When it comes to understanding the atonement, how Jesus saves us and makes us ‘at-one’ with God the Father, it all comes down to the conjunctions.
Does Jesus die for us?
As in, does Jesus die in our place? As a substitute for you and me?
Or does Jesus die because of us?
As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life? Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it?
Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin?
As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?
Does Jesus die with us?
As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh?
Was it necessary for Jesus to die?
Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself?
Did Jesus have to die on a cross?
If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?
How does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?
And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?
The Christian tradition and scripture itself offers many more vantage points on the mystery of the cross than the standard, unexamined ‘Jesus died for you’ platitudes you hear so often in the pulpits.
Check out the ebook for Lent, Preaching a Better Atonement. In it, I take a look at some of the Church’s historic understandings of the atonement and offer a few examples of what it looks like to preach that particular angle on the Good News. All any proceeds will go towards the Guatemala Toilet Project.
We kicked off weekly worship our satellite campus this Sunday with the first in a sermon of series: The 7 Deadlies and the 7 Ways that Jesus Saves Us. As you’ll see, the new venue allowed me to use slides and video for the first time.
During the series I’ll be pairing one of the ancient capital vices (aka: Deadly Sins) with one of the Church’s ancient or modern understandings of atonement- how Jesus makes us at-one with God. In this sermon, I owe a debt to Jonathan Martin’s work in Prototype and, like him, owe a debt to St Iraeneus and the late Herbert McCabe.
You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar ‘Listen’ Widget to the right or in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
Matthew 4.1-11 & Ephesian 1.9-10
Who are you?
Not only is that a question some of you might be wondering about me, especially after seeing me on toilet, I’m convinced it’s the most important question of all.
Who are you?
I believe it’s the question at the heart of what we call the Gospel- the good news.
And it’s the reason I believe people need the church- need a church.
Because we certainly don’t have all the answers but we have heard one answer.
We’ve heard the answer to that ‘who are you?’ question.
Since it’s so important, it makes sense to tell you.
Who I am.
Without going into genealogies or boring you with begats, the best answer to who I am starts here with this boy.
He’s 4 or 5 here.
And twice a day, morning and evening, breakfast and dinner, on the back deck, a brown squirrel would wait outside the screen door, sitting on its hind legs, and beg for food.
Twice a day the squirrel would eat out of the little boy’s hand.
The boy called the squirrel ‘Foxy.’
He was only 4 or 5, but even then he knew that squirrels don’t eat out of people’s hands.
But Foxy did. This boy- he lived in an enchanted world.
He felt happy and special and free and infinitely loved. He’d never heard the word ‘God’ before, but even so he felt surrounded by God’s loving presence.
This boy- he felt no fear, no doubt. He felt no shame, no reason to hide behind any masks, no self-consciousness at all.
You don’t wear shorts that short if you’re burdened with self-consciousness or shame.
If you asked this boy that question ‘Who are you?’ then I probably would’ve told you: ‘I’m the boy with the magic squirrel.’
But that boy grew up to be this boy.
And it’s true that this boy isn’t happy to wearing a cutesy, home-made costume that only other moms will think is cool. It’s true this boy isn’t happy he’s not wearing one of those cheap, plastic superhero masks, the kind with the one staple and the rubber band that snaps as soon as you try to put it on your head.
It’s true this boy isn’t happy to be dressed like a clown, but, truthfully, this isn’t the first time this boy learned how to smear a fake smile on his face.
A few months before this Halloween was the first time the boy laid awake in his bunk bed and listened to the screaming and hitting downstairs.
Other nights he’d cry quietly, sitting at the top of the stairs and listening to his parents below when they thought he was asleep in bed.
Right before this Halloween was when his Dad hit the tree in their front yard after another night out drinking too much. He knew because he heard his Mom say so when he was supposed to be asleep.
But when the boy asked his Dad what happened to the car, his Dad lied to him. And when the boy asked his Mom what happened to the car… So if you asked this boy that question: ‘Who are you?’ he might’ve said ‘Who do you think? Obviously, I’m a clown.’
But the truth is, the boy didn’t know.
Halloween was just one day of the year that he wore a mask.
When that boy became a teenager, he wished he could wear an actual mask.
This is one of the only pictures of him.
When that boy became a teenager, he didn’t let that many pictures of him get taken. His complexion eventually got so bad that after exhausting a battery of treatments the doctors prescribed him the same medication used to treat leprosy.
To add another layer of biblical allusion, the leprosy once got so bad that the kids at his bus stop would throw stones at him.
He responded by retreating into sarcasm and when that didn’t work he just retaliated. Desperation, it turns out, makes for a good fighter.
Not having any answer to that ‘Who are you?’ question made it impossible for him to forgive or turn the other cheek or think about walking an inch in his bullies’ shoes or even trust someone else enough to tell them what was going on with him.
His family was broken up and his body was broken out, and if you asked him that ‘Who are you?’ question there’s no way he would’ve answered honestly.
He just would’ve hid, but the truth was he felt unloved and unlovely.
One day the boy next door invited him to church, a house church.
He’d never heard of such a thing but as invitations to anything were a rarity he went.
