Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  March 26, 2016 — Leave a comment

descent     Here’s the Good Friday sermon. Texts were Mark 15.25-34 and Galatians 3.10-14.

You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. Or, you can download the free Tamed Cynic App.

     I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel one Lenten morning when I was a student at Princeton. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day- my teacher and Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra- drew an unnerving parallel between the death of Jesus upon the cross and the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay teenager who was beaten savagely and then tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die, humiliated and alone, in the Wyoming winter.

Matthew Shepard, one of his neighbors noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

It was Holy Week when I first heard that sermon. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked.

On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at what they took to be an ‘unreligious’ story getting equated with the Passion story. The preacher’s parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar, excrutiating pain entailed by crucifixion.

‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was gay so he definitely wasn’t without sin…’ I remember someone at the lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

My liberal colleagues, on the other hand, who typically had less enthusiasm for the cross, applauded the sermon that day, seeing the mere mention of a gay person from the pulpit as an important witness for social justice.

They saw both Matthew Shepard and Jesus Christ as victims of oppression against which Christians called to minister.

Where conservatives saw Christ’s cross as unique, they saw it as symbolic of the unjust sacrifices humanity repeats endlessly.

Both groups of hearers- and I honestly can’t recall where I fell among them that day- received the preacher’s message according to the reified political and theological categories we had brought with us to chapel that morning and, in doing so, we unwittingly underscored St. Paul’s insistence that the message of the cross is deeply offensive to the religious and ill-fitting to the assumptions of the secular.

The religious, says Paul, will forever conspire to mute the cross’ offense while the secular will always prefer more palatable notions of justice, not to mention more charitable appraisals of humanity.

Only recently have I been able to grasp the word the preacher was likely attempting to proclaim that day in Holy Week in Miller Chapel.

The preacher was not announcing that Christ died a martyr’s death, a victim of injustice in solidarity with other persecuted victims. Nor was the preacher suggesting that Christ’s death was archetypal rather than absolutely singular.

The preacher was focusing, as we should do tonight, not on the fact of Christ’s death but on the manner of it.

The manner of Christ’s death, the impunity of it, is what proved to be a stumbling block to us students every bit as much as the Corinthians.

The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it.

The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.

Like Matthew Shepard, Jesus’ death was primarily one of degradation and abasement.

When we proclaim at Christmas that ‘God became human so that we might be with God’ we’re not telling the whole story or, even, the critical part of the story.

God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.

No, God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God.

To say that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death. But neither does supposing the point of the passion is the pain suffered.

It’s the manner of Christ’s death not merely the fact of it with which we must contend. The question Christians so often ask this week ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.

The better question- the right question- to ask is ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

Anything we say on this Good Friday must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.

When United Methodists actually open their bibles and try reading them, they’re often surprised to discover how spare the gospels are in narrating the grisly details of crucifixion. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t do what Tyler Perry did in The Passion: Live on Fox.

Little is said by the gospel writers about the cross because little needed to be said. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost not a painful means of torture but a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, an image every bit as irreligious as Matthew Shepard hanging like a sodden scarecrow on a barbed wire fence.

The one certainty the disciples don’t need to puzzle out on their walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus is the scandalous nature of Jesus’ end.

The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end, isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure.

No, they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.

The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

No one, in other words, expected a crucifixion. In no way did anyone in Israel expect the Messiah to meet with such a shameful death.

God, so far as the disciples could surmise on that first Good Friday, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment.

Consider this, one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai:

“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

– Deuteronomy 21.22-23

Paul takes up this commandment in his letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only this particular method of death, being nailed to a tree, do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

 

According to Jesus’ own scriptures:

“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”

Again, it’s not sufficient on Good Friday to ask why Jesus died.

Just as it would be offensively dismissive to say, blithely, that Matthew Shepard died from exposure, to take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law?

Why did God choose for Christ a manner of death that signaled to his own People the ultimate shame before God?

Why a manner of death that marked Jesus out under God as accursed?

It’s not enough tonight to ponder ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder: ‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’

Why a death that made him exactly what he cries out with anguish: forsaken?

You see-

Heard agains the backdrop of the Torah, Jesus’ cry of dereliction expresses not just his existential anguish or his physical pain. It narrates something objective that transpires upon the cross.

God puts God’s self voluntarily into the position of greatest accursedness on our behalf.

God forsakes God for us. In our place.

Which means-

Our enslavement to Sin, our unrighteousness before God, is such that it can only be rectified by God choosing the one manner of death singled out in the Old Testament as being degrading to the point of eliminating the sufferer’s humanity?

——————————-

Paul writes in Romans 6 that in baptism ‘we have been united in a death like his.’

His accursed, godforsaken death.

You can’t sit with a mystery like that for long before you start asking other troubling questions.

Does it mean that we, with Christ, are put in a position of grave accursedness? Does it mean we should identify ourselves not with someone like Matthew Shepherd, degraded and left to die a shameful scarecrow’s death, but that we should identify ourselves with those attackers who left him there?

Does it mean we’re more like the victimizers than we’d ever admit? Does it mean, as religious as we are, that we’re actually the ungodly?

And perhaps the most troubling question of all on this night when good and religious people like ourselves push God out of the world on a cross:

Is God’s ‘Yes’ to us in Jesus Christ itself also God’s ‘No’ to us?

By getting so close to us, in the flesh, does God, in fact, reveal our distance from him?

I leave it to you, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’m observing Holy Week this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.

A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.

This is from his essay ‘Freedom’ in the volume God Matters, which was published shortly after McCabe’s death.

chagall

‘The story of Jesus is what the eternal trinitarian life of God looks like when it is projected on to the screen of history, and this means on the screen not only of human history but of sinful human history.

The obedience of Jesus to the Father, his obedience to his mission, is just what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father appears as in history. His obedience consists in nothing else but being in history,  human.

Jesus did nothing but be the Son as human; that his life was so colorful, eventful, and tragic is simply because of what being human involves in our world.

We for the most part shy off being human because if we are really human we will be crucified.

If we didn’t know that before, we know it now; the crucifixion of Jesus was simply the dramatic manifestation of the sort of world we have made, the showing up of the world, the unmasking of what we call, traditionally, original sin.

There is no need whatever for peculiar theories about the Father deliberately putting his Son to death.

There is no need for any theory about the death of Jesus.

It doesn’t need any explanation once you know that he was human in our world.

Jesus died in obedience to the Father’s will simply in the sense that the Father will the Son to be human in our world.’

 

Holy Thursday is often called ‘Maundy Thursday’ from the Latin word ‘mandatum.’

Thought most Christians mark the day by recalling the Passover meal Christ celebrated with his disciples, ‘Maundy’ instead recalls John’s scene of Christ washing his friends’ feet and then giving them the ‘mandate’ to wash one another’s feet as a sign of love.

Consequently, Maundy Thursday is a day when Christians give a lot of lip service to the word ‘love.’ However Christians often exhibit little awareness of how impossible love is- especially when we speak of God’s love for us.

The late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote much on the impossibility of God’s love. Taking Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity with the seriousness it deserves, McCabe works out a response that mines the riches of the ancient Christian tradition.

I’m marking this Holy Week by again reading through some of McCabe’s relevant work:

1024px-Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix

“From one point of view, the cross is the sacrament of the sin of the world- it is the ultimate sin that was made inevitable by the kind of world we have made.

From another point of view, it is the sacrament of our forgiveness, because it is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.

Love requires a relationship of equals.

To love is to give to another not possessions or any such good thing. It is to give yourself to another, but this other must share equality with you (or, as in the case of parents and children, the potential for equality) or it is not really love you share…

You will, I know, recognize immediately that this presents a problem about God.

God is evidently incapable of loving us simply because there cannot be this relationship of equality between God and his creatures.

In one very important sense then the Father can only love the Son because only in the Son does he find an equal to love.

The Father can be kind and considerate to his creatures as such, he can shower gifts and blessings upon them, but in so far as they are simply his creatures he cannot give himself, abandon himself to them in love.

