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

You can find the previous posts here.

15. What do we mean by faith?

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

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

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

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

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

– Hebrews 11.1

16. Must we have faith to be a Christian?

Yes.

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

Faith is itself a key element of the Christian story.

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

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

17. Is belief wishful thinking?

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Thomas reaches out to Jesus’ body.

And Thomas touches Jesus.

And Thomas grabs at the wounds of Jesus.

He grasps Jesus’ wounded feet.

He holds his hands against the holes.

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

Actually…no.

He doesn’t.

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

Duccio drew it that way.

Caravaggio illustrated it that way.

Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way.

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

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

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

 

The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.

 

No.

That’s got to be important, right?

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Including- especially- faith.

 

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

But-

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Doubts are okay, sure.

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

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

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

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

Is that Thomas’ faith-

It’s the work of the Risen Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your faith is NOT

YOUR doing.

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

You.

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

Explaining Easter

Jason Micheli —  April 21, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 20.1-18 — Easter 2019

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

Mary Magdalene.

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

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

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

She runs to get Peter and the Beloved Disciple. 

And they rush to the new hewn tomb. 

They crawl into the grave. 

And they see it’s empty. 

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

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

But they don’t see him. 

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

They don’t see him.

Not seeing is believing, John says. 

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

They believe. 

And, why not?

Why shouldn’t they believe? 

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

Why shouldn’t they believe? 

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

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

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

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

———————-

Wait— hold up— they went back home? 

What in the hell are they thinking?

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

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

Can you even imagine?

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

Can you even imagine?

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

Who does that? 

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

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

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

He is risen. 

And they what, go home?

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

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

And now they’ve got to be getting on?

They believed, John says. 

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

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

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

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

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

“You say so,” Jesus had said to him. 

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

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

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

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

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

But then they go back home. 

———————-

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

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

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

For the record— 

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

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

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

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

Seeing is not necessarily believing, John warns us. 

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

The disciples began to remember together their time with Jesus: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

Fourteen times— John all but tells you point blank: 

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

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

Kurios.

Lord over all. 

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

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

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

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

You see—

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

By definition, we cannot explain the resurrection. 

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

The Gospels do not— cannot— explain Easter. 

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

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

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

———————-

What does that mean?

What does that look like?

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan Cushing served six months. 

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

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

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

Her surviving sister, meanwhile, told the press: 

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

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

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

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

Good Friday: The Seven Last Words

The First Word

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

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

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

And bled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is Jesus right to impute ignorance to them? 

It certainly seems like they knew what they were doing. 

And Judas and Peter too. 

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

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

This is important—

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

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

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

There is no sacrifice that makes atonement for deliberate sin. 

Not one. 

Until now. 

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

For us. 

For the ungodly, Paul preaches.

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is the Father’s prayer for the world. 

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

That is to say—

God’s justice is Jesus.

The Second Word 

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

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

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

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

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

Now consider—

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

Flip it—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crucified Christ is not only the King. 

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

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

The Third Word 

“Woman, behold thy son! 

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a dangerous song. 

It’s a seditious song. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She loses him again in Jerusalem during the passover.

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

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

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

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

“What’s the meaning of this!?”

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

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

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

The Fourth Word

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

  Fill in the blanks:

If I say “The Lord is my shepherd…”

You say___________.

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

What do you say next?

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

And what?

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

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

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

Does Jesus stop believing on the cross? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You who fear the Lord, praise him!

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not hell made audible. 

It’s an overture to Easter.

The Fifth Word

“I thirst.”

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

     I was just a student pastor at the time.

All I knew of death came from books. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some say— 

     Jesus intends to fulfill Psalm 69. 

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

     Others say—

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

     Of course, the answer is all of the above. 

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     It’s just two words: I, thirst. 

     But it’s everything. 

     And it CLAIMS everything. 

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

    The cross lays some uncomfortable claims on us. 

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

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

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

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

The Sixth Word

“It is finished.”

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

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

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

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

     The second goat is brought to him alive. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Ahzahzel means “taking away.” 

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

     Take it away. Take our sin away. 

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

     But it’s not as simple as that. 

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

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

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

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

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

     First, the crowds shout “Take him away!”

     Then they shout “Crucify him!” 

     Ahzahzel 

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

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

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

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

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

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

     It was no longer effective, says the Talmud. 

     70 AD – 40 AD = about 30 AD. 

     In other words….

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

     Says the Talmud. 

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

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

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

The Seventh Word

“Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is dead.

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

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

Dying on a cross, Jesus becomes the Beautitudes.

The Beautitudes are Jesus. 

And we are the antitheses.

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

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

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

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

That’s a perfectly rational position. 

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

     Luke gives us the painful irony—

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

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

     They make the cross seem almost reasonable. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. 

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

     

          

     

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Thursday — Matthew 26.17-29

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

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

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

Miller writes:

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

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

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

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

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

The Food Culture, though, is different. 

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

Surely not I, Lord!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look, here’s the point:

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

They wash up. 

Jesus airs the dirty secret about Judas ratting him out.

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

And then what?

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

And Lamb to Point Back Towards the Cost of their Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as the script demanded.

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

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

The lamb was the most obvious ingredient. 

The lamb was the icon of the table. 

And yet—

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

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

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

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

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

   No, you know our script. 

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

Not the blood of the passover. This is me. 

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

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

This body of the passover is me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

Without the Church, there is no salvation. 

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

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

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

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

Until that day when I drink it new with you…

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

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

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

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

Jesus does not speak of remembering at all. 

Jesus speaks of anticipating. 

Jesus does not point backwards. 

Jesus gestures forwards. 

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

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

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

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

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

It is not a Table of division. 

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

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

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

They’re binding agents.

.

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

Really? They don’t understand?

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

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

 

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

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

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

Hello Rev. Micheli,

My name is Matthew _______, I’m an enormous fan of your work.

I was reading Rob Bell the other day and was a bit disturbed by this line: “It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as eternal, conscious torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.”

Would you say it is a common view among evangelicals that the *belief itself* in universalism warrants Hell? That even if the person believes Jesus saves, the additional belief of universalism amounts to rejecting him? (This could just be Bell’s hyperbole regarding the word “essentially”.) Can one be a Christian and believe that all will be saved?

I was wondering what your take on the matter might be.

Sincerest,

Matt

Hi Matt, 

Quite obviously you’ve read a sufficient amount of my writing to guess that flattery was a good gamble to get a response from me. I thank you all the same, and I’m being truthful when I say that I’m humbled not only by your kind words but more so by your trust in me with such a significant question. 

I think a word like “trust” is absolutely the right word to use in this matter for the stakes explicit in a doctrine like the— supposed— doctrine of eternal conscious torment are too high for the sort of callous, unthinking certitude with which many Christians comment on it. On the one hand, I know far too many liberals who attempt to posit universal salvation by resorting to sloppy analogies about spokes on a wheel. “Different religions are just different paths to the same destination,” is a mantra many are conditioned by the culture to repeat. Seldom do such people realize the presumption behind what they surely take to be a humble position; after all, just as only God can reveal God, only God can know which paths might produce the destination that is God. Likewise are those who want to iron over differences between the faiths of Abraham by dismissing them altogether with “We all worship the same God, right?” We may indeed all worship the same God, but such a dismissal ignores that the central tension in scripture is not over having or not having a generalized belief in God but in whether or not God’s People worship God rightly.

Any account of universal salvation, therefore, must arise not from the secular impulse to undo what God does at Babel and eliminate difference, for the difference God does at Babel is the way in which God blesses the world.

The elimination of difference, Babel teaches us, comes from our sinful inclination to be gods in God’s stead. Often I think Christians of a certain vintage insist upon the notion of eternal hell because those Christians adovcating for universal salvation do so in a way that seems insufficiently Christian; that is, Christianity seems incidental to the sentiments that prompt their universalism. 

Incidentally, I believe this is also why so many liberal Christians are unpersuasive to other Christians on LGBTQ issues. “Love and welcome for all,” for example, is a principle with which I concur, but it is a principle.

Principles, in principle, do not require a crucified Jew for you to discover them.

Any argument for universal salvation then must be one that emerges from the particular revelation given to us by God in Jesus Christ, and, frankly, the argument from those scriptures is much easier to execute than many brimstone-loving evangelicals seem to realize. Certainly there’s sufficient scriptural witness to disqualify any characterization of eternal conscious torment as an essential Christian belief. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, his coming comes from God’s love for the entire cosmos and what God desires is that all the world will be saved— the word there is healed— through him (Question: Does God get what God wants in the End? If not, wouldn’t what frustrates God’s eternal aim, by definition, be god?) In that Gospel, John makes explicit in his prologue and in his Easter account that the incarnation is God’s way of constituting a new creation not evacuating a faithful few from the old creation. The cosmic all-ness of Christ’s saving work is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans where even the unbelief of the Jews Paul attributes to God’s own doing: “God has consigned some to unbelief so that God may be merciful to all.” He puts it even plainer in Timothy: “Our savior God . . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth.”

Where hell is mentioned in the creeds, which, remember are the only means by which Christians evaluate who is and is not a legitimate believer, hell is mentioned because Christ harrowed it, rescuing the dead from former times from Sheol.

Even in Christ’s own parables—

Hell is never a realm that lies outside the realm of grace. 

Whenever we separate the person and work of Christ, which an accomodated Church in Christendom is always tempted to do, we abstract discipleship (a life patterned after the person of Jesus) from faith (confession in the work of Christ), leaving “belief” to play an outsized role in how we conceive of what it means to be a Christian. Faith then becomes a work we do— when we don’t want to do the things that Jesus did— a work by which we merit salvation rather than a gift from God to sinners. Understand— this insistence on eternal conscious torment is ungracious all the way down. We’re the agents of it all. It turns Christianity into a religion of Law instead of Grace.

