the kind of habits that will produce people who can articulate that rather than being creators of our own story, we have been storied through the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ. We did not make ourselves Christians, we were made by others. We did not make up the tradition, we received it from others. Our belief in God is not an individual choice that gives meaning and value to our life. Instead, since God raised Jesus from the dead, we cannot do anything but believe and live in the community of saints.

 

Formed Through Liturgy

In order for us to cultivate virtue that will allow us to engender a common life as the community of saints, we need to first develop habits that will lead to the development of virtue. I suggest that these habits must be most significantly developed through our worship. James K. A. Smith has written extensively on worship as the arena through which our desires are properly shaped and directed toward God. There is no more effective habit-producing mechanism than liturgy. Liturgy is not only found in the Church’s worship, but everywhere from an NFL football game to a presidential address at a U.S. military base to a concert of a popular rock band. The liturgy found in the Church’s worship as the gathered Body of Christ centers around the eucharistic table to consume the Lord Jesus must be the liturgy that habituates us, shapes our desires, and lays the foundation for our story as United Methodists.

 

Unfortunately, in The United Methodist Church today, a majority of us have forgotten why the celebration of the eucharist is central to our community. Liturgy is a bad word in some congregations, and at the very least an outdated term that will hinder church growth. It is argued that today our worship needs to be relevant, entertaining, or a “fresh expression,” not boring, old or traditional. Most of our churches continue to celebrate the eucharist only once a month even though modern transportation has long allowed ordained clergy to lead worship every Sunday. When we shape our worship to be exciting, entertaining and only occasionally include the eucharist, we are creating habits that shape our story as a people who worship the god of modernity who caters to individualistic desires and provides optimism in a world of suffering.

 

One possibility of cultivating the kinds of habits through worship that would develop virtue might be to emphasize services of Word and Table with weekly communion. I would also suggest an emphasis on the Book of Worship or the Book of Common Prayer as a whole as a way to pattern our worship. Although it has been argued that one of the beauties of Methodism is our diversity in worship and style, I would argue that is an attempt to allow entertainment or excitement to form us. In actuality, there is much flexibility and room in the liturgy and a service of Word and Table can be adapted to appropriately reflect culture or the season of the year.

 

A counter argument might be that more liturgical traditions like Catholicism or Anglicanism are suffering decline similar to The United Methodist Church, and we must not be foolish enough to think that we will instantly be sucked out of our denominational struggles. Modernity and liberalism have formed us so deeply that it will be a long and difficult journey home and we will lose many along the way. But if we can develop the habits and virtues the early Church once had, maybe when we get to the end of all this chaos, we will at least be formed enough to know how to move forward and where the God of Jesus Christ is calling us.

 

The Future of Methodism: Returning to the Fold

As Methodists, we rightly celebrate John Wesley as the leader of our movement. Despite the number of references to Wesley today among Methodists, we forget many of the most important aspects of his ministry. Wesley remained an Anglican priest until he died and never wanted to start a new church outside of the Church of England. His intent was to reform the Church and reinvigorate it with the Holy Spirit. The question must be asked: When will the reformation be over? Where we stand today, we have lost more than we have gained. For most of our Methodist Christians in America, our Anglican heritage is unknown. Our distinctive theological emphases, worship practices, ecclesiology and social ethics are so muddled that most of our seminary students should not pass board examinations, but they do because of our growing need for clergy. How many of us can articulate what is it that makes Methodists distinct from Anglicans? In what ways are we more aligned with the Spirit, faithful to God’s call or ethically pure? We have lost sight of Wesley’s vision and forgotten our story as Methodists.

 

Our future lies in returning to the fold of the Anglican Communion. This does not mean that we must abandon all Methodist distinctives or emphases; we can seek ways to rejoin the family that allow us always to remember our heritage. But we can no longer remain separated and divorced from the Church that birthed us. We have forgotten our story because in many ways it has come to an end. Many of our protests against the Church of England have been heard and acted upon. There is no reason to continue protesting when the reforms have been conceded. Wesley never desired for us to exist as an end unto ourselves. It may be argued that the Episcopal Church has suffered a church split and declining membership so why would a move toward liturgy and unity better our chances? If our greatest need is numbers and increased church membership, then unity will not help. But if our greatest need today is remembering our story, who we are and why we began, then unity is the only answer.

Is faith in Jesus enough for salvation? Perhaps, says Matthew Bates, but we’re missing pieces of the gospel. The biblical gospel can never change. Yet our understanding of the gospel must change. The church needs an allegiance shift.

Popular pastoral resources on the gospel are causing widespread confusion. Bates shows that the biblical gospel is different, fuller, and more beautiful than we have been led to believe. He explains that saving faith doesn’t come through trust in Jesus’s death on the cross alone but through allegiance to Christ the king. There is only one true gospel and one required response: allegiance.

