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

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

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

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

Happy Baptism Day, Elijah— 

By now, this being the third letter I’ve written for the anniversary of your drowning day, you’re old enough and smart enough to be thinking to yourself, “I didn’t choose you, Jason, to be my dogfather.” And, because you’re at that wonderfully honest age where you’re still unpracticed in the lies we grown-ups call “manners,” you’ve probably also embarrassed your parents by observing out loud how you didn’t get to choose me. 

Of course, if you have muttered something along the lines of “I wish Uncle Teer was my godfather instead,” then it’s time your parents taught you some damn manners. 

Besides, you wouldn’t have gotten to choose him either. Just as your Mom and Dad baptized you without your consent— I was there, kid, they did it against your will even— so too did they stick you with me, hoping that I would aid and abet the Holy Ghost’s work of affixing the way of Jesus onto you. It’s an odd job to be sure. Don’t let my collar fool you, it’s work for which I am wholly inadequate to the task. The more you get to know me, Elijah, the liklier it becomes that I’ll be but one reason you grow to suspect your parent’s judgment, for I’m neither an exemplary father nor am I particulary holy when it comes to God. Nonetheless, if you learn anything about Jesus in the years ahead, Elijah, you should know that he delights in calling losers like me to impossible tasks in order to make their lives more interesting than they deserve. If God had a fraction of the hiring standards as your church preschool, then the gospel would’ve become but a rumor by the first anniversary of Easter. Christianity, I hope you’ll one day discover, is neither a religion nor a club. It’s an adventure. 

Stanley Hauerwas, a mentor important to both your Dad and me who preached your baptism, says in his memoir, Hannah’s Child, that he thinks he had to become a theologian in order to be a Christian. Trust, belief, and the habits necessary to sustain a Christian life simply came too unnaturally for him. He needed the obligation of a vocation to hold him accountable to the implications of his baptism. I think I needed to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. Without an every Sunday deadline looming over me and forcing me to engage God’s Word, Jesus Christ, my discipleship would’ve remained shallow and unthinking. I would’ve remained content to live a life of functional atheism. My life still fails to meet the measure I think Jesus sets for us; that is, I do not sufficiently live in a manner that makes no sense if God has not raised Christ from the dead. But, thanks to being a pastor, I’m at least haunted by the possibilities I’m too much the coward to venture. Ministry forces me to recognize there’s more to life than that for which we settle. 

Like Stanley, I needed the burdens of my vocation in order to live into my baptism. Maybe you’ve noticed already, Elijah, a large part of being a pastor is working with words. I’m a skeptic in remission, Elijah, and working with words is how I make sense of the God who makes sense of us. It seems to me, then, that working with words— writing you these letters— is the only sensible way for me to attempt your parent’s silly gambit of making me your godfather. 

Of course, all of my consternation is unnecessary because, right about now, your baptism is not the calendar date heavy on your mind. After all, this is October, and the leaves have turned.  That means it’s nearly Halloween. Despite my suggestion that with your crazy curls and your shit-eating grin you should dress as Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka and the Chocalate Factory, you insist on trick-or-treating this year as Spiderman. My son Gabriel, whom you adore more than Uncle Teer or myself, went through his own Spiderman craze at your age, shooting make-believe webs at unsuspecting bystanders and would-be villains. Perhaps the anniversary of your drowning day and All Hallowed’s Eve aren’t so far apart, Elijah. 

Even a novice theologian like yourself might be able to work out the ways in which Spiderman is the perfect doppleganger for the life of the baptized. Peter Parker is just an everyday kid at Midtown High School. Moreso than any other superheroes, Peter Parker struggles with the burden he feels from the mantle that has been placed upon him. Though he did not choose it for himself, Peter wants to live up to the life he’s been given; at the same, Peter wants to be ordinary, freed in the world from his calling to be different. 

Elijah, if he hasn’t already, your Dad can tell you the Bible word for different.

It’s holy. 

My boys are obsessed with comic books, Elijah, so I know of what I speak. What makes Peter Parker extraordinary is not his spidey-sense or his superstrength. It’s the candid and genuine way he wrestles with the easier life he’d prefer versus the peculiar life providence has placed upon him. You can’t shoot webs or swing from skyscrapers, Elijah (sorry, pal), but, like Peter Parker, God’s great power has placed upon you great responsibility. 

Actually, I hate that word responsibility, Elijah. It makes God sound like the lunch lady who shushes all the kids trying to swap their string cheese for oreos. And Lord knows there are plenty of Christians who specialize in making the God of Grace sound like an IRS auditor. God’s not a librarian reminding you of your overdue books, little man; God’s a librarian who throws her job away forgiving all the fines. 

So let’s say it this way:

God’s great power over words and water has placed upon you great opportunity.

Like Peter his webs, your baptism has thrust upon you a life that would not be possible apart from your incorporation into Jesus Christ. 

And like Peter, this isn’t necessarily a choice, even now, you’d make for yourself. Honestly, I suspect the Church baptizes babies because too many adults would run the other way if they got wise to the fact that they weren’t actually inviting Jesus into their hearts but Jesus was instead conscripting them into his kingdom. Elijah, the irony is that while you didn’t get to choose your baptism your baptism commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices. In other words, by baptizing you against your will, Elijah, your parents have done a fanatical perhaps even cruel act. They’ve said yes to the possibility that you will one day have to suffer because of their convictions. They’ve burdened you with choices you would not need to negotiate if you knew not Jesus Christ exactly because to be a Christian is not to be someone who assents to the articles of the creed. That would be easy. Rather, the articles of the creed make intelligible the way Christians act in the world. 

Christians act in the world as though Jesus Christ really is Lord, and that presents us with no end of choices to navigate. 

     “Will you serve God or Money?” is one such dilemma. 

     “Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?” is another. 

     “Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?” is still another choice. 

They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture. 

Therefore, your baptism— if done rightly— will make you not just a Christian. 

It will make you different.

Holy.

And by the time you’re able to read and comprehend this letter, Elijah, you’ll be the age when “odd” is about the last thing you’ll want to be. Like Peter Parker, what you’ll want most is to conform, to blend in, to be normal. Once such a desire settles in us, we seldom recover. Rightly understood, Elijah, your baptism may be the most counter-cultural act your parents ever commit, moreso even than they’re support for Bernie Sanders. By baptizing you into the way of the cross before you can make up your mind for yourself, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have a mind worth making up. You don’t have a mind worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your mind (and your heart and your habits too) shaped by Christ. 

How could you possibly make up your own mind, Elijah? Choose for yourself? 

After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus? 

Elijah, I realize telling you you don’t have a mind worth making up on your own sounds offensive. I no choice but to be offensive, for we live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid. But notice, Elijah, no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. Your Dad hasn’t even given you the choice about whether or not you’ll follow Washington’s NFL team. As the son of your father, you will be a fan. And so it goes for all sorts of the features that constitute our lives. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God, and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own personal “choice.” As the aforementioned Stanley likes to point out, it’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: “I believe Jesus Christ is Lord but that’s just my personal opinion.” 

When engaged couples tell your Dad or me that they’re going to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, we often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists. In addition to being more honest, straight up, unapologetic atheism would at least require their children to see their parents held convictions. Our (pagan) culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the story of our life for ourselves, which, in itself, is a story none of us got to choose. This makes it not just a story but a fiction, a lie. 

And a lie is a very serious thing if you are a Christian, Elijah.

Listen up, kid. 

Ours is a loquacious God, as Karl Barth said— a God who reveals himself through speech. Indeed the name the gospel gives to the Father’s Son is Word. We are made, says the Bible, by the Word wording us into existence. Therefore, there can be no graver and no more fundamental betrayal of our faith than the lie. Gene Wilder, the dude whom I think you should go as for Halloween, once said, “If you’re not going to tell the truth, then why start talking?” I don’t know if Gene Wilder realized it but in saying “If you’re not going to tell the truth, then why start talking?” he was speaking Christian. The Creator, Genesis tells us, creates by a speech-act. Gpd’s saying it makes it so. As creatures of this Creator, we reflect the image of God most proximately by our speech. The commandments “Thou shall not bear false witness” and “I am the Lord your God, thou shall have no other gods but me” are redundant, for the lie is a form of idolatry. To open your mouth and speak a true word is to imitate the God who declared, “It is good;” whereas, to open your mouth and lie is pervert God’s creation to other ends. This, no doubt, is what Jesus’ brother is after when he warns, “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity.”

Here is one implication of the life into which we’ve baptized you, Elijah. 

You must not lie. 

I wish it were hyperbole, but the third anniversary of your baptism is a time of moral anarchy in America.

You’re still too little to notice, perhaps, but there are liars all over the news.

We grown-ups call them “leaders.” 

The fact that that previous sentence will be taken by many as a partisan polemic, Elijah, is but an indication of how complicated is the path of the baptized onto which we’ve set you. If Christians are not mindful, our lies will deliver us into the same inconvenient truth as Caiphas, who confessed, “We have no King but Caesar.” 

Maybe you can sense, Elijah, how truth-telling, for Christians, isn’t merely about honesty it’s about witness. To tell the truth entails telling the truth about Jesus Christ; that is, truth-telling requires the insistence that what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ— despite all evidence to the contrary— is the true story of the world. This means in part, Elijah, that to live out your baptism is to call bullshit on all the other lies by which the Principalities and Powers attempt to narrate our world. Our mentor Stanley likes to tell the story of how, during the period when America illegally bombed Cambodia, he trained his young son that whenever President Nixon’s name was mentioned in school he was to raise his hand and ask, “You mean, the murderer?” Likewise, your godmother and I trained our boys to stand respectfully but otherwise refrain from participating in the pledge of allegiance at school. “You’re Christians,” we taught them, “You can pledge allegiance to no one else but Jesus.” 