That is why any unitarian theory, or any Arian theory that diminishes the divinity of Christ, leaves us as our only image of God that of the supreme boss.

It leaves us, in the end, with a kind of master/slave relationship between God and his creatures. In a sense, it leaves us with an infantile God who has not grown up enough to have learnt to lose himself in love. Such a god may be a kind and indulgent boss, but he remains a master of slaves- even if they are well-treated slaves.

This is exactly the idea behind the rejection of Christianity made (rightly) by Nietzsche.

If, however, with traditional Christianity, we take the Trinity seriously, we too have to join Nietzsche in rejecting the idea.

For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved.

But that is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son.

It is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love we call the ‘Holy Spirit.’

God loves us because we are in Christ and share in his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals, which is the Godhead.

Nietzsche was absolutely right. God could not love creatures; he still can’t love creatures as such, it would make no sense.

But Nietzsche omitted to notice that we are no longer just creatures: by being taken up into Christ- whom the Father can and does love- we are raised to share in divinity, we live by the Holy Spirit.

To trace the line of the argument again:

 

  1. God the Creator cannot love creatures as such. To think he could is not to take love seriously. It is like speaking of someone loving his cat- except even more so.
  2. But God, as the Gospels continually affirm, loves Jesus. Therefore Jesus must share equality with God. There cannot be two individual Gods any more than one individual God.
  3. Jesus came forth from the Father as it is said in the New Testament: ‘the Father is greater than I.’ He is sent from the Father both in his mission in history and in the eternal procession that that mission reflects.
  4. We can say this only because we have been taken up into the mystery itself, taken up into the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son.

Or have we?

If we have not, we have no right to say any of this, no right to say that God is love.”

God Matters

 

descentMany of ‘theories’ of the atonement rely upon a literal reading of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis to which probably Jesus himself, being a Jew and Rabbi, did not subscribe.

That’s not the only problem with how we often speak on Good Friday.

To many Christians, the crucifixion is the means by which God solves the problem incurred by Adam’s Fall. Not only does this ‘solution’ seem much worse than originating problem (fruit of the tree vs. torture and execution of an innocent man), it seems to miss the (obvious) extent to which the crucifixion is an intensified instance of the first sin: the rejection of God’s love.

Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who died a decade ago, enjoyed subverting the conventions of popular piety. In the excerpt below, McCabe meets head-on the challenges posed by Darwin et al to any literal understanding of the ‘Fall.’

By first concurring that social science suggests humanity’s ‘Fall’ was up not down, McCabe locates what Christians mean by ‘original sin’ not in a mythic, primordial Garden but in the historically concrete case of the crucifixion:

“I can remember a time, it seems quite long ago, when it was definitely not respectable to talk about original sin. The notion plainly belonged to some depressing and pessimistic version of Christianity…the other thing that made original sin less respectable was its connection with the whole Adam story.

It seemed ludicrous that one man’s failure should somehow infect everyone else.

And, any way, how many people could still possibly believe in anyone called Adam?

But it seems reasonable for us to try in terms of our ways of thinking to answer the question ‘How come human society is the way it is?’

I would say that the answer is that human beings ‘fell’ not down but up.

That is to say, humans are maladjusted because they have powers which are greater than they can control…

I would also like to propose a Pickwickian sense in which the occasion on which original sin was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus- that this finally gave meaning to this state of Sin.

In the crucifixion of Jesus it is finally manifested that the maladjustment of man amounts to a rejection of God’s love.

The sin of the world comes to a head in the crucifixion, shows itself fully for what it is. And, of course, in coming to a head is simultaneously conquered.

The Cross is both the manifestation, the sacrament, of the sin of the world, and the manifestation, the sacrament, of the redeeming act of God. It is just as we realize our death that we find life. It is only when it appears as sin that it can be forgiven…

To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, people are making the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of themselves.

The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular society showing its inhumanity. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The resurrection is the Father’s refusal to accept this self-rejection of man.”

 

I’m marking another Holy Week by reading the work of the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe.

Here, McCabe cautions against any understandings of the cross that are exclusively religious or theological. The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:

chagall

“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

 

I’m marking Holy Week again by reading the work of the late Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who had a gift for articulating the ancient Christian tradition in concise, clear, crisp prose.

ecce-homo-antonio-ciseri

“In the first place, it seems to me that Jesus clearly did not want to die on the cross. He was not crazy, he was not a masochist, and we are, of course, told that he prayed to his Father to save him from this horrible death. Matthew, Mark and Luke all picture him as terrified and miserable and obviously panicking in the Garden of Gethsemane.

He came through this terror to a kind of calm in accepting the will of his Father, but he is quite explicit that it is not his will- ‘not my will but thine be done.’

He did want to accept his Father’s will even if it meant the cross, but he most certainly did not want to the cross itself.

Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified?

And, if so, why?

The answer as I see it is again: No.

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.

Any minimally intelligent people proposing to become parents know that their children will have lives of suffering and disappointment and perhaps tragedy, but this is not what they wish for them; what they wish is that they should be fully alive, be human.

And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid upon him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to the Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human is to be crucified is not something the Father has directly planned but something we have arranged.

We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not lead to suffering and crucifixion.

Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience and his obedience was to the command to be fully human.

Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, Jesus, not Adam, was the first human being, the first member of the human race in which humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love- and this is what beings are for.

The aim of human life is to live in friendship- a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends upon a friendship God has established between ourselves and God.

When we encounter Jesus, in whatever way we encounter him, he strikes a chord in us; we resonate with him because he shows the humanity that lies more hidden in us- the humanity of which we are afraid.

He is the human being we dare not be.

He takes the risks of love which we recognize as risks and so for the most part do not take.”

– Good Friday: The Mystery of the Cross

IMG_05932This Sunday is Palm Sunday, perhaps the most political Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Here’s a sermon from the vault from Luke’s account of the triumphal entry.

At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.

So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.

He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.

He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?” 

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’ 

And he chuckled.

Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’ 

Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’ 

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.

And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.

So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’ 

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’ 

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’ 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’

I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.

‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’ 

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.

‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’ 

Again with mock sincerity I said:

‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’ 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’ 

And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’ 

Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’ 

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

     At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.

His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.

And establish peace.

The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.

For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.

 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.

They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’ 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.

And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.

He’s talking about:

Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.

He weeps.

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.

They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.

 

‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.

‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’ 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

Well  I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’ 

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’ 

I nodded my head in concession.

‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’ 

That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.

 ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’  

     In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

It’s like he knew.  It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.

And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.

As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.

The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.

 

descentMy friend, Tony Jones, recently featured a guest post on his blog from someone who advocated altering the traditional serving words for the eucharist (The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.) to:

‘Christ is here, in your brokenness. Christ is here, bringing you to life.’

Or, ‘Christ broken, with us in our brokenness. Christ’s life, flowing through our lives.’

Such redactions just won’t do the heavy lifting if one is committed to taking seriously the language of scripture. While the traditional imagery of blood sacrifice may make some squeamish, Fleming Rutledge, in her new book The Crucifixion, insists it is ‘central to the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, and without this theme the Christian proclamation loses much of its power, becoming both theologically and ethically undernourished.’ 

Mainline and progressive Christians frequently express disdain for the blood imagery of scripture. We judge it, snobbishly Rutledge thinks, to be primitive; meanwhile, we let our kids play Black Ops 3, we fill the theaters for American Sniper, and we refer to those innocents killed by our drones as ‘bugsplat.’ That is, if we care about the droned dead at all. We exult in gore and violence in our entertainments, but we feign that we’re too fastidious to exalt God by singing ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

Rare is the Christmas preacher bold enough take the Slaughter of the Innocents as his text while the Washington Post app on my iPhone makes it uncomfortably obvious that the slaughter of innocents goes on every day.

In our disinclination towards the language of blood and sacrifice, treating it as a detachable option in atonement theology, Christians today could not be more different from the writers of the Old Testament who held that humanity is distant from God in its sin and atonement is possible only by way of blood. Viewed from the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, we make the very error Anselm cautions against in Cur Deus Homo. We’ve not truly considered the weight of sin.

