James Younger, executive producer of National Geographic’s The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, joins Jason and Teer to discuss faith, religion, and all things Story of God.

You can watch The Story of God with Morgan Freeman on Monday evenings at 9 PM EST on the National Geographic Channel.

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If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

Here’s my sermon from this weekend.

The text was Luke 10.27-35. I got several anonymous complaints (from both conservatives and progressives) in the offering plate so maybe I was tracking with Jesus.

In front of a crowd of 70 (Or 140, who’s to say how big the crowd really was?) this lawyer tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him:

“Who is my neighbor?” he presses. 

     It’s the kind of bible question they could’ve debated for weeks.

Read one part of Leviticus and God’s policy is Israel First; your neighbor is just your fellow Jew.

Read another part of Leviticus and your neighbor includes the illegal immigrants and refugees in your land.

Turn to another bible text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Your neighbors might really only be the people who believe like you believe.

Read the right psalms and ‘neighbor’ definitely does not include your enemies. It’s naive, sing those psalms, to suppose your enemies are anything other than dangerous.

So, they could’ve sat around and debated on Facebook all week.

Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.

About a man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked, in a ditch on the side of the road.

A priest and a Levite respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.

Like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.

For the man in the ditch.

Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2 verbs:

He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else.

14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’

Not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan, don’t you?

You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.

I mean, show of hands:

How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?

How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote?

An anecdote like…

On Friday morning…

I drove to Starbucks to work on the sermon. As I got of my car, standing in front of Starbucks, I saw this guy in the cold.

I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.

And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the cold, I thought to myself:

‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’

I admit, I’m not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.

‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out? 

     I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool. 

     You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic. 

     Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’ 

     I thought to myself.

But mostly, I was irritated.

Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.

I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.

I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.

And passed by.

Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.

And passed by.

Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.

And passed by.

When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.

‘I don’t have any cash on me.’

I lied.

I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’

Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’

And then we stood in the cold and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.

After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.

It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.

And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.

And then I took his picture.

Tacky, I know, but I figured otherwise you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven.

I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.

See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?

A predictable slice-of-life story for this worn-out parable right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’

And, I expect, you would go.

Feeling not inspired. But guilty.

Guilty knowing that none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.

     If 14 verbs x Every Needy Person We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all. It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford. 

     The good news- and the bad- there’s more to the story.

I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.

Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said: ‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’

Then it hit me.

‘Say that again’ I said.

‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’

And suddenly it was as if he’d smacked me across the face.

We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.

It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered ‘round to hear about their Kingdom work.

Every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew.

And so when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.

When Jesus says ‘So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,’ NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’

When Jesus says ‘There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch so he crossed to other side and passed on by’    EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘What’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’

Ditto the Levite.

No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.  No one would’ve been outraged.

As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.

The priest had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest.

Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then (according to the Mishna) the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as contrary to everything we know of God.

But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.

As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

So-

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then- no matter how many hospitals we name after this story- the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.

If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.

     Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.

     A little context-

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. Looted it.

And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just strangers. They weren’t just opponents on the other side of the Jewish aisle.

They were Other.

They were despised.

They were considered deplorable.

Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And the disciples’ antipathy towards them is such that they beg Jesus to call down an all-consuming holocaust upon the village.

In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’

‘The one who showed mercy’ is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.

The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

We’ve gotten it all backwards.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need.

It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.

The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.

The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.

Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need.

You don’t need Jesus for a lesson so inoffensively vanilla.

     No, Jesus is saying that even the most deplorable people- they care for those in need.

Therefore, they are our neighbors.

Upon whom our salvation depends.

I spent last week in California promoting my book, which if you’d like to pull out your smartphones now and order it on Amazon I won’t stop you.

On inauguration day I was being interviewed about my book, or at least I was supposed to be interviewed about my book. But once the interviewers found out I was a pastor outside DC, they just wanted to ask me about people like you all.

They wanted to know what you thought, how you felt, here in DC, about Donald Trump.

And because this was California it’s not an exaggeration to say that most everyone seated there in the audience was somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. Seriously, you know you’re in LA when I’m the most conservative person in the room.

So I wasn’t really sure how I should respond when, after climbing on top of their progressive soapbox, the interviewers asked me “What do you think, Jason, we should be most afraid of about Donald Trump and his supporters?”

I thought about how to answer.

I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.

Turns out I managed to be both.

I said:

“I think with Donald Trump and his supporters, I think…Christians at least, I think we should be afraid of the temptation to self-righteousness. I think we should fear the temptation to see those who have politics other than ours as Other.”

Let’s just say they didn’t exactly line up to buy my book after that answer.

Neither was Jesus’ audience very enthused about his answer to the lawyer’s question.

As bored as we’ve become with this story, the irony is that we haven’t even cast ourselves correctly in it.

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. I wish. How flattering is that?

Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the man in the ditch and to see a deplorable Samaritan as the potential bearer of our salvation.

Jesus isn’t saying that we’re saved by loving our neighbors and that loving our neighbors means helping those in need.

No, Jesus is saying with this story what Paul says with his letter:

   That to be justified before God is to know that the line between good and evil runs                                                      not between Us and Them but through every human heart.

   That our propensity to see others as Other isn’t our idealogical purity. It’s our bondage to Sin. 

“All people, both the religious and the secular…Paul says

All people….both the right and the left- Paul could’ve said- both Republicans and Democrats, both progressives and conservatives, black and white and blue, gay or straight, all people are under the power of Sin.

“There is no distinction [among people], Paul says, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None is righteous, not one.”

“Therefore, you have no excuse…In judging others, you condemn yourself…you are storing up God’s wrath for yourself.”

Paul says.

“No one is righteous, not one.”

So,

     if you want to be justified instead of judged…If you want to inherit eternal life instead of its eternal opposite…

     Then you better imagine yourself as the desperate one in the ditch… and imagine your salvation coming from the most deplorable person your prejudice and your politics can conjure. 

Don’t forget-

We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.

Maybe now you can feel why.

Especially now.

Into our partisan tribalism and talking-past points, our red and blue hues and social media shaming, our presumption and our pretense at being prophetic-

Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-

Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant or a Muslim is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.

Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.

Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed- mustached hipster.

Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.

A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.

When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we encounter.

He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.

And more counter-cultural.

He’s telling us to see that even the deplorables in our worldview, even those whose hashtags are the opposite of ours, even they help those in need.

Therefore-

They are our neighbors.

Not only our neighbors.

They are our threshold to heaven.

Jesus says.

Go and do likewise?

It’s no wonder- I suppose- why we’re still so polarized.

After all, we only ever responded to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:

Wanting nothing to do with him.

Or, wanting to do away with him.

 

Have Book, Traveling

Jason Micheli —  January 28, 2017 — 1 Comment


As I like to say, I only pretend to be a narcissist on Sunday mornings.

I truly hate this self-promotional shit, but many of you have asked how things are going with the book and what I’m doing with the book in the months ahead. And, I figure, the last thing you want from me is another thee-political post about The Donald so what the hell.

Hey- I learned that the comedy director Judd Apatow has my book and he freakin’ thinks it’s hilarious.

Update:

I spent the past week out in sunny rainy southern California for a gathering led by the inestimable Tripp Fuller and sponsored by National Geographic’s Story of God and Home-Brewed Christianity. Though, with Teer Hardy, I violated Rule #1 it proved a wonderful experience. I got the chance to meet folks in the flesh, whom I previously only knew virtually, like Todd Littleton, Luke Norseworthy, Eric Hall, Nathan Gilmour, and Sarah Heath. There is much about social media these days that is f@#$ed up, but I sincerely believe there’s Jesus good in it too, proved by the ‘friendships’ I’ve forged with folks like these.

