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God Gone Wild

Jason Micheli —  June 16, 2019 — Leave a comment

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued with Jesus’ macabre little drama in Matthew 22.1-14

Last week, some of your lay leaders and I were emailing each other back and forth regarding what we should do about a homeless, undocumented man who’s been sleeping outside near the trash bins at our mission center on Heritage Drive. 

“You should see how he’s dressed— the custodians are creeped out by him.”

And so we exchanged emails, weighing the merits of shelters and county services against our concerns about safety and liability on the one hand and the police and ICE on the other hand. 

At some point during the Reply All email thread, Eldon Hillenbrandt, who— if you don’t know him— is a wonderful, earnest, sincere man without a sarcastic or cynical bone in his body (in other words, he’s everything I’m not) replied with a wonderfully earnest and sincere question. He asked us: “What do you think Jesus would do?” 

WWJD— what would Jesus do?

Totally sincere question, not cynical or sarcastic in any way. 

And probably Eldon had in mind a parable like the sheep and the goats. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What would Jesus do about the stranger sleeping against the dumpster in his stinking, shabby clothes? 

And because I’m the way my Maker made me, when it came to Eldon’s completely earnest and sincere question I couldn’t help myself. 

Like those salmon who swim upstream in order to mate even though doing the deed will be the death of them, I couldn’t help myself. 

Just as some artists work in oil or watercolors, I work in saracasm and middle school boy bathroom humor. 

I couldn’t resist typing in reply: “WWJD? Cuff him! Hand and foot! Torture him! Kill him! Throw him in Hell!” 

Fortunately, as I gazed upon my computer screen, the cursor still blinking at the end of my adolescent quip, I suddenly had what alcoholics describe as a moment of clarity and thought better about sending it.

In case you haven’t met her, I call that moment of clarity, Ali. 

So I deleted the comment and instead sent out some prosaic pastor-speak.

But the problem is— 

We can’t backspace our way away from the Jesus who tells this parable today.

———————-

As liberal mainline Protestants, we’ve all been conditioned into believing that Christianity boils down to being nice and doing nice; therefore, if we have any religious convictions at all it’s that God is nice too. And maybe at first you thought that’s where Jesus’ story was headed. 

An evite goes out for a great extravagant party, but those in the VIP queue— the fat cats and country club set, the season ticket holders and the keto dieters, the cronies of the rich man— mark the invitation read and forget all about it. 

So the rich man says, “Hey, I’ve already paid the photographer. I’ve got a Costco’s worth of beef tenderloin under the broiler, and the DJ’s already started playing the Electric Slide. Go out beyond the suburbs and bring in the folks from the Halfway House— and don’t forget those guys who loiter around the 7-Eleven too. Let them come into my party. The 1% don’t deserve my generosity.” 

Probably as Jesus’ story was being read at first you thought you liked it. You like the idea of God going out like Bernie Sanders to the marginalized and the poor and the dispossessed and inviting them to a fine china, cloth napkin, open bar party. 

It’s a nice thought.

And it would be nice if Jesus just left it alone right there, which is sort of the way Jesus tells it in Luke’s Gospel.

But Matthew? 

I mean— all this festival of death needs to be more terrifying are creepy twin girls, an elevator full of blood, and Jesus with a hatchet saying “Here’s Johnny.” 

And maybe a ginger kid too— a ginger would make it scarier. 

What gets you about Jesus’ story in Matthew is not the graciousness of the King esteeming the lowly onto his guest list, as in Luke. 

What gets you is this King’s totally inappropriate and excessive behavior. 

“Oh, the A-Listers couldn’t be bothered to open the Paperless Post? Some clicked ‘Maybe?’ Really? Well then, I’ll tell you what, Alfred. I want you get some of the hired help and I want you to cross them off the guest list permanently, if you know what I mean. No, that’s right, you heard me correctly, hand and foot. Send them to a place worse than Cleveland! They’ll regret sending their regrets when I get through with them!”

