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Part 2 of my conversation with fan favorite, Reverend Fleming Rutledge, to talk about her latest book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. To dig more into her book and themes, go to www.adventbeginsinthedark.com to subscribe to C&GJ’s daily Advent devotional.

In this installment, Fleming shares a wonderful anecdote of how hearing MLK’s Dream sermon in real time converted her out of the racism of her growing up years. Plus, she says she needs to have me at her right hand all the time!

Jesus is Not St. Nick

Jason Micheli —  December 6, 2018 — Leave a comment

Since today marks St. Nicholas Day, I thought I’d share these words about that dreadful satanic song written in Santa’s “honor:”

The words of that dreadful Christmas song sum up perfectly the only kind of messianic behavior the human race, in it’s self-destructive folly, is prepared to accept: ‘He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s going to find out whose naughty and nice’ – and so on into the dark night of all the tests this naughty world can never pass.

For my money, what Jesus senses clearly and for the first time in the coin in the fishe’s mouth is that He is not, thank God, Santa Claus.

He will come to the worlds sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, no scores to settle.

He will wipe away the handwriting that was against us and nail it to His cross. (Col. 2:14) He will save, not some minuscule coterie of good little boys and girls with religious money in their piggy banks, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, overextended children of this world whom He, as the son of man- the Holy Child of God, the ultimate Big Kid, if you please – will set free in the liberation of His death.

And when He senses that… well, it is simply to laugh.

He racks a “gone fishing” sign over the sweatshop of religion, and for all the debts of all sinners who ever lived.

He provides exact change for free.

How nice it would be if the church could only remember to keep itself in on the joke.

– Robert F. Capon

Have we ripped off the legs of the stool to beat each other with Tradition or Experience? Meanwhile, scripture lays neglected on the floor.

Stuck in the crappy part of the alphabet and scraping the bottom of the barrel, we talked about “Quadrilateral.” For you non-nerds, it’s what Methodists use to refer to Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience.

Hey, unlike grace this podcast ain’t cheap nor is it free. Help us out! You can become a patron for less than I what I require to buy shampoo.

Go to the patreon page and join on our community of donors here.

 

Was Jesus Wrong?

Jason Micheli —  December 3, 2018 — Leave a comment

Having kicked off our Advent Begins in the Dark daily devotional series over at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, I’ve received a number of questions from readers, listeners, and congregants. I thought this question especially good and my attempt at an answer perhaps useful for others to read as well.

Here it is:

Hi Jason,

Matthew 16:27-28. 

I have looked at a lot of commentary on these verses, but none of it rings true to me.  These verses sound to me like Jesus was saying that the second coming was imminent — so imminent, in fact, that some of those standing there would be alive to see it.

The commentaries I have seen invoke the transfiguration or the resurrection or the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem in that day, instead of the second coming, but these don’t make sense to me.

Verse 27 says Jesus would come with angels and God’s glory and would pass judgment on people according what they have done, and then 28 says that some standing there would be alive to see it.

Is there a way to interpret this passage so that Jesus doesn’t get it wrong? Obviously, the way I’m looking at it, the Son of God was pretty far off on his timing.  No second coming still.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.  At your convenience.  No rush.  And we can do this by e-mail.  I don’t need to take up your time in the office.  Thanks.

Best,

F———-

Hi F——-,

Thanks for your thoughtful questions! To return a compliment you gave me, it’s clear you think deeply about scripture. I can’t promise any satisfactory answers, but I can assure you that I’d rather reply to a query like this one than negotiate the merits of real vs. artificial candles for Christmas Eve. 

If I’m going to irritate everyone with my insistence that Advent is the season of the second coming, then it follows that I should be prepared to give an account of passages like the one you’ve cited in Matthew 16. As it happens, I don’t know that I’ve ever preached on this text befoer and it comes up in the lectionary’s 3-year cycle only once and then over Labor Day weekend. 

Here’s some grist for your mind mill—

Matthew uses the word hekasto in vs. 27, meaning “every.” What’s imagined here by Jesus is the judgment of every human being, which by itself is a unique little word in that Matthew is the Gospel most focused on the particularlity of the Church as the New Israel and judgment typically pointed at the world for its treatment of Christ’s little ones, the Church. 

Matthew begins vs. 27 with the word mellei. The NRSV begins the sentence with “For the Son of Man…” Translations are forever guilty of making the evangelists (and Jesus) sound more literate than they were, smoothing out the sentences and, inadvertently, wrinkling their meaning in the process. Here, the word mellei means “just about.” So: “Just about…the Son of Man will come…” It’s both proximate and urgent without in any way being clear or defined. 

Still, you can infer from the diversity of interpretations in the tradition that the Church has been uncomfortable with the same gristle stuck in your craw; that is, the notion that his lack of return could imply that Jesus was wrong. 

Augustine, for example, argued that Matthew 16 finds its fulfillment in the next chapter at the Transfiguration. Luther connected it to the Resurrection, specifically to the Risen Christ’s commission to the Church to baptize the nations into his death and resurrection. Calvin saw this passage of the coming as having come at Pentecost with the alighting of the Spirit. Some, as you indicate, see in it the Fall of Jerusalem— which, later, connects to the Transfiguration— and others see it in terms only of a second coming that hasn’t yet come. 

It seems to me that there are no less than three questions behind your question:

1) Should we be concerned that Jesus may have been wrong about the timing of his return?

2) Was Jesus wrong in this instance in Matthew 16?

3) What do we make of what he says in Matthew 16 about judgment coming to us based on our behavior?

#1 — 

It’s called the “criterion of embarrassment” and I’ve written about it in other places. Basically, it holds that one of the reasons you can trust the witness of the NT is that contains too many otherwise embarrassing details were it made up wholecloth in order to persuade you its hero’s side. Rather than worrying about Jesus being wrong, I think this could be an instance where we’re encouraged that the scriptures are ‘right’ in the witness they give us. That is, the fact that Matthew was willing to commit to papyrus a statement of Jesus already proveably wrong by the time of publication indicates not Jesus’ unreliability about timing so much as Matthew’s reliability when it comes to his testimony. 

Another way of thinking about your dis-ease with Jesus getting it wrong: Luther called it a “theology of glory” against which he cast his “theology of the cross.” Reading Genesis 1-3, Luther saw in Adam our desire always to go looking for a better god with different words than the God who has spoken to us (in his Son). We’re hard-wired, which is to say we’re Sin-compelled, to look for a god who conforms to our (glorious) conceptions; whereas, the God of the Bible generally and Christ particularly loves to “hide himself among his opposites.” While I don’t think Jesus is wrong here in Matthew 16, I think it’s okay for him to be wrong. A God with broken timetables isn’t really any different than a God broken, like stale bread, upon a cross.

But you may wonder next: 

Mustn’t Jesus’ teachings be reliable and true?!

Answer:

No.

Remember, all of the Gospels are written from the vantage of Easter’s surprise. 

Therefore— 

What makes Jesus’ sayings and teachings authoritative is not that Jesus taught and said them. 

What makes Jesus’ sayings and teachings authoritative for us is what God did with him. 

With the crucified Jesus. 

God raising the otherwise accursed Jesus from the dead not only vindicates Jesus’ faithfulness, it’s the only thing that makes Jesus’ teachings and sayings of any bother. Our faith, in other words, is grounded not upon what Jesus said or did but upon what God did with Jesus, which then makes what Jesus said and did worth our attention— truth be told, prior to Holy Week nothing much that Jesus said or taught was novel or earth-shattering. 

When you narrow the definition of the Gospel back its original parameters (Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification), it’s not as troubling that maybe the human Jesus got his schedule wrong. I’m okay with Jesus being wrong, in other words, because it’s God raising him from the dead alone that makes him— from the hinsight of the empty tomb— right. 

2–

Having not preached— and, thus, not having thought deeply about— this text I was planning to leave you with only the above response. But, re-reading the latter half of Matthew’s Gospel, I’m not so sure that St. Augustine’s interpretation should so easly dis-satisfy us. 

Full disclosure— I believe the apostolic message of Paul, which chronologically precedes the four Gospels should determine our reading of those Gospels. Another way of putting it, Paul in his letters says what Jesus did in the Gospels, making Jesus the first Christian so to speak. So Jesus’ statements of judgment here in Matthew 16 should be read in light of Paul’s Gospel announcement that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Augustine was someone who most definitely did read the Gospels in light of the Gospel proclaimed by the Apostle Paul. And while I’m not bothered by the notion of Jesus being “wrong” I don’t think that’s the case in this text. 

I think Augustine was— is— right. And I think it’s in keeping with the Gospels theme of the Day of Judgment moving from John the Baptist’s message of “not yet but very soon” to Jesus’ announcement that it’s “already arrived and still to come.”

Matthew 16–

The very next verse, after Matthew has Jesus talking about the Son of Man coming in glory, Matthew tells us Jesus took Peter and James up a high mountain where he was transfigured before them, in glory. Peter and James (“there are some standing here…”) see Jesus with Elijah and Moses. But Peter and James are commanded not to heed them but to listen to Jesus. Moses and Elijah respectively represent the Law and the Prophets. The Law was the means by which God’s People achieved holiness and the Prophets called the People back to the Law. At Sinai, the people promised “all this we will do and more” inviting God’s judgment if they failed to follow. The prophets predicted God’s judgment because they had failed. Thus, the Transfiguration depicts visually what John says at the beginning of his Gospel that “the Law came with Moses but grace and truth have come with Jesus Christ.” In other words, the incarnation itself is the arrival of a kind of judgment; the grace given through Christ is a not so tacit acknowledgement that we could accrue no righteouness on our own through the means given by way of Moses or Elijah. So judgment has already come to the disciples before they’ve tasted death because they’re in the presence of the Judge who has come to be judged in their place. 

3–

The NT’s understanding is that the crucifixion itself is the primary Last Judgment upon Sin and sinners— the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The cross is the place where sheep and goats are gathered at his right and left, some mourning for him and others jeering at him, neither group— not even his mother that side of Easter— comprehending who he was and is (“when did we see you naked…?”). So I think the first step is to submit Matthew 16 to Matthew 26-7– the Gospels should be read like movies, the end determines how we interpret the stuff at the beginning and end. We can’t just go about picking passages at random to answer the questions we impose upon a text that maybe isn’t trying to answer those queries. And, as we say at baptism, the cross is where we’re repaid the wages of sin. In him, we die to Sin with him; such that, now, for those of us in Christ, clothed with his own righteousness, any notion of a Last Judgment looks more like the Father’s prodigal feast where— still well within the family— may end up being an asshole elder brother, so offended by grace to our kin that we stay outside nursing our grudge. Or, as Robert Capon said, “Hell is the lonliest bar in the universe,” which is a fun way to say that any judgment for the justified is premised on how we relate to the Judge. To quote the Pharisee and the Publican—Do we give thanks that we are in fact exactly like other people and yet we’re loved? If not, then, as Malachi says in an Advent reading, God’s judgment will not be condemnation but it will be purgation, for God is a refining fire. 

Apocalypse Chow

Jason Micheli —  December 3, 2018 — Leave a comment

I recently Jim Baker (yes, that Jim Baker) hawking flood buckets filled with freeze-dried food so that lucky purchases could be prepped for the great and terrible tribulations that will ocassion the End Times. 

