Archives For Jason Micheli

It’s exactly a year ago the GI doctor called me the night after my CT scan and asked if I was sitting down.

I missed Ash Wednesday last year.

The year before immediately after the Ash Wednesday Service I ran to Safeway to procure a few (non-meat) products for the first dinner of our Lenten fast.

I was standing in line in the small, Soviet-esque Safeway near my house, about 4 people back. I could hear the bagger and the teller whispering words like ‘what’s’ and ‘going on’ and ‘holiday’ and ‘apocalypse’ and ‘probably’ and ‘something’ and ‘in’ and ‘Revelation.’

They were staring at the black, greasy cross on my forehead.

When I got to the checkout, one of them asked me furtively:

‘So, uh, is it like a holiday or something? Or did you go to a funeral?’

Thinking that would certainly be a memorable (and probably psyche-destroying) funeral, where we grind up the dearly departed and wipe him on our collective craniums, I replied:

‘It’s Ash Wednesday.’

‘Oh, right!’

Long pause.

‘What’s Ash Wednesday?’

And I replied with exactly what I’d told the congregation 30 minutes earlier: ‘Ash Wednesday is the day we remember that life is a gift from God by remembering our mortality.’

Longer pause.

‘I don’t get it.’

I kind of just smiled and swiped my debit card not wanting to venture too much more into this conversation and not because there were a dozen people waiting behind me impatiently with their lunch meat, TP and Crystal Light.

I didn’t want to say much more because, in all honesty, I still hadn’t processed or recovered from the night’s service.

Less than hour before, I had traced an ugly black cross on a child in my son’s class and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

Words that become jarring when spoken on to a 10 year old’s forehead.

And after her, several people back in line, I traced the same bruise-like cross on the forehead of someone whom I’ve grown to love over the past 8 years. Knowing that if I stay in this congregation for a while longer I’ll likely perform this person’s funeral, I said to this friend: ‘‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

I fought back the sudden urge to cry.

And after that friend came another soon after, someone with whom I’ve shared many a laugh on mission teams in Guatemala. On him, I traced a brooding black cross and said: ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’

There were others like that.

Like the parishioner whose battle with cancer I was privy to. When I marked him with the cross and said ‘Remember that you are from dust and to dust you shall return’ the words rung with a painful truth.

Or the parent worried that their child will one day make good on threats to return themselves to the dust prematurely.

And then there was a handful of complete and total strangers. People who came in off the street because they saw the service announced on the sign out front. To these strangers, I drew an executioner’s tool on their forehead and basically said: ‘Remember, eventually you’re going to die.’

More so than any other holy day in the church year, Ash Wednesday affects me.

On Ash Wednesday it’s as though every one gathered in the pews becomes a walking, talking, breathing (for now) illustration of the day’s meaning:

life is a fragile, tightrope experience, sometimes precious and sometimes terrifyingly awful and, good or bad, it will one day end.

In so many ways, we’re finite. We’re grass, says the Poet. Just a part of the world God made. Worse than grass, says the Ash Wednesday, we’re like dirt.

But were it not so, our lives would cease to be gifts.

I didn’t preach a sermon that Ash Wednesday. A year later, last winter, I learned how I hadn’t need to preach one.

I was, somewhere deep in my percolating marrow, already embodying the day’s message.

I dipped my toes back into the preaching breach last night by leading a chapel service at the local retirement community. Since its Transfiguration Sunday this weekend, I chose Mark’s version of the scene which closes the Epiphany season.

“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

     If you’ve ever sat through more than a handful of sermons, or endured even a couple of mine, then chances are you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go.

I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus bassakwards. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.

From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in 1 of 2 ways.

I’m allowed to pivot from Peter’s foolish gesture to the (supposedly sophisticated) observation that discipleship isn’t about adoring glory or mountaintop experiences; no, it’s about going back down the mountain, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.

Or-

Rather than pivot to the poor, I can keep the sermon focused on Peter.

I can encourage you to identify with Peter, the disciple whose mouth is always quicker than his mind and whose ambition never measures up to his courage.

I could preach Peter to you and comfort you that Peter’s just like you: a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and you) and builds his Church on him.

That’s how you preach this text:

Go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’

Or, look at Peter- he’s just like you.

Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think these are the only two options allowed.

——————

     Except-

As cliched as those interpretations are, they’re not without their problems.

For one-

I just spent the last year fighting stage-serious cancer, during which time I wasn’t able to go much of anywhere or do much of anything much less venture out into the world’s hurt, roll up my sleeves, and serve the poor. I wasn’t strong enough to do that kind of thing anymore.

So discipleship can’t merely be a matter of going back down the mountain because such a definition excludes a great many disciples, including me.

For another-

If this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, how Peter always manages to get it wrong, then when Peter profess “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him?

Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences, the Son of Man came to serve?’

If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, satan?’

If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?

In fact, here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him. This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.

I wonder-

What if Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right.

—————-

     Ludwig Feuerbach, an awesomely bearded 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice.

     There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this story into something ordinary.

Just think-

What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching? Which is but a way making ourselves the focus of this story.

Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down.

More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that he’s not the one we should be looking at in this scene.

————–

     I wonder-

Does Jesus not respond because what Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, is that gazing upon Christ, who is charged with the uncreated light of God, is good. Not only is it good, all the sermons to the contrary to the contrary, it is the essence of discipleship.

Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become God.

This is where the good news is to be found.

Not in Peter being as dumb or scared as you and me.

Not in a message like ‘serve the poor’ that you would still agree to even if you knew not Christ.

No, the good news is found in the same glory that transfigured the face of Moses and dwelt in the Temple and rested upon the ark and overshadowed Mary pervading even Jesus’ humanity and also, one day, ours.

God became like us, that’s what Peter sees; so that, we might become like God, that’s what Peter eventually learns.

The light that radiates Jesus’ flesh is the same light that said ‘Let there be…’ It’s the same light that the world awaits with groaning and labor pains and sighs too deep for words. It’s the light that will one day make all of creation a burning bush, afire with God’s glory but not consumed by it.

Peter’s right.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to worship and adore God became man, and, in seeing him, to see ourselves taken up into that same glory. It is right and good, always and everywhere, to anticipate our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with God.

It is good, for just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human so too will our humanity be called into union with God, to be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures*. That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith.

————–

     Not only is Peter right, all the other sermons on this passage go in the wrong direction. It’s not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves.

If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be  down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than its always been.

You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.

What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build 3 tabernacles.

Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus.

Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

 

 

*David Bentley Hart: The Uncreated Light

 

 

Podcast with Todd Littleton

Jason Micheli —  February 1, 2016 — 1 Comment

patheologicalbannerappendTodd Littleton is a thoughtful pastor and blogger in Oklahoma who was kind of enough to invite for a conversation on his podcast recently. I look forward to building our e-relationship into the future.

I certainly don’t deserve them but Todd writes:

From the time I heard Jason Micheli‘s voice on a podcast I determined I needed to hear what he had to say or read what he had to write. Discovering his blog felt like reading Anne Lamott.Traveling Mercies served for me to be one of the gutsy honest books that one rarely ever read growing up in an extremely conservative Christian enclave. We did not know to call it a subculture back then.

Jason writes with a wit and honesty that opens you up and then stings you. Rarely does a pastor gain the privilege to write, much less speak that way. Received like a sucker punch I read Jason’s news that he was battling Mantle Cell Lymphoma. His recent check-up revealed he was cancer free. The point from then to now is littered with gut wrenching pain without the loss of his penetrating insight.

Todd blogs at the Edge of the Inside, and I’d encourage you subscribe. Here’s the original post he has about the podcast, with the original audio link.

You can listen to it here below:

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

Unless you were premature preparing for the coming snowstorm by drinking yourself into oblivion, chances are you already know the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, sent students at Liberty University into a spate of self-congratulatory titters this week by flubbing his wantonly staged zeal for scripture.

“Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame,” Trump said, not, as it’s said in nearly every congregation in North America, second Corinthians 3.17.

The verse in question says: ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’

Freedom, as in, liberty. Jerry Falwell’s school’s namesake.

Much gleeful criticism has been piled upon Donald Trump for unintentionally outing himself as an inauthentic evangelical, for so clumsily attempting ‘to close the sale’ among fundamentalists.

That all of the critique of Trump’s citation has centered around his mis-speaking a verse from Corinthians and exposing his pretense at piety speaks volumes, not about him but about the compromises American Christians make in order to have access to power (or normalcy).

Never mind for a second that the distinction between second Corinthians and two Corinthians gets at every thing I hate about the Christian subculture, who cares, really, whether Trump says ‘two’ or ‘second’ Corinthians? Its like laughing at him for not knowing how to hold his hands for communion or not knowing when to clap during ‘Lord, I Lift Your Name on High.’

I’m not usually sympathetic for The Donald but shouldn’t it be more cringe-worthy that so many political candidates, who aspire to lead the most powerful nation in the world, feel the need to speak at a school founded after a savior who was executed by the most powerful nation in the world?

What’s worse, really, a candidate who mis-states an epistle (that means letter) from the New Testament or a candidate whose surface gestures at Christian discipleship go unchallenged?

