Archives For Jason Micheli

One of the members for the retranslation of the Psalms in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, J Chester Johnson is a poet who replaced WH Auden on the BCP translation committee. In this episode, Chester shares his experience of not only interpreting the Psalms but also how this poetic form of scripture still speaks for the church today. You can find his poetry and his book on Auden and the Psalms here.

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Live in Durham-

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Resident Aliens, we’re throwing a Live Podcast, Emmaus Way is hosting, with featured guests Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon. Along with the Home-brewed Christianity podcast, we will be engaging Resident Aliens, and interviewing Stanley and William.

There will be live music, fresh brews, nerdiness, and more!

Details:

Wednesday, April 18 from 6:00 – 9:00PM

Tickets are $15 and for $10 more you’ll get a copy of Resident Aliens too. Click here to register.

Connect to the Facebook Page for the event here.

 

 

I was a guest on Scott Jones’ Synaxis podcast to talk about the lectionary scripture texts coming up for the 2nd Sunday of Lent. During the conversation, we reflected on using the Romans 4 lection, where Paul talks about faith being worded (‘reckoned’) to us as righteousness, to rethink Jesus’ command in Mark 8 to take up our cross and follow him.

If the only righteousness we possess comes to us as Christ’s own, by imputation not sanctification, then perhaps the mortification of self that Christ commands looks more like a continual revisiting of our justification. We take up our cross, in other words, by remembering, in word and sacrament, that on our own we have neither the desire nor the capacity to follow Jesus.

Here it is:

 

A Hole in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2018 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent where I was the guest preacher at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, Va. The lectionary text is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John but I chose to lean on Matthew’s fuller version of it.

Even though Blades of Glory is one of my favorite movies, I’ve steered clear of the Winter Olympics ever since my second year at UVA when, during a Halloween party, I was mistaken not once, not twice, but four times for Brian Boitano.

On the prowl for girls, I didn’t think I could afford for girls to confuse my costume for that of a gay figure skater. I had thought my purple crushed velvet tights and loose, flowing shirt- the sort worn by Meatloaf in the Bat Out of Hell video- gave me away as a dead-ringer for Hamlet, which, it occurs to me now, is just as gay.

But no, I got Brian Boitano. I didn’t have a sword.

And South Park had just gone viral the year before with an episode of the animated Olympian refereeing mortal combat between Jesus and Santa Claus.

What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?

Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.

But this Winter Olympics a headline in the Washington Post grabbed me:

“She killed 115 people before the last Korean Olympics. Now she wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The Post article tells the story of Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korean spy, who, 30 years ago, boarded South Korean Flight 858 and got off in Baghdad during a layover, having left a bomb, disguised as a Panasonic radio, in the overhead bin.

All 115 passengers and crew were killed when the plane exploded over the Andaman Sea.

Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.

Recruited by the Party as a student, she received physical and ideological training for 10 years before she was given orders to disrupt the Winter Olympics in South Korea by blowing up a plane full of energy workers on their way home to Seoul to visit their husbands and their wives and their children.

The cyanide cigarette she bit into when she was caught didn’t work, and she woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with machine guns pointed at her.

Kim Hyon- hui attempted suicide again during her interrogation, and a year later a South Korean judge sentenced her to die.

But she didn’t die.

Today she’s a 56 year old mother of 2 teenage girls. She’s married to the agent who first apprehended her, but she’s never escaped the guilt and the shame of her trespass.

She escaped execution and, as she puts it, “escaped the wrath of the South Korean people when she offered them her repentance” but she still wonders if she’ll escape the wrath of God.

Kim Hyon-hui lives an ordinary life cooking and cleaning, raising her kids and going to church. She was pardoned by the South Korean president for her crimes, yet she remains haunted by the question: “Can my sins be pardoned?”

     “They probably won’t be,” she confessed to the reporter, “My sins probably won’t be forgiven. By God.”

The headline is what grabbed me. It could’ve been a different story, still with a similar headline. The headline could’ve read:

“He killed 17 people at Douglas High School. Now he wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The headline could’ve read:

“They watched apathetic as 122 children got shot since Columbine (home of South Park) and they did nothing. Now they wonder: ‘Can our sins be pardoned?’”

     The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:

“Through hole in heaven, Father declares love with a dove. Wild-eyed prophet asks: ‘Can I baptize you?’”

‘Can I baptize you?’

The answer to all our questions about pardon come by noticing John the Baptist’s question: “‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’

All 4 Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire- a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them.

All 4 Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism; in fact, the only 2 events mentioned across all 4 Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross- they’re connected. Mark doesn’t have an Easter encounter. John doesn’t have a Christmas story. But all of the Gospels have got a baptism story. Mark leaves out what Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions.

     ‘Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?’ 

John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. John’s initial objection to baptizing Christ is important because it reminds us to distinguish between Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. John’s baptism was a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy.

John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness). The water was a visible sign of your admission of guilt. But the water did not wash away your guilt.

John’s baptism did not make you righteous. John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. But it could not make you righteous.

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism. It’s not because Jesus needed to repent. Jesus is without sin, as such, he’s got no reason to be baptized. No, Jesus insists on baptism not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do.

     John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God.

“It is necessary,” Jesus tells John, “[not for me or my repentance] to fulfill all righteousness.” 

In other words, the winnowing fork judgement that John the Baptist had preached, Christ takes on in his baptism. The winnowing is in the water. With his baptism, Christ isn’t acknowledging his unrighteousness. He’s entering into ours. He’s not repenting. He’s repenting us.

     By plunging himself into John’s baptism-

Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.

As Martin Luther said, at Christmas, he becomes our flesh but, at his baptism, he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with thieves beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with thieves all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.

Right before God.

Justified.

As the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” And as Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

Either headline could work as an alternative for what God declares with a dove through a hole in heaven.

     “Can my sins be pardoned? Probably not.” Kim Hyon-hui told the Post.

Probably not? Probably not!?

Look, I get the offense, I really do, but obviously that’s her shame talking because she’s not speaking Christian.

You only get an answer like ‘Probably not’ when you don’t understand the distinction between Jesus’ baptism by John and your own baptism by Jesus into him.

John’s baptism was a work we do- we’re the active agents in John’s baptism.

John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon.

Our baptism is a work God does.

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon.

     It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us.

Once.

For all.

For everything.

Our baptism is not an act of repentance. Our baptism incorporates us into the act by which God repented us into righteousness.

“Probably not?”

It’s John’s kind of baptism that produces “probably not” because John’s baptism is just a token of your contrition. It’s not a visible pledge of your pardon. John’s baptism leaves you in your sin, hoping that God will forgive you.

But your baptism is not John’s baptism.

By your baptism you are not in your sin- though a sinner you are- because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.

Probably not– NO.

That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism.

In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness.

In your baptism, you enter into Christ.

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says.

Your sin and your old self- it’s left behind, Paul says.

Buried with him in his death.

And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.

And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.

His perfect record.

His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.

There is no place on that record for our “Probably nots.” Because if you have been baptized into this baptism, then you are in Christ. And if you are in Christ, then there is now no condemnation.

No matter who it is who is in Christ, there is for them no condemnation.

No matter what you’ve done it cannot dilute what God has done.

In Christ.

And it cannot dilute what God has done to you by drowning you into him.

The answer to Kim’s question about her sins being pardoned- it requires another question: ‘Have you been baptized?’

Because if so, whether as a baby or a born-again, your sins have already been pardoned. Because by your baptism you are in Jesus Christ, who is himself the pardon of God. At his baptism, a hole in heaven declared him to be loved. And by your baptism into the holes of his hands and his side, heaven is opened to you- you, though you belong to a brood of vipers, are beloved.

     “Can his sins be pardoned?”

     Surely not. 

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

He was on a group text thread with his runners as they fled.

And bled.

He messaged me that night to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery and asked me to add them to the prayer list.

“Pray for Maddie. She has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.

I’m not in denial or shock. I’m not depressed. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did.

If this is blasphemy so be it:

Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

     Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.

     What we do with water is not sentimental.

     It’s outrage-ous.

Our reconciliation by grace through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection- it can’t be reconciled with any of our notions of right. What we mean by what we do with water- it’s not sentimental nonsense (though it may be nonsense). A message that makes sense, message that squares with the headlines, would be:

Your sins are forgiven if

Your sins are forgiven provided that…

Your sins are forgiven as long as…

You repent. You make amends. You pay back what you’ve taken.

But the promise of the Gospel that comes attached to water and wine and bread is that because you have been baptized in to Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, your sins are forgiven.

The grammar of grace is Because/Therefore not If/Then.

It makes no sense, but if you add anything to the forgiveness of sins, a single qualifier or condition, you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens.

Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-

It isn’t expensive. It is even cheap. It’s free.

     And grace begins exactly where we we think it should end.

———————-

Can his sins be pardoned? 

Has he been baptized?

———————-

     You can object. It is offensive. It is outrage-ous. After this week it sticks in my mouth too. I’m right there with you. If God’s grace for sinners offends you, if his pardon seems awful instead of amazing, I’m right there with you. It’s just, we should notice where we are in our indignation:

We’re standing outside the party our Father’s decided to throw for our rotten, wretch of a brother.

It’s offensive, I know. And not to take the edge off of it, but I wonder if maybe the offense is also the antidote.

In a different interview, Kim Hyon-hui reflects on how overwhelmed she felt by the gratuitous (her word) pardon she received from the people of South Korea:

“As a spy in North Korea, I was brainwashed. I was a robot. The only thing that might have been powerful enough to prevent me from committing my trespass would have been to know the possibility of such a pardon.”

Maybe the possibility of a pardon so gratuitous it offends- maybe that’s the only antidote powerful enough to stop us in our trespasses.

 

 

 

 

In Episode #139 we talk with Chaim Saiman about his viral article for The Atlantic Magazine titled “Why the Last Jedi Is More Spiritual Than Religious.”
Chaim Saiman is a Law Professor at Villanova University and is interested in the intersection between law and faith. The conversation covers a range of topics including Jesus and the Law, growing up in the bible belt, the First Commandment, Jesus as the proto-Christian, the religiosity of Star Wars, and how our faiths and cultures are tied together.

