Here’s Episode #8 of the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast. Thanks for the time, patience, and encouragement you’ve given us. We’ve already we’ve hit a regular diaspora of listeners that would put us among the largest of United Methodist Churches.

r-S93UWAIn this installment, Teer and I talked with my (web)friend Todd Littleton. Todd is Baptist minister in Oklahoma but in spite of that fact is a thoughtful, kind man. He also produces the Patheological Podcast, a series of conversations geared towards the ‘pastor-theologian.’ I first ‘met’ Todd when he reached out to me during my struggle with cancer to give me encouragement and to thank me for my blog. God and, I suppose, the internet work in mysterious ways, for I’ve never met Todd in the flesh but I count him a friend in a way that strikes me as thoroughly incarnational.

Look for our glass-ceiling breaking episode with Fleming Rutledge later in the week and the first installment of our conversation with NT Wright. We’ve got Stanley Hauerwas, David Bentley Hart, Diana Butler Bass, and Scot McKnight in the pipeline too.

Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this podcast, so spread the love. Here’s how you can help:

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

I’m closing in on my 11th year of serving this particular congregation and more so every day I’m convinced there is fruit in ministry that only becomes possible with a longer measure of time.

For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 30 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their baptisms and from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 11 years ago are now in the midst of starting their careers and have since blossomed into adults.

These are all blessings only made possible by the patience and passage of time, blessings our Methodist system of itinerancy rarely affords pastors.

Yet of all those, one such example is at the fore of my thoughts tonight.

Last week I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a woman whom, for several years several years ago, I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless her heart.’

Today Shirley died.

And like Jesus, I wept.

I don’t cry over most deaths. When you’re a pastor, you get used to death, coming home so often as you do with blood on your clothes. I cried over.

I can be honest about the rough edges of our relationship because to pretend otherwise would be to dishonor the grace-filled trajectory of our relationship ultimately took.

She was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in hers. She was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ She was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, was insufficiently enamored with John Wesley (true), couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of her church…”bless her heart.”

My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.

She has the distinction of being the first parishioner in this particular parish to point a shaky finger at me in frustration and then storm out of my office, slamming the door so hard it knocked my Karl Barth portrait off the bookcase.

And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from her.

Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something after the first few years changed between us. She first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.

She then started earnestly to listen and read my sermons, stealing them from the pulpit lectern (sometimes before I’d preached…teaching me to have a spare copy handy) and concluded that even I’m not Billy Graham I’m not without some gospel IQ. Comments on my blog followed after.

When we adopted our first child, she was the first person to articulate that adoption is the first form of Christian life, and thus natural, making her one of the only people not to ask us when we were going to have kids of our ‘own.’

She was the first person in the congregation to call me when I was in the hospital last year to tell me she loved me. And when I went to see her this week last in the nursing home in Richmond, she said it to me again. Weak, emaciated and slightly agitated, she smiled when she saw me. She grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

Pulling me close, with her only eye that would open on me, she asked said the same thing to me: ‘I love you.’

(* If I was in a different temper I’d insert a diatribe here about how our United Methodist system of itinerancy actively prevents moments like this, moving pastors before relationships can come full circle, but that’s a grouse for another day.)

I sat there quietly amazed that 10 1/2 years ago I was about the last person she would’ve wanted next to her in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been.

It would take me a while to track back through all the deaths and burials I’ve been a part of since I started out in my little parish back in Princeton. Whatever the number, it’s a lot. Children, parents, men no older than me. They cover the gamut from tragic to the welcome blessed rest, with some well-loved congregants sprinkled in along the way.

Seldom, if ever, has a death hit me the way as has this one.

I’m not quite sure what’s behind this effect.

Is it that I saw in her someone much like myself, someone who as Martin Luther described was ‘at once sinner and justified?’

Is it that, in both the good and the bad, there was absolutely no pretense about our relationship- something that can be rare in congregations?

Is it that she (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?

Is it that with her I’d experienced both how petty church politics can be but also how easily such pettiness pass into irrelevance if we let it?

Probably, I suspect, it’s a little of all the above which is but another way of saying:

‘Shirley was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.

And though the me from 11 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss her like family. I used to joke, derisively, that she was like my mother. Now that she’s gone though I think that’s exactly right. With whom but your mother can you have a complicated, sometimes difficult, but ultimately life-giving relationship?

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024-683x1024.jpgFor the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

21. What does it mean to proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead?       

Resurrection means vindication.

By raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicate’s Christ’s vision of and fidelity to the Kingdom of God.

When we profess that God resurrected Jesus from the dead, we mean that God declared with the rumbling of the earth and a verdict as loud as an empty tomb that Jesus is the life God intended for us from the very beginning.

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom. He doesn’t repay evil with evil on his way to Calvary. He turns the other cheek all the way to the cross and, from the cross, he forgives his enemies and even prays for them with his dying breath. The empty grave shows God’s confirmation of Jesus’ Kingdom teaching. God’s vindication of Jesus.

“But God raised him up, having freed him from death,*because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” – Acts 2.24

22. Do We Have to Believe in a Literal Resurrection?

No.

Not unless you’re a Christian.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then there’s nothing transformative and death-defeating about his teaching. It just got Jesus killed. Death had the last word (and still does). If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then God did not vindicate Jesus’ way of life.

Apart from the vindication of Easter, there’s nothing special about Jesus’ teachings. They lead only to crosses, and corroborate the rumor that true power lies with the cross-builders of the world not with the cross-bearers.

 

“If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and our faith is futile.”  – 1 Corinthians 15.14

Crackers & Grape Juice 2We’re only on Episode #7 of the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast and already we’ve hit a regular diaspora of listeners that would put us among the largest of United Methodist Churches.

In this installment, intentional mentor that I am, I delegated Teer to talk with my friend Tony Jones. Not only is Tony the editor of my forthcoming book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, he is the author of many books himself, including last year’s phenomenal Did God Kill Jesus? which comes out in paperwork soon. I first “met” Tony when he was finishing his PhD at Princeton and I was a lonely MDiv student working in the mailroom. I still have the muscle memory to place Tony’s Field and Stream in his box without looking.

photoListen up. Tony’s a good dude, who does good theology and cares about the Church. Here, Teer and he talk about the United Methodist General Conference, the Cross, manipulative preaching, and how cancer is the perfect drop the mic excuse.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this shit, so spread the love.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

GC2016-logo-color-hi-resWatching the live stream and Twitter feeds of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference this week, I had to pinch myself to remember that I wasn’t binging House of Cards. What’s become apparent over the last few days of General Conference is that the United in United Methodist Church is every bit the false advertising our tag line proffers (Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Something).

