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     For my last act at Aldersgate Church before moving to Annandale United Methodist Church, I buried a 14 year old boy who in a foolish, impetuous act took his own life. It was an accident in the most impulsive sense of the word. I’ve presided over far too many funerals for such acts and, at Aldersgate, far too many funerals for children. Here’s the sermon on John 11 and John 20. One of the speakers at the service read that terrible poem “Do Not Weep for Me,” forcing me to riff on it in my sermon, which I’ve added into the manuscript here.     

“I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as Dennis said at the beginning in the Call to Worship.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” Jesus says to the grief-stricken sisters, Martha and Martha, right before he asks them- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”

     The scripture text doesn’t mention the sisters’ mom and dad. Likely, because they were too numb to even come outside to see Jesus. The scripture doesn’t mention the boy’s many friends from all over though likely they too were there with casseroles and cards, grieving, wanting something to do to help, wishing they’d been there and muttering I should’ve done something.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life…even though you’ll die yet will you live…do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha. And Martha, her eyes salty and pink with tears and voice hoarse from rage, exhausted from grief, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”

     But probably-

     Let’s be honest, this is the last place where we should lie or pretend. 

     Probably his sister wants to say “No.”

     No, I do not believe. No, it’s too hard to believe. No, it’s too easy to believe- it’s foolish and silly to believe given everything that’s happened. No, it’s a waste of time to believe- what good did belief do when they most needed it?

     After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up the sisters’ brother, Lazarus, is four days dead.

     Dead.

     And he didn’t have to be. 

     His was an unnecessary death.

     When she first found him, ill, his sister had sent word to Jesus: “Lazarus, your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.” But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored her prayer. He didn’t heed his sisters’ cries for help as seriously as he should have; so that, by the time Jesus shows up it’s too late and, by Martha’s estimation, it’s every bit unnecessary. It didn’t need to end the way it did: “Lord, if you had been here and done something,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”

     In other words: It’s your fault Jesus. It’s your fault Lord.

     Whenever someone dies, especially when they die unnecessarily, it’s tempting to reach for an explanation, to find a reason, to search for someone to second-guess or something to blame. 

     But notice- 

     Jesus doesn’t bother about any explanations or reasons. 

     He’s not interested in second-guessing blame.

Or maybe, by not rebutting the sister’s blame, Jesus is telling us that if we’re going to blame anyone then, yeah, go ahead and blame him. 

     He can take it.

     To Jesus’ question about the Resurrection, Martha says “Yes, I believe” but I’m willing to be she felt like saying “No.”

For all you who might slip into language about how God has plan for everything, even in Death, I’m going to take a timeout for a little Sunday School scripture lesson. 

The Bible calls Death God’s Enemy with a capital E. It’s what God promises to defeat in Jesus Christ one day still. It’s why Jesus weeps and groans before his friend’s grave. 

     The Bible calls Death the Enemy for a reason, I think. 

     It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death. Especially an unnecessary death. An impetuous, impassioned or accidental one. 

     We don’t know the why or the how of their brother’s death. We just know it didn’t have to be. 

     “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” the sister asks and, I’m willing to bet, poked Jesus in the chest or, even, slapped him across the face.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life…Do you believe this?” Jesus asks her, and her mouth says “Yes” but her heart?

————————-

     “Do you believe this?”

      Do you? Do you?

     All of you- you’re all Martha today.

     Some of you’d say “Yes, I believe” but really if you’re honest the answer is no.

     For others of you the answer is “No.” 

    You don’t believe. 

    You don’t believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and Life, but, God, you want the answer to be yes. 

     You don’t want Death to have the last word, especially when you were denied the opportunity to have your last words with Peter- your last time to hear him talk in his funny accents, your last time to see him jump off, flip off, a picnic table and pile drive himself into the playground dirt, your last time to see him climb a tree, reenact Titanic in the pool fountain, or give you one of his big, broad shit-eating grins. 

     And so you don’t believe, but, even more than Fox Mulder, you want to believe. 

     And still others of you want to have a Martha-like, PO’d word with Jesus: “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus!? What’s the use of you?!”

     The yes on Martha’s lips. The no on her grief heavy heart. The righteous anger in her throat and in her eyes. We’re all somewhere in between on days like today. We’re all Martha.

————————-

     This isn’t how I wanted to leave Aldersgate. 

     In my years here, I’ve presided over way too many services like this one- for kids, especially- I know what it’s like to feel that the answer is no.

     “No, I don’t believe.”

I can’t speak for you, but I can say that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a central part of their scripture a belief in life after death.

     Take those together-

I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus Christ.

     But you’re here for a funeral. You’re not here for me to convince you the answer is yes. Yes, he’s the Resurrection and the Life of us all.

     Except-

     The other reading we heard from the Gospel of John, it’s an Easter text. 

     Mary Magdalene, who’s come to the garden tomb to mourn, mistakes the Risen Jesus for the gardener because Resurrection and Life are not in any way her expectation.

     She mistakes him for the gardener.

     Gardener is the job Adam was given by God to do in Eden, which is to say, this Risen Jesus- he is what we’re meant to be. He is who we will become. What God does with him God will do with us all. 

      His Resurrection is but the first fruit, the Apostle Paul promises, of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing. When Mary realizes it’s really him, she grabs ahold of him. In her hands she clasps his scarred hands. 

     Notice- his scars are still there. In his hands and his feet and his side. He still bears his scars; that is, the life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated. Not erased but redeemed- recovered and reclaimed in resurrection.

     The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus; that is, he is who he was.

     That Mary mistakes him for the gardener, what Adam was meant to be; that he still bears his scars and his wounds, reveals what Christians mean by that word ‘resurrection.’

     Namely, this world and this life- it matters. 

     It matters to Almighty God.

     Any kind of thinking or religion or piety or spirituality, which suggests that this life is ancillary to the life to come has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with resurrection.

     Mary mistakes him for the gardener; therefore, resurrection means that God has not abandoned the garden that he planted.

     God didn’t send the ghost of Jesus back to the world to say, “Don’t worry … after you die you’ll be OK.”

     No, God resurrected Jesus.

     The resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us something about what God has planned for the world, what God has planned for us. 

     With all due respect-

     God’s not freaking satisfied for Peter just to be “the diamond glints of snow” or on “the winds of blow.”

A poem like that is comforting to NO ONE who loved Peter.

Peter is here in this coffin and you damn well know it, and you should- we should all- be weeping because Death is the Enemy of God.

     But the promise of the Gospel:

God is not content to leave him there.

God is determined to raise him up

So that Lisa can hold, touch, and kiss him again. 

     God plans to restore him, restore THIS world. Resurrect him and us all. The Risen Christ still bears the scars life gave him; therefore, resurrection means that God is not interested in throwing out this world and moving on to something else somewhere else. 

     God doesn’t forget anything but our sins. Otherwise, why on earth would God go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? God didn’t say, “It’s enough for Jesus to come home to heaven now that he’s died.”

     No.

     God raised Jesus from the dead; therefore, resurrection means this world that God made matters. Resurrection means that this world, this life— our hopes, our longings, our pain, our work, our choices, our relationships, our emotions, our bodies—

     Literally, everything, it all matters.

     Every Fort Hunt baseball game, every evening hanging out at a West Po football game or around a fire pit, every rope swim and flip into the water. 

     It all matters.

     Every ‘I love you’ and every moment spent driving around in the cart at the golf course and every popsicle. The first girlfriend and the first YouTube inspired rabbit snare.

     All of it matters. Every bit of it. All of Peter and every bit of your life with him and what you do with your life now without him. It all matters. It all matters to God.

When we gather on days like today, people often will refer to it as a “celebration of life.” I hate that language. I hate it because it doesn’t lift the luggage.

     For one, it compels us to be dishonest. 

     It temps us to lie and ignore our feelings of grief and confusion. It forces us to ignore the fact that not every part of our lives is a cause for joy, that our lives lived together aren’t always easy. 

     It forces us to pretend that if Peter were here with you he wouldn’t apologize- he would. 

     He’d say he’s sorry to cause you this pain. 

     He’d asked for your forgiveness. 

     And he’d say he wished that none of you had to be here today.

     For another, I hate that “celebration of life” language because it doesn’t go far enough in the celebration.

     We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our ability to remember it. No, the Christian hope is different than the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. 

     We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our memory of it. 

     We’re celebrating a life that God has promised and is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.

     Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. 

     He still bears the holes in his hands. 

     Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation. 

     God doesn’t throw things out. 

     God doesn’t let us throw anything out.

Resurrection means that even if we forsake our life, God does not forsake us.

     Resurrection means God will reclaim everything, redeem everything, renew everything, heal everyone.

     Nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken. 

     One day, by God, everything broken will be mended. 

     Every tear will be dried and every reason for all those tears will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, no matter their length, are gift.

Resurrection means that in the end God gets what God wants.

And what God wants is each of every creature that God has made and God has loved and God has called very good- very good, even when we couldn’t always say that about ourselves.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks.

     I realize occasions like today draw all sorts of people from all kinds of places. 

     I can’t make assumptions about you or what you believe.

     But Christians are those people trust the ‘Yes’ even when we feel the answer’s ‘No.’

     Christians are the people who dare to live beautiful and complicated lives, lives of forgiveness and mercy and compassion and inconvenient love, lives that make no sense if the answer to Jesus’ question is not ‘Yes.’

     Christians are the people who live as though we will live on—as Jesus lives on—as the unique and unrepeatable persons we have been since the moment of our conception.

     Live on—body and soul glorified—as it was with Jesus in the Garden—the first fruits of the Resurrection—able to be touched and held, seen and heard. 

     Again.

     Christians are those who believe we are not ghosts in machines that go back to being ghosts, nor are we mere material that becomes “one” again with the rest of creation.

     Christianity is not spirituality.

     The Christian hope is particular, personal, and unapologetically material.

     We are destined for eternal embodied existence, where all the things that made us who we are as one-of-a-kind divine image bearers—laughter, courage, generosity, brilliant thoughts and selfless deeds, skin and bones—will inhabit individual bodies that have something resembling hands and feet and fingerprints and nucleic acids.

     All made alive again forever—somehow—redeemed by the humble power of God’s love.

     Christians believe that God keeps all the information of us and all the mystery about us, and that the God who created everything from nothing knows how to raise us from Death.

     That’s our hope.

     That’s what we mean by Jesus being “the Resurrection and the Life.”

Do you believe this?

Funny thing is, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe it or not, whether you have faith in it or not, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us. 

     To Todd and Lisa, to Catherine and Sydney, to Peter…

     Each of us. Every one of us. All of us.

If its true that clergy suffer from certain health issues at a rate higher than the general population, the why are pastors in such poor health? And what can be done to help them step into the abundant life God desires for them?

We tackle these questions and more with the co-authors of Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis, Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, and Jason Byassee.

From the book –

“Although anecdotal observations about poor clergy health abound, concrete data from multiple sources supporting this claim hasn’t been made accessible–until now. Duke’s Clergy Health Initiative (CHI), a major, decade-long research project, provides a true picture of the clergy health crisis over time and demonstrates that improving the health of pastors is possible. Bringing together the best in social science and medical research, this book quantifies the poor health of clergy with theological engagement. Although the study focused on United Methodist ministers, the authors interpret CHI’s groundbreaking data for a broad ecumenical readership. In addition to physical health, the book examines mental health and spiritual well-being, and suggests that increasing positive mental health may prevent future physical and mental health problems for clergy. Concrete suggestions tailored to clergy are woven throughout the book.”

You can find the book here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

If you’re getting this by email and the show doesn’t pop up, you can listen at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

 

Is the trouble with Christian engagement with public issues today because social media makes it impossible for us ever to be truly alone? This and more in the latest episode.

It’s almost a podcasting rule at this point. The interviews assigned to us by publicists and publishers (I’m looking at you, Chester Johnson) are the ones I force myself to do, expecting little, and, sure enough, they turn out to be the ones I’m most grateful to have done.

Robert Hudson is a damn good writer and a damn good interview. He’s edited about half the religious books you’ve ever read, and, a Bob Dylan scholar, he’s written a book of his own: The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966. In case, you don’t know Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk and author of Seven Story Mountain who, despite being a hermit, had quite a worldly record collection. Dylan, meanwhile, employed his own Christian-ish kaleidoscopic poetic imagery that found its way into Merton’s own writing and poetry.

Listen to the interview yourself, he’s infectious for his delight about Merton and Dylan and the faith both of them share(d).

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

If you’re getting this by email and the show doesn’t pop up, you can listen at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

 


A little over a week from today, the podcast posse from Crackers and Grape Juice will be hosting a live event at Bull Island Brewing Company in Hampton, Virginia. This is our 3rd annual kick-off to the Virginia Annual Conference.

Professor of Theology at Candler Seminary, Kendall Soulen, will be our special guest. This year’s theme is “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.” 

The event is free, but you can register ahead of time here. Or, just tell us you’re coming on our Facebook Page.

The first 50 to attend will get a free Crackers and Grape Juice pint glass.

DATE AND TIME

Thurs, June 14, 2018

6:00 PM – 9:00 PM EDT

LOCATION

Bull Island Brewing Company

758 Settlers Landing Road

Hampton, VA 23669

 

Marissa is a dancer in NYC. Trevor, whom I’ve known since he was 10, just graduated from West Point a week ago. I got to do their wedding. They chose Ephesians 5.21-33 for their passage. Challenge accepted.