To answer your question, though, I’m not sure that I can answer your question. I don’t know how many evangelicals believe that belief in universalism itself warrants eternal conscious torment. If they do believe that believing all shall be saved is a surefire way not to be saved, I’m not sure what Bible they’re reading. Karl Barth, for instance, who was an evangelical, wrote that while the Bible does not permit us to conclude without qualification that all shall be saved, the Bible does exhort us to pray that all will be saved— because the salvation of all is God’s revealed will. Just as I’m not sure what Bible such evangelicals could be reading, I’m also unclear about what God they could worshipping.

Such dogmatic insistence behind belief in eternal conscious torment and the alleged justice that requires such a doctrine grates against the justice God reveals to us in crucifixion of God’s own self for the ungodly.

When it comes to questions of eternal punishment, we mustn’t let the world’s sin obscure the fact that Jesus, crucified for the ungodly, is the form God’s justice takes in the sinful world. 

While I’m not sure how many evangelicals believe believing in universal salvation yields damnation, I do believe many evangelicals lack an helpful awareness that belief in universal salvation is more than a meager minority voice in the history of the Christian Church. There have been universalists as long as there have been Christians. In the first half the Church’s history, they were so numerous that Augustine had a sarcastic epithet for them (“the merciful-hearted”). The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa, whom Rob Bell basically ripped off, was one. He argued that since Adam and Eve were types who represented the entire human community whatever salvation meant it meant the redemption of all of humanity. You need not agree with Gregory but to suggest Gregory is not a Christian seems to indicate the plot has gotten lost. 

As David Bentely Hart notes in his forthcoming book:

“[universalists] cherished the same scriptures as other Christians, worshipped in the same basilicas, lived the same sacramental lives. They even believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chap- ter of 1 Corinthians, 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.”

Back to your question— Would you say it is a common view among evangelicals… that even if the person believes Jesus saves, the additional belief of universalism amounts to rejecting him? 

Again, I’m not sure what evangelicals believe about the dangers of believing in universalism, but if any do, then we should pray for them. How sad to think that it’s possible for Christians in America to have turned the wine of the Gospel into water. 

A Gospel where, in the End, sinners get what they deserve— that’s water not wine. 

It’s religion; it’s not the justification of the ungodly. 

A Gospel where those who err by believing too much in the triumphant mercy of God will be banished to eternal outer darkness— that’s worse than the plain old water of religion. What’s more, it puts the right-believers outside the party standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the older brother pissed off at the prodigality of the Father’s grace. A week from Good Friday we’d do well to remember it was such begrudgers who pushed God out of the world on a cross. 

Palm Sunday, the most political Sunday of the liturgical year is upon us. Of course, I realize such an assertion is anything but obvious to a good number of Christians. Jesus came to die for our sin; Christianity isn’t about politics, surely some of you are thinking. If it’s indeed the case that Christianity is about religion and not politics, that Christ died as a sacrifice for sinners not as a victim of the Power of Sin, then why in the hell does Jesus die on a cross?

If the death of Jesus is a religious death, then why is not stoned to death?

The late Dominican theologian and philosopher, Herbert McCabe, cautions against any understandings of the cross that are exclusively religious or theological. The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly. McCabe writes in God Matters:

chagall

“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

Virtue Signal

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 12.1-8

For God’s sake, don’t lie. 

Admit it. 

You think Judas is right. 

Of course, if you’ve spent any time at all in church, then you already know that you’re not supposed to identify with Judas. Judas is the traitor. Judas is the villain. Judas is the Judas. 

He’s the bastard who turns around right after today’s text to rat out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, which according to the prophet Zechariah was about a day’s wage. 

A day’s wage. 

According to the Book of Exodus, thirty pieces of silver is the cost of an average slave. 

Judas sells out the Son of God as though a slave.

So we know we’re not supposed to identify with Judas but, be honest now, we think Judas is right, or at the very least he’s reasonable. If you saw a line item in our church operating budget for nard you’d be PO’d too. In case you’re not a first century Mary Kay agent, nard was a perfume from the Himalayas. Amazon Prime still doesn’t deliver to Bethany so how this much nard ended up there is anyone’s guess. Who knows how Mary got her hands on it, but you can be sure this nard was not gained on the cheap. 300 denarii is what Judas guesses it would go for on the open market. 

Just to help you locate your place in the story here today: 300 denarii was the rough equivalent to $45,000.00. 

The nard cost Mary more than a Tesla Model 3. 

Wanna come clean now?

You think Judas is right on the money about the money. For HimalayanObsession?! At that cost, it would be better to rub Jesus down with some $5.99 Old Spice and give the rest of the five figures worth to the poor. 

Or, why not Axe Body Spray? For ten measley bucks she could spray some sexy on Jesus and then they’d still have approximately $44,990.00 for do-gooding. 

And doing good is what it’s about, right?

After all, Matthew’s account of this anointing occurs right after Jesus lays down every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable— the one about clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner. Judas has just heard Jesus drop the boom about eternal punishment so how can you blame Judas for wanting to get reckoned a sheep rather than goat? 

If we’re honest, it’s hard for us to see what Judas got wrong. 

Christians ought to be on the side of the poor. If Christians fail to capture the cultured despisers’ respect and imagination isn’t it largely because of our inability to live lives that correspond to Christ and his teachings (perhaps especially his teaching about the poor)? 

What’s more, isn’t Judas’ the better strategy for the Church to survive in a pagan nation like America? After all, Americans may not believe that Jesus is Lord of anything but pious hearts, but they at least believe we probably ought to help the poor. 

Isn’t Judas’ the smarter strategy in a secular age? Surely, serving the poor is a way for us as Christians to win friends and influence people. And while we’re truth-telling, let’s be honest. Believing what Christians are required to believe is no easy thing. Believing that the infinite took flesh in Mary’s finite womb, believing that three days dead Christ was dead no more, believing that he now and forevermore sits at the right hand of the Father— believing what Christians believe is no easy matter. 

We’re not even sure what it means to say someone sits at the Father’s right hand. 

Handouts to the hungry though? Let’s be honest. It’s just easier. Helping the less fortunate— it makes sense, which likely explains why it’s not distinctively Christian.

If you’ve seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian then you already know. In first century Israel, “poor” was a political category. The poor weren’t lazy or left behind. The poor were the oppressed. Money’s tight when you’ve got to foot the bill for your own military occupation— that’s why the Christmas story kicks off with a census. 

Just read your Old Testament if you don’t believe me— it’s not a minor theme in scripture— the poor were poor because they were oppressed. 

If you don’t understand the relationship between poverty and oppression you won’t understand Palm Sunday. You won’t understand how the Messiah they anticipate with shouts of hosanna produces first their disappointment and then their betrayal when the “Messiah” they get turns out to be the Messiah named Jesus. 

Judas isn’t simply suggesting that this down payment’s worth of perfume should’ve been shared with the poor; he’s arguing that it’d be better spent on the cause. 

Judas isn’t griping that they should’ve given the money to feed the poor. 

He’s saying they should’ve used the money to free them. 

To free the poor. To liberate the oppressed. Judas’s point is not just about charity. Judas’ point is also about justice. After all, he’s named for Israel’s most famous armed revolutionary. 

Like today, Judas’ language about the poor is political language. It’s a campaign contribution’s worth of cash Judas watches Mary rub into Jesus’ calloused feet. 

“Why was this nard not sold for almost fifty grand and the money given to the Democratic National Committee?” That’s a better way to hear what Judas says. 

“Why was this perfume not sold and the money donated to Make Israel Great Again?” Is another way to hear him.

“What’s she doing? What a waste! Don’t you people know your Micah 6.8?! Do you know the kind of change we could make with that much cash?”

Even if we’re too chicken to admit it, Judas makes sense to us. But we’re right to pretend otherwise. Think about it— Judas is sitting at the supper table with Lazarus, a guy who’d been dead for four days. 

Judas had watched graveside as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, stinking with death and tripping over his burial clothes he was so surprised. In fact, Jesus had commanded him to be dead no longer: “Lazarus, come out!” 

From dust he came and to dust he returned and then he returned again.

Now Judas is eating with the guy who was wormfood a few days ago, but as soon as Judas sees Mary pull out some some five figure Chanel No. 5 he’s back to thinking in terms of scarcity.

Which puts Judas (and thus, puts us) in the same camp as Caiphas—another name we know better than to identify. 

In the text just before today’s text, John tells us that a crowd of Jews, having witnessed Jesus speak Lazarus forth from the dead, began “believing into Jesus.” 

Some of these bystanders, John says, went and tattled on Jesus to the Pharisees and the Pharisees went and tattled to the chief priests and the chief priests went and tattled to the Chief Priest, Caiphas. 

And how does Caiphas respond?

“If we let him go on like this,” Caiphas worries, “everyone will believe into him, and the Romans will come and destroy our nation.”

Sit with that for a second—

When the chief religious leaders of God’s people hear about Jesus’ power over the Power of Death, their immediate worry is not religious. It’s political. 

Like we do, Caiphus had been towing the God and Country line, but as soon as the Living God shows up our true colors come out.

When Caiphas hears Christ can raise the dead, he doesn’t cripe about commandments. He worries about the two things over which you most worry too. 

Currency. 

And country.

Jesus is hiding out here in Bethany because just after Jesus produces Lazarus alive from the tomb, Caiphas plots to kill Jesus because Caiphas worries that Christ’s power over the Power of Death will upset the political arrangement of the powers-that-be. 

Don’t forget:

This is the same Caiphas who on Good Friday will condemn Jesus to a cross on a charge of blasphemy while pledging to Pontius Pilate what exactly? He says what no Jew should ever say: “We have no King but Caesar.” 