See: this story

The predatory parliamentary proceedings, however addictive, have not left me incredulous. Let’s not forget, the United Methodist Church has been united for only a generation and that institutional unity was itself the fruit of a century’s long process of reconciling the divisions wrought by the slavery debate. Ever the trend setters, Methodists split before the nation did in the Civil War and we reunited long after reconstruction. That this ‘unity’ lurks in our not too distant past should serve as a caveat to the United Methodist Church today which is fixed at an impasse over the question of homosexuality. On the one hand, we should not be too hyperbolic in how we laud the supposed unity of our connection; on the other, we should be cautious about again dividing our Church over an issue that will in a generation or more be a head scratching embarrassment to our ecclesial heirs.

The Church after all is not a mutually agreed upon confederacy from which we can uncouple ourselves when it suits our read of the situation. When the Church uses the word ‘unity’ we do not intend- well, we should not intend- the same meaning as the nation does by the United States.

When Christians use the word ‘unity’ we refer firstly to the unity of God, to the triune life of Father, Son, and Spirit in whom there is both difference and harmony, particularity and peace.

This unity is ontological; that is, it is the ground of Being itself. It is the very grain of God’s universe. It reflects the reality of who God is; it is not the result of Roberts Rules of Order.

When Christians use the word ‘unity,’ we mean the unity of the 3-Personed God; therefore, for Christians unity is always a gift of God for its the fruit of the God whose immanent life is marked by a constancy of gift and exchange. Whereas unity, in the Christian sense, might appear mysterious, abstract, or elusive, disunity in the Christian world is not so at all.

Disunity, as the proceedings at General Conference have exemplified, is not equivalent to diversity. Nor is it the same thing as sin though, as Herbert McCabe argues, disunity is connected to both diversity and sin.

Our divisions in the United Methodist Church do not arise from Christians failing to follow Christ fully.

Our divisions derive from Christians so fully following, in their way, their commitment to Christ that they become blind- willfully so, I’d say after so many iterations of the same debate- to the faithful following of others.

In striving to be faithful to the authority of scripture, say, or in striving to be faithful to Christ’s gracious inclusion of all, we discover that we’re divided.

Those proposing a moderate, ‘third way’ solution appear to want to ameliorate these divisions with a euphemism. Diversity. Needing my pension and my health insurance as I do, I’d like it to be true. Diversity, as Paul teaches, is a good and needful characteristic of the Church, but I’m not sure the indictments and mistrust I see splayed out in 140 characters on my Twitter feed are analogous to Paul’s eye // ear illustration.

Diversity reflects the creative intent of the Creator.

Division happens when faithful people become so fixed with their own way of following that they lose sight of their more fundamental ontological unity. Or, more nearer to the matter, they become so fixed in their way of following that they discover that the other has lost sight of their more fundamental unity– lost sight of, the indictments always go, God.

When such divisions emerge, the temptation is to disavow diversity. To demand uniformity. Of belief. In practice. This is a move, McCabe argues, towards sin. The real sin in our disunity is not what happened in the past that we’ve inherited; it’s what’s happening now, in the present, in our (intractable) failure to heal the divisions between people who are, on both sides, only concerned, intensely so, for the truth of the gospel as they apprehend it.

What’s so sad about what I see at General Conference is that the divisions of good people are leading inexorably, not by malice but by well-intentioned folly, to yet another division. Which is but another denial of the one Spirit into which all of us, liberal and conservative, were baptized.

rp_GC2016-logo-color-hi-res-1024x550.jpgWith Rev. Tom Berlin.

See, what fledgling United Methodist centric podcast serves you like we do?

Morgan Guyton, part of our Crackers and Grape Juice triumvirate, crashed General Conference in Portland, Oregon this week. General Conference is the event wherein Methodist delegates from around the globe gather every four years to indict one another’s intractable views on homosexuality.

In this special edition podcast, Morgan sat down with Rev. Tom Berlin, one of the Virginia Church’s candidates for bishop, to talk about Rule 44, Homosexuality, and whether it’s time for progressive pastors to start a new Wesleyan denomination.

It’s bare bones, no pithy intro, no Clay Mottley lead-in music, but the content is worth your patience and time.

Be on the lookout later this week or early next for our recent episode with Church Proctologist and author of Did God Kill Jesus? Tony Jones.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

We do this for even less money than we get paid to be pastors, so spread the love.

We’d love for you to give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

 

 

Holy-Spirit-1024x682This weekend Christians celebrated Pentecost, a climactic Christian holy day rendered bland and uninteresting by the propensity to refer to it as the ‘Church’s Birthday.’

Pentecost marks the promised arrival outpouring of the Holy Spirit who in fact has been active throughout the disciples’ time with Jesus.

 

 

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and of the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

That’s all the little Latin word, filioque, means ‘…and of the Son.’

A millennia ago the Son’s universal Church split in two (Western, i.e. Catholic and Eastern, i.e. Orthodox) over the rightness of that little Latin word. To this day the Orthodox insist that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father just as the Son whereas Catholics and the Protestants they spawned argue the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.

The_Holy_Trinity

 

Were it not for this theological impasse the Catholic Church might today have married priests with thick beards and off the charts testosterone.

Celibacy seems a stiff (no pun intended) price to pay so it’s worth wondering: which perspective is the better one?

I use to think the Eastern- which is the original- view was soundest. After all, to confess that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I and my Eastern brothers and sisters are correct, or rather I wonder if there’s not another worry on the other side, a danger to thinking the Spirit is sent by God the Father alone.

While the danger with the filioque clause is that it can, seemingly, demote the Holy Spirit to function rather than divine person of the Trinity, the danger of believing the Spirit is sent by God the Father and not also the Son is that it can demote the Spirit from the divine person of the Trinity to the idol of our own interior wants and desires.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

I don’t know which version of the Nicene Creed you recite on Sunday, but what the filioque clause aims to prevent is a trespass most of us commit all the time.

We appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of our individual experience, which becomes but a way of granting authority to our own subjectivity.

Any ‘spirit’ we feel move us can then be chalked up to a movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course as the Old Testament ably and often demonstrates there are many ‘spirits’ in this world which can move us- frequently more powerfully than God- that have nothing to do with God the Holy Spirit (see: calf, golden).

When you do away with the filioque clause, when you untether the Holy Spirit from the Son I think you release the Spirit from the content and character by which our sinful selves can reliably discern a genuine work of the Spirit.

By ‘content and character’ I mean the words and witness of the Word, Jesus Christ.

That little Latin word, I think, gives us 4 Gospels worth of tools with which we can test the spirits to see if any truly of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit does NOT proceed from the Son too, then the Spirit’s work today no longer must conform to the Son’s work in the past. God the Son preached ‘Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich…’ but now the spirit can move us with the belief that God wants all of us to be wealthy and prosperous.

In other words, we’re free to baptize our own subjectivity with divinity regardless of whether or not the work we’re attributing to God bears any resemblance to the God we meet most decisively in Jesus Christ (see: Osteen, Joel).

JoelOsteen_FINAL_COLOR_ongrey

That little Latin word, I believe, keeps us- who are always in danger of doing so- from confusing the Spirit of the Father and the Son with the spirit of this world or ‘the human spirit’ whatever that may really mean.

rp_images1.jpeg

As Karl Barth wrote when the Holy Spirit becomes “the spirit that obviously lives in us all faith is enlisted in an alien service, that of Mammon and even nationalism.”

By professing that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, we profess that it’s the Spirit’s charge to make Jesus Christ known in the world today.

And in so professing we remind ourselves that we can know if it’s truly the Son that the Sprit is revealing by checking it against the Son, Jesus Christ, as he’s revealed to us in scripture.

That little word, filioque, makes sure that Jesus Christ is the grammar by which judge our speech about the Holy Spirit.

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgFor the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

20. Why Did Jesus Die?

Because we killed him.

A crucifixion is how a cross-building world responds to the incarnate God come among us.

The theologians and church fathers have called the theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross ‘atonement theories.’

Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians. But Mark, the author of the earliest Gospel, shows you bitter irony.

Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him. He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him. He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’

For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects. It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.

The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.

Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies.  At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.

Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.

And perhaps the most threatening irony of all is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best.

Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, and in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good.

The chief priests’ reasoning: ‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ is correct, a perfectly rational position.

The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves. But what the Gospels give us is different. Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us.

The theologians give answers, but Mark leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?

Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross. All our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to a confrontation with God. A God who wills only to be gracious that ends with Jesus dead.

‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ – John 18.14

 

 

Untitled101111For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

19. How Did Jesus Establish His Kingdom?

Jesus established his Kingdom by failing to establish a kingdom.

To say Jesus failed to establish a Kingdom is not to say his death should be circumscribed according to religious terms alone. If Jesus had been condemned for the crime of religious blasphemy or if his death had satisfied as a cultic atonement, then Jesus would have been stoned to death by the chief priests. That Jesus was executed not by Caiphus’ stone but by Pilate’s cross, a mode of execution reserved for sedition against Rome, confirms that the charge against him, albeit ironically intended, was true: Jesus presumed to be King.

If Jesus presumed to be King, as the first Christians professed, then Caesar was merely a pretender.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time to celebrate, with the bread and wine of the Passover, Israel’s story of liberation from Empire, he initiates a final confrontation with Rome and its sycophants. The confrontation begets a choice. Will Jesus rebel by the sword and establish his Kingdom by force, or will Jesus remain faithful to his vision of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom which he’s taught is marked by putting away the sword and renouncing force in favor of forgiveness?

By choosing faithfulness over force, Jesus chooses to be the meaning of his Kingdom rather than its founder.

Thus, Jesus becomes the son who has forsaken everything to venture out into the far country only to lose everything, he makes himself the tiniest bit of yeast from which newness might rise, he turns the other cheek all the way unto death, and he becomes the despised Samaritan who meets us on the road and lifts us up out of the ditch even though his own chosen path leads to suffering, abandonment, and death.

He fails to establish a kingdom out of faithfulness to his Kingdom.

And God vindicates his faithfulness by raising from the dead and then, forty days later, raising him up to sit at the right hand of the Father, confirming as the sought-after Son of Man to whom belongs dominion on Earth and Heaven.

The rule of his Kingdom is thus real and ever-present, but, as at his cross, it requires the optics of faith. Only in the fullness of time will what is real be revealed.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  – Ephesians 1.21-23

 

 

GC2016-logo-color-hi-resThe United Methodist Church’s global gathering began yesterday in Portland, Oregon. As it kicked off, over 100 United Methodist clergy symbolically came out of the closet in protest to the denomination’s current disciplinary language regarding homosexuality as ‘contrary to Christian teaching’

I sympathize and support Adam Hamilton’s proposal, which recommends the United Methodist Church create flexibility in its language for this issue to be worked out at the local level in congregations and conferences. One of the ways I think that local solution manifests itself is by pastors and and parishioners being open and honest in dialogue about how they view the subject. Too often its not just gay clergy in the closet, it’s straight clergy’s views.

To that end, I offer a perspective on how Christians can reflect on the inclusion of gay marriage and gay ministers into the Body. In seminary I was friends with several gay Christians who possessed obvious gifts and calling. I’ve seen one of the most gifted potential ministers leave the United Methodist ordination process before it left him, and I’ve known too many church members feel the need to hide their true selves or their children.

But the welcome I believe the Church should offer is more than just a trite appeals to ‘love’ and ‘inclusivity’ that too many progressives commit.

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke?

Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness?

Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others.

Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another.

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational.

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires.

Conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.

But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings.

I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

GC2016-logo-color-hi-resThe quadrennial global gathering of my tribe of Christians, United Methodism, begins their ten day exercise in ‘Holy Conferencing’ today in Portland, Oregon.

“Holy Conferencing” most often = Roberts Rules of Order, Democratic Practices, and Political Ideologies Slathered in Prayer

I realize I’m prone to cynical anti-institutionalism, but Bishop Will Willimon assured me that General Conference is not only a gross waste of the Church’s resources and energy but is ample cause for healthy cynicism.