This did not go over well with teachers. 

And, among their peers, it made them odd. 

But we had baptized them, Elijah, and, in baptizing them, we were prepared to make them suffer for our convictions, which is how it should go, I suppose, for that word holy can just as easily be translated odd.

In no small part, faith is the trust that what seems odd to the “real world” is, in fact, reality. Faith is trusting that the patient, peaceable way of Jesus’ cruciform love reveals the logic of creation. This is what the Bible means by calling Jesus the Second Adam. In the incarnation, God has broken through all our obfuscations and, in Jesus, given to us a new definition for what is truly human. And in baptism God’s killed off the Old Adam in you so that, in the New Adam, you might live according to the grain of the universe. 

Truth-telling, you see, requires more than avoiding the lie whilst living however you will. Even the President manages occassion to avoid lying but that does not make him a truthful person. To tell the truth, Elijah, is to live according to the truth that is Jesus Christ. To so live is harder even than it sounds, for it will require you to refuse letting the “real world” determine for you what is real. You’re already a natural at not taking the real world as a given, but— the Bible tells me so— grown-ups are good at keeping children from coming to Jesus. Grown-ups will work to convince you that Christ’s Kingdom is an impossible ideal or an accusing burden, but the water speaks a different word. Your baptism, Elijah, has commissioned you to live as though Christ is Lord. 

Christians do not welcome the stranger because we think, in welcoming them, the stranger will cease being strange to us. We do not attempt to love our enemies because, in attempting to love them, our enemies will cease to be our enemies. Nor do we feed the poor because we believe, in feeding them, the poor will express gratitude or because we think the watching world will be inspired by our example and end hunger. The way of Jesus isn’t a strategy to make the world come out right. The way of Jesus is the way those who believe Jesus has already made the world come out right live. Christians practice such work because we believe, for example, the giver of the sermon on the mount is our King and, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty, he has, by water and the Spirit, made us the peculiar people who witness to his authority. 

Will God still love you if you fail to live in a way that is commensurate with the truth who is Jesus Christ? Will God still accept you if you live a lie? 

Yes, of course. But that’s not what your baptism is for.

We’ve baptized into death, Elijah, so that you will live as though Jesus matters when it comes to matters that matter.

If you insist on trick-or-treating as Spiderman instead of Gene Wilder, then I hope you’ll at least watch Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In last line of the film, Willy Wonka smiles a smile like yours and says, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted….He lived happily ever after.”

It’s not easy to live truthfully in a world that refuses to be the world— that refuses to live as God’s gratuitous creation. I pray, Elijah, that in baptizing you into this odd way of life, you will look back and discover that, despite the challenges, this odd way of life gave you everything you ever wanted precisely by Christ giving you desires you would not have had had you not been baptized. 

Love, 

Jason

    

   


Because today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of atonement, I thought it appropriate to reflect on the cross wherein Christians believe Yom Kippur gets worked out perfectly for all time by the Father through the Son, Jesus Christ.

Very often, in order to avoid depictions of the cross where God the Father appears as a sort of “cosmic child abuser,” Christians will insist that it’s God’s own self suffering the onslaught of Sin and Death upon the cross.

The eternal Son who is God dies upon the cross not an innocent carpenter from Nazareth scapegoated by our sins. 

Certainly, the doctrine of the Trinity frees the Church so to speak of the cross; however, putting God on the cross instead of the human Jesus is but one way our theologies of atonement leave the text and its context behind.

The problem I can’t ignore though is that everywhere and always in scripture, the son who dies is precisely the son who is not the father, and is nowhere the God who, as Godself, is dying to save us. Instead, there is always the son who is not the father who is dying out of obedience to the father. There is always the father who is not the son who is not sparing his son but delivering him up for us all.

I don’t reject the divine on the cross interpretation— I don’t think the grammar of the Trinity allows us to jettison it— yet I can’t help but think it problematic that the only way to get God on the cross is by reading the texts in a way other than how the first Christians read them or to ignore the form in which they gave their witness to us, abandoning the theo-logic of the NT writers and replacing it with— or projecting onto it— a particular and later way of working out the logic of the Trinity.

Is the need for it to be God who dies so profound that we simply have to abandon the suffering Human One of the Synoptic Gospels, or the obedient Second Adam of Paul? Or do we simply need to return to the question of why Jesus died to shore up a better answer of why this man (man!) goes the way of the cross?

And if we put it all in the divinity, what then of the calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus? Does God love us less than the Son because what God would not call another to do, but does Godself, God nonetheless demands we do?

And what about the bit of the father not sparing? “Not what I will but what you will?” do we throw it out?

In trying to absolve God of appearing less nice than we think God ought to be, do we ignore God as the New Testament bears witness to God?

 

The Cure for Atheism

Jason Micheli —  October 7, 2019 — Leave a comment

Genesis 32, Romans 9

     I like Jacob. I like Jacob even though it’s not clear from the biblical witness why I’m supposed to like Jacob. 

     In a culture that prizes the eldest son, Jacob isn’t. 

     In a religion whose exemplar, Abram, leaves everything behind to follow by faith when God calls, Jacob doesn’t. 

     I like Jacob, but in a tradition where names mean everything, convey everything, foreshadow everything, its not clear from the name, “Jacob,” that we’re meant to root for this character. 

     When he was yet unborn, Jacob, who wrestles God in the dark along the riverbank, for nine months wrestled his twin brother in the dark waters of his mother’s womb. 

And when she gives birth to them, Esau first, the youngest comes out clutching at the leg of the eldest. 

     As if to say, “Me first.”

     So, Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’ 

     Which is a little like naming your kid, “Rudy.“

In movies and television, “Jake” is always the name of the hunky, altruistic hero. 

     But, in Hebrew “Jacob” means heel-grabber, hustler, over-reacher, supplanter, scoundrel, trickster, liar, and a cheat. 

     In a religion where names signify and portend everything, it’s not clear that I’m meant to but, nevertheless, I like Jacob. 

 

     

It’s true, scripture gives us plenty of reasons to dislike Jacob. 

     More than twenty years before they meet face-to-face on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob took advantage of his brother. 

     One afternoon Esau had returned from the fields, dizzy and in a cold sweat from hunger. Jacob pulled some fresh bread from the oven and ladled some lentil soup from the stove. 

     When Esau asked for it, Jacob demanded his elder brother’s birthright in return. 

     As Jacob knew it would, Esau’s birthright seemed an intangible thing compared to hunger. Esau accepted the terms of his brother’s extortion. 

     And, even if Esau knew not what he’d just done, Jacob certainly did. 

     But, I still like Jacob. 

     It’s true that his birthright isn’t the only thing Jacob poaches from his brother. 

     It’s true that when their father, Isaac, was weighed down by age and his eyes were cobwebbed by years, when Isaac was dying and wanted to bless his eldest son— a blessing to be the most powerful of all, a blessing that couldn’t be taken back— he old man lay in his goat-skin tent waiting for his eldest son to appear. 

     After a while he heard someone enter and say, “My father.” And the old man, his eyes darkened by blindness, asked, “Who are you my son?”

     The boy boldly lied and said that he was Esau. And when the old man reached forward to the touch the face he could not see, the boy lied a second time. 

    And when the boy leaned over to kiss the old man and the old man sniffed the scent of Esau’s clothes, just as Jacob knew he would, Isaac blessed him. 

     Jacob lied to his father to steal from his brother the birthright that he coveted. 

     If you’re counting at home, that’s 3 out of 10 commandments, broken in one fail swoop. 

      Still, I’ve got my own reasons. 

I like Jacob. 

     It’s true that soon after Esau’s rage made Jacob a runaway, God spoke to him in a dream— gave him a vision of a ladder traveled by angels— it’s true that when Jacob awoke from the dream and marked the spot with an altar stone and prayed to God, Jacob didn’t pray for forgiveness. 

     He didn’t confess his sin. 

     He didn’t express any remorse or give any hint of a troubled conscience. 

     

     Instead, Jacob prayed with fingers crossed and one eye opened, a prayer that was really more of a deal: 

“If you stand by me God, if you protect me on this journey, God, if you keep me in food and clothing, and bring me back in one piece to my house and land, then you will be my God.”

God revealed God’s self to Jacob. 

And, afterwards, Jacob is still the same Jacob— the same sinner— Jacob was before. 

Like a lot of us (most of us?),  Jacob’s encounter with God leaves Jacob completely unchanged. 

     So, it’s hard for me not to like Jacob. 

    I know it’s true that when he had nowhere else to go, his mother’s brother, Laban, took Jacob in and gave him food and shelter and work and, eventually, a wife and family. 

     I know it’s true that after over 14 years of Laban’s hospitality Jacob became a rich man- but not rich enough to satisfy Jacob who returned Laban’s good deeds by cheating his father-in-law out his wealth. 

     I know it’s true that God, in his compassion, gave children to Leah, because Leah’s husband, Jacob, gave her neither a thought nor a care. 

     If you’re still counting at home, that’s another couple of commandments broken (which still gives him a winning percentage better than the Miami Marlins are likely to have this season.)

     Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief. 

     Jacob’s got a wandering eye and a fickle heart. 

     Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet. 

     Jacob’s always ready to run away from his problems. 

     

    Jacob’s not a bible hero. 

He’s not holy. 

     He’s a heel.

    Still, I can’t help it. 

I like Jacob. 

 

You might not. 

     You might not like Jacob. 

     You might not be like Jacob. 

     

Maybe you’re batting perfect when it comes to the commandments.      

     Congrats.

     Maybe you’ve never lied to your mother or your father, or your husband or your wife. 