Tripp Fuller interviewed me about my book for the Home-Brewed Christianity Podcast on the first night of the gathering.

Christian and Amy Piatt interviewed me for the Culture Cast Podcast the next day.

I’ll post those interviews when they go live.

Luke Norseworthy interviewed me for his podcast, Newsworthy with Norseworthy, the following day.

You can listen to that interview here.

While in SoCal I did a dialogue sermon and a Q/A at the Loft LA, the most diverse UMC I’ve ever experienced. I’ll post that audio when it becomes available.

In the interim, in case you missed it:

I did an interview with Matt Townshend on Sirius that you can find here.

The Kansas City Star faith writer said my book is “a compelling read with just the right message…” Check it out here.

And Hearts and Minds Books named Cancer is Funny to their Best of 2016 List. Check it out here.

Coming up:

I’ll be doing some more radio show interviews on Sirius XM, including John Fugelsang‘s show “Tell Me Everything.”

The Christian Century and Wash Po will be posting reviews of the book (fingers crossed they say it doesn’t suck).

In March, I’ll be speaking at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville and the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference in Asheville.

And reception to the book has been such that Fortress Press has invited me to write two more books with them in 2017 and 2018. Here’s the press release. In addition, I’ve been invited by Eerdmans Press to contribute a chapter on a book about Preaching Romans.

 

 

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“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”

Pretty damn clear.

And, it should be noted, that’s a warning that comes from Jesus in his last teaching before the Passion, a teaching about Judgement Day.

It’s ironic to the point of paradox that today many Christians will demonstrate to advocate the sanctity of life while nary batting an eye at The Donald’s announcement that he will order the construction of a Mexican border wall, the first in a series of actions to crack down on immigrants, which will include slashing the number of refugees who can resettle in the United States, and blocking Syrians from entering. Of course, it should be noted, President Obama was hardly more ‘Christian’ on the immigrant and refugee issue.

That refugees and immigrants (to say nothing of death row inmates) are invisible on the ‘Pro Life’ continuum nor even countenanced among the ‘Every Life Matters’ rhetoric is but an indictment on the extent to which we’ve traded, possibly unawares, our baptismal charge for a particular political ideology. 

The theologian Robert Jenson complains:

‘The institution we call the church has been and usually still is one of the chief bulwarks we erect to defend our status quo against the threat of God.’

‘But,’ Jenson happily notes, ‘it is the oddity of the church that the communication- namely, the word of God, by which it lives fights against the stasis to which the church, like all communities and nations tend.’

As if to provide Jenson with anecdotal illustration of his critique, many evangelicals are happily acquiescing to Trump’s move to disqualify any refugees from being welcomed into our borders. Never mind that America could barely field a football team with the paltry number of refugees we’ve allowed up to this point.

We all know The Donald says the Bible is his favorite book and he’s made it his mandate to protect Christianity and make it strong again so I couldn’t help but wonder what passage inspired his America First policy.

Leafing through my own Harper Collins Study Bible, I think found his memory verses.

“When an alien resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them picket them with dehumanizing, xenophobic slogans, arrest them without cause, publish species crime reports, and ship them back to their impoverished, violent countries as quickly as possible where conscription into a cartel or rape likely awaits them.

The aliens residing among you must be treated as your native-born prisoners, their children as criminals and their home countries as places completely unaffected by your trade and foreign policies.

Love them as yourself Detain them on military bases and in prisons, speak of them in town halls as though they were plague-carrying rats, and have your first impulse be how to avoid any moral obligation to them for you were once aliens in Egypt this is your country and they should go back whence they came.

I am the LORD your [America’s] God.

If they cry out to me, then (too bad for them) I will certainly hear their cry reward your self-righteousness and unfaithful fear of scarcity.

My anger will blaze against you [those who advocate for marriage equality,] and I will kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows and your children fatherless uh, I think that about covers it.

– Sincerely,

God

from Leviticus 19 and Exodus 23 (no seriously, it’s in the freaking bible)

With Christmas not that far in our rearview mirror, it would behoove Christians to recall that the God who commanded his People to care for the poor and the refugee among them (Exodus 23) became, in Jesus Christ, both poor and a refugee.

Of course, the rub is with that modifier ‘his People’ because those of us who count ourselves among God’s People have other obligations upon us than what the constitution permits and goals other than the pursuit of material happiness.

Sure, I’m no different than the Donald. I’d prefer to feel secure in my community and, because I’m a sinner, aside from token expressions of concern, I’d rather remain safely distant from the problems and pain of the world. But, as Robert Jenson notes, I cannot because of the bible I read.

Perhaps it’s so obvious it doesn’t require comment, but the real tension exposed by the refugee question is the extent to which, for many of us, we’ve made being an ‘American’ equivalent to being a ‘Christian.’ If we’ve not made them equivalent, then the refugee crisis also reveals how, really, the former is more important to us than the latter.

When push comes to shove, its the logic of country, not the gospel, that determines our speech and actions.

In the name of security and ‘realism’ we excuse views contrary to the commandments. We do not declare that, because Christ is Risen, God will ultimately beat all our swords into ploughshares; therefore, we can take risks and welcome the stranger among us.

Not only are ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ not equivalent identities, they are, on more occasions than we care to countenance, conflictual identities.

While Americans have no primary task other than, each, the pursuit of our individual autonomy, the primary task of the baptized, as Stanley Hauerwas writes, is ‘to stand within the [violent] world witnessing to a peaceable Kingdom which reflects the right understanding of that very world.’ Even more important to our task as Christians is to remember that the peace to which we witness ‘is not something to be achieved by our power. Rather peace is a gift of God that comes only by our being a community formed around a crucified savior.’ 

Many Christians will object, as many of our presidential candidates do, that in the quote end quote real world we cannot afford the luxury of heeding the demands of our baptisms. Such objectors, however, forget, as only the comfortable can, that:

There is no morality that does not require others, including ourselves, to suffer for our convictions.

Christians who happen to live in America, then, seem to face an impossible dilemma between a posture of hospitality towards the stranger who may also be an enemy and a political crisis that seems to have no simple remedy beyond the nativist one.

Fortunately, scripture does not ever command Christians to accomplish anything, for, if Jesus is Risen, it’s not up to us to make the world come out right.

So the choice for Christians is not between doing nothing or attempting to do everything.

The choice is the one put to the first disciples: ‘Follow me.’

And in following, in our ordinary attitudes and deeds and within our communities of faith, we trust that the world of violence might have its imagination freed for a Kingdom that, if Jesus is Risen, is in fact the ‘real world.’

Just as the kingdom of Egypt welcomed the holy family who were strangers among them, we Christians (should) witness to the Kingdom of God by welcoming strangers as if they were the holy family.

 

If this sounds like an extreme liberal position to you, check out this video from the Jesuit Editor of America Magazine, Father James Martin.

Or, read this editorial by the conservative evangelical leader, Ed Stetzer, in Christianity Today.

 

 

“So I was having sex with a girl I didn’t know…”

WARNING:

This episode contains language that might upset some of you.

It’s also, thanks to Morgan Freeman (really) the best conversation yet on Crackers & Grape Juice.

We had a single question planned for him and then we listened and rode the conversation where it led.

To sex and the spirituality of vulnerability, why Otis Redding is better religious music than Matt Redman, the rejections of the institutional church, and why worship (music) IS entertainment.

Teer and Jason, joined by our podcast friend Todd Littleton, caught up with Barry Taylor at the Theology Beer Camp hosted by Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity and National Geographic’s Story of God. Barry is an Episcopal priest, Professor of Faith and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, and the author of Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy.