Here it is:

     My wife is a tax attorney and, talking with her this morning about your wedding ceremony, she informed me that it’s now officially too late for you two to sign a prenuptial agreement. Whether that says more about her work or how I’m a lot of work I can’t say, but what I can say is that I sure hope you know what you’re getting yourselves into. 

     Trust. Intimacy. Fidelity and Forgiveness. Forever! Are you crazy?!

These are outrageous promises to make to any sinner, most especially to the one you’ll see floss for the next several decades. 

     Speaking of unwise decisions, Marissa you should’ve consulted Trevor’s mom, Elaine. Not only am I her boss, I’m her friend. She knows me better than anyone here, and she would’ve warned you never to let me see, in advance, the vows you and Trevor have written for each other. 

     Now that I’ve seen them, I’ve got one last pre-marital question for the two of you: if love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever? 

     Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life. Certainly not to someone whose laundry you’re going to have to step over for the rest of your life. 

     Let’s not allow the bouquets and bubbles blind us to the inexorable facts known by all the unhappily married- and even, maybe especially, all the happily married- folk here today. 

     “It is hard,” as Robert Capon says in Bed and Board, “for one man and one woman to live together under one roof for as long as God desires. It is hard to raise a family, hard to manage the day-to-day of bed and board, without doing damage to the people we love.”

It’s hard, so hard that sometimes scrubbing the toilet will seem heroic. 

There’s a reason we Christians talk so much about God in Christ becoming one with our flesh. It’s because we know it’s no easy trick.

We Christians, who happen to be husbands and wives, know how hard it is for the two of us to become one flesh. 

     Which is why, I think, the other vows you pledge today, the dusty ones written by Christians from less romantic times, these vows care not one wit about how you two feel today. The marriage rite cares not at all why you two want to get married; it only wants to know what you propose to do about each other henceforth. Indeed, these old vows lead you to anticipate sickness and poverty and all the heartache that can make that last line of the vow (“…until we are parted by death…”) sound like good news not bad. 

     Everyone here today is gathered here because of how you feel right now about each other and because of how we feel about you. Feelings of love– that’s why we’re all here. 

     The Church- not so much. 

     I’ve known Trevor since he was 10. I love him too. And I’m thrilled for how he feels about Marissa. As Connor said in the car on the way to the rehearsal last night, Trevor has had his whole life planned out since he was a boy and Marissa is the puzzle piece that fit perfectly into that plan. As someone who loves Trevor and now loves Marissa because she is loved by Trevor and loves him, I’m thrilled for how you two feel about each other. 

But as a preacher of the Gospel and a steward of these vows-

it’s my job to remind you that God cares not at all about how you feel for the other.

Because feelings alone cannot lift the luggage when it comes to the sort of love with which Christ loved us. 

     The Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians- a text you two chose, I might add- writes that husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved us, which sounds innocuous enough, sentimental even, ready-made for an occasion like today. 

     But for husbands and wives this gets hairier when you remember how Paul has elsewhere described the manner in which Christ loved us. And, for husbands and wives, this gets to sounding offensive when you consider exactly what that ‘us’ says about us. 

     What I mean is- 

     Christ loved, not the lovely and inherently lovable with a few faults and a couple of quirks, the ungodly. 

     While we were yet his enemies, not his friends, Christ loved us unto death. 

     After all that pap about love being patient and kind, Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ took up residence among those whom he loved not counting their trespasses against him against them. 

     To say husbands and wives should love each other just as Jesus loved us is a heads up that what we wed you into today is the way of the cross. 

     That’s why before you face each other today and make any promises to each other, you faced the altar and remembered your baptism, when you were drowned, kicking and screaming, in Christ’s death. 

     Marriage is a daily dying. 

     It would be a cruel commissioning indeed were it not done in the faith that the way of the cross can make both of you Easter new. The reason the self you bring to your marriage today will not be the selves you possess when you depart one another by death is because marriage is a daily dying to self. 

Or rather, marriage is a means by which God crucifies your other selves you bring to your marriage today. 

The ones you haven’t yet shown the other. 

The ones you require the other to reveal about you. 

The ones, once they’re revealed, you won’t want to admit are really there. 

     When we agree that husbands and wives should love one another just as Christ loved us, we’re owning up to the hard and bitter truth that marriage will provide ample opportunity to disclose the hard and bitter truth about ourselves. 

     Marissa, you will at times be ungodly to him. Trevor, you will sometimes be her enemy not her friend. You will both trespass against each other. 

     You see, you’re not promising not to trespass against each other. That’s not a promise you can make. You’re not promising not to trespass against each other.

You’re promising to put away your calculators, to scrap your score-keeping ledgers, and not count your trespasses against one another. 

     I realize this sounds thornier than what you likely expected when you chose this passage, but someone who graduated near the top of his West Point class should’ve been suspicious about a text that begins with a problematic line like “Wives submit to your husbands.” 

     A verse you didn’t want read today but, since we’re safely in the zipper of the Bible Belt and because I know Rob Hopper will pester me about that verse at your reception, I figure I might as well point out how when it comes to that verse, just like the rest of this passage, there’s more to it than meets the eye. 

     Paul gets a bad rap when it comes to women, but this excised verse from Ephesians should be read in submission to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, his master thesis, for which he empowered a woman named Phoebe, likely a man’s wife, as its primary preacher and interpreter. 

Thus, the Paul who writes here in Ephesians that wives should submit to their husbands is a Paul who could just as easily have written elsewhere that husbands should submit to their wives. 

     Because- 

     Notice, Paul doesn’t say men and women are unequal. 

     He says husbands and wives are unequal. 

     It’s a difference, as Robert Capon notes, not of worth but role. It’s a functional difference not a natural one. 

     Inequality sounds bad to us. And most of the time it is bad. 

     But not, Marissa can tell you, not in a dance. 

     The inequality Paul has in mind is a functional inequality because marriage is NOT like a West Point parade march. 

     Marriage is more like a dance where one leads and the other follows, an inequality of role not merit. And, as time goes on and the music of your life together changes, the roles will shift and the other will take the lead and the other will follow. 

    Marriage is not a march where you’re both doing the same thing, shoulder-to-shoulder, or one behind the other. 

    Marriage is a dance. 

    It’s close up, often aggravatingly so. 

     Marriage is a dance. It’s face-to-face. 

     It’s a tango of loving and being loved. Of initiating and responding. Of repenting and forgiving. Of showing patience and showing gratitude for patience. It’s a movement of actions to which your feelings are often incidental. Marriage is a dance where the work is learning when to lead and when to respond.Marriage is a dance. It’s exhausting and hard and beautiful and fun and it takes practice. 

    Marriage is a dance where 2 equals take on different, unequal but fluid roles in order that both may contribute to the perfection of the whole. 

     And the whole, the reason we’re here today, is the Mystery of Christ. The dance you two do with your lives lived together- it’s meant to be a live performance, a spontaneous street theater parable of how God in Christ loves us all. 

     And don’t worry, that’s not the high stakes burden it sounds. It’s not like America’s Got Talent or Dancing with the Stars. There are no losers. No one is voting you to go home because by your baptism in to Christ’s death for our sins, all of them- even the sins you’ll sin against each other, you’re already home free. 

     The Christ who compares his Kingdom to a wedding party also compares his Kingdom to a stupid sheep who can’t help but get itself lost. Nonetheless, with Jesus, what will get lost has already been found. 

     In other words, you two are free to dance knowing that every misstep is already forgiven. 

    As far as the judging of your dance goes, Christ has already said all of that’s finished with, with perfect scores for everyone. The music of his party already kicked on in a garden near a cross on a hill, and the needle will never reach the end of the record. 

     It’s a hard and difficult dance to do but there are no stakes, no penalties to messing it up. 

     As the prodigal’s elder brother can tell you, the only way you fail at this dance is by being a begrudging wallflower and refusing to join in the Bridegroom’s party. So as the prodigal’s Father says to the elder son, it’s time for me to shut up and for you to dance.

     

      

   

Do good fences make good neighbors? What’s the limit to the scope of our moral obligation to another? How do Christians model the command to the stranger when the State does not?

On (Her)Men*You*tics, we’re working our way through the alphabet, one stained glass word at a time. We’re in the N’s and, like Mr. Rogers and the lawyer who wanted to justify himself, we’re asking about the meaning of Neighbor.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

If you’re getting this by email and the show doesn’t pop up, you can listen at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

I’m a contributor to the Apocalyptic section of Eerdman’s book Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives coming out next winter and edited by Scot McKnight. Here’s a look at the working cover and the list of contributors.

 

 

Mike, my brother-in-law, I’ve known since he was 9, grabbing my huevos in the pool, cackling, and swimming away. LP was a 6th grader when I came to Aldersgate, and 13 years later I count her one of my best friends. It’s nice to write a wedding sermon where I don’t need to prove to anyone I really do know the bride and groom but where I can instead just get to it.

Texts: Ruth 1 and 2 Corinthians 5.16-21

     Last Saturday marked the Festival of Pentecost, or, as my people call it, Shavuot, the celebration where Jews recall the giving of the Torah to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. 

     You goyim might not know it, but Jews don’t read from the Book of Exodus on Shavuot. For Pentecost, Jews don’t actually read from the passages where God gives Israel the Law- probably because it’s not a very pleasant, flattering story. 

     No sooner does Yahweh command Israel to worship no others gods but God than Israel starts to melt down their gold teeth and grandma’s silverware and pour them into cow-shaped molds, an impious infraction for which the recently-paroled Moses orders the Levites to draw their swords and kill approximately 3,000 of the idolaters. 

     The Exodus story doesn’t exactly have any of the trimmings for a jolly holiday story so, perhaps not surprisingly, on Shavuot a week ago Jews read instead from the Book of Ruth. 

     Every 50 days after the Passover, at Pentecost, Jews read from the Book of Ruth in order to remember that their inclusion into God’s People, as for all of us, comes by way of adoption not accomplishment. “Once we were no people,” we pray with bread and wine, “but now we are your People.” 

     Your people only by your doing, we leave implied. 

     Whereas God elects the Israelites out of Egypt more or less against their wishes, Ruth actually chooses to be a part of Israel by declaring “Where you go, I will go…your People will be my People.” 

     If marriage vows, as Robert Capon insists, are when bride and groom give each other an overdose of self-confidence, then perhaps this assertion from Ruth is the perfect wedding declaration. 

     But then again, at this point in her life, Ruth’s situation doesn’t look much more promising than Israel’s in Exodus, whom, prior to their betrothal to Yahweh, were in bondage to Pharaoh, so maybe Ruth’s lines about going wherever the other goes aren’t so much born out of naiveté as they are desperation. 

     In other words, it’s not that Ruth has high hopes for where their relationship will take them; it’s that she doesn’t really have any other hope. The other to whom she speaks her vow is her last card to play.

     For those of you who, like the government agents in Raiders of the Lost Ark, don’t remember your Sunday School, Naomi and her husband Elimelech are Jews who had fled the Promised Land because of famine, winding up in a pagan place called Moab where they made a home and started a family. They had sons who took wives, including a Moabite pagan woman named Ruth. 

     All was the stuff of the Colin Firth romantic movies that Mike is loathe to watch with Laura Paige until famine struck Moab too. 

     First, Naomi was left a widow. 

     Then she was left childless. 

     The Book of Ruth opens with Naomi determining to die back in the Promised Land with no one but this pagan daughter-in-law, herself a widow, dead-set on making the trip with her. 

     Long story short, they make it to Israel. Naomi plays matchmaker. Ruth takes their future into her hands (double entendres are everywhere here in the Hebrew) and marries a rich guy named Boaz and they become the great, great, great….grandparents… of Jesus. 

     So, nicely done you two. 

     The love song you’ve chosen for your wedding concludes with the conception of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, Maker of the Universe— way to set expectations ridiculously high! And here, all this time, I thought Taylor was the Mertins with the Messiah complex! 

     I mean, most couples settle for “Love is patient and kind…” Not you and Mike! Apparently, you two are aiming for Messiah-making love. Talk about gongs and clanging symbols. 

     For God’s sake, don’t tell your kids you chose this passage for your wedding. We chose a passage that ends with the couple giving birth to Jesus who was without sin and perfect in every way is a hell of a burden to lay on a kid. 

    Except, no. 

    Actually, when Ruth pledges these vows, she has no expectations at all. 

     Or rather, she has every reason to expect the worst. Both of them- they’re penniless. They’re both widows in a world so cruel to single women that Jesus will outlaw divorce altogether. And Ruth is a pagan about to journey to the Promised Land where she has every reason to assume the Chosen People will choose to send her packing. 

     So Ruth’s vows are vowed from the vantage of low expectations. 

     And from those low expectations comes a love that begets the Love which remakes the cosmos. On the assumption that we are all incredibly unique and yet all shockingly identical, I want to offer that there’s a lesson here to be gleaned. It’s this one: 

     When it comes to relationships, pessimism is a Christian virtue. 

     All of us are creatures marked by expectations. Constantly, we carry with us images of how things are supposed to be, where life is supposed to go, what I’m supposed to do. And our expectations are never higher- and, therefore, more fraught- than when we are in love. 