If you’re receiving this by email and the player doesn’t come up on your screen, you can find the episode at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

Help us reach more people: 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.

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This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

Hammer Time

Jason Micheli —  February 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

     Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6

I want to thank you all for coming out tonight instead of staying home and watching the Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Special with your kids.

There is a Michael Bolton Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, but there’s no Peanuts Ash Wednesday Special. Nobody grew up watching a stop-motion Burl Ives saying ‘Hey kid, you’re a sinner and you’re going to die.’

Ash Wednesday doesn’t get anyone like Kris Kringle or Krampus. Starbucks doesn’t unveil any Sin-themed soy lattes for Ash Wednesday.

Christmas has been commercialized and loaded down with crap. Easter has been sentimentalized by bunnies and butterflies and metaphors of springtime renewal, but, there aren’t any Ash Wednesday office parties.

Meanwhile, we ship our ill and aging off to die in private while we put inflatable Grim Reapers in our front lawns on Halloween in the hopes that death will turn out to be a joke because when we lie awake at night we know our sin is not make believe.

What we mean by the soot we smear on Ash Wednesday- culturally speaking- remains an unsullied message. There’s no marketing, no media, no movie tie-ins or product placements for Ash Wednesday.

Nobody but Christians want anything do with talk about Sin and Death, which is a shame because, as allergic as our culture is to the ashes, what we do with them tonight has more to do with love actually than any saccharine Hugh Grant movie.

As allergic as our culture is to Death and Sin, what we do tonight with oil and ash is about love actually.

Because when you do away with the concept of sin, the category of shame is your only alternative. With sin, what’s wrong with me is just what’s wrong with me. Leaving sin behind is lonely-making. Without a concept of sin, there is no correlative category of grace, and you’re left only with what St. Paul would call the crushing accusations of the Law.

Accused by the Law and in the absence of Grace, we self-justify. We perform and we pretend. We wear masks- like Jesus condemns in our text tonight. We project a purer false self out into the world, which of course is just a way to shame others lest we be shamed first.

This is what I mean-

Frances Lee is a Cultural Studies scholar in Seattle. In an article entitled Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice, Lee describes her decades-long exodus out of a shame-based conservative evangelical Christianity only to find the same sort toxic dogma practiced by progressives in the social justice-minded activist communities where she landed.

She writes:

“There is an underlying current of fear in my community, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure.”

Both communities, Lee argues, both sex-obsessed evangelicals and justice-driven progressives seek to justify themselves in the relentless pursuit to acquire purity according to the standards of their convictions.

Law, whether it’s law according to evangelicals or activists, always accuses, and Lee notes how the need in progressive social justice communities to be reckoned as pure produces a suffocating, shaming fear of being counted as impure:

“[A kind of] social death follows after being labeled a ‘bad’ activist.

When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.

I feel compelled to do the same things as a [progressive] activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous.

Progressive activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.

“Ultimately,” says Frances Lee- and, pay attention- this is the point on Ash Wednesday- “the quest for purity is a treacherous distraction for the well-intentioned.”

——————————

     What Frances Lee describes is what the Apostle Paul means when he warns that our well-intentioned efforts to acquire righteousness on our own lead to death.

It kills us.

Frances Lee escaped the toxic dogma of one community only to discover it again in an opposite sort of community.

She left her evangelical Church hoping to find respite from the demands of purity and relief from the suffocating pretense those demands require.

In St. Paul’s terms, she fled the Law but the Law found her.

Yet she had been searching for Law’s opposite.

Grace.

What Frances Lee found in neither, not in her evangelical upbringing nor among her progressive activists, is what the Church offers you tonight with oil and ash and a promise that sounds frightening at first.

     “To dust you came and to dust you will return.”

Ash Wednesday is the antidote to the treacherous distraction of the well-intentioned because the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick, it is the good news of the gospel.

No matter how much booze you give up or how much bible-reading you take on for Lent, tonight isn’t about penance in a quest for purity and it’s not about needing to pretend when you fail to find that purity through your piety.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about your performance in life or your piety in religion at all. Ash Wednesday is about the grace of God given to us and for you in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In other words-

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

Ash Wednesday is about freedom.

Freedom from the fear of your impurity.

And freedom from the fear of death.

(Death being the wage paid for your impurity)

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

But it’s not your fault if you experience some cognitive dissonance tonight.

Ash Wednesday can look and sound like it’s exactly the sort of righteousness-chasing, purity-performing that Frances Lee critiques and, even worse, what Jesus Christ forbids.

After all, in the Gospel passage assigned for every Ash Wednesday, Christ in his Sermon on the Mount commands us to do the very opposite of what it appears we’re about to do.

We will practice our piety before others; there is no ad space more public than your forehead.

We will disfigure your face with oily ash, and then we’ll send you forth with unwashed faces not into the privacy of your prayer closet but out into the world where you will be tempted to repeat after the Pharisee “Thank God, I am not like other men.”

Ash Wednesday’s promise of grace can get lost in the contradictions.

And there’s more than a few contradictions tonight.

For example, when you come forward tonight, we’ll say “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” but then we’ll mark your forehead with ash not dust.

Hang on-

God formed Adam not from ash but from the dust of the earth, and when you die- and, news flash- you’re not getting out of life alive- it’s dirt I will throw on your casket, mud not ash.

Shouldn’t we be soiling your head with soil not ash?

Sure, ash is a symbol for repentance and mourning in scripture, but it’s a pile of ashes Job sits on in sackcloth not a smudge streaked across his brow.

If you’re not clear about what we do here tonight, then, despite your good intentions, the ashes and the oil will be but another example of what Frances Lee calls a treacherous distraction.

That is, they’ll be nothing more than an exercise of purity-seeking piety, a work of worship that, King David tells us tonight, God despises- a work of worship that God tells the prophet Isaiah is no better than a filthy rag.

In which case, it’s probably a mercy there aren’t any Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Specials.

——————————

     Because the stakes are high then, I want to set your ashes straight before you come forward for the cross.

The first point- I know, another 3-point sermon. If you want me to give these up for Lent you better tell me tonight. The first point to know about the ashy cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross.

What we do tonight with oil and ashes is not a treacherous distraction.

It’s not, as Jesus warns, practicing your piety before others because the cross on your forehead marks you out not as a pious person but as an impious person.

The cross is absolutely irreligious.

The cross is a reminder the very best of our piety put God to death; therefore, on Ash Wednesday Christians come out of the closet and with a soot scarlet letter freely admit that we are not just flawed and not just broken (that’s a romantic Christian word) but sinners.

Sin is the only word that appropriately names our racism and our prejudice, our violence and apathy and avarice.

We are the worst text messages that we send. We are the email we accidentally reply all to. We are the school shootings we tolerate.

We’re sinners.

The cross on your forehead announces that before God’s Law you are a failure.

You have not loved God with your whole heart. You have not loved your neighbor as much as you love yourself, and you haven’t even begun to love your enemies.

In fact, loving your enemies is just one of the many commandments you’ve left undone- and that’s the real problem for most of you, what you’ve left undone.

You see, like Job’s, the cruciform ashes are ashes of mourning because the cross on you is the outward, visible sign that inside and unseen the hammer of God’s Law has crushed your sinful heart; so that, no longer curved in on itself your heart has no where else to turn but the grace of God alone.

What’s important about the ashen cross is that it’s a cross.

So don’t worry about Jesus’ warning tonight.

What we do with ash and oil tonight does not violate Christ’s command against virtue-signaling because the cross signifies your vice. It brands you not as someone who thinks he’s holy but as someone who knows his need.

A soot colored cross is more inclusive than any rainbow flag.

Tonight Christians remember that- on paper at least- we are, in fact, the most inclusive people in the world.

We are all sinners.

Smudged or not smudged. Christian or not, activist or evangelical, whether you’re resisting or making America great again- none of us are clean. None of us are pure. All of us would love to have a John Kelly keeping our secrets.

There is no need for us to shame one another because between us there is no distinction.

We are- all of us- sinners.

——————————

     And the wage paid out for sin is death. The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes.

We mix up our metaphors tonight, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt.

Or the sprinkling of water.

And this is the second point you should understand as you come forward tonight.

     The words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die.

The cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you deserve to.

That’s as offensive and counter-cultural as anything Christians do.

You deserve to die.

And you have.

You have.

     The cross on your forehead isn’t just a symbol of your sin. The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death to sin. That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. ‘To dust you came and to dust you shall return’ – you’re gonna die- is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died.

     You will die, sure. To dust you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the safety net gets gutted or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely return to the dirt.

But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night, meeting God in your sins, the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died.

You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned.

What you have done and what you have left undone- what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font.

By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death.

The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away.

The way we mix the metaphors tonight it’s not your fault if you missed it. What we do tonight neither confirms Frances Lee’s critique nor does it contradict Christ’s commandment. This ash is not a means to achieve purity or practice piety. We’re not inviting you to pretend or perform or prevaricate or protect your impurity from the shaming of others.

We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.

The dust on your forehead says: “You were dead in your trespasses.”

But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been baptized. Into his death for your trespasses.”

The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news.

Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple.

And that promise should give you not only joy, it should- as Paul says- shut your mouth up. It should stop whatever words of judgment you might have on your lips because the ash marks us out as those who know that the Judge was judged in our place.

Of all the people in world we should be the least judgiest. Or at least the quickest to own up to it.

——————————

     “Where is our humility when we examine the mistakes of others?” Frances Lee asks in her essay.

“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world. And yet grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in my circles.”

Humility and Grace and Forgiveness- in this circle at least, they shouldn’t be hard to find.

And that’s my final point:

The most important thing about the ashy cross you’re about to receive is that it won’t remain there.

You’re going to wash it off.

You’re going to wash it off because you’ve not only died with Christ to sin, but in your baptism you’ve been raised with Christ too. Because it’s not just that your sins have been reckoned to Christ, it’s that his purity has been imputed to you. As the Apostle Paul says in another Ash Wednesday reading: ‘He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that we might become the purity of God.’ 