Editing out blood sacrifice commits the very act is intended to avoid, violence.

It commits violence agains the text of scripture by eviscerating the language of the bible.

Scripture speaks of the blood of Christ 3 times more often than it speaks of the death of Christ. Such a statistic alone reveals the extent to which blood sacrifice is a dominant theme in extrapolating the meaning of Christ’s death. Scripture gives the witness repeatedly: God comes under God’s judgement as a blood sacrifice for sin. Put in the logic of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system: something of precious value is relinquished in exchange for something of even greater gain. Blood for peace.

We might find such language repellent. Many do. Perhaps we should recoil at it considering how its an indictment upon our own sinfulness. We might wish to alter the words we say when handing the host to a communicant.

What we cannot do is pretend blood sacrifice is not the way scripture itself speaks.

Not only is blood sacrifice a dominant motif in scripture, Fleming Rutledge demonstrates how its a theme upon which many other atonement motifs rely, such as representation, substitution, propitiation, vicarious suffering, and exchange. Something as simple as switching from ‘The blood of Christ shed for you’ to ‘The cup of love’ effectively mutes the polyvalence of scripture’s voice.

And what does lie behind our resistance to blood sacrifice?

Reading The Crucifixion, I can’t help but wonder if the popular disdain for blood sacrifice owes less to our concern for the violence of the century past (and the ways our theological language underwrote it) and if it has more to do with the way that the worldview of blood sacrifice contradicts our contemporary gospel of inclusivity along with its charitable appraisal of human nature and its ever progressing evolution. The self-image we derive from American culture is that I’m okay and you’re okay. We translate grace according to culture so that Paul’s message of rectification becomes ‘accept that you are accepted.’ God loves you just as you are, we preach, Because of course, God loves us. How could a good God not love wonderful people like us?  As Stanley Hauerwas jokes, we make the doctrine of the incarnation ‘God put on our humanity and declared ‘Isn’t this nice?!’

The governing assumption behind blood sacrifice could not be more divergent. ‘The basic presupposition here [in Leviticus],’ says Rutledge,

‘is that we aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. Something has to transpire before we are counted as acceptable…the gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings is assumed to be so great that the sacrificial offering has to be made on a regular basis.’

The self-satisfied smile we see in Joel Osteen is a reflection of our own. Our glib view of ourselves is such that we cannot imagine why God would not want to come near us. Scripture’s sober view of us is that we cannot come near God, in our guilt, without God providing the means for us to live in God’s presence. Another life in place of our own, a blameless and unblemished one.

Whatever our reason for spurning blood sacrifice, our disdain for it raises an even more pernicious problem, for, as Fleming Rutledge implies, if we refuse to interpret Christ’s death as a blood sacrifice, ruling such imagery as out of bounds, what connection remains between Jesus and Jesus’ own scriptures? To jettison blood sacrifice is to unmoor Jesus from the bible by which he would have understood his own deeds and death, making it unclear in what sense it makes any sense to say, as we must, that Jesus was and is a Jew.

Disdain for blood sacrifice becomes a kind of supercessionism.

Desiring to cleanse our view of God of any violence we unwittingly commit a far worse sort of (theological) violence: cleansing God of God’s People.

Which begs the question, my own not Fleming’s, if progressive Christians in America today are substantively different than the Christian European sophisticates of the late 19th century who viewed the ethnic, cultic faith of the Jews with similar disdain.

If we profess the conviction that a crucified Jewish Messiah is Lord, then we must submit to understanding him according to the terms by which he would’ve understood himself.

Portrait Karl BarthI’m not a liberal, I said in a post last week, in which I attempted to distinguish between theological liberalism and political liberalism. People tend to see the earring, tattoo, and beard and make assumptions about me.

But I’m a post-liberal.

I don’t believe anyone can simply be a Christian nor do I think anyone can cleanly subscribe to any of the theologies of the ancient Church Fathers or even to more contemporary founders of Protestant strains like Martin Luther or John Wesley. Everything that comes to us does so by being filtered through particular lens and schools of thought, to say nothing of cultural prejudice. So, I happily acknowledge my Christianity is filtered through the lens of postliberalism.

Postliberalism was first articulated by Hans Frei, who was inspired by the work of the theologian Karl Barth (above), in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.

Frei argued that modern conservative and liberal approaches to the Bible undermine the authority of scripture by locating the meaning of biblical teaching in some doctrine or worldview that is more foundational than scripture itself.

Prior to the Enlightenment, Christians read the Bible primarily as a “realistic” narrative that told the story of the world. That is, the coherence of the scripture story made figural interpretation possible. Jews and Christians made sense of their lives by viewing themselves as participating within the story told in scripture.

Frei argued that during the Enlightenment this sense of scripture as realistic narrative was lost. People’s own rational experience increasingly defined for them what was “real.” As a result, theologians sought to understand scripture by relating it to their own supposedly universal “reality.” They sought to determine the truth within scripture by translating it into the truer language of their own world.

Frei argued that because of the Enlightenment, Christians overlooked the narrative character of scripture.

Liberals looked for the real meaning of the Bible in the eternal truths about God and humanity, while conservative evangelicals looked for the real meaning in the Bible’s factual references.

Both lost sight of the priority of scripture as narrative. Scripture was no longer a story by which Christians narrated their lives. The Bible was turned into a source of support for modern narratives of progress or for doctrinal propositions.

As Frei writes:

”Interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story.”

Postliberalism seeks a third way, apart from Protestant liberalism and from conservative evangelicalism, which itself is also theologically liberal.

Postliberalism asserts the the primacy of scriptural narrative for theology. The word narrative is key.

Scripture, after all, is primarily told through story not propositions; therefore, the truth conveyed in scripture isn’t rational- or rather its non-rational.

We’re story-telling animals made in the image of a God who communicates narratively and ‘truth’ is best apprehended through story not ‘fundamentals’ (Evangelicals) or rational facts universally accessible to all (Mainline Liberals). The ‘universally accessible’ point is key too. Postliberalism denies that such a thing as universal reason exists.

Religion is like language not math.

Christians and Muslims speak two different languages in which the words we use signify different things not the same, universal reality. The word ‘God’ for example connotes something much different to a Hindu than it does to a Jew.

This stress on language comes from George Lindbeck, who argued for a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of religion as opposed to the “cognitive-propositional” (Evangelical) and “experiential-expressive” (Mainline Liberal) approaches that have, he said, dominated theology during the modern age.

Liberal theologies are experiential-expressive in that they seek to ground religious language upon universal claims of human experience.

Evangelical theologies are cognitive-propositional; they claim that doctrinal statements directly or “literally” refer to reality.

Lindbeck pointed out how no religion can actually be understood in those terms. Religious traditions are historically shaped and culturally conditioned. They function instead, he said, more like language. So, christian doctrines should not be understood as universalistic propositions or as interpretations of a universal religious experience.

Doctrines are more like the rules of grammar that govern the way we use language to describe the world. Christian doctrine identifies the rules by which Christians use faith language to define the world in which we live. Quite simply, a non-Christian has no idea what Christians mean by the word ‘grace’ until they’ve been taught to speak Christian.

Because of this, rational arguments for Christian truth claims aren’t possible until one has learned through spiritual training how to speak the language of Christianity.

Incidentally, this is why my children’s sermons are never ‘object lessons’ but always a retelling of the scripture text.

They’ve got to learn the language before they can extrapolate ‘lessons’ from it.

Rather ‘translating’ scripture into secular categories- as liberalism does- postliberalism seeks to redescribe reality “within the scriptural framework.” If Christians allowed the story of the Bible to become their own story, says postliberalism, they would be less preoccupied with making Christianity relevant to the non-Christian world on non-Christian terms.

Like liberal theology, postliberalism takes for granted that the Bible is not infallible and that historical criticism of the bible is legitimate. Like evangelical theology, postliberalism emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Because of its stress on the particularity of the scripture narrative, postliberalism emphasizes the role of the Church in forming people according to the story.