Snickers follow Trump’s profession of Presbyterianism, after all Trump is wealthy, pompous, possibly racist, and thrice married. But nothing- silence- follows those candidates who court Christians even though those candidates’ positions in no way correspond to the larger Church. Hillary supports both abortion in contradiction to her United Methodist faith. Marco, Kasich, Christie, and Jeb support the death penalty contrary to their Catholic Church. Don’t get me started on Ted, whose entire ‘carpet bomb ‘em,’ see-the-worst-in-everyone tone is dissonant to every strain of the gospel; meanwhile, all of the candidates minus Bernie and Rand espouse a preemptive militarism at odds with all of the Christian just war tradition.

I’ve read many conspiracy theories about how Trump is really a trojan horse for the Democrats, undermining the Republicans from the inside when, truly, his are just exaggerated versions of the falsehoods and pretenses that Christians accept from all candidates of both parties.

The giggles induced by Trump’s ‘Two Corinthians’ reveals more about us than it does The Donald.

rp_faith4.jpgStanley Hauerwas says the privatization of Christian faith, the reduction of it to belief and feeling, leads to absurd, unintelligible comments like:

‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’

More cringe-worthy than The Donald’s mispronunciation is how we expect little evidence other than the personal opinions of those candidates who cater votes by claiming Jesus as their Lord.

The thin veneer of discipleship with which we’re satisfied in candidates reveals much about the depth of our own.

Sticking to just the text in question, the back-patting cackling and self-satisfied criticism shouldn’t be about how Donald introduced II Corinthians 3.17 but about the fact that any politico in a place like Liberty would cite any verse from those 2 letters of Paul.

In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul sees a serious threat in the way their life and faith are oriented to what Fleming Rutledge calls ‘the wrong center.’ The verse Donald cited sounds nice and probably it did to Jerry Falwell too, but in that larger letter Paul is critiquing two states of mind.

On the one hand, Paul rails against the religiosity of the church-going Christians in Corinth. Paul accuses them of preferring religious experiences, sentimentality and kitsch, uplifting spiritual teachings, and practical, reasonable faith-based lessons. In other words, Paul chastises them for making discipleship about privatized feelings and beliefs rather than a contrary way of life.

On the other hand, Paul critiques the secular Corinthian culture, in which the church found itself, which privileged materialistic values, common-sense demonstrations of fact and the proofs of science.

I don’t think I’m off-base in suggesting that the former corresponds to Liberty’s civll-religion ethos while the former more pretty well captures the worldview of both Trump and his critics in the media.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteBoth rub against the grain of the cross. Against both, Fleming Rutledge suggests, Paul puts forth his argument that the word of the cross is a stumbling block (standalone) and foolishness to both the religious and the secular way of seeing the world,

Says Rutledge:

‘The cross is not a suitable object of devotion for religious people, and the claims made for it are too extreme to be acceptable to secular people.

It is the paradox of present-day American culture to be both religious and irreligious. We are secular and materialistic most of the time, but also so pious that candidates for president must stage photo-ops of themselves coming out of church. Paul’s word of the cross opposes all of this.’

“Christians must guard against the assumption that when the Qu’ran differs explicitly from biblical revelation it is therefore false.”

Last week I posted an essay from my teacher, theologian Bruce McCormack, thinking through possible Christian responses to the question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

061213soulenTo continue that conversation, my friend, theologian Kendall Soulen, offered me his essay below which reflects on the very same issues. In it, Soulen points out the tradition among the Church Fathers of typological reading to inform theology and, as an example of such reading, uses the short story of Jonah to suggest three varying types of conversion to God. Each of these types, Soulen suggests, can correspond to how we conceive each of the Abrahamic faiths worshipping God.

It’s a PDF so just click on it below.

Soulen – The Sign of Jonah

 

4A few years ago my congregation welcomed a local mosque into our building for their Friday prayers while their own space was being renovated. You can check that here.

It was not an uncontroversial gesture with some church members leaving and many others protesting because, they argued, Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.

Today, the Christian social media universe is aflame over that same question as Wheaton College has attempted to fire one of their faculty for expressing solidarity with Muslims.

What interests me is not the campus politics or the question of academic freedom but the theological question, one which has grown more urgent as the issues of terrorism and refugees become more critical: Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Here is a thoughtful response from Dr. Bruce McCormack, my theology professor from Princeton. I learned much from him in several different classes and I hope you will too.

*Originally posted at Noah Toly’s Tumblr.

It is a great pity that the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has come so forcibly to the center of attention for so many (on social media especially) through ongoing controversy at Wheaton College. The nature of that controversy is well-known and does not need to be rehearsed here.  I say it is a pity because the issue is a theologically profound and complex one which admits of no obvious answer.  It is a question worthy of engagement by the finest theological minds in our world today precisely because of its complexity.  But it is also an issue with implications not only for inter-faith relations but also for inter-confessional relations. That is to say: how we answer the question, the charity or lack of charity with which we do so could very well have an impact on ecumenical relations long after the controversy at Wheaton has come to an end.  So the stakes couldn’t be higher.  My hope is that all of us would learn to admit that more than one answer can reasonably be given and that is a huge mistake to assume that anyone who gives a different answer than one’s own is automatically guilty of either bigotry or a betrayal of the gospel.

Before I turn to the issue, I should say that I have had great respect and appreciation for Wheaton College for a great many years.  I have lectured there twice, preached in their chapel, and benefitted greatly from the privilege of teaching an extremely high number of their graduates here at Princeton Seminary during my twenty-five years here.  My respect has only been increased by the comments made in recent days by Wheaton faculty (including Larycia Hawkins!) on social media. Wheaton’s “hype” is not exaggerated in my view.  It is simply lovely to see so many non-theologians who read enough theology to comment so ably on theological questions.  I have been, as a result, heartbroken to watch this happening; heartbroken most especially for Prof. Hawkins but heartbroken too for faculty, students, alums – and, indeed, administrators.  My goal here is to do theology well.  And by “well” I mean not only theology that is academically rigorous and responsible to Scripture and the history of the construction of orthodox understandings of God but theology that serves reconciliation and peace.  How we do theology can be, at times, just as important than the content if only because how we do it will decide whether it can be heard by others.

In what follows, my goal is to present what I take to be the best case that can be made on both sides of the “same God” question by one such  as I (whose training is in the history of doctrine).  I will begin with the negative answer and turn then to the positive answer.  As this is a blog contribution and not an academic paper, I will not seek to defend every claim I make – though I would be happy to do so if pressed.  I will simply say that my views on the range of theological topics relevant to this issue are the result of forty-three years of intensive engagement with historical and systematic theology, the last fifteen of which have been devoted specifically to the doctrine of God.

I. The Case for Rejecting the “Same God” Thesis

Those who think that “Allah” and the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” could not possibly be the same God defend their answer best on the following grounds.  The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others but the presupposition of all other Christian doctrines.  It is this because triunity is not something added to “oneness” but is a description of what God is essentially.  Put another way: the trinitarian relations are not laid on top of a divine essence which has been “established” metaphysically (i.e. in abstraction from those relations as a “fourth” beneath or behind the “persons”).  The relations simply are what God is essentially.  For that reason, as Karl Barth argued, it will not do to treat the “one God” before treating the “triunity” of God because everything that needs to be said about the “one God” needs to be conditioned by what is said about the Trinity.  In support of these claims, Barth cites (among others) Johann Gerhard (the most significant orthodox Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century) and Herman Bavinck (a well-known modern Dutch theologian).  “J. Gerhard writes of it: ‘whoever does not know the mystery of the Trinity does not know Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word’…” (Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, p.96. And from Bavinck: “‘The whole of Christianity, the whole of special revelation, stands and falls with the confession of God’s triunity.  It is the heart of Christian faith, the root of all dogmas, the substance of the new covenant.’” (Ibid., p.97.).  On this basis, Barth concludes “…it will not do to have God as a general concept within which the Christian God as he is basically known in the doctrine of the Trinity is only a special case” (Ibid., pp.97-8).

The strength of this argument has to do with Barth’s conviction that only God can reveal God and that, therefore, the One who would reveal Him must Himself be God if He is to reveal Him.  Quite clearly, this argument also rules out of bounds a good bit of speculative or “natural” theology.  And it leads us quite naturally to the recognition that theological language that is responsible to its “object”(i.e. conformed to the nature of God) ought to be grounded “Christologically” (i.e. in the Christ attested in Holy Scripture).  And that means, among other things, that the concept of “oneness” which we employ in trinitarian discourse ought to be one that is purchased from close reflection on the nature of the unity of Jesus Christ with His Father.

But if triunity “goes all the way down”, then the triunity in God cannot be a concept arrived at by simply adding the number three to a prior commitment to the number one.  God is not One and Three; God is One-in-Three and Three-in-One.  Now the latter is, quite obviously, a very difficult thing to say. The concept of perichoresis (or “co-inherence”) was devised in an attempt not to fall silent where the unique “oneness” of the Christian God is concerned.  But even perichoresis leaves some extremely important questions unanswered – to which I will return in a moment. Suffice it here to say that the logic of numbers, as applied to God, is employed responsibly only where it is recognized that numbers too never rise above the level of analogical predication. Used univocally of divine “persons’ and “human” persons, they are bound to mislead.  Seen in this light, to speak of the “one” God is not merely to refer to the metaphysical concepts of singularity or uniqueness.  The “unity” of Jesus Christ with His Father is a relation that includes (even if it is not exhaustively described by) the love each has for the other.