He makes himself our sin.

He makes us his purity.

In other words-

However ‘woke’ you think are, whatever righteousness you have, whatever purity you have- it didn’t come from you.

Indeed, it had to come from outside of you.

By way of your baptism.

As gift.

Just to make sure you didn’t miss the offense of that exchange, Martin Luther referred to the purity we do posses as ‘alien.’

Our alien purity. Our alien righteousness. Alien- as in, we don’t have either, purity or righteousness, on our own.

So what you’re doing tonight, by wearing a cross and then, just as quickly, washing it off again, you’re puncturing the inflated anthropology our culture gives you. The flattering self-image to which our culture would convert you- tonight, you’re kicking it in the ash, and you’re opting instead for a low anthropology.

As stern and old fashioned as it sounds, with ash you’re insisting that ‘No, we’re not- none of us- basically good people who are doing our best so that God can do the rest.’

We’re worse than flawed. We’re more than broken. ‘Nobody’s perfect’ doesn’t begin to put it right. We’re sinners.

And that’s how what we do here tonight is about love actually.

Such a sober assessment about ourselves is the only true path to patience and empathy and understanding for another- because acknowledging the worst about you is the surest way for you to accept it another.

So, ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, what you do with ash tonight has everything to do with that other holiday tonight.

For, if the fruit of a low anthropology is compassion and empathy and understanding and acceptance, then

Being able to say “I am a sinner who deserves to die” is the necessary precondition to saying “I love you, unto death.”

 

 

Last week my friend and podcast partner, Taylor Mertins, cribbing from a podcast we did with Fleming Rutledge last Ash Wednesday, argued that the trend of ‘Ashes-to-Go’ must go. I concur with much of what Taylor wrote and I applaud Fleming’s larger point that we who claim the Protestant mantle have become overly fixated on the sacramental-seeming to the detriment of the actual kerygma.

I also see the other side of the argument.

Ashes are not sacraments. Indeed to argue ‘What’s next, drive by eucharist?’ is to underscore Fleming’s point that we don’t know what we’re doing with the ashes in or out of the church.

Of all the things we do as Church, ashes express that which is most existentially and universally felt: you’re going to die (and you’re probably a sinner too). Despite what Fleming says, I’m not sure that requires a scripture text or interpreter for someone to know in their bowels it’s true. I may be self-justifying as I’ve both given and received ashes, not outside in a parking lot, but in a hospital ward shorn of any exegesis or expositor. Because I can see the validity to the counter point, I invited my colleague, Michelle Matthews, to write an apologia for ashes-to-go.

Here you go:

Two years ago I bit my theologically-trained tongue and publically mixed olive oil and ashes for the first time at the back table of our local Peets’ Coffee. That morning, I slapped on my collar and a nametag that read “Ask Me for Ashes”, pitched a quaint storefront chalkboard sign that read “Ashes-to-Go with a Cup of Joe,” and waited, somewhat nervously, for a stranger to approach, someone whose coffee I could buy, whose prayers I could share, whose ashes I could impose.

I could say that doing Ashes-to-Go was merely a practical decision on my part. That if my church had a building, I would have had an Ash Wednesday service. That as a new church planter, without yet a space or a discernible and consistent gathered community, taking ashes to the coffee shop was circumstantial and therefore deemed acceptable for me and those like me.

I could say this, I could explain it away, but to do so would support the common and characteristically condescending assumption that us church planter types get to play at church, do “Ash Wednesday light,” with ashes in one hand and a macchiato in the other, while the rest of the clerical lot in the real world get church right, bearing the burden for us all of liturgical preservation, corporate worship, and communal teaching on a day such as Ash Wednesday.

To say it was a merely practical or circumstantial church-planting decision would also be to undermine the courageous willingness by clergy at churches of all types and sizes to, like the Apostle Paul, try something possibly theologically questionable for the sake of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.

I could say it was simply a decision of convenience, but it wasn’t. It isn’t.

Taking ashes to the streets, the metro, the coffee shop – the work of carefully adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the public square – is a prayerful, purposeful, and pivotal decision within the Church in post-Christendom.

When I say prayerful, I don’t mean the kind of prayer that critics of Ashes-to-Go obsess is missing from its representations. I’m not talking about the kind of prayer that is artfully crafted and nestled appropriately within a liturgy, of which a worshipping community consciously and responsively takes part before the imposition of ashes.

No, when I say prayerful, I’m talking about the kind of prayer that is paying attention. The kind of eyes-wide-open prayer where we vulnerably lend ourselves to seeing what God sees, hearing what God hears, where we open ourselves up to conversations, questions, stares, and even concerns of unaffiliated people, who by the grace of God and our presence, now have a fresh curiosity about what the Church uniquely has to offer the world in Jesus.

For the mom in the coffee shop, inclining her body to receive the ashes while tearfully whispering her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Lord in your mercy.

For the jaded and self-professed “ex-catholic” man who, after reluctantly receiving ashes, insists on knowing what kind of church accepts “lady priests”. Lord in your mercy.

For the 19 year old barista watching skeptically from a distance until on his break he pulls up a chair to ask all the questions swirling in his head about God. Lord in your mercy. 

For the Hindu man at the neighboring table quietly googling Ash Wednesday and then asking permission to receive ashes because of its “coherence with the virtues of Hindu faith.” Lord in your mercy.

For the woman exceedingly grateful for a complimentary coffee who later returns with her entire book club for communal prayer and ashes. Lord in your mercy.

The decision to take ashes to the street corner or the coffee shop is wholly prayerful and wholly Lenten, as my friend, United Methodist church planter Brian Johnson, believes. “If Lent is calling people to repentance, including people who aren’t otherwise listening for God, beckoning people to turn and encounter Jesus,” Brian says, “then Ashes-to-Go is our best shot of doing this all year.” 

Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, but it’s also purposeful.

When I say purposeful, I don’t mean to chalk it up as another strategy for church growth, another attempt at making the church relevant in the Innovation Age. When I say purposeful, I mean that adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the world is a decisive culture-setting, identity-driving work within a mainline denomination like the United Methodist Church, where we have spread ourselves so theologically thin, attempting to be the church for all people, that we no longer know who we are.

Who we are is embodied in our worship, vivified in our prayers, hymns, creeds, and history. As who we are becomes more and more obscure to us, it feels safe and righteous, within the panic of losing who we are, to hoard, preserve, and protect our liturgies and sacred habits from the world’s dilution. In so doing, though, we create further barriers between the church and a growing populous who will stay away from the church, not because the church is antiquated or irrelevant, hypocritical or judgmental, but because they have no opinion of the Church at all as we have not adapted our shared language and practice to adequately introduce the world to who we are and why church is worth contemplating anyways.

My friend Matt Benton, pastor of Spirit & Life Church, sees this lack of identity, this lack of discernable culture, even within our United Methodist church plants. “In many ways, our church planting culture has been borrowed from the non-denominational world,” Matt says, “but it hasn’t served us well.”

Ashes-to-Go becomes a means to ecclesial distinction. It is culture-setting, identity-driving. It pulls back the veil and approachably shares with the community who we are. “It says, ‘We do Lent. We do Advent. We do ashes. We do palms. We embody a faith with more than a 50 year (or even 200 year) history,’” says Matt.

Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, purposeful, and, dare I say, pivotal for the Church in post-Christendom. When I say pivotal, I mean the word in its etymological richness. The United Methodist Church’s willingness to carefully adapt and translate our private, sacred liturgies for the public square, our ability to communicate who we are and why it matters to our communities, is the hinge pin, the pivot point, I believe, on which the Church currently spins.

As Brian and Matt reminded me:

Adapting, translating, and trying something theologically questionable

for the sake of the mission

is what Methodists do.

Our ordination does not afford us the luxury of being pretentious about our liturgy. For John Wesley the mission was always greater than the details of what was deemed liturgically and theologically proper.

Taking ashes to the streets and coffee shop is to dust off our fear of evangelism and proclaim who we are and why it matters amidst the backdrop of the Church’s growing invisibility. For my friend Kate Floyd, the offering of ashes and prayers from an Arlington metro station is to proclaim that “none of us have it together, that it’s okay to be broken, and that God in Jesus Christ meets us where we are in our life and in our mess with radical grace” – a message Kate believes people do not hear enough from the church.

There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, space created to turn Christians away from our navel-gazing, to reorient us to our shared mortality, brokenness, and need for God’s healing, to remind us that forgiveness begins with repentance and that we cannot save ourselves. There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, but the necessary pivot lies in us realizing that as beautiful as Ash Wednesday is, it is an intensely internal and unintelligible thing to a world where the church is rapidly becoming inconsequential.

This is Us

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

I closed out our Epiphany series through Galatians by tackling my least favorite passage of scripture, excepting Proverbs and James.

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  

Thanks to having binge-watched season 7 of Game of Thrones this weekend I can scratch fornication off of Paul’s list.

And Thursday afternoon I had a meeting with Steve, one of our lay leaders, so, as inexorable as water around a rock, I had quarrels, factions, and dissension checked off that list in under an hour.

You can ask Ali about my envy. She’ll tell you it’s not easy for me to be green.

The bible tells you so about my idolatry but my bank account and my Facebook feed and my every day could confirm it for you.

Just last week we took our boys to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and we bought both of them not only magical wands but robes- sorcerer’s robes- and not even robes from House Gryffindor, the good guys, but from Slytherin, the House of the Dark Lord.

So, sorcery? Check

Not to mention, this was Orlando, where even 2 traveler’s tablets of Advil at Disney World cost $11.00, therefore those 2 wands and those 2 sorcerer’s robes set me back- before tax- approximately $900.00.

But Ali insisted we were there “to make memories.”

Anger.

Check.

Don’t forget, I went to UVA and Princeton where drunkenness and carousing and licentiousness are practically club sports.

So check and check and check.

And thanks to Trump’s stock market- I mean, Obama’s stock market- I can cross off enmity and strife and even impure thoughts of rage and violence.