Because of its stress on the absolute saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ, postliberalism emphasizes the inherently peculiar, countercultural nature and mission of the church.

And this retrieval of the inherently counter-cultural nature of the church is how someone who is not a theological liberal may occasionally end up advancing what sounds like a politically liberal position. Put another way, it’s how someone who is not a theological liberal is not always reliably politically conservative.

To put it in post liberal terms:

Christians are people who speak a different language than the rest of the culture and country; therefore, it’s impossible for us to consistently fit into the categories culture and country give us.

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesI’ve been posting a series of reviews of Fleming Rutledges’ new book, The Crucifixion, over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed site. Here’s a snippet from the latest.

It’s cliche, for those in mainline and progressive circles to say they favor the Church Fathers’ emphasis on the incarnation rather than the modern, Western emphasis upon the cross. 

Such a position however, as both Rutledge and Hart point out, ignores how, in the Church Fathers especially, God’s conquest of Sin and Death is the only way we’re incorporated into an incarnate new humanity and that this new humanity is a present, social reality nowhere else but in the community that preaches Christ crucified and baptizes its members into his death and resurrection.

If Rutledge and Hart are correct and Anselm is well within the stream of patristic theology, then what do we with the most troubling and caricatured of Anselm’s atonement analogies? As rookie theology students learn in too cursory a manner, Anselm likens our sin before God to a medieval lord whose ‘honor’ has been offended by his vassals and must be restored, satisfied. In The Crucifixion, Rutledge glosses over this piece from Hart’s A Gift Exceeding Every Debt, and it’s an omission that leads them to two, somewhat dissonant, conclusions and reveals their underlying theological commitments.

Hart translates ‘honor’ as goodness, arguing that in Anselm’s day a lord’s honor was shorthand for the social order to which he was bound and responsible. 

Put biblically, God’s ‘social order’ is creation itself and God’s honor is God’s Goodness to which the good creation corresponds. God’s goodness (honor) requires God to act for his good creation. God cannot not intervene to rectify a creation distorted by Sin and Death.

So then, contrary to the abundant caricatures, Anselm’s God is not an infinitely offended god who demands blood sacrifice, even his own, in order to rectify our relationship with him. Anselm’s is an infinitely merciful triune God who, in order to fulfill his creative intent, says Hart:

‘…recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings…Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.’

Click over to read the full essay:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/03/10/anselm-reconsidered/

descentAs commonplace as it is for Christians to confess, when we say Jesus died for us, in our place, on the cross, we are in effect claiming that God trucks in such violence as the cross.

And as commonplace as such speech is for Christians today, it contradicts the ancient Church Fathers and, even, Ansem of Cantebury who emphasizesd the necessarily nonviolent mode of the atonement.

Even after you’ve avoided the common problems with substitutionary atonement, making clear it is not merely our individual sin (read: moral impurity) for which Jesus dies or insisting we must not divide the Father’s and Son’s wills against one another, that the cross in no way effects a change in God, or that God’s wrath is poured out on the cross not against his creatures but against the Sin that enslaves them, substitutionary atonement still sees the cross as an apocalyptic battle waged by God.

Even after you resolve the popular problems with substitution, a graver problem remains:

God chooses violence to be the means by which we’re delivered.

Whether or not the fact of God endorsing and using such violence is ameliorated by the fact that God suffers it in our stead is a matter of debate.

To my mind, a more urgent question becomes whether or not a community of perichoretic love, the Trinity, whose very nature is peace, could ever employ violence to good ends?

Is not such an act contrary to God’s nature? And God, by definition, cannot act contrary to God’s nature, such a god would be a god of sheer will not a God who is Goodness.

The idea that the cross reveals the nonviolence of God is commonplace in the ancient Church Fathers:

‘God does not use violent means to obtain what he desires.’

– Iraeneus

‘God does not liberate us from our captivity by a violent exercise of force.’

– Gregory of Nyssa

In his retrieval of Cur Deus Homo, David Bentley Hart argues that Anselm, in harmony with the Fathers before him, does not view God as using the violence of the cross as the means to remit sin.

Quite the opposite, the violence of the cross is our violence, our choice. The cross is a product of the system of Sin to which we’re bound.

Says Hart:

 ‘the violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace.’

Hart argues that the same boundless gift God gives in creation the Son gives back in his obedient life offered to God even unto the cross and that such a superabundant gift ‘draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned.’ Thus, Hart concludes, Christ subverts the very logic of substitution and sacrifice from within by subsuming it into the trinitarian motion of love.

As opposed to a violent, apocalyptic defeat of Sin through the cross, Christ’s obedience is simply, as Anselm puts it, ‘a gift that exceeds our every debt.’

 

Image: The Descent from the Cross by Max Beckmann

Over the past couple of weeks folks in and out of the faith, mostly at the gym, have marveled to me how so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump, America’s very own Banana Republic candidate.

‘That’s because they’re liberals,’ I’ve discovered I enjoy replying.

Pause for look of confusion.

‘Theological liberals.’

Pause for further confusion.

‘Don’t look at me. I’m not one.’

What the term ‘liberal’ means in the theological world isn’t the same thing as political liberalism. The two can overlap in sensibilities and conclusions, but not all political liberals are theological liberals, for example. In fact, I would argue that evangelicals, most of whom are conservative when it comes to their politics, are liberal in the theological sense when it comes to their biblical interpretation.

So what’s theological liberalism?

Big picture: theological liberalism is how Christianity reacted to the challenge of modernity.

Specifically, it refers to how Christianity reacted to the Enlightenment discoveries regarding the origin of the universe, evolution of creatures etc. Suddenly with Darwin, Newton and the rest, the literal, biblical view of our world was cast into question. A rational, objective account of Christian faith was cast into question.

One branch of the Christian tree reacted by vigorously defending the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith and asserting how they could be rationally demonstrated as true.

This was the birth of modern evangelical fundamentalism- see it’s not that old a tradition. It’s younger than the 13th Amendment.

Another branch of the Christian family reacted by instead adapting traditional, orthodox Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment.  This branch redefined Christianity’s “essence” so that it no longer conflicted with the “best” of modern thought.  Rather than worrying about demonstrating the rational truth of scripture and doctrine, this branch redefined Christianity as primarily about human experience.

That is, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God to speech.

This branch distinguished between ‘facts’ (Science) and ‘values’ (Religion), or a better way to put it: Science describes the world as it is and Religion describes it as it should be. Thus, Christianity became less about rationally demonstrable beliefs and more about ethics. Whereas Branch 1 reacted to modernity by trying to rationally prove, say, the Resurrection, this Branch reacted to modernity by interpreting the Resurrection as symbolic of a deeper rational ‘truth.’

No longer are the stories of Jesus literally true, they are moral lessons that are universally accessible through our faculty of reason.

If you want to know why most preaching in mainline churches is moralistic finger-wagging and why mainline Christians seem incapable of actually talking about God or their faith… this is why and whence it comes.

Notice what both branches above share:

1. The assumption there is something called ‘Truth’ that is universal, not contingent upon language or culture, and accessible to all.

2. The assumption that Truth is accessed by or through Reason.

3. The assumption that because Truth is mediated by universal Reason then scripture must be an objectively, factual text (Branch 1) or objectively, factually incorrect (Branch 2) thus requiring ‘adaptation’ to fit our modern worldview.

This leads Branch 1 to give scripture too much authority (inerrancy) and Branch 2 no authority beyond its practicality (say, the United Methodist Church  )

In other words-

They both reacted to modernity’s challenges by assuming modernity’s premise was accurate: that Truth is mediated rationally and accessible to all regardless of language, culture or perspective.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

That’s why or how most evangelicals (who fall into Branch 1) can be politically conservative (and, in Trump’s case, tribal) and still be theologically liberal. It’s how, for example, that evangelical preachers as disparate as Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen are, in fact, more liberal, theologically speaking, than Pope Francis. Liberalism is what makes it possible for Donald Trump to quote scripture out of context at Liberty University, completely removed from any participation in and submission to a community of interpretation.