As at every General Conference, the agenda will be consumed with debate about the United Methodist Church’s stance towards homosexuality, an issue over which the Church has been mired in an impasse for decades. While there are proposals before General Conference to move forward and adapt the Discipline’s language, including a realistic, moderate proposal from Adam Hamilton, with which I concur, it’s easy to sympathize with those people, both liberals and conservatives, who wish the Church simply would move on from this all-distracting issue.

I wonder, though, if closing off the conversation, as many conservatives would prefer, belies our own status as Gentiles. By seeing the welcome of gay Christians into the household of God, and into its disciplines of marriage and ministry, as a closed question, do they fail to recognize how their own admission into God’s People is possible only through an act of God’s grace that is every bit as unnatural as they take homosexuality to be?

Here’s what I mean:

In Romans 1, St. Paul writes that homosexual acts are “against nature” (para phusin). Eugene Rogers points out that in Romans 11 Paul uses this exact same phrase to describe God’s act of adopting Gentiles in to the household of Israel. God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God, Paul says, is “against nature.” God’s grace is such that Christians owe their salvation to God’s unnatural act.

Rogers argues that because Christians have been adopted so unnaturally, they must be a people of hospitality to both Jews and outsiders. He adds that because they are saved by such a strange grace, the adoption of gay Christians in to the People of God must not be a closed question for straight Christians. The salvation of Gentile Christians by the God of Israel proves that no work of inclusion is beyond this God’s unnatural grace.

For Episode 5 of our Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast, Morgan, Teer, and I talk about General Conference and the Church’s welcome of gay Christians with my friend, Andrew DiAntonio, who is now the Social Media Director for the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Conference.

The audio isn’t perfect, but here you go. Be on the lookout for podcasts with Todd Littleton, Tony Jones, and NT Wright.

Subscribe to and download the Crackers & Grape Juice Podcast in iTunes. Just search ‘Crackers & Grape Juice.’ And PLEASE give us an all-star rating- it makes it more likely others will discover the podcast.

You can also find the podcast here: http://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice.

Ascension

…Until Jesus Ascends to the Father

Here’s my Mother’s Day Ascension Day sermon from this weekend. I used God’s self-revelation in Exodus 3 and the Ascension story in Acts 1 as texts. You an listen to the sermon below. Or, you can download it in the iTunes store here.

     Show of hands-

How many of you made sure to call your mothers this morning to wish them a Happy Ascension Day?

Or maybe you’ll go out to lunch after church to celebrate Ascension Day, this ancient Christian holy day that is the climax of the Easter season where we learn that Jesus is not only risen from the dead but he is Lord of Heaven and Earth too?

Don’t feel guilty.

What was once the high holy day when Christians rejoiced that God has made Jesus King and given him dominion over all the nations of the Earth is now just Sunday. Or, thanks to Hallmark, Mother’s Day.

Ascension is now largely ignored. It’s not hard to see why it’s ignored.

For one thing, if Christ has been given dominion over the Earth, if God has made Christ King of the world then Jesus doesn’t appear to be doing a very good job. What about world hunger and war? What about Cancer and Verizon Wireless? What about the fact that the music world no longer has Prince in it but still is stuck with Huey Lewis and the News?

Maybe going from carpenter to King was too big a promotion for Jesus. Maybe that’s why we ignore the Ascension.

But I think the real reason we ignore the Ascension is the embarrassing, unbelievable imagery of it. Just look at the picture Luke draws for you.

The Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world.

I mean the physics of it are all wrong: Jesus being lifted up into the air like he’s drank too much fizzy lifting drink, Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away. Exit stage heaven.

Why wouldn’t we ignore such a ridiculous image in the 21st century? Why wouldn’t we trade Ascension Day for Mother’s Day. It’s more fantastical than a Norman Rockwell family.

Ascension is the perfect example of why it’s so hard for modern people to take Christianity seriously. To take belief in God seriously.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the 2 angels ask the 11 disciples.

But why wouldn’t they be looking up to the sky? Isn’t that the whole problem with this passage? With believing in God in general?

Those disciples, and the ones that came after them, the ones who wrote the creeds and compiled the canon- they believed God was ‘up there.’ They believed the Earth was a flat, disk-shaped place around which the sun and the stars revolved. Not only that- They believed the Earth floated on water, with the underworld below and heaven above just beyond the clouds.

And it gets even more embarrassing- They believed that between Heaven and Earth was more water, water that could inundate the Earth at any moment were it not for the firmament, seriously the ‘firmament,’ a sky-colored bowl that sits over the Earth and holds back the oceans of universe.

It’s laughable.

And they believed in a Being who lived ‘up there’ above the Earth. Beyond the clouds and the firmament. Up there. In Heaven.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why wouldn’t they stand there looking up? They lived in an age where everyone believed in a Being up there.

     And isn’t that the problem the Ascension makes unavoidable for us? We know God’s not up there, not above the clouds, not beyond the firmament. Ascension calls BS on our unspoken secret- we know that that God doesn’t exist. And if that God doesn’t exist, who’s to say God exists at all?

Where the disciples lived in an age where everyone believed in a God up there and disbelief was inconceivable, we live in an age where no one believes in a God ‘up there’ and disbelief in God altogether isn’t just a possibility it’s the fastest growing faith in America.

Maybe that’s the reason we ignore the Ascension. It reminds us that we live in a different age. But we didn’t get here overnight. It’s been a long time coming.

In the survey we sent out this week about the video screens, a lot of you said in the comments section that you’re so smart you don’t need images or visual aids to dumb down the sermons. Think so, huh?

We’ll see if you can keep up:

In 1637, Rene Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, gave birth to the modern world in which we all live. Descartes was plagued by the anxiety that everything he’d been taught to believe to be true might be false.

Descartes locked himself away and set out to strip away all his received certainties- even 1+1 = 2.

Descartes wanted to arrive at what can be known apart from revelation.

Apart from God.

Where the ancient starting point for all knowledge had been God, Descartes’ starting point was himself, his own interior life.

I think; therefore, I exist, Descartes concluded.

After Descartes, we became the center of the world. Not God. And when we became the center of the world, the goal of life shifted too. From ‘The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever,’ as the catechism begins, to ‘the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.’

With Descartes, we became the center of the world and the starting point of all knowledge and ever since Descartes what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us.