As you’ll hear, Barry got his start in the faith while a sound engineer for the hard-rocking (and freaking awesome) band AC/DC. Barry is also a co-host on ‘The Story of God-Cast’ which is the official after show of the hit NatGeo series ‘The Story of God’ starring Morgan Freeman.

One of the delights of hanging out with so many theology nerds, podcaster, and theology elders like John Cobb at Theology Beer Camp is hearing the wonderful feedback for Crackers and Grape Juice. It left us determined to double down and bring you the best damn theo-podcast we can.

We’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, and Mandy Smith. In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

29. Are the Spirit and the Son creatures of the Father? 

Recall the basic principle:

Everything that is in God is God.

The Spirit and the Son are not creatures of the Father but they are necessarily, as the creed confesses, of one being with the Father. Thus the Father and the Son do not differ in any way. What they are is God and they are nothing else except that they are God.

The Father has no attributes or properties which the Son has not. The attributes and properties possessed by the Son are inherent to the Father. What we say of the Father, then, we can and must say of the Son and whatever we deny about the Son we must deny about the Father.

Everything that is in God is God. The Spirit and the Son are not distinguished from the Father by creature-hood. The only feature which distinguishes the Father from the Son is that they are at opposite ends of a relationship. What it means for the Father to be the Father is to be in relationship to the Son; what it means for the Son to be the Son is to be in relationship with the Father.

Therefore:

It is wrong to describe the Trinity with the language of creature-hood.

It is not that the Father has a relation with the Son.

The Father is a relation with the Son.

And the Son is the relation with the Father. 

‘A relation with…’ is always an accident with creatures; that is, a creature’s relations- though precious- are never constitutive of their very essence or being. I love my children, for example, and cannot imagine my life without them, but my essence is independent of my having these children. Unlike me, however, God can have no accidents, for everything that is in God is God.

Far from the Son and the Spirit being creatures of the Father, Trinity names the mystery that the Father does not have a relationship with the Son. The Father is that relationship, and the Son is that relationship generated from the Father. There is no truer God behind what we call Trinity.

In naming God Trinity, we not only profess that the Son is not a creature of the Father, we also profess that neither are we creatures of the Father- not merely so.

By our sharing in the Son, through the Spirit, we are incorporated into the Son’s relationship with the Father. Just as the Son does not have a relation with the Father but is that relationship with the Father, so too through the Spirit will we one day be brought into that relationship such that we become that relationship.

Or, God the Son became like us so that we might become like God.

“Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so.” – John 17.21

 

 

Crackers and Grape Juice had a chance to catch up with Pastor Amy Butler the week prior to President Trump’s inauguration. Amy explains why she is seeking to use the pulpit as a place for a faithful response to what so far has been a tremulous first few days of the Trump presidency.

In 2003, Butler became Senior Minister of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC, the founding church of the Northern Baptist Convention, now American Baptist Churches USA. As Calvary’s first female Senior Minister, Butler helped Calvary more than triple in membership.[1] Her work at Calvary was featured in Paul Nixon’s book We Refused to Lead a Dying Church!: Churches That Came Back Against All Odds.[4] She held this position until 2014, at which time she accepted the Senior Minister position at the historic Riverside Church in NYC.

As we slide into 2017 we’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, and Mandy Smith.

In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. We’ll also be recording some live interviews from LA at the Theology Beer Camp.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

For Episode 72, Crackers and Grape Juice caught up with Duke Divinity professor and retired UMC Bishop Will Willimon to talk about racism, the Donald, and how we can look forward as America’s dirty little secret surfaces again. “Who Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront Racism” is available February 2017.

As we slide into 2017 we’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, and Mandy Smith.

In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. We’ll also be recording some live interviews from LA at the Theology Beer Camp.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

Taylor and Jason sat down for a conversation with Rev. Alex Joyner, author and a District Superintendent in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Joyner was ordained a deacon in 1989 and elder in 1993. He has served appointments in Dallas, Texas; York, England; Unionville and Charlottesville. Joyner served as campus minister at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia. He was appointed to Franktown UMC in 2005.

Prior to entering the ordained ministry, Joyner was a radio news director and on-air personality in the Charlottesville area.

Joyner holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas, and an additional Masters in Religious Studies while at UVA.

He’s the author of several publications including Where Do I Go Now, God?, a vocational discernment curriculum and DVD for young adults published by Abingdon Press. He is a regular contributor to Ministry Matters, the FaithLink adult curriculum from the United Methodist Publishing House, and teaches in the Course of Study program at Perkins.

As we slide into 2017 we’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, and Mandy Smith.

In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. We’ll also be recording some live interviews from LA at the Theology Beer Camp.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

 

Nocturnal Omission

Jason Micheli —  January 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

Do you have to be born again to be a Christian? Here’s my sermon from this weekend on John 3.1-15.

Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” 

———————

     Let’s be honest, shall we, and just get it out of the way. Let’s just admit what you’re all thinking:

If anyone, after having grown old, could reenter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, then that person would have to be Chuck Norris.

No? Well, then you were certainly thinking this: You don’t know what to do with this passage. Do you?

If you did know what to do with Jesus telling us we need to get born again, then you’d be someplace else this morning.

You’d be giving your utmost for his highest down at First Baptist, or you’d have your hands raised up in the air, singing some Jesus in My Pants song, at a non-denominational church. Or maybe you’d be out shopping for a gown to this week’s inauguration. After all, our thick-skinned, orange-hued President-Elect won born agains by over 80%.

But you’re not those kinds of Christians. If you were, then you wouldn’t be here.

If you knew what to do with this scripture, you’d be in some other church this morning or shopping for a tux for Friday or maybe you’d be at home watching Walker: Texas Ranger or Delta Force. According to the Daily Beast, Chuck Norris is the world’s most famous born again Christian.

Which begs an obvious question born of today’s text:

Does the wind blow where it chooses only because Chuck Norris gives it permission?

     It’s a good question. Don’t forget how, in the very beginning, when God said “Let there be light” Chuck Norris said: “Say please.”

We all know, don’t we, how after Jesus turned water into wine Chuck Norris turned that wine into beer.

And surely you already know how Jesus can walk on water but only Church Norris can swim through dry land, and how Jesus sweats blood but Chuck Norris’ tears can cure cancer, which is unfortunate (for me) because Chuck Norris has never shed any tears. You know, don’t you- how even Jesus on his way to save humanity on the cross was overheard to have said: “Well, I’m no Chuck Norris but I’ll do the best I can.”

So it’s worth wondering if the wind blows where it chooses only because Chuck Norris allows it.

But I wouldn’t want to distract from my point, which is this:

You’re not like Chuck Norris. You’re not that kind of Christian. 

    If you took Jesus that seriously, then you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of you chose a church like this one because you never have to worry we’re going to exhort you to get born again.

You chose a church like this one because here you can feel safe that we’re not going to invite you to close your eyes, raise your hand, and welcome Jesus into your heart.

According to our last church-wide survey, nearly half of you came here from a Roman Catholic background. If I asked you to say “Jesus” out loud as something other than a four-letter word, your sphincter would twist up tighter than a drum.

You don’t want a preacher who’s going to altar call you forward and compel you to commit your life to Jesus, to get born anothen.

If that’s what you wanted, you wouldn’t be here. That born again stuff- it isn’t us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.

Sure, we lust in our hearts (now that FX is on basic cable who hasn’t lusted in their heart?) but we’re not the same sort as those born again kind.

We may give Almighty God thanks that Born Again Christianity has given us Megan Fox as well as the South Park song “I Wasn’t Born Again Yesterday” but that doesn’t change the fact that those are not the kinds of Christians we are.