But since Messiah and King and Caesar all name in different languages the same word, Caiphas basically says “We have no Messiah but the King you call Caesar.” That’s where the Old Testament grinds to halt. It ends there with “We have no Messiah  but Caesar.“ Christ’s passion is the price to secure Caiphas’ political promise to Pilate. 

“Forty-five grand! We could’ve donated that money to MoveOn.org— think of the justice work we could do with that much money.” Judas says. 

“Power over Death? But only Death makes our economy of scarcity possible. Resurrection, it’ll ruin the nation.” Says Caiphas.

You see— Judas and Caiphas, their failure is not primarily one of faithfulness. Their failure is a failure of imagination. Their failure is a failure of political imagination. 

In order to see their failure as a failure of political imagination, however, we must first swallow our squeamishness about what Jesus says to Judas. Even if we’re too cowardly to admit we think Judas is right, we should at least be able to acknowledge that Jesus’ response to Judas embarrasses us. We wish Jesus had not said what Jesus says: “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me.” 

Just try that verse out on a woke, unbelieving Bernie supporter and see how they react. Talk about religion as the opiate of the people. What Jesus says to Judas seems to legitimate the sort of apathetic, pie-in-the-sky Christianity for which non-Christians critique Christians. 

Maybe it’s because “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” embarrases us that we seldom stop to notice the fact that the one who said “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” is himself poor. 

Jesus is poor. 

Jesus is oppressed.

And very soon, Jesus will be the naked without any clothes. Jesus will be the parched who’s given gall. Jesus will be the stranger shunned. Jesus will be the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. Surrounded by goats, they’ll be the only sheep at his side for the Last Judgement that is his Cross.

Don’t you see?

This is the point of it all— this is why Caiphus plots to kill him.

We think Judas is right, but we miss how right Caiphas really is.

Jesus is a threat to our politics.

Jesus does intend to end the world as we know it. 

Mary upends our categories of helping the poor and the oppressed by lavishing a Mercedes C-class worth of money on a single poor person (who also happens to be the incarnate God).  And Jesus praises her for it. It’s a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to do what she did. 

Judas has got his mind stuck in the grave— he still thinks that change-making comes in terms of charity and campaign contributions, but Mary’s response to Jesus’ power over the Power of Death is to shower two-thirds of our entire mission budget on a solitary poor man living on borrowed time. Judas lacks Mary’s imagination.

Only when you understand what Mary understands will you understand what Jesus means when he says to Judas that we will not always have Jesus with us bodily but we will always have the poor with us. 

Jesus is not implying that we should be resigned to the way of the world. On the contrary, we will always have the poor with us because the Church, the Body of Christ, is the People God has put in the world who know, by the sacrament of the resurrection, that the poor and the prisoner, the naked and the shunned, are to celebrated. 

The Church is the People God has put in the world who know that we can afford to love the poor with lavishment because Christ is a gift that can never be used up. So of course we’ll always have the poor with us. Because the Church is the Body of him who is poor. We will always have the poor with us because the Body of Christ is for them.

“Leave her alone,” the poor man said to Judas, “she bought it [she bought it—for $45K!] for me.” 

“She’s done the better thing,” the poor man adds in Matthew’s account. 

Jesus praises Mary because Mary understands that Jesus makes a different politics possible. To put a finer point on it, Mary understands that she-and-her-nard constitutes the different politics which God has made possible in the world in Jesus.

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth and who remains my north star, wrote:

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity and Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

Barth liked to point out how when the devil temps Christ in the wilderness by offering him the governments of this world the implication is that the governments of this world are the devil’s to give. They belong to him. 

Barth, who was one of the only German Christians to stand up against Hitler’s Nazi regime, was not being hyperbolic.

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity—and—Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

It’s the and there that’s problematic. Just as soon as the church begins to ponder how its Christianity can inform politics, Barth argued, you can be sure the church has lost the plot. Such a church might be a church of great sincerity and zeal. Such a church might be a church of fervent devotion and good works of charity. Nonetheless, such a church will be a church that’s failed to understand that it is the way God has chosen to love and redeem the world. 

Whenever we talk about Christianity and Politics, we risk forgetting that the way God has chosen to heal his creation is through his particular People— that’s a promise that goes all the way back to Abraham. 

The way God has chosen to heal his creation his through the witness of his People. 

Not the House or the Senate. Not POTUS or SCOTUS. Not with bills or billboards or hashtags. Not through political policy. But his People. The Church. The Body of Christ, sent by the Spirit, is God’s virtue signal; that is to say, the Church doesn’t have a politics the Church is a politics. 

I’m sure right about now that some of you (if not all of you) are thinking Well, gee Jason, that sounds nice but what in the hell do you mean“The Church doesn’t have a politics. The Church is a politics?” 

I’m glad you asked.

Yesterday afternoon we celebrated a Service of Death and Resurrection for a man here in the community, Gordon. 

Gordon was a Vietnam vet. The cancer that killed him likely came from Agent Orange that killed others. A couple of days before he died, he called me to his bedside. In addition to wanting to profess that Jesus is Lord and give to Christ what remained of his life, Gordon also wanted to confess his sins. 

“I want to confess,” he told me staring at the ceiling, “what I had to do in the war— it was necessary, but it was still sin.” 

Think about it—

He was dying. He didn’t know how quick. Time was a precious, valueable commodity to him. Time was a gift, and Gordon wanted to give it, to lavish it— some would say waste it— by giving his confession to Christ. 

In a culture that ships our soldiers off to do what is necessary and then, when they return home, we insist that they not tell us about what we’ve asked them to do, Gordon’s confession— what the Church calls the care of souls— that’s a politics. 

It’s how God has chosen to care for the world.

During the funeral service, Gordon’s son spoke candidly about his often difficult sometimes estranged relationship with his father. 

In a culture of sentimentality and pretense, the sort of truth-telling that this sanctuary makes possible— that’s a politics.

Later this afternoon, a group from church will go up to Sleepy Hollow Nursing Home to worship with elderly residents who may not be able to hear it or comprehend it. In a culture like ours that is determined to get out of life alive— a culture that worships at the altar of youth and achievement— the old are very often cloistered away and cast-off. 

It’s a simple thing some of you will do at Sleepy Hollow, offering them prayer and presence and touch. But

But make no mistake, it’s a politics.

A while ago, I read a story in the paper about the California Prison Hospice Program. The unintended consequence of stiff prison sentences doled out in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s is that now many penitentieries must double as nursing homes. 

Already underfunded, many prison systems have recruited and trained convicts to serve as hospice workers to care for and accompany aging inmates as they die of cancer and other causes. 

It might not surprise you to hear most of the prisoners who volunteer to care for the dying are Christians. 

“It’s what God’s given us the opportunity to do, to pour out our love on them” one prisoner— guilty of a gang bang in his youth— told the New York Times. 

It might not surprise you to hear that most of the hospice workers are Christians, but it might surprise you to hear that of the hundreds of prisoners who’ve worked caring for the dying and later been released not one of them has returned to prison. 

They have a recidivism rate of 0%. 

In a culture where even Democrats and Republicans can agree our criminal justice system is broken, a simple unimpressive act, Christian care for the dying…zero percent— that’s a politics.

At the end, the Times article unintentionally echoes St. Paul:

“Within the walls of the prison hospice, all the invisible boundaries of the world have fallen down. Black men give meal trays to [dying] white men with swastikas tattooed on their faces, Crips play cards with Bloods, and a terminal Latino with cirrhosis gets his hair cut by an Asian with whom he previously wouldn’t have peaceably shared a cellblock.” 

The way God has chosen to heal the world is the Church— that’s what we forget whenever we argue about the Church and Politics. 

We’re the nard that God has purchased at great cost to himself to lavish Christ upon the dying world. 

You see—

It’s not that grace— what God has done for us in Jesus Christ— makes what we do as Christians incidental or unimportant. 

It’s that what we do as Christians should be unintelligible— an expensive waste, even— if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Calvin said the human heart is an idol factory. Augustine said our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. DZ of Mockingbird Ministries and the author of the new book, Seculosity, says we’re more religious than ever before we’re church “in church” in different ways.

Love, politics, parenting, technology, fitness are not secular alternatives to religion. They are, says DZ, secular ways of being religious. We’re never not in church now says David, but because the Church of Politics or Soul Cycle are inherently religions of Law, we’re increasingly exhausted, self-righteous, and cruel. We’er searching for “enoughness” from gods that, without the promise of grace, cannot bestow it.

Check out his work at www.mbird.com and grab a copy of his book over at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

And after you do David a solid, pay it forward by helping us out at the podcast to keep delivering you conversations about faith without using stained-glass language. Go to our website (www.crackersandgrapejuice.com) and click on “Support the Show” to become a patreon for chump change.

For our Wednesday evening eucharist service, I decided to write a homily on Matthew’s version of the Sunday Gospel lection:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus tells his disciples, but specifically Peter, just after calling Peter “Satan” for tempting Jesus with a fate other than cruciform destiny.

 

Perhaps because Jesus’ statement about our needing to lose our lives in order to gain them occurs within the context of Peter balking at the notion of a crucified Messiah we mishear Jesus as suggesting that we too must seek a cross if the Kingdom is to be added unto us.

 

But the Risen Christ is no nihilist. When Jesus says we must lose our lives to gain them, he’s not recruiting kamikaze Kingdom warriors, for the word “lose” in Matthew 16 is the same word Matthew uses just after Jesus tells us about the sheep and the goats.

 

The word “lose” is the same word in Greek for “waste.”

ἡ ἀπώλεια αὕτη

apoleia

“For those who want to save their life will waste it, and those who waste their life for my sake will find it.”

