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(Un)Like a Virgin

Jason Micheli —  June 12, 2019 — Leave a comment

We continued our summer sermon series through the parables with Matthew’s story of the ten virgins, preached by the summer minion, David King.

The Bridegroom Cometh,” but that came too late.  Better than coming too early, I guess.   

The parables are stories Jesus tells about himself. That is, the parables make no sense apart from who Jesus is and what God does through Jesus on the cross.  So, you can imagine my surprise when Jason told me last week that I was preaching on the parable of the 10 virgins.  

I mean, talk about a first impression.

In all seriousness though, if the parables are stories that both are made sense of through the cross and shed light on the mystery of the cross, then the story we have in today’s scripture presents a difficult passage to make sense of.  

Like last week’s scripture, this parable is categorized as a parable of judgment.  And, on the face of it, the parable reeks of an inhospitable bridegroom shutting the door in the face of the virgins.  In fact, the story tells of all doors being shut to the foolish virgins.  And before we start associating ourselves with the wise virgins, remember to whom and for what purpose Jesus tells this parable.  Jesus tells it to the disciples, knowing full well that they will fall asleep when he asks them to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, just a chapter later in Matthew’s narrative.  

The parable of judgment – this parable of the kingdom – it presupposes the disciples unfaithfulness to Christ.  

Why, then, do we so often read the parables of judgment as parables of condemnation, as verses and stories declaring the sorting out of the faithful from the unbelievers that we think will happen at the end of days, that great and glorious time when we can whet our tongues with the wine of heaven while all the non-Christians weep and gnash their teeth?  

Stories, parables like these, we so often read them to satiate our need for validation of our faith in a world that often feels hostile to it.  However, the image of the virgins, the fact that there are ten of them, indicates to us that the people being judged are members of the church.  Their virginity is symbolic: it indicates their preparedness to be married to the bridegroom who is Christ.  As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”  

Already, then, the popular interpretation of this as a judgment levied against non-believers is moot.  The virgins are united in a community called ‘Church,’ their virginity imputed to them as a symbol of grace.  

Further, what this shows to us is that this parable of judgment, it needs to be read through a frame, a lens, that presupposes the gift of grace.  We read the parables of judgment not with condemnation in mind, but with, as Robert Capon insists, a hermeneutic of inclusion-before-exclusion.

This is all the more important since the parable begins with the ever important word, “then.”  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Kingdom using the phrase, “The Kingdom will be like” x, y, z.  But here, Jesus begins by using the word “then,” indicating to the disciples that this is not a parable of judgment preceding the cross.  Jesus is speaking of what the kingdom in the wake of the cross is like.  

The wedding has happened – the grace has been offered.  The virgins are preparing to celebrate their marriage.  

What, then, is all the fuss about the oil?  Fleming Rutledge, who I will only mention once since she’s really Jason’s gal, asks the pertinent question: what really is in those lamps?  

Before I answer that question, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures is listening to bad Christian talk radio.  You know, the all love but no Jesus kind of Christian talk radio.  You know, the kind that prides itself in its acceptance of saints but rejects the sinner.  The kind of Christian talk radio that will couch an hour long sermon on judgment in between two hours of financial planning “from a biblical perspective.”  I love that stuff.  

So, as I was driving in to work here this week, listening to Christian talk radio, learning about how I can plan my retirement in accordance with biblical standards of stewardship and bookkeeping, the oil and the lamps finally made sense to me.  

St. Augustine, in his sermon on Matthew 25, notes that “the foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, wish to please by that abstinence of theirs by which they are called virgins, and by their good works, when they seem to carry lamps.  But wishing to please human spectators, doing praiseworthy works, they forget to carry with them the necessary oil.” 

That is, the parable, the oil stored up by the wise virgins, it can’t be good works because, as Augustine sees, that would make their entrance to the wedding celebration a matter of payment, a payment that no sum of works can make.  It is for this reason that the foolish virgins fear for their selves.  They ask the wise virgins for the oil, saying, “give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”  They fear, that is, that their works will be insufficient, and rightly so! For they think that the oil the wise carry is something that can be transferred, something that can be given or earned.  

You see, the foolish virgins misunderstand the purpose of the oil.  They misunderstand its nature, and in so doing, represent for us the fundamental misconception we so often make when it comes to the Gospel: that anything besides the grace of God could possibly give us entrance on the final day of judgment.  They misunderstand what the wise get right: that the oil is their sin, transformed by the grace of the cross and not by their works.  Truly, then, the oil is non-transferable, nor is it refundable.  The oil is that which can be taken up by one person: Christ the bridegroom.  

Notice, too, what the text says: “but while they went to buy the oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.”  Matthew does not say that the wise virgins go in with the bridegroom because they had extra oil, nor does he say they go in because their lamps are lit.  Matthew does not accredit their entrance to any act that they participated in to distinguish them from the foolish virgins.  

Matthew tells us that the wise virgins enter in strictly because they were ready. The readiness of the wise virgins is qualified not by their own glorification or righteousness, but by their readiness to lay their sin, their oil, before the bridegroom who is Christ.  Their readiness is the posture of the Church in light of the cross.  

The foolish virgins rightly feared, for they misunderstood the nature of the oil.  They did not bring extra oil precisely because they thought they had enough of the oil of good works.  The wise, however, brought extra, because they knew that the preparedness for the wedding celebration, the celebration of the already-given grace of the cross, required but one thing: their sin, laid at the foot of the cross, given to the bridegroom.  

The foolish, however, bring what they think is enough oil to get to the door, the gate of judgment.  But they despair and fear for when the bridegroom arrives, and indeed they flee to seek extra things, to buy their way in. And in doing so, they miss his arrival.  They leave the place already prepared for them, exemplifying the misconceived notion that they could in any way seek elsewhere, and merit, their ticket to the celebration.  

The oil we anoint babies with in their baptism – it is an oil not of our works but of the work of God in Christ.  The oil represents not what we can do, but the forgiveness of sins which can never be merited.  The oil is the blood of Christ that has cleansed our sins. The oil the virgins bring is the oil with which we are baptized: the oil that is the blood of the lamb, the ointment for the disease we are born into and cannot escape.  

You see, the bad Christian talk radio made the parable clear: it matters not if you state the name of Christ at the beginning of your designated radio hour if what follows is not a message proceeding from the grace given in the cross.  To declare one’s belief in Christ, and to immediately follow that with all the requisites for one’s own sanctification, is to go only halfway in believing the good news embedded in His name.  

This is what makes sense of the judgment cast on the foolish virgins.  The foolish virgins, returning in the dark to the door of the party, having found no works to pay their entrance, encounter a Lord who claims not to know them.  They call his name, “Lord, Lord!” and he responds with “truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  

The word for knowledge used in the Greek is “οἶδα.”  It is a word that comes from the root of the verb that means, “to see.”  The bridegroom, we ought to note, literally says he cannot see them.  They, the foolish virgins, have sought the light of grace where it could not be found, and in so doing, miss the very point of the message. 

Notice, again, that the text never tells us that the extra oil is used.  The wise bring the extra oil, but we are never told if it is used.  The bridegroom comes, not when the extra oil has been used, but when the ones who think can be bought have left.  

That is, the judgment levied, the door closed, is against those who obscure the judgment of the cross, the judgment of God on God’s self, for the sake of all humanity.  

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.  

I’m leading a Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. For the second session (since I was traveling), participants watched a video conversation I had with Dr. David Fitch of the Northern Seminary about how Christians can discern the debate around human sexuality without participating in the antagonisms which exist outside the Church in the larger culture.

Here is the video and the session notes distributed for the class:

Reiteration of “Yes, but…” Conversation Parameters: 

Just to make sure we start from a place of continuity, I want to reiterate the “Yes, but…” parameters set out last week.  These allow us to maintain a posture of grace and humility when discussing such a fraught subject.  Since this is a subject we approach as a community, formed and read on the level of discernment (more on this later), it’s important to keep each of these in mind going forward. 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned, it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes, which have been supercededby the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized, instead, that their reading* of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.  *Note to Jason:  added emphasis

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

 

Recap from Session 1:

Last week, we started off our discussion by focusing on how it is that Christians approach, read, and appreciate the Bible, and attempting to place this within the larger discussion of how we, the Church, ought to read the Bible together.  For us Christians, the sacred nature of the Bible can often be forgotten when we approach it to justify our previously arrived at conclusions.  This is part of the meaning of the term “sinner.”  To package the Bible up and, in essence, read it for ourselves, is a mode of self-justification that belies the underlying problems facing us as readers.  Further, searching the Bible for particular passages on particular issues places us at the wrong starting point, the whole while* assuming that the Bible is meant to be used in the fashion of proving people wrong. *Note to Jason:  Urban for: “all the while”

The Bible (and, especially, the New Testament), the great narrative of God’s grace visited to the world through the flesh of Christ and the witness of the Spirit, was written for and speaks to the primary duty of the Church:  The apostolic proclamation of the Gospel.

And just so we are clear on what exactly that Gospel is: “For while we were still sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5).  

As we said last week, the broader plot, the narrative that undergirds it all, should determine how we read (i.e., interpret) the particulars.  Thus, we should approach the Bible not in search of particular self-justifications that we can hurl at other pews, but rather with a larger hermeneutic (a fancy word for ‘the lens through which we read’) that makes sense of the particulars.  

That hermeneutic* is none other than the grace offered to us endlessly through the cross of Christ. This means that when we read the Bible, we approach it as sinners postured by grace. Note for Jason: added emphasis 

 

Some Notes on David Fitch

We ended last week by talking about how sexuality, and scripture, is something to be approached at the level of community, formed by the discipline of tradition and informed by the context we inhabit.  

David Fitch, as we see in the interview, provides us with a way of conceptualizing (a) why reading the Bible well is so hard in modern culture (a culture opposed to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord), (b) what makes reading the Bible on a communal level so difficult, and (c) the ways our cultural divisions, ideologies, and arguments find their ways into the Church, tailoring how we interact with, perceive, and understand our relations to one another.  He posits in his book that the Church has been consumed by the “us vs. them” version of faith, one that guts the Gospel message at its very core.  Subsequently, Fitch notes, the Church is subsumed by the “enemy-making machine,” feeding off our own fears, anxieties, and ideologies.  

Fitch argues that when we as a Church engage in this kind of reading and line-drawing, we simply reiterate the cultural argument, stymieing any attempt to preach the Gospel and blocking off anything God might have to say on the matter.  

In short, when we approach scripture with the divisions of culture already inscribed into our eyes, we preclude both God’s presence and, logically, our ability to preach that presence.  

Fitch’s argument borrows a lot from ideology studies, which is a dense and complicated field that mixes philosophy, critical theory, and sociology.  One of the claims that is central to what we are doing here is that ideology is bigger than the Church.  That is, ideology tends to dominate our modes of thought, and since we are Christians, it is particularly obvious in the way we think about, interpret, and use the Bible.  

In modern studies of ideology, the concept of “antagonism” dominates.  To be clear, this is not the colloquial notion of “antagonism.”  An antagonism is the process by which we make someone an enemy by turning them into an “Other.” An “Other” is what we turn people into when we dissociate them from their concrete reality and identify them by monolithic abstractions.  To turn someone into an “Other” is to distance them from who they are by not allowing ourselves to be present with them.  It functions on us, too.  The defensiveness and hurt we feel when labelled particular names which bear particular connotations (such as sayings like, “You’re just a liberal,” or “You’re stuck in the 18th century.”) is a result of the simplification and monolithic abstraction that is a patent mark of “Otherness.”  

The antagonism, displayed in the process of othering, is precisely what occurs when we see people in our image of God, rather than in the image Christ made them to be.  When we turn people into objectified “Others,” we do violence to that Christological imprint.  

Fitch notes, importantly, that we do not knowingly start antagonisms; the genesis of the antagonism is ideology – it is a product of our social and cultural life and thought.  Fitch wants us to realize that when we are functioning essentially as an “us vs. them” church, we are presupposing the antagonism.  

The concrete way this functions is through what Fitch calls “banners.”  Banners are an ideological product that extract in-life practices and means of navigating the world and turns them into abstracted identity markers.  Banners signify a monolithic, abstract structure that conveys a simplistic model with no (or, virtually, no) relation to the complexity the thing has in its concrete form.  These banners tend to lead to a thing ironically called a “master-signifier.”  These master-signifiers do not actually function to show any relation occurring in reality.  They serve only to confuse. 

For example, when we label someone “progressive” or “conservative” and proceed from there to bash our Bibles over their heads, we are participating in the “banner.”  The banner, then, is in the service of a dichotomization, a crystallizing of who the enemy is and what they stand for.  This is the antagonism we spoke about earlier.  

The banner, with its abstracted simplicity, removes the material reality from people and the church.  It obscures, under the guise of “us vs. them” the ability to physically discern what God is doing.  

 

Speaking Christian:  Discernment

Sexuality, it turns out, is one of those things we use banners for all the time.  Sexuality is not, as we pretend it to be, a singular issue.  Presenting it as such necessarily presumes that there are different opposing camps, only one of which can be right.  Sexuality is, however, bound up in a world of complexity.  In fact, it is bound up in the world.  

Just as we cannot talk about who we are without talking about the world in which we live, sexuality cannot be abstracted from and discussed apart from its material reality, which is found in people, in all people.  

Reading the Bible and searching for answers to a particular question (like sexuality), ignoring the larger narrative, and approaching the text with a microscopic hermeneutic, are each signs of reading the Bible ideologically; that is, it is a sign of reading the Bible through the lens of antagonism.  The Church, then, is assigned the task of discernment.  Discernment is a “local” project; it involves the Church being first open to seeing what God is doing.  From there, discernment involves being led (Note, the passive voice) by God to learn how to speak Christian in a culture that rejects Christ.  

What, you might ask, does discernment at the level of the Church really involve?  The active components of discernment are myriad, but Fitch offers a couple crucial points from which to begin.

  

  1. Discernment begins from a space of brokenness:  The Church is a collection of sinners, not saints.  The process of discernment begins, then, not from a hierarchical positioning, but with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, no matter the argument.
  1. Discernment reduces the language of positions:  The Church is caught up in its “position” on x and its “policy” on y.  This language is not only foreign to the Gospel, but it is the reproduction of cultural norms.  The language of “positions” is bound to treat people as objects instead of faithful Christological subjects.  Further, policy and position leave no room for God to work in the world through our brokenness.  