———————

     We’re the kind of Christians who don’t know what to do with what Jesus says to Nicodemus anymore than Nicodemus knows what to do with it.

Having stumbled upon Jesus here, curious and questioning, we’d like to slip away, under the cover of night, and pretend Jesus never said what Jesus so clearly said: ‘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.

Either way you translate it doesn’t really make it easier on people like us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.

But right there- there’s the question, right?

Not- Has Death ever had a near-Chuck Norris experience?

Not that question.

And not- Is Helen Keller’s favorite color Chuck Norris?

This question:

Can we really be Christian at all and not be the Chuck Norris kind? 

     Just taking Jesus’ red letter words straight up, can we really be Christian at all and not be born anothen?

———————-

    We could point out how Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else.

When Jesus happens upon some fishermen, he doesn’t say “You must be born anothen.” He says: “Come. Follow me.”

And when a rich, brown-nosing son-of-helicopter-parents asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t talk about wind and water. He talks about camels and needles. Jesus doesn’t tell him to get born again; Jesus tells him to give up everything he’s got.

When Jesus encounters a woman caught in her sin- exactly the sort of situation where you’d expect him to whip out that word, anothen, Jesus instead keeps it in his pocket and just says to her: ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’

Jesus only says ‘You must be born anothen’ to Nicodemus.

So, we could argue, this applies only to Nicodemus, and to make being born again an over the counter prescription for everyone, is to make of it something Jesus does not do.

We could argue that Jesus is just talking to Nicodemus, not us.

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…”

Like it or not, we are in that you.

But-

Even if we do need to be born again, maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as so many make it.

After all, Jesus’ own preaching never ends with altar call invitations for his hearers to get born again.

Jesus doesn’t stand on the mountaintop and preach “Blessed are those are born anothen, only they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” No, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And for his very first sermon, Jesus doesn’t choose to preach about anothen or eternal salvation. He preaches about good news to the poor and release to the captives.

When Jesus preaches about judgment even, he warns that one day, God will separate us as sheep from goats not on the basis of who’s been born again but on the basis of who has done for the least.

So maybe-

Even if we all are included in that you all directed at Nicodemus maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as those other Christians so often make it because Jesus doesn’t talk about our needing to be born again every time he speaks of the Kingdom.

Only-

Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God.

So maybe it’s every bit as urgent and eternal as we’ve been told. Which isn’t surprising, I suppose, because all know that the only time Chuck Norris was wrong about something the truth got so scared it reconsidered itself.

But where’s that leave us Nicodemus Christians?

What if-

Christians like us pushed back? Not on Chuck Norris but on this passage.

Take it back.

From those other kind of Christians.

Point out that to turn Jesus’ words to Nicodemus into an every Sunday altar call expectation, to make it the threshold every “genuine” Christian must cross contradicts Jesus’ entire point.

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 isn’t something we can control or manipulate or plan. 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. Only God can connect us with God. We’re not on a spiritual journey to God; God the Holy Spirit is always journeying to us. It’s always grace. It’s always a gift.

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.

We could push back.

And we’d be right.

But that doesn’t change the fact that 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. 

So again- What do Christians like us do with what Jesus says about being born again?

———————

     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.

We all know that Chuck Norris doesn’t read books he just stares them down until he gets the information he wants, but even a Christian like Chuck Norris misses what John tries to show us in his Gospel.

Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and not one thing came into being without him.”

In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation.

And next, right here 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 man.”

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

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit.

And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you?

Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity.

Water and the spirit, the sixth day.

And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you?

Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week.

And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?

For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.

Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them.

Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.

He breathes on them.

Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.

They’re made new again.

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.

———————

     Chuck Norris is right.  What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true. You must be born again. You have to be born again. There’s no other way around it. You’re a creature, a sinner even. You’re flesh- you’re incapacitated from coming to God on your own. You could never see the Kingdom of God apart from being born again. It’s true.

But-

We get so hung up on what Jesus says in this part of John about being born again that we shut our eyes to what John shows us with his whole Gospel.

That we are.

Born again. Born from above.

All of us.

Every one of us.

Even you all.

It’s true that when Chuck Norris looks in the mirror he sees nothing because there can be only one Chuck Norris, but when it comes to God we’re all the same, even Chuck Norris.

There is no distinction.

     All of us, in our sin, were in Adam. 

     And all of us, in the Second Adam, have been restored.

     What God does in Christ through cradle and cross transforms all of humanity. Just as all fell through Adam’s trespass, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says.

In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, Paul says.

There is therefore now no condemnation because of Christ Jesus.

Because of him, nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul says.

The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God.

Consider yourselves anothened.

Being born again

     It’s not a hurdle you need to muster up enough faith in order to cross.

It’s a hurdle that in his faithfulness he already has crossed for you.

It’s not that you must believe to a certain degree in order to get born again.

It’s that you’ve already been born again through his belief for you.

It’s not that you need to make a personal decision for God and then get born again.

It’s that you’ve been born again through his personal decision in your place.

     Whether or not you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, in the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord, you have already been accepted by God. 

     It’s his work, not ours, that saves.

It’s his faith, not ours, that gives us life.

What Christ accomplishes for us is not what might be true one day if.

If we have enough faith. If we do enough good deeds.

If we get born again.

What Christ accomplishes for us is what’s true now and always, for us.

For all of us.

So the next time someone asks you- even Christians like you all-

The next time someone asks you if you’ve been born again, then next time you say YES.

Because we’re all Chuck Norris Christians. We’ve all been born again

And if that same someone asks you for a when-

When were you born again? When were you saved?

You just say sometime between Good Friday and Easter morning.

John’s title gives it away- that’s Good News.

———————

     It’s Good News.

But it’s not easy.

What Jesus says here to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God is true. For us born agains, the Kingdom is mainly about sight.

Chuck Norris may be able to sneeze with his eyes open, but for us born agains and the Kingdom of God a different sort of seeing is required.

You’ve got to see the prodigals in your life, the people who’d just as soon use you up and turn their backs on you. You’ve got to see them and trust that they’ll never stop being worth throwing a party over.

You’ve got to see your spouse and trust that you can, in fact, love your enemy. You’ve got to look your children in their insolent eyes and trust that you’ve got to become more like them.

You’ve got to see the crooks on Capitol Hill and trust that they’ll be first into paradise. You’ve got to see the poor and see in them Jesus Christ.

You’ve got to see the people in your life who’ve hurt you one too many times, and you’ve got to trust that you can forgive them as many as 70 multiplied by 7.

You’ve got to see your anger and addiction, your impatience and bitterness, your cynicism and self-righteousness, your sadness and shame.

And you’ve got to trust that having been born again of water and spirit that same Spirit can sow in you joy and peace and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control.

You’ve got to see.

See yourself- whether you’re old, fat, or ugly; whether you’re a failure, a freak, a loser, a slut, a disappointment, a whatever- you’ve got to see yourself and trust that because of Jesus Christ you are as pure and perfect as a born again baby.

It’s about sight.

Seeing your doubts and your questions, your shaky faith and your crappy character- it’s about seeing and trusting that the only measure God takes of faith is Jesus Christ’s own.

To be born again is to be given new eyes.

Chuck Norris claims he can do the impossible- even cut a knife with hot butter.

He should know-

Even that’s easier than to be born again

To become who you already are in Jesus Christ

To see with new, anotheno-ed eyes.

 

Ryan Parker is the author of Cinema as Pulpit and contributes to the Pop Theology website. Here’s his recent review of my book:

That we have all been touched by cancer, if not personally, then relationally, is why Jason Micheli’s new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, is such an important book. It’s also my first must-read recommendation of 2017.