 

Matthew uses that same word ‘waste” a few chapters later when Jesus visits the house of Simon the Leper for supper— Jesus might as well ask the Pharisees and chief priests to kill him. 

 

Two nights before Passover, two nights before he dies, Jesus goes to Simon’s house for dinner. They’re eating dessert and drinking coffee when in walks a woman. She doesn’t have a name but she does have a crystal jar filled with expensive oil— about $45,000 worth. 

 

This woman, she break the jar and she pours the oil over Jesus’ head and body. 

 

Just like the psalm about the good shepherd in the valley of death— just like King David, whose kingdom God promised would be forever— she anoints him. She anoints him for his death, for his cross will be his enthronment, thorns his crown, and the jeers of onlookers his acclamation.

 

And Jesus, he praises her for not holding back, for sparing no cost in pouring out her love on him. 

 

Meanwhile the disciples look on in anger, and all they can do is grumble over all the “good” they could have done with that much money. I mean, don’t forget Jesus had just laid every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable on them— the one about the sheep and the goats. 

 

So here, watching this woman who shelled out a year’s worth of wages for perfume, they virtue signal, estimating the number of hungry that could’ve been fed, the naked who could’ve been clothed, the poor they could’ve served. 

 

If she hadn’t wasted it. 

Yet Jesus praises her. 

 

The disciples look at her and they get angry at the waste. Jesus looks at her and sees a holy waste. He praises her for lavishing love and devotion on him, who—don’t forget— is poor and will very soon be the naked without clothes, the thirsty who’s given gall, the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. 

 

Lose. 

Waste. 

 

You see when Jesus tells us we need to lose our lives to gain a life in the Kingdom, he’s not talking about crosses. He’s talking about something even more reckless. He’s recommending the example of this woman— he’s urging us to lavish love and devotion— to spare no cost— on him. 

 

This woman at the leper’s house knows that Jesus is not a means to some other end. Rather devotion to Jesus— worship of him is a good in and of itself.  

 

An economy that the world cannot help but see as a waste and which ironically may lead the world in its economy to crucify us. 

For the Wednesdays of Lent we’re doing an evening eucharist service where each week I preach a homily on one of the Comfortable Words. The Comfortable Words are a collection of promises from the New Testament, compiled by Thomas Cranmer for the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer wanted to guarrantee that having confessed our sin and been confronted with the demands of God’s Law God’s people never left a service of Word and Table without having heard the promise of the Gospel.

Here’s my homily on John 3…

“If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’ 

You must be born again. Or- You must be born from above. Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else. Except- That you in “You must be born again” is plural.  It’s “You all must be born again.” 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says. And Jesus answers with “You all…” We are in that you. Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God. 

Being born anothen- It’s something God does; it’s not something we do. Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind— the Holy Spirit— blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” 

Being born anothen, Jesus says, it cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me. You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?  

That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…” Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God. What is flesh, i.e. you and me,  is incapable of coming to God. You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given. Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does. But Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters:  It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God. 

    ———————-

Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says. We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us. 

This Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John in his prologue, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit. 

Skip ahead. 

To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.” 

 And what does John show you? Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate. And what does Pilate say? 

“Behold, the adamah.” 

And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you? 

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit. And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you? Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity. 

     

Water and the spirit, the sixth day. 

     

And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you? Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week. And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what? For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.

Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them. Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day. He breathes on them. Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life. 

They’re made new again. Anothen. 

And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right. 

The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit. 

And it’s ours.

     

Here’s a long review I wrote for the latest issue of the ChristianCentury, out today:

Crippled Grace: Disability, Virtue Ethics, and the Good Life.

By Shane Clifton. Baylor University Press, 285 pp., $49.95.

One summer Sunday this year, after the last few worshippers trickled through my line to receive the sacrament, their hands outstretched like beggars, I carried the body and blood of Christ to Mary. In the early stages of multiple sclerosis, she sat behind the back pew in her wheelchair next to her husband James. 

I broke off a piece of bread and placed it between her clenched fingers. “The body of Christ broken for you, Mary,” I whispered. She chewed slowly, as though she knew better than us that her life depended upon what lay within it. James waited calmly. I watched the clock nervously. When she finally swallowed, James and I guided the cup to her lips. “The blood of Christ poured out for you, honey.” He’d stolen my line. Some of the wine dribbled out of her mouth and onto her blouse. Unwrapping the cloth from the stem of the chalice, he wiped her face clean and blotted the stain on her shirt. 

“I admire you for the way you are with her, your patience and tenderness,” I said to James.

He looked puzzled and replied, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

“Our marriage has never been better,” Mary slurred with a smile. Chastened, I carried the chalice and the crust back to the altar table as the congregation finished singing “O love, how deep, how broad, how high.”

It reveals my own handicapped Christianity that I assumed Mary’s illness and consequent disability was a hardship to bear rather than the labor pains through which she and James were becoming new creations. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say in stubborn denial that one day we may indeed find ourselves as someone like Mary—and oblivious to the possibility that, finding ourselves like her, we might discover it’s not the tragedy we suppose but is instead an occasion for grace. 

My particular surprise at Mary and James’s experience of grace stems, Shane Clifton argues in Crippled Grace, from our general reluctance to come out of the closet and live openly—vulnerably—as finite, contingent creatures. The author of Husbands Should Not Break, Clifton teaches theology at Alphacrucis College in Australia. Having been a teacher of the church’s virtue ethics tradition, from Thomas Aquinas to Alasdair MacIntyre, Clifton became a student of it after he suffered an injury while jumping a bicycle. It rendered him a complete (C5) quadriplegic.

Depression and despair followed seven months in the hospital for Clifton, but eventually his dark night of the soul yielded to happiness. Or rather, his injury and resulting disability led him to find happiness under the new conditions of his life. The good life is discoverable, Clifton shows, not in spite of his struggles with sexual function as “a crip” nor in spite of his daily “dealings with the messiness of piss and poo.” The good life opens up to him in the midst of them—because of them. 

To be disabled, Clifton observes, is to be in a near constant state of dependency upon others. Such dependency usually strikes us as an ordeal to be avoided at all costs. Says Clifton: “We hear of a person rendered a quadriplegic, and we think to ourselves ‘They’d be better off dead.’ So we say to our loved ones, ‘If that ever happens to me, turn off the machine.’” As common as such assumptions may be, Christianly-speaking they are incoherent. If that ever happens to me is unintelligible as Christian grammar since the content of Christian revelation discloses that we are dependent, contingent creatures. Those who are disabled cannot help but make visible the truth that the rest of us, crippled by fear or pride, prefer to hide: we are not in control of our lives. 

The imagodei, we too often forget, is firstly not a resemblance to the Creator; it’s the confession that we are created. As creatures, we are dependent upon our Creator, contingent in the fragile world God has wrought. In contrast to Descartes, who posited the human as primarily a thinking thing, Clifton asserts that “to be human is to be subject to the vulnerabilities of finite life.” This view offers a fresh perspective on what constitutes the human creature, since dependence and vulnerability are largely absent categories in moral philosophy. It also allows Clifton to conceive of disability in terms contrary to the prevailing notions about it. For Clifton, spinal cord injury doesn’t mark the impoverishment of his life as a human creature. Quadriplegia proves instead to be the crucible through which he becomes more human. Spinal cord injury becomes the occasion for Clifton to discover the truth of Christian speech: weakness is not the opposite of strength. 

Nor are disability, happiness, and faith contradictory terms. Clifton uses his own experience as well as the testimonies of others with disabilities to bring virtue philosophy and disability studies into conversation with Christian theology. The layered approach, marrying first-person memoir with multiple disciplines, recalls the work of another virtue ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas. Like Hauerwas’ own work, Crippled Grace has wide-ranging implications beyond the specificity of its topic. This is not a book about disability. It’s a book about mortality—about how those of us who came from the dust conceive of happiness before we return to it. 

If what constitutes us as human creatures is contingency amidst the vulnerabilities of finite life, then disability is not a specific subset of human life. It is, as Clifton writes, “symbolic of the human condition.” Disability is a lens through which all of us can understand the good life. 

The way the church engages people with disabilities is often analogous to the way the church engages people living in poverty through short-term mission projects. They become the means by which we or our children learn to count our blessings and to be grateful for our lives. Frequently people with disabilities are considered problems for the church to solve in terms of facilities and accommodations. Or they’re occasions for self-congratulation when we successfully welcome and include them. Or people with disabilities become our source material for lessons about dealing with adversity, what Clifton calls “inspiration porn.” 

CrippledGrace thrusts a very different conversation upon the church. It argues for the possibility that disabled people possess a happiness, hewed by hardship, that the abled, in their avoidance of vulnerability, have yet to countenance much less attain. 

Clifton begins the book in the same way his experience of disability began: with an attempt to make sense of suffering and the problem of pain. His experience as a sufferer thrusts him into a community of sufferers where the traditional theodicy question takes on surprising qualifications. “Why is there suffering in the world?” becomes a more ambivalent question when you discover, as Clifton did both personally and in his reading about disability, that many quadriplegics report that they would not trade their crippled life for another. The experience of disability, Clifton found, has enriched many people’s lives as “the catalyst for self-discovery.” That good can from an experience of suffering like quadriplegia does not justify or excuse God, Clifton rightly concedes. However, that good can and does come from an experience of suffering—even from an experience of suffering like quadriplegia—should give us pause before we posture ourselves like Job to rage against the mysteries of existence. The questions of theodicy we ask out of empathy with disabled people may inadvertently do sufferers great harm, tacitly dismissing the happiness they have found through the harrowing of their suffering. What for many of us is an imponderable privation in God’s good creation is simultaneously the means by which some of God’s impaired creatures discover the good life. 