According to St. Paul, the Church is the “fullness of Christ,” which means that the Church submits both to Christ’s reign and, consequently, His presence.  A resulting tenet of the Church is that Christ is the only alternative to the “antagonisms” of our time.  Antagonism, violence, banners, master-signifiers:  They are all tools of the one Paul calls “the Enemy.”  

Each of these tools from the Enemy’s toolbox requires a constant stream of new enemies because – pay attention here – the enemy-making machine has no positive definition.  That is, the only way it exists is by constantly defining itself by what it is against.  

But, the Church cannot exist like this.  If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then Jesus, in his fullness, provides the Church with what the Enemy’s enemy-making-machine cannot:  a substance and sustenance that does not run out, a “well-spring that never runs dry.”  When Jesus commands us, then, to love our enemies, it is not just a challenge to our virtues as a Church; it signifies the endless love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness God gives through the death and resurrection of Christ.  We cannot learn to love, much less love each other, if we have not first learned of how Christ has loved us (unto death on the cross!).  

So, part of the work of discernment is asking the question: “Can the banner we use make sense apart from describing who or what it is against?”  If it cannot, then there is no room for God’s work, argues Fitch, partly because we have tied our own self-definition to the definition of our enemies.  However, concrete, mutual discernment can combat the enemy-making machine, not least because it opens us again to be able to see where God is working, even in conflict.  

Scripture teaches us a thing or two about God working in conflict.  He does not recede from the scene; in conflict, God intensifies his work of healing and restoration.  Focusing only on the determinative point set by the Enemy does not allow us to recognize what God is doing in the midst of our disagreements.  

 

Some Suggestions

At the end of the video, David Fitch offers some tips for how to deal with talking about this.  I’m just going to reiterate and clarify them a little here.

 

  1. Tell stories.  Don’t start from an argument, but a story.  Stories allow us to avoid a confrontational beginning by humanizing the situation.  Stories remind us of the concrete reality from which our discussions arise.  They also mimic the way God tells his story in the narrative we call the Bible.  They allow us to begin in weakness and vulnerability.  In dislodging ideology from below, stories provide a substantive referent, rather than the exhausting extraction and abstraction of the “banner.” 
  2. Ask good questions.  Banners, ideology, antagonisms, master-signifiers:  They always mask a contradiction.  Good questions lead to the discovery and inquisition of these contradictions.
  1. Provoke…sometimes.  Provocation can, when used well, take the existing wisdom to its extreme, thereby laying bare what the contradiction is that upholds such wisdom.  Use sparingly.
  1. Always look for a place of agreement.  Note:  This is not looking for agreement, but a place of agreement.  The subtle, but important, difference is that the former is about arguments, while the latter is about people.  The emphasis is not on theoretical agreement disjointed from subjects in the world, but on relationality and community in which agreement takes the form of a connection made possible by Christ.

Happy Pentecost! 

Here’s the Pentecost sermon I preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. The texts were Acts 2, Romans 8, and John 14.

Today is Pentecost, and as always we read from St. Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, where the disciples are back in the Upper Room where they’d been the night they betrayed him. 

Outside the Upper Room, it’s like the SXSW Music Festival. There’s thousands of pilgrims from all over the Jewish Diaspora, from Mopac and Northwest Hills, from Biderman’s Deli to the JCC on Hart Lane. 

“And suddenly,” St. Luke says, there’s a sound— not like a still, small voice but a mighty rushing wind. And the Holy Spirit descends like fire, and people start speaking, and even though they’re speaking different languages there’s simultaneous translation. 

All these different languages but everybody understands everybody: Swedes and Texans, UT and A&M fans, woke folks and folks who have no idea how to use the word intersectional in a sentence, millenials and geezers in MAGA hats, people who watched the final episode of Rape of Thrones and people who didn’t, parents and their 13 year olds, guys who still wear cargo shorts and everyone else. 

The Holy Spirit descends. 

And everybody starts speaking and everybody understands everybody. 

The commotion gathers a crowd in the street, and the crowd starts to gripe: Those Christians are doing the same thing they did when Jesus was with them— they’ve been drinking (which, if you’re counting at home, is the first and last time anyone ever accused Christians of being fun). 

Peter comes out to the crowd. 

And Peter speaks. 

Remember where we left Peter in the story?

Back on the night they’d been in that same Upper Room—

“Jesus? Jesus who?” 

The third time he actually curses Jesus’ name, which sounds worse when you translate the name the angel gave him: “Jesus? Curse this Jesus whoever he is. Curse this savior.” 

———————-

And then the cock crowed. 

———————-

But today they’re back in the Upper Room, and the Holy Spirit descends and Peter speaks. Peter says to the crowd “We’re not drunk— yet. We’ve still got an hour before brunch. No, no, no. All this your hearing, this is what the prophet foretold.” 

And then Peter preaches this long sermon that crescendos with Peter proclaiming “This Jesus, whom you crucified, God has him raised from the dead [for our justification] and God has made him Lord. Be baptized.”

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

I don’t have anywhere near the time for this sermon as Peter got for his sermon. Cynthia tells me you’re used to sermons shorter in length than the average tenure of a Trump administration official. 

I’d need a flux capacitor just to get in all my normal preaching time. 

So let’s just get right down to it. 

Here’s my question for you: Why does the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost?

———————-

I’m a guest preacher. You don’t know how to hear me. 

So make sure you’ve got my question straight. I’m not asking “Why does the Holy Spirit come?” 

Our teachers all lied. There are such things as stupid questions and that would be one because the Holy Spirit has already come. 

Today is not the arrival of a heretofore absent Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he first preached. The Holy Spirit overshadowed his mother’s womb. Even before the incarnation— the Holy Spirit spoke to us, we say in the creed, by the prophets. 

My question isn’t “Why does the Holy Spirit come?” 

The Holy Spirit already has come more times than…nevermind I can’t tell that joke here.

I’m asking “Why does the Holy Spirit come with fire and wind at Pentecost?”

Or, as the Jews call it in Hebrew, Shavuot. The Festival of Week. Five weeks (penta-) after the Passover. 

I mean— 

If Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to be with us in this in-between time between Christ’s first coming and his coming again, then why does the Holy Spirit not descend upon the disciples as they’re building make-shift tents of sticks and leaves to celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish festival that commemorated Israel’s wandering in the wilderness in between their rescue from captivity and their deliverance into a promised kingdom of God. 

Why Shavuot? Why not Sukkot? 

For that matter, Yom Kippur would make sense too. 

Jesus said that the Holy Spirit’s work would include convicting us of our sin. So why does the Holy Spirit not descend on Yom Kippur as Jewish pilgrims watch the high priest cast all their iniquity onto a scapegoat?

Of all the days of the year, why does Jesus schedule the Spirit for Pentecost?

If the Holy Spirit is who Christ sends so that you know he’ll never give you up, never let you down, never run around and desert you, then why doesn’t the Holy Spirit come on February 6, the birthday of British pop icon Rick Astley?

That’s right, All Saints, you  just got Rick-rolled.

Why Pentecost?

Why not Passover?

You’ve all seen Leonardo’s Last Supper— the shock and the shame on the disciples’ faces when Jesus lowers the boom that they will betray him and deny him and cover their own hides while his is nailed to a cross. 

That’s the exact moment— in the Upper Room— when Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus has dirt on his knees and his sleeves stink of toe-cheese because he’s just stooped over, washed their feet, and given them an entirely new commandment. 

Not the Golden Rule. 

Something much, much worse than the Golden Rule. 

“Love one another,” Jesus commands, “as I have loved you.” 

Or, as St. Paul puts it earlier in Romans, Christ loved not the rewardable or the improveable— not for the good but for the ungodly. 

I don’t even love my neighbor as much as I love brisket and a Fire Eagle IPA. 

How am I supposed to love the ungodly more than me?

Jesus knows not only can we not love the ungodly, we can’t even be relied upon to love God because no sooner does he command this impossible command than he dries off his hands and says “Where I’m going next you cannot go.” 

And Peter responds: “Nonsense, I’ll go right now.”

“Will you lay down your life for me?”

“Absolutely, yes.”

“No,” Jesus says, “just tonight you’ll have betrayed me by the time the cock crows three.”

And then they all flip their s@#$, and that’s it— the chapter divisions weren’t added to the Gospels until the 16th century. That’s the moment when Jesus promises the Spirit.

So why not Passover? 

Why does the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost?

But even that’s not putting it quite right. 

Luke doesn’t say here in Acts 2 “When the day of Pentecost had come…” 

No, the word Luke uses there in Greek is symplerousthai. 

It’s the word Luke used back in the ninth chapter of his Gospel when Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem because, Luke says, his teaching ministry had been symplerousthai. 

Completed.  

When the promised Holy Spirit descends, Luke’s telling you, the day of Pentecost is symplerousthai. 

Pentecost is fulfilled. 

———————-

  Chris Arnade is a photojournalist who published a book entitled Dignity earlier this week. Arnade was an unbelieving, french-cuffed financier on Wall Street. 

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

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

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

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

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

This moment when Jesus promises the Holy Spirit— she’s hung the image of it above her in abandoned buildings and in sewage-filled basements and leaned it against a tent pole under an interstate overpass. She’s taken it with her to turn tricks.

“He’s always with me,” she told Arnade, “reminding me.”

When Chris Arnade finished his interview of Takeesha, he asked her how she wanted to be described for the reader. And without missing a beat, Takeesha responded: “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a beloved child of God.” 

When the author expresses surprise at her candor, Takeesha said— pay attention now— “the Holy Spirit tells me that I am not what I do; I am what has been done for me.” 

“My worth,” Takeesha said— preached is more like it— “is not in what I do— or don’t do— but in who God says I am.”

———————-

All those pilgrims, they’re gathered there in Jerusalem not because they’re waiting around for the Holy Spirit but because it’s Pentecost, the day when Jews would remember the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, not just the Top Ten but the 603 other commands God gives before capping them all off, like Jesus does on a different mountain with “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  

When Moses returns to his people from atop Sinai, he reads to them the Law, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. 

And the people respond to the Law by promising all you’ve said to do, God, we will do and more.  

When the Holy Spirit shows up on that day, the day when God’s People remember their promise to do everything God had commanded them to do, Luke tells you that Pentecost is fulfilled— that’s why there’s no mention of Shavuot again in the New Testament. 

It’s symplerousthai. 

As the Apostle Paul says at the top of Romans 8, God has fulfilled the Law in the Son, who was the only one to live the Law perfectly.

I realize you don’t know how to hear me. 

So let me it put it plain for you to see— 

This is why the Spirit Jesus promises on Passover comes at Pentecost: 

In Jesus Christ, the promise of Pentecost is no longer “All this we will do for you, God.” 

When the Holy Spirit comes and Pentecost is fulfilled, the promise we remember now is that in Jesus Christ everything has already been done. 

All the commands the Lord spoke have been done for you by the Word made flesh.

Everything the Father said to do has been done—for you— in the Son, and his perfect obedience has been reckoned to you as your own irremovable suit of righteousness.

You are not what you do (or what you fail to do). 

You are who God declares you to be. 

That’s the promise we pray over the water at baptism: 

Clothe Elin in Christ’s righteousness. 

Clothe Elin in Christ’s permament perfect record.. 

This is why the language the Apostle Paul uses in our text today is the language not of earning and deserving but the language of adoption and inheritance. 

Your being recknoned as a righteous child of God, your being credited Christ’s permament perfect score—  it’s neither natural nor is it your hard-earned reward. 

It’s grace. 

And it’s not cheap. 

It’s not even expensive. 

It’s free. 

And it’s yours by faith.

———————-

“The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes, homeless and squatters.” 

Chris Arnade writes in Dignity:

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

I’ve heard from Rev. Cynthia and from some of you all about All Saints. 

I gather you all know as well as any church that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes. 

You all have hit up against the hard truth that most of us have the cash and the comfort to avoid— the truth that our lives are not in our control. 

Hear the good news:

Not only are you enough

In Christ, right now, as you are, no matter what qualification is running through your head, you’re enough— indvidually and as a congregation— in Christ you’re enough. 

That’s the promise the Spirit brings on the day Pentecost is fulfilled. 

That’s the promise of your baptism. 

But not only are you enough, you’re not alone. 

The Spirit, who comes at Pentecost so that you might trust and believe this crazy, impossible promise that all of what God demands in the Law— perfect obedience and righteousness- is given to you (given away!) in the Gospel, has since become a squatter. 

That’s what the name Jesus gives for the Spirit, paraclete, means. 

Para means to come alongside of, to attach to, to cling to. 

When the Day of Pentecost is fulfilled and the Spirit descends like fire and wind, the Spirit becomes like a house guest you can’t get rid of. 

The Spirit who comes when Pentecost is fulfilled now clings to the word, to water, and to wine and bread. 

These sacraments are the Holy Squatter’s rites, and he uses them, Jesus promises to us today, to help you keep all of his commandments, which…chillax All Saints, it isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. 

Because in John’s Gospel—

Other than that impossible command in the Upper Room he knew we couldn’t keep the very moment he commanded it, the only other commandments Jesus gives in John’s Gospel are all the same commandment. 

To believe.

To Nicodemus under the cover of night.

To the woman at the well.

To the 5,000 with fish and bread in their bellies.

98 times in the Gospel of John the commandment is always the same.

To put your trust in him.

To believe.

So all you saints at All Saints, chillax. 

And hear the good news:

The message of Pentecost is not Do your best and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

The message of Pentecost is Everything has been done, gratis; so go, with the Holy Spirit with bread and wine and water and word tell the nations. 

Or, just, you know…your neighborhood.

With these Holy Squatter’s rites, word and sacrament— that’s it, just these— Jesus promises you will do greater things than him. 

Notice, All Saints—

The burden on you is not to do great things. 

The burden on you is his only command: to believe. 

To trust— no matter how out of control your life feels— that the simple things he has given you— bread and wine, water and word—  can yield something greater even than loaves and fishes. 

You’ll see for yourself at the font— they can kill and make alive.

   

Is the UMC in decline not because of gays but graduate degrees?

Just ask Winfeld Bevins— Methodism’s decline goes back further than the 60’s cultural revolution to the professionalization of pastors. I resemble that remark.

Fresh on the heels of his recent Twitter face-off with Jerry Falwell Jr, we talked with Winfeld Bevins about his his new book Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation.

Actually, no, we talked to Winfeld months ago, before the UMC’s General Conference even, and we’re posting it now to take advantage of the social media scrum.