To our senses. To our experience.

But, the problem with thinking that is that…the universe is expanding. Changing. In transition.

And we know that the visible universe is a million million million million miles across, and all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from all the other galaxies in the universe at the same time.

They’re moving. They’re changing. They’re in transition. It’s called the galactic dispersal.

We know the Earth is moving around the sun at roughly 66 thousand miles per hour and does so while rotating at the equator at a little over 1 thousand miles per hour.

We know Earth’s surface is made up of about 10 big plates and 20 smaller ones that never stop slipping and sliding. They’re moving and changing and in transition.

The Universe, the Stars, the Earth- everything is constantly moving and changing and expanding. And so are we.

We lose 50-150 strands of hair a day (which is worse news for some of us than others). We shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day.

90% of the dust in our homes is made up of the dead skin we shed. Just think about that…right now, you’re breathing in the dead skin of the people from the _____ worship service.

We’re in transition. Every 28 days we get completely new skin.

Right down to the atoms and cells, we are constantly moving and changing. Even bodies we bury in the ground keep changing; when God raises them from the dead, they will not be the same collection of atoms they were when they were buried.

We know that.

Not only do we know that there’s no firmament, we know there’s nothing ‘firm.’ Nothing is stable or constant. Nothing is unchanging. Nothing is not in transition. Everything is constantly moving, in flux. Everything is transitory, momentary. Moving from one way of existing to a new way of existing. But that begs the question, a question even better than the one the angels ask:

 If everything is constantly changing, 

if we are constantly changing right down to the hairs on our head and the skin that we shed, 

then how can we be the measure of all things? 

How can something in motion, something constantly changing, be the measure of anything?

Ever since Descartes, what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us, to our experience.

But we’re all passengers on the train called Earth, traveling through space and time at 295 times faster than the fastest bullet train in India.

And anyone who’s ridden on a train knows that everything looks normal and still until you try to take the measure of something out the window.

So how- How could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure of anything like God? On this moving train called Earth, how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure there’s no God? No Divine Being?

And just think about that word ‘being.’ We call ourselves ‘human beings.’ But that’s not right. The word being means someone who is constant. Someone who is still. Someone who is dynamic but doesn’t change.

The word being means someone who is necessary, as in, not caused by anything prior to it, like say a mother.

A being is someone who just is.

But we’re not like that at all.

Everything that’s created is caused by something else, is changing all the time. Every time you or I do something we change.

Our history changes. Our experience changes. Our identity slowly and subtly changes. We become something that didn’t exist previously.

So when you think about it, we’re not really beings at all.

We’re not constant. We’re not changeless. We’re not necessary or permanent.

We’re not beings.

More and more, modern people look up to the heavens convinced there’s no Divine Being that exists out there. But the irony is- it’s human beings that don’t exist. As human beings, we don’t exist.

I mean, we can fly through the air through the miracle of aviation. We can split the atom. We can take someone who’s done nothing of consequence, like Kim Kardashian, and make them into a celebrity.

For that matter, we can take a celebrity and make them a presumptive Presidential nominee. Even more impressive, we’ve learned how to wrap a chocolate chip pancake around a breakfast sausage and put it all on a stick.

We can do a lot of things but we don’t know what those disciples knew staring up at the sky.

That human beings…they don’t exist. There’s no such thing.

Only human becomings exist.

Everything in creation is a becoming.

Everything is growing and changing until it decays and dies.

 

Human beings- don’t exist.

Only human becomings exist.

Listen up-

‘God’ is the name we give to Being.

‘Being’ is the name God gives to himself at the Burning Bush: ‘I Am He Who Is.’ In other words, I am Existence itself. Being.

As Dennis first taught me when I was a confirmand: God is name we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’

Only God is Being. Only God is permanent and unchanging, eternal and necessary, without cause or antecedent. Everything comes from something else and when it dies or decays it contributes to the becoming of something else. Only God is Being. There’s only 1 Being. There’s only 1 God.

You can be sure the Jews staring up at Jesus in the sky knew that, knew that the One who said at the Burning Bush ‘I Am He Who Is’ is the only 1 who IS.

And that’s the answer to the angels’ question: ‘Why do you stand looking up?’

It’s not because they thought God is ‘up there.’ The God who is Being itself can’t be any where. Because such a God must be everywhere.

I bet the reason they’re staring up at heaven is that the disciples have a question of their own.

They’re wondering how it is that Jesus- flesh and blood Jesus, born of Mary Jesus, fully human Jesus, hair-losing, skin-shedding Jesus, a human becoming, like you or me, could enter Being.

How can a becoming enter into Being? How can something that is constantly changing enter into what never changes?

It’s a good question.

It’s a question that gets at the very heart of the Gospel.

The whole story of the gospels, from Christmas to Ascension, is how Being entered our world of becoming.

The whole story of the Gospel is how the Holy Trinity, the one true Being took on the full reality of becoming: birth and life and suffering and death.

The whole point of the Ascension is that:

having taken on our humanity at Christmas

and having experienced our humanity to its fullest on Good Friday

and having that humanity emptied from the grave on Easter

today Jesus takes our transitory humanity into the timeless life of the Trinity

today Jesus takes our becoming

Into Being.

Or, as the first Christians put it:

     God became what we are; so that, we might become what God is.

The whole point of the Ascension- what the Church wants you to see in this image- is not the physics.

It’s that now the Trinity is no longer just an eternal community of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.

Now, because of the Ascension, the Trinity is 3 plus you.

I know what you’re thinking: I wish we had the video screens back.

Being and becoming- you’re thinking:

Jason, this has nothing to do with my life.

But trust me, it’s not. And it does.

It does. Here’s what I mean:

Not long before I got sick last year, I got called to Mt Vernon Hospital to visit a teenager from Aldersgate who’d tried to commit suicide. It was morning and the attempt had been just the night before so when I saw him he was still angry.

To be alive.

‘I have no one’ he said.

‘And I don’t think I deserve to.’

I wish I could say I’ve sat through fewer conversations like that than I have.

The tragedy isn’t just that all of us, we’re all just becomings- in motion, changing and growing until we die and decay- the tragedy isn’t that we’re all just becomings and he wanted to cease his becoming prematurely.