That, I believe, is the strongest case for rejecting the “same God” thesis.  It is one that I find deeply compelling and have done so for years.  So my convictions on this question are not shaped by current events.  But! the problem with this case is that it is almost too good.  For stated as I have stated it, this answer ignores a number of problems – not least of which is the history of the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.  The truth of the matter, as we shall now see, is that the burden of proof where orthodoxy is concerned is much greater for people like me than it is for Larycia Hawkins. And that is because hers is the more traditional, the more obviously orthodox position.   To explain why I turn to the best case for an affirmation of the “same God” thesis.

II. The Case for Affirming the “Same God” Thesis

The place to start is with the recognition that considerable development had to occur before the Council of Constantinople (381) was able to provide the orthodox solution to the trinitarian debates which embroiled the churches and their theologians in the fourth century.  Development is obvious on the face of it; concepts like ousia,hypostases and homoousios (which were decisive for the”pro-Nicene theology which prevailed at Constantinople) are not to be found in the NT.  What we do find there, in many places, is a “high Christology” (John 1, Eph.1, Col.1, Heb.1, 1 Peter 1).  We find attestation of incarnation, the pre-existence of the Son, perhaps even (on my reading of Phil.2:9-11, at least) the affirmation that the man Jesus is “proper” to the identity of the God of Israel.  But none of these affirmations adds up to a doctrine of the Trinity.  What they provide are the building-blocks for constructing one. But alongside of them, one would also have to address the problem of subordination – a subordination not so easily consigned to the “economy” as many seem to think, given what Paul says in 1 Cor.15:28. All of this is to say: arriving at the understanding of the Christian God as “constituted” by three co-eternal and co-equal “persons” took quite some time.  Four centuries, in fact.  And one then has to ask: what understanding did Christian theologians have of God in the meantime?  Now that is a most interesting question.

Before there was a “pro-Nicene” theology, before the Church could be united in the belief that there exist in God three “persons” whose unity is guaranteed by the principle of “inseparable operations” (see Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy), the most obvious thing for Christians to believe – and what the NT writers themselves believed – was quite simply that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the One God of Israel.  The truth is that Phil.2:9-11 (especially when read as I read it) works exceptionally within the NT canon.  The most natural understanding of the oneness of God for those coming directly out of second Temple Judaism was that of “singularity” and/or “uniqueness.”  This understanding was given further strength by the influence of Middle Platonism already on the LXX but most especially on the Greek apologists.  By the mid-second century at the latest, a concept of God was already firmly in place which owed a great deal to Middle Platonism.  The concept in question affirmed that God is one, simple, impassible, invisible, immaterial being.  In constructing this concept, there can be little question but that the definition of God’s “oneness” owed a great deal to its “neighoring” concepts, simplicity above all.  Unity and simplicity went hand in hand for the early Fathers.  And that was one of the reasons (though not the only one) that debates over the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century were so difficult and protracted.  All of the fourth century theologians whose doctrines of the Trinity would eventually be recognized as orthodox were committed to unity and simplicity (see G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought). And so one of the most important tasks facing fourth century theology was how to think the three-ness of “persons” into or together with an already existing concept of “oneness.”

The truth is that the conceptual differentiation between ousia and hypostases worked out by the Cappadocians placed the “persons” in a rather more pale light than the intensive light which shown on the common or shared “essence.”  Why do I say that?  Because the great unresolved question of the orthodox settlement was: what are the three?  What is it that differentiates or distinguishes the “persons” such that Christian trinitarianism does not lapse back into absolute monotheism?  The only answer available to orthodox Christians at the time was that the three persons are “distinct” by virtue of their differing “modes of origination.”  But that is not an answer to the what-question. It tells how the three are what they are, how they “come to be” (eternally, of course); it does not tell us what they are.  Many of the orthodox, including Basil and Augustine, were quite candid in admitting this.  What the “persons” are, what makes them to differ, is ineffable (i.e. it cannot be brought to speech).  Given that this is so, it is understandable that the only “properties” thought to be “personal” (i.e. proper to a single “person” only rather than shared by all three) were modes of origination – and that all other “properties” (which did give an answer to the question of what God is, even if not what the “persons” are) are shared.  It also becomes immediately comprehensible why the “principle of insuperable operations” was such a big deal (i.e. if one member of the Godhead does something, they all do it, by virtue of shared essence).

The strongest case for affirming the “same God” thesis lies in the history of the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, in which “oneness” was both historically prior to and, to an extent, logically privileged over “threeness.”.  The move historically was from oneness to triunity – and when triunity was finally worked out, it was worked out in a way that “fit” the prior commitment to a metaphysical notion of “oneness” – which, we now have to say, can be and is upheld by a great many Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.  And that leads me to a final, ecumenical point.

Roman Catholic theology has always had and will continue to have a big stake in the metaphysics of the Fathers.   That is why the affirmation that Christians and Muslims worship the same God could find approval at Vatican II – because it was an affirmation built upon the metaphysics of the ancient Church which found its way into the great syntheses of Augustine and Thomas.  But to mention the Roman Catholics in this context is to remind ourselves that the issue we are discussing is not limited to Christians and Muslims.  It touches upon issues with profound ecumenical significance.  To be sure, I have my questions about the orthodox settlement (having to do largely with the metaphysics of the ancient church).  I do believe that it could be improved upon. But any improvements would, at this stage, still be the opinions of a private theologian.  They would not have ecclesial standing.  There is no such thing, at the end of the day, as the Protestant doctrine of the Trinity.  The Trinity is the shared teaching of the churches scattered across the globe who adhere to the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Church. For that reason, I could no more deny to Larycia Hawkins the orthodoxy of her understanding of the Trinity than I could deny it to those who affirm the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For it is she who stands closest in this controversy to classical orthodoxy, not people like me.

Final Thought

No one involved in debates over the issue raised by the Wheaton controversy should deny that the issue is theological.  At the same time, no one should act as though there is only one clear solution to it available to orthodox Christians who adhere to Scripture and the Creed.  Orthodoxy itself left unanswered questions lying on the table for future generations to debate.  And debate is precisely what we should do with them. My hope, my prayer, is that these debates can take place in a spirit of charity and in a spirit that seeks reconciliation (not only at Wheaton but outside Wheaton as well).

Tattoo You

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

‘My name’s Hawk’ he said, offering me his meaty orange and scarlet painted hand, flames I think, whose red tongues lapped seamlessly into the illustration running up his arm.

My hand disappeared into his and I thought to myself: Of course your name’s Hawk

Shorter than me, he looked like a squat version of one half of the Road Warriors, the Mad Max inspired WWF tag team I idolized as a kid. Maybe Hawk was a fanboy too because that clothes-lining, from the top rope, road warrior was also named Hawk. Road_Warrior_Hawk

’Is that Hawk? Or Mr. Hawk?’ I asked…like a tool. He did me the courtesy of faking a chuckle before opening the waist high ‘Staff Only’ gate and ushering back into his studio.

Once I realized a few months ago that my stage-serious cancer wasn’t going to kill me, at least not for now, I passed the infusion and transfusion time sketching a sort of bucket list, a concept nearly ruined for me in 2007 by that dentures dud of a movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, a ‘film’ which proved not everything is made awesome simply by the presence of Morgan Freeman. It’s hard to sail around the world on a pastor’s salary and I’ve already read all the Dostoyevsky I ever want to read so I settled upon less ambitious but no less important items for my Cancer Didn’t Kill Me Yet Bucket List, such as

#3: Spend More Time with Friends

#7: Take My Job Less Seriously and

#2: Try to be Less of an A-hole to My Wife. 

#6 on the list was something I’d always had in the back of my mind but had never gotten around to doing, getting a tattoo. Not only did the scare of the past year compel me, any tattoo I did get, I discerned, should in some fashion testify to the struggle we’d experienced and to any epiphanies with which we’d emerged on the other end of our nightmare.

Jacob, in Genesis, laid an altar to remember (and maybe warn away others) the place where God had struggled with him. Lacking any ebeneezers, I went to a tattoo parlor instead. So it was that I sat a few afternoons ago in Hawk’s brightly animated studio, my arm draped over a vinyl cushion, sucking on lollipops to stave off the sugar crash he’d warned me the needle would provoke. It’s a surprisingly intimate moment, having someone inscribe what might be a terrible mistake into your flesh. Like sex, it’s sweaty and you can’t take it back and, like sex, I felt it would’ve been even more awkward in the absence of pillow talk. Or, in this case, banter.

No doubt I’m judging, but I assumed the Republican Primary or America’s refugee policy to lie outside his conversational wheelhouse, so I asked Hawk:

‘What’s the strangest tattoo you ever did for someone?’