     In love, we just expect: 

That the other will easily, intuitively understand us. 

That we won’t have to explain things to the other. 

That they won’t make too many demands. 

That she will always be up for watching Predator. 

     We’re creatures who carry expectations, never more so than when we are in love. This is why (remember this, you two) we say the meanest-ass shit to the people we love. It’s precisely because we’ve invested higher expectations in them than in anyone else in our lives. 

     That’s the risk of marriage, right?

     The more you love another, the higher your expectations for the other; thus, the more intense your frustrations and your disappointments in the other. 

     But- notice now:

     The problem is NOT in the other. 

     It’s in your expectations. 

     We see people all the time who have difficulty in their relationships, but we discount it. We think the problem is with those particular people. We think that we’ll be different in our relationship. And we miss it: the problem with people’s relationships is relationships. 

     Here’s a prediction I can make- 

     Whatever problem you have in your relationship, whenever you have a problem in your relationship, the problem in your relationship will be relationships in general. Your problem will be with expectations as such. 

     And I think that’s a good word because it’s easy to think when things get hard that you’ve just placed your expectations on the wrong person, that you’re in a relationship with the wrong person, when, really, the problem is relationships. 

     Every relationship is fraught and folly because we never fully understand another person. “Expectations,” as the philosopher Alain de Botton writes, “are the enemies of love.”

Expectations are the enemies of love because expectations overlook one central fact about people in general:

Everyone has something substantially wrong with them once they become fully known. 

     This is why, says de Botton, every marriage would be made better by both spouses frankly acknowledging to each other that they’re both in certain ways crazy. I mean, just see what happens when you eat all of Mike’s Sour Patch Kids- he’s 50% Crazy Rob. 

     Instead of high and lofty expectations, it’s better for you to expect that it’s completely normal and unavoidable that people do not understand each other very well because the witness of the New Testament, born out by the Old, is that we do not understand even ourselves very well (because we’re all more than one self). Such is sin that we’re a mystery even to ourselves. 

     As St. Paul confesses, “I do not do what I want to do, and what I do not want to do is the one thing that I do.” And so do you. And, as perfect as she seems, so does Laura Paige.

     Look-

     There will be occasions when he understands and empathizes with you 100%, times where she gets you totally and what’s going on with you, but these should not be your expectations because they are, in fact, the exceptions. 

     The pop songs get love all wrong. The real heartache of love is not in finding someone; the real heartache of love is learning to tolerate the person you love once you’ve found them, or, at least, that’s what Ali tells me.

     Take tonight’s text as your clue. 

     Naomi wishes to change her name to Mara, for Mara means ‘the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.’ The name Mara, Naomi thinks, better reflects her most recent past and what she anticipates that the future will bring. Naomi/Mara, in other words, has low expectations, yet from these low expectations comes the Love which made all things and in which all things hold together.

     A better expectation for love than the expectations the pop songs and princess weddings give us is this one: 

No one can live up to your expectations. 

     Being disappointing is a universal phenomenon. This is why the marriage rite tonight cares not at all why you two want to get married; it only wants to know what you propose to do about each other henceforth, leading you to anticipate sickness and poverty and reasons why you might consider forsaking the other. The wedding rite, in other words, is calibrating your expectations towards pessimism.

Marriage is about the two becoming one flesh goes the pious cliche, but, really, only Christ can become our flesh. Marriage, as a Christian vocation, is the process of discovering and accepting that the two are two, that the other is other, with you, yes, but not you. 

Jesus, after all, tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom we must be born again. And Jesus tells the disciples, who were busy elbowing past each other, that anyone who would enter his Kingdom must become like children.

If marriage is a sign and sacrament of the mystery of Christ’s Kingdom, then it follows that married people need to become like babies.

And babies, as St. Augustine notes, take time to realize that their mother is not just an extension of themselves.

Little children take time to learn that their mother is someone else. 

     Thus, married love is not about finding your high expectations met by another with nary a conflict along the way because conflict is actually what happens when love succeeds. Conflict is what comes when love prevails, for it means you’ve done what Nicodemus couldn’t do. You’ve been born again. You’ve become like a child again; in that, you’ve gotten to know another as other. Conflict is what happens when love wins; it means you’ve gotten to see someone else across the full range of their life. It means all their different selves have been revealed just as all of yours have been made vulnerable to them. 

     It’s only when you’ve seen all that is unloveable in another, yet choose to love them anyway that you’ve loved in the way Christ loves us- Christ, who does not count our trespasses against us; Christ, who became all of our wrongdoing so that we might become his righteousness. 

     St. Paul says elsewhere that this righteousness of Christ’s is given to us through baptism; that is, in baptism we are clothed permanently in Christ’s perfect score. Despite our abundant and obvious pockmarks and imperfections, Christ’s perfection is reckoned to us as our own. 

     This is why, before he asked you to make any promises tonight, Taylor asked you to remember your baptism. 

     What makes a wedding an act of faith?

Your willingness to believe that the other is already and always will be perfect.

Made so, not by you and your love for them.

By Christ ’s own perfection.

Even though every day your life together will appear to contradict this conviction. 

     What makes a wedding beautiful is your willingness to trust that the other will do the same for you-  you trust that they will believe that you are already and always perfect even though you know they will have access to see much to the contrary. A God who reveals his power through weakness, his glory in suffering, is a God who loves to hide behind paradox. The paradox of pessimism, when it comes to love, is that a low anthropology is in fact the way God makes us to be what God in Christ has already declared us to be. 

     This way of love, which chooses to love even what it knows to be unlovely, is how God makes holy. 

     

     

In this latest episode, Teer and I talk with Episcopal priest, school chaplain, and Mockingbird writer Connor Gwin about deconstruction, doubt vs. faith vs. authenticity, Stan the Man, formation, and life after near death.

Here it is. And, you remember the drill:

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Earlier this month I was the closing speaker at the Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Tampa. You know the medical community is starving for shits and giggles when they request a man of the cloth to close them out. To play on the humorlessness of the atmosphere and to puncture a secular crowd’s assumptions about a preacher I wore my collar and began with a swear word.

If that makes you nervous, concerned, or ashamed of me as a pastor…you should know A) it was what they asked me to do- be funny- and B)  it killed at the conference.

They all fell apart and then I had their attention so as to sneak up on them with some Gospel. That’s just my FYI for what follows, a little peak at the method behind the immaturity.

Here it is:

    Hi.

    My name is Reverend Jason Micheli, and I was invited to this event this afternoon in order to ask you to accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior.

     Don’t worry, I’m just fucking with you.

Okay, before I continue…unless you’re looking at porn or are shopping in Amazon for my book, Cancer is Funny, ya’ll are going to have to put your devices down. I normally only experience this level of distraction and inattention in the bedroom.

Just kidding.

But not really.

     A little over a year ago, my wife, Ali, my mother, and I were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the mauve exam room where Dr. D______ had just handed me the results of my latest PET scan.

     My wife blushed before she even had a grip on the sheet of paper the doctor had handed her. ‘Oh my,’ she gasped, covering her mouth like she’d spilled a secret, ‘that’s…umm…thorough.’

     My mom read the impenetrable written summary of the findings while Ali and I looked over the scan’s snapshots of my body, which included, to my surprise, the positronic outline of my man-parts.

     My wife blushed and laughed while I silently congratulated myself for appearing so ample in the pictures. Suddenly cancer, for giving me this shot to my self-image, didn’t seem so bad.

     ‘Let me see it,’ my mom reached her hand out and, reflexively, I reached mine out to cover the naughty bits in the images. ‘I’ve seen it all before,’ she said rolling her eyes and grinning.

     ‘Well, a lot’s changed in 35 years,’ I said.

     I’d finished my 8th round of chemo 7 weeks earlier, about a year after getting a call from a GI doctor who started by asking me if I was sitting down. I’d been getting these double-over stomach pains for months. The following day I was waking up from emergency abdominal surgery to my wife kissing my forehead and telling me they’d taken an 11×11 inch tumor from my intestine and that I likely had something called Mantle Cell.

     I’d staggered across chemo’s finish line like a runner who hadn’t practiced on enough hills. My anemia had worsened and, with it, my constant dizziness. I’d passed out trying to do sit-ups at the gym, and I’d collapsed standing in the sun at the papal mass in DC. My hands and legs were bruised from my low platelet count, which had never really recovered after my 6th and 7th rounds. And my chest port had gotten infected, turning my chest a furious, crusty red. What’s more, the antibiotics the doctor gave me to stem the infection had induced an allergic reaction so in the days before my final round the same nurse who’d installed the port scrubbed my infected chest with alcohol and a wire brush and then, in one long painful motion, ripped the port out of my chest like he was starting a push mower.

     ‘So…other than my johnson, what am I looking at?’ I asked, holding the PET scan in my hand. The words, I noticed, quivered against my bated breath.

    ‘You’re as clear as a bell, my friend,’ Dr D____ said, punctuating the news with a warm, knowing smile. ‘All the tumors you’d had all over you,’ he gestured to the spots with his pen, ‘are completely gone.’

     None of us shouted hallelujah.

———————-

     The chemo had killed off the cancer in my body, but we all knew I still had Mantle Cell percolating in my bone marrow, which, in the absence of the chemo poison, would soon-to-eventually return lumps and masses throughout my lymph system.

     So no one shouted ‘Praise God!’ We didn’t receive the PET scan as a miracle, but we did breath easier than we had in almost a year. The scan wasn’t unfettered good news, but it was as good as we could’ve hoped.

     ‘What the scan doesn’t show,’ Dr. D____ said, scooting the little round stool closer to us, ‘’remember what we discussed- what the scan doesn’t show is the level of activity of Mantle Cell in your marrow. We’ll need to do a bone marrow biopsy for that.’

     The reality that the cloud of cancer would never be completely removed from my body or our lives reasserted itself and hung over us. We nodded. My mom wiped a tear threatening in the corner of her eye.

     ‘Knowing the level of activity in your marrow will help us to gauge how we approach your maintenance chemo over the coming years.’

     Dr. D___ offered us, each in turn, the same reassuring smile before explaining the bone marrow biopsy to us. On the back of a ‘Life with Cancer’ newsletter, he sketched what looked like a molar- it was supposed to be my hip.

     Dental work, I started to suspect in that moment, might be preferable. Next to the tooth that was my hip, he drew what looked like a long syringe. The needle, I noted, was nearly twice as large as the picture of my hip.

     ‘Is that to scale?’ I asked, swallowing hard. He didn’t catch my meaning.

     ‘We’ll do it here in the exam room, won’t take long. We’ll drill down into the center of your hip bone and extract a couple of vials of marrow.’

     ‘Come again?’ I asked and maybe (my wife says no) passed out momentarily. He thought I hadn’t heard him. He pointed to the cartoon and repeated himself: ‘We’ll drill down into the center of your hip bone and extract a couple of vials of marrow.’

     ‘Did you say drill?!’ I asked and, I could see from my reflection in the glass of the flower print frame opposite me, blanched.

     ‘Yes, drill’ he said, oblivious.

     ‘And am I, like, awake during this drilling?’

     ‘Yes, but you needn’t worry. You’ll feel only a quick, momentary discomfort.’

I nodded, calming down.

     ‘I always heard it was a terrible, godawful pain,’ my mother, the nurse, added flatly.

     ‘Well, I do plan on giving you a prescription for oxycontin to take before you come in that morning.’

     ‘Oxycontin? I thought you said it would be only a momentary discomfort?’

     He didn’t reply.

     ‘Can I just go back to having cancer?’

     He slowly drew a smile across his face and then threw his head back in what seems now with hindsight less a hearty and more a diabolical laugh.

————————-

     I returned a week later for the bone marrow biopsy.

     I held out my arm for the lab nurse to draw my blood work. ‘I almost didn’t recognize you,’ she said, sliding the needle into me seamlessly, ‘Your hair’s growing back.’

     I brushed my goatee with my free hand. ‘Everyone said chemo might change the color of my hair. White wasn’t what I had in mind.’

     ‘It makes you look more distinguished,’ she needled, ‘Looking distinguished is better than, you know, looking like you’re dying.’

     ‘Gee, thanks,’ I flexed my hand as she pulled the needle out and looked up at Judge Judy playing on the TV on the infusion center wall.

     And, just as an aside, I don’t know if it’s standard medical practice to play crap TV in the cancer ward (Judge Judy, Jerry Springer etc.), but we patients love it. Show us all the paternity tests, baby-mommas, and petty lawsuits you can find- it feels great to have cancer and know there’s at least some one out there who’s life is crappier than your own.

     The nurse drew the needle out.

     ’It looks like I’ll be back with you for your biopsy today.’

     ‘Awesome,’ I said and then shared with her how Dr. D____ had described it as a momentary discomfort only then to prescribe a dangerous opiate normally associated with right wing radio hosts and gin-slinging country club wives. She smiled like a preschool teacher. ‘You took it though, right?’ looking at me, suddenly sober.

     ‘I didn’t even fill it,’ I said, ‘I forgot.’

     ‘This should be…memorable,’ she said, putting a cotton swab and tape over the puncture in my arm.

     ‘For you or for me?’ I asked, the fear like diarrhea bubbling in my gut. ‘Both,’ she was back to smiling.

     ‘What’s it feel like?’

     She was putting labels on my vials of blood. ‘Some people scream.’