Bates ignited conversation with his successful and influential book Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Here he goes deeper while making his acclaimed teaching on salvation more accessible and experiential for believers who want to better understand and share the gospel. Gospel Allegianceincludes a guide for further conversation, making it ideal for church groups, pastors, leaders, and students.

Matthew W. Bates (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is associate professor of theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois. He is the author of Salvation by Allegiance Alone, named the Jesus Creed 2017 Book of the Year and one of the Best Books of 2017 by Englewood Review of Books. He has also written The Birth of the Trinity and The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation. Bates is cofounder and cohost of the popular OnScript podcast.

Before you listen, go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com where you can support the show by becoming a patron or purchase your very own “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” T-shirt.

 

All Saints Sunday — Proverbs 3, 1 Corinthians 1

In 1971, at a church in Washougal, Washington, Everett Chance preached a remarkable sermon— remarkable, because Everett Chance did not believe in God.*

Everett Chance and his brother, Irwin, grew up in Washington state where their father somehow made a long career of playing minor league baseball. Their mother, meanwhile, devoted herself, and thus her children, to Jesus Christ in the form of their local church. 

In college, Everett left the faith for the antiwar movement. Eventually, Everett escaped to Canada to avoid the draft, yet he came back in 1971 to speak at his family’s church. He came back to compel the church to help free his brother, Irwin, from the “care” Irwin was receiving at a military hospital. 

Up until the day he got drafted, Irwin Chance held his church’s consecutive Bible Memory Verse record and also the consecutive Sunday School attendance record— and that turned out to be the problem for Irwin could never forget what he learned there about Jesus telling his followers to love their enemies. 

In Vietnam, an Army captain to whom Irwin was assigned ordered Irwin to shoot a young Vietnamese boy who’d been taken prisoner. Likely, the boy had killed a solider with a booby trap, yet Irwin couldn’t shake the knowledge that not only was this boy an enemy he was supposed to forgive, this enemy was still just a child, too. What would Jesus do?, Irwin contemplated.

As Everett Chance described it in his sermon, in that moment his brother went from being a U.S. soldier to a Christian soldier. Irwin attacked his captain with a tube of toothpaste. 

The real problem, however, began afterwards. 

In the brig, Irwin sat peacefully, singing hymns and reciting memory verses and praying prayers. The Army psychiatrist sent to examine Irwin, seeing him babbling to and about Jesus, concluded that Irwin was psychotic and prescribed a course of electric shock treatments and sedatives. 

Driving all night from Canada, Everett burst into the Sunday service of his family’s church determined to persuade the congregation to protest Irwin’s treatment. Stepping into the pulpit, Everett said: 

“The reason I came here, to Irwin’s God’s House, is that his trouble started here. I’m not trying to place blame. This whole situation is a compliment to the staying power of what gets taught here. Irwin, after he left here, kept on keeping your faith right up to the day he was drafted. And every letter we got from him, even from ‘Nam, was a Christian letter— the letters of a man who couldn’t reconcile “Thou shalt not kill” with what was asked him. 

He’s still yours. That’s the crux of all I’m saying. He still believes every blame thing he ever learned here, and he still tells me I’m nuts when I try to tamper with those beliefs. It is the songs you sing here, the scriptures you read here, it’s his belief in this House and its God, that those doctors are out to destroy. It may be hard for you to believe it but the U.S. Government considers your faith a form of madness.” 

And then, like a good preacher, Everett offered the congregation an imaginative alternative: 

“You know, you folks have your own doctors and shrinks. If some of you caused enough fuss, I bet you could arrange for a Christian examination of Irwin by doctors who could see his faith for what it is, see that he’s not crazy. He’s a Christian.”

———————-

No doubt few of us would describe a soldier attacking his commanding officer with a tube of Colgate as having made a wise and prudent move, yet few of us could deny that pouncing upon an unjust superior with a tube of toothpaste is exactly the sort of odd, crazy witness for which we remember those Christians the Church has named saints. 

Notice how the Book of Proverbs today personifies wisdom: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.” 

It’s wisdom with a capital W. 

Wisdom in the Old Testament isn’t an attribute.  

Wisdom is but another name for the God whom the Jews, out of reverence, refuse to name. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Proverbs tells us in chapter nine. 

The reason that the fear of the Lord is beginning of lowercase-w wisdom is because capital-W Wisdom and the Lord are one and the same. 

“By Wisdom, God founded the earth,” Proverbs 3 says today. But then in the New Testament Colossians 1 declares, “In Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created…” 

Thus, from Easter onward, the ancient Christians identified the Old Testament’s personification of Wisdom as the pre-incarnate Christ, the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. 