Still, it’s a conversation worth your attention.

Bevins is an Anglican and a professor of church-planting at Asbury Seminary in the Bluegrass State.

Before you listen, do us a solid. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on “Support the Show” to become a patron of the podcast for like…nothing.

Here’s my question for you for Pentecost, for it’s a question that clues you into the meaning of Pentecost for Christians and the chief role of the Holy Spirit for us.

Of the other 364 days of the year upon which Christ could have poured out His Holy Spirit, why did He do so on Pentecost? Why did it have to be the fiftieth day after Easter?

Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, five weeks, Penta-cost, after Passover.

Shavu’ot is the Jewish holiday that brings Peter and the disciples and a crowd of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem to celebrate.

They’re not there waiting for the Holy Spirit. They’re gathered to celebrate Pentecost, the holy day when they remember God giving to them on Mt. Sinai the Torah, the Law.

If Shavu’ot is the day when the Spirit descends upon the disciples, then Shavu’ot is the day by which we should interpret the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.

As a Gentile, I’ve always preached Pentecost straight up and simply as the arrival of the Holy Spirit, or, to be more exact, as the arrival of a previously not present Holy Spirit- as though, ascending in to heaven, the Risen Christ, like Jon Cena, tags in and the Holy Spirit takes over.

But that’s not accurate because the Spirit is everywhere all over the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, doing and moving.

Not to mention, Luke- the author of Acts- has already told us that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, compelled Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, and baptized Jesus into his baptism of vicarious repentance.

So if the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not the point of this Pentecost passage in Acts 2, then what is?

When the Holy Spirit descends upon the Pentecost pilgrims, the crowd becomes bewildered.

But Peter, Luke says, stands up and proclaims the Gospel to them. And that phrasing, that odd way of beginning a sentence “But Peter…” is Luke’s clue for you that Peter is not deciding on his own to stand up and preach, that an unseen agency is working upon him, that he is being compelled by God, by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Then Luke concludes by telling us that on that Pentecost 3,000 were added to the People of God.

In the Bible numbers are always important. Numbers are always the clue to unlocking the story’s meaning.

It’s not incidental that Luke ends his story of this Shavu’ot with the number 3,000 being added to God’s People because on the first Shavu’ot 3,000 were subtracted from God’s People.

On the first Shavu’ot, while Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God, the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Israelites were busy down below making God into an idol- which is but a form of making God into our own image.

When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, he sees them worshipping a golden calf, and Moses responds by ordering the Levites to draw their swords and kill 3,000 of the idolators.

So when Luke tells you that 3,000 were added to God’s People on that Pentecost day he wants you to remember the 3,000 subtracted from God’s People that Pentecost day.

Where 3,000 committed idolatry, 3,000 now believe.

Those in the crowd, listening to Peter, they’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

They’re every bit as susceptible to worship any god but God, every bit as prone to unbelief and unfaithfulness. They crucified God just over a month ago.

They’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Sinai that first Shavu’ot.

What Luke wants you to see in this Pentecost story is the undoing of that Pentecost story, and he wants you to see that it’s God’s doing not our own— God’s faithfulness to us despite our unfaithfulness, God graciously overcoming our unbelief, our proclivity to idolatry and sin.

Luke wants you to see that this new 3,000– it’s the Living God’s doing. The Holy Spirit’s doing. The Spirit of the Crucified and Risen Christ’s doing, compelling Peter— who before could never get his foot out of his mouth— to proclaim that the Law that first was given at Pentecost to Israel has been fulfilled perfectly in Jesus Christ.

Repent at this news and trust in Christ and be baptized, Peter tells his hearers.

This is the Spirit’s primary work in us and for us through word, water, wine and bread— to convict and convince us of Christ’s sufficiency for salvation. This, of course, is exactly what Jesus promises the Spirit will do. “The work of the Spirit will be to convict you of your sin, convince you of my perfect righteousness, and to judge the world for they did not believe into me,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John just before we betray him.

Matthew 25.31-46

I celebrated a wedding last weekend for a family from my former parish. 

I hate weddings. 

Wedding planners are the bane of my existence— they’re almost always like those women Sandra Bullock brunches with in The Blind Side. 

No matter who gets married, every single time they stick me at the grandma table for the wedding reception. 

And when it comes time to get my party on and do the white-man overbite on the dance floor, almost always all the guests hide their drinks and keep their distance from me because we all know Pastor must be an ancient Greek word meaning Fun Sponge.

I hate weddings. 

As a pastor, I’m not even a fan of parties. 

I avoid parties. I go to parties only begrudgingly and whenever I’m at a party, I’m tempted, like George Castanza from Seinfeld, to pretend I’m anything other than a pastor— a marine biologist, say, or an architect. 

Nothing stops party conversations in their tracks— or starts unwanted conversations— like saying you’re a pastor. 

The problem with wedding parties, though, is that you can’t pull a Constanza. You can’t lie and pretend to be an orinthologist because everyone has already seen you dudded up in robe and collar. 

At wedding parties, I’m stuck being me.

So, there I was at this wedding party. The DJ had already played like his fourth Harry Connick Jr. song. 

I was nursing a beer and gnawing on nibblers like a beaver when this salt-and-peppered guy wearing white pants, a seersucker jacket, a bow tie, and suede shoes ambled up to me. 

“You must be a lawyer,” I said. 

“How’d you know?” 

“Well, the guy who wrote the Bonfire of the Vanities is dead so you’re not him,” I said, “you must be a lawyer.” 

“That was an interesting sermon,” he said, “if that’s your thing.”

Here we go, I thought.

“I’m actually a marine biologist,” I said, “that’s my day job.”

“Really?”

“No. No, I’m a pastor. Believe it or not, people really pay me to do this.”

He nodded. 

“I’m not a Christian,” he said, putting up his hands like a suspect getting nabbed red-handed, “but I do try to live a good life and to be good and to help people when I can. When you scrape off all the other stuff, isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about— the golden rule?”

And I thought: “Wow, that’s really deep. Did you come up with that all on your own or is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? Damn, I should write that down: It’s really all about doing good for others. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon some day.”

Instead I said: “Yep, that’s Church— everything you learned in Kindegarten repeated Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday and then you die.”

And he looked at me like he felt sad for me, giving my life to something so boring. So I raised my beer to him and said: “But sometimes we get to argue about sex.”

———————-

If you want proof that deep-down we want the comfort of merits and demerits rather than the indiscriminate acceptance of Easter, if you want evidence that in the end we prefer the Golden Rule instead of the Gospel, you need look no further than the fact that Matthew 25 is every Methodist’s favorite parable. 

The parable of the sheep and the goats is Jesus’ final parable. 

And, sure, this final parable sounds like it’s finally the end of Jesus’ preaching on bottomless, unconditional, no-matter-what-you-do-I-do-for-you grace. 

The closer he gets to his passion, it sounds like the prodigal father has run out of fatted calves and now is going to reward the rewardable. 

It sounds like Jesus has pivoted from gift to grades, from mercy for sinners to merit pay, from free undeserved pardon to punishment. 

Grace is God’s unmerited favor. 

Grace is God’s one-way love.  

Grace is the melody the New Testament returns to over and over again: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of good deeds you do— so that no one may boast about what they’ve earned.”

But—

There seems to be alot of earning and deserving going on here with the sheep and the goats.

As a Shepherd, this King doles out punishments and rewards based not on our faith but on our deeds alone. 

(We think) 

The sheep fed the hungry. The sheep gave water to the thirsty. The sheep welcomed the stranger. The sheep clothed the naked. The sheep cared for the sick. The sheep visited the prisoner. 

The sheep did all the things you need not believe in the Good Shepherd to believe are good things; nevertheless, the Good Shepherd rewards them for the doings they did.

And the goats did not do those deeds. 

And they are punished precisely for not doing them— we think. 

Salvation is based not on what Christ accomplished for us (so it seems here). Salvation is based on what we accomplish for Christ. 

The Gospel (it sounds like here) is not Christ the Lamb of God became a goat so that goats like us might be reckoned among the Father’s faithful flock. The Gospel (it sounds like here) is that you must get over your goatness and become a better sheep by doing what the Good Shepherd tells you to do.

The promise (it sure sounds like here) is not that everything has already been done for you in Christ and him crucified. The promise (it sure sounds like here) is that Christ is for you if you do everything for him. 

Even though Jesus thus far has studiously avoided making badness an obstacle for admittance into his Kingdom and spent all of his time eating and drinking not with sheep but with goats, it sure sounds like Jesus here has scrapped the prior three years of his preaching, taken off the velvet glove of grace and now put on the brass knuckles of the Law. 

Your sins of omission— what you’ve left undone— they’re sins against me, Jesus says. 

We think. 

Based on the conventional, cliched reading of this parable, even a busy flock like you all better buckle down and pump up the volume on your good deed doing. 

No matter how much you’re doing, do more. 

Do more; so that, when you meet the Lord for your final exam, your performance review, your everlasting audit, you can say to Christ your Savior: You gave us the course curriculum in Matthew 25— you gave us your marching orders. 

And we did what you said to do. 

And with our report cards and resumes in hand, with our discipleship diplomas and extracurricular accomplishments— with all our good deeds done for another— we will be able to give our valediction to Christ our Savior: 

Graduate us, Lord, to what we’ve earned. 

Pay us what we’re owed. 

Give us what we deserve.

Except—

If we said such to Christ, we wouldn’t be speaking to our Savior because he told us what to do and we did it so, really, we saved ourselves. 

Let me say it again: 

If Christianity boils down to doing what Christ said to do, then Christ is not a Savior, for by doing what he said to do we’ve effectively saved ourselves, which is sort of unfortunate because Jesus promptly goes from here to Jerusalem where he’s bound and determined to save us from our sins by dying for them.

As the angel at the gates of heaven says to the do-gooding dead guy in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Nothing here can be bought or earned. Everything here is bleeding charity, grace, and its yours only by the asking.”

It’s yours by the asking. 

———————-

The Bible says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone, but on every human heart too. Every single one us— we’re all hard-wired to be score-keepers and debt collectors, hellbent on turning the Golden Rule into a yard stick by which we can measure our enoughness over and against our neighbors. 

And because I’m just like you, I can bet what some of you are thinking right about now. 

Does this mean our good deed doing doesn’t matter?!

Of course what we do matters. 

The Paul who says that you are saved by grace through faith not good deed doing is the same Paul who tells the Philippians that “God is at work in you and through you to will and to work for his pleasure.”

So don’t misunderstand me: 

Yes, good works are important. 

Yet— 

We’re so stubborn about shaping Jesus in our score-keeping image, we’re so determined to turn Jesus into the Almighty Auditor from the Department of Afterlife Affairs, that we miss the embarrassingly obvious epiphany in this parable. 

The big reveal behind this parable of judgment is that good godly works cannot be tallied up on a scorecard. 

The good works that count for the Kingdom cannot be counted because— notice now— when the Shepherd hands out report cards neither the sheep nor the goats have any idea they’ve done what the King says they’ve done or left undone. 

When the King of the nations separates them as a Shepherd one from the other, the sheep are not standing there waiting to be handed their magna cum laude for a lifetime of charitable giving and community service hours. 

No.

For the sheep and the goats alike, there’s just surprise: “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”

The sheep are surprised by the grade the Good Shepherd gives them. 

They’re stunned. 

To use this parable to exhort members of the flock to go and do good deeds for the Shepherd is to ignore the point that the sheep are blissfully ignorant that they’ve done good deeds for the Shepherd. 

Wait, wait, wait— when did we that?

They’re surprised. 

They’re surprised because they weren’t thinking at all about doing the good deeds they did.  

All their good works— the sheep did them not because they were told that’s what sheep ought to do. 

The sheep just did them as they were caught up in the joy of their Shepherd. 

The good works that count were not done to be counted; the good works that count were unpremeditated, done out of love— organically, such that the sheep weren’t even aware they’d done them. 

———————-

Listen again to who was counting. 

“Then those on the King’s left will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’”

It’s amazing how we mishear this parable.

It’s not that the goats didn’t do any good deeds. 

It’s that they felt justified in having done enough.

We fed the hungry. We clothed the naked. We did all those things— when did we not take care of you too?

It’s not that the goats didn’t do any good deeds. 

It’s that the goats come to Jesus dependent upon their good deeds. 

The goats think they’re good enough; meanwhile, the sheep were so in love with their Shepherd they’re stunned to hear they’ve got any good grades on their report card at all.  

———————-

The danger in taking the Bible for granted is that we’re all natural born Pharisees, and we turn the Gospel in to the Law without even realizing we’ve done it.

We’re as stubborn as goats when it comes to this parable. 

We insist on hearing it in terms of reward and punishment, earning and deserving, but that contradicts the clear conclusion Christ contributes to it: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”

Notice, Jesus does not say to the sheep Here’s your wage. Here’s your reward.

No, Jesus says to the sheep Inherit the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is not their compensation. The Kingdom is not their accomplishment. 

The Kingdom is their inheritance.  

You can’t earn an inheritance. 

Not only is this parable about inheriting instead of earning, Jesus says as plain as the nose on your face that this inheritance has been prepared for the sheep from before the foundation of the world. 

Before God put the stars in the sky, God made this promise to you. 

Think about it—

This parable isn’t about our works, good or bad, because before any of our works, good or bad, had been done, what work was God doing? 

Preparing a place in the Kingdom for you. 

For all of you. 

For every last one of you.

How do I know?

Notice—

In the parable, the King doesn’t say to the goats what he says to the sheep. 

He doesn’t say to those on his left “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” 

No, he says “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” 

Sure, we can get our sphincters all in a pinch over that image of eternal annihilating fire. 

But if this parable is about our inheritance, then the point is that the place of punishment wasn’t prepared for them. 

Don’t you see— the place where the goats are going is not a place they were ever meant to go. 

The place the goats go is not a place that was prepared for them. 

Where the goats are going they don’t have to go. 

Don’t you see—

No one is out who wasn’t already in.

Nobody is excluded from the Kingdom who wasn’t already included in the Kingdom from before the foundation of the world.

The goats get themselves where they’re going by stubbornly insisting they’re earned what can only be inheirited. 

The goats are like the elder brother in that other parable, pouting with his arms crossed and gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness beyond the prodigal’s party. Father, I’ve worked for you all these years. I deserve that party.

In Heaven, there is nothing but forgiven sinners. 

In Hell, there is nothing but forgiven sinners. 