When it comes to the works of the flesh, I’ve got them covered.

If this were a Honey-Do List, I’ve done them all.

I’m like a brown-noser of bad behavior.

And don’t lie- that’s on another naughty list- you’ve got this list pretty well covered too. Sure, given how sexy I am it’s not your fault I afflict you with impure, licentious thoughts, but the other items on this list- those are on you.Anger, quarrels, dissension, factions- you all check those off just by how you treat Dennis on a day-to-day basis.

And I’ve heard about the adult pool parties in the summer (Riverside Gardens, Stratford Landing, I’m looking at you). Nearly all of you should take out your bibles and a red pen right now and scratch off drunkenness, carousing, and maybe fornication too.

Seriously, I’ve been here long enough to know that most of you all are just one bad day away from tales that would make the tabloids if you were famous.

Most of you would love to have a John Kelly keeping your secrets.

I’ve got this list covered and so do you. This list- this is us.

What about that other list?

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

How are you doing with that list?

Generosity? How about we pass the offering plate again and then ask you to answer?

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe you don’t hear this list as an accusation. Maybe you don’t think Christianity is easier said than done. Maybe for you every Sunday here doesn’t feel like an appointment with a Great Physician who lies and tells you you won’t feel a thing.

If so, congratulations. Gold star to you.

As of me, right after the entire Book of James, without a doubt, this is my least favorite piece of scripture. Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list because then I’d have to be honest with you. I’d have to own up to the fact that not even my own mother would use 8 of those 9 attributes to describe me.

I just turned 40.

I’ve been a Christian- or at least I was thought I was a Christian- for 22 years. I have 2 theology degrees. I have thousands of books on Christianity in my office. I know several psalms by heart, and I can recite John 13 from memory- in Greek. But if this is what a genuine, authentic, Holy Spirit-filled Christian does on a daily basis, I’m a fraud.

I mean, I’ve got ‘love’ down, I guess.

I love my kids.

Of course, I love my kids. How could I not? They think I’m awesome.

I tell my wife I love her, and sometimes I show her it’s true. I tell myself I love God and I tell you that I even comprehend what that means. I’m good at preaching about how we should love our enemies, but I’m not even sure if ‘Chase’ is my neighbor’s first name or last. So, I’ve got ‘love’ down.

22 years and, at best, as far as I can tell, on a consistent basis I’m 1 for 9.

If 9/9 is the expectation for who we will be and what we will do on Jesus, then Jesus just ought to give back the heart I gave to him all those years ago. Because even my mommy would tell you, my basket of fruit is so bare nothing but blind faith could ever lead you to believe it won’t always be so.

Forget crock-pots and melodrama, staring down 1/9- this is us. This is us.

Dorothy Fortenberry is a Hollywood screenwriter who writes The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu. In post-Christian California, Fortenberry is also unabashedly religious not spiritual. In an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, she explains her odd habit of going to church every Sunday.

She writes:

“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed.

It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. It must be so comforting.”

I do not find religion to be comforting in the way that I think nonreligious people mean it.

It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands.

Thanks to church, I have a much stronger sense of the sort of person I would like to be, and every Sunday I am forced to confront all the ways in which I fail, daily.

Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection basket.

Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size.

None of this is particularly comforting.

I come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction because we’re all broken individuals united only by our brokenness, traveling together to ask to be fixed. It’s like a subway car. It’s like the DMV.

Church is like The Wizard of Oz: we are each missing something, and there is a person in a flowing robe whom we trust to hand over the promise that the something we’re missing will be provided.”

Note the passive voice.

We’re all missing something and we’re here to receive the promise that the something we’re missing will be provided.

When we hear this list as telling us who we should be or what we ought to do- in Paul’s terms- we twist this from Gospel back into Law.

     As a Christian, you should be generous. As a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, you ought to be patient and kind. Become more gentle and joy-filled! That way of hearing turns this list into the Law.

And that’s my first point.

(I know, another 3-point sermon! I may not be kind but I can be consistent.)

This is my first point:

This list is not the Law.

It is descriptive; it is not prescriptive. It’s proclamation; it’s not exhortation. They are indicatives. They are not imperatives. Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.” Paul does not say: “Become more patient.” To turn the fruit of the Spirit into aspirations or expectations of who you will be or what you will do as a Christian is to stumble back into the Law just like the Galatians.

As Paul said earlier, if the Law is in any way necessary for us to follow then Jesus Christ died for absolutely no reason.

To hear this list as goals or, worse, a code of conduct is to hear it as Law, and the Law, Paul says, always accuses, reminding you of who you’re not, what you’re lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete you are.

As Law, this list just reinforces the message you see and hear in ads 3,000 times a day: You’re not good enough.

If it’s Law then this just accuses us because there’s always more money you could’ve left in the plate, there’s always someone for whom you have neither patience nor kindness, there’s always days- if you’re like me, whole weeks even- when you have no joy.

But this list is not Law and your lack of joy or gentleness does not make you an incomplete or inauthentic Christian.

Because notice- After Paul describes the works of the flesh, the works we do, Paul doesn’t pivot to our ‘works of faithfulness.’ Paul doesn’t say ‘the works of the flesh are these…but the works of faith are these…’ No, he changes the voice completely.

He shifts from the active voice to a passive image: fruit. He says Fruit of the Spirit not Works of Faith.

     You see, the opposite of our vice isn’t our virtue.

The opposite of our vice is the vine of which we are but the branches. When Paul speaks of our life lived in light of the Gospel, he shifts to a passive image.

 What you do not hear in any vineyard is the sound of anyone’s effort.

Except the Gardener.

Fruit do not grow themselves; fruit are the byproduct of a plant made healthy. To think that you’re responsible for cultivating joy and kindness in your life now that you’re a Christian is to miss Paul’s entire point- his point that, apart from Christ’s bleeding and dying for you, you are dead in your sins.

Apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ you are a dead plant, but by your baptism you have been made alive such that now in you and through you the Holy Spirit can grow fruit.

     This list is not the Law because the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of the Gospel.

It’s not fruit you gotta go get or do. It’s passive. It’s not what you do but what the pardon of God produces in you in spite of still sinful you.

In quantifying, life-hacking culture of constant self-improvement, this passive image of fruit might be the most counter-cultural part of Christianity. It’s counter to much of Christian culture too. On the Left and the Right, so much of Christianity nowadays is just another version of what’s on your Fitbit. It’s all about behavior modification.

But what Paul is getting at here in his list is not the Law. It’s not about you becoming a better you. Tomato plants do not have agency. It’s not about you becoming a better you. It’s about God making you new. Joy, gentleness, peace and patience- these are not the attributes by which you work your way to heaven. This is the work heaven is doing in you here on earth.

And that’s my second point:

    The fruit of the Spirit are for your neighbor.

When you hear Paul’s list as Law, you think that this is prescription for who you must be and what you must do in order to be right before God.

But the Gospel is that Christ by his obedience has fulfilled all the righteousness that the Law requires of you. He’s fulfilled the demands of the Law for you. And he bore all your failures to follow the Law upon the cross. Because of Jesus Christ, though you are not, God reckons you as righteous. God credits Christ’s righteousness to you as though it were your own.

The Law, Paul has said, no longer has any power to condemn you. There is now, Paul says in Romans, no condemnation for those who are in Christ and to whom his righteousness has been imputed. Your sins are forgiven, once for all.

     You are fit for heaven just as you are:

impatient and unkind, frequently faithless, and often harsh and out of control.

Every work of faith has already been done for you. As gift. And its yours by faith not by works.

No work you do, no fruit you yield, adds anything to what Christ has already done for you. Everything. He’s done everything already.

Therefore

     God’s not counting. God’s forgotten how to count.

The God who longer counts your trespasses isn’t counting your good works either (thank God).

     God’s neither a score-keeper nor a fruit counter. 

The Gospel is that you are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith. Alone.

Ergo-

The fruit of the Gospel is not for your justification. It’s for your neighbor. It’s a community garden the Spirit is growing in you.

God doesn’t need your love or your peace or your patience. God certainly doesn’t need your generosity. God doesn’t need any of them, but your neighbor does.

I mean, Paul’s repeated it like 100 times thus far:

For freedom Christ has set you free.

Christ didn’t set you free for fruit.

Christ freed you for freedom. Not for a return on his investment.

Christ freed you for freedom. Not so you can clean yourself up and get your act together.

Christ freed you for freedom. Not so you can go out and earn back what he paid for you. And not so you can build a Kingdom only he can bring.

Paul’s not blinking and he’s not BS-ing.

For freedom Christ has set you free.

There’s no one else you have to be before God.

And there’s nothing else you have to do for God.

But for the sake of your neighbor…God will yet make you loving and gentle and joyous.

You see, the question that the fruit of the Spirit should provoke in you is NOT “What must I do now that God has saved me?”

No, the question the fruit of the Spirit should lead you to ask is this one: “What work is God doing in me and through me-in spite of sinful me- for the sake of my neighbor?” And the answer to that question can only come to us by the same route our justification comes: by faith alone.

And that leads to my final point: the fruit of the Spirit teach us that not only are you justified by faith apart from your works, very often you’re justified by faith apart from your everyday experience.

By faith apart from your feelings.

Forget Christmas and the resurrection, in no small part, what it means to have faith is to believe about you what your feelings can’t seem to corroborate.

The biggest obstacle to faith isn’t science- only an idiot would think that.

The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror.

I know it about a whole lot of you. Surely you know it about you too. You’re not always kind or patient or generous.

Yet the Gospel promises and the Gospel invites you to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work like a patient Gardener to yield in you and harvest from you kindness and patience and generosity.

And that’s an even bigger leap of faith than it sounds because because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular. As in, it’s all one gift: Love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and all the rest. God’s working all of it, every one of them, in you.  Even though you might feel at best you have only a few of them.

God’s working all of them, every one of them, in you. Which makes the Spirit’s work in you is as mysterious and invisible as what the Spirit does to water and wine and bread and the word.