Thirty-something husband, father, and pastor Micheli was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, mantle cell lymphoma, that is so severe it can’t be “staged” like others. It was a diagnosis that resulted in an instant, intensive, eight-week course of chemotherapy that would wreak havoc on his healthy body and lead him to question everything he thought he knew about God and faith. It also resulted in one of the funniest and more insightful works of theology I’ve read in some time.

Cancer is funny for Micheli, in large part, because he has a seemingly indefatigable sense of humor, which, thankfully for us readers, was consistently lost on his doctors and nurses, adding even more laugh-out-loud moments to his reflections. Even in the most painful and humiliating moments of his treatment, Micheli could crack wise. But this sense of humor is not a mask, as Micheli makes himself emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to his audience, laying bare the ways in which this experience almost broke him. I found myself laughing out loud in one paragraph and reaching for the tissues in the next and challenged by his insights on faith and his theological speculations in each chapter.

Cancer is also funny in the ways ways in which it leads Micheli to re-think theology, faith, and Christian practice. At the heart of the book is a central question: “If so much of the Bible’s faith takes the form of complaint, then do we, who rarely address God plainly from the bowels of our pain, preferring instead the niceties of praise and petition, commit something like unbelief” (192). Micheli forces us to consider the ways in which our faith is often incompatible with the very God we claim to have faith in. He adds, “Since we purpose-driven moderns have transmuted so much of the mystery of faith down to its utility (Three Biblical Steps to Success in the Workplace), it’s not surprising how more often than not, our language of faith—our songs, our prayers, our cross-stitched and retweeted pieties—is meant to reassure us that, like State Farm, God is there” (190). Micheli’s book is, in a way, redeeming. It allows us to see anew all the experiences of anger, frustration, doubt, and loneliness (those times when we don’t or can’t experience the Divine—whatever either of those words mean) as potentially (inherently?) sacred and faith-filled.

At the same time, this experience of doubt should force us into a greater reliance on community, which, Micheli suggests, is at the heart of faith. He writes, “Our faith in the suffering love of God is intelligible, then, not through abstract answers to philosophical questions but only through the love of a community who suffer with us” (163). Micheli is quick to point out the particularities of the human experience and argues that, like cancer, there is no universal experience (or one-size-fits-all faith) to which we can all relate. Of course, this isn’t completely true as suffering is universal. It is so prevalent that, as Micheli points out time and time again, even God experiences it. So, as we either suffer ourselves or align ourselves with those who do, perhaps we participate in the Divine.

I’m tempted to just list all of Micheli’s insights here…all of those moments that made me put the book down and walk around. But, seriously, whether you’re professional clergy, a person of faith, or simply have a pulse, you need to buy the book and read it. In the context of his memories of fear, joy, and suffering, their impact is inimitable and undeniable.

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Fortress Press, 226 pgs.) is available here. For those of you in Los Angeles, Jason will be speaking at Westwood United Methodist Church on Sunday, January 22nd, at 10:00 a.m.

In our culture, the one truth imposed upon almost everybody is that you never impose your truth on others, especially your moral or religious truth. 

   But imposing is not the same thing as proposing.

Someone on Golgotha responds to Jesus’ ‘I thirst’ by holding up a sponge soaked with sour wine on a branch of hyssop.

Whoever did that for Jesus, it’s an odd thing to do.

Hyssop is a small, bushy plant. It looks like thyme or marjoram. It’s not a very strong plant. You wouldn’t look at it and think it could bear the weight of a sponge soaked with wine.

So why use it? Why at the cross? Why not a stick or a pole or a sword?

In the Old Testament, the Book of Exodus, hyssop is used to sprinkle the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the Israelites; so that, when the angel of death passed over their homes they would be spared judgment.

Just as Moses used hyssop and lambs’ blood to seal that first covenant so now does that same plant and Christ’s blood seal a new one. There’s more going on at the cross than the fulfillment of a Psalm or two.

At the beginning of the Gospel, John the Baptist meets Jesus and declares: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.’

And earlier in this same chapter, when Jesus is judged by Pilate it’s at noon. The very same hour that thousands of passover lambs are slaughtered in the Temple.

And when Jesus is dying on the cross his leg bones are not broken- even though that was the Roman practice. His bones are not broken just as the bones of the passover lamb are not broken.

And when Jesus says he’s thirsty, he’s brought blood-red wine dripping from a branch of hyssop- the same plant that marks the people whom God will save.

When Jesus says ‘I thirst’ it’s not to fulfill this scripture or that biblical passage.

It’s to fulfill everything.

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, if you’ve been paying attention and can connect the dots, it CLAIMS everything.

     If this Gospel is true, it’s not simply true for me or true for you.

When we get to the cross, Christians have to bite the bullet and go against the cultural grain.

   God save us from people who bully their beliefs on others, but God save us from Christians who are so nervous about the claims of the cross that they never speak about Jesus or act as though he mattered to anyone but themselves.

Now I know what you’re going to say: Who are we to say that our truth is superior to the truths others live by?

And that’s a good question, if it’s question of ‘our’ truth. But when you get to the cross, the claim of the Gospel is, simply, that it’s the truth. 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. And what we see there, what we see there on his cross, is that God is thirsty. Unquenchably thirsty.

For us.

For all of us.

And I know- this all sounds like a terrifically arrogant assertion.

Unless it’s true.

 

This exegetical rant brought to by a conversation we recently had on the podcast:

The other day marked the Baptism of the Lord on the liturgical calendar, reminding me of how 10 Years ago I was at a funeral home in Lexington, Virginia for the visitation hours of a funeral I would celebrate the next day.  As I usually do at funeral homes, I wore my clergy collar, which costumes me, to Christians and non-Christians alike, as a Catholic priest. When you’re a pastor, visiting hours at a funeral home are nearly as painful as parties or wedding receptions. There you are, trapped in a room full of strangers who desperately do not want to talk to a professional Christian.

Even worse are the people who do, and you’re forced to plaster a fake smile on your face as someone tells you about the latest Joel Osteen book. So there I was, making the rounds, making small talk, when this middle-aged man in a too-tight polo shirt and a Dale Earnhardt belt buckle, shook my hand, called me ‘Padre’ and then proceeded to ask me if I had read Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

“No, I haven’t read it” I lied. “What’s it about?”

He went on to tell me in breathless tones the now familiar fantasy that “the real Gospel message” was politically subversive and had been suppressed by the Church and by Caesar, that the Gospels as we know them are redactions, edited to support the status quo and consolidate the authority of the Empire.

“Sounds fascinating” I lied.

“Oh, it is- and the truth is kept from people today by a secret group called Opus Dei, ever heard of them?”

“Heard of them?” I whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a member.”

“Well, then you should definitely read it” he said without a trace of irony.

“Tell me,” I asked, “have you actually read the Gospels?”

He didn’t blush.

He just said: “I’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie.”

Nonetheless, he wasn’t entirely incorrect.

 

Jesus was/is political. Jesus was/is subversive. Jesus was/is revolutionary. You don’t get sent to a cross for being a spiritual teacher or saving souls for eternal life.

He was wrong though to imagine this subversive message is not to be found in the Gospels. It’s all over the Gospels, from beginning to end. That’s why Christians were persecuted for hundreds of years.

For example-

Take Mark 1, Jesus’ baptism the story on the liturgical calendar this week. As Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark says the sky tears violently apart and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and descends into Jesus. Now remember, Mark’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. And so when Mark identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament is the Spirit ever depicted as such.

Instead Mark expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence. Mark expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different. And keep in mind, Mark’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living right after Jesus’ death in the Empire.

 So when Mark depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird.

The Romans, Mark assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their Kingdom with the King of the birds: the eagle.

     It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle.

