Barbara Brown Taylor — Holy Envy
David Bentley Hart — That All Shall Be Saved
Phillip Cary — The Meaning of Protestant Theology
Steve Harper — Holy Love
Emma Green — Because Beth Moore is Their Pastor
Barbara Brown Taylor — Holy Envy
David Bentley Hart — That All Shall Be Saved
Phillip Cary — The Meaning of Protestant Theology
Steve Harper — Holy Love
Emma Green — Because Beth Moore is Their Pastor
Mark Galli recently set off a Twitter war and a media feeding frenzy for his editorial in Christianity Today, of which Galli is editor-in-chief, arguing for the removal of President Donald Trump. While Trump labled CT a “far-left” magazine, it is in fact the National Review of conservative Protestants. Galli is also the author of a number of books. His most recent, Karl Barth for Evangelicals, is the topic of our conversation.
You can find Mark’s editorial here
The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight; it was a cold and crowded Christmas Eve. My mother made me go. When she said through my bedroom door, “Get dressed in something nice, we’re going to church,” somewherea needle scratched clear off a record.
At that point in my life, the closest I’d ever come to church was with Kevin McAllister and Old Man Marley in Home Alone.
We’d never gone to church before. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left. From the discreet removal of the balcony, I learned “Silent Night” had more than one verse, and I discovered that the wise men, whom someone called magi, were conspicuously missing from the gospel lesson the woman wearing an “ugly Chrismas sweater” read to us.
I was a teenager.
And, I didn’t want to go.
Why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church? I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to listen to a middle-aged gasbag preach at me and try to make it all go down easier by telling lame jokes and making tame pop culture allusions.
Now, I’m the middle-aged gasbag some of you are forced to endure and— fair warning— lame jokes are the only sorts of jokes the geezers will let me get away with on Christmas Eve, so don’t get your hopes up.
But, God got to me.
And I’m up here, now because years ago someone forced me to sit out there on a night like tonight, even though I felt so woefully out of place as to feel “unwelcome.”
My point is that I know firsthand how Christmas Eve is a night when all sorts of people gather from different places in life and do so for a variety of reasons. Whoever you are, from wherever you have come, and whatever the reasons that brought you here, “welcome.”
You might be an every Sunday regular listening for bits of sermons you’ve already heard. Welcome.
You might be parents of amped up kids with sugar in their veins and Santa on their minds; meanwhile, you’re sitting there wondering if you’re out of Scotch tape or AA batteries, and if the CVS and the ABC will still be open by the time the service is done. Welcome.
You might be a fingers-crossed skeptic, thinking you’re the only one here tonight with more questions than clarity. You’re wrong and you’re still welcome.
You might be depressed and feel no joy in you tonight. And that’s okay because tonight the joy isn’t about you, it’s about something that has happened outside of you. So, welcome.
Maybe you yelled at your wife on the way over here tonight. Welcome.
Maybe you’re like Alan Rickman in Love Actually and have a present hidden in your pocket that your wife thinks is for her. If so, A) Joni Mitchell never makes a good gift and B) Welcome.
Maybe you’re secretly relieved your sister won’t be coming this year. Welcome.
Maybe you’re giddy with spite that your ex-husband won’t see the kids this holiday. Welcome.
Maybe you’re terrified you can’t make it through another Christmas on the wagon. Welcome.
Maybe you can’t believe to see your Trump-loving neighbor here tonight. Welcome.
Maybe you can’t believe your Trump-hating neighbor is here tonight. Welcome.
Maybe all the images of the baby Jesus this season just make you think of Baby Yoda and, after five weeks and seven episodes of the Mandalorian, you just want to strangle that little green Benjamin Button.
Welcome to you too.
Tonight, all of you are as welcomed as the next person because, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a club of good, pious, religious, moral people making their way up to God.
Christianity is about God coming down— God coming down in Jesus Christ— to people like us.
People whose goodness is inconstant.
People whose piety is imperfect.
People whose morality is convenient and whose faith is unreliable.
All of us—
We’re all guests tonight of the God who has come down to us in the flesh.
To dwell with us.
We’ve all been welcomed as God’s guests— just as we are.
Here, I’ve got a Christmas story for you.
Ellen Baxter is the founder of Broadway Housing Communities in New York.
In the 1970’s as a pyschology student at Bowdoin College, Baxter set out to discover a more humane way to treat the mentally ill.
As an undergraduate, she’d faked her way onto a pyschiatrict ward with a bogus diagnosis of dangerous depression, so that she could observe how the patients were treated.
She left convinced that American culture’s obsession with improving and fixing and changing ourselves had infected the mental health system, too. “We’re stuck on recovery,” I heard her tell NPR, “but when you fail to deal with people as they are, when you’re dead set determined to fix them and change them, you end up changing them for the worse, because you erode their humanity.”
Ellen Baxter’s research through old medical journals and pyschology articles led her to a modest village in Belgium named Geel (pronounced, “Heil”)
According to those dusty journals, Geel had the highest success rate of recovery for the mentally ill.
At the center of Geel is a church dedicated to St. Dymphna, who was martyed in Geel in the 7th century.
St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally ill, which is why, beginning in the 8th century, Geel became a pilgrimage destination for the mentally ill.
Five centuries later, starting in the 13th century, the residents of Geel began boarding those pilgrims into their homes.
Geel became a place where everyday people (farmers, bartenders, blacksmiths) welcomed insane strangers into their homes no questions asked, just as they were, no matter the risks, welcomed them “like they would a beloved aunt or uncle.”
By the 19th century, this practice of hospitality earned Geel the nickname, “Paradise for the Insane.”
And by the turn of the 20th century, this Christian practice became a public system where doctors place patients into the homes of hosts, who have no idea what diagnosis their guests bring with them.
By 1930, over a quarter of all the residents of Geel were mentally ill— about 10,000 people.
According to Ellen Baxter, the average length of stay for a guest with a host family— and notice, they call them “guests,” not patients— is 28.5 years; meanwhile, a third of all the guests stay with the same host family for almost fifty years.
They take these broken, crazy guests into their homes, and they live with them and they die with them.
Ellen Baxter won a grant fellowship to spend a year studying in Geel.
She describes going from house to house in Geel, interviewing host families, asking the same questions and always getting the same answers.
“Do you find it to be a burden?
“Do you find it tiring?
“Do you find it painful?
It’s just life, a bus driver told her.”
“Over and over again, I heard the same responses from the host families I would visit. Host families would shrug their shoulders and reply that “crazy” is just part of normal life. It made me wonder,” Ellen Baxter says, “if I had stumbled upon a race of angels.”
But, Ellen Baxter says she still didn’t understand why the villagers of Geel were so successful at rehabilitating guests— more successful than modern medicine and these are peope with serious mental illnesses— until she met the “buttons guy.”
The buttons guy was a middle-aged man, a boarder, who, every single day, would twist all the buttons off his shirt, nervously twirl them off slowly every single day. And every single night, his host mother would sew all the buttons back onto the buttons guy’s shirt.
Every day he twists them off.
And every night she sews them back on.
“What a waste of time,” Ellen said when she first heard the host mom describe what she did in order to live with the buttons guy, “You should sew the buttons back on with fishing line so that way he can’t twist them off.”
And the host mom reacted with offense,
“No! No, that’s the worst thing you could do. This man needs to twist the buttons off. It helps him— to twist the buttons off every day.”
“You don’t understand,” the host mom explained to Ellen Baxter, “In order to accept mentally ill people into your home, you first have to accept what they’re doing. You have to accept their oddness and their idiosyncracies. You’ve got to let them take their buttons off. Being with them is the first step in being able to do anything for them.”
And that’s when Ellen Baxter stumbled upon what she calls “the solution of no solution.”
Once she knew what to look for in Geel, she saw it practiced from house to house.
What freed guests for healing and rehabilitation was the way their hosts refuse to treat them as people with problems to be fixed.
Instead, they just welcomed them into their homes to share life with them. The hosts’ acceptance of their guests without any expectation of changing them is, in itself, the elixir with the power to change them.
Ellen Baxter calls what she found in the homes of Geel “the strange healing power of not trying to fix the problem.”
In the Church, we call it grace.
And it’s why we call this story that gives us Christ Gospel.
It’s good news!
John doesn’t give you the Christmas story the way Matthew or Luke tell it. John doesn’t mention Caesar or a census or a star over the city of the shepherd king. There’s no manger, no donkey, neither a Joseph nor an angel. John gives you his Christmas story by telling you that the Word which spoke the stars into the sky “became flesh and dwelled with us.”
The Law— God’s expectations for who you should be and what you should do and how you should change and fix yourself— came through Moses, John announces as excitedly as the angel Gabriel in those other Christmas stories.
But, the strange healing power of not trying to fix the problem has come through Jesus Christ.
The Word became flesh and lived with us, John writes.
And the word John uses there for “Word” (logos), is the same word the Old Testament uses for the tabernacle, the make-shift tent the Israelites pitched as they wandered in the wilderness.
As God’s people journeyed for forty years, from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, God journeyed with them in the tabernacle.
The word in Hebrew is dabar.
It’s the same word the Bible uses to describe the ten words of God, the Commandments, sealed inside the ark. It’s the word the Bible uses when Moses hides himself in the cleft of a rock in order to catch a glimpse of God’s glory. And it’s the word the Old Testament uses for the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem— the place Jesus will call his Father’s House. The holy of holies was where God lived.
The dabar was where God met man.
But not just anyone could meet God there at the curtain into the dabar.
We’re too broken by sin, the Bible says, even to come close let alone be welcomed in the place where God lives.
Only the high priest of Israel on behalf of all his people could venture near the dabar and even the high priest first needed to be made acceptable. Even the high priest had broken too many of God’s expectations, God’s Law. The high priest first needed to fix his own sin problem through ritual purification. Only then did the high priest dare come near God’s home.
Mary’s womb is the holy of holies and in her baby, the dabar became flesh and lived with us, John tells us in his Christmas story.
And notice, there’s no high priest in this Christmas story.
Nothing’s been required to render you acceptable first.
Ellen Baxter describes a guest she met in Geel named Des.
Des suffered terrors every night that bloodthirsty lions were about to pounce through the walls to eat him.
“It wouldn’t work to tell him the lions aren’t really there. It wouldn’t work to try to convince him that he should change and be not afraid,” his host, Toni explained.
Instead, every night, Toni and her husband would rush outside banging pots and pans and roaring like lions themselves to scare the lions away.
“And that would work every time,” Toni explained, “He could rest. And then, eventually, one day Des wasn’t afraid of the lions anymore, and then one day the lions weren’t there anymore. But, this is important, making him unafraid of the lions, curing him of his terrors, was not our goal. Our goal was simply to welcome Des into our home, just as he was, and to share our life with him.”
Maybe you don’t twist the buttons off your shirt day after day.
And you might not think bloodthirsty lions are about to leap out of the walls to eat you.
But we all suffer delusions. And we all hear voices in our heads.
Some of you may be crazy enough to think that you’re basically a good person and, therefore, you don’t need Mary’s boy to live for you the life of perfect faithfulness that God requires of you.
Some of us could be so insane we actually think the sins we’ve sinned are somehow too great for Jesus Christ to have forgotten them forever in his grave.
And, some of you just might be deluded enough to think that you’re bad, that your resentments and jealousies, your broken relationships and bitter strings of regret, somehow put you beyond God’s mercy— now that’s just plain crazy.
Some of you actually may think that, because you tweet the right opinion or post the right position on Facebook, you’re righteous; meanwhile, some of you really think that you’re the only person here tonight who doesn’t have it all together.
You might think you’re the only person here whose family is a disaster or whose marriage is a trainwreck.
Or, you’re the only person here who doesn’t believe most of what I’ve preached and, therefore, it doesn’t apply to you, too.
We all suffer delusions.
And we all hear voices in our heads.
Voices telling us we’re unlovely or unloveable. Voices that tell us we’re inadequate or unforgiveable.
Voices that never tire of pointing out all the ways we fall short of a standard that exists only in our heads.
Voices that never quite go away and quit their whispering that the Gospel news is too good to be true.
If I have one Christmas wish tonight for people like you— people like us— it’s for you to see what John wants you to see:
that in Jesus Christ, in the humanity of God,
God has welcomed you into his home— this is paradise for the insane.
In what the Church calls the incarnation, God has taken you into himself not as a patient (to be changed) but as a guest (to be welcomed).
God has welcomed you into the home that is Christ’s body and wrapped you in the gift of Christ’s own perfect righteousness, to live and die with you, without any expectation or need for you first to be fixed.
In Jesus Christ, God dwells with us, sewing our buttons back on and banging away our imaginary lions until all is calm and bright and we can rest.
John, in his Christmas story tonight, calls that grace, and even an unbeliever like Ellen Baxter can testify to its strange healing power.
Merry Christmas and welcome home.
For our Children’s Christmas Eve service, I scripted a series of reflections that some of the children and I delivered together, taking the verses of the carol “The Friendly Beasts” as a guide. I don’t think it sucks.
1. Jesus Our Brother, Kind and Good
Pat singing: “Jesus our brother, kind and good, was humbly born in a stable rude…”
Hold up, “brother?” My last name isn’t Christ. Unless my mom has neglected to mention a very big piece of information, I don’t have any brothers. And if the baby Jesus is my brother, then why didn’t I get any golden fleece diapers too? How come I got stuck with the Costco brand?
No, it’s not like that— Jesus is everybody’s brother; you, me, the guy in the back with the ugly Christmas sweater, the uncle your mom hopes doesn’t come for Christmas dinner this year, the lunch lady with her hair net.
All of us, Jesus is our brother.
It’s what the Bible means by calling Mary’s baby the “Second Adam.”
He’s the start of something new.. It’s why Matthew starts his nativity story not with the angel Gabriel, but with the very same word that starts the whole Bible.
“In the beginning…”
So Jesus is our brother because Jesus is the Second Adam.
Christmas is like God’s “do-over.”
Do-over? What was the matter with the Old Adam?