     The fruit of the Spirit is a matter of faith not feeling.

By your baptism in to his death and resurrection, you are in Jesus Christ.

You are.

No ifs, ands, or buts. Nothing else is necessary.

And if you are in Christ, then the Spirit is at work in you.

No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications.

No matter what your life looks like

No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

No matter how up and down, there and back again, is your faith

No matter how bare feel your basket to be.

If you are in Christ, Christ’s Spirit is in you.

And the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you what your eyes cannot see and what your feelings cannot confirm.

God works in mysterious ways, we say all the time without realizing each of us who are in Jesus Christ are one of those mysteries.

Joy, peace, love, gentleness…as unbelievable as seems…this is us.

Dorothy Fortenberry is on in the mystery and puts it better than me:

“Being a screenwriter in Los Angeles is like being on a perpetual second date with everyone you know. You strive to be your most charming, delightful, quirky-but-not-damaged self because you never know what will come of the encounter.

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting.

Constantly feeling that you should be meeting people, impressing people, shocking people (just the right amount) is a strange way to live your life.

And one of the reasons that I go to church is that church is the opposite of that.

I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago.

I am not special at church, and this is the point. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally bad and equally beloved children of God.

We are all exactly the same amount of sinful and special. The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel ashamed by are beside the point.

I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality. Even better, I’m not my personality because Church is not about how I feel.

It’s about faith.

It’s about looking at the light until our eyes water, waiting to receive the promise that the something missing in us (love or joy, or peace) will be provided.

 

 

 

You might very well think the Donald is a disaster in the White House, but is he exactly the disruptive force the bloated United Methodist Church needs? Friend of the podcast, pastor and author Christy Thomas, talks with us about the value of barbarians for bureaucratic blight, upsetting an unhelpful status quo and possibly razing present structures for future effectiveness.

Oh, and she also gives the United Methodist Church a 5% chance of existing beyond 2020 so it’s a cheerful episode.

If you’re receiving this by email and the player doesn’t come up on your screen, you can find the episode at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

Help us reach more people: 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.

Help support the show!

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Do people change? Or does God declare us to be that which we are manifestly not? Imputation vs. impartation? How do we find a gracious God?

We talk about justification in our latest episode of (Her)Men*You*tics, the doctrine at the heart of the Christian faith.

If you’re receiving this by email and the player doesn’t come up on your screen, you can find the episode at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

Help us reach more people: 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.

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

 

Sacramental Scars

Jason Micheli —  February 5, 2018 — Leave a comment


I guest preached at Plantation UMC in Ft Lauderdale this Sunday. The theme given to me was ‘Dreaming of Healing’ and I chose Genesis 32 and Galatians 6 as my texts.

I like Jacob.

I like Jacob even though its not clear from the biblical witness 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 in 2018 is a little like naming your kid ‘Donald.’

In Hebrew ‘Jacob’ means: heel-grabber, hustler, over-reacher, supplanter, scoundrel, trickster, liar, 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 – the 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 of the 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.’

Yet, 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, wives and a 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 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 and in to 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’s 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 brown nose up at Jacob.

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

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 you-know-what really doesn’t stink and so whenever the you-know-what 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 after 2 years of living with incurable cancer, after 8 rounds of stage-serious chemo, after a dozen more rounds of maintenance chemo, after 1 surgery and thousands of needle pricks and transfusions and panic attacks and wondering if my wife wonders if wedding me was worth it…

Jacob might be the one person who would never dream of sending someone like me a card that said:

“God never gives you more than you can handle.”

Someone like Jacob would never cross-stitch a cliche like that onto oven mitts and leave them with a casserole at my front door.

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

Jacob has the scars to prove it- the only good news is that God meets us in the very midst of that which we cannot handle.

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I spent last Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network.

Before my chemo infusion, my oncologist felt me up for lumps and red flags.

Like he’d done at my previous two visits, the doctor flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and, with a sharpie, sketched out the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Despite the title of my book, cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

When the doctor was done feeling me up, my nurse came to poke around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show.

Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what they’re promising.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

Seriously, I said: “I dunno.”

I mean, I’m no Hedy Collver but I am a duly ordained reverend.

A question like that about faith and heaven and eternal life should be my bible bread and butter but the best I could do was shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I did better on her follow up. Another where question.

She smoothed out my crinkled chemo tube and she asked me: “Do you ever wonder where God is…considering…your situation?”

Now it was my turn to stare and study her.

“You see a lot of people lose their faith in a place like this. I guess it can be hard to believe there’s a God somewhere in the universe when there’s places like this in it too.”

“Your problem,” I said, “is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

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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.

It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?”

The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches 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.

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 and all the unhelpful questions and cliches it begets.

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 and healing 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- the healing 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 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.

That’s why the bread is broken and 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.

“Your problem is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

But I could tell from the squint behind her purple glasses that I hadn’t done much better than “I dunno.”

She didn’t follow me.

“Look,” I said, “since you’re the lesbian evangelist nurse, this might come in handy the next time you see someone on the ledge of faith. Tell them: ‘God didn’t give you cancer, but if God is to be found anywhere it’s in your experience of cancer.’”

And even as I said it, I realized I was saying it as much for me as for anyone.

That I was the one she might one day spot on the ledge of faith.

You see-

I don’t just like Jacob.

I don’t just think we need Jacob.

I need Jacob.

And I need the hope that comes with that new name God gives to him as the dark turns to dawn, the hope that if, in faith, I meet him on the field on which he chooses to reveal himself, my suffering and shame and weakness, then my scars too can become sacraments, not just wounds by places where the wounded hands of a Savior have graced me.

I need Jacob.

I need the promise that one day that “You have struggled with God and prevailed…” can be my name too.

That I can be called Israel.

 

 

On the heels of POTUS’ SOTU, with its alleged dog-whistles and nativismIn, it’s tempting for Christians to think we’re called to make this world a better place.

It’s just such thinking as this and in such times as this, John Nugent argues, that the Gospel becomes endangered.

In what Nugent calls the “Kingdom-Centered Gospel,” God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.

So- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People. God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel. God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King. And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.

God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.

God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.

God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.

What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People. 

And this is the plan God continues in Jesus.

God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.

Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts. Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future. Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.

From the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.

So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom. The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom. They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.

It’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.

New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait.

New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve.

And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.

The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.

The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.

That’s the Gospel.

 

As John Nugent says:

The Gospel does not call us to change the world.

     The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.

     The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.

     The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.

Or we’re supposed to be.

But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our political party than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture, more invested in diversity as a political value than in the rough and tumble process of being a congregation with people we think are crazy.

John Nugent warns that when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.

When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the political means- we get in God’s way.

Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world. We are the change God has already made in the world.

Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.

More so than simply arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.

While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community who confesses, unashamedly so, their sin on a weekly basis, even our sin of racism, a community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.

Economic policy, the Supreme Court, National Security- they’re important, sure, but they’re not the Gospel. We’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage. We’re supposed to be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community. We’re supposed to be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.

In such divisive, chaotic times it’s tempting to think we’re called to make this world a better place.

We’re not.

We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.

As a pastor in a congregation split down the middle, we’ve got all the work we can handle just trying to be who God called us to be.

Here’s my sermon from Galatians 3 for this weekend.

I spent this Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

Now if you’ll feel really bad if you fall asleep during my sermon.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network. On Tuesday my nurse poked around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show. Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what Skynet is promising.”

“Skynet?”

“Nevermind.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

———————-

     Seriously, your duly ordained reverend shrugged his shoulders and said: “I dunno.” No wonder Young Life rejected me as a leader in college. A question like that should be my bible bread and butter.

You people pay me a salary and benefits- too much, Lew says- but someone asks me point blank about faith and heaven and eternal life and the best I can do is shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I was so inarticulate with her you’d think it would take a miracle for me to give her the Gospel.

———————-

     The Apostle Paul says that God has spoken to us in two different words, Law and Gospel, that’s what he’s getting at in the end of our reading today.

And in another of his epistles, Paul urges believers to learn how to rightly divide the Word between Law and Gospel.

And here in today’s text in Galatians 3 we see one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.

The Law does not bring the Holy Spirit:

“Answer me one question: did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the Law or by believing the Gospel?”

      It’s not just that what you do for God does nothing for you and your standing before God; it’s that the Holy Spirit does not come to you through what you do for God.

The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of charity or compassion. The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of piety or hospitality. The Holy Spirit does not come through your spirituality.

Or your service to the poor. Or your standing up for social justice.

Obeying the Law does not bring the Holy Spirit. Following the Sermon on the Mount does not bring the Holy Spirit. Imitating Jesus does not bring the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit comes to us not by what we do. The Holy Spirit only comes to us by trusting the promise that all has been done. By Christ. That’s Paul’s point here in Galatians, that in exchanging the Gospel for the Law they’ve exorcised the Spirit:

“When God gives you the Spirit…is it because you keep the Law, or is it because you believe the Gospel?”

Those who were best at discipleship and bible study and prayer nailed God to a tree.

If that doesn’t reveal the Law’s inability to make you righteous and justified then the gift of the Holy Spirit should be a convincing Exhibit B.

That’s what Paul is arguing at top of chapter 3:

“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified…Did you receive the Holy Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by faith in the Gospel you heard?”

The Holy Spirit was present in thunder and fire and wind at the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

But after that first Pentecost on Mt. Sinai, the Holy Spirit did not come to anyone through following the Law.

Not to Moses or the Prophets. Not to John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit did not come even to Paul back when he was Saul and following the Law so fully as to be blameless before it.

The Holy Spirit did not come to anyone doing the Law. The Holy Spirit only came to those who trusted the Gospel.

When Peter preached the Gospel at the second Pentecost and the crowds received it by faith, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. When Phillip was explaining the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit came to him and baptized him, this most untouchable of outsiders. While Peter was sharing the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the Holy Spirit came over him, the enemy. And the Galatians- they received not only the Gospel from Paul but the Holy Spirit too, Gentiles all of them.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through the Gospel not the Law.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through trusting in what Christ has done for us not in our own doing for Christ.

