Not Cheap, Free

Jason Micheli —  July 16, 2018 — 1 Comment

     This Sunday the Sonshine Choir from Brentwood UMC in Nashville were our musical guests. Given the Nashville theme, I couldn’t help but weave two Nashville denizens into my sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10: Carrie Underwood and Carl Sr.

Here it is:

     I barely need to preach today. 

     I certainly don’t need to wile you with any pop culture references, funny videos, or moving personal stories. I know what you all started to think about as soon as you heard our text read this morning. 

     I know what’s on your mind.      

     That’s right, “Jesus Take the Wheel.” 

     Don’t lie. You’re singing it in your head right now. 

     So you probably already know: “Jesus Take the Wheel” was the first single released on Carrie Underwood’s debut album Some Hearts. It was Billboard’s #1 hit for 6 straight weeks. It reached #20 on the Pop charts. It won the former American Idol star 2 Grammys, one for Best Female Vocal Performance and another for Best Country Song. It won her 4 trophies at the Country Music Awards. 

     And 

     It was a cross-over hit on Christian radio. It climbed all the way to #4 on the Contemporary Christian Music charts. It took home trophies at the CCM awards too. 

      Which is odd- 

     It’s odd that it would be a hit on Christian radio because the chorus to Carrie Underwood’s single (“Jesus take the wheel, take it from my hands ‘cause I can’t do this on my own…”) is not the Gospel. 

      It is not the Gospel as the Apostle Paul gives it to us this morning. 

     I’m sorry, Peter, I know how much you love Carrie Underwood and how if Carrie were Korean she’d already be Mrs. Kwon, but, as Gospel, Carrie’s song is about as on point as that other hit single from 2005: Snoop Dog’s “Drop It Like Its Hot.”

     Despite how far up the Christian charts Carrie Underwood took the 2005 Brett James-penned country single, the Apostle Paul tells us today that our condition before Almighty God is both more helpless and more hopeless than our requiring a co-pilot who takes over when times get tough. 

———————-

     “Jesus take the wheel, take it from my hands ‘cause I can’t do this on my own…”

     Translation: I was doing life on my own, Jesus, but now I need some help.   

          No. 

     We don’t need help. That’s Americianity. That’s not Christianity. That’s not the Gospel. According to the Apostle Paul, we don’t need help. We need an embalmer. We don’t need an instructor. We need an undertaker. 

     Or 

     We need someone who can raise the dead. 

     The Gospel does not begin with us already behind the wheel, on our own, with Jesus, like a genie in a lamp, ready to tag-in whenever life gets tricky. 

     The Gospel is not that Jesus will do the rest if or after you’ve done your best. No, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism, and, while it might be the most popular religion in America, it is not the Gospel. 

     You do your best and Christ will do the rest. 

     No. 

     A corpse can’t cooperate with God. 

     A stiff can’t set out to improve itself. 

With rigor mortis, you can’t even repent.

         Apart from the unmerited, uninitiated, one-way work of Jesus Christ for you upon you- applied to you at your baptism- you are dead in your sins. 

     The Gospel begins not with you behind the wheel of life.

     The Gospel begins with you dead in the grave. 

     Carrie Underwood is the product of Oklahoma Public Eduction so maybe it’s not her fault. Still, you’d think it would’ve occurred to at least some of those Christians who shot her single up the CCM charts that, according to the Gospel, we’re not behind the wheel, with Jesus ready to help. 

    We’re rolled up inside a rug, a dead body, in the back of the car. Jesus doesn’t help us steer our lives. Jesus takes our sin-dead corpses out of the trunk of the car, and he makes us alive again. That’s the Gospel. 

     He makes us alive for him. He makes us alive for good works, Paul says. 

     But notice- not good works that we choose. Christ makes us alive for good works he has chosen from beforehand. We do not pursue good works for God. God places us into good works for himself. 

     So that- 

     From beginning to end, the Gospel is not about what we do but about what God has done and is doing. By grace, Paul says, you have been saved. 

     G.R.A.C.E: God’s redemption at Christ’s expense. 

     By grace you have been saved. 

     Not- 

     By grace you have been helped. 

     Not by grace you have been enlightened or encouraged or improved. 

     Not by grace you have been made a better, happier, or holier you. 

     We are not the servants he inspires or the enlistees he exhorts. We are the sinners he saves, the dead he drags out of the grave back into life. 

     By grace you have been saved.

     Note the tense. 

     Paul puts it in the perfect. 

     Meaning, it’s once for all. It’s a past act with endless effects into the present so you don’t ever have to worry about your future. Because- pay attention- it’s only when you’re un-anxious about your future with God that you’re truly free to serve your neighbor in the present. 

     By grace you have been saved, and this is not your doing, Paul says. 

     Despite the popularity of the expression-

the Gospel is not something you can do. 