What was the matter with the Old Adam? Really? It’s like Indiana Jones says in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” The problem with the Old Adam was, you know, the s-word.
The s-word? You mean the word my dad says during Redskins games?
What? No. Sin. The s-word.
Oh right, sin— that’s the stuff we do to get on God’s naughty list, right?
No, God’s way better than Santa. God doesn’t have a naughty list. No, sin— pay attention now— is not taking God at his word. Sin is not trusting God’s words.
I don’t get it.
Remember, God tells Adam not to eat a particular kind of fruit from a particular sort of tree, because it would make him die— must’ve not been organic or something.
Anyways, before you can say, “Do these fig leaves make me look fat,” a snake comes slithering along and Adam must’ve understood parseltongue, because the snake says to the Old Adam, “Did God really say that fruit would make you die? It’s as good as any fruit at Whole Foods. It won’t make you die.”
Just like that, faster than God hung the stars in the sky or Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels, Adam no longer trusted God’s words.
Adam ate the fruit and died..
And God had told him the truth.
Later, Adam’s children, the People of Israel, they didn’t take God at his word either. Before you know it, the s-word, not trusting God’s promises, led to violence and greed and injustice.
So what’s the New Adam do?
The New Adam does what the Old Adam didn’t do. Jesus lives his whole life trusting every word God gives him.
Thus, tonight, for all of us, to be the brothers and sisters of the baby Jesus, it’s about taking God at his word.
It’s about trusting God’s word when God, through his angel, tells you tonight, “I am bringing you good news of great joy. This day, in the City of David, a savior is born for you.”
2. The Donkey, Shaggy and Brown
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried his mother up hill and down;
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town.”
Did you know there’s a talking donkey in the Bible, in the Old Testament?
So what? My mom says there’s one in the pulpit here most Sundays.
I guess Christmas isn’t the only day miracles happen.
If the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem could talk, I bet it would’ve had some four-letter words for Caesar Augustus.
Just think, the trail from Nazareth to Bethlehem is seventy miles long. And that’s without any WAWAs, EZ Pass lanes, or podcasts.
The journey likely took Mary and Joseph a week, and all because some stooge sitting behind his desk in the capital of the free world decided to take a census. Caesar wanted to count the Jews in order to figure out how much he should charge them for the privilege of Caesar’s army occupying them like prisoners.
Mary and Joseph have to pack their bags and head to Bethelehem because of politics.
Gosh, I’m glad we don’t live in a time when the census gets used as a political weapon. I guess when you have a salad named after you, you think you can get away with anything.
No, actually, Caesar isn’t his name. Caesar is his title. Caesar is just the Latin word for the Greek word “Christ” and the Hebrew word “Messiah.”
They all mean “King.”
The Christmas story, the Gospels want you to see, is a collision of kingdoms.
Wasn’t it a donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem to a cross just like it was a donkey that carried him in Mary to Bethlehem?
Yes, and I bet that donkey had some awful things to say— the kinds of things you can only say on Twitter. After all, that donkey was a witness to the terrible ways they treated Mary’s boy before finally nailing him to a tree.
Do you know the difference between animals like donkeys and all the rest of us?
Um, we can distinguish between a water bowl and a toilet?
No. Well, maybe, yeah, but— we’re the only animals who can choose to doubt or to trust words. Animals like dogs and donkeys can recognize words— but they can’t trust words.
We’re the only creatures who can take the incarnate God at his word when he says from his cross, “I forgive you, you don’t know what you’re doing. But, you will be with me, in paradise.”
3. The Cow, White and Red
I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I gave him my manger for his bed;
I gave him my hay to pillow his head.”
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red.
When it comes to Christmas, most of us think the important word for the season is “for.”
Christmas is a time we feel drawn to doing things for others. We buy presents for our loved ones. We worry over cooking up the perfect meal for our family. We think this is the season when we should do something kind for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Cows aren’t the smartest beasts in God’s creation, but…
What do you mean cows aren’t smart? They might misspell chicken, but that’s still pretty good for not having opposable thumbs.
I don’t get it.
Duh, it was a Chik Fil A joke.
Not your best material.
They can’t all be pearls, but when half the room is here against their will we gotta try to make them smile, right?
If you’re just trying to shamelessly appeal to the audience, you should make a reference to Baby Yoda.
I’d never stoop so low.
[Show Slide of Baby Yoda]
I still say cows are dumb; on the udder hand, the cow at the manger knows what we forget. “For” may be the word with which we celebrate Christmas, but “for” isn’t the way God celebrates Christmas.
Remember, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.’”
Before Christmas is the start to God doing something for us, it’s God coming to be with us.
So with is a tiny little word but it gets to the heart of Christmas?
And “with” is the word that gets at the heart of that other word “Gospel,” because the Gospel is the promise that God is not far off from you somewhere in heaven.
You don’t have to change.
You don’t have to straighten up or stop your sinning.
The Gospel is the promise that God comes down to you— not just in a dirty manger but in the muck and mire of your everyday life.
The Gospel is the promise that the Holy God is with you in the difficult places of your life.
The baby in the manger is not the way we come to God.
The baby in the manger is the way God comes to us.
People often ask themselves “Where is God?” in the midst of their problems.
If you’ve ever wondered where God is for you when your life has turned upside down, then remember that the promise of Christmas, the promise of the Gospel is that Heaven has been turned upside down, too, and that God comes down to you.
Whomever you are, the only work you need to do tonight is to take Jesus at his word.
When the God born tonight comes back from the dead, he promises his friends— friends who DO NOT deserve such a promise— “Always, until the end of the aeon, I am with you.”
In fact, he’s as close to you tonight as this table.
Mary and Joseph rested the incarnate God in the hay the cow was to eat. Likewise,
Christ is here in creatures of bread and wine.
4. The Sheep with Curly Horn
I, ” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave him my wool for his blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn.
I thought the next verse was about a pig.
No, I’m sure of it. I learned the song in preschool. It’s “I, said, the pig with curly tail.” It’s a pig.
No, there were definitely no pigs at the nativity.
Are you sure?
As sure as I am that the wise men didn’t bring the King of the Jews Persia’s finest oysters and bacon. If we can identify with anyone in the manger scene, it’s probably not the wise men or the shepherds.
It’s the sheep.
Jesus says that he’s the Good Shepherd. Think about it, he’s the one to whom his mother grew up praying “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
To profess that the Lord is your Shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep.
But, sheep are lame.
That’s the point. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into problems entirely of their own making. Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd.
Being a sheep is worse than finding out you’re a Sagitarius.
Exactly. It’s offensive even. Sheep aren’t like other animals. Sheep aren’t like donkeys. The only real work— if you can call it work— a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice.
I have a hard time just listening to my teachers.
Don’t we all, but Jesus is better than your teacher.
I’m not sure you’re allowed to say that.
Sure I am. Look, the baby Jesus— when he grows up— tells a story about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of ninety-nine.
The story is Jesus’ way of responding to a question about who is most awesome in God’s eyes, the do-gooding every Sunday types or your garden variety skeptics, cynics, and sinners.
Jesus doesn’t answer their question by telling them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who give to the poor or never leaves a nasty comment on Facebook.
No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who is nothing but the recipient of the Shepherd’s finding.
We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd’s determined work of finding.
Speaking of getting lost, what’s this got to do with Christmas?
Christmas is a time when it’s easy to wonder whether you’re really a part of the flock.
It’s easy to doubt God.
It’s even easier to doubt you’re worth him finding you.
St. Paul calls the incarnation an invasion; that is, Christmas is the beginning of a rescue mission. And the promise of the Gospel is that you don’t need to do anything to make yourself findable.
5. The Dove from the Rafters High
I, ” said the dove from the rafters high,
“I cooed him to sleep so that he would not cry;
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and i.”
“I, ” said the dove from the rafters high.
Jesus is called a Prince, right?
Yep, the Prince of Peace, Isaiah says. Why?
Well, I was just wondering. If Jesus is a prince, then does that mean Jesus knows what it sounds like when doves cry? Because I’ve been listening to the song on Spotify, and I have no idea.
Just don’t start asking questions about Little Red Corvette, too.
I can tell you, though, what sound this dove at the manger is meant to make you recall— what words actually.
Just after the Christmas story— turn the page— Jesus is all grown up and he shows up at the Jordan river to be baptized.
And as Jesus comes up out of the water, the Bible says the sky opens up and the same Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary’s womb comes down like a dove and God the Father’s voice declares, “This is my Beloved in whom I am well-pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone, “You are my Beloved.”
But, it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life believing it and never forgets it even when he’s forsaken by his friends.
Yeah, sure, but Jesus is different than the rest of us.”
No. Jesus was like us in every way.
Except one way.
Jesus never forgot who God said he was. He never doubted God’s words about him and taking God at his word set Jesus free to live as though the whole world was a new and different creation.
Well, it’s easy to believe you’re beloved and pleasing to God when you’re good ALL THE TIME.
I think sometimes the problem we have with believing we’re beloved and pleasing to God is that we have bad ideas of what God considers good.
Like, right after God says to Jesus, “You’re my beloved in whom I’m well-pleased,” guess what Jesus does?
He starts going to dinner parties with people who drink too much and tell dirty jokes.
He heals people that doctors won’t touch.
He makes friends with cheats and losers, and he makes bad guys the heroes of his stories.
For God, what it means to be “good” is to be a friend of sinners.
That’s a strange definition of good. I think my parents would have a hard time believing it if I told them.
Of course, they’d have a hard time believing it. We do.
That’s why we’re here tonight, and why someone like me is here every week to give you the goods and remind you what God says about you.
In a way, Christmas Eve is how all of Christianity works.
It’s how we become holy and faithful.
It’s not like we hear the promise of the Gospel once and then move on from it to figure out how to make changes in our life.
It’s hearing the promise, receiving Christ over and over again, that changes us. Being a Christian, it’s like…
Listening to a bird singing the same song, over and over.
6. The Gift They Gave Emmanuel
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,
The gift he gave Emmanuel.
Okay, so we know the sheep gave Jesus his coat and the cow gave him his manger, but what about the gift God gives us in Jesus Christ? What is it exactly?
We’ve all memorized the gifts the wise men give to Jesus (frankincense, gold, and myrrh), but can we name the gift God gives to us in Jesus?
We like to say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but do we really know the reason for Jesus?
Maybe the problem is that we spend too much time talking about what God takes from us in Jesus Christ (our sin) we can’t name what God gives to us in Jesus Christ. And God taking it, taking our sin, is only half of the Gospel.
What God takes from us in Christ isn’t the whole Gospel.
The Gospel is incomplete if it doesn’t also include what God gives to us: Christ’s own righteousness.
Hold up. Up until now, I was going to give you a solid C+ for tonight, but now you’re threatening to wreck everything at the end with some stained glass language. Righteousness?
It’s the Bible’s word for…well, think of it this way.
“Righteousness” is your permanent perfect record.
Christ became what we are, says the Bible, so that his permanent perfect record might become ours.
His righteousness is reckoned to us, says the Bible, as our own righteousness.
As a gift.
It’s like a Christmas gift exchange.
Exactly, and it’s yours for free, forever.
But the only way to receive it— the way Christ gives you this gift— is in his promise.
That’s why we’re here tonight, and that’s why it’s important that we take him at his word, because he gives himself and everything that belongs to him, including his righteousness, in his promise.
Tonight, what you receive here is something you can receive nowhere else. What you get at church tonight is a gift you can get no place else.
Jesus Christ, himself.
The Gospel works like a wedding vow.
The Gospel is a promise by which the Bridegroom gives himself and everything that belongs to Him to his beloved.
Like the song says, we live in a dark world.
It isn’t easy.
Most of us do the best we can to believe, to do good, to follow Jesus.
All may not always be calm and bright.
But, take God at his word and rest in the good news that you’ve been given Christ’s own permament perfect record.
For tonight, it’s not just that when we look at Christ in the manger we see Emmanuel, God is with us.
It’s that because of Christ, whenever God looks upon us, he sees Jesus.
[End with Slide of Manger Scene including Baby Yoda]
Fr. Robert Hart is the Rector of Saint Benedict’s Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, NC, a contributing editor of Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity, and frequent contributor to The Continuum blog. He’s an incredible music fan, and Robert graciously agreed to share an original Christmas composition as a part of the podcast.
The brother of Addison Hart and David Bentley Hart, Robert Hart is a good follow on social media. In this conversation, Robert talks with us about the Christian vocation to be with the poor, how the pro-choice language of “personhood” is the language of slavery, and the priesthood.
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Many Christmases ago, after singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” service after service after service and after having a distracted parent spill hot wax on my hand, service after service after service, on Christmas morning Ali and I took our boys into New York City to see the tree in Rockefeller Center,to gaze into the windows on 34th Street, and to run after the boys as they ran wide-eyed through FAO Schwarz.
We were nearly into the city, at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, on the Jersey side, when outside my window I spotted a large billboard depicting the manger and the magi making their way by the star over Bethlehem.
Only on this billboard were the words “Myth “and “Reason,” spelled out in all caps: “You KNOW it’s a MYTH. This season celebrate REASON.”
My son, Gabriel, saw it, or saw me staring at it. He pointed at it through the window and asked me what it said. “It says atheists are irritating, unimaginative killjoys,” I said. Gabriel nodded his head and said, “That’s what I thought.”
I later learned (thanks to Google and NPR) the billboard was paid by the American Atheists Association, whose president, David Silverman said, “Many people do not actually believe in God but go through the motions of religious practice,” Silverman said in an interview, “Plus, every year, atheists get blamed for having a war on Christmas, even if we don’t do anything so this year, we decided to show Christians what a war on Christmas looks like.”
Paul Myers at Science Blog applauded the American Atheists Association “bold billboard,” saying “… he hoped it would “sting Christians and stir up a little resentment among them by reminding Christians that not everyone can follow the same path to God as them. Not everyone can come to a belief in something like the Christmas story. Belief doesn’t come easy for some people.”
Leave it to a dues-paying atheist to believe it’s somehow news that it’s difficult for folks to believe the Christmas story.