Through faith not works- not, even, your work of worship.

We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as this mysterious, mystical, subjective spirit inside of us, and, as a consequence, people like us- people who tend not to raise their hands during hymns or dance in the aisles or speak in tongues- tend not to speak about the Holy Spirit.

Because we don’t look or act or worship like charismatics, we all quietly conspire to assume that we must not be spirit-filled.

You can take it from the reverend: that’s nonsense.

Mysterious and mystical and subjective- emotional: nothing could be further from how St. Paul and even Jesus talk about the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not primarily something we experience subjectively inside of us because the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to mediate something that is objective, outside of us, something that is historical before it is emotional: Jesus Christ.

     The Holy Spirit comes with the Gospel not the Law because the Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ promised in the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just any spirit but the Spirit of the Crucified Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence in our world of the absent Christ.

How Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit is how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room:

“The Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father;  about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

According to Jesus explicitly and echoed by St. Paul, the Holy Spirit, as the presence of the absent Christ, mediates the work of Christ to us and the Holy Spirit does so in 3 ways.

1. The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

2. The Holy Spirit mediates the priestly work of Christ.

3. The Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ as King.

I thought I’d preach another 3-point sermon just to show off how I can keep my New Year’s resolutions longer than you.

So my first point…

———————-

    The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

Or, as Jesus puts it in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, therefore, is not experiential but ethical. It’s not the role of the Holy Spirit to give you a transcendent personal experience; the golden calf gave God’s People a transcendent personal experience.

     Ignore your Pentecostal in-laws.

     Your emotions are not reliable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity in your life.

     But your contrition is.

Because Jesus says it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to teach you about yourself.

It’s the Spirit’s work to show you, prophetically, the truth about you and the world to which, at best, you’re a guilty bystander.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose is not like Kevin Bacon’s in Footloose.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions and get you to dance and sing with abandon. King David did that in front of the ark and that story ends as badly as it did for Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to break down your lies and your self-justifications.

To cut you, as the Spirit did at Pentecost, to the heart.

This is why Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, as in, the Attorney. The Holy Spirit prosecutes Christ’s case against our greedy, eye-for-an-eye world of white-washed tombs. And the Holy Spirit does so by cutting us and speaking the accusation of the Law into our broken hearts.

I know for you baby-boomers who have an overly optimistic self-estimation (even after the Clinton administration) that any talk of sin turns you off, but the Holy Spirit’s work to convict us of the s-word isn’t bad news.

So often when we become aware of our sin we suppose that God must be angry with us or far off from us.

No. Your awareness of your sin is all the evidence you need that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself.

For self-deceivers like us- if you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you don’t measure up, that you need to be forgiven, that’s an achievement. You’ve outdone even the President Trump.

To know you need forgiven- that’s proof the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

For self-justifiers like us- if you can read the newspaper and name racism as sin, sexism as sin, nationalism as sin, in a culture of fake fake news that’s an accomplishment.

Not everyone can do that- that’s proof of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ working on you.

————————-

     But the Holy Spirit doesn’t just convict us of our sin, the Holy Spirit comforts us as well, which brings me to my second point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the priestly work of Christ.

Jesus in the Upper Room calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, the Comforter, but Jesus doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, there for you to call whenever you’re feeling sad and lonely.

Jesus doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is a hug from heaven anytime you need one.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter in the sense that, after convicting us of our sin, the Holy Spirit mediates to us the comfort accomplished by Christ our Great High Priest.

That is, the Holy Spirit assures us of Christ as the forgiveness of our sins and the source of all our righteousness.

Contrary to how Christians often (mis)speak, the Holy Spirit is not in you. Your conscience is in you. And the Holy Spirit, who is outside of you, speaks into you. Into your conscience.

As Martin Luther said, the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s priestly work to us by being a Preacher, that if Christ and his Cross are the pledge of the Father’s love for you, then the Holy Spirit is the Preacher of that promise.

And like any preacher of the Church, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim, and the Holy Spirit preaches that particular promise by attaching to particular things: to the Word, to Water, to Wine and Bread.

And, heads up, this particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call BS on counterfeit preachers like Joel Osteen, who speaks of the Spirit through his toothy vacant smile but even while speaking of the Spirit neglects to speak of our sinfulness.

Joel O (baby-boomer) says sin is a downer.

And instead of Christ’s righteousness, Joel O invokes the Holy Spirit so that we can accrue our own righteousness, of which prosperity is the sign.

The particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call foul on the TV preachers. Ditto the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams and the Al Sharptons. The Holy Spirit might be an accuser of our politics. But the Holy Spirit is not a Preacher of our politics.

Like me, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim to you:

Cross and Resurrection

Grace

The Gospel:

The forgiveness of your sins

The gift of Christ’s righteousness reckoned as your own

Despite how trendy it is to say today, the Holy Spirit does not speak a new word. The Spirit is still speaking, but the Spirit speaks the same word, over and over, in new and different ways. The One by whom the Word was made flesh is now the Preacher of the Gospel Word to our flesh.

———————-

     And St. Paul says that Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, frees us from captivity under the Law to be his subjects under grace, which brings me to my final point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the work of Christ as King.

As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room, the Spirit “will prove the ruler of this world wrong for the ruler of this world has been condemned.” 

He’s talking about Satan, whom St. Paul calls the Power of Sin, who- in case you haven’t read the newspapers or checked Twitter lately- doesn’t appear to have been deposed.

Because our world in no way looks like anyone has defeated the Power of Sin, the Holy Spirit gives us faith.

When Protestant Christians speak of the solas, faith alone and scripture alone, this is what we mean. We mean that only by faith alone can we possibly believe the Good News isn’t fake news. Because everywhere our eyes would have us believe the opposite.

———————-

     When St. Paul writes about the curse of Christ’s cross and our redemption, he uses the aorist tense; that is, his cross and our redemption are concurrent.

They happen at the same time.

Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Galatians receiving the Gospel in faith and their receiving the Holy Spirit, he uses the aorist again.

They’re concurrent.

———————-

     The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith.

They’re concurrent, which means our faith in the Gospel is not our doing. Our faith is not another work of the Law because our faith is not our work. It’s not an accomplishment.

Which gets back to my undercover lesbian evangelist nurse-

Maybe my pathetic dribbler of an answer to her question was accidentally more biblical and Yoda-like than I intended. Because if the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith, then “I dunno” isn’t a half-bad answer for me or for you.

Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up.

It’s all miracle.

Look, I used to hate questions like the one my nurse asked me Tuesday: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

Like every good liberal Mainline Christian, I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers.

I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got the medical bills to prove that eternity’s no longer abstraction for me, but, while the question is a reduction of the Gospel, it’s also true that if you can’t answer the question simply and straight-up then you don’t understand the Gospel.

It’s another simple formula:

     Your sins are forgiven.

Christ’s righteousness is your own.

Ergo, as far as eternity goes, you already have everything necessary.

     How much faith or how little faith you have in that matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith:

Jesus Christ.

And whatever sized faith you have to receive this news you’re sitting on a miracle. It’s not your doing. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So if that undercover lesbian evangelist nurse ever asks you that same question, like Peter Venkman advises in Ghostbusters: For God’s sake, say yes.

Say yes:

With water the Holy Spirit drowned me in Christ’s death for my sins.

And with water the Holy Spirit raised me up to give me Christ’s righteousness for my heaven.

And even now the Holy Spirit gives me the miracle of faith to trust what my eyes cannot on their own believe.

Say yes.

Whether you say it sure of yourself or in spite of yourself, that you can say it at all is a miracle.

Is imitation flattery? In what way does creation and its creation reflect the Creator? What does it mean to imitate Jesus and is that even possible given that Jesus is the image of the invisible God?

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Thanks to professors at UVA and Princeton, I first fell in love with Martin Luther and John Calvin by tracking back to them through the footnotes in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Even Barth admitted he would’ve made a good Lutheran. The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this year past prompted me to reread a lot of Luther without Karl chaperoning. What I’ve (re)discovered in Luther is someone who is able to diagnose my dis-ease with evangelicalism.

One of the charms of Martin Luther (if you’re predisposed towards him) is how gun shy he was not when it came to polemic and bald assertion. More than any other church ‘father’ Luther wasn’t afraid to risk being wrong in arguing what was at stake in being right. In that same spirit, owing to Luther, here are three errors inherent in evangelicalism.

Proving that evangelicalism (or, really, pietism) is the water in which we all swim, these errors are just as often evident in the mainline church, especially in the UMC, as they are in your friendly neighborhood bible or baptist church.

Evangelicalism denies the complete reconciliation of humanity with God through the saving death of Christ upon the Cross, which amounts to a denial of Christ himself. Redemption, contrary to what you’ll hear from most evangelicals and- because they’re the majority- Methodists too, is complete.

The sins of the world, all of them, have been blotted out. Neither Christ nor Paul is a liar. It is finished; therefore, there is now no condemnation for sinners.

If Christ died for the sins of all people, then that’s the same as all people dying and making satisfaction for their sins. Nothing, therefore, is required of any of us save the faith which saves. Righteousness lies ready to be received it is not achieved.

Evangelicalism turns the Gospel into a conditional promise, contingent upon the disposition of the hearer. Whether it’s 3 biblical principles for an improved marriage, 5 tips to become a better you, 7 steps to tap into the fullness of the Spirit, or just inviting Jesus into your heart- all of which are derivative of the anxious bench altar call- evangelicalism is premised upon what you need to do to get to Christ rather than getting you to recognize that God in Christ has already gotten to you by coming down and dying for your sins and, by baptism, incorporated you into Christ fully.

The Gospel promise, shorn of any ifs ands or buts, is one in which we’re passive objects at best. In the Gospel, God carries the action of the verbs, for it is not Gospel if God is not the subject of the verbs.

Evangelicalism manipulates “faith” into a work by making it the mechanism by which we are the agents of our salvation. Evangelicalism, in other words, makes the same rhetorical blunder as the rich young ruler who asked “What must I do to be saved?” The answer to the rich young ruler is the same given to the jailor in Acts 16: “You are to do nothing except accept what God has done for you.”