Once you’ve bought into the dominant, underlying premise of your surrounding culture, its difficult to avoid having it shape your fundamental identity and form your ultimate loyalty no matter how much you rail against the culture and its elites.

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-Wales
During Lent I’m writing a series of review essays of Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, at Scot McKnight‘s popular Jesus Creed site. Here’s a snippet from the latest post on Rutledge’s work on justice and divine wrath.

I’ve changed my mind about God’s wrath. 

Or, rather, my friend, Brian Stolarz has changed my mind. 

When reflecting upon the category of divine wrath, thanks to Brian, I no longer think of myself. My mind goes instead to Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian’s client (both pictured above).

Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas. Dewayne had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case; in fact, the evidence which could’ve proved his alibi was hidden by prosecutors and only discovered fortuitously by Brian, years later. Dewayne was released by the state this summer. Brian has forthcoming book about the experience.

Meanwhile, Dewayne has a civil rights case pending to seek restitution for the injustice done to him. 

To seek rectification, biblically speaking. 

I spent about a half hour alone with Dewayne this fall as we waited for his presentation, with Brian, to a group of law students. I’ve worked in a prison as a chaplain and interacted with prisoners in solitary and on death row. Like my friend, Brian, I have a good BS radar. Dewayne was unlike the prisoners I’ve met. My immediate reaction from spending time with him was how difficult it was for me to fathom any one fathoming him committing the crime of which he was accused. My second reaction was to feel overwhelmed by Dewayne’s expressions of forgiveness over the wrongs done to him by crooked cops and lawyers, a prejudiced system, and an indifferent society. ‘I’ve forgiven all that,’ Dewayne told me in the same sort of classroom where lawyers who had turned a blind eye to his innocence were once trained into a supposedly blind justice system.

Here’s the crux of the matter, and I use that word very literally:

Dewayne is allowed to express forgiveness about the crimes done to him. 

But, as a Christian, I am not so permitted. Neither are you. 

If we told Dewayne, for example, that he should forgive and forget, then he would be justified in kicking in our sanctimonious teeth.

In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,Fleming Rutledge points out in her third chapter, The Question of Justice, we commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross. 

The cross is more properly about God working justice. 

You can read the rest of the essay at the Jesus Creed here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/03/03/a-wrath-less-god-has-victims-by-jason-micheli/#disqus_thread

donald-trumps-hair_zpswqc4ev8gMy fellow Virginians awoke this morning with a particularly bad case of morning-after, should-I-go-to-the-health-clinic, shame, having voted for Donald Drumpf last night.

Yes, the Donald makes Silvio Berlusconi look like Winston Churchill and reveals more about America’s underside than Hoarders. Nonetheless Jesus is Still Lord and He’s Neither Feeling the Bern or Wanting to Make America Great Again.

And the same will be true at the swearing in a year from now.

And the same would be true had the results of the election gone the other way.

Christians who find themselves this morning either euphoric or despondent…shouldn’t be either one.

Yes, Trump is a blemish on America (or has only exposed how blemished with racism we still are as a country).

Yes, he’s a blemish on the Republican party (a party rooted in the dignity of Lincoln).

But that’s okay, in the grand cosmic scheme, because America is not the Kingdom.

screen-shot-2012-11-02-at-2-05-46-pm1

Scot McKnight does a good job of framing how Christians distinguish politics from the Kingdom, and how, for Christians, the word ‘election’ refers to being chosen by God to serve as a witness to others; it doesn’t refer to the means by which we demonize others.

Here’s what he says:

Somewhere overnight or this morning the eschatology of American Christians may become clear. If a Republican wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian has an eschatology of politics. Or, alternatively, if a Democrat wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian too has an eschatology of politics. Or, we could turn each around, if a more Democrat oriented Christian becomes depressed and hopeless because a Repub wins, or if a Republican oriented Christian becomes depressed or hopeless because a Dem wins, those Christians are caught in an empire-shaped eschatology of politics.

I can’t imagine 1st Century Roman Christians caught up in some kind of hope whether it would be Nero or Britannicus who would succeed Claudius.

Where is our hope? To be sure, I hope our country solves its international conflicts and I hope we resolve poverty and dissolve our educational problems and racism. And I hope we can create a better economy. But where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on my political party? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn’t matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing progressive wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology.

Now before I take another step, it must be emphasized that I participate in the election; and I think it makes a difference which candidate wins; and I think from my own limited perspective one candidate is better than the other.

But before I take the next step I’ll say this: if our candidates lose won’t make one bit of a difference for our obligation to follow Jesus today. Not one bit.

Participation in our election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world. Where is our hope? Election 2016 may tell us.

What I hope it reveals is that:

Our hope is in God.

The great South African missiologist, David Bosch, in his book Transforming Mission impressed upon many of us that the church’s mission is not in fact the church’s mission but God’s mission. Our calling is to participate in the missio Dei, the mission of God in this world. So, at election time we can use the season to re-align our mission with the mission of God. Therein lies our hope.

Our hope is in the gospel of God. God’s mission is gospel-shaped. Some today want to reduce gospel to personal salvation while others want to convert into public politics and secularize the kingdom of God. The gospel is about Jesus the King and the gospel is about kingdom citizens living under the king regardless of who is in “power.” Therein lies our hope.

Our hope is in the gospel of God that creates God’s people. God’s gospel-shaped mission creates a new people of God. In fact, the temptation of good Protestants to skip fromGenesis 3 (the Fall) to Romans 3 (salvation) must be resisted consciously. The gospel creates kingdom citizens who indwell the church and live that vision.

Here’s my sermon from this past weekend. My text was Matthew 28.16-20. You can listen to it below or download it in iTunes here.

Thanks to artists’ renderings and Mel Gibson, we all know what Jesus looks like.

Obviously there’s slight variations but, basically, we all know what Jesus looks like. We all know he’s white (just kidding…please don’t write a letter to the bishop) and we all know Jesus bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenny Loggins from his pre-‘Danger Zone,’ ‘This is It’ yacht rock period.

So we know what Jesus looks like, but we don’t know what Jesus sounds like.

When Jesus says ‘…go therefore and make disciples…’ we don’t know what he sounds like. There’s no recordings, not even an 8 track. It’s like the opposite of radio; we have the images we’ve got to supply the voice.

And for each of us it’s somewhat different sounding For a lot of you, Jesus sounds like a gentle, soft-spoken, inspiring teacher someone like the dog whisperer, say, or Donald Trump.

Scripture does say the Father and the Son are one, the same, so no doubt some of you think Jesus sounds just like God, who, we all know, sounds just like Morgan Freeman.

Because this is DC, I know a lot of people in politics and to them Jesus sounds…just like them. It’s amazing. It might be the only thing in town on which there’s bipartisan consensus. Whether they want to make America Great Again or they’re Feeling the Bern, they all hear Jesus in their own voice.

Not me though.

On my good days, Jesus sounds to me just like Gandalf- not Dumbledore, that would be childish. On my good days, Jesus sounds exactly like Gandalf.

     But on my not-so-good days, on my bad days, you know who Jesus sounds like to me? That’s right, Sally Struthers, which I think qualifies me as a feminist.

Not the Sally Struthers of Five Easy Pieces or The Getaway. Not Gloria from All in the Family. Not even Sally Struthers the voice of Pebbles Flintstone on the Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show.

No, on my bad days and my not-so-good days, Jesus sounds to me exactly like Sally Struthers of those once ubiquitous Christian Children’s Fund commercials.

You know, the ones where she shoves a Starvin’ Marvin kid with flies in his eyes in front of the camera and, with tears and earnestness in her eyes, stares through the television screen at lazy, fat, self-centered you, who can’t even spare the cost of a cup of coffee to save a life.

On my bad and my not-so-good days, when I hear Jesus say something like ‘…go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them everything I’ve taught you…’ 

Jesus sounds to me like Christian Children’s Fund Sally Struthers, her/his whiney voice guilting me that if I just gave more money, sacrificed more time, exerted more effort, mustered-up some more mindfulness then I could do what I’m supposed to do (the things that Jesus did) and I could be who I’m supposed to be (just like Jesus).