Only someone who never goes to church would suppose that card-carrying members of the Christian faith don’t still struggle with that faith.
I’ve been preaching Advents and Christmases for almost twenty years now, and every year more than a few pew sitters ask me about the truth of the virgin birth.
Sometimes, it’s a life-long question for a doubting pilgrim.
Sometimes, it’s a point of argument for a hardened skeptic.
Sometimes, it’s an intellectual hurdle for a student just home from college armed with just enough philosophy to inoculate them against the real thing.
Sometimes, it’s a question from someone at a holiday cocktail party, someone I’ve never met, someone who finds out, despite my subterfuge, that I’m not an architect after all, that I’m a pastor, and then is determined to be a pain-in-my-you-know-what to ask me (like I’m as dumb as a potted plant or a member of congress), “Do you really believe in the virgin birth?”
“Do Christians really expect right-thinking people to believe in something as preposterous as Jesus being born of a virgin?” David Silverman asked a reporter.
It seemed not to occur to the president of the American Atheists Association that the angel’s news would have been every bit as unbelievable and preposterous for Mary.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the first person to learn that Isaiah’s 800 year old promise would finally come to pass in a much less tidy and much more complicated way than Isaiah ever let on.
Joseph is the first person to hear the news. He’s the first person to realize that his fiancé would never be able to prove how it happened exactly.
He’s the first person to know that it had nothing whatsoever to do with him.
And he’s the first person to struggle with believing that abstinence only works 99.99999% of the time.
Matthew reports in his nativity narrative that upon hearing the news of Mary’s pregnancy, “Joseph resolved to dismiss Mary quietly…” Matthew leaves it to us to imagine just how long it took Joseph to come to that decision.
But, it’s not like Joseph’s happy about it.
The word in the next verse, where Matthew writes, “But just when Joseph had considered to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The word “consider” in the Greek comes from the root word thymos.
It can mean “to ponder” as in “to consider” or it can mean “to become angry.” It’s the same word Matthew uses in the next chapter to describe King Herod’s rage as Herod orders the slaughter of innocents.
Joseph’s initial response to the annunciation is anger.
Why is he angry?
Because prior to the angel appearing to him, Joseph only had Mary’s testimony.
Joseph only had Mary’s word, and Joseph did not believe her. Joseph did not believe in the virgin birth. Joseph did not believe the word was made flesh in Mary.
Therefore, Joseph knew what the word required Joseph to do with Mary.
Matthew says that Joseph was a “righteous man.”
In Hebrew the term is tsadiq.
And it’s not just an adjective for someone.
By calling Joseph a righteous man, Matthew’s not simply saying that Joseph was a good man or a moral man or even a God-fearing man.
Tsadiq in Matthew’s day was a formal label. An official title. Tsadiq was a term that applied to those rare people who studied and learned and practiced the Torah scrupulously, applying it to every nook and cranny of life.
When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you that Joseph knew what the Law required he do with Mary.
Dismissing her quietly was no more an option for a righteous man under the Law than healing on the sabbath.
You see, in Mary and Joseph’s day, betrothal was a binding, legal contract.
Only the wedding ceremony itself remained.
Mary and Joseph weren’t simply engaged.
For all intents and purposes, they were husband and wife.
For that reason, according to the Law, unfaithfulness during the engagement period was considered adultery. According to the Mishna— which is Jewish commentary on the Law— infidelity during betrothal was thought to be a graver sin than infidelity during marriage.
According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Joseph must take Mary to the door of her father’s house and accuse her publicly of adultery. If Mary doesn’t deny the charge, then the priests and elders of Nazareth will stone her to death.
That’s what the Law commands.
Of course, if Mary does protest, if she denies that she’s sinned, if she’s foolish enough to tell people something as ridiculous as her child being conceived by the Holy Spirit, then Joseph, as a tsadiq, certainly knows what course of action the Torah requires.
According to the Book of Numbers, Joseph is commanded to take Mary before a priest, who will compel Mary to stand before the Lord. The priest will pour holy water into a clay jar. Then the priest will sweep up the dirt from the synagogue floor and pour it into the jar of water. Then the priest will write and read out the accusation against her.
Finally, the priest will take the accusation and the ink in which it was written and mix them into the water and command Mary to drink it.
The bitter waters.
If it makes her sick, she’s guilty, and she’ll be stoned to death.
If somehow it does not make her ill, then she’s innocent.
Her life will be spared though, in Mary’s case, her life still will be ruined, because she’s pregnant and Joseph’s not the father.
She will be considered an outcast on par with lepers and tax collectors and shepherds.
And as a tsadiq, someone who lives the Law inside and out, Joseph certainly knows her sin will become his sin.
He’ll be an outcast too, righteous no more.
That’s why Joseph’s angry— whether he shows Mary grace or he hammers her with the Law, either way he’ll suffer. He’ll either lose his wife or he’ll lose his life.
But it’s a choice— notice— determined by his disbelief.
The Church has never quite known what to make of Joseph, treating him like an extra in a story starring his wife and her child.
It’s Mary whose song we hear at Advent. It’s Luke’s Gospel, not Matthew’s, that’s the most popular this time of year.
It’s the annunciation to Mary that artists have always chosen to paint.
Prior to the angel of God appearing to him, Joseph distrusts her.
Joseph is a red-letter righteous man, but before God’s messenger brings him the news, Joseph doubts the Christmas Gospel.
That is, it takes a revelation of God— a revelation from God— for Joseph to have faith in the news of Mary’s pregnancy ex nihilo. This is why we shouldn’t get too hung up over that clause in the creed about the virgin birth.
Every little mustard seed of faith is a virgin birth.
God creates Jesus ex nihilo, but God also creates your trust in Jesus ex nihilo.
Joseph is the model for how God works faith in us. Joseph’s asleep. Joseph’s completely passive.
And from nothing, God implants faith in Joseph’s heart through his ear; such that, when Joseph wakes up he does the very opposite of what he had previously determined to do.
Only then can Joseph profess, “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
The Small Catechism (a catechism for children) explains the work of God the Holy Spirit this way:
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.”
Faith, the Bible says again and again, is a gift.
It’s not an attribute innate to you.
It’s not an accomplishment won by you.
It’s not an answer you arrive at through investigation.
It’s a gift— extra nos— that comes from outside of you.
Faith comes by hearing a promise, the Bible says.
The Gospel is the promise by which Christ plants faith in you.
Promises like this is my body broken for you, this day in the city of David a savior is born for you, apromise like the one we sing in the carol, “Child for us sinners, poor and in the manger.”
The promise called Gospel is the device by which Christ delivers faith into the empty womb of your heart.
This is what David Silverman at the American Atheists Association gets so wrong. Unbelief in the Gospel is our natural predisposition.
Apart from the gracious work of the Living God upon us, all of us believers in the Gospel teeter on the verge of unbelief.
It’s not that Christian faith is easy.
It’s that it’s harder than even atheists imagine.
To believe that the baby in the ark of Mary’s womb is the Maker of Heaven and Earth, to believe that Jesus has wrapped himself in our flesh and through his body and blood has done everything necessary to save you and make you holy, to believe that he will come again, bearing your every sin in his body, to make you his own beloved— that sort of faith is no easier for us than it was for Joseph.
That sort of faith— it takes an act of God.
It’s not that Christians are on a path up to God that others with their reason and doubts cannot abide.
There is no path to God for any of us— that’s the point of this season.
God, Zechariah reminded us this morning and the Christmas carols remind us year after year, must come down to us.
And that’s why, contrary to the American Atheists Association’s stated desire, all of us, preachers, you and me, cannot be silent.
Because the Word that took flesh in Mary’s womb, comes down to us in the manger of ordinary words and, apart from the auditory assault of God in his promise called the Gospel, we’d all be atheists.
I didn’t see it until we were leaving the city, on our way home. On the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel was another billboard, another nativity image, put there by some evangelical group.
This one said: “It’s true.”
Gabriel saw that one, too, and said, “Look, it’s the same picture.”
And I said, “No, that one’s different.”
“What’s the difference between them?” he asked.
“A miracle,” I said.
When it comes to that miracle—
Maybe you’re still clutching an IOU from God. Maybe it feels like porch pirates stole it right underneath your nose, because the gift for you still hasn’t arrived. Maybe Christmas is a time when you think everyone else here has it all together and you’re the only one with more questions than clarity.
So remember, Joseph is the model.
And neither Joseph’s faith nor his doubt changes anything from God’s side.
Joseph’s belief in the incarnation does not activate anything in God that wasn’t already true just as Joseph’s disbelief did not negate what God was already up to in the world for him.
The Holy Spirit had already overshadowed Mary, whether Joseph believed it or not. God had already taken flesh in Mary’s womb.
Even if Joseph doubted it, God had already determined to become Jesus and in Christ’s body and blood to die for Joseph’s sins and be raised up from the dead for his justification.
It’s all already true.
The only thing Joseph’s faith in it changes is Joseph— his life.
By believing in it, Joseph gets to share his life up close with Christ.
May God wind his way to your heart through your ear.
Hear the good news.
The great good news of the Gospel is that God has already decided to do something about our lives— whether we let him into our lives or not— whether we do anything about it or not, whether we believe it or not.
He has sent his Son to live for us the faithful life we cannot live, to die for us the sacrifice we cannot offer, and toraise us up with him forever.
That’s good news!
Believing it is what makes all the difference in our lives.
Here’s the latest offering:
“I am not interested in what I believe. I am not even sure what I believe. I am much more interested in what the church believes.”
Stanley Hauerwas often insists on pointing out that the reason doctrine— that is, speaking Christian— is critical to Christians in a way that distinguishes Christianity from other religions is, simply, because Christians believe God is a person. Mary’s Maker is contained in her womb. The incarnation is a mystery not in the sense that it is unknowable; it’s a mystery that has been revealed. It’s important, therefore, for Christians to work with our words and make this mystery intelligible for to get Jesus wrong is to get God wrong. More importantly, we work with the Church’s words, because if Jesus is not who the Church has confessed him to be then, as St. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians, we are of all people most to be pitied, for not only are we still in our sins, we have committed (idolatry) the gravest of them.
With that in mind, as we round our way into the Fourth Sunday of Advent, preparing to hear Isaiah’s promise whispered into Joseph’s ear, I thought it would behoove us both to rest and wrestle with exactly what Christians claim is contained in Jesus’ other name, Emmanuel: God-with-us.
1. The Father who dispatches Gabriel is God.
2. The Son in Mary’s womb is God.
3. The Holy Spirit who alighted on the prophet Isaiah is God.
4. The Father who empties himself of power and might is not the Son.
5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit but is the fruit of the Spirit overshadowing Mary.
6. The Holy Spirit who rests on the Son in the Jordan is not the Father but is sent by the Father.
7. There is only one God.
Your head hurt yet?
Christmas, in other words, is the wonderful discovery that we couldn’t possibly have made up the God whose name is Trinity.
I’m thrilled to have made friends with Amy Laura Hall. Not only is she back on the podcast to talk about Stanley Hauerwas’ influence on her work and theology, she’ll be our special guest in June at our annual live podcast at Annual Conference in Roanoke, Va.
If you’re getting this by email, you can find the podcast here: https://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/episode-238-amy-laura-hall
Amy Laura Hall was named a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology for 2004-2005 and has received funding from the Lilly Foundation, the Josiah Trent Memorial Foundation, the American Theological Library Association, the Child in Religion and Ethics Project, the Pew Foundation and the Project on Lived Theology.
At Duke University, Professor Hall has served on the steering committee of the Genome Ethics, Law, and Policy Center and as a faculty member for the FOCUS program of the Institute on Genome Sciences and Policy. She has served on the Duke Medical Center’s Institutional Review Board and as an ethics consultant to the V.A. Center in Durham. She served as a faculty adviser with the Duke Center for Civic Engagement (under Leela Prasad), on the Academic Council, and as a faculty advisor for the NCCU-Duke Program in African, African American & Diaspora Studies. She currently teaches with and serves on the faculty advisory board for Graduate Liberal Studies and serves as a core faculty member of the Focus Program in Global Health.
Professor Hall was the 2017 Scholar in Residence at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C., served on the Bioethics Task Force of the United Methodist Church, and has spoken to academic and ecclesial groups across the U.S. and Europe. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Hall is a member of the Rio Texas Annual Conference. She has served both urban and suburban parishes. Her service with the community includes an initiative called Labor Sabbath, an effort with the AFL-CIO of North Carolina to encourage congregations of faith to talk about the usefulness of labor unions, and, from August 2013 to June 2017, a monthly column for the Durham Herald-Sun. Professor Hall organized a conference against torture in 2011, entitled “Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture,” and a “Conference Against the Use of Drones in Warfare” October 20-21, 2017. In collaboration with the North Carolina Council of Churches and the United Methodist Church, she organized a workshop with legal scholar Richard Rothstein held October, 2018.
Amy Laura Hall is the author of four books: Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love, Conceiving Parenthood: The Protestant Spirit of Biotechnological Reproduction, Writing Home with Love: Politics for Neighbors and Naysayers, and Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. She has written numerous scholarly articles in theological and biomedical ethics. Recent articles include “The Single Individual in Ordinary Time: Theological Engagements in Sociobiology,” which was a keynote lecture given with Kara Slade at the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics in 2012, and “Torture and American Television,” which appeared in the April 2013 issue of Muslim World, a volume that Hall guest-edited with Daniel Arnold. Her essay “Love in Everything: A Brief Primer to Julian of Norwich” appeared in volume 32 of The Princeton Seminary Bulletin. Word and World published her essay on heroism in the Winter 2016 edition, and her essay “His Eye Is on the Sparrow: Collectivism and Human Significance” appeared in a volume entitled Why People Matter with Baker Publishing. Her forthcoming essays include a new piece on Kierkegaard and love for The T&T Clark Companion to the Theology of Kierkegaard, to be published by Bloomsbury T&T Clark.
Laughing at the Devil was the focus of her 2018 Simpson Lecture at Simpson College in Iowa and has been chosen for the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book. She continues work on a longer research project on masculinity and gender anxiety in mainstream, white evangelicalism.