Already feeling unloved and unlovely, the friendly souls at this house church told the boy there was something else wrong with him.
They told him he was a sinner.
That’s the answer they gave him to the ‘Who are you? question.
To make matters worse, they gave a teenager homework.
They told him there was something he had to do.
Believe in Jesus.
God would forgive him and love him.
He could go to heaven one day.
But this boy really didn’t think he needed forgiving, and he wasn’t interested in how to go to heaven so much as how his life could stop being a living hell.
Who are you? It is, I believe, the most important of questions.
So having the right answer makes all the difference.
The most important part of Matthew’s Gospel story today is what comes before it.
Jesus shows up at the Jordan river to be baptized.
And as he comes up out of the water, Matthew says the sky opens up and the Holy Spirit comes down and God’s voice declares like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’
But no one falls down instantly and worships Jesus or signs up to be a disciple.
So no one else hears God say ‘This is my Beloved.’
Only Jesus hears it, like a voice in his head.
It’s not like proof or evidence.
It’s more like something Jesus has to trust and believe: who God has said he is.
When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God declared to them: ‘I will be your God and you will be my Beloved.’
But not long after God rescues them from bondage, when they’re still damp from crossing through the Red Sea, the Israelites forget. They forget who God said they were.
As soon as they’re in the wilderness, they start to worry and complain that they’re going to starve or die of thirst or be left all alone.
And God responds by giving them bread and water, but God tells them you can’t live by bread alone. You have to know who you are. Don’t put your God to the test because that just shows you’ve forgotten who you are. And don’t flirt with any other little ‘g’ gods. Remember, I am yours and you are my Beloved.
But soon after they forget again.
Immediately after he’s baptized and hears God declare ‘You are my Beloved’ the Holy Spirit thrusts Jesus into the wilderness. And in the wilderness, after 40 days of fasting, when Jesus is weak and lonely and at his lowliest, Jesus hears another voice:
‘If you’re really God’s Beloved…
Turn those stones to bread.
Take a leap and let everyone see.
Bow down and I’ll give you power the world will recognize.’
Each step of the way Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes Israel’s own. And where Israel forgot who they were, Jesus remembers. And believes it.
Not only that, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden.
The questions the devil puts to Jesus aren’t really any different than the very first question the devil ever asked: ‘Did God really say…? That you’re very good…that you’re Beloved?’
Isn’t it interesting how scripture never personifies the devil with horns and a pitchfork but as that voice in your head, that voice around you, tempting you to forget what God has said about you, to forget who you are?
I never went back to my neighbor’s house church.
I never went to any church for a half-dozen years. It was pre-smartphone, so I don’t a lot of pictures, but if there’s 1 image from those years, 1 image that best captures who I was becoming, it’s this one.
Empty inside. No joy. Nothing to me besides what I presented on the outside.
And because of who she was afraid I was becoming, my mom one day announced we were going to church, which in our family was about as casual an announcement as ‘I have a tapeworm.’
The church she took us to was a new church. It didn’t even look like a church. It looked like an auditorium, and it was Christmas Eve. I now know that’s a night when many folks try out a church for the first time, but I didn’t know that then. I thought I was the only one there who didn’t belong. So I sat through the service feeling cynical and scornful and fake.
And I kept at it like that, kept up that attitude, Sunday after successive Sunday. My mom kept at it too, kept making us go.
One day, I don’t know how many Sundays after that first day, we read this story. The story before today’s story. The story where Jesus hears God say ‘You are my Beloved, in you I delight.’
And this guy talked about the story. And this guy can barely remember what he had for breakfast so there’s no way he remembers what he said.
But I do. Because it changed my life.
If Jesus took on our humanity, if each one of us is represented in Jesus, then that means that what God says to Jesus, God says to each one of you.
You are beloved. In you God delights.
He told me who I am.
Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved.’
It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, but it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life believing it and never forgets it even when he’s suffering and that other voice from the wilderness creeps back for another go at him.
The theologian Hebert McCabe says that what sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or preaching. Or, even, that he died on a Cross.
No, what sets Jesus apart:
is his deep and abiding belief that he was loved by God.
Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s ever been since Adam.
Except one way.
Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved.
And knowing, all the way down, that he was loved, set him free to live as though the whole world was a new and different creation.
That’s why Jesus’ baptism comes at the beginning of the Gospels. It’s what kick-offs his ministry. We make a big deal of Christmas, but it’s those words ‘You are my Beloved’ that’s when Jesus ‘becomes’ Jesus.
‘You are my Beloved, in you I delight.’
It’s just a few words, but the Gospels put those few words right before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry so that you can see that all it takes is to believe those few words.
That if you just believe those few words
That if you trust that who you are is loved
Then that can change literally everything.
Scripture says that pride- forgetting who God has said you are and trying to manufacture a different you- is the ‘head of all sin.’
But scripture also says Jesus ‘re-heads’ the human story.
That’s what Paul says in Ephesians 1: that God has ‘recapitulated’ all things in Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth.
The word Paul uses there, recapitulation, means literally ‘re-head.’