The only difference between the two is that those in Hell don’t think they deserve to be there.

And those in Heaven know they don’t deserve to be there. 

———————-

The DJ at the wedding party had stepped onto the parquet to lead some of the guests in dancing to the song Uptown Funk, which isn’t exactly eternal conscious torment but it’s close.

I was sitting at the grandma table, watching and picking at the leftovers on my dinner plate, when a woman in a mauve dress pushed some of the plates to the middle of the table, and sat down next to me. 

She sort of laughed to herself and shook her head and looked straight down at her lap, and when she looked back up at me, I could see she was crying. 

I held up my hands.

“Don’t look at me. I’m a marine biologist.”

She smiled and sniffed her runny nose. She looked to be about sixty. 

“Seeing you do the wedding,” she said, “I couldn’t help but think of my daughter.” 

“Did she get married recently?” 

She winced at the question and wiped her eyes. Then she took a deep breath like she was coaching herself up, and she told me her daughter was gay. 

She told me how her daughter had MS and how she’d found a partner, someone who would be there to care for her one day. 

“Watching these two get married today, it just reminded me of all the things I’ve heard people in my family and in my church say about my own daughter.”

“Like what things?” I was dumb enough to ask.

“They say she’s abomination. One of my good friends told me, matter-of-fact, that my daughter wouldn’t be with me or Jesus when she died, that she’d go to Hell like she deserved, but that I shouldn’t worry because in the Kingdom I won’t even remember her anymore.” 

That and the rest she told me— it honestly took my breath away. 

“What do you think?” she wiped her nose and asked. 

“What do I think? It’s not what I think; it’s what the Church and the Bible teach— and that’s that not a one of us gets in by the uprightness of our lives nor are even our awful sins an obstacle for admittance. We’re justified by grace through faith, alone. When it comes to the Kingdom, the only relationship of your daughter’s that matters is the relationship she has with Christ. Saying “I do” to that Bridegroom is all any of us gotta do to gain entry into the party.”

“But my friends say that she and her partner will go to Hell…”

I cut her off. 

“They might go to Hell— sure— but if they do it won’t be because Jesus sent them there and it won’t be for the reasons you fear. In fact those Pharisees you call family and friends— they might be surprised how things shake out for themselves too. Jesus is annoyingly consistent on the matter— the only ones not in the Kingdom are the ones who insist they ought to be there.”

———————-

I didn’t think of it until this week as I studied this scripture text. 

That mother at the wedding, worried sick over whether her daughter was a sheep or a goat, I could’ve pointed out to her that according to Jesus here there is one fool proof way of knowing for certain that he is with you. 

This parable of judgment— there’s a third category of people here. 

Not just sheep. Not just goats. 

There’s a third flock of people in this parable.

Those in need. 

Jesus says it bluntly: the place where his presence is promised— where there should be no surprise or speculation— is not with the good but with those in need.

And so if you’re worried about whether you’re a sheep or a goat, then your refuge should not be the work you’ve done for Christ but the work you need from him. 

The assurance that Jesus Christ abides with you lies not in your merits outmeasuring your demerits. 

The assurance that Jesus Christ abides with you— is for you— lies in your lack. 

The guarrantee that you are not alone— the guarrantee of God’s blessing upon you is not your awesome list of accomplishments but your inadequacy. 

I should’ve told that mother that the very fact of her tears and grief, the very fact of her daughter’s illness, the very fact of their rejection by and estrangement from others, the very fact that a lot of self-identified sheep treat them like goats and presume to do the King’s work of sorting and sending for him— those very facts are red-letter proof-positive that Jesus Christ— if he’s with anyone, he’s with them. 

Because Jesus puts it plain to both the sheep and the goats alike— he makes his office is at the end of your rope.

I didn’t think to tell her.

But I can tell you. 

Has the treadmill of good works alone left you exhausted and starving?

Do you thirst for the kind of faith and joy you see in others?

Are you sick of all your best efforts to be a good sheep?

Or are you just sick?

Is there something in your past that leaves you feeling naked and ashamed?

Are you in a relationship locked in resentment?

Are you captive to abuse? Or addiction?

Do you feel out place, wondering what the hell you’re even doing here?

If so, hear the good news. 

In the same way you come up here with the gesture of a beggar to receive him in bread and wine, Jesus Christ is present to you in your poverty, in your lack, in your inadequacy. 

Hear the good news: the ticket to this Table is the only ticket you need for his Kingdom. 

And that’s your need. 

You need only know your need. 

Nothing in the Kingdom can be bought; it is yours only by the asking.

I kicked off a church-wide Bible Study today on scripture and sexuality, starting with how we understand and interpret the Bible generally. Below is the lecture I wrote from which I riffed in the class as well as the audio of the class. If you’re a member of my parish and missed it, here it is. If you’re a Christian or just someone curious somewhere else here you go.

Session One — Interpreting the Bible

Prayer & Rubric

I’d like to frame our first session together with this quote from St. Augustine of Hippo, who, after the Apostle Paul, is likely the most importantteacher for all believers on the Protestant side of the Christian family tree. It’s often erroneously attributed to John Wesley, but it comes from Augustine. Not only do I want it to serve as our prayer for our time with one another, I think it also provides a helpful rubric around which we can discern the questions about sexuality before the Church today. 

Here’s the quote:

“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” 

No matter where you fall on the issues dividing the Church, no matter what side of this debate you’ve chosen or will choose, this is the framework with which we should all be discerning the questions with which the Church wrestles at the present moment. Is a traditional understanding of Christian marriage essential to the proclamation of the Gospel such that we insist upon uniformity, or is it a doubtful matter over which we can grant those with whom we disagree latitude to disagree with us? Likewise, we should ask whether a liberalizing of the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage is essential so that we insist the entire Body support it; that is, is full inclusion of LGBTQIA Christians constitutive to our understanding of the faith— is it a justice issue— such that something less than a progressive policy is a betrayal of the faith? What is essential to our message that requires consensus? And what is just important to us that might permit liberty towards another? 

What Augustine calls doubtful matters, the ancient Church labeled “adiaphora.” 

Adiaphora are matters not regarded a requisite for faith and thus permissible for disagreement.

I would argue that marriage and ordination, on their face, are not essential to the Christian message and mission, especially for Protestants; however, I would also argue that some ways, progressive and conservative, of speaking about same-sex marriage and gay ordination do threaten to obscure or undo the essential message of the Gospel, replacing it with a version of the false Gospel scripture warns us against in Galatians.

Note too, as we proceed, that caritas, from which we get charity is the same root word in the New Testament as grace. Regardless of how we think and feel about these matters, as members of the Body and thus as members of one another, we ought to gift one another the grace to impute to them only faithful, sincere motives.

Guiding Parameters

I’ve been a pastor for twenty years. In my ministry, I’ve met a lot of United Methodists who read Adam Hamilton, Beth Moore, the UpperRoom, and the WashingtonPost, but not many who read the Bible with the same care with which they put together their fantasy football team or follow their preferred candidate in the primary. Sexuality is like a lot of issues where people in and out of the Church make assertions (from their tribe’s vantage point) like “the Bible says…” or “Jesus said…” without a firm scriptural foundation.

My goal in this Bible Study is for folks at the end of it to understand how people who worship with them might disagree with them on the questions dividing the larger Church and, by understanding, contribute to the hospitality necessary for a diverse community of faith. I want us to be able to get beyond shallow Christian-splaining like “the Bible says…” and, for that reason, I do not plan for us to look at the oft-cited clobber passages on homosexuality until the fourth or fifth session. Today, I want us to explore what is the Bible and how we interpret it. Next week, I want to use my conversation with Professor David Fitch to help us think about how we use the Bible to discern God’s leading as a local community. For the third week, rather than turning to passages that prohibit sexual behavior, I want us to study first the Bible’s positive understanding of intimacy by looking at the Song of Songs. From there, we’ll look at how we read Genesis in light of the Apostle Paul and the ancient marriage rite, and then we’ll turn to the Letter to the Romans and how the Old Testament proof texts connect not only to Paul’s understanding of sexuality but to the adoption of all of you Gentiles into the People of God.

Because it’ll be a couple of weeks before we even get to those passages that lurk whenever someone asserts “the Bible says…” I wanted to establish some parameters about the scriptural witness so that folks on both sides of this issue can step back and pause, realizing that their position isn’t as strong as they might think nor is their opponent’s perspective as weak as they might presume. There’s a reason the larger Church is divided on the subject of sexuality; scripturally-speaking, it’s not a slam dunk for either side. This should not surprise us. The Bible is not about sexuality— more on what the Bible is “about” later.

Here are the “Yes, but…” parameters that should chasten our conversation:

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambigious teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

If the above is true, if there’s a tension in scripture when it comes to these questions, then why do so many Christians on both the traditional and liberal ends act as though there’s no ambiguity about what God thinks about these matters?

What God Thinks

 When it comes to our God talk, sexuality in scripture is not unique. We live in a culture where, thanks to the internet, everyone is an expert on anything they want to spend a few minutes investigating online. Consequently, there’s no dearth of Christians making pronouncements about what God thinks on any number of issues. If you don’t believe me, you’ve obviously not spent any time on Facebook or Twitter, CNN or Fox News. Just this weekend, for example, I heard from Christians that God is very angry and will judge evangelicals for their support of Donald Trump’s administration. I also heard from Christians that God is responsible for Donald Trump’s administration— that Donald Trump is like Darius in the Old Testament— and that believers are encouraged to pray for him. This week I heard Christians on news channels insist that the restrictive abortion laws in some states around the country were the work of God. I also heard that the protests against those laws was God at work. This week I was told that God is very unhappy with conditions at our southern border, and I was also told that God wants us to have safe and secure borders. This week on Christian Twitter I read that God hates gay people and will punish his Church for its increasing inclusivity, and I also read that God affirms gay people and wants a more open and affirming Church.

Even when Christians look to the Bible for guidance on issues that impact our lives, we come to different conclusions. Some of us, for example, come to scripture with a fundamentalist frame of interpretation, looking for the most binding verse on a given topic. Others of us approach scripture from a liberal frame, searching for the least restrictive verses (“God is love; therefore, whatever strikes as love is acceptable”). 

Depending on the issue, most of us vacillate between being fundamentalists or liberals. 

For instance, some of you are red-letter fundamentalists when it comes to Matthew 25 and what sounds like Christ’s command to care for immigrants or the poor in our midst, but when it comes to the incarnation you’d prefer to chalk it up as myth. Likewise, some Christians are fundamentalists when it comes to what the Bible says about marriage but when it comes to the New Testament’s teaching on money and possessions or violence they’re quick to attribute the teaching to an ideal achievable only in the Kingdom. On the one hand, some United Methodists are literalists when it comes Jesus’ welcome of outcasts and sinners (i.e., LGBTQIA people) but, on the other hand, they want to “demythologize” the accounts of the bodily resurrection of Christ. 

Just as an aside, this last example is a very real dynamic in the UMC, and it’s why I may be inclusive on this particular issue but I’m in no way a progressive.

We come to passages, picking and choosing.

We switch how we approach scripture depending on the questions and issues before us. 

This is because very often our ways of reading the Bible are in fact methods of self-justification. 

We all have previously arrived at opinions on various issues, and we go to scripture looking for verses to buttress them. This in part is what it means to be a sinner. We not only make God in our image; we read God’s word according to our image too. 

Recognizing our own sinfulness and our proclivity to self-justify, it’s important for Christians to come to the Bible with an understanding of what the Bible is and what the Bible is about, and it’s important for Christians to come to the Bible with one another. 

Just as verses and passages cannot be read in isolation from what the Bible is about, Christians cannot read the Bible in isolation from one another. 

What is the Bible?

What we call the Christian Bible was codified by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and despite what Dan Brown would have you believe there was little dispute about what should and should not be included in the canon. Think about the dating behind what we call the Bible. This means that Christians worshipped the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, baptizing believers into his death and resurrection and celebrating the eucharist, for three centuries without the Christian Bible. Consider too— until very recently, most Christians could not read. Discipleship until recently in history has been informed by but not dependent upon reading scripture.

Therefore, asking “What does the Bible say about…?” is the wrong place to start when it comes to our questions and issues because it obscures how the witness of the Church begins not with the Bible but with the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian message begins not with the Bible but with the kerygma, the announcement of the Gospel that we find summarized in passages like 1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1, Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and woven into the ancient baptismal and eucharistic prayers which predate the New Testament. 

The message about Jesus, in other words, precedes the message of Jesus. 

Another way of putting it: The Gospels were written for the Gospel (as found in the Epistles); the Epistles were not written to flesh out the Gospels. 

Why is this important? 

When you come to the New Testament especially but the Bible generally, you should be mindful that it was written and codified to be in service to the apostolic witness that “the Lord Jesus Christ, gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Galatians 1).” 

The Bible’s purpose is not to give you a purpose-driven life, for example, but to point you to Christ. The Bible’s purpose isn’t firstly to tell us what Jesus did (and taught us to do) but to show us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. So, when it comes to the issue before the Church today, if you believe, for example, that marriage must be between a man and a woman, but you don’t believe God physically raised Jesus from the grave, then you’re misusing the text of scripture. Ditto if you argue that the Church should become more inclusive of marginalized people but you’re not so keen on the notion that Christ died as a substitute and sacrifice for our sins. 

Like any other book, the Bible’s primary plot should determine how read its parts. This is what scripture refers to as “rightly dividing the word of truth, between Law and Gospel” (2 Timothy 2.15). 

The primary subject of the Christian Bible— shocker, I know— is Jesus Christ in his bleeding, dying, and rising for us. 

Cross and Resurrection. Sin and Redemption. Atonement and Grace.

How do we know this to be true?

We know it to be true historically in that the preaching of the apostles is older than the books of the New Testament. We know it too from Jesus himself. As Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus: 

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” 

All of the Bible, Jesus teaches the disciples on Easter, testifies to himself.

Jesus makes the very same point in John’s Gospel: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” 

Even the organization of the Bible echoes the point. What we have in scripture as the Old Testament does not not match what Jews today would recognize as their Hebrew Bible. This is because the early Christians took their Jewish scriptures and reorganized it, concluding it with the prophet Malachi, in order to foreshadow the arrival of John the Baptist and thus the incarnation of Christ. 