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The podcast posse at Crackers and Grape Juice has a new book out. To all of you who kvetch that we need to pay our producer, Tommie Marshell, this is your chance to support the show. Plus, it’s actually pretty good. We got a professional editor to edit it this time. Don’t take our word for it. This is what author, Sarah Condon, has to say about it:
“The Church has done more damage to the power of the parables than any other category of scripture. We have moralized them and purposed them for our own agendas. We have hoisted them onto children and told them to “be good.” We have called ourselves Good Samaritans and Eldest Brothers like a Biblically uneducated clown parade. They were never intended for any of that nonsense. The Parables are intended to be void of morality and only consumed with the agenda of Jesus, who came only to save us. Buy this book. Jason, Teer, and the other yahoos will remind you just how bizarre, compelling, and truly unfair the parables really are. Thank God.”
You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Talk-Stories-Jesus-Told/dp/167083171X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Crazy+Talk&qid=1576588932&sr=8-1
Thomas Lecaque teaches Religious History at Grand View University in Iowa. He recently authored an article in the Washington Post that caught our attention, entitled “The Apocalyptic Myth that Explains Evangelical Support for Trump.”
You can find the article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/11/26/apocalyptic-myth-that-helps-explain-evangelical-support-trump/
I had a blast talking with him, and I hope you enjoy listening along with us.
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I often joke that the Church, the UMC in particular, would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letters. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation, for Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that NO ONE IS RIGHTEOUS.
We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our “holy-living” (ie, the happy accident of having been born straight) or right-believing (ie, “all means all”).
Speaking of divides—
Last winter at the UMC’s Special Sex Conference (I mean, General Conference) in the aftermath of the decisive vote I watched from up above in the press box, as a rainbow-clad group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept. Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity, it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.
But even prior to the vote, it had become unmistakable to me and my podcast posse how at a global gathering like General Conference, where real-time translations were happening across scores of languages, the problem for which the UMC was— and still remains— at an impasse is that United Methodists, no matter their geographic origin, largely speak in two different and divergent languages.
Or rather, the problem in the United Methodist Church’s fight about sexuality, which in my darker humors makes me dubious about any Way Forward that doesn’t resemble Marriage Story, is that we’re not ultimately fighting about sexuality. The problem in the United Methodist Church is that sexuality is the issue over which we’re discovering the irreconciliable fact that the United Methodist Church is a Church of two different religions which, if we’re honest, don’t really recognize one another as kindred creeds.
What’s incompatible in United Methodism isn’t gay Christians. We’re a liberal denomination that’s been in decline since it’s inception in the ‘60’s. We’d kill for a horde of gay Christians to overrun our congregations.
It was clear at General Conference:
One side spoke in terms of fidelity to Biblical tradition and another in terms of imitating Jesus’ examplar hospitality and embrace of the outcast. Not only did neither side attempt to persuade the other side— lip service aside— neither side really recognized the other side as professing and practicing their own faith.
Friend of the podcast, David French, recently made this very point by way of Pete Buttigeg for the Dispatch:
“If Pete Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, receives the Democratic nomination for president, it’s a virtual certainty that the only churchgoing candidate—and the only candidate who speaks fluently and easily about the role of faith in his life and in his politics—will lose the churchgoing Christian vote (and lose the white Evangelical vote by a staggering margin) to a thrice-married man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, appeared in Playboy videos, and paid hush money to cover up an affair with a porn star.
There will be easy answers for this divide. Progressive Christians will blame partisan hypocrisy (Evangelicals object to Mayor Pete’s gay marriage but overlook Trump’s serial sexual sins? What?) Conservative Christians will simply point to Buttigieg’s position on abortion and religious liberty—and to Trump’s judges. Often the explanation is as basic as stating the truism that Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats, regardless of underlying theology.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, French notes, Mayor Pete explained how he understands salvation, “My faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and cast aside and oppressed in society.”
“Buttigieg isn’t a theologian, but he’s a smart and effective communicator of his beliefs, but when Evangelicals read his words, they’ll hear that internal “record scratch” that makes them say, “Wait. What did he say?”
What becomes quite evident at a global gathering of the United Methodist Church, which may not be so obvious in a local congregation, particularly on the coasts, is that the UMC is the ecclessial home to both mainline liberals and conservative evangelicals. Functionally, the latter have more in common with nondenominational evangelicals and Roman Catholics than they do with theological liberals in their own denomination.
French goes on:
“In fact, Evangelical Protestants now connect far more with Catholics than they do Mainline Protestants like Mayor Pete. In some crucial ways (such as the high view of scripture), Evangelicals connect more with Orthodox and Conservative Jews than they do with Mainline Protestants.
The more Mayor Pete speaks, the more he highlights those differences and the more he distances himself culturally and theologically from the Christians in Trump’s base.
For example, the Evangelical mind is incredulous at the notion that any scriptural command—even a command as harsh as imposing stoning as a punishment for sexual sin—was “always wrong,” and the Evangelical mind is incredulous at the notion of salvation so inexplicably tied to human compassion.
That does not mean that Evangelicals are in favor of stoning and against compassion. The Christian church is not bound by Levitical law, and Christ himself stopped the stoning of a woman caught in adultery. Moreover, Christians are called to engage in acts of sacrificial love for their fellow man, but we don’t ever find scriptural commands to be “wrong,” nor do we find “salvation” in compassion.
It’s not that Mainline Christians view the Bible as just another book, it’s that they view it to greater or lesser degrees—to be incompatible with the notion of a God who personifies love.
In the Mainline formulation, Christ is less an instrument of salvation and more a vehicle for inspiration. The Mainline vision of salvation is alien to the Evangelical mind.
Most Evangelical Protestants understand salvation not through works of compassion but rather through faith alone, by the grace of God alone, working through the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone.”
Presently, there are a handful of plans to reconcile the our differences in the United Methodist Church and a great deal of hope being invested in them. I’ve long thought it’s naive to think the UMC would navigate this debate more nimbly than the denominations which went before us over the brink, but David French throws cold water even on my optimism, reminding us that, even if we can resolve the LGBTQ issue, a more fundamental divide remains:
For our services on the second Sunday of Advent, I offered three reflections in tandem with musical offerings by our choirs. Isaiah 11 and John 1 were the scripture texts.
It’s Better to Receive than to Give
“Get dressed in something nice,” my mother said through my bedroom door, “We’re going to church.” I was a teenager, somewhere between my learner’s permit and my license to freedom, and somewhere, I’m sure, a needle scratched clear off a record. Save for a Holy Roman shotgun wedding, where even elementary-aged me could sense the bride and groom were about to make a terrible decision, I’d never gone to church before.
It was Christmas Eve, and, as a teenager, I had a few expensive (and awesome!) gifts on my wish list. None of them was what I ended up receiving.
From the discreet remove of the balcony, I learned “Silent Night” had more than one verse and I discovered that the magi were conspicuously missing from the gospel lesson the woman in the guady holiday sweater read for us. I’d seen the bumperstickers, of course. I knew Jesus was the reason for the season, but that Christmas Eve it wasn’t at all clear to me what was the reason to keep on fussing in the here and now about somehow locked away two thousand years in the past.
Not until the pastor held up a loaf of bread, broke it, and gave thanks to God and then, pouring wine into a silver cup, he taught us a word that not even this A+ English student knew: incarnation. Lifting the cup of wine and showing it to us like Vanna White revealing a hidden vowel, he explained what lay not so self-evident in the familiar story of Mary, Joseph, and the heavenly host. God takes flesh in Jesus Christ, I heard for the first time. Our flesh, the preacher proclaimed. God became what we are, the preacher preached so that we can become like God.
Here’s the thing—
As an adolescent, I had suffered acne so severe the dermatologist prescribed me medication I later learned had been used initially to treat Hanson’s Disease; that is, leprosy. What I was, I believed, was unlovely and therefore unloveable.
To hear that God would put on my blemished skin, that Love itself would take on my unlovliness, become what I was, take my body as God’s own body— well, that first worship service on Christmas Eve was like a wardrobe into Narnia. I’d been given a gift I didn’t realize I needed and wanted until I had received it.
What was that gift?
Let me ask a better question.
And it’s an important question because, let’s be honest, most of us would feel far more guilty if we neglected our Christmas shopping than if we neglected to go to church on Christmas.
So here’s my question:
Why should we go to church on Christmas?
(For that matter, why should we go to church at all?)
What can you receive at church on Christmas that you can receive nowhere else?
What can you get at church no one else can give you?
The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ.
Only at church, only where the Word is preached and the sacraments are rightly celebrated, can you receive Jesus Christ himself.
And everything that belongs to him.
I shouldn’t have said “of course” because, of course, preachers like me mess it up all the time. We make it seem like what Church has to offer the world is politics or behavior modification, purpose or principles for daily living when, in fact, the gift we have to offer the world is Jesus Christ himself and everything (his righteousness, his sonship, his faithfulness, his resurrection, his Father’s eternal love) that belongs to him.
At the heart of so much Christianity is a strange and self-negating sort of absence. We gather on the sabbath only to hear about what happens elsewhere. In both overt and unintended ways, many churches signal that revelation happens everywhere but here, at the font, at the altar, on a preacher’s imperfect lips and in your sin-harded hearing.
God’s out there, on the move, and it’s our job to find him and join him, preachers like me exhort. God happened in Jesus Christ, we say— and note the past tense, whose teaching and example we can imitate in our own personal lives and for our social causes. Just think about how many sermons you’ve heard over the years that implied the real stuff of Christianity happens not on Sunday morning but Monday through Friday, on the frontlines of the “real world.”
But those sorts of reductions of Christianity misunderstand what kind of word— fundamentally— is the Gospel. The Gospel is not a timeless set of ideas we can apply to our politics or personal lives. The Gospel is not a school of philosophy or, even, a way of life. The Gospel is not a means to make us or our children more moral.
The Gospel is a promise.
The Gospel is a particular kind of promise, in fact.
The Gospel is the promise by which Christ gives himself to us.
The Gospel works like a wedding vow, Martin Luther said. The Gospel is a promise by which the Bridegroom gives himself and everything that belongs to him to his beloved. What makes Christ present in creatures of bread and wine is the same promise of the Gospel proclaimed from the pulpit— the same promise we sing in our Christmas carols. The reason this is the season of comfort and joy is because the promise itself gives us Christ himself. Of all the times of the year, Christmas is the season when Christians should be insisting that it’s better to receive than to give.
What all our other versions of Christianity obscure is how what’s present to us in the promise of the Gospel, even if we are nothing but unimpressive, ordinary Christians, is greater than all the possible experiences in the world. Nothing less than Christ himself, Luther wrote, is what all believers receive by faith alone. By faith in the promise we are united with Christ. Through the promise of the Gospel— whether the promise is proclaimed from a pulpit or sung by a choir or placed in your mouth on bread and wine— Christ lives in you and you in him. Through that promise, Paul writes, the Maker of Heaven and Earth dwells in your heart. God is not far away in heaven nor is God off at work in the world busier with someboday other than you. God is in his Word and the Word that takes flesh in the virgin’s womb still takes up residence among us.
The Gospel is the promise by which Christ gives himself to us.
This is why the Bible teaches that salvation comes by hearing because Jesus Christ is salvation and he comes to us the same way he came to Israel, by the announcement of a promise.
What I received that first Christmas Eve, in my ears and on my lips, it wasn’t an idea.
It was God himself.
That’s why the church is necessary.
We only have one gift to give, as the Church, but it’s a gift that can be infinitely distributed. And because only Christ is without beginning or end, he’s the only gift you can receive that will keep on giving.
Pretending to Wait
Have you ever noticed how Advent is a season when Christians play at waiting. We pretend to be waiting. We light purple candles and we sing songs like “Come, O Come Emmanuel” to recapitulate Israel’s exilic longing as our own. We pretend to be waiting for the arrival of what we believe has already come. .
After all, what distinguishes Christians from Jews is the fact we believe that for which Israel waited has already arrived. The day promised by the prophet Isaiah, John’s Gospel makes clear, has come. The Kingdom of God prophesied by the John the Baptist has come in the one John identified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world— the Kingdom and the King are one and the same.
Advent is the time when we pretend to be waiting because we believe the promise has already been fulfilled. By the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection, we Gentiles have been grafted into the People of God. The Powers of Sin, Death, and the Devil have been defeated by Christ’s cross; there is therefore now no condemnation. Likewise, the Great High Priest has sat down forever from his work because the judge became the judged, offering a perfect once-for-all sacrifice. And having ascended to the Father, the lamb slain from the foundation of the world sits on the throne as the world’s true King and from thence he shall come again to the quick and the dead.
If the long-expected messiah has already arrived in the ark of Mary’s womb, if Emmanuel has already ransomed us from captivity to the Babylon of Sin and Death, then to what end do we break out the purple paraments every Advent and rehearse a yearning that’s already been fulfilled in the flesh?
Stanley Hauerwas, the geezer theologian who irritated some of you two weeks ago, writes in his latest book, Minding the Web:
“Israel learned to wait by God’s gift of the Law that made her a people who had to learn to live out of control. To be sure, she was often less than faithful to what her Lord had given her, but through the ups and downs of her history, she learned what it means to wait on the Lord.”
The Law, in other words, was a gift through which Israel learned to wait on the Lord; so that, through such waiting, Israel could learn faithfulness. But the gift we’ve been given in Jesus Christ is not the Law but the Gospel. As John puts it in the closet thing to a nativity story his gospel has got, “The Law was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth have come in Jesus Christ.”
If the Gospel of Grace, the glad tiding of the Law’s fulfillment for you, is the gift we’ve been given, then how might waiting— resting— with this gift glean from us a deeper faithfulness? What’s the wisdom in pretending to wait for a promise that has already come— a promise that is no further away than Sunday’s bread and wine?