‘Please don’t tell me it was a dolphin leaping through a clovered trinity or a Chinese script character that actually translates to ‘Kick Me’ I joked. But his countenance fell. He looked bothered. Disturbed even. He turned the ink gun off and laid it down. Staring at the floor, he looked as though all that was missing was a fire around which he could tell this horror story. He was quiet for several moments before shaking his head and said: ‘Dude, this one time…this guy had me ink this giant butterfly on his entire back.’

This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. ‘Well, that’s not quite Flannery O’Connor’ I laughed, ‘but that doesn’t sound too strange.’

‘No, dude, that’s not it. You see, the body of the butterfly…’ he looked back at the fake wood floor, ‘the body of the butterfly was a…giant _________.’

Since I’ve only recently petitioned the United Methodist powers-that-be to be reinstated off of medical leave, let’s just say the word Hawk shared with me rhymes with ‘Loner.’

‘Seriously?’ I asked him.

‘Yeah dude, and where the feet on the butterfly are supposed to go he wanted me to put a pair of _________. ‘

‘Of course. It would look ridiculous without them’ I deadpanned. He started to grab his ink gun but put it down again when I asked him: ‘Did you ask him? What was the story behind that tattoo?’

‘Naw dude. I figured it was best I didn’t know.’

‘Probably a good call.’ He started again on my arm. I watched him, looking down at the upside down A he had started to outline.

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‘This is the Alpha and Omega, right?’ he asked over the whirr of the gun and the Dead Weather playing over the Bose.

He must’ve read my ‘How’d you know that?’ expression because he added, ‘We get a lot of Christians in here.’

‘I imagine so’ I said. ‘I guess crosses have more staying power than the Tasmanian Devil or Calvin and Hobbes.’ He did me another favor by laughing.

‘These here, then, this means the Beginning and the End, right?’ he pointed to the other letters in the corner of the cross. I nodded, unwrapping another lollipop.

‘Then this,’ and with the needle he outlined the crow in which the cross and letters were all contained, ‘must be Peter denying Jesus? The cock crowing three times?’ ‘Why does it look like it’s falling?’ he asked, sounding genuinely curious now.

‘Because while Peter’s denying Jesus, Jesus is falling down, carrying his cross.’ I explained.

‘Carrying it…for Peter’s sake, huh?’ Hawk closed the gospel loop.

‘Yeah. In a way,’ I said, ‘you can think of it as the ultimate tramp stamp.’

‘The three?’ he asked, ‘the Trinity?’

‘No, but that works too. Stations of the Cross, the third one.’

‘Why’d you decide to get a tattoo?’ he asked.

‘I’ve always wanted one,’ I said, grimacing at how cliche that sounded ‘and then cancer nearly killed me this year.’

‘How’d you settle on this image?’ he asked, wiping the blood that was dripping down from my cross.

I sucked the lollipop spit back into my mouth. It was my turn to look at the floor.

‘There’s nothing like cancer and your own looming death to point out just how imperfect and unfaithful- scared and sinful- you are’ I confessed.

‘When you’re afraid you’ve already done most of the living you’re going to do and all the important decisions you’ll make in your life have already been made, you take account. And no matter how many times you count, you fear you don’t measure up.’

He’d stopped the ink gun again and was considering me, like I would at someone in my office who’d revealed more than they knew.

‘Anyway,’ I mumbled through the lollipop I’d returned to my mouth, ‘this past year I’ve sought refuge in the fact that, in Jesus, God takes all those experiences and emotions of ours into himself’ I said, unintentionally saving the most important point for last.

‘God doesn’t cause our pain and suffering.

God doesn’t shun us because of our shortcomings.

God makes them his own.’

And, as though an affirmation, he stretched out the two solitary syllables: ‘Dude.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I think maybe I wanted the tattoo because I’ve had to remind myself of it a lot this year.’

He nodded like he understood or sympathized. ‘So…’ Hawk struggled to summarize, ’this basically means s#$% happens but, in Jesus, God shares in it with us.’

I nodded. ‘I thought an image like this would make a better tattoo than, say, a quote like yours.’

He chuckled. ‘You go to church?’ he asked me. ‘You don’t look the type.’

‘Just about every Sunday’ I said.

Most Popular Posts of 2015

Jason Micheli —  January 6, 2016 — 1 Comment

10917296_10205661027787221_3674691722071054151_n2015 was a big year for the blog. I got hacked by ISIS cyber terrorists, and then I got cancer.

Tamed Cynic grew to about 25K discrete readers per month and attracted subscribers in over 189 countries with Val Gass being the most active reader (yes, I can tell…Google Analytics are creepy).

More importantly, I was blessed (and if you know me you know I don’t use that word lightly) to have readers I’ve never met provide not only thoughtful feedback and stories of their own but counsel and care during my battle with MCL this year.

Here’s the most popular post from 2015– by a lot- which is surprising given that it was only available for a day before cyber terrorists took over my blog and erased it. Ironically, the 2nd most popular post in 2015 was my response to the Islamic Cyber Terrorists who hacked my blog. You can read that post here. Number 3 was the letter I wrote to my congregation after I learned I had a rare form of stage 4 cancer. You can find that here.

To the Church about to Baptize My Baby:

Be warned.

It’s all cuteness and lace now, but in no time at all, my little baby boy- after a brief sojourn in childhood- will hit adolescence. His hormones will kick in and quickly conspire to undo all the good you’ve done in him.

These will be the years that he’ll push you, Church.

He’ll suddenly wonder how Jonah could survive that dark trip in the whale’s belly. He’ll argue that David may have bested Goliath but that he’s no match for Tom Brady and, besides, David’s hardly the unblemished hero his SundaySchool teachers made him out to be. Proud of himself, he’ll point out that Noah never would have had to build the ark had God not decided to flood everything and everyone in the world.

He’ll push you, and if you’re not up to the challenge he’ll be tempted conclude that everything you’ve taught him and everything you teach is, at best, a fairy tale and, at worst, a lie.

And this might be the first time someone he knows or loves dies.

When that happens, Church, you better not resort to clichés. You better be prepared to show him resurrection-of-the-body hope at work among you.

You might as well get ready now, Church, because when those years arrive you will have to struggle just to have your voice heard above all the callings that claim his attention and tempt his loyalty.  Just when time seems to race by for his parents, tomorrow will seem forever away to him. Everything, from the face he sees in the morning mirror to the fickle loyalties of his friends, will change almost every day.

And whether he knows it or not, Church, what he will need from you all is a community of constancy. He will need a people who refuse to let go of him, who refuse to let go of what they know to be true and enduring, who refuse to let him slip away before he learns to describe his world with the language you speak.

And he’ll never admit it to you Church, but what he’ll need in those years is a place where he need not wear a mask, a place where vulnerability isn’t a dirty word, a place where a life of mercy and love and gratitude is a viable and even compelling alternative.

And then he’ll start high school. You’ll only have four years of Sundays left with him. Be warned: it will be harder for you to get his attention because he’ll no longer be listening to your words.

He’ll be looking at your life.

I know, scary right?

When he worships with you, he’ll wonder if you’re as friendly as you think you are. He’ll wonder if you ever experience awe and mystery or whether you’re just ticking off your weekly obligation and hoping it won’t be too boring. He’ll wonder if you’re loose and free enough to allow the Spirit to enter your worship.

And your lives.

He’ll look at your life, Church, and he’ll question whether you conform your views and values to the God of Jesus Christ or whether you’ve sketched an idol in your own unthreatening image. He probably won’t put it in those words, Church, or any words at all for that matter, but trust me he’ll be thinking it.

In these years, his BS Radar will be acute so you better not patronize him, Church. You have a tendency to do that when a young person puts you on your heels by asking questions. You better learn how to treat him as a member of the Body of the Christ.

This may be the last time you have his attention. So, for his sake, I hope you lead a life that leads to the Gospel.

And I pray that, just when he’s being pressured and pushed to get ahead, to pursue his future, to achieve success, and to grab after his dreams, by then you will have taught him that servant-hood is the only path that leads to treasure.

A place where he’ll find the Lamb of God in your flesh. A place where he’ll discover the coming Kingdom previewed in your lives. A place where he’ll learn that God is to be found among the lame and the poor and the outcast- not because you tell him but because you, Church, invite him to come and see for himself.

When my baby boy becomes an old man, when his waist is slightly thicker and his hair a little thinner- when he has a whole new set of questions, new hopes and different struggles ahead- I hope he will be able to remember his baptism and be thankful.

There’ll come a time- there always does- when my boy will look desperately for where the living God can be found. When that time does come, Church, I hope he will have a community who won’t just shrug their shoulders, who won’t refer him to the pastor, who won’t quote the Bible at him or try to prove anything to him.

Don’t you dare do that to him, Church.

Instead you better be able, because of the integrity of your life, to say to him: ‘Come and See.’

Church, that’s the sort of Church I would want to give my life so I’m willing to bet he’d give his life to it too.

In closing, Church-

Before the water hits my baby’s head, I hope the irony will have hit you upside yours: my boy will never be able to live out his baptism if you, Church, don’t live out yours.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Parent

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When God calls Abram out of obscurity in order to unfurl his plan of redemption, to gather a People who will undo what Adam did, God’s first admonishes Abram to ‘not be afraid.’ 