We speak often about “believing the Bible” but this is to put the matter wrong. Actually, this is to treat the Bible in the way that Muslims regard the Qu’ran. Notice, the Bible is not an item listed to be believed in the Apostles’ Creed; rather, the creed recites the plot summary of the Bible. The Bible reveals what we are to believe about God’s work of salvation in Christ Jesus; the Bible by itself is not an object to be believed. 

We worship Jesus Christ, as Christians. 

We do not worship the Bible.

All of which is to say that before we can discern what the Bible says about a given subject, we must understand what is the Bible, which includes an understanding of what the Bible is not. 

What the Bible is Not

The Bible is not a Museum, a collection of historical curiosities from which we can learn information about the past. The Bible is not a Spiritual Gym, a place to help us strengthen certain areas of our spiritual, personal, or moral life. The Bible is not a collection of Proverbs which give us nuggets of wisdom on the good life— though the Bible does contain Proverbs. The Bible is not mythology nor metaphor— though the Bible employs both mythology and metaphor. The Bible is not a set of Teachings on what God would have us to do or how God would have lived— though the Bible does contain teachings. The Bible is not a Library of loosely connected books. 

The Bible is like JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

Like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Bible is a collection of stories, letters, songs, histories etc. that, taken together, tell a single overarching story. In The Lord of the Rings, the macro-story is about Frodo and the fellowship destroying the ring of power in order to free Middle-Earth from its enslavement to the Dark Lord, Sauron. In the novels, Gandalf frequently smokes what the reader is led to assume is marijuana. Gandalf’s superiors even chastise him for how his smoking muddles his mind. Now, are there passages in The Lord of the Rings about the relative goodness or badness of smoking? Yes. Is The Lord of the Rings about smoking? No. Could we make conclusions about smoking from reading The Lord of the Rings? Sure. Would it be odd and in some ways a violation of The Lord of the Rings to flip through it looking for textual support for what The Lord of the Rings says about smoking, pro or con? Absolutely. When it comes to sexuality, we often treat the Bible in exactly that way. We’re forcing the Bible to answer questions that are subsidiary to its primary story.

That’s not what it’s about. 

It’s about Christ freeing us from our enslavement to the Dark Lord. 

The Bible, in other words, is not meant to give us a Jesus-flavored answer for whatever questions we bring to it— it’s not a religious Ouja board. The Bible is meant to convey something very specific to us. 

The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Book of Common Prayer are the doctrinal standards of the Church of England whence John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, came. Article Six summarizes what we’re to confess about scripture: 

“Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

Scripture, Article Six states, contains not everything God has ever thought about anything we can think up but everything necessary for you and I to be saved in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. And because scripture’s purpose is salvific, Article Six says, anything not in it cannot be required of us. It’s not essential, to get back to the quote from Augustine. It’s a doubtful matter, and we give freedom.

What Article Six says about scripture is simply what scripture itself says to us. 

John ends his Gospel with this PS: 

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

If the Bible was a set of teachings, law, or proverbs according to which we’re supposed to live— if it was Law— then certainly you would want to include everything Jesus said and did. But if the Bible is about our coming to a saving faith in Christ as Lord, then John thinks he’s given you everything you need to know. 2 Timothy 3 makes the same point when it says to us: “…to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” Timothy doesn’t say all scripture is equally important. Timothy says all scripture is useful. And by scripture, Timothy has the Old Testament in mind, and by righteousness Timothy means firstly Jesus Christ himself who is the only Righteous One and who gifts us his own righteousness by the baptism of his death and resurrection. This is but a way of saying what John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel: Jesus is the Word of God.

Jesus is the one Word which God speaks to us: 

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1).

When we refer to the Bible as the Word of God (for the People of God), we mean it in a penultimate sense. 

Jesus is the Word of God to whom the testimony of scripture reliably bears witness to us. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the “preaching of the word of God is the Word of God;” that is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and received faithfully then (and only then) is it the Word of God, for then the Risen Christ uses it to bear witness to himself. Whenever we conclude the reading of scripture in worship, we implicitly recognize that God’s Word is not fundamentally what is on the printed page but is the Living God attested to by those words on the printed page. 

The Three-Fold Form of the Word

The theologian Karl Barth makes a similiar point with a helpful visual— what he called  the Three-Fold Form of the Word of God. 

Barth illustrated the Word of God as three cocentric circles.

The inner circle is Jesus Christ, the one Word of God. The next middle circle is scripture, the Word which witnesses to the Word. The outer circle is the Church, the Communion of Saints, the tradition of receiving scripture’s testimony And, outside the third circle is you and me, the community of present-day believers. 

The Three-Fold Form of the Word is a helpful cipher. For one, it protects Jesus from our partial and prejudiced readings of scripture. For another, it reminds us that we worship the Living Christ not the Bible. Third, it illustrates how we must read the Bible in light of how the Bible has been read before by the saints. Most important of all, it reminds believers like us that we’re all on the outer circumference separated from the one Word of God by several layers of transmission and hearing only an arc along the perimeter; such that, we cannot afford to ignore what other believers along the circumference hear and discern God say through scripture.

We must be formed by the ancient prayers of the Church before we can pray well on our own, spontaneously. Like learning scales must precede a musician’s ability to improvise and jam, so must we pray— and, I would argue, read scripture. Apart from such formation, we bring to prayer and Bible-reading a self unformed by the saints. Thus, greedy people will pray greedy prayers, frightened people will pray frightened prayers etc. The same holds true of scripture. Progressive people read the Bible progressively. Conservative people read the Bible conservatively, and prejudiced people read the Bible prejudically. 

We need to interpret the Bible with other believers and the whole company of heaven. If, for instance, you interpret a scripture passage in a new way, a way that no one else has ever interpreted it, you’re wrong. 

We need to read with others, and we need to do so knowing that Jesus is the Word of God at the innermost of the circles. 

The Bible must be interpreted christocentrically. 

Reading the Bible Like a Movie

Jesus Christ, both what he said and did and what God has done in him and spoken to us by cross and resurrection, is the interpretative lens (the hermeneutic) by which we read all of scripture. The Bible itself gives us this hermeneutic. John’s Gospel calls Jesus the “logic” of creation. This is how Paul interprets his own Jewish scripture. Paul reinterprets the Law given to Moses by God in light of the cross and resurrection, concluding that the purpose of the Law is to convict us of sin and turn us, all of whom fall short, in repentance to the mercy found in Christ. Paul says that Jesus is the telos— the end and the fulfillment— of the Law. In Colossians, Paul says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, in whom all things were made and find their summation. 

Put another way, the Bible should be read in the same manner in which you re-watch a film. Upon a second viewing, the climax of a film shapes how you watch the prior scenes. In this case, the climax of the movie that is the Bible is our redemption in Christ. 

We read backwards into the Bible from the cross, and forwards towards Revelation from the cross.

For example, we read the creation of Adam and Eve with the command “be fruitful…filling the whole earth…” in Genesis in light of the New Testament’s announcement that the command is now closed for Christ “has filled all in all.” Likewise, we read that the covenant of marriage was established by God in Adam and Eve— as the wedding rite does— in light of the New Testament’s teaching that the “covenant of marriage signifies the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” We read Exodus’ warnings about sinners’ names being blotted out of the Book of Life in light of Revelation’s conclusion where it’s the Lamb’s Book— not the Book of Life— that imputes to us admission in the Kingdom. We read the commands of the Law in both testaments in light of the Gospel message that “Christ has borne for us the curse of the Law (it curses us because not one of us can meet its demands perfectly) by becoming a curse in our stead.” 

Our scripture today in worship— we read the parable of the sheep and the goats in light of the Gospel message that the Lamb of God was made a goat and judged in our place so that goats like us might be counted among God’s faithful flock. 

Another way of saying that we should read the Bible christocentrically is that we read it, as 2 Timothy commends, dividing the Law from the Gospel; so that, our interpretation of scripture does not cloud its central claim that “By grace you have been saved in Christ through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2). 

Beware False Gospels

This verse from Ephesians is an especially critical hermeneutic for Protestant Christians. Martin Luther (and John Wesley) said the Church stands or fall on the doctrine of justification; that is, what justifies us before God is not the righteousness we accrue by our deeds or doctrine but solely (sola) our trust in the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to us by our baptism into his death. This is what we pray over the water at every baptism; “…clothe them Christ’s righteousness; so that, dying and rising, she may share in Christ’s final victory…”

In an ultimate sense, the only thing that counts for the Kingdom is Christ credited to us by faith. When we read christologically, dividing Law and Grace, we’re able to read scripture in submission to the Gospel promise that through faith alone in Christ alone “there is now no condemnation.” Our takeaway from a purity code from Leviticus, therefore, isn’t that it’s an antiquated custom based upon a byegone taboo. That may be the case but that’s not neither interesting nor a christological way of reading it. Rather, we read such a prohibition understanding that the condemnation merited by those who fail its demand has been borne by Jesus Christ upon the cross. 

This is an important distinction, I think, in how we conduct the conversation about sexuality, for it doesn’t say the biblical Law is wrong. It proclaims that the Law, which Paul calls holy, righteous, and good, has been fulfilled. 

In Galatians, possibly the oldest book of the New Testament, Paul warns Christians against adding any other stipulation to the Gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. Christ plus anything else added to it, Paul admonishes, is no Gospel at all. 

Christ + ________ is a false Gospel. 

Paul’s warning can be rephrased in terms of the Augustine quote with which we started. 

What is essential over which we must have unity?

The Gospel of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. 

What are doubtful things over which we can grant one another freedom?

Every other deed and doctrine we might derive from the Bible, culture, or politics.

To make doubtful things essential, Paul writes in Galatians, is to preach a false Gospel. 

So the questions for us as community of readers, wrestling with sexuality and the Bible are simple questions even if a consensus answer is not easy to find. Is a traditional understanding of marriage essential to the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel? Does gay ordination get in the way of the Church’s mandate to preach the message of grace? Asked from the other side: is the full inclusion for LGBTQIA Christians into the rites of marriage and ordination a “justice” issue constituitive of and essential to the Gospel message itself? Or, does understanding it in terms of justice and liberation impose upon traditionalists something added to the Gospel which must also be affirmed? Is “All means all” required confession for all believers. Likewise, does a traditional understanding of sexuality impose upon liberals something added to the Gospel which they must believe?  

In advocating our respective positions on sexuality, are we creating false Gospels, adding doubtful beliefs and behaviors to the essential message of grace? That liberal and traditional Christians now view sexuality as an issue worth schism suggests both sides have raised doubtful beliefs to the level of essential beliefs, which, Paul would warn, are false Gospels.

If Christ alone and his righteousness credits to us the Kingdom, then— I believe— essentializing any particular understanding of marriage and ordination, liberal or conservative, confuses the criteria by which we should be evaluating those vocations. If marriage and ordination are indeed “doubtful things” over which we can disagree in freedom, then the criteria by which we assess them is not the Kingdom but the Community, the Body of Christ.

Faith alone silences every charge for any sin against us; therefore, Christians shouldn’t be debating sexuality with terms like sin/abomination/rights/feelings,etc., because eternity is not at stake. Rather, Christians should be discerning sexuality in the very terms the ancient marriage and ordination rites give us:

Would this same-sex couple’s marriage build up the Body of Christ? 

Would this gay Christian, called by God, build up the Body of the baptized through ordained ministry?

Can the Church be inclusive towards LGBTQIA people without being a progressive Church? Does “All means all” mean so long as you all agree with us?

She’s back!

Friend of the podcast, Christy Thomas joins us to reflect on where the United Methodist Church is at in its present moment somewhere on the timeline between divorce and reconciliation. A week after the UMC Next and UMC Forward gatherings and a few months after General Conference 2019, Christy ponders whether Methodists are wasting the opportunity of a good crisis or whether we need to learn to live together in the tension that comes with a Church of adult ducks.

Plus we make jokes.

Christy is a retired United Methodist pastor from Texas, journalist, and blogger at The Thoughtful Pastor.

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    What Pliny required of Christians who would renounce their faith is no different from what the Apostle Paul says is required for Christians who would be saved by their faith. 

     In his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord…you will be saved” (10.9-10). The word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means “a public declaration of fealty.” In other words, what Paul says will save you for God is the equal and opposite expression of what Pliny said would save you from Caesar and his wrath.  

     Again, notice Paul doesn’t say “If you confess that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to David (or Abraham), then you will be saved.” Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God incarnate then you will be saved; nor does Paul say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins. When it comes to salvation and the necessary confession of faith for it, Paul focuses squarely on one specific stage of the Gospel: the Lordship of Jesus. 

     Why?

     Why does Paul fix our participation in God’s salvation to the confession of Jesus as Lord? Why not confess that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; believe and be saved? Why not while we were yet sinners…put your faith in what he’s done for you and you will be saved?

     Why does Paul say that in order to be saved we must confess Jesus not as Savior or Substitute or Sacrifice, not as Son of Man or Son of God, but as Lord?

     Because, for Paul, the incarnation, the crucifixion, resurrection and reconciliation- those are all past perfect events. 

     The present Lordship of Christ is the stage of the Gospel we now occupy. 

     What Paul summarizes as the Gospel in Romans 1 he spells out in 1 Corinthians 15. The Gospel he receieved which he in turn handed to the Church in Corinth has 8 parts to it or stages. 

Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus:

      1. preexisted with the Father
      2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promise to David
      3. died for sins in accordance with the scriptures
      4. was buried
      5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
      6. appeared to many
      7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord
      8. and will come again as judge. 

     Note the shift, both here in Paul’s Gospel and in the Apostles Creed, from the past tense to the present tense.

Paul says that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus is Lord because that’s where we are all at in the story. 

     It’s a non-negotiable part of the Gospel. Jesus is Lord right now, currently in residence as Lord and King to whom God has given dominion over heaven and earth.

     To accept that present-tense point in the Gospel is to acknowledge the other parts of the Gospel that preceded it; likewise, to deny Jesus’ Lordship is to devalue the Gospel that precedes it. The enthronement of the crucified and risen Jesus to the right hand of God to be Lord isn’t ancillary to Paul’s Gospel but is the climax of it. The cross and resurrection aren’t ends in themselves; they are the means by which God establishes Jesus as the Earth’s true and rightful Lord. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch now in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ who is Sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!””

     When we deemphasize the Ascension of Jesus, we immediately neuter the Gospel of the only present-tense element to it.

All that remains is the Gospel’s past and the future tenses. We demote Jesus from Lord of the cosmos to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs, which produces a false distinction between Jesus as a personal lord and Jesus as Lord of the Cosmos. 