Maybe it’s just me. When you’re a pastor you spend a lot of time thinking about what you should be doing as a Christian.

It doesn’t mean you’re a better Christian (and if you’re a United Methodist, probably the opposite is the case), it just means the rhythms of the job and people’s perceptions of you make you feel like you should be saying Jesusy stuff and doing Jesusy things 24/7.

I mean, you never read about Jesus sitting in his boxers, eating a family-sized bag of potato chips, drinking a beer, and binge watching an entire season of Californication. Not that I’ve done that; it’s just a ‘for instance.’

My point is Jesus never does anything like that. Time’s too precious. The Kingdom of God is at hand and all that.

Last Sunday I taught our confirmation class, and at the beginning of class I asked the students to throw out at me all the attributes of their all-time favorite teachers. Kind. Nice. Generous. Challenging. Engaging. Fun.

And when I asked which of those attributes Jesus possessed as a teacher, guess which one they left off the list? Fun.

Jesus wasn’t, isn’t, fun they all concurred.

Who can blame them for thinking that way?

Sure, Jesus eats and drinks with sinners but even that’s to prove a point about who is in and who is out when it comes to the Father’s love. Jesus never just Wang-Chungs on any night.

Yeah, Jesus slips away a lot for quiet time but whenever he does it’s to pray to God. How annoying is that? Jesus never just chillaxes.

It seems like he’s always speaking truth to power and showing compassion to the poor, and, as disciples- as we tell our confirmands, we’re supposed to be just like Jesus and do the things Jesus that did.

And, as a pastor, you’re never not auditing your shortfalls on both counts. It comes with the job.

And so, even though we know Jesus looks like Brad Pitt circa Legends of the Fall, on a lot of my crappy days our Lord and Savior sounds to me like ‘Save the Kids’ Sally Struthers, her Christian Children’s Fund commercials making my faith feel like a guilty monkey on my back.

For example, for Christmas we bought the boys a Playstation 4. I insist on using the whole title, Playstation, because I’ve already learned that when you say ‘I’m going to go play with my PS’ too quickly, it can sound dirty and lead to unproductive potty humor.

Anyways, we bought the boys a PS4 for Christmas. If you have an actual human style life and you’re not a gaming nerd and you don’t know, the PS4 costs approximately $8,000.

Plus tax.

This is true: for the same amount of money we spent on the PS4, we could have provided clean water to an entire, impoverished village in Africa.

I know that stat because I’m a pastor and because Jesus/Sally reminded me in her guilt-tripping voice as I swiped my debit card at purchase.

Sure the PS4 was expensive but we had to buy it. I mean, their Nintendo Wii was at least 2 years old. What else were we supposed to do? We had no choice.

Still, though, I couldn’t shake the sense of shaming buyer’s remorse that ‘PS4’ is seldom the answer to the question ‘WWJD?’

So when my boys unwrapped the PS4 and opened it up and invited me to play with them, what did I say?

‘Well, I’d love to boys but unfortunately I’ve got more important things to do. I’m going to go pray and then read the Bible and then maybe I’ll go find some sinners to eat with.’

It’s true.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from creeping down to the basement after everyone had gone to bed and playing the Last of Us, a violent, sex-filled, apocalyptic, zombie-killing game for like 9 hours on end.

I didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I just peed in a cup. Even my dog, lying next to me on the sofa, looked at me like I was pathetic.

And looking back at her, I saw in her eyes Sally Struthers’ pained expression and in my head I heard Jesus…reminding me that this was not something he would do and so- he didn’t need to point out- it wasn’t something I needed to waste my time with.

After all, the Last of Us costs about $50.00 and, according to that other Christian Children’s Fund guy, the bald guy with the Wilfred Brimley beard, a cup of coffee only costs $0.39. I don’t know where he buys his coffee but apparently somewhere a cup of coffee only costs $0.39.

Do the math: that PS4 game costs the same amount as 128 cups of coffee and, according to that aforementioned bearded guy, that’s 128 starving children for whom I could provide food, water and medicine.

Jesus saves and so could I, but instead I spent a fortnight trying to advance to the next level of a video game that makes Games of Thrones seem like the 23rd Psalm.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’m back to being an on-the-clock Christian, but math like that runs through my head all the time and it’s usually followed by Sally Struthers doing Jesus voice over in my head.

I mean-

According to World Vision, 3/4 of the world’s population- 75% of everybody- live on less than $10/day. That’s $70/week.

Just to put that into perspective, because I’m a professional Christian and that’s the kind of math I do: I’ve rented the 2010 John Cusack film Hot Tub Time Machine 3 times from the iTunes store.

I’ve rented it on 3 separate occasions.

At $2.99/rental that equals roughly $9.00, plus what I paid to see Hot Tub Time Machine at the theater on opening night ($24) and figure in the ankle-grabbing concession cost ($50) and, according to the Sally Struthers- narrated abacus in my brain, that comes out to a grand total of $83.00.

More than what 75% of everybody in the world has to survive off of for a week- that’s the amount of money I’ve spent on a terrible, infantile movie with a title like Hot Tub Time Machine.

Even a hot tub is a luxury item. And I’m supposed to be like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did!

It’s no wonder Jesus sounds like Sally Struthers to me and not just when it comes to poverty and money.

Not too long ago, I was at Starbucks, sitting at the bar and doing some research on today’s scripture text, when a friend from church- a friend about my age, though not as young-looking as me- sat down next to me.

I don’t want to violate his privacy so let’s just say his name rhymes with Ryan Polarz. 

And he said to me: ‘Hey, I just listened to your Ash Wednesday sermon from a few weeks ago, the one where you mentioned the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. It really got me thinking.’

And I replied: ‘Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.’

Now, take a guess where our conversation went from there.

Did I ask him if that sermon edified his faith or helped nurture his relationship with the Lord? Nope.

Did I inquire about the state of his soul or ask ‘If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?’ No. None of it.

No, we spent about 25 caffeinated minutes Googling 1990 era swimsuit supermodels and reminiscing about our adolescent infatuations. Nearly a half of an hour.

About as long as Jesus was scourged for my sins, instead of teaching anyone everything Jesus taught his disciples. I Googled the women I’d once oogled as a newly pubescent boy.

And even then, in the back of my head, I heard Sally Struthers from the sermon on the mountain saying: ‘If you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery.’

     I mean, is this the kind of uncertain, self-incriminating agony we want to confirm our kids into?

I could go on all day just telling you about my day yesterday or the day before that so it’s not surprising that on a whole lot of days the Jesus in my head sounds a whole lot like ‘Call this # now’ Sally Strutters.

And… it’s why, I think, those first disciples, when they met the Risen Jesus up on that mountain, they doubted.

They doubted.

According to Matthew, when the women go to the womb at dawn on Easter morning, they’re eventually encountered by the Risen Christ, who tells them to go find the disciples and tell them to go to Galilee, to the mountain.

And they do, says Matthew. And just before today’s text, Matthew says that when they see the Risen Christ, they worship him.

Just like that.

In a moment, they break the first- and, really, the only- commandment. Immediately on that mountain they toss aside everything it meant to be a Jew: to worship no gods but God.

As soon as they encounter the Risen Christ, they do what they’d never before. Not when he’d walked on water. Not when he’d multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Not when he’d declared himself the Son of Man.

Only now, vindicated by resurrection and having triumphed over the Powers of Sin and Death, do they worship him as God-in-the-flesh.

But- Matthew reports in the same breathe, the very same sentence- some of the disciples doubted.

     While they’re on their knees worshipping him, some of them doubted.

     What did they doubt?

Did they doubt, as Thomas does in John’s Gospel, that Jesus was really resurrected?

Maybe. But the Risen Christ is right there in front of them, and you don’t kneel down and worship something you’re not really sure is even there. And you certainly don’t worship him if you think he might be someone else entirely.

Speaking of worship- did they doubt whether or not they should be worshipping him?

I doubt it.

If ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ is the lynchpin of your self-identity, then you don’t turn your back on that and worship with fingers crossed behind your back.