No, the tragedy is that that boy last year, when he looked in the mirror he didn’t see something that is beautiful and holy and mysterious.

The tragedy is that when he looked in the mirror he didn’t see someone who is a sacrament, a flesh and blood vessel that points to and participates in the eternal Being of God.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look in the mirror.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look upon, speak to, interact with someone else.

It’s tragic because it flies in the face of the good news we learn today.

The gospel good news that you’re more than just a constantly changing creature.

You’re more than just a becoming.

You’re more than just someone who needs to lose a few pounds.

You’re more than what your ex thinks of you.

You’re more than what that voice in the back of your head says about you.

You’re more than what you do to pay the bills or pass the time.

You’re more than whatever lines will be written on your gravestone. You’re more than something that’s losing skin until you lose your life. You’re more than dust until you return to the dust.

You’re holy. You’re Beloved. You’re sacred because you’re a sacrament.

And so is each and every person in your life.

Because in Jesus Christ Being became what we are.

And today Jesus takes what we are into the very Being of God. And that means we can handle whatever changes that come to us in life because we live and move and have our being in the Being of God who never changes.

“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” the angels ask.

But of course they would.

They’ve just learned the answer to the most important question of all.

Not: ‘Does God exist?’

God is the name we give to Being itself.

God is the answer we give to the question ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’

God, by definition, has to exist. God is the most obvious thing of all.

No, staring up at the sky, they’ve just learned the answer to the most important question: ‘Do we exist?‘

And the answer is yes.

Because today Jesus Christ has ascended to the Father.

Ascension     Sunday is Ascension Day, the ancient Christian holy day that is the climax of the Easter season where we learn that Jesus is not only risen from the dead but he is Lord of Heaven and Earth too

To profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

The words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord.

You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other.

Which is why in Paul’s day and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And 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, the world of More and Might.

Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

     In other words, baptism was your pledge of allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

 

A little history lesson:

A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the 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, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’

Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts. What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come. Jesus, as Brian Zahnd likes to say, was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

But for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’

Allegiance.

And for Paul everything God had heretofore revealed to his People 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?’ It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

The ‘You shall have no other gods’ command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.

When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that ‘Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.’

    The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.

And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

It’s about following after Jesus.

The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone.

If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, if he is now the ascendant Lord of all the nations, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Bowing to this King should make us a lot more dysfunctional in our world than we otherwise would have been.

It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’ Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

The beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross. Despite what Joel Osteen promises, we’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus.

On the other hand, whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful.

Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe, the King of Heaven and Earth. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

  • Props to Hedy Collver for the image

Untitled101111For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

18. How Did Jesus Fulfill God’s Promise to Abraham?

By undoing what Adam did and what Abraham failed to do.

God called Abram to unwind the story of Sin begun in the garden by showing forth a life of trust, which is faith and love, in God. Whereas Adam responded to the satan’s question ‘Did God really say…?’ with mistrust, Abraham sacrificed his past, by leaving the land of his ancestors, and he sacrificed his future, by offering Isaac, to gesture his total trust in God. Such trust was intended by God to be a light to a mistrustful world; through Abraham’s faithfulness the whole world would be blessed as though a new creation.

Where Abraham’s children, Israel, failed in their calling to faithfulness, Jesus calls forth a new Israel, 12 disciples now instead of tribes, and he remains steadfast in his trust of God all the way to a cross. In so doing, he renarrates the human story by telling it, in his flesh, correctly and by Easter God confirms it to us as the eikon to emulate.

“And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by works of the law.” – Galatians 2.16

Stop His Heresy

Jason Micheli —  May 4, 2016 — 2 Comments

51rSl-ODqhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Morgan is on a book tour!

In our first attempt to record a live podcast, Teer, Morgan, and I stumble, recover, lose cell phone coverage, and recover again as we talk about Morgan’s new book.

 

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

We’d love for you to give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

We’ve already got several episodes worth of interviews in the bag, including NT Wright and Todd Littleton. 

Speaking of interviews, the Crackers and Grape Juice team will be joining forces with Kendall Souled for a Pub Theology event in Roanoke on Thursday, June 16.

If you’re in the driveable area, check it out and come out. Information here.

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. You can buy Morgan’s new book here.

Here you go:

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nI hear this about the resurrection all the time:

The disciples, being ancient 1st century people, were superstitious people who didn’t understand biology etc like we do today and believed in supernatural occurrences like resurrections. 

They had believed Jesus was the Messiah when he was alive, and after he was dead they had a spiritual sense, a religious feeling, an existential experience that Jesus was still with them. 

Over time, these feelings of Jesus’ spiritual presence developed into stories of Jesus’ physical presence and later those stories were developed into Gospel texts that were written in order to prove the Church’s claims that Jesus was the Resurrected Messiah. 

That’s the standard skeptical explanation, and I’ve heard it from more than a few of you. The problem with the standard, skeptical explanation- other than it’s complete ignorance of first century culture. And history. Not to mention Judaism. And Greek philosophy- is that it leaves too many ingredients unaccounted for.

For one, it fails to account for the fact that the message of Resurrection doesn’t begin in the Gospels.

It begins immediately, right after Jesus dies, with hundreds of people testifying: ‘I’ve seen Jesus resurrected from the dead, and the tomb is empty.’ Even if you do not believe the resurrection as an historical event; the resurrection claim remains a fact of history and it is announced not generations later but only days.

Another problem with the standard, skeptical explanation is that it fails to point out that the resurrection message is first written down not in the Gospels but in the letters of Paul, written barely more than a dozen years after Easter, written in public documents that were read aloud and circulated throughout the Empire, written not as hyperbole or metaphor but as verifiable testimony.

Paul doesn’t just write ‘Christ is Risen’ in 1 Corinthians. Paul names names. Up to 600 names of witnesses who had testified to seeing the Risen Christ    and who were still alive when Paul wrote down and sent out his letters. Witnesses who could be cross-examined by anyone who wished to call Paul’s bluff.

If he were bluffing.

Even if you choose to think the resurrection a fantasy, you still must account for the fact that those who first claimed the resurrection did not think it a fantasy. The biggest ingredient the standard, skeptical explanation leaves out is this:

If the Easter Gospels are legends that were written down to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and to make the Christian claims of resurrection credible, then why is it that they do such a bad job of it?