Which means, the Wisdom which the Old Testament commends us to seek is the way of Jesus Christ, a way which, the Apostle Paul reports to the Corinthians, can’t help but appear as foolish to the so-called “wisdom” of the world.

Because Christ’s whole life, from creche to cross was one of suffering sinful humanity, that phrase “Christ crucified” refers not only to the crucifixion but to Christ’s entire ministry—  especially so to Christ’s Kingdom teaching which compels the kingdoms of this world to crucify him. 

That “Christ crucified” is a wisdom that appears as foolishness to such a world is not an unfortunate failure of communication, for the Apostle Paul tells us today that “Christ crucified,” the way of Jesus, is God’s way of destroying the world that builds crosses.

You see—

The way of Jesus Christ isn’t just an odd option among options in the world. 

The way of Jesus Christ isn’t just an alternative, counterintuitive lifestyle you can choose from other lifestyle choices as though the difference between being a Christian or a Buddhist is like the difference between choosing an iPhone or an Android. 

Rather, the way of Jesus Christ is God’s offensive against a world aligned against God. 

Visiting the prisoners in prison, as our Kairos volunteers did last weekend, is not a good thing to do nor is it a means for you to get in God’s good graces.  

It’s God’s offensive against a world where people of color make up nearly three-quarters of the prison system, yet only a third of the overall population.

Feeding the immigrants among us, as Betsy does at our Mission Center every week, it isn’t charity.  

It’s God’s assault against a world that refuses God’s command to “Treat the immigrant residing among you as native-born.  Love them as yourself.”

The way of Jesus Christ is God’s patient offensive against a world aligned against God. 

It is the power of God, Paul says in verse 18, “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” That’s a quote the Apostle Paul lifts from a battle scene in the Book of Isaiah. 

As the Bible understands it, the incarnation of Jesus into the world is an invasion of territory controlled by an enemy, and to incarnate the way of Jesus Christ in your own flesh is to press the battle lines and continue the advance.  

Therefore, sainthood is not so much about piety, but about power. 

———————-

Saints are those who exemplify better than others a story that will appear foolish to the world because it is, in fact, the story by which God is destroying the world. 

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power, because sainthood names our participation in a cosmic conflict. 

Don’t buy it? 

Listen to these other verses from our opening hymn, For All the Saints: 

“O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold” 

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong”

Such martial language may sound problematic to you if you’ve forgotten the heads-up that came at the very beginning of your baptism, when you were asked on behalf of the whole communion of saints:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…reject the evil powers of this world? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

And here you all thought coming to church was about connecting with spiritual truths or enjoying your forgiveness or finding fellowship. 

Maybe, you came looking for Jesus to lend a little meaning to your life— good for you. 

Well, what’s Jesus have in store for you? 

A fight— conflict on a scale so cosmic you hardly seem to matter at all. 

———————-

It’s important to note that today we’re not simply remembering all those who’ve died. 

We’re remembering all the baptized who’ve died. 

As Paul implies at the top of 1 Corinthians, all the baptized are saints in that, through baptism, we die the only death that really matters; therefore, baptism frees us to live in a manner that is not determined by the fear of death. 

It’s necessary to have death behind you in order to join God’s campaign, for the most potent weapon in the Enemy’s arsenal is the fear of death.

The church is a hospital for sinners, the cliché goes. 

But it’s more like a field hospital, a MASH unit, surrounded by the enemy, where your wounds are bound up so that you can join the fight and contend against the Powers who would rule this world by hate, envy, and violence. 

It’s by God’s grace that God doesn’t so much solve your problems as God conscripts you into something bigger than yourself and against problems much, much bigger than your problems. 

St. Paul says in Ephesians that, “Before the foundation of the world, God chose us in Jesus Christ so that we might be holy.”

And the word holy in scripture is the same word from which we get the word saint.  

It means different. 

Odd. 

Saints are those whom God has made odd in a world that has made God its enemy. Saints are those who are different in that they know that the wisdom of God— the way of Jesus Christ— which the world finds foolish is in fact a power. 

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power. 

And power is always also necessarily about conflict. 

The saints are those Christians who produced conflict by refusing to let everyday Christians like us off the hook and, instead, insisted that because the way of Jesus is a power in the world, Jesus should be taken at his word. 

That is, the saints are those who show us to what our faith has committed all of us. 

I mean—

We love to stick statues of St. Francis of Assisi in our flower beds and remember how the birds and the beasts loved him. 

We forget how the rich and the powerful hated Francis for his refusal to compromise on what Jesus Christ taught about money and violence. 

Likewise, we love to teach our kids a reassuring, congratulatory version of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream sermon, but we prefer to forget that he died prophesying against war and poverty.

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power. 