     Maybe you’ve never watched idly by as a sibling or a friend, or a neighbor wanders out of your life, gets into trouble and then beyond your reach. 

    Maybe you’ve never betrayed someone you should’ve honored and obeyed. 

     Maybe you’ve never returned a good deed with a petty one, or turned to God only when you needed him. Maybe.

     Maybe your family never suffered such bad blood that it threatens to hemorrhage, or maybe you’ve never let the wounds of a broken relationship fester through years upon years. 

     Maybe you’ve never withheld forgiveness, because clenching that forgiveness in your fist was the only control you possessed. 

     At every point, from his mother’s womb to Jabbok’s river, Jacob has worried about Jacob. Jacob has only ever cared about Jacob. Jacob has looked after no one else, but Jacob. 

     Maybe you’re not like that. Maybe you’ve never been like that. 

     Good for you. 

Gold star to you.

     Go ahead and turn your nose up at Jacob. 

 

     

Just because I like him doesn’t mean you should. 

     Not everyone can relate to Jacob. 

     Not everybody can identify with someone who suspects his sins are eventually going to sneak up on him from the shadows of his past. 

     Check the text— Jacob sends his wife and his kids and his possessions packing before a stranger jumps him in the dark and fights dirty until dawn. 

     Jacob ships them off across the Jabbok and then he just waits in the dark for a shadowy struggle he apparently anticipated, but had no actual reason to expect. 

     In other words, the stranger in the shadows doesn’t surprise Jacob, because Jacob was expecting that, sooner or later, the other shoe would drop, the bottom would fall out, and his ill-gotten gain would get him. 

      Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob. 

      Maybe your rap sheet is clean. 

Maybe your conscience is clear.

      Maybe your past really doesn’t stink and so whenever it hits the fan, it never occurs to you that you had it coming.

     Maybe you’ve never clutched the covers at night convinced, “This is happening to me for a reason. God’s doing this to me, because of what I’ve done (or left undone).”

     Maybe you’ve never wondered that this sickness or struggle is because of that sin. 

     Maybe you’ve never harbored the suspicion that the darkness that’s enveloped you is what you deserve. 

     Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob. 

     Lucky you. 

     

Lord knows, I can. 

     I can. 

     But, that’s not why I like Jacob.

 

    

     No, I like Jacob because Jacob is not the sort of guy who would ever send a Hallmark card that says, “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

     I like Jacob, because Jacob, whom God leaves lame and limping and bruised,  knows that the good news is NOT, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” 

I like Jacob, because Jacob knows that God is to be found up at the top of that ladder God showed him, and Jacob knows that the good news— the Gospel— is not that God is there at the top of that ladder to meet u,s if we but climb our way up to him. 

     Jacob has the scars to prove it. 

The ladder was not for us to journey up to God. 

The ladder was for God to come down to us. 

Jacob has the scars to prove it. 

The good news is that God meets us in the very midst of that which we cannot handle.

 

    Chris Arnade is a photojournalist who published a book entitled Dignity earlier this year. 

Arnade used to be atheist. The book started out as an essay he wrote for The Guardian entitled, “The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes.”

Arnade was an unbelieving, French-cuffed financier on Wall Street. 

When the market crashed in 2008 and he lost his job, he began travelling through urban America, interviewing homeless addicts and prostitutes and squatters and taking their pictures. 

“I had always counted myself an atheist,” Arnade writes, “I picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies.”

“When I first walked into the Bronx, photographing homeless addicts, I assumed I would find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be. None of them are. Rather, they are some of the strongest believers I have met.”

Arnade writes about a forty-something woman named, Takeesha. She talked to him for an hour standing against a wall at the Corpus Christi Monastery in the South Bronx. 

When she was 13, Takeesha’s mother, who was a prostitute, put her out to work the streets with her, which she’s done for the last thirty years. 

“It’s sad,” Takeesha told Arnade, “when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. Jesus. Whenever I got into [a guy’s] car, Jesus came down and stuck with me and got into the car with me.” 

Takeesha has a framed print of the Last Supper that she takes with her— a moveable feast— wherever she goes to sleep for the night. 

She’s hung the image of it above her in abandoned buildings and in sewage-filled basements and leaned it against a tent pole under an interstate overpass. She’s taken it with her to turn tricks.

“He’s always comes down and meets me where I am when I need him the most,” she told Arnade. 

 

     I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     Martin Luther said that, from Adam onwards, you and I are addicted to the “glory story.”

That is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way. 

     The “glory story” prompts those kinds of questions and clichés, because it gets the direction of the Gospel story backwards. 

The Gospel story, the story of the Cross, is not the story of our journey up to God, but God’s journey down to us. 

     The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension, not our ascension. 

     And, the story of the Cross isn’t a story that starts with Jesus. 

     Rather, the God who comes to us in the crucified Christ is the God who has always condescended. 

Indeed, that’s why the first Christians believed it was the pre-incarnate Christ Jacob wrestles here in the dark of the night. 

This angel in the darkness is the Second Adam (Jesus) who has the authority to (re)name God’s creatures. 

     The God who snuck up on us in Jesus is the God who crept up on Jacob in the shadows. 

     The God who jumped Jacob in the darkness of his guilt and sin is the same God who comes down and finds us in our own struggles. 

     And so I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     We need Jacob to inoculate us against the “glory story.”

     We need Jacob to remember that:

If we are to find strength from God, it starts with searching for Him in our weakness. 

If we hope to find wholeness from God, it begins by seeking Him out in our woundedness.  

If we dream of finding healing from God, we first must look for God not up in glory, but down into the pit of our nightmare. 

     Without Jacob, when we cry out to God for help, we’re liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction. 

     Up into glory, rather than down in to the darkness, and out into the shadows that surround us. 

    So, I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     Because, it’s not just that the power of God is revealed in the weakness of Jesus Christ. 

It’s that the grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ can only be received in a weakness like Jacob’s. 

     Only in our weakness and woundedness do we realize our true helplessness, and only in helplessness can we discover the healing power of his blessing— that’s not just the Jacob story, that’s the Gospel. 

     That’s what we mean when we say that you are saved by grace alone through faith alone. We mean that you alone— by your lonesome— do not have the strength to save yourself. 

     You are as helpless as Jacob, hobbled over with his hip out of joint. NOTE: poor guy.

     That’s why the bread is broken. 

And it’s why you come to the table with the open, empty hands of a beggar. 

     Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give. 

 

Chris Arnade writes in Dignity:

“On the streets, with their daily battles and constant proximity to death, they have come to understand viscerally the truth about all of us which many privileged and wealthy people have the luxury to avoid: that life is neither rational nor fair, that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes.” 

“Meeting people like Takeesha,” Arnade writes, “I soon saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well. We don’t believe in God because, with our cash and comfort, we don’t need to believe in God, which is but another way of saying “God only meets us in our need.”” 

The cure for atheism, in other words, is found not at the top of the ladder, but at the bottom. 

Or, in the middle of Jacob’s wrestling ring.

    

    

    

What if the generations of Talmudic interpretation demonstrate an inherently gracious nature to the Jewish Law? What if Protestant Christians are wrong and the Law is not a burdensome command meant to induce repentance but a gracious entry into thinking about everything in the world?

Just in time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Chaim Saiman, Professor of Law at Villanova University, is back on the podcast to talk about his most recent book, Halakah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law.

Though typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. This is because the rabbinic legal system has rarely wielded the political power to enforce its many detailed rules, nor has it ever been the law of any state. Even more idiosyncratically, the talmudic rabbis claim that the study of halakhah is a holy endeavor that brings a person closer to God―a claim no country makes of its law.

In this panoramic book, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. In the multifaceted world of halakhah where everything is law, law is also everything, and even laws that serve no practical purpose can, when properly studied, provide surprising insights into timeless questions about the very nature of human existence.

What does it mean for legal analysis to connect humans to God? Can spiritual teachings remain meaningful and at the same time rigidly codified? Can a modern state be governed by such law? Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

Before you listen—

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A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  September 30, 2019 — 1 Comment

Genesis 22 and Hebrews 10

I know you’d never guess it from unimpressive me, but I have been a preacher for almost twenty years.

And sure, it reveals a lot  about me that in those years I’ve preached four different sermons on the prophet Isaiah prophesying in nothing but his birtday suit (it’s really in there). 

I’ve preached three different sermons on King David collecting one hundred Philistine foreskins from reluctant donors in order to win Michal as his bride (it’s in there too), and I’ve somehow managed to preach five different sermons on the talking ass in Numbers 22.

Every time, someone has left church telling me, “It takes one to know one.”  

Twenty years—

But, in all that time, I’ve never once preached on today’s passage. 

Luther was haunted by it. Rembrandt and Chagall painted it. In his asthmatic kitty dry-heave of a voice, Bob Dylan sang about it going down on Highway 61. 

But, I’ve never studied it closely until this week. 

I’ve never preached on it until today. 

And yesterday…

Yesterday, I stood outside in the church cemetery next to a shallow grave and a tiny two-foot coffin. 

Tossing a fist full of dirt I clawed from the ground, I looked into a mother’s vacant, tear-filled eyes and, in the name of Jesus Christ who is Resurrection and Life, I promised her— I promised her— that God did not take her child from her. 

Was I wrong?

Sylvia was only four months old. 

The way the undertaker had prepared her body— she looked like she was nursing. She’d been dressed in a coat that looked like the kind Marilyn Monroe wore on her wedding day. 

Next to her body, I told her parents about Jesus Christ, about how God-in-the-flesh wept beside a grave just like Sylvia’s, wept over a friend who, like Sylvia, died much too soon. “On a day like today,” I said, “it’s good to remember that Jesus is weeping and is angry that any of you need to be here.”

I promised. 

Was I wrong? 

Did I bear false witness?