If this is calculated propaganda meant to convince, it sucks.

Why, for example, do the Gospels not lie and tell you that it was Jesus’ brother, James, the next eldest in the family, who buries Jesus, as was James’ obligation under the Law?

Because by not telling you James buried Jesus, the Gospels are telling that Jesus died in shame; that is, Jesus was a source of shame to his family. By not telling you James buried Jesus, the Gospels are telling you- reminding you- that Jesus’ family never believed in him. Not until something happened to them.

After Easter.

If this is calculated propaganda meant to convince, it’s not very good.

For example, why is it that all four Gospels are littered with Old Testament citations from the very beginning of all four chapter ones, but when they get to the Easter stories the citations go silent? Barely a one.

As though the Gospel writers are tying to tell you:

We don’t really know what happened but something happened. We don’t understand this. We can’t comprehend this. Nothing in our scripture or experience or tradition led us to expect this.

If these stories were concocted to prove and convince, case-closed, then you’d expect a lot more than zero footnotes to support their claims.

If this is calculated propaganda, it’s kinda crappy.

For example, if the Gospel writers were making a convincing case for Christ (that was not based in experience and memory) then they would never invent women as the first eyewitnesses.

It’s not just that women weren’t credible witnesses; they weren’t even legal witnesses. Women could not testify in a Roman court of law.

Their word meant nothing, and so their witness here in the Easter story proved nothing.

There is no advantage to casting them as the first eyewitnesses and there is every disadvantage. There must have been enormous pressure on the Gospel writers to remove these women from the story. But they didn’t. Why?

Likely, it’s because by then the women’s testimony was too well-known to omit. You can dismiss the resurrection. Call it impossible, if you like. But then the burden of proof shifts to you.

How is it that a novel, counterintuitive, unexpected message (God has resurrected a failed Messiah) emerged virtually overnight?

How is it that hundreds, not just the twelve, testified to it long before the Gospels were written? And continued to so testify even when it led them to crosses of their own?

And why is it that the Gospels do not read like calculated propaganda written after the fact, but instead read much more like the flustered, puzzled, confused testimony of witnesses each of whom tells the truth even if their facts and stories don’t perfectly match?

You can dismiss the resurrection, but if you let go of your superstitious belief in reason alone, you’ll see that resurrection is in fact the most plausible explanation.

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nWe’re heading towards the end of Eastertide.

I get tired of how the burden of proof is always on the Christian to prove resurrection rather than on the skeptic to posit a more plausible explanation for the resurrection profession. The standard, skeptical explanation for the resurrection message goes like this:

The disciples, being ancient 1st century people, were superstitious people who didn’t understand biology etc like we do today. 

And the disciples either had visions and hallucinations of Jesus after he died and they called that Resurrection, or wanting people to think Jesus had been resurrected, they stole his body and claimed he’d been raised. 

That’s the standard skeptical explanation, and I’ve heard it from a lot of you.

The problem with the standard, skeptical explanation- other than it’s complete ignorance of first century culture. And history. Not to mention Judaism. And Greek philosophy- is that it does not account for the fact that Resurrection was a brand new idea.

Resurrection was not conceivable to a 1st century Jew and it was not desirable to a 1st century Greek. Resurrection belonged to neither worldview; it just appeared overnight. A brand new species in the religious world.

If the disciples had had visions or hallucinations or if they’d stolen the body, they would never claim it had been Resurrection.

They had no motive to make it up because Resurrection was not a belief anyone would hear. If they made it up, they chose the wrong message. Because for Jews, the bodily resurrection of a single man was unthinkable. And for Greeks, the bodily resurrection of anyone was unattractive.

The standard, skeptical explanation fails to remember that the entire religious worldview of Greeks centered around escaping this material world, which is finite and corrupt, and moving on to the spiritual realm, which is eternal and pure.

The whole trajectory of salvation was for your eternal soul to be freed from your mortal body. Resurrection was not only an impossible belief to a Gentile, it was objectionable. Repulsive. No soul, having escaped its body, would ever want to go back. If you had told a Gentile that a guy from Nazareth had died and 3 days later was resurrected, they would’ve said:

‘That’s terrible! I’ll pray for him!’ 

If the disciples made it up, they chose the wrong message. Because for Jews, Resurrection wasn’t a generalized term. It didn’t refer to feelings in your heart or visions in your head. For Jews, Resurrection very specifically referred to what happened NOT to one man in history but what will happen to all of God’s People at the end of history.

Resurrection referred exclusively to a future event, when God restores his creation, when wolf and lamb lie down together, when nations beat their swords and spears into plough shares and pruning hooks, when mourning and crying and pain are no more.

If you had told a 1st century Jew that one man, a failed Messiah no less, had been resurrected, they would have responded:

“What are you? An idiot? Resurrection hasn’t happened. Caesar and Herod are still in their thrones. Israel is still not free. War and pain and suffering and injustice still abound.”

If the disciples made it up, they chose the wrong message.

There was too much built-in resistance to the idea of Resurrection, from Jew and Gentile. That’s why the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen Christ are so important for the Resurrection. You couldn’t have had one without the other. You’d would’ve needed one to substantiate the other.

If the tomb had just been empty, but no one had seen the Risen Christ, then everyone would’ve concluded that the body had been stolen or scavenged. No one would’ve concluded Resurrection from just an empty tomb.

And if followers had seen the Risen Christ but the tomb was not empty, then everyone would’ve chalked it up to the ordinary visions people have after a loved one dies. But no one would’ve concluded Resurrection from just visions of Jesus.

You would’ve needed both.

Because no one had Resurrection in their worldview.

So where did it come from? You see, you can dismiss the Resurrection. You can refuse to believe it- fine- but that doesn’t get you around the fact that they did. James and Paul believed it. Something happened to them. Something that caused them to believe something for which their Jewish and Greek world views had no previous category.

You can dismiss the Resurrection.

You can hold up your hands and say ‘Look, I don’t believe that dead bodies come back to life.’

You can say that, but realize: you’re missing the whole point if you don’t understand that that’s exactly how people like James and Paul felt.

 Until something happened to them.

What? And that’s where the burden of proof shifts to you.

Because you can say you don’t believe in the Resurrection as an historical event, but that doesn’t get you around the fact that the resurrection claim is a part of history. And so if you dismiss the Resurrection, then you’re left with some explaining to do.