Jesus renarrates the human story. He renews our humanity.
He redefines what it means to be human.
The first Christians believed that’s one of the ways Jesus saves us.
Their way of putting it was that in Jesus, God became what we are- prideful sinners, people who don’t know who we are- so that we might become what Jesus is:
someone who knows he is beloved
and trusts it enough to live into it
and live it out in a way that changes the world.
In other words,
If that’s true,
Then Jesus isn’t just a prophet.
He isn’t just a preacher.
And he sure isn’t just a person who’s punished for your sin.
He’s the prototype for your life.
That’s what scripture means when it calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.
It’s what scripture means when it calls Jesus the eikon- the visible picture- of the invisible God.
He’s the prototype of a new humanity.
And you don’t bother to make a prototype if you don’t desire that one day there will be others just like it
There are some who will tell you that Christianity is about just being forgiven for your sin. But if Jesus is the prototype, then Christianity is about learning to become as fully human as Jesus.
There are some who will tell you that Christianity is all about believing in Jesus. Or believing certain things about Jesus.
But if Jesus is God’s prototype for a new way of being human then believing in Jesus has got to begin and end with believing like Jesus.
Believing like Jesus believed.
Believing that you can face trials without fear.
Believing that you can show mercy rather than cast stones.
Believing that you can love your enemies and bless those who curse us and forgive 70 x 7.
Believing that you can be a person of compassion and hope.
Believing that you- you- can bring news to the poor.
You can lift up the lowly.
You can show the world snapshots of what God’s Kingdom looks like.
If you only believe.
If Jesus is God’s prototype, then believing in Jesus has everything to do with believing like Jesus.
And believing like Jesus- for you that begins just like it began for Jesus: with knowing who you are.
You are God’s Beloved. In you God delights.
And that’s who I am.
I don’t have a magic squirrel anymore, but I do have these.
You don’t wear shorts this short unless you’ve been set free.
From shame and self-consciousness.
You don’t wear shorts this short unless you’re completely confident that you’re delight to the Source of all Delight. Unless you’re sure, all the way down, that you’re beloved.
Each Ash Wednesday, I try to prolong the ephemeral cross on my forehead from fading, praying to absorb its meaning before it washes away.
Jesus never said worship me but rather He said follow me.
During Lent, we have 40 days to contemplate his life so that we may incorporate it more wholly into our own being. During Lent in 1308, a grand ceremony processed through the streets carrying Duccio’s Maesta, an altarpiece, to the Siena Cathedral and placed it, all 7 x 13 feet, gleaming in gold and tempera paint, at the crossing square –the very heart of the Cathedral– where the vertical and horizontal axes meet of this cruciform building plan. Entering this Cathedral, and walking to the crossing square, we begin our Lenten journey by looking at images of Christ’s life.
Today the Maesta has been dismantled, cut up and sold to the highest bidder. Scenes from Christ’s life that once decorated the back are now housed in museums and private collections, but we can at least view the majority of these scenes at the Siena museum.
Originally placed in the center of the Cathedral, like sculpture, the believer could walk around it to encounter snapshots from Mary’s life and Christ’s infancy on the front and Christ’s adulthood on the back. Snapshots of the very stories as told in the Gospels. The Maesta, the Italian word for majesty, shows the Virgin enthroned holding the infant Christ and surrounded by saints. The predella, or stand, on which the altarpiece rests, depicts the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and Flight into Egypt, to name a few of the other major events on the front.
Walking around to view the back of the painting, it depicts major events of Christ’s adulthood–not a single moment — but instead many acts to observe during Lent. The Passion is told in thirty-four scenes, beginning on the bottom left with Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Using gold leaf in each scene, Duccio unified these images of Christ’s life so we can consider them together.
Drop your eyes to the left side of the predella (image below) where a scene depicts the Temptation of Christ, now at the Frick Musuem in NYC. The scenes that follow show Christ calling his followers, the wedding at Cana, the Transfiguration and the raising of Lazurus to name a few.
In this Temptation of Christ, Duccio paints the moment when Christ commands Satan away. The space surrounding Christ shows how Christ through fasting becomes vulnerable to the temptations of Satan and also more open to God. The angels stand to Christ’s right ready to direct Christ out of the desert to begin his ministry. It is the perfect image to study at the beginning of Lent as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be temptedby the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Duccio used artistic elements to emphasize Christ’s resolve against sin. Satan first tempted Christ, who had been fasting, to turn the stones surrounding him into bread. Duccio represented these stones as the very rock that supports Christ’s feet in the center of the painting.
Satan next tempted Christ to test God. Rather than give into sin, Christ stands on a rock that looks more like a hill than a mountain. Duccio used scale to emphasize that Christ conquered sin and could easily step down from the mountain without testing God as the devil commanded.
Lastly, Satan promised Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only Christ would worship him. Duccio manipulated scale to emphasize Christ’s power over this temptation as well; in the foreground, the towns should appear larger than Christ as they are closer to our view; however, the kingdoms in the foreground are just as small as those in the background. Scale then communicates power and here clearly Christ is most powerful as he is largest.