Robert Farrar Capon was an Episcopal priest and food writer for the NY Times who died a few years ago. Capon opens his least known book, The Foolishness of Preaching, with a screenplay of sorts. Capon uses a set-up you’d expect on Bay Watch first to script a typical presentation of the so-called gospel. A woman is drowning in the seaside. The lifeguard/hero/Christ-figure swims out through the rough waves, fights the undertow, then drags the woman to shore, and depleted of all energy, still manages to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She was as good as dead, until … the lifeguard named Jesus saves her.
That’s one version gospel, which is really no gospel at all, Capon says, crumpling up the script and tossing it in the rubbish bin.
For take two, the lifeguard rushes down off his chair, swims out to the drowning woman, grabs her, and never lets her out of his grip. And then the lifeguard goes down with the drowning woman. Down to the ocean’s floor. Then, as Capon’s screenplay notes, the camera pans across the startled and disturbed onlookers and then freezes, focusing on a spare note left behind by the lifeguard.
The lifeguard’s note reads, “She’s safe in my death.”
Capon goes on to apply to preachers and hearers of the Gospel:
“Our preachers tell us the wrong story entirely. They can’t bring themselves to come within a country mile of the horrendous truth that we are not saved by our efforts to lead a good life. Instead, they mouth the canned recipes for successful living they think their congregations want to hear. It makes no difference what kind of success they urge on us: ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ success is as irrelevant to the Gospel as is success in health, money, or love. Nothing counts but the cross of the Christ child. But for even a sadder thing, on the rare occasions when they do get around to proclaiming the outrageousness of salvation by death of the divine Lifeguard, they can do it for no more than fifteen minutes. In the last five minutes of the sermon they meekly take back with the right hand of plausibility everything they so boldly set forth with the left hand of paradox.”
We’re all born lawyers. With the Law hardwired onto our hearts, as Paul says, we all want to be told what to do and then try our damndest to do it. We’re all born lawyers. We have to be taught the Gospel.
Better put, we need to learn to trust the message that we are justified before God not based on what we do for God but based on what has been done for us by the God-Man. The Gospel of grace comes so unnaturally to us that first it had to come to us in a virgin’s womb— that’s not natural.
That’s why we pretend every Advent, playing at an expectation that’s already been met and acting as though we’re waiting on a promise that hasn’t already come. Advent is an annual reminder to us, who insist on otherwise, that salvation not about a path that we make for ourselves to God but about God coming to us. We spend every year hearing again Isaiah and John the Baptist speak of God’s highway in the desert so that we, who are hellbent on adding another outband, glorybound lane to that highway, will finally learn to trust the happy news of God’s one-way love.
I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Outside My Heart
When I was counselor at a United Methodist summer camp, we sometimes had to sing with the kids that song “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”
You know the song?
I hate that song.
Especially this time of year.
It’s always been hard for me to feel at peace during Advent. It’s never been easy for me to feel joy down in my heart at Christmas. And it took me a while to understand how that’s okay. It took me a while to understand that it’s okay I don’t feel very joyfol or at peace during this season because it took me a while to understand the Gospel.
It starts with a particular Christmas Eve when I was boy during my parents’ on-again, off-again marriage.
My mother was working the night shift at the hospital, and my grandpa was there to keep an eye on my little sister and me. We had finished up the dishes when my father came home from whatever bar had closed early for the holiday. He was quite drunk. It wasn’t the first time he’d come home drunk, but he’d never come home drunk on Christmas. The next Christmas he didn’t come home at all. I remember my mom driving me around town to help her look for his car. He was parked in front of someone else’s home, a woman. I still remember the colored lights on whoever’s porch reflecting on my mom’s windshield.
After my parents finally split up for good, my mom struggled knowing that we weren’t having the sort of Christmas she thought we ought to have, the Christmas she thought other families gave their children. The oughts always accuse, and this ought stressed her out. Disappointed her. Frustrated her. And every year it would come to a head while we decorated the Christmas tree. Every year, trimming the tree invariably ended with me shouting unfair accusations and shedding tears and my mom throwing the treetop angel on to the floor and yelling “To hell with it all!” One Christmas, I recall, she pushed the artificial tree down on its side just as the jack-in-box from the stop- motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer said, “We’re all misfits.”
Call it post-yule stress disorder. Feelings of peace and joy have always been hard for me at Christmas. And, as a pastor, I know I’m hardly alone. Christians at Christmas are often made to feel guily if they’re not filled with joy down in their hearts.
For Christians to think they ought to feel a certain feeling simply because they’re Christian, not only is that impossible— and impossibly cruel to put on others who suffer grief and depression— it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what kind of word is the Gospel.
The Gospel is the promise that gives you Christ and everything that belongs to him.
And that’s enough!
Martin Luther said that the Gospel of God’s condescension to us to be with us and for us in Jesus Christ sets us free to name things as they are. You can let everything in your life be what it is, and you can let your feelings be what they are. You’re free not to pretend because the point of the promise called Gospel is not that you’re supposed to feel a certain way, joyful and at peace all time. The point of the Gospel promise is that something glad and joyous has happened, outside of you, and, regardless of how we feel and what’s going on in our lives, we Christians agree it’s worth celebrating.
The Gospel may not be a joyful word in you this season but it’s still a joyful word in and of itself no matter how you’re feeling or what cross you’re bearing because it’s a word that gives you Christ himself. You have him in his promise regardless of your feelings. The Gospel may not always give you a peaceful, easy feeling, but the Gospel does give you the Prince of Peace, as real and present with you by means of his promise as he was in Mary’s womb.
And what would you rather have when the you-know-what hits the fan?
No matter how you feel inside, you can always cling to this promise outside of you.
Our message this season isn’t “You should feel glad and joy-filled and at peace (and something’s the matter with you if you’re not).”
Our message this season isn’t about you at all.
It’s “Hear the good news, for you is born this day in the City of David…a savior, the Prince of Peace, who will free his people from their sins…”
The Gospel may not be a joyful word in you this Christmas, but it’s still a joyful word because it’s true.
And regardless of what’s true about you this season, you’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy outside of you in the Gospel. You’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy outside of you in this promise that Christ will love you, no matter what. And because the empty grave proves that Christ keeps his promises, you can rest assured— you can be at peace— that, in the end, with you, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Harding and Trump have much in common. They are among the most allegedly corrupt presidents in U.S. history. Their Cabinet teams have been racked by scandal. Like Harding, Trump’s personal morals are the antithesis of what religious Christians profess to demand.
But, like Harding, Trump maintains the support of the faithful because of his policies and the attention he lavishes on Christian voters and their faith leaders. Both presidents sought religion-based immigration bans. They criticize international organizations, avoid broad alliances and insist on America first, last and only.
And they use the Bible to justify their policy proposals. Trump, like Harding, praises the devout, advocates policies consistent with evangelical readings of the Bible and seeks to use his office to advance evangelicals’ theological agenda.
Donald Trump isn’t the first President with whom Christians went all in, using their mutual fear of the other to justify and excuse all manner of corrupt behavior. Before there was The Donald, there was Warren G.
Dr. Sutton recently wrote an article in the Washington Post that got our attention for this episode.
You can find it here:
Matthew is the Edward R. Meyer distinguished professor of history at Washington State University. The author of award-winning books, including American Apocalypse, and the recent book, Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War, he lives in Pullman, Washington.
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Some years ago, I co-officiated at a burial in Arlington National Cemetery along with a megachurch pastor who was famous for his pithy radio spots aired in the Washington, D.C. area. A fundamentalist member of the immediate family had insisted on the participation of a pastor “from a Bible-believing church.” When parts for the brief liturgy were doled out, this pastor told me, “I’ll just say a few words.”
The deceased man had died too early and far too slowly of cancer. After I prayed and read from the First Letter of Peter about the promise of an imperishable inheritance, my co-officiant stepped to the head of the casket and, after acknowledging the deceased man’s bravery and accomplishments, informed us that he had nonetheless “failed his most important mission.”
“He’s lost forever to us— and to God— because he never accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior,” the pastor said. Then he invited all of us gathered by the grave to “treat this tragedy as God’s way of giving you an opportunity.”
I wondered whether the horror on the widow’s face was directed at him or at the God of whom he spoke. Only later did it occur to me that nothing this pastor had said to us about God and eternity had been biblical. It had sounded Christianish, sure, but none of it came from the Bible he’d waved in the air. By contrast, the ancient liturgy I’d celebrated was really nothing more than a pastiche of promises straight out of scripture, beginning with the very last of Christ’s words of grace: “I died and behold I am alive forever more, and I hold the keys of hell and death.”
In his little book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart recalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent his wife or any of his four children from being swept to their deaths. The father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here . . . he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”
Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father in the moment of his deepest grief, what should you say? Hart argues that only a moral cretin would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation: “Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Most of us, Hart says, would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. Hart then takes his point to the next level: “And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”
His point is as prophetic as it is pastoral. If we mustn’t say such things to a father in grief, we ought never to say them about God. Indeed, if we are able to utter such things about God, it’s a sure sign that scripture has been conscripted into the service of a dogmatic tradition and, thus, religion has corrupted our conscience.
Beating at the heart of That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation is this same righteous indignation. As readers of his previous work will anticipate, the book displays the diverse range of Hart’s intellectual gifts. It is at once a theological argument, an exegetical examination, a patristic study, a metaphysical inquiry, and an astringent and often playful polemic against the alleged doctrine of eternal hell. But behind the turns of logic and philosophical jargon, That All Shall Be Saved is primarily a work of a stirred and unyielding conscience.
Hart insists that the transcendent God of absolute Love and infinite Goodness would not bring into existence a world in which one or more human beings might be condemned to everlasting misery and suffering. If this key claim is true, then it surely follows that “the God in whom the majority of Christians throughout history have professed belief appears to be evil (at least judging by the dreadful things they say about him).”
The elegance and erudition of Hart’s sometimes overwrought prose can prove misleading. Whereas Flannery O’Connor employed bizarre characters and grotesque plot turns to shock her readers awake, Hart deploys syllogisms and writings of the church fathers to the same end. Readers who would place Hart nearer to Plato than, say, Amos have not grasped the pathos behind the writing. As much as the prophets, Hart thunders against the corrosive effects of Christianities rendered cruel through their incoherence. In doing so, he alerts readers to a simple but often forgotten truth: if the behavior or character of the deity you describe would elicit moral revulsion when attributed to any other creature, then the god in question is but a creature. It is not the Creator.
His theological arguments and scriptural exegesis aside, it really is that simple for Hart— just as it was, he argues, for more of the ancient Christians than their posterity has permitted us to remember. The Father is not less merciful than the Son enjoins his disciples to be, nor does the Spirit sow fruit in us that is absent in or incongruent with the Father’s own attributes. God is good, as we teach our children. And we can teach our children that God is good because our conception of the good is analogous to the God who is Goodness itself and who has been disclosed to us in the self-giving of Christ. As Gregory of Nyssa taught, “the Word and he from whom he is do not differ in their nature.”
Because the fullness of God dwelt in the Word made flesh, our words—words like good, love, and justice—are not empty. And if they are empty and correspond to nothing ultimately true, then Hart is right to conclude that there is no meaningful distinction between perfect faith and perfect nihilism. When our theological language has been so emptied of true corollaries in God, and when terms like justice and eternal punishment are paired together, “the boundaries of the rational have been violated.”
The brevity of That All Shall Be Saved is itself a feature of Hart’s argument for universal reconciliation. For Hart, the argument against infernalist and annihilationist understandings of hell and for the salvation of all is straightforward. It’s a simple matter because the gospel is really quite uncomplicated.
For the evangelists, the epistle writers, and the earliest of the church fathers—who, unlike Augustine, could read the original language of the New Testament texts—the unambiguous story of salvation is that of “a relentless tale of rescue, conducted by a God who requires no tribute to win his forgiveness or love.” The good news proclaimed by the earliest church fathers was a story not of God rescuing us from himself but of God delivering us from death, the consequence of a broken creation. The gospel for the first Christians, who were best positioned by time, place, and language to understand it, was the “epic of God descending into the depths of human estrangement to release his creatures from bondage to death, penetrating even into the heart of hades to set captives free, recall his prodigal children, and restore a broken creation.”
At the beginning, Hart frames That All Shall Be Saved as a postscript to his recent translation of the New Testament (The New Testament: A Translation, 2017). Understanding the connection between the two is necessary for understanding his book, for Hart believes that once the accretions of interpretative bias are peeled away from the biblical texts, the all-ness of God’s saving will and work is obvious. Hart is unequivocal in his argument and unsparing in his polemic because he insists that belief in eternal hell relies upon assumptions which are foreign impositions—born of bad translations of the biblical texts—upon the original glad tidings of the church.
Hart’s rhetoric is unbending because belief in the infinite torment of a finite soul, or even the permanent loss of that soul through annihilation, is only possible once you’ve confused the kerygma which inaugurated the church. None of the earliest expositors of the faith, Hart points out, incorporated into the gospel “the discordant claim that innocent blood had to be spilled to assuage God’s indignation.” Instead the God who is the creator of all is determined to be the savior of all. Death, not sin, is his enemy, and the aim of his incursion in Christ is not the appeasement of his wrath but the healing of all that he had formerly declared very good.
But what about the verses about “the gnashing of teeth” and about the sheep being separated from the goats? Hart anticipates the question, playfully noting that “if Paul really believed that the alternative to life in Christ is eternal torment, it seems fairly careless of him to have omitted any mention of the fact,” and that Jesus “in the gospels simply makes no obvious claim about a place or state of endless suffering.” These rejoinders come between Hart’s painstaking excursus, verse by verse, through the Greek of the texts in question. Along the way, Hart notes how the term “hell” itself is not present in any of the scriptural texts; it’s an Anglo-Saxon word that translators attach to the specific, geographic, time-bound places used in the texts. In those few texts, Hart also notes, it’s always deployed in passages that are narrative, pictorial, and hyperbolic and thus meant to be received as metaphor. In contrast, whenever the New Testament speaks of the universality of God’s salvation in Christ (47 times by Hart’s count) it does so in bald theological assertions (as in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life”) which can be taken in no other way but literally.