     ‘Some? What about the others?’

     ‘They usually pass out.’

     ‘But what does it feel like? There’s no nerves inside the bone there so it can’t hurt, right?’

     She was, I could tell, thinking about something, remembering. She chuckled to herself softly, glanced over into the lab to see if her supervisor was listening and then said: ‘This one guy- he said it felt like a Harry Potter Dementor sucking his soul out of his ass.’

     I’m not sure why but that struck me as probably the most terrifying thing she could’ve said.

     She led me down the hallway and into the exam room. She feigned casualness, like we were on our first date and she’d just invited me upstairs to her place for a drink. ‘So…you can pull your pants down and lay on the table.’

     ‘Is there, like, a gown I should put on?’

     ‘No need.’

     ‘No need for you or for me?’ No response. ‘Where’s Dr. D___?’ I asked.

     ‘He’ll be along in a few minutes.’

     ‘You just need me to fold the waist of my pants down like this, right?’ I asked slash prayed, pointing to the top of my hip bone underneath my belt.

     ‘No, pull them all the way down past your butt.’

     Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving.

     ‘Jesus, you all ought to give me my copay back. You’re lucky my butt hair hasn’t grown back yet,’ I lamely tried to dispel the awkwardness palpable in the room, ‘otherwise you’d need to bring a Bobcat in here.’

     She was arranging glass specimen slides onto a metal tray. ‘Lucky is exactly  what I was just thinking’ she smirked.

    Without Dr. D_____ there I thought I should keep standing there, talking and chit-chatting with her, even if my butt was hanging out my pants, but with her eyebrows she motioned for me to lay down on my belly on the butcher paper covered exam table.

     With my face to the wall and my back to the room and my stubble-covered butt under the florescent lights, I hugged the institutional pillow like a girl on the cover of a Babysitters Club book and wished that I’d taken the oxycontin, to numb me to this if not to what was to follow. Maybe too the oxycontin would’ve made the time pass faster because Dr. D____ didn’t show for another 20 minutes. My butt started to get cold.

     ‘Do you have plans for Christmas?’ I asked the nurse. I thought about grabbing my cheeks and having my rear-end do the talking like Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura but somehow that didn’t seem ridiculous enough for the moment. She told me about her plans to visit her grandpa and from there we moved to swap dinner recipes, whether a smoked or fried turkey was superior, the merits of the new Star Wars film and the offseason signings of the Washington Nationals. I found myself wondering if she was making eye contact with me while we chatted.

     After a while a lull came to our conversation and she grew quiet. ‘What are you doing back there? I asked.

     ‘Taking a picture,’ she said in a deadpan tone of voice.

     ‘What?!’

     ‘You haven’t seen it? We keep a cork board in the lab of the best ones. You should feel flattered.’

     After a long pregnant pause, she added: ‘Just kidding.’

     ‘Which part are you kidding about?’ I asked, ‘the taking the picture part or how I should feel flattered?’

     She snorted as Dr. D____ finally knocked and rushed in. ‘Ah Jason, you look well.’

     He said.

     To my rear end.

———————

     He began by feeling around on the top of my hip bone, pressing down on me with his thumb the way I do to check the doneness of a steak. What felt like bee stings followed. ‘Just numbing the site,’ he said from behind me. Next he asked the question to which no could be the only honest answer: ‘Ready?’

     I squeezed the corners of the mattress. He pressed his large left hand on my back, in between my shoulder blades, pushing down on me, and grabbed a screw-shaped needle big enough to throw light off the corner of my eye. Were it not for the American Medical Association, I thought, this would violate the Geneva Conventions.

     I lay my head to the side, looking away from him.

     ‘You’re going to feel a little bit of pressure,’ he said euphemistically as he started to twist the needle down into my bone.

     ‘How was your Thanksgiving?’ he asked.

    ‘Fine,’ I grunted.

    ‘Did you travel?’

     ‘We went to my in-laws,’ I inhaled quickly and breathed out through my teeth, ‘in Georgia.’

    ‘Outstanding!’ he announced as bore down with his brace hand onto my upper back, trying to get more leverage. ‘Did you fly?’

    ‘No,’ we drove.

     ‘Oh my goodness!’ he said.

     ‘Oh my goodness is what I was just thinking.’ I heard the nurse giggle from somewhere behind my behind.

     ‘How long did that take on the road?’ he wondered as I wondered when the needle would pop out the other side and through my belly button.

     ’12 hours’ I answered through a grimace.

     ‘What kind of car do you drive?’

     ‘A bronco but we took my wife’s Subaru.’ I was biting at the pillow now and sweating. I was soaking wet as I imagine all torture victims get.

     ‘Does it good gas mileage?’

     Are you freaking serious? I thought. Let’s get this done.

     ‘You’ve got strong bones.’ He was grunting now. Serves him right, I thought.

     ‘That’s probably because I breast fed until I was 12.’ I heard her giggle again. He did too.

     ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I need to take a break.’ He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He was covered in sweat too. The nurse squirted some water into his mouth like he was a fighter and she was his cut man and we were still in the early rounds.

     ‘By all means, take your time. It’s not like I’m laying here with a spear screwed down into my ass.’

      ‘I’m a briefs man myself,’ he declared offhandedly, apparently staring at my boxers pulled down around my knees.

     ‘I wore my favorite pair just for you,’ I said.

     After he spelled himself a rest, he twisted and screwed some more. Soon after, he told me he was ‘in’ and I then felt a tapping in the middle of me as though he were hammering on the needle with a rubber mallet. I was afraid to ask about it.

     ‘Okay, are you ready?’ he asked.

     ‘Ready? There’s more?!’

     ‘I’m going to draw the marrow out now. This might feel a bit queer.’

     Queer? I thought. Queer is listening to Wham’s Make It Big album while drinking orange mocha frappachinos.

     ‘Here we go’ he said like Gene Wilder on the psychedelic chocolate river boat.

     Just then it felt like a cord was being pulled deep inside me. I could feel it inside my bones, from my heel all the way up my spine. My legs both kicked involuntarily, like I was a corpse with a last bit of life in me. I blinked wide from the shock of it and tried, hard, not to cry out.

     It wasn’t pain, not exactly, but it was a feeling I never wanted to feel again. It felt, well, it felt exactly like a Harry Potter Dementor sucking my soul out of me through my rear end.

     ‘Good,’ he said, ‘now only 2 maybe 3 more times.’ I swear I smelled sulfur then and heard a maniacal laugh.

     When he finished, I stood up from the exam table, too tired even to pull my pants up. ‘You were right about that Harry Potter thing’ I said to the nurse breathlessly.

     “And you were right about having a cute butt,” she said winking.

     I was so sweaty that pieces of butcher paper were stuck all over my arms and face, like I’d just had the worst shaving accident in history. ‘Wow,’ I said with astonished eyebrows, ‘that was the perfect way to cap off my year with cancer.’

     He patted me on the shoulder. ‘You’ve been through the fire, Jason. You’ve been through the fire.’

     I pulled my pants up.

     ‘Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,’ I joked.

     ‘Well, let’s hope there’s no lion’s den in store for you’ he said, patting me again on the back.

———————-

     If you never flannel-graphed it as a kid in Sunday School, then you should have learned it in Oncology 101. It is, I think, a cancer story.

     In the story, told in the Old Testament book of Daniel, 3 Jewish civil servants are denounced by Nebuchadnezzar the pagan King of Babylon, condemned for refusing to submit to the gods of Babylon and, by implication, for refusing to submit to the authority of Nebuchadnezzar.

     The king orders the 3 Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, gagged, bound, and cast into a fiery furnace but not before the king instructs his men to crank the oven up to 7 times its normal heat.

     Since I’m a preacher I should pause there to point out for you that 7 is the biblical number for perfection or completeness and, thus, it’s a number that portends the presence of God.

     The furnace gets so hot that the heat obliterates the guards who come close enough to the fire to toss the prisoners inside. Not so Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

     According to the author of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar and his courtiers can see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, walking around, unbound and unburned as though they’re sailing toy boats in central park.

     What’s more surprising, the bystanders report seeing a fourth person there in the fire. Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and who exactly?

     The story in Daniel ends with a typical Old Testament flourish when King Nebuchadnezzar, having brought Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire, unsinged, throws off his former affections and declares: ‘…there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way!’

     Daniel ends the story with an affirmation, but I think the story about the fire should instead end with a question. Did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego know they weren’t alone in the fire? Did they see that fourth companion?

     Certainly, they know they’re alive when they’d expected a death sentence. That much is obvious. They know they’ve been delivered from the fire. The king makes that clear. But did they know they hadn’t been alone in the fire?

     Daniel reports the king and his court saw a fourth person with them in the fire, but Daniel doesn’t say if the sufferers themselves, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, saw him too.

     My guess- they did not.

     Had Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego known they weren’t alone in the fire, had they seen and felt God’s presence there with them amidst the fire, they wouldn’t have wanted to leave it.

———————-

     That’s the first observation I wanted to make for you all today about the fire called cancer you all work to extinguish.

     While I’ve not been burned or singed by flames, I do have the belly scars and the needle marks and the monthly nausea and the weekly panic attacks and the medical bills to prove to you that I’ve been in the fire.

     And as a pastor, not just a patient- as someone who has buried somewhere north of 500 people and buried kids by the baker’s dozen- I’ve peered into the fire too.

     Here’s what Jason the Patient learned about the fire that Jason the Pastor didn’t appreciate and maybe what Jason the Physician (if I hadn’t disappointed my grandpa and gone into the Church) wouldn’t realize either.

     Jesus says that those who would have their lives saved must first discover their lives lost. Just as learning I had Mantle Cell meant mourning the loss of the life I had and the loss of the future I’d envisioned, so too- paradoxically- finding out that I wasn’t going to die (yet) meant mourning the loss of the life I’d found in cancer.

     This surprised me-

     As much as I wanted the nightmare called cancer to be over, I found a part of me grieving the news that I would (sort of) get my life back. I found myself grieving the life I’d learned to enjoy with cancer.

     What I had happened upon, without knowing it, is what Martin Luther termed a theology of the cross. Bear with me now- a theology of the cross is shorthand for how the God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Jesus never chooses any other means to meet us than condescension into suffering.

     As Old Testament scholar, Chad Bird, writes: “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility and suffering, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.”

     Bird just puts more politely what Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation where Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, God condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine and happy parts of our lives but in the steaming piles of you-know-what in our lives.

    Shit happens we say, but a theology of the cross says wherever shit happens God happens too.

     Don’t worry.

     Like I said, I’m not trying to convert you, but I’ll glad take up an offering.

     You don’t need to buy into Christian theology to grasp the point, to see how Luther names in Christian terms a general experience that just is existentially and spiritually true for a lot of your patients.

     Call it God, the Divine, Enlightenment, Meaning, Grace- what have you, but for a lot of the people for whom you care they have found it in their experience of suffering with cancer.

    It’s odd-

    Everyone assumes the fire (suffering) leads you to closer to God, but seldom do we stop to think that exiting that experience of suffering will be its own kind of suffering.

     A loss to be mourned (of all things).

     Where before you grieved the life you had and the future you thought you’d have, now you grieve the loss of the spiritual and emotional vitality that suffering brought into your life which, presumably, healing will take away from your life, leaving you like the wise men in the nativity story to return home by a different path than you’d prefer.

     If God was most with me in the fire, what would happen, I wondered, when I was delivered from the furnace? If cancer, in other words, proved the means by which God became a deeper reality in my heart, then what would happen to my faith when or if my cancer was gone?

     It’s the conceit of so many bad spy movies, the counter-intuitive bond between captive and captor forged by the intimacy of their shared scare.

     Cancer was Robert Redford to my Faye Dunaway. Cancer, like a villain, had made me a prisoner to my own body, but it had made me different too, had brought God closer to me, even if I often required the testimony of others to believe it.

     And now, as I waited for the results of my bone marrow biopsy, I suffered something like Stockholm Syndrome. I feared being free. Losing cancer would mean losing the immediacy of God I had experienced with cancer in a way unlike any other.

     Once they heard Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony about God being right there with them, close enough to touch and feel, I bet, some part of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego secretly missed the fiery furnace.

     To put it less homiletically, so much of the spirituality I have found encouraged by the medical system is transactional; in that, it was recommended to me for its utility in the healing process.

     Mindfulness practices, prayer, and even Buddhist meditation were suggested to me by licensed clinical social workers as techniques to help me cope with my suffering and to better my odds at surviving my suffering.

     All well and good but those who recommend such practices should be prepared for the possibility that such practices are not just helpful but true; that is, such practices just might inject into a person’s life a new treasure they do not want to relinquish yet do not know how to possess in the context of their old healthy life.

     Which is to say, practically-speaking, the exit out of cancer can be a more ambivalent experience for some people than you all, who are so determined to get us through it alive, may realize.

     The exit from cancer, in other words, should be stewarded with the same pastoral sensitivity as marks the entry into cancer.

     And this isn’t just a God-thing people.

     In the fire, I discovered a vulnerability (indeed I had no choice) which I believe opened me up to a new-found awareness of the divine, yet this same experience of vulnerability peeled away so many levels of protection and pretense, it pulled off so many of my masks, I was left with a marriage that was more real and intense than in any of the 15 years which preceded it.