For God’s People, not fearing comes before following.

Or, not being afraid is the first step in being faithful.

When God begins to unravel the New Creation, what we call this time of year ‘incarnation,’ God commands Joseph, by way of a dream, not to be afraid. In Luke’s telling of the same story, God, by way of the angel Gabriel, tells Mary and later the shepherds not to fear. Matthew doesn’t mention it but I’m willing to wager that Gariel also orders the magi, once they learn of Herod’s rage, not to be afraid. You don’t have to be a student of 1st century politics or a fan of Game Rape of Thrones to realize Mary and Joseph and all the others had ample reason to fear.

And it’s little noticed but the first word of God’s New Creation, after Jesus has defeated Sin and Death, is ‘Do not be afraid.’ Not incidentally, the next word is ‘Peace.’

As in, ‘shalom.’

As in, right-making, whole-making restoration.

As in, the opposite of fear.

Just take it from Master YodaUnknown

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Unless you’ve been trapped under something heavy in 2015 or spent the whole year waiting in line for The Force Awakens, I require no citation or corroboration to suggest we, as a country, are already through 3/4 of the way through Master Yoda’s koan. Donald Trump has done more than guest judge Wrestle Mania III. He is us. Or, we’ve become him. Of late, we’re a fearful, angry and even hateful bunch.

As if to indict us, those of us who consider ourselves not just Americans or Westerners but Christians, the repeated refrain of scripture’s primary narrative arc admonishes us:

Do not be afraid.

The headlines of the day, as they always have, supply the fill-in for the blank. Do not be afraid of___________.

Fear no less than inhospitality, miserliness, or vengeance is a contrary posture to Christian discipleship.

Perhaps then the best Christmas gift we can offer this season is not simply to believe that in the manger the light of God is born but to believe, as John does, ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’ 

In other words: Do not fear.

Saying all this better than me and nearly as good as John’s Gospel is Marilynne Robinson in this essay from her new book. In it, she argues 1) “…contemporary America is full of fear”; 2) “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind” because “Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.”

Robinson, author of Gilead, is one of my favorite novelists and as an unembarrassed, articulate Christian she is rare today among writers. You should read her, but you must read this.

The Visitation

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2015 — Leave a comment

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…” 

Luke 1.39

     Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

     She gasped and only then realized she’d been holding her breath, waiting to see if he’d reappear as suddenly as he’d intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her. He must’ve seen how terrified she was. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he’d said to her.

In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angel’s glow, it all seemed very ordinary.

It was an unlikely place for a ‘visitation.’ There wasn’t anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary.

Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone you’d pick out like a single star in all the sky.

Yet, that’s just what he’d told her.

She’d been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly.

The thought made her shake again.

She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky.

‘Do not be afraid,’ he’d told her.

Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham.

Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be.

She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed.

Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required.

She knew the story- it was the sort of story you can’t forget even if you’d like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his father’s will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go.

She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious.

But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abraham’s wife, the boy’s mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death.

The wondering made her shake again. ‘Don’t be afraid’ she whispered to herself.

 

As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home.

A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angel’s words growing inside Elizabeth.

A still bigger part of her knew the angel’s news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever.

Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size there’s no room to hide.

And she didn’t want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.

And she didn’t want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before they’d believe the truth.

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With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long she’d fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come.

‘Favored one,’ that’s what he’d called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.

     ‘Favored one.’ 

She hadn’t known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.

    ‘Favored one.’ 

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child.

Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that  even for Hannah a blessing from God wasn’t so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons.

Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannah’s boy was to be consecrated.

Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day.

Everything Hannah had wanted when she’d wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.

Hannah- she’d been called ‘favored one’ too.

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Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that God’s favor was also a kind of humiliation, that God’s call was also a call to suffer.

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he?

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d said.

Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where she’d grown up, she realized it wasn’t that simple.

Things would never be simple again.

 

Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. She’d stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells.

She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows.

It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family you’d expect to be chosen.

She wondered what that said God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks.

She got sick for the first time out there in the fields.

It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me.

She’d asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadn’t gotten much in the way of explanation.

“The power of the most high will overshadow you’ is how he’d answered.

‘Overshadow’ was the word he’d used. She was sure of it.

She still didn’t know how that worked exactly. She hadn’t felt anything. But she knew that word, ‘overshadow.’ 

It’s what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark.

And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed.

Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale.

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

She’d look up at the sky and rub her nauseous stomach. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it:
, as though her womb was now an ark; how the hands and feet she’d soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.

Made flesh.

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As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. All of it.

Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different.

Elizabeth’s child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.

But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different.

A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.

She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly.

To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth.

Mary knew: hers was different.

An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth.

With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.

The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars.

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

As she walked up Elizabeth’s driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517

Biopsy Results

Jason Micheli —  December 16, 2015 — 28 Comments

IMG_1374

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

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

16. What did Jesus teach? 

Most importantly:

Jesus was not merely a teacher among teachers.

As the Incarnate Son, Jesus is what God teaches us.

Jesus was not one who taught us words about God; Jesus is the Word God speaks to us. Jesus, the content and character of his life, is the teaching God vindicates by retrieving it from the dead.

The incarnation presupposes it wasn’t sufficient for God to be for us (on the cross) otherwise Jesus’ teaching would be superfluous. His teaching isn’t necessary if he came only to deliver us, but his teaching is absolutely necessary if he comes because God is determined to be with us, for his teaching is how we learn to be with him and be with others, like him. That is to say Jesus taught the Kingdom of God, the world as it truly is and will be when creatures embrace their createdness, loving God and others as God loves God. Such a Kingdom will always appear upside down to those who’ve inverted God’s creation to their own ends.

Jesus’ Kingdom teaching was not unique to Jesus. Rather, it presumed the preaching of the prophets, who described the world when it obeys God’s creative intentions instead of sin’s false freedom.

While Jesus’ Kingdom teaching was not new, the way in which Jesus presented the Kingdom was new. He taught the Kingdom as a present reality, in and through him. This is why Jesus regarded sinners and outcasts already as the redeemed people they would be one day.

In teaching the Kingdom as a present, urgent reality, Jesus closed off the possibility of a delayed response among his hearers. Unlike the prophets who preceded him, those who heard Jesus teach the Kingdom immediately found themselves either called into its citizenship or realized that they had already rejected it.

Thus, in the way Jesus taught the Kingdom, he robbed his listeners of the possibility of any neutral response  to it.

The Kingdom had arrived and was present in Jesus; hearers of this teaching could only either follow or depart sadly away.

Likewise, the Church does not teach that the Kingdom started with Jesus or that the Kingdom grows through its work. The Church, like Jesus, teaches the Kingdom as an urgent, response-demanding reality that is present through the re-presenting of Christ’s words and deeds, most especially in the eucharist.

‘…and the rich man went sadly away, for he had many possessions.’ – Mark 10.17-31

Stuck with Jesus

Jason Micheli —  December 7, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This weekend I had the privilege of returning to my first appointment in Virginia, St. John’s UMC, for their 125th Anniversary.  My text was Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 1.15-23. You can listen to the sermon below or you can download it in the iTunes store, here. Better yet, download the free Tamed Cynic App.

I bring you all greetings from Aldersgate United Methodist Church. They also send along their sympathies that you, too, had to endure me as your pastor.

The lay leader at Aldersgate, Steve Larkin, even me wanted to register his irritation with you, St. John’s, complaining:

“had you not been so tolerant towards Jason as a rookie pastor then perhaps I’d have been spared having to deal with the tight-sphinctered griping, angry emails and calls from the bishop that seem to Jason him wherever he goes.” 

     Nonetheless, he wanted to be sure I wished you a happy 125th anniversary.

125 years! That’s a long time. 125 years is about how old I feel when I think about the Hudson and Shewey and Boatwright and Austin kids being old enough to serve in congress.

125 years! I was only here for 2 of those 125 years but, still, I’ve got a lot of memories from those years.

——————————

     I remember the day we moved into the parsonage here. Some folks from St. John’s stopped by to say hello and help us move boxes.

I remember John Kyle Shewey shook my hand and glanced around at my beer-making equipment on the front porch and, deadpan, asked ‘Does all that belong to you?’ And when I said yes, Jake just nodded and, with an opaque expression, replied ‘Hmmm.’ It took me a year before I realized he’d just been messing with me.

I remember my first day in the office here at St. John’s, the day I learned that I should never ask Barbara Catlett for directions, not unless I was prepared to decipher vague hand gestures that looked like aerobic moves performed to the beat of ‘yonder as the crow flies.’

I remember Virginia Waggoner smiling and feeding me a freshman’s 15 worth of pizza at the Italian Restaurant downtown, and I remember Bill Crawford covering for me while I was out of town, praying at Virginia’s bedside as she died.

I was with you for only 2 of your 125 years, but I’ve got a lot of memories nevertheless.

I remember Betty Ward introducing herself with that fake teacher’s scowl of hers and commenting to the air ‘We’ve never had a minister with an earring before…this should be interesting.’ And I remember June Page standing behind her, smiling at me because, she assumed, a pastor with an earring just had to be a Democrat. I remember Warren Slough tapping his cane and telling me how it is and Grace Biles vetting me on points of theology and Kitty Irvine and Dottie Hostetter feeding me when Ali was away at law school.