Then, as if the body count wasn’t already high enough, in a flourish only House Lanister could love, there’s Jesus’ finale. Among the good and bad gathered into the King’s party, this panhandling vagrant off Braddock Road makes it past the maitre’d only to get himself shipped off to one of Dick Cheney’s black sites allbecause of the way he’s dressed. 

“You there— yeah you.” 

Actually, the word the King uses in Greek is hetaire, which means, basically, “Buster.” 

“Hey how’d you get in here dressed like that? We’ve got beluga on ice and Chateau Branaire-Ducru uncorked. This party is black tie and tails only, buster.”

“Well, sir, I was sleeping outside next to the Mission Center trash bins only an hour ago, and they don’t stock formal wear in the church’s coat closet.” 

And the “gracious” King responds: “Really? Well then…Bind him, hand and foot! Throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

———————-

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible…

———————-

I know you—

It really bothers you that the formerly sweet baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers would tell a story like this to nice, well-mannered people like you. It bothers you to hear the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world roaring like a lion at…

At what exactly? 

Failure to RSVP? 

A party foul?

What gives?

Admit it—

We all want a God who says of our flagged but unopened evites, “Oh, your kids have a soccer game? You were up late last night? You can catch it online? That’s okay, I know you’re busy. We’ll miss you at the party but no biggie. Raincheck?”

We want a God who is as cool and dispassionate about us as we are about him.

We don’t want this irrational, incongruous God. 

We don’t want this God gone wild. 

We don’t want this King who is ferociously determined to celebrate his free party. 

No matter the costs. 

I mean— that much is obvious, right? 

As much as it tightens our sphincters and gives nice types like us acid reflux, for his macabe little drama Jesus rudely casts his Heavenly Father as this bezerk, damn-the-torpedoes, party-or-bust King. 

Which puts us where in the story?

———————-

Who are we supposed to be at this party?

The A-list?

Does Jesus mean for you to identify with those at the top of the King’s guest list? The ones who for whatever reason (or none at all) don’t accept the King’s invitation? Actually, the Greek in verse three isn’t as neutral as it sounds. The word is amelsantes, and it means literally, “They didn’t give a damn.”

“The King sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the party, but they didn’t give a rip,” Jesus says.

Maybe that is who Jesus means us to be in the story because he conjugates the VIPs’ apathy in the imperfect tense. 

It’s: “They were not giving a rip…” 

That is, these A-Listers’ snubbing of the King’s call is an ongoing rejection; as if to say, the world will always be full of idiots who refuse to trust and enjoy a good thing when they hear it. 

Free grace, dying love, unqualified acceptance, and unconditional forgiveness for you— it might as well be a prostrate exam given the way some of us respond to it. 

Is that us?

Obviously, you all give a rip. 

You wouldn’t have dragged yourself out of bed, showered, and shown up this morning for a subpar sermon if you didn’t care. 

But maybe like that first group of invitees, you make your way in life assuming that God’s good, gracious nature means you’re free to ignore his call upon your life until after you’re finished with all your better plans. 

Maybe that’s why Jesus repeats the word call every other verse, from the top of his story to the bottom. 

As though the King’s call is a countdown. 

Going once. 

Going twice…tick tock.

What about that second batch of evites? 

The King sends out his servants a second time to those on the guest list. And they deliver the message: Look this party is off the hook! The oxen and the fatted calves (plural!) have been in the smoker since last night. The keg is tapped. Come on already! 

Notice—

It’s not that those guests can’t be bothered. 

It’s that they’re too busy. 

Some, Jesus says, are too busy with their farms to celebrate the King’s party. 

Others, Jesus says, are too tied up at the office to join the King’s party. 

It’s not that they don’t give a rip. 

It’s that they give too many. 

Farming, business— those are vocations, good works God gives to us for our neighbors.