     What prompts husbands and wives in the fire of cancer to make bucket lists is not the anticipation of the healthy future to come; it’s the passionate fire they feel for one another in the fire where, maybe for the first time, all their disguises have been burnt away.

     Why do I bother to mention this to you all? I mean, this isn’t a religious conference or even a marriage conference.

     I bring this to you because I believe what lay behind the newfound intensity I discovered in both my relationship with God and my relationship with my wife was the experience of absolute naked and terrifying vulnerability into which cancer had delivered me.

     I’ve seen this before as a pastor. I just couldn’t name it until I’d been a patient.

     There’s a reason so many men in the fire of cancer fall in love with their nurses and doctors.

     It’s because cancer just may be the first time in their lives men (especially men) have been truly vulnerable before another human being, including even their spouses, making their relationship with their nurses and doctors more authentic than many of their other relationships, including even their spouses.

     Obviously, this is a potential danger, but after 2 plus years living with Mantle Cell I’ve observed that you all as a guild have got precautions down solid.

     I mean, I can’t count how many times you’ve made me recite my birthday and read my name off of bags of chemo-poison. You’ve got the precautions down, solid.

     So I don’t want you to dwell on the potential danger posed by patients’ pregnant vulnerability, I instead want to call attention to the potential gift you have to give them by recognizing and rewarding it.

     Hell, I know there are insurance people here and I shouldn’t talk smack about insurance companies, but stewarding a patient’s virgin vulnerability could be the only free gift they receive in the fire called cancer. I mean, even those stupid socks with the tread on the bottom cost me $50.

     Your response to a patient’s newfound vulnerability is great and free gift you have to give them.

     In the Church, we call such a free gift grace and we believe it’s the means by which Meaning with a capital M heals us of ailments drugs cannot cure.

     And such grace is the medicine you dispense whenever you bother to touch a patient, not out of need or haste but gentleness and compassion.

     Such grace is the medicine you give when you ask a patient not for a one-size-fits-all, on a scale of 1-10, number to gauge their pain but ask instead for a story, a memory, that conjures how they feel.

     Speaking of feelings, you give this gift called grace whenever you take the time to ask a patient not how they feel but are your feelings- because my whole point in bringing this word vulnerability to you is that you may be the first person with whom they’ve ever truthfully shared their feelings.

     Made vulnerable by cancer, you’re in a position to give them grace, and the human community will be a bit better healed for you having done so.

———————-

      And that brings me to second point.

     Not to beat you over the head with the G word, but I figure you should’ve known what you were getting by inviting a guy with a collar to your gig.

     If God is to be found in the fire called cancer, then the spit and hiss of suffering’s flames will be occasioned not by mourning but by mirth, not by tears and crying (though, of course those) but by laughter.

     When you have cancer, you realize how everyone wants to use it as an excuse to drill down into the existential.

‘How has cancer deepened your faith?’

‘Have you grown closer to God in your suffering?’

     True, my line of work tends to invite such conversation but, talking with other patients, these kinds of questions are par for the cancer course.

     Even when the question is phrased in the negative, as in ‘How has struggling with cancer challenged your faith in God?’ the premise still connects the experience of suffering with an experience of God.

     Implicit in such questions is an assumption first asserted by John Chrysostom, a 4th century Church Father, who said that ‘tears bind us to God not laughter.’

     As a patient I discovered what I hadn’t known as a pastor; namely, EVERYONE assumes that the experience of suffering leads the sufferer closer to Enlightenment, Meaning, the Divine, a deeper or higher spiritual plane.

     Yet, as unexamined as it is, such an assumption necessarily identifies the Divine with Suffering and, just as a matter of freshman philosophy, this doesn’t hold water.

     Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and priest from the 20th century, posited, as a sort of first principle, that ‘joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.’

     Everyone assumes suffering leads one closer to God but if God is Joy, then one can’t rightly be said to have grown closer to God, through suffering or any other means, without a marked increase in joy, and with joy comes laughter.

     As a clergyman I know from gravesides how quickly bone-wracking sobs can turn to belly-laughs, but the same should be true of the cancer ward too.

     If the philosophers who theorize about comedy are correct, if comedy is what comes from the collision of Lack and Excess then there is no funnier place than the infusion center where the bag of meds you hope will save your life comes with the label: “Warning: May Cause Leukemia.”

     To be an institution even more humorless than the Church is a great achievement, but I must say you all give us a run for our money.

     Martin Luther said his theology of the cross frees us to call things as they are, and that’s the sort of funny I commend you all to find and name when you do find it.

     Part of respecting your patient’s vulnerability is naming the absurdity that is so much of the experience of cancer and being willing to accompany them into that absurdity by means of your mirth and laughter.

     Don’t tell the healthcare industry but not one of us is getting out of life alive. We’re all terminal cases so you’re as qualified as your patient to share in a little gallows humor, for such humor is a way of treating them not as your patient but as your fellow terminally-ill, human.

     If Meaning with a capital M is joy then such moments are not just healing- and they are- they’re holy.

     Or, I believe, they’re the former because they are the latter.

     I’m grateful for the nurse who joked about my cute butt, for the Muslim nurse who picked me up off the bathroom floor in the name of Middle East Peace, for the nurse who asked if I’d prefer to watch Breaking Bad in the infusion center instead of Judge Judy, and for my oncologist who joked about the shorthand ‘dex’ for dexamethesone on my chemo calendar- ‘that’s a cursive s not a d,’ he said, ‘you better tell your wife to limber up.’

    “I appreciate the prescription, doc, but your other drugs have benched little Jason.”

———————-

     Speaking of my manhood, that brings me to my last observation for you all today.

     As a pastor, over the years I’ve had the occasion to counsel a number of women going through cancer, particularly breast cancer, so I was aware how alopecia and mastectomies can frustrate a woman’s self-image.

     But no one warned me about what cancer does to man’s sense of his manhood.

     I didn’t just discover things in the fire. The fire burnt away things too.

     The drugs that made it hard to keep food down made it impossible for me to get it up; meanwhile, weight loss and beard loss and chemo glow conspired to make me look sufficiently feminine as to be confused for a woman on several stocking-capped occasions.

     On one of the miraculous nights when my equipment seemed ready to cooperate with my tender intentions, my amour foundered against my anemia, sending my heart racing and my head spinning; so that, in the end the only romance I could muster was to be held and consoled over my premature dejection.

     I cried, which only left me feeling even less of a man. I even had a hard time with that most mythic of masculine activities, tossing a baseball to my boys.

     No one bothered to prepare me for what cancer would do to my masculinity, not even the 100 Questions and Answers about Lymphoma booklet my oncologist’s office gave me, was how my cancer would mess with my sense of myself as a man.

     No doctor warned me about it and no clinical social worker asked to talk with me about it.

     This is why I think it’s doubly damaging when patients experience the healthcare system as treating them in a dehumanizing fashion. Cancer, after all, has already made them feel, if not less than human then certainly less their former selves. Cancer not only makes you look bad, sick all the time, it leaves you looking vague. Neutered of your former self. Feeling disgraced.

     The more I grieved the loss of my manhood, the more I sought refuge from my shame in the belief that had made me a Christian in the first place.

     The doctrine of incarnation- the proper name for the festival we call Christmas when, we believe, God takes a body in Jesus.

     I close with the incarnation not to bludgeon you with the G-word, but to give you all the thanks I feel more deeply than even a preacher can convey.

     You see, Christians believe ‘incarnation’ names not only a flesh and blood body born in Bethlehem but a mystical Body, what St. Paul calls the Mystery of Christ.

     You can think of it as the Mystery of Meaning with a Capital M, and this mystical Body Paul says is present in each of us and is extended through each of us.

     And this is important because it’s this Mystery of Meaning with a Capital M that Paul has in mind when he writes that cliched verse you may have heard before “I can do all things through Christ…”

     You can be sure you’re patients have been sent a card with that verse on it, but what Paul has in mind isn’t how the cliche is usually received in its Hallmark fashion.

     He doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ He doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’ And he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my spiritual practices or self-will…’

     No, instead, Paul’s talking about the Body of Christ, the mystical Body, the mystery of Meaning with a capital M.

     Which includes you all, whether you’re religious or not.

     And let’s put it in the negative- to make the point sharper:

     I couldn’t have done it without you. We can’t do it without you.

     For what you do for patients like me- for your compassion and care, for your humor and your patience with your patients’ humor, for your calling it like it is and not BS-ing the bad news, for sharing in our suffering and asking for more than where we fall on a scale of 1-10, for taking the time to ask about our kids and our work, the time to touch us (and touch us gently) because every patient can feel the difference between a compassionate needle prick and a coarse and hurried one.

     For dealing with insurance companies on our behalf!

     For helping us heal with grace and humor and for helping us die with dignity.

     Thank you.

     I couldn’t have done it without you. We can’t do it without you.

    And there’s the irony for all of you whose sphincters might have gotten twisted in a pinch over all my God-talk today…as much as me, you all are the ones with a holy vocation.

 

 

 

Pentecost marked my final sermon after 13 years at Aldersgate. A fitting holy day to close out my time given that I’m a flawed vessel of the message relayed to us by the Holy Spirit that God justifies flawed people. The texts were Acts 2 and Romans 8. The article I reference below can be found here. Her memoir here.

    “Suddenly from the skies there came a sound like the rush of a strong wind and fire fell and all of us were filled…with terror, but it’s given me the power to proclaim.” 

     You’ve seen the picture, the image of a girl about the age of our confirmands. It’s a picture that made the world gasp and groan with sighs too deep for words. In the grayscale foreground she’s stumbling down a puddled road that cuts through rice fields. 

     Soldiers carrying guns in their arms but no expressions on their faces amble behind her- one solider looks like he’s checking his watch. 

     Four other kids are running alongside her, their shrieking faces match hers. She’s the only one who’s naked. You can see the tan line at her waist. She’s running with her arms out, like her body is playing hot potato, like she hurts all over. 

     In the background, across the entire horizon, there are billows, wind-filled clouds, of fire fallen from bombers in the sky, fire that had incinerated her village, then her clothes,  and then her skin from her scalp to down to her heels. 

    The photo, titled “Napalm Girl,” was taken 46 years ago next month. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The AP photographer who snapped the picture, Nick Ut, took her to a hospital where he insisted that reluctant medics, who were convinced she was a lost cause, treat her. 

    The little girl, Kim Phuc, lived along trade routes traveled by Viet Cong rebels and bombed by the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. She wasn’t a target. 

     She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, collateral damage captured for all time on film. 

    The Napalm Girl. The Girl on Fire. 

     She’s a woman now, still being treated for her burns after 4 decades and 17 surgeries. 

     Everyone has seen the picture, the shrieking snapshot and the confused agonized speech on the children’s lips, but the fiery wind is only part of the story. What the picture doesn’t show, what the Pulitzer committee doesn’t have time for is what Kim Phuc calls “the mountain of rage” that followed in the days and months and decades later. In a first-person essay in Christianity Today, she writes: 

“[I bore a] crippling weight of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward those who caused my suffering—the searing fire that penetrated my body; the ensuing burn baths; the dry and itchy skin; the inability to sweat, which turned my flesh into an oven in Vietnam’s sweltering heat. I craved relief that never would come. And yet, the most agonizing pain I suffered dwelled in my heart.

“I could not turn to a friend, for nobody wished to befriend me. I was toxic, and everyone knew it. I was alone, atop a mountain of rage.”

     Everyone knows the image, the billow of fire falling from the sky but the fire is only part of the story. 

     The fire, Kim Phuc writes, brought more than rage and confusion. Years later, she writes, she found herself in a little church not a mile from where that photo was shot. 

     Though she had been raised a pagan, she found herself sitting in a church. 

     And pay attention to the passive voice- she didn’t go to church (like maybe you did today); she found herself sitting in church (like maybe you did today). She found herself at church. There’s an unseen agency at work. 

    The tinsel and the lights and the calendar said it was Christmas but it was for Kim Phuc a Pentecostal moment because that night, she says, she “was given Christ in word and wine and bread,” and she “put on Christ with water.”

     She said yes to the Christ who had said yes to her. 

     And what she received in Christ, she writes, was a peace that moved her mountain of rage. It razed her mountain of rage into a mustard seed. Such that now, she writes, that image of the fire that fell like a mighty rushing wind symbolizes not only the sin and evil we do to one another, but also it symbolizes the opposite of sin. 

    The fire is only part of the story. 

     The real story, she says, is that “the fire brought me Christ.”

———————-

     And that’s my first point- 

     When it comes to Pentecost, the medium is not the message. 

     Don’t get distracted by the imagery in the familiar picture of Pentecost: the fire, the ecstatic speech, the diverse crowd, and the understanding amidst such difference. The medium is not the message. 

    Just as the image of fire is inseparable from Kim Phuc’s story but it is not the point of her story, so too the fire and ecstatic speech and the diverse crowd are a part of the Pentecost story but they are not the point of the Pentecost story. 

     The message of Pentecost is not their experience of the Holy Spirit when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The message of Pentecost is the message the Holy Spirit empowers them to proclaim: the mighty acts of God. 

     Every Pentecost we zero in on how they speak in tongues and how they each hear in their own language, but Luke, the author of Acts, zeroes in on the message they speak and hear. 

     The message about the mighty acts of God. 