I remember Billy Snider and Joe Boatwright dressed up for a Christmas pageant, looking less like biblical characters and more like extras from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember how Don Drake, a retired forester, could retell any bible story for the children and, in doing so, would make sure you knew said story took place at, near, around or underneath a tree.

     I remember all the Sundays here I’d sit in the back with the acolytes and glance over at Mr Dickinson and then glance down at my watch at 11:00, at 5 after, at 10 after, wondering where in the hell was Ralph, the organist.

I remember how I’d then hitch up my robe and run around the outside of the sanctuary to find him asleep in the choir room.

I remember the night I walked over to Lewis Graybill’s house to tell him the bishop would be moving me to another church. Lewis answered the door in his black bikini briefs.

And nothing else.

I told him I had something to share with him and we sat down on his love seat in front of an Orioles game. I started to tell him, but when our knees touched…I said ‘Dude, I can’t take you seriously. You’ve got to put some clothes on first.’

I remember David Burnett taking me for a ride in his pickup along the Blue Ridge and stopping at an overlook to ask me about heaven. And I’ll always remember everything you’ve done for us, your prayers and emails and cards, during this past year as we’ve gone through my cancer treatment.

I was here for only 2 of your 125 years, but you gave me more memories than I deserved.

——————————

     Maybe because it’s Advent- the season when we await God’s enfleshment in Jesus Christ- some of the memories that came to mind this week were from Christmas Eve here at St. John’s.

My first Christmas Eve here at St. John’s- I had my fingers crossed the whole time, I couldn’t really believe anyone would let me screw with their holiday. And, I held my breath through the whole service, waiting for Ralph Grant to fall asleep and collapse on the organ keys.

Perhaps as a consequence, what came out of my mouth was as straight-forward a sermon as I knew how to preach.

Nothing too flashy or novel.

Nothing very creative or controversial or counter-intuitive.

I just said- and I still have the thumb drive to prove it:

This baby we await at Advent, this infant we get a peek at in the manger…

This child who makes us spend time with our in-laws and tolerate Rod Stewart’s craptastic cover album Merry Christmas Baby…

This long-promised newborn who makes us gain weight and run up our credit cards and pretend not to be creeped out by a bearded fat man who spies on our kids…

This baby, Jesus, is God.

He is, as the scriptures and songs say: Immanuel.

Which means: ‘God with us.’

If you were here that Christmas Eve, 13 years ago, then I’m sure you remember my sermon word for word, but if you weren’t here, then that’s the basic gist of it.

No surprises, or at least I thought so.

Like any Christmas Eve service, we had some visitors that night, visitors who had never heard that message before, never heard of what the Church calls the incarnation.

I remember-

One visitor that night was a young woman who came up to me at the end of the  service.

She was about my age, I guess. I’d never seen her before. She had a couple of kids running around at her legs.

She had this hectic sort of presence about her- like she hadn’t been sure about coming to church that night and she was even less sure about approaching the likes of me.

She forgot to tell me her name. I forgot to ask. She just came right up to me, in the narthex, pushed her hair behind her ears, held out her hand and told me that her husband was in Iraq and that her mom was dying.

That’s how she identified herself.

I started to empathize with her, but she went on to tell me how none of them had ever really gone to church or been religious before. Lots of people apologize like that at Christmas, I’ve since learned. Before I could really say anything in reply she asked me: ‘Is God…’ she caught herself, ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ 

And I felt like saying: ‘Lady, where were you for the last hour? Didn’t you listen to a word of my sermon? Did you not hear me tell everyone how I graduated from Princeton?’ But instead I said: ‘Yes, God…Jesus…they’re one and the same.’

And she… smiled.

She smiled. She didn’t say anything more about it. She didn’t say anything else. I can’t read minds but my guess is she was thinking of her Mom, her Mom who was dying and who’d never gone to church and might not ever go to church until she was dead.

My guess was she liked the idea that the God who would meet her Mom was as loving, merciful and forgiving as Jesus is supposed to be.

Or maybe her smile masked a confusion about how she was supposed to square her deployed husband’s mission with how the baby Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace we call God.

I didn’t ask.

Merry Christmas,’ I remember saying.

——————————

     She wasn’t the only who came up to me that night.

Another was an older man. He was dressed neatly in tweed and wore a black wool stocking cap on his head.

To tell the truth, he seemed kind of grouchy- like a curmudgeon, and he said he was from out of town so, chances are, he belonged to somebody here. In which case, you still owe me.

He told me he was in finance. He said he wasn’t really a church person but that reading philosophy was his passion. He came up to me on the sidewalk outside, after the service.

Standing in front of the church sign, he said: ‘Reverend, that was an interesting message, but one thing wasn’t clear to me. Were you saying Jesus leads to God, or that he is God?’ I couldn’t tell whether he was curious or if he was condescending.

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

‘Really?’ he said, and his face suddenly looked irritated, worried.

He didn’t say anything more and I can’t read minds, but my guess is he was thinking that this baby Jesus was going to grow up. That one day this baby was going to say and do things, this baby was going to make unrealistic demands and exert unqualified expectations that made him uncomfortable.

That if incarnation is the ante then he didn’t want to get stuck with Jesus.

I thought about messing around with him, but Ali was waiting on me. So I just said: ‘Merry Christmas.’

——————————

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…

     …St. Paul writes a good 3 decades before St. Luke sets down to write the Christmas story.

The trees and decorations this time of year, the carols and the candles, the shiny gifts and friendlier-than-usual greetings- the Christmas cheer, it all collides and contrasts with Paul’s point here in Colossians.

We’re stuck with Jesus.

    I’m no longer the pastor here so I don’t need to worry about making a bad impression on any bright-eyed visitors. I can get away with ruining your holiday spirit and leave Sonja to clean up the mess. I can go ahead and break the gloomy news that the baby in the manger- he grows up to be Jesus, one who we would rather kill than be with or be like.

That’s what Paul’s Christ Hymn in Colossians is driving at- that the whole meaning of Christmas, the shock and irritating specificity of incarnation, the problematic particularity of Mary’s child, it isn’t just ‘God is with us.’

That sounds nice and comforting and maybe even flattering. It’s that God is with us…as Jesus.

The message of Christmas isn’t that God came among us as a baby, that doesn’t sound too demanding.

     No, the message of Christmas is that God came among us as the-baby-who-grows- up-to-be-Jesus.

     Those are the uncomfortable claims we anticipate this Advent season. That in Jesus of Nazareth we’ve seen all of Godall of God- there is to see.

     The message of Christmas is not, that in Jesus we get a glimpse of the divine. No.

The message of Christmas is not, that in Christ we discover but one path (among many) leading to God.

God, I wish.

No, Paul’s claim around incarnation is that in Jesus of Nazareth we’ve seen (and heard) all of God there is to find.

Now, even though I’m a professional Christian, what’s true for you goes for me too: my life would be whole lot easier if God would remain at a comfortable distance, abstract and aloof. I could get to my wants more quickly if I could just say: Well, God’s mysterious, Jesus- he only gives us a glimpse of God. Maybe I’ll go get a second opinion.

That’s what the Colossians wanted. Colossae was a diverse, cosmopolitan city, and like many degreed, smartphone-wielding Nones and Dones today, they believed that the true god was too majestic to be identified with a particular person.

The true god couldn’t be found in specific stories. God was too big to be boxed into 1 tradition, in to 1 flesh.

In their sophistication, the Colossians, preferred to find god in nature, out among the stars. They even composed a hymn, dedicated to the unknowable god who lay behind the cosmos and creation.

Then, decades before Matthew tells us about the wise men or Luke Caesar’s census, Paul gets his hands on the Colossians’ hymn, and he rewrites it. He turns it into the Christ Hymn at the beginning of his letter.

Paul wants Colossae to know that things might be easier for us if it were otherwise but, at Christmas, in Jesus, God gets particular. Jesus, we say, is a revelation of the real ways of God. It’s Jesus, not the Defense Department, who shows us what the real world really is.

Think about what that means. Because of Christmas, when we have a decision or dilemma in our lives, we can no longer ask: ‘I wonder what God wants me to do?’ No, now, because of Christmas, we have to ask: ‘What would Jesus do?’ because Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

We’re stuck with Jesus. Merry Christmas.

——————————

    When someone wrongs us or hurts us, we’ve got to work out how to forgive them not just once but, maybe, over and again because Jesus said so and in Jesus all things hold together.

     When someone asks for our help and we don’t want to, we don’t have the time or we doubt the sincerity of the request, not only do we have to help we’ve  got to go farther than they’ve even asked because that’s what Jesus said to do, and through him all things in heaven and on earth were created.

     When social media soundbites tempt us into boxing people into black and white terms we’ve got to put ourselves in other shoes because Jesus told us to worry about the log in our own eyes and he is the firstborn of creation. 

     When the arbiters of secularism try to relegate our faith to the private, the personal, then we’ve got to shake our heads because the one who told us about the samaritan and about rich Lazarus in hell and about the sheep and the goats and about thirsting and hungering for justice- he’s the same one to whom all of heaven and earth belong. 