Clifton understands his own accident matter-of-factly as “a contingent event that is part and parcel for what it means to be a creature of the earth.” Following MacIntyre, Clifton assumes that vulnerability, affliction, and dependency are not so much mysteries to be plumbed as they are facts of the human condition. Precisely because they are facts of the human condition, they are corollaries for any account of human flourishing. The givenness of vulnerability, affliction, and dependency in a world of contingency is the necessary condition for the balance Clifton achieves as he explores the virtues in light of disability. 

Virtue especially arises, he suggests, as a response to hardship. Therefore, the very vulnerability we lament and avoid as contingent creatures is ironically the ground necessary for us to find happiness. Those who are disabled cannot avoid the kind of dependency that the abled so skillfully avoid. This reality gives disabled people a particular and acute perspective on what the virtue tradition teaches about the good life. 

Friendships, for example, are central to human flourishing. People who are severely disabled, Clifton notes, literally cannot negotiate their day-to-day lives without relying upon the care and compassion of friends. Moreover, intimacy and mutual vulnerability constitute the fruitful friendships we call marriage. The struggles and shame, acceptance and eroticism that many disabled people experience under the covers with their partners gives them a particular wisdom about intimacy and mutual vulnerability. 

If nothing else, Clifton convinces me that people who are disabled have much to teach the church. If humility and patience are virtues, then there is no catechesis quite like the daily letting go that comes with relying on others to move you, feed you, and clean you. Luther said that the Christian life is a constant return to one’s baptism in the sense that it involves a daily dying to self. Clifton’s account of the daily dependency of disability puts skin on Luther’s claim. The dependency of those who are disabled, counterintuitively, can be empowering—for grace is the power of God that perfects our broken nature. 

Happiness, Clifton shows, is not achieved so much as discovered. Happiness is the reward happened upon by those who do not avoid our human fragility but embrace it, daring to live as vulnerably as “those who need a push” in the wheelchair. Hauerwas jokes that “a God who doesn’t tell us what to do with our pots, pans, and genitals isn’t a God worthy of our worship.” Clifton ups the ante by demonstrating that those who live vulnerably—requiring others’ help with the doing of their pots, pans, genitals, and more—just may be the mosthuman of God’s creatures. 

The dependency that is the day-to-day given of disabled people is also grist for the making of happiness. The good life that emerges from disability is necessarily a shared life. A disabled person’s stories are necessarily stories that include others, notably those upon whom the person depends. 

Although I am not disabled, I live with an incurable cancer. I know firsthand as a patient what I’ve learned secondhand as a pastor: the partners of the afflicted are afflicted too. Caregivers bear a unique burden, and it’s one that is often harder to suffer. Opportunities to grieve can be spare amid the daily demands of care. It’s one thing to lament your own lot in life. It’s quite another more complicated, guilt-inducing thing to mourn the life you’ll no longer have because of the affliction that comes to your contingent spouse. CrippledGrace would be a fuller book, I think, if it included more testimony from the partners with whom disabled people are discovering the good life. I’ve got a vested interest, I suppose, but I’d like to hear the spouses of disabled people echo that they too would not trade their life for another. 

This is a minor critique that should not distract from how upending Clifton’s work is. My takeaways were greater than I anticipated when I first cracked open the cover. I expected to close the book with a better understanding of how I should serve people like Mary, the disabled woman in my congregation. Instead I walked away convinced that my congregation might be more fully Christ’s own broken body were we to listen to Mary about life as it is lived in her dependent body. By highlighting the vantage point disabled people have on the virtues, CrippledGrace imbues people with disabilities with an agency and a (non-patronizing) spiritual wisdom that is not only unique to them but is largely absent from how they are typically regarded. 

By examining the good life through the lens of disability, Cliftonexposes just how fraught are terms like disability and handicapped. Both terms betraythe extent to which we are captured by goods that are not the Christian virtues. They designate that certain people cannot perform certain skills—namely, doing and producing things for the marketplace—as well as other people can. 

But Christianly speaking, how is this a disadvantage, much less one that should determine how we understand a person? People who are disabled are not impaired from—and may be especially equipped for—extending forgiveness, expressing gratitude, offering hospitality to a stranger, showing kindness, giving grace, absolving sins, and loving. Words make worlds, Christians believe, and words can also undo the world as God has disclosed it to us. The way we typically speak about disability shows that we’ve forgotten a Sunday School lesson Clifton ably teaches: weakness and vulnerability are God’s way of pouring out power. 

I didn’t finish Clifton’s book with Mary on my mind. I closed Crippled Grace thinking instead of my two sons. They’re both active, able-bodied, teenage boys. As an aside in his conclusion, Clifton confesses his worry that he failed in the book to use disability as a particular metaphor for the fragility of life in general. It’s a striking moment of authorial vulnerability in a book about the importance of vulnerability. But he’s wrong. It’s a testament to the success of his endeavor that I came to the end of his work not thinking about the disabled people in my life but worrying about my boys, the world in which they’re about to make their way, and the church that will or will not be there for them. 

If Clifton is correct, if to be human is to suffer the vulnerabilities of life in a contingent world and if happiness and all its composite virtues comes by how we handle those vulnerabilities, then the culture my sons are entering appears designed to make them unhappy and less than human. Seemingly at every turn, their world tempts them to filter all their imperfections through a social media sheen and to posture a public self that, in its premeditated artificiality, is the opposite of vulnerability. Increasingly, theirs is a world where relationships are virtual rather than vulnerable, online instead of incarnate. Such a world is not prepared to train my boys for the burden of being dependent on another; in fact, it expects them to have become “self-sufficient” by the time they bind their life to another by vows and rings. Worse perhaps, it’s a world where they’re encouraged to maximize every moment of their schedule to raise their score and perfect their permanent record. Such a world does not well form them to be ready with care when another becomes dependent upon them. 

While Clifton’s account of authentic humanityleft me uneasy about the world that surrounds my children, it also lent me a clearer picture of the church needed in such a world. Clifton has convinced me that what my congregation needs is not wheelchair ramps and ADA-approved restrooms so much as a wrecking ball taken to its Sunday-best pretenses. This book has convinced me that the church in the digital age needs to become more like AA. It’s not that “Hi, my name is Jason and I’m…” is the means to a more inclusive church. It’s that such a hospitality for vulnerability may be the only means to a more fully alive congregation. Early iterations of the Book of Common Prayer used to invite worshippers to confess that “there is no health in us.” Crippled Grace helps us see, regardless of ability, that this sort of frank admission of brokenness—and a candid willingness to be dependent upon God or others—is the path to happiness. 

Jason Micheli is a pastor at Annandale United Methodist Church in Annandale, Virginia, and the author of the forthcoming Living in Sin: Making Marriage Work Between I Do and Death (Fortress).

The lectionary gospel text for this coming Sunday, I noticed, is the sphincter-tightening yarn Jesus spins in Luke 15– without exaggeration the most beloved and familiar of all Christ’s parables. Thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son(s) and/or the Parable of the Prodigal Father (see just the naming of the parables reveals their interpretive possibilities and all the pitfalls that lie therein) got me to thinking about how we preach what are themselves Jesus’ story-form sermons.

10. The Form of the Text Should Determine the Form of the Sermon 

What holds true for preaching on scripture in general is particularly so for parables: the rhetorical form of the scripture passage should determine the rhetorical form of the sermon. A sermon on a parable should not be 3 points and a poem; it should be parabolic with a counterintuitive narrative turn that surprises and offends enough to make room for the Gospel.

9. For God’s Sake, Don’t Explain

When pressed by his disciples and his enemies, Jesus seldom resorted to the kind of utilitarian explanation that fits nicely onto a PowerPoint slide. Instead Jesus most often told stories and more often than not he let those stories stand by themselves. Rarely did he explain them and rarely should preachers do what Jesus seldom did. A parable is not an allegory with simple equivalencies between its characters and figures outside the story. Besides dwelling too long on ancient near east paternal customs or the exact equivalency of a talent in order to ‘explain’ the parable is a sure way to kill the parable.

8. Show Don’t Tell 

Similar to #9, the converting power of Jesus’ parables is the emotional affect they elicit in the listener, and they hit the listener as ‘true’ even prior or without the listener being able to put the parable’s point into words.

Preaching on the parables should focus less on explaining what Jesus said and more on doing what Jesus did; that is, the sermon should aim at reproducing the head-scratching affect of Jesus’ parable rather than reporting on it.

7. Who’s Listening? 

Jesus’ closed parables, the stories he explains not at all, tend to be the ones told in response to and within earshot of the scribes and the Pharisees and, about, them.

6. Context is Key 

Where the evangelists have chosen to place a particular parable within the larger Gospel narrative clues one into how they at least took its meaning. Matthew places the Parable of the Talents, for example, just after a parable about waiting for the coming Kingdom but just before another about our care of the poor being love shown to Christ. So is the Parable of the Talents about anticipating the Kingdom? Or is it a harbinger of that story to come, that the 1 talent servant failed to do anything for the ‘least of these’ with his treasure?

5. Create Ears to Hear  

What has made parables powerful is also what makes them difficult to preach. No longer offensive stories, they’re beloved tales whose familiarity has numbed their subversive nature. Preachers need to create new ears to hear the old stories.

To be heard rightly, preaching on parables must play with them, changing the setting, modernizing the situation, positing a contrary hypothesis about the story, or seeing the story from the point of view of one of the other characters.

4. The Idiom is Important 

Jesus’ parables are largely agrarian in imagery because that was the context in which his listeners lived. Largely, listeners today do not share such a context. Not having the familiarity with that context as Jesus’ listeners did, it’s easy for us to miss the glaring omissions or additions that Jesus casts in his parables.

To do the work they originally did, preachers should rework Jesus’ parables into the idioms of our day and place so that we can hear ‘what was lost is now found’ in our own idiom.