     And the mighty acts of God, as Peter makes clear in his sermon in the very next verses, are what God has done in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     The point of Pentecost isn’t the experience the Spirit brings. 

     The point of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit brings the work of Christ for them to them. 

     The Holy Spirit comes so that we will not focus on the Holy Spirit. 

     Rather the Holy Spirit comes so that we will know, through the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ is for us, which is exactly what Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would do the night before he died:

“When he comes, the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned…He will glorify me and declare it to you what I’ve done.” (John 16)

     We get hung up on the imagery of it, the wind and the fire and their experience of the Holy Spirit, but those who experienced the Holy Spirit at Pentecost didn’t dwell on it at all. 

     Luke doesn’t mention Pentecost again Acts. 

     Peter never mentions his experience of the Holy Spirit in either of his letters.

     Paul, who writes about the Holy Spirit than anyone in the Bible, never writes about this experience of the Spirit at Pentecost- evidently the apostles didn’t think it worth mentioning to him. 

     In fact, nowhere else in the New Testament does anyone recount the events at Pentecost the way the New Testament constantly recounts the exodus and the cross and the resurrection. 

     Those who had the Holy Spirit poured out on them at Pentecost never talk about their experience of the Holy Spirit. 

     The speaking in tongues, the seeing visions, the strangely warmed hearts- they don’t describe it or dwell on any of it. Nor do they even anticipate anything like it again after Pentecost. 

     Peter in his Pentecost sermon that follows our passage today does not exhort his hearers about what they must do now to get this experience for themselves. 

    He proclaims only what Christ has done for us, once for all of us. 

     The medium is not the message. 

     Because the message is the Gospel. 

     Not what you must do for God but what God has done for you. 

———————-

     Kim Phuc was raised in the Cao Dai religion. In her memoir, Kim Phuc compares the religion of her upbringing to a charm bracelet, something they’d turn to whenever times got tough, a talisman to handle in order to manipulate god’s favor towards them. 

     In such a religion, “the burden,” Kim Phuc writes, “was all on me to get in god’s good graces.” 

     In the religion of her parents, “the burden of success, the path to holiness, the way to salvation,” she writes, “all of it rested on top of my weary, slumped shoulders. I realized later the religion of my parents was what St. Paul calls the Law, what we, weak in our weakness, can never fulfill and so it only accuses us.” 

     And that brings me to my second point – 

     Because the Gospel is not the Law, this Pentecost in Acts is the fulfillment of the first Pentecost. 

     Even though we celebrate it every year by breaking out the red paraments 50 days after Easter, the New Testament doesn’t mention this Pentecost again because this Pentecost fulfills the first Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     Literally, in the Greek, Luke tells you as much at the beginning of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled…” 

     Don’t forget- 

     All those pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora gather in Jerusalem at Pentecost because it’s Pentecost. 

     Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover, when Jews would remember and celebrate 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.” 

     The Holy Spirit was present at the first Pentecost as well in fire and thunder and lightning and smoke. So much so that Moses described Mt. Sinai as a kiln covered in billows of smoke.

     And the people on that first Pentecost act drunk as well, drunk not with ecstasy with terror. So much so that they beg Moses to go before God instead of them. 

     When Moses returns to them from Mt. Sinai with the Law, Moses first sacrifices oxen and pours half their blood into buckets. 

     And then Moses reads the Law to the people, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. And the people respond to the Law by promising: “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.”

     And then Moses dashes them with the blood from the buckets. 

     Blood being the penalty if they fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     Of course they do. 

     We do.

     Fail. 

     Fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     No sooner did Moses go back up to Mt. Sinai after giving them the first commandment than they start to worship not God but a golden calf, and in the fullness of time our worship of false gods becomes our murder of the true flesh-bearing God. 

     Because the Law, St. Paul says, only increases the trespass. Even a Law as obvious and good as the Golden Rule- it just increases our trespasses, such that we’re captive to doing exactly what we don’t want to do and captive to not doing what we want to do. 

     And that’s why the Gospel is not the Law. 

     The Gospel is not more of what we must do for God, the 613 plus our Jesus-flavored additives. The Gospel is what God has done for us despite our failures at doing. 

     And that’s why- notice- on the first Pentecost the people promise: “All this we will do.” 

     But on the final Pentecost that promise gets turned into a question: “What must we do?” 

     Answer, nothing. 

     Not a thing.

     Peter doesn’t invite them to make any promises about what they will do. 

     He invites them instead to trust the promise of what God has done. 

     Peter tells them not to do the Law but to trust the Gospel, to trust this news that, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, another Pentecost passage: 

“The Spirit has set you free from the Law…for God has done what the Law could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just demands of the Law might be fulfilled in us.”

     This promise is yours, Peter and Paul promise. Not as your wage- something you must earn. But as your inheritance- something earned by another, something given to you by by way of death. And this inheritance is bestowed on you, St. Paul says, at your baptism into Christ’s death, which Peter then invites his Pentecost hearers to receive. 

     This Pentecost fulfills that first Pentecost because Christ has fulfilled the Law by his perfect faithfulness and by his blood he has suffered the penalty for all our failures to be faithful. 

     And because his perfect righteousness according the Law is reckoned to you as yours by your baptism, now baptism is Pentecost. 

     That’s why you don’t hear any more about Pentecost in the New Testament.

     Now, pentecost is baptism. 

     The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out henceforth not by fire but in water. 

————————

     Before she was baptized on Christmas Eve, Kim Phuc was browsing in Saigon’s central library when suddenly, she writes, “something compelled” her (again, pay attention to the passive voice) to pull the library’s religious books off the shelves. 

     The Koran. 

     Books on Hinduism and Buddhism and Baha’i. 

     And finally a New Testament. 

     An hour later, she writes, I’d picked my way through the Gospels and I was bowled over by the straightforward claim of the New Testament: that the Gospel is not religion at all. 

     Religion is what we do for God. Religion is what we do for ourselves, really, to get right with God and get God on our side, but Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as the opposite of religion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the one who takes us to God in his own scarred body.

    Hers point is my final point- 

     This Pentecost in the Book of Acts isn’t just the fulfillment of that Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     It’s the end of religion. 

     It’s the end of religion

     Which maybe sounds like an odd thing for a minister in a robe to preach from a pulpit in a sanctuary on Confirmation Sunday, but the oddness is exactly why you can trust it to be true. 

Christianity is the medium for the message about what God has done in Jesus Christ in whom there is now and forever no condemnation. 

And this work of Christ is given to us by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Therefore, Pentecost is the end of religion. Christianity is the medium for the message that religion’s days are over.

     As Robert Capon says:

“Christianity may use the forms of religion, but it does so only to proclaim not a new religion, or even of the best of all possible religions, but the end of religion. The cross is the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring single human being to do a single religious thing.”

     What’s that mean?

     It means you’re free. As St. Paul says in his Pentecost passage: “The Spirit of Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law.”

     It means you’re free. Free to doubt God’s done any of it. Free to question all of it. 

     But before you do so, realize- 

     It means you’re free too to take off the masks you wear. 

     And you’re free to let go of your pretense that you have your shit together. Because it means you’re free to be imperfect. Because if there’s now no condemnation then all your sins are free. There is no cost to any of them (other than what they cost your neighbor).

     And if you’re free to be imperfect, you’re free from regret. 

     And you’re free from anxiety, free from worrying that you should believe more, have more faith, give more, serve more, pray more….you’re free from being anxious over any of it. 

     You’re free from anxiety because, really, you’re free to forsake to God even. 

     Go for it. Try it out and you’ll find out: 

     He won’t forsake you. 

There’s no condemnation, remember.

He’s taken away the sins of the world- and he didn’t miss any. 

 He’s chosen you, in fact, from before the foundation of the world.

So how are you going to gum that up?

     You’re free. 

     You’re free to be as faithful as you like in whatever way suits you. 

      Because your good work and your pious believing doesn’t get you a key to heaven nor do any of your bad deeds get you locked out. You see, you’re free to be every bit the hypocrite as all the rest of us. Which means- pay attention, now- you’re also free not to judge others.

     You’re free.

     You’re free from keeping score. 

     The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the Greatest Commandment- because the Gospel is the news that God is not in the religion business the Law is an exam that God doesn’t grade. 

     You’re free to honor your Mother and Father. You’re free to serve the poor. You’re free to forgive 70 x 7. 

     But doing it doesn’t get you any credit. It doesn’t get you even extra credit because, by your baptism, you already have all the credit that is Christ’s own. 

     Not even your faith can add to that credit given to you already. 

     Which means- 

     You’re free from measuring your faith against another’s.

     Because your faith, your belief, your trust- it doesn’t earn you this gift. It doesn’t even enable you to access this gift. The gift is yours already and it’s irrevocable. 

     All that your faith does is let you enjoy the gift. 

     All your faith is- is the way you enjoy the gift. And this gift of grace, this Gospel of no condemnation- it’s freaking fun, people. Sure, it’s crazy, but God forgive us if we’ve made anyone think it’s anything but crazy-good fun. 

     In a world where everyone is counting, keeping score, measuring, judging, telling you what you must do and who you aren’t but ought to be, in a world of “forgiveness” without forgetting- in such a world this gift of grace, the Gospel of no condemnation is fun. 

     And your faith in it is your way into the fun. 

     Your faith doesn’t change anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t add anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t access anything extra that isn’t yours already. 

     Which is good news on a day when our confirmands make a profession of faith in God and make promises to be faithful to God.

     Because, brass tacks time confirmands: 

     Your faith will ebb and flow. 

     You’re going to fail at these promises as often as not. 

     Don’t let anyone here fool you. 

     The Church is a fellowship of failures and frauds, hypocrites and haters, liars and louts, deadbeats and dolts and drinkers, sinners not saints. 

     And that’s just the people on staff. 

     And it’s MORE THAN OKAY because, in this case, the medium-that-is-us IS the message. 

The message that your success as a Christian has NOTHING to do with your loyalty to Jesus Christ or his Church. Your success as a Christian has EVERYTHING to do with Christ’s loyalty to you. 

     Really, at confirmation, on Pentecost of all days, instead of asking you all to make promises, we should just read at you Christ’s unconditional promises to you: 

“I am with you always to the end of the age.”

“I am the resurrection and the life whoever trusts me will never die…”

“Come to me all of you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

“Take and eat. Drink. This is my Body and Blood given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” 

“I am the Bread of Life whoever feasts on me will live forever.” 

      “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 

     Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl, she says in memoir that, upon discovering the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, she held Christ’s promises in her mind like holding a gem in her hand, relishing the light they cast from all sides. 

     Instead of asking our confirmands to make promises, we should present Christ’s promises to them like the light-casting, life-giving gems they are. 

     And all they’d need to do is all any of us need to do. 

     Say“Amen” to them.  

      

     

     

     

     

     

The late Robert Jenson, America’s best theologian, wrote of the Eschaton in his 2 Volume Systematic Theology that “the End (of all things) is music.”

Inspired by Jens, in this episode Teer, Taylor, Johanna, and I hung out and talked about our favorite songs from a theological point of view. This was the first podcast we’ve done as a group in a while and the first time Teer and Taylor had hung out with Johanna in the flesh. It was a fun episode.

Here it is. And, you remember the drill:

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It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

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For those keeping score, she compared me to Will Willimon and Richard Hays.

I’m good with that.

Here’s my dialogue at the Mockingbird Conference in NYC with the Beyonce of Anglicanism, the one and only Rev. Fleming Rutledge, author of The Crucifixion and The Bible and the New York Times. She’s my preaching muse so getting to spend a couple of days with her and having her all to myself for dinner and lunch will go down as a highlight of my vocation.

In the dialogue I tried to engage her by getting her to bring her apocalyptic interpretation of scripture to the Protestant (and Augustinian) distinction between Law and Gospel. Really, I just tried to stay out of her way.

You can find the talk at Mockinbird’s latest podcast stream, Talkingbird. Click over. Do it.

Some church folk wonder why I’m jaded and cynical. 

I’ve been on record as such for so long now I can’t even blame it on our orange-hued (he has no clothes) chief in the oval. Coincidentally though, my disposition, such as it is, has everything to do with my first Pentecost as a would-be man of the cloth. I was a student-pastor at a once-shuttered church outside Princeton that had recently re-opened under the “leadership” of a retired pastor who lived several gallons of gas away, which left me kinda sorta but not really in charge most of the time. 

It was, more or less, a large AA group that met on Sunday mornings, chasing their coffee and confessions with hymns and a homily, topping it all off not with the Apostles’ Creed but with some hands-clasped, communally composed and communally recited tripe about the derivative lessons of the butterfly. 

I’m not even joking. 

And I wish I was exaggerating.

Perhaps the only part of the bible they interpreted literally, if unwittingly, was Paul’s line about the foolishness of Christ crucified. For Pentecost, they celebrated “the birthday of the Church” with sheet cake and punch. And what kind of birthday party would it be without a bozo in crazy unnatural hair and garish make-up? That’s right, the folks who dressed up as clowns for clown communion (that was a thing too…another post for another day) got dolled up in their fools’ costumes to serve us all cake with candles- but not before awkward-shaming us all into a monotoned rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’ Not even Marilyn Monroe’s cover could’ve rescued that cringe-worthy moment. 