Duccio used line to communicate Christ’s power and resolve against sin. If you were to draw a diagram of this painting, you would draw smooth continuous lines, lines without agitation.
Christ’s right arm gracefully extends from his body sending Satan away to the shadowy background. The devil in response to Christ raises his hand to communicate that he has given up and then turns and steps away. These graceful, continuous lines do not depict a battle scene or struggle between the two main characters, but rather Christ has drawn a line to separate himself from sin.
Duccio divided the panel into two halves through color; notice the contrast in color between the background and foreground– Duccio painted the background using browns and grays whereas Duccio painted the foreground using pinks and blues. Christ directs Satan back to darkness whereas Christ inhabits the lit space. Also the artist used color to communicate Christ’s superiority to the devil and all temptations.
Our eyes first notice Christ who stands slightly off center because Duccio has painted Christ wearing red, the highest saturation of color anywhere in the painting.
If instead Christ were wearing black like Satan, we would view the scene very differently. We would sense Christ’s struggle. If Duccio reversed the colors, painting Satan red and Christ gray, we would interpret Satan as the dominant figure. Through color choice, Duccio communicates that Christ dominates the scene–a metaphor for Christ’s actual resolve to conquer these temptations.
Duccio juxtaposed Satan and Christ; their bare feet next to each other as well. Duccio depicted Satan as a dark monster with webbed feet, large pointed ears, and wings; whereas Christ has a beautiful face surrounded by a gold halo. Duccio applies decorative punching around Christ’s face and outlines him in greater attention and detail than Satan. The halo reminds us of Christ’s divinity; He is Lord on earth.
As Lord, Christ humbles himself hence the bare feet. Looking closely at this image, it like so many earlier Byznatine icons, has been touched by human hands. Visible scratch marks cover Satan, as an attempt to mulitate him believeing the image had magic power.
Despite all of our sins, we are made in Christ’s image not in Satan’s image.
Throughout Art History, artists have portrayed this story. Artists in Northern Europe depicted The Temptation of Christ less frequently than artists in Greece and Italy. Artists in Greece and Italy also depicted this subject most frequently in early Christian history and during the Renaissance. In Greece, it is more often portrayed as an icon (above), and in Italy, it is more often portrayed as part of a larger sculptural program on doors (above) or painted as one of many scenes on altarpieces like Duccio’s.
When it is painted independently it is rare.
In modern art, Christ is more typically shown contemplating, alone in the desert rather than tempted by Satan (below).
Lent begins Christ’s forty-day fast and temptations in the desert.
As Christians we don’t observe the temptations of Christ from a safe distance. We have been baptized into Christ, and so throughout Lent, we participate in the mysteries of Christ knowing that His Resurrection is a reality as well.
The root of temptation is the same–to work apart from God. Jesus knew the force of temptation better than we do, because He resisted temptation fully whereas we do not. This artwork with its many images of Christ’s life is a perfect place to start our Lenten journey. It is not what we give up for Lent that is most important, it is whether or not we can become vulnerable to absorb more of Christ into us.
This Lent we’re again raising money for our Guatemala Toilet Project.
We’re looking to raise $30,000.00 to complete the sanitation system in the village of Chuicutama, Guatemala by connecting each family’s home to the main lines. In addition, we’ll be installing a much-needed irrigation system for the community, where both the dry and rainy seasons can be severe.
Toilets are incredibly important for community development and transformation in the lives of the poor.
“…the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions—only those who do it well and those who don’t.”
- The Undertaking
For our third installment of the podcast, we’ve got a heavyweight of the literary world: Thomas Lynch.
Thomas Lynch is quite simply and without exaggeration one of the best damn writers in the English language. And, it turns out, he’s a delightful human being too.
A renowned poet, essayist, and fiction writer Lynch is something of an oddity in the book world for also being a full-time undertaker. Lynch is the inspiration behind the television series, Six Feet Under, as well as the subject of a PBS Frontline Documentary.
I first encountered Lynch’s work at Princeton when I was assigned his book of essays, The Undertaking; Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. It’s elegantly written and achingly beautiful and was a finalist for the National Book Award. You should stop and buy it right now.
His poetry is likewise beautiful and frequently takes up the same themes of death and life and holiness.
His most recent book is co-authored with theologian Tom Long on grief and death.
Why Mr Lynch accepted my invitation for an interview I have no idea but I’m glad he did. He’s on my Mt Rushmore of writers so I make no attempt to hide my adoration. You’ll have to suffer through my fanboy conversation about Seamus Heaney’s poetry.
Near the end Thomas Lynch answers my theological twist on James Lipton’s 10 Questions, which will have to become a podcast tradition (least favorite theological word: ‘Shalt’). He closes out our conversation by sharing a new, unpublished poem.
Oh, I almost forgot: I’m now on his Christmas Card list.
Be on the lookout for the next installments of the podcast.
Today is Ash Wednesday the day when Christians defy every lie sold to us by Madison Avenue and the American healthcare system:
We’re not getting out of this life alive.
Not a one.
Heaven may be but Death definitely is for real.