3. Own It (Wherein ‘It’ = Hell, Judgment, Darkness) 

Many of Jesus’ parables end with arresting imagery of eschatological judgment: sheep from goats, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and torture.

Rather than acting squeamish about such embellishment, preachers of parables should remember that Jesus was telling parables, stories whose truth is hidden in the affect of the narrative. Jesus was not mapping the geography of hell nor attempting any literal forecast of judgment’s content.

The shock at the end of many of these parables is what helps deliver the shock of the parable itself. Rather than run from such imagery or explain it away, preachers should own it and be as playfully serious about it as Jesus.

2. They’re about Jesus 

Jesus’ parables do not reveal eternal truths or universal principles about God that are intelligible to anyone.

The parables are stories told to Jesus’ disciples even if others are near to hear. They reveal not timeless truths but the scandal of the Gospel and what it means to be a student of that good news. As Karl Barth liked to point out, the parables are always firstly self-descriptions of Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the son who goes out into the far country and is brought low. As Robert Capon argues so well, the parables are all stories Jesus tells about himself; specifically, stories Jesus tells about his death. The parables reflect Jesus’ passion for the passion.

As with preaching on scripture in general, preachers would do well to remember: It’s about Jesus.

1. Would Someone Want to Kill You Over a Story Like This?

The Gospel writers tell us that the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill Jesus in no small part because of the stories he told.

Preaching that renders the parables into home-spun wisdom, pithy tales of helpful commonsense advice or truths about the general human condition betrays the parables.

Preachers of the parables are not exempt from Christ’s call to carry their cross and preaching of the parables is one way in which we do so.

200 Episodes!!! Say what?!? Listen as the guys take a trip down memory lane to talk about their favorite episodes, their white whale guests and what’s to come for the podcast Crackers and Grape Juice!

Many thanks to all of you who make this project possible. Our audience grows with each conversation and new friends come into our lives each week. If you’re so inclined, visit us at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com where you can sign up to support the show.

Be on the lookout for guests we have coming down the pike:

My friend David Zahl on his forthcoming book Seculosity

Friend of the podcast, David Bentley Hart, on Universalism

Chad Bird, Amy Laura Hall, Kate Bowles, Nick Lannon and more!


A couple of years ago I got head-hunted for several senior ministry positions by Vanderbloemen, a private church-staffing company. Just as in many other industries, local churches contract with Vanderbloemen to find, vet, and recommend candidates for open pastorates and staffing vacancies. 

 

“How’d you find me?” I asked the head-hunter. 

 

“You’ve got a large platform— came across you on the internet— you’ve got executive experience in a large church, and,  most importantly, you’re a United Methodist. We need Methodists. These are United Methodist congregations for whom were conducting the search.” 

 

And so went my introduction to the reality across our denomination.

Those who pledge fealty to the itinerant system ignore that there already are and have been for some time multiple parallel appointive systems in the United Methodist Church.

 

Around the same time I got head-hunted, for example, a prominent large church pastor who was considering an episcopal nomination conceded that in the event of his/her election to the episcopacy his/her congregation would employ a private firm like Vanderbloemen to identify a successor. Meanwhile, in every conference in Methodism there are discrete groups of “limited itinerancy” clergy who will not be moved based on a spouse’s career, children’s needs, or other factors. Conservative clergy will never be sent to certain parishes in a given conference. Ditto liberal clergy.

 

I mean— does anyone seriously believe that when Adam Hamilton retires from Church of the Resurrection that the area bishop will simply select another pastor from the annual conference to be appointed in his stead? Why should only the large, leading churches be granted such autonomy over their future?

 

Every competent pastor knows that in a congregation “anyone can serve but leaders are chosen.” Of course, in a United Methodist congregation this maxim may be true for everyone but the pastor, whom no one in the congregation chose.

 

It simply is not true that United Methodism has a single appointive system for clergy called iterancy, and this is a poorly-kept secret for everyone but parishioners in local churches most of whom continue to accept that they have, at best, a limited and passive role in the pastor who will lead them. 

In light of the massive disruption the 2019 General Conference has visited upon local churches, the question of agency in the appointive process is not a minor one. Will Willimon says the governing ethos in the Book of Discipline since our founding in 1968 is “You can’t trust the local church.” Now however— no matter where folks fall on the question of human sexuality— the ham-fisted decision-making process at the 2019 General Conference has made plain that local churches would be foolish to trust the leadership of the larger church much less tie their future to it.

 

Why should local churches, whom the larger UMC does not trust and whom the larger UMC has just done irrevocable damage, rely upon the same institution to send them, unilaterally so, pastoral leaders? 

 

Unmistakably, the fallout from GC2019 has made the local unit of the United Methodist Church more essential than at any time since our founding as a bureaucratic entity. The brand is damaged. For about half the population, we no longer are automatically the people of open hearts, open minds, and open doors. We can’t even claim any more that “Methodist means mediocre” as the UMC has just proven quite adept at harming people. Now more than ever, local churches deserve the opportunity to be empowered to make leadership decisions for their congregations’ next faithful step out of this morass. 

 

As famed Methodist theologian Albert Outler argued back in the 60’s, the Book of Discipline’s appointive process encourages clergy who are concerned more with how they’re perceived by those who fix their appointments (district superintendents and bishops) than with their effectiveness in the local parish. A system, Outler said, where pastors are delivered to local churches by an annual conference produces pastors who think their primary duty is to deliver apportionments to their annual conference. At the same time, the current practice of appointment-making, where a 1/4 to 1/5 of all clergy in a conference are moved annually, requires an inordinate amount of time from cabinent members.

 

A friend who is a DS in another conference confessed to me at General Conference:

“No sooner is the appointment process done for the year than I’m back to talking with clergy about next year’s appointments. It’s a process that justifies the staffing necessary to sustain it.”

 

This same DS observed that as his position— and even the episcopal positions— become less attractive across the connection (because of capped maxium salaries, institutional decline, and barriers to effectiveness) more and more the appointments of pastors to local churches are in the hands of people who have no firsthand experience of having led healthy, growing congregations. 

As Richard Bass, the former editor at the Alban Institute argues: the itinerant, appointive system cannot survive a new iteration of Methodism in a post-Christian culture. Nothing frustrates the missional energy of a congregation like having no agency in who their leader is.”

 

Add to this the reality post-GC2019 that, with salary and seniority still a primary driver of appointment-making decisions, local churches, who now must stake out a position in the culture war over sexuality, must trust the larger church not to send them a pastor whose position is at odds with their own. The passage of the Traditional Plan and its subsequent furor makes it unavoidable that our itinerant system of sending pastors to churches will have yet another permuation to it; General Conference has made it inescapable that every conference will have parallel appointive tracks. Given that United Methodism has always had multiple systems for fixing pastors’ appointments and that General Conference will complicate this reality even more so…

Why would we not empower all local churches with the same agency that the Staff-Parish Relations Committee at Church of the Resurrection will be granted?

 

I say all of this too not as a gripe or with any grievance about how the present process has served me. I’m a reasonably competent, good-looking white guy. The process has served me quite well and, despite all of the above, I’m grateful for it.

 

Still…

The United Methodist Church’s present system of appointment-making is now incompatible with the mission of the local church. 

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019–

 

Free local churches to interview candidates (from a slate approved by the DS and Bishop) as well as candidates the local church solicits as well and make a selection in consultation with their DS and pending the final approval by the Bishop. 

 

Such a process would retain our Discipline’s tradition of appointment-making being by the authority of the bishop, yet it would also return us to the true, original spirit of itinernancy. Our vows, after all, frame itinerancy not in terms of fealty to the larger organization but to the spreading of the Gospel. The form is meant to follow the function not vice versa. Itinerancy is meant to guarantee adaptable clergy so that the Gospel may be served best in each local congregation; it’s not meant to serve the career interests of clergy or the current bureaucratic arrangement. 

 

As I see it, giving local churches more agency in the appointment process would require SPRC leaders to be more accountable to their congregations for their role in the church’s pastoral leadership no longer will be passive. It’s more likely the pastor and parish will be able to build an effective partnership for ministry since the latter will have invested time and effort to find the former. Thus it would force local churches to be intentional about their vision and missional needs and it would share more ownership of staffing those needs with the people who know them best. In addition, it would link salary increases and effectiveness measurements more closely to performance in the local congregation than with pleasing the hierarchy.

 

It would make the connection less dependent upon layers of apportionment-funded bureucracy, and it would force clergy out of our comfortable guild of guarranteed appointments (which is not sustainable anyways) and push clergy to be more entreneurial in our ministry, an attribute that will only benefit the church. Finally, in light of General Conference, such a process will require transparency on the issue of sexuality on the part of both pastor and parish. 

 

I went through Vanderbloemen’s interview process. Mostly, I wanted to learn their methodology. 

 

The staff person in charge of the search had first spent a month at the church in question, interviewing staff people, church leaders, former employees, and random people in the community. The questions I was asked to answer totaled over a dozen pages. I eventually demurred and removed my name from consideration, but had I not I would’ve been sifted through four layers of interviews before being interviewed by anyone from the congregation itself. This compared to the single form used in my annual conference consisting of a few boxes from which SPRC members are asked to check just before Christmastime.

 

I also learned the church paid the search company a fraction of what it normally sends in apportionments to its district office.

On the final afternoon of the United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis, the Traditional Plan having just secured passage with a comfortable majority of votes, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor.

 

They fell on their knees and wept, praying in protest and lament.

 

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration.

 

It reminded me of how scripture reports the dedication of the Second Temple in the Old Testament. Some of the exiles, having returned home to a razed nation, celebrated the new temple. Others, scripture notes, knew this new temple was a bullshit knockoff and wept. Of course the chief difference between the Book of Ezra and General Conference is that in the former’s case the disparity in emotions was not produced by one party doing willful damage to the other party.