Hart’s stroll through the relevant texts comes in the second of the four meditations which comprise That All Shall Be Saved. In the first meditation, “Who Is God? The Moral Meaning of Creatio Ex Nihilo,” Hart argues that the doctrine of creation is not merely an explanation of origins but is an eschatological claim, every bit as concerned with our whither as our whence. Precisely because that whence is sheer gift, the whither—if God is indeed Good—can only lead to one end, himself. Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. To preach fire and brimstone one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image . . .”) into the past tense. Creation from nothing, as church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate—as in teleological—relation to creation.
Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is already and eternally sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not nature but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity. Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God “needs” for creation to reveal his goodness. Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God “must” bring to fruition his purpose in creation.
“In the end of all things is their beginning,” Hart argues, “and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.” What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate, Hart claims, borrowing from Gregory. Creation is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day six of creation, but names the plot of the entire salvation story. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God “created” when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good. Belief in an eternal hell, in which some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost, forsaken, or annihilated, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated without all of humanity included in it.
“What Is Judgment? A Reflection on Biblical Eschatology” is Hart’s second mediation, in which he recovers the hell he believes the first Christians and church fathers anticipated, a fire of God’s judgment that is neither retributive nor eternal but is, as Malachi prophesies, a refining fire. Purgation is not damnation. A finite creature could never justly merit an infinite punishment. The gospel is that God in his love and justice is “dragging all of sinful creation unto himself,” and this means that prior to the consummation of all things every sinful soul will come before “the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls, one that will save even those who in this life prove unworthy of heaven by burning away every last vestige of their wicked deeds.”
Hart turns to Gregory of Nyssa’s conception of the imago dei in his third section, “What Is a Person? A Reflection on the Divine Image.” Quite simply, we are not persons in isolation. The person I am is literally inconceivable apart from the people in my life. We are who we’ve loved. From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion: hell for some would be hell for all. If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven when they are in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me. Or if memory of them was blotted out from me to spare me the pain of knowing of their suffering, then the part of me they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, made shadows of their former selves, as C. S. Lewis famously sketched the souls in hell. Such a hell would require that the heavenly host be eternally lobotomized.
Finally, in “What Is Freedom? A Reflection on the Rational Will,” Hart directs his ire against the most popular and admittedly compassionate defense of eternal hell. Many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity. God does not consign creatures to hell, the thinking goes, God merely consents to hell. God accepts the risk, inherent in any loving relationship, that some creatures will reject his love and choose hell over him.
Despite the tempered, rational appearance of this approach, to Hart’s mind it is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s respect for it, the argument sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage to sin and death. The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks, Hart argues, is that it employs an understanding of freedom that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear.
The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom. For the church fathers, indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is not a sign of freedom but of a lack of freedom. It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin, not our liberty from it.
For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will, and it is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well. We are most free when our will more nearly corresponds to God’s will. And just in case readers can’t connect this point to the issue of perdition, Hart continues: “It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”
If it’s true that we can choose hell rather than God, and forever so, then for those who do, Christ is not their redeemer. And if Christ is not their redeeemer, then he was not. And if he was not for them, then he was not for any of us, and the god who purportedly took flesh for the redemption of all captives is a liar and maybe a monster. In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.
During that burial at Arlington National Cemetery, to my shame I kept my mouth shut as the megachurch pastor speculated about the eternal torments that were now the deceased man’s just reaping. I maintained a respectful silence. I was cowed by the prejudice that his was an acceptable, coherent rendition of Christianity’s happy tidings. Though I suspect most do not actually believe in it (or else we too would be on street corners with bullhorns, trying to save souls), eternal hell remains the default doctrine among Christians, who believe that the Bible and the theology which emerges from it require them to believe it.
Having done something like 500 funerals, I know that most people’s moral intuition tells them that, in the fullness of time, even the elder brother will join the father’s feast for the prodigal. Most of the time this moral intuition gets expressed in sentimentality. Just yesterday I was told, “Mom now has her wings with glitter all over them, soaring around with Dad.” We resort to kitsch to express what our gut tells us to be true because the church too often has been reticent to assert what scripture and tradition give them permission to profess.
Though at the beginning of the book Hart declares that he has no expectations of convincing readers, his is an argument that, frankly, I find irrefutable. But it will be sufficient to the church’s work and witness in the world if readers merely find Hart’s arguments plausible, and theologically and scripturally sound. If Hart can clear this meager bar, I’m confident that That All Shall Be Saved will send readers scurrying back not only to the Bible but to the ancient church fathers in the hopes of meeting Christians who unabashedly believed what they quietly confess. In the end, Hart’s book is a work of practical theology, equipping Christians to trust in the God of Love in whom most— if only furtively— already believe.
Jason Micheli is pastor at Annandale United Methodist Church in Annandale, Virginia. He is the author of Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo and Living in Sin: Making Marriage Work between I Do and Death.
In many ways, Advent is a season that pivots not only between two aeons, the old and the new, but between testatments, old and new, and faiths, that of Christianity and Judaism. After all, Advent is largely the time when Christians anticipate the second coming by rehearsing the anticipating of the first coming found in Israel’s prophets. Therefore, this might be the perfect time to release our conversation with Jewish author and financier, Scott Shay.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Scott A. Shay has had a successful business career spanning Wall Street, private equity, venture capital, and banking. He co-founded Signature Bank of New York and has served as its Chairman since its formation. He has been a provocative commentator on many financial issues, including among others, how the banking system should best function to help society, the implications of a cashless world, and tax reform. Scott called for the re-imposition of Glass-Steagall and breaking up the big banks at a TEDx talk at the NY Stock Exchange in 2012. Throughout his life, he has been a student of religion and how religion ought to apply to the world outside of the synagogue, church, or mosque. In addition to authoring articles relating to the Jewish community, Scott authored the best-selling Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry (Second Edition, D evora 2008).
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By Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University
A Sermon for Annandale Methodist Church
November 24, 2019
Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Colossians 1: 11-20
Luke 23: 33-43
I do not know about you but I have found going through these last three years exhausting. One of the reasons I have found them exhausting is I have no idea what is going on. Or it may be I think it is obvious what is going on and I do not have the slightest idea what could be done to right the ship. Something seems to have happened to our world and few of us have any idea how to put in back together.
That I am a theologian should make some difference. I have spent a life time reading books that should give me insight into the world in which we find ourselves. For example consider this passage from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:
“For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community. While he declares himself before the masses to be one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual. He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid, he considers them weak and they become weak, he considers them criminal and they become criminal. His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare- faced cynicism. In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god. Contempt for humanity and idolization of humanity lie close together. Good people, however, who see through all this, who withdraw in disgust from people and leave them to themselves, and who would rather tend to their own gardens than debase themselves in public life, fall prey to the same temptation to contempt for humanity as do bad people.”
Bonhoeffer wrote that sometime between 194l and 1943 while staying at the Benedictine Abbey Ettal. The secret seminary he directed had been closed by the SS and many of the young men he had trained had been drafted only to be sent to Russia. The passage I just read is obviously Bonhoeffer’s reflections on Hitler and the Nazi takeover of German life. That it is so may mean it is not relevant for our situation because being ruled by a bore is not the equivalent to being ruled by a totalitarian murderous thug. I suspect, however, it is all too relevant to our situation.
I am aware that to begin a sermon with these kind of reflections risks offense. I am visiting preacher. I will say what I have to say and then get out of town. I do not have to pay any price for a sermon, and some may wonder if it is a sermon, that seems far too political. But then I hope to convince you that one of our failures as Christians has been our unwillingness to acknowledge and preach the politics of the cross.
There is also the problem of using a sermon to support or criticize particular political opinions. I obviously am not a big fan of Donald Trump while many of you may well think him as inspired leader for our time. Yet you do not get your view in play because I am in the pulpit and you are in the pew. I win.
Of course we try to avoid acknowledgment of the politics of preaching by underwriting the dogma that religion and politics do not mix. It is assumed my negative view of Trump and those with more positive views should keep those judgments to themselves particularly when they are in church. The only problem with that strategy, which I take to be an attempt to avoid conflict, is the importance of recognizing that few claims are more political than the phrase “religion and politics do not mix.”
That is particularly true when the attempt to keep politics out of the sermon is reinforced by the distinction between the public and the private. Most of us are well schooled by the general presumption that religious convictions are “personal” or “private.” “Private” means it is not incumbent on anyone else to believe what I believe.
That commitment is assumed to take the politics out of religion. Of course as the great historian, Herbert Butterfield, observed some years ago there is usually enough conflict in any church choir to start a war. But that is a politics internal to the church . No one, moreover, takes such a politics seriously. The only problem with the relegation of religious convictions to the private means is that when what we believe is so understood what we believe is seldom thereby thought to be true.
By now I may have tested your patience to the breaking point. You came to hear a sermon and what you have gotten seems more like a lecture about religion and politics that you can well do without. Where is the good news in these problematic generalizations about the relation of the church and politics?
Here is the good news—“There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.” Today we celebrate the feast day of Christ the King. It does not get more political than that. The temptation, of course, is to use the language of kingship to make the cross a religious symbol that has no political implications. We are after all Americans. We have never had a king or queen and we have not seemed less for not having monarchs. Was not the War of Independence fought to free Americans from the reach of a king?
We are in the generic sense democrats. Democracies do not have kings. At least they do not have kings that actually rule. We are, moreover, a liberal democracy which is dedicated to the project of making each of us our own tyrant. To be an American means you have to do what you want to do.
Jesus may have been a king but we will not be ruled by a king. We will not be ruled by a king or queen unless we have learned to live as if we are each a monarch of our lives. Yet the desire for freedom without limitation leads, as Bonhoeffer’s analysis presupposes, to servitude.
But this is Christ the King Sunday. If Christ is king it must surely be the case that there is no way to avoid the fact that there was and still is a politics in play that climaxed in his crucifixion. The one who tempted him in the desert was revealed in the crucifixion as the false ruler that tempts us to be more than creatures of God’s good creation.
It is not accidental that the feast day of Christ the King was established by Pius XI in 1925 in his encyclical Quas primas. Pius was so concerned by the murderous reality of WWI he reasoned that the only hope of avoiding future conflicts depended on the public recognition and celebration of “Christ the King.” We become a people incapable of killing one another through the recognition that Jesus is king.
To be sure the politics we experience are democratic. It is also true that there are few examples of the politics of democracy in the Bible. Jesus is nowhere addressed as “Mr. President.” Nor does he seem to be someone who might try to win an election. Take up your cross and follow me does not sound like a winning campaign slogan. I concede that there is one democratic moment in the Gospels—the people choose Barabbas.
I think the problem of articulating the politics of the cross in modernity is not because we are stuck with kingship language in a democratic social order. No, I think the problem is Jesus. In Colossians we are told “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” All things have been created through him—dominions, rulers, or powers.
What are these “powers?” They are givens of God’s good creation that were meant to make our lives possible. But they are fallen giving us the illusion that we are in control of our lives. They were meant to make us cooperative and at peace with one another but they are now used to assert our will over each other.
But they have been exposed and thus redeemed by Christ making it possible for us to live in peace. What does it mean to say they are redeemed? It is to say that the pretention that we are our own creator has been unmasked by the cross. It is to say that if there did not exist a people who worship a crucified king then the world Bonhoeffer describes is never far from reality.
Christ is king. Christians accordingly must be the most political of all God’s creatures but our politics is not “out there.” Our politics is first and foremost here in this bread and wine. Here we become for the world a people of peace in a world of violence. Such a people are made possible by the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness makes possible the acknowledgment that we can confess the sins of the past without trying to justify what was so wrong nothing can make it right. Slavery was sin.
There can be no question for us who worship a crucified savior—religion and politics do mix. Indeed they do not mix but in fact they are one. There is no politics deeper than the community that is gathered around the cross of Christ. For it is assumed such a community has nothing to lose by acknowledging the truth about our failures to follow this Lord is about truth.
We live in a dangerous world made more dangerous by our unwillingness to obey anyone other than this strange king of the Jews. Do not be afraid but rejoice in the fact that you are a citizen of the kingdom of this crucified king.
Our guest this week is United Methodist pastor Parker Haynes who joins us to talk about his essay “Remember Our Story: Is the Future of Methodism, Anglican?” in which he argues that United Methodism has run aground not because of disputes over sexuality but because, in many core ways, the story of Methodism has come to an end. Our reason for being, that is, is no longer a reason to be a distinct set apart from the Church whence we came.
Here’s Parker’s piece here:
Does our future as United Methodists lie in returning to the global Anglican communion whence we came?
Here’s a reflection that comes to us from a friend of the podcast, Reverend B. Parker Haynes:
As The United Methodist Church has been consumed by an idolatrous focus on sex over the past decade, the Church has failed to see that in a few years this conversation will be null and void. The future of The United Methodist Church is in doubt, not because it is considering moving from an orthodox position of sexuality to a heretical one (the traditional view), or because it has oppressed LGBTQIA Christians and its position on sexuality is antiquated, patriarchal and hetero-normative (the liberal/progressive view). Instead, I offer that the future of our Church is in doubt because we have forgotten who we are. That seems like an overly simplistic and naive statement that cannot possibly get at the heart of the issue. But let me suggest that the central reason we are where we are is because we can no longer identify what it means for any of us to be a distinctly United Methodist Christian. What is at stake in the 2020 General Conference and beyond is not whether we will take a traditional or progressive position on sex, but whether or not we can reclaim our story as United Methodists.
The Church in the Modern Age: A Story Forgotten
Perhaps the most significant reason we have forgotten our story is because of the rise of modernity. Former United Methodist and now Episcopalian theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has said that the project of modernity is an attempt to produce a people who have no story except the story they chose when they had no story. In other words, modernity is an attempt to convince people that since we are rational, enlightened and autonomous individuals, there is no story, no narrative and no tradition that determines our lives except the one we choose for ourselves. Yet despite modernity’s attempt to be story-less, it too is a story. Modernity did not arise out of darkness ex-nihilo; it is a tradition that traces its roots to Christendom. But it is a story and a tradition that is false because human beings do not get to make up their own story; we have been “storied” through being formed as a community called the Church. We have been created, redeemed and sustained by the Holy Trinity. Our past, present and future have already been decided for us.