These guests are so wrapped up in the good work God has given them to do for others that they ignore the King’s individual invitation to them. 

They’re so focused on doing good works for their neighbor that they’ve neglected, and thus put at risk, their personal relationship with the King— the very relationship to which their good works were meant to be a sign not a substitute. 

Their busyness lulled them into forgetting that their personal yes to the King’s invitation is an urgent eternal matter of life and death. We can be so bent over busy in our religious, deed-doing lives that we lose them. 

And maybe they don’t answer the King’s invite because they assume they can get past the bouncers at a date they name later, on the merits of all their hard work and not on the King’s gratuity. 

Perhaps that’s who Jesus means us to be in the story. 

Or what about that poor bastard who’s caught without a cumberbund and patent leather shoes? Does Jesus mean for us to be the guy dragged off by the King’s SWAT team because of a wardrobe malfunction? I mean, even Janet Jackson got a second chance. 

Is that who we are in the story?

Are you supposed to hear this parable and worry?

Worry that, yes, all are invited to the party of salvation, gratis, but if you don’t meet the dress code? It’s outer darkness for you. 

In other words: yes, yes grace, but…

Yes, salvation is by grace. 

But, your faith better bring something to show for it when you get to the party. 

Yes, all are invited, gratis.

But, only some get to stay. You better show up wearing your three-piece suit of obedience, your gem-covered gown of holiness, or your mink of compassion. 

Yes, yes grace, but…

Nevermind for a moment the not minor point that as soon as you attach a but to grace, it’s no longer grace, such a worrisome takeaway ignores the fact that whatever fancy duds these riffraff at the party are wearing, they’re clothes the King has given to them. 

Free of charge. 

Upon arrival not prior to departure.

So their ability to remain at the party is not conditioned upon the presence or absence of anything they brought with them— not their closet full of loving works and not their suitcase holy living.

The King gave them their garments upon arrival. So for whatever reason, this eyesoar who’s still in his streetclothes and bound for darkness, he didn’t put on the bow tie and tux given out to all the other guests who got there on the same free ticket as him. 

This guy didn’t change his clothes. 

He refused to change. 

Is that it?

If he’s who Jesus means us to be, then is the takeaway for us that, yes, we’re invited but once there we better change and get our act together?

That might be one way to interpret Jesus’ story if Jesus’ story were told by someone other than Jesus, and if Jesus told this story at some point other than three days before he died not to improve the improveable or reform the reformable but to raise the dead in their sins. 

And the only thing the dead do is stink. 

So the takeaway today can’t be that we need first to apply deodorant before we’re allowed onto the dance floor. 

The Cross is Exhibit A.

Jesus saves us in our failures not just in spite of them. 

“The gifts and invitation of God,” the Apostle Paul says, “are irrevocable.”

And the word Paul uses there is repentance. 

The gifts and invitiation of God are without repentance.

Therefore, the moral of this parable is not that God invites us to the party called salvation but we better shape up or we’ll get shipped off. 

No, the parable doesn’t have a moral because it’s a parable. 

It’s not about you. 

It’s about God— that’s why the King and his staff get all the verbs in the story. 

Notice— no one else in the story even speaks.

You can’t ask of a parable, “WWJD?”

You can only ask, “Who is this God who does to us in Jesus Christ?”

But that still doesn’t answer where are we in this parable?

———————-

Last week the Atlantic Magazine published an article entitled Parents Gone Wild: Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School. The story’s about Sidwell Friends School, the Harvard of DC private schools whose Quaker motto is “Let the light shine out from all.” 

Bright lights sometimes illuminate the worst in people. The article details the shocking and over-the-top behavior of some of the school’s parents, which has led to 2/3 of the school’s counselors leaving their jobs. Attempting to help their children get a leg up in the college admissions competition, parents at Sidwell Friends School have engaged in what the school’s headmaster calls “offensive conduct.” 