———————-

Is the God I promised to them, the God I promised was for them in Jesus Christ and with them in the Holy Spirit, the same God who tells Abraham, “Take your child, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him there as a burnt-offering?”

It’s hard to hear Jesus saying, “Abraham, I know I said “Put down the sword” but I’m going to need you to pick it up and (really big favor) take your son Isaac, slit his throat, and set him on fire. As a sacrifice to please and appease me.”

It’s hard to hear Jesus saying that, and that’s a problem, because if God is Trinity then, by definition, God has always been Trinity. 

Because God doesn’t change. 

God is immutable. 

“God is the same,” the Bible says, “yesterday, today, and forever.” 

Therefore, if Jesus Christ is the exact imprint of God’s very Being, as the Book of Hebrews declares, then not only is God like Jesus, God has always been like Jesus. 

There has never been a time when God has not been like Jesus. 

The Son who prays “forgive them for they know not what they do” is the same— of one being— as the Father to whom he prays. 

The Father was always like the Son. 

From before was was. 

God has never not been like Jesus. 

If Jesus Christ is the one by whom all things were made, as the creed confesses, if Christ was present at creation, as the Bible teaches— if Christ was present at creation and God doesn’t change, then present with Christ from before creation was his desire for mercy not sacrifice. 

———————-

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus tells the grumbling Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” 

“Go study that Bible you like to thump,” Jesus says, sending them back to the prophet Hosea who declared, “Thus, says the Lord: I desire mercy not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings.” 

God’s desire apparently is always falling on deaf ears because God keeps repeating himself. Through the prophet Micah, God speaks the same word, 

“Hear what the Lord says: With what shall you come before the Lord? Will the Lord be pleased with the sound of a thousand rams sacrificed? Shall we offer our first born children, the fruit not of the land but of our bodies? He has told you, o mortal, what is pleasing; to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk in humility under your God.”

When King David gets caught red-handed, having broken about half the Ten Commandments, God doesn’t demand any quid pro quo.

No, God reveals to David that “God takes no delight in sacrifice.” 

“If I were to give you a burnt offering,” David sings in Psalm 51, “You would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart.” 

Not only does God not want sacrifices of any sort, sacrifice, as the preacher of Hebrews says in today’s text, does not work. 

Sacrifice just tempts us into thinking we can right the scales of relationship with God. 

Thus sacrifice doesn’t atone for sin, it exacerbates sin because, fundamentally, it’s a refusal of grace.

But there’s the question:

If God doesn’t want sacrifice, if God has never wanted sacrifice, if sacrifice is a futile gesture that accomplishes nothing but deluding us into thinking we’re steering our standing before God, then why would God want to assess Abraham by Abraham’s willingess to do what God does not want done?

———————-

To test his faith?

That’s the usual explanation. 

God takes Abraham through this sadistic charade to test his faith by asking Abraham to do the unthinkable. 

Abraham has already sacrificed his past, being summoned by God out of his homeland. 

And here, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his future in order to make his future dependent not on biology but entirely upon God’s gracious provision. 

Just kidding— I was only testing you. 

Never mind that this makes the God of infinite Love and Goodness exponentially worse than Michael Scott fake-firing his employees at Dunder Mifflin, that’s the conventional answer. 

And, that’s why for Jews this passage is about akedah, obedience, and for Islam this story is about the virtue of surrendering to the will of God no matter where your discernment of God’s will takes you. 

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that Abraham here demonstrates what true faith entails. 

True faith is contrary to what our senses tell us (even our sense of right and wrong). 

True faith exceeds the rational; such that, to anyone else faith looks absurd.

Which I take to be an absurd answer. 

Because in scripture the proper measure of faith isn’t the quantity of it. 

It’s the character of it. 

It’s not how much faith you have.

It’s who and what your faith is in. 

It’s not about amounts; it’s about allegiance. 

The chief priests and the Pharisees had alot of faith. 

They just placed their faith in the wrong who, “We have no King but Caesar!”

The measure of faith is not how much you have but to whom and to what you are allegiant. 

For Christians, there’s no such thing as blind faith, because God has shown himself.  

Fully in Jesus Christ. 

And God has also revealed himself through the law— laws like “Do not kill.” 

Therefore, it’s not a leap of faith to do that which is contrary to who God has revealed himself to be. 

This is not a test of faith, asking Abraham to do the unthinkable. 

For one thing—

Everywhere else the Old Testament , when God tests his People it’s for the purpose of making them holy. 

Holy means different. 

Whenever God tests his People, it’s to make them distinct from the pagans and idolators around them. 

So, for example, after God gets his chosen People out of Egypt, he tests them in the wilderness in order to get the Egypt of them. 

And this is how Jesus’ testing in the wilderness functions too. It’s to shape him to be different than all the other would-be-messiahs. 

“All these kingdoms of the world, I will give you,” Jesus is tested. 

And only Jesus declines the opportunity.

The purpose of testing in the Bible is make God’s People holy. 

To make them different. 

And that’s the other thing—

Child sacrifice was not different.  

This is not a test of Abraham’s faith, to see if he’ll go through with the unthinkable, because for Abraham it was not unthinkable. 

Not at all.

Don’t forget—

Abraham exists in an ancient near eastern world where child sacrifice is not unusual. 

The reason God has to spell it out in the law and say, “Don’t do it,” is because the Canaanite religions of Israel’s day did do it. 

Thus, child sacrifice would not be a way to test Abraham. 

It would not be a way to make the People of Abraham different because everybody else did it too. 

It would not make Abraham holy. 

It would make Abraham the same. 

And remember—

Abraham is only a recent convert from paganism. 

When God called Abraham, he was a ziggurat-attending, moon-worshipping pagan. 

Abraham’s father, the Talmud says, was an idol maker. 

That’s why Abraham doesn’t question this command he discerns to kill his kid. Child sacrifice— it’s what the gods do.

But what about the God who is Jesus Christ?

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

It’s like there’s two different gods here testing Abraham. 

———————- 

Yesterday morning before the burial, I was standing by the bell tower, talking with Sylvia’s uncle about how we’d process down to the gravesite with the baby. 

Stupidly, I asked him how he was doing.

And he said to me, “I know God didn’t do this to my family. I know God didn’t take her. But, still, I keep thinking God did it. I can’t help it. It’s like I’m being tested to sort out what’s true and what’s not.”

———————- 

What if the true test Abraham passes is a different test than the one we presume? What if the actual test Abraham passes is a test we fail to the extent that we fail even to notice it? 

It’s all right there in the text. 

The key to the passage is that it uses two different Hebrew words for God. 

The text refers to God as Elohim. 

Elohim is the generic Hebrew term for God. Elohim is like our English word God. 

And, in the Old Testament, Elohim can refer to the God of Israel but just as often— because it’s a generic term— elohim is the word used to talk about all gods, even the other false gods.

When the First Commandment says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” elohim is the word for gods. 

And when the prophet Elijah does battle against the false prophets of Baal, the Bible uses elohim to refer to the false god. 

Today’s text uses the word Elohim, but it also uses a different word, Yahweh. 

Yahweh isn’t a generic term. Yahweh is the name given to Moses at the burning bush. Yahweh is the true God who can be known only by God’s self-revelation.

It’s Elohim who asks Abraham to take his only son to Moriah, slit his throat, and set him ablaze as a sacrifice. 

It’s Yahweh who tells Abraham to stop. 

Actually, it’s the angel of Yahweh— who the first Christians identified as the pre-incarnate Son— who stills the blade of sacrifice. 

There are two gods in the story. 

And discerning the true one— that’s the test Abraham passes. 

That’s the test that makes him holy. 

Different.

Different even than from many of us, who think God demands payment.

———————- 

Traditionally, today’s passage is assigned by the lectionary for Easter. 

And to understand that scheduling, to hear today’s text as the Easter Gospel its meant to be, imagine that Abraham went through with the deed on Mt. Moriah. 

Imagine he did it. 

Just like we do it, for Moriah is Golgotha. 

Imagine Abraham raising his arm and plunging the knife. 

Imagine Isaac’s scream and the silence that would follow it, save for the bleating of a lost and forgotten ram amid the bushes. 

Imagine Abraham making his three day trek back down the mountain path to Isaac’s mother. 

And imagine a stranger approaching Abraham’s campfire that first night and, in the comfort of the darkness, Abraham confesses to this stranger his story about what he had believed god required, how it led him to violence and murder, how in his grief he knew now that heaven wept with him, how he had been blind and deaf, his faith had been unfaith, how as he plunged the knife he realized he had mistaken the gods for the true God. 

Imagine Abraham spilling out his shame, and then realizing he’d not even asked for the stranger’s name. 

“Tell me your name,” Abraham asks. 

And the stranger lifts up his bowed head and pulls back his hood and replies, “Isaac.” 

And then imagine Isaac showing Abraham his hands and his side. That’s how to hear this story as Easter. 

———————-

God doesn’t take. 

God gives. 

Ceaselessly.

Even when we take— taking, even, God’s own Son— God returns the gift. 

That’s the Gospel. 

The suffering of Christ upon the cross is not the punishment God demands for our sins. 

The suffering of Christ upon the cross is the patience God demonstrates in the face of our sins— in our act of sinning. 

The cross isn’t the really big sacrifice God wanted all along, of which Isaac is a hint. 

The cross is the end of sacrifice, the final judgment on the whole way of thinking that God collects on our debts.” 

We’re naive if we think that ours isn’t still a world of many gods. 

False gods.

Idols who convince people that sacrifice— payment— must be made; therefore, this must be happening to me because of that thing I did (or didn’t do). 

God must’ve taken Sylvia because of…

And that’s why it’s important that we pay attention to today’s text from the Book of Hebrews. 