With dismal colored ashes, today Christians confront the stark, counter-cultural truth:
from אֲדָמָה adamah (‘earth’) we were made and to the adamah we shall with 100% certainty return.
Ash Wednesday is about our mortality and all our finitude, shortcomings and contingencies wrapped up in that time-bound word. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the Latin word for 40th, recalling Jesus’ 40 days of testing in the wilderness before his ministry led him inexorably to the cross.
Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 years Israel was tested in the wilderness after their Exodus from slavery into Egypt. Whereas Jesus squares off against the devil without a hitch (‘man does not live by bread alone’ says the starving Jesus), Israel fared a bit worse (see: calf, golden).
Jesus does what Israel could not do for itself.
Jesus, it seems quite obvious to the Gospel writers, represents all the people of Israel in his own person.
And that’s no small point to note as we begin a season in which many Christians will begin their own ‘testing’ by forsaking chocolate, booze or social media. There’s nothing wrong with fasting and discipline to anticipate the Easter feast. The Church has been doing so for centuries, and, as for myself, I will be giving up both beverages of the fermented variety and furry animals on my dinner plate. And if previous Lenten fasts are any indication, I will probably be successful at this modest undertaking.
But, however good they be, modest Lenten goals that, truthfully, only intrude upon my daily life as ‘annoyances’ miss the larger point of the season:
Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.
Jesus represents all of us in his flesh.
It’s true that in Jesus, God became one of us, was every bit as human as each one of us, experienced everything entailed by our humanity.
But it’s also true that while being 100% Human, Jesus remains, simultaneously, 100% God.
Though one of us, Jesus is not just one of us at all.
Quick history lesson:
Beginning in the 18th century, Christians began to take their cues from the Enlightenment. Now, only that which was rationally demonstrable and confirmed by our own private experience was considered ‘true.’ Rather than conforming their definitions of truth to scripture, Christians looked to scripture to confirm their a priori presumptions about what was ‘true.’ Where it did not, scripture was now considered ‘myth.’
So, for example, the story of Jesus’ 40 Day testing by Satan in the wilderness is no longer a ‘true’ or realistic story about what Jesus has done. Instead Christians turned to the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness and saw in it a parable for their own times of trial and temptation.
Rather than being a unique story about Jesus’ absolutely singular vocation, it became a generalized story about our common human experience.
If you’re in a church that follows the lectionary, just listen to the sermon tackle Jesus’ wilderness testing.
Is the sermon about how Jesus’ trials are examples of trials that come to all of us in life (cue personal- probably sports- illustration from the pastor).
Or is the sermon about how in the wilderness Jesus begins his work of doing what neither Israel nor we can do for ourselves?
The Gospels tell not the story of generalized human experience found in the person of Jesus; the Gospels tell how God in Christ frees human experience from what binds it.
And because Christians ever since the Enlightenment have been so bad at remembering that perhaps this Lenten season we should forget our modest, achievable fasts and spiritual disciplines.
Instead this Lent maybe we should go balls to the wall and take on a test we know we have no hope of ever keeping. Maybe by choosing a fast we know will end in certain failure we’ll remember the hard but good news with which this season ends:
If he could ignore the fact that Barth was not a literalist, John Piper would love §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics.
Karl Barth made his theological debut with his blistering commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. ‘Commentary’ is in some ways a misnomer for what Barth was really commenting upon was the ossified failures of modern western liberalism. Barth channeled Paul’s rhetoric more so than commented upon it, like any good preacher, doing what Paul did rather than simply explaining what Paul said.
Where Paul fixed his ire against the moral corruption of a fallen 1st century world, Barth’s barely veiled enemy is the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ ethos that began the 21st century. In Barth’s (correct) estimation, the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ too easily slipped into the godhead of Man.
The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach had accused Christians of simply speaking of themselves in a loud voice when they spoke of God, and Barth, surveying the Christianity late 19th century modernity had bequeathed him, concluded: ‘Jah, pretty much.’
Knowing Barth’s predilection for rhetorical bullying when it comes to modernist liberalism, one should approach §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics with trepidation because it’s in this section that Barth applies the theme ‘Praise of God’ to the Jesus Creed from Mark 12:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and might, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Expecting Barth to offer an accurate, dispassionate interpretation of Mark is like asking the Capulet’s and Montague’s to provide fair and balanced coverage of one another.
The liberalism, which Barth is so much against, had esteemed the latter clause of Jesus’ command to the point that it eclipsed the former.
So it’s not surprising that §18.3 reveals Barth resisting a plain reading of the text.
Barth begins strong, claiming that the love of neighbor is but another way of saying ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.’
But then Barth proceeds to scratch his head like Columbo and suggest that it’s not so clear as first glance.
Barth sees 3 possibilities- he doesn’t really, but he wants us to play along:
Love of Neighbor is another, second absolute command. If that is the case, then everything scripture says about love of God can and should be applied to God.
There aren’t really two commands at all but one single, absolute demand. Love to God and love for neighbor are identical, the one must be understood as the other. If so, then we must show how God is to be loved in the neighbor and vice versa.