Faith, according to the New Testament, is not a rational decision such that “making a decision for Christ” is what saves you; faith is the trusting recognition that Christ has saved you by his shed blood for sinners. Faith contributes nothing to salvation. Just as God created Adam’s world ex nihilo so God kills the Old Adam in us and makes of us a New Creation ex nihilo.

Faith does not contribute; faith clings to Christ who already contributed everything necessary for our salvation.

“The Word of God is not rightly divided between Law and Gospel when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law.”

Any reader already knows the truth of it.

Adverbs are the tell of every found-out liar. I whole-heartedly apologize for any offense I might have caused…

Adverbs are the trademark of every dime-per-word pulp fiction story. Sam Spade braced the suspect’s shoulders menacingly. 

Notice, no children’s book worth the encroachment into bedtime employs the little modifiers that most often end in -ly, not because Timmy can’t handle sounding-out ‘swiftly’ but because adverbs aren’t needed for a good and true story.

In case you were sleeping boorishly in high school English class, Stephen King helpfully explains:

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.

With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

In On Writing Stephen King asserts that “Fear is at the root of most bad writing.” The fingerprints of the fearful writer are adverbs.

Thank Christ whoever crafted the wedding vows- Thomas Cranmer, I believe- had the cahones to avoid the adverbial.

Consider how the common, seemingly harmless little adverb transforms the marriage covenant from a clear and simple (if terrifying) promise into a Sisyphean endeavor I can never know if I’m upholding aright.

Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

vs.

Will you sincerely love her, whole-heartedly comfort her, genuinely honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, resolutely forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

The former is merely an enormous and outrageous promise.

The latter is psychological torture.

Implied by and requisite to the Gospel is that neither my will nor the rest of me is free.

Consequently, I am a stranger to myself.

Most especially am I in the dark as to the truth of my motivations.

Whereas Thomas Cranmer had a pair in Stephen King’s estimation, the authors of the United Methodist Church Book of Worship were not likewise endowed, for in our eucharistic liturgy what we give in the invitation to Christ’s table we take away with adverbs:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

King, in On Writing, says adverbs signal a timid writer because they betray the writer’s lack of trust in the telling of the story thus far. The timid writer must tell you X slammed the door menacingly because the timid writer doesn’t trust you can deduce the character’s menacing character from the preceding prose.

Similarly the authors of the UMC’s eucharistic liturgy betray a fear about a lack in the Gospel story that they seek to remedy with adverbs.

The Gospel’s all about grace but it can’t be cheap so we got to make sure they’re earnest about their repentance…

As the angel Gabriel all but says to Mary and the shepherds, fear is the opposite of the Gospel. So then, the adverb doesn’t just weaken the Gospel- and the sacrament of which it is a sign- it transforms it.

From Good News to Bad.

From an invitation to the Table of Christ who is the friend of sinners, full stop.

To an invitation to the Table of Christ who is dinner date of sinners who really, truly, sincerely, whole-heartedly, resolutely repent of their sins.

The invitation to the Table, remember, is the Risen Christ’s invite to his Table, a Christ who initially provokes death threats precisely because he ate and drank (too much) with recalcitrant unrepentant sinners and prodigals who had not yet come to themselves.

The invitation to the Table, remember, is an invitation to his Table, where we feast on the bread and the wine which are the visible words of his full and final, once-for-all, forgiveness of your sin.

Where does a treasonous adverb like earnestly belong in such an invitation or on such a Table?

An adverb like earnestly makes your welcome to Christ’s Table conditioned not on the completeness of his cross for you (which happened objectively outside of you) but conditioned upon the sincerity of your interiority.

Of course, the bitter Gospel rub is that, apart from the Gospel and its edible form, you’re in absolutely no position to assess your interior state.

If Christ does not welcome me to his Table of visible, edible Gospel forgiveness until I am certain of my subjective earnestness about repentance of sin and neighbor love then, quite simply, the Eucharist is not a means of Grace but a work of the Law, in which case I’m relieved most United Methodist Churches ignore Wesley’s admonition about constant communion. Church-goers don’t deserve to be burdened with adverbs like earnestly on the daily basis Wesley would admonish we take communion.

Let me make it plain.

Here’s why we need to stop serving adverbs at the Table:

  1. The wine and bread are visible, tangible, edible signs of a promise that lies outside of us. Adverbs drive us to look within, the very opposite trajectory of the salvation to which the Table points. The truth of the Table is not determined by your disposition; therefore, the invitation to the Table cannot be premised upon the earnestness of your disposition. The strength of our faith; in other words, lies not in the strength of our faith but in the object of our faith, Jesus Christ and him crucified for un-earnest us.
  1. The New Testament witness is that we are prisoners to the Power of Sin (Romans 3) such that the good we wish (like coming to the Table in earnestness) is the good we cannot will (Romans 7). In bondage to the Power Sin, we’re in no position whatsoever to assess our ‘earnestness’ for repentance. As sinners we deceive no one else more so than ourselves. To staple a subjective inventory to the invitation is to insist upon something we cannot do and will only do in sin apart from the grace offered in the visible Gospel of bread and wine. The bitter irony of our adverbial invitation is that the very thing provided by the sacrament (sincerity of repentance given by God) is made a precondition to come to the sacrament.
  1. The adverb switches the agency. Earnestly. Sincerely. Whole-heartedly. The adverbs shift the focus from what God in Christ has done for us, once-for-all, to what we must do now for God. Adverbs make a hollow mannequin, says Chad Bird, that we nail to the cross in Christ’s place. We imply through the adverbial invitation that it’s the sincerity of our contrition that merits our seat at the Table. Because sinners like us can never know if we’re sincere enough, earnest enough, whole-hearted enough but the promise of the Gospel, made tangible in wine and bread is that Christ is the only enough. Adverbs are spiritual quicksand. Christ’s word of unmerited, unconditional forgiveness is solid rock that creates earnest repentance.

“The adverb is not your friend,” warns Stephen King.

Indeed perhaps no where is the adverb more your enemy than when the adverb comes between you and the banquet of heaven, duping you into believing that repentance is your work at all.

This is what the street preachers and most other preachers get wrong.

Repentance is God’s work.

As Chad Bird notes, God repents us is the better way to understand it.

Repentance is not a work we perform (or a decision we make or a disposition we determine). Repentance is a gift Christ gives. As with the Ninevites, as with the crowds at Jesus’ baptism, repentance is made possible by God’s encounter with us. Repentance is being encountered by God (in his word in the case of Jonah, in Christ in the Gospel of Mark and, for us, through word and sacrament).

The repentance insisted upon in our invitation is the same fare served up by the street preachers, and the reason the street preachers rub us the wrong way is that it’s bad news.

It throws all the work back on us and our ability to repent- that’s what leads to judgementalism; it’s works righteousness.

If my repentance is something I can accomplish then I’m liable to be judgemental about others who couldn’t or chose not to.

The good news is that none of us can repent on our own, we’re all lost sheep in the process of being found and the fact that God repents us regardless how earnest we feel about the matter is proof- in the eucharist, tangible edible proof- that God’s complete forgiveness is always prior to our repentance. The latter the product of the former.

Jesus Christ eats and drinks with sinners. This is his Table 

You’re welcome. 

No adverbs necessary.


Tommie Marshall has gone from the daughter of friend to someone my wife and I count a dear friend in her own right. She’s funny and perceptive and has an obvious call from God bearing down on her though she likes to shake off my suggestions to the effect. All in due time. Should the United Methodist Church exist beyond the next season of This is Us, we’d be happy to steal her from the Baptist Church of her upbringing.

Tommie has launched a podcast all her own called Backsliding.

She interviewed me a month or so back about my book and suffering.

Here it is.

And check out her podcast.

I keep pinching myself.

I’ll be leading a session with the inestimable Fleming Rutledge this April in NYC at the Mockingbird Conference.

If you’re a Fleming fan, you should check it out. It’s April 26-28 at Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church in Gramercy Park. You can find out more here.

Speaking of Fleming, check out the 2017 Recap Episode from Crackers and Grape Juice. The conversation covers a range of topics including bad episode titles, District Superintendents, Bishops, blowing up the UMC, final interviews, controversial topics, Jason’s nerves, and the Beyoncé of Anglicanism.

C&GJ 2018

Jason Micheli —  January 9, 2018 — Leave a comment

I started Crackers and Grape Juice upon returning from medical leave, wanting to commit myself to doing a better job staying in touch with friends like Teer Hardy. We’ve since spawned two other podcasts (Strangely Warmed and Hermeneutics) and we’re nearing our 150th episode.

We’re in the midst of scheduling our guests for 2018.

We’re also planning a live podcast in Durham with Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in March in partnership with our friends at Homebrewed Christianity.

Stay tuned.

If you’ve got suggestions for us, throw them my way. Here’s a taster of the interviews we’ve got coming your way in ’18:

James KA Smith – Awaiting the Kingdom

Charles Matthewes- White Evangelicalism has a Problem

Sarah Condon- Low Anthropology and Grace

Mark Galli of Christianity Today – Karl Barth for Evangelicals

Patton Dodd of The Atlantic – Struggling Communities and Supporting Churches

Jennifer Powell McNutt – People’s Book: The Bible According to the Reformation

Joseph Mitchell – Identity Politics

Kerry Boyd Anderson – Understanding the Middle East

David Zahl – Law and Grace

Chad Bird- Your God is Too Glorious

Tony Jones – Reverend Hunter

Angela Denker – Red State Christians: Meet the Voters Who Elected Trump

Mark Lilla – Once and Future Liberal

John Barclay – Paul and the Gift

Andy Crouch – The Tech Wise Family

Steven Paulson – Theology of the Cross

Cleophus Larue – Black Preaching

Tommie Marshall – Backsliding

Lori Erickson – Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God.