A collision of kingdoms- that’s what Mark wants you to see. 

     And that’s not all.

Because the very next verse has God declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’ 

That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 2, a psalm that looks forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world.

Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.

Just as Mark assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.

Mark shows you a Dove.

And Mark tells you Beloved Son.

And then after his baptism, the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are about the arrival of a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

And next, the very first thing Jesus does is what any revolutionary does, he enlists followers to that Kingdom. Not soldiers but the poor.

Skeptics will tell you that you can’t trust the gospels because the radical, revolutionary message of the “historical” Jesus isn’t there, that it’s been expunged. That the Gospels you have have been rendered safe and sanitized for the status quo.

But from the very first chapter of Mark all the way through to the first Christian confession of faith- ‘Jesus Christ is Lord (and Caesar is not)-’ the Gospel is politically subversive from beginning to end.

As Paul says, Jesus’ obedience to God’s Kingdom, all the way to a cross, unmasked the kingdoms of this world for what they really are and, in so doing, Christ disarmed them.

Those who choose to believe the political message of the gospels has been expunged or obscured make the mistake of assuming that the only revolution with the power to threaten the status quo and change the world is a violent one.

 


Or so Jason leads in he and Morgan’s conversation with Danielle Shroyer about her new book.

Original sin, as descried by Danielle Shroyer is the ‘red sock’ in our theological laundry. In her new book, ‘Original Blessing, Putting Sin in Its Place’, Shroyer explores how we are not born separated from God as God has chosen fidelity over separation. We are not separate from God, and if we are, it’s on our end.

You can find her book here.

As we slide into 2017 we’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, Alex Joyner, and Mandy Smith.

In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. And some more Fleming too! Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

Last chance: The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

 

 

     It’s a strange-sounding word: homage.

It’s a word that feels as though it belongs dressed up in period costumes, a word that could be found in an heirloom bible.

Isaiah’s vision of God’s light intruding upon the darkness comes at a moment in Israel’s story when all the promises of God seemed like broken memories. Not unlike the time when King Herod rules Israel and Caesar Augustus issues his decree for a census.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when God’s light would shine bright and clear not just to those within the covenant but to those far outside it. A time when a caravan of nations would travel to the Promised Land to present this God with gifts and to pay him ‘homage.’

That’s how the Hebrew in Isaiah 60 puts it: homage.

St. Matthew, in his Nativity story, tells of this prophecy being fulfilled some 500 years later in the journey of the magi. According to the hymn, these star-followers were “kings,” leaders of the gentile world coming to honor the King of Kings. According to that same hymn, there are three of these “kings.” According to Christian tradition they have names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.

And according to the poet TS Eliot, after having encountered the baby in Bethlehem, these star-followers returned home, “no longer at ease” in the world they had previously known.

Tradition has done much with the magi, but Matthew is mum about all of that.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much about the magi but he is clear and emphatic about why they’ve come: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” they ask the scholars and priests in Jerusalem, “For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to pay him homage.” 

     And when they arrive at the manger, before they give him gold, before they give him frankincense, before they give him myrrh- they drop down onto their knees and they give him homage.

Every Christmas season I like to peruse the newsstand magazines- weeklies like Time and Newsweek– to read their obligatory cover stories about Christmas.

Usually the articles promise new discoveries and have provocative titles like: ‘Was It Really a Silent Night?’ ‘Who Was Jesus’ Real Father?’ or ‘The Christmas Story the Church Doesn’t Want You to Know.’

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing the newsstand at Barnes and Nobles, and I came across a story that featured Richard Dawkins giving his thoughts on Christmas.

Dawkins, as you may already know, is an Oxford biologist and something of a rabid atheist. He’s also the author of the bestseller, The God Delusion.

So who wouldn’t want his thoughts on Christmas?

I flipped through the article and a few of Dawkins’ Christmas comments caught my eye.

“I participate for family reasons,” says Dawkins. “With a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics…so divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as holiday season…understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”  

Wow, he’d be a kick-ass party guest, wouldn’t he?

Richard Dawkins is by any academic or intellectual measure a wise man. He may understand much about a great many things that would leave my head spinning. Yet, I don’t think he understands- I don’t think he knows much about that word.

Homage.

Matthew calls them “wise” men so it’s easy for us to forget that the magi don’t know any scripture. When they follow the star to Jerusalem, the magi have to ask the city’s priests and scholars what the star means.

Matthew calls them wise men, but they don’t know what Messiah means. They don’t understand the ways in which this Christ child is already and will be later a threat to the ways things are and to the powers that be. When they approach the manger in Bethlehem the true identity of the baby inside is still very much a mystery to them.

That doesn’t stop them, though, from paying him homage.

They don’t let what they don’t know, what they still have questions about, what they still don’t understand- they don’t let all that keep them from giving him homage.

Their journey, their visit, Christmas- it was about more than gift-giving. It was about more than paying their dues or finding the answers to their questions.

It was about homage. It was kneeling and bowing and submitting. Worship.

It was an act of humble commitment. A commitment that came with the expectation of servant-hood.

     Before they give their gifts, before they understand who he is or what he means for the world…they kneel before him, Immanuel- God with us, and they give him their lives.

They give him homage. 

     That’s what makes them wise. 

     Knowing God, being close to God- it’s not so much about understanding or knowing the scriptures or being a religious insider. It’s about giving homage.

When it comes to approaching the manger, it’s not about first having all the answers. It’s not about getting your junk in order before you a take a step closer. When it comes to Jesus, worship comes first.

     What I mean is…

There are things about God you can only understand once you’ve given him your life.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive. I know someone like Richard Dawkins would say that it’s intellectually dishonest. I also know it’s true.

It’s almost an impossible thing to do, to hand over your whole self to Christ. It’s almost impossible, but it’s easier than waiting for all your doubts to be erased. It’s easier than remaining who you are and living for yourself only.

It’s almost impossible but it’s, entirely so, wise.

Is juice for Jesus’ blood or water for Jesus’ sweat the better beverage vehicle for Eucharist? Or how about milk? Does atonement mean we suckle at the breasts of Jesus who is our life? These questions and other asides follow in the conversation Taylor Mertins and I shared with Thomas Jay Oord about his new book The Uncontrolling Love of God.

And, in truth, breastfeeding from Jesus is less bothersome to me than process theology. All the same, Thomas was a great guest and his book is great too. You can check it out here.

As we slide into 2017 we’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with Danielle Shroyer, J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, Alex Joyner, and Mandy Smith.

In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. And some more Fleming too! Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

Last chance: The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

 

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

28. How Can We Conceive of the Trinity? 

We cannot.

As creatures, it’s ludicrous to think we can conceive of how God can be both and always three and one, anymore than we can conceive of what it means for God to be both divine and human.

However, that the Trinity is inconceivable is only a problem if you foolishly believe the word ‘God’ is somehow less mysterious.

God is the Creator of all that is and, as such, ‘God’ is necessarily outside the order of all beings. God cannot be classified among beings; God cannot be contrasted or compared with other objects. God holds all things in their existence at every moment of their existence but is not at any moment located among those things. God, by definition, is not an inhabitant of the universe. Whenever we speak of ‘God’ we’re already attempting to grasp beyond the limits of our language, which is not to suggest that to call this ‘God’ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a contradiction.

The Trinity is no less and no more mysterious than ‘God,’ for in neither case do we know what we’re talking about. 

We cannot see how God can be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit any more than we can see what we mean by the word ‘God.’ Thus, Father, Son, and Spirit become our way of remembering that we cannot see God but instead must be shown God. Trinity is shorthand for our belief that only God can reveal God and even then, having been shown, we see only as through a glass, and dimly so.