There, Jesus declares that God wants not sacrifice, but a body. 

The body that God has prepared for Jesus. 

The Body of Christ. 

A people who are holy, Hebrews says. 

Different. 

Different enough from the world to assure Sylvia’s mother and father, as we did yesterday, that “the True and Living God does not deal in death, for Death is God’s Enemy.”

They were wearing t-shirts with Sylvia’s picture on the chest. 

They were all wearing t-shirts with her picture emblazoned on the front

“Nor does the God of Jesus take from us to make good on our debts,” I promised them, “God did not, God could not, God would never take her from you, for the empty grave reveals once for all that God’s grace is a gift that exceeds every debt and the promise of the Gospel is that in the fullness of time every good gift will be given back.”

And, even though they were sobbing, they nodded their heads. 

Like Abraham before them, they’d passed the test. 

“If you take nationalism out of the equation for a lot of Trump supporting Christians, than there’d be a mass exodus from the church next Sunday.”

Donald Trump, a thrice-married, no-need-of-forgiveness, blustery billionaire who rarely goes to church, won more Evangelical Christian votes than any candidate in history on his way to winning the 2016 US presidential election. Veteran journalist Angela Denker set out to uncover why, traveling the United States for a year, meeting the people who support Trump, and listening to their rationale.

In Red State Christians, readers will get an honest look at the Christians who gave the presidency to the unlikeliest candidate of all time. From booming, wealthy Orange County megachurches to libertarian farmers in Missouri to a church in Florida where the pastors carry guns to an Evangelical Arab American church in Houston to conservative Catholics on the East Coast–the picture she paints of them is enlightening, at times disturbing, but always empathetic. A must-read for those hoping to truly understand how Donald Trump became president.

Before you listen!

Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com. Click on Support the Show to become a Patreon. Or, click on swag and get your very own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt.

 

We’re working our way through the alphabet one stained-glass word at a time and we’re nearly done. Here’s the latest episode, the second part of our conversation about God’s name.

 

Genesis 6.11-22, 1 Peter 3.18-22

  Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest from Los Angeles. In 1986, having served in Bolivia, Father Boyle was appointed pastor of Delores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A. 

At the time, it was the poorest Catholic parish in the city, and surrounded by public housing projects.  The church was in the middle of a sea of gang violence. The parish had more gangs and gang activity than anywhere else in the country. Between 1986 and 1988, Father Boyle buried 294 victims of gang shootings, most of them kids. 

In 1988, Father Boyle and members of his church decided to do something about the flood of young deaths around them. They established an alternative school, since most gang members had exhausted all their opportunities in the public system. 

They started a day care program to help keep kids off the streets. They started a jobs training program to give gang members an option to a different lifestyle. 

And then, because so few businesses were willing to hire former gang members, they started their own social enterprise business, “Homeboy Bakery.” 

Homeboy Bakery has since grown to become Homeboy Industries, and it’s the largest and most effective gang rehabilitation program in the world. 

They help ten thousand men and women each year overcome the violence of their past, find forgiveness and healing, and train them for a different future for themselves. 

I heard Father Boyle share a story about a former gang member named, “Jose.” 

“Jose works at Homeboy and one day,” Father Boyle said, “he knocked on my office door and came in looking oddly at rest, reposed.”

“My father died,” Jose said. “And I just found out.”

“Jose’s father had been deported to Mexico twenty years ago,” Father said, “Jose hadn’t seen or talked to his Father in all that time.”

But a couple of days before he learned his Father died, Jose called his father, because he learned his Father was dying of cancer.”

And then, in relaying the story, Father Boyle filled in the back story. 

“When Jose and his twin brother were eleven,” he said, “They’d made a pact with each other. They’d promised, “When our father comes home tonight drunk and starts to beat on our mother, let’s stop him. Let’s protect her.’”

Predictably, Jose’s father came home drunk and soon became violent, and Jose and his brother, just little guys, jumped on their Dad’s back, knocking him down to the floor, and then they climbed on top of him, pinning him down. 

After the initial daze, Jose’s father threw them loose of him. 

Then, he beat both of them. He dragged them out of the house by their hair. He threw them into the street. 

And then he screamed at them, “I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”

They were eleven-year-old boys. 

And they never went home, again. 

They lived in a park a few miles away. 

“There was a big trashcan in the park,” Father Boyle said, “and at night Jose would pull the bag out of the can and tilt the can on its side, and he and his brother would slide inside it and rest in each other’s arms.”

Jose and his brother sold drugs to survive. They got caught up in a gang and spent half of their ensuing life in prison. 

“But one day Jose knocks on my door,” Father Boyle said, “and after telling me his dad just died, he tells me he’d called his father a couple of days earlier.” 

“I heard he was dying,” he told me with these big tears in his eyes.

“I heard he was dying, so I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him. I forgive him for everything, all of it.”

“And again,” Father Boyle said, “He looked so at rest as he told me about forgiving his father.”

Here’s my question—

Which of the two is more like God?

Who’s the better image of the Almighty?

Jose, who forgives the evil done to him?

Or his father, who beat him and then blotted him out of his life forever?

Is God the Father like Jose’s father? 

It sure sounds like it. 

Just four chapters, just one Bible page, after declaring everything “Very Good,” God declares:

“I will blot from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

“I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”

It sounds like Jose’s father. 

And it doesn’t sound like the Son, like Jesus. 

The ancient Christians had a catch-phrase they used to think about God. 

In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra; that is, who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ (opus ad extra) God is eternally in himself (opus ad intra). 

There is no contradiction between the two.

If the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel— God with us— and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must have always been so. 

Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son. 

If God is Trinity, by definition, God has always been Trinity. 

Which is to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. 

There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus, and there never will be a time when God is not like Jesus. 

God doesn’t drown you for your sins one day but die to your sins on another day. 

The Father and the Son are one. 

But again, God the Father sure doesn’t sound like God the Son here today in Jose’s story. 

The word in Hebrew is mabbul. 

The English word flood doesn’t really capture what the story wants you to see. Mabbul refers to Creation’s architecture as the ancients understood it, where a protective shield above the earth and a protective shield below the earth— the firmament— held back an infinite ocean of water, protecting Creation. 

“In the beginning God swept across the dark waters,” we pray at baptism. 

God pushed back the dark waters and then held them at bay with the firmament. 

And so, that Hebrew word mabbul— it isn’t simply a lot of rain. 

It’s literally God taking a hands-off approach to Creation and walking away and letting the primeval ocean pour in and drown all that he’d made. 

It seems unfair to all the animals considering that none of them can be guilty of the crime for which God condemns them. 

Animals cannot have evil in their hearts. And more tragic than the animals, what about the babies? 

Don’t forget, in the Genesis story this is nine generations and one thousand years after Adam. 

Eve’s offspring has been fruitful and multiplied. 

What about the babies that God throws out with the bathwater? 

Infants cannot commit violence and so they cannot be blamed for it. 

And isn’t it evil to visit violence upon a vulnerable child? 

And isn’t that exactly what this God does here on a global scale? 

And would it be any more justifiable if there had been only a single newborn in Noah’s day? 

“The water covered the peaks of the highest mountains,” Genesis says. This isn’t local news; it’s an ecological apocalypse. 

Thanos only killed 50% of the population, and, just in case you haven’t seen the Avengers movie, Thanos is the villain. Yet, Thanos is even more merciful. Thanos just snaps his fingers and half of everything disappears. 

But God does it slow. 

Drip, drip, drip. 

A slow, soggy holocaust.

Notice— 7.1:

Noah doesn’t even know why he’s building the ark until he’s finished it and God tells him to get on it with his family. 

God doesn’t even trust Noah to close the door behind him; God shuts the door behind him. 

Why?

Because Noah would be tempted to rescue others?

Which is to say, because Noah is more merciful than God?

And what sort of god is this anyway?

He changed his mind?!

But God, by definition, can’t change. 

God is immutable. 

“God is the same,” Scripture says, “Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” because God is without beginning or end.

He changed his mind? 

He got so upset he decided to waterboard all of creation? 

That doesn’t sound like the capitol-G God. 

That doesn’t sound like the Father whose fullness is the self-offering, enemy-loving, peace-declaring, cheek-turning, sin-forgiving Son. 

Jesus Christ, the Book of Hebrews declares, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” 

Jesus Christ is of “one substance with the Father” the Nicene Creed confesses, as light is from light. 

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

Okay, so where is the God who looks like Jesus here?

Because this god— admit it— sounds more like a pagan god. 

It turns out—

In order to find the God who is Jesus Christ in this story, you have to know how this story is different. 

You have to know what makes this story different because— pay attention, now— this story of the flood is not unique.

And you have to know a date, 587 BCE. 

That’s the 9/11 of the Bible. 

That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the temple and left the promised land in smoldering ruins as they marched God’s chosen people back to Babylon in chains, where they were sorely tempted to believe the violence visited upon them was the vengeance of a holy God, that God was punishing them for their sins.

Exiled in Babylon, the Israelites learned a story told by their captors. 

A scripture story, the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

See if it sounds familiar:

The “great gods,” seeing the sorry state of mankind, planned to cause a great flood upon the earth. 

The gods swore one another to secrecy about the destruction they would send upon mortals. 

But the god Ea breaks their secret, whispering the news through a reed wall to a mortal whose name means, “He Who Saw Death.”

Ea commands the mortal to demolish his house and build— you guessed it— an ark.

So, the mortal and his workmen construct an ark with six decks and nine compartments and a hull 120 cubits on each side. 

When they finish the ark, the mortal loads his silver and gold into the ark, along with his family and his workers and all the beasts and animals of the earth. 

And then the thunder god rumbles and the storm gods converge and the lightening god flashes, shattering the dry land like a clay pot, and then the torrent of rain falls. 