Perhaps when we celebrate this season of the second coming with a theme like Advent Begins in the Dark it’s helpful to remember a basic theological maxim:

God is at least as nice as Jesus.

Of course the converse is just as true:

The Son is as confounding as the Father.

Nonetheless, with hucksters and charlatans forming assumptions about what the Bible forsees for the fulfillment of salvation, it’s important for Christians to recall that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same God who came to us in Christ at the first Advent. 

John the Baptist, who makes his appearance on stage every Advent to announce the turning of the ages, from old to new, isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep. He makes it unmistakeable that Advent begins in the dark. 

     It’s true that in the season of Advent we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity (because the world is filled with people like you and me). It’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again. And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming. Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark. 

     We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who yearn for God to come down—now— and who gives the preacher John his frightening imagery of God’s hatchet raised and ready to lop off all the unfaithful. John’s lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.” 

     The Medieval Church, Fleming Rutledge notes, took their cues from Malachi and spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Eternal Hell. 

     No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas. 

     Advent, says Fleming, is a season that forbids denial. 

     Denial that we are sinners.  

     Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae- which means, the Day of Wrath. 

     Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ 

     It’s a frightening indictment. Especially when you recall that the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom John the Baptist is threatening like the first TV preacher in history at the beginning of the Gospels, hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to be baptized with his baptism of repentance. 

    To call them, as John does, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems unChristian. Certainly, it seems out of step with how we prefer to celebrate this season. I know I’ve not sent anyone a Christmas card that says: “All your best deeds this year— they’re no better than menstrual rags.” 

FYI: That’s how Isaiah puts it in the Hebrew.

And as a preacher, I’m reluctant to hit listeners over the head with John’s winnowing-fork or, like him, holler through a bullhorn, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.

     No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.

With hucksters on TV making God seem awful rather than awe-filling, it helps to remember at Advent that sin isn’t something you do that offends God. Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you. 

     Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear.

     Sin is about where your love lies. 

Advent can begin in the darkness, unafraid.

Because sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies. 

     God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite- God’s love doesn’t change. 

     Because God doesn’t change. 

     There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father. 

     God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.

     So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you. 

    Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies. 

     God’s love for you is unconditional— unchanging— because God is unchanging. 

     Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay. 

     Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. 

     Don’t think that by confessing your sin this Advent you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you. 

     No. 

     When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. 

He is changing our minds about him. 

     God does not change.

God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love. 

     Who the hell are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God? 

     You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love. 

     You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection. 

     Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics.

     Most of our sins— they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One. 

     And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers. 

     Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them. 

     And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God. 

     Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross. 

     Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments. 

     Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus. 

“Forgiveness alone cannot make right.”

I sat down with fan favorite, Reverend Fleming Rutledge, to talk about her latest book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

To dig more into her book and themes, go to www.adventbeginsinthedark.com to subscribe to C&GJ’s daily Advent devotional.

 

Missing from the Manger

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2018 — Leave a comment

A nativity is up already in the narthex, strewn with artful straw and friendly beasts, shepherds and the maker of the world, measuring in inches and ounces, laying in a manger. 

It’s a testament to St. Luke’s skill that we know his story and its characters so well— the dumbfounded, dung-covered shepherds, the angels bearing their gospel tidings, the census levied by Caesar and the journey undertaken by Joseph and his self-possessed new wife. Perhaps it reveals St. Matthew’s dearth of narrative skill that we confuse his nativty with Luke’s own story, setting the magi at the manger weeks too early— the star the follow ocassions his birth. 

And we fix a place for the monster, King Herod, nowhere near the manger at all. 

Nor do set any of his innocent-slaughtering stormtroopers anywhere on the stage. 

In some circles, the Christmas story is read on no other plane but the sentimental, from which we derive partial— possibly empty— principles. 

See, we say, God knows what it’s like to be one of us, naked and vulnerable in world.

Look, God loves us so much as to come down and become one of us. 

It’s all true, of course.

It’s just not complete nor is it sufficient to the tale the entire New Testament— not just the nativity stories— want you to see. 

In other circles, the costuming of the Christmas story is peeled back to reveal the “real,” socio-political, anti-imperial story going on behind the story. To paraphrase Feuerbach: the theological wrapping paper of the Christmas story becomes but a way for us to speak our politics in a God-sized voice. 

Not only does the holy family become an asylum-seeking refugee family in Egypt, we note, their son becomes a New Moses who will deliver his people from a New Pharaoh, bringing down the proud and the powerful from their thrones. 

Again, it’s all true. 

It’s just not real enough, in terms of the New Testament’s witness, to be the real story behind the story.

What’s missing from our mangers isn’t Herod or his shock troops, a proper chronology or Caesar sitting off on a throne in the distance. 

Both our modernist sentimentalized distillations of the nativity story and our (regressive) progressive political interpretations of the Christmas tale are too flat. 

They’re both insufficiently cosmic. 

Neither are three-dimensional enough to do justice to the why of Christ’s coming as the New Testament understands it. 

What’s missing from our manger scenes is the Enemy. 

And— this may be a helpful word in our current cultural moment— the Enemy is not Herod or Caesar or any of their stormtroopers or supporters. 

As Fleming Rutledge notes again and again in her writing, the New Testament is unanimous on this point: 

“When Christ comes in to our world, he enters occupied territory.”

When the Father’s Son enters the Far Country of Sin and Death, he comes to a realm under the reign of an Enemy. 

The Enemy.

It’s a Christmas story, it’s just not a nativity story. There’s a story later in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 13, where a daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, and we expect to discover that what’s really going on here is that Christ has healed her of an inexplicable paralysis. 

        Even if demons and devils, spirits and Satan, are just myths to you, even if you don’t think they’re real, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did. 

     “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan [with a capital S no less] has bound for 18 long years.” 

      Go back and look at the text. 

     That’s not the Pharisees attributing Satan to her paralysis. That’s not the Chief Priests saying she’s been bound by Satan. That’s not the disciples or Luke implying it.

     That’s red-letter. 

     That’s Jesus saying that whatever has ailed this woman is because Satan has bound her in his captivity, and you don’t need me to point out that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to say that if it wasn’t also true, in less obvious ways, about all the rest of his listeners. 

     Which, includes us. 

  

     When you leave the Enemy missing from the manger, you leave off too much of the Gospel too. 

     Call it what you will: 

The Devil 

Death, as Paul does in Romans  

The Principalities and Powers or the Ruler of the Spirit of the Air, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Luke says here

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

     Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point: the Devil— not the Herods and Caesars of any age— is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together. 

     The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him. 

     Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory while the most common nativity image in art is that of the Christ child wielding a cross in his hand— like its a weapon.

     Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did and the New Testament does. 

     To pull off the Christmas costumes and insist that something else is going on behind the story is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him. 

     The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.” 

     And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” 

     When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…” 

     You can count up the verses. 

     More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist. 

     And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary. 

    This is why our reductions of the Christmas story are true-ish but ultimately incomplete. Put baldly: if there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel. 

     According to the New Testament, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. 

It’s not a 2-character cast of God (in Christ) and us. 

   

     According to scripture, there is a third agency at work in this story— and in our world—  against whom God-in-Christ contends.

     We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. 

     We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another. 

     And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan. 

     And the battlefield runs through every human heart. 

     Obviously, I realize that likely sounds superstitious to many of you. If so, I’d encourage you to ask someone suffering an addiction if they think the Bible’s language for Sin-with-a- capital-S is fantastical. They’ll tell you what it’s like to be captive to some other Power, who is not God. What addicts experience is the same agency splayed out all over our news every day—

the suffering and poverty and violence, the oppression, the hate, and the exploitation.

When the Enemy is missing from our mental mangers, what winds up missing from the Christian on our lips is mercy. 

The problem with the partial political renderings of the Gospel story— the ones that make Herod or Caesar or empire the villains against whom Christ has come to contend— is that they fail to account for the New Testament’s witness that even a Herod or a Caesar is held in the grip of Sin and Death. Or rather, as people who know the Power of Sin and Death is not fake news, Christians are able to see themselves— there but for the grace of God— in Herod or Caesar’s shoes. 

As Fleming Rutledge preaches:

“Evil is loose in the world and can take anyone, anywhere, at any time— but the proud and the self-righteous are especially vulnerable…Providence is ceaselessly working to defeat the Enemy…But here is the point: we are all just as susceptible to the Enemy as anyone else…The Enemy, you see, is too strong for us.”

In a culture bent on drawing lines between us vs. them, where progressives and conservatives alike are determined to define the other as the enemy, the Bible’s belief in the Enemy should muster mercy from us as we set out our mangers. This season of the second coming should remind us, in other words, of what the Apostle Paul tells us of his first coming: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…” All of us live in occupied territory. The Pharoah called Sin and Death— Satan— can harden even the best heart. Not one of us is ‘evil’ or ‘good,’ ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent,’ ‘awful’ or saintly.’ 

Because we live in a contested realm, Fleming says, all of us are always hovering on the brink of both. 

    

     

     

     

 

Christians Come First

Jason Micheli —  November 27, 2018 — Leave a comment

Crackers and Grape Juice will be doing a daily devotional all through Advent and Christmas.

Go to www.adventbeginsinthedark.com to subscribe.

Here’s the second offering:

Every year I try to remind Christians that at Advent we do not mimic those believers between the testaments who waited for the Lord’s first coming. We wait— wearied by this world we’ve made in our own image, we long— for his second Advent. In this season we locate ourselves not at the top of the Apostles’ Creed (I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…) but towards the botton of our beliefs (…who will come again to judge the quick and the dead…). During Advent, Christians anticipate not his incarnation but his imminent return. 

“Until Christ comes back in final victory…” we pray during eucharist. Advent is the time when we anticipate his coming again with more than bread and wine; we look for his second Advent with the Word, with hymns, and with sober self-awareness that we’re a part of what’s wrong with the world. Every year I try to remind Christians what we’re actually doing during Advent, and every year I get accused that I’m a collared Eeyore deadset on ruining Christmas. 

The bracing tone of Advent’s liturgy is so unmistakeable that our missing it must be willful. The popular Advent hymn Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, for example, sings frankly about our fears and sins while the other favorite, Come, O Come, Emmanuel, is a lamentation, speaking of mouring and lonely exile— and lonely exile is exactly how it feels to be a Christian in America watching border officers shoot tear gas and rubber bullets into children and mothers seeking, like Jesus’ own family, asylum. Meanwhile, the assigned lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent are not about the nativity at all; in fact, the Gospel lection is from Palm Sunday and it’s scary as crap:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

When Christ returns at the second Advent, he will not come as he come to us at the first Advent. He will not come ignito in the flesh. He will not come in great humility. He will come with great glory. 

And power. 

Ricky Bobby isn’t the only one of us who prefers the baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers. To face the prospect of Christ’s coming again is to reckon with the truth about ourselves. We are not blameless, as Thessalonians— another assigned Advent reading— leads us to conclude. There is no health in us, as the Book of Common Prayer confesses; such that, for the Lord to return and execute justice, as Jeremiah prophesies at Advent, is a frightening prospect. Measured against the Lord’s impending justice, we have no hope in our own righteousness. 

Our only hope, as Jeremiah tells us at Advent, is that the Lord, Jesus Christ himself, is our righteousness. This “season of hope” has no content, therefore, apart from the honest acknowledgement of the hopelessness abounding in the world all around us and the conviction of our faith that, though none are righteous— not one— when he returns he will return already bearing in his risen body our every sin. He has absorbed the ultimate and final penalty for our every trespass. His coming again in judgement is not a coming for condemnation, for to those who’ve been clothed with him by baptism, he is our righteousness. 

He is our righteousness. 

We know—

His judgment is not condemnation; purgation is not perdition. 

When Christians avoid the apocalyptic tenor of the Advent season and rush to the bright lights and to the manger and— let’s be honest— to sentimentiality, we forsake one of the key ways in which we imitate the incarnate Lord for the sake of the world. 

In another assigned Advent text, the prophet Isaiah indicts his own religious community before casting judgment on the wider world for its sex-inflicted calamity: 

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…” 

A frightening, frequently misunderstood word, “wrath” in the Bible but names means God’s fierce, relentlessly determined opposition to the enslaving Power of Sin, which Christ has already defeated but whose reign— mysteriously so—has not yet ended. By calling his people’s best good deeds worse than bad, the prophet Isaiah places himself and his community before God’s wrath before the wider world. Isaiah, in other words, puts himself at the front of the line leading to God’s judgment seat.

The Apostle Paul— the same Paul who earlier assured us that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus— tells the Romans near the end of his letter that “We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Paul doubles down on it in verse 12 of Romans 14: “…each of us will be held accountable before God’s tribunal…” In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of God.”

That reckoning, says the prophet Malachi in yet another assigned Advent reading, will be a refining— a refining fire, where our sinful self- even if we’re justified- will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still in us will be burnt away. The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed. The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self-righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God whose wrath against Sin and its symptons is a refining fire. 

But, the good news of the Gospel never ceases to be good news for us. 

There is no condemnation for those who are simulataneously sinners and saints-in-Christ; therefore, purgation is not damnation. 

Yet, as Paul testifies, this can only be known by hearing. 

By faith. 

Everyone in this culture of ours is sick with judging— judging and indicting, posturing and pouring contempt and pointing the finger at someone else.

At Advent, Christians mimic the prophet Isaiah, and we confess the chains we’ve chosen to a Pharoah called Sin and we put ourselves first under God’s judgment.

Because we’re the only ones who know— by faith— the Judge is not to be feared. As is said of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, our God is not safe but he is good. Christians at Advent long for Christ to come back in final victory, vanquishing Sin once for all— even, the sin in us. Because we know the Judge who was judged in our place in the first Advent is not to be feared in the second Advent, Christians can, like Isaiah, bear the judgment of God on behalf of a sinful world. As Peter writes in (yet another Advent epistle): “Judgment begins with the household of God.” 

Christians speak all the time about imitating Christ, about being his hands and feet, and doing the things Jesus did. Most of the time we’re talking about serving the poor, forgiving another, or speaking truth to power.

But if the most decisive thing Jesus did was become a curse for us, taking on the burden of judgement for the guilty, then the primary way Christians imitate Christ is by bearing judgment on behalf of the guilty.

The primary way Christians imitate God-for-us is by bearing judgement for others. When everything else is given over to nostalgia and sentiementality, this is our discipline this season of the second coming. 

In a world sin-sick with judging and judging and judging, indicting and scapegoating and recriminating and casting blame— at Advent, Christians bear the good news that the one who came in humility and incognito will come again in great glory and with great power. 

And we who are baptized and believing, we who are saved and sanctified— we who should be last under God’s judgment thrust ourselves to the front of the line and, like Jesus Christ, say “Me first.” Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat. Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess. 

We bear judgment rather than cast it because know— by faith— that we will come before the refining fire of God’s Judgment Seat at the second advent hearing the same words which began the first advent: “Do not be afraid.” 

    

    

My podcast posse at Crackers and Grape Juice are launching a daily devotional for the season called Advent Begins in the Dark: Reflections to Ready Us for the Not Yet. We’ve invited guest contributors like Bishop Will Willimon, Sarah Condon and Joshua Retterer of Mockingbird, and Scott Jones of New Persuasive Words along with a host of others. You can find each day’s offering and subscribe to receive them by email at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com: here. You can also join our private Facebook group for more discussion.

Here’s the first reflection:

It took less than an hour for an Iowa jury to find a 28-year-old Iowa father guilty of murder after his 4-month-old son was found dead in a motorized swing last year.

Zachary Koehn was convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death. On Aug. 30, 2017, authorities arrived to the home of Koehn and 21-year-old Cheyanne Harris and discovered the lifeless body of their son, Sterling Koehn, in the swing. Autopsy results report that medical examiners found “maggots in various stages of development” in the boy’s “clothing and on his skin.” The diaper’s contents irritated the baby’s skin, causing it to rupture, after which E. coli bacteria set in. 

The prosecutor distilled the shock in his opening statement:

“He died of diaper rash.”

The baby, who weighed less than 5 lbs. at death, was left in the baby swing for over a week. He was not bathed or changed that entire time. The county sheriff told jurors he found maggots and larva when the medical examiner began to remove the layers of urine-soaked blankets and clothing from the child. 

Outside the Church, it’s nearly Thanksgiving. 

A time to give thanks.

For all our many blessings, we say.

Inside the Church, it’s nearly Christ the King Sunday and, with it, and the advent of Advent, the end of the liturgical year and the start of a new one. It’s a pivot point in the calendar when Christians are at their most counter-cultural.

The turning of the Christian year, Fleming Rutledge notes, takes us to “the bottom of the night.”

Advent, says Fleming, begins in the dark and ends on Christmas Day with the infant shepherd’s flock hearing about the monsters that were gathered at his manger.  I remember my homiletics professor at Princeton, James Kay, passing out to us in class a xeoroxed copy of that sermon. I thought then that Fleming was a man.  

Advent begins in the dark— every Advent the prophets of old and the last prophet, John the Baptist, force us to look unblinkingly at the darkness of the human predicament, which is to say the darkness of every human heart. Unlike the culture, gratitude is not why Christians gather this season. Instead it’s a season where Christians bravely insist on practicing something like ungratitude, taking a grim look at the world as we have made it and demanding that God in his “goodness” get his a@# back here— as promised— and make right the wrong we have wrought.  

The final book of the Christian Old Testament is the Book of Malachi, which ends by announcing that all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be burned up on Judgment Day. The Christian Bible turns, in other words, on the longing for a redeemer to rectify not only us in our sin but a creation captive to the Power of Sin. The turning of Christians’ year mimics the turning of our scripture. In Advent we do not— as popularly misunderstood— prepare ourselves for the rehearsal of Christ’s first coming; no, in Advent we rehearse the righteous rage of the prophets who anticipated Christ’s first coming in order to long for his promised coming again. Advent is when the Church takes a grim look at ourselves and the world we’ve made in our own image and we call due the IOU sworn by the second coming. The collect for the First Sunday of Advent prays thusly:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to rectify

Advent is when the Church acknowledges the lack in us, an emptiness which pours out into the darkness of our world.

Advent is when we remind ourselves— or try to convince ourselves— that God gives a crap about it all.

It’s already Advent, Fleming argues, noting how the assigned readings for the Church this time of year already take a turn to the apocalyptic. Just last Sunday Jesus was giving a widow a “bless her heart” for giving a mite out of her lack. In this Sunday’s Gospel lection, Jesus is warning about the coming of the end: 

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

This must take place, Jesus says as though he too had read that story about little Sterling left to rot and then to die in his swing. 

Forget all the lies told by the Left Behind types and the hucksters on Trinity Broadcasting.

Advent is the season when Christians celebrate that the specter of the end is good news. The God who promises that in Christ there is now nor never any condemnation will not sit idle forever and let us condemn his creation. His cousin was right from the very beginning. The Lamb who took away our sins in his body on a tree will one day return to take away forever the Pharoah called Sin and rectify all the damage done by his reign.

A friend griped at me recently that my preaching on grace alone was “peddling afterlife insurance” rather than “preaching what Jesus preached.” 

Let’s set aside for a moment the latter clause and ignore that Jesus preached what Jesus preached because Jesus was— is— Jesus. And you, dear friend, are manifestly not Jesus. On the other side of Good Friday, Jesus was just another first century rabbi, teaching teachings that were not all that novel. What makes Jesus’ teachings unique and worth our attention is that God vindicated them by raising the teacher of them from the dead. Therein lies the rub.

What makes Jesus’ teachings compelling, cross and resurrection, is the very event that requires us not to preach— at least not primarily so— what Jesus preached but to preach Jesus.

To preach about Jesus. The word that ignited the early church was what the Apostle Paul calls the “word of the cross.” The task of the preacher— and, by your baptism, you’re all preachers— is to proclaim not what Jesus did as teacher but what God did with that teacher:

Made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. 

Raised him from the grave for our justification. 

The Gospel, by defintion, is the announcement of news. It’s not news if it’s directions about what you ought to do. It’s news only when it’s the proclamation of what the Father has done in the Son and is doing now through their Spirit.

Back to the former clause in the accusation, the one about peddling afterlife insurance. 

First—

Go back and read the Gospels straight through from front to back. I dare you. Better yet, just choose one Gospel— John, say— and read it. Actually read the damn thing. 

If you’re coming from a mainline Protestant tradition where the accepted wisdom is that Jesus was concerned with bringing the Kingdo to the here-and-now, showing solidarity with________, and standing up to empire and its oppressions and “those other Christians” (ie Catholics and/or Evangelicals) have ruined it all with cross talk and obsessions with heaven, then you’re likely going to be surprised. 

Jesus talks about his death for sins literally all the time. 

From the get go.

As both Karl Barth and Robert Capon point out, every parable he tells is about it.

If Jesus was really about bringing salvation in its “healing” varietal (a popular stress point in the mainline), then he was a crappy doctor indeed to the poor bastard on the mat.

“Your sins are forgiven.”

Likewise, if the feeding of the 5,000 was really about Jesus showing solidarity to the poor and the hungry and standing up against the oppresive economics of empire, then no one appears to have told Jesus that was what he was supposed to be up to. As soon as he begrudingly feeds the crowd, he’s back to talking about himself (again):

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

We’re lucky Jesus doesn’t shout ‘Get behind me, Satan’ to all of us too.

In our determination to have any other Jesus but the one who dies for sinners, we’re no different than Peter.

But is it afterlife insurance, preaching about what God has done by grace through this Jesus who died for our sins and was raised for our justification? Is it a pie-in-the-sky promise that neglects to change the here-and-now? It’s interesting that the early Christians, comforted as they were by the promise that they were safe in Christ’s death for them are the same Christians who built the first hospitals and, for that matter, changed the character of an empire. Look, like any good mainline liberal, I used to hate questions like: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?” I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers. I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

But something is missing in all of our “Blessed to be a blessing” and “We have been changed to bring change” sloganeering. 

The agency of God. 

All our urgent talk about changing the world for God ignores— or, has forgotten— how the God we claim to believe in brings change. 

It’s fine for us to think of ourselves as his hands and feet in the world but not if it’s at the cost of forgetting that he doesn’t need our hands and feet to be at work in the world.

It’s not proclamation is ancillary to the real work of change in the world. The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us. The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did. The Gospel is what God does. 

Is the proclamation of the Gospel the only means by which the Living God works change in our world? Certainly not— the Spirit blows where it will and Jesus is Lord. 

But the proclamation of the Gospel is the particular means of change God has bestowed upon his particular people called Church.

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

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel of grace alone is the means by which the Living God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient. 

In other words— and, after sitting through a hortatory-heavy community Thanksgiving service (“Be grateful!!!”), this is evidently a forgotten bit of Christian wisdom: 

You cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. 

Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect. Thus, we’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus. I left the Thanksgiving service feeling less grateful than when I entered it.

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

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

To put it in churchy terms, our sanctification does not come by being told that we need become sanctified. Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves. Period. 

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

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful. The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it. That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free for freedom from him even.

This Gospel- admittedly, it’s odd. 

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive. 

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible. 

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural. Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. What we think Jesus is saying about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25– that’s fair. There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy. No wonder we, like the Galatians, trade it out constantly for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts. 

The Law which tells us that the Gospel of grace must be a hustle to get suckers to buy bunk real estate in the great bye-and-bye.

Only by faith do you know the opposite to be true. 

We’re not peddling the promise of heaven. 

Rather the promise of grace, by way of him who is the Kingdom of Heaven, is the only word that frees us for our neighbor in the here-and-now.

Last season, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, before she would agree to evade answer their question, compelled each member of the press corps to cite one reason they were grateful this Thanksgiving holiday. As Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker commented, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ demand for expressions of gratitude left her feeling not thankful but resentful. She writes:

“My first impulse when someone asks me to share is to not-share. This isn’t because I’m not a sharing person — you can have my cake and eat it, too — but because sharing, like charity, should be voluntary.”

What Kathleen Parker illumines and what Sarah Huckabee Sanders “preached” in the White House briefing room is what the Apostle Paul calls the Law. For St. Paul, the Law names not only the biblical laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Law, which Paul says is inscribed upon every heart and is thus extra-biblical and universal to human experience, is shorthand for an exacting moral standard of human performance.

The Law, as Martin Luther paraphrased Paul from Romans 3, always and only accuses.

Lex semper accusat. That is, the Law can only ever convey to us God’s expectation of perfection (“Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect”) and our privation in fulfilling such righteousness. The Law always and only accuses for the Law has no power in itself to create that which it commands; in fact, as Paul unpacks in Romans 7 (“I do what I do not want to do”), the Law very often elicits in us the opposite of its intent. As my new favorite theologian, Gerhard Forde, puts it in On Being a Theologian of the Cross:

“The Law says, “Thou shalt love!” It is right; it is holy, true, and good.’ Yet, it can’t bring about what it demands. It might impel toward the works of law, the motions of love, but in the end they will become irksome and will too often lead to hate. If we go up to someone on the street, grab them by the lapels, and say, “Look here, you’re supposed to love me!” the person may drudgingly admit that we are right, but it won’t work. The results will likely be jus the opposite from what ‘our’ Law demands. Law is indeed right, but it simply cannot realize what it points to. So it works wrath. It can curse, but it can’t bless. In commanding love, Law can only point helplessly to that which it cannot produce.”

Thus, the wisdom of St. Paul and the Protestant Reformers is that Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ imperative to the press corps (“Be more grateful!”) likely provoked the very opposite of anything resembling gratitude.

Christianity teaches what your heart knows to be true: Command- what Christians call Law- cannot create gratitude.

Thankfulness cannot be willed from wishing or exerted based on another’s expectation.

If the Law only and always accuses, then gratitude can only ever be by grace. Gratitude can only ever be a free response not to an imperative but to an indicative.

Gratitude can only be an effect of the Gospel not Law. In Christian terms, gratitude is the response created within us by the no-strings-attached promise that all our sins have been forgiven because of another. I wonder, though, is it possible that gratitude is only intelligible in Christian terms such as these? We don’t call our sacrament the Eucharist, which means gratitude, for nothing. i wonder if gratitude is only intelligible in the Christian terms we call Gospel? John Tierney says Thanksgiving is the most psychologically correct holiday, but I wonder if its the most Christian holiday; specifically, I wonder if Thanksgiving can only be a Christian holiday.

I mean, if Christians only possess a religious flavor of that which is true already for everyone everywhere (gratitude) then we should sleep in on Sundays and fix brunch and bloody marys.

Apart from the story Christians rehearse every week, in Word and Sacrament, of God’s goodness in spite of human failure, what other story contextualizes Thanksgiving such that gratitude is created not compelled? Does the (false) story of happy natives and pilgrims put enough flesh on Thanksgiving to elicit true gratitude?

Is a Thanksgiving table that is not in some sense an extension of the altar table just a hollow holiday?

Gratitude, don’t forget, requires a corollary awareness of our own fault and finitude such that we’re appreciative of others. Can the story of the pilgrims do the heavy lifting or our sentimentality about family and football? Or does the Gospel alone better tell us about what has been done for us that we could not do for ourselves? Does the Gospel do better at teaching us not to trust in our own ability or merit such that appreciation for another arises freely within us?

Apart from the promise of the Gospel, Americans at Thanksgiving are just like the White House Press Corps, being told (by the Law) to be grateful but, as a consequence, feeling the opposite of gratitude.

So, before you carve the turkey, remember that at a holiday table Jesus took bread, broke it, and gave thanks…

Galatians 5.1, 16-23

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Peace?

In a little over 4 months as your pastor, I’ve only mentioned it once— maybe you know. 

Three years ago, after emergency surgery, my family and I learned I have a rare, ultimatley incurable cancer in my marrow. I’ll never be in remission. Even now I keep it at bay with maintenance chemo and quarterly scans. I feel like Lazarus, having escaped death to hear you’ll die again. 

So last Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo. 

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer. 

Cancer doesn’t feel very funny when you’re staring at the bell curve of the time you’ve likely got left. Until. Leaving my oncologist’s office that day, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner in my former congregation. He was a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear and now he was dying.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill- in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him. 

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Peace? Peace? Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list because then I’d have to be honest with you. 

I’d have to tell you: I don’t have peace.

How about you?

How are you doing with this list?

      Generosity? 

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

Gentleness?

I’ve read some of your anonymous comments in the Way Forward survey.

Patience? Self-control?

How about I ask your spouse? 

What about love? You love your kids, you say? 

Of course you love your kids— they look just like you. 

How you doing with this list?

And before you answer, you should know that Paul puts the fruit in the singular. Meaning, it’s all one fruit. You can’t pick and choose. It’s not love or joy or peace or patience or kindness or generosity or faithfulness or gentleness or maybe self-control. It’s singular. The fruit of the Spirit is Paul says.  

It’s love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and generosity and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. 

It’s singular. You’ve either got all of them or you’ve got none of them, said John Wesley. 

So let me ask you now— how you doing with that list?

I know I drive some of you bonkers with my relentless emphasis on grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone rather than good works. 

I know I’ve got some of your sphincters all twisted up because of my stubborn refrain about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ instead of what we must do for God following Jesus Christ— but, honestly, when you’ve got what I got every day is Ash Wednesday. Each day is a reminder that the dust whence you came is the dirt to which you’re gonna go. 

And all it takes is to see the bell-curve of time you’ve likely got left and suddenly the prophet Isaiah’s Advent words hit you like a brick between the eyes:

Compared to the holiness of God all our good works— our best deeds— are no better than filthy rags. 

When every day is Ash Wednesday, you realize:

Your problem before a holy God is not that your sins are too egregious.

It’s that your good works will never be good enough. 

Nor will they ever accrue for you enough enoughness. 

Or, as the Apostle Paul put it at the begining of this epistle: If our good works could ever be good enough, then Jesus Christ was crucified for absolutely nothing. When you see your death sketched out in sharpie somewhere along a standard deviation, you take stock. You do an inventory. You count your fruit. And you realize how your basket of produce looks so bare nothing but blind faith could ever lead you to believe it won’t always be so. 

———————- 

I’m not the only one counting, the only one who knows their lack. 

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

She writes: 

“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed. It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. It must be so comforting.” I do not find religion to be comforting in the way that I think nonreligious people mean it. It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands.

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

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

Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size. None of this is particularly comforting. I come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction because we’re all broken individuals united only by our brokenness, traveling together to ask to be fixed. It’s like a subway car. It’s like the DMV.

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

Note the passive voice.

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

————————-

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

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

     And that’s my first point: This list is not the Law. It is descriptive; it is not prescriptive. They are indicatives. They are not imperatives. 

     Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.” Paul does not say: “Become more patient.” 

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

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

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

     Because notice- 

     After Paul describes the works of the flesh, the works we do, Paul doesn’t pivot to our ‘works of faithfulness.’ Paul doesn’t say ‘the works of the flesh are these…but the works of faith are these…’ No, they’re not equivalent clauses. Paul changes the voice completely. He shifts from the active voice to a passive image: fruit. 

     He says Fruit of the Spirit not Works of Faith. 

     You see, the opposite of our vice isn’t our virtue. The opposite of our vice is the vine of which we are but the branches. 

     It’s popular to pit Jesus against Paul, but both of them— when they speak of our life lived in light of the Gospel, they shift to the passive image of plants and fruit. Paul calls it the fruit of the Spirit not the works of faith; Jesus says you are but the branches of a vine that is him. 

It’s a passive image.

Just as sheep— unlike goats— do not perform any actual work other than trusting the Shepherd, what you do not hear in any vineyard is the sound of anyone’s effort. Except the Gardener. 

     Fruit do not grow themselves; fruit are the byproduct of a plant made healthy.

     Doers like us always want to contradict the Apostle Paul with that line about how faith without works is dead, but with this list Paul counters that the inverse is true. 

Works without faith are work. 

They’re just work. 

They’re exhausting.

And they cannot justify you. 

To think that you’re responsible for cultivating joy and kindness in your life now that you’re a Christian is to miss Paul’s entire point— his point that, apart from grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone, you are as silly and pathetic as a dead plant worrying about what it’s got to do and to produce.  This list is not the Law because the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of the Gospel. It’s not fruit you gotta go get or do. It’s passive. It’s what the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you in spite of still sinful you.  

Paul’s point here to the do-gooding Galatians is that by your baptism you who were dead in your trespasses and sins have been made alive; such that, now in you and through you the Holy Spirit can grow fruit

In a quantifying, life-hacking culture of constant self-improvement, this passive image of fruit might be the most counter-cultural part of Christianity. It’s counter to much of Christian culture too. On the Left and the Right, Red and Blue— so much of so-called Christianity nowadays is just another version of what’s on your Fitbit. It’s all about behavior modification. But what Paul is getting at here in his list is not the Law. Forget Joel Osteen when you get to Galatians 5. It’s not about you becoming a better you. Tomato plants do not have agency. It’s not about you becoming a better you. It’s about God making you new. Joy, gentleness, peace and patience- these are not the attributes by which you work your way to heaven. This is the work heaven is doing in you here on earth. 

———————-

     And that’s my second point: 

    The fruit of the Spirit— they’re for your neighbor. 

     When you hear Paul’s list as Law, you think that this is a prescription for who you must be and what you must do in order to be right before God. But the Gospel is that Christ by his obedience has fulfilled all the commandments perfectly for you. He has by his perfect faithfulness fulfilled the Law for you.

In Christ because of Christ— none of the thou shalts or thou shalt nots can condemn you.

     You are fit for heaven just as you are: impatient and unkind, frequently faithless, and often harsh and out of control. Every work of faith has already been done for you. As gift.  And its yours by faith not by works. 

     No work you do, no fruit you yield, adds anything to what Christ has already done for you. 

     Everything. He’s done everything already.

     Therefore- 

     God’s not counting.

     The God who no longer counts your trespasses isn’t counting your good works either (thank God).

    God is neither a score-keeper nor a fruit counter. The fruit of the Gospel is not for your justification.  It’s not for you to measure up in God’s eyes. The fruit of the Spirit isn’t for God— God ain’t hungry.  The fruit of the Spirit— it’s for your neighbor. 

     It’s a community garden the Spirit is growing in you. 

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

     I mean, Paul’s griped it at the Galatians like 100 times thus far: For freedom Christ has set you free. 

     Christ didn’t set you free for fruit. 

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

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

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

     Paul’s not blinking and he’s not BS-ing. For freedom Christ has set you free. 

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

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

Christ came to us while we were yet sinners and we will return to him while we are still sinners. In the End, the only people you can be dead-certain will be in the Kingdom of Heaven are sinners.

Ergo— the Gospel. 

It’s called good news for a freaking reason.

This is the reason:

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

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

     But for the sake of your neighbor…

     God will yet make you loving and gentle and joyous. 

     You see, the question that the fruit of the Spirit should provoke in you is NOT What must I do now for God?

     No, the question the fruit of the Spirit should lead you to ask is this one: What work is God doing in me and through me-in spite of sinful me- for the sake of my neighbor?

     And the answer to that question can only come to us by the same route our justification comes: by faith alone. 

———————-

And that leads to my final point: 

The fruit of the Spirit teach us that not only are you justified by faith apart from your works, very often you’re justified by faith apart from your everyday experience. By faith apart from your feelings.

In no small part, what it means to have faith is to believe about you what your feelings can’t seem to corroborate. The biggest obstacle to faith isn’t science. The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror. 

         Face it:  You’re not always kind or patient or generous. 

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

     And that’s a big leap of faith because, as I said, the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular. As in, it’s all one gift: Love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and all the rest. God’s working all of it, every one of them, in you. Even though you might feel at best you have only a few of them. God’s working all of them, every one of them, in you. Which makes the Spirit’s work in you is as mysterious and invisible as what the Spirit does to water and wine and bread and the word. 

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

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

     You are. 

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

     And if you are in Christ, then the Spirit is at work in you. No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications. 

     No matter what your life looks like

     No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

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

     No matter how bare you feel your basket to be.

     If you are in Christ, Christ’s Spirit is in you. And the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you what your eyes cannot see and what your feelings cannot confirm. God works in mysterious ways, we say all the time without realizing each of us who are in Jesus Christ are one of those mysteries. The fruit of the Spirit— it’s the pledge of God’s commitment to yield in you.

————————

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

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

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting. Constantly feeling that you should be meeting people, impressing people, shocking people (just the right amount) is a strange way to live your life.  And one of the reasons that I go to church is that church is the opposite of that. 

I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago. I am not special at church, and this is the point. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally bad and equally beloved children of God.

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

I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality. Even better, I’m not my personality because Church is not about how I feel. It’s about faith. It’s about trusting God’s commitment to do something in us. It’s about looking at the light until our eyes water, waiting to receive the promise that the something missing in us (love or joy, or peace) will be provided.”

     

 

    

Steven Paulson says all of American Christianity is a conspiracy to undo baptism. In this latest episode we talk with New Testament scholar and baseball fan and recent convert to Anglicanism, Scot McKnight about his new book, It Takes a Church to Baptize: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1587434164

From the back jacket –

The issue of baptism has troubled Protestants for centuries. Should infants be baptized before their faith is conscious, or does God command the baptism of babies whose parents have been baptized?

Popular New Testament scholar Scot McKnight makes a biblical case for infant baptism, exploring its history, meaning, and practice and showing that infant baptism is the most historic Christian way of forming children into the faith. He explains that the church’s practice of infant baptism developed straight from the Bible and argues that it must begin with the family and then extend to the church. Baptism is not just an individual profession of faith: it takes a family and a church community to nurture a child into faith over time. McKnight explains infant baptism for readers coming from a tradition that baptizes adults only, and he counters criticisms that fail to consider the role of families in the formation of faith. The book includes a foreword by Todd Hunter and an afterword by Gerald McDermott.

And before you listen, we’ll be launching a new project for Advent starting Monday called Advent Begins in the Dark, a serious of daily reflections inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s new book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Reflections will be provided by folks like Will Willimon, Sarah Condon, Scott Jones and more. You can find the devos here.

 

Yesterday, my post about the need for Methodists and other mainline Protestants in general to recover the core convictions that make us not Catholic prompted the predictable question from the Book of James:

”But isn’t faith without works dead?”

Proving why James is my least favorite part of the Bible right after, goes without saying, the Book of Proverbs.

It’s revealing how our kneejerk tendency is to quote that line from James, which, even if it means how we so often take it— and I wouldn’t concede that point, it’s the outlier to the preponderence of the New Testament’s emphasis on grace alone.

We’re desperate, in other words, to secure a spot for ourselves as co-stars of salvation rather than objects.

James 2 can be true— faith produces works— without negating Jesus or Paul when they explicitly cast those works in the passive using the language of fruit.

So if you’re scoring at home:

Faith without works IS dead because the first meaning or referent offaithin James and Paul alike is Jesus. This is what Paul means in Galatians (‘before faith came…’). Paul uses faith as the subject of verbs. He’s talking alternately about Jesus or the power of Jesus active upon us who, apart from him and his power, are captives to Sin and Death and wholly withouth the freedom to choose him or the good in good works.  It’s exactly what Paul means in Corinthians when he talks about love too. Love is without beginning or end because ‘love’ is Jesus who is the only one who is before creation and has death behind him.

Faith without works is dead therefore because Jesus is alive.

– Faith produces good works; that is, faith (Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus) produces fruit. Usually we bifurcate the two. Grace is what God does (justification) and then we live it out (sanctification). Rather than, God justifies us all by God’s lonesome and God yields fruit in us (‘…who began a good work in us will bring it to fruition…’).

– The passive/vegetal imagery is important in that it pushes us back to the order of operations that the reformers and John Wesley stressed which, I’d argue, we’ve lost. We yield fruit— good works— not by exhorting about the fruit we should be yielding but by being rooted in the faith (the promise of the Gospel of grace). A vine doesn’t produce grapes by being hollered at to produce grapes but by being a healthy vine. Likewise, good works come by preaching faith: the news that you are justified by grace in Christ quite apart from any of those works. It’s the inverse of what Paul tells the Romans about how exhorting the Law (good works/commandment-keeping) actually elicits the opposite of their effect.

Preached Faith yields Fruit.

Whereas, Preached Fruit yields Neither.

Isn’t funny how we’re always citing James and saying ‘Faith without works is dead’ without realizing the other way round is equally— and more commonly— damning:

Works without faith are work.

Work which leaves you dead (in your trespasses).

Worse than work, Jesus says doing part of Law apart from faith is our condemnation.

We like to cite the sermon on the mount but neglect to notice how it ends with Jesus giving us the choice between complete perfection to the commands or faith in him.

– In the end, I think what’s at stake can sound like semantics but actually amounts to everything. Of course faith yields fruit but as soon as we make that fruit aspirational or, worse, the stuff of oughts and have-to’s we’ve lost the plot. At the end of the day, the question really is:

“Is the cross and resurrection of Christ enough to save?

Save even a Christian, who’s convinced of all the other stuff we ‘have’ to do?”

 

Wesley like the reformers would insist yes, the dying and rising of Christ is enough. Full stop.

Christ comes to us as sinners and we will return to him as sinners.

The Kingdom will be populated with nothing but sinners, Christians included.

I’m not sure that’s the answer Methodists convey, implicitly or explicitly anymore. I think we’re less full-throatedly confident in the doctrine of justification, which Wesley and Luther both called the doctrine under which all others fell, and so we stress sanctification. But without justification sanctification is at best moralism pimped out in theological drag and, at worst, despair-producing obligation.

This is where it becomes a pastoral concern for me—

If ‘fruit’ or ‘good works’ are the things we do which signify saving faith then my salvation appears contingent on my ability to identify and name fruit in my life. A lot of sincere faithful Christians can’t find such fruit. Never mind that as soon as we think we need to produce fruit we start to measure that fruit and then we’re turned inward as a consequence, away from our neighbor (whom we’ve actually made the object of our fruit-producing endeavors rather than loving them as ourselves).

Faith not only yields fruit.

We need to take it on faith that our faith is yielding fruit in us and through us.

Even if we can’t see any— in the same way, in real time, you can’t see a plant growing fruit.

– When we make that turn from “Justified…in Christ alone by his gifting” to “As a Christian I now must/should/ought…” we leave God behind as the active agent and put the burden back on us. For some, that move is flattering. You’re now the master of your fate, sanctifying yourself. It’s the false promise too behind hucksters like Joel Osteen. For most though, I’ve concluded after 20 years in ministry, it leaves them exhausted, feeling like they’re on a never-ending treadmill called Christianity. Try it some time— I did in my own church last and was chastened by the results: count how much of the language in the church service, from beginning to end, announcements…everything, is hortatory (stuff we gotta do as Christians) vs. proclamation (sheer promise of what God has done with nary a word about us except as the objects of God’s love).

I could’ve made all of that shorter by simply saying I think in the UMC and mainline in general:

We confuse the Gospel with the Fruit of the Gospel.

How Are You a Methodist?!

Jason Micheli —  November 13, 2018 — 1 Comment

Funny thing— a couple of years ago I was part of a long sermon series slog through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and last fall I taught a class on the Solas for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Taken together those two experiences made me realize respectively that the traditional Protestant reading of Paul is correct and very few Protestants (in the mainline church) can articulate the fundamentals of Protestant belief, leaving prejudice or habit as the only real reasons we’re not Roman Catholic.

Since then I’ve made a commitment to myself to stick the basics, keep the main thing (justification by grace through faith) the main thing, and preach essentially the same sermon Sunday after Sunday. As a consequence, I get a lot of evil eyes and quizzical looks from people, clergy and lay, who wonder “how are you a Methodist?”

It’s revealing, I think, that we base our working definitions Methodism based upon a caricatured view of John Wesley that centers primarily around his works of mercy ministry that proved deadly to Wesley apart from his Aldersgate conversion. We all forget that the spark that set fire to the Methodist movement was Wesley’s response to Martin Luther’s proclamation of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Where we preach about justification hardly at all as Methodists, Wesley did so all the time.

Such that, to our ears— steeped as they are in civil religion that’s couched in terms of “sanctification”— Wesley sounds more like a Calvinist or a Lutheran to us.

As Will Willimon jokes, without a robust doctrine of justification in Christ by grace through faith— all of it, sola— and without a sense of God’s active agency in the world, Methodism is ripe for moralism.

I mean, even John Wesley echoes the reformers in insisting that any “good” works done before or apart from justification are not good. By way of example, here’s an exchange between Charles Simeon and John Wesley:

CS:

Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

JW:

Yes, I do indeed.

CS:

And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

JW:

Yes, solely through Christ.

CS:

But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?

JW:

No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

CS:

Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?

JW:

No.

CS:

What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

JW:

Yes, altogether.

CS:

And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

JW:

Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

CS:

Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.

Nude Faith

Jason Micheli —  November 12, 2018 — 1 Comment

Galatians 3

He’s a lumbering giant of a man.

A Norwegian, Jim is 6’6 with all the girth that goes with such a hulking frame. He looks like and sounds like a clean-shaven Santa Claus in street clothes. He’s a pastor and a professor of theology. 

 

I heard him lecture on faith and absolution at an event, and during his presentation he shared a story about how he’d been traveling long hours and many miles from conference to conference. 

“I hate traveling, he said, “and I despise airplanes— when you’re my size, riding on an airplane is like doing penance. I don’t hardly fit on any of them.” 

“I was flying coast to coast— a long flight,” he said, “and I got on this plane and, of course, per every airline’s policy wouldn’t you know it but the guy sitting in the seat next to me was every bit as big and fat as me. We buckled up as best we could and got ready for take-off. Sitting there on top of each other, I’m sure we looked like two heads on the same pimple.”

“Since we were practically on each other’s laps, it would’ve felt strange if we didn’t visit with each other and chat the other up. As the plane was taking off, he asked me what I did for a living. I said to him: ‘I’m a preacher of the Gospel.’ Almost as soon as I got the words out, he shouted back at me: ‘I’m not a believer!’”

“He said it loud to me too because it was take-off and the plane was noise.” 

“But the man was curious,” Jim said in his presentation. “Once we got to cruising altitude, he started asking me about being a preacher. After a bit, he said it to me again: ‘I’m not a believer.’ So I said to him: ‘Okay, but it doesn’t change anything— he’s already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.” 

“The man next to me,” Jim said, “was quiet for a while and then he started talking again and, at first, I thought it was a complete non sequitor, complete change of subject. He started telling me stories about the Vietnam War.”

He’d been an infantryman in the war. 

And he’d fought at all the awful battles— Khe San, the Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill. 

Jim said: 

“He told me— ‘I did terrible things for my country and when I came home my country didn’t want me to talk about it. I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.’”

“This went on the whole flight,” Jim said in his presentation, “from coast to coast, him giving over to me all the awful things he’d done.”

“As the flight was about finished, I asked him. I said to him— ‘Have you confessed all the sins now that have been troubling you?”

And notice—

Jim used the language of confession and sin. 

He didn’t just listen. He didn’t say I feel your pain. He didn’t minimize it and say Well, you were just doing your duty, don’t be so hard on yourself. He didn’t dismiss it Sounds like PTSD. He didn’t deflect and say I’m here for you. 

No, he offered him absolution. 

He offered him the Gospel.

“Have you confessed all the sins now that have been troubling you?” Jim said to him.

“What do you mean confessed?! I’ve never confessed.” The man replied.

“You’ve been confessing your sins to me this whole flight long. And I’ve been commanded by Christ Jesus that when I hear a confession like that to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, you have any more sins burdening you? If so, throw them in there.” 

“I’m done now,” the man next to him said, “I’m finished.” 

“And then he grabbed my hand,” Jim said to us in the presentation, “He grabbed my hand like he’d just had a second thought, and he said to me: ‘But, I told you— I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.’”

“I unbuckled my seatbelt and I said to him: ‘Well, that’s quite alright brother.  Jesus says that it’s what’s inside of you is what’s wrong with the world. Nobody has faith inside of them— faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature.  I’m going to speak faith into you.’”

“So I unsqueezed myself from my chair and I stood up. The seatbelt sign had already dinged on and the tray tables had been secured back in their upright positions and the seats were all back up straight and proper, but I stood up over him.”

“The stewardess then— she starts yelling and fussing at me: ‘Sir— SIR— you can’t do that. Sit down. You can’t do that.’”

“I ignored her, which meant pretty soon others around us were fussing and hollering at me too. ‘You can’t do that. Sit down,’ they said to me.” 

“Can’t do it?” I said to the stewardess. “Ma’am Christ our Lord commands me to do it.”

  “And she looked back at me, scared, like she was afraid I was going to evangelize her or something. So I turned back to the man next to me and, standing up over him, I put my hand on his head and  I said: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’” 

“You— you can’t do that.” 

He whispered to me. 

“I can do it. I must. Christ compels me to do it, and I just did it and I’ll do it again.”

“So I gave him the goods again. I tipped his head back and I spoke faith into him, and I did it loud for everyone on that plane to hear it: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” 

“And just like that,” Jim said, “the man started sobbing… like somebody had stuck him. Soon his shirt was wet from all his weeping. It was like he’d become a little child again and so I sat down and I held him in my arms like I’d hold a child.”

And then Jim, in telling his story, started to weep too. 

He said:

“The stewardess and all the rest who’d been freaking out and fussing at me— they all stopped and became as silent as dead men. They knew,” he said, “something more imporant was happening right in front of them— something more important. 

“This man’s life was breaking open. Jesus Christ by his Spirit was raising this man from the dead— from being dead in his trespasses— right in front of them, and even if they didn’t know it to put it that way, they knew it was grace they were seeing. They knew it was holy.”

And telling the story, Jim looked out at the conference audience and smiled and patted his Santa Claus paunch, and he said: “After he stopped sobbing, as the plane was landing, he asked me to absolve him again, like he couldn’t get enough of the news, and so I did (‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’), and the man laughed and wiped his eyes and he said to me: 

“Gosh, if that’s true, it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

“And I just chuckled,” Jim said, “and I told him: ‘Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.’” 

———————-

Faith in the promises of some gods come easy to all of us. Faith in the flag. Faith in tribes whose flags are the colors of our skin. Faith in the god whose altar is politics. 

Our hearts are idol factories indeed— and maybe it’s because the unconditional promise God gives us is so prodigally gratiuitous that it would take a miracle for us to believe it. Maybe we’re so quick to forge idols because faith in the Gospel is impossible.

I don’t need any help at all to believe in the Law— that’s easy. 

You ought to love your neighbor as yourself. You ought to forgive the enemy who wronged you. You ought to show compassion to those less fortunate than you. Every religion teaches those Commands; no one disagrees with them. 

I mean— if we think Christianity is about commandment-keeping then it’s no wonder we suppose it’s the same as all the other religions. It would be the same as all the other religions.

I don’t need any help at all to believe the Golden Rule. I can believe them on my own just fine— and so do you.

The same goes for the muddled concoction the church in Galatia had cooked up. If you recall from our reading last week, the Galatians had taken the Gospel and added the demands of the Law back into it, creating a kind of Glawspel. 

God has done his part (forgiving us our sins in Christ), but now, the Galatians taught, we must do our part (faithfully following his commands). 

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, the Galatians exhorted, but now God will one day judge us based on what we do with that new slate. Christianity is about deeds not creeds, the false teachers in Galatia insisted.

By your baptism, Christ has given you— freely— the riches of his righteousness. But now— the false teachers taught— you’ve got to earn it. 

The burden is back on you. 

Of course, this Gospel muddled with the Law— it makes sense: God’s done his part but you must do your part. It sounds fair. It’s no wonder Paul’s churches kept falling under the spell of false teachers. 

You’ve got to earn what you’ve been given— that strikes us as right and good. 

You don’t require any help— not really— to believe it. 

But the Gospel—

The unconditional promise that you are justified. 

You are in the right with God. 

By grace alone— by God’s irrevocable gift alone. 

In Christ alone. 

In his deed for you, not in any of your deeds for him. 

You are in the right with God, always and forever— irrevocably. By grace sola. In Christ sola. And all of this is yours— everything, he has done everything already for you— through faith sola. 

Faith alone. 

Nude faith.

Trust and nothing else. 

Nothing else— no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you will do, no matter what you’ve left undone or will leave undone, nothing— nothing in all of creation in fact— can undo what he has done for you. 

The everything he has accomplished will always be yours through faith. 

Alone. 

Who could believe that?

Paul says just before today’s text that if God in any way regards us relative to our obedience to his teachings and commands, then Jesus Christ came for absolutely nothing. Think about that— it’s crazy and counterintuitive. 

None of the good you do matters— that’s offensive.

None of the sin you do matters— that’s immoral maybe. 

The Gospel in Paul’s shorthand to the Galatians is this: 

Christ + Anything Else at All = Nothing at All.

He’s taken your sins by his dying and rising. 

And by your baptism he’s given you his own righteousness. 

Christ + Anything Else at All = No Gospel at All. 

But it’s no wonder we add all sorts of things to this Gospel.

This Gospel of Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone— who could possibly believe it? 

It would take a miracle to believe it. 

———————-

In teaching children about the Apostles’ Creed, the Small Catechism professes: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, nor come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me into the Gospel and kept me in the faith.”

Faith is the Spirit’s doing, the catechism instructs us. 

And that way of understanding faith— it comes straight out of today’s scripture, towards the end of chapter 3 where Paul writes: “Now before faith came, we were guarded under the Law which came until faith would be revealed. Therefore the Law was our Schoolmaster until Christ came.”

Notice how the Apostle Paul speaks of faith in the same way he speaks of the Law. Notice how Paul makes faith the subject of a verb. Notice how Paul makes faith synonmous with Christ himself. 

In other words—

Just as God gave to us the Law, God gave to us Jesus Christ. 

And just as God gave to us Jesus Christ, God gives to us faith. 

That’s exactly Paul’s point here today at the top of chapter 3. When the Galatians received the Gospel in faith, Paul says— when they trusted the promise— they experienced what no one ever experienced through commandment-keeping. 

They experienced the Holy Spirit.

When they trusted the Gospel alone they experienced the Spirit because— pay attention now— it is the work of the Holy Spirit to give faith to us. 

It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to give us faith. 

I know it’s popular nowadays to pit Paul against Jesus, but Christ says the very same thing about the Holy Spirit. He says it on the night we betrayed him. 

Right after washing our feet, Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit, and he promises that the work of the Holy Spirit will be to convict us of our sins and to convince us of righteousness— his righteousness reckoned to us as our own. 

The Spirit is Jesus Christ’s answer to the grieving father who begs of him “Lord, help my unbelief.” 

Faith is not another work of the Law because faith is not our work. 

Faith is not even our response to God’s work in Jesus Christ. 

Faith is the work of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ upon us. 

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

     How much faith or how little faith you have matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith, Jesus Christ, whose very Spirit gives you the faith to receive him. 

      So whatever sized faith you have to receive this promise, you’re sitting on a miracle.

———————-

I know what some of you are thinking: 

In 4 months worth of sermons, Jason, you’ve not handed out any homework. You’ve given us zero Go and Do marching orders. You’ve offered up not a single exhortation about what we ought to do as Christians. 

And now— you’re telling us our faith isn’t even something we do?!   It’s all God’s doing?! 

It’s odd. 

And I think it reveals the extent to which we’re all captive to civil religion that when we hear the Gospel of justification in Christ alone by grace alone through nude faith— when we hear the promise that everything has already been done by Christ’s bleeding and dying and rising for you— it’s odd that when we hear the Gospel promise of grace, we rush to the conclusion that there’s nothing for us now to do. 

Why do we assume that the Gospel message that everything has already been done means that there’s nothing for us to do? 

Why do you think the promise that Jesus did it all leaves you with nothing to do?

How could there be nothing to do?

NOBODAY BELIEVES THIS CRAZY PROMISE! FESS UP— YOU DON’T EVEN BELIEVE THE GOSPEL MOST OF THE TIME! I ONLY BELIEVE IT HALF OF THE TIME!

HOW COULD THERE BE NOTHING FOR YOU TO DO?!

YOU HAVE ONE VERY BIG THING TO DO!

Bear witness. 

Bear witness to the absolution that is for all by grace through faith. Bear witness— this one thing could keep you busy for the rest of your life. All you need to do this one thing are sinners— people who’ve screwed up their lives or screwed over people in their lives. All you need to do this one thing are sinners— people with heavy hearts, people carrying a burden of shame and a yoke of regrets. All you need for this one thing to do are sinners, and— guess what— they’re everywhere and there’s danger of them becoming endangered. 

And (just as an aside) as a pastor I can tell you—The difficulty is not in getting people to confess to you; the difficulty is in learning how to listen so you notice they’re trying to unburden themselves to you. 

This one thing is the first thing you promise to do whenever you witness a baptism. At every baptism, we promise that “With God’s help, we will proclaim the Good News.”  With the Holy Spirit’s help, we will bear witness to the absolution that is in his blood. At every baptism, you’re promising to be party and accomplice to the Spirit’s faith-making miracle.  

This one thing—

It’s actually the one and only thing the Risen Christ commands us to do. 

It’s odd. 

Whenever Christians talk about doing the things Christ commands us to do, we usually mean feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or lifting up the lowly.

That is—

we’re usually talking about the good things you need not be a Christian to agree are good things. 

 

But the one and only thing the Resurrected Jesus comands us to do is to bear witness.

It’s the one thing.

On Easter Eve, Jesus finds his frightened faithless disciples hiding behind locked doors. Peace be with you he says and says it again, Peace be with you.

And then He breathes his Holy Spirit out upon them. 

And he says to them: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, by my authority, they are forgiven them. 

The Easter Jesus commissions us, and the Holy Spirit conscripts us to bear witness to the absolution that is for all through faith, and to do it over and over and again— drilling it into sinners’ earballs— until, by the Spirit’s miracle-making, they have faith.

———————-

When we thought Jim’s airplane absolution story was over, he started to cry all over again and he said: 

“After the plane had landed, we were getting our bags down from the overhead compartment. I pulled my card out of my briefcase and I handed it to him. I told him: ‘You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or a week from now. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep on doing it until you do— you really do— trust and believe it.’”

And then Jim laughed a big, deep laugh and said:

 

“Wouldn’t you know it. He called me every day— every day— just to hear me declare the forgiveness of the Gospel. It got to be he couldn’t live without it. And I bore witness of it to him every day right up to the day he died.” I told him: In the name of Christ Jesus I forgive you all your sins. 

He said and paused, before adding through his tears: 

“I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear Jesus himself say to him in the next life.”

———————-

  This is what you can do even though everything has already been done. You can bear witness, offering the world the promise of forgiveness that Jesus himself will speak when this world passes away. With God as your Helper, give them the goods of Gospel absolution again and again and again…until, by some miracle, they believe it.

. 

Addison Hart joins the podcast to talk about his latest book, ‘The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary’.

https://www.amazon.com/Letter-James-Pastoral-Commentary/dp/1532650140

From the back cover: The Letter of James is perhaps needed more than ever today. In this commentary, Hart argues that the epistle is indeed the work of James of Jerusalem, “the brother of the Lord,” that it was an encyclical letter, and that its chief concern was to combat a distorted version of Paul’s gospel. It is a work with a singular purpose: to bring the churches back to the most basic teachings of Jesus. In its defense of orthopraxy as the primary Christian standard, its denunciation of those with wealth who exploit or neglect the poor, its hard words for those who have taken on the mantel of “teacher” without first learning to restrain their tongues, and above all its exhortation to relearn the truth that “faith without works [of love] is dead,” James could be talking to churches in our own time. This commentary presents James afresh, as a living guide with a perennial message for those who seek to follow Jesus. It is pastoral in intent, written for those who teach and preach, those who desire a more authentic discipleship, and those who practice lectio divina—the meditative reading of Scripture.
_____________________
Addison Hodges Hart is a retired priest (of both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches, M.Div.), former college chaplain for Northern Illinois University, teacher, spiritual director, and former ecumenical/interfaith director (for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois). He is the author of six previous books, published by Eerdmans, the most recent being The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd: Finding Christ on the Buddha’s Path (2013), Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World (2014), and The Woman, the Hour, and the Garden: A Study of Imagery in the Gospel of John (2016). He currently lives with his wife in Norway, along with two Newfoundland dogs, a herd of cats, and some goats.

Just after election day to insure listeners don’t get their boxers in too much of a twist, here’s the latest episode, working our way alphabetically through the stained-glass language of the faith. Up today– Quietism. What the hell is Quietism? You might still be asking that question after the episode. Hint, it relates to how we relate to the society around us.

And before you listen— just to be fair and balanced- buy one of our C&GJ “Make the Gospel Great Again” t-shirts and we’ll donate the proceeds to Just Neighbors.

Get the shirts here.

 

 

Here’s a letter I wrote to my congregation reflecting on tomorrow’s election:

Hi Friends,

This Sunday, we celebrated the feast of All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ Day is an ancient in the church. It was first celebrated around the 4th century in order to commemorate those who were martyred and died clinging to the promise of Jesus’ righteousness gifted to them at baptism as their hope to attain resurrection after death. Not only is God’s grace in Christ alone through faith alone alone sufficient for how God regards us, Paul says in our scripture for November, God’s grace is consequently the great leveler of all distictions we place around ourselves. To add to the Gospel is to anul the Gospel, Paul tells us in Galatians, including— he might caution us— modifiers like progressive and conservative, Republican or Democrat.

Christ has set us free for freedom from any of the obligations by which we might otherwise attempt to impress God or get a leg up on our neighbors. Grace, in other words, sets us free for our neighbor— to engage them simply as a fellow neighbor. 

And grace likewise sets you free to disagree on how best to help and serve your neighbor in the neighborhood we call America. 
 

If you’re like me, you’re getting bombarded from all sides by political messages. I don’t want this note to be counted among those. As your pastor, however, in a hyper divided partisan culture,  I thought it appropriate to help you think Christianly on the day before Election Day.

It’s hard to imagine 1st century Christians caught up in whether Nero or Britannicus was the better successor to the Emperor Claudius. I recognize how many of you have strong opinions about the current administration while others of you have strong opinions on the alternatives— realize Nero was the emperor under whom the first Christians worked out their faith. Nero was so awful a persecutor of the faith he inspired the Book of Revelation.

We may love America, but America’s politics is not the lever that turns the designs God has for this world; the promise of the Gospel of grace (for the ungodly), which scripture calls the power of God at work in the world, is the design God has for the world.
Paul goes in his letter to the Galatians to write about how the doctrine of grace forms the character of Christian community. Diversity of views in our congregation— it turns out according to Paul— is not an obstacle to be overcome but is itself a sign of the Gospel. As Paul tells a congregation every bit as heterogenous as you “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female, and neither is there Republican nor Democrat, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.”

I think it speaks to the power of the Gospel that yesterday in worship immigrants lit candles for saints alongside a Republican campaign manager.
I do not believe this diversity of views is to be lamented, for in a time when our culture is so Balkanized by labels and loyalties we are a community where those worldly distinctions can exist in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
 

If the Gospel creates communities where there is neither Republican nor Democrat, then to say we must be a community of only Republicans or only Democrats is to place party over Christ’s Lordship. Such a move is what the bible calls idolatry. The Gospel instead creates community that is a “fellowship of differents.” The Church is political in that it subverts the politics of the day by refusing the either/or dichotomy so often found in our politics. Indeed in such a partisan, divided culture I believe this is a gift AUMC can offer the wider world.
 

However you vote tomorrow, remember there’s a place for you in this community and a way to practice your faith. Frankly, I believe the mission of the Church is more important and too important to let (non-eternal) elections divide us and thus frustrate our effectiveness for Christ. As I mentioned in a recent sermon, it should give all of us pause in our political pride that the only democratic election in the New Testament is when we choose Barabbas over Christ. The election that truly matters, Paul says, is the one by which we are incorporated into Jesus Christ through baptism.

 

Faithful Christians cannot disagree about the politics of Jesus— care for the poor, vulnerable, and the common good; however, faithful Christians can disagree about the best means to achieve those ends. 
All of us fall short. Not one of us is righteous, which means, on both sides of the issues there will always be scripture that challenges us:
Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, commands us to care for the poor (Matthew 25).

Scripture also commands us “to honor and pray for the emperor” (1 Peter 2.17).

Remember, too, that when Peter issued that command he had in mind Nero–whom Revelation marks with the number 666.
Christians are called not simply to make the world a better place; Christians are called to be the better place God has already made in the world. In our time and place, I believe what it means for AUMC to be that better place is to be a place where all our differences about the kingdom we call America are transcended by the Kingdom to which we’re called in Christ.
I believe we are that better place God has already made in the world when we balance–in tension–those two scriptures, Matthew 25 and 1 Peter 2.

Grace and Peace.
Jason

Better Than Deserving

Jason Micheli —  November 4, 2018 — 1 Comment

We started a new series through Galatians for November. Here’s my sermon for All Saints Sunday on Galatians 1.3-9.

You could call him a saint, hang a halo around his head. 

He’s a hero of the faith— and isn’t that what we mean by that word we celebrate today? Saint, a champ of the faith. 

Maybe you saw the story. A little over 13 months ago, Albuquerque police officer Ryan Hollets responded to a routine call reporting a convenience story robbery.  As Officer Hollets later told journalists, he assumed it was a “mundane assignment I could quickly clear from the call log.” 

Officer Hollets dealt with the dispatch, exited the convenience store, and walked out into the parking lot to his squad car to leave. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw a ragged-looking couple sitting down in the grass, up against a cement wall, near a dumpster. 

As Officer Hollets approached the couple, he noticed they were shooting up. 

Heroin. 

In broad daylight.

And as he crept up closer to them, he saw something that shocked him. The woman who was shooting up herself and her companion— she was about 8 months pregnant. 

The junkie mother-to-be looked up, dazed, at Officer Hollets. A needle in her hand, not yet high, she grew agitated. When prompted, she told Officer Hollets that her name was Chrystal Champ and that she was 35 years old. 

At first, seeing her there pregnant and shooting up, Officer Hollets started to scold her. Or, as St. Paul might put it, Officer Hollets started preaching the Law at her: 

“What are you doing?! You’re going to kill your baby! You shouldn’t do that. Why do you have to be doing that stuff. It’s going to ruin your baby.” 

The Law, as the Apostle Paul says, only (and always) accuses us, and that’s what it did to Chrystal Champ too. Initially she responded to Officer Hollets scolding and lay-lawing by getting defensive and angry: “How dare you judge me. I already know what I should and shouldn’t do. I know what a horrible person I am and what a horrible situation I’m in.”

Officer Hollets had turned his body camera on as he left the convenience store and approached the couple. The video footage shows him scolding Chrystal Champ and interrogating her— preaching the Law at her— for over 10 minutes. 

Until—

Chrystal Champ starts to weep. 

And then she confesses. 

She tells Officer Hollets that she has prayed desperate prayers for someone to come along and adopt her baby. And you can watch it all on the body-cam footage— something about that word adopt triggered a change in Officer Hollet’s countenance. 

Officer Hollets later said it was like something compelled him: all of a sudden he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and pulled a picture out of his wallet and showed Chrystal Champ a photograph of his wife and his 4 kids, including a 10 month old baby. 

And crouching down in front of her, he said to her, to this helpless junkie mother-to-be: “I’ll adopt your baby.”

You can see it in the footage. 

Chrystal Champ looks up at Officer Hollets, absolutely stunned at his risky, gratuitous gesture to rescue her and her baby. 

I’ll adopt your baby. 

Officer Hollets forgot to shut off his body camera. 

The rest of the footage shows him driving frantically to find his wife, who was at a party, walking up to her and telling her: “I just met a pregnant woman shooting up heroin, and I offered to adopt her baby.”

And, on camera, without hesitation— as though compelled by something— his wife said: “Okay.”

Chrystal Champ gave birth to a baby girl last October 12. 

Officer Hollets and his wife Rebecca— they named her Hope. 

Today— All Saints Sunday— seems as good a day as any to tell you his story, right?

Surely he’s the sort of Christian we’re talking about when we talk about saints. He’s got everything but the stained glass. He’s a modern day icon. What he did for Chrystal makes him a champ. 

Of the faith.  

He’s a saint. 

———————-

The problem though:

Singular stained-glass heroes— that’s not how the New Testament understands that word saint. 

We think of saints as persons of exceptional piety. We think of saints as examples of extraordinary virtue. We think of saints as role models of righteousness. And in medieval Catholic paintings artists always gilded the saints with bigger halos. But in the New Testament, saints are not examples of godly living. They’re not honor roll students in the school of holier than thou. 

That’s why, beginning 501 years ago this week, Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers tore down all that artwork from church altars. 

If saints were role models for right living and righteous doing, then you can be damn sure St. Paul never would’ve called the Christians in Corinth saints. 

Saints would be the last word you’d use to describe the Corinthians— that would be like calling Chrystal Champ instead of Ryan Hollets a saint. 

But that’s exactly how the Apostle Paul addresses his letters to the Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those saints in Christ Jesus…”

Read the rest of those letters. 

The church at Corinth was more messed up (in a bible-bad kind of way) than a Bill Clinton-Donald Trump sponsored bachelor party in Vegas.

And yet Paul calls them saints. 

Congregants at Corinth— these supposed saints— were having sex with their mothers-in-law. These so-called saints were getting drunk at the communion table, and they were mean drunks too because they kept the poor from sitting at the communion table with them. 

Saints?

There’s a reason Paul had to lecture them that love is patient and kind. They weren’t any kind of either. 

Yet Paul calls them saints, holy ones. 

And not just the Corinthians:

The Ephesians— despite being one Body in Christ, they persisted in treating strangers and immigrants as strangers and immigrants,. And yet, even though they did not practice what he preached, Paul calls them saints too. 

And the Christians in Rome— Paul didn’t even know them; he only knew they had a serious problem with making distinctions between good people and bad people, but despite their behavior Paul calls them saints. 

Same goes for the Philippians— Paul calls them saints from his jail cell, all of them. 

No remainder. 

And the Galatian Christians, Paul calls them— no.

Nada. 

Not a one.

———————-

When it comes to the Galatians, Paul is all piss and vinegar. Have you read it? Galatians reads more like an angry election-season Facebook rant than an epistle. 

Not only does Paul refuse to call them saints, he completely skips past the customary salutations. He grabs them by the collar and gets right down to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4: 

…the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free according to the will of God our Father.

By the time you get to verse 7, Paul’s calling them perverts, cussing at them and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them. Why is Paul so torqued off at them? 

Why aren’t they saints?

The Galatians weren’t sleeping with their in-laws. None of them were turning the eucharist in to a keg stand. They weren’t neglecting the poor among them. They weren’t treating strangers and aliens with suspicion. As far as behavior goes, the Galatians were better than all the rest. 

The Galatians were role models of right living and righteous doing. They were singular stained glass do-gooders. The Galatians were so hard core about being Christ’s hands and feet to the world for the sake of the least, the lost, and the left behind that they exhorted one another to be super-disciples. 

How can super-disciples not be reckoned saints? 

If anyone should get gilded with bigger halos it should be the Galatians. 

Yet somehow holy scripture does not call them saints. 

Why?

———————-

The Letter to the Galatians is proof that deep-down, despite what we sing and say on Sundays, we’re addicted to bad news not the Good News. 

Like a lot of Christians today, the Galatians assumed they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ and him crucified every week. 

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

The Galatians insisted. 

The Galatians took the Gospel for granted. 

They turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all, Paul says, for it nullifies the Gospel. This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us. 

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

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands.

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

As Paul goes on to say in chapter 2: If God in any way regards us based on our obedience to his teachings and commands, then Jesus Christ came and died and was raised for absolutely nothing. 

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

There can be no middle ground at all between: “Christ has done everything for you” and “This is what you must do.” There’s no reconciliation between those two. 

Scripture doesn’t say: While were yet sinners, Christ died for us, on the condition that eventually we would become the kind of people no one would ever have had to die for in the first place. Otherwise the whole deal is off.

No.

Jesus Christ came and Jesus Christ yet comes— in word and water and wine and bread— not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improvable. 

Christ came and Christ comes still to raise you who are dead in your trespasses. 

And— I do more funerals than you all, I can testify firsthand— corpses don’t contribute anything to their resurrection. 

Thus Paul’s emphatic point in Galatians: 

There are irreconcilable differences between “Christ has done everything necessary for you” and “This is what you must do.” 

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in 6 words is this: 

Christ plus anything else is nothing.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it. The way to annul the unconditional promise of the Gospel is to add obligation to it:

This is what you must do now— as a Christian. This is who you must be now. This is the lifestyle you must have now. This is how you should spend your money now.  This is who you’re not allowed to love now. This is how you must vote now. This is the issue you must advocate now. This is the candidate you must resist now. 

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add extras to it, modify it:

progressive Christian, conservative Christian, social justice Christian, family values Christian, inclusive Christian, traditional Christian.

No.

The Gospel message is not the Army’s message. It’s not Be All You Can Be. You don’t need to die to self or do anything because the promise of the Gospel is that you have already died with Christ.  You have been crucified with him for all your sins.  And by your baptism, all of you, warts and all, is in him. You don’t need to become anyone else.

The easiest way to erase the Gospel is to add to it. Be better, do better, build a better world. 

The Gospel message is something else entirely. The Gospel message is not Here is what you must do. The Gospel is Everything has already been done. By another. For you.

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

     He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly. When it comes to the Law— the teachings and commands of God— you can’t pick and choose.

You can’t say I’ll advocate for the poor and oppressed but protecting the unborn—- really not my issue. 

Likewise, you can’t say I’m for protecting the vulnerable in the womb but when it comes to the vulnerable at the border— not my problem.

I’m not trying to be political; I’m trying to point out how when it comes to our obedience under God’s Law there is no distinction between any of us. 

All of us fall short. Not one of us is righteous, not one. 

When it comes to the teachings and commands of God, there’s no A for effort. 

It’s all or nothing, God says.  

And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed. Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high. This other gospel in Galatia, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly. 

But Christ already fulfilled the Law perfectly.  

He was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

For you.

His perfect record— it’s your inheritance, scripture promises. 

Notice, scripture doesn’t call it your wage. Something you earn. Something you deserve. Scripture says it’s your inheritance. 

Something gifted to you freely by way of another’s death. 

Something better than deserving. 

Something you need only receive in trust.

Trust— faith, alone— that’s why Paul doesn’t call them saints. 

———————-

The word saint, sanctus, simply means “holy.” 

As the theologian Robert Jenson says, what makes the God of the Old and New Testaments holy, in distinction from us, is God’s ability to make and keep unconditional promises. Only God can make and keep unconditional promises because only God is not bounded by death. 

What makes God holy is God’s ability to make and keep an unconditional promise.

Therefore, what constitutes God’s People as holy is not decency, cleanliness, propriety, temperance, civility, or sobriety. The God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, eating and drinking and befriending scoundrels and sinners, was in no wise “holy” and Jesus had harsh words for those begrudgers who presumed to be so “holy.”

If what makes God holy is God’s ability to make and keep an unconditional promise, then what makes us holy is how we relate to God’s unconditional promise. 

Holiness is not about behavior.. Holiness is about belief— trust— in the promise of God.

Holiness is not about being good or doing good. Holiness is about trusting the good work God has done for you in Jesus Christ.

The unconditional promise we call the Gospel.

If holiness is about trust— faith— then:

The opposite of vice is not virtue. 

The opposite of sin is not sinlessness. 

The opposite of vice and sin is faith. 

Which means:

Saints are not those who’ve managed to live their lives carrying around their necks bigger and heavier millstones than the average rest of us. 

Saints are just sinners who know— by faith— that they’ve been rescued. 

Adopted undeservedly into Christ.

They’re not so much champs of faith like Officer Ryan Hollets. 

They’re more like…well, they’re more like Chrystal Champ.

———————-

Chrystal Champ had been homeless for over 2 years when Officer Hollets encountered her. She’d been battling a heroin and crystal meth addition since she was a teenager, scraping up $50 a day to score hits. She’d tried before, multiple times, to get clean. 

She told the press: “I’d tried before to do good, to be good, to change. Every time, I failed. It had me captive. Every time I tried to save myself it just kept coming back to ruin my life.”

Not incidentally, Chrystal Champ has been clean and sober nearly a year this week. When asked what made this time different than all the others up and down the wagon, Chrystal Champ chalked it up to her rescue.

She chalked it up to the nature of her rescue.

Remembering the change in Officer Hollet’s countenance, how he’d crouched down and condescended to her with his offer (I’ll adopt your baby), Chrystal Champ said recently: 

“It was like, all of a sudden, he became one of us. A human being. Not high and mighty, a police officer, but one of us…The way he rescued me…I didn’t deserve it…I guess it’s just changed me.”

The good news— 

If super-disciples like the Galatians are not saints, then saints are not sinless stained-glass heroes. 

Which is how on All Saints Sunday, you all get to light so many candles today for so many imperfect Christians. 

We can light those candles for them without lying about them. 

The crazy fun and folly of the Gospel is that when it comes to holiness— 

Thanks to the cross, the bar ain’t that high. 

Saints are just sinners without a trust problem.