I couldn’t say that if I was still your pastor.

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Don’t get too close to the manger

Don’t be fooled by his smile or his sweet eyes.

Its better to distract yourselves with sentimentality and Santa songs and the fake ‘War on Christmas’ because this is one difficult, demanding baby.

If I was still your pastor, I couldn’t ruin your Christmas season by asking: Are you nursing a grudge against someone you love? Have you gossiped about a neighbor maybe? Are there people who are just too unsavory for you to spend time with them?

Strangers, aliens, refugees you just wouldn’t welcome?

     If so, you may want to think twice before you say Merry Christmas, because this baby’s going to have a few things to say when he grows up and I’m sorry but you’re going to have to listen. You shouldn’t sing him to now and if you’d just rather shut him up later. After all, in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. 

    In other words, we Christians say:

It’s not that Jesus is someone who speaks words about God or words inspired by God.

It’s that Jesus is the Word God speaks to us.

It’s not that Jesus is someone who teaches about God.

It’s that Jesus is what God teaches us.

It’s not that Jesus is one who shows us a way to God.

It’s that Jesus embodies the ways of God.

COMPLETELY.

FULLY.

IN THE FLESH.

You can search under every star in the sky but the totality of God’s Truth and Beauty and Splendor is to be found in this particular Jew from Nazareth, in his life from cradle to cross.

You see, there’s an unavoidable, uncompromising finality to Jesus that Paul wants to hit you over the head with in his hymn.  For Paul, when it comes to Christ, you can choose not to follow. You can refuse to bend your life to his life. You can baptize your kids but never expect them to suffer for it. But you can’t say that in Jesus we find anything less than the fullness of God.

I mean…

Dr. Phil’s relationship advice might seem more practical to us. Joel Osteen might seem more inspiring to us. The Donald or Hillary might make more sense to us. But to wait for this baby at Advent, to sing to him at Bethlehem is to find yourself, after the trees dry up and die and the decorations are put away, stuck with Jesus.

     ——————————

  My first Christmas Eve here at St. John’s I tried to keep things simple and straightforward. I was a new pastor. I had no idea what I was doing and I was distracted by the prospect of Ralph passing out on the organ. I tried to be clear, but some people still had questions.

A man came up to me as I was untying my robe. The Christmas Eve crowd is always kind of a motley crew; you never know who’s going to show up. This man was old, maybe Larry Blackwell’s age. I’d seen him go through the communion line, and, judging from his uncertainty about how to receive the sacrament, I’d guess he’d not been to church much before.

He came up to me down here by the altar rail and he shook my hand. And, with sincerity, he said: ‘I enjoyed your talk. Now were you saying Jesus and God are the same person?’

And I felt like saying: ‘How much clearer can I be? I must have said it a dozen times. Do you people need me to get Carl Allen to draw you pictures?’

But instead I said: ‘Yes.’  And I saw the recognition pass across the man’s face.

He said: ‘Then that means that everything Jesus said and did…’ His voice trailed off. He didn’t say anything more, and I couldn’t read his mind. But my guess is I could’ve finished his sentence for him…

That we’re stuck with Jesus.

That if Jesus and God are one and the same, then that means that everything Jesus said and did- that’s the fullness of God.

     And to try to live his life- even though it’s difficult and demanding, even though we can’t do it perfectly- to try living his life that’s what it means to be fully alive.

That for you or I to be fully human is for us to be as human as Jesus, to be like him.

     ——————————

     I’m not appointed here anymore so I can just give it to you straight up:

What we wait for at Advent and welcome at Christmas, it’s an impossible, unending task.

I mean-

Jesus himself tells us we’ll always have the poor with us.

And that we’re commanded to love our enemies implies that we’ll always have them.

And there’s never any shortage of people who, like Pilate, ask ‘What is Truth?’ assuming they already know the answer.

To worship the baby-who-grows-up-to-be-Jesus, it’s a summons that will always make us ill-fitting in the world and should always make us odd in America.

But it’s not all bad news to be stuck with Jesus.

The good news about being stuck with Jesus?

It gives you all plenty to do for the next 125 years.

Our Idolatry of Guns

Jason Micheli —  December 3, 2015 — 9 Comments

Another mass shooting.

This time in Roanoke, OregonSouth Carolina, Louisiana, Colorado, California. The 355th this year.

More gun violence.

While Americans get hot and bothered over the specter of an infinitesimal number of refugees fleeing to America from terrorism in Syria, we ignore terrorists of our own making. We watch the aerial footage of standoffs and the ticker tape death tolls scroll across our television screens as though it were all a Quentin Tarantino film.

No, I can actually remember Quentin Tarantino movies: ‘I’m a mushroom cloud laying motherf@#@$r’ said Jewels to Vincent Vega on screen at the Genito movie theater in Midlothian, Virginia in the fall of 1994.

Like long lapsed Catholics, we genuflect towards the terrible headlines, but we don’t actually bother to remember the tragedies.

We note the place names and the dates and the numbers of victims with less investment than a boy memorizing the stats on the back of his Topps baseball cards.

That is to say, we don’t give a damn.

Wolf Blitzer may but we give less than a damn actually. We don’t do anything about it.

We may be willing to shred the constitution when it comes to Muslims, but when it comes to guns we’re all either strict constructionists or we’re, worse, apathetic.

Comfortably numb.

On the left, we respond with resignation that nothing can be done.

On the right, we respond with bumpersticker cliches (‘people kill people not guns’) and specious, apocryphal history (a militarized police and unstable individuals with automatic weapons is what James Madison wanted).

jesus-rile1

I know what the emails in my Inbox will say: I’m reacting too rashly, too quickly. We don’t even know the details of this (latest) mass shooting.

Maybe.

I know I’ll get gripes that I’m being ‘political,’ a transgression which pastors should never commit. However, none of the above should label me an anti-gun liberal. I’m, in fact, neither liberal nor anti-gun. That many of you still will label me an anti-gun liberal shows how silly the debate has gotten.

Some of you will be irritated by what follows below. Fine. Whatever.

It’s:

A) not own argument but another author’s and

B) completely in line with the official position of my denomination, the United Methodist Church.

So there.

In America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose James Atwood, a Presbyterian pastor, makes a theological, as opposed to a political or constitutional, argument for safer gun restrictions.

That is, it’s not a question of what’s constitutional, legally allowed or what the Founders envisioned; it’s a question of how we as Christians live as a peaceful alternative to State, placing our identity in Christ above all worldly loyalties.

And its at the question of loyalties and priorities where Atwood makes his argument.

While not disputing the 2nd Amendment, Atwood- ever a good Calvinist- argues that the problem at the root of the gun debate- the gun lobby specifically- is idolatry.

Take this quote: “Former NRA executive, Warren Cassidy, … ‘You would get a far better understanding of the NRA if you were approaching us as one of the great religions of the world.”

For some people, Atwood argues- and he’s a hunter himself-possession and use of a gun is intoxicating, and the intoxicant is power and the control of someone else’s life. But isn’t idolatry too strong of a term? Atwood singles out gun idolatry in the following three elements:

1. When an owner [of a gun] believes there are NO circumstances when a regulation or restriction for public safety should be placed upon it [the gun/the owner].

2. When an owner believes that guns don’t kill; they only save lives.

3. When an owner has no doubt that guns preserve America’s most cherished values.

Atwood goes on to identify other elements:

Deep emotional attachment to guns.

Anger when anyone questions gun values.

When no preventive measures are supported.

When little to no grief is shown for those who have experienced gun violence.

When any restrictions of gun sales are vigorously opposed.

When gun rights carry more moral weight than children’s safety.

When people claim an absolute right to use their guns against the government if they consider it tyrannical.

When people claim the blessing of God on the right to own a weapon.

Because I’ve seen it so many times before- and so have you- I know what’s coming in the days ahead. Those on the left will demand we do something about gun violence but will do nothing about gun violence. Those on the right will point to the individuals involved and ignore the instruments by which they so easily wreaked their havoc.

But, I’m pretty sure, not many people will be pointing to or pointing out our idolatry. Not many will be calling Christians out.

So I might as well: is the sacrosanct nature of the 2nd Amendment proof that people of faith are more shaped by our national story than we are by our Gospel story?

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

Cancer’s gotten me off my blogging game, but it’s Advent and the schedule of questions I outlined a year ago has incarnation in the queue.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

15. Would there have been an Incarnation without the Fall? 

Just asking the question is important to reflect upon what Christians mean we say Christ is the eternal God incarnate.

My answer?

Of course.

If Jesus only comes to forgive sin, if he’s born in order to die, then the incarnation is determined by our transgression. Christmas is thus contingent upon us; the infinite determined by the finite.

The cross is what we choose when we meet God in the flesh.

The cross is not what God chooses as the reason for meeting us in the flesh.

The former means God endures our very worst evil for love’s sake while the latter means God trucks in the very worst evil for his holiness’ sake.

Not only is the finite determining the infinite a logical impossibility, it treats the incarnation as the outworking of God’s frustration with us rather than as the manifestation of God’s eternal decision not to be any other god but Emmanuel, God-with-us.