The rains last six days and six nights. 

On the seventh day, “He Who Saw Death” releases a dove to search for land, but the dove flies back to the boat. He releases a swallow, but it comes back. Finally, he releases a raven, and it does not return. 

After he exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice and the aroma of the offering pleases the gods and they swarm to the source of the scent where they discover some mortals have survived. 

The god Enli becomes enraged, “How do these mortals live? No one was supposed to survive our annhilation.”

The ark and the animals, the flood and the reason for it— it’s all the same. 

Notice though what’s different—

The rainbow.

There’s no rainbow. 

At the end of the Noah story, after Noah offers a sacrifice and the aroma is pleasing to the Lord, God sets a rainbow in the clouds (literally, God hangs up his anger) as a sign of God’s promise never again to destroy his creatures because of their sins. 

You see what Israel did, right?

When they were prisoners and slaves in a foreign land (not the Promised Land); when their temple had been razed and their homes destroyed and all the promises God had made them (to be their God no matter what) seemed broken beyond repair; when they had every reason to believe that God was punishing them for their sins, for their unfaithfulness, for not holding up their end of the covenant, they take Babylon’s story of the flood. 

A story with gods just like that— angry, wrathful, fickle gods, gods who mete out their vengeance with violence, gods who dole out what we deserve. 

They take Babylon’s story of the flood, and they stick a rainbow on it at the end. 

“I’m not like that anymore,” God promises to Israel. 

Which is Israel’s way of saying that the true God has never been like that. 

And maybe that’s why Israel changed not only the ending to Babylon’s story, they changed the name of the arkbuilder too. 

From, “He Who Saw Death,” to “Noah.”

Which means rest.  

Comfort.

“I heard he was dying,” Jose told Father Boyle. “So I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him.”

“And then out of the blue,” Father Boyle said, “out of the blue Jose suddenly shifts gears and he says to me: “You know something, Father, I’m really enjoying the person I’m becoming here, like I’ve never enjoyed anything else in my life.”

“That’s a good feeling, isn’t it?” Father Boyle asked.

“Oh God, it’s the best feeling in the world” Jose replied. 

Unpacking what Jose had told him just then, Father Boyle explained, “That’s the sound of someone inChrist.“

 

That’s it. 

That’s where Christ is in the story.

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

Christ is the ark. 

Christ is our ark. 

“That’s the sound of someone inChrist,” Father Boyle explained.  “That’s the sound of someone inside the ark of Christ’s Body, the Church, transporting him from his old life to a new one, where he can love, forgive himself, forgive those who’ve done him harm, and find a new identity.”

“Jose is working now,” Father Boyle added. “He has a lady friend— He has a reason to look towards his future. He’ll leave our program in 18 months, and the world will rage and storm all around him, but this time he won’t be swallowed up by it. The world and its troubles might toss him and to and fro, but he’s inside now. He’s safe, at rest in Christ, and he’ll be okay.”

Our guest today is Samson Turinawe. Samson is the Executive Director of the Universal Love Alliance, a grassroots organization in Uganda which advocates for LGBTQ people.

A Ugandan humanitarian, educator and human rights defender. He believes that “every human being should be respected simply for being who they are, a part of Life’s creation.” Tolerance, inclusiveness, love, compassion, dialogue and reconciliation are all central themes in his work. Through his teaching and activism, he emphasizes that “ignorance can be defeated through education, poverty through hard work and possession of capital, and internal schisms and separatism through unity. Samson is working for a new generation — one that is open-minded, open-hearted, diversity-embracing, and committed to serving all of humanity.

You can find out more about his work here.

And go to www.crackersandgrapcejuice.com to find other episodes and to support the show.

 

We recorded this so long ago I’d forgotten how funny he is in it:

What turns you on?

Lt. Nyota Uhura

What’s your least favorite word?

Donald Trump

What’s your favorite curse word?

Donald Trump

David Bentley Hart is back on the podcast to talk about his new book, which I can say is as irrefutable as it is controversial, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. It’s a slim book with a straightforward argument which I would commend to anyone.

Before you listen, while you listen, or after you listen go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on “Support the Show” to become a patreon (this stuff ain’t free for us, people!). If you do, we’ll send you a free “Incompatible with Christian Teaching” pint glass.

Or, you can click on “Swag” and get your own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt.

If you’re a cheap bastard, then just find us on Facebook or Twitter and share this episode and give us some love.

 

 


In Romans 8 Paul famously crescendos with the promise to the baptized: “There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

     But if nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then how is it good news that Paul, only six chapters later, tells the same audience: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God?” 

How do you square “…everyone will come before the judgement seat of God” with what Paul said four chapters earlier that “…everyone who confesses with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved.” 

     Which is it? Everyone will be judged? Or everyone will be saved?

     How does “…all will stand before the judgement seat of God…” square with chapter eleven where Paul said that all will be saved, that God will be merciful to all— even to those whom God has, for the present time, “consigned to disobedience?” 

     Judgement. Mercy. 

     Which is it, Paul? 

     It can’t be both/and can it? That everyone who confesses Jesus Christ will be saved and everyone will stand before the judgement seat of God? In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of God.” And you can’t dismiss this verse about judgement because the Apostle Paul here sounds like Jesus everywhere— all over the Gospels, Jesus warns of the Coming Day of Judgement. As in his final teaching before his Passion, Jesus promises that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, gathering all before him. 

Not some. 

All: 

unbelievers and believers 

unrighteous and righteous

the unbaptized and the born again 

    All— not some— all, Jesus says, will be gathered for judgement. 

    The “saved” are not spared.

     And all will be reckoned according to who fed the hungry and who gave water to the thirsty and who clothed the naked and who welcomed the immigrant. 

     And who did not.

     “All shall stand before God for judgement,” Paul says. 

     Just like Jesus said. 

     And according to Jesus’ Bible that reckoning will be a fire. 

So, like the first Christians and the early Church Fathers, hell yes I believe in hell.  

I just disbelieve in hell’s eternity and its retributive torment.

The fire of God’s judment, depicted by Michaelangelo and rhapsodized by Augustine and Calvin, is not the fire promised by the Bible.

The fire of God’s judgment, the Bible testifies, will be refining fire. 

The prophet Malachi, the last voice we hear between the testaments, says on the Day of the Lord our sinful self—- even if we’re “saved”— will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still clinging to our soul will be burnt away. 

     The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed. The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self- righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God who is a refining fire. 

     Keep in mind:

Purgation is not damnation. 

     Purgation is not damnation. 

     But neither is it pain free. 

The Gospel is not that God’s love and mercy are at odds with God’s justice; therefore, some— maybe many, to listen to some Christians— will be consigned to eternal torment. No, for a finite creature could never justly merit an infinite punishment. 

The Gospel is that in God, in his love and justice, is dragging all of sinful creation unto himself, and this means that prior to the Endyou will stand before the judgement seat of Almighty God, stripped and laid bare, all your disguises and your deceits revealed, naked wearing nothing but your true character, so that you can be fit for heaven. 

“The Gospels,” as David Bentley Hart writes, “simply make no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering.” And Gehenna, the child-sacrifice-site-turned-garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which gets translated into Jesus’ mouth as hell, was thought of in Jesus’ time principally “as a place of purification, a refining fire for the souls of those who have been neither incorrigibly wicked nor impeccably good during their lives,” who eventually, their penance due, would be released and taken up to paradise.”

Says Hart:

“The figure of Christ in the fourth gospel passes through the world as the light of eternity; he is already both judgment and salvation, disclosing hell in our hearts, but shat- tering it in his flesh, so that he may “drag” everyone to him- self. Some things then, perhaps, exist only in being surpassed, overcome, formed, redeemed: “pure nature” (that impossible possibility), “pure nothingness,” prime matter, ultimate loss. Hell appears in the shadow of the cross as what has always al- ready been conquered, as what Easter leaves in ruins, to which we may flee from the transfiguring light of God if we so wish, but where we can never finally come to rest—for, being only a shadow, it provides nothing to cling to (as Gregory of Nyssa so acutely observes). Hell exists, so long as it exists, only as the last terrible residue of a fallen creation’s enmity to God, the lin- gering effects of a condition of slavery that God has conquered universally in Christ and will ultimately conquer individually in every soul. This age has passed away already, however long it lingers on in its own aftermath, and thus in the Age to come, and beyond all ages, all shall come home to the Kingdom pre- pared for them from before the foundations of the world.”

We’ve been working our way through the alphabet one stained-glass word at a time, and this week Johanna leads us through a conversation on possibly the most important and elusive word of all, God’s name.

That God will be who and where God will be means there is no way to follow this God apart from the narrative and the narrative community in which this God has disclosed himself.

Here it is…

 

The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions, and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

One of the people in my constellation of memories is the theologian David Bentley Hart. My first theology teacher at the University of Virginia, he opened up to me a breadth and depth of Christian thinking that flummoxed me, captivated my imagination as a new Christian, and fortuitously set me on a different path than the one I had anticipated. Because I know his public reputation among some readers and critics is contrary, I should note that I have, over the years, found David Bentley Hart to be a warm, winsome, compassionate, and thoughtful mentor. He has been unfailing in following up to inquire about my health. He often ribs me good-naturedly about the deficiences of National League baseball and how my Washington Nationals would scarcely be more than a bottom feeding team in the AL. The passion of his prose and the ferocity of his humor stem from an authentic zeal for the good and the beautiful. He can be uncompromising with sloppy thinking because theology isn’t merely an academic abstraction but can and often does have monstrous consequences for how we conceive of God and our neighbors, especially the poor and the vulnerable. 

The person I am is literally inconceivable apart from him. He is a good example of how none of us are persons in isolation from others. 