Ronald Beiner has sought to articulate the way liberalism, which is produced by modernity, has been able to convince us that we are a story-less people whose only identity is the one we create for ourselves. In his book “What’s The Matter With Liberalism?” he argues that in liberalism, we cannot distinguish between what is good and what is bad because human beings are reduced to individual consumers in which the freedom to choose is itself “the good,” meaning the true way of living our lives to the fullest. Therefore, nothing should restrict my freedom to choose how I live my life, including my own sexual preferences.
At first glance, this seems to be a traditionalist victory in the opening skirmish. But the problem is that liberalism is the air we breathe; we are all liberals. We all make up our lives believing we can define for ourselves what it means to be Christian. Conservatives, traditionalists, progressives and liberals all live in what Charles Taylor calls “The Age of Authenticity.” No one can tell me how to live my life or what to believe. In order to be authentic to who I am, I must figure those things out on my own. Even those of us who claim orthodoxy and submit to the Church’s teachings and the Book of Discipline first came to this understanding through a liberal trajectory. Traditionalists, like progressives, choose the ethics and biblical interpretations that fit their narrative rather than a wholesale subscription to historic orthodoxy. The reality is that we cannot go back to the pre-liberal, pre-modern era. To believe that we can defeat liberalism and reestablish the traditional values of the premodern church is exactly to believe the lie of modernity. We are not in control, we do not make up our lives and we cannot go back in time.
Virtue As A Way to Remember Story
This is not to say that all is lost. The true liberation of our enslavement to liberalism is not tighter restrictions, or more rules about who can do what as the Traditional Plan lays out. Liberation will only come through a return to the practice of virtue in the Church. As Christians, it is Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit who unites us into a common life and has given us shared practices that compose our fundamental identity as a whole, which we call the Church. The penalties and restrictions of the Traditional Plan cannot form us into a common life because we no longer acknowledge or render authority to the Church as our common life. One of Methodism’s best theologians, Stephen Long, professor of ethics at Perkins School of Theology, has done much critiquing of liberalism, but has also noted that the Traditional Plan turns the Church into a nation-state that attempts to enforce laws, which are then enforced by authorities. However, the Gospel of Jesus is not a coercive message that forces others to believe in God; it is a persuasive one that seeks to articulate God’s love for the world. We cannot participate in a common life together through coercion. Relearning virtue, on the other hand, can reconstitute us as a community with shared practices that united us as the Body of Christ.
Aristotle first articulated the idea of virtue thousands of years ago in Athens. For Aristotle, the virtues were the practices that held together the common life of all Athenians. Rather than trying to determine how you would act in a certain situation (the starting place for most modern ethics), Aristotle believed you should focus on developing character through habituated excellence (virtue) that would give you the skills necessary to act rightly in that situation. Furthermore, this character would help you to lead a truly good life, good not only for yourself as an individual, but good for the community as a whole. For Aristotle, the individual and the community did not have a different telos, as if what is good for me is not necessarily good for all, but rather what is good for me is good for all and vice versa. Thus, our chief end is to develop the kind of character through the practice of the virtues so that, rather than competing against one another through violence, we might engender a common life together.
In modernity, we do not live in a world that values virtue, much less one that cultivates it. Such a statement is proof since Aristotle had no conception of “value” as we use it today. That we use the word “value” to describe the things that are important to us demonstrates that modernity has created a world in which everything can be seen as an investment that has a price and can be bought and sold as a commodity in a liberal market economy. Thus we cannot even begin to return to virtue unless we, The United Methodist Church as a whole, can form the kind of habits that will produce people who can articulate that rather than being creators of our own story, we have been storied through the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ. We did not make ourselves Christians, we were made by others. We did not make up the tradition, we received it from others. Our belief in God is not an individual choice that gives meaning and value to our life. Instead, since God raised Jesus from the dead, we cannot do anything but believe and live in the community of saints.
Formed Through Liturgy
In order for us to cultivate virtue that will allow us to engender a common life as the community of saints, we need to first develop habits that will lead to the development of virtue. I suggest that these habits must be most significantly developed through our worship. James K. A. Smith has written extensively on worship as the arena through which our desires are properly shaped and directed toward God. There is no more effective habit-producing mechanism than liturgy. Liturgy is not only found in the Church’s worship, but everywhere from an NFL football game to a presidential address at a U.S. military base to a concert of a popular rock band. The liturgy found in the Church’s worship as the gathered Body of Christ centers around the eucharistic table to consume the Lord Jesus must be the liturgy that habituates us, shapes our desires, and lays the foundation for our story as United Methodists.
Unfortunately, in The United Methodist Church today, a majority of us have forgotten why the celebration of the eucharist is central to our community. Liturgy is a bad word in some congregations, and at the very least an outdated term that will hinder church growth. It is argued that today our worship needs to be relevant, entertaining, or a “fresh expression,” not boring, old or traditional. Most of our churches continue to celebrate the eucharist only once a month even though modern transportation has long allowed ordained clergy to lead worship every Sunday. When we shape our worship to be exciting, entertaining and only occasionally include the eucharist, we are creating habits that shape our story as a people who worship the god of modernity who caters to individualistic desires and provides optimism in a world of suffering.
One possibility of cultivating the kinds of habits through worship that would develop virtue might be to emphasize services of Word and Table with weekly communion. I would also suggest an emphasis on the Book of Worship or the Book of Common Prayer as a whole as a way to pattern our worship. Although it has been argued that one of the beauties of Methodism is our diversity in worship and style, I would argue that is an attempt to allow entertainment or excitement to form us. In actuality, there is much flexibility and room in the liturgy and a service of Word and Table can be adapted to appropriately reflect culture or the season of the year.
A counter argument might be that more liturgical traditions like Catholicism or Anglicanism are suffering decline similar to The United Methodist Church, and we must not be foolish enough to think that we will instantly be sucked out of our denominational struggles. Modernity and liberalism have formed us so deeply that it will be a long and difficult journey home and we will lose many along the way. But if we can develop the habits and virtues the early Church once had, maybe when we get to the end of all this chaos, we will at least be formed enough to know how to move forward and where the God of Jesus Christ is calling us.
The Future of Methodism: Returning to the Fold
As Methodists, we rightly celebrate John Wesley as the leader of our movement. Despite the number of references to Wesley today among Methodists, we forget many of the most important aspects of his ministry. Wesley remained an Anglican priest until he died and never wanted to start a new church outside of the Church of England. His intent was to reform the Church and reinvigorate it with the Holy Spirit. The question must be asked: When will the reformation be over? Where we stand today, we have lost more than we have gained. For most of our Methodist Christians in America, our Anglican heritage is unknown. Our distinctive theological emphases, worship practices, ecclesiology and social ethics are so muddled that most of our seminary students should not pass board examinations, but they do because of our growing need for clergy. How many of us can articulate what is it that makes Methodists distinct from Anglicans? In what ways are we more aligned with the Spirit, faithful to God’s call or ethically pure? We have lost sight of Wesley’s vision and forgotten our story as Methodists.
Our future lies in returning to the fold of the Anglican Communion. This does not mean that we must abandon all Methodist distinctives or emphases; we can seek ways to rejoin the family that allow us always to remember our heritage. But we can no longer remain separated and divorced from the Church that birthed us. We have forgotten our story because in many ways it has come to an end. Many of our protests against the Church of England have been heard and acted upon. There is no reason to continue protesting when the reforms have been conceded. Wesley never desired for us to exist as an end unto ourselves. It may be argued that the Episcopal Church has suffered a church split and declining membership so why would a move toward liturgy and unity better our chances? If our greatest need is numbers and increased church membership, then unity will not help. But if our greatest need today is remembering our story, who we are and why we began, then unity is the only answer.
I remember sitting in Sunday school some years ago and hearing the David and Goliath story for the first time. I’m sure most of you remember it too. It ran something like this:
David was a little shepherd boy working for his father. He’s the underdog that everyone can root for. He’s a good boy who follows the law. He is the youngest of the sons of Jesse. He’s the unlikely one of the bunch, handsome and ruddy, small and unassuming in stature. You get the picture.
The Sunday school teacher described the meaning of the story in three steps. 1) David was chosen and went to the river to get five stones. 2) “David is like you,” he said. “God has given you great gifts.” 3) like David, he went on, if you use those gifts, you can defeat your Goliath.
As the saying goes, God sometimes puts a Goliath in your way so you can find the David within you. Thankfully, I had the great advantage of not having to look far to find David.
Point is, much like me, my namesake isn’t the center of the story. In the ancient church, David was interpreted in light of Christ, as what St. Augustine calls a ‘prefiguration.’ This means that what occurs in David is an imaginative advance of what is accomplished in Christ. David is the vessel by which the good news is communicated. What my Sunday school teacher missed was not that David was a sinner, though the curriculum skipped over that for the most part as well; no, what my Sunday school teacher missed in the telling of the story, in the centering of David in the narrative, was Jesus.
That the early church was committed to understanding the story of the Hebrew scriptures as the same continuous revelation of Christ meant that they were also committed to a rather creative reading of the text. If the Hebrew Scriptures were gesturing towards the fullness that is the Son of God, then they supposed that it could not be referring to our action. That is, David was never viewed or interpreted as a person we were capable of emulating, who was faithful to God, who lived a good life, who did all the right things and followed through when the time came. He was not a moral example. David stood in as a characterization of what occurs in Christ.
The early church understood the opposition between David and Goliath to be an opposition between Christ and humanity in its captivity to sin. The valley into which David descends to face Goliath is interpreted as Christ’s descent into hell. He wrangles the devil, kills the death that holds us captive, and opens to us the life in him. The battle of Revelation that is our second scripture is played out in the Davidic narrative.
Now, bear with me here. Let’s go through the story again. Let’s listen to what the early church might have heard: Goliath, the giant of the time, the dominating force in geopolitics, decked out in the latest and greatest of armor and weapons, challenges the Lord and his people Israel. He presumes to be God. Goliath, you might begin to recognize, is a lot like us. Goliath does not mince words: he is here to deny God’s presence and covenant, for as he says, “today I defy the ranks of Israel,” today I “curse David by my gods.” David, the prefiguration of Christ, remains unmoved. He announces Goliath’s defeat even before he approaches the battlefield, saying to Saul that “the battle is the Lord’s.” David descends into the valley of death in order to meet Goliath head on – just as Christ condescends in the flesh to deliver us from the death that holds us captive. The stone David launches at Goliath is the proclamation of the Gospel – Christ knocks Goliath off his feet with the full message of God’s steadfast determination to disallow Death a victory.
With that stone, David denies us the ability to identify with him. The stone he throws is “the stone the builders have rejected that has become the cornerstone.” David, the early church saw, was to be identified with Christ, not ourselves. David knew that Israel needed to be saved.
Like it or not, we don’t need more Goliaths. We don’t need more Goliaths because we already have more in common with him than we do with David; we don’t need more Goliaths because we can already see ourselves in him. We defy God everyday. We sin. I mean, we armor ourselves with language and structures of security and its corresponding violence. Everyday, we praise the gods of this world, giving them the honor and glory that only Christ deserves. Everyday, we make the mistake of thinking ourselves to be a David, when the reality is we are a Goliath, to our neighbors and to ourselves. How we treat our neighbors deeply how we treat God, and who among us can say that they have truly loved each and every one of their neighbors?
Let me put it bluntly: the Revelation scripture today, through which we read the narrative of David, declares in unrelentingly militant terms that Jesus is Lord and that the powers of this world have been overcome. Goliath has been defeated, struck dead by this truth. The grip of sin on the world is no longer; Jesus has taken the violence that orients our lives and thrown it on its head. David’s act prefigures Christ in the radicality of its claim: there is but one Lord, and it is God.
In 1916, Karl Barth declared that the church should not be a place of refuge, but rather a place of disturbance and crisis. This is not because God is not our shelter in a time of storm; it is not because God does not care for us in our weakness. The church is a place of disturbance and disruption precisely because of the Lord it proclaims. The church is the place that witnesses to the overcoming of the powers of the world that is found on the cross and in the empty tomb. The church ,constituted through its word and sacraments, is where the world is reminded that its violence will not be returned with violence but with the truthful speech of the grace of God.
The church is where we die to our goliath’s, where we die to ourselves. St. Augustine notes that Goliath’s forehead, being the only part of his body not covered in armor, notably does not have on it the sign of the cross; that is, Goliath has, in all his armor, left himself vulnerable to the truth of the Gospel message, and it smacks him in the face. The church is where we hear the Gospel that reminds us, ever so gently as a rock to the forehead, that in our armor of the world we have indeed sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
However, as Revelation declares, this stone is also the stone that gives us new life, for in it “the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down.” In this watery death, the death inaugurated by “the blood of the lamb,” we are invited into the life that is Christ Jesus. The baptism we share wraps us into the truth that sets us free. That is, our baptism is into death, setting us free from the clinging to life that is the narrative of this world. We can, therefore, truly proclaim the goodness of God, we can rejoice with all the heavens because we have been released from captivity to sin. We need not cling to life anymore, even in the face of death, because God in Christ has thrown down the great Dragon that accuses us before Him.
Apart from God, we are resigned to the woe of the earth, to the devil’s wrath, to the self-absorption and endless failure of pretending to be God. Without Christ Jesus, we are liable to identify ourselves with David, rather than with Goliath. Without the God who descends in Christ and is crucified on our behalf, the kingdoms, empires, and nations would have final say in our allegiance.
For apart from God, David reminds us, we have no hope. There is no sword or power that can overcome the Devil: it is the blood of the lamb and the proclamation, the speech, that overcomes.
Apart from the mercy of Christ and the truth of his freedom we are impotent to be ministers of the kingdom. David reminds us of this – he is not a glorious majestic figure in the story. The strength that ultimately defeats Goliath is not his own, for “the battle is the Lord’s.” In fact, David strips of all armour and safety, taking with him only the markings of a shepherd, the markings of that same shepherd who is nailed to the cross: he makes himself vulnerable to the violence Goliath wishes to enact because the Lord does not save by sword and spear. David, as the prefiguration of Christ, approaches Goliath with only the truth of the cross, the conviction that, truly, God does not return our violence with violence, but with the ever disruptive word of forgiveness and grace, the word of Easter.
David is denuded, made to appear naked in front of Goliath’s menacing figure. This nakedness is constitutive of a people who follow Christ, a people whose lives are marked by the truth of the cross. Revelation shows us that the time of the devil is short, because he has been thrown down by the cross. It is the cross on our foreheads and on our hearts that reminds us of the glory of God that makes us naked in the truth. No pretensions can be held. So, let us come, naked and free, to worship with Michael and all the angels, glorying in the forgiveness and love that is given to all creation by the blood of the lamb and the word of that testimony.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
A couple of years ago now, my wife, Ali, my mother, and I were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the mauve exam room where my oncologist had just handed me the results of my latest PET scan.
I’d finished my 8th round of chemo 7 weeks earlier, about a year after getting a call from a GI doctor who started by asking me if I was sitting down.
I’d been getting these double-over stomach pains for months.
The following day I was waking up from emergency abdominal surgery to my wife kissing my forehead and telling me they’d taken an 11×11 inch tumor from my intestine and that I had a rare, incurable cancer called Mantle Cell.
Just like Catniss Everdeen, the odds weren’t ever in my favor, and I thought I was going to die.
I’d staggered across chemo’s finish line like a runner who hadn’t practiced on enough hills.
“So…other than my… what am I looking at?” I asked with bated breath, holding my most recent PET scan in my hand.
“You’re as clear as a “bell”, my friend,” the doctor said, punctuating the news with a warm, knowing smile. “All the tumors you’d had all over you are completely gone.”
The chemo had killed off the cancer in my body, but we all knew I still had Mantle Cell percolating in my bone marrow, which, in the absence of the chemo treatment, would soon-to-eventually return lumps and masses throughout my lymph system.
“What the scan doesn’t show,” the doctor said, scooting the little round stool closer to us, “is the level of activity of Mantle Cell in your marrow. We’ll need to do a bone marrow biopsy for that.”
The reality that the cloud of cancer would never be completely removed from my body or our lives reasserted itself and hung over us. We nodded.
“Knowing the level of activity in your marrow will help us to gauge how we approach your maintenance chemo over the coming years.”
“We’ll do it here in the exam room. We’ll drill down into the center of your hip bone and extract a couple of vials of marrow.”
“Come again?” I asked.
“Did you say drill?!”
“Yes, drill” he said, oblivious.
“And am I, like, awake during this drilling?”
“Yes, but you needn’t worry. You’ll feel only a quick, momentary discomfort.”
I nodded, calming down.
“Well, I do plan on giving you a prescription for oxycontin to take before you come in that morning.”
“Oxycontin? I thought you said it would be only a momentary discomfort?”
He didn’t reply.
‘Can I just go back to dying?’
He slowly drew a smile across his face and then threw his head back in what seemed with hindsight, less hearty and more a diabolical laugh.
I returned a week later for the bone marrow biopsy.
I held out my arm for the lab nurse to draw my blood work. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said, sliding the needle into me seamlessly, “for most people, after chemo, their hair grows back thick…”
The nurse drew the needle out.
“It looks like I’ll be back with you for your biopsy today.”
“Awesome,” I said and then shared with her how the oncologist had described it as a momentary discomfort only then to prescribe a dangerous opiate normally associated with right wing radio hosts and gin-slinging country club wives.
She smiled like a preschool teacher.
“You took it though, right?” looking at me, suddenly sober.
“I didn’t even fill the prescription.” I said, “I forgot.”
“This should be…memorable,” she said, putting a cotton swab and tape over the puncture in my arm.
“For you or for me?” I asked.
“Both,” she was back to smiling.
“What’s it feel like?”
She was putting labels on my vials of blood. “Some people scream.”
“Some? What about the others?”
“They usually pass out.”
“But what does it feel like? There’s no nerves inside the bone there so it can’t hurt, right?”
She was, I could tell, thinking about something, remembering.
She chuckled to herself softly, glanced over into the lab to see if her supervisor was listening and then said: “This one guy- he said it felt like a Harry Potter Dementor sucking his soul out of his rear end.”
I’m not sure why but that struck me as probably the most terrifying thing she could’ve said.
Laying down on my stomach in my birthday suit, I squeezed the corners of the mattress. He pressed his large left hand on my back, in between my shoulder blades, pushing down on me, and grabbed a screw-shaped needle big enough to throw light off the corner of my eye.
“You’re going to feel a little bit of pressure,” he said euphemistically as he started to twist the needle down into my bone.
“You’ve got strong bones.” He grunted.
“That’s probably because I breast fed until I was 12.”
I heard the nurse giggle. He did too.
He wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
He was covered in sweat too.
The nurse squirted some water into his mouth like he was a boxer in the late rounds.
“Okay, are you ready?” he asked.
Just then it felt like a cord was being pulled deep inside me, from my heel all the way up my spine. My legs both kicked involuntarily, like I was a corpse with a last bit of life in me.
“Good,” he said, “now only 2 maybe 3 more times.”
When he finished, I stood up from the exam table, too tired even to pull my pants up. “You were right about that Harry Potter thing,” I said to the nurse breathlessly.
I was so sweaty that pieces of butcher paper were stuck all over my arms and face, like I’d just had the worst shaving accident in history.
The doctor patted me on the shoulder. “You’ve been through the fire, Jason. You’ve been through the fire.”
“Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” I joked.
“Well, let’s hope there’s no lion’s den in store for you,” he said, patting me on the back.
My oncologist— it’s not his fault.
He doesn’t know the Bible all that well. He grew up a Methodist.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re not thrown into a lion’s den.
They’re made to suffer an oven.
A fire from which we get the word, holocaust.
What made the Babylonians unique among ancient oppressors is that, upon invading and conquering neighbor nations, they did not simply kill the best and brightest of their neighbors.
They exiled their enemy’s best and brightest back to Babylon and forced them to become Babylonians.
They gave them new names and new gods.
They made them pagans.
And, so Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re Jewish exiles, conscripted into the civil service under Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan King of Babylon.
They’re Jews, but the names with which they’re named by Babylon pay homage to Babylon’s pagan gods.
Shadrach (his Hebrew name had been Hananiah) is named for the pagan god of the moon.
Meschach (his Hebrew name had been Mishael) is named for the pagan god, Aku.
And Abednego (his Hebrew name had been Azariah) is named for the pagan god of wisdom.
You see— for Jews, for whom the first and most urgent commandment is “You shall have no other gods but the one, true God,” to bear the name of a false god is a grave sin indeed.
To carry the name of a pagan god is to expect that the true God has forsaken you.
Or, worse, it’s to expect that whatever suffering comes to you has been sent by the God you forsook.
In the story, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are denounced for refusing to submit to the gods of Babylon and, by implication, for refusing to submit to the authority of Nebuchadnezzar.
So Nebuchadnezzar orders the three exiles gagged, bound, and cast into a fiery furnace but not before the king instructs his men to crank the oven up to seven times its normal heat, and seven— you should note the surprising clue— is the biblical number for perfection or completeness and, thus, it’s a number that foreshadows the presence of God.
The furnace gets so hot that the heat obliterates the guards who come close enough to the fire to toss the prisoners inside but not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
According to Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar and his courtiers can see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, walking around, unbound and unburned.
What’s more surprising, the bystanders report seeing a fourth person there in the fire.
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and who exactly?
“The fourth has the appearance of a son of God,” the counselor reports to Nebuchadnezzar.
The story in Daniel ends with a typical Old Testament flourish when King Nebuchadnezzar, having brought Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire, unsinged, throws off his former affections and declares: “…there is no other god like this Son of God!”
In other words:
There is no other god who meets us in the fire.
There is no other god who meets us in the crucible of suffering.
Here’s the thing— pay attention now:
Despite what so much of our God-talk implies, God is not the passive, inactive, fixed-point center of the universe to whom it’s your job, through prayer and piety, to grow closer.
Jesus Christ is not just a God who suffers for us, for our sins.
Jesus Christ is a God who suffers with us, with sinners like us— that’s what it means, as the Gospel promises us, for Jesus to be a friend of sinners.
God doesn’t just take on our suffering in Jesus Christ.
God joins us in our suffering in the Holy Spirit.
It’s not on you to grow closer to God.
God is already closer to you than you are to yourself.
No matter what you’re going through in you life, God is completely active and present in it.
That we don’t always perceive God’s presence in our troubles and suffering has less to do with God— even less with the strength of our faith— and more to do with where we think God is allowed to act in our lives.
We lay down all these laws about where God’s allowed to act in our lives. God can be present in our worship, we think, or God can work through Bible study or prayer.
We can find God, we think, in spiritual disciplines or in acts of service.
But in our desperation? In our doubts? In our anxiety or addiction? In our suffering?
Surely God’s absent in our suffering, we assume.
That we think God can only work in our lives through proper, pious channels but shows how we persist in construing Christianity as a religion of Law.
But, it’s a religion of the opposite.
It’s a religion of grace.
It’s ironic how we don’t expect to discover God in our suffering anymore than Peter and the disciples expected to discover a suffering God.
While I’ve not been burned or singed by flames, I do have the belly scars and the needle marks and the monthly nausea and the weekly panic attacks and the medical bills to prove to you that I am in the fire.
Here’s what Jason the Patient learned about the fire that Jason the Pastor didn’t appreciate.
Just as learning I had Mantle Cell meant mourning the loss of the life I had and the loss of the future I’d envisioned, so too— paradoxically— finding out that I hadn’t died (just yet) meant mourning the loss of the life I’d found living with cancer.
This surprised me.
As much as I wanted the nightmare called cancer to be over, I found a part of me grieving the news that I would (sort of) get my old life back. I found myself grieving the life I’d learned to enjoy with cancer.
What I had happened upon, without knowing it, is what the Protestant Reformers, starting with Martin Luther, termed a theology of the cross.
Bear with me now.
A theology of the cross is not the same as a theology about the cross.
A theology about the cross says “While we were yet sinners, Christ on his cross died for us.”
A theology of the cross says “My life was in ruins of my own making.
My marriage was blown apart. My job was lost. My self-image was shattered by shame. My diagnosis trashed all my hopes and dreams. I thought God had forsaken me. I thought God must be punishing me.
But God met me there in the crucible of my pain. God met me there in the crucible of my shame. God met me there in the crucifixion that was my suffering.
A theology about the cross says “This is how God in Jesus Christ saves you from your sin.”
A theology of the cross says “This is where the God who has saved you in Jesus Christ meets you.”
This is where God meets you in your own life.
In your suffering.
In your sin!
In your shame and your pain.
A theology about the cross says “Christ and him crucified has taken away the handwriting that was against you.”
A theoloy of the cross says “Jesus Christ joined me in my darkest moment when all I could do was stare at the handwriting on the wall.”
The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Jesus never chooses any other means to meet us than condescension into our suffering.
That’s how Paul today can declare to the Philippians “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Paul’s behind bars when he writes to the Philippians.
Paul thinks he’s about to be executed.
Paul can say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because the Christ who strengthens him is with him there in the fiery furnace.
Christ has joined him in his suffering.
The cross is not what lies at the end of Jesus’ journey.
For every one of us, the way to Jesus Christ goes through a cross.
The cross is not simply the message we proclaim.
The cross is the means God uses to get to us.
As sure as I’m standing here today, I met Jesus Christ in the crucible of cancer.
Or rather, Jesus Christ met me there.
And I’m not special.
Neither are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
This is how the Living God works.
He meets us in the fire.
As my friend Chad Bird, writes: “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility and suffering, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.”
Bird just puts more politely what Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation where Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, God condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine and happy parts of our lives but in the steaming piles of you-know-what in our lives.
Blank happens we say, but a theology of the cross says wherever it happens, God happens, too.
When I first got the diagnosis of something for which I’ll never be in remission, I reminded my parishioners over and over again that “God is not behind this. God is not behind my cancer.”
The paradox of the theology of the cross, however, is that though God is not behind my cancer, God is behind my cancer.
That is, God is not behind my cancer in terms of culpability, but God is behind my cancer in terms of condescension, wearing my suffering like a mask or a wedding veil, real enough to bring Nebuchenezzar to his knees and declare, “There is no other god like this!”
I’d never foist my diagnosis an another, yet, at the same time, I’ve found God hidden behind it, present in what others might perceive His absence.
You see, how preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient.
In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed. By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer.
No, God is to be found in our suffering.
While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” anyone who insist that God isn’t in suffering.
Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering, God is hidden, present, and there with us.
Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel.
Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace.
“Where is God in my suffering?”
It can be the worst question to ask because it implies God’s not present in our suffering.
But then again, “Where is God in my suffering?” can also be the very best question if you’re looking for where God is in your suffering.
Because’s he’s there.
Because the Son of God who joins Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace is the same God who meets you in your own suffering.
In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy.
Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”
Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses:
“Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. And all at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze and back away slowly. One is not bold in an encounter with God.”
The doctor and the husband— they’d become theologians of the cross.
In the past half-century, few theologians have shaped the landscape of American belief and practice as much as Stanley Hauerwas. His work in social ethics, political theology, and ecclesiology has had a tremendous influence on the church and society. But have we understood Hauerwas’s theology, his influences, and his place among the theologians correctly? Hauerwas is often associated―and rightly so―with the postliberal theological movement and its emphasis on a narrative interpretation of Scripture. Yet he also claims to stand within the theological tradition of Karl Barth, who strongly affirmed the priority of Jesus Christ in all matters and famously rejected Protestant liberalism. These are two rivers that seem to flow in different directions.
In this episode, theologian David Hunsicker offers a reevaluation of Hauerwas’s theology, arguing that he is both a postliberal and a Barthian theologian. In so doing, Hunsicker helps us to understand better both the formation and the ongoing significance of one of America’s great theologians.
You can find the book here.
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