Among the excessive behaviors, parents have verbally assaulted school employees, secretly recorded conversations with teachers, made badgering phone calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Some parents have even circulated damaging rumors about other parents’ children in order to give their own children an advantage over their peers. 

As one college dean of admissions explained it: 

“When you’re talking about the love a parent has for their son or daughter, the plan they have for their child and all the work they’ve done towards that plan— it can lead to some pretty wild and inappropriate behavior. You could choose to focus in on the crazy behavior, or you could choose to see the parent’s love behind it all. Either way, if you get in the way of that kind of love, if you get in the way of what a parent has planned for the child they love without condition, watch out.”

———————-

If you get in the way of what the Father has planned for the Son…

That’s it. 

You and I— the baptized— we’re not in this parable. 

We’re not.

We’re so hard-wired to turn the good news of grace into the grim pills of religion that we go to Jesus’ parables asking what we must do, or we leave Jesus’ parables worrying about we’re not doing. In doing so, we turn the Gospel into the Law; such that we miss completely the fact that, according to Jesus himself, we’re not in the parable. 

Yet. 

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

Jesus told us at the top of the story. In response to the chief priests and the Pharisees who begrudge his relationship with the Father— his relationship with the Father— Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like…what? 

The Kingdom of God is like a King who gave not just a party but a wedding banquet. 

A wedding feast for his Son. 

His Son to be married to whom?

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

You and I, and all baptized believers, we’re still waiting in the wings, offstage. 

We’re not in the parable. 

We’re in the parlor. 

A friend’s putting a finishing gloss on our fingernails while the curling iron gets hot and the string quartet warms up and the photographer shoots some candids of everyone getting ready and the white dress hangs uncovered from the curtain rod. 

This isn’t a horror story about what God will do to you if you don’t get your act together and get your ass to his party. 

No, for you— this is an absurd romantic comedy about the wildly excessive, inapprorpriate lengths the Loving Father will go to have every last detail of the party perfect, every seat filled, and everyone dressed to the nines with the custom-tailored clothes he’s given away to every undeserving guest to celebrate his Son’s marriage. 

To you.

All are invited, but not all will accept the invitation— the whole world is invited to celebrate at Chez Yahweh, celebrate the Father’s Son’s marriage.

To you. 

No wonder he acts so bezerk. 

This parent has planned this party for his Son since before the foundation of the world, the Bible says. 

Watch out if you frustrate this Father’s feast-going. 

He’s not going to let anything get in the way of a five star celebration for his Son’s marriage to you. 

Jesus left it assumed and unsaid in this story because he’s already said it. 

I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you will be also, Jesus already promised. That’s wedding language.

In my Father’s house there are many mansions, Jesus promises. That’s wedding language.

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me— that’s wedding language too. 

Not to mention, the word Jesus uses today for wedding banquet, gamos, guess the other place in the New Testaments it gets used— the freaking climax of the Bible, at the very end of the Book of Revelation where the angel declares “the marriage supper of the Lamb has been made ready” and Christ comes back to his Church who is prepared for him as what?

As a bride for her bridegroom.

———————-

So Eldon, I don’t know if you’re here today or not, but What Would Jesus Do?

Welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry— that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. 

Because Jesus the Bridegroom would take his hand and pick him up and carry him across the threshold and say “My Beloved, let’s dance.”

———————-

Hear the good news—

You’re not the one who blows off the party. 

You’re not the do-gooder who’s too busy to attend the party

You’re not the eyesore who wears the wrong garment to the party. 

Though at times you might resemble all of the above, you’re not any of them.

Because the party’s for you. 

By your baptism—

A promise signed by the Father and sealed in the Son’s blood and delivered to you by water through the Holy Spirit, you are the betrothed. 

You are free to do the things that Jesus did and you are free not to worry about how little you’re doing or how much you’re leaving undone. 

Because what God has joined together no one— not even you in your pathetic every day run-of-the-mills sins— can tear asunder. 