     Salvation then becomes the promise of a future reality we access by agreeing to propositions about what Jesus did in the past rather than salvation being a present reality into which we’re incorporated by baptism and in which we participate already as subjects of the Lord who reigns now. 

     If this sounds like a picayune grammatical distinction, then consider the qualitative difference for discipleship:

  “Jesus taught 2,000 years that we should love our enemies.” 

     Versus:

“The one who taught us to love our enemies 2,000 years ago is, this very moment, Lord of heaven and earth.”

     Without Ascension, the Sermon on Mount can remain safely in the past, leaving us free to argue with it or agreed to it. If the Preacher on the Mount is right now Lord, suddenly his sermon becomes less about assent and more a matter of obedience. 

Ephesians 4, 1 John 4

Since Jesus promises that wherever two or three are gathered under the power of his name there he is present too, I probably shouldn’t lie. I’ve never really liked weddings. Wedding planners are the bane of my existence. At receptions, I almost always get stuck at the grandma table, and don’t even get me started on mothers-in-law. 

I’ve never really liked weddings (and I say no to alot of couples). What I do like though is the wedding rite.

The wedding rite: your pledge today of free unmerited forgiveness and unconditional love come what may from this day forward. Not only are the promises you make one another the very definition of faith, by them you become for us all a parable of the prodigal, unnatural, foolish love with which God loves us all. 

But note—

The love with which you love one another is not God. 

God is love, but love is not God.

St. John, who tells us today that “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” goes on in chapter four to write that “No one has ever seen God; if we love love another, God lives in us…” 

Hold up— 

No one has ever seen God?! 

Clearly, John can’t mean that as we hear it, for the entirety of John’s epistle is a no-holds-barred attack on those who would deny that the almighty, invisible God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, took up a body and resided among us as one of us in the flesh. John even has a name for those who would deny that in Jesus Christ we’ve seen all of God that there is to see. He calls such incarnation deniers antichrist. 

Before you start wondering what sort of wedding sermon this is, pay attention: a better way for us to hear verse eight then is “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is Jesus.” Whoever does not love does not know God, for Jesus is God. Whoever does not love obviously does not know the God is Jesus.

When St. John says today that God is love, he doesn’t mean that God is analogous to whatever the two of you feel today. Ask any married person, feelings are fleeting. I like to tell people about to be married: the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary precondition to loving your spouse. If that strikes you as unromantic, I can make it even worse. Consider, the vows you two make today derive from ancient monastic vows; that is, the promises you two make to each other derive from the promises made by single people who pledge poverty and chastity to Christ and his Church. Not very romantic.

When St. John tells us that “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” his point is not that your feelings of love are akin to God. His point is that Christ, who was God seen, in the flesh, the image of the invisible in whose image therefore you are made, is the measure of the love you two promise one another. This is why the marriage rite tonight begins with Jesus. 

The ancient rite doesn’t begin naturally. 

The ancient rite doesn’t proclaim— as you might expect— that Adam and Eve give us the example for marriage; it says Jesus gives us the example for married love. But Jesus was single and spent most of his time hanging out with twelve other single dudes. 

That Jesus is your example of married love, the prayerbook says, which changes how we often think about marriage.

If the unmarried Jesus is the example for marriage then marriage— Christian marriage— is not about bearing children but about bearing witness.

It’s not about procreation but about proclamation.

This is because what secures the future of the world now is not our progeny but the promise of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

As the Book of Common Prayer paraphrases St. Paul: “Marriage signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” The marriage of Christ and the Church is not a metaphor. The marriage of Christ and the Church is the real marriage, to which starting today, your marriage points. So maybe Jesus isn’t such a bad example for married love after all.

When you step back and understand what St. Paul says in Ephesians, you realize that the reason Jesus is single is because for every (Christian) married couple, Christ is your bridegroom. 

To take scripture seriously then is to understand that every marriage— every Christian marriage— like the Trinity in whose name we wed, is a three-personed affair.  It’s not just the two who say “I do” but also Christ for whom both spouses are his bride. That’s why Jesus calls his Spirit the Paraclete. 

Para, in Greek, means “alongside.”

Indeed Christ in his Holy Spirit coming alongside of you two, the bridegroom making your marriage a threesome, is your only hope if your marriage is to yield the fruit we heard Paul describe in Ephesians. We can only love, as St. John writes, because he first loved us. We cannot on our own muster up love that is patient and humble. Paul isn’t giving advice there to the married folks in Ephesians. Paul is describing the fruit grown in us— not by us but by our marriage to Christ who is our Bridegroom. 

The Apostle Paul tends to get a bad rap from readers who read badly, but when Paul turns to the meaning and mission of marriage he does not associate marriage with the creation of children nor does he associate marriage with the complementarity of men and women.

No, when it comes to marriage Paul turns to typology. Paul says that by your daily undeserved “I dos” and by your desire for one another, you signify the mystery— the word Paul uses there is sacrament— of Christ’s union with us. 

Your marriage is a sacrament within a still larger sacrament. 

And a sacrament, as we say in the Church, is a means of grace. Your marriage today, therefore, does not justify your love. Your marriage today does not make your love official. Starting today, your marriage is the means of your love’s grace. 

Marriage is one of the chief places where we, as Christians, pay one another’s debts, forgive one another’s trespasses, and walk many miles in each other’s shoes. Marriage is where we learn to love the ungodly, welcome the stranger you call you, and to lay down our lives. In marriage, we suffer with and substitute for one another. 

The wedding of the Lamb— to which your wedding today points—and the blood of the Lamb, in other words, are inseparable. 

To put one’s body on the line in friendship with another, for better and worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part— to commit your loving actions in spite of all the conditions that will work to extinguish your loving feelings— marriage is a means where Christians daily and incarnately live out and partake in the cruciform love by which Christ re-befriends the world; that is to say:

Marriage makes a home a hospital

where Christ the Great Physician can make sinners well

by the constancy and forgiveness of a spouse. 

Or, as St. John says in his letter, through our love of one another, Christ’s love heals us. 

Perhaps that’s why Jesus saves some of his darkest, harshest rhetoric for those who refuse to celebrate the wedding of those whom God has joined together. 

Becauses there’s no reason to refuse the celebration, for the only qualification any of us must meet to enter the marriage supper of the lamb called the Kingdom of Heaven is our faith alone. Not a one of us gets in by the goodness of our deeds or the rightness of our doctrine. We are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. Saying “I do” to the Bridegroom is all any of us, sinner or saint, gotta do to gain entry into the party.

Speaking of marriage suppers—

Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven not to a wedding but to a wedding feast. Jesus likens the Kingdom not to a wedding’s couple but to the whole party. That’s because you’re not the only people making promises today. 

There are three vows in the marriage rite not two. 

Not only do you two commit vows to God and to one another, those gathered here today— they too pledge to God uphold you in your love and to hold you accountable to the promises you offer each other. 

And where there is one who gives a promise of love and another who receives a promise of love and still another— all of you— who witness and bless and celebrate their promise of love— one, two, three— like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven.

No one has ever seen God apart from Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, but today, you two along with all of us partygoers here become a parable of how the prodigal God loves us as God loves God. 

Amen.

Thomas McKenzie is a church-planting Anglican priest at Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s also the author of the Anglican Way and a recent Lenten devotional on the Desert Fathers. He also knows, as few seem to know, that Battlestar Galactica is a far superior show to Game of Thrones.

Check out the video we mention in the show.

 

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If you’re in the Roanoke, Va area come on out for our Live Pubcast on Wednesday, June 19 at Ballast Brewing. Our theme will be “Incompatible” and our guests will be Jeff and Steve Mullinix, a married gay clergy couple from Ohio.

No, we’re not talking about Westeros and Winterfell. On the heels of Holy Week, Johanna brings her questions, which are your questions, about how Grace invites us to think of the antagonists in scripture (and in our own lives).

Help support the podcast!

Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on “Support the Show” to become a patron for peanuts.

 

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued this weekend with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21.

“What do you think he’ll do when he comes back?” Jesus asks on the eve of his own destruction. 

“When he comes back, what do you think he’ll do?”

And they said to him: “When he comes back (when he comes back to judge the quick and the dead) he will put those wretches to a miserable death.” 

“What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do when he returns?” 

Here’s another question—

Since today is the fifth Sunday in Eastertide, here’s a resurrection question for you. 

Why is the very first reaction to the Easter news fear? 

Across all four Gospels, the immediate response to the news Christ is Risen isn’t Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia! It’s alarm and abject terror. Why?

Mark and Matthew, Luke and John— none of them tell the Easter story in the same way.

Except for the fear.

Fear is the feature Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree upon. 

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear. The women, come to anoint the body, run away, terrified. The disciples lock the door of the upper room and cower in the corner. 

When he comes back, everyone— they’re white-knuckled terrified. 

Just what do they think he’ll do?

—————————————

      Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in the Book of Daniel, chapter twelve. 

     And the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection: 

“Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall be raised up, the righteous to everlasting life, and the unrighteous to everlasting shame and contempt.”

It’s a double resurrection the Bible anticipates. A resurrection to reward, or a resurrection to punishment.Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God in God’s Kingdom. 

But those who’ve committed suffering by their sins— they might be on top now in this life, but one day the first will be last. God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to its everlasting opposite.

The “good” news of resurrection in the Book of Daniel is predicated entirely upon your goodness. 

Resurrection was not about yellow peeps and metaphors for springtime renewal; resurrection was God coming back with a list of who’d been naughty and who’d been nice in order to mete out to each according to what they deserved. 

Resurrection wasn’t about butterflies. Resurrection was about the justice owed to the righteous and the judgment owed to sinners. In the only Bible the disciples knew, the Old Testament, resurrection was good news. If you were good. If you weren’t, if you were wicked, resurrection was the first day of a miserable and wretched fate. 

———————-

They all respond to the Easter news with fear not because they fail to understand resurrection but exactly because they do understand. 

They know their Bible— better than you. They knew resurrection was good news or godawful news depending on where you fell according to the righteousness equation. And they know that as God’s elect People in the world God had called them, Israel, to be tenants of God’s vineyard. 

And they know all too well that when God set them apart as his peculiar, pilgrim People, when God gave to them the Law on Mt. Sinai, they promised God not just their effort or their obedience but perfection. 

“All of this we will do and more,” they swore at Sinai, “we will be 

perfect before the Law as our Father in heaven is perfect.” 

When they weren’t—

When they failed to return God’s love with love of their own, when they chose to be like the other nations instead of a light to the nations, God sent them his messengers to call Abraham’s children back to the righteous life owed to God as God’s chosen People. 

First, God sent them prophets. 

And what did the People who’d promised him perfection do the prophets?

Zechariah, who told them that God would redistribute their wealth for the sake of the poor, was killed by the King of Judah on the altar of the Temple. Jeremiah criticized them for turning a deaf ear to lies and making an idol of their politics. They shut him up by stoning him to death. And Isaiah was sawn in two near the pool of Siloam for speaking truth to power. “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah said, “I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”

They killed the prophets— and those are just three examples.

So next this God of second and third and sixth chances, he sends them still another. 

A final prophet. 

And this messenger makes a way in the wilderness. And he baptizes in the Jordan with a baptism of repentance, and he calls God’s wicked tenants a brood of vipers. 

Wearing camel-hair, he hollers about God’s axe lying near, but in the end he’s the one on whom the blade falls. A king of the Jews serves his head on a platter as a party gag.

Yet this God is not a Lord of ledgers but a Father of compassion. 

After he sends his People prophets, after he sends them John the Baptist (it makes no sense at all) God sends them his only-begotten Son. The Kingdom of God comes in the flesh and our response is my will be done.  God’s People say “We have no king but Caesar.” And then they scream “Crucify him!”

His own disciples—

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail. They’d let the wicked world sin all its sins into him. 

And then they left him forsaken on a cross. 

———————-

When the owner comes back— and the word Jesus uses there is kyrios, meaning Lord— when the Lord comes back, what do you think he’ll do?

Everyone in the Easter story responds to the news that Jesus is longer dead with dread because they expect the Lord to put wretches like them to a miserable death.

For the Bible tells them so. They lock the doors. They run and hide. They faint and cower because, according to scripture, resurrection for sinners means judgment. They have every reason to expect the Lord who’s come back to condemn them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me. I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink. I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending me a stranger.

If Jesus was risen indeed, then there weren’t any alleluias for them. Resurrection could only mean one awful thing for wicked tenants like them. 

But no—

When he comes back, he doesn’t pay them the wages their sins had earned. He doesn’t put wretches like them to a miserable death. The Lord who’d sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, slips past their locked doors and he doesn’t give them payback. He gives them pardon. 

“Peace,” he says. 

When he comes back, he doesn’t give them what Daniel promised they have coming to them, everlasting punishment. No, he gives them his Holy Spirit that he had promised would come to them. 

He gives them his Spirit. 

He gives them his pardon. 

And he gives to them the ministry of pardon. “Wherever you forgive the sins— any sins— of anyone, their sins are forgiven,” Jesus commissions them. 

Even Peter, who’d lied and denied the Lord thrice, when he comes back to wretched Peter, he doesn’t indict Peter and condemn him. He invites Peter to confess his love for him. 

Three times. 

A do-over:

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

When he comes back to his wicked tenants…

Wait—

WHERE’S THE BRIMSTONE?

Resurrection is supposed to be a double-edged sword. Resurrection is about reward and punishment. Resurrection is about the justification of the righteous and the judgment of the unrighteous. 

The Bible tells them so— that’s why they’re terrified. 

But when the Lord returns to his vineyard, his tenants do not receive what they deserve. 

They receive what only he deserves.

As though, resurrection isn’t a double-edged sword so much as an exchange.

———————-

Eight years ago exactly to the day, I was in Old Town Alexandria shopping for a black tie to wear for the funeral of a boy I was burying. He’d been a little younger than my youngest boy is now. In a closet filled with Lego pieces and action figures, he’d done it himself with a fake leather belt bought at Target. 

It was a couple of days before the day that Harold Camping, a huckster preacher and president of Family Christian Radio, had predicted the world would end, in judgment and fury, the twenty-first of May. 

Standing on the corner of King Street, blocking my path, were four or five of Camping’s disciples. A couple of the “evangelists” of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of God’s wrath and damnation. 

I remember one image— an image borrowed from the Book of Daniel— was of an awful-looking lion with scars on its paws. At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women and children, looking terrified to be caught in their sins by Christ come back.