To suggest there would have been no journey to Bethlehem had there been exit from Eden is to say that the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s. That then means at some point in time God changed his mind about us, towards us.

But God doesn’t change.

The ancient Christians had a catchphrase: opus ad extra, opus ad intra; that is, who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, in the Trinity. That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.

There is not when the Son was not, and there can not be when he will not be.

Thus, the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning, before, even, the Fall: God’s decision to be God-with-us.

As it happened, humanity did sin and Christ does reconcile us, but incarnation names a still deeper mystery. The mystery that the nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation, that before God brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Jesus isn’t born simply to die for our sin. If Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction. Jesus isn’t born for us; we were born for him.

We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life. Had there been no need for a cross, there still would’ve been a crèche because the eternal reason for his coming is that God wants to be friends with us just as Father, Son and Spirit are friends with one another.

‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; all things have been created through him and for him…‘     – Colossians 1

Still on medical leave, I’m not back to work yet, but you wouldn’t know it from my Inbox. My post from last week on the refugee crisis provoked a number of protestations that I was playing politics.I could reiterate that welcoming refugees isn’t a political position for Christians. It’s a commandment given to Moses. It’s one of the hallmarks of the Jubilee that Mary sings about in her Magnificat. And it’s one Jesus doubles down on in his preaching.

I know the social media soundbites would have us fear these refugees aren’t really displaced people but terrorists bent on harming us.

Of course, that doesn’t really settle the issue for Christians because:

A) The most common exhortation in scripture is that we are not to be fearful

B) We’re to love and pray for our enemies too.

Damn, there’s no out for us.

Rather than argue the point, perhaps its best to extend an invitation. Instead of insisting that our borders be closed and our states refuse any refugees, Christians should partner with other Christians in and around the Middle East who are attempting to care for refugees.

Rather than clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook, retweeting red-meat or trolling on a blog and thinking you’ve fulfilled your baptismal obligation, why not kick over some cash, as my family will this Advent, by giving to International Orthodox Christian Charities.

What better way to worship the Holy Family who were refugees than by caring for another refugee family who are, through God taking flesh, holy?

Here’s what Adam Hamilton recently wrote on the subject. Hamilton, founder of the largest United Methodist congregation in the U.S., is a reliably moderate voice on issues facing the church and the world. He’s neither liberal nor political and his congregation is in one of the most conservative parts of the nation. Incidentally, the video above was produced by Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio.

‘When God came to this earth, he came as a child fleeing the horrors of tyranny, living as a refugee for the first years of his life.

Years later when Jesus would describe the Last Judgment to his disciples he spoke of the final judgment being a moment when the Son of Man would separate the nations of the earth as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  The sheep would be welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, and the goats sent away.  Jesus said the difference between the sheep and the goats was that the people who were sheep in this parable were those who helped people in their hour of need.  The people who were goats turned them away.  Who did they help or turn away?  It was the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and the stranger.  Stranger in Jesus’ parable signifies the foreigner.  I think Jesus included this last category because he himself had been a refugee in Egypt.

In the parable it appears that the goats thought of themselves as religious.  They were therefore surprised when, at the last judgment, there were turned away.  So, why did the goats turn away those who were in need? I think it was because they were afraid and they allowed their fear to override their compassion and humanity.  And the sheep?  They found the courage to overcoming their fears and to act with compassion and love.

We’re right to insist on proper screening of refugees (on this I don’t know enough about the current processes for screening to know if it is adequate or not). If the current practices are inadequate, let’s improve them. But our fears cannot lead us to completely close off our hearts to children, families, seniors who need our help and have nowhere to go.

The Syrian crisis is complex.  Doing our best to ensure security is important.  But we must also find a way to help people fleeing from harm to find refuge.

If you’re not receiving refugees in your state, how can you or your church help those who are?’

 

12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.

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Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.

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Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.

Unless-

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

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When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.

 

imrs.phpThe theologian Robert Jenson complains:

‘The institution we call the church has been and usually still is one of the chief bulwarks we erect to defend our status quo against the threat of God.’

‘But,’ Jenson happily notes, ‘it is the oddity of the church that the communication- namely, the word of God, by which it lives fights against the stasis to which the church, like all communities and nations tend.’ 

As if to provide Jenson with anecdotal illustration of his critique, since this weekend’s terrorist attack in Paris a gaggle of governors and ostensible presidential candidates have volunteered to disqualify any refugees from being welcomed into our borders. Never mind that America could barely field a football team with the paltry number of refugees we’ve allowed up to this point.

That most of these politicos self-identify as conservative Christians and, in particular, cater to conservative Christians lead me to wonder these past few days exactly what bible they’re reading.

And then it dawned on me. Duh!

These governors been reading the Christmas story:

13 Now after the magi had departed, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee as refugees to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for the despot in your own land, Herod, is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’

14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and they sought refuge in Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod where, considering the violence in their homeland, they were viewed with suspicion, as dangerous and potential threats, and, though they were fleeing the very terror of which they were accused, were turned away in the name of security. This was would have been to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When the despot Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent soldiers and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. Tragic, to be sure, but since it took place faraway in a land far different from theirs most Egyptians could ignore the story, their consciences untroubled by having done nothing. ‘Those people’ are simply violent.

17 Then was would have been fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, but the Egyptians, by refusing to obey their obligations to their neighbors resisted the work of God in their midst. But God reconsidered, seeing things from the perspective of Egypt, and declared: ‘I see your point. What good is fidelity if you’re not alive to enjoy it?’

With Advent upon us and, with it, this text of terror, it would behoove Christians to recall that the God who commanded his People to care for the poor and the refugee among them (Exodus 23) became, in Jesus Christ, both poor and a refugee.

Of course, the rub is with that modifier ‘his People’ because those of us who count ourselves among God’s People have other obligations upon us than what the constitution permits and goals other than the pursuit of material happiness.

Sure, I’m no different than any of those red meat eating governors. Like Bobby Jindal, I’d prefer to feel secure in my community and, because I’m a sinner, aside from token expressions of concern, I’d rather remain safely distant from the problems and pain of the world. But, as Robert Jenson notes, I cannot because of the bible I read.

Perhaps it’s so obvious it doesn’t require comment, but the real tension exposed by the refugee question is the extent to which, for many of us, we’ve made being an ‘American’ equivalent to being a ‘Christian.’ If we’ve not made them equivalent, then the refugee crisis also reveals how, really, the former is more important to us than the latter. When push comes to shove, its the logic of country, not the gospel, that determines our speech and actions. In the name of security and ‘realism’ we excuse views contrary to the commandments. We do not declare that, because Christ is Risen, God will ultimately beat all our swords into ploughshares; therefore, we can take risks and welcome the stranger among us.

Not only are ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ not equivalent identities, they are, on more occasions than we care to countenance, conflictual identities.

While Americans have no primary task other than, each, the pursuit of our individual autonomy, the primary task of the baptized, as Stanley Hauerwas writes, is ‘to stand within the [violent] world witnessing to a peaceable Kingdom which reflects the right understanding of that very world.’ Even more important to our task as Christians is to remember that the peace to which we witness ‘is not something to be achieved by our power. Rather peace is a gift of God that comes only by our being a community formed around a crucified savior.’ 

Many Christians will object, as many of our presidential candidates do, that in the quote end quote real world we cannot afford the luxury of heeding the demands of our baptisms. Such objectors, however, forget, as only the comfortable can, that:

There is no morality that does not require others, including ourselves, to suffer for our convictions.

Christians who happen to live in America, then, seem to face an impossible dilemma between a posture of hospitality towards the stranger who may also be an enemy and a political crisis that seems to have no simple remedy beyond the nativist one. Fortunately, scripture does not ever command Christians to accomplish anything, for, if Jesus is Risen, it’s not up to us to make the world come out right. So the choice for Christians is not between doing nothing or attempting to do everything. The choice is the one put to the first disciples: ‘Follow me.’

And in following, in our ordinary attitudes and deeds and within our communities of faith, we trust that the world of violence might have its imagination freed for a Kingdom that, if Jesus is Risen, is in fact the ‘real world.’

Just as the kingdom of Egypt welcomed the holy family who were strangers among them, we witness to the Kingdom of God by welcoming strangers as if they were the holy family.

Or, I suppose, we could just complain about coffee cups on social media.

Saturday is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life and what, increasingly over the years, I’ve become convinced is one of the most important questions:

 

‘Can we pray to the saints?’

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It’s a good question, a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

Those, I think, are better ways of putting the question.

Of course there’s the standard Protestant tropes about how praying to anyone but Jesus Christ is…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

And there’s the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

 

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Baptist or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them. And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

 

At funerals, the Book of Worship guides officiants to draping a white pall over the casket while proclaiming:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism __________ put on Christ, so now is __________ in Christ and clothed with glory.

 Then facing the gathered, the pastor holds out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

 And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor lays her hands on the casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave __________ to us, now we give _________ back to you.

Receive __________ into the arms of your mercy.

Receive __________ into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in my congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne and Peg, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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It’s an important question because it’s one I think about every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’