Or the commandment to love God is first and absolute and absolutely distinct from all other commands while love of neighbor is first among all other subsidiary commands.
Against #1 Barth notes that the weight of scripture, which overwhelmingly echoes the first commandment, contradicts any reading that yields two rival commands and thus, Barth says, two gods. We can’t simply take everything scripture says about loving God and truck it into a definition for love of neighbor. The love of God is exclusive and cannot be given likewise to our neighbor.
Against #2 Barth plays the exegete noting that the text itself does not allow for us to view love of God and love of neighbor as one and the same. After all, Barth cleverly points out, Jesus does not say we should love our neighbor with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Clearly the two commands belong together but they do not cease to be two commands.
To make the two a single commands leads to blasphemy:
‘…God is the neighbor and the neighbor God.’
To my mind, this is where it becomes clear that Barth is more concerned with his own modernist context than the text itself for Jesus himself resolves the matter in Mark 12:
‘There is no other commandment greater than these.’
Not one to worry about muddying the waters or inconveniencing us, Jesus makes the plural singular.
As §18.3 continues Barth takes a look at the Good Samaritan story. Given what he does to the Jesus Creed you can imagine how this goes.
Basically, Barth seems terrified by the prospect that Jesus would suggest that in order to inherit eternal life love of God alone won’t cut it. You also have to love your neighbor in full, equal measure.
It’s always a pain in the ass when Jesus refuses to fit our preconceived theological and political categories, and here in §18.3 Barth wrestles with the fact that Jesus very obviously was not a Reformed Calvinist.
We are not saved by grace alone.
Apologies to Paul.
And this where I sometimes wish theology had the same disciplinary willingness to self-correct as science when it’s clear from the evidence that one’s presumptions were off the mark.
Instead, reacting in a ‘that can’t be’ way, Barth engages in some exegetical creativity.
It’s not that our love of neighbor is necessary ground for salvation (nevermind Matthew 25 also).
It remains the case that we’re saved by grace alone made manifest in our love of God.
What Jesus means by love of neighbor, therefore, is not our giving love to our neighbor (as the Good Samaritan parable clearly illustrates).
Rather love of neighbor refers to our receiving love and charity from our neighbor as sign of God’s care for us.
Receiving our neighbor’s love is but another way we respond to God’s grace.
Barth thus secures the Reformed doctrine of ‘salvation by grace alone.’
At the expense- as often happens with Reformed doctrine- of scripture.
In another context, I would applaud Barth’s ability to show the relationship between our ability to receive a gift from our neighbor and our ability to receive the gift from God. I’m a terrible receiver of gifts and I’ve no doubt it’s due to a deficiency in my faith.
In §18.3, however, as clever as he is in his interpretation- because of his cleverness- I walk away thinking Barth sounds an awful lot like the hyper-parsing, ever-qualifying scribes and Pharisees:
‘Well, when you say ‘neighbor,’ who exactly is my neighbor?’
I closed out Revolution of the Heart sermon series this weekend with a sermon Luke’s Emmaus story in chapter 24. You can listen to it below below or on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ or download the free mobile app and listen that way.
It was the third month since we’d last spoken or seen each other, leaving the most recent wounds to fester and scar.
I was one the road.
Heading towards Richmond.
And as I drove with the radio low, I tried to work out- out loud- just what had happened, why things had gone the way they did, how this was neither what we’d hoped for nor ever expected.
I talked all of it out aloud.
As though there were was someone alongside next to me in the car.
I stopped on the way even though there was no need. I just sat there, still, working over every slight like something stuck in the teeth.
I’d only been given an address, no name or destination.
‘It’s just off 95,’ she’d typed, ‘so it will be convenient for us both.’
The slightly nagging voice in my GPS told me to get off at Exit 89 in 1 mile, and after announcing my obedience every few hundred yards she told me my destination would be on the left.
Maybe it’s an Italian thing, but in my familia we’re good at fighting. Our arguments aren’t just episodes; they’re full blown productions- operas- with the winner going to whomever gives the most committed, dramatic performance.
And our arguments are never original productions.
They’re always sequels where it’s like a voice offstage says ‘Previously on Lost’ and then we rehearse all the old episodes that brought us to this most recent installment.
(I’m sure no one can relate.)
Even in the most litigious, operatic of families, there comes a point where the juice is no longer worth the squeeze and you stop arguing.
But since fighting is all you know how to do, you stop talking altogether.
That’s the place my mom and I were at.
It was going on the third month when she sent me a message: ‘Let’s meet for dinner somewhere.’
I know I’m the ‘reverend.’ I’m the professional Christian. I’m the one with the bible knowledge in my head and the Holy Spirit in my heart.
But the meal wasn’t my initiative. The invitation came from her not me. I replied back to her: ‘Sure’ and I suggested a couple dates and asked for a destination. She sent back only an address. A seemingly random place along the road. I didn’t even try to find it on a map.
I replied again ‘Okay.’ And then with much sarcasm and equal parts cynicism, I entered the date in my iPhone Calendar along with the title: ‘Reconciliation Dinner.’
The day of- I typed the address into Google Maps and 100 miles later it announced that my destination was on my left.