It’s about living in an odd, different manner that locates where true power lies. 

Rome understood that it’s about locating where true power lies.

Why else did Rome kill so many of us?

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord was to profess that Caesar is not. 

To rescue newborns abandoned in the fields to die (as the first Christians did) was to insist that the significance of life lies not with the authority of the government, but with the Giver of Life. 

And to pray for your enemy, to forgive your enemy, to practice the habits necessary to produce (possibly) love for your enemy…well, that proved at odds with an empire that had a stake— and still has a stake— in telling you, “These are your enemies. Go kill them.” 

Even if Christians in America don’t understand it, Caesar sure did. 

It’s about power. Rome did not martyr scores of Christian saints because Christians believed Jesus had paid it all. 

Rome did not martyr scores of Christian saints because Christians believed Jesus taught the Golden Rule. 

No, Caesar did not kill Christians for singing some early version of Amazing Grace nor did Caesar kill Christians because Christians believed Christ taught what Mr. Rogers taught. 

Rome martyred Christians because Christians (back then, at least) understood that the preaching and teaching of the one who had forgiven all their sins by grace is not simply a prologue to the passion story. 

It is God’s way in the world to take back God’s world. 

The way of Jesus Christ is God’s way in the world to take back God’s world.

That’s bad news if you think you’re in charge of the world. 

And, it’s uncomfortable news if you’re comfortable with those who think they’re in charge of the world. 

But, if you’re willing to live with death behind you, if you’re willing to attempt an odd and different life, a life lived as though it’s good news, you’re a saint. 

———————-

Towards the end of his “sermon” delivered to his brother Irwin’s congregation, Everett Chance turned from the congregation to God:

“Unlike Irwin, I don’t even believe in God. It’s a little odd, for that reason, that I’d have such strong feelings about God’s House. But I do. I feel— because I love Irwin very much— that it’s crucial for me to at least try to address the One whose House Irwin believes this to be. Since I don’t believe in Him, I’m not sure my words qualify as prayer. But I feel I must say directly to You— Irwin’s dear God— that if somebody doesn’t hear our family’s cry, if somebody isn’t moved, not by be, but by You God, to sacrifice some time and thought and energy for Irwin’s sake, then his mind, his love for You, belief in this church, are going to be destroyed. 

It’s that simple, I think. 

Which puts the ball in Your court, God. Not a hopeful place to leave it, to my mind. But that’s where a saint like Irwin would want it. And for the first time in my life. I hope it’s Irwin, not me, who’s right about God and God’s church.”

Irwin got released from the psychiatrict hospital after Irwin’s church did exactly what Everett told them to do— or, rather, what God told them to do.

———————-

If the way of Jesus Christ is God’s offensive against a world aligned against God, if the wisdom that appears foolish is in fact a power, then that means the third to the last line of the Apostle’s Creed— the communion of saints— is the key doctrine of the Church. 

“I believe in the communion of saints” is the necessary predicate to everything else we profess in the creed.

If the cheek-turning, grace-giving, enemy-loving way of Jesus Christ is the patient way God is getting back all that belongs to God, then saints are not optional. 

The Holy Spirit continues to use ordinary churches to produce saints because God needs them. 

The story of Jesus Christ must produce lives that demonstrate the truthfulness of the story of Jesus Christ; so that, through such witnesses— through the way of Jesus Christ— God might finish God’s work of redemption.  

But— Irwin’s a good example— no one can choose to become a saint.

Saints are made. 

So, come to the table because the most reliable way to learn how to live with death behind you is to receive in your flesh the foolishness that is Christ’s broken body and blood.

* This story is from the novel The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I chose not to note that in the sermon because I didn’t want the fictional naure of the story to cause people to discount it. If saints are those whose lives story the gospel for us then the lives of those in novels can serve the same purpose.


In the Church, the aftermath of Halloween is known as All Saints Day. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints Day was his favorite holy day. All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews, “To dust we came and to dust we shall return” and that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (i.e., those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us) who themselves surround our Great High Priest who has sat down from his once-for-all finished work of redemption.

The ancient script for the dearly departed says thusly for all of us. Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaims, “Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life. As in baptism ___________ put on Christ, so now is he/she in Christ and clothed with glory.”

Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor holds out her hands and voices Jesus’ promise: “I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ. The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints.

Therefore, the Church, rightly understood, is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. 

The same communion to which we belong.

And so:

Death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they. We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they. We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely. Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’

So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us. Not in the sense of praying to them. Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than the old lady in the pew next to yours asking you to pray for her.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ. Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another. Indeed I do so every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and poured out wine and declare: “…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…”

Fresh on the heels of evangelical preacher John MacArthur saying that evangelical preacher (*a woman*) Beth Moore should “Go home,” we have our friend Rev. Sarah Condon back on the podcast to reflect on what it’s like to be a clergywoman, her recent essay at Mockingbird Ministries, and how inclusion of women in pastoral ministry requires inclusion of LGBTQ Christians.