My point:

We are who we’ve loved.

From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:

Hell for some would be hell for all.

If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

Such a hell would require of heaven an eternal lobotomy.

David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”

I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they fail to realize that the doctrine of creation is not merely an explanation of origins but is an eschatological claim, as concerned with our whither every bit as much as our whence. 

Precisely because that whence is sheer gift, the whither— if God is indeed Good— can only lead to one End, the One.

Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the  term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.

When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatioex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one— that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.

For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is.

To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.

Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though— really, because— Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.

Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.

Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.

As my first teacher David Bentley Hart argues:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”

God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. 

What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. 

It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. 

Perfection.

God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story.

Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. 

As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.

Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.

Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.

Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.

In creating ex nihilo, God makes himself our end as much as our beginning, the latter being wholly gratiutous makes the former entirely necessary— for all of us.

I’ve been reading a draft of David Bentley Hart’s new book, and towards the end he turns to the argument from “freedom.”

If it’s true that God consigns or consents his creatures to an eternal hell then, begs the question, is God evil?

Simply because God (allegedly) does it, doesn’t make it good or just or, even more importantly, beautiful. So we should muster up the stones to ask the obvious question to such a grim assertion: is God evil?

Our concepts of goodness, truth, and the beautiful, after all, emanate from God, who is the perfection of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; therefore, they participate in the Being of God and correspond to the character of God. Sin-impaired as we are, we can yet trust our God-given gut. Again then, the question— and forget that it’s God we’re talking about— is God evil?

If the calculus of God’s salvation balances out with a mighty, eternally-tormented, remainder, then is God the privation haunting the goodness of his own creation?

For some reason— I conclude from the three passionate arguments DBH’s provoked in the bakery yesterday— eternal hell is the cherished, sacrosanct doctrine of a good many Christians, clergy included, which, I confess, makes me wonder if the decline of the Church is a moral accomplishment. I frankly can’t think of a better descriptor than evil (or maybe monstrous) for a being who creates ex nihilo, out of love gratuitously for love’s sake, only to predestine or permit the eternal torment of some or many of his creatures for supposedly just ends (nevermind, as DBH points out, an eternal punishment, which is not purgative, cannot, by definition, be just. 

Grace is more grim than amazing if its constitutive of a being who declares “Let us make humanity in our image…” only to impose upon them an inherited guilt which leads inexorably, except for the finite ministrations of altar calls and evangelism, to eternal hell.

The inescapable moral contradictions and logical deficiencies of belief in an eternal hell require us to assert that God’s essence, his very nature, is secondary to his will. Something is good, then, not because it corresponds to the Goodness that is the nature of God, who can only do that which is Good because he is free and perfect to act unconstrained according to his nature. Rather, simply because God does it, it is good. In other words, it is good for God to consign scores to an eternal torment because God does it. Any sense of justice we have that would cause us to recoil is only a human category, such Christians speculate, and has no corollary in the character of God.

Which, of course, is utter bulls#$%.

A popular (and ostensibly more civilized) perspective on hell attempts to remove the nasty veneer by replacing God as the active agent of damnation.

Excusing God from culpability, which is but a tacit acknowledgement of hell’s Christian incoherence, many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to our human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity.

God does not consign creatures to Hell.

God, like the parentified child in an abusive family, merely consents to Hell.

God consents, so the argument goes, to the risk inherent in any loving relationship, which is the possibility that his creatures will reject his love and choose Hell over Him.

Despite its tempered, rational appearance, this is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s privileging of it, it sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage.

Captivity.

Slavery to Sin and Death.

The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks is that it employs an understanding of “freedom” that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear. The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom.

For the Church Fathers, indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is NOT freedom but a lack of freedom.

It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin not our liberty from it.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will. Freedom is not the ability to choose between several outcomes, indifferent to the moral good of those outcomes. In other words, freedom is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well.

You are most free when your will more nearly corresponds to God’s will.

Because we are made with God’s creative declaration in mind (“Let us make humanity in our image…”) the freedom God gives us is not unrestrained freedom or morally indifferent freedom. It is not the freedom to choose between an Apple or a Samsung nor the freedom to choose between Hell or Heaven.

The freedom with which God imbues us is teleological freedom; that is, our freedom is directed towards our God-desired End in God. As creatures, oriented towards the Good, our freedom is purposive. Freedom is our cooperating with the grain of the universe.

We’re free when we become more who we’re created to be.

As Irenaeus says, the glory of God is human being fully alive. Only a fully alive creature in God’s glory is truly free. Freedom, then, is not the ability to do what you want. Freedom is to want what God wants: communion with Father, Son, and Spirit. You are most free, Christians have ALWAYS argued, when your will becomes indistinct from God’s will.

“The will, of course, is ordered to that which is truly good. But if by reason of passion or some evil habit or disposition a man is turned away from that which is truly good, he acts slavishly, in that he is diverted by some extraneous thing, if we consider the natural orientation of the will,” writes Thomas Aquinas.

Christian grammar insists that you are most free when you no longer have any choice because your desire is indistinct from God’s desire. You’re willing and the Good are without contradiction. Nothing, no sin or ignorance, is holding you back. You’re no longer in bondage. Janis Joplin was nearly correct. Freedom is nothing left to lose choose.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart writes:

“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

And just in case you can’t connect the dots to perdition, he continues:

“It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”

The creature that chooses not to enter into God’s beatitude is by definition not a free creature but captive.

Captive still to sin.

If it’s true that we can choose Hell rather than God, forever so, then for those who do Christ is not their Redeemer. And if not, then he was not. If not for them, then not for any of us and the god who purportedly took flesh inside him for the redemption of ALL captives is a liar and maybe a monster. 

In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.

“Authentic Pauline Christianity always stands on the precipice of heresy…”

– Karl Barth, Introduction to Romans, 2nd Edition

Beverly Gaventa is back on the podcast to talk about Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the 100th Anniversary of Karl Barth’s commentary on it. Formerly of Princeton, Dr. Gaventa is a professor of New Testament at Baylor Univesity and is the author of When in Romans, which is now available in paperback.

Check out her lecture on Barth and Romans from Princeton’s 2019 Barth Conference: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=p4-r_vUsvEc

Don’t forget! Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on SWAG to get your own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt. Or, click “Support the Show” to become a patron of the podcast and receive a free “Incompatible with Christian Teaching” pint glass.

All Shall Be Saved

Jason Micheli —  September 5, 2019 — 2 Comments

I’ve been reading a review copy of David Bentley Hart’s latest book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. I’m prejudiced in favor of it; David was my first theology teacher at UVA. His influence upon me, not long after I became a Christian, has abided and may prove permanent.

If nothing else, DBH’s new book will give Christians permission to return to the New Testament and see, maybe for the first time, that which it names quite clearly: that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4

Apparently, to many who worship the God who just is Love, to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.

It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 4 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.

47 vs. 4

What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.

A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence DBH argues that the logic of the Gospel requires us to say more.

If God desires the salvation of all, he argues rather irrefutably, it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.

The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.

Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.

Consider the counter:

If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.

Evil would God.

Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.

It’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include our enemies too.

To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32

It’s All Christophany

Jason Micheli —  September 2, 2019 — 1 Comment

Luke 24.13-28

Sunday, we kicked off a year-long sermon series through scripture called the Jesus Story Year.

“Jesus Christ [not the Bible] is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death…Jesus Christ is God’s vigorous announcement of God’s claim upon our whole life.”

Those lines constitute the opening salvo of the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of Faith written by the pastor and theologian Karl Barth in 1934 on behalf of the dwindling minority of Christians in Germany who publicy repudiated the Third Reich. 

Barth wrote the whole document while his colleagues slept off their lunchtime booze.

“We reject the false doctrine,” Barth wrote, “that there could be areas of our life in which we do not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords…With both its faith and its obedience, the Church must testify that it belongs to and obeys Christ alone.”

I studied Karl Barth at Princeton. My teacher, George Hunsinger, had a thick, white beard and reading glasses perched at the end of his nose. A photograph of Karl Barth laughing with Martin Luther King Jr. hung in his office. The picture captured Barth’s first and only visit to the United States. 

I remember we were discussing Barth’s Barmen Declaration in class, and Dr. Hunsinger, uncharacteristically, broke from his lecture and took off his reading glasses. His jovial countenance turned serious, and he said, seemingly at random though not random at all, “just outside the Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria, immediately outside the walls of the camp, there was and still is a Christian church.” 

It was an 8:00 class but suddenly no one was fighting off a yawn.

“Just imagine,” he said, “the prison guards and the commandant at that concentration camp probably went to that church on Sundays. They confessed their sins and received the assurance of pardon and prayed to the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ there, and then they walked out of the church and went back to the camp and killed scores of Jews not thinking it in any way contradicting their calling themselves Christians.”

“How does that work?” someone joked, trying to take the edge off. 

“It happens,” he replied, “when you reduce the Gospel to forgiveness and you evict Jesus Christ from every place but the privacy of your heart.”

His righteous anger was like an ember warming inside him. 

“Whenever you read Karl Barth,” the professor told us,” think of that church on the edge of the concentration camp. Think of the pews filled with Christians and the ovens filled with innocents and then think about what it means to call Jesus Lord.” 

Notice—

Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, they’re not unawares. 

They’ve  heard the Easter news. They’ve heard from the women who dropped their embalming fluid and fled to tell it. They’ve heard from Peter. They’ve heard that the tomb is empty.

And yet—

Having heard that Death has been defeated, having heard that the Power of Sin has been conquered, and having heard that self-giving, cheek-turning, cruciform love has been vindicated from the grave, our moral imagination is so impoverished that the first Easter Sunday isn’t even over and here we are (in these two disciples) walking back home as if the world is the same as it ever was and we can get back to our lives as knew them.

They’ve heard the Easter news, yet these two disciples still make two common mistakes— two common reductions— in how they understand Jesus. 

“Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God,” they tell the stranger (who is Christ). True enough, but not sufficient. 

“We had hoped he would be the one to liberate Israel,” they tell him, “we had hoped he was the revolutionary who would finally free us from our oppressors.” Again, their answers aren’t wrong; their answers just aren’t big enough.”

It’s not until this stranger breaks bread before them that their eyes are opened and they run— in the dark of night, eight miles to Emmaus, they run— to go and tell the disciples what they’ve learned. 

And when they get there, after the Risen Jesus has taught them the Bible study to end all Bible studies— what have the learned? 

They don’t call Jesus a prophet. 

They don’t dash after the disciples to report “God has raised Jesus, the prophet, from the dead.”

They don’t call Jesus a liberator. 

They don’t run to Peter and say “Jesus the revolutionary has been resurrected.”

They don’t even call him a savior or a substitute. 

They don’t dash after the disciples to report, “The Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world has come back.”

No, after the Risen Jesus interprets Moses and the prophets for them (ie, the Old Testament; ie, the only Bible they knew) they take off to herald the return of Jesus the kurios. 

They confess their faith in Jesus as kurios.

“The kurios is risen indeed!” they proclaim to Peter. 

Luke book-ends his Gospel with that inconviently all-encompassing word kurios. 

The whole entire Bible, Jesus has apparently taught these two, testifies to how this crucified Jewish carpenter from Nazareth is the kurios who demands our faith. 

Kurios. 

Lord.

The word we translate into English as faith is the word pistis in the Greek of the New Testament. And pistis has a range of meanings. Pistis can mean confidence or trust. It can mean conviction, belief, or assurance. And those are the connotations we normally associate with the English word faith. 

In Christ alone by grace through trust alone. 

Through belief alone, is how we hear it.

But— here’s the rub— pistis also means fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, obedience. 

Or, allegiance. 

Allegiance. 

Now, keep in mind that the very first Christian creedwas “Jesus is kurios” and you tell me which is the likeliest definition for pistis. 

So how did we go from faith-as-obedience to faith-as-belief?

How did get from faith-as-allegiance to faith-as-trust?

I’m glad you asked.

When Luke wrote his Gospel and when Paul wrote his epistles, Christianity was an odd and tiny community amidst an empire antithetical to it. 

Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

Back then—

Baptism was not a cute christening. 

Baptism was not a sentimental dedication. 

Baptism was not a blessing, a way to baptize the life you would’ve lived anyway. 

Back then, to be baptized as a Christian was a radical coming out. It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation and a rethinking of everything that had come before.

To profess that “Jesus is Lord” was to protest that “Caesar is not Lord.”

The affirmation of one requires the reununciation of the other. 

Which is why, in Luke’s day and for centuries after, when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. 

By a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. 

Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits. 

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world. 

And the first Christians weren’t bullshitting. 

For example, if you were a gladiator, baptism meant that you renounced your career and got yourself a new one.

Then, having left the old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus the kurios and everything your new way of life as a disciple would demand. 

And the first Christians— they walked the Jesus talk of their baptismal pledge.

For example, Christians quickly became known— before almost anything else— in the Roman Empire for rescuing the unwanted, infirm babies that pagans would abandon to die in the fields. 

Baptism wasn’t an outward and visible sign of your inward and invisible trust. 

Quite the opposite.

Baptism was your public pledge of allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, there’s a reason.

A few hundred years after Luke wrote his Gospel and Paul wrote his letters, the kurios of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Roman Empire Christian too. 

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian. 

After Constantine, now that the empire was allegedly Christian, the ways of the world ostensibly got baptized; consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. 

Constantine is the reason why whenever you hear Jesus say “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s” it doesn’t occur to you that Jesus is being sarcastic. 

What had been an alternative way in the world became, with Constantine, a religion that awaited the world to come. 

Jesus was demoted from the kurios, who is seated at the right hand of the Father and to whom has been given all authority over the Earth, and Jesus was given instead the position of Secretary of Afterlife Affairs. 

Which meant pistis eventually became synonymous with trust.

Faith moved inside, to our heads and hearts, from embodiment to belief.

I apologize for the historical detour, but I figure if you’re such an over-acheiver that you come to church on Labor Day weekend then you ought to be able to handle it.  

I want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with the kurios called Constantine that makes it difficult for us to hear rightly when we hear Cleopas call Jesus Lord. 

It’s this difficulty that leads to us confusing faith with belief, making pistis private, and reducing the Gospel to after life affairs. 

It’s this shift that happens with the kurios called Constantine that produces nonsensical rubbish like the statement “I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.” 

Walking along the way to Emmaus, Luke reports that the Risen Christ “interpreted to [Cleopas and the other disciple] all the things about himself in all of the scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets.” 

Straight out of the grave, what Jesus wants his disciples to know is that the whole Bible is about him. 

The Apostle Paul registers the same claim in his letter to the Romans when he declares that “Jesus Christ is the telos of the Law.” 

Telos means end; as in, aim or goal. 

Christ is the telos of the Torah, Paul writes. 

The Bible is about me, Jesus says today. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning of the Bible and the end, from the first page to the last page. 

It’s all Christophany. 

It’s all an epiphany of Christ. 

It’s not “The Old Testament is over here and the New Testament is over here and the two are radically distinct from one another.” 

No, that’s called heresy. 

All of it— it’s purpose, Jesus teaches today— is to reveal Jesus Christ to us, to apprentice us under Jesus Christ. 

Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People— all of it— telegraphs the way of Christ.

All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? 

They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

“Eye for an eye?” 

In a world of wildly disproportionate justice, “eye for an eye” was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

God forbade his People to make graven images because the Father has no visible image but the eternal Son who would take flesh and dwell among us. 

Christ is the telos of the Bible, Paul says. 

Everything in the Bible telegraphs the way of Christ.

God’s People wandered as refugees and aliens in a foreign land in order to make ready a People capable of Christ’s command to welcome the foreigners in their own land. 

God disciplined his People Israel to love neighbor as though the neighbor was God; so that, in Jesus Christ there might be a People schooled to love their enemy, for such a People— a people who’re trained to love their enemy— can never rightly call the Constantines of our world kurios.

After the professor told us about the church at the edge of the concentration camp, he told us about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in the hills of southern France. 

Around the same time Karl Barth was drafting his call to Christian resistance, Andre Trocme became the town’s pastor. In 1940, after the fall of France, Jewish refugees began arriving by the hundreds in Le Chambon seeking sanctuary. 

Without so much as a discussion or debate, Trocme and his parishioners began taking them into their homes and barns and, whenever German soldiers showed up, hiding them up in the mountains. 

Still more refugees arrived as word among the Jews spread that this was a community whose only Fuhrer was Jesus Christ. 

The villagers of Le Chambon did not decide that their home would become a haven for refugees. They did not cast themselves in the role of rescuers. 

In the process of obeying Jesus Christ, they simply now found themselves with refugees before them. 

Villagers later told a biographer they believed that having suffered under three centuries of Catholic persecution they’d developed “the habit of quietly refusing to dilute the claims the faith makes upon us.” 

“The Bible tells the story of Jesus,” one village woman explained, “and the story of Jesus reveals God’s way in the world so it would be self-destructive to live according to any other way, wouldn’t it? What the refugees asked of us was no different than what we had always done— abide with Jesus.”

Once, in February 1943, Nazi police arrived to arrest the pastor and some of his parishioners. The police officers sat in a villager’s living room waiting for the would-be prisoners to go fetch their suitcases. 

The woman in whose house they waited invited the policemen to join her at her dinner table— despite the fact that Jews were hiding upstairs in her bedroom. 

When asked by a biographer how she could be so hospitable to enemies who were there to take her husband away, perhaps to his death, the woman, Magda, replied: 

“It was dinner time…the food was ready…how could I not invite them to eat with me? Don’t use such foolish words as “forgiving” and “good” with me. Inviting strangers and enemies to supper is just the normal thing to do if Jesus is Lord.”

As the pastor, Andre Trocme, taught a men’s circle, all of whom harbored Jews in their homes, “If Jesus Christ is not only Lord but the one “by whom all things were made” then this life isn’t so much what Christ demands. It’s the life Christ has designed for all of us.”

Faith is a trust that takes the form of allegiance— lived out loyalty, embodied belief— not because we could ever measure up to the example of Christ, not because we’ll be graded on the quality of our performance, but because if Jesus Christ is the kurios “by whom all things are made” then the life of Jesus reveals the grain of the universe, and a beautiful life will be yielded by no other pattern.

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You might think advocating for immigrants and refugees and against racism would be lonely work in the Southern Baptist Church. Turns out…it is. Our guest for the latest episode of C&GJ is Alan Cross. Alan is a Southern Baptist pastor from Alabama and currently ministering in California. A frequent contributor to publications, he’s the author of the book When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus.

When Heaven and Earth Collide is an investigation into what went wrong in the American South in regard to race and religion—and how things can be and are being made right. Why, in a land filled with Christian churches, was there such racial oppression and division? Why didn’t white evangelicals do more to bring racial reconciliation to the South during the 19th and 20th centuries? These questions are asked and answered through an exploration of history, politics, economics, philosophy, and social and theological studies that uncovers the hidden impetus behind racism and demonstrates how we can still make many of the same errors today—just perhaps in different ways. The investigation finally leads us in hopeful directions involving how to live out the better way of Jesus with an eye on heaven in a world still burdened and broken under the sins of the past.

Before you listen…head to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com. If you become a patron of the podast, we’ll send you a free “Incompatible with Christian Teaching” pint glass. You can also order your very own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt.