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Explaining Easter

Jason Micheli —  April 21, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 20.1-18 — Easter 2019

Morning has broken— like the first morning of what St. Paul calls the Second Aeon.  It’s the first day of God’s new creation and already, just three days since they’d all sworn at the last supper never to forsake him, the Church is down to one member. 

Mary Magdalene.

Only Mary has come— as the Jewish Law requires— to sit shiva with the body of her dead rabbi. The reason they anoint Jesus’ dead body with oils and perfumes is because the Law requires them to sit with his dead body for seven stinking days. Only Mary comes to sit shiva as they all should under the Law. 

According to the Law, in order to sit shiva with the dead, the mourner must wear a keriah, an outer robe that will be torn in ritual lamentation. According to the Law, in order for shiva to commence the grave of the dead must be completely covered with earth or stone. But the Law leaves unsaid the obvious. You can’t sit shiva with the dead in their tomb if the dead ain’t there. That’s why Mary becomes upset a vandal has stolen his body. Without him, she can’t do what the Law requires she do for him. 

So when Mary sees the stone that had sealed Jesus in his grave— a stone which, mind you, bore Caesar’s image— rolled away, she guesses the worst. 

She runs to get Peter and the Beloved Disciple. 

And they rush to the new hewn tomb. 

They crawl into the grave. 

And they see it’s empty. 

And they see the linen with which Nicodemus had wrapped his body. 

And they see the cloth that had covered his thorn-cut head— folded neatly now. 

But they don’t see him. 

His body. His speared and spat-upon body. His crucified body. 

They don’t see him.

Not seeing is believing, John says. 

The disciples enter the tomb and they see that it’s empty. The disciples enter his tomb and they don’t see him. And they believe, John says. 

They believe. 

And, why not?

Why shouldn’t they believe? 

Remember a little over a week ago the disciples had witnessed Jesus wrest his friend Lazarus, who’d been four days dead, from the grave. “Lazarus, come out!” Christ had commanded the corpse, as sure and certain as God Almighty saying “Let there be light!” 

Why shouldn’t they believe? 

They’d seen his power over the Power of Death. They already had, therefore, everything they needed to know that he had power over those Powers who derived their power from the fear of Death.  And now, not seeing is believing. 

“They believed,” John says matter-of-factly. 

They believed that the one who declared to Lazarus’ grief-stricken sister “I am the Resurrection” had been resurrected. They believed that the One who had promised “I am Life” had put Death to death. 

“They believed,” John reports, “and then they went back home.” 

———————-

Wait— hold up— they went back home? 

What in the hell are they thinking?

Was there a Jerusalem United game kicking off soon? Did they have to get back to check out King Herod’s latest tweet storm? 

“The disciples saw and they believed…and then they went back home,” John says. 

Can you even imagine?

Can you imagine hearing the Gospel good news that Death has been undone, that the Power of Sin has been defeated— and with it, all your sins (past, present, future) forgiven, gratis, forgotten forever in his grave. Can you imagine hearing that the crucified and risen Christ is Lord, not of your heart but all of creation. Can you imagine hearing that God has vindicated everything he said and did and taught, for when God raises him up from the grave, God also exalts with him— in him— everything he said and did and taught; such that, now the sermon on the mount isn’t just some rabbi’s strategy for the world. No, the resurrection of this particular rabbi reveals that his cheek-turning, enemy-loving forgiveness is the very grain of the universe.

Can you even imagine?

Can you imagine hearing and believing the Gospel, and then just going home for brunch? 

Who does that? 

What would Jesus think of such people if he were still alive?

The Son who emptied himself of heaven, forsook his Father’s inheritance, and journeyed into the Far Country of Sin and Death. He was lost but now is found. He was dead and now he’s not dead for never again. He’s come back to the Father and to his brothers, and they just go home? Where’s the fatted calf?

The prodigal has been ransomed from the Pharaoh of Sin and Death by the God who raised Israel from bondage in Egypt. 

He is risen. 

And they what, go home?

This was centuries before GameofThrones so what’s their excuse? 

The victory is won. The battle is over. The war is ended. The clock on the Old Age has run down, St. Paul says.The Enemy— Sin, Death, and the Devil— is defeated, Paul says. It is finished, just as he said.

And now they’ve got to be getting on?

They believed, John says. 

He hadn’t vanished into memory. He’d been remembered by God. God had vindicated his life— his way of life— by resurrecting it from Death and rendering unto this King what belongs to God alone. Everything. God’s given him all dominion.

Easter is the answer to all of Good Friday’s questions. 

“What is truth?” Pilate had asked him before washing his hands of his death.

Now, the answer is as obvious as the shroud folded neatly next to where his dead body no longer lays— he is the Truth and the Way and the Life God gives back from the grave.

“Are you the king of the Jews” Pilate asked on Friday. 

“You say so,” Jesus had said to him. 

But now, God says so too. By undoing Death and rolling away the rock stamped with that other king’s face, God repeats himself: “This is my Beloved Son, what’s it gonna take for you to listen to him!” 

“You forgive sins?” the chief priests had asked, incredulous, “Only God can forgive sins!” 

On Friday Christ stood silent, but today the stones of his empty tomb cry out: Yep, only God can forgive sins. 

It’s Easter that answers Friday’s questions; which is to say, the cross has no meaning apart from the empty tomb. His death is empty if his tomb is not, if God has not resurrected him from the dead.  

These two disciples— they believed God had resurrected him, John says. 

But then they go back home. 

———————-

What a strange way to tell you the story if it’s just a story John aims to tell you. 

These two disciples seem almost as stupid as those other two disciples in Luke’s Gospel, who say they’ve heard the good news that Jesus, having been crucified, had been raised by God from the dead, yet they’re on the road home to Emmaus. 

I mean, you’ve got to wonder how people as dumb and dull as the disciples could have ever concocted something like the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

For the record— 

Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names have been lost to history. Remember too that the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in a man’s resurrection. Take those two facts together, and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Of course, we’d prefer, like those two disciples, to see for ourselves, or, like Thomas, we’d rather even to touch his wounds— to hold the evidence of resurrection in our hands. 

Seeing is believing, we say; except, John in his Gospel has already told you that seeing is not necessarily believing. 

Just a week before his crucifixion, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, John reported that a whole crowd of Jews witnessed the miracle firsthand. And some of them believed, John said. But as many did not believe and immediately then went to the chief priests to hasten his murder. 

Seeing is not necessarily believing, John warns us. 

Nevertheless, not seeing for ourselves— if we’re honest with ourselves— we suspect the resurrection story must’ve gotten hatched. Not seeing for ourselves, we’re tempted to think it must’ve happened something like this. 

The disciples began to remember together their time with Jesus: 

Wasn’t it exciting? Remember when he threw that Temple tantrum and flipped over all the money-changers’ tables? And then there were all those miracles, lepers and Lazarus. His teachings— they really gave you something to think about, didn’t they? 

You know, just thinking about it now makes you feel like he’s still here with us. If we just remember him, it’ll be like he never left. Yes, he’s never truly gone— he’s never really dead— if we keep him alive in our hearts.

Even though that’s not Christianity (actually, it’s Spock’s death scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), we’re tempted to think this kind of post-crucifixion conversation happened. 

Of course our suspicions that such a conversation took place among the disciples only prove that we are like those disciples; that is, like the two disciples here in John’s Gospel and like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we would like to get on with our lives as though resurrection does not mean that the world has been turned upside down. 

We’d like to be able to celebrate Christ’s empty tomb, but then go on living with the assumptions and the habits that sustain our lives in a world that neither sees nor believes. 

This is Church, the one place we’re free to tell the truth, so let’s be honest. 

The reason we’re tempted to explain the resurrection is because we don’t want to live in a world turned upside down by resurrection, for if the grave is empty, then it’s people who bear crosses not people who build them who are working with the grain of the universe. 

In other words, explanations for the resurrection are the way we, like Mary Magdalene, attempt to keep a hold on Jesus. 

We hold out, wanting an explanation for the resurrection, as a way to keep a hold on Jesus in order to keep him from demolishing the world we’ve made in our image. 

Because if God really has vindicated this rabbifrom the grave, then that means we’ve already learned more of God’s will for our lives then any one of us are willing to do. 

So often we attempt to explain the resurrection as a way of keeping a hold on Jesus. 

Because if he’s not really risen indeed, then we don’t need to bother about what Mary calls him here and what John calls him fourteen times in the final chapters of his Gospel. 

———————-

Fourteen times— that’s no accident; that’s the Jewish number for perfection. 

Fourteen times— John all but tells you point blank: 

Pay attention, readers, this is the point of the resurrection. 

Fourteen times— John, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and eventually event Peter call him— fourteentimes— they call him Lord.

Kurios.

Lord over all. 

That’s no incidental piety in a world where the pledge of allegiance was “Caesar is Lord.”

Notice— the climax of the story— Mary Magdalene doesn’t rush from the empty tomb saying “I have seen a miracle!”  She certainly doesn’t say I have seen a metaphor for springtime renewal or I have seen a symbol for life after death. She damn sure doesn’t rush from the grave that is empty asking Who knows how to draw a butterfly?

No, instead of sitting shiva, she runs saying “I have seen the Lord,” God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

Fourteen times, after he comes out of the grave, alive again, someone comes out and confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord.

You see—

The Gospels are not interested in explaining how Jesus came to be resurrected. The Gospels are instead interested in explaining how Mary Magdalene et al came to worship Jesus as Lord.

By definition, we cannot explain the resurrection. 

Think about it— if there was an underlying theory that explained the resurrection, then we should worship that theory and not the godforsaken son of Mary.

The Gospels do not— cannot— explain Easter. 

But the point of the Gospels is that Easter explains us—the particular, peculiar people called Church. 

For as St. Paul says in his Gospel announcement, if Easter is not true— if the crucified Jesus is not the Risen Lord— then, of all the people in the world, we are the most pathetic; which is to say, Easter dares us as Christians to live lives that make no sense if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead and made him Lord.

Easter dares us to live lives that are unintelligible if the one who taught us to bless those who curse us and to forgive— even love— our enemies is not the Living Lord. 

———————-

What does that mean?

What does that look like?

Victoria Ruvolo joined the company of heaven two weeks ago at the age of 59. You may remember hearing about her in the news 15 years ago. In 2004, Victoria had been watching her niece sing in a recital and was driving home on Portion Road on Long Island. Her friend Louis Erali sat next to her in the passenger seat of her Hyundai. 

As Victoria’s car approached from the opposite direction a car with three teenagers, one of the teenagers, Ryan Cushing, threw a twenty pound frozen turkey (purchased with a stolen credit card) through the open window of the back seat. The turkey crashed through Victoria Ruvolo’s windshield, crushing the bones in her skull, caving in her esophagus, and traumatizing her brain. 

Only after a year’s worth of surgeries could she return to work. 

Authorities had wanted to prosecute Ryan Cushing for first degree assault and other offenses, which would have given him over twenty years in prison. But Victoria Ruvolo wanted to forgive him. 

At his sentencing hearing, Victoria gave a statement in which she said: “Vengeance does not belong to me. It belongs to Christ the Lord, and he teaches me that I should forgive you.”

Ryan Cushing served six months. 

Prosecutors and many in the public thought his sentence and her gesture of grace ridiculous.

Hearing the news of her death, Ryan Cushing told the New York Times: 

“Her ability to forgive me, when forgiving me made no sense at all, it had a profound effect on me. It changed my life.”

Her surviving sister, meanwhile, told the press: 

“Not all of us would be that way, but that’s how Victoria was…she’s a Christian…she’s an example of forgiveness in a vengeful world.” 

When it comes to resurrection, it’s not about explanation. When it comes to resurrection, it’s about exemplification. 

She’s an example, Victoria’s sister could’ve said, of the people that God, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, has put into the world. She’s an example of the people that God has created out of the nothingness of an empty tomb to live lives that look ridiculous— maybe even wreckless— if Christ is not risen indeed. 

And if it’s true what the Bible promises, that Christ has been raised for our justification— that is, for us to be in the right with God, with all our sins forever swallowed up in the black hole of God’s own forgetting— then when God raises Jesus Christ from the dead God, in God’s patience, literally gives us all the time in the world to learn how to live lives that can be explained only by the resurrection.

Good Friday: The Seven Last Words

The First Word

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

One of my friends, a member of my former church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Bob was on a group text thread with his cross-country and track runners as they fled. 

And bled.

Bob messaged me the night of the shooting to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery. He asked me to pray for them. He asked me to add them to the church’s prayer list. “Pray for Maddie,” he texted, “she has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.”

I saw the text bubbles bounce on the screen of my iPhone as Bob typed more I couldn’t see until it came all at once:

“I’m not in denial or shock. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did. Don’t talk to me about forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t enough. How does forgiveness make this right? There has to be a cost. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Just before the soldiers strip him naked and shoot dice for his clothes, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” 

We of course believe such a prayer for the Father’s forgiveness sounds like something Jesus would pray to the Father; after all, we take Jesus to be so patient and kind a teacher of love that, if we’re honest, we’re not sure why anyone wanted to kill Jesus. 

Yet our presumptions about Jesus don’t square with what Jesus says immediately before Jesus prays “Father, forgive them for they not what they’re doing.” 

On his way to be crucified at the place called The Skull, Jesus turns around to face the crowds who taunt him from behind.  

Don’t forget— this happened on the sabbath, on a passover weekend. 

Like Americans who took picnic baskets to watch the slaughter of Civil War battles, these crowds who mock him have chosen to spend their holiday by turning his torture into an entertainment.

And Jesus unloads on them in a way that sounds unlike the Jesus we think we know: 

“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore.””

Blessed will be the barren— Jesus’ words are uncharacteristically harsh, especially so if Jesus is right that they know not what they are doing. 

But is Jesus right to impute ignorance to them? 

It certainly seems like they knew what they were doing. 

And Judas and Peter too. 

Ditto the clergy and the soldiers and Pontius Pilate— if Pilate didn’t know what he was doing, then why did he wash his hands of the whole affair?

No matter what Jesus says from the cross, they all know precisely what they’re doing; for that matter, that they all know what they’re doing— that is, the fact that their sin is not unwitting sin— is precisely why Jesus is on the cross. 

This is important—

All those obscure sacrifice rituals prescribed to Israel in Leviticus and Numbers, all those passages that frustrate every sincere effort to read the Bible cover to cover— if you ever get through them all, you might notice the attribute that holds them in common. 

All those sacrifices in the Old Testament were given for Israel to atone for unintended sin. The only atonement mechanism available in the Old Testament was for the sin you did when you didn’t know what you were doing. 

There is no sacrifice in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. There is no mechanism in the Old Testament for the forgiveness of sin when you knew exactly what you were doing. 

There is no sacrifice that makes atonement for deliberate sin. 

Not one. 

Until now. 

This is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews means when it describes Christ’s cross as the sacrifice for sin, once for all. For unwitting sin and for willful sin. This is the shock of the Apostle Paul’s announcement that while we were yet (willful) sinners Christ died for us. 

For us. 

For the ungodly, Paul preaches.

A sacrifice for the sin you sinned when you knew exactly what you were doing.

So it matters not whether Jesus is right or wrong about them knowing not what they do, for he himself is the final form of forgiveness for all wrong, witting and unwitting. 

Those like my friend Bob are right. There is indeed a cost to be paid for the wrong we wreak in the world. The God who says “vengeance is mine” bears that cost in his body, turning the other cheek all the way to a cross. 

It matters not if the people for whom Jesus prays knew or knew not what they were doing. 

The matter that matters is what the Father is doing in Jesus, for the Jesus who prays “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” is the Father’s prayer for the world. 

Jesus is the Father’s prayer for the world. 

And the people formed by him who is the Father’s prayer, the people that God puts into the world to be shaped patiently by his forgiveness and peace, they are God’s answer to the prayers of people like Bob, crying out for the wrong we wreak to be made right.

That is to say—

God’s justice is Jesus.

The Second Word 

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk in charge of an abbey in Algeria. After the rise of Islamic radicals in 1993, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to leave their monastery because they refused to cease serving the community’s poor. 

Anticipating his murder— he was beheaded by radicals in 1996– Christian left a testament with his family to be opened upon his death. 

His letter is a moving sacrament to our faith, which he concludes by addressing his would-be executioner:

“And to you too, my dear friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ ‘[go with God] in whose image you too are made. May you and I meet in the kingdom of heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our Father. Amen! Insha Allah!”

Now consider—

If Christian de Cherge expresses hope that he’ll meet his murderer in paradise, the two of them thick as thieves by God’s grace, we likely judge it a beautiful gesture of faith. 

Flip it—

If the murderer asks the monk “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” and if the latter promises the former “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise—my Paradise” how would we judge the exchange? 

Likely, we’d think the criminal a fool, asking a rabbi for what’s not his to grant, and I suspect we’d say worse about the rabbi making promises upon which only God can deliver upon. 

We’d chalk both of them up as crazy, foolish heretics.

Both Luke and John, who give us this second word from the cross, would want us to hear the irony in the exchange. 

Jesus is nailed to a tree, not only helpless but, according to God’s own Law, godforsaken (which is why all his friends abandon him), and yet— the makeshift sign above his head has him right— he reigns from his cross as a King, granting admission to his Kingdom to…who exactly?

Most translations say that Jesus dies alongside two “common criminals” but, in Luke, Pilate tells you all you need to know. 

The two crucified with Jesus— and so, presumably Jesus also—  have been convicted of “perverting the people,” the term used by Pilate for insurrectionists. 

The two crucified with Jesus are zealots, activists who believed the Kingdom of God could be achieved by arms, making it all the more ironic that the unmerited admission they receive into that Kingdom comes from Jesus, the King who takes up a cross rather than a sword.

Though Luke would have us understand the revolutionary at Christ’s side as having been unfaithful in much, here he is faithful in more: “Jesus,” he asks, “remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” 

Only a Jew schooled in the psalms would know to ask that question of the crucified Jesus. Such a Jew schooled in the psalms would know also the problematic nature of a cross-bearing King. 

Like Paul, such a Jew would recall that according to the Mosaic Law crucifixion identified the crucified as accursed by God— this is why his own disciples have all abandoned him. 

They’ve done so not because they believe his Kingdom mission ended in failure; they’ve done so because they believe by their own scriptures that his Kingdom mission has ended in godforsakeness. 

This is why the two disciples on their way home to Emmaus— two disciples who, Luke makes sure to tell us, have heard the Easter news— don’t hasten to his empty grave. 

Resurrection or not, they’re too godfearing to have anything to do with a crucified King. 

And this is why the Risen Jesus, when he encounters them incognito on the way to Emmaus, must re-teach them the entire Bible. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Luke tells, “Jesus taught to them the things about himself in all of the scriptures.”

“Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your Kingdom?” 

Knowing what this Jew knows of the Bible, about the accursed nature of crucifixion, this is something more than a foolish request. 

The question only makes sense if Jesus can fulfill such a request. 

This thief beside him can already see what those two on the road to Emmaus require the Risen Christ to reveal. 

The crucified Jesus is the promised one to redeem Israel and through Israel, the world. 

This thief, schooled as he is to look past the cross to discover the King, likely would know he’s not put the question precisely right by asking Jesus “Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your Kingdom?” 

Such a Jew would know the Kingdom of God is not a place— a point Jesus has attempted to make in parable after parable. 

The Kingdom of God is not a where but a who. The Kingdom of God is not a place but a person. Of course, this is why Jesus can grant his request. 

The crucified Christ is not only the King. 

The crucified Christ is the Kingdom. “I am the Resurrection and the Life [eternal]” he tells his friend’s grief-stricken sister. Jesus is paradise. 

This happy thief beside Jesus has already received the answer to his prayer.

The Third Word 

“Woman, behold thy son! 

    When first she learned of God’s mercy made flesh in her belly, ex nihilo, Mary erupts into song: 

“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

Every line of Mary’s song is laden with the scripture Mary would’ve learned as a girl. 

She sings not because God has given her a child but she sings because of what that child will mean. She praises God for cracking open the heavens and pouring out justice upon a world thirsty for it. 

She extols the Father for the Son, her son, will be the One to relieve the proud and powerful of their swelled self-importance and he will be the One to fill the poor with more than money can buy. 

It’s a dangerous song. 

It’s a seditious song. 

It’s a cry from the bottom of the social ladder.        

     Except when Mary hears the news that she is to be a Second Eve bearing the New Adam, Mary takes all the future-tense “wills” of her Bible and she puts them in the past perfect tense for her song. 

She takes all the promises from her scripture and sings of them as though they were as good as done. 

She takes the hopes of her people and sings of them as having already been accomplished: “He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

To sing such a song spontaneously can only mean that someone taught Mary the song— Hannah’s song— making it likely that Mary taught Jesus to sing too “He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

But now his disciples have all scatteed and Mary is brought low, watching as her boy is lifted up on a cross to be emptied and sent away from this world by the proud and the powerful still in their thrones. 

Mary watches as they fill his hungry mouth not with good things but gall. “He has shown strength with his arm,” Mary had sang, but now she watches as they break his bones to quicken his death because the passover sabbath is hastening. 

When he was twelve, she’d lost her boy on the journey home after they’d celebrated the passover in Jerusalem. 

She loses him again in Jerusalem during the passover.

Only, this passover Mary’s firstborn son is the lamb. 

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is taken away from her by the sins of the world.

The blood of the passover lamb is sprinkled not on the doorpost but on a cross. 

The passover script always begins with the children asking the parents “What does this mean?” but now Mary likely is the one asking that question of the Father. 

“What’s the meaning of this!?”

Unlike Isaac for Sarah, there’s no ram hidden in a bush. 

The Father who is the Son does not spare himself the sacrifice.

Standing there amidst the mob, hearing him cry out that God’s forsaken him and beholding him naked and bleeding from having told Caiphas and Pilate and all the priests and Pharisee that he’s actually the One with power and wisdom and authority— as she beholds him, I imagine Mary wishes she’d never taught the Son to sing “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts/he has brought down the powerful from their thrones/and lifted up the lowly.” 

The Fourth Word

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  Fill in the blanks:

If I say “The Lord is my shepherd…”

You say___________.

If I say “Yea though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…”

What do you say next?

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and…”

And what?

Almost everyone knows the twenty-third psalm by heart. It’s like “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey. 

You hear it everywhere— certainly almost every time someone dies. 

So what would Mark have us make of this line from Psalm 22 when Jesus dies “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Does Jesus stop believing on the cross? 

Or rather, does his cry of anguish suggest that Jesus believes God has abandoned him?

You know the twenty-third psalm from memory because you’ve had occassion to hear it and recite it over and over again. 

But what if I told you that, as Jews, the audience gathered at Golgotha would’ve had all 150 psalms committed to memory. 

As Jews, they would’ve sung the psalms, working their way in order, a minimum of three times a day. The psalms were an integral part of the daily office. The psalms were taught to children, orally, from before the children could form for themselves the harsh consonants of Hebrew. 

The Jews at the foot of his cross would’ve recognized the psalter’s line about godforsakeness. They would’ve known the song that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” like I stubbornly know all the words to Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” 

They would’ve known  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line from the twenty-second psalm. 

And they would’ve known the next line of the psalm sings: “Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” 

Christians typically reads Jesus’ cry of forsakenness to proof-text an interpretation of Christ’s substitutionary death as penal; that is, we hear this verse of song as suggesting that our sin must be particularly serious and the Father’s wrath especially serious for the Son to suffer even the suffering of complete godforsakeness. 

God has abandoned Jesus, we conclude, just as God would abandon sinful were it not for Jesus, the vicarious sinner. 

Jesus on the cross is alone in the most existential possibility of the word, we imagine, he’s experiencing something worse than betrayal and torture, the sheer and total separation from God that is rightly due all of us woebegone sinners. 

But as all the Jews who heard Jesus would surely know “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is only the first line of Israel’s twenty-second psalm. They could’ve sung the rest of Psalm 22 right along with Jesus, and maybe those near the cross that Friday.

Jesus’ listeners would’ve known this psalm which begins with godforsakeness ends—it builds towards is more like it— on a different note entirely. 

The psalm that begins with an anguished cry of godabandonment concludes with confidence in God’s vindication: 

“You who fear the Lord, praise him!

For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

It is not Christ’s final cry from the depths of a suffering we sinners deserve. 

It is the first line of Christ’s faithful affirmation that Death is being defeated, and that his faithful life unto death— even death on a cross— will be vindicated. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

It’s not hell made audible. 

It’s an overture to Easter.

The Fifth Word

“I thirst.”

The first bedside where I ever sat watch and waited for death to take someone: it was at a hospital outside of Philadelphia. 

     I was just a student pastor at the time.

All I knew of death came from books. 

     He was an old man. His name was on the church roll, but he’d never really been a part of the congregation. I hadn’t even met him before.  I didn’t know what I was doing. 

I was prepared for all sorts of highbrow, wide-ranging philosophical conversations about life after death. The way I had imagined it in the car— it would be something like Tuesdays with Morrie but with a little Kierkegaard and John 14 thrown in for good measure. 

     I didn’t know enough to know that discussions like those are for the living. 

The dying, literally, can’t waste their breath on speculation. 

     I sat next to him in his hospital room for what felt like hours and I held the cold, translucent skin of his hand in mine.  

     In the hours I kept vigil with him all he ever had the strength to say was: ‘I’m thirsty.’ 

So instead of giving him my wisdom on eternal life, I gave him some water.  

     Instead of offering absolution, or even a prayer, I offered him a drink- with a pink sponge at the end of a white, plastic straw on cracked dry lips that barely had the strength to open. 

      “God I’m thirsty,” he said in a rasp that rattled out from somewhere hollow in his chest. “I’m so thirsty.”

In the garden last night, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew a sword, hoping to resist them. 

And Jesus rebuked Peter: “The cup the Father has given me,” says Jesus, “am I not to drink it?” 

     Now, on the cross, Jesus says he wants a drink.  And he says it, John tells us, “to fulfill scripture.” But, which scripture exactly?

Some say— 

     Jesus intends to fulfill Psalm 69. 

     Psalm 69 is a poem for all those who suffer unjustly, and in the twenty-first verse of the Psalm the poet writes: “…for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink…’

     Others say—

     It’s Psalm 22 again that Jesus fulfills. That same Psalm laments “I am poured out like water/my mouth is dried up like clay/and my tongue sticks to my jaws/you lay me in the dust of death.”

     Of course, the answer is all of the above. 

Jesus intends to fulfill all of it. Not just Psalm 69 or 22 or 42 or 102. 

     

But all of it. All of it from Genesis to Golgotha, from “Let there be light” to “Let not your hearts be troubled. And everything in between.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called “the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.” 

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” 

The blood of Jesus, says Luke, “makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.” 

And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was “destined since before the foundation of the world.”

     The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross. 

When Jesus says “I thirst” everything God has ever intended is at last coming together. 

     It’s just two words: I, thirst. 

     But it’s everything. 

     And it CLAIMS everything. 

     I spent a year working as a chaplain at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. Altogether there were probably ten or so chaplains, and we all came from different traditions.       

     

     In our training, we were told the policy of the chaplaincy department was that we must never impose our personal religious beliefs on a patient. Actually, we weren’t even encouraged to share our beliefs with patients. Instead we were expected to practice a “ministry of presence.” 

Not until you’re older and know what you’re doing do you realize that such a ministry of presence is what Stanley Hauerwas means when he says “Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”

     As chaplains we were expected to treat faith as something that was only useful. 

We were not expected to treat faith as something that might be true. 

     Every week or so I had to work an overnight shift as the on-call chaplain. 

I remember one night. It was well-past midnight and my pager summoned me to the CCU: a man in his sixties had suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. When I arrived at his room, he was unconscious and surrounded by beeping monitors. 

    His wife was sitting next to him. Just like I’d been trained, I offered comfort. I empathized. I asked open-ended questions, and I helped her process the swell of emotions she was experiencing. 

     

She had an insistent sort of Southern accent. And I remember how she said she wasn’t afraid of her husband dying. She didn’t want him to suffer and, sure, she wanted more time with him, but that she wasn’t afraid of him dying. 

     And like a good chaplain, I asked her what she meant. 

     

She explained how Jesus’ death on the cross had defeated Death so even if her husband couldn’t be with her, she knew he’d be with God. 

     Like a good chaplain, I said: “Is that what’s true for you?”

     And she looked up at me and sort of raised her eyebrow and said: “True for me? Son, the way I see it— the Gospel’s like gravity. It’s true for all or it’s true not at all.”

     With Jesus’ “I thirst,” John wants to confront you with the claim that all of this was planned before the foundation of the world. For the healing of the world. 

    The cross lays some uncomfortable claims on us. 

     You see— if the Gospel is true— it’s not simply true for me or true for you. 

It’s the true story about the world and everybody in the world. 

It’s the truth that from before creation began the heart of God has been bent towards the cross and that in Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross we witness as much of God as there is ever to see. 

Of course, the rub is that if the non-violent love of Christ reveals the grain of the universe, then there is no way we can truthfully resort to coercion to convince others of that truth.

The Sixth Word

“It is finished.”

It’s important that Jesus announces “It is finished” in the Gospel of John, for its in that Gospel that John litters the story of Jesus’ passion on passover to allusions to another holy day, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

     According to the instructions God gives to Moses in the Book of Leviticus, Yom Kippur revolves around the high priest who represents all of God’s people. After the minutiae of necessary preparation, the high priest is brought two goats. 

Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done. 

     One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple— the Father’s house— of sin. 

     The second goat is brought to him alive. 

     The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel. 

The priest removes all the people’s sins and places them on the goat. 

     And after the priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the wilderness.The wilderness symbolized exile and forsakenness and death. 

         Yom Kippur isn’t about God wanting to punish you for your sin. Yom Kippur is about God wanting to remove your sin. 

     The Day of Atonement is not about appeasing an angry God. It’s about God removing that which separates us from God.     

     While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.       

     When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness. 

So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel. 

Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job. 

     That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head- red that symbolized sin. The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word ‘scapegoat.’ 

     Ahzahzel means “taking away.” 

    The Gentile would lead the scapegoat into exile while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’ 

     Take it away. Take our sin away. 

John’s Gospel places Jesus’ death on the passover— that’s why there’s no last supper in John’s Gospel, for Jesus is the passover lamb. 

     But it’s not as simple as that. 

     John’s Gospel tells you the calendar says Passover, but what John shows you looks an awful lot like the Day of Atonement. 

     The Gospel shows you Jesus being arrested and brought to whom? The high priest. 

     The Gospel shows you the high priests accusing Jesus of blasphemy, placing what they say is guilt and sin upon him when, in reality, all they’re doing is transferring their own guilt onto him. 

     The Gospel shows you Pilate’s men ritually humiliating this “King of the Jews.” Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes off him. And then wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it. 

     The Gospel tells you that the calendar says Passover, but what John shows you is Pilate holding Jesus out to the crowd. And Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus? What do the crowds shout? Not “Crucify him!” Not at first. 

     First, the crowds shout “Take him away!”

     Then they shout “Crucify him!” 

     Ahzahzel 

     And then he’s led away, like an animal, to Golgotha, a godforsaken garbage dump. 

     John’s Gospel tell you its Passover, but what John shows you isn’t just a Passover Lamb but a Scapegoat, one who, as John the Baptist said, ahzahzels the sins of the world.

         Every year after the ahzahzel goat was led into the wilderness the red cord that had been tied around the goat was taken off. 

And the cord was hung on the altar in the temple where, over the next year, Jewish tradition says the cord would turn from red to white, signifying God’s forgiveness of the people’s sin. 

     However, according to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD that red cord stopped turning from red to white. The Talmud, I should add, was written by Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah. 

     According to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the temple was destroyed, the lot cast between the two goats on Yom Kippur no longer was able to discern a scapegoat. The whole process of atonement stopped working. 

     It was no longer effective, says the Talmud. 

     70 AD – 40 AD = about 30 AD. 

     In other words….

     Around the time Jesus was led away to Golgotha while crowds shouted ‘ahzahzel’ the atonement that had been repeated year after year since Moses met God on Mt Sinai- stopped working. 

     Says the Talmud. 

     Or maybe you could say it stopped working because it had already worked perfectly. 

     Maybe you could say it had worked once and for all. 

There’s a reason you don’t see any goats around here— it is finished. 

The Seventh Word

“Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

“And having said this,” Luke concludes for us, “Jesus breathed his last.”

Or, as the King James Version puts it: “Having said thus, Jesus gave up the ghost.”

Just as it sounds odd to hear that in her belly Mary bore the Maker of Heaven and Earth, it should strike us as every bit as odd to hear that Jesus Christ is dead. 

John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that no one can see the Father apart from the Son, which means when Jesus is dead, God is as good as gone. 

Jesus has told us that he alone is the way, the truth, and the life— that no one can come to the Father except by the Son— but now his way has led him to a cross. 

His way has been done away by the way of the world.

God is dead.

Elected over Barabbas, Jesus becomes the persecuted for righteousness’ sake. 

Giving up his spirit, Jesus becomes the poor in spirit.     

Dying on a cross, Jesus becomes the Beautitudes.

The Beautitudes are Jesus. 

And we are the antitheses.

In all our theologizing about the story, we conveniently forget— Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.  

And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. 

The people who get Jesus to give up the ghost— Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem— they were all from the best of society not the worst. 

     And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. Even the chief priests’ reasoning, if we admit it, is right: “It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…” 

That’s a perfectly rational position. 

It’s the position around which we’ve ordered the way of the world. 

     The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves. 

     

     But in the end, what Luke gives us is different, plainer and more troubling. 

Luke gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us. 

     The theologians give us theories about why Jesus had to die, but Luke just leaves us with Jesus giving up the ghost and wondering if the cross is the best we can do? 

Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to push him out of the world on a cross? 

     Luke gives us the painful irony—

Those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in. 

     And I think that is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail. 

     They make the cross seem almost reasonable. 

     They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin. 

     Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God. 

     They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are. 

That’s why the crowds are always smaller on Good Friday. 

     We don’t want to confront the truth that, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. When the Living God comes close inevitably we defend ourselves.  Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross. 

We leave in silence on Good Friday because there’s not yet any good news here.

There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this:

A confrontation with God— a God who wills only to be gracious— that ends with Jesus dead. 

     The Gospels leave us with the bitter irony that the only person who can touch us and heal us and forgive us and make us whole is dead. 

Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. 

     Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.

     

          

     

Holy Thursday — Matthew 26.17-29

“For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano— on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob. 

On a recent morning, my neighbor Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickens the Fergusons keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop. 

In her Newsweek story “Divided We Eat: What Food Says about Class in America,” writer Lisa Miller notes the the language of worship and devotion in how her neighbors,  the Fergusons, refer to themselves as “disciples” of Michael Pollan, who wrote the 2006 book which made the locavore movement a national phenomenon. 

Miller writes:

“[Alexandra Ferguson] believes that eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to their existential happiness—and, indeed, to the survival of the planet.

“This is our tithe. This is my offering to the world,” says Alexandra,we contribute a lot. What’s on the table represents our goodness— our efforts to be good and do good.”

Lisa Miller goes on in “Divided We Eat” to demonstrate how food is the first form of conspicuous consumption in American history that’s divisive. 

The excesses of America’s elites have always been open to critique; however, their indulgences have always simultaneously united Americans. The cool car, the big house, the luxury fashion brand— the lifestyles of the rich and famous have traditionally unified people because people who didn’t have those things aspired to have them. 

Conspicuous consumption has always united Americans, Lisa Miller argues, because the have-nots have always wanted what the haves have.

The Food Culture, though, is different. 

Food is uniquely divisive in America, Miller suggests, because people who eat Big Macs instead of local kale don’t want the local kale. Worse, the Big Mac eaters resent the cleaning-eating, all-organic crowd’s disdain and self-righteousness.  

Food has always been inextricably linked with Judaism and Christianity, but in America Food has become a rival religion— what my friend David Zahl calls a seculosity— and it’s an idol that has inverted the symbolism of the table for those more ancient faiths. 

In our politics today we speak often of everyone having a place at the Table, but in our new religion— the religion of Food— only the faithful are welcome.

Thinking ourselves advanced, Miller says, we’ve gone backwards and made the Table an icon of division. 

———————-

What Jesus does with his last meal, however, undoes what we’ve done to the ancient iconography of the Table. 

After all, Jesus’ last meal is Jesus’ last meal because Jesus has been betrayed by Judas, yet even before the supper has been served Matthew wants you to know that Judas remains welcome at Jesus’ supper table. Betrayal unto a god-forsaken death on a cross apparently makes for awkward dinner conversation. 

As soon as Jesus sat down in the upper room, Jesus prophesied his imminent passion: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 

Matthew tells us that upon hearing this prediction the disciples became “greatly distressed,” the very same language John uses to describe Jesus praying before the grave of Lazarus who’d been four days dead. 

Greatlydistressed, the disciples respond one after another “Surely, not I Lord?”

Surely not I, Lord!?

So Jesus elaborates: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” 

The bowl to which Jesus refers is the basin of water required by the Law for the ritual hand-cleansing prior to the passover meal. The bowl was part of the prescribed place setting; the handwashing happens near the top of the script for the holy supper. 

That is, Jesus outs his betrayal by Judas just as Jesus passes the bowl of water— family style— around the table. 

Judas is still holding the bowl, both his hands and the towel damp, as Jesus drops the truth of Judas on Judas: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”

And Judas passes the basin and towel to the next disciple and says: “Surely not I, Rabbi?”  

Notice, Judas does not call Jesus “Lord” like the eleven; he calls him “Rabbi.” Judas can be a traitor because to Judas Jesus is not the Lord. Judas’ treachery is made possible because to Judas Jesus is not the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and the firsborn of creation. 

To Judas— as he is to many today— Jesus is but another teacher among teachers. 

“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me,” Jesus says. 

Look, here’s the point:

The handwashing happens at the start of the passover script. Matthew doesn’t even pick up the story again until they’re in the middle of the meal.

They wash up. 

Jesus airs the dirty secret about Judas ratting him out.

Judas responds by lying and— noticeably— not calling the Lord Lord. 

And then what?

And then Jesus serves him supper, that’s what. 

Jesus eats and drinks with sinners even if it kills him.

Medieval painters always depict Jesus giving over the gossip about his betrayl as the moment of shock at the Last Supper, but that just goes to show how few Jews those artists knew. 

The moment of shock at the supper comes later in the meal. 

———————-

This Last Supper is the twelve’s third passover meal with Jesus. It’s the third time they’ve marked the doorframe with the blood from a lamb— just as the script instructs— blood to remind them the cost of their deliverance was death. 

It’s the third time they’ve set the supper table for Jesus. 

Just as the script instructs, they set the dinner table not with a single cup and a lone loaf but with four cups of wine— that’s why they fall asleep later in the garden, they’re hammered. 

Each cup, according to the supper script, symbolizes of a part of Israel’s life with the God who brought them out of Egypt. 

This last supper is the third passover they’ve laid out with the ingredients the Bible commands:

   

Nuts and Fruit Shaped to Look Like Bricks to Remember Their Forced Labor Under Pharaoh

A Plate of Bitter Herbs to Recall the Bitterness of their Slavery in Egypt

A Bowl of Saltwater Symbolizing the Tears Shed During their Long Captivity

Unleavened Bread to Remind Israel of the Haste with which they Fled for Freedom

And Lamb to Point Back Towards the Cost of their Freedom

There’s always lamb on the supper table, sourced according to the rules of scripture for the sake of righteousness. The lamb is the star of the supper. 

The lamb is the main if for no other reaon than the sound and the smell of lamb was unavoidable for the passover pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. Passover week you couldn’t come to Jerusalem for the supper without being aware of all the lambs. 

The Jewish historian Josephus writes that two million Jews crowded into Jerusalem each year to celebrate the Passover. 

Two million people: teeming like tourists, filling all the hotels, arguing over tent space on the Mount of Olives, and all of them- all two million of them— searching for, sourcing and shopping for the right ingredients to keep the feast.

Now, according to the script given by God in the Bible, it takes at least ten people to celebrate a Passover supper.

You do the math: a couple million divided ten ways. 

That’s 250,000 lambs in Jerusalem when Jesus entered it donkey-back on Palm Sunday— lambs clustering into gateways, lambs bursting down passageways, lambs pouring into barns and shelters, and lambs making markets chaotic. 

One-quarter million lambs— imagine the sound for most of that week. 

The constant all during holy week would’ve been the bleating of all those baby sheep being readied for supper. It’s a wonder that anyone heard him when he shouted “You’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves!” 

And any foodie would know— it wasn’t just the sound but the smell. 

The morning of the supper (straight through that Thursday afternoon) every single householder would’ve brought their lamb to the Temple where they’d kill it with their own two hands, taking care not to strangle it.

Just as the script demanded.

There at the Temple two long lines of priests, robed in their vestments, would’ve received the blood of every one of those 250,000 lambs in a cup. Like an assembly line, each cup is passed from priest to priest through the Temple until finally it’s splashed upon the altar.

By the time the twelve are setting the supper table for their third meal with Jesus, the blood of all those lambs has flowed from the altar and out through pipes in the Temple floor and into the Kedron River; so that, by the time Jesus hosts the supper for the last time, the river has turned to a red, moving sludge— just like the Nile before Pharaoh let God’s People go. 

The lamb was the most obvious ingredient. 

The lamb was the icon of the table. 

And yet—

At this last passover, Jesus changes the script, and he deletes the line about the lamb. According to the script, about a quarter of the way in to the meal, Jesus is supposed to take the bread and scrape it together with the lamb and he’s supposed to say “This is the body of the Passover.” 

“This is the body of the Passover.” This— as in, this lamb is the body of the Passover. That’s what Jesus, the host, is scripted to say. Instead Jesus says “This is my body broken for you.”

That’s what Leonardo should’ve painted because you can be damn sure that’s where the needle on the Bible record scratched off. “This is my body broken for you.” 

And then— Jesus changes the script again and sticks himself in it. 

When Jesus pours the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption, the cup that remembers the deliverance God worked all in Egypt, Jesus doesn’t say as scripture scripts him to say: “This is the blood of the Passover.”

   No, you know our script. 

He says: “This is my blood poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” 

Not the blood of the passover. This is me. 

He never mentioned the lamb because, like the bread and the wine— he’s it.

On this third and last time, with wine and bread, with his betrayer to Pharaoh seated beside him— I mean, Caesar— Jesus says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” 

This body of the passover is me.

Which is not only a way of Jesus saying with wine and bread “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” but it’s also a way of  Jesus saying “These creatures of wine and bread— they are the Creator, who has and who is and who will deliver you from captivity.”

With bread and wine, Jesus signals that he is both the cost of the passover and the Living God who carried it out. In doing so, Jesus undoes what Judas attempts to do— what we so often attempt to do— that is, with bread and wine Jesus makes it impossible for us to separate the person of Christ from the work of Christ. 

Because he’s given us the bread and the wine, no longer like Judas can we call him “Rabbi” without also confessing him as “Lord.” Christ does not simply point to the truth by his teaching— indeed there is no such thing as “truth” that lies behind Christ to which Christ might point— Christ just is the way, the truth, and the life. 

Just as Christ binds all of himself to the bread and the wine, those who eat it accept all of him. That is to say, to eat of the bread that is his body and drink of the wine that is his blood means you cannot have this Jesus as your Teacher without also having him as your Lord and Savior. 

Likewise, the bread and the wine mean that you cannot have Christ as your Lord and Savior without also having Jesus as your Teacher. 

For in declaring by bread and wine that he is the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt, Jesus simultaneously declares that through bread and wine we are made the Israel of God. 

To get hung up on material questions like “How can the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ” is to miss the more fundamental transformation of the meal; that is, through the body and blood of this passover, Christ makes us his pilgrim people. 

The invitation to eat and drink of the Lord who is our passover, therefore, is an invitation to be initiated into the New Israel, who witness to a reality otherwise unavailable to the “real” world. 

———————-

“You are what you eat,” we say, which is a frightening thought considering it makes me alot more Big Mac, Beer, and Flaming Hot Cheetos than Kale or Quinoa, yet even more frightening is that, after tonight, there is no Gospel without those who eat and drink this bread and wine.  

With this bread and this cup, Christ makes it impossible for there to be a Gospel apart from the People constituted by eating and drinking the Gospel. 

We cannot separate the person and work of Christ, the Church has always taught, but we ourselves— the Church— are the work of Christ who cannot separated from his person. 

Which is to say— what the Church has always said— that outside the Church there is no salvation. Or, better put: without the Church there is no salvation. 

Without the Church, there is no salvation. 

For as Jesus declares here with bread and wine, and as Jesus teaches again and again in the Gospels, salvation is his Kingdom People feasting with him at Table. 

“People will come from east and west, from north and south,” Jesus announces in Luke, “and they will feast in the Kingdom of God.” 

“The Kindgom of God is like a wedding feast, with wine and food…” Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. 

“Drink from this, all of you;” Jesus invites us tonight, “for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Truly, I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”

Until that day when I drink it new with you…

Without the Church, there is no salvation because salvation names what only this Table heralds. 

Until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.

We always leave off this last line, but the emphasis in any good sentence falls at the end. Jesus would have us do with this meal the opposite of what we so often do with this meal. 

We sometimes think, especially on a day like Holy Thursday, that Christ gives us this bread and wine so we can look backwards in time to what Christ has done for us. “Do this in remembrance of me,” the communion celebrant always says at our table, yet notice how Jesus does not say any such thing at his Table. 

Jesus does not speak of remembering at all. 

Jesus speaks of anticipating. 

Jesus does not point backwards. 

Jesus gestures forwards. 

To the extent we remember anything at all in the eucharist, we’re remembering the future.

Indeed the future is the only direction for us to go if this new passover in fact make us his new Israel. If he is to make us his new Israel with this meal, then he does not give us this bread and wine so that through them we might remind the world of Christ, as though he is dead. 

Rather, if Christ our Passover aims to make us his Israel then at this Table we are fed by Christ so that we might become Christ’s memory for the world in order for the world to be reconciled. 

Christ is in the world, in these things, bread and wine, so that through his Body, the Church, all things might be reconciled to him. 

And so this Table tonight is not like so many of our tables. 

It is not a Table of division. 

It is not a Table set aside for the righteous or the clean, the faithful or the good. 

While we are yet sinners, this is a Table where Christ our Lord dines with the ungodly and, by doing so, unites us together until Christ comes back in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

The bread and the wine— they’re not a memorial. 

They’re binding agents.

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Virtue Signal

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 12.1-8

For God’s sake, don’t lie. 

Admit it. 

You think Judas is right. 

Of course, if you’ve spent any time at all in church, then you already know that you’re not supposed to identify with Judas. Judas is the traitor. Judas is the villain. Judas is the Judas. 

He’s the bastard who turns around right after today’s text to rat out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, which according to the prophet Zechariah was about a day’s wage. 

A day’s wage. 

According to the Book of Exodus, thirty pieces of silver is the cost of an average slave. 

Judas sells out the Son of God as though a slave.

So we know we’re not supposed to identify with Judas but, be honest now, we think Judas is right, or at the very least he’s reasonable. If you saw a line item in our church operating budget for nard you’d be PO’d too. In case you’re not a first century Mary Kay agent, nard was a perfume from the Himalayas. Amazon Prime still doesn’t deliver to Bethany so how this much nard ended up there is anyone’s guess. Who knows how Mary got her hands on it, but you can be sure this nard was not gained on the cheap. 300 denarii is what Judas guesses it would go for on the open market. 

Just to help you locate your place in the story here today: 300 denarii was the rough equivalent to $45,000.00. 

The nard cost Mary more than a Tesla Model 3. 

Wanna come clean now?

You think Judas is right on the money about the money. For HimalayanObsession?! At that cost, it would be better to rub Jesus down with some $5.99 Old Spice and give the rest of the five figures worth to the poor. 

Or, why not Axe Body Spray? For ten measley bucks she could spray some sexy on Jesus and then they’d still have approximately $44,990.00 for do-gooding. 

And doing good is what it’s about, right?

After all, Matthew’s account of this anointing occurs right after Jesus lays down every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable— the one about clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner. Judas has just heard Jesus drop the boom about eternal punishment so how can you blame Judas for wanting to get reckoned a sheep rather than goat? 

If we’re honest, it’s hard for us to see what Judas got wrong. 

Christians ought to be on the side of the poor. If Christians fail to capture the cultured despisers’ respect and imagination isn’t it largely because of our inability to live lives that correspond to Christ and his teachings (perhaps especially his teaching about the poor)? 

What’s more, isn’t Judas’ the better strategy for the Church to survive in a pagan nation like America? After all, Americans may not believe that Jesus is Lord of anything but pious hearts, but they at least believe we probably ought to help the poor. 

Isn’t Judas’ the smarter strategy in a secular age? Surely, serving the poor is a way for us as Christians to win friends and influence people. And while we’re truth-telling, let’s be honest. Believing what Christians are required to believe is no easy thing. Believing that the infinite took flesh in Mary’s finite womb, believing that three days dead Christ was dead no more, believing that he now and forevermore sits at the right hand of the Father— believing what Christians believe is no easy matter. 

We’re not even sure what it means to say someone sits at the Father’s right hand. 

Handouts to the hungry though? Let’s be honest. It’s just easier. Helping the less fortunate— it makes sense, which likely explains why it’s not distinctively Christian.

If you’ve seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian then you already know. In first century Israel, “poor” was a political category. The poor weren’t lazy or left behind. The poor were the oppressed. Money’s tight when you’ve got to foot the bill for your own military occupation— that’s why the Christmas story kicks off with a census. 

Just read your Old Testament if you don’t believe me— it’s not a minor theme in scripture— the poor were poor because they were oppressed. 

If you don’t understand the relationship between poverty and oppression you won’t understand Palm Sunday. You won’t understand how the Messiah they anticipate with shouts of hosanna produces first their disappointment and then their betrayal when the “Messiah” they get turns out to be the Messiah named Jesus. 

Judas isn’t simply suggesting that this down payment’s worth of perfume should’ve been shared with the poor; he’s arguing that it’d be better spent on the cause. 

Judas isn’t griping that they should’ve given the money to feed the poor. 

He’s saying they should’ve used the money to free them. 

To free the poor. To liberate the oppressed. Judas’s point is not just about charity. Judas’ point is also about justice. After all, he’s named for Israel’s most famous armed revolutionary. 

Like today, Judas’ language about the poor is political language. It’s a campaign contribution’s worth of cash Judas watches Mary rub into Jesus’ calloused feet. 

“Why was this nard not sold for almost fifty grand and the money given to the Democratic National Committee?” That’s a better way to hear what Judas says. 

“Why was this perfume not sold and the money donated to Make Israel Great Again?” Is another way to hear him.

“What’s she doing? What a waste! Don’t you people know your Micah 6.8?! Do you know the kind of change we could make with that much cash?”

Even if we’re too chicken to admit it, Judas makes sense to us. But we’re right to pretend otherwise. Think about it— Judas is sitting at the supper table with Lazarus, a guy who’d been dead for four days. 

Judas had watched graveside as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, stinking with death and tripping over his burial clothes he was so surprised. In fact, Jesus had commanded him to be dead no longer: “Lazarus, come out!” 

From dust he came and to dust he returned and then he returned again.

Now Judas is eating with the guy who was wormfood a few days ago, but as soon as Judas sees Mary pull out some some five figure Chanel No. 5 he’s back to thinking in terms of scarcity.

Which puts Judas (and thus, puts us) in the same camp as Caiphas—another name we know better than to identify. 

In the text just before today’s text, John tells us that a crowd of Jews, having witnessed Jesus speak Lazarus forth from the dead, began “believing into Jesus.” 

Some of these bystanders, John says, went and tattled on Jesus to the Pharisees and the Pharisees went and tattled to the chief priests and the chief priests went and tattled to the Chief Priest, Caiphas. 

And how does Caiphas respond?

“If we let him go on like this,” Caiphas worries, “everyone will believe into him, and the Romans will come and destroy our nation.”

Sit with that for a second—

When the chief religious leaders of God’s people hear about Jesus’ power over the Power of Death, their immediate worry is not religious. It’s political. 

Like we do, Caiphus had been towing the God and Country line, but as soon as the Living God shows up our true colors come out.

When Caiphas hears Christ can raise the dead, he doesn’t cripe about commandments. He worries about the two things over which you most worry too. 

Currency. 

And country.

Jesus is hiding out here in Bethany because just after Jesus produces Lazarus alive from the tomb, Caiphas plots to kill Jesus because Caiphas worries that Christ’s power over the Power of Death will upset the political arrangement of the powers-that-be. 

Don’t forget:

This is the same Caiphas who on Good Friday will condemn Jesus to a cross on a charge of blasphemy while pledging to Pontius Pilate what exactly? He says what no Jew should ever say: “We have no King but Caesar.” 

But since Messiah and King and Caesar all name in different languages the same word, Caiphas basically says “We have no Messiah but the King you call Caesar.” That’s where the Old Testament grinds to halt. It ends there with “We have no Messiah  but Caesar.“ Christ’s passion is the price to secure Caiphas’ political promise to Pilate. 

“Forty-five grand! We could’ve donated that money to MoveOn.org— think of the justice work we could do with that much money.” Judas says. 

“Power over Death? But only Death makes our economy of scarcity possible. Resurrection, it’ll ruin the nation.” Says Caiphas.

You see— Judas and Caiphas, their failure is not primarily one of faithfulness. Their failure is a failure of imagination. Their failure is a failure of political imagination. 

In order to see their failure as a failure of political imagination, however, we must first swallow our squeamishness about what Jesus says to Judas. Even if we’re too cowardly to admit we think Judas is right, we should at least be able to acknowledge that Jesus’ response to Judas embarrasses us. We wish Jesus had not said what Jesus says: “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me.” 

Just try that verse out on a woke, unbelieving Bernie supporter and see how they react. Talk about religion as the opiate of the people. What Jesus says to Judas seems to legitimate the sort of apathetic, pie-in-the-sky Christianity for which non-Christians critique Christians. 

Maybe it’s because “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” embarrases us that we seldom stop to notice the fact that the one who said “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” is himself poor. 

Jesus is poor. 

Jesus is oppressed.

And very soon, Jesus will be the naked without any clothes. Jesus will be the parched who’s given gall. Jesus will be the stranger shunned. Jesus will be the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. Surrounded by goats, they’ll be the only sheep at his side for the Last Judgement that is his Cross.

Don’t you see?

This is the point of it all— this is why Caiphus plots to kill him.

We think Judas is right, but we miss how right Caiphas really is.

Jesus is a threat to our politics.

Jesus does intend to end the world as we know it. 

Mary upends our categories of helping the poor and the oppressed by lavishing a Mercedes C-class worth of money on a single poor person (who also happens to be the incarnate God).  And Jesus praises her for it. It’s a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to do what she did. 

Judas has got his mind stuck in the grave— he still thinks that change-making comes in terms of charity and campaign contributions, but Mary’s response to Jesus’ power over the Power of Death is to shower two-thirds of our entire mission budget on a solitary poor man living on borrowed time. Judas lacks Mary’s imagination.

Only when you understand what Mary understands will you understand what Jesus means when he says to Judas that we will not always have Jesus with us bodily but we will always have the poor with us. 

Jesus is not implying that we should be resigned to the way of the world. On the contrary, we will always have the poor with us because the Church, the Body of Christ, is the People God has put in the world who know, by the sacrament of the resurrection, that the poor and the prisoner, the naked and the shunned, are to celebrated. 

The Church is the People God has put in the world who know that we can afford to love the poor with lavishment because Christ is a gift that can never be used up. So of course we’ll always have the poor with us. Because the Church is the Body of him who is poor. We will always have the poor with us because the Body of Christ is for them.

“Leave her alone,” the poor man said to Judas, “she bought it [she bought it—for $45K!] for me.” 

“She’s done the better thing,” the poor man adds in Matthew’s account. 

Jesus praises Mary because Mary understands that Jesus makes a different politics possible. To put a finer point on it, Mary understands that she-and-her-nard constitutes the different politics which God has made possible in the world in Jesus.

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth and who remains my north star, wrote:

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity and Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

Barth liked to point out how when the devil temps Christ in the wilderness by offering him the governments of this world the implication is that the governments of this world are the devil’s to give. They belong to him. 

Barth, who was one of the only German Christians to stand up against Hitler’s Nazi regime, was not being hyperbolic.

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity—and—Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

It’s the and there that’s problematic. Just as soon as the church begins to ponder how its Christianity can inform politics, Barth argued, you can be sure the church has lost the plot. Such a church might be a church of great sincerity and zeal. Such a church might be a church of fervent devotion and good works of charity. Nonetheless, such a church will be a church that’s failed to understand that it is the way God has chosen to love and redeem the world. 

Whenever we talk about Christianity and Politics, we risk forgetting that the way God has chosen to heal his creation is through his particular People— that’s a promise that goes all the way back to Abraham. 

The way God has chosen to heal his creation his through the witness of his People. 

Not the House or the Senate. Not POTUS or SCOTUS. Not with bills or billboards or hashtags. Not through political policy. But his People. The Church. The Body of Christ, sent by the Spirit, is God’s virtue signal; that is to say, the Church doesn’t have a politics the Church is a politics. 

I’m sure right about now that some of you (if not all of you) are thinking Well, gee Jason, that sounds nice but what in the hell do you mean“The Church doesn’t have a politics. The Church is a politics?” 

I’m glad you asked.

Yesterday afternoon we celebrated a Service of Death and Resurrection for a man here in the community, Gordon. 

Gordon was a Vietnam vet. The cancer that killed him likely came from Agent Orange that killed others. A couple of days before he died, he called me to his bedside. In addition to wanting to profess that Jesus is Lord and give to Christ what remained of his life, Gordon also wanted to confess his sins. 

“I want to confess,” he told me staring at the ceiling, “what I had to do in the war— it was necessary, but it was still sin.” 

Think about it—

He was dying. He didn’t know how quick. Time was a precious, valueable commodity to him. Time was a gift, and Gordon wanted to give it, to lavish it— some would say waste it— by giving his confession to Christ. 

In a culture that ships our soldiers off to do what is necessary and then, when they return home, we insist that they not tell us about what we’ve asked them to do, Gordon’s confession— what the Church calls the care of souls— that’s a politics. 

It’s how God has chosen to care for the world.

During the funeral service, Gordon’s son spoke candidly about his often difficult sometimes estranged relationship with his father. 

In a culture of sentimentality and pretense, the sort of truth-telling that this sanctuary makes possible— that’s a politics.

Later this afternoon, a group from church will go up to Sleepy Hollow Nursing Home to worship with elderly residents who may not be able to hear it or comprehend it. In a culture like ours that is determined to get out of life alive— a culture that worships at the altar of youth and achievement— the old are very often cloistered away and cast-off. 

It’s a simple thing some of you will do at Sleepy Hollow, offering them prayer and presence and touch. But

But make no mistake, it’s a politics.

A while ago, I read a story in the paper about the California Prison Hospice Program. The unintended consequence of stiff prison sentences doled out in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s is that now many penitentieries must double as nursing homes. 

Already underfunded, many prison systems have recruited and trained convicts to serve as hospice workers to care for and accompany aging inmates as they die of cancer and other causes. 

It might not surprise you to hear most of the prisoners who volunteer to care for the dying are Christians. 

“It’s what God’s given us the opportunity to do, to pour out our love on them” one prisoner— guilty of a gang bang in his youth— told the New York Times. 

It might not surprise you to hear that most of the hospice workers are Christians, but it might surprise you to hear that of the hundreds of prisoners who’ve worked caring for the dying and later been released not one of them has returned to prison. 

They have a recidivism rate of 0%. 

In a culture where even Democrats and Republicans can agree our criminal justice system is broken, a simple unimpressive act, Christian care for the dying…zero percent— that’s a politics.

At the end, the Times article unintentionally echoes St. Paul:

“Within the walls of the prison hospice, all the invisible boundaries of the world have fallen down. Black men give meal trays to [dying] white men with swastikas tattooed on their faces, Crips play cards with Bloods, and a terminal Latino with cirrhosis gets his hair cut by an Asian with whom he previously wouldn’t have peaceably shared a cellblock.” 

The way God has chosen to heal the world is the Church— that’s what we forget whenever we argue about the Church and Politics. 

We’re the nard that God has purchased at great cost to himself to lavish Christ upon the dying world. 

You see—

It’s not that grace— what God has done for us in Jesus Christ— makes what we do as Christians incidental or unimportant. 

It’s that what we do as Christians should be unintelligible— an expensive waste, even— if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

For our Wednesday evening eucharist service, I decided to write a homily on Matthew’s version of the Sunday Gospel lection:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus tells his disciples, but specifically Peter, just after calling Peter “Satan” for tempting Jesus with a fate other than cruciform destiny.

 

Perhaps because Jesus’ statement about our needing to lose our lives in order to gain them occurs within the context of Peter balking at the notion of a crucified Messiah we mishear Jesus as suggesting that we too must seek a cross if the Kingdom is to be added unto us.

 

But the Risen Christ is no nihilist. When Jesus says we must lose our lives to gain them, he’s not recruiting kamikaze Kingdom warriors, for the word “lose” in Matthew 16 is the same word Matthew uses just after Jesus tells us about the sheep and the goats.

 

The word “lose” is the same word in Greek for “waste.”

ἡ ἀπώλεια αὕτη

apoleia

“For those who want to save their life will waste it, and those who waste their life for my sake will find it.”

 

Matthew uses that same word ‘waste” a few chapters later when Jesus visits the house of Simon the Leper for supper— Jesus might as well ask the Pharisees and chief priests to kill him. 

 

Two nights before Passover, two nights before he dies, Jesus goes to Simon’s house for dinner. They’re eating dessert and drinking coffee when in walks a woman. She doesn’t have a name but she does have a crystal jar filled with expensive oil— about $45,000 worth. 

 

This woman, she break the jar and she pours the oil over Jesus’ head and body. 

 

Just like the psalm about the good shepherd in the valley of death— just like King David, whose kingdom God promised would be forever— she anoints him. She anoints him for his death, for his cross will be his enthronment, thorns his crown, and the jeers of onlookers his acclamation.

 

And Jesus, he praises her for not holding back, for sparing no cost in pouring out her love on him. 

 

Meanwhile the disciples look on in anger, and all they can do is grumble over all the “good” they could have done with that much money. I mean, don’t forget Jesus had just laid every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable on them— the one about the sheep and the goats. 

 

So here, watching this woman who shelled out a year’s worth of wages for perfume, they virtue signal, estimating the number of hungry that could’ve been fed, the naked who could’ve been clothed, the poor they could’ve served. 

 

If she hadn’t wasted it. 

Yet Jesus praises her. 

 

The disciples look at her and they get angry at the waste. Jesus looks at her and sees a holy waste. He praises her for lavishing love and devotion on him, who—don’t forget— is poor and will very soon be the naked without clothes, the thirsty who’s given gall, the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. 

 

Lose. 

Waste. 

 

You see when Jesus tells us we need to lose our lives to gain a life in the Kingdom, he’s not talking about crosses. He’s talking about something even more reckless. He’s recommending the example of this woman— he’s urging us to lavish love and devotion— to spare no cost— on him. 

 

This woman at the leper’s house knows that Jesus is not a means to some other end. Rather devotion to Jesus— worship of him is a good in and of itself.  

 

An economy that the world cannot help but see as a waste and which ironically may lead the world in its economy to crucify us. 

For the Wednesdays of Lent we’re doing an evening eucharist service where each week I preach a homily on one of the Comfortable Words. The Comfortable Words are a collection of promises from the New Testament, compiled by Thomas Cranmer for the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer wanted to guarrantee that having confessed our sin and been confronted with the demands of God’s Law God’s people never left a service of Word and Table without having heard the promise of the Gospel.

Here’s my homily on John 3…

“If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’ 

You must be born again. Or- You must be born from above. Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else. Except- That you in “You must be born again” is plural.  It’s “You all must be born again.” 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says. And Jesus answers with “You all…” We are in that you. Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God. 

Being born anothen- It’s something God does; it’s not something we do. Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind— the Holy Spirit— blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” 

Being born anothen, Jesus says, it cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me. You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?  

That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…” Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God. What is flesh, i.e. you and me,  is incapable of coming to God. You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given. Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does. But Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters:  It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God. 

    ———————-

Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says. We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us. 

This Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John in his prologue, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit. 

Skip ahead. 

To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.” 

 And what does John show you? Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate. And what does Pilate say? 

“Behold, the adamah.” 

And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you? 

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit. And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you? Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity. 

     

Water and the spirit, the sixth day. 

     

And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you? Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week. And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what? For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.

Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them. Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day. He breathes on them. Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life. 

They’re made new again. Anothen. 

And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right. 

The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit. 

And it’s ours.

     

Micro-Aggression

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2019 — 1 Comment

Lent 2 — Romans 3.19-24

This is a while ago now—

I’d made a promise to Ali to take steps to save money. We’d talked about cutting costs, stopping the silly spending, and making an effort to be thrifty. 

“Are you on board?” she’d asked me. 

With this tongue, yours truly— a pastor, this professional Christian— said “I do.” 

As part of our mutual cost-cutting vow, Ali and I made the decision to liberate ourselves from the People’s Republic of Verizon. 

We decided to cut the cord and get rid of our cable so that, we would get zero channels on our television. Between Netflix and Tom Brady going to the Super Bowl every year what difference television does it make?

You can imagine how popular our decision was with our children (not). 

     Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our FIOS receiver in its box and shipped it back to Weimar Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision. 

     For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the People’s Republic of Verizon’s bill— I mean, do they think we live in aiport terminals with inflated prices like that? 

     For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want. We didn’t want them inundated with promise after promise after promise that this or that could solve all their problems. 

     Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband—me—is a complete sucker for informercials. 

      A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark. And it’s true. 

Make me a promise about giving me the power to unlock the better me inside me and I’m all yours faster than you can say shipping and handling not included.

     If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words “set it and forget it” fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens at one time. 

     If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine. 

     If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never “that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.”

     No, my first thought was always “that looks like something I need. That will solve all my problems.”

     So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition. There are advertisements and advice and promised solutions everywhere. 

     A couple of years ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish. 

     At that point, having cut the cord, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section? 

     Uh huh, a product demonstration. 

And— truth be told— I thought about my promise to Ali. And I’d meant it, I’d really meant it.

     The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s. 

For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which, let’s just say, got me to thinking of myself as Brad Pritt in some extended, unrated director’s cut scenes

     “Hey, let’s stick around and watch this” I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment. 

     In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call. 

     The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix. 

     Have you seen one? Do you own one?

     If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is the blender-equivalent of that new yacht recently purchased by Dan Synder. 

     Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick: 

“The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems. 

With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.”

     And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: “Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.”

     No, I was thinking…

     “This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.” 

     I looked to my side. Gabriel was transfixed too. 

     The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: “Who enjoys pesto?”

     And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘“I do. I am Italian after all.”

     And she smiled at me— only at at me— and she said: “I’ve always had a thing for Italians.”

     Aheh. 

“I went to Princeton,” I blurted out like we were speed-dating and the clock was about to sound.

     “Can you cook?” she asked me. And I nodded my head, like Fonzi, too cool for words. 

     “Even better” she purred. 

     And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew now she only cared about me. 

     “Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.” 

And all of us men, like mosquitos headed stubbornly towards the light that will be their demise, we nodded like Stepford Husbands. 

     “But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem worthy of declaring a national emergency) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?” 

     And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience. 

     Hypnotized, I said: “No, they won’t do” even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem. 

     She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or a Carl’s Jr commercial, and and then she said in her come-hither voice: 

“I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.”

     I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon. 

It was like I couldn’t help myself— like I was bound and determined to do the one thing I wanted not to do.

 

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This fall Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage in Cupertino to hawk the latest generation of Apple’s wearable technology. 

The series 4 Apple Watch was itself not really new or a noticeable upgrade over its precessors. 

What was new, what was distinct, was its promise in the sales pitch: 

“It’s all new. For a better you.”

The unveiling commercial at the showcase continued with the promise: 

“There is a better you in you.” 

There’s a better you in you and with this product you will have the freedom and power to unlock it. 

The new Apple Watch is but an overt example of the same promise pitched to us three-thousand times a day. 

St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike. 

Therefore, we’re hardwired to want to do and improve. 

You’re hard-wired to want to be a better you and to build a better world. 

Because the Law is written on your heart, you’re hard-wired to be a sucker for the promise of progress. 

You’re hard-wired by the Law on the your heart to be a sucker for the promise of a better you inside you. 

And so it’s not surprising that is the very same promise dangled in front of us three-thousand times a day. From our TV screens to our Facebook feeds, from our watches to our smartphone notifications, you and I are exposed to over three-thousand advertisements a day. 

Three-thousand per day. 

Every last single one of them relies upon the Law written on your heart. 

Three-thousand times a day— the same simple, seductive formula. They identify a problem— maybe a problem you didn’t know you had until they told you you had that problem. Then they make you a promise: With this product, you can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems) and unlock the better you inside you. 

Three-thousand times a day we’re promised what the Law on our hearts deceives us to believe. 

There’s a better you in you. 

What’s my point?

There’s a better you inside of you— very often, it’s the pitch Christians make too. 

Just invite Jesus into your heart, and you’ll unlock the happier you inside of you.Your marriage will be healed. Your kids will stay the straight and narrow. You’ll feel fulfilled. 

Worship, pray, serve, give— and you can unlock the Jesus-version of you inside of you, the you who’s patient and kind and utters nary an angry word. 

With just three easy installments of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, you’ll live like Jesus, turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy-times-seven, you’ll never commit adultery in your heart and the log in your eye— shazaam, never to return. 

Not only has my Apple Watch not liberated the better me inside me, it can’t even reliably distinguish between me sitting down and me standing up. 

It failed to wake me up on time this morning, and whenever I ask Siri to play Ryan Adams music (which I won’t be doing anymore) it always plays Summer of ‘69 instead. 

Likewise, what the Church often promises about faith being the key to unlock the better you inside you— to the buyer beware.  

————————

Here’s the lie behind all those promises we’re pitched. 

Here’s the lie the Law, written on our hearts, deceives us to believe.

Here’s the lie— the you inside you is not better. 

In fact, as Jesus teaches again and again, the problem out there in the world is what comes from inside of you.

The answer to what’s wrong in the world… is you, Jesus says.

As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “…there is no health in us.”

That’s why, St. Paul tells us today, our justification comes completely by Grace, entirely apart from the Law— because we have nothing to contribute to our salvation save our sin.

The you inside you is not better. 

You’re not basically a good person who just requires a little bit of help from your friend Jesus so that you can unlock the better you inside you and live your best life now— no, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism and, though it’s the most popular religion in America, it’s a lie. 

The you inside you is not better. 

The you inside you is bound. 

The you inside you is bound.

We forget— God’s grace, God’s One-Way Love, reveals not just the character of the Giver but the condition of the Receiver. 

The medicine should indicate the disease; the prescription should betray the diagnosis. You don’t require some advice or a nudge in the right direction; you require a savior.

That you require the liberating, unilateral, one-way love called Grace should tell you something about your predicament. 

As Paul Zahl says, the New Testament’s High Christology— it’s view of who Christ is and what Christ has done— comes with a correlative Low Anthropology— a dim view of who we are by nature and the good we’re capable of doing. 

Notice, today—

Paul announces the invasion (that’s the word Paul uses in Greek, apokalyptetai) of God’s grace in Jesus Christ without a single “if” here in chapter three. 

For almost three chapters, Paul’s been raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our sins, implicating each and every one of us. 

The first three chapters of Romans— it sounds like Paul’s whipping you up for an altar call until what you anticipate next from Paul is the word if. 

If you turn away from your sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you plead for God’s mercy…

If you believe THEN God will justify you. 

No— there’s no ifs there’s just this great big but, what Karl Barth says is the hinge of the Gospel, the turning of the ages: “But now, apart from the Law, apart from Religion, apart from anything we do, the righteousness of God has been revealed…” 

The grace of God has invaded our world without a single if, without a single condition demanded of you, without a single expectation for your cooperation.

Because, Paul’s already told you, you’re not capable of cooperating with a single one of those conditions. 

As Paul told us at the top of his argument in verse nine: All of us are under the Power of Sin. And the language the apostle uses there is the language of exodus. All of us are in bondage, Paul says, under the dominion— the lordship— of a Pharaoh called Sin. 

This is a Power from whom we’re never totally free this side of the grave. 

Don’t forget the Paul who celebrates the baptized walking in newness of life just after today’s text is the same Paul who laments (just after that) how the converted heart remains a heart divided against itself; such that, we all do what we do not want to do and we do not do what we want to do. 

There is no health in us.

———————-

Here’s the dark but necessary underside to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love called Grace. And, brace yourselves, in our American culture with its high, optimistic anthropology, this is going to feel like a micro-aggression, so here it comes: 

You are not free.

I’m going to say it again because I know you don’t believe it: You are not free. 

You are not free. 

Your neighbor is not free. Your mother-in-law is not free. Your co-worker is not free. Your boss is not free. Your son? Your daughter? You might already suspect as much, neither is free. Your spouse— hell, every married person already knows this is true— is not free. 

Christianly-speaking, free will is a fantasy. 

Free will is a fiction. 

And that’s an assertion upon which traditional Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, concur. Christianly-speaking, your will is not free. 

Your will is bound. 

All those promises we’re sold three-thousand times a day— they’re pitched to prisonsers not to free people (that’s exactly why they work on us!). 

I realize this is the most un-American thing I could say but to speak the language of free will is not to speak Christian. Your will is not free. 

It’s right there in Romans, the book of the Bible that the Church Fathers put in the middle of your New Testament so that you would know its importance for our faith. 

Your will is not free. Your will is bound, doing the evil you want not to do and not doing the good you want to do. 

You will is not free. Your will is torn, between a Pharaoh called Sin and a Lord named Jesus Christ; such that, all of us who’ve been rescued by grace are like the Israelites in the wilderness. 

God has gotten us out of Egypt but we’ve still got Egypt in us. 

The shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love is your bound, unfree will. 

Now don’t get your panties in a bunch, this doesn’t mean you’re a robot. It doesn’t mean that every moment of your life is pre-determined— the only thing predetermined in life is UVA Basketball’s disappointing play in March. 

It doesn’t mean you had no choice this morning between sausage or bacon, jeans or khakis. No, when Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it means that your will is not free to choose (reliably) that which is good. 

When Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it teaches that no one— because of our bondage to sin—by sheer force of will can reliably choose the right thing, which is God, for the right reason, which is selfless love. 

You might choose the good and godly thing, for example, but do you do so for the right reasons? And are those reasons even always evident to you? 

Our love compass is off—that’s what the Church means by the boundedness of your will. 

As John Wesley’s prayerbook puts it in Article X of the 39 Articles: “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and God.” 

And if all of this sounds like so much theological hocus-pocus to you, consider that Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at UVA, writes that most of us only make free, rational decisions about 13% of time— a statistic that Pat Vaughn’s wife, Margaret, corroborates. 

Most of the time, Timothy Wilson argues, we’re exactly what St. Paul says we are. 

We’re strangers to ourselves. 

Our wills follow our hearts and our reason tags along behind. 

———————-

     

     I drove that Vitamix home from Whole Foods, and I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave. 

     And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because, as my wife pointed out, I already had a blender and a food processor. 

“Who convinced you to buy such ridiculous thing?” she asked me, and I quickly covered Gabriel’s mouth with my hand. 

I shrugged my shoulders. 

“I couldn’t help myself.”

And she smiled and shook her head at unfree me. 

“I know you couldn’t” she said, “I forgive you. Now go return it.”

———————-

For over six months now I’ve been preaching God’s grace to you, Sunday after Sunday. And some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to get around to giving you some advice. Some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to tell you what to do. 

And just so you know— I’ll stop preaching God’s grace just as soon as you actually start believing it. 

I’m not going to stop preaching to you God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean God’s grace isn’t practical for everyday life. 

It is practical for everyday life because everyday everywhere you go everyone you meet has a bound, unfree will. 

So here’s some advice, advice on how to see other humans in light of the Gospel. Your bound, unfree will is the necessary, shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One Way Love, but it is not bad news. 

It is the birth pangs of compassion. 

The moment you understand the Gospel’s implication that people are not as free as they think they are, you’re able to have compassion and tenderness for them. Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you can find sympathy for them. 

What the Gospel teaches us about the bound will is the grace-based way to mercy. 

It’s when you mistakenly think people are free, unbound, active agents of everything in their lives, choosing the terrible damaging decisions they make, that you get angry and impatient with them. 

It’s then that you judge them. 

And it’s then that you begin to confuse what they do for who they are. 

Just because Grace is a message about what God has done doesn’t mean it has no practical implications for what we do. 

Botton line—

Grace means we look at each other with the Savior’s eyes. 

Grace means we look upon each other as fellow captives. 

As those who never advance very far beyond needing Jesus’ final prayer: “Father forgive them, they still know not what they do.”

Ash Wednesday — Romans 7

“We die the way we live,” says BJ Miller, a palliative care doctor at a facility called Zen Hospice in San Francisco, “and all of us are dying.” I heard Miller give a TED Talk a couple of years ago, and last winter I read a story about him in the NY Times. 

     When BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, one Monday night, he and two friends went out drinking. Late that night, on their way back, drunk and hungry, they headed to WAWA for sandwiches. 

     There’s a rail junction near the WAWA, connecting the campus to the city’s main train line. A commuter train was parked there that night, idle, tempting BJ Miller and his friends to climb up it. 

     Miller scaled it first. 

     When he got to the top, 11,000 volts shot out of a piece of equipment and into Miller’s watch on his left arm and down his legs. When his friends got to him, smoke was rising from his shoes. 

     BJ Miller woke up several days later in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital to discover it wasn’t a terrible dream. More terribly, he found that his arm and his legs had been amputated. 

     Turmoil and anguish naturally followed those first hazy days, but eventually Miller returned to Princeton where he ended up majoring in art history. 

     The brokenness of the ancient sculptures— the broken arms and broken ears and broken noses— helped him affirm his own broken body as beautiful. 

     From Princeton, Miller went to medical school where he felt drawn to palliative care because, as he says:

“Parts of me died early on. And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around my death, and I can tell you it has been a liberation. I wanted to help people realize the shock of beauty or meaning in the life that proceeds one kind of death and precedes another.”

     After medical school, Miller found his way to Zen Hospice in California where their goal is to de-pathologize death; that is, to recover death as a human experience and not a medical one.  

     They impose neither medicine nor meaning onto the dying. Rather, as Miller puts it, they let their patients “play themselves out.” Whomever they’ve been in life is who they’re encouraged to be in their dying. 

     For example, the NY Times story documents how Miller helped a young man named Sloan, who was dying quickly of cancer, die doing what he loved to do: drink Bud Light and play video games. 

     Talking about Sloan’s mundane manner of dying, Miller said this- this is what got my attention: 

     “The mission of Zen Hospice is about wresting death from the one- size-fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse: our need for death to be a transcendent experience. 

Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.” 

     They’re going to feel like there is something they must be doing that they’re not doing. 

They’re going to worry that they’re doing something wrong or they’re going to fear that they’re not doing enough. 

     “The dying are still very much alive and we are all dying,” BJ Miller tells the Times writer, “we die the way we live.” 

———————-

     We die the way we live. 

     He means- 

     Just as many die thinking that there’s something more spiritual or profound or meaningful they’re supposed to be doing and worry that they aren’t doing it or aren’t doing it right or doing it enough, we live with that same anxiety. 

It’s same anxiety the crowds by the lakeshore put to Jesus: “What ought we be doing so that we’re doing the works of God?” 

St. Paul says earlier in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike. 

Therefore, you’re hard-wired to think that there’s something else you should be doing for God. 

You’re hard-wired to think there’s somone else you should be for God. 

In a way, it’s natural for you to think that Jesus came down from Heaven, cancelled out your debts upon the cross, but now it’s on you to work your way up to God, climbing up to glory one commandment at a time. 

The Golden Rule may not justify you before God, but with the Law written on your heart it’s not surprising you think the Golden Rule makes a good ladder up to him. 

With the Law written on our hearts, it’s natural that we live in the same exhausting manner in which BJ Miller says so many of us attempt to die. 

Indeed St. Paul writes in Galatians that this way of living is a ministry of death— it kills us. 

It kills us because tonight’s scripture, I believe, is the only empirically verifiable, objectively true claim in all of the Bible. 

Paul’s confession here in Romans 7 is an indictment of us all. None of you really know the stranger you call you. The good you want to do is very often what you do not do and the evil and damage you want to avoid is very often the very evil and damage you wreak. 

As Thomas Cranmer puts Paul here: What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants. 

We’re hard-wired to do, Paul says, but such doings end up deadly because we are all strangers to ourselves.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

———————-

Tonight, we answer Paul’s question with ash and oil. 

The way we live and the way we die— it’s natural. 

But the Gospel is not natural. 

The Gospel must be revealed. 

Because the Law comes naturally to us while the Gospel does not, we can never take the Gospel for granted. We need to remind ourselves of the Gospel over and again. So tonight we make the Gospel message plain on the best ad space available to us, our faces. 

     Even though what we’ll say to you tonight, “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you will return,” sounds like a micro-aggression, the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick in a Romans 7 sort of way, it is the good news of the Great Physician. 

What we make plain on your face tonight is the Gospel. 

“Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” is Gospel because for you the only death that matters is the death you have behind you. 

I’m going to say that again so you’ve got it: “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” is good news because for you the only death that matters is the death you have behind you. 

Don’t let the props get in the way— what’s important about the ash-and-oil cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross. 

    The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes. 

      We mix up our metaphors on Ash Wednesday, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt. 

     Or the sprinkling of water.

   While the words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die, the cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you already have. 

     The cross on your forehead isn’t a symbol of your sin. 

     The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death.

Your death to sin. 

     That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. 

     “To dust you came and to dust you shall return”—- you’re gonna die— is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died the only death that ultimately matters. 

     You will die, sure. From dirt you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the Medicare runs out or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely get planted right back there. 

     But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night— meeting God in the good you wanted to do but did not do and the evil you did not want to do but did— the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died. 

     You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned. 

    What you have done and what you have left undone— what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font. 

     By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death. 

     The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away. 

     We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.

     The dust on your forehead says: “You, wretched man, were dead in your trespasses.” But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been rescued, baptized, into his death for your trespasses.” 

     The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news. 

     Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. 

     The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple. 

———————-

    What’s miraculous, BJ Miller contends, more miraculous than empty, contrived spiritual gestures,  is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything. 

      What’s miraculous is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything, the freedom just to play themselves out.

     “My work,” Miller says, “is to unburden them from the crushing weight of unhelpful expectations.” 

     The Law comes naturally to us but the Gospel does not so tonight if the ash and oil doesn’t do it then let a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast remind: it’s the work of the Gospel to unburden you from the crushing weight of expectations. 

It’s the work of the Gospel to unburden you from the accusations of all the Oughts and Shoulds and Musts— the Law— written on your heart, a heart which— at best— you know only dimly.

The Gospel is that, though what’s inside of you is about as beautiful as what we smear on the outside of you— though you are every bit as broken and busted up as those sculptures that rescued BJ Miller— nonetheless you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.  

     The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question which the Law on your heart naturally compels you to ask: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?” 

     The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful: 

What are you going to do with this faith of yours now that you have the freedom not to do anything? 

What are you going to do with this life of yours now that you can live— free—with death behind you? 

What are you going to do for your neighbor now that— with death behind you— there’s nothing more for you to earn.

What are you going to do now that you have the freedom not to do anything? 

     It’s fitting then that crowd is always smaller tonight. 

Like hospice, it’s not for everybody.

The ash and oil tonight is like palliative medicine for those who are already dead in Christ.

It’s a visible, tangible reminder that you who, lives with death behind you, you’re free to play yourself out. To learn the art of living posthumously.

The ash and the oil— it marks you out as one like those busted up sculptures without the noses and the ears, broken by the Law but declared beautiful by the Gospel.

And you’ll leave here tonight not practicing your piety before others— as Jesus wants us not to do. 

You’ll leave here tonight like one of those broken sculptures inviting another broken person to discover themselves beautiful.

    

Exodus International

Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2019 — 1 Comment

Transfiguration Sunday — Luke 9

    If you’ve endured more than a handful of sermons in a United Methodist Church, then, chances are, you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go. 

     I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all wrong. 

If you’ve sufferd through a few sermons on the Transfiguration, then you already know I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience instead of rolling up his sleeves and going back down into the valley of life where we are called to serve the least, the lost, and the left behind (which, for the record— just so you get to know your pastor a little better— is my least favorite Christian cliche). 

But that’s how preaching on the Transfiguration is supposed to go, right? 

The way down the mountain is almost always a descent into moralism— about how discipleship is about going back down into the valley, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and embrace the outcast and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm in front of their non-Christian co-workers. 

     If you’ve endured more than a few Sundays in the mainline church, then you already know that’s usually the way preachers preach this text on the Transfiguration: Don’t rest in Christ.  Go back down the mountaintop, back into “real life,” and do like Christ.

     Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think that’s the only  option allowed. 

——————

     Except- 

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

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

     Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about resting in me. It’s about doing like me, for the Son of Man came not to serve but to send you out to serve?” If Peter’s suggestion that they rest there is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does just before this scene and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?  It’s not an idle question.

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

You got that? This is the only instance in the Bible where someone says something to Jesus and Jesus doesn’t reply. 

—————-

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

     There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this preview of the Gospel message into moralism. 

     Just think- 

     What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching— how we should go and do what he doesn’t seem to understand he should go and do? Which is but a way of making ourselves the focus of this story. 

     Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down. More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that the takeaway from the Transfiguration is not what we must go down and do for God through our good deeds or holy living. The takeaway from the Transfiguration is what God is about to go down and do for us. 

For ALL of us. 

For ALL of us. 

I’m going to say it again— for ALL of us.

The Transfiguratin is about what God is about to go down and do.

Once for ALL. 

The Transfiguration— it is a preview of the Gospel. 

————–

Luke spells it out for you:

Just before this scene, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the super-pious holiness enforcers, and get crucified by an angry crowd taking the only democratic vote in scripture (“We want Barabbas!”)

Next scene, today’s scene: 

Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, are there on this mountaintop “speaking with Jesus about his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Accomplish. 

Luke doesn’t say Jesus was about to experience something unfortunate or unintended in Jerusalem. He says accomplish.

It’s vogue among preachers today to downplay the crucifixion, but when you read the Gospels straight through you discover that not only does Jesus talk about his death all the time, he speaks of it as a necessity. 

He speaks of it as a mission he will accomplish.

Luke says here that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a departure that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  

And the Greek word Luke uses for departure? Any guesses?

Exodus. 

They’re talking about the exodus he will accomplish in Jerusalem.

You see, what St. Luke shows you here on the mountaintop is what St. Paul tells you in his Letter to the Romans: that our baptism into Christ’s death— it is our exodus from the Pharaoh called Sin.  In case you miss that point— Luke piles on the clues. He tells you about Jesus’s shining happy people face and his bedazzled Rick Flair clothes.  And Luke tells you that Moses and Elijah appeared there in glory.  And that Christ became it. Became the glory That Christ was transfigured before them into glory.

————–

Luke doesn’t throw around glory as just any generic adjective. 

It’s like Indiana Jones asked in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” 

In the David story, the glory of God is what spilled forth from the ark of the Law and struck an innocent bystanding boy named Uzzah dead. That’s 2 Samuel 6. That’s why Indiana Jones tells Marion to close her eyes when the bad guys open up the ark— he knows the Uzzah story.

And likely, Indiana Jones knows too that the glory of God is what dwelt in the Temple. 

In the holy of holies. 

Behind the temple veil. A veil that was there— pay attention now— not to protect the holy God from sinful us.  A veil that was there— by God’s own mercy and design— to protect sinful us from the holiness of God. 

Elijah and Moses appeared to them on the mountaintop in glory, Luke tells us. 

The glory of God transfigured Christ, Luke tells us. 

And Peter and James and John beheld the glory, Luke tells us. 

Notice what Luke doesn’t tell us— they lived. 

They lived. All three of them, they’re like Harry Potter. They’re the boys who lived. 

Peter and James and John— sinners all, Peter maybe most of all— beheld the umediated glory of God, loosed from the Temple, in the flesh in the transfigured Christ, and they did not receive the wage their sins had earned them. 

They were not struck dead. 

They lived. 

That’s why they walk away dead silent. 

They were dumbfounded by this preview of the grace of God where another’s death will do for undeserving sinners. 

————–

    All the news in the United Methodist Church this week, all of the acrimony over inclusion and acceptance, on the one hand, and sin and holiness, on the other hand— it can obscure a basic presupposition of the Bible that’s implicit here in the Transfiguration. 

What even Indiana Jones knew that all those folks at General Conference in St. Louis seemed not to know is this basic Gospel grammar:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

(So who are we to draw lines?)

What makes you a child of God isn’t anything inherent to you or achievable by you. Not a one of you. All of us— the gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. So great, in fact, that when we even begin to argue about whether this or that is a sin is to have lost the Gospel plot. 

     You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

     You have to be rendered acceptable. 

     You have to be made acceptable. 

You are a child of God not by birth but by adoption— an adoption that St. Paul calls an exodus, our baptism into Christ’s death.  You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are— not a one of us. That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple where glory lived, and it’s the assumption that leaves Peter and James and John speechless after they run into that glory on the mountain.  

To understand this you have to go back to the Book of Leviticus. 

Once a year a representative of all the people, the high priest, would draw the short straw and venture beyond the temple veil, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the glory of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord. Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord. Acceptable to be counted among God’s People.

     After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

     And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away into the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God. 

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God veiled in glory as alien from the New Testament God we think we know. But, as Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. 

    We’re meant to see them as preparation. 

We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice. 

That’s exactly how the New Testament Book of Hebrews frames Jesus’ death: 

As the perfect sacrifice for sin. 

    One sacrifice. Offered once. 

The temple veil is no longer needed. 

The glory of the Holy God need be feared no more.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

Such that now our justification before God is based not on who we are or what we’ve done but on who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ. 

Because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice— because of our exodus, our baptism into his sacrifice offered in our stead— our acceptablity before God— for all of us— must always and forever be spoken of in the past, perfect tense. 

It has been accomplished.

It is finished.

Ephapax is the word the Bible uses to describe the sacrifice, which Luke here calls an exodus. 

Ephapax: “once for all.” 

For all sin. 

For past sin. For present sin. For future sin. 

Ephapax. 

Once for all sin. 

Once for all those believers adopted by the baptism of his blood.

————–

So why in the hell are some arguing in the United Methodist Church about who is and is not compatible with Christian teaching? 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

According to the survey I sent, there’s two dozen LGBTQ people in this congregation.

If you think they’re the ones incompatible with Christian teaching, you need to read your Romans, or try the Sermon on the Mount on for size (Be perfect?!). 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Why are we dividing Christ’s Church by arguing over who is acceptable? None of us— not a single one of us— are acceptable. All of us have been made acceptable.

Don’t you see—

The cross of Jesus Christ already contains everything conveyed by a rainbow flag.  

God judges not a one of us according to us. God judges every one of us according to Christ— according to Christ’s perfect (once for all sin, once for everybody) sacrifice. 

Such that, now, by grace alone— not by what you do or who you are— by grace alone— now, like those three disciples on the mountaintop today, you and I (though sinners we are and sinners we always will remain)  We can sleep easy before the glory of God.

We can sleep easy before the glory of God. 

Luke shows you in their sleeping what St. Paul tells you: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…there is therefore NOW NO CONDEMNATION…NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.”

Why are we arguing when all of us— gay or straight, liberal or conservative, married or divorced, addicts or clean, racists or sexists or homophobes, skinny or not so skinny, black or white or brown, male or female (or somewhere in between), old or young, rich and poor, even people who actually like Maroon 5…all of us sinners have been made acceptable.

Not by our behavior.

Not by by our belief.

But by our baptism.

By our baptism into his departure, his exodus, his once for all death accomplished for you, for your sin…by our baptism, you and I— still in our sins— we can sleep easy before the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel. 

Everything else— every single other thing we can say—is the Law not the Gospel. 

And Christ is the end of the Law, scripture says. 

For freedom from the Law, Christ has set us free, scripture says. 

That’s the other takeaway Luke wants you to see in this preview of the Gospel. 

Jesus appears there with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, because the Law— with all of its demands for holiness, all of its expectations of a lifestyle compatibile with its commands— the Law ends in Jesus Christ. 

Full stop. 

Moses and Elijah appear there in glory but their glory fades. 

The glory of God is the Christ who delivers grace. 

You see—

Christianity is either all grace (what God has done for you) or it’s all works (what you must do for God). 

Grace and Works— they’re mutually exclusive. 

That is the insight of the Protestant Reformation. 

If it’s not all of the former, it is all of the latter— no matter the lip service you might pay to grace.

Any attempt to balance or blend grace with works destroys the very notion of grace. 

It muddles the Gospel with the Law. It creates a kind of Glawspel, which is exactly the sort of toxic religion I witnessed this week in St. Louis. 

Everything that is not the Gospel of grace is the Law.  

And as soon as you make Christianity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands— it’s funny how, as much as we fire off scripture at each other, we don’t much quote that scripture. 

As soon as you make Christiantity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands. And thus far, only one guy has been able to clear that bar. He was as perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

So why don’t we worry about proclaiming what Christ has done for us— for ALL OF US— instead of yelling at each other about what we think the other ought to do for Christ?

————–

Whenever you make Christianity about the Law— about living a life compatible with the commandments— you become a debter to every single one of its demands. 

Don’t you see?

That’s why this is the only place in all of scripture that Jesus doesn’t reply. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebut him. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t say “Get behind me, Satan.” 

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here— at least, it should be.

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here. 

It is good for us to see that the Law, according to which not one of us measures up, ends in the glory of his grace; so that, the Law is fulfilled in us not through our pious deeds or holy living but through faith alone. 

Faith alone in the Gospel of grace is what reckons to you the credit of a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching. 

That’s not just good news. 

That’s the good news.

So Peter is right.

It is good for us to be here. 

Because the Church is the only place in the world— at least, it should be— twhere we can lay down all our burdens of what we ought to do but don’t and what we oughtn’t do but did— this is the only place where we can lay those burdens down and rest. 

Rest in his grace.

————–

On Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, after the vote, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept.

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity— it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.

Peter is right. 

Until we learn to lay down the Law and go cold turkey from commandment-keeping and holiness-enforcing, until we learn to rest in Grace, every journey back down the mountain will be a descent that leaves the Gospel behind. 

So come down to the Table. 

And roll up your sleeves. 

Come down to the Table. 

Where Christ invites you not to serve but to be served. 

Wine and bread. The Body and Blood. The tangible promise of grace. 

Come down.

Taste and see the goodness of God  that is yours. 

Not as your wage, something you earn. 

But as your inheritance, something that’s yours by way of another’s death, something that is yours as an adopted child of God. 

       

     

James 3

Harrison Scott Key teaches writing at SCAD in Savannah, Georgia. His memoir The World’s Largest Man won the Thurber Prize for Humor. Southern Living described Key as a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Seinfeld. 

In a recent essay entitled Confessions of a Bad Christian, Harrison Scott Key fesses up:

“The rumors are true. I am a Christian. I go to church. There, I said it.

Let me begin this confession by apologizing to my godless friends: I know you’re worried about me. I know a respected atheist scholar who thinks I’m insane because I believe the Christmas story actually happened in space and time. 

I’ve known many young mothers who are virgins, [in the South] we call them “Baptists.” But I’m not here to preach the Virgin Birth or cite studies showing how weekly church attendance reduces gingivitis. I’m here to confess.

I may be a Christian, but I am a very bad one.

I’m not good at that honeysuckle sweet Christianity that treats Jesus like a baby kitten who says church is silly and all you need is to love your neighbor. I don’t love my neighbors. I can’t even tell you their names. 

One is named Janet or Joy or Cheryl, and she has two loud tiny dogs that I pray will soon die. She is too old to be cutting her grass, and I should volunteer to help her mow it, because one day she is going to die out there in the yard. But I don’t help, because she derives great pride from her independence, I internally surmise, based on absolutely zero evidence.

I’m not even good at the social justice Christianity that longs to affect change with protests and placards featuring clever genital puns. I don’t march in the Women’s March or the Pro-Life Parade or the Pro-Death Parade. I marched once in a Pirate Parade and instantly regretted it, and I am ashamed.

I am ashamed that I find it hard to hunger and thirst for righteousness, as Jesus says I should. Remember everybody standing with Standing Rock? I envy people who cultivate informed, nuanced positions of righteous anger. I barely have time to mow my grass. I stand with a lawnmower, and I push it, after which I hunger and thirst for food and water.

If I find matters of social justice so boring, why do I persist in believing in a God who showed the greatest compassion for the downcast? Fair question. Pray for me. It will have to be you who does the praying. I start in praying about a friend’s fragile marriage and in a second or two, I’m wondering why Amazon makes it so difficult to return gifts.

I’m a bad Christian— we all are in various states of lapse and relapse.” 

————————-

If you were looking for reliably good Christians— if good Christian were even a coherent category— James’ congregation in Jerusalem should be ground zero for Christian perfection. 

Think about to whom James is writing. The church in Jerusalem, these were first generation Christians.

We know from the Book of Acts that James himself was the leader of the “Circumcision Party.” You think the Methodist cross-and-flame logo is a problematic image for a denomination that started in the 1960’s South? 

“Circumcision Party” has got to be the worst branding in the history of the Church. Still, it says more than a bit about their commitment. 

The Christians in this congregation in Jerusalem— their faith was so intense, their discipleship was so earnest that grownup Gentiles among them got circumcised for Jesus. Of all the possible places, you’d think you’d find “good Christians” here in James’ congregation. 

Don’t forget, they were ringside to redemption. The proof doubting Thomas had demanded in order to believe they all received. 

Like James, some of these Christians in Jerusalem had encountered the Risen Christ, face-to-face and hand-to-hole-in-the-hand. They’d eaten breakfast with the Risen Christ. 

If anything could get you to take the log out of your own eye, you’d think it would be the crucified Christ (who’s no longer dead) sitting across a fire from you and passing you sausages. 

These Christians— their faith was such that after Easter, almost overnight, they broke the greatest commandment and started to worship James’ brother as the Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

Blaspheming the sabbath had gotten Jesus strung up on a tree, but almost immediately after Easter these Christians wantonly violated the fourth commandment by worshipping Jesus not on the sabbath but on Sunday. 

I mean, they even pooled all their money together and shared it with one another— that’s not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; that’s the Book of Acts. 

You all don’t even like sharing your pew. 

These were not your lukewarm Christmas-and-Easter-only Christians. You’d expect them to be good Christians. They’d experienced Pentecost firsthand.  The Holy Spirit had fallen on them like tongues of fire, and yet their own tongues set blaze after consuming blaze.

James says today that we cannot do the one thing God in the Garden gave to us to do. In the beginning, God gave us to name every living creature, and then God gave us dominion over all of them and we did a pretty good job of it. 

We managed to tame every kind of beast and bird, every sort of sea creature and reptile. We have tamed every last creature except the beast inside of us. We can charm even a snake, but we cannot control our own forked tongues. 

“You bless God and you curse others with the same mouth, setting off fire after fire,” James judges the church. 

“Your tongue is a world of iniquity, James says, it stains the whole body.”

“This ought not to be so,” James concludes in verse ten. 

Notice—

James, who is a moralist, doesn’t lay down the Law. James doesn’t write: You ought not to be this way. James doesn’t offer: Here’s some advice to get your act together. He doesn’t give them 3 easy steps to tame their tongue. 

He just says: “This ought not to be so.” 

St. James here sounds like St. Paul when Paul describes the Christian life after baptism. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes after Romans 6, “the one thing I want to do is the very thing I do not do, and the very thing I do not want to do is what I do.” 

Both of them sound like Martin Luther describing the life of discipleship “The Law says ‘Do this,’ Luther says, “but it is never done.”

This ought not to be so, James says. 

As though to say: This will always be true of you. 

———————-

Harrison Scott Key, St. Paul, Martin Luther, the believers in James’ congregation— when it comes to being bad Christians, they’re in good company. 

In the days before indoor plumbing and cold showers, St. Francis of Assisi rolled naked in the snow to stave off his dirty, lusty thoughts— just imagine that as a statue in your garden. St. Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for 17 years. St. Bernard led the 2nd Crusade, which makes the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones seem Christian by comparison. 

My Mt. Rushmore hero, Karl Barth, had a live-in mistress his whole life— in addition to his wife. John Wesley preached about Christian perfection and growing in holiness, but even he never stopped being anxious about his salvation and in the name of piety left his family destitute when he died. 

This ought to be so. 

If you were searching for some good Christians, you’d start with saints like these, yet even the best Christians aren’t all that good. 

Mary Karr is another funny, Flannery O’Connor type writer. About her own conversion to Christianity, she writes:

“After years of being a Christian I realized one day I only wanted to kill some of the people on the subway in the morning; whereas, before I was a Christian I wanted to kill every single one of them.” 

What Mary Karr expresses there in her lessened inclination to murder is the Protestant doctrine simul iustus et peccator. Again, whenever the Church whips out its Latin you know it’s important so pay attention. 

Simul iustus et peccator is a fancy catchphrase meaning “at once justified and a sinner.” 

That is, we are always simultaneously (simul) sinful and yet justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. Simul iustus et peccator. 

As that black-and-white television gangster tells Kevin in HomeAlone: “We’re never no better than angels with dirty wings.” You dear faithful— though you are baptized believers, you do not ever advance appreciably beyond being what Harrison Scott Key calls “fools in varying states of lapse and relapse.” 

Simul iustus et peccator. 

To render the Latin into the language of everyday: even on your best Jesus day, you would simultaneously give David Pecker and the folks at AMI ample fodder for you to be found out as a hypocrite. 

Notice— 

This doesn’t make you a bad Christian. 

It makes you a Christian. 

———————-

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that the message of Christianity is foolishness to the Greeks— foolishness because they expected that the Gospel should give them what Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle had given them. 

Morality. Ethics. Teaching. 

Christianity was foolishness because they expected the Gospel to give them a philosophy, a manual, a way of life. Christianity was foolishness because they were looking to grow in goodness. 

In order to find happiness. 

In order to tame the tongue. 

In order to live your best life now. 

That last bit was Joel Osteen not Plato but the point still stands. 

Christianity was absolute foolishness to the Greeks because Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

I’m going to say that again because most Christians today are more Greek than a full house of John Stamoses, and this— though true— likely sounds foolish to you too. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people coping with their failures to be good.

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people holding on for dear life— literally, for life— to the promise that God in Jesus Christ has met you in your failures to be good. 

And God has forgiven you. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people proclaiming to other bad people that God has met you in your failures. 

God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself. God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.  God has met you in your failure to be a good mother, to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister, or a compassionate son, or a good boss, or an understanding daughter. 

God has met you in your failure to tame your two-faced tongue and God has said: “You know not what you’re doing. I forgive you.” 

I know what some of you are thinking: 

Christianity isn’t about good people getting better, it’s about bad people coping with their failures to be good— that can’t be all there is to being a Christian?! 

Even the Boy Scouts manage to make more sense. They’ve got “Do a Good Turn Daily” as their slogan. 

There’s got to be more to being a Christian, right? It can’t all be grace. It can’t be grace and nothing but grace— so help me, that would be foolishness. 

In order to be a good Christian, surely there’s stuff we should do. 

Of course, I’d argue that as soon as you attach a “should” to grace it’s no longer grace, but that’s a debate for another day. 

In the meantime, I’ll see your questions, and I’ll raise you. 

I’ll ask my own question:

Just how is it, do you think, that a religion based on acknowledging our own sins and faults and shortcomings has become (in America especially) virtually synonymous with judgmentalism and self-righteousness and hypocrisy? 

How is it that good news for sinners has become bad news for so many? How is it that what Jesus says is medicine for the sin-sick tastes like poison? How is it that his yoke feels hard and his burden heavy? How is it that the Great Physcian has gotten wrapped up in a Judge’s robe? 

Is it because when you circumscribe Christianity to a religion of good people getting better— or just people becoming good— it’s not long before you’re telling people to do better, be better, which inevitably sounds like “I’m better than you.” Or worse, “You’re not good enough.” 

Good enough for God. 

This isn’t an abstract issue. 

I’ve been a pastor for almost 20 years. You know how many atheists I’ve encountered who’ve told me “Oh Christianity, it’s just too merciful for me, too gracious?” 

Goose egg. 

You know how many I’ve met who’ve written us off because we’re the opposite? 

Too many to count. 

Christianity is endangered in our culture because of a self-inflicted wound. 

We’ve defined Christianity in terms of the Law and not the Gospel. 

And the Law, Paul says, is not only exhausting and futile, it’s a ministry of death.

It’s the Law that says “Do this.” It’s the Gospel that says “It’s all already done.” The Law is what God demands. The Gospel is what God gives. And God gives in the Gospel what God demands in the Law. 

But we’ve mucked it up and muddled it. 

And if you don’t believe me, notice. 

Notice how we distinguish good Christians from bad Christians based— not on their trust in the promise of the Gospel— but upon behavior, morality, deeds. And we do this on the Left and the Right, conservative and liberal alike. 

Notice how we define a good Christian versus a bad Christian based upon obedience to scripture’s commands or adherence to Christ’s teachings. 

In other words: to the Law. 

But the purpose of the Law, scripture says, is to shut our mouths up. 

In repentance and humility. 

No human can tame the tongue, scripture says. 

But the purpose of God’s Law— Old Testament and New— is to shut us up. 

The first step in being a good Christ-following Christian— and, for Greeks like you, it’ll likely take you a lifetime to learn— is knowing that Christ has to carry you most of the way. 

———————-

“I used to be a good Christian,” Harrison Scott Key writes in his Confessions of a Bad Christian. 

  In my boyhood, I was attentive in Sunday school and sang songs about the devil without irony. I was a good boy back then, and longed to be loved for my goodness. And then, around puberty, something happened to transform me into a bad Christian, in addition to puberty.”

  Harrison Scott Key was asked to help a little blind boy find his way to the sanctuary. He was so caught up in thoughts of his own goodness, he walked the blind boy face-first in the floor-mounted drinking fountain.

Key confesses:

“The experience permanently fractured my belief in the purity of my intentions. It would take me years to understand this fact, but the understanding commenced in that church hallway: that a good human being is a temporary and imaginary creature, that even the best of us can believe ourselves gods, and that we are all fools, in various states of lapse and relapse.

I am grateful to the thing we call God for that enduring awareness of my tendency to forget I am no god, not even close, which is what allows me, if not to do good in every moment and for the right end, at least to spot the good from far off and pray for the strength to walk in that direction.

If there’s one thing my long internship at Jesus Enterprises, LLC, has taught me, it’s that I should be much more watchful of what’s inside me than what’s inside you. That is where we have to start.”

The irony?

Just like the owners of those untamed tongues in James’ Church, the author of Confessions of a Bad Christian, he’s actually good one. 

Down the Up Staircase

Jason Micheli —  February 11, 2019 — Leave a comment

James 2.1-5, 8-10

Along the way and over the years there have been certain game-changing moments that have forever altered how I’ve understood and performed my ministry. 

For example, there was the time when I decided to preach off-the-cuff, without notes— just shoot from the hip. And I got animated and agitated and argumentative—as I’m wont to do— and what shot out of my hip and into my congregation’s earballs was a certain four-letter word. 

Let’s just say the word was not YHWH. Nor was it— as the bishop made clear to me— holy. In order to tame my tongue, I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.

For example, there was the Holy Thursday at my first parish in Princeton. When kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insisted on filling those ridiculous little personal-sized communion cups themselves and when they then insisted on carrying those stacks of tiny cups in their kindly but shakey hands from the basement sacristy to the altar table the night before, I said “sure thing, ladies.” 

I didn’t realize that the grape juice would spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the heavy brass trays of cups. Neither did I realize that when I presided at the table the next evening and solemnly attempted to lift the lid from the blood of our savior, for a chilling second or six, I would lift the lid along with all five of the brass trays. 

Locked by the sugary seal of the spilt grape juice, they all came up together— lid and brass trays— in one terrifying motion. 

Then, just like that, the seal broke, the trays fell, the off-brand generic Welch’s grape juice poured out like that elevator in the Shining, and, though Good Friday was still another twenty-four hours away, the table suddenly looked like I had just desanguinated Jesus Christ on that very altar. 

Let’s just say that was another time a certain four-letter word escaped my lips. I’ve double-checked the Lord’s Supper before the worship service ever since. 

For example, there was the Lent when I thought it would be a good idea as fundraiser for the church’s mission project (a sanitation system in Latin America) to shoot a series of videos of me wearing my clergy collar sitting on a toilet talking about the importance of sanitation in rural villages. 

We’ve go to make sanitation sexy, I told our mission committe. 

Let’s just say I went from safe anonymity to the bishop’s doodie list so fast you’d swear I had a flux capacitor strapped to my back. I’ve kissed the bishop’s ______ ever since. 

Along the way, there have been moments that have hijacked me and changed how I understand ministry.  

For example, there was the Atlantic Monthly article I read a while back. It was the article’s headline that grabbed me: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.”

In it, the author, Larry Taunton, described how his non-profit organization, the Fixed-Point Foundation, conducted a national survey of college students. 

They canvassed students from campus groups like Secular Student Alliance and the Free Thought Society— atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade for Christ. 

To the Foundation’s surprise, thousands upon thousands of students from all over the country volunteered to share their journey into unbelief. Almost of all of them, the author noted, were former Christians. 

Let’s just say the findings from the survey surprised the Fixed-Point Foundation. 

According to Larry Taunton, the Foundation’s director, the overwhelming majority of those young people who now identify as former Christians attribute their lost faith to the fact that the teaching of their churches was soft and vague:

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the necessary relationship between that message and Jesus Christ or the Bible. They didn’t see why the church was necessary for those messages which they heard echoed everywhere else in the culture. This is an incisive critique. These young atheists— former Christians— seem to have intuitively understood what the church often doesn’t understand about itself; namely, that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim a message, Jesus Christ— his death and resurrection. Because that was missing in their churches, they saw little incentive to stay.

The church does not exist to address social ills, but to proclaim a message, Jesus Christ— his death and resurrection. “We would hear this response again and again,” Larry Taunton writes— in the Atlantic, which is not a Christian or even a religious magazine.

Let’s just say the article convicted me. 

And now ever since I’ve been a lot more cognizant of how I speak Christian. 

———————- 

When it comes to the Letter of James, everyone always wants to rush to the end of chapter two where James writes to the church in Jerusalem that “faith without works is dead.” 

Clearly, you can see from today’s passage at the top of chapter two that the church in Jerusalem needed to be convinced that faith without good deed doing is dead. The church in Jerusalem needed to be convinced. But do we? 

According to the survey in the Atlantic Monthly, not only does the church in America not need to be convinced about the goodness of good deed doing, no one in America needs to be convinced. Social justice, community involvement, doing good— it’s in the ether. 

Even secular schools require community service hours. 

Not only do we not need convincing about good works, survey says our always rushing to the end of James chapter two has undone God’s work of faith in young people. 

Our words have consequences, James tells us in his letter. All our words about good works, the survey says, have had consequences for faith. The survey says that by stressing the effects of the Gospel (good works) rather than the Gospel itself we’ve starved people’s faith on the vine. 

The survey says we don’t need to remind anyone that faith without works is dead. 

The survey says need to remind Christians that Christ is not dead. 

Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins, is not dead; he has been raised for your justification—  for you to be in the right with God, there is therefore now no condemnation— that is the faith.  That is the faith whose fruit is good works. 

Follow the logic: if the former dies, the latter disappears. 

If he is the Vine and we are the Branches and good works are the Fruit, then works without faith— they’re like apples on the ground; they’re not going to last long.

So I don’t want to rush to the end of chapter two today. I want to point you to the very top of chapter two. And I don’t want to exhort you to do good works. I want to make an argument to strengthen you in the faith.. 

———————-

In the first verse of chapter two, James refers to his half-brother Jesus as “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the translation you heard this morning. Except, in the Greek, it’s not adjectival. 

In the Greek, what James writes is “our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory.”

In Hebrew it’s called shekinah. 

James, who’s Mary son also, a good Jew, would know that “the glory” is what appeared to the Israelites as a pillar of cloud and fire and accompanied them along their exodus from Egypt. James would know that “the glory” is what Moses had to hide his face from in the cleft of a rock as God passed by him. It’s what resided behind the temple veil in the holy of holies.

Jesus is that, James is saying so simply you run right past it to the end of chapter two.

The reason James here at the top of chapter two asserts that God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the Kingdom is because James believes God chose Jesus to be the heir of his Kingdom. And James knew better than anyone that Jesus was poor. 

The reason James is so hot and bothered here about Christians making distinctions between rich and poor is that such partiality lures us into forgetting that the glory of God has come down the up staircase and disguised himself in the poverty of Jesus Christ. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory. 

Don’t forget— James was not his brother’s disciple. James thought his brother was a nut job, but here in chapter two James is quoting his brother almost verbatim about the Law of God. “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point of it becomes accountable for all of the Law,” James says, just like his brother said in the sermon on the mount right before he said “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” 

James, who did not believe in his brother, here at the top of chapter two quotes his brother. 

And we know from the Jewish historian Josephus that  James was executed by order of the very same Sanhedrin that sent Jesus to a cross. That is a FACT of history.  The charge against James? Blasphemy. James, who had not believed in his brother, was executed for worshipping his brother as the Christ, the Messiah.

It’s a claim of faith that Jesus is worthy of our worship, but it’s a fact of history that James worshipped Jesus. 

Of course, as a good Jew, James would know that even messiahs do not warrant our worship. It’s in the Top Ten. Even a bad Jew would know it, would know that the first and most important commandment is “you shall worship nothing but God.” 

And here at the top of chapter two, James calls his brother not only Lord and Messiah he refers to him as the Glory.   He’s the blaze that did not burn up the bush before Moses in the desert, James all but spells out for you. 

James wasn’t the only one. 

Think about it—

What would it take for Jews, virtually overnight, to worship Jesus as Lord, which they’d never done for any previous messiah? What would it take for Jews, almost overnight, to start worshipping on Sundays, which violated the fourth commandment? Don’t forget as well that if they just made it up— well, that’s false witness; that’s the ninth commandment. And probably if anything qualifies as taking the Lord’s name in vain it’s called Jesus God, that’s commandment number three. 

What would it take? 

What would it take for Jews almost immediately to begin breaking four of the ten commandments?

By definition, the resurrection is beyond reason. 

But belief in the resurrection is not unreasonable. 

Christianity is the only movement in history that began after the death of its leader. 

Riddle that. 

There’s an argument for the resurrection right here hidden like an Easter egg in the top of chapter two. Think about it— James is still so Jewish he refers to the church in chapter two as a synagogue, but the One whose name Jews will not even utter aloud James calls by his brother’s name. 

Think about it—

What would it take to convince you that your brother is God?

The resurrection is beyond reason— yes—but belief in the resurrection is not unreasonable. 

———————-

In the Young Atheists article in the Atlantic Monthly, Larry Taunton quotes one former Christian who says: 

“I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he or she isn’t trying to convert me. I don’t respect Christians who don’t evangelize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s resurrection and eternal life, but you think that it’s not really worth telling someone about because it would might be socially awkward for you…How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that something as good as the resurrection is true and never tell them about it?

Christians talk about good works all the time, but how could you be good and never share something so good?

———————-

As much as we muddle Easter with metaphors about springtime renewal, we forget that the first Christians did not think it a myth or a metaphor. As the Apostle Paul puts it in the Book of Acts, “these things did not happen in a corner.” In other words, Christ’s empty tomb first was proclaimed to the very people who had seen him die and who could have gone to his grave with a wheel-barrow and brought back for themselves his nail-scarred bones. If they’d been there.  

Paul and James didn’t think resurrection revealed a timeless truth. They believed it was true, something that made Paul, an Ivy League Pharisee, call all of his good works no better than a four-letter word. 

Paul doesn’t make metaphors.  Paul names names. Paul names more than 500 people. He appeared to these people, Paul says, go ask them. It’s intellectually dishonest to turn the resurrection message into a myth. A myth is something that could happen anywhere or nowhere, at anytime or no time. A myth is Once upon a time. But the first Christians didn’t give you A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They gave you: It happened, in history, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, at Jerusalem, on the Sunday morning after the Passover when he died between noon and 3:00 in 33AD.  Around tea time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it.

They didn’t believe the resurrection was a metaphor. They didn’t believe it was a myth. They believed it happened. An event. In real history. 

Which means those young atheists in the survey, the ones who left Christianity, they’re not wrong about Christianity. They’re absolutely right that Christianity is not primarily about doing good or correcting social ills. If the resurrection of the crucified Christ is an event, if it happened in history, then they’re absolutely correct— Christianity isn’t about the good you must do for God. If the resurrection really happened, then Christianity— it’s about the good God has done.

If the resurrection isn’t a timeless truth, if the resurrection is true, if it happened, then Christianity— before it’s anything else— it’s news. 

It’s news. 

And what is there to do with news but trust it and tell it?

———————-

Along the way, over the years, there have been moments that have grabbed me and changed how I understand our ministry. 

For example, there was the service just a couple of years ago, a funeral for a woman about my age. She left behind two kids and a husband who was shell-shocked by grief. 

The man and his wife were every Sunday types. 

I stood in the front of her casket, my hands outstretched, and I delivered my lines memorized from the prayerbook— Jesus’ lines from his friend’s tomb: “ I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks his dead friend’s sister.

At that point, I’d buried probably four hundred people and two dozen kids. But never once— never a single instance— had anyone engaged my memorized Jesus lines as anything but a rhetherical question. “ I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 

“No.”

“No,” the deceased’s husband said from the front pew. 

“ I am the resurrection and the life…do you believe this?”

“No,” he said. 

Let’s just say he looked as surprised as me at his answer, and neither of us was the same afterwards. Let’s just you’d never dare suggest that faith in the resurrection had nothing to do with this life if you could see the expression their Dad’s “No” left on those kids’ faces. 

The survey says we’re all bound and determined to rush to the end of chapter two and hear James tell us that faith without works is dead. Okay— here’s a good work you can do.  Get someone like that Dad to “Yes.”

Because resurrection might be beyond reason, but it’s not unreasonable.

It’s not unreasonable.

 

 

The Alien Word

Jason Micheli —  February 4, 2019 — 2 Comments

James 1.18-25

True story— I heard it on NPR:

One warm summer night in DC, eight friends gathered around a backyard supper table. Toasting family and friends, clinking wine glasses, laughing— they were throwing a celebration. 

“It was one of those great evenings,” the celebrant of the party, Michael, told the host of Invisibilia, “lots of awesome food and french wine. It was a magical night.” 

It was getting late, he remembers, maybe around 10:00 PM, when it happened. 

“I was standing beside my wife. And I just saw this arm with a long-barrel gun come between us. It was as if in slow motion…this hand and a gun, and then it just really quiet.” 

The trespasser was a man of medium height in clean, high-end sweats. The trespasser raised the gun and held it first to the head of Michael’s friend, Christina, and then to the head of Michael’s wife and then he said: “Give me your money.” 

And he kept repeating it, louder and louder. 

“The problem was,” Michael said, “none of us had any cash.”

So the celebrants started to grasp for some way to dissaude the instruder out of his trespass, grasping for some way to change his mind. 

But then—

One of the women at the supper table, his friend Christina, piped up and she spoke a strange word, a word that passed from her lips to the trespasser’s ears and cut through all the angry noise and frightened chattering. 

She said: “We’re celebrating here. Why don’t you have a glass of wine?” 

“The words, her invitation…it was like a switch. You could feel the difference it made,” said Michael to Invisibilia. “All of a sudden, the look on the man’s face changed. The words arrested him. It was like the words gave him something he didn’t know he was searching for.” 

According to Michael— 

The trespasser tasted the wine offered to him in spite of his trespass. “That’s really good wine,” the trespasser said to Michael. 

“We had some bread too,” Michael added, “so he reached down for some of it but because he had the wine glass in his other hand…he put the gun in his pocket to free up his hand.”

The trespasser drank his wine. 

And then the trespasser said something surprising: “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” Everyone stood there in the backyard garden, the trellis walls like a sanctuary and the treetops a steeple, everything silent as a grave save the thrum of summer insects. 

Then the trespasser said something strange: “Can I get a hug?”

First Michael’s wife embraced him. 

Then his friend Christina embraced him. 

Finally, like they had no choice— like they had to celebrate with him— the whole party gathered around and embraced the trespasser. “I’m sorry,” the man said, “I’m sorry I trespassed against you.” And then he walked out into the street, still carrying the wine as though he were savoring still at how he’d been given it. 

In the episode of Invisibilia, Michael’s story is cited as an example of what psychologists call noncomplementary behavior. 

But in the Church, Michael’s story is an example of what scripture calls saving faith. Michael’s story of the word of invitation to the trespasser who trespassed against them— it’s an example of how saving faith works. 

Now, I know that’s not immediately obvious to you so I’m going to say it again. 

Michael’s story is an example of how faith works. 

———————-

Despite the word on the street, the gossip’s got him all wrong. 

St. James in his four page letter— and keep in mind, it’s just four pages— does not contradict the teachings of the Apostle Paul, which, keep in mind, total almost two hundred pages of your New Testament.  And you don’t need to take my word for it. 

According to Luke in the Book of Acts, James, who was Jesus’ half-brother and the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, eventually agreed with the Apostle Paul’s preaching.  In the Book of Acts, Luke records James agreeing with the Apostle Paul that absolutely nothing should be added to the Gospel of Grace. And nothing can substract from your standing in it.

So if you hear James here exhorting you that God’s work of grace in Jesus Christ requires you to respond with good works of your own, then read it again. Read it through the Apostle Paul rather than alongside him because, well, it’s two hundred pages to four pages, and James himself says that’s how you should read him. 

In fact, James here in chapter one is riffing on what St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans: “Faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” And what James tells us here in chapter one echoes what St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “No one can confess Jesus is Lord— no one can have faith— except by God.” In other words, saving faith comes not from within but from without. 

Faith is not your doing— that’s Paul to the Ephesians. 

James makes the same point in today’s text. “In fulfillment of his own purpose,” James writes, “God gave us birth…” God gave us birth as believers. That is, God gave to us faith. How? By “the word of truth,” James says. By the promise— by the Gospel of grace. 

And God gives us faith, James says, “so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” 

Fruit— just like Paul and just like his brother Jesus, the controlling image that James chooses is a passive one. We’re not the Gardener. We’re not even the plant. We’re fruit. God gives us faith not so that we will go do. God gives us faith so that we might become fruit— signs— of what he has done. 

It’s not so much that we are to bear fruit. It’s that faith makes us fruit. A couple of verses down from here, James continues with the metaphor of God as Gardener by calling the Gospel the implanted word.

What James tells you here is no different than what the Apostle Paul preaches in the other two hundred pages of the New Testament. Namely, God uses the Gospel promise to plant faith within us. 

The promise that Christ has died for all our sins, once for all, that everything has already been done, that nothing needs to be done to redeem you or your neighbor, creates faith. 

You see, when scripture speaks of saving faith, it’s not primarily faith in something— you can have faith in all sorts of things, just ask the Golden Calf or Tom Brady fans. When scripture speaks of saving faith, it’s faith from someone. 

———————-

Faith, the Protestant Reformers said, is an alien word. That’s what James means by that phrase “the implanted word.” 

Faith comes extranos, the first Protestants taught. And whenever someone whips out the Latin, you know it’s important, so pay attention: faith comes extra nos, from outside of us. Faith, the Bible says again and again, is a gift. A gift, not like an attribute innate to you. A gift given to you, from outside of you. 

What makes faith personal isn’t that you discovered it on your spiritual journey. What makes faith personal is that it was given to you by the person of Jesus Christ himself. We think of faith as our part of the Gospel transaction. God gives sinners like us justification by grace, and we must return the favor by giving God faith, which God needs…why exactly? Grace isn’t amazing if God demands payment in return. No, faith is not what God requires you to give him in order for your justification to be true for you. 

The Good News is better than that!

Faith is what God gives you; so that, you will trust that your justification is fact. Faith is what God gives you to trust that the party-called-salvation has already started and it’s for you— no matter your sins or your second-guessing it. The promise of the Gospel is that you are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone.

Not by faith alone. 

Through faith alone. 

Faith isn’t the expectation you must meet in order to be invited to the party. 

Faith is the means God gives you to enjoy the party to which your invitation has already been sealed by his blood.

Faith is a gift from outside of you, scripture says. 

Faith comes by what is heard. 

Not inside of you. 

Extra nos.

And notice— our way of thinking about faith, as something we do, it turns faith into another work of the Law, and then you’re left with the same dilemma as riddles all your other good works:  How do you know if the faith you have is enough faith?  How do you know you feel your faith for the right reasons? What if you can’t feel your faith like you felt it when you first felt your faith? What if you don’t feel it like the person in the pew in front of you feels it? What about your doubts and your questions? How many are too many?

Faith understood as something we do— faith as something that comes from within us— is bad news. 

It’s the worst kind of news because it makes your salvation determined not by a savior but by your own inner subjectivity.

Not only is it bad news, it loses the plot of the Good News because according to the plot of the Good News, apart from God giving you faith, you have no capacity to find it on your own.

Go back to James’ birth image in today’s text, saying to someone without faith “Well, you’ve just gotta have faith” is like telling an unborn fetus to deliver itself. 

Faith is not the faculty by which you grasp after God. 

Faith is the bruise left behind by the God who has grasped you and pulled you into newness of life.  

We’re all like that intruder in the garden. We need a word from outside of us to arrest us in our trespasses and get us to join in the celebration that started long before we showed up.

Faith is a gift. 

You can’t give yourself faith anymore than you can take away your sins. 

You need Jesus Christ for both. 

Nor can you give anyone faith. Christ is the Giver and the Preacher.  You can’t give anyone faith. 

But— You can get in the way. You can get in his way.

———————-

“Give me your money,” the trespasser said in Michael’s backyard garden.

“But none of us had any cash,” Michael told Invisibilia. 

So we started grasping for ways to dissaude him, to change his mind. 

Some of the celebrants tried guilt. What would you mother think? they asked him. Other celebrants tried reasoning with the trespasser. This is only going to land you in prison— can’t you see that mister? A couple of celebrants appealed to the trespasser’s emotions and aspirations. Is this who you want to be? How does this make you feel? Still other celebrants got angry at the trespasser. Just who do you think you are? 

All of them, the whole congregation of celebrants, they started talking at him. 

This cacophony of anxious, angry chattering. 

None of it— not their anger or anxiety— made the situation right. 

“I remember thinking,” Michael told Invisibilia, “it was getting so noisy…this is headed towards a bad end. Someone is going to get hurt. If all our noise had drown out Christina— if the trespasser hadn’t heard Christina’s words because we were raising so much other commotion, if he hadn’t heard her words of invitation, because of all the other angry noise we were making— it would’ve ended bad.” 

———————-

Despite the grapevine, James and the Apostle Paul do not contradict one another on the miracle that is the unconditional mercy of God in Jesus Christ for sinners like you. But unlike Paul, James spends a lot more time on the noise that can get in its way. 

Faith comes by what is heard, scripture says— by a promise where Christ is the Preacher. 

But unfaith comes by what else is heard— in the church. 

“…your anger does not produce righteousness” James warns the church today. The New Testament teaches us that righteousness is ours through faith; in other words, your anger frustrates God’s work in the church to give to another faith. 

Whenever I hear someone lament that Christians today need to be more like the early church, I usually respond with “What are you smoking?” I mean, James’ church in Jerusalem makes Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity seem like kissing cousins. James’ church was diverse with believers from different races and religious backgrounds, rich and poor. So the congregation was divided into clicks and factions, insiders and outsiders, and they were consumed by conflict. 

Conflict over politics. 

Conflict over worship traditions. 

Conflict over leadership. 

Conflict over how they allocated their time and their resources. 

I know it’s difficult to imagine such a church— just do your best. Unlike Paul, James spends so much time on behavior because his congregation was a congregation beset by conflict, consumed with anger and apathy, gossip and back-biting, undercutting and second-guessing, hypocrisy. So James warns them here: “…your anger does not produce faith.”

You see— James is not saying that your anger or your gossip or your second-guessing disqualifies you from what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. No, nothing can undo what Christ has done for you. Your anger and all the rest of it— it doesn’t disqualify you. It just disables another from hearing from Christ what he has done for them. 

James’ point is not that gossip or back-biting make you a poor Christian.  His point is that your gossip or back-biting prevent another Christian from being made. We do not have the power to create faith in Christ, but we do, James is saying, have the power to create alumni of the Christian faith. A survey just this week in Christianity Today echoes James’ point— most of the people who leave church do so (any guesses why?) because of people in church. 

Sticks and stones we say but words…but think about it. If God’s work in the world is oral and aural, then any other racket we add it does hurt. ALL YOUR NOISE—stop getting in my brother’s way with your behavior. You see— James would have you think of the whole church as a pulpit or an altar. Just as you expect Chenda or me to have nothing on our lips but Christ and his mercy for sinners, James would have you bear nothing on your lips but grace and mercy. Don’t let anything you say or do get in the way because you never know when the real Preacher will show up. 

———————-

“We later found the empty wineglass the trespasser had taken with him. He’d wiped it clean and placed on the sidewalk in front of the house” Michael said. 

But before they found the wineglass, Michael said, they cried. 

In gratitude. 

“We had no idea that words— an invitation to a celebration— could grasp hold of someone and change them. It was like this miracle. It was like a miracle. But it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t heard those words, if we’d gotten in the way of the miracle.” 

Faith in Jesus Christ

Faith in the promise he preaches to you (“Your sins are forgiven”) 

Whether it’s the size of a mustard seed or a mountain, it’s not your own doing. 

Faith in Jesus Christ is never not a miracle. 

And don’t forget—

No one knows that faith in Jesus is always a miracle better than Jesus’ brother. 

Don’t forget—

James thought his brother was crazy. James was not with his mother at his brother’s cross. James did not bury his brother, as was his obligation under the Law. Yet James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Until he was condemned to death. By the very same Sandhedrin who sent his brother to a cross. 

Like Paul, James knew: Jesus Christ is not dead. The one who came preaching the forgiveness of sins preaches still. With his word, with water, with wine and bread. Faith is his work to do. Just don’t get in his way.

Because the wine? It’s really good.

The Bottomless Glass

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2019 — 1 Comment

John 2.1-11

Were you all paying attention? 

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine for them to drink. 

Listen to the story again:

Jesus doesn’t just top off their glasses. Each of those stone jars held atleast 25 gallons of water. That’s 150 gallons. 

I did the math: 

4 quarts to a gallon

1 quart equals roughly 6 glasses

Giving you a minimum grandtotal = 2160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water.

I mean, unless Pat Vaughn is at your party that’s a prodigal amount of booze. 

And Jesus makes not 3 Buck Chuck, Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink. 

He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it. He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too far gone even to notice what he’s gone and done.As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten hammered, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re sloppy drunk.” 

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” 

Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And come morning— with the hangovers they’re going to have— you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it. They won’t remember what you’ve done. 

For them. 

It’s wasted on them, the maitre’d says to the bridegroom. 

Your gracious act, it’s wasted on them.

There’s more going on here than just a miracle. 

————————

In fact, the word miracle isn’t even the proper word to use about today’s Gospel text. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t do miracles. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, performs signs— only seven of them. Each of these seven signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s hour of glory. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is his humiliation when he’s hanging naked and accursed on the cross. 

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection: 

        • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day. 
        • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
        • Jesus calls his Mother Woman, which sounds like he’s backtalking his Mom until you remember the only other time he’ll similarly address his Mother: Woman, behold your Son. 
        • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All seven signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign— its intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law. Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you— he telegraphs it: “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus pitches his Temple tantrum, flipping off the moneychangers and hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. 

And Grace is not the Law. 

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the six stone water jars. 

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame. 

But it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. So if the abundance of wine signifies our salvation, these six stone water jugs signify our sin. 

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted seven days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests. 

This wedding is only on day three. They’ve got four more days to go. There’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon. 

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to fulfill their duty under the Law, which is to say their shame is deserved. Which is to say, they do not deserve what this other Bridgegroom, Jesus Christ, does for them. So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is what the Apostle Paul tells you. The Law (commandment-keeping, rule-following, morality, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes. It cannot make us righteous. 

“For God has done what the Law could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” 

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and morality— the Law—  “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter two that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter two he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law. He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these six stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then he tells them to fill the jars with it. To fill them to overflowing. 

Do you see? It’s a sign not a miracle. 

It’s meant to help you see— see that Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faithfulness.

When they draw out the wine-that-had-been-water, it’s not any of that Yellow Tail swill. It’s vintage, already aged, all from the very best year. And there’s an abundance of it.  It’s a sign not a miracle. You’re meant to see— see that out of the Law is drawn the Gospel of Grace, the wine of salvation. 

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood shed out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Here at Cana, he transforms what we do to make ourselves righteous before God into a sign of what God does to make us righteous.

Christ’s sign shows what Paul says. 

The Law— all the thou shalts and thou shalt nots in and out of the Bible (and scripture says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone but on every human heart, believer and unbeliever alike, so the Law also includes all the shoulds and musts and oughts we hear in our society and in the back of our heads)— all of it is the Law. 

And all of it is powerless to produce in us what it commands. 

That’s what you’re supposed to see in this sign.

The Law can charge us to give thanks, but it cannot make us grateful. 

The Law can exhort us to offer hospitality to the Other, but it cannot make us more hospitable. 

The Law can command us to love the stranger who is our neighbor as ourself, but it cannot make us loving. 

    ———————-

Fifty-five years ago Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-five days ago I took my son, Alexander, to the DMV in Lexington, Virginia to get his learner’s permit. 

We have a house in Lexington and the DMV there is small so I thought it’d be quicker than waiting all day at a DMV up here. 

Sure enough, we got there and our number was called in less than a minute. My wife Ali, who is an attorney mind you, had already made sure she sent us off with all the requisite documents per the DMV’s website. 

We stepped up to the counter when called and handed over the goods. AM talk radio was droning on in the office behind them. 

Sorting through the documents, the woman at the counter— without even looking up at us— announced: “There’s no birth certificate. He needs a birth certificate to get a learner’s permit. It’s the law.”

“He has a certificate of foreign birth,” I said, “the same as any kid born on a military base overseas. That certificate says he’s as American as you.” 

“I don’t think,” she said, still not looking at us, “I need birth certificate. It’s the law.”

“Not according to the DMV website,” I said. 

She looked up from her clipboard. She sighed like we were a colossal waste of her time. And with blank contempt on her face she said: “Well, if he wasn’t born here in America, then how’d he get into the country? Legally?”

“What?” I said. 

“I’m adopted,” Alexander replied, “from Guatemala.” 

I could tell from the epiphany that spread across his face that he was piecing together her insinuation. 

“Who are you?” she asked, looking at me.

“What?” I said again. “You’ve got my license and the application right in front of you. I’m his Father.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, sorting through the documents again like I was putting one over her. “I’m going to need to see your passport and birth certificate too.”

“You absolutely don’t need to see either of them. We’ve already given you more than your own website says you require.”

She sighed again: “Let me talk with my supervisor.” She walked to the other end of the counter, two stalls away, maybe ten feet. And I heard her say to her supervisor: “That’s the problem with letting them into the country. We’re so much busier now.” 

She came back to the counter and said to me: “We’re going to run this situation by our main office in Richmond. You’re free to wait here but it could take all day to hear back from them. It’s only right and proper,” she said, “that we make sure everything is according to the law.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. 

“You’ve been a complete waste of our time!”

Alexander didn’t get his permit, but turns out it didn’t take that long to get a response. Turns out when you’re a white guy with a large social media platform and you tweet at the DMV about a Civil Rights violation…turns out they call you back pretty quick.

Fifty-five years ago Martin Luther King preached about a dream, and fifty-five days ago my son tried to get his permit and failed not because of the contents on his clipboard but because of the color of his skin. 

I think we can measure the progress we’ve made on King’s dream by the fact that I’ve got more leeway to tell a story like that from the pulpit than does a preacher of color, Peter or Chenda for example. 

And sure, I have a different style. 

Maybe I told the story differently than the way they’d tell it. 

But, to be honest, if I had that DMV day everyday, or even once a year, I probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to begin this sermon with a silly Mr. Bean clip.

   ———————-

Jesus Christ died not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improveable. 

Jesus Christ died for a drunk world. 

That’s what this sign shows us: that if Jesus Christ makes the very best wine for drunk people to drink, then Jesus Christ in his hour of glory shed the wine of salvation, wasted the wine that is his blood, poured out himself— particularly so— for that prejudiced paperpusher at the DMV. 

That’s the promise we call Grace.  

And sure, it’s offensive. 

By defintion, grace only begins where and when you think it should end.

But grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. The message of Grace, the Bible says, is the power of God unto salvation. Grace alone has the power to produce in people what the Law commands of them. In other words, the way for that woman in the DMV to be made less prejudiced isn’t the Law. It isn’t by telling her that she ought to be less prejudiced. It isn’t by exhorting her that she should love her neighbor as herself. 

No— pay attention to the story: THE STONE JARS DON’T WORK.

The way for her to be changed (and the passive voice there is everything), the way for her to be transformed like so much useless water into topshelf wine, is to give her not the Law but to give her the Gospel of Grace and to give it to her over and over again, as long as it takes. 

The way for her to be changed is to give her the news that while she was yet a sinner, God in Jesus Christ became her neighbor and loved her as himself. 

Grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. It is, as the Bible says, God’s weapon in the world. 

And this is why, as your pastors, we may preach out of our stories differently from one another, but we will always proclaim the Gospel of Grace to you because the message of Grace is the power with which God has armed his Church. 

So as your pastor, I pledge that you will never leave here on a Sunday morning not having received the Gospel goods. I promise you’ll never go home not having heard the good news of Grace. 

But that’s not a guarrantee you’ll always leave here happy.

Or comfortable. 

We will always proclaim to you Christ’s punch-drunk love, but the bottomless glass of his Grace isn’t the whole story. 

The six hundred quarts of wine is not glad good news apart from you knowing about the six stone jars and the water that does not work. 

Grace is unintelligible apart from the Law. 

And what the Law does, Paul says— the Law accuses us. It exposes our sin. It reveals how far we fall short. 

So hearing the Law, even in the context of Grace, can make us uncomfortable and worse. 

It’s why Martin Luther said the Gospel is a promise that kills before it makes alive. 

You’ve got to swallow the bitter pill of the Law before you can taste the goodness that is the wine of grace. 

So I promise that you will always leave here having heard the Gospel of Grace, but you will not always leave here having been made happy or comfortable. And that’s okay. Because by your baptism, you’ve been given something better than comfort.

Notice in the story—

The bridegroom and his family who failed to do their duty under the Law, who deserve their shame. Not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves. The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance. They get the credit that is Christ’s credit alone.

You can hear about the unrightousness in our world. You can even hear abour your part in it, witting or unwitting. And you can do so unafraid and without anger. Because the Bridegroom who died for a drunk world— he has gifted you with his own righteousness. 

Are you paying attention? 

It’s what we say at every baptism. 

More importantly, it’s what was said at yours:

“Clothe her in Christ’s own righteousness, that dying and being raised with Christ she shares in his final victory.”

Nothing can threaten that so nothing should threaten you.

The credit of Christ’s permanent perfect record is yours by grace. 

You can be made uncomfortable some Sundays because what’s better even than comfort is the news that God has given you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit that Christ our Bridegroom deserves. 

As John shows us here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.” 

Or, as we say over a different barrel of water: “Remember your baptism, and be grateful.”

   

    

A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2019 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, which I never got to preach since snow shut us out. It’ll go in the locker for another time.

Luke 3.15-22

I realize this will come as something of a shock to many of you, but I can be an acquired taste for some people— like black coffee, dark beer, or the music of Coldplay. But, believe it or not, though I am an acquired taste, eventually (like hair on moles, like skin fungus, like the music of Coldplay) I grow on people. 

One such person with whom I went from skin fungus to simpatico is my friend CJ. Years ago CJ and her son came to a bluegrass Easter sunrise service where I was preaching. She loved the music, but she thought I came across as something I can’t say in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, this bottle of dark beer— this handsome, charming, witty, brilliant bottle of dark beer— convinced her to come back to church. And she did, and she kept coming back to church. And we became friends. 

Her initial assessment of me notwithstanding, CJ is a genius, a legit DoogieHowser type genius. She enrolled in Harvard as she was entering puberty. She’s got multiple degrees and juggles diverse careers. Her most recent— she does GoodWillHunting type stuff for the NSA, keeping us all safe with math I don’t understand. Last fall, at the end of the early service, she came up to me. With her arms crossed and wearing a wry smile, she said:

“You know, I used to be grateful for you. But now I’m not so sure.” 

“You didn’t like the sermon?” I asked, smiling back.

“Didn’t like the sermon?! I’m not sure I like any of your sermons NOW!”

“What do you mean?”

And then she told me what I had done to her. Or, as I prefer to think about it: what God and God’s Gospel had done to her.

“I had to reup my security clearances, same thing every few years. They sifted through all my bank statements and tax returns, interviewed all my old roommates, talked to my old boyfriends. It’s hairy harrowing stuff and all of it was FINE until I had to do the polygraph at the end. A polygraph— it should be a piece of cake, right?”

“Let me guess,” I guessed, “it wasn’t a piece of cake?”

“It was at first— until you messed it up.” Only, she didn’t say messed. She said something I can’t say here in the sanctuary. And then she punched me in the shoulder.

As I rubbed the bruise, she told me. 

“They started out asking me my name, address, job— piece of cake, just routine stuff. I rattled them off calmly, no problem.”

“But?”

“But then they asked me— get this— the guy asked me: “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

I could already fill in the blanks, but I played dumb: “What’s the problem?” 

“What’s the problem? What’s the problem?! The problem is that I said ‘yes’ and then they moved on to the other questions, yet even as I answered those questions I sat there with probes stuck to my temple and my chest and my fingers and I thought about you and your sermons and that question Do I consider myself a good person? and it hit me, like an epiphany, and I knew. I’d lied.” 

I didn’t say anything. It’s best to stay quiet when you’re creeping up on holiness.

“All my answers to all the other questions were off,” she said, “because I’d lied on that one question and I knew it. I failed the polygraph because of your preaching!? What do you have to say about that?!”

“Um…see you next Sunday?”

And she punched me in my other shoulder. 

———————-

The truth that revealed itself to my friend in the polygraph test is the same truth— the epiphany— disclosed to us in the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus dips his toes into the Jordan, John protests: 

“What are you doing Jesus?! I need to be baptized by you. I’m not even worthy to untie your sandals, Jesus (which was the job of a slave). I need to be baptized by you not you by me.”

All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire— a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them. You think Chenda’s a heavy preacher. John the Baptist wouldn’t last two Sundays here.

All four Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism.  In fact— pay attention now— the only two events mentioned across all four Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross. That’s because they’re connected.

The baptism by fire predicted here by John the Baptist is the fire of God’s judgment— judgment that falls, once for all, upon Jesus in our place on the cross. The water John plunges Jesus down into here at his baptism is the water that pours out from Jesus’ wounded side, baptizing us into his death. Just as Christ’s ministry begins here standing along the Jordan amidst sinners counted as a sinner, Christ’s work ends— it is finished— hanging amongst sinners, thieves, treated as a sinner just like them. 

And just as they heavens tear open here at his baptism, on his cross the temple veil is ripped (it’s very same word in Mark’s Gospel), torn in two, tearing heaven open to you and to me and making you, who once was a slave to Sin and Death— making you a beloved child of God.  All four of the Gospels tell us about the baptism of Jesus and the passion of Jesus. 

The two stories, they’re connected. Therefore, the meaning of the Gospel lies in that connection.

———————

Luke leaves out what Matthew tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions. Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?

The connection between his baptism and his cross, the epiphany to be discovered in today’s text, lies in John’s question: “Jesus, how can I baptize you? Jesus, you don’t need the baptism with which I baptize.”

  “How can I baptize you?”

It’s a good question. Maybe, it’s the most important question. You see— John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. For sin. And Jesus is without sin. He’s perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect. He’s the only one of us who doesn’t need John the Baptist’s baptism, yet he insists upon it. By objecting to baptizing Jesus, John distinguishes for us between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and our baptisms into Jesus Christ. 

Again, this is important so pay attention: 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT Christian baptism. 

If you miss this distinction, you’ll miss how these two stories, baptism and cross, are connected and if you miss this connection, you’ll miss the central claim of the Gospel promise. 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT the Christian baptism performed by God in his Church. John’s baptism was a work we do— a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy. John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness).

     The water was an outward visible sign of your inward admission of guilt. 

     But the water did not wash away your guilt. 

    John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. 

     But it could not make you righteous. 

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism— not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do. John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God. 

By being plunged down into John’s baptism, Jesus condescends—Jesus goes down into the very depths of our unrighteousness. As Martin Luther said:

At Christmas, Christ becomes our flesh but at his baptism he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. As the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians: “He who knew no sin becomes sin so that you and I could become the very righteousness of God.”

That’s the connection between the two texts, baptism and cross. And it’s why they’re the only two texts all four Gospels give you. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with sinners beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with every sin all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism— the baptism of his death and resurrection— we may be made what the former baptism could never make us.  

Righteous.

As the Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

At Christmas, he takes on our flesh. 

Here at the Jordan River, he takes on the curse; so that, the curse hanging over us is carried in him unto the cross.  And there, by the baptism of his once-for-all death for sin, he completes the joyful carol we sang at his nativity. He makes his blessing known as far as the curse is found— the gift of his own righteousness, his own permanent perfect record. 

As Paul writes to the Colossians: “You who once were estranged from and hostile to God Christ has reconciled to God in his body through his death, so as to present you to God as holy, blameless, and irreproachable.”

   ——————-

 “All your CrossFit sessions really work,” I said to CJ, rubbing the burgeoning bruise in my other shoulder.  

“Sorry I keep hitting you” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, “they don’t warn you in seminary but working with church people is a contact sport most days.”

“It just goes to show,” she said, getting serious, “how secular, how post-Christian, unChristian, anti-Christian is our culture that a question like “Do you consider yourself a good person?” isn’t considered in any way a problematic way of putting the question.”

And I couldn’t help but smile at the number this dark bottle of beer, yours truly, had done on her with God’s Gospel help. 

“Look, I get it,” she said, “Most people— cognitive dissonance and all— probably do think they’re basically good people, but Christians at least— at the VERY LEAST— should understand that as soon as you’re considering yourself a good person you’re no longer speaking Christian.”

She didn’t say so and probably she wouldn’t put it like this, but the confusion is a confusion between these two baptisms, Jesus’ by John in the Jordan and ours by God into Jesus. 

     John’s baptism was a work we do— we’re the active agents in John’s baptism. 

    John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism is a work God does. 

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism incoporates us into the work God has already done to pardon us. 

     Once. 

     For all. 

     For everything you’ve done and everything you’ve left undone.  

     Our baptism is not an act of repentance.

Our baptism incorporates us into Christ’s act of redemption by which God declares you (though a sinner you are and a sinner you remain) his beloved son…his beloved daughter… to whom heaven will always be open not because you’re good but because he is gracious. 

It’s John’s kind of baptism— the work that we do— that misleads us into thinking that we’re basically good people because, according to the rules of John’s Old Age— and that’s what scripture calls it, the Old Age (even though most of us insist on living there still)— you and I have to be good. 

Perfect even.  As perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect— perfection, according to the rules of the Old Age under the Law, is actually the expectation. Yet the Law came with Moses, the Gospel promises, but Grace has come with Jesus Christ and in Christ the perfect righteousness required of us has been fulfilled by his own faithfulness for us.

In other words, our baptism into Christ—the work of God and his grace— frees us to admit that we’re worse than good. Those of us who are baptized into Christ— we should be the freest to admit our brokeness, to be vulnerable about our sinfulness, to be authentically imperfect. 

Baptized Christians should be the least defensive people.

I mean— I don’t know what newspaper you read, but the world could certainly use Christians who are quicker to confess their own sins rather than castigate others for theirs.

John’s baptism leaves you in your sin. 

And left in your sin, you’ll either refuse to admit the truth about yourself or you’ll be anxious about whether or not God will forgive you. But your baptism is not John’s baptism. By your baptism you are not in your sin— though a sinner you are— because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.  That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism. In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. 

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says. Your sin and your old self— it’s left behind, Paul says. Buried with him in his death, Paul says. Your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.  And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his perfect record. Permanently. 

No take-backs. No do-overs. No need ever to earn or deserve it. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

Notice—

The Gospel of Grace is not God loves you just as you are and accepts you just as you are.

No, that’s liberal sentimentality.

The Gospel of Grace is that God the Father loves Jesus Christ the Son.

And God loves and accepts you— just as you are— not because of who you are but because of where you are.

In Christ. 

By your baptism, you are in him.

He is your new you. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

And if you add anything to it at all, a single footnote or condition (especially a qualifier like “I’m basically a good person”) you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens. 

Grace can only begin where you (and all your pretensions) end. 

Put it this way— 

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own by our own initiative. I’m going to be more grateful today— go ahead and try it; it won’t work— the Bible tells me so (Romans 7). It just turns gratitude into another Law.

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own. 

Gratitude is the spontaneous response elicited in us by a message that comes from outside of us, by something surprising and undeserved that has been done by another for us. 

Christianly speaking, what has been done for us in Jesus Christ has no content apart from the why: what it is about us such that it had to be done for us. In other words, Christianly speaking, people who insist that they’re good, people who refuse to live into the freedom that their baptisms gives them, the freedom to be honest about their own sin or the societal sins they’re complicit in, such people can never be grateful. 

And without gratitude you cannot be a gracious, grace-giving person. 

Gratitude can only begin where you end. 

Of course, I’m not saying anything here we don’t already say with bread and wine. This Table of Thanksgiving— that’s what the word Eucharist means— is also at the same time a table for traitors. To deny or ignore the latter is to foreclose the former from you.

Don’t take my word for it. 

Check out the first two questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer:

That I am not my own but I belong by baptism—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful savior and substitute Jesus Christ.

Question 2:

What must I know to live and die in this comfort?

Answer :

1. The greatness of my sin.

2. How I’ve been forgiven and set free from all of them.

3. The gratitude that comes from such a redemption.

———————-

I followed up with CJ later, over black coffee. 

“Do I consider myself a good person?” she dwelled on the polygraph question like it was a missing button on her blouse. 

“The trouble is— it’s a lie detector test, right? You can only give Yes or No responses. How am I supposed to respond when the answer is ‘No, but…’?”

“No, but?” I asked.

“Yeah, no, but: ‘No, I’m not a good person, but at once and the same time, I’m something better than good. I’m righteous.’”

“If you really want to mess with him,” I said, “you could just say that ‘I’ve been baptized.’”

 

 

While We Were Yet Naughty

Jason Micheli —  December 26, 2018 — 1 Comment

Christmas EveGalatians 4.47

The Etta James at the end of the sermon got cut off from the audio, but we got the rest…

Due to the #metoo movement, this year everyone has been up in arms about the Christmas standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I get it. 

Though, I’m not so sure— as Christians, that that is the song that should bother us. As Christians. We listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants. 

I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine— a voice so manly it practically comes with chest hair— disc jockeying was a natural part-time job to which I was the only applicant. I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home. 

     In my apartment. 

Every last album.

     ‘Every’ except Journey and Kenny Loggins. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people, but maybe— maybe on a night celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, maybe Kenny Loggins is exactly who we should be talking about?!

I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. My wife Ali and I first kissed to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’

     You have be on the hopeless downward slope of 40 to know how much that’s a cliche.

Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’

     I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than the Washington Redskins have holes in their starting lineup.

     We love music in my house. 

     We love Christmas carols too.

     We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year. 

     My boys and I— our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ 

     Favorite because it drives Ali crazy— nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.

     Seriously, nothing fills Ali’s eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song. 

     Now, I know what some of you might be thinking— compared to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” what’s the matter with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?” 

     I mean— what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?

     If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be the true miracle of Christmas. 

And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little consumers but— don’t mishear me— I love Santa.

I do— in fact, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith.

     So I’ve always loved Santa Claus.

     Until…

     Until one day— this was a couple of years ago. 

     We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. 

     And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, my son Gabriel said— to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about?’ I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa if  we’re good.’

IF.

     ———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

I know it sounds like I’m just being silly, but I’m not. 

I’m not. 

For goodnesssake, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace. 

Our cultural myths and holiday songs are just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions. 

     Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian myth wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children. 

     Gifts if you’ve been good. 

     A terrifying demonic goat creature if you’ve been naughty. 

     Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.” 

     In Holland, according to a Dutch myth, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat, accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men— I’m not making this up.

     Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends. 

     I’m no expert, but I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.

Nonetheless, in Holland, Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine. 

     In any case, it gets worse— Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad, then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men… don’t spare the rod…and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and abscond away with him. 

     Gifts if you’ve been good. 

     Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad. 

     That sounds amazingly like grace. 

     It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shame you by asking you to raise your hands if you’ve bought one (Pat Vaughn). 

     According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, watching and judging and keeping score of your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick. 

     It’s like St. John says in the Gospel: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…

———————-

     You better watch out, Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf- it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the other 364 days of the year. 

     The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus and songs like “Santa Claus is Coming” are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe. 

The balance sheet of everything you’ve wrought wrong in your life has been reckoned right— not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace— but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church. 

  Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup, the word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.

God forgives all your sins but first you must have faith. 

     That’s not a promise. 

     That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.

     How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice, if/then conditionality— it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat. 

No wonder people don’t like coming to church. 

We offer them an unconditional promise with one hand, and then we take it away with the other hand.

If you repent…then God will love you. 

If you believe…then God will have mercy on you. 

If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you. 

     And if you don’t? 

     Krampus. 

———————-

     “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots. 

     You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness. 

     I’m only half-joking.

     In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, drug addiction, war, health insurance companies, Daniel Snyder, or Verizon wireless.

     No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it— until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and an unconditional promise called Gospel that is all conditions and obligations. 

      If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise. 

     But I’m not joking—

I do know— getting us to believe that God’s grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work. 

     Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. 

“If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”  

     Boom. 

     We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert. 

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.

     It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.

     It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave— tonight and on a Friday afternoon—- his only begotten Son…’

     This can be your Christmas gift to me:

When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan. 

There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached. 

     There’s just the unconditional promise that- 

Yes, you’ve been naughty. 

No, you’ve not been nice. 

No matter, all the naughty marks on your list have been wiped clean.

     “You better watch out?” 

No—because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock. 

     The gift of God given to you tonight and completed on Golgotha, the gift of God given to you in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness— upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.

     By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift. 

     The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness. 

     Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it. 

     By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one. 

     In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives in Jesus Christ, the complete forgiveness of all your sins— as far as the curse is found— the gift of Christ’s own permanent perfect record reckoned to you as your own— like every other gift underneath your tree tonight, this gift is true. 

For you.  

Whether you ever open it or not. 

     The gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good. 

———————-

        For goodness sake, this is important to remember— pay attention now— because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better. 

Most people think that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life and that the Church is here to help you become good. 

     Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many. 

     You don’t need the Church to become a better you. 

Joel Osteen can make you a better you. 

Soul Cycle can make you a better you. 

Your New Year’s resolutions can make you…no, they won’t. 

     You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel— to be saved. 

     Your therapist can repair your life, but your therapist cannot redeem you.

     Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that.

     The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process).

     We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we’re here, as Paul’s Letter to the Galatians puts it, to hear that we’ve been rescued from our inability to be good: 

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the commandments, in order to redeem those who were under the commandments…”

And speaking of Galatians— just as an aside, I chose this passage tonight because I know there’s a lot of you grown-ups out there who basically think of our Christmas story (with the wise men and the angels and the virgin birth) as just another myth, like Krampus. 

I know there’s plenty of you who think the nativity story is just another myth added to the Jesus story later. 

But tonight’s passage from Galatians shows you that you can tell the Christmas story without the magi or the shepherds or the inn with no room. 

Indeed Christians were telling the story that way from the very beginning. 

Tonight’s passage from Galatians is dated by historians to less than a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion, making it almost 100 years older than Luke’s Christmas story— riddle that. 

Combine that with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death. 

Take all those facts together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of the Christ child born tonight.

This isn’t a children’s pageant. 

We’re not messing around. It’s not a myth. 

Christmas is not Krampus. 

We’re not here tonight because it’s an uplifting, sentimental story.

We’re here because it’s true.

The Apostle Paul was encountered by Mary’s crucified Son risen from the dead, and according to the message given to the Apostle Paul by the Risen Christ, what you and I need- isn’t a life coach. 

We don’t need a teacher or an example, an idea or an inspiration.

We need a savior. 

     Even if it’s what you came here looking for tonight, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of St. Paul, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together. 

Not one of us— there is no distinction, scripture says. 

None of us can get our act together— not one.

     That’s why the Apostle Paul and the angel Gabriel describe Christmas as a one-sided, God-sided offensive invasion of our present evil age. God comes to us when we would never come to him, first in a creche and then on a cross. 

The cultural myths get it backwards:

God comes to help those who cannot help themselves.

The Christmas Gospel according to St. Paul is that our salvation is not found within us. 

That’s why the Bible’s language is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! 

     The language the Bible uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been rescued! 

     Christ is not born to Mary to show us the way to a holy God. 

     Christ comes to be the way to God. 

As St. Paul says: 

“God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might have the righteousness of God.” 

He’s taken our naughty list onto himself, once for all. 

And his permanent perfect record has been reckoned to you as your own. 

And all this is yours by grace. 

Gift. 

And it’s not a cheap gift. 

It’s not even an expensive gift. 

It’s free. 

It’s free. 

     No matter what your life looks like, whether you think deserve coal or a Krampus,  how good or bad you, what you’ve done with your life or what you’ve left undone with those in your life. 

His goodness is yours. 

By grace. 

     ———————-

     

So it’s too late this year, but next Christmas— just a piece of advice—

     If you put your kids on Santa’s lap next season: 

     Stand your ground. 

     Convince old St. Nick to fess up and tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong. He’s not like Sting, watching every move they make, and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows those kids are sinners like him. 

     And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.

     And next year tell that little Judas on your shelf to pack it in early. 

     When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little whistle-blowing rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so— like Christ crushing the head of the serpent— you interceded for them. 

     And you tell them you found that elf a job as acting secretary at one of the many vacancies in the Trump administration. Tell them you sent that elf packing for DC because you love them and the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness. 

The gift of Christmas it’s yours regardless of your goodness. 

It’s yours. 

Gratis.

And next year—

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9…

     You could use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Enemy and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Prince of Darkness will hear it and come for them. 

Or you could just play them a different song, one not obviously about magi or mistletoe, but one that is absolutely about Christmas because it’s about no-matter-what, while-you-were-yet-naughty, blindsiding, one-way love that we call grace.

At last my love has come along

My lonely days are over and life is like a song, oh yeah

At last the skies above are blue…

     

     

Not Empty Away Forever

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2018 — Leave a comment

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 35.1-10

     I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from my previous congregation, in a poor community near the mountains called Chicutama. 

     I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home for Christmas. 

     Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. 

     And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be snap-chatting and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too. 

     While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear. 

     It was a one-room home, paid for by a relative who worked illegally here in the states. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. 

     In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic. 

     Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor. 

     The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old boy named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their sister- were sitting on the bed. 

     Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and they looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and mites in his hair and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. 

     They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos, and soda in a baby bottle.

     Because that was the only thing they had to eat. 

     Because junk food is cheap. 

     And clean water is not and thatʼs all they could afford. 

I know it’s lame. 

In my pride, I was determined to take a picture of them— determined to take a picture of high and mighty do-gooding me with them. Because what says I’m better at putting Christ back into Christmas than you than a Facebook profile picture of you with some poor Save the Children children? 

I was virtue-signaling before our President made it trendy.

I’d been blind to it. I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t noticed the calendar that hung in their cinder block wall above the bed— not until I turned my back to the children and pulled out my iPhone and stretched out my arm to take a selfie of the four of us. 

I’d been blind, but then I saw. 

Staring back at me from the glass screen of my shiny new phone. 

The calendar on the wall— it was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The straw in his manger looked gilded, and in his tiny right hand he held a cross no bigger than a baton. 

At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse from the prophet Isaiah:

“Be strong; do not fear! Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

      I looked at their reflection on the screen of my iPhone, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. 

      I looked at them there with the baby Jesus hanging above them on the wall along with the prophet Isaiah’s words in gilded italics as though to say to someone like me that Jesus Christ had come for them.  And them only. 

      ———————-

     Staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose whilst I wondered what altruistic-Instagram picture I’d post of myself when I retuned home, it finally scattered all the ways I’d always imagined this season and its story. 

Looking at those three little children with Isaiah’s promise above their heads, it struck me: when I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men. 

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful. If I have a place in this story— let’s be honest— my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.  Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.  I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father. Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news. 

    But what I realized that Advent years ago is thatʼs not my place in the story. 

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire. 

     Iʼm well-off. Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. 

     I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that plenty would call a palace. 

     Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day. In other words, I’m not the poor who hungers for good news. I’m not. I’m not the captive who cries for liberty. I’m not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, but no thank you).

     That Advent in Guatemala- 

     That’s when the truth stung me:  Iʼm not sure I like my place in the Christmas story. 

————————

     According to the prophet Isaiah- 

     Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me. 

     As the Messiah’s mother sings: 

      “He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats; and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

     I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but that’s most of us. Just by virtue of living in the Empire Called America, that’s you and me. 

We’re rich. 

     Just listen again to today’s text: 

The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone. 

        Today’s text actually begins in chapter 34 where the prophet Isaiah says: 

“The Lord is enraged…he has doomed the greedy and faithless nations. The Lord has a sword to be sated with blood…and a coming day of vengeance.”

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

    I mean you have to give King Herod credit. 

     Herod was not stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. 

         Herod knew enough of his Bible to know the prophet Isaiah had promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides: 

With those on margins.  

With the people working the night shift.

And with those working out in the fields.

With those stuck in detention centers (and those who die in them.)

    For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire— the coming of Christ was bad news not good news. 

     And they were smart enough to know it. 

John the Baptist riffs on Isaiah’s image of the Highway that the coming God will clear for God’s put-upon People.  He riffs on it right before he condemns the likes of us as a brood of vipers and warns us, in our affluent indifference, to flee from the fire of Christ’s coming wrath. 

Maybe we should think twice before moralizing about putting Christ back into Christmas. Maybe we should be careful what we wish for.

Here is your God. 

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. 

     Show of hands— how many of you put that on your Christmas cards this year?

Every year, just like King Herod, we try to do away with Jesus— not by the sword but with sentimentality. 

    I wonder if it’s because we don’t know how the Christmas story can be good news for people like us.  

If it’s good news of great joy for people like Isaiah and Mary, John the Baptist and shepherds, then how is it good news for rich people like us? 

————————

Remember—

The word our Lord gives to the angel to announce is that the invasion of Christ into the world is good news of great joy not for some people. 

Not good news of great joy for the poor alone. 

Not good news of great joy for the oppressed exclusively. 

Not good news of great joy just for the humble or the hungry. 

The word God gives Gabriel to deliver is that the arrival of Christ among us is good news of great joy for all the people. 

Pas. 

All the people.

So, if Isaiah is right and Mary is right and John the Baptist is right, then how is the angel Gabriel right too? 

How is Christmas good news for rich, proud, powerful people like most of us?

  ————————

A few years ago the New York Times did a story about a black pastor named William James in East Harlem. The pastor, the article noted, was famous in his community for his work on behalf of the destitute and the downtrodden. The author of the article writes:

“The streets of the neighborhood are lined with storefront churches, as many as five on a block, and some of the ministers said it was difficult to get across the Christmas message of hope, joy, and celebration to those who have so little. But Reverend James disagrees. ‘The Christmas message,’ he said, ‘the good news to the poor, is that ‘you’re not going to be poor anymore.’ ‘That message is a lot easier,’ the pastor said, ‘than trying to get across the Christmas message to the rich that they’re not going to be selfish anymore.’

Notice what the pastor didn’t say to the Times reporter. 

He didn’t say the Christmas message to the rich is “You shouldn’t be selfish anymore.” He didn’t say: “Empty your pockets, or else. Make yourself low lest you who are first be lost forever.” He didn’t even say: “Sinner, repent of your selfishness.” 

He just said: “You’re not going to be selfish anymore.”

You’re not going to be like that anymore. 

As though, it’s not up to us what will be done to us. 

As though, you are at best a bystander to what will be done upon you. 

For you.

What is promised by God through the prophet Isaiah, what prompts the God-bearer Mary to sing— it’s not simply a rearranging of the old order of things, with the poor and the rich changing stations in the old creation. 

The Gospel is bigger and more radical than shuffling up tax brackets. 

What the prophets promise and what Mary extols is God’s work of a New Creation begun in a New Adam born to another Eve. That’s why the angel Gabriel is the one to announce the news. Gabriel is the one who showed the First Adam and Eve the exit from Eden and stood guard by the entrance. Now, at the opening of a new testament, he announces the news of a new creation through a New Adam.

What the prophets promise and Mary praises is not condemnation for some (the rich and the powerful) and consolation for others (the poor and the powerless). 

It’s not condemnation for some but consolation for others; it’s the transformation of all. 

Just as God did at the Tower of Babel, the scattering of the proud and the powerful from their high places— the emptying of the rich— it is for their blessing. It is the work of God’s grace.

That’s what the prophet Isaiah is getting at in our passage from chapter 35 today. 

Just as the desert will one day no longer be dry, just as the wilderness shall blossom and thirsty ground will become springs of water, so too the proud will become humble and the mighty will lie down with lambs and the rich will be made selfish no more. 

The coming of God’s justice in Jesus Christ who is our Judge is not for the sake of revenge. It’s for the sake of the righteousness of God.  

 ————————

The prophet Isaiah’s poetry is unparalleled in scripture, maybe in all of literature. 

Luke and Matthew have written us luminous nativity stories with which we love to costume our kids, yet neither the Christmas stories nor the prophets’ poetry are self-interpreting. 

The meaning of Isaiah’s prophecies, the meaning of Luke’s nativity— it’s not self-evident in the poetry and stories themselves. 

The creche by itself does not communicate the meaning of the Christmas manger. 

And without the meaning of it, we’re just like the ladies in the hoop skirts at Mt. Vernon. 

We’re just dressing up and rehearsing an old, old story once a year. 

That’s why, historically, every Advent the church listens not only to the prophets and to Mary and John but to the Apostle Paul as well. 

In other words, we need the Apostle Paul to tell us what the poetry and story mean. 

And when Paul gathers up these images from the prophets, from Mary and John the Baptist— Paul announces that in the coming of Jesus Christ the righteousness of God has been revealed. 

I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy, for in it the righteousness of God is invading, Paul says. 

The free gift given in Christ Jesus to all is for the sake of God’s righteousness for all, Paul says. Even for the ungodly.

Justification— the righteousness of God— that’s what’s missing when we reduce the Gospel to a cliche like “God is love” or to a cliff note like “Christianity is about forgiveness.” 

God is love and Christianity is about forgiveness, but love and forgiveness are too weak of words for what God does. 

For St. Paul, and for Isaiah for that matter, the righteousness of God is absolutely central to their message, but it’s easy for us to miss the radicality of it. 

I’ve told you all this before but Pat Vaughn swears you weren’t paying attention. 

So, listen up: in Hebrew and in Greek, righteousness and justice and judgment and justification and rectification are all the same word. 

Dikaiosoune.

It’s all the same word, and it functions as a verb.

God’s judgment is God’s justice, and God’s justice is God’s righteousness and God’s righteousness is God’s justification— it’s all God’s rectification; it’s all God’s work of right-making. 

So when we profess in the Apostles’ Creed about Christ coming again “…to judge the quick and the dead…” we’re saying that he will come again to rectify not only the wrong in us but the wrong we have wrought in the world. 

And when Paul declares: I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, he’s saying I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the right-making work of God is revealed. 

And when Paul preaches that we are justified by the free gift of the blood of Christ through faith alone, he’s saying that Almighty God is able to do mighty acts to make right in and through the one who trusts in the cross of Christ alone. 

You see— the Gospel is about more than love and forgiveness. 

God has forgiven all your sins, yes. 

God loves you just as you are, double true. 

But the God who comes among us as we are, who loves you as you are— he loves you too much to leave you as you are.  He loves you too much to leave you forgiven and forgiven alone. Thanks be to God that God loves me as I am, but, God, I don’t want to remain as I am— my wife certainly doesn’t want God to leave me as I am.

I don’t want to be selfish anymore! 

The righteousness of God— that’s the meaning behind the manger. 

The God who already declared you righteous at your baptism is yet at work to make you what he has by grace called you. 

God has been and God is and God will make right all that is wrong in his creation until all things are made new and one day even ungodly people like you and me are remade in the image of the New Adam, Jesus Christ. 

That’s what that pastor in Harlem was getting at— the hope of the rich is not the rich person’s capacity to humble himself and make himself unselfish. 

His only hope— our only hope— is that the God who justifies us will also one day rectify us. Make us right.  And not only us…the wilderness and the dry land, the streams and the desert.  All of creation. 

For people like us, our hope— our only hope— is not that we will make ourselves humble and unselfish because someone exhorted us: Be more like Mary! 

Our hope is that the God who invaded our world by an incarnation is a God who is advancing even now, determined not to let me have my own way forever. 

God is at work— in the church. 

God is at work, opening our blind affluent eyes to the need around us. 

God is at work, unstopping our deaf ears to the cries of the oppressed. 

God is at work, loosening the paralyzing grip greed has upon…me at least.

 ————————

That Advent in Guatemala, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us. 

     These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich. These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states or are being held in detention centers. 

     And there I was. Neither poor nor oppressed, already filled with good things. 

         Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. Out of her poverty, she gave me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn. Then she embraced me and she said into my ear: “Merry Christmas.” 

I opened the tapestry and looked at it.

She’d stitched the words to Mary’s song on it, including that last line about the rich being sent empty away. The tapestry shook in my hands. My knees suddenly felt feeble. 

Like I’d just been swept off my throne. 

Works without Faith are Work

Jason Micheli —  November 18, 2018 — 1 Comment

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.”

     

 

    

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.

. 

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.

     

 

     

 

John 13 – Manrique and Tricia

 

Manrique, here it is— the big day.

After all the planning, after all the anticipation, after all the anxiety and chagrin that maybe this day would never come for you and you’d be left, alone, to be a canine version of a crazy cat person— after everything— the big day is finally here. And I only have one last pre-marital question for you.

Manrique, here it is: What are you thinking!?

What in the world are you thinking? How can Serendipity be your favorite romantic comedy? It’s bad enough that rom-coms are your favorite genre, but Serendipity isn’t even in the Top 3 John Cusack romantic comedies. Someone who prefers a soapy rom-com like Serendipity might not be able to appreciate a scripture text like tonight’s, but surely an english major like Tricia can discern the paradox in the passage— the paradox that we see the most high God by looking down. Maybe it takes an english major to savor the irony that the most high Lord reveals himself to us as the most low.

Like Manrique taking off his tool belt, this son of a carpenter takes off his outer robe. He stoops down on his knees. The fingers that crafted the universe bear callouses like Manrique’s, and, no longer content to paint the cosmos, they wash our feet painted with dirty and stink and sweat.

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

Of love.

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

The problem though—

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

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

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

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

NOT as you love yourself.
Love one another as I have loved you.

Christ is the end of the commandments, even the greatest commandment.
Christ is the end of a love that need not go further than self-love as the standard.

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

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

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

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

Love like this, Jesus says.

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

Not to quash the mood— a life lived with another exposes the worst in us. Marriage would be hard enough if the love we talk about when we talk about love was the love of the Law, love with self-love as the standard. Unfortunately, it’s even harder. It’s a love that leaves the ledger book behind and— take it from any married person here— those ledgers would have plenty of ink spilt in them if we could hold on to them.

By your “I do” you’re pledging “I won’t” when it comes to the tit-for-tat score-keeping by which we game the rest of our lives.

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

This is the new law of love Jesus commands.

This is the love you pledge one another in his name.

Bride and groom not only forsake all others from their hearts, they forsake also the calculators we all carry around with us— the ones we covet in order to balance the credits and debits we’ve accrued between us.

Without a calculator, you’ve no recourse but to take each other at your word that all will be forgiven and forgotten.

In other words—

As it is with the Beloved’s unconditional promise called the Gospel so it is with your beloved’s unconditional promise called Marriage. There’s nothing for you to do in response to it but trust it.

And just as in the preached word of the Gospel, from this day forward, God is present on the lips of your every “I do.”

Today your marriage becomes a manger for the Word of God.

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

This new command of Christ— a love that forgets how to count— henceforth it makes your marriage more of a ministry than any soup kitchen or service project. And it means you will never have any holier vocation than the grace you bestow with your daily “I do” to the (often) undeserving other.

This new command—

This way of grace-giving is in no way a guarantee for happily.

But it is the way the two of you together become a parable of the One who is Ever After for all of us.