To check out the clip which provoked the conversation, you can find it here.

For Sarah’s writing and talks for Mockbird, check out this.

Before, during, or after you listen…

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

Or, get your very own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt.

 

 

Dr. Johanna Hartelius, Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Texas: Austin, is working with Jason on an article on apocalyptic preaching and, for it, has recently read Will Willimon’s book Conversations with Barth on Preaching. She demanded, as she does, to talk about it with Jason for the podcast and refused, as she does, to find any of my responses to her questions satisfying.

Be on the lookout for our next podcast series hosted by Johanna Hartelius, You Are Not Accepted: Engaging Holiness with Hauerwas, where every other week Johanna will join Stanley Hauerwas and the podcast posse to discuss one of Stanley’s essays.

Speaking of Stanley, you can get your very own Stanley “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt from our online store. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and check it out.

That among Jesus’ own disciples were members of the Zealot Party indicates that his preaching and teaching were more political than Christians today often appreciate.

That’s right, we’ve made it to the end of the alphabet and instead of doing two ‘Z’ words, we’ve opted to give you 2x the conversation about ‘Zealot.’ Zealot is a word that has gone out of common usage but like all things ancient, this word has much to offer the us today. Buckle up because we are closing out this season of (Her)Men*You*Tics with a bit of zealously.

Now that we’ve wrapped our conversations through the theo-alphabet, be on the lookout for the next iteration of our podcast. Dr. Johanna Hartelius will be hosting a podcast called “You Are Not Accepted: Engaging Holiness with Hauerwas” where each episode she’ll discuss with Jason and Teer a short essay by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Bonus: Dr. Hauerwas has eagerly agreed to join us for many of these conversations. It’ll launch next month.

 

 

In Spite of Ourselves

Jason Micheli —  October 23, 2019 — Leave a comment

John Prine has released a 20th Anniversary edition of his legendary duets album, In Spite of Ourselves. For Ali and I, the title song is “our” song. Below is an excerpt from my most recent book wherein I write about the song and how it’s a good lens into Christian marriage. You can get the book here.

The last black card we played for Cards against Humanity that long weekend away prompted us with: “This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with _____________.”
The whiskey glasses were empty and our heads were tipsy and the candles were burnt down to nubs. Gabriel had gone up to bed, smiling a goofy grin in his sleepiness; if only for a while he was just a boy again. Alexander had fallen asleep on the floor, flipping channels, one TV huckster preacher turned into another, different faces but the same fear.
Ali was again the card czar. It was her turn to choose. She turned over the possibilities we’d tossed onto the table. I looked at the answers the others had offered (“Tasteful Sideboob,” “Cud- dling,” “Letting Everyone Down”).
And I knew she’d choose mine: “Neil Patrick Harris.”
This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with Neil Patrick Harris.
Ali doubled-over, giggling, and couldn’t stop.
“It doesn’t really make sense, but . . . Neil Patrick Harris just makes it funny,” Ali said, pulling my card toward her with her long, thin index finger as her knowing eyes locked onto mine.
I could’ve played the other card I still had in my hand. It would’ve fit better, and it would’ve been perfect in a way, not to mention true. It read: “God.” This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with God.
For my money, I bet it ends with music.
I like to think the music for Ali and me is that John Prine song
about a wife at her wits’ end and an unimpressive, exasperating husband reaching their rainbow in spite of themselves and, by
sheer grace or dumb luck, discovering that they are, the two of them together, “the big door prize.”
And they have been all along.
Ali will tell you: it’s our song.
The end of everything is God, sure enough. But the God who
shows us his ass rather than his glory, who kills with words, and who hides behind suffering is a God whose end just might sur- prise us and sound like a corny country song about sinners sit- ting on a rainbow that they manifestly do not deserve.
In the meantime, I can’t predict what’s in store for us.
The house always wins. Sooner or later, the floor boss will come tell me I’m longer comped my stay here. I’ll lose this hand I’ve been dealt. But I do not fear what I believe another has paid for me, gratis. I fear what the wages of my end will mean for Ali and the boys, but I do not fear the end.
I worry now as a father, but Ali and I are free of the burden of needing our marriage to merit the temporary miracle we’ve been given. It’s not like make-up sex all the time, and it doesn’t have to be (nor, at forty, could I muster that much energy). In the process, we’ve realized just how, as a miracle, my temporary one doesn’t much measure up to the miracle that we found each other in the first place. And both miracles pale in comparison to the miracle that we’re learning, in fits and starts, to tolerate the person we’ve found and love.
The house always wins, but it’s sure as hell fun to play while you can. So why not play with the piled-high stack of free grace you’ve been given and stop worrying when your dice will run cold?
Ali and I are free now from the accusing oughts we felt in the days and months after my reprieve from death. We’re free to love one another in marriage and mess up along the way because, unlike the Bachelor, we both believe the Bridegroom has already given us the rose for his wedding feast from before the very foundation of everything. He has already outfitted us for it with the garment bestowed on us in our baptisms. So, we’re free to love and live, awaiting the end, unafraid.

We can spite the noses right off of our faces in stubborn love, but nothing we do to one another can frustrate forever the stub- born love of God who is the end to every one of our silly, sin- filled, choose-your-own-adventure stories.
Only a God whose glory is shame and whose grace often looks like the belly of a whale could appreciate the irony:
The trick to making marriage work between “I do” and death is trusting the good news that there is no work your marriage needs to do.
The hilarious good news of grace means your marriage is free to be whatever you want it to be. Your marriage is even free to fall short of what you wish for it.
Knowing we’re free to fail has made our marriage more suc- cessful than it’s ever been.
Whenever it comes for me, it’s true. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with God.
But I didn’t play the card.
It would’ve been too serious. Ali would’ve rolled her eyes at the earnestness of it and not picked it exactly because she would’ve known it was my card.
I didn’t lay it on the table but, turning off the lights and turning down the bed, “God” was soon on both of our lips, his name taken not in vain, sacred not profane, for on the free lips of every married lover it is the very groaning and moaning of his new creation.

Sermon Illustration

Jason Micheli —  October 20, 2019 — 1 Comment

Exodus 20, Matthew 5.38-48

Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk in charge of a Trappist abbey in Algeria. A veteran of the French army, de Cherge grew up in an aristocratic family. 

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.

Held hostage for two months, de Cherge and his fellow monks were executed in 1996. Their heads were discovered inside a tree. Their bodies were never found. 

Anticipating his murder, Christian de Cherge left a testament with his family to be opened upon his death. 

Published in newspapers all over the world, his letter is a moving exemplification of the Gospel. In it, he wrote:

“If the day comes, and it could be today, that I am a victim of the terrorism that seems to be engulfing all of Algeria, I would like my community, the Church, to remember that I have dedicated my life to the Lord Jesus Christ. 

If the moment I fear comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, and the faithfulness, to ask for God’s pardon for myself and to ask it as well for he who would attack me. I pray that I am able to love my enemy even in my death….” 

The reason his note grabbed headlines and inspired a film, Of Gods and Men— Christian de Cherge then concluded his letter 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.”

No doubt, on any other day but today, I expect that you would find Christian de Cherge’s witness not only edifying, but inspiring. 

If you heard the story of his martrydom on a different occasion, say All Saints Day, then in all likelihood you would understand, intuitively, how his exemplification of the Gospel is exactly the sort that first attracted pagans to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

Don’t forget— 

Christianity converted the heart of the Roman Empire before there was anything called the “New Testament,” and they did so at a time when nearly everyone was illiterate. 

And in those first centuries of the Church, not only was the sacrament of holy communion off limits to outsiders— not only was the table closed to the unbaptized— so, too, was the Sunday worship gathering. 

Unbelievers didn’t become believers by having been invited to the worship of Christians. 

Unbelievers became believers by being attracted to the lives of Christians.

That’s just a fact of history. 

The ancient Christians did not pass out tracts to people who could not read. 

The lives of the ancient Christians themselves were the holy texts. 

The saints were the scripture and the sacraments that persuaded pagans to the truth of what Christians professed.  

That is, the Church in the ancient world grew by Christians daring to live in an odd, counter-intuitive manner that made no sense if God had not raised the crucified Christ from the dead and made him Lord of heaven and earth. 

Christian de Cherge’s story is the kind of story that exemplified the story of Jesus and, in the ancient world, stories like de Cherge’s story made the story of Jesus more than a short-lived rumor from a backwater place called Galilee. 

And for that reason, we rightly admire a story like Christian de Cherge’s story. 

Yet, if you’re like me, not today.

Because, today, admiration alone isn’t an option. 

Admiration is off the table.

———————-

Today, you might find the monk’s story unsettling— accusing, even— because today we’ve just heard his story in conjunction with the Sermon on the Mount where Christ teaches that we are to love our enemies. 

We’d prefer to think the witness made by those French monks was the exception rather than the expectation. 

We’d like to make their example remarkable, but today Jesus makes it the rule. 

Moreover, Jesus putting this teaching (on how his disciples are to love their enemies) at the very outset of his ministry, implies that following Jesus will make for us enemies— enemies we would not have were we not following Jesus. 

Our sentimental assumptions to the contrary, Christianity is not about having no enemies. Christianity is about loving the enemies we’ve made by our being Christian. 

Jesus is not referring here to the enemies you had before you met Jesus, (he’s not talking about your mother-in-law or your ex-husband). Jesus is, instead, preparing his disciples for the command he will give them later in Matthew’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

To follow the Crucified One is to anticipate that there will be those who wish to nail you to a cross, too. And like the Crucified One, Jesus teaches today, you are to suffer your persecutors in patience and love. 

This part of the Sermon on the Mount is particularly problematic for people like us. 

After all, if we have any conviction, it’s that God is nice. And, because we’re a sanctificationist people, we think that the conviction, “God is nice,” ought to come with a correlative; therefore, we believe that we should be nice, too. 

It seems a contradiction that nice people following a nice God should discover that they’ve made enemies for themselves precisely by being Christian— enemies to whom we’re required to be more than nice. 

We’re required to love them, Jesus says, going so far as to offer them another cheek to strike, giving them the coat off our back, and walking an extra couple of miles in their shoes. 

It might not be any credit to us if we love the people who love us. 

But it sure sounds smarter. 

And safe.

But—

Christ’s command to love the enemies we’ve made by following him— the unavoidable implication to Christ’s command is that if we’ve made no enemies by following him then we’re likely not following him. 

We’re admiring him, maybe. But we’re not obeying him. 

John Wesley called those who admire Jesus but who dare not obey Jesus “almost Christians.” “Almost Christians” want Jesus to secure for them life after death, but “almost Christians” do not want to offer Jesus the kind of life that could mean their death. 

———————-

Listen up—

Let me make it plain. 

This is what is at stake in the sermon Jesus preaches today:

If your account of Christianity is such that it makes no sense whatsoever why anyone would want to kill Jesus or his followers (or you)— if we’re just a club of nice people admiring a nice God— then, it’s not Christianity. 

As Jesus tells the disciples later in the Gospel, following his peaceable way in the world will make the world more violent, not less: 

“Do you think that I will bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I will produce division! Even households will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…”

Which means— pay attention now— 

Christ’s command to love our enemies is not a strategy. The point of Jesus’ preaching here is not, “Give peace a chance,” or “Love is all you need.” Christ does not promise us that through our love of the enemy our enemy will cease to be our enemy and will one day love us. 

No.

Christianity is not naive. 

Jesus does not promise us that our nonviolent, cruciform love is a strategy to rid the world of violence. 

Rather, in a world of violence Jesus has called his disciples to be a particular people who love their enemies, because that is the form God’s care for us became incarnate in the world. 

This is what we do, not because it works, but because this is who He is.

“While we were yet his enemies,” the Apostle Paul says, “God-in-Christ loved us.”

“Let that same mind be in you,” St. Paul writes, “that was in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Love of enemy— 

It’s not about what works in the world. 

It’s about our witness to the world. 

Our witness to what God has worked in Jesus Christ. 

He has conquered. 

He has overcome the crosses that we build with resurrection. 

———————-

And, then—

Just before this, Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths. 

That sounds innocent enough until you think about it and realize that Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths because an oath is but an exception to lies, and every word out of his followers mouths should be “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” 

Meanwhile, here we are in America, where we can no longer even distinguish the truth from the lie, much less speak nothing but the truth.

You gripe about some of our sermons. 

Jesus preaches a hard sermon, and then he ends this section today with “Be perfect.” Actually, in Greek, it says, “There should be no limit to your goodness.”

Jesus preaches a hard sermon. 

Just before the command about oaths, Jesus teaches that we are to live visibly in the world— like salt, like light— in a manner that substantiates our message. 

And, let’s be honest, most of us live in the world in a manner that corroborates our sin, not our having been saved from it.

Even if you could take a red pen and redact this part of Christ’s preaching, this part where we are commanded to love the enemies Jesus has managed to make for us, even if you could cut out today’s passage, it doesn’t make the rest of the sermon any less convicting on nice, Jesus- admiring, “almost Christians” like us. 

So, what are we to do with this Sermon on the Mount from which, on any number of counts, we all fall so short? 

I mean, I can barely manage my inbox, let alone love all the people who love me, much less cover all the law Jesus lays down in this sermon.

What do we do with this?

———————-

When we treat Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal to be realized only in some future kingdom, when we regard it as a collection of generalized principles that anyone can follow whether or not they’re following Jesus, when we interpret the sermon only as overwhelming law meant to convict us of our sin and compel us to Christ’s grace— when we interpret the Sermon on the Mount in any of those ways, we neglect to notice how the Sermon on the Mount is a sermon. 

That is, it’s not directed to unbelieving individuals. 

Nor is it meant for believing individuals. 

It’s a sermon. 

It’s addressed to a particular congregation. 

It’s intended for that community to act out and embody. 

This is why Matthew tells you at the top of Chapter Five that the twelve disciples have visibly left the crowd on the mountainside and drawn close to Christ. 

They are the ones for whom the Sermon on the Mount is meant, because they are the ones through whom Jesus is reconstituting Israel and relaunching Israel’s vocation to be a light unto the nations. 

Twelve tribes.

Twelve disciples. 

And like Israel’s Law, Jesus’ Torah on the Mount is meant for the particular people that Christ has called, and that Christ is putting into the world to witness to the new age inaugurated by his resurrection. 

The Sermon on the Mount is not meant for everybody. 

The Sermon on the Mount is meant for his Body. 

The Sermon on the Mount is meant for his Body of disciples. 

So, the good news is that the command to love our enemies is not a command for everyone to obey. 

The bad news is that, by virtue of your baptism, it is a command— just like all the others in the sermon— that claims you. 

But, that burden is not all bad news for you are just a part of the Body, and, as St. Paul tells us, the Body of Christ is made up of many different members where no part of the Body can say to another part of the Body, “I have no need of you.” Which is but a way of saying, “I need you.” 

I need you.

We need each other. 

We need each other if we are, as a community, to be Christ’s sermon illustration.

You see, the object of Jesus’ sermon is that it makes us dependent on one another if we are to exemplify it. 

Some of you speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but you do not know how to pray well. 

Others of you are skilled at prayer, but struggle with gossip. 

Some of you are open about your faith, while others of you hide it so far under a bushel basket your closet friends would be surprised to discover that you’re a Christian. 

Many of you hunger and thirst for justice, but you do not pray for those who persecute the victims of injustice. You advocate for vicitms of oppression, but you do not pray for the victimizers. 

We need each other if we are to be Christ’s sermon illustration. 

The point of the sermon isn’t that each of you, individually, need to be like Jesus Christ. 

The point of the sermon is that Christ’s Body, collectively, bear witness to him.

You might be weak on sanctification.

But, taken together, Christ’s Body spread through the world— there is no limit to the goodness. 

And so, perhaps you aren’t very compassionate on the poor, yet here you are today a part of a people who will package thousands of meals for them. 

Maybe you can’t imagine ever being capable of loving your enemies in any risk-taking ways, yet by baptism you belong to a Body with members that include witnesses like Christian de Cherge. 

———————-

Brother Paul (Favre-Miville) was another Trappist monk martryed at the abbey in Algeria in 1996. He came from a family of blacksmiths in France, a family of cultural Christians who had Paul baptized as a baby, but who did not practice the faith with any real commitment. 

Paul’s family did not welcome his decision to become a monk, nor did they understand his insistence on remaining at the abbey after it had become dangerous. 

When his unbelieving friends and secular, skeptical family would ask him about his life in Algeria amidst enemies, Brother Paul would often joke to them, “Well, my head is still on my shoulders.” 

In a letter to his friends and family, Brother Paul wrote:

“Becoming a monk is a choice, like the choice to become a follower of Christ….  Our sins are not the same nor are our gifts the same and in this way the calling Christ places upon us as his Body compels us to live in such a way as to be dependent on one another. The faithfulness of his Body is bigger than the failures of its individual members.”

The calling Christ places upon us as his Body compels us to live in such a way as to be dependent on one another. 

I’ll tell you what that means—

It means faith does not name your own inner commitments, your own private beliefs, or your own interior feelings.

No, faith names making your life vulnerable to a people who will hold you accountable to what you think is true, a people through whom, by belonging to one another, each of us is made more than we otherwise might be. 

That is the hope we call the Gospel. 

And it is the hope that takes flesh in these creatures of bread and wine; so that, we might taste and see here and now what, one day, we shall become. 

David Bentley Hart is back on the podcast to talk about his recent review in the NY Times of the new Tarantino film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” as well as the irrefutability of his new book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, guns, and baseball.

Don’t forget to check out our website, www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, where we’ve added a new online store for you to purchase your very own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt. And click on support the show too and become a patron of the pod for peanuts.

Enjoy!

 

 

Our guest for episode #229 is my friend David Meyers— along with his fantastic wife, Nicole.

David is a fireman in Albequerque, New Mexico. But that’s just his day job. David is a singer/songwriter. He’s been a worship leader and rock band frontman for groups like Old Man Shattered, and he’s the curator of a project you should check out called A More Beautiful Gospel, dedicated to the goodness of the God who looks like Jesus.

David has a new album project called Of Light and Shadow that I urge you to check out and support to make happen. Check it out here.

You can also go to www.crackersandgrapjuice.com and check out the new online store our producer Tommie has created where you can buy your very own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt.