Thanks to a generous fan, Jim Burns, who also happens to be a web developer, I’ve got a new website in process and will now be posting all new content there.
Check it out!
The archives here will remain while old content is transferred over.
Just in time for Lent, we’ve put together a little book of homilies by yours truly on the seven last words of Jesus from the cross.
You can order the book, hard copy or digital here.
From the Amazon Description:
The reticence of the New Testament to explain the mechanics of salvation leaves us with questions: Does Jesus die for us? As in, does Jesus die in our place? As a substitute for you and me? Or does Jesus die because of us? As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life? Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it? Does Jesus die to destroy Death and Sin? As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever? Does Jesus die with us? As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh? Was it necessary for Jesus to die? Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself? Did Jesus have to die on a cross? And how does Easter relate to Good Friday? Such questions are possible, indeed they get asked all the time because the New Testament never singles an answer to how Mary and Joseph’s son lives up to his name. For over a century, Christians have recalled the crucifixion of Christ’s death on Good Friday by reflecting on Jesus’ seven last words from the Cross. In this tradition, for Lenten prayer and reflection, Jason Micheli offers seven homilies connecting these questions and contemporary events to the final words of God’s Son from the Cross.
Fresh off Donald Trump blaspheming at the National Prayer Breakfast and dismissing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount to nary a complaint from the evangelical pastors in attendance, we’ve got Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove on the podcast to talk about his latest book, A Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good.
The religious Right taught America to misread the Bible. Christians have misused Scripture to consolidate power, stoke fears, and defend against enemies. But people who have been hurt by the attacks of Christian nationalism can help us rediscover God’s vision for faith in public life. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores how religious culture wars have misrepresented Christianity at the expense of the poor, and how listening to marginalized communities can help us hear God’s call to love and justice in the world. He highlights people on the frontlines of issues ranging from immigration policy and voting rights to women’s rights and environmental stewardship. Through these narratives, we encounter a recovery of values that upholds the dignity of all people. Rediscover hope for faithful public witness that serves the common good.
God is using this time to remind the Church that Christianity is unintelligible without enemies. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is to produce the right kind of enemies. We have been beguiled by our established status to forget that to be a Christian is to be made part of an army against armies. It has been suggested that satisfaction theories of the Atonement and the correlative understanding of the Christian life as a life of interiority became the rule during the long process we call the Constantinian settlement. When Caesar becomes a member of the Church the enemy becomes internalized. The problem is no longer that the Church is seen as a threat to the political order, but that now my desires are disordered. The name for such an internalization in modernity is pietism and the theological expression of that practice is called Protestant liberalism.
In the latest installment of You Are Not Accepted, Johanna gets hot and bothered over Stanley’s address, “Preaching as Though We Had Enemies.” Originally delivered to the homiletics guild, this address is found in his collection, Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified, and also at First Things: https://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/05/preaching-as-though-we-had-enemies
The first clergy meeting I ever had, I made the mistake of attending.
I was a first-year student in Seminary. I had just begun pastoring a small congregation when I received an email notifying me of that month’s Clergy Meeting.
I was only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know any better. So, I actually went to the meeting.
It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained-glass windows.
A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a man in dreadlocks praying.
The banner read, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.”
An ironic slogan then as much as now.
Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so, mostly older, pastors.
The agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.
She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.
The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar “Igniting Ministry” advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members.
The woman was dressed like a Talbots mannequin. Her eyes lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials we would ever see in our lives this side of the Super Bowl.
She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado, she pressed “Play” on the VCR.
The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voice-over narrator said, “Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.”
And then, some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. Then it said, “Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.”
When the commercial was over, she pressed “Pause.”
I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads.
Nearly all of them were smiling.
“That’s great,” some of them said.
“That will really speak to young people.”
The woman from UM Communications was beaming. “Any other thoughts?” she asked.
I’d like to think that back then I wasn’t as cynical and contrary as I am now, but my wife, who was my fiancé at the time, says otherwise.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
And everyone turned and stared at me.
“What don’t you get?” she asked with a frown.
“Well, I mean, the commercial doesn’t mention, you know, Jesus.”
“Young man,” she said through a forced smile. “These commercials are designed to appeal to seekers, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.”
“But, what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?” I asked.
She bit her bottom lip and said,“Our market research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less effective.”
“Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?” I wondered aloud.
She just looked at me, confused.
“What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little meaning in their lives and what they end up with, instead, is Jesus?”
“Why would that be a problem?”
“Any honest Jesus commercial should be like those pharmaceutical commercials,” I said. “You know— the ones that promise an amazing, life-changing medication, but then with rapid-fire warnings, side effects may include wheezing, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, memory loss, heart attack, stroke, and, maybe, death.”
Some of the pastors chuckled.
They all thought I was joking.
Take today’s Gospel—
Exactly how would you turn today’s scripture passage into an effective advertising campaign?
Instead of rain dribbling down a window, maybe you could film a pack of angry wolves with red stains on their teeth? Torn wisps of blood-spattered wool littering the ground?
“What are you doing this Sunday?” the voiceover narrator could ask, “Would you like to get crucified? Come to the United Methodist Church, we’ve got a cross that’ll fit your back.”
Would anyone show up if they knew ahead of time that Jesus intended to deploy them, without qualifications or training, to do battle with the devil?
You caught that part today, right?
The part where Jesus sends us, like Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, into the Upside Down.
“Cure the sick,” Jesus commissions His fishers of men. “Raise the dead and cast out demons.”
Lest you think that’s a one-off, the devil is implied again at the end of the passage where
Jesus says, “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
As much as we all love the comforting, pastoral imagery of the 23rd Psalm, that’s not the part of the Old Testament where Jesus gets the image of Himself as our Good Shepherd.
He takes it from the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet says, “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’ For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.”
Redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
The word redeemed in both testaments is a martial term.
It presumes the existence of an enemy.
God’s People, says the Lord to Jeremiah, are in bondage to a Power who is not God that is too strong for them.
We’re sheep captive to a Wolf.
The Apostle Paul in our text today refers to that Power as “the rulers of this age.” And Paul just expects you to know he doesn’t mean Pontius Pilate or King Herod.
He means the Devil.
He means Satan, Lucifer— evil personified— what Paul calls in Ephesians the Principalities and Powers. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul calls it the Power of Sin and Death. At the end of this letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives it the overarching name, “The Enemy.”
“Cure the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons.”
“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…”
Flannery O’ Connor, the Gothic Southern fiction writer, was an ardent Christian and an astute reader of scripture.
In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “Our salvation is played out with the devil, a devil who is not simply generalized evil but an evil intelligence— evil has an agency in the world— and is determined on its own supremacy.”
The reality of the one Jesus calls the Adversary is presupposed in every book of the New Testament. Quite literally, the story of Jesus Christ no longer makes sense once you’ve removed one of its main characters from the stage.
In all four Gospels, from the first day of Christ’s ministry to His last day on the Cross, Jesus is depicted as contending against the powers, demonic powers.
The Devil is all over the details in your Bible.
Luke mentions Satan twenty-five times in his Gospel, more than once per chapter.
Here in Matthew, for his one and only lesson on prayer, Jesus commands us whenever we pray to pray, “Deliver us ha poneros.”
Not from evil, from the Evil One.
John in his Gospel puts the mission of Jesus Christ as plain as the nose on your face.
John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.” Period, full stop.
In the Book of Acts, when Peter explains who Jesus is and what Jesus does, he says to the Centurion, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who are under the power of the Devil.”
That’s the same Peter who writes in his first epistle, “Be sober, be watchful. Your Adversary, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
Even the Christmas carols most often describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of territory held by an Enemy.
How does the first verse of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” go?
God rest ye merry, gentlemen Let nothing you dismay Remember, Christ, our Saviour Was born on Christmas day To save us all from Satan’s power When we were gone astray
Some of us have so sentimentalized our Christianity while others of us have so politicized the Gospels, we hardly notice that the Biblical drama of salvation has three characters, not two.
It’s not God and Humanity.
It’s God vs. God’s Enemy for God’s Captive People.
The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament, you can’t speak proper Christian without it.
You end up with a Son of God who rescues us from his angry Father, instead of a loving Father who in the Son rescues us from the Enemy that has bound us in a grip too strong for us.
The exorcisms Jesus and the disciples perform— they’re not individual episodes within a different, larger story.
They’re episodes indicative of a single, larger captivity.
In case you think I’m overstating it— Jeffrey Burton Russell, an historian at the University of California, argues in his five-volume work on the Devil:
“The Devil of the New Testament is not tangential to the fundamental message, not a mere symbol. The saving mission of Christ can be fully understood only in terms of opposition to the Devil. That is the whole point of the New Testament: the world is full of grief and suffering, but beyond the power of Satan is a greater power…In the New Testament there is complete consistency on this essential point: the new age brought by Christ is at war with the old age ruled by Satan.”
Count the verses. More so than He was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so, than a prophet, a preacher, or a political revolutionary, Jesus is an exorcist.
C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” In other words, Lewis would argue, the fact that the subject of this sermon today is a tough sell for a good many of you enlightened liberal Protestants is itself the Devil’s doing.
In his book, The Death of Satan, Andrew Delbanco says our culture is now in crisis, because with these terms we’ve cast aside as superstitious, the Bible names a bondage that remains an inescapable experience for all of us.
Yet now, we are without a common language to describe it.
Satan, Sin and Death, the Powers, the rulers of this age.
With these terms, the Bible names a bondage we all know.
A captivity from which Christ comes to set us free.
Let me talk about the Devil this way and in the first person:
Before the bishop appointed me to Annandale, in what turned out to be my last act of ministry in my previous parish, I confronted a parishioner— a good friend of mine, actually— about his addiction problem.
His wife had asked me to confront him. “Talk to him, please,” she texted me, “Maybe what’s got a hold of him will shake loose. If he isn’t freed…” She didn’t finish the sentence.
A bicycle accident a year or so earlier had led to surgeries on his shoulder and hip. With surgery came pain killers. And sooner than you’d ever guess, he was hooked.
“I see you driving,” I said, after I’d sat down at his kitchen table. “You shouldn’t be driving in your state, especially with the kids.”
“I’m fine,” he insisted. His speech slurred, he was bumping into drawers and cabinets as he unloaded the dishwasher.
“You’re not fine, and we’re all worried about you,” I said.
And he laughed like I was the dumbest person in the world— a laugh that didn’t sound like him at all. As if to demonstrate my stupidity, he pulled a bag of bottles of pills from deep inside the kitchen cabinet and showed them to me.
I spend enough time in hospitals, as a patient and a pastor, to know— they were all painkillers prescribed to him from at least three different doctors.
He then proceeded to tell me that he did not have a problem.
In fact, he had a tumor on his brain.
He told me the mass was what was causing his slurred speech, but he didn’t want to tell his family and worry them.
As soon as I’d called out his lies, he erupted like a man possessed and then stormed out (as best as he could).
A few minutes later, realizing he was in his own house instead of mine, he stormed back inside and threw me out.
Later, he lied and told his wife we’d never spoken.
“It’s like a monster has invaded him and is eating him from the inside,” she told me.
I still haven’t shaken the dust off of that one yet.
Sheriff Bell, the moral center and a sort of homespun theologian in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, says at one point in his fruitless struggle to contain the drug traffic along the border:
“I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.”
“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus promised his disciples when he called them.
“Fishers of men,” we’re so accustomed to hearing that phrase we don’t hear it.
There is no word in Hebrew for “fish.”
Hebrew has only a general word for all sea-creatures. There is no specific word for fish, fishing, or fishermen, because fishing was primarily a Gentile trade.
And because fishing was associated with Gentiles, it became a signifier for the end of history when the Gentiles would be brought into God’s People.
At the end of time, when God’s enemies were overthrown once for all, Jews believed the Dead Sea would be replenished and filled with fish.
Therefore, when Jesus calls his disciples and says he’s going to make them “fishers of men,” he’s using a loaded apocalyptic phrase.
He’s enlisting them into the very same work to which He dispatches them today, to cast out the demonic.
As we say at baptism, He’s recruiting them in the war effort against “the spiritual forces of wickedness and the evil Powers of this world.”
Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
He’s drafting them— without any education or qualifications and less than five chapters worth of training— into an army.
And today, He sends them out into contested territory against an Enemy who will not easily yield His Position.
Lisa was in her forties. She’d had an abusive husband who’d left her. According to the grape vine in that church in the Blue Ridge, the jury was still out on Lisa’s new boyfriend.
I knew Lisa to be a quiet, pensive and timid person. She didn’t have any kids. She worked a clerical job, tucked away in a cubicle somewhere in an office park.
I felt sorry for her.
Leaving church one Sunday, she came up to me and said, “I need to talk.”
So later that week she came to my office.
Imagine my surprise when she began by asking me if we had any African Americans in the congregation.
“Uh, yeah… Why?” I asked.
“Because, I aim to start bringing my boyfriend to church. He’s good to me, but he’s racist as hell, just awful,” she said. “It’s like the Devil’s got him with hate and ain’t it our job to get it out of him? Doesn’t Jesus say that, preacher?”
“You mean, like an exorcism?
She nodded like an exhausted teacher.
“You mean, you don’t take that metaphorically?”
And she just squinted at me.
“Um, sure, okay…how do you propose we do that?
She looked at me like I was the sorriest excuse for a preacher she could imagine.
“You train some people of color to serve communion. I figure if anything can draw that demon out of him, it’ll be getting handed Jesus’ body and blood from hands darker than his.”
I looked at her and I marveled.
When she’d first stepped into my office, I’d seen a loser, a broken, frightened victim.
I saw someone whose life was unremarkable and whose potential was limited.
I saw someone who was probably afraid her life had no meaning or significance. But Jesus looks at people like her (people like us) and Jesus sees someone who can beat the Devil.
And that should scare the hell out of us.
What if we reconsidered Calvin and Calvin’s prioritizing of God’s power and sovereignty from the perspective of what Calvin was, a refugee, and from the hermeneutic of what his context makes his work, liberation theology?
Our episode today is with a classmate of Jason’s from Princeton, Dr. Jennifer Powell McNutt.
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Powell McNutt is the Franklin S. Dyrness Associate Professor in Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College, a Fellow in the Royal Historical Society, and a Parish Associate at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn. Dr. McNutt received her Ph.D. in History from the University of St. Andrews (Reformation Studies Institute, 2008), M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary (2003), and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Westmont College (2000).
She is the recipient of several academic awards including the Overseas Research Student Award (Universities, U.K.) for her doctoral research and the Sidney E. Mead Prize (American Society of Church History) for her first published article. Her first monograph, Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685-1798 (Ashgate, 2014), was awarded the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize by the American Society of Church History. In 2013-2014, Dr. McNutt was awarded Wheaton’s Leland Ryken Award for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities (2013) for exemplifying excellence in the classroom, a deep commitment to inspiring students to realize the ideals of careful scholarship in their own work, and the integration of the Christian faith and learning in the Humanities. In 2017, Westmont College honored Dr. McNutt with an 80th Anniversary Alumni Award for her work as a professor at Wheaton in cultivating “thoughtful scholars, grateful servants and faithful leaders for global engagement with the academy, church and the world.” In 2017, she was one of the Reformation experts interviewed for “A Call to Freedom” documentary that was produced to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 2018, that documentary was awarded three regional Emmys including Outstanding Historical Documentary.
Dr. McNutt’s research specializes in the history of the church and Christian Theology from the Reformation through the Enlightenment with particular expertise in John Calvin and his clerical legacy, the Reformed tradition, the relationship between Christianity and science, and the history of the Bible and its interpretation. Current contracted projects include co-editing The Oxford Handbook of the Bible and the Reformation (OUP) with Prof. Herman Selderhuis and editing the 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude volume for the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series (InterVarsity Press Academic). She recently published the co-edited volume, The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible (IVP, 2017), for the Wheaton Theology Conference series. She is currently researching and writing two monographs: the history of the French Bible from the early-modern period through the Enlightenment and a social history of John Calvin’s thought. Her research has received international grants including the Andrew Mellon Research Fellowship (2015-2016) at the Huntington Library and the Huntington Trinity Hall Exchange Fellowship at the University of Cambridge (2015-2016). Her publications include academic journal articles and book chapters as well as popular ecclesiastical pieces for Christianity Today and Christian History Magazine. In 2017, Dr. McNutt was awarded first place in Christianity Today’s essay contest for her article on how clergy during the Enlightenment contributed to the advancement of modern science.
Dr. McNutt is also an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is co-president of McNuttshell Ministries, Inc. with her husband, Rev. Dr. David McNutt. She enjoys preaching at churches and on college campuses, writing for popular outlets, and conducting podcast and video interviews.
This Sunday’s lectionary Gospel raises the question of how Christians are to understand the law Jesus lays down in his Sermon on the Mount. Is Jesus a New Moses? Or, is Jesus the Faithful Israelite who perfectly obeys the law for the rest of us who cannot? Karl Barth wrestles with the relationship between the law and the gospel in volume II.2 of his Church Dogmatics, saying ““the doctrine of the divine election of grace is the first element, and the doctrine of the divine command is the second.” By prioritizing election (God’s choosing of humanity in Christ) over command, Barth reverses Luther’s distinction between the law and gospel in what becomes his gospel-law thesis.
Because of his experience watching the German Church incapable of maintaining its Christian distinctiveness during the world wars, Barth was wary of permitting human experience to be the starting point or the interpretative lens into revelation. Barth believed Luther’s distinction between the law and the gospel did just this, privileging the subjective experience of the individual when confronted by the accusing demand of the law and the gospel promise of its fulfillment for you. Instead Barth reversed the ordering of law and gospel, prioritizing the electing God whose decision to save us from sin precedes creation itself.
Not only is the gospel prior to the law for Barth, the two are one inseparable word, for the giver of the Sermon on the Mount is the word who was with God, who is God, and through whom all things were made. To begin with the gospel means to begin with the doctrine of election: “The doctrine of election is,” according to Barth, “the sum of the gospel.” In election, God wills to be for humanity and for humanity to be with God as his covenant partner. Election makes a claim on the one elected in the form of the law.
As David Hunsicker writes in The Making of Stanley Hauerwas:
“The problem, for Barth is that Lutheran theology overdetermines the difference between law and gospel in a manner that results in the eventual emancipation of ethics from dogmatics.
Barth’s insistence that the gospel and the law are the one in- separable Word of God is a self-conscious determination to keep dogmatics and ethics together. Barth is concerned that establishing the law as a separate Word of God apart from Jesus Christ means that you can have competing claims to what the Word of God commands: one based in universal laws and represented by worldly ordinances such as civil magistrates and the other based on God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
A law independent of the gospel and an ethics independent of dogmatics threatens the freedom of the gospel itself, leaving us subject to “the worldly ‘ordinances’” and “the ‘competence of experts.’”
This was what Barth and the Confessing Church movement had specifically rejected eight years prior at Barmen:
“Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”
“Luther sows the seeds for what will be eventually known as “the introspective conscience of the West.”The second use of the law, as Lutherans would later call it, acts as a judgment on all our sinful doing and leads us to the truth of the gospel, that is, that our being is determined by our passive (nondoing) reception of God’s grace. Human action becomes obsolete with regard to the question of human being. In this regard, personhood is now reconstituted along the lines of a sort of “inside-out” Cartesian dualism.
In contrast, Barth’s insistence that the law and the gospel are the one in- separable Word of God registers as a strong protest against inside-out dualism. For Barth, the person is constituted as a being-in-becoming, or a being-in-action. Barth’s actualistic ontology means that human being is self- determined by human doing as it corresponds to divine action. God acts toward humanity in the gospel. Then, in a corresponding action, humans act in receiving the good news and responding with obedience to the law.
The result is twofold.
First, humans are given a real agency with regard to the gospel. Obedience to the law does not lead to God’s grace, but it does arise as a genuine human response of gratitude to God’s grace.
Thus Barth’s refusal to separate law from gospel grounds his claim that ethics cannot be independent from dogmatics. This move immediately affects questions related to Christian social witness and divine and human agency. For Barth, both sorts of questions must begin with the subject of Christian dogmatics, the covenantal God who determines to be for hu- manity and who elects humanity to be with him.
This brings us to the two remaining components to the gospel-law thesis: the priority of the gospel to the law and the law as the form of the gospel. Both components differentiate the gospel from the law in the larger context of the unity they share as the one Word of God.
Even when the one Word of God is law, it is law as the form of the gospel. That is to say, the law always confronts us from the perspective of what has been accomplished by Jesus Christ on our behalf. In this respect, the already-fulfilled law does not hang from our necks like a millstone. Unlike Luther’s second use of the law, it does not accuse us or drive us to repentance; instead, it demands that we “allow [Jesus’] fulfillment of the law . . . to count as our own.”
Jesus’ fulfillment of the law, however, does not mean that Barth forecloses on human agency. To the contrary, the reversal of law and gospel “is at heart motivated by a desire to register a place for human agency.” Above I noted that a law which is separate from the gospel as a second Word of God risks appeals to competing sources of divine revelation. Similarly, a law that precedes the gospel always threatens to become an independent law (e.g., natural law) that points to an idol instead of the true God.
The law that is rejected is the law that suggests “we must do ‘something’ to make the gospel apply to us,” while the law that is affirmed is the law that expects humans to do something on account of the fact that the gospel already ap- plies to us. This is why Barth’s recharacterization of the law as the form of the gospel avoids Luther’s original concern: works righteousness.
Luther’s solution is to suggest that humans are utterly passive; humans do nothing, God does everything. For Barth, this solution is problematic,“What is wrong about works righteousness is not the fact that the human does something, so that in her passivity she would be in concordance with the grace of God. The wrong thing is that human action stands in contradiction to grace, competes with it rather than conforms to it.”
My son, Gabriel, took this photo in October of 2018 on Opening Night of the comic book movie, Venom.
Let’s just say it wasn’t Oscar-worthy. We went to see it, because Gabriel and Dewayne, the friend on my right, conspired together and chose it.
When he was 25, Dewayne was charged in the murder of a police officer and cashier during a botched robbery of a cash check store in Houston. Upon his arrest, Dewayne had insisted that he’d been at home alone and that his girlfriend, whom he’d called from a landline in his apartment, could verify his alibi. The phone record was never recovered, and the prosecutor threatened Dewayne’s girlfriend with contempt, which meant she’d put her child at risk in the foster care system if she did not revoke her testimony.
Dewayne fit the profile for a convenient scapegoat and an easy conviction.
He’d grown up poor. He’d dropped out of school in the ninth grade. His skin was the right color.
So, a Texas doctor ginned up Dewayne’s IQ from 67, which qualified him as mentally handicapped, to 70, which qualified him for exection.
Despite any forensic evidence whatsoever or eyewitness corroboration, an all-white jury sentenced Dewayne to death in 2003. He spent the next twelve years in a 60-square-foot single cell. Once a day, he had been allowed to stand in an open-air room a little larger than his cell to catch a glimpse of the sky.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who weep, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who are persecuted…
On my left in the photo is my friend, Brian.
Dewayne had already been on death row for two years when he met Brian, a fast-talking, wise-cracking white-collar defense attorney in D.C.
Brian’s firm took Dewayne’s appeal pro bono— it was the altruistic, do-gooding case that law firms like to use for advertising and hiring pitches.
Neither Brian nor the firm considered the possibility that Dewayne was innocent; that is, not until Brian flew down to Houston in 2005 and looked through the glass into Dewayne’s eyes as he maintained his innocence.
After that initial interview, Brian walked out of death row and threw up in the prison parking lot, realizing the liklihood that he would not be able to save an innocent man from death and that he would carry that guilt to his own death.
Brian gave the next decade of his life to freeing Dewayne. The case jeopardized Brian’s career. The time away and the depression almost ruined his marriage. The Job-like injustice stretched Brian’s faith to the snapping point.
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Blessed are those whom people ridicule and persecute and utter all kinds of evil because of me…
We empathize with innocent victims, because we’ve all had the experience of receiving unfair or perhaps even unjust treatment. We praise those who stand in solidarity with victims, and we admire those who advocate for them for justice. We especially esteem those who seek to rectify wrongs in the face of long odds and little reward.
While empathizing with victims and advocating for justice are attributes of those people who constitute the Kingdom of God, empathizing with victims and advocating for justice are not uniquely Christian concerns.
Long before the invention of hashtags, Allah in the Qu’ran promised blessings upon you who work for justice and look out for the put upon. The call-out culture on Twitter is predicated on showing solidarity with victims and standing up to victimizers. Every religion, philosophy, and ethical system the world has ever known makes distinctions between good people and bad people, the just and the unjust, victim and victimizer.
But Christianity cuts against the grain of every other religion. Christianity is absolutely unique when it comes to distinctions. The Gospel, in its most radical form, is so offensively inclusive that the Apostle Paul has to acknowledge it at the get-go of his correspondence, admitting that our message risks tripping up religious people and sounding like foolishness to unbelievers. And at the top of his letter to the Romans, Paul has to preemptively stipulate that he is “not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for salvation.”
What about the Gospel sounds like foolishness?
You might have noticed that the Beautitudes are divided into three discrete groups.
The first four Beautitudes describe those who lack (wealth, joy, power, and righteousness). Next, the Beautitudes list those who give the grace they’ve been given (“Blessed are the merciful…blessed are the peacemakers…”). Finally, the Beautitudes address those who suffer as a consquence of their service.
The word Jesus uses each time is makarioi. It has the force of a verb. It delivers something. When Jesus says makarioi, He’s giving it over.
He’s not saying, You’re blessed, if you’re poor. He’s not saying, If you’re sick with grief, the good news is you’re blessed.
This is more than Jesus offering thoughts and prayer to the hurting and hopeless. This is Jesus saying, I am with you. I am on your side.
The New Testament scholar, Frederick Dale Bruner, says the Beautitudes should be translated instead, “Look up, you who are poor in spirit, I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you.”
Look up, you who are mourning. Look up, you who are persecuted…you who are without power. I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you. God helps those who cannot help themselves.
Which all sounds like inoffensive, unsurprising, garden-variety good news until you take a look at that fourth Beautitude again, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Recall that what those in the first section of the Beautitudes share in common is their lack.
Hunger and thirst here in the fourth Beautitude functions in the sense of starving.
Blessed are those who are completely empty of any righteousness, for they will be filled.
And when you remember that the word for righteousness, in Hebrew and in Greek, is the same word as the word for justice, then you can begin to sense why Paul feels the need to issue disclaimers about the offensiveness of the Gospel.
This is Harris County Assistant District Attorney Dan Rizzo.
Former District Attorney.
Last year, his former office filed complaints against him, saying in their case:
“Prosecutors are supposed to be the guardians of justice in the search for truth in every case. We believe he abused his power and violated his sacred oath of office.”
By luck or providence, Brian discovered that DA Dan Rizzo had hidden the phone record, which corroborated Dewayne’s alibi.
He also had a letter sent to Dewayne from a witness, the details of which would’ve cleared Dewayne, but the prosecution never told Dewayne what it said— Dewayne can’t read. In other words, Dan Rizzo was guilty of sending Dewayne to his death knowing his innocence from the very beginning. The evidence that exonerated Dewayne was discovered in 2013. Dewayne wasn’t released from prison until 2015 when the State of Texas decided not to retry him.
“Look up, you who are unjust and corrupt, I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you.”
Is anyone else uncomfortable yet?
Near the end of his life, the famous British biblical scholar, F.F Bruce, was interviewed about the relationship between his academic study and his evangelical faith. “What does it mean to be a Christian?” the interviewer asked him, “What does it mean to have faith— in what does a Christian put their faith?”
And Bruce responded without even needing to think about it:
“A Christian is someone who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly. To believe in him who justifies the ungodly, and nothing more and nothing less, is to be a Christian. That’s what a Christian puts their faith in.”
Jesus shows in the Sermon on the Mount what Paul says here in Romans 5, “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”
Paul says it again in Chapter Four, “the one who, apart from works, trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. As justice.”
Every religion the world has ever known is predicated on getting ungoldly people to turn to religion, so that through religion they might become godly. And if they don’t turn to religion, if they don’t cease being ungodly, there’s no Good News for them.
For Paul, the Gospel is something else, entirely. The Gospel is not religion. The Gospel is the announcement that in Jesus Christ God takes the initiative, turns to the ungodly, and justifies them.
When Paul says later in Romans that Jesus Christ is the end of the Law, the consummation of the Law, he has the justification of the ungodly in mind. He means that the whole Bible has been building to this revelation, and by revelation Paul means that we could never have arrived at this belief on our own. It had to be disclosed to us by God himself.
It had to be revealed to us that God is not just a God on the side of the poor and oppressed, the righteous and the peacemakers— that’s what every religion believes. But the Gospel makes the offensive and audacious claim that God is also on the side of the irreligious, the immoral, and the unjust.
These days we use words and phrases like “inclusive” and “All means all.”
I’ve served four other churches, since I was twenty-two years old.
Every one of those churches insisted that they welcomed everybody, and it was true of not one of them.
Just like us, those churches had trouble tolerating people who could read the same Bible and land on a different position. They had difficulty dealing with people who could read the same newspaper and draw a conclusion opposite their own or make a different decision in the voting booth. Diversity always sounds like a wonderful notion until you realize it means some sacred cows must be sacrificed.
When the lay leaders at my first church considered changing the style of the worship service from traditional to contemporary, OH MY LORD, I literally went outside one weekday and painted over the tagline on the sign that read, “The Friendly Church.” I didn’t want to get sued for false advertising.
None of us is reliably welcoming of everyone.
Not one of us is all-inclusive when it comes to inclusivity.
Just as often, in the hands of sinners like us words like “inclusive” and “tradition” become a way for us to make distinctions between righteous and unrighteous and— let’s be honest— very often we make those distinctions with an air of self-righteousness. Chief among sinners, right here.
The irony though—
From the point of view of Paul’s Gospel of the justification of the ungodly, all our talk in the United Methodist Church about inclusiveness is not nearly inclusive enough.
The Gospel is Good News for victims, yes, but also for the victimizers, for the oppressed, of course, but their oppressors, too. For the just certainly, but it does not exclude those who are completely devoid of justice. They also will be filled.
And that verb “to justify” is the most important word.
It’s Paul’s favorite word.
Paul doesn’t say that in Jesus Christ God forgives the ungodly; in fact, Paul hardly ever uses the word “forgive.”
It’s not, Look up, you who are unjust…District Attorney Rizzo, free pass….
The Gospel is offensively inclusive, but it is not immoral.
Paul doesn’t say God forgives the ungodly. Forgiveness doesn’t go far enough; the word “grace” isn’t radical enough to our ears. Paul says that in the cross of Jesus Christ, God justifies the ungodly. Again, it shares the same root word as the words righteousness and justice, dikaiosyne.
God makes just those whom God justifies— that’s what the Gospel does, Paul says.
The justification of the ungodly then is the power of God. It’s the power of God to make right all that is wrong.
Again, Paul believes God justifying the ungodly is what the whole Bible has been building towards, not just the Beautitude.
The justification of the ungodly is what the prophet Ezekiel foreshadowed when he said,
“God himself is able to remake the hearts of his people, and he promises to do so in them irrespective of ungodliness.”
God himself is able.
God will do it.
Which begs the question: If it’s all God’s initiative and work, then is there nothing for us to do?
Humbly, I’d respond that if you’re stuck on that question, you do not yet know the grace of God.
This Gospel message frees you from the tyranny of the thought that everything depends on you, and that freedom sets us free to enter in and actually engage the radically inclusive ministry of the justifying God, which we would never choose for ourselves. Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, who died a few years ago. He’s the author of Brother to a Dragonfly and Up to Our Steeples in Politics. Will Campbell was present in 1998 for the Mississipi trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Klan, for the murder of several people including Vernon Dahmer. The murders were the inspiration for the film Mississippi Burning. Dahmer had been a brave local leader in the voter registration effort. He burned to death, defending his home, as his wife and children ran to safety.
Bowers was tried a third time in 1998, the first time his trial would not be a sham trial. Will Campbell attended the trial every day. He would sit on the prosecution’s side with the Dahmer family, offering comfort and praying with them. And then, the next day he would sit on the defense team’s side, comforting Bowers the Klansman and praying with him. Day after day of the trial, Campbell alternated sides, ministering to the family of the victim and then the victimizer.
When the trial was over, a flummoxed New York Times reporter asked him, “Mr. Campbell, why do you seem to be on both sides?”
And Campbell answered in his trademark salty way, “Because I’m a God-damned Christian.”
Even more remarkable than Campbell’s retort— Vernon Dahmer’s family, Christians all, never once asked Will Campbell how he could be on both sides.
There is much in me that needs to be rectified.
There is much about me that I look forward to our Lord setting right.
I honestly cannot imagine myself capable of Campbell’s radically inclusive ministry.
When I think of what DA Dan Rizzo did to Dewayne…I could never do it.
When it comes to that sort of righteousness, I am empty.
But God is able.
And Jesus Christ, who is not dead, promises to fill you.
So come to the Table and, in your hands and on your lips, receive the God who justifies the ungodly.
“Christians often fail to get in touch with the shocking message that can lie at the heart of evangelism: “I am here to change you, and I’m going to change you so that you become like me.”
Our guest today is Douglas Campbell, Professor of New Testament at Duke. His new book, Pauline Dogmatics unpacks the eschatological heart of Paul’s gospel in his world and its implications for today
Drawing upon thirty years of intense study and reflection on Paul, Douglas Campbell offers a distinctive overview of the apostle’s thinking that builds on Albert Schweitzer’s classic emphasis on the importance for Paul of the resurrection. But Campbell—learning here from Karl Barth—traces through the implications of Christ for Paul’s thinking about every other theological topic, from revelation and the resurrection through the nature of the church and mission. As he does so, the conversation broadens to include Stanley Hauerwas in relation to Christian formation, and thinkers like Willie Jennings to engage post-colonial concerns.