 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity, it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box in the former home of the St. Louis Rams— this doesn’t mean, however, that it’s incompatible with United Methodism as we’ve selected to order the life of our institution.

 

The fallout from General Conference obscures a basic fact of organizations and leadership.

 That is, every system gets exactly the results it is designed to produce.

 

That the decision-making mechanism known as General Conference produced such an acrimonious, callous, and (for the life of the local church) disruptive result should not be viewed as an aberation but as the expected outcome of the system as we United Methodists have arranged it since 1968.

 

What’s lamentable, in my view, is that the passage of the Traditional Plan has now tricked many centrist and liberal Methodists into believing that what ails United Methodism now is our denomination’s position on human sexuality.

 

Finally, at long last, Methodists on the left and the right poles are unaminous. Just as conservatives have long attributed Methodism’s decline to its liberal social agenda, now liberal and even moderate Methodists think our chief problem is that our denomination has the wrong stand on sexuality. An enormous amount, if not most, of our energy as centrist and liberal Methodists will now be channeled into correcting that stand rather than addressing the system which produced such a destructive, adversarial 50/50 vote.

 

Those who believe that all would be well in United Methodism had the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan passed are living in a fantasy.

 

To be sure, the passage of the Traditional Plan has given many local churches like my own little choice but to articulate an open and inclusive position towards those LGBTQ Christians in our congregations and communities, yet what’s even more regrettable in my view is that the United Methodist Church long has victimized LGBTQ Christians (and is now scapegoating conservative African Christians) to the end of ignoring the larger illness that ails us as a denomination. A shrinking tribe finds more issues over which to fight, and United Methodism has been in decline since its inception. We’d be unwise to assume that’s anomaly. Again, it’s leadership 101. Every system gets the results it’s designed to achieve.

 

The problem in United Methodism is not sexuality but the structure of United Methodism itself.

 

In nearly 20 years I have served a variety of congregations in Virginia and New Jersey, large and small, rural and metro, blue and red. In none of those settings has human sexuality been an issue. In all of those settings, the congregations, in fits and starts, showed the ability to negotiate with grace the inclusion and welcome of the LGBTQ folks in their midst. As I’ve told my present congregation, despite its marketing posture the Traditional Plan is inherently not conservative in that it has now foisted a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to a problem most localities were finding ways to solve on their own as congregations.

 

This is ironic given that the first Methodists to push back on the disempowering, upside-down structure of the UMC were American conservatives in the 1990s.

 

The damage done by the Traditional Plan is but the clearest and most recent evidence, I believe, that the structure of the United Methodist Church is designed to serve the structure of the United Methodist Church and not the people of the United Methodist Church.

 

The structure of the United Methodist Church itself is incompatible with the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel in word, wine, bread, and deed.

And this is not a new or novel observation (though the nature of an appointive, itinerant system makes clergy and congregants reticent to voice it). The famed Methodist theologian, Albert Outler, the dude who literally coined the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” argued as early as 1968:

 

the structure of the newly united UMC would arrest the growth of the Methodist movement, dissipate its evangelical power, create an isolated bureaucracy, and alienate and disempower local congregations.

 

As Will Willimon paraphrases Outler’s prophetic caution:

 

“Starting in 1968, distrust of the local congregation was sewn into the ethos of the denomination by the Book of Discipline.”

 

This distrust of the local congregation transformed what had been a Wesleyan movement into a United Methodist institution and flipped connectionalism on its head. Where connectionalism once named the very practical ways congregations pursued our common Gospel mission, now it names our organizational identity (“UMCOR does great stuff!”). As a consequence, fidelity to the organization is how we define what it means to be a faithful United Methodist; such that, pledging allegiance to itinerancy is required for ordination candidates but clear, compelling Gospel proclamation is incidental. The new structure of the UMC, Outler argued, replaced the local congregation as the primary unit of the Methodist movement. Beginning in 1968, the latent governing assumption of the UMC was that the General Church, with its bloated bureaucracy and agencies, was the “real” church whose work the local congregations were responsible to fund. This assumption was echoed doubly by the way in which the UMC then replicated the General Church structure in redundant forms at the Annual Conference and District levels. It’s seen in a detail as innocuous seeming as the red and green ink in which congregations are marked out in the conference magazine according to the level of its apportionment payments.

 

The General Conference decision in St. Louis is symptomatic of a larger, older illness; namely, that the structure of the United Methodist Church is not designed nor has it ever been designed to serve the people of the local church.

 

And now that structure has done damage to the people of the local church in ways that continue to unwind in our communties.

 

As many United Methodist pastors and parishioners are now discerning ways to be inclusive of LGBTQ families, just as many should be discussing how to turn the structure itself on its head and make the UMC more compatible with the mission and ministry of the local church.

 

One such way forward— make apportionments voluntary.

 

Starve the beast.

 

General Conference cost the UMC approximately $4,000,000.00. Next year’s 2020 GC will cost at least double that amount— why should faithful United Methodists continue to contribute to an organizational system that so clearly does not have the best interests of their local congregations in mind? Even the “good” mission and service work done by the larger UMC is work that many local congregations have no hands-on, organic relationship with other than as a donor— that donor relationship is how the General Board of Global Mission wants the relationship. And that’s the problem. In every congregation in which I’ve served, the mission and service work that parishioners are most impacted by and about which they are most passionate are the local service projects and the mission work they themselves have selected to engage hands-on. Even the more meritorious work of the larger denomination (mission) is not immune from Albert Outler’s original critique that it comes at the expense of the local church’s empowerment and fruitfulness.

 

The quickest way for local churches to do something about a structure that is not designed with them in mind is to stop paying for that structure.

 

Despite how it will be received, this is not to commit a Wesleyan heresy. 

 

Apportionments only began in the Methodist Church in 1918 (curiously, around the same time the income tax was instituted) as John Wesley’s movement was beginning to mirror corporate America with its aspirations of becoming a national bureaucracy.

 

Funded by apportionments, institutional creep followed until what had been voluntary became mandatory 62 years later when the 1980 Book of Discipline removed the right of local churches to vote upon the apportionments levied on them.

Today, in my current appointment— as in my previous appointment— apportionments total nearly 1/4 of the church’s operating budget.

 

Just a matter of practicality—General Conference has now created a PR problem for many churches in their localties that apportionment dollars would be better spent addressing. Here in my neck of the woods, $250K can undo a lot of PR damage.

 

Will Willimon says the dominant ethos of the Book of Discipline since 1968 is “You can’t trust local congregations” and that the involuntary nature of apportionments is the best example of that assumption. After GC2019 in St. Louis, in which the leaders of the UMC went into a destructive, 50/50 vote that no competent pastor would even allow to happen in his or her congregation, it’s pretty clear (indeed maybe it’s the only assertion liberal and conservative Methodists could agree upon) that “you can’t trust the General Church.”

 

If mandatory apportionments were the mechanism which reflected the former ethos, perhaps voluntary apportionments are the mechanism to assert the current reality of the United Methodist Church.

Micro-Aggression

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2019 — 1 Comment

Lent 2 — Romans 3.19-24

This is a while ago now—

I’d made a promise to Ali to take steps to save money. We’d talked about cutting costs, stopping the silly spending, and making an effort to be thrifty. 

“Are you on board?” she’d asked me. 

With this tongue, yours truly— a pastor, this professional Christian— said “I do.” 

As part of our mutual cost-cutting vow, Ali and I made the decision to liberate ourselves from the People’s Republic of Verizon. 

We decided to cut the cord and get rid of our cable so that, we would get zero channels on our television. Between Netflix and Tom Brady going to the Super Bowl every year what difference television does it make?

You can imagine how popular our decision was with our children (not). 

     Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our FIOS receiver in its box and shipped it back to Weimar Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision. 

     For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the People’s Republic of Verizon’s bill— I mean, do they think we live in aiport terminals with inflated prices like that? 

     For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want. We didn’t want them inundated with promise after promise after promise that this or that could solve all their problems. 

     Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband—me—is a complete sucker for informercials. 

      A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark. And it’s true. 

Make me a promise about giving me the power to unlock the better me inside me and I’m all yours faster than you can say shipping and handling not included.

     If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words “set it and forget it” fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens at one time. 

     If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine. 

     If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never “that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.”

     No, my first thought was always “that looks like something I need. That will solve all my problems.”

     So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition. There are advertisements and advice and promised solutions everywhere. 

     A couple of years ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish. 

     At that point, having cut the cord, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section? 

     Uh huh, a product demonstration. 

And— truth be told— I thought about my promise to Ali. And I’d meant it, I’d really meant it.

     The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s. 

For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which, let’s just say, got me to thinking of myself as Brad Pritt in some extended, unrated director’s cut scenes

     “Hey, let’s stick around and watch this” I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment. 

     In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call. 

     The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix. 

     Have you seen one? Do you own one?

     If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is the blender-equivalent of that new yacht recently purchased by Dan Synder. 

     Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick: 

“The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems. 

With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.”

     And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: “Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.”

     No, I was thinking…

     “This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.” 

     I looked to my side. Gabriel was transfixed too. 

     The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: “Who enjoys pesto?”

     And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘“I do. I am Italian after all.”

     And she smiled at me— only at at me— and she said: “I’ve always had a thing for Italians.”

     Aheh. 

“I went to Princeton,” I blurted out like we were speed-dating and the clock was about to sound.

     “Can you cook?” she asked me. And I nodded my head, like Fonzi, too cool for words. 

     “Even better” she purred. 

     And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew now she only cared about me. 

     “Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.” 

And all of us men, like mosquitos headed stubbornly towards the light that will be their demise, we nodded like Stepford Husbands. 

     “But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem worthy of declaring a national emergency) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?” 