No, I think their doubt has everything to do with that mountain they’re on.

Notice, Jesus didn’t need to specify on which mountain they were to meet him. They knew which mountain. They knew that ‘the mountain’ in Matthew’s Gospel only refers to one mountain, to the place where Jesus gave the sermon on the mountain.

     In fact, a better translation of v.16 reads: ‘Now the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had laid down the rules for them.’

Rules.

Rules like ‘Blessed will be the peacemakers.’

Rules like ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘Turn the other cheek.’

Rules like ‘Do not hide your faith in the dark’ and ‘Worry not about the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you’ve got a 2×4 in your own.’

Commands.

Commands that not one of those disciples had proved capable of emulating like Jesus when Jesus was alive and, now, he’s alive again.

And as they worship him on that mountain, I’m willing to bet that what they doubt is themselves. I’m willing to bet what they doubt is their ability to embody those commands like Jesus embodied them. I bet they doubt they can do it. Be just like him.

And if they’re doubting it as they’re worshipping him, I’m willing to bet it gets even worse a verse and a half later when Jesus tells them it’s their turn now. To make disciples of every last person, teaching them every last thing he commanded them on that mountain, every last command they couldn’t keep like he did. I’m willing to bet the house- also not very Jesusy- they doubt that they can be just like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did.

Still though, those same disciples (plus others just like them)- they changed the world.

Despite their doubts about themselves, despite their serious and abundant shortcomings that the Gospels don’t even bother to gloss past, they changed everything.

Sometimes in all our pious jargon and churchy lore we forget something. We forget a simple fact of history:

Jesus did not change the world. 

     When Jesus died, he had a grand total of 0 disciples.

And just after Easter, he had only a handful.

Jesus did not change the world.

The disciples did. Those disciples did.

They took Jesus’ Kingdom movement and in less than 300 years they literally converted the heart of an Empire.

Those disciples and others just like them, who were just as bad as us at being like Jesus and doing the things Jesus did, changed the world. How? How did they do it?

The Holy Spirit is the easy, obvious confirmation class answer, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. I just think it skirts the question.

I wonder-

I wonder if something else is a part of the answer too.  I wonder if, after the mantle was passed to them, those disciples discovered something that we- or me, at least-so frequently miss.

Here it is, and this is everything so wake up now:

     Discipleship does not mean we try to be just like Jesus.

     Discipleship does not mean we try to do everything Jesus did the way Jesus did it.

Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s a byproduct of ordination but, as important a distinction as this, I forget it all the time.

To be a disciple is to live your life- your life- as Jesus might live it if he were you. 

Do you see the distinction?

     To be a disciple is NOT for you to be just like Jesus.

To be a disciple is to tease out what you would be like if Jesus were you.

If yours was the life Jesus had been given to live, not as a first century Jewish carpenter but you, your life. With your humdrum job or your jerk boss or your remaining years and failing health. What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your kids or your aging parents or your shame and regrets or your addiction or your student loans and mortgage bills.

What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your pain-in-the-butt in-laws or your spouse. Who would you be if he were you? If he was a single Dad or a stay-at-home Mom or an enlisted soldier? What if Jesus had cancer? What if he had enlisted? What if he were gay? What if his parents didn’t understand him? How would you be different if he were you?

Discipleship is the word we give to how we answer that question. And obviously it’s necessarily different for each one of us.

I think that’s something we miss when we confirm our kids into the faith.

We make them, make you, mistakenly think that discipleship is mainly about prayer and bible reading and preaching and serving the poor- because that’s the kind of stuff Jesus did in his life.

And then you make the mistake and think that someone like Mother Theresa or Pope Francis or even me is somehow more of a disciple than you.

And so it’s only natural that Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples would be left to those kind of ‘real’ disciples.

But if discipleship is about who you would be if he lived your life, then discipleship is not even about what you do. It’s about how you do what you already do.

It’s about how you do what you already do.

Let me say it this way:

     No apprentice must become the exact, carbon copy of their Master. God only needed one Savior.

You don’t have to live his life.

Jesus already lived his life, and God gave you yours.

There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you. There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you.

No other.  All God wants is for you to live your life the way Jesus might have lived it if it was your flesh he put on. If it was your shoes he was standing in.

I mean-

Sure, Jesus of Nazareth never wasted time playing inane games on the PS4, but if Jesus of Anesbury Ct had 2 sons who wanted to spend time with their Dad?

Yeah.

He probably still wouldn’t play a soft-porn, vigilante zombie game in the beer-drenched darkness of a basement, but Star Wars Battlefront with his boys? You bet.

Sure Jesus of Galilee wasn’t married (no matter what Dan Brown claims) but if Jesus of Alexandria was married to his high school sweetheart, a woman who perfected even him.

And if his wife had had a crush on John Cusack ever since he played Lloyd Dobler held Peter Gabriel aloft over his head, then maybe even Jesus would spend $70 to take his wife to opening night of Hot Tub Time Machine.

Yes, Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s doesn’t seem to have an off-color sense of humor, but if Jesus, Mark and Sue’s son, was sitting at Starbucks one day and if a friend wanted to become more of one by being silly and hashing over the silly infatuations of youth, then (don’t call the bishop) I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even Jesus might Google ’90’s swimsuit covergirls.

You see-

If discipleship isn’t about you being just like Jesus

If discipleship is about figuring out who you would be if he were living your life, then the good news is that the only way to fail at being a disciple is to decide not to try.

That’s the only way to fail.

You see-

It’s not on you to be just like Jesus and to change the world.

Jesus already lived his life.

You only need to figure out who you might be if he were you, in your shoes, in your little part of the world.

If we all, each of us, just did that-

Not only would it get rid of that Sally Struthers voice (let’s face it) we all have in our heads. It just might change the world.

The only way to fail is not to try.

     If you’ve never confessed Jesus Christ as your savior, if you’ve never invited him into your heart, if you’ve never come forward for an altar call, if you’ve never held your hand up during up a sinner’s prayer, if you’ve been confirmed but never really converted…

However you want to put it- if you’ve always held Jesus at arm’s length, if you’ve always only been a maybe, kinda, sorta, almost Christian…DON’T BE.

There’s no reason to be because the only way to fail at being a disciple is not to try.

Give yourself to him. Give your life to him.

And then live.

Live as if yours was the life he was given to live.

 

12744280_1713461858909999_5768302360489547677_nI was the guest at the most recent Pub Theology gathering. Since its Lent, the topic I was given was Faith and Suffering. I apologize for how much I say ‘um.’ The poem I shared during the event is included below.

 

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”

Lord let me suffer much

and then die

Let me walk through silence

and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue

let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green

so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it

and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly

as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane

bumped by a bumblebee’s head

– by Anna Kamienska

Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  February 23, 2016 — Leave a comment

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-Wales

I’m blogging during Lent over at Scot McKnight‘s popular Jesus Creed site on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. 

Here’s a snippet from the latest post.

I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day drew an unnerving parallel between Jesus’ death upon the cross and Matthew Shepard’s death, beaten and tied to a barbed wire fence in the Wyoming winter. Shepard, one observer noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

The season for that sermon was Lent I believe. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked. On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at an ‘unreligious’ story being equated with the passion story. The parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar pain entailed by crucifixion. ‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was…a sinner’ I remember someone at a lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

To read the rest, click over to Scot’s site:

Amazing Dis-Grace (by Jason Micheli)

lightstock_2350_small_user_2741517-2Preaching on Psalm 51 this Ash Wednesday, I noticed something as I followed along with the lector from the pew bible open on my lap. David’s indulgent confession of sin in Psalm 51 ends with this startling moment of recognition:

‘…for you [God] have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is [only] a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

Surely this is a stunning epiphany to anyone who knows the Old Testament wherein sacrifices are frequent, systematized, and not only a delight to the Lord but prescribed by the Lord himself from Mt. Sinai. Consider even the remarkable dissonance- what I discovered Ash Wednesday only because my pew bible was open flat on my lap- of Psalm 51 with the psalm that immediately precedes it:

‘Those who bring their thanksgiving sacrifice [as commanded in Leviticus] honor me…’

Declares God, in Psalm 50.