Chaim Saiman – The Spiritual But Not Religious Star Wars

Dyron Daughrity – Global Christianity

Rozella Haydée White – Theology for the People

returning friends Dr. Eric Hall, Tom Lynch, David Fitch, 

&

Fleming Rutledge

 

For the season of Epiphany, we’re preaching our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Certainly it’s Romans in utero. Possibly it’s the most revolutionary book of the New Testament. The text for this Sunday was Galatians 1.3-9, 2.21:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Shame on you-

All of you who’ve already kicked your Christmas trees to the curb like first wives and old lawn mowers, shame on you.

You all practically begin celebrating Christmas during Lent so the least you can do is keep the tree up until the season of Christmas is over.

Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the high holy day when the magi bring their gifts to the Christ child in his golden fleece diapers.

Epiphany always falls after the 12th Day of Christmas because it actually takes 12 days to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings.”

As a holiday, Epiphany is right up there with Ash Wednesday in terms of what it says about you and me. The name of the holiday says it all: Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday says that the grime outside on your forehead matches the grime inside in you, and the wages of sin is death; ergo, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Have a nice day.

Ash Wednesday- the takeaway for the day is built into the name.

Likewise, “Epiphany.”

Epiphany reminds us that you and I require one, an epiphany.

The name says it all.

Epiphany says that our situation before God is such that we cannot come to God or discover God- much less, follow God or have faith in God on our own, by our own lights, or through any innate ability that we possess.

We need an epiphany to discover the true God.

Epiphany says:

No-

You cannot find the true God on the golf course.

It doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual but not religious because neither spirituality nor religion can convey the Incarnate God to you.

Generic meditation cannot mediate the meaning of Christ and him crucified to you.

The takeaway for the day is in the name.

Just as the magi needed God to manipulate a Star in order to meet Christ, we need an epiphany; that is, we require a revelation from outside of us.

Epiphany is the opposite of what Luke Skywalker tells Rey in the Last Jedi just before Luke dies (oops). Luke tells Rey that the ability to find the Force lies within her.

Epiphany calls BS on Luke.

Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us, is not innate inside of us. The Gospel, the Apostle Paul says, is the power of God breaking into our world from outside of us, beyond us, which brings me to my first point.

I know, I never preach 3-point sermons but, hey, new year, new you, right?

———————-

     My first point is this:

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel does not come naturally to any of us.

It must be revealed.

Given as an epiphany by God.

As the Small Catechism puts it, when we profess in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re professing that “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Gospel does not come naturally to any of us because the Gospel comes as Jesus Christ and him crucified, which the bible says is foolishness to unbelievers and a stumbling block to believers.

And so we cannot afford to take the Gospel for granted and just get on with the hands-on “stuff” of Church: the serving and the Kingdom-building.

This is why St. Paul saves his harshest criticism for the churches in Galatia.

In Corinth, church members were having sex with their mother-in-laws, showing up drunk to the Lord’s Table, and fighting over scraps of meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a wilder read than Fire and Fury, yet St. Paul lays it on thick for the Corinthians. He calls them saints and dear ones and he thanks God for them.

By contrast- in today’s text, Paul skips the traditional salutations entirely, gets right to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4, and by the time you get to verse 7 he’s calling them perverts and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them.

Why is Paul so PO’d?

The Galatians were Christians- the Galatians were Christians, it doesn’t hurt to remember- who assumed that they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins every week.

     Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do.

They took that Gospel for granted, and they turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all for it nullifies the Gospel.

This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands to love our neighbor, care for the stranger, honor our family, and forgive those who trespass against us.

In other words, in taking the Gospel for granted, they’d reverted back to the Law.

As angry as Paul gets at the Galatians, he shouldn’t be surprised.

     Whereas the Gospel does not come naturally to us, the Law, which the bible says is inscribed upon every human heart, does come naturally to us.

The Law is like the Force. The Law does not require an epiphany. The Law is innate to us.

We’re hardwired for commands. We want someone to give us instructions and advice and marching orders (that’s why Joel Osteen is so popular). It’s natural for us to want to do and perform and work and earn our way up to God.

And so if we take the Gospel of God’s coming down to us in Christ for granted, it’s only natural that we’ll pervert the Gospel away from the proclamation of what God has done for us, once for all, into the exhortation of what we must do for God.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted, then, because it’s natural for us to turn the Gospel into the Law.

———————-

     Which brings me to my second point.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted because turning from what God has done to what we must do- it will prove our undoing.

Whoever wrote the first Christmas pageant hadn’t read their bible because the Old Testament does not consider the magi wise men. The magi were pagans and sorcerers. The magi are where we get the word magic. The magi were idolators.

Isaiah and Ezekiel both consider magi from Persia and Babylon as God’s enemies and they both prophesy God’s wrath upon them.

If you don’t know that about the magi then you can’t see what Matthew tries to show you with them.

The magi show us what St. Paul tells us about ourselves: that we who were once far off as enemies to God have been brought near to God not by our own doing but by God.

The magi follow their star charts and their reason westward to Israel, but their science and their reason only get them as far as Jerusalem where they seek out King Herod who promptly plots to kill them. In other words, relying only on their own wisdom and their own efforts leads them only to Death. Matthew wants you to see that relying on their own work and wisdom would’ve been their undoing.

The magi’s star charts do not lead them to Bethlehem.

The magi have to be told by a Word from the Lord, from the prophet Micah, to find Christ in Bethlehem.

Paul tells us what the magi show us.

This is why Paul is so amped up over the Galatians’ other gospel.

To think that the Gospel requires you to contribute anything to it means you don’t understand the Gospel and what it says about your condition.

God did his part; now we must do our part. No, the Gospel is that you’re not in a position to do anything.  The Gospel is that “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.” If we’re so sinful we require a substitute condemned in our stead, then we’re too sinful to contribute anything to our salvation or even cooperate with it.

Not only, according to the Gospel given by Christ to Paul, we’re captives too. We’re not just sinners. We’re prisoners to the evil age, what Paul calls elsewhere the Power of Sin.

God does his part; and we must do ours. No, that’s like telling a drowning man to kick harder. A drowning man doesn’t need to be taught how to swim. He needs a savior.  A rescuer don’t insist that captives cooperate with their deliverance.

     By definition, rescue is one-sided, one-way love.

That’s why Paul’s tone is so uncompromising.

     There is no middle ground at all between:

“Christ has done everything for you” (the Gospel)

&

“This is what you must do” (the other gospel)

There’s no reconciliation between those two.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians in 5 words is this: Christ plus anything is nothing.

     The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to the everything Christ has already done.

Just as the magi require God’s Word to save them from sure and certain Death, we require God’s Word made our sinful flesh to free us from certain condemnation.

That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion. Because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.

He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly.

When it comes to the Law, it’s all or nothing. And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed.

Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high.

This other gospel, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.

They’ve taken the great exchange, Christ’s righteousness for our sin, and they’ve exchanged it for the very burden of the Law from which Christ came to set us free.

No wonder the midwinter’s so bleak in Christina Rosetti’s Christmas carol.

Because as soon as you start wondering what gift you must give to Jesus, you’re on the path to your own condemnation because, then, it’s not just one gift you must give to Jesus it’s every gift.

It’s not just a few of God’s commands. It’s all of them.

But the promise of the Gospel is that every possible gift of obedience has already been given to the Father by the Son for you in your place.

So ignore the bleak Christmas carol. You don’t need to give Jesus any gift.

Certainly not your heart- there’s nothing in your heart but cholesterol, darkness, and sin.

And even if I don’t know you, I know it to be true about you. I know it because the Bible tells me so. Why would you give him your heart?

No, if you want to give him a gift then give him your sin, give him your regret, give him your racism, give him whatever keeps you up at night because, really, it already belongs to him.

———————-

     The magi were pagans. The magi worshipped not God but the heavens, which means the Star that God employs to beckon them and their gifts to Christ was their idol.

The Star was their false god. The Star was their golden calf.

Which means-

When the magi reach Bethlehem and- with the Star above them- bow down and kneel before Christ, they’re not just paying homage; they’re pledging a new allegiance.

In other words, they’ve changed.

They’ve been changed.

And it’s all been God’s doing. The change that has come to them has come upon them- they have received it passively.

And that brings me to my third point. Paul’s point running to the end of his angry letter.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel is like that Epiphany Star.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us.

The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted and focus instead on giving to the church or serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel alone is how God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.

That is, you cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect.

Thus:

We’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus.

People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.

People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.

To put it in churchy terms:

Our sanctification

our growing in holiness

does not come by being told that we need become sanctified.

Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. Full stop.

We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves us.  Period.

The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because this Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful.

The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it.

That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free from the burden of perfect obedience.

In Christ, God has set you free from the demand to have faith as big as a mountain- you’re mustard seed is just fine now.

This Gospel- it’s as odd as a Star that zig zags across the horizon and then just lingers.

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural.

Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. It’s the way we all parent.

     There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy.

     No wonder the Galatians traded it out for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.

Who wouldn’t be afraid to give people that sort of freedom? If we don’t set limits- lay down Law- then won’t people just do whatever they want?

Abound in sin?

Paul is adamant that we not blink from this Gospel, but there is nothing natural about this Gospel.

To believe this Gospel- it requires a giant leap of faith.

———————-

     Maybe this will help your unbelief:

Last month in Charlottesville at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd.

Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South in the mid-1960’s. At the time, Sales wasn’t especially religious and she didn’t see the Civil Rights movement as a Christian one.

Then in March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy.

When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales.

He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd last month in Charlottesville.

And then she said, listen to how she put it:

Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.

He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.

Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.

Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.

When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.

     The KKK used to chase us, and now we’re chasing them, she said.

And this is what unsettled the crowd, what struck them as unnatural, Ruby Sales said:

Justice should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.

When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of redemption for white nationalists- how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this, listen, this isn’t some other gospel:

Whatever hope I have and whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’ redemption comes from hearing about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.

The Apostle Paul says that Christ + Anything Else = Nothing At All.

But as you come to the Table to receive Christ in your mouth, Ruby Sales says to you that the inverse of Paul’s formula is also true.

Christ alone is sufficient.

Sufficient as to be everything.