But the result of this extensive conversation is a work that, in addition to providing a description of Paul’s theology, also equips readers with what amounts to a Pauline manual for church planting. Good Pauline theology is good practical theology, ecclesiology, and missiology, which is to say, Paul’s theology belongs to the church and, properly understood, causes the church to flourish. In these conversations Campbell pushes through interdisciplinary boundaries to explicate different aspects of Pauline community with notions like network theory and restorative justice.
The book concludes by moving to applications of Paul in the modern period to painful questions concerning gender, sexual activity, and Jewish inclusion, offering Pauline navigations that are orthodox, inclusive, and highly constructive.
Beginning with the God revealed in Jesus, and in a sense with ourselves, Campbell progresses through Pauline ethics and eschatology, concluding that the challenge for the church is not only to learn about Paul but to follow Jesus as he did.
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Grace does not name an ontological possibility available to anyone apart from God’s self-disclosure and the mediation of God’s elect people. More is at stake in God’s Kingdom than accepting acceptance. The poor do not want God to accept the oppressor; they want God to destroy the oppressor. They know we are at war with powers who know nothing of a God who would rule the world from a cross.
— Stanley Hauerwasw
For our third episode, Dr. Johanna, Jason, and Teer talk about Stanley Hauerwas’ essay whence the pod series name came, “You Are Not Accepted.” The piece is Stanley’s rejection of Paul Tillich’s famous sermon “You Are Accepted” and featured in his book, Unleashing the Scriptures. This provocative critique of the uses and abuses of Scripture in the American church shows how liberal (historical-critical) and fundamentalist (literal) approaches to biblical scholarship have corrupted our use of the Bible. Hauerwas argues that the Bible can only be understood in the midst of a disciplined community of people, where the story is actually lived out by dedicated practitioners.
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There’s much harm done, I believe, by the United Methodist Church’s punitive, retrograde policy towards LGBTQ Christians. The list of names I’ve acquired over almost twenty years of ministry is depressingly, shamefully long. After General Conference, I received three different anonymous letters narrating the sad aftermath of these people having followed former pastors’ advice long ago to deny who they were, get married, and have children only to have all involved suffer because of the lie.
But I always think of my friend, Andy, first. He was one of the best youth directors I ever supervised, possessing both a call and gifts for ministry I’ve not seen matched. The fruit of his gifts were affirmed by the congregation he served with me and, later, as a student pastor while he studied at Yale. But because the UMC will not permit the Living God to call whom the Living God elects to call, Andy left the MDiv Program when he exited the closet.
The Church is impoverished by having lost his ministry— the policy that would preclude Andy from ministry is an odd form of self-harm the Church inflicts upon itself in the name of a God who has chosen to justify us by means other than our right reading of scripture.
How dare the UMC, having baptized Andy into Christ, withold from him the exercise of that baptism through marriage or ministry?
There’s much harm done by the United Methodist Church’s punitive, retrograde policy towards LGBTQ Christians.
It also harms our theology of baptism.
Since the Special Sex Conference in St. Louis, many of my fellow clergy have pledged to perform no weddings so long as the rite is available only to some (ie, those who evidently are righteous not by Christ’s gratuity but by virtue of having been born straight).
While I sympathize with such a gesture of protest— and I think this debate would be more coherent generally if Methodist clergy opted out of the wedding industry and married only active baptized members of their congregations— I wonder if baptism not marriage is the rite the church should withold in order to resist harm.
In the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.
Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,
Barth reiterated the fact:
There is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.
More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.
In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.
Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.
I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.
Too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.
We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.
What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.
This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.
Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.
Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we are all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.
Of course, I’m not really suggesting we stop baptizing infants. It’s really more of a wish— a prayer— that we who baptize babies, we United Methodists, might recognize that the only entrypoint that matters to marriage and ministry is not a natural one (gender or sexual identity) but one so unnatural it requires an act of God’s self-revelation, our incorporation by water into Jesus Christ.
Once we have aided and abetted God putting them in Jesus Christ, we’re not really in a position to stand in the way of their baptismal vocation. By water and the Spirit, Christ has already said “I do” to them. Who the hell are we to stop them from telling others about their Beloved?
Worse, to the extent we question the sufficiency of the baptized’s in-Christness (by implying they’re somehow more incompatible than all the rest of us) the Church, as Luther might point out, casts itself in the role of the devil.
I realize we’re still getting to know one another, so it may come as a shock to some of you to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.
Case in point:
Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend, Ben, to attend a Christmas party hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ.
Back then, I was still new in my faith. I’d only become a Christian a year or so earlier. Like a lot of new converts, I thought I had all the answers, but also didn’t know what I didn’t know.
As their former name implies, Campus Crusade was an aggressively evangelistic organization, and even that is putting it mildly.
Of course, I didn’t know that when I accepted the invitation.
An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed so tame to Ben, having grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, he hadn’t bothered to prepare me for this “party.”
Now I shouldn’t have to tell you that the word “party,” to a college student, conjures particular images and elicits very specific expectations— none of which were matched by the gathering Ben took me to that Saturday night.
In fact, in all my years of college and graduate school, this was the only party where a den mother asked me to take my shoes off at the front door.
As we walked through the cold darkness of the night on a thin layer of snow, to a neighborhood just off campus, we came to a short driveway to a small ranch home.
I could see through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.
At first, I thought we must be at the wrong house.
This must be a Mary Kay or Tupperware party.
Maybe a bridge club going on.
Ben assured me it was the right address.
When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door.
When Ben introduced me, the guy— the student pastor— shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said, “Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.”
And I replied, “What?”
This must have been his secret Christian greeting.
And because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the Bible, and because I didn’t reciprocate with “Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1,” he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.
But first, his wife asked me to take off my shoes.
Everyone else must have drank the Kool-Aid before I arrived, because I didn’t fit in and couldn’t understand how people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me.
He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my calculator watch between bites.
You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-along.
I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.
On my left was a girl who began every sentence with “The Lord just put it on my heart to ________”, and who looked at me like I was as crazy as I thought she was.
On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall.
He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt.
Earlier, over chocolate covered pretzels, he asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.
“I’m sorry. I don’t watch Star Trek,” I lied.
We sang songs whose words I vaguely knew and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced.
Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.
When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our Bibles.
I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair.
Not only was I the only person who had failed to bring a Bible with them, I hadn’t a clue where a Bible reader could buy a carrying case for their Bible.
“You didn’t bring a Bible with you?” Mike asked chagrined.
“Uh, I’m a Methodist.”
And, to my surprise, everyone nodded like this was a perfectly reasonable explanation.
“Luke, chapter two,” Mike said.
Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud, “In the days of King Herod…”
After he finished the reading, Mike started in on his Campus Crusade for Christ mandated “talk.”
“The promise of the Gospel,” he began, “is that God gives himself in Christ for the sin of the world— for your sins and my sins— but…” he said, “you have to do your part, too.”
“At Christmas God gives Christ to you, on the Cross Christ gives himself for you, but it’s not complete until you give yourself to Christ, too.”
And everyone around the room nodded their heads.
“In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again,” Mike said, closing his Bible.
And for several long minutes, people around the room shared stories about the time they got saved— down to the date and the place and the crisis that occasioned it.
“What about you?” Mike asked me, “I’m sorry I forgot your name…you—the one who didn’t bring a Bible.”
“Me?” I asked and looked around, wishing I could be debating the Prime Directive.
“Well, I got baptized…”
And he shook his head, “But when did you get born again?”
“I started going to church against my will not that long ago,” I said. “And, I don’t know, I just suddenly realized one day that I trusted in Jesus.”
“I’m sorry, Jason, but that’s not good enough and, well, there’s eternal consequences to consider.”
And that’s right about the point when the contrarian in me came out.
“Excuse me?” I said, “Not good enough?”
He nodded in a patronizing way and explained, “In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again. You’ve got to make a decision for Christ. You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior.”
Little did this soul-patched pastor know, he was stepping with a recent Virginia State forensic-and-debate champion.
“Tell me, Mike,” I said. “You called it the promise of the Gospel.”
And he nodded his head, thinking he had me.
“But if there’s a condition, if there’s something I’ve got to do for it to be true for me, doesn’t that turn the promise into a demand?”
Ben blushed as red as the pastor’s wife’s corduroy dress.
“I mean— if you’re saved, because you give your heart to Jesus (and not saved until you do), doesn’t that mean you’re saving yourself, Mike? Not Jesus?”
The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first thirty minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape, she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house.
NO ONE SEEMED TO APPRECIATE THE BUDDING THEOLOGIAN IN THEIR MIDST!
No one except for the bearded fifty-year old with the Star Trek shirt who said, “Dude, that’s deep,” which didn’t exactly help my case.
In fact, the girl sitting next to me had placed her large KJV Bible in the crack of the sofa cushions, erecting a barrier between us and making clear that she was not with me.
Still, I’ve always had thick skin, so I pressed into the point.
“Think about it, Mike,” I said. “If salvation isn’t real until my decision activates it, then isn’t my faith just another work? Isn’t salvation something I’ve earned for myself then?”
“Jesus says it plainly,” Mike rebutted, stroking his soul-patch. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
“But isn’t it odd,” I said, starting to enjoy myself in a sado-masochistic sort of way, “to turn that verse into a requirement— something we must do, get born again— when the whole point of an image like being born is that it’s passive? I mean, I don’t know about you, Mike, but I didn’t contribute a single thing to my birth. In fact, my mom had to have a C-section my head was so big.”
“Sounds like you’ve still got a pretty big head,” Mike did not say to himself.
As if on cue, Ben summoned a fake “hahahahaha” from somewhere in his belly and nervously suggested we sing another song.
Mercifully, Mike swung his guitar around like Church Berry, said “Amen,” and started another song.
“I’ve seen the signs you do,” Nicodemus says to Jesus. “Tell me, who are you?”
And oddly, Jesus answers with that verse which tightens the sphincter of every good, liberal United Methodist: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
Apparently, Nicodemus knows what he doesn’t know.
Nicodemus must suspect his faith is somehow inadequate and lacking; otherwise, Nicodemus— a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin even— would not take the great risk of coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
Sure, it’s only chapter three, but here in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just thrown his temple tantrum and already he’s made himself public enemy Number One.
But Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t do anything at all to mitigate whatever spiritual crisis has led Nicodemus to Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t bother to comfort Nicodemus or reassure Nicodemus or do anything to relieve whatever existential tension has brought Nicodemus to Jesus.
Notice how Jesus tightens the screws.
Jesus doesn’t do what United Methodist pastors are trained to do.
Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with some blessed assurance like, “It’s okay. Don’t worry, Nicodemus, be happy. God loves you.”
Jesus doesn’t offer Nicodemus a non-anxious presence and say, “Your faith is fine just as it is, Nicodemus. We’re all on a journey. There are many paths to my Father.”
No, Jesus sticks his thumb in whatever ache Nicodemus is nursing and raises the stakes absolutely, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus, you must be born again.”
Oh, and FYI, he’s not just talking to Nicodemus.
Jesus dials it up to DEFCON ETERNAL for all of us, because that “you” in “You must be born again,” is plural.
I know that the last thing you United Methodists want is to be considered among those kind of Christians, but, like it or not, we are swept up in that you.
It’s, “You all must be born anothen if you want to see the Kingdom of God.”
No loopholes for raking your neighbor’s yard or never missing a Sunday service.
That you— it’s all of us.
“You all must be born again.”
And Nicodemus, he’s a Pharisee.
He’s super religious, so he responds— like we religious types always respond— with what he’s supposed to do.
“How do I do that, Jesus…?
And then Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You all must be born again.”
Pay attention to the verbs Jesus uses on Nicodemus in verses three and five.
The verbs are what makes this passage that’s normally bad news for Christians like us good news for everybody.
Unless you all are born again, Jesus says, you will never see the Kingdom and you will never enter the Kingdom of God.
When it comes to God and God’s Kingdom, on our own, we’re powerless.
We are born— naturally— spiritually blind and spiritually paralyzed.
Whatever Jesus means by you being born again, he’s not talking about something you do.
The dead don’t make decisions.
I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben, “Well gosh, that was an awesome party.”
And Ben laughed, “I don’t see what difference it makes.”
“Difference? It makes all the difference in the world. People like him turn that verse about being born again into a threshold you must cross— you’ve got to do it a certain way, pray a particular prayer— otherwise you’re not a genuine, real-deal Christian.”
Ben didn’t say anything else until we’d walked back onto campus, crossing the footbridge over Emmett Street when Ben said:
“Still, even if it’s a passive image— like with your mom and the C-section— you can still point to a date when it happened, right?
You can still name the time and the place when you were born. Shouldn’t you have to be able do that for when you were born again. Shouldn’t you be able to see when and where you got born again?”
Like I said, I had the trophies to prove it. I was a debate champ.
So, I knew when I’d been bested.
Let me make it plain—Being born again is not “making a decision for Jesus Christ.” The dead don’t make decisions. We are born anothen. Again. Or, the Greek can also be translated from above. It’s top down. You’ve got nothing to do it.
You don’t come to Jesus to get born again— corspes can’t get up and go anymore— Jesus must come to us and deliver us.
We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us.
Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through Him and not one thing came into being without Him.”
In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all, that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation, too.
By water and the spirit.
To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares, “Behold, mankind made in our image.”
And what does John show you?
Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate.
And what does Pilate say?
“Behold, the man.”
And later, on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you?
Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his Holy Spirit.
And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side, and what does John show you?
Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out— in other words— onto sinful humanity.
Water and the spirit, the sixth day.
And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you?
Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.
Then Easter, the first day of the week.
And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?
For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.
Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors.
This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave, and like a mighty, rushing wind, he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to them.
Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.
He breathes on them.
Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.
They’re made new again.
And on that same first day, John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father, too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right.
The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.
What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true.
The cosmically inclusive love God is exclusive through Jesus Christ.
You must be born again.
And yes, we are incorporated in that “you.”
You must be born again, Bill.
You must be born again, Bob.
Barbara, you must be born again.
Every last one of you— you’ve got be born from above, the Gospel says.
But what the Gospel shows, what the Gospel wants you to see, is that you have been.
You’ve been delivered.
Just as all of us were dead through Adam’s trespass, the Bible says, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says. The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God, consider yourselves anothened. Being born again— it comes to you on God’s terms not your own.
Back in college, a newly minted convert, I had a lot of answers, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Turns out, my friend was right that dark winter night.
You should be able to name the day.
So, if someone ever asks you if you’ve been born again, then- like Venkman tells Ray- next time, “You say YES.” Say yes.
And give them the particulars, the where, and the when.
Tell them you were born again— you got saved— sometime between Good Friday and Resurrection morning, the year— 33 AD, on a hill outside of Jerusalem.
You got born again not when you chose Jesus Christ (Have you been watching the Impeachment Trial? Our choices aren’t trustworthy enough to stake a sandwich on let alone eternity.) but because God chose you in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ, God chose you from before time for all time.
And by the doing and dying and rising of Jesus Christ, like a Mother, God delivered you from slavery to Sin and Death into newness of life— eternal life.
There’s alot of Bible Belt baggage that comes with this verse about being born again so if you haven’t been tracking with anything today, pay attention right here.
Alot of Christians turn this passage of the Gospel into the Law.
Into a demand you must fulfill, an expectation you must meet, into an ought that only accuses.
In order to be born again, you’ve got to make a decision. You’ve got to invite him into your heart in this way. You’ve got to pray this prayer. You’ve got to clean up your act and you have got do these things.
Alot of Christians turn this Gospel into the Law.
Jesus doesn’t say anything about any steps or conditions or techniques.
There’s no earning or deserving.
There’s not even any adverbs like sincerely or contritely or genuinely.
Jesus doesn’t say a word about anything you need to take on or give up.
Your delivery is one-sided, God-sided.
And the only thing more impossibly miraculous is the means by which you access it. All you have to do— no, all you can do— is simply trust that it is so.
As Jesus says to Nicodemus, “God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son so that every single individual who simply trusts into him would even now have eternal life.”
That’s good news. But that doesn’t loosen the scews Jesus tightened down on Nicodemus because in the end you’re left with the same choice Jesus leaves for Nicodemus. You can either believe OR not believe. There’s no other other way.
“Separation is tragic because we thereby shut out some of our most challenging interlocutors. When the IRD (in those rare moments when they talk theologically) tells me that I am soft on scripture, they are right. Who among my progressive buddies is going to challenge my biblical interpretation? (And who is the IRD going to have fun kicking around once I’m gone and they are hunkered down with their boringly homogeneous buddies in Good News and the WCA?)
Go ahead. Get your church all cleaned up. Have everyone swear to your cherished ideology. What are you going to do about Jesus? Our Lord refuses to keep reaching out and bringing in the ‘wrong’ people making my church more complicated than I would like it to be. Just wait until the progressive UMC pastor discovers that she’s got folks in her congregation who are just as sexist, racist, and homophobic as the people who walked out? Cure them of their homophobia; next Sunday Jesus will demand that you work on their greed.
If I know anything about Jesus, he’ll show up at the inaugural Sunday of the doctrinally-sound, Bible-believing. WCA-approved congregation with the nicest same-sex couple and their two children. Then what?”
Friend of the podcast and mentor in mayhem, Bishop Will Willimon joins Jason and Teer to talk about the most recent divorce proposal in the UMC, the Protocol for Reconciliation through Grace— a proposal that manages both to sound like a creepy measure in a dystopian science fiction novel (“protocol”) and like a sad euphemism for a break-up.
To read more about the protocol: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/diverse-leaders-group-offers-separation-plan
Willimon’s piece, “Separation Sadness,” will be available soon at Ministry Matters.
I’m working on a journal article with Dr. Johanna Hartelius, cohost at Crackers and Grape Juice, on the apocalyptic rhetoric of Fleming Rutledge. Reading again Karl Barth’s Homiletics and reviewing Fleming’s sermons, it has struck me once again her insistence that the grammar of our preaching betrays our theology.
I remember one occasion from homiletics class when I was in seminary. This belligerently confident, hyper-evangelical classmate preached his sample sermon before the class. His sermon was frenetic. He clearly thought he was the superior preacher to all of us and, admittedly, his delivery was effective.
However, our professor, Dr Kay, looked restless and irritated through the entirety of the 20 minute sermon. Once the student finished Dr Kay breathed out his exasperation and declared to the preacher:
‘Do you realize not one of your sentences had God as their subject.’
The point seemed lost on the preacher. But it hit me hard.
The preacher from my introductory homiletics class is but an extreme example of a mistake I think preachers, myself included, commit all the time.
Guess who is?
That’s right. We are.
We speak of seekers instead of the sought.
We speak of our purpose instead of God’s purposes.
We speak of our questions about God instead of God’s questioning of us.
Too often our preaching is the sermonic equivalent of bad contemporary Christian music: I long for you. I hunger for you. I want more of you.
Will Willimon, in his book on preaching and Karl Barth, comments on Barth’s belief that all preaching is a reenactment of the primal miracle ‘And God said…’ Yet frequently our preaching is a less urgent, pale imitation: ‘This is what I have to say about God today.’ We preach as though God is not the one speaking to us through the text and gradually, without such urgency of the Living Word, we imply that God never spoke.
I believe the problem with most sermons is not one of delivery, style, rhetoric or technique (though there’s plenty of room for improvement there too).
The problem is theological.
Probably this sounds obvious but I wouldn’t say it if weren’t true and a desperately needed reminder: it’s about God.
The deficiency in many sermons, my own included, is that they’re not about God. They’re about our needs, our questions or our issues. They’re anthropological not theological. We’re the subject of the sentences. We preach the parable of the prodigal son as an allegory from which we can take lessons of family relationships. We turn the story of the woman from Samaria into a moralism about inclusivity. We take the transfiguration and preach on the need to return to the valley and serve the world’s hurting. Of course, each of those passages can have those implications but fundamentally they’re passages about God. All too often it’s the revelation we leave out.
Dr. Kay’s comments to my cocky classmate have always stuck with me, but truthfully if you go back through my old sermons and diagram the sentences you’ll find that God is the object of my sentences not the subject.
The majority of homiletics resources focus on the mechanics of the sermon process, on technique, rhetoric and sermonic forms; meanwhile, discussions about preaching primarily focus on the appropriate role of media in sermons. Others speculate if the preaching task will remain a viable exercise in the future.
What’s absent from the standard, available fare is the kerygma. There’s little awareness of preaching as fundamentally an announcement, an event of the Living Word that provokes a crisis in the listener and demands a decision.
I’m enough of a closet Calvinist to take seriously the Second Helvetic Confession’s stipulation that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” I believe- I depend on- that when the Word is faithfully preached and faithfully received it is the Living Word. This is one reason why debates about the authority of scripture are so very boring. The question is never just did God say that because we have a God who continues to speak today.
What’s more, if the Second Helvetic Confession is correct, then preaching which merely uses scripture as an illustration of an argument arrived at by others means risks malnourishing its listeners. Preachers can literally starve their listeners on a steady diet of propositions, points and helpful hints.
I listen to a lot of sermons. Sometimes I think it’s a best practice sort of exercise. Other times I think it’s masochistic. So few of the sermons I hear are animated by the conviction in the Living Word that emerges in the Helvetic Confession. They’re a message about Jesus. They’re lessons drawn from what Jesus said. They do not pulse with a God who says.
To be honest, this is the problem I have with much of the topical series preaching that’s common today. Sermon series like ‘Antidotes for the Out of Control Life,’ ‘Difficult Decision’ or ‘Fearless: Live Your Life without Fear’ can be effective and helpful to listeners, I know, but they’re also inherently anthropological.
And don’t think I’m wedded to the revised common lectionary because I’m not.
My wariness about topical sermon series is that it’s our questions or felt needs that drive the sermon. Indeed they’re imposed upon the scripture text from the start of the planning process. The topics of the series predetermine what the Word can and cannot say. They constrict God’s speech.
Once a year I preach just such a sermon series. It’s always carefully planned and promoted to attract young unchurched families. Every year, without question, these are my very worst sermons. I mean just awful.
I used to think they’re terrible because I’m no good at the quasi-Dr. Phil ‘how-to’ propositions such sermons require. That may be true but even more I think its because these sermons aren’t really about God. God is a device, an object or a means to my preconceived end. God’s not the subject, and I’ve found that if God’s not the one speaking then I literally have nothing to say.
Don’t be mistaken. I’m not saying that faithful proclamation needs to be accompanied by a Geneva collar and a mahogany pulpit the size of a C37. Preaching can be deductive or narrative, rationalistic or impressionistic, from a pulpit or the sanctuary floor, with or without PowerPoint slides. But it needs to have God as the subject.
Henry Emmerson Fosdick famously said that folks don’t come to church to hear about the Jebusites. Karl Barth famously said that folks come to church with anticipation, wondering ‘is it true?’
They were both right.
People do not come on a Sunday morning for the arcane or the minutiae. They do not hunger for facts. They do hunger for a Word from the Lord.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the popularity of topical preaching today has less to do with the utilitarian nature of our culture (though that has to be a large part of its appeal) and more to do with our Enlightenment-bound lack of confidence in the Living Word. Perhaps the lack of confidence that afflicts preaching isn’t a lack of confidence in our skill, ability or call but a lack of confidence that the God who became incarnate in human flesh can today inhabit our words.
As a result, what often suffers is our urgency. It was said of George Whitfield that he ‘preached as a drowning man to other drowning men.’ The waters must have receded because the problem today with much anthropological preaching is just this lack of urgency. Sermon topics such as ‘Antidotes for the Out of Control Life’ ask for listeners’ consideration not their decision. Its aim is for listeners to apply ‘principles’ to their lives; its aim is not to let the Word loose to provoke a crisis or event in the listeners’ lives.
The danger behind anthropological preaching is that as long as God is the object of my preaching and not the subject then I, as the preacher, set the pace. Not God. This is very different than God calling me today, speaking to me now, through the text in a way I could not have anticipated 18 months ago when I planned my sermon series.
It’s not only the sermon’s urgency that suffers. Anthropological preaching is very often boring too, boring not because of its mode of presentation or skill in delivery but boring because God is not allowed to say anything unexpected. The Word needs to service the predetermined topic; there’s no room for the Word to speak anything contrary, unexpected or counter-intuitive. The Word needs to fit into our prearranged categories. Practically speaking, this can be deadly for a listener’s sense of anticipation. It can bore them. Speaking theologically, it’s a problem because any God who takes up residence in a peasant Jew from Nazareth is a God who refuses categorization or easy deduction.
Isaiah 62.1-5 and John 2.1–11
“Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons…”
Six stone jars.
Let’s round to the middle, say twenty-five gallons.
Unlike my boys’ homework, this is the sort of math I know how to do.
If, or when the United Methodist implodes over the sexuality issue, I could get a gig in a restaurant kitchen.
Back in Middle School, I was the Doogie Howser of Home Economics.
My Italian grandma was a chef.
I’m got knife skills.
I’ve got all the mother sauces memorized.
I’m a pretty good cook.
So, that’s four quarts to a gallon.
One quart equals roughly six glasses (cabernet glasses) giving you a minimum grand total of 2,160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water.
That’s a lot of wine.
Even if you’re hanging out at a cigar bar with Rudy and Lev Parnas, that’s a prodigal amount of booze.
And Jesus makes not Three Buck Chuck, Jesus transforms water into top shelf Pinot.
Pretty impressive party trick, Jesus.
But, not to be outdone, Jesus’ friends— you and I, the Church, especially the United Methodist Church— we’ve somehow managed to pull off the more difficult feat of transforming the Gold Medal wine of Grace into the tasteless, odorless, joyless, ordinary, everyday water of the Law.
We’ve turned the Gospel into Iocane Powder! (poison)
Jesus kicks off the salvation of the world by turning water into wine, but we’ve pulled off the more impossible trick of turning his wine back into water.
Jesus can turn water into wine, sure, but look at us.
We’re like David Copperfield walking through the Great Wall of China.
We’re able to turn Christ’s wine back into water.
And, Jesus just did it at Cana that one time— that’s it.
We turn his wine into water, again and again and again and again…
I realize this is like a rookie’s mistake, beginner’s stuff. I know it’s bad rhetorical strategy to give away my main point right at the get go. Wine into water— what the hell was I thinking?
I was on vacation. I haven’t preached since Christmas. I’m out of practice.
So, forget all about that phrase “wine into water.”
Think about anything other than “wine into water.”
Pretend I never said anything about how we turn wine back into water.
Whatever you do, don’t think at all about how we revert his wine into water.
One hundred and fifty gallons for drunk people to drink— that’s a pretty impressive sleight of hand. Still though, it’s a queer way for Jesus to begin his redemptive work.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry not by preaching or teaching, not by casting out demons or curing disease.
Jesus doesn’t lift up a single, lowly poor person or speak one syllable of truth to power.
Instead, in John’s Gospel, Jesus kicks off his redemptive work by being Mary’s plus one at a wedding party, a celebration where Jesus, in a pinch, proves he’s an even better bartender than Tom Cruise in the 1988 film Cocktail.
It seems like a strange way for John to begin the story of our salvation.
And then John interrupts the party play-by-play to report to you that, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…”
John doesn’t call the wine that had been water a miracle.
John calls the wine that had been water a sign.
Miracles are momentary intrusions by God into the natural order.
Miracles are ends in themselves.
But signs point beyond themselves.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus performs miracles.
But in John’s Gospel, Jesus does signs— seven signs.
We’re meant to see more here than a miracle.
We’re meant to see more here than a marriage supper.
And there’s so much here to see!
Take the six stone jars— they’re a sign.
This wedding at Cana, it isn’t the sort of wedding where your Aunt Becky buys credentials online for $69.99 in order to be able to officiate the I dos.
This wedding at Cana is a worship service; therefore, you can’t just show up with your invite, black tie, and gift from Williams Sonoma.
To come to this wedding is to come before God and, according to the Bible, God is not like Mr. Rogers.
You’re not acceptable before God just the way you are.
You have to be made acceptable.
You have to be purified.
You have to be justified.
And so, as the guests would arrive for the nuptials, before they’d get handed their programs, they’d dip their hands into the stone jars to wash away their sin and render themselves ritually clean.
The jars were made of stone, not clay, because clay is porous, and the water would get dirty in clay jars.
The whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity.
The water in the stone jars was to justify you, to make you blameless before a holy God.
But, it didn’t work.
Not only are these stone jars standing empty and idle, John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection.
It’s a sign.
And with this sign John’s showing you that this whole system of making ourselves acceptable before God by dint of our own good deeds and religious doings— it didn’t work.
There’s so much here to see.
Giving in to his mother’s grumblings, Jesus tells the caterers at Cana, “Fill the stone jars with water.”
Do you see?
Jesus is taking this system of making ourselves blameless and acceptable before God and transferring it to Himself.
Jesus is taking these means by which we’re able to meet God and He’s making Himself in charge of it.
It’s a sign.
John wants you to see here at the get-go of his Gospel what you’ll hear later in his Gospel— that the only way you can meet God is by the gracious doing of Jesus Christ for you.
He is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
He is your justification.
And it’s on the house.
By His Grace.
And for those who are not perfect and without blemish, that’s good news.
There’s so much good news to see here.
Notice the amount of water, one hundred and fifty gallons.
It’s a sign.
The Jewish Talmud specifies how much water is necessary for the ritual of purification.
According to the Talmud, one cup of water— that’s eight fluid ounces— is enough water to purify and justify one hundred men.
This is 19,200 ounces of water.
My boys are better than me at that sort of math, but that’s enough water to justify almost two million people, which is more people than a first century Jew like John could imagine.
You all have ears enough to see here, don’t you?
This is John showing you that Jesus Christ is able— able by dint not of your own doing, but by nothing but His own merit— to bring the whole world to his Father.
It’s a sign, and John wants you to see what you’ll hear Jesus say to the woman at the well, “I am Living Water.
Everyone who drinks of me will be thirsty again, for the water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to Eternal Life.”
There’s so much good stuff to see here.
Like the wine—
Jesus takes the water that was necessary because of sin, and He transforms it into two thousand glasses of the finest vintage vino.
It’s a sign.
According to the prophets Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, the arrival of God’s cosmic work of salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.
John wants you to see that the incarnation of Jesus Christ into our world is God making good on God’s promise to the prophet Isaiah today.
When Israel languished in exile, convicted of their sin and convinced God had abandoned them for breaking their vow to him, God chooses a marriage supper, a wedding party, as the image for how God would redeem his sinful people and reconcile all of Creation.
John wants you to see that with the arrival of God-in-the-flesh in our world the not yet of God’s redemptive work is here and now.
It’s a sign.
With all these wine glasses, John wants you to see that the future promised to Isaiah is present tense in Jesus Christ; therefore, water is only the beginning of what he’s about to transform.
Do you see?
It’s a sign of what He promises later in the Gospel, “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly.”
There’s so much good news to see here.
Take the timing.
John tells you that Jesus and the disciples arrive to this wedding party at Cana on the third day. The third day since when, exactly?
It’s an unhelpful, extraneous detail unless what John wants you to see is a hint of when Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty tomb on the third day, the first morning of a New Creation.
Speaking of a New Creation, this third day in Cana is actually the seventh day thus far in John’s Gospel.
John, who begins his Gospel with a deliberate echo of the Genesis Creation story, numbers the days in his Gospel just like Genesis, too.
If you turn to John 1.19, you’ll see John says on the “first day.”
And then in verse 29, John tells you “on the next day,” and then in verse 35, John says, “on the next day.”
So, that’s three days, and then in chapter 1, verse 43, John again says “on the next day.”
That’s four days, and then when you turn to chapter two and the wedding at Cana, John tells you “three days later.”
On the seventh day.
This marriage supper at Cana where Jesus arrives as a guest but ends up acting as the host (“Do whatever he says,” Mary orders the caterers), it happens on the seventh day.
Translation, this is no ordinary wedding party at all.
It’s a sign.
It points beyond itself.
You’re supposed to see here at the beginning of Christ’s work a glimpse of the end of Christ’s work, the consummation of all things.
This marriage supper where Jesus ends up acting as the host— it’s a sign of salvation.
At the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, the occasion for John to announce the arrival of a new heaven and new earth, the occasion for John to announce that Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more— is a wedding party.
John calls the end of all things, Salvation and New Creation, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
The date of the wedding matters, because it’s a sign.
John wants you to see a glimpse of your destiny.
And when you realize this wedding party at Cana is meant to point to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, New Creation, Heaven, Eternal Life, the whole kit and kaboodle of everything God ever spoke into existence— only when you see that this wedding is a sign of that marriage supper can you begin to laugh at the outrageousness of God’s indiscriminating grace.
Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink.
He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it.
He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too drunk to know what He’s done.
As the master of the feast says to the groom, “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine last, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re drunk.”
Even more crazy, the bridegroom and his family, who failed to purchase enough wine for the celebration, they end up getting the credit for what Christ has done.
The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance.
They get the credit that Christ alone merits.
As though, they had done it themselves.
It’s a sign.
Surely, you can see its meaning?
Earlier this week one of you emailed me an article you found online. I clicked the link and quickly praised God it had nothing to do with the LGBTQ issue in the UMC (at least, not obviously so). In fact, it was an obituary in the Des Moines Register.
I realize it might sound odd to mention death in the context of a wedding story except (a) every married couple will appreciate the irony, and (b) even Jesus interrupts this wedding with talk of crucifixion. “Woman, what concern is that to me? My hour has not yet come.”
The obituary was for a Nebraskan named, Ken Fuson.
And it’s one of those obituaries that’s more than just an obituary.
It’s a, well, it’s a sign.
Ken Fuson’s sons wrote:
“Ken Fuson was born June 23, 1956 and died Jan. 3, 2020 in at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, of liver cirrhosis, and is stunned to learn that the world is somehow able to go on without him.
Ken attended the University of Missouri-Columbia’s famous School of Journalism, which is a clever way of saying, “almost graduated, but didn’t.” Facing a choice between covering a story for the Columbia Daily Tribune or taking his final exams, Ken went for the story. He never claimed to be smart, just committed.
In 1996, Ken took the principled stand of leaving the Des Moines Register, because The Sun in Baltimore offered him more money. Three years later, having blown most of that money at Pimlico Race Track, he returned to the Register, where he remained until 2008. In his newspaper work, Ken never won a Pulitzer Prize, but he’s dead now, so get off his back.
There are those who would suggest that becoming a free-lance writer in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression was not a wise choice, but Ken was never one to be guided by wisdom. He wrote the book, “Heading for Home” with Kent Stock, about the 1991 Norway baseball team that won the state championship in its final season. Good copies are still available.
Ken was diagnosed with liver disease at the beginning of 2019, which is pretty ironic given how he never drank, never a drop of beer, whiskey, or wine. Eat your fruits and vegetables, kids.
Ken had many character flaws – if he still owes you money, he’s sorry, sincerely – but he liked to think that he had a good sense of humor and a deep compassion for others. He prided himself on letting other drivers cut in line. He would give you the shirt off his back, even with the ever-present food stain. Thank goodness nobody asked. It wouldn’t have been pretty. He also was a master Jumbles solver.
For most of his life, Ken suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him. But his church friends, and the loving people at Gamblers Anonymous, never gave up on him. Ken last placed a bet on Sept. 5, 2009. He died clean. He hopes that anyone who needs help will seek it, which is hard, and accept it, which is even harder.
Ken’s pastor says God can work miracles for you and through you. Skepticism may be cool, and for too many years Ken embraced it, but Jesus Christ transformed his life. Faith was the one thing he never regretted. Jesus Christ transformed everything for him.
For many years Ken was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Indianola and sang in the choir, which was a neat trick considering he couldn’t read a note of music. The choir members will never know how much they helped him. He then joined the Lutheran Church of Hope. If you want to know what God’s transformative love feels like, just walk in those doors.
Seriously, go right now. We’ll wait. Ken’s not going anywhere.
Yes, this obituary is probably too long. Ken always wrote too long.
So we’ll close by saying, God is good. See you in heaven. Ken promises to let you cut in line.”
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…”
There’s so much top shelf vintage stuff at this marriage supper in Cana for us to serve.
You are justified, not by anything you do, but by the gracious doing of Jesus Christ.
That’s here at this marriage supper.
Not only are you blameless before God and acceptable to God— no matter what you’ve done or left undone— by grace through faith you are credited with what Jesus Christ alone has done, as though his singular faithfulness is your very own.
That’s in here, too, at this marriage supper for you to see and for us to serve.
Ditto Christ’s promise to give you life, abundant life, because water is the least of what Jesus Christ can transform and is transforming and will transform at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
That’s here at this marriage supper for us to serve the guests of the Bridegroom.
And that BridegroomNot only is he happy to lavish high dollar wine on drunk people to drink, in the crazy good fun of His Grace, He’s happy to let us all cut in line at Heaven’s Gate.
Miracles abound. God is good. Jesus Christ, who is not dead, can transform anything.
And, it’s all available to anyone at the rock bottom price of absolutely “free.”
OUR SHELVES ARE STOCKED!
WE’VE GOT SO MUCH GOOD VINTAGE FIVE STAR STUFF TO SERVE THE BRIDEGROOM’S GUESTS! GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS…
These days, in the United Methodist Church, we’re more interested in arguing over who deserves an invitation to the party.
It’s an impressive feat, turning “wine back into water.”
“There was no good for the Episcopal Church that came from the schism over the LGBTQ issue. None at all.”
That’s almost as good as her line about the Enneagram being astrology for Episcopalians.
Back on the podcast at last, the peerless Fleming Rutledge joins me to talk about the 20th Anniversary Edition of her book, Help My Unbelief. In addition to her book, Fleming reflects on the conservative/progressive divide in the Church, the LGBTQ debate in the UMC, the Christianity Today editorial advocating for the removal of President Trump, praying for social justice issues and preaching that incorporates current events. Oh, she also prays at the end.
Fleming’s my favorite and she should be yours too.
Don’t forget— go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com to support the pod, get some swag, subscribe to get the next episode automatically.
For the second installment of our new podcast series, You Are Not Accepted: Engaging Holiness with Stanley Hauerwas, Dr. Johanna, Teer, and I talked with Stan the Man about his essay “Without Apology. Stan shares with us why sermons should be arguments and why listeners should be respected enough to give them the Gospel rather than something allegedly “relevant.”
Before you listen, go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com where you can become a patron of the pod, get your very own Stan the Man t-shirt, or order a copy of our new book, Crazy Talk.
“Lord Jesus, rip open the heavens and come to us, reach down, reach in, disrupt, touch, embrace, speak to us. Do not leave us, O Lord, to our own devices. Abandon us not to our own voices. Speak to us, miraculously appear to us, and then give us the grace to listen. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hears be acceptable in your sight, our Lord, our rock, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.” — Will Willimon
I must say, I do not know how to preach this text. Not that I really know how to preach at all — I am just a kid — but these texts have proven quite difficult to wrestle with, not least because of the time in which we live. The past week has left me shocked, scared, sad, exhausted, depleted, angry, and a variety of other emotions that are not particularly conducive to preaching. One might assume that the potential for war would make sermons easier to write. I can assure you it does not. The task of truthfully declaring the peace incarnate in Christ is made all the more difficult by war. In fact, a theological analysis of war would probably conclude that this is precisely war’s purpose: to make the Gospel mute. Understanding how baptism could bear on the prospect of war has made for tough muddling.
You see, the fact that this country has been at war almost every single day that I have been alive means that peace — and, moreover, justice — are concepts that are difficult to entertain. Such entertainment has been precluded by the ubiquity of war in our collective, modern lives. In the U.S., this is true also because war does not happen here. We are blissfully untouched by the corporeal vicissitudes of militaristic violence. The flip side of this bliss is the ignorance of the ways in which war directs and pervades every aspect of ours lives, especially those of us who live in the DC area. We are ignorant especially of war’s tangible effects. We see a rising defence budget, while others only see a bomb dropping towards their village. Aeschylus was quite right to note that truth is the first casualty of war. War and its bedfellow Fear inoculate us to the violence they require, turning children into statistics and families into cold calculations.
I should say, though, that the prospect of war is not new to me: my generation has never known the United States without war. That I have never known this country without war is in itself a testament to the power war has to perpetuate itself. War makes a weapon of fear, and fear makes a weapon of the mundane, meaning that the everyday occurrences constituting our normal lives must never be taken for granted. It is a time of crippling, systematic anxiety, what Kierkegaard would have called “fear and trembling.”
The same fear and anxiety is what strikes at the heart of the Israelites in the Exodus scripture. This people has not known peace or justice for centuries; they have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. The everyday activities of their lives are marked by violence, death, suffering; all at the hands of their captors. So when Moses comes along, we all read the text and assume the Israelites are ready to go, ready to get out of Egypt and go to the land promised to Abraham.
“Stand still,” the inspirational plaque painted in our minds reads. “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord. The lord shall fight for you, and you shall have peace.”
But wait, look again. Did you notice? Israel didn’t want to go. To say they are scared does not do justice to the situation of Israel. They are paralysed by a fear that causes them to want to return. The status quo of slavery to the Egyptians at least offered them the possibility of a life. Slavery, they say, is better than death. And further, certain early church interpreters of this Exodus text understood Egypt to represent Death itself. What they did in identifying Egypt with death was to illustrate the sheer bind that faced the people attempting to escape. Death stands on both sides of them, one in the form of war, the other in the form of drowning. Israel sees death approaching, hears the march of war, and thinks, “this has got to be the end.”
Go back – its right there in the text. In verse 12, the Israelites yell at Moses, the drumbeat of the Egyptian army getting louder and louder by the minute. “Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians. It is better to serve them than to die in the wilderness.” They are, on all accounts, surrounded. War and death, personified in the Egyptian army, approach from the one side, and the Red Sea surrounds them on the other. They are sure to lose the battle, and they cannot survive the swim. The fear that Rameses held over them as slaves sets in once again, and the Israelites are afraid to leave. The fear strikes at the very core of their being.
Don’t get me wrong here: I am not blaming the Israelites for wanting to survive, no matter the cost. Their situation is the very opposite of envious. It seems that the only option is surrender.
But they are the people of God, and if there is any lesson to be drawn from that, it is that God will make his way happen, whether they like it or not. That’s why Moses’ directions is to tell them to stand still. Don’t do anything, Moses says, or you’ll muck up God’s work.
And then, well, you know the story. Moses raises his staff, and God does the rest. Egypt is no more, and Israel is saved. They are baptised in the Red Sea.
Fast forward a while and we find John, a rather extraordinary person dropped in the middle of the height of the Roman Empire to call Israel to repentance. He comes from the desert, from an undesirable place, calling out from the wilderness. He calls Israel out of Rome. John’s call to repentance mirrors Moses’ command to the Israelites: “stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.” “Repent ye,” John says, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Come, be baptised, John urges.
Until Jesus comes along.
Then John stops. “I can’t baptise you,” he says. “I’m not even worthy to touch your sandals. In fact, you should baptise me.” John’s right. For all intents and purposes, John is right. The man before him is not a sinner; Jesus has no need to be baptised. There is nothing, John thinks, that he can do for Jesus. Putting aside John’s good-willed intention to tell God what God ought to be doing, John is right to wonder why Jesus comes to be baptised. The judge comes among the judged to be baptised; the one who is without sin approaches John with the worst of criminals. And John is right to be confused. Here is the man he has been waiting to see his whole life, the Messiah of the world, and he wants to be baptised? For what?
“Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness,” Jesus says.
Did you get that? Baptism, His baptism, is necessary “to fulfil all righteousness.” He didn’t say, “Baptism is necessary for my personal repentance.” He didn’t say, “we need baptism to get to heaven.” He didn’t say, “baptism is about your choice to have a relationship with God.” No! Jesus is emphatic: “my baptism,” he says, “is necessary to fulfil all righteousness.”
Baptism, Jesus says, is about me. Baptism is about who I am.
Just like when God saves Israel through the Red Sea, the baptism isn’t about them. The baptism of Israel is about God. Baptism reveals to us not who we are, but who God is. Israel rejects God, and yet God parts the waters and drags them through to the other side. God refuses to let them return to slavery. The exodus story parallels what God does for us in the baptism of our Lord. Christ is baptised such that we may all be baptised — Christ’s baptism brings us through, kicking and screaming, from the clutches of death and slavery. In Christ’s baptism, the law is fulfilled. Whereas before, Jesus came in the form of a cloud that separated the Israelites from the Egyptians, in his baptism he is fully revealed to us as the Son in whom the Father is well pleased.
The God who is baptised in the Jordan by John is the one who seeks us out first and speaks to us first, in fact, speaks us into existence. We cannot conjure up this God; we could not think him up. If we could, we wouldn’t need to be told who he is. But the whole purpose of John’s baptism of Jesus is for us, for Israel, to find out who this sinless man really is. And as if it isn’t enough of a slap in our rational faces, this God who would humble himself to receive a sinner’s baptism is the God who saves us despite our rejection of him. The baptism of Christ is the moment in which the character of God is revealed, the character of the God who brought the Israelites through the Red Sea despite themselves.
So yes, I understand that the title of this sermon may be somewhat controversial, but it is true. Salvation is by baptism alone… Salvation is by His baptism alone. The baptism we have, the practice by which God enfolds us in Christ’s story, is the means by which we understand who God is. That we baptise babies is no joke: they are the precise markers of someone who cannot confess, who cannot conceive of their own sin, who is ignorant of everything except itself. Infant baptism shows us that our God, the God whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the centrepiece of baptism. Baptism is the moment in which God tears open the world, breaks in and declares the Son ‘good.’