No, you are his. 

And with all that he is and all that he has, for better, for worse, no matter if your faith feels rich or if it is poor, he will cherish you. 

This is his solemn vow.

(Un)Like a Virgin

Jason Micheli —  June 12, 2019 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

I mean, talk about a first impression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Holy Spirit descends. 

And everybody starts speaking and everybody understands everybody. 

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

Peter comes out to the crowd. 

And Peter speaks. 

Remember where we left Peter in the story?

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

“Jesus? Jesus who?” 

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

———————-

And then the cock crowed. 

———————-

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

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

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

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

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

So let’s just get right down to it. 

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

———————-

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

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

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

Today is not the arrival of a heretofore absent Spirit. 

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

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

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

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

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

I mean— 

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

Why Shavuot? Why not Sukkot? 

For that matter, Yom Kippur would make sense too. 

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

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

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

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

Why Pentecost?

Why not Passover?

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

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

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

Not the Golden Rule. 

Something much, much worse than the Golden Rule. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you lay down your life for me?”

“Absolutely, yes.”

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

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

So why not Passover? 

Why does the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost?

But even that’s not putting it quite right. 

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

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

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

Completed.  

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

Pentecost is fulfilled. 

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

It’s symplerousthai. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are who God declares you to be. 

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

Clothe Elin in Christ’s righteousness. 

Clothe Elin in Christ’s permament perfect record.. 

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

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

It’s grace. 

And it’s not cheap. 

It’s not even expensive. 

It’s free. 

And it’s yours by faith.

———————-

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

Chris Arnade writes in Dignity:

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

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

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

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

Hear the good news:

Not only are you enough

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

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

That’s the promise of your baptism. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because in John’s Gospel—

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

To believe.

To Nicodemus under the cover of night.

To the woman at the well.

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

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

To put your trust in him.

To believe.

So all you saints at All Saints, chillax. 

And hear the good news:

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

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

Or, just, you know…your neighborhood.

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

Notice, All Saints—

The burden on you is not to do great things. 

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

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

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

   

Matthew 25.31-46

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

I hate weddings. 

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

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

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

I hate weddings. 

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

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

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

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

At wedding parties, I’m stuck being me.

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

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

“You must be a lawyer,” I said. 

“How’d you know?” 

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

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

Here we go, I thought.

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

“Really?”

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

He nodded. 

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

Grace is God’s unmerited favor. 

Grace is God’s one-way love.  

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

But—

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

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

(We think) 

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

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

And the goats did not do those deeds. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

We think. 

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

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

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

And we did what you said to do. 

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

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

Pay us what we’re owed. 

Give us what we deserve.

Except—

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

Let me say it again: 

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

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

It’s yours by the asking. 

———————-

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

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

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

Of course what we do matters. 

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

So don’t misunderstand me: 

Yes, good works are important. 

Yet— 

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

They’re stunned. 

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

Wait, wait, wait— when did we that?

They’re surprised. 

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

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

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

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

———————-

Listen again to who was counting. 

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

It’s amazing how we mishear this parable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

No, Jesus says to the sheep Inherit the Kingdom.

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

The Kingdom is their inheritance.  

You can’t earn an inheritance. 

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

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

Think about it—

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

Preparing a place in the Kingdom for you. 

For all of you. 

For every last one of you.

How do I know?

Notice—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you see—

No one is out who wasn’t already in.

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

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

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

In Heaven, there is nothing but forgiven sinners. 

In Hell, there is nothing but forgiven sinners. 

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

I held up my hands.

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

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

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

“Did she get married recently?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cut her off. 

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

———————-

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

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

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

Not just sheep. Not just goats. 

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

Those in need. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t think to tell her.

But I can tell you. 

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

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

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

Or are you just sick?

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

Are you in a relationship locked in resentment?

Are you captive to abuse? Or addiction?

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

If so, hear the good news. 