Yet, that God is inconceivable does not make it nonsense to call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for Trinity follows from the basic principle:

Everything that is in God is God.

That is, there is nothing in God which might not have been in God nor is there ever anything which God might be but is not. God is a Being with no potential, which is to say God is perfect plentitude, fullness and sufficient unto himself, immune to change.

A Being with no potential can have no “accidents”- no features that are ancillary to its being. Every feature of God, in other words, belongs to God’s essence; they are essential to God’s very being.

When we call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, therefore, we merely confess our belief that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit sent by him are not “accidents” but are essential to whatever we mean by the word “God” whom Jesus called his Father.

By naming God Trinity, we profess that Jesus and his Spirit are in and of and from God, and because everything in God is God then Jesus and the Spirit belong to God’s very essence.

Inconceivably, they are God, three yet one.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” 1 Corinthians 13.12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Godson

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2017 — 1 Comment

Dear Elijah,

Your mother and father called me today, New Year’s Day, to inform Ali and me that we were “called” to be your godparents. Thanks to his seminary degree, your Dad, like me, is savvy and manipulative enough to throw that word ‘call’ around to get what he wants. The rub is whether in time I’ll be found to be someone you want in your life.

Your parents waited nearly three months after your baptism to bestow this vocation upon me. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that proves to have been an auspicious delay or an ominous one- or, more likely, just lazy parenting.

Elijah, I didn’t ask or expect such a burden to be laid on me nor, truthfully, am I in any way convinced I’m fit to serve as your godfather. I’m not very virtuous or saintly. I don’t practice what I preach; it’s easier to preach. I’m terrible at remembering dates and occasions; I never send cards. I can do spot-on Brando impressions (look him up), but often I’m still so surprised to discover I’m a Christian that I doubt I’m a good candidate for the sleeves-rolled-up spiritual sage role.

Despite my misgivings and shortcomings, I wonder if your parents conscripting me into being your godfather is exactly right. After all, if I live up to this role then you will understand what I mean when I say that to be a Christian is to be thrust, by your baptism, into a life and into relationships you would never choose for yourself apart from Jesus Christ. If such a lack of choice is a mark of a baptized Christian, then perhaps there is no more appropriate way to become a godparent than to be called on New Year’s Day and be told- not asked- who you are now. A godparent.

And if you believe, as I’ll make damn sure you do, that Christians are a family created not through biology but through baptism then my status as your godfather rates me neck and neck with your aunts and grandmas.

Of course, Elijah, you had even less say in this relationship than me. All you can do right now is splurt, feed, poo, and yank (with something approaching delight) on my goatee. You didn’t choose me. But again, if I live up to my role as your godfather then one day you’ll understand that your parents’ disregard for your opinion and choice in this matter- a matter that less courageous parents would term “personal” or “private”- is constitutive of their faith and what it means to belong to that motley People called Church. St. Paul says in one of his letters that to belong to such a People is like being a part of the human body. No body part, Paul writes, can say to another body part “I have no need of you.” In other words, Paul implies, to belong to the People called Church is to wish you could say to another “I have no need of you” but, because Jesus is Lord, you can’t. You’re stuck with the bastards.

Well, Elijah, thanks to your parents and your baptism, you’re stuck with a bastard like me. I’ve no doubt there will be times when you would like to tell me that you have no need of me in your life, but in the meantime I may as well try to make myself of use. I wonder, have your parents told you whence comes your name?

Here it is, 1 Kings 18:

“Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’”

That’s how Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, makes his entrance in scripture, talking to a king about rain. It’s actually a pretty awesome story: Elijah and the prophets of Baal, or as I learned to say in Hebrew class, Ba-al, Elijah and the prophets of Ba-al.

Elijah doesn’t really hang around all that long in the Old Testament, but the stories of Elijah are go-to’s for a certain kind of preacher. And no story more than this one, this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. One famous preacher, long ago, ended his sermon with the words, “If God be god, follow him, if Baal be god, then follow him, and go to hell.” 

Preaching on Elijah, Elijah, always seems to zero in on the people’s fire-side, altar-side confession: ‘The Lord is indeed God; the Lord is indeed God.’ But the story doesn’t end there. The story doesn’t end when the Lord answers with fire. The story goes on. Elijah says to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of rushing rain.”  And from the top of Mt Carmel, Elijah looks out toward the sea. A little cloud was rising. “You better go before the rain stops you” Elijah tells Ahab.

In a little while the heavens grow black with clouds and wind; there is a heavy rain.

Elijah, who had said to Ahab “there will be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”, three years later Elijah says to Ahab, “you better move along before the rain comes.” 

And then there is a heavy rain.

That’s where the story ends, Elijah. The first story about Elijah in the bible: Elijah and the prophets of Baal. It’s a long story, Elijah, but for all the fire imagery it comes down to rain. Who will bring the rain? It’s a your god or my god, kind of thing. It doesn’t get any more basic than rain. It’s a first commandment, tablet smashing, golden calf confrontation.

The story poses a choice: which god is life giving, which god gives life?

Two, three years in on the famine, no rain…..which god is it going to be?

The rain- it’s a metaphor for what, for which, for who shall sustain and nourish life.

“How long will you go limping with two different opinions about the God who gives you life, who sustains your life, who nourishes your life, who promises you life, today, tomorrow, everyday?” Elijah, your namesake asks.

Elijah’s question- as elemental as it appears- it’s not a simple question. It’s not at all simple. And no way is it easy, Elijah.

The encounter, the confrontation, the choice- every day- between this God and every other god, between this God and every other temptation and every other distraction, every other value.

Elijah’s question- the choice- it’s so basic that you have to answer it everyday.

Everyday you have to choose.

Every day, every day, every one of us makes a choice about which god is life.

Which god is it going to be today?

‘Will you serve God or Money?’

‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’

‘Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?’

They’re inconvenient choices. And no less for you, Elijah, than in Elijah’s day because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.

Therefore, your baptism- if done rightly- makes you not just a Christian. It makes you odd.

By the time you can read this letter, Elijah, you’ll be the age when ‘odd’ is about the last thing you’ll want to be. By the time you read this you’ll be an age where what you want most is to conform, blend in, be normal- a desire from which we never recover.

I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what I’ve done to you in baptizing you. But, truth be told, you should take your gripes up with your parents too. They were more than just accessories to the crime.

Your baptism? Like choosing me as your godfather, they did it without your consent. They did it against your will even. They didn’t wait until you were old enough to ‘understand’ whatever that may mean.

They didn’t postpone your baptism until you could choose it for yourself, and in that your parents may have done the boldest thing they could ever do for you. By baptizing you into the way of the Cross- BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourself, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have a mind worth making up.

You don’t have a mind worth making up that is, not until you’ve had your mind (and your heart and your habits too) shaped by Christ. How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself? After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Elijah, I realize telling you you don’t have a mind worth making up on your own sounds offensive. If it sounds like I’m being offensive in order to get your attention it’s because I am.

Indeed I have to be offensive.

We live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid.

Notice no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’ It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’

Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves. Which, in itself, is a Story none of us got to choose. Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.

It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between religion or no religion. It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between faith or no faith. It’s a fiction, to believe the choice is either the Christian Story or No Story.

We’ve baptized you and your parents have chosen me as your godfather before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself.

We have- they have- done so because if we do not make you a participant in the story of Christ then another rival Story will soon and surely takes its place over your life.

The Story of More. Or Might.

By immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing and by giving you a storyteller like me against your will your parents go against the grain of the culture.

It’s a prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that your parents clearly accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.

You might be wondering, Elijah, how in the world a little thing like baptism could lead to you suffering because of the convictions we mediate to you. After all, you might be thinking, ‘Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.’