 Just how is it that an entirely new, distinct and divergent worldview emerged virtually overnight?

How is it that virtually overnight Jews were worshipping Jesus as Lord, which they’d never done for any previous Messiah and which violated the 1st commandment?

How is that virtually overnight they started worshipping on Sundays, which violated the 4th commandment?

How is it that virtually overnight Jews were proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus which violated everything their scripture told them?

How is it that virtually overnight they began living in such a way that violated everything the real world told them?

If you dismiss the resurrection, you still must explain how this resurrection worldview sprang up out of nowhere immediately after Jesus’ death.

As any scientist will tell you, new species of animals do not appear overnight.

That would take an act of God.

Untitled101111For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

17. What is the Significance of the Sermon on the Mount? 

If Jesus, as Matthews sees him, is the Second Moses, then the Sermon on the Mount is the charter of the New Israel, the Church, whom God elects to be an alternative community in the world witnessing to God’s creative intent for the world.

As Moses received God’s covenant commands upon Mt. Sinai, Jesus stands upon the Mount of Beatitudes and issues new commands. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of God’s Kingdom People in both senses of the word:

It is the covenant by which Jesus’ People are obligated

And it is the way in which Jesus’ called are formed as a People.

The significance of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ own significance, for the Sermon is firstly a description of Christ’s own character. In this Sermon, the Word who is the preacher and the word preached are one and the same because the proclaimer of the Kingdom’s nature sits at the right hand of this Kingdom’s throne. Indeed he has established this Kingdom through cross and resurrection.

As such:

The Sermon on the Mount does not describe an impossible ideal achievable only one day in the future.

It describes the way Christ’s People live the future now.

It characterizes the habits born out of the community’s conviction that the future arrived, once for all, on Easter: the Old Age has passed, Death and Sin have been defeated, the Powers and Principalities toppled, Christ’s Lordship has been established, and all those in Christ are and embody a New Creation now. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount does not provide general principles for a generic life. It does not prescribe ethical principles practicable by all. It narrates the practices that constitute the community of Jesus.

Therefore-

It commends a way of life that is unintelligible to those who do not confess that Jesus is Lord and that makes absolutely no sense if that confession is not true.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.” – Matthew 5.43-44

4371604984_6212ed3d58_zOily Evangelicals, mockery of Ted Cruz, and coitus jokes- and people accuse me of being off-color. Bishop Will Willimon dishes all this and more as he discusses his new book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

We’d love for you to give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

We’ve already got several episodes worth of interviews in the bag, including NT Wright and Todd Littleton. 

Speaking of interviews, the Crackers and Grape Juice team will be joining forces with Kendall Souled for a Pub Theology event in Roanoke on Thursday, June 16.

If you’re in the driveable area, check it out and come out. Information here.

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. Here you go:

Portrait Karl BarthReading Karl Barth is like chewing sunflower seeds. It’s salty and hard and it cuts you in little ways that hurt and linger for days. The past couple of weeks I’ve posted some critical reflections on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. The church that first made me a Christian was Wesleyan, United Methodist. The theologian who made me a nominally interesting Christian, however, was not John Wesley but Karl Barth.

I’ve taken some shit for those previous posts from other Methodists wondering why I’m exalting Barth at Wesley’s expense. It’s true they make queer (don’t worry, I don’t mean gay!) theological bedfellows; in fact, Barth had Methodism particularly in mind when he brutally attacked the pietism of his day. Nonetheless, I think Barth is a helpful voice for Methodists in the 21st century as Barth’s eyewitness stand, in both World Wars, against the dangers of cultural Christianity makes him a prescient guide in post Christendom. What’s more, Wesley himself looked well outside of his own Enlightenment Anglican tradition. Those of us who just parrot Wesleyan theology and stay within our particular denominational stream are doing something very un-Wesleyan.

Still, if there’s a discontinuity between Barth and Wesley on anything it’s the fourth vantage point of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Experience. I hardly need to link to any stories about the issues presently dividing the larger church and point out how Experience is given a priority in negotiating those debates. Experience is often the primary perspective at odds with Scripture and Tradition. Beyond these debates, for many in our post-everything world our personal experience is the only authority to which we’ll submit. The primacy of Experience is undisputed in our world today and in Wesleyan theology it’s validity is unquestioned. Barth however would challenge us to consider whether our Quadrilateral should not instead be a Triangle, doubting that our personal experience is even an appropriate vantage point from which to receive revelation, the Word of God.

Barth takes a dim view of Experience in general, believing that the subjective turn to the individual’s experience of God obscures the objective, once-for-all, reality of Christ. We believe in Jesus Christ, Barth says over and again, not in our experience of Christ. Our experience is not salvation; salvation has been achieved through cross and resurrection quite apart from any experience we may have of it. It’s true- you’re saved, in other words, whether you ever believe it and experience it personally or not. This, I digress, is what allowed Barth to have such a hospitable and non-anxious presence towards unbelievers.

Barth does not share the sunny Wesleyan assessment of Experience, for it implies, more generally, that an encounter of God is somehow given in human nature, that we are, as creatures, wired to apprehend our Creator. For Barth, it’s true we’re predisposed to long for and apprehend the divine and, to him, nothing could be more idolatrous. Barth nods along to Fuerbach’s critique that most of our theology is only anthropology. Our ‘experience’ of God, Barth judges, is most often only an experience of ourselves projected onto god; therefore, the only true experience we can have of God is the experience God gives to us. Experience of God is received it is not self-derived.

And this is where it gets tricky for the Quadrilateral because, as scripture attests abundantly, the experience God gives us of God frequently contradicts our personal experience of the world.

Think Saul on the way to Damascus or Peter receiving a mystical Spirit-given dream that upends his religious categories.

Our experience in and of the world is not a reliable means of discerning and illumining revelation because revelation is most often received as an intrusion upon our world. Grace does not confirm our experience of the world; it disrupts our experience of the world, and because we’ve made a world that pretends Jesus is not King that grace is most often felt as a kind of violence to our world and our experience of it.

The Spirt seldom confirms our personal experience of the world; it instead convicts it and sometimes condemns it.

For Barth, any appeals to ‘the Spirit led me to…’ should be met with skepticism if they do not lead the led to tears.