Israel’s prophets, who come after David and voice God’s judgment upon the greed and false piety of David’s heirs, introduce an even more virulent strain into the bible’s thinking about the necessity and merit of sacrifice. The Christian Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi heaping scorn upon sacrifices offered in vain, and the angry prophet of the rural poor, Amos, most famously announced God’s wrath thusly:

‘…you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

…the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

 

For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!

Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;  as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.

Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’

Those last lines abut justice are familiar to us from Dr. King’s sermon on the National Mall, but excised from their original context they lose their punch and, I suspect for white Christians, turn Amos from a prophet of judgment into a dispenser of vague liberal hope.

For anyone with ears to hear, there is this unresolved tension running throughout the Old Testament as to whether sacrifice is something that God in any way desires or requires.

What do Christians make of this ambivalence regarding sacrifice when we consider what we consider the ultimate sacrifice, Christ’s expiatory offering of suffering and death upon the cross? 

Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’

9780374298470Marilynne Robinson, in her essay Metaphysics, writes:

‘I know the Bible interprets Christ’s passion as expiatory, the world’s suffering as the consequence of sin, for which Christ is a guilt offering. I note as well that when God speaks through the prophets about sacrifice he treats it as the expression of a human need he tolerates rather than as anything he desires.

Certainly the death of Christ has been understood as expiation for human sin through the whole length of church history, and I defer with all possible sincerity to the central tenets of the Christian tradition, but as for myself, I confess that I struggle to understand the phenomenon of ritual sacrifice, and the Crucifixion when explicated in its terms. The concept is so central to the tradition that I have no desire to take issue with it, and so difficult for me that I leave it for others to interpret. If it answered to a deep human need at other times, and it answers now to other spirits than mine, then it is a great kindness of God toward them, and a great proof of God’s attentive grace toward his creatures.

I do not by any means doubt the gravity of human sin or question our radical indebtedness to God. I suppose it is my high Christology, my Trinitarianism, that makes me falter at the idea God could be in any sense repaid or satisfied by the death of his incarnate self.’

Is our thinking, I wonder in Lent, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?

TKC-HeaderFriends,
First, some context:
A year ago this month, the GI doctor called me late at night to ask if I was sitting down. I awoke two days later from surgery to discover they’d removed a 11×11 inch tumor from my gut (henceforth named ‘Larry’). Oh, and I had a Stage 5 rare, aggressive, and incurable cancer.
I’d like to say it came as a complete shock, but the truth is that when I look back on it, I had felt ill as far back as the previous June. I just didn’t have the time, between my responsibilities at Aldersgate and Kingstowne, to acknowledge it and take care of myself.
Starting a new church is a peculiarly exhausting endeavor.
I was so burnt out I didn’t realize I was so ill.
What’s more-
While I was away on medical leave, the burden fell to Hedy Colver and Dennis Perry to cover for me.
Dennis, who was already so old that whenever he stopped moving people would throw dirt on him, aged exponentially in my absence, reducing him to a humorless, passionless, useless husk of his former self, haunting the halls of Aldersgate Church like some walking, talking VH1 Behind the Music cautionary tale of former potential wasted.
My absence meant Hedy had to work hard while Dennis had to pretend to. Any one on staff can tell you, Dennis was working on the same exact thing on Thursday that he was working on on Monday. He never gave up. He never threw in the towel, even though he types like a stroke victim relearning the use of their limbs.
Now that I’ve recovered from my cancer treatment and returned to work, the above has made me realize two things:
1. Dennis and Hedy need me to spell them a break. Okay, I can do that. 
 
2. The church plant in Kingstowne deserves a planting pastor who can give it the time, energy, and dedication it needs. I can’t do that. 
After a year of intense chemo, which is still ongoing, I’m still not myself. I know that. Plus it’s more important than ever for me to maximize my time with my family. They need me.
When it comes to the Kingstowne plant, I need to pass the baton. 
But, in truth, the baton was already passed. 
I wasn’t the only one to start a worshipping community in Kingstowne. The vision was owned and implemented by people just like you, and I’ve been gone from Kingstowne for over a year now and in that time other leaders have carried on and expanded upon the original mission. That mission, don’t forget, always had as it’s guiding line Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians that we (as in, not just the pastor) have been given Christ’s ministry of reconciling love. From the start it was a shared ministry and that’s what it will continue to be.
Since she arrived in July, Michelle Matthews has brought leadership, vision, and clarity to the Kingstown plant. She possesses not only the energy I lack, she has a far superior aesthetic too. Truth be told, I only see some of the deficiencies in my own leadership of Kingstowne by seeing her strengths in action. Thanks to Cancer, I’m not at all threatened by that fact. Michelle is an obvious missional leader and I pray she’ll be an asset to the Kingstowne Communion.
In hindsight, I also think it a gift that Michelle can steward a church plant without the additional burden of other pastoral duties at Aldersgate. She can make Kingstowne what I never could: her sole focus. As a result, both she and Kingstowne are ideally positioned to thrive. I look forward to watching the fruit of her ministry with you.
And that gets to the gist of this random update if you’ve bothered to scroll down this far. 
This past Sunday was my first weekend back in the pulpit, and, in reconnecting, I realized it would be helpful if I clarified exactly what my role will be at Aldersgate.
Happily, I will return to my pre-Kingstowne duties at Aldersgate’s main campus. I will not be returning in any official role to the Kingstowne community. I will oversee the education and mission/service ministries at Aldersgate and I will continue to preach  and offer pastoral care there. 
 
Michelle will serve as the appointed pastor to the Kingstowne Communion. 
Don’t worry, I’ll be around Kingstowne, just not as its pastor. Instead I’ll be a participant who happens to be a pastor. After this year, I can’t tell you how much that distinction means to me. And it’s an easy distinction for me to make knowing Kingstowne has such gifted leadership not only in Michelle but in you.

39164Facebook alerted me that this post has its 2 Year Anniversary today.

It’s important to note what I failed to note previously.

The question is posed not to me, but to Francis Spufford, the author of the dynamite book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, who gives what I think is a terrific response to the question regarding his writing style:

“Why do I swear so much?

To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness.

But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony.

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m f@#$%^& embarrassed.”

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m offing embarrassed. Perfect answer.

Perhaps more revealing about the above quote is that while swearing makes few appearances in Church, irony abounds. But truth- emotional truth- more reliably resides with the former than the latter.

Spufford’s Unapologetic is that on two counts. It’s an unapologetic defense that Christianity entails a good deal more than believing in fairies. It’s not even- primarily- about belief Spufford argues. It’s also not a traditional work of apologetics- the rational defense of Christian doctrines. Beliefs. Ideas.

More like compass and map, Spufford thinks that Christianity gives us the tools to name truthfully our emotional experience in the world– tools, he points out convincingly, atheism lacks wholesale. Secular materialism, after all, can offer a rival explanation for the origins creation, but what it absolutely cannot do is offer any sort of hope.

The fallacy at the heart of new atheism, Spufford observes, is the assumption that if we could just do away with God, Christianity and the Church- accept that there’s probably no God- then we could all just get on with enjoying our lives.

But, Spufford counters, enjoyment is just one of many emotions.

“The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product…to say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying mountains should only have summits…This really is a bizarre category error…What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. It amounts to a denial of hope of consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1500 years ago and it’s still cruel.”

Unapologetic is bracingly honest and laugh-out loud funny and I couldn’t commend it enough. In chapter 1 he deconstructs John Lennon’s utopian song, Imagine (‘the My Little Pony of philosophy’).

And in chapter 2 gives a clear-eyed acronym for what Christians mean by that freighted word Sin:

HPtFtU:

The Human Propensity to F Things Up.

Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Richard Dawkins have anything as simple and jarringly true as HPtFtU.

Atheists may have a rival explanation for the universe’s origins. What they do not have is language to reveal how it is that very often our lives are not what we want them to be while nevertheless being the product of all the wants we chose along the way.