     And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience. 

     Hypnotized, I said: “No, they won’t do” even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem. 

     She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or a Carl’s Jr commercial, and and then she said in her come-hither voice: 

“I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.”

     I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon. 

It was like I couldn’t help myself— like I was bound and determined to do the one thing I wanted not to do.

 

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This fall Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage in Cupertino to hawk the latest generation of Apple’s wearable technology. 

The series 4 Apple Watch was itself not really new or a noticeable upgrade over its precessors. 

What was new, what was distinct, was its promise in the sales pitch: 

“It’s all new. For a better you.”

The unveiling commercial at the showcase continued with the promise: 

“There is a better you in you.” 

There’s a better you in you and with this product you will have the freedom and power to unlock it. 

The new Apple Watch is but an overt example of the same promise pitched to us three-thousand times a day. 

St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike. 

Therefore, we’re hardwired to want to do and improve. 

You’re hard-wired to want to be a better you and to build a better world. 

Because the Law is written on your heart, you’re hard-wired to be a sucker for the promise of progress. 

You’re hard-wired by the Law on the your heart to be a sucker for the promise of a better you inside you. 

And so it’s not surprising that is the very same promise dangled in front of us three-thousand times a day. From our TV screens to our Facebook feeds, from our watches to our smartphone notifications, you and I are exposed to over three-thousand advertisements a day. 

Three-thousand per day. 

Every last single one of them relies upon the Law written on your heart. 

Three-thousand times a day— the same simple, seductive formula. They identify a problem— maybe a problem you didn’t know you had until they told you you had that problem. Then they make you a promise: With this product, you can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems) and unlock the better you inside you. 

Three-thousand times a day we’re promised what the Law on our hearts deceives us to believe. 

There’s a better you in you. 

What’s my point?

There’s a better you inside of you— very often, it’s the pitch Christians make too. 

Just invite Jesus into your heart, and you’ll unlock the happier you inside of you.Your marriage will be healed. Your kids will stay the straight and narrow. You’ll feel fulfilled. 

Worship, pray, serve, give— and you can unlock the Jesus-version of you inside of you, the you who’s patient and kind and utters nary an angry word. 

With just three easy installments of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, you’ll live like Jesus, turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy-times-seven, you’ll never commit adultery in your heart and the log in your eye— shazaam, never to return. 

Not only has my Apple Watch not liberated the better me inside me, it can’t even reliably distinguish between me sitting down and me standing up. 

It failed to wake me up on time this morning, and whenever I ask Siri to play Ryan Adams music (which I won’t be doing anymore) it always plays Summer of ‘69 instead. 

Likewise, what the Church often promises about faith being the key to unlock the better you inside you— to the buyer beware.  

————————

Here’s the lie behind all those promises we’re pitched. 

Here’s the lie the Law, written on our hearts, deceives us to believe.

Here’s the lie— the you inside you is not better. 

In fact, as Jesus teaches again and again, the problem out there in the world is what comes from inside of you.

The answer to what’s wrong in the world… is you, Jesus says.

As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “…there is no health in us.”

That’s why, St. Paul tells us today, our justification comes completely by Grace, entirely apart from the Law— because we have nothing to contribute to our salvation save our sin.

The you inside you is not better. 

You’re not basically a good person who just requires a little bit of help from your friend Jesus so that you can unlock the better you inside you and live your best life now— no, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism and, though it’s the most popular religion in America, it’s a lie. 

The you inside you is not better. 

The you inside you is bound. 

The you inside you is bound.

We forget— God’s grace, God’s One-Way Love, reveals not just the character of the Giver but the condition of the Receiver. 

The medicine should indicate the disease; the prescription should betray the diagnosis. You don’t require some advice or a nudge in the right direction; you require a savior.

That you require the liberating, unilateral, one-way love called Grace should tell you something about your predicament. 

As Paul Zahl says, the New Testament’s High Christology— it’s view of who Christ is and what Christ has done— comes with a correlative Low Anthropology— a dim view of who we are by nature and the good we’re capable of doing. 

Notice, today—

Paul announces the invasion (that’s the word Paul uses in Greek, apokalyptetai) of God’s grace in Jesus Christ without a single “if” here in chapter three. 

For almost three chapters, Paul’s been raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our sins, implicating each and every one of us. 

The first three chapters of Romans— it sounds like Paul’s whipping you up for an altar call until what you anticipate next from Paul is the word if. 

If you turn away from your sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you plead for God’s mercy…

If you believe THEN God will justify you. 

No— there’s no ifs there’s just this great big but, what Karl Barth says is the hinge of the Gospel, the turning of the ages: “But now, apart from the Law, apart from Religion, apart from anything we do, the righteousness of God has been revealed…” 

The grace of God has invaded our world without a single if, without a single condition demanded of you, without a single expectation for your cooperation.

Because, Paul’s already told you, you’re not capable of cooperating with a single one of those conditions. 

As Paul told us at the top of his argument in verse nine: All of us are under the Power of Sin. And the language the apostle uses there is the language of exodus. All of us are in bondage, Paul says, under the dominion— the lordship— of a Pharaoh called Sin. 

This is a Power from whom we’re never totally free this side of the grave. 

Don’t forget the Paul who celebrates the baptized walking in newness of life just after today’s text is the same Paul who laments (just after that) how the converted heart remains a heart divided against itself; such that, we all do what we do not want to do and we do not do what we want to do. 

There is no health in us.

———————-

Here’s the dark but necessary underside to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love called Grace. And, brace yourselves, in our American culture with its high, optimistic anthropology, this is going to feel like a micro-aggression, so here it comes: 

You are not free.

I’m going to say it again because I know you don’t believe it: You are not free. 

You are not free. 

Your neighbor is not free. Your mother-in-law is not free. Your co-worker is not free. Your boss is not free. Your son? Your daughter? You might already suspect as much, neither is free. Your spouse— hell, every married person already knows this is true— is not free. 

Christianly-speaking, free will is a fantasy. 

Free will is a fiction. 

And that’s an assertion upon which traditional Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, concur. Christianly-speaking, your will is not free. 

Your will is bound. 

All those promises we’re sold three-thousand times a day— they’re pitched to prisonsers not to free people (that’s exactly why they work on us!). 

I realize this is the most un-American thing I could say but to speak the language of free will is not to speak Christian. Your will is not free. 

It’s right there in Romans, the book of the Bible that the Church Fathers put in the middle of your New Testament so that you would know its importance for our faith. 

Your will is not free. Your will is bound, doing the evil you want not to do and not doing the good you want to do. 

You will is not free. Your will is torn, between a Pharaoh called Sin and a Lord named Jesus Christ; such that, all of us who’ve been rescued by grace are like the Israelites in the wilderness. 

God has gotten us out of Egypt but we’ve still got Egypt in us. 

The shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love is your bound, unfree will. 

Now don’t get your panties in a bunch, this doesn’t mean you’re a robot. It doesn’t mean that every moment of your life is pre-determined— the only thing predetermined in life is UVA Basketball’s disappointing play in March. 

It doesn’t mean you had no choice this morning between sausage or bacon, jeans or khakis. No, when Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it means that your will is not free to choose (reliably) that which is good. 

When Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it teaches that no one— because of our bondage to sin—by sheer force of will can reliably choose the right thing, which is God, for the right reason, which is selfless love. 

You might choose the good and godly thing, for example, but do you do so for the right reasons? And are those reasons even always evident to you? 

Our love compass is off—that’s what the Church means by the boundedness of your will. 

As John Wesley’s prayerbook puts it in Article X of the 39 Articles: “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and God.” 

And if all of this sounds like so much theological hocus-pocus to you, consider that Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at UVA, writes that most of us only make free, rational decisions about 13% of time— a statistic that Pat Vaughn’s wife, Margaret, corroborates. 

Most of the time, Timothy Wilson argues, we’re exactly what St. Paul says we are. 

We’re strangers to ourselves. 

Our wills follow our hearts and our reason tags along behind. 

———————-

     

     I drove that Vitamix home from Whole Foods, and I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave. 

     And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because, as my wife pointed out, I already had a blender and a food processor. 

“Who convinced you to buy such ridiculous thing?” she asked me, and I quickly covered Gabriel’s mouth with my hand. 

I shrugged my shoulders. 

“I couldn’t help myself.”

And she smiled and shook her head at unfree me. 

“I know you couldn’t” she said, “I forgive you. Now go return it.”

———————-

For over six months now I’ve been preaching God’s grace to you, Sunday after Sunday. And some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to get around to giving you some advice. Some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to tell you what to do. 

And just so you know— I’ll stop preaching God’s grace just as soon as you actually start believing it. 

I’m not going to stop preaching to you God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean God’s grace isn’t practical for everyday life. 

It is practical for everyday life because everyday everywhere you go everyone you meet has a bound, unfree will. 

So here’s some advice, advice on how to see other humans in light of the Gospel. Your bound, unfree will is the necessary, shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One Way Love, but it is not bad news. 

It is the birth pangs of compassion. 

The moment you understand the Gospel’s implication that people are not as free as they think they are, you’re able to have compassion and tenderness for them. Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you can find sympathy for them. 

What the Gospel teaches us about the bound will is the grace-based way to mercy. 

It’s when you mistakenly think people are free, unbound, active agents of everything in their lives, choosing the terrible damaging decisions they make, that you get angry and impatient with them. 

It’s then that you judge them. 

And it’s then that you begin to confuse what they do for who they are. 

Just because Grace is a message about what God has done doesn’t mean it has no practical implications for what we do. 

Botton line—

Grace means we look at each other with the Savior’s eyes. 

Grace means we look upon each other as fellow captives. 

As those who never advance very far beyond needing Jesus’ final prayer: “Father forgive them, they still know not what they do.”