     The Gospel is not something the Church can be. 

     The Gospel is not something we can put hands and feet to. 

     It’s a gift, Paul says.

     And a gift can only be received, celebrated, shared. 

     The Gospel is not your doing, Paul says, nor is it reducible to the good works you do.

     And just so you don’t miss this, Paul structures his sentence in Ephesians 2 to make his point obtrusive and unavoidable. 

     Where Ephesians 1 contains the longest sentence in the New Testament, Ephesians 2 contains the densest sentence in the New Testament.  

     Paul arranges the rhetoric of his sentence to emphasize his argument. He begins, in the Greek, with you and me in verse 1. Actually he begins with the word “dead.” We’re there at the top of the sentence, dead in our trespasses. 

     And there Paul leaves us, in the grave. 

     Then Paul fills the rest of his long, complicated sentence with compounds and clauses about what God has done in Jesus Christ.   

     He starts with us not behind the wheel of life but dead in our sins, and then he fills his sentence with God’s doings for us. Only at the end, after clause after clause after clause, after 9 1/2 verses, in the last and tiniest clause of the sentence, is there any positive mention at all of our doing for God. 

     The construction of the sentence echoes the content of it. The rhetoric reinforces the point. Paul summarizes the Gospel with this massive sentence about God’s doing for us in Jesus Christ and only at the end is there this little mention of me and my doing for God.

     The medium here is the message:

Christianity is not about what you do. 

For God. 

Or your neighbor. 

It’s about God becoming your neighbor in Jesus Christ and, just as he did with his neighbor Lazarus, making you, who were stinking and dead in your sins, alive again. 

———————-

     Martin Luther said that the Gospel of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith- not good works- alone condemns everything that we think is right and good in the world. 

     The Gospel of grace, which begins with us in the grave, offends our high anthropology, our high assessment of our goodness and abilities. 

     The Gospel of grace enrages us who are addicted to doing and using our doings as a way to elbow ourselves a notch or two above our neighbors. 

     The Gospel of grace upends the comforting system of merit and demerit by which we arrange our lives, navigate our relationships, and make sense of the world. 

     Think about it. 

     The Gospel of grace means you’ve been handed Christ’s own permanent perfect score, which makes all of our scorecards obsolete, which is offensive if you think you’ve earned a high score all on your own. 

     And it’s even more worse if you’re convinced someone deserves a low score because of what they’ve done to you. 

     Since most of us don’t really believe we’re sinners- We don’t really believe we’re greedy. We don’t really believe we’re unforgiving or inhospitable. We don’t really believe we’re racist or prejudiced or liars and hypocrites (even though Chenda keeps telling me I am).

Since we don’t really believe we’re sinners, the Gospel message that you are not what you do is rude. It’s rude if you’re proud of the good you do. 

     As Robert Capon said:  

 God’s grace in Jesus Christ isn’t cheap. It’s not even expensive. It’s free.

Now that’s offensive to any of us who measure ourselves according to merit. It’s offensive to us who define ourselves by what we do. 

     And so it’s no surprise then that the future Mrs. Kwon and her chart-topping 2005 single is just one example of how we invert Paul’s Gospel. We shift the weight in his sentence. We tell Jesus to scoot on over, and we put ourselves in the driver’s seat. 

    Here’s the thing- 

     When we unroll ourselves from the rug in the trunk of the car

     When we put our sin-dead bodies behind the wheel

     When we invert the Gospel

     When we make our Christianity mostly about the good works that we do for others

     When we shove and squeeze the work God has done in Jesus Christ into the tiniest clause at the end of the sentence almost as an afterthought- or as something we think we can assume- the Church, what Karl Barth called “the herald of the Gospel,” becomes like Carl’s Jr.  

———————-

     In case that’s not self-explanatory, roll the video:

 

If you’re getting this by email and the video doesn’t pop up, here’s the link:

———————-

     A little context:

     In the early 2000’s Carl’s Jr began a marketing campaign featuring supermodels like Kate Upton in swimsuits and lingerie eating greasy, juicy hamburgers while riding on mechanical bulls, washing muscle cars, and sitting in a hot tub. Picture Bill Clinton and Donald Trump going out for burgers and a night on the town and you have an idea what those commercials contained. 

     They gave the expression “food porn” a reference point it had been missing since George Constanza tried to combine his afternoon delight with deli meats. For you kids, that’s a Seinfeld reference. 

     On the face of it, you might assume a barely-clad Padma Lakshmi eating a bacon cheeseburger would be a brilliant advertising strategy to reach the purient, adolescent minds of men between the ages of 13 and, oh let’s say, 97.  

     But actually, Carl’s Jr’s business declined, precipitously so, even among horny teenage boys and dirty old men. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing. 

     And their business suffered. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing, and the number of repeat regulars and first-time customers coming in through their doors dwindled. 