A young twenty-something man tried to hand me a tract. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us. He gave me a syrupy smile, and said, “Did you know the wicked world is going to end on May 21? The Lord is coming back in just two days. What do you think he’ll do when he returns? To sinners?” 

Then he started talking about the end of the world. I flipped through his brochure.  

“Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots,” I mumbled. 

“What’s that?” he asked. 

“Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.”

Now, I’m still new here at Annandale United Methodist Church. Maybe you don’t yet know. Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm. Sometimes, my sarcasm is of the abrasive varietal. But that day, the day before I had to bury that boy who’d died by his own foolish hand, what I felt rising in me was more like anger. 

Because evangel in scripture means literally good freaking news.

And these “evangelists” weren’t dishing out anything of the sort.

“Lemme ask you something,” I said, “since you seem to know your Bible.”

The evangelist smiled and nodded. He looked electrified to be, all of a sudden, useful. 

“Doesn’t the Bible call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world?” I asked, feigning naïveté. 

He nodded a sanctimonious grin. 

“Well then, which ones did he miss?” 

He looked confused, as shoppers pushed past us to get to the bus stop. 

“Sins,” I pressed, “which sins did Jesus miss?” 

I’d raised my voice now, my pretense falling away and my righteous anger welling up in the teardrops at the corner of my eyes. “Did Jesus take away all the sins of the world, or did he only get some of them?” 

No sooner had he started to mouth the word “all” than I was back down his throat. 

“Really?! Because from your signs and pamphlets, it sure as hell looks like Jesus missed a whole lot of sins, that he’s none too pleased with folks who can’t get their act together.” 

He started to give me a patronizing chuckle, so I pressed him. 

“And, wait a minute, didn’t Jesus say, whilst dying for the sins of the whole world, ‘It is finished?’ Isn’t that, like, red-letter?”

He nodded and looked over my head to his supervisor behind me. I was shouting now. 

“And doesn’t it say, too, that in Jesus God has chosen all of us from before the foundation of the world?” 

“I think so,” he said. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, damn straight it does,” I hollered. “Ephesians, and, looking at you all with your bullhorns and pictures of lions and dragons and brimstone and judgment, I’m just wondering how, if God’s chosen us all in Christ from before the beginning of everything, you think so many of us with our puny, pathetic, run-of-the-mill sins—which have all been taken away already—can gum up God’s plan?”

“Riddle me that,” I shouted.

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic. 

“I’m not sure you understand how serious this is, sir,” he said to me. 

“Oh, I got it, all right.”

He suddenly looked like he was trying to remember the safe word. 

“I get how serious it is,” I said, “I just think it’s you who doesn’t take it seriously, not enough apparently to take Jesus at his word that when he comes back he’ll come back already bearing every sin we’ve ever sinned in his crucified and risen body. The Judge has been judged in our place. It’s not about reward and punishment anymore. It’s about promise. The Gospel promise that he has gotten what we all deserve and we’re given gratis what he alone deserves.”

You wonder why I repeat myself Sunday after Sunday—

It’s because this “evangelist,” this preacher, just stared at me like he’d never the Gospel before. He hadn’t.

“The only basis on which God judges now is not our works— not our behavior, good or bad (thank God)— but our belief.  Our faith. The only basis on which he judges now is on our simple trust that he’s gotten out of the judgment game. It’s in your Bible, man: “There is therefore now no judgment for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

“It’s “There is therefore now no condemnation not no judgment.”” he tried to correct me.  

“It’s the same word,” I said. “Krima. Judgment. Condemnation. Krima. Same word. And when St. Paul says in Christ Jesus, he’s talking not about behavior but about baptism.”

It was right about then I became aware that I was creating a scene.

But I didn’t care.

Standing there, needing to buy a necktie I could wear beside a four-foot coffin for a boy I’d baptized, let’s just say, it was not an academic debate.

———————-

“When the owner of the vineyard comes back, what do you think he’ll do to those wicked tenants? And they said to Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

And Jesus doesn’t respond: WRONG ANSWER.

Pay attention, this is important.

Jesus tells all of his parables of judgment in the space of four days before his crucifixion—

that’s the interpretative key to them. 

We’re supposed to read the parables of judgment as pointers to the cross. 

You see, it’s not that after three years of preaching about God’s bargain free grace and bottomless forgiveness Jesus suddenly gave up and decided to preach instead like John the Baptist. The Gospel is not a bait and switch. Jesus doesn’t take away with these parables of judgment the grace he already gave with his left-hand. 

The judgment at the center of these dark parables is the cross. 

When you read them in light of the cross, you discover that the parables of judgment, every bit as much as that one about the father and the fatted calf, are Gospel not Law. 

The cross is our judgment— Jesus already told you that at the very beginning of the Gospel: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness.” 

He’s talking about the cross. 

It’s likewise with Paul. “God made Jesus to be our wickedness,” Paul writes, “…and through the cross God put to death— krima’d— the enmity between humanity and God.” 

The cross is our judgment. 

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” they tell Jesus. 

And Jesus doesn’t correct them or contradict them because they’re right. We’re all put to death in him. “Do you not know,” the Bible promises, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…we have been buried with him by baptism into his death for sins so that we might be raised up with him.” 

That promise is no different than the promise with which Jesus ends the parable today. 

Our judgment on the cross is the cornerstone of God’s new creation.

All that the world has to do now to escape judgment is to trust that in Jesus Christ you’ve already escaped it. 

That’s it. 

And that’s red-letter: “God the Father judges no one,” Jesus says, “God has given over all judgment to the Son…and he who trusts in him is not judged.” 

Let me make it plain.

GOD’S NOT MAD AT YOU. 

Even if God should be.

God’s forgiven you for every single thing— and that thing too you’re now thinking about in your head.

God’s not mad at you.

It doesn’t matter who you are. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve left undone. 

On account of Jesus Christ— propterChristum, the first Protestants liked to say— God literally doesn’t give a damn. 

After Jesus Christ announces from his cross “It is finished,” there is now— for those who trust it— nothing but the “blessed silence of his uncondemnation.” 

No matter who you are or what you’ve done. 

There is no case against you. There is no indictment filed. There is no evidence locked away in storage. There’s not even a courtroom for you to exhibit all your good works. 

There is therefore now no judgment.

Because when the Judge came back to his vineyard, he came carrying not a gavel in his hands but nails. He returned wrapped not in a Judge’s robe but naked. 

Forsaken. 

For you. 

What Jesus says at the end of this parable is dead on— the indiscriminate acceptance of his uncondemnation, it crushes those of us who persist in our stubborn belief that God’s judgment is about rewarding the rewardable. 

God’s free grace isn’t just a stumbling block to those of us who insist on supposing that being well-behaved is more important to God than just trusting his forgiveness. 

It breaks people like us to pieces. 

It kills people like us who’d prefer to think of ourselves as good than loved. 

In the end, that’s what’s so scary about this parable of judgment. 

You and I— the quick and the dead— we’re slow to believe that all he’s ever wanted was for us to believe. 

 

     

 

In this episode, I talked with Amy Laura Hall of Duke University about her upcoming work on muscular Christianity, her most recent book “Laughing at the Devil,” Julian of Norwich, and our mutual affection for Stan the Man.

Oh, and we also talked about Cowboy Churches (that’s really a thing, I’ve seen one), Cormac McCarthy, and Larry McMurtry. Amy Laura Hall is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University Divinity School. She is the author of Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love; Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction; and Writing Home, With Love: Politics for Neighbors and Naysayers

If you like what we do, do us a solid. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click “Support the Show” and pay it forward.

 

The Gospel lection coming up for this Sunday comes from John 13 where Jesus engages in an enacted parable, washing his disciples’ feet and then dishing out a new commandment on us. Here’s a little reflection on it…

The most high Lord reveals himself to us as the most low.

The night we betray him to a godforsaken death, this son of a carpenter takes off his outer robe. He stoops down on his knees. The fingers that crafted the universe bear callouses. No longer content to paint the cosmos, they wash our feet painted with dirty and stink and sweat.

When Jesus stands up, a bowl of brown water beside him, he says he’s just given us an example.

Of love.

Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel that the two greatest commandments in the Law are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The problem though— the Bible also says that Christ is the end of the Law and its commands, including that bit about loving God and neighbor like we love us.

It’s not that love isn’t important in the New Testament. The apostle Paul tells the Romans that all of the ten commandments are summed up by loving others while St. Peter writes in his own letter that loving others covers a multitude of our sins.

But if Christ is the end of the Law, then is the love commended by Peter and prescribed by Paul the love commanded by the Law? Is it the same love like we love ourselves love?

Notice what Jesus says in John 13, notice exactly how he puts it: “A new command I give you (this is something different). Love one another as I have loved you.”

NOT as you love yourself.

Love one another as I have loved you.

Christ is the end of the commandments, even the greatest commandment.

Christ is the end of a love that need not go further than self-love as the standard.

The old commandments are over and done. Christ has given us a new command, and it’s no wonder Peter didn’t want God washing his feet. The way he has loved us is nothing like the way we love even ourselves. Jesus broke bread with those he knew would betray him with a kiss. Three times he forgave Peter who cheated him on thrice. 

Christ gave his life not for the good but for the ungodly.

The golden rule and all the rest are bygones from a covenant Christ has closed with his cross.

The good news is that Jesus isn’t a liar. He really does give us a burden that is lighter of obligations. The bad news is that the only obligation attached to Jesus’ yoke is what Christians call grace, which is a lot less amazing when you’ve got to give it.

Because, by definition, everyone to whom you give it is undeserving.

Love like this, Jesus says.

The apostle Paul summarizes that sort of love by saying that in Christ God was in the world not counting our trespasses against us. The new command isn’t to remember to love another as we love ourselves; the command of Christ is to love with a love that remembers to forget the sins sinned against us.

The Christian life would be hard enough if the love we talk about when we talk about love was the love of the Law, love with self-love as the standard. Unfortunately, it’s even harder. It’s a love that leaves the ledger book behind— and those ledgers would have plenty of ink spilt in them if we could hold on to them.

Forgive but don’t forget goes the cliche, but for Christians there’s no distinction between the two, for forgiveness just is forgetting— forgetting to count the slights and sins suffered by way of the other.

This is the new law of love Jesus commands.

This is the love into which we’ve been drowned by baptism.

Therefore, there is no other clearer way of imitating the love revealed to us in Jesus Christ than in the divine amnesia you practice, however imperfectly, on others everyday.

This new command of Christ— a love that forgets how to count— henceforth it makes your day-to-day relationships more of a ministry than any soup kitchen or service project.

.

 

To speak words of grace, we must first name the powers and principalities that hold us captive.

The Christian Century asked me to write a long review article on what I thought were the best theology books of the past year. Check it out here.

This coming Sunday’s Gospel lection is from John 10:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

We’ve also recited “thy rod and thy staff” so many times we no longer hear the oddity of Psalm 23 or the offensiveness of it. 

“The Lord is my Shepherd…”

To profess that the Lord is your Shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep. 

A lamb even. 

We’re all so grateful not to be a goat (we presume) that we forget. Lambs are lame. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into valleys. Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd. Sheep need to be led and guided and protected by their shepherd. 

There aren’t any stories, epics, or legends called Dances with Lambs. 

No, sheep are stupid. 

By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves.

To hear that God is your Shepherd is to be told that you are a sheep, and to hear that you are no better than a sheep is offensive for us who rate our worth by our resumes. Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they’re completely useless. 

     Sheep aren’t like other animals. 

     Sheep aren’t like asses. 

Sheep don’t do any work by which they merit their worth.

Sheep don’t bear a burden like mules do. Sheep don’t pull a plow like oxen do. Sheep don’t lead a wagon like horses do. Even goats do work by which they earn their value. Even goats graze down briars and thickets to earn their worth.  

The only real work- if you can call it work- a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice. 

If you measure animals’ worth by the work they perform, sheep are useless and, thus, worthless. Unlike other animals, the value of a lamb is intrinsic to the lamb. In its lamb-ness. It’s worth isn’t in the work it does; it’s worth is in who it is as the creature made it to be. It’s worth is its wool and its meat. 

In Matthew, Jesus spins a yarn about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of 99. We forget how the parable of the lost sheep is Jesus’ way of responding to the disciples’ attempts at elbowing each other out of the way in importance. The parable is his answer to their question “Who is the greatest in the house of the Lord?” 

Notice- 

Jesus doesn’t answer their question about their worth in the Kingdom with an exhortation about the work they must do. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who do the things that Jesus did, those who love their enemies and turn the other cheek and clothe the naked. 

No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who actively accomplishes absolutely nothing. The sheep in Jesus’ story is nothing but the passive recipient of the Shepherd’s finding. The parable is an odd way to answer a question about greatness because you don’t need to be a ranch hand to know that a lost sheep is a dead sheep just as surely as a lost coin is a dead asset. 

How impressive can the House of the Lord be, after all, if the only ticket you need for greatness in it- much less for admission- is your lostness? 

Not only is the parable an odd way to answer a question about worth, the parable is just as offensive as the psalm because the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” (that’s what the header in my Bible calls it) isn’t really about the sheep who gets lost at all. 

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost. 

All the other verbs belong to the Shepherd. 

     The sheep doesn’t search out the flock. 

     The sheep doesn’t scramble out of a thicket and wander back to the fold. 

     The sheep doesn’t even bah-bah-bah until its voice is heard by the Shepherd. 

And once it’s found, the sheep doesn’t even so much as repent of its getting lost. 

We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd. It’s not about the work the sheep does to get itself to a findable place. It’s about the Shepherd’s work of finding.

It’s about the Good Shepherd’s gracious and saving determination to rescue his sheep from death. 

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost, which is to say, the only “work” the sheep does in the parable is to know that, apart from the gracious folly of the Shepherd to find him, death has the last word. 

The Shepherd though gets all the good verbs in the story, including the last ones where the Shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries it back to his house and calls together his friends and his family and his neighbors and, like a fatted-calf-killing Prodigal Father, says: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.” 

As if- it’s our sins and not our goodness, our wretchedness and not our worthwhile work, that most commend us to the grace of God. 

Sheep are strange. 

They can’t carry a Christ into town to shouts of Hosanna. They can’t bear a Samaritan’s friend to safety. The only “work” sheep do is to trust the Shepherd’s voice. 

And as God’s frightened flock in a scary world- that’s our work to do too. 