No. You should know as my godson that for the first Christians Christianity was a small, odd community amidst an Empire antithetical to it. Christians were a nation within a nation. Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

Baptism then was not a religious seal on a life you would’ve lived anyway. It was a radical coming out. It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation of everything that had come before. For to profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

As you’ll learn in confirmation, Elijah, the words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord. You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other. Which is why when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits. And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might. Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

In other words, baptism was your pledge allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua. If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, Elijah, there’s a reason. A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too. Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian.

After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’ Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts. What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come. Jesus was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs. Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

Eijah-

I apologize for the historical detour, but I do want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with Constantine that makes it possible for us to assume that faith refers to personal beliefs or private feelings or that ‘salvation’ means life after death. Nothing could be further off the mark.

The word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’ Allegiance.

Being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Elijah, because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

It’s about following after Jesus.

It’s about immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, which by the way is what the word ‘baptize’ means.

Immerse.

Elijah,

The truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk and not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor. The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone. If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Perhaps now, Elijah you’re beginning to intuit how what your parents have done by baptizing you and by calling me to be your godfather will make you two a lot more dysfunctional in our world than you otherwise would have been. It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’ Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

The “beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross. But the way of the Cross is the path to which your parents commit you and commit me to you.

If I’m honest, a part of me feels as though I should say I’m sorry, for if you stay true to that path you’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus. On the other hand, Elijah, as much as anything what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe is trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

And with that promise in mind I leave you with the choice proffered by your name: Which god is life-giving?

You have to choose, Elijah.

Every day.

Love,

Jason

Jana Riess of the Religion News Service recently interviewed me about my book. She’s a good reader and a thoughtful interviewer, and she chalks my book up on her Top 10 List for the year.

Here’s the interview. You can find it here too.

It’s probably weird to say that one of your favorite books of the year is the memoir of a young guy battling cancer—what am I, some kind of sadist?—but it’s true. Podcaster Jason Micheli’s memoir Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, which hit bookstores a few weeks ago, is on my top ten list for 2016.

It’s not only hilarious and poignant, nailing the old “I laughed, I cried, it became part of me” wish any reader has with a memoir, but it’s also deeply, surprisingly theological. You’ll find no clichés here. 

The author is a pastor who was diagnosed with “stage-serious” cancer at age 37. I caught up with him by phone a couple of weeks ago. — JKR

RNS: First, tell me about the diagnosis and what happened to you.

Micheli: Almost two years ago this Advent, I finally went to a GI doctor after about six months of having uncomfortable abdominal pains that I chalked up to spicy food or other things. It would go away for a while and I’d forget about it. But two Advents ago it just got unbearable. The GI doc sent me for a CAT scan, and I was told I would get the results in about a week. But I got a call that same night, and the doctor asked me if I was sitting down.

That’s when I found out that my intestine was inverted and it was probably caused by a tumor. They rushed me to surgery. It turned out I had a 10” by 10” tumor and that it was caused by possibly one of five rare cancers. I had mantle cell lymphoma, which affects very few people, but typically they’re men in their 60s and 70s.

I began a year of intense chemo. And I finished that up about a year ago this past fall.

RNS: Were you journaling and writing this book while you were having treatment?

Micheli: Yeah, partly because of my role as a pastor. I was in church in the pulpit one Sunday, and then the next Sunday I was gone. I mean I just disappeared from the life of my church with no notice.

They all treated me as though I was already dead. And that had less to do with me, I realized, than it did with unresolved grief they had in their own lives over other people who had cancer. So many people had no idea how to process this emotionally or theologically.

Part of my vocation as a pastor is to live inside this fishbowl, and it didn’t make sense to hide this most significant thing away from them. So I decided to write about this for them as it was happening, and to do it in the way that they would themselves if they weren’t worried about what their pastor would say.

RNS: What do you mean, “worried about what their pastor would say”? What does that look like?

Micheli: I decided to narrate my experiences without stained-glass language. To not feel the need to protect God from my real feelings and questions. To try to take the language of the faith to see if it could lift the luggage.

I was inundated with people giving me books, some of which were “Christian” books filled with clichés and sentimentality. As a pastor I’m savvy enough to know that those books are crap, but someone else might actually be damaged by that demand for constant cheerfulness. I wanted to be as open and frank about I could in the moment, about the experiences of shame that your body can bring you, from impotence and everything that comes with chemotherapy.

But I also wanted to write with humor. Personally, that’s one of the frames of reference I have in my own life. I do theologically believe that if suffering brings you closer to God, then joy is a part of that. Joy and grief mingle together. That happens in the cancer ward too.

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RNS: In the book you raise the classic questions about why people suffer, but you speak strongly against the “God gave me cancer so that . . . [insert your lesson here]” mindset. Even as you sympathize with that desire to understand why.

Micheli: God doesn’t do things like this to you to make you a better pastor, or a better person. I know that. But I still went through a period of “Why is God doing this to me?” even though I didn’t theologically believe that.

I think that the most Christian posture toward suffering is to rage against it, not to try to explain it. But I still went through that period where I wanted to know why God was doing this to me. One of the undertones that I wanted with the title is that suffering can sometimes make being a Christian seem foolish, so the joke’s on Christians for believing.

RNS: In the book you write beautifully about marriage, like that it was only after your diagnosis and not the dozens of weddings you performed that you ever noticed that the “in sickness and in health” vow always leads with the expectation of sickness.

Micheli: To be frank, it was probably the first time in our lives when shit got real. We have two kids, and they’re both adopted, and there have been some challenges. But this was the first time in our marriage that it became clear how grateful I was for this person I married, and that her character was not something I even needed to wonder about.

We’re so scared of death as a culture. But one of the things we’re choosing when we choose a spouse is someone who can help us die well. I certainly don’t want to do that anytime soon, but I know that I married someone I can count on to help me die well.

RNS: One of the things I loved most about the book is how your situation caused you to look at familiar Bible passages in fresh ways. For example, when Jesus is washing Peter’s feet, you notice that it’s not the act itself that freaks Peter out. He only objects to what Jesus says about how the footwashing shares in Jesus’ death. And Peter doesn’t want to die.

Micheli: All theology is contextual, right? All of a sudden, I was dying. Everything looked different from the perspective. It made me aware of how for many of the stories, particularly in the Gospels, we’ve accrued so many layers of interpretation, but there’s a first-order layer that’s human that we miss. With the footwashing story, we tie that into the Atonement, but on a more human level, it’s telling us that Peter doesn’t want to die. And in the Passion, Jesus makes sure his mother is taken care of when he dies. And Jesus makes sure he forgives the people he needs to forgive before he dies.

If the Bible is a template for how we live, the Passion—which is the longest part of the Gospels—should be a template for how we die. Jesus gives us a way to die.

RNS: What are you hoping will happen with the book?

Micheli: I’m hoping that people in my situation, or people who care about someone in a situation like mine, will be helped by it. That’s the first demographic I have in mind. But just as important to me is that it is a book of theology. I want it to help people who either don’t know how that Christian language works or who have questions or doubts about how it works. I hope the book is able to help them see how someone can speak Christian in the midst of suffering.

Someone who blurbed the book said—and I think it’s correct—that if we’re not able to speak our faith in the midst of suffering, it’s basically useless. I wanted to give a shot of confidence or strength to people who are questioning whether we’re just kidding ourselves with this faith language.

For Episode 67, Crackers and Grape Juice were able to catch up with Melissa Greene at the OPEN Faith conference. Melissa is the co-pastor of GracePointe Church in Franklin, TN, a former member of the Grammy-nominate group Avalon, and Hope Curator at Timothy’s Gift.

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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