We kicked off weekly worship our satellite campus this Sunday with the first in a sermon of series: The 7 Deadlies and the 7 Ways that Jesus Saves Us. As you’ll see, the new venue allowed me to use slides and video for the first time.
During the series I’ll be pairing one of the ancient capital vices (aka: Deadly Sins) with one of the Church’s ancient or modern understandings of atonement- how Jesus makes us at-one with God. In this sermon, I owe a debt to Jonathan Martin’s work in Prototype and, like him, owe a debt to St Iraeneus and the late Herbert McCabe.
You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar ‘Listen’ Widget to the right or in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
Who are you?
Not only is that a question some of you might be wondering about me, especially after seeing me on toilet, I’m convinced it’s the most important question of all.
Who are you?
I believe it’s the question at the heart of what we call the Gospel- the good news.
And it’s the reason I believe people need the church- need a church.
Because we certainly don’t have all the answers but we have heard one answer.
We’ve heard the answer to that ‘who are you?’ question.
Since it’s so important, it makes sense to tell you.
Who I am.
He’s 4 or 5 here.
And twice a day, morning and evening, breakfast and dinner, on the back deck, a brown squirrel would wait outside the screen door, sitting on its hind legs, and beg for food.
Twice a day the squirrel would eat out of the little boy’s hand.
The boy called the squirrel ‘Foxy.’
He was only 4 or 5, but even then he knew that squirrels don’t eat out of people’s hands.
But Foxy did. This boy- he lived in an enchanted world.
He felt happy and special and free and infinitely loved. He’d never heard the word ‘God’ before, but even so he felt surrounded by God’s loving presence.
This boy- he felt no fear, no doubt. He felt no shame, no reason to hide behind any masks, no self-consciousness at all.
You don’t wear shorts that short if you’re burdened with self-consciousness or shame.
If you asked this boy that question ‘Who are you?’ then I probably would’ve told you: ‘I’m the boy with the magic squirrel.’
And it’s true that this boy isn’t happy to wearing a cutesy, home-made costume that only other moms will think is cool. It’s true this boy isn’t happy he’s not wearing one of those cheap, plastic superhero masks, the kind with the one staple and the rubber band that snaps as soon as you try to put it on your head.
It’s true this boy isn’t happy to be dressed like a clown, but, truthfully, this isn’t the first time this boy learned how to smear a fake smile on his face.
A few months before this Halloween was the first time the boy laid awake in his bunk bed and listened to the screaming and hitting downstairs.
Other nights he’d cry quietly, sitting at the top of the stairs and listening to his parents below when they thought he was asleep in bed.
Right before this Halloween was when his Dad hit the tree in their front yard after another night out drinking too much. He knew because he heard his Mom say so when he was supposed to be asleep.
But when the boy asked his Dad what happened to the car, his Dad lied to him. And when the boy asked his Mom what happened to the car… So if you asked this boy that question: ‘Who are you?’ he might’ve said ‘Who do you think? Obviously, I’m a clown.’
But the truth is, the boy didn’t know.
Halloween was just one day of the year that he wore a mask.
When that boy became a teenager, he wished he could wear an actual mask.
When that boy became a teenager, he didn’t let that many pictures of him get taken. His complexion eventually got so bad that after exhausting a battery of treatments the doctors prescribed him the same medication used to treat leprosy.
To add another layer of biblical allusion, the leprosy once got so bad that the kids at his bus stop would throw stones at him.
He responded by retreating into sarcasm and when that didn’t work he just retaliated. Desperation, it turns out, makes for a good fighter.
Not having any answer to that ‘Who are you?’ question made it impossible for him to forgive or turn the other cheek or think about walking an inch in his bullies’ shoes or even trust someone else enough to tell them what was going on with him.
His family was broken up and his body was broken out, and if you asked him that ‘Who are you?’ question there’s no way he would’ve answered honestly.
He just would’ve hid, but the truth was he felt unloved and unlovely.
One day the boy next door invited him to church, a house church.
He’d never heard of such a thing but as invitations to anything were a rarity he went.
Already feeling unloved and unlovely, the friendly souls at this house church told the boy there was something else wrong with him.
They told him he was a sinner.
That’s the answer they gave him to the ‘Who are you? question.
To make matters worse, they gave a teenager homework.
They told him there was something he had to do.
Believe in Jesus.
God would forgive him and love him.
He could go to heaven one day.
But this boy really didn’t think he needed forgiving, and he wasn’t interested in how to go to heaven so much as how his life could stop being a living hell.
Who are you? It is, I believe, the most important of questions.
So having the right answer makes all the difference.
The most important part of Matthew’s Gospel story today is what comes before it.
Jesus shows up at the Jordan river to be baptized.
And as he comes up out of the water, Matthew says the sky opens up and the Holy Spirit comes down and God’s voice declares like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’
But no one falls down instantly and worships Jesus or signs up to be a disciple.
So no one else hears God say ‘This is my Beloved.’
Only Jesus hears it, like a voice in his head.
It’s not like proof or evidence.
It’s more like something Jesus has to trust and believe: who God has said he is.
When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God declared to them: ‘I will be your God and you will be my Beloved.’
But not long after God rescues them from bondage, when they’re still damp from crossing through the Red Sea, the Israelites forget. They forget who God said they were.
As soon as they’re in the wilderness, they start to worry and complain that they’re going to starve or die of thirst or be left all alone.
And God responds by giving them bread and water, but God tells them you can’t live by bread alone. You have to know who you are. Don’t put your God to the test because that just shows you’ve forgotten who you are. And don’t flirt with any other little ‘g’ gods. Remember, I am yours and you are my Beloved.
But soon after they forget again.
Immediately after he’s baptized and hears God declare ‘You are my