     According to a Harvard Business Review article, after Carl’s Jr. launched that advertising campaign back in the early 2000’s their corporation suffered internally too. Members and share holders became beset by division and factions. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing, and they got stuck. 

     In conflict. 

     You don’t really need me to connect the dots for you, do you? Well, maybe Peter does, but not the rest of you, right? 

     For Pete’s sake- I’ll do it anyway. 

     Much of what passes for and is practiced as Christianity today bears no resemblance to the Gospel of grace as Paul weights it and orders it here in Ephesians. 

     A lot of churches are like Carl’s Jr of the early aughts. They’ve made something other than the main thing the main thing. 

     They’ve made their main thing something other than the Gospel, salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone.   

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It doesn’t have a half-naked Kate Upton eating a messy pile of meat (though that would make for a surprising church flyer), but it does package and sell Christianity in terms of its utility (practical advice, spiritual practices to relieve stress, biblical principals for daily living, how to be a Christian parent, how to have a happy Christian marriage). 

     There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, per se. 

     They’re just not the main thing. 

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes tradition and custom the main thing so every church becomes afraid of change and repeats at every occasion “We’ve always…done it this way.” 

      A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes partisan politics the main thing. 

     Rather than the Gospel news that though you are unrighteous, dead in your sins in fact, God has reckoned Christ’s righteousness to you as your own- rather than that Grade A, All-Beef Gospel a lot of Christianity out there wants you to prove your righteousness based on where you stand on a particular political issue. 

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes social justice the main thing. 

     It makes community building the main thing.

     It makes serving the needy and the neighbor the main thing. 

     Again, not that social justice isn’t worthy and urgent. Not that building community isn’t part of the church community’s task. Not that serving the needy and loving our neighbor aren’t works that God puts before us and places us into. 

     They’re just not the main thing. 

     The Gospel is not a blank screen on to which we can project whatever Jesus-flavored thing we wish. 

     You were dead in your trespasses. By grace you have been saved. It’s all Christ’s doing such that there’s nothing now you must do- just receive it in trust. 

     That’s the Gospel. 

     It’s our Carl Sr. 

     And everything else is Jr. 

     In that Harvard Business Review article, an executive from Carl’s Jr. offered a “post-mortem” on their advertising campaign from the early aughts. 

     “We realized,” he said, “that if you’re looking for sex and sensationalism then you’ve got plenty of other options out there; we have one unique product to offer.”

     Do I need to connect the dots?!

     Look- 

 If most of what we do as a Church could be done (and done better) by most other secular programs, self-help groups, counseling centers, social justice agencies, political activists, music programs, or TED Talks, then some of you all might as well strap on a bikini and start riding a mechanical bull because we’ve forgotten we’re in the Grade-A, All Beef Gospel business.  

————————

     Heads up, mood change: 

     

     A couple of years ago, I spent the year on medical leave following emergency surgery and 8 rounds of stage-serious chemo for a rare, incurable cancer with which I’d been diagnosed. A cancer- you should know- that afflicts me still. While I’m still more fit than your average United Methodist pastor, I’ll never be in remission and I still do maintenance chemo a day a month. Like the text today says, we’re all dead men walking but me a little bit more than most of you.  

     Anyways, at the end of my medical leave my oncologist asked me if I wanted to return to work, to ministry. “If you want,” he said, “I can make it so you never have to work again.” I considered it, sure. Turns out, not only do I like my job, I believe in our job. 

     I’m not here because it’s a career move. I’m not here for a salary. Whatever you pay me, it’ll never be more than my medical bills. Fact is, I don’t have to be here. I don’t need to put up with Peter much less Chenda. I don’t have to put up with any of you.

I’m not here to be the concierge of a club. I’m not here to be a social worker or community organizer. I’m not here to maintain a denomination. I’m not here to opine on politics.

     I’m here because I believe in the Gospel, and I believe in the power of the Gospel to change the world by changing lives (lives like mine) a life at a time. 

     I’m here because I believe the main thing should be the main thing. 

     Not to be melodramatic but I live with my death. I know firsthand the difference between the Church as Carl Sr. and the Church as Carl Jr. 

     The Church is not a social program. It’s not a charity. It’s not a fellowship group. 

     It can include all of those things, but the Church, as Paul tells the Corinthians, is an embassy of the Gospel. We’re the only business, the only institution on earth given the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. And we do so by our worship. We do so in wine and bread. We do so in bible study with our children. We do so by serving our needy neighbors. Work that isn’t “help.” Work where we are ambassadors for the Gospel.

     It’s not that all the other good we can do isn’t. 

     Isn’t good. 

     It’s that none of it can make the dead live. 

     

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Jason Micheli

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One response to Not Cheap, Free

  1. This is so awesome. We are where God puts us and we can need to glorify Him. You just get better and better~

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