We’re always the valley of the shadow of Death, and Jesus invites us to trust the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who promises that by his substitution for us God forgets all our sins— all our sins— in the darkness of our graves. 

Trust the Shepherd’s voice when he tells you that his cousin John the Baptist was right: he is the Lamb who bears all our sins away such that in the House of the Lord God remembers our iniquities no more. 

Trust the Shepherd when he promises to you by his cross and his empty grave that in the power of the resurrection he finds us lost to death and he puts us on his shoulders and he carries us back to his friends with rejoicing. 

Trust the Shepherd when he spins these yarns where there’s not a single note of our earning or our merit, not a hint of rewarding the rewardable or saving the salvageable. 

Trust the Shepherd for if its not about our worthiness, there’s absolutely no need for our worry. 

All that is lost will be found because of his gracious folly to raise the dead to new life. 

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We started a new sermon series on Jesus’ parables that will take us through the summer. First up, Matthew 18.21-35, the parable of the unforgiving slave.

 I presided over a wedding yesterday here in the sanctuary. The bride and the groom, both of whom were in their sixties, said “I do and when we were all done, I went up to Starbucks to write my sermon. I had my clergy collar still strapped around my neck. I sat down at a little round table with my notes and my Bible, and before I could get very far a woman crept up to me and said: “Um, excuse me Father….could I?”

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me. 

     “Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______” I started to say but she just looked confused. 

     “Never mind” I said. “Sit down.”

     She looked to be somewhere in her fifites. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red. 

     No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts. 

     “Maybe this is a mistake. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…”

     She fussed with the button on her shirt while she rambled, embarrassed. 

     “It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.”

     “Put what down?” I asked. 

     “Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.” She fussed with her hair. 

     “Beginning at the beginning usually works,” I said. 

     “Yeah,” she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head. 

     And then she told it to me. 

     About her husband and their marriage. 

     About his drinking, the years of it. 

     About his lies, the years of it. 

     She told me about how he’s sober now. 

     And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never be paid back what she spent. 

     Then she bit her lip and paused. 

     And so I asked her: “Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’

    “No, I know I ought to forgive him” she said. “Our priest told me years ago —he said I should forgive but not forget.”

“He told you to forgive but not forget?” I asked. 

She nodded.  

“Well, that’s why God gave us the Reformation,” I said under my breath. 

“What was that?” 

“Nevermind— what’s your question then if it’s not about forgiveness?” I asked.

     “I’ve forgiven him— at least, I’ve tried, I’ve told him I have— but…why can’t I just wipe this from my slate and move on?”

And when she said that (“Why can’t I just wipe this from my slate?”) I excused myself and I walked to the restroom and I closed the door and I threw my hands in the air and I shouted: 

“Thank you, Jesus, for, as reliably as Papa John’s, you have delivered 

unto me this perfect anecdote for tomorrow’s parable!” 

Just kidding. 

But without her realizing it, I did tell her about the slave in today’s text, who even before you get to the parable’s grim finale is in a cage he cannot see. 

———————-

When Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. 

     Peter’s a hand-raiser and a rear-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer. 

After all, the Jewish Law commanded God’s people to forgive a wrongdoer three times. Seven times no doubt struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness. Not only does Peter double the amount of forgiveness prescribed by the Law, he adds one, rounding the total to seven. Because God had spoken creation into being in seven days, the number seven was the Jewish number for completeness and perfection. 

Peter might be an idiot, but he’s not stupid. Peter knew seven times— that’s a divine amount of forgiveness. Think about it— seven times:

Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as a for instance. 

     Imagine someone gossips about you. 

And you confront them about it. 

1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. 

Fool me 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

“What’s the limit, Jesus? Where’s the boundary?”

And remember, Matthew 18 is all one scene. 

It’s Jesus’ yarn about the Good Shepherd, who all but abandons the well-behaved ninety-nine to search out the single sheep too stupid to stay with the flock, that prompts Peter’s question and the parable that answers Peter’s question. 

How many times should the lost sheep be sought and brought back, Jesus?

How many fatted calves does the father have to slaughter for his kid?

How many times do we have to forgive, Jesus?

     And Peter suggests drawing the line at seven times. Whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery or synagogue shooters, seven is a whole lot of forgiveness. Probably Peter expected a pat on the back and a gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one. 

Notice what Jesus doesn’t do with Peter’s question. Notice— Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s question with another question. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter “What’d they do?” Jesus doesn’t say “Well, you know, it depends— the forgiveness has to fit the crime. Roseanne Barr and racist tweets, maybe four times forgiveness. But Trysten Terrell at UNC-Charlotte…”

No, Jesus takes it in the other direction: “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times.”

Seventy-seven times— pay attention, now, this is important. 

Jesus didn’t pull that number out of his incarnate keister. 

———————-

By telling Peter seventy-seven times forgiveness for those who sin against you, Jesus hearkens back to the mark of Cain and the sin of all of us in Adam. 

In Genesis 4, after Cain murders his brother Abel, in order to prevent a cyle of bloodshed,  God— in God’s mercy— places a mark on Cain, and God warns humanity that whoever harms Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. They will receive seven times vengeance, God warns. 

Later in Genesis 4, after civilization is founded east of Eden on the blood of Abel, Lamech, Cain’s grandson, murders a man. And in telling his two wives about the murder, Lamech plagiarizes God’s promise for himself and Lamech declares that if anyone should harm Lamech then vengeance will be visited upon them— guess how many times— seventy times. 

If you don’t get this, you won’t get it. 

When Jesus tells Peter he owes another seventy-seven times forgiveness, Jesus is not fixing a boundary, albeit a gracious and superabundant boundary. No, Jesus is saying here that in him there is no limit to God’s forgiveness because his is a pardon powerful to unwind all of our sin as far back as Adam’s original sin. 

Seventy-seven times— he’s not simply raising the ceiling even higher on Peter; he’s saying that there is no floor to God’s grace. Seventy-seven times. God’s forgiveness for you in Christ is bottomless. 

Make no mistake—This is the radicality and the scandal of the Gospel. This is the beating heart of Christianity. 

I know I’ve said this before, but I also know that not everyone who shows up on a Sunay morning is a believer so I’m going to say it again. 

What makes Christianity distinct among the world’s religions is that, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a religion of do. Christianity is not even a religion, for that matter, it’s an announcement— it’s news— that everything has been done. 

And Jesus gives you a hint of that here in his response. Jesus reframes Peter’s question about the limits of the forgiveness we ought to do by alluding to the forgiveness God will do in him. In other words, Jesus takes Peter’s question about the Law (what we ought to do for God) and he answers in terms of Grace (what God has done for us). 

Think about it—

When you make Christianity into a message of do this instead of it has been done, you ignore the trajectory of the parable Jesus tells where it’s your failure to appreciate just how much you’ve been forgiven that produces in you unforgiveness for another. 

The road to hell here in this story is paved not with ill intentions but with amnesia. What damns this slave is not his sin but his forgiven sin getting forgotten. 

“Lord, how much do I have to forgive?” And Jesus responds: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…“ 

As if to say, the very question “How much forgiveness do I have to give out to those who owe me?” reveals you’ve forgotten how much mercy has been given to you.

Ten thousand talents worth. 

The key to this entire text today is in the numbers. 

Seventy-seven times of forgiveness. 

Ten thousand talents of debt.

———————-

As soon as Peter and the disciples heard Jesus say that the Kingdom of God is like a slave— a slave— who owed his king ten thousand talents, they would’ve known instantly that Jesus is taking forgiveness out of the realm of do and recasting it in terms of done.  

In case you gave up Lou Dobbs for Lent and are rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

This slave owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 170,000 years worth of debt. The Kingdom of God is like a slave who owed his king a zillion bitcoin, that’s how Peter and the rest would’ve heard the setup. 

What’s more, ten-thousand was the highest possible number expressible in Greek; it was a synonmyn for infinity.

“What’s the limit to the forgiveness we ought to give, Jesus?”

“There was a king who had a slave,” Jesus says, “and that slave owed that king infinitely more than what Nick Cage owes the IRS.” 

     Ten thousand talents. 

It’s a ridiculous amount he owes his king, which makes the slave’s promise to the king all the more pathetic: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you back everything.” 

I’ll pay you back? To infinity and beyond?

This is what heaven sounds like to God: I’ll make it up to you, God. I’ll do better. I’ll get my act back in the black. Give me another chance, God. Be patient with me. This is what heaven sounds like—a cacophony of our pathetic pleas all of which drown out his promise that a debt we can neither fathom nor repay has been forgiven. 

Look, it’s great that God, as the Bible promises, is patient and slow to anger, but God giving you another chance is not what you need. God’s patience is not what you need. You need pardon. Jesus’ point right at the get-go here in his parable is that God’s patience will not really remedy your ultimate situtation. 

This is why the Church doesn’t charge you admission because of all the outlets in the world only the Church is bold enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Your problem is infinitely bigger than your best self-improvement project. No good deed you do can undo your unpayable debt. Before God, you are like a slave so far in the red it would take a hundred thousand lives to get it AC/DC.  

Or, it would take just one life. 

———————-

Seventy-seven times, ten thousand talents— one life. 

Remember the amount. 

It’s a kingdom’s worth of cash the slave is in hock to the king. So when the king forgives the slave’s debt, the king dies. 

In forgiving his servant, the king forsakes his kingdom— he forsakes everything— because there’s no way the king can dispose the servant’s debt without the king also sacrificing his entire ledger. 

The king’s whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is earned and deserved the king DIES to that life so that his servant can have new one. 

     But notice. 

     After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score?

    No sooner is the slave forgiven and freed than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about three months wages. Not chump change but small potatoes compared to his infinite IOU. 

    He grabs the servant, demands what’s owed to him, and he sends the man to prison, turning a deaf ear— notice— to the very same plea he’d pled to the king: “be patient with me and I will pay back everything…”

How many times do we gotta forgive somebody, Jesus?

     When the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received, the king gives to the slave exactly what the slave wants. 

You want to keep living your life keeping score? Even though I died to score-keeping? Fine, Have it your way. But that way of life— I gotta warn you— it’s torture. 

You see, even before the slave ends up in prison, that slave was already stuck inside a cage he couldn’t see. 

———————-

“Why can’t I just wipe the slate clean and move on?” the woman at Starbucks asked me.

     I sipped my coffee. 

“Look,” I said, “provided you’re willing to be exploited for the purposes of a sermon illustration some day, I’ll give you the goods, straight up, and you won’t even have to pay for the refill on my coffee.”

She smiled and nodded.

“It’s not about wiping your ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the life of ledger-keeping altogether— it’s about dying to it. The ledger is the whole reason you’ve forgiven him but still don’t feel free.”

And I paused, wondering if I should tack on the truth:

“And my guess is as long as you’re holding onto your ledger it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve told your husband you forgive him— my guess is he doesn’t feel very free either.”

She bit her lip. 

“When the Bible says “Christ is the end of the Law,” I said, “it’s just a pious way of saying that Jesus is the end of all score-keeping. He’s gotten rid of all it— the sins and the spreadsheets both.”

And I could tell what she was about to counterpunch me with so, being an Enneagram 8, I interuppted her and talked over her: 

“We say “forgive but don’t forget,” sure. 

But Jesus says: Don’t forget— you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten all your sins in the black hole of his death. Ditto for whomever has trespassed against you and whatever was that trespass against you. Remember that you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten everything— remember that and, eventually, you can forgive and forget.”

She took off her glasses and wiped the corners of her eyes. 

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, “that doesn’t sound fair.” 

“Of course it’s not fair,” I said, “if God were fair we’d all be screwed.”

And then her phone rang and she had to leave as quickly as she’d came.

———————-

The woman at Starbucks and the slave in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger. 

Admit it—

Some of you excel at Excel, carrying around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you. 

Names of people who’ve taken something from you. 

       Names of people who’ve wronged you. 

    People that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book. 

  Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you. 

Jesus says with his story that in order for you to enjoy your forgiveness his death makes possible you’ve got to die too— to that whole way of living that produces questions like “How many times do I have…?” 

No— just as there is no empty grave without a cross, there is no salvation for you without your death. 

You’ve got to die to your life of book-keeping.

Limitless forgiveness— of course it sounds impossible. 

I get it.

Forgiveness without limits comes so unnaturally to us it first had to come to us as Jesus. 

And— no less than then— Jesus comes to us still today. 

Jesus comes to us in his word. He comes to us in wine and bread 

And Jesus comes to us preaching the promise of this parable:

The promise that those who know how much they have been forgiven— ten thousand talents— in the fullness of time, through word and wine and bread, much will they be able to forgive. 

So come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see that God is not fair; God is gracious. 

Come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see and enjoy your forgiveness, for the promise that everything has been done for you— that promise alone has the power to enable you to do for another.

THE POWER TO DO IS NOT IN YOU!

THE POWER TO DO IS IN THIS PROMISE OF DONE. 

So come to the table; so that, you might become what you eat.

           

“Orthodoxy is historically defined according to the creeds, and there is nothing at all in the creeds about human sexuality.”

Steve Harper, author of the new book, Holy Love, published today, is our guest for Episode #206. Steve is a former Professor of Historical Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, which is— mind you— the UMC’s most conservative school. Steve was also a leader in traditionalist movements like Good News and the Confessing Church Movement. In 2015, though, Steve’s understanding of sexuality in light of scripture changed.

His new book is a concise primer for all folks but especially those like his former self. He’s a warm and wise man with whom I felt honored to speak.

Here’s the blurb I had the opportunity to provide for the publisher:

In all our church fighting about what is and is not incompatible with Christian teaching, Christians seem to have forgotten the core of Christian teaching; that is, we’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Not one of us is found compatible— we are made compatible by God’s grace. In Holy Love, Steve Harper reminds Christians that married love is holy precisely because it’s an arena where life with another exposes the stranger you call you to the unmerited forgiveness of the other who knows your worst self.  The experience of such grace makes us holy— different— in a culture premised on merit alone. Marriage, as the wedding rite makes clear, is about sanctification; therefore, to deny committed couples, gay or straignt, marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine. Holy Love provides pastors and parishioners the biblical and theological resources to have a holy conversation about how that medicine may be administered to same-sex couples too and how their marriages might also serve as parables for how God loves us all.

You can order his book from Cokesbury. 

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We’re working our way through the alphabet one stained-glass word at a time. Next up: Unity.

In a world (and even a Church) that appears anything but what does the Bible mean when it promises that, by the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are one in Christ?

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