If baptism is really about revelation, if it is really about God showing us who God is, then the baptism of Christ cannot be abstracted from the cross on which he will hang later in the story. That is, Christ’s baptism and Christ’s crucifixion are two moments of the same revelation. Which means that to be baptised is to be baptised into death, into Christ’s death. The tearing open of the Red Sea is a foreshadowing of the tearing open of the heavens in Christ’s baptism, which in turn is the same salvation indicated by the tearing of the temple veil on Good Friday.
When we are baptised, we are baptised into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are baptised into our own deaths, and reborn in his life. The life of Christ is embodied in the people, the body that believes that war has been abolished, that death has been defeated, and that a new ruler has been enthroned. Notice: we are not a people who believe we have to work to abolish war. Our baptism, the act in which we find out just what kind of God we worship, tells us already that war has been defeated. It has been defeated because Christ has been baptised, because God broke into the world and did not let death win.
Matthew tells us that the dove of peace, the Holy Spirit, alights on Jesus when he emerges from the waters. That this happens indicates to us that every prophecy has been fulfilled in the one who humbled himself and took our form. And it tells us that war is no more. War lost its stranglehold of fear when Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan. The world has been baptised. And that means that our hope is not in vain.
I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Dr. Johanna Hartelius, host of Hemeneutics, is hosting a new podcast series for Crackers and Grape Juice called “You Are Not Accepted: Engaging Hauerwas on Holiness.” Every other Wednesday Johanna, Jason Micheli, and Teer Hardy will discuss a writing by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas and oftentimes with Stanley Hauerwas. For our first episode, we talked with Stanley about his essay in Minding the Web entitled “Preaching in the Ruins.”
When I first sat down on the plane, I did what anyone would do.
I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.
A Kenny G Muzak cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” played over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their carry-on above them.
Across the aisle, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out. His mother had her arm around him and was saying “shush,” but the boy was inconsolable.
Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: “All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year, I won’t keep my mouth shut.”
On my right, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know when too much plastic surgery is too much. Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his iPhone. He had a Wall Street Journal, as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap.
He spoke with a Northeastern accent— Boston maybe— and he smelled so strongly of cologne that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it.
He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.
And there I was, the happy, holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Bernie Madoff and Miley Cyrus.
I was flying home from a speaking gig I had in Tyler, Texas, and I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air, you could see the stars.
Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow.
And the woman behind me— though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal— was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d had to spend with her husband’s mother.
Having had many of these same conversations with my own wife, I didn’t bother to turn around. Even without looking, I knew her husband was looking sheepish and emasculated, and probably gritting his teeth in a ‘serenity now’ kind-of-way.
“Where you headed?” the businessman on my left asked.
And I thought to myself: “Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket, but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.”
“I’m headed home, D.C.,” I said.
He chuckled and said, “Good luck.”
Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes.
It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a pastor can provoke interminable, unwanted conversations.
Ironically, though, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking my Bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me.
You don’t even have to read it, necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space.
Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy, while non-religious people won’t say anything for the fear that you’re Baptist and might evangelize them.
And, if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo.
Stops them every time.
That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my Bible out and opened, not to Revelation, but to Matthew— not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left, but also, because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance.
Meanwhile, the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and opened it up. He had at least a dozen windows opened in his browser, the homepages for all sorts of stores: Williams Sonoma, REI, Pottery Barn, Kate Spade. You name it.He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map.
He had Excel open on his computer, and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift, and then he inserted a hyperlink to the company’s website. Every now and then he would click the “Sum” button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2019 Christmas.
I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall, where I saw that I could get a replica Kylo Ren lightsaber for only $800.00.
I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake lightsaber— especially for the bad guy’s lightsaber— when the guy sitting next to me said, “Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.”
I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked “Save.”
After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh. And he said, “It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?”
I looked over at him. “You talking to me?” I said as the fingers of my right hand deftly felt over my bible for the Book of Revelation.
“Yeah”, he said.
“Are you religious,” he asked, and nodded at the Bible on my tray.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
“That’s good,” he said in an absent sort of voice. “I’m not. I mean, I’ve searched before for….”
I let his voice trail off.
A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the Bible.
“It’s the story of the magi,” I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights.
“The wise men,” I said.
He said, “Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels, right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “They go to Jerusalem first, not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.”
“Sounds like they must’ve let their wives drive,” he laughed.
I thought that might be the end of it. I was just about to turn to Revelation or pull out Guns and Ammo, or pretend I was asleep.
But then he asked me, “Why do they go to Jerusalem first?”
“Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us, educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation,” I said.
“They went to Jerusalem first, because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.”
He smiled at me and said, “In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts, and then getting back to their normal lives.”
And, I smiled and said, “Something like that.”
Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment. And, the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip. The man next to me sat up and turned towards me.
“Can I read it?” he asked.
“Well, you’ll have to ask her when she wakes up,” I said, “but I don’t think that’s the kind of book you borrow from someone.”
“No, not that book,” he said.
And, he held out his hand for my Bible. So, I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of Chapter Two. “It’s this part,” I said.
He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe.
When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back.
Then he held the Bible out to me, and he put his index finger down at the page.
“What’s this?” he asked me.
He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.
“That’s from Micah,” I said, “from the Old Testament.”
“Can you show me?” he asked.
And, I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him.
“It’s short,” I warned, “only a few pages long.”
I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words.
I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading.
When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then, he handed it back to me.
“It’s about Jesus, right?” he asked.
I must’ve looked confused, because he pointed at the Bible and added, “The Old Testament passage. What’s his name? Michael was making an…uh…a prediction about Jesus?”
“Sort of,” I said,
“Prediction makes it sound like a guess or, at best, a bet— like Micah’s not sure of what’s to come. It’s a prophecy. It’s a promise about what’s to come. And Matthew wants you to see that the coming of Christ is God making good on what Micah promised was to come.”
“In other words,” he said, “it’s saying Jesus is the reason for the season.”
“Well, actually, no.” I said, “Jesus is not the reason for the season.”
“What do you mean Jesus is not the reason for the season?”
He threw up his hands like we bartering in a market and I’d insulted him with my offer.
“I hear Christians saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” all the time. My neighbor has a sign in his front yard next to a wicker reindeer that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.””
“Well, it shouldn’t be news to you that Christians have screwed the pooch on a good many things over the years.”
“Your neighbor’s wrong,” I said, “Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.”
“You’re pretty argumentative, aren’t you?” he said.
“No,” I said, “I just happen to be right.”
“When I first saw you with your Bible, I thought maybe you were a priest or a preacher, but there’s no way church folks could put up with someone as lippy as you.”
“Probably not.” I smiled, “that’s why I’m an architect; nevertheless, I’m right. Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.”
He just looked at me like I was full of it.
“Look,” I said, unbuckling my seat belt, so I could turn and face him, “You are the reason for the season. Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” is like saying, “My cousin is the reason for April Fool’s Day.” It’s so obvious and redundant it doesn’t convey anything. No, the “reason for the season”— the reason for Christ’s coming— is you.”
“I’ve never heard it put that way before,” he said, starting to chew on it.
“Sure, you have,” I said. “You just weren’t paying attention. It’s in the Creed, “for us and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.” It’s in the carols too,” I said. “For unto us a Child is born, for unto us a Son is given…” Salvation is a gift for you, not a bargain with you.”
“I just figured that “Jesus is the reason for the season” was a way of saying people should remember to give God his due while they’re busy giving everyone else gifts. You know, that Christmas isn’t our birthday, so we shouldn’t leave Jesus off our gift list.”
“Well, that may be what the cliché means, but it’s still not the Gospel. It’s not even in the same area code as the Gospel. It’s a million zipcodes away from the Gospel,” I said.
“You’re pretty opinionated too, aren’t you?” he said.
“Maybe so, but— Look, there’s nothing peculiarly Christian about thinking we ought to give God our praise or charity. Every religion thinks their god is the reason for their holy days. Big deal. But the really bad idea— the suggestion that has not a scrap or grisel of the good news in it— is the hare-brained notion that Christmas is about you needing to give God anything.”
“What about the Christmas carol?” he said. “I’ve got the James Taylor cover of it. How does it go? “Yet, what I can I give Him, give my heart?””
“It’s a pretty tune, but it’s tone deaf theology. Why in the world would you give Jesus your heart? The only thing in your heart is sin and cholesterol.”
“Even the promise from the prophet Micah,” I said.
“People love the line about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly, but the prophecy ends two chapters later with Micah throwing his hands up in the air and bemoaning that there’s not a single righteous person among the lot of us, and that if there’s going to be any hope— even for the religious— then God will have to come down and find a way to cast away all our sins for us.”
“The Gospel begins where you end. Christmas isn’t about you needing to give God anything. Christmas is about you not having anything at all whatsoever to give God, so God comes down in the flesh to give you Christ and everything that belongs to him. Christmas is about receiving, not giving.”
“I don’t know about all this Jesus stuff,” he said. “I feel pretty lost most of the time.”
“The magi got themselves lost too,” I said, “God was still determined to find them.”
We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows. I’d closed my eyes.
“I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it,” he said.
“That’s Luke’s Gospel,” I said. “Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.”
“But the wise men give Jesus gifts. If Christmas is about receiving, then why do the wise men give Jesus gifts?” he said.
“The gifts they give him— frankincense, gold, and myrrh— they’re gifts for a King, but they’re also gifts for a burial. They’re meant to be gifts that foreshadow the gifts Christ gives you.”
He just looked at me blankly.
“Jesus lives the life of perfect faithfulness that God requires of us all. He lives that life for us, and for that faithful life, God has made him King and seated him at the right hand of the Father— that’s the gold.
“Jesus dies to Sin in our stead— that’s the myrrh.
“And, Jesus is our Great High Priest who has made a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice so that we can come before God holy and blameless— that’s the frankincense.
“Through his faithfulness lived for you and his death to sin offered instead of you, God gives you Christ’s righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect record— as your very own.
“Nothing you do for God or give to God could ever improve upon the gift God gives you in Christ at the rock bottom price of free,” I said.
“And what do I got to do to get this gift?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing?! What’s the catch?” he said.
“No catch. The Gospel works like a wedding vow.
He’s already said, “I do,” to you.
Everything that belongs to Him is yours forever and everything that once belonged to you (your sin) became His forever.
There’s nothing for you to do but trust that it’s so and live your life with Him.
And there’s nothing you can do to undo that gift, either.
You can prove to be a less than faithful bride, but you’re still his bride and, as his bride, everything that’s His is yours.
You can blow $800.00 on a Kylo Ren lightsaber or waste hours reading 50 Shades of Grey; nevertheless, whenever God looks upon you, the Father will always see Mary’s Son,” I said.
“But I’ve got to believe in it first, right?” he said.
“Only in the sense that there’s nothing for you to do but believe it. It’s his faithfulness that justifies you before God not your faith in him,” I said.
And, just like that, we’d landed and were waiting for the seats in front of us to empty.
“Maybe you wouldn’t make a completely terrible preacher,” he said, “Except…”
“Except what?” I asked.
“Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?”
I laughed and said… “pretty much.”
“I bet we’d all be less stressed out at Christmas,” he said, “and less judgmental about how much or how little we’re supposed to spend on gifts if we all believed that we’re the reason for all the celebrating,” he said and then clipped his teeth like he was biting off the rest his sentence.
“It all feels too convenient, too good to be true.”
“I’m not making it up,” I said.
“It’s right there in the nativity story. The celebrating starts in heaven. Don’t you see, you’re the gift God gives to himself at Christmas.”
He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.”
And then we went our separate ways.