Their’s was a felony commission of a crime many churches foist every year, positing Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. Nonsense. As Karl Barth rightly observed, the birth of the Church isn’t Pentecost but Jesus dying on a cross beside two guilty-as-hell criminals accompanied by his promise (to BOTH of them) “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” 

The Church Birthday cliche is as insufficient for Pentecost as is the sentimentalized portrait of the Church in Holy-Spirit-Recovery in Acts 2.43-47. Sure, the Holy Spirit begat a Church where believers held everything in common and broke bread with “glad and generous hearts” but, according to the New Testament’s own witness, that idealized Church lasted about a day and a half. In no time, Ananias and Sapphira were lying about their income. Converts in Galatia were sponsoring billboard ads for circumcision, and Christians in Corinth were sleeping with their mothers-in-law and refusing to seat the poor at the Lord’s Table. 

For all those wish with bated breath to “get back to the ancient Church,” there’s good news- we’re already there, and we always have been there. 

And we always have been them.

As problematic as are the cliched and sentimentalized accounts of Pentecost, worse are those which construe Pentecost as the arrival of a heretofore absent Holy Spirit. Never mind that the Holy Spirit animates Ezekiel’s prophecy, alights upon Mary’s womb, or thrusts Jesus in to the wilderness, according to the Gospels (especially Luke and John) Pentecost is NOT the arrival of the Holy Spirit after the departure of the Son. 

Pentecost isn’t about arrival at all.

Pentecost is about return.

Pentecost is the return of the Son in the form of the Spirit. 

Too many Christians, in other words, conceive of the Holy Spirit as differentiated from the person of the crucified and risen Jesus, but this is not how Jesus speaks of the Spirit.

The Spirit’s action, according to Jesus, is wholly related to the activity of Jesus. The Spirit’s purpose, Jesus testifies in John’s Gospel, is to glorify Christ, convicting the world of how it is wrong (sin) in light of his perfect righteousness and finished work. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, the Holy Spirit is for our understanding the gifts bestowed on us in Christ by God and to the Galatians he identifies the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the Crucified Christ. 

Pentecost isn’t about arrival so much as return. 

Pentecost is the return of the Son in the form of the Spirit.

This is why Jesus frames his departure from the disciples not as necessary but as good news- the best news, Jesus says in John 16.7: 

“However, I am telling you the sober truth: the best thing that could ever happen to you is for me to go away. Because if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you. But if I do go away, I will send him to you.” 

Jesus’ ascension to the Father, therefore, is a different sort of departure; whereas, our departures from one another signal that there will be less of us present to the other in the future, Jesus’ departure signals a surprising MORE.

The odd good news of Pentecost is that, with the return of the Son in the form of the Spirit, Jesus is more present and available to us now than he was to the disciples before Easter or Ascension. Pentecost, Jesus himself teaches the disciples, is an increase- an improvement- upon the presence of Jesus. He is available now always and everywhere to each of us. 

With Pentecost, we’ve got more Jesus.

Son in the form of the Spirit > Son incarnate 

Just as whoever sees the earthly Jesus has seen the Father, whoever listens to the Spirit hears Jesus. What Jesus is to the Father, the Paraclete is to Jesus. 

Perhaps Pentecost is but another example of our sin-sick propensity to see scarcity rather than abundance, to see not the abundance of the Son we have in the form of the Spirit. 

“The best thing that could ever happen to you is for me to go away.”

Do you know your spouse’s passwords?

You should.

This nugget of wired wisdom and more come from renaissance man Andy Crouch as he talks about his recent book The Tech-Wise Family. The conversation covers scope of Crouch’s book and it includes thoughts on intentional parenting, technology as the framework of the world, pharmaceuticals as idolatry, password sharing, and much more.

It’s a good conversation from a good dude. Full disclosure, Brad (and his wife!) is a prized friend and trusted fellow believer. We agree on much and much makes us want to throw the other threw a window. In other words, we’re Christians.

You can find Brad’s book here and here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

This Sunday I preached on my denomination’s proposed “Way Forward” through the impasse over human sexuality. My texts were 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8.

     A year ago this past Thursday a couple asked to meet with Dennis and me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently. Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. 

     Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

     When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

    The husband, the Dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the Mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives. You baptized and confined our daughters so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.”

     Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

     “What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

     And then she told us something else entirely. Something surprising.

     She told us their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

    “They’re both gay” she said.

     “Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

     They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

     “This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

     “But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here, that there’d be a place for them.”

     “Of course. Absolutely.”

     I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

     “You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

     “Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be just as true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners. It’s pious types he’s got a problem with.”

     We talked a bit more.

     About how this “issue” was playing out now in the larger United Methodist Church. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

     “You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’ve always pictured them having a place here.” 

——————

     As Dennis broke down for you last Sunday, the United Methodist Church stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed impasse over the issue of human sexuality. 

     The Council of Bishops earlier this year received a report from a special 30-person global commission called “The Way Forward,” and on Friday the Council of Bishops released the broad strokes of what will be their recommendation to the larger Church next winter at a special session to decide the matter. 

    And on Friday night Dennis called me to tell me to talk about it in my sermon. “I’ll be away for the weekend,” he said before disappearing in a cloud of sulfur.

     The Council of Bishops weighed 3 options put forward to the them. 

     Two of the options, on either end of the spectrum, could be termed the conservative and progressive options. The former option would keep our church polity and discipline as it is now where homosexuality is described as being contrary to Christian teaching and openly gay Christians are kept from serving in the ministry. The latter option, meanwhile, would liberalize the Church’s language on sexuality. 

     The challenge for a global Church, of course, is that there are many churches, especially in the developing world, that insist on the conservative option while there is a growing cultural consensus in North America towards flexibility on our views of sexuality. 

     What the Council of Bishops recommend is a middle way, a compromise called the “One Church” Model where the United Methodist Church doesn’t fracture and schism into pieces yet would allow churches and jurisdictions to decide for themselves, based on their mission field and cultural context, how they will interpret and enforce teaching on human sexuality. 

     In other words, it would allow the Church in a place like Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle to look different than the Church in Mississippi or Ghana. 

     Let me repeat that so you’ve got it: 

The mission field would determine our position on sexuality and enforcement of it not our differing interpretations of what scripture says about sexuality. 

     And just in case the term “mission field” conjures up exotic images of sun-swept savannas, by mission field we’re talking about places like Aldersgate and 22308 where, for my kids and their peers, it’s strange-to-the-point-of-archaic that Christians are even still having this argument. Like it or not, Will and Grace settled this question for the culture years ago. In such a mission field, the question is do you care more that people have the right position on sexuality or do you care that they know Jesus is the friend of sinners?

     If the recommendation is approved next winter (long odds still), then the best case scenario is that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexuality will be peace amidst difference. So, it’s much too early to know what will come of this issue in the larger Church but Dennis thought we owed it to you, as pastors of this particular church, to articulate why we endorse something like this middle way. 

———————-

     What the “One Church” model gets right that both of the other options get wrong, in my view, is that our mission to proclaim the Gospel to our community is more urgent than our being the Church with the right position on sexuality or the right interpretation of scripture on it. 

     Put another way, nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

     I have no interest in being a part of the Church-of-the-Correct-Opinion, whether that Church is traditional or progressive. I want to be a part of a Church that makes the Gospel what St. Paul says it is: the most important of our concerns.  

     And, notice in 1 Corinthians 15, in his definition of what is supposed to be our chief concern, the Gospel, the only sins Paul mentions in the Gospel are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them. 

     It seems silly to the point of missing the plot to spend time and treasure ($2,000/minute when the global Church gathers for days to debate this issue- I don’t want to put a damper on your generosity, but for every dollar you give to this church pennies to a nickel of it go to fund this argument)- it seems silly and sinfully wasteful to me to argue what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. 

    Once for all. 

     In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave-

we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

     Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

     And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. 

     Therefore- by your baptism- there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

———————-

     Look, don’t let the earring and tattoos mislead you. 

     Theologically-speaking, I’m the most conservative pastor you have on staff. That’s not even a joke. Theologically-speaking, I’m so hyper-Protestant our DS accuses me of being Methodist-in-name-only. 

     So I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I really do. In the wake of #MeToo and this current administration, I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies and of women, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.

     Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

     I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we mean by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. 

     And I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the Gospel of Christ and him crucified.

     I get it. I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, those parents who came to Dennis and me last spring grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such traditionalism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

————————

     So I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate. But, I find other issues, other biblical issues, more urgent. Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

     The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

     In all our arguing about getting it right on this one issue- I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news.

     Take today’s text:

     If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. 

     His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin. 

     This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. Because by baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his). 

     And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). 

     You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

     So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed? 

     Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

     To be blunt about it- 

     Whether you’re progressive or conservative- it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it- none of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. 

     If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself-

Then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

———————-

     Look-

     I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel, says St. Paul, frees us from the Law.

     The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies you before God not at all. And because by your baptism you’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, the opposite is also true. Having an “impure” sex life effects your justification before God NOT AT ALL. 

     The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex. Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification.

     In fighting over who has the righteous position, left and right, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of self-righteous works of the Law that prompted the Protestant movement exactly 500 years ago. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture about sex- they’re the Law: Do this…don’t do this.

     The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.

     The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ. 

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sexuality debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

You’ve fallen short of traditional biblical teaching.

You’ve fallen short of being open and affirming and inclusive.

You’ve fallen short. 

    I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

    But I care more about the Gospel. 

    And the Gospel, as Jesus says, is good news. It’s for sinners and scoundrels and phonies not saints. It’s for those who are sick and know their need not for the show-offs with their claptrap about holy living.

     I care more about the Gospel.

     I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree. I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in Christ’s perfect righteousness. More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of your lives.

     God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free. 

     I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly.

It’s expensive.

Paid in the hard-to-obtain currency of your right-believing and your-interpreting and your holy-living. 

    But here’s the thing about holiness- 

Holiness, as Martin Luther said, doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

    Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. 

———————-

     Back to those girls- 

     And, since you baptized them, they’re your girls as much as they’re their parents’.

     If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone UNLIKE them, then all our fighting is costlier than $2000 per minute.

     If our ecclesial brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

     And if my kids’ peers are any indication, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this impasse. 

     Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Velma on Scooby Doo was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. Admit it, Anderson Cooper is the only member of the media you actually trust. 

     Our culture- this mission field- has moved on whether we like it or not. Queer Eye seems passe at this point. 

     If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. 

     Why would he?

     The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

     You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there is STILL CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

     The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. 

     The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.  

     THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

     I don’t know what will come of the Bishops’ recommendation and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us; nonetheless, we’re in favor of a middle way because it seems that a middle way which leaves everyone slightly teed off is exactly how God works. 

     Such a middle way allows good people of faith to keep on discussing who it is those girls- your girls- can love but such a middle way does so without jeopardizing the Church’s primary mission to make sure those girls- your girls- know who loves them. 

     Know who loves them. 

To the grave and back. 

     Jesus Christ. 

     Who takes us into himself in our baptism and who gives himself to be taken into us through the wine and bread that is his body and blood.

     Honestly, there is no way forward other than a middle way.

Because all of us who are baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us.

All of us baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us; such that, not one of us can say to the other, no matter what we think about scripture or who we sleep with- not one of us can say to the other, I have no need of you.

    For our Saturday Service, I wrote a letter to Noah on the occasion of his baptism. The texts were 1 Corinthians 15 & Romans 6

Dear Noah,

Mark this day down- May 5, 2018.

This is the day you died.

The story that is your namesake, Noah, should’ve been my clue. The first Noah’s story isn’t all rainbows and two-by-two teddy bears. By so naming you, I should’ve known that one day, before you were old enough to protest or have any say in the matter for yourself, your doting parents would prove to be happy and willing accomplices to your death.

Your grandpa is obsessed with his Go-Pro so just check the pictures, Noah. Your parents stood right next to me, wearing grins, and acquiesced as we drowned you in water.

We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Noah. We baptized you.

By ‘we,’ I mean the Church. No, that doesn’t get it right either.

God baptized you, Noah.

 God baptized you.

That’s why it doesn’t matter you were still in diapers, still smelled like a baby, and couldn’t yet muster a single yay or nay for or against Jesus.

Your cooperation mattered not at all because God was the one who baptized you.

You in your bonnet and sucking on your fingers were no different than the rest of us grown ups in that the only thing we contribute God’s salvation of you is our sin.

And our resistance.

God baptized you Noah. The Church was just his ark from which we watched as bystanders and then dragged you on board after it was all over. Actually, Noah, your name is perfect for a baptism- it’s perfect for a Christian- for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns (Willimon).”

Take your name as a clue, Noah, the life of the baptized Christian is not about turning over ever more new leaves in your life. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. What we’ve committed you to with water, by killing you and making you alive, is nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death.

Who knew your parents, the shy and awkward high school kids I met my first day here at Aldersgate, would one day make me an accomplice to something so macabre. That was so long ago, Noah, my wife still let me get away with wearing cargo shorts, and back then it was still funny to make fun of Dennis Perry’s age.

Back then, I often crossed lines and offended people. For instance, shortly after I arrived at Aldersgate the youth director asked me to come to your future parents’ youth group to talk about a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.

Asking your pastor to come talk to teenagers about sex is about as enticing as inviting your plumber to a nude photo shoot so, wanting to puncture the awkwardness which overwhelmed the room, I resorted to a bit of wisdom from Woody Allen and I told them: “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.” You can ask your grandma to explain that to you sometime, Noah.