I slowed the car and stared to the side and concluded that my mom must be punking me.
Because there on my left was the Bass Pro Shop.
It’s a manure-colored structure that stretches as far as the eye can see.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Bass Pro Shop is a shopping mall exclusively for hunting and fishing.
Imagine if Costco sold only those blueberry muffins and you have idea of the scale and specificity that is Bass Pro Shop.
Now some of you know me better than others so let me just clarify by saying that I’m not really a Bass Pro Shop kind of guy.
Not exactly in my element at the Bass Pro Shop.
I double-checked the address my mom had sent me.
I was afraid that to call and question the choice of meeting places would only provoke another argument so I got out of the car and walked the 2 miles through the parking lot to the store, all the while feeling like a contestant in the Hunger Games headed towards the Cornucopia.
Like a lumberjack of yore, I walked through the heavy, fake-timbered front doors and then pushed my waist through a turnstile.
If Virginia is a red-leaning state, then I think it fair to say that the Bass Pro Shop in Richmond is like that spot on the planet Jupiter.
For example, after I walked through the turnstile, to my left, where you might expect a coat check at a swankier establishment, customers were checking their concealed handguns.
“Did you bring a weapon with you, sir?” the Walmart Greeter asked me. “Weapon? Uh, just these,” I said, holding up my 2 hands.
He kinked his eyebrow as though he was thinking there’s no way you could stand your ground with hands of such unimpressive caliber.
I stood there, staring back over at the gun check.
“Are you looking for something, sir?” the Walmart Greeter asked.
“Um, I was just wondering where I can tie up my horse” I joked.
He didn’t laugh. You could tell it struck him like a good idea.
I’d gotten there early. I had time to kill, and I still had birthday shopping to do for Gabriel so I wandered the store.
After a while, another employee asked me if she could help me.
‘Yeah, do you sell fishing poles here?’ (at the Bass Pro Shop)
She looked at me with the sort of empathy one reserves for stroke patients and pointed in the direction behind her.
I walked past ladies camouflage lingerie in the women’s section, Duck Dynasty onesies in the kids’ section and ‘Gun Control Means Using Two Hands’ outdoor thermostats in the home and garden section.
Finally I happened upon not simply a fishing section but an entire forest of fishing poles. And behind it, hidden like a high stakes baccarat table, was an entire fly fishing section.
I browsed, and every now and then I would let out a manly grunt like I knew what I was looking at. Eventually I let myself get taken advantage of and I bought Gabriel a boy’s fly rod and reel and then, checking the time, I hiked back to the front of the store to meet my mom.
I stood outside next to a steel deer-hunting stand and waited for her. We said hi and walked inside and stepped through the turnstile.
“Do you have any weapons with you?” the same Walmart Greeter asked her.
“Just these two” I said again, and he rolled his eyes at me.
It turns out that in addition to a 2 story waterfall and a day care center for your gun dogs, the Bass Pro Shop also has a full-service restaurant and bar in it.
Because… why would it not?
And we all know nothing goes better with hunting than a few appletinis.
The restaurant was decorated like Applebees’ but with a swampy alligator theme. Captain Sig Hanson from Deadliest Catch was catching something on the flat screen over the bar.
The hostess sat us awkwardly in the middle of the dining room where we were surrounded by a busload of elderly ladies and a high school cheerleading squad.
At first we tested the temperature before we tiptoed too far into conversation: nice to see you, how are you, what’s new with you, how are the boys?
That sort of thing.
We must’ve looked like we were deep in conversation.
Because when the waitress came over to take our drink order she apologized for interrupting us.
As the waitress walked away, my mom said: ‘I’m sorry…for everything.’
‘Me too’ I said.
And then we got down to the brass tacks of what each of us was sorry for.
After a while, the waitress brought us the glasses of wine we’d ordered along with a loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board.
Probably because it gave us something else to say, something safely rote and memorized, we said grace.
We didn’t hold hands or make a show of it or anything.
We just quietly said grace.
And having blessed the bread, I took it.
And because the waitress forgot to leave us a knife, I broke the bread.
Into two pieces.
And I gave the bread to my mom.
If you read straight through Luke’s Gospel, from beginning to end, one of the things you notice is how Jesus is always eating at someone’s house.
In fact, some of Jesus’ most critical teachings come around a dinner table.
“I’ve come not for good, righteous, religious people but for sinners.” Jesus says that after he’s poured another round at Levi’s house. Levi the tax collector.
“If you can’t admit that you have much to be forgiven for you can’t possibly show very much love.” Jesus serves that up before the appetizers are served at Simon the Pharisee’s house.
“You do plenty of bible studies but seldom do you do the bible.” Jesus says that as soon as he sits down at another Pharisee’s house when they notice he hasn’t washed up for supper.
“Make yourself low so as to raise someone else up. Like, when you have a dinner, treat your guest as if they were host” Jesus says when he’s a guest at the leader of the Pharisees’ house. “And whenever you have a dinner don’t just invite your friends, that’s not what my Kingdom’s like. Invite the poor and the lame. Invite the stranger and the estranged.”
“The Kingdom of God is about actively seeking out the lost not waiting around for the lost to find their way to you” Jesus says on the way to Zaccheus’ house.
When you read Luke’s Gospel straight through, one of the things you notice is how Jesus practically eats his way to the Cross.
Luke records 6 meals Jesus shares in the course of his ministry.
A seventh comes the night Jesus is betrayed, when Jesus deviates from the ancient script and, taking bread and wine, says “I’m the only way for you to pass-over from despair to new life, from sorrow to celebration, from bondage to freedom.”
“And just so you don’t forget that-
Whenever you break bread or pour out wine
Do it in remembrance of me.”
Luke tells you that Jesus celebrates 7 suppers on the way to the Cross.
7- the Hebrew number for perfection, completion, for the sum total of creation.
Which makes this meal at Emmaus the 8th Supper.
The Resurrection is on the 8th Day.
In a 7 day week, the 8th Day is just the 1st Day all over again.
The Old Creation began on the 1st Day.
And the New Creation begins on the 8th Day.
The first meal of the Old Creation was when Adam and Eve broke God’s only command and, scripture says, “they ate and their eyes were opened” and they were ashamed of themselves and blamed each another and hid from God.
The first meal of the New Creation is when Cleopas and another- who’s probably his wife- they break bread and, scripture says, “they ate and their eyes were opened and they recognized” and they ran back reconciled and rejoicing about resurrection.”
The numbers aren’t accidental.
Luke wants you to see that this 8th Meal at Emmaus is the 1st Meal of the New Creation.
It’s Luke’s way of saying that this meal at Emmaus is the summation of all the ones that came before it, that everything Jesus said and did at those 7 other supper tables can be found here in this 8th one, the first one of the New Creation.
Which is why, I think, before they sit down for this 8th Meal, Luke points out how these 2 disciples – they know their bibles. They know everything there is to know about Jesus.
They know the Christmas story, that Jesus is from Nazareth.
They know he preached like and performed deeds like the prophets of old.
They know he was righteous in a way like no else but Moses.
They know the Apostles Creed, how Jesus ‘was crucified under Pontius Pilate.’
They know he was to be the Messiah who would save his People from Sin.
They even know that the tomb is empty.
And that women have seen him raised from the dead.
They know everything there is to know.
Except what any of it could possibly mean for them. In their lives.
Before this 8th Meal, when Luke shows you how much they know but how little grasp, Luke wants you to recall those other meals.
Like the one at Simon’s house where Jesus praises a sinner over a Pharisee and makes the point that it’s not how much bible you know it’s much bible you do.
Luke wants you to see in this 8th Meal the other 7 before it.
That’s why, before this meal at Emmaus, Luke points out how even when this stranger opens up the disciples’ minds to the scriptures and their hearts are burning inside with them from the spiritual high, they still don’t recognize Jesus right there in front of them.
When Luke shows you how their spiritual high in their hearts doesn’t do anything to open their eyes, Luke wants you to remember those other meals.
Like the one at the Pharisee’s house, where Jesus says his Kingdom is not about your high. It’s about your low. It’s about humbling and lowering yourself for another.
Before this 1st Meal of the New Creation, these 2 disciples have everything there is to know about Jesus in their heads and they have spiritual fire in their hearts..
But Jesus is not made visible at this 8th Meal until they actually DO what Jesus said at those other 7 Meals.
Jesus is not made visible until they refuse to let this stranger remain a stranger.
They don’t let him slip away to the next town.
They don’t let a possible relationship go lost.
Because the Kingdom is about seeking after people.
They invite this stranger to dinner not just their friends.
And these 2 disciples- they humble themselves. They turn convention upside down and they treat this guest as though he were the host.
That’s why he’s the one who blesses and breaks the bread.
And don’t forget the biggest thing of all-
For all they know this scripture-quoting rabbi on the road, who’s playing dumb about the crucifixion, is a Pharisee.
This stranger certainly sounds like a Pharisee.
He talks like a Pharisee talks.
For all they know he’s an enemy who killed Jesus.
And so their invitation to dinner is itself a gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation.
These 2 disciples have everything there is to know about Jesus in their heads and they have spiritual fire in their hearts…
But Jesus is not made visible at this 8th Meal until they actually DO
what Jesus said at those other 7 Meals.
The waitress at the Bass Pro Shop brought us our glasses of wine along with a loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board.
We offered a blessing.
And then I took it, the bread.
And I broke it.
And I gave it.
And then suddenly right before our eyes…
It doesn’t work that way.
It’s not like our eyes were suddenly opened or that Jesus appeared to us in front of the paper-mache alligator on the wall.
I think that misses what Luke’s trying to show us.
It’s not that Jesus was suddenly made visible to us.
It’s that everyone around us- the elderly ladies on their bus trip and the high school cheerleaders and the bartender in front of the flat screen and the waitress with the flair on her apron- if they knew our story and heard us seeking after what had been lost, refusing to let our estrangement make us strangers…if they knew our story and heard us offering forgiveness and saw us breaking bread- in remembrance- then they just might see Jesus.