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

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

And that’s your need. 

You need only know your need. 

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

Ephesians 4, 1 John 4

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

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

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

But note—

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

God is love, but love is not God.

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

Hold up— 

No one has ever seen God?! 

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

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

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

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

The ancient rite doesn’t begin naturally. 

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

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

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

It’s not about procreation but about proclamation.

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

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

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

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

Para, in Greek, means “alongside.”

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

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

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

Your marriage is a sacrament within a still larger sacrament. 

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

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

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

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

Marriage makes a home a hospital

where Christ the Great Physician can make sinners well

by the constancy and forgiveness of a spouse. 

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

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

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

Speaking of marriage suppers—

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

There are three vows in the marriage rite not two. 

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another question—

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

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

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

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

Except for the fear.

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

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

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

Just what do they think he’ll do?

—————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

When they weren’t—

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

First, God sent them prophets. 

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

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

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

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

A final prophet. 

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

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

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

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

His own disciples—

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

And then they left him forsaken on a cross. 

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

But no—

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

“Peace,” he says. 

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

He gives them his Spirit. 

He gives them his pardon. 

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

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

Three times. 

A do-over:

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

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

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

When he comes back to his wicked tenants…

Wait—

WHERE’S THE BRIMSTONE?

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

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

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

They receive what only he deserves.

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” he asked. 

“Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.”

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

Because evangel in scripture means literally good freaking news.

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

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

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

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

He nodded a sanctimonious grin. 

“Well then, which ones did he miss?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Riddle me that,” I shouted.

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic. 

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

“Oh, I got it, all right.”

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

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

You wonder why I repeat myself Sunday after Sunday—

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

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t care.

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

———————-

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

And Jesus doesn’t respond: WRONG ANSWER.

Pay attention, this is important.

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

that’s the interpretative key to them. 

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

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

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

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

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

He’s talking about the cross. 

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

The cross is our judgment. 

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it. 

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

Let me make it plain.

GOD’S NOT MAD AT YOU. 

Even if God should be.

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

God’s not mad at you.

It doesn’t matter who you are. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. 

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

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

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

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

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

There is therefore now no judgment.

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

Forsaken. 

For you. 

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

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

It breaks people like us to pieces. 

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

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

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

 

     

 

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

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

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me. 

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

     “Never mind” I said. “Sit down.”

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

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

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

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

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

     “Put what down?” I asked. 

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

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

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

     And then she told it to me. 

     About her husband and their marriage. 

     About his drinking, the years of it. 

     About his lies, the years of it. 

     She told me about how he’s sober now. 

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

     Then she bit her lip and paused. 

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

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

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

She nodded.  

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

“What was that?” 

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

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

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

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

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

Just kidding. 

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

     Imagine someone gossips about you. 

And you confront them about it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. 

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

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

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

And remember, Matthew 18 is all one scene. 

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

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

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

How many times do we have to forgive, Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it—

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

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

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

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

Ten thousand talents worth. 

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

Seventy-seven times of forgiveness. 

Ten thousand talents of debt.

———————-

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

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

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

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

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

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

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

     Ten thousand talents. 

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

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

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

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

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

Or, it would take just one life. 

———————-

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

Remember the amount. 

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

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

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

     But notice. 

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

     Who’s still keeping score?

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

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

How many times do we gotta forgive somebody, Jesus?

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

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

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

———————-

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

     I sipped my coffee. 

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

She smiled and nodded.

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

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

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

She bit her lip. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

Admit it—

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

Names of people who’ve hurt you. 

Names of people who’ve taken something from you. 

       Names of people who’ve wronged you. 

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

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

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

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

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

Limitless forgiveness— of course it sounds impossible. 

I get it.

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

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

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

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

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

So come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

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

Come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

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

THE POWER TO DO IS NOT IN YOU!

THE POWER TO DO IS IN THIS PROMISE OF DONE. 

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

           

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.

.

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.”