I like to think that wasn’t the only lesson on love and marriage your Mom and Dad gleaned from me and my beloved. When they college students, your parents traveled with Ali and me to Taize, a monastery in the French countryside. During the day we prayed and we played, and at night we camped out on the monastery grounds in tents.

Your Dad hid in one of those tents one night, specifically our tent, and scared the piss out of Ali. And from their (separate) tents your future Mom and Dad heard my wife in our tent foreshadow the married life with nuggets of advice such as: “Get that thing off of me (ie, my book)” and “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger; stay up and fight.”

Not long after, Noah, I married your Mom and Dad, which makes your baptism a fitting bookend to my time at Aldersgate. They were the first two people I met at Aldersgate. I celebrated their wedding, and now what we do to you with water, St. Paul says, is itself a betrothal. When you’re married one day, Noah, you’ll not think it odd that the two chief metaphors for baptism are death and marriage.

Ironically, the scripture passage from which I preached at your parents’ wedding was itself about baptism. In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

    You are dressed, in other words, Noah, in Christ’s perfect score.

     Permanently.

Permanently. No amount of prodigal living can undo it. You might keep your grandmothers awake at night in high school, Noah, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God does here with water and his word. You are now clothed with Christ, and, as such, will always forever be regarded by God as Christ. The Son’s righteousness, not your own goodness, has betrothed you forever to the Father.

This is why St. Paul in his grand argument on the resurrection is so adamant about the absolute necessity of Christ’s empty grave otherwise, Paul insists, our faith is futile and our hope is pitiful.

Pay attention Noah-

 If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness.

His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin.

And by your baptism, Noah, the Bible promises that you are in Christ.

You’ve not only been crucified with him in his death for sins- all sins, all sins, once and for all- you’ve been raised with him too. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).

What God does to you with water, killing and making alive, the Church has called it the great exchange, and it is great, good news. But despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, Noah, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered pious types who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.

Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.

“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Noah (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and obedient. If that strikes you as cognitive dissonance then your mother, a school psychologist, must’ve taught you a thing or two.

You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon you feeling sorry for your sins and, even then, as my mother used to say, saying sorry doesn’t cut it, they’ll say. No.

Noah, laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.

The Gospel of total, unconditional freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is. 

Christ died for all your sins. All of his perfect record has been reckoned as your own- all of it is yours.

Hell yes, the wages of sin is death.

But today, May 5, 2018 in shallow water, you died.

Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No condemnation.

     Think of it this way, Noah:

All your sins from here on out are FREE.

All your sins are free. There is no cost to any of your sins other than what they cost your neighbor. You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.

Such a life has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him. Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.

“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear it as Jesus intended for the baptized to hear it: God will bless you even if you’re bad.

    The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our anxious hearts and fearful imaginations

I thought it important to write to you, Noah, because soon I’ll be gone, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.

They’re easy to identify, Noah. Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot. They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind or the social justice kind, making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to be a better you and build a better world.

Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water. Someone named Noah should know better.

Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to convince us that this or that sin we’ve committed- or are committing- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.

If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.

In the face, of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.

Remember-

You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore no condemnation for you. All your sins are free.

Noah, to those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.

Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.

As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.

Speaking just from my own experience, most of the damage I do to myself and to others isn’t because I’m convinced God doesn’t condemn me for my sins but because I fear- despite my faith, I still fear God will condemn me for my sins.

And so I do damage, making others the object of my anxious attempts to make myself look better and be better than I am, in other words, to justify myself. I think this explains why the people against whom we sin the most are the people we most love. They’re the ones we most want to impress so they become the ones against whom we most sin.

The hilarity of the Gospel, Noah, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. Skeptical? Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.

That Jesus was without sin was the consequence not of his goodness and perfection but of Jesus’ perfect trust in the goodness of his Father.

Still not buying it?

Your Dad is an engineer, Noah, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do? Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.

Your Mom the psychologist, though, would tell you it’s more likely that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others.

You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them.

You’d stop pretending.

And you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you.

Such a scenario, Noah, isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into. All your sins are free. Don’t get me wrong, Noah.

It’s not that the good works you do for God and for you neighbor don’t matter. Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word. 

Look kid, brass tacks time:

Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (and I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church.

The world is a wicked and hard place.

And, in it, sorry to disappoint, you will fail as many times as not.

 You need only read the story that is your namesake, Noah, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. It doesn’t make you nice and clean. It makes you new. After first making you dead.

As you grow up, Noah, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really kill all those people in the flood long ago?”

And you, Noah, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly:

“God kills with water all the time.”

Sincerely,

Jason

Forget white evangelicals. Most of them didn’t vote for Obama either. Trump won in 2016 and Trump’s base abides because of the story of a Rust Belt voter archetype few saw coming.

Women under 45.

Voting on guns.

This insight and many more are unpacked in the new book by Brad Todd and Salena Zito, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.

For episode #150, we ventured into to the headquarters of veteran Republican strategist Brad Todd to examine the why and how of the outcome of the election and then look to how 2016 will influence elections to come. Salena feigned laryngitis for the episode. If she can’t talk for Rush, I’ll buy it.

From the publisher – 

The Great Revolt delves deep into the minds and hearts of the voters the make up this coalition. What emerges is a group of citizens who cannot be described by terms like “angry,” “male,” “rural,” or the often-used “racist.”

They span job descriptions, income brackets, education levels, and party allegiances. What unites them is their desire to be part of a movement larger than themselves that puts pragmatism before ideology, localism before globalism, and demands the respect it deserves from Washington.

It’s a good conversation from a good dude. Full disclosure, Brad (and his wife!) is a prized friend and trusted fellow believer. We agree on much and much makes us want to throw the other threw a window. In other words, we’re Christians.

You can find Brad’s book here and here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts


I spent last week at the Mockingbird Conference in NYC. Podcast partner Johanna Hartelius joined me, and we enjoyed the happy coincidence of hearing from many listeners to the podcast, particularly fans of Her(Men)*You*Tics. Apparently people like the podcast where “that woman gives Jason @#$% about the faith.”

Fair enough.

We’re working our way through the alphabet one stained-glass word at a time. Next up, LITURGY. Liturgy isn’t only a word mainline clergy use to avoid talking about Jesus; it’s our word for worship, meaning: “the work of the People.”

While we’re at it, let’s use this opportunity to congratulate Johanna on her new position at her alma mater, the University of Texas, teaching rhetoric.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

The Eastertide lections from 1 John got me thinking about antichrist. These letters of John, after all, are the (only) place we found that scary-sounding word in scripture:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus has come in the flesh is not from God…this is the spirit of the antichrist.” – 1 John 4

If we take St. John seriously, then it’s easier to be an antichrist than Kirk Cameron has led you to believe.

Identifying the antichrist doesn’t require reading the signs of the times or breaking any biblical codes. It doesn’t even require you to ever turn over to the Book of Revelation.  It just requires a little self-reflection. Because, take it from St John, you might be an antichrist.

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You might be an antichrist if…

If you think Christianity is about ‘spiritual’ things- or timeless ‘truths,’ then you might be antichrist.

If you think that salvation is what happens to us after we die, if you believe that our soul leave our bodies and go off to heaven when we die, if you think the goal of Christianity is to go to heaven when you die, then you might be an antichrist.

If you have ever sat next to a bedside or a graveside and said something like: ‘Her body, his body, that’s not really him, that’s not really her. It’s just a shell’ then you might be an antichrist.

If you ever used that poem for a funeral, the one that goes: Do not stand at my grave and weep/I am not there. I do not sleep/ I am a thousand winds that blow/I am the diamond glints on the snow/Do not stand at my grave and cry/ I am not there/ I did not die.

If you ever used that poem at a funeral, then chances are your undertaker was an antichrist.

If you believe that Christianity teaches the evacuation from creation (ie, the rapture) instead of the redemption of all creation (New Creation) then I hate to be the one to break it to you but you might be an antichrist.

If you think God does not care about the Earth or that the physical, material things in your life are not good gifts from God thus means of grace to God and from God then your belief is what St. John calls antichrist.

If you know someone who insists that they ‘can worship God better in nature’ (ie, play golf) then the next time that someone says that just calmly but convincingly call them the antichrist.

Because you could never find something as counter-intuitive as Jesus in nature and God, the fullness of God, didn’t take spirit. It took flesh.

And God dwelt not in the mountains or the trees but in Jesus. So don’t be shy call them as you see them, call that someone an antichrist.

Don’t be shy about calling them an antichrist because you might be one too.

If you think religious people are all basically the same because ‘we all believe in the same God after all’ you might be an antichrist. Because that generalized God took very particular flesh and became a very specific first century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who taught some very peculiar things.

     You see, Kirk Cameron with his vacant Growing Pains cuteness has us all fooled.

It’s not that hard to be an antichrist.

You are if you’re uncomfortable with the idea that God ever burped, farted, or hit puberty. I know it might sound silly but you don’t really believe that God became fully human if you don’t believe he was at least as human as you or me.

And that way of thinking- John calls that antichrist. The more you pick at it, the more you pull on the thread, the more you see that St John is right. The spirit of the antichrist is everywhere.

If you think the letter of scripture or your political platform deputizes you for ugly, un- Jesusy, Pharsaic behavior towards another (‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’) then you are an antichrist. You’ve removed the mode of Jesus’ earthly, fleshly life from your message about Jesus.

And, look, pot- meet kettle. I’m guilty too.

Because honestly, it’ll come as no surprise, I spend more time polishing my theological ideas than I do in prayer. I spend more time preaching the Gospel than I do practicing it. I’m amazed that God is gracious to a sinner like me, but I’m annoyed whenever God does the same for a sinner worse than me.

And with Christ, in Christ’s life, it all worked the other way round. Which means my way goes against the grain. Which makes me- you guessed it- an antichrist.

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And that surprises us.

It surprises us because Kirk Cameron, with his vapid Huey Lewis-like expression, has convinced us all that the antichrist is an auspicious figure marked out by the number 666, a fantastical, future political leader who will lure people’s loyalty away from God before ushering in a time of terrible tribulation which itself will usher in the Rapture, the Last Judgment and the ultimate- very unJesusy- destruction of God’s creation by God himself.

He seemed so innocent on Growing Pains that we’ve let Kirk Cameron convince us that the antichrist is the one who will wreak all that scary stuff near the end of your bibles.

But what the street corner evangelists and the cable TV preachers don’t tell you, what the whole end-times, Left Behind industry doesn’t tell you:

The word ‘antichrist’ does not occur anywhere- anywhere– in the Book of Revelation.

Not once.

The word ‘antichrist’ (which is the complicated Greek word αντί  Χριστός, ‘anti-Christos’) occurs nowhere in scripture, nowhere in the Bible except here in St. John’s first 2 letters.

The word ‘antichrist’ occurs just 5 times in bible in only 4 verses in no more than these 2 letters from John. 

And in these letters from John the word ‘antichrist’ is not a title, it’s not a proper name, it’s not a specific individual person who portends tribulation. In John the word ‘antichrist’ refers to those people, any people, who deny that God had a real blood and bones body. That God took flesh in Jesus, that God became fully human.

     Who John had in mind specifically were the Gnostics, an ancient heresy that still pops up all over the place today in both pews and popular culture. The gnostics believed that the physical, material world was corruptible and thus inherently imperfect. They believed that what was eternal was the spiritual.

And therefore the gnostics believed that ‘salvation’ was about your spiritual soul escaping your physical body, escaping this physical world for the spiritual one, for heaven.

Not surprisingly, then, the gnostics took a dim view towards the God of the Old Testament, the God who not only made this physical world and our embodied selves but declared it all ‘very good.’ Even less surprising, the gnostics refused to believe that ‘God’ would ever leave the perfect, spiritual world and take up residence, take flesh in Jesus. And so the gnostics were left two alternatives, the two alternatives that are still with us everywhere.

You could believe that Jesus was human, as human as you or me, but just human, just another teacher, a teacher you can follow as far as you want but dismiss whenever you want.

Or, if you were a gnostic, you could believe that Jesus wasn’t just another teacher but neither was he just another human. Because he wasn’t fully human like you or me because God would never debase himself to become like you or me.

John pulls no punches. He warns us away. He calls all that ‘antichrist.’

And it is.

To deny that God became fully human is antichrist because it leads us to stop seeing the world as Jesus saw it, to stop living in the world as Jesus lived in it, to stop heeding the words that the Word made flesh spoke into it. To deny that God became fully human is antichrist because it leads us in no time to live our lives against the grain of the way he lived his.

I know on any given day I’m in danger. The bad news is that it’s actually pretty easy to be an antichrist. But the good news?

The good news is that the remedies for being an antichrist are many and they’re just as easy.

For example:

Pour a glass of good wine, roast a chicken, hold a baby or have sex. Because the sacred became physical in Jesus Christ and therefore all physical things are sacred.

The remedies for being an antichrist are easy. Here’s another: 

Find a sinner- trust me, they’re not hard to find. Find a sinner, preferably someone who’s wronged you, and say to them: ‘I do not condemn you.’

‘I forgive you you know not what you do.’

‘Even though you curse, I will bless you.’

And when they ask you why you’re doing this or who told you to do this, just say: ‘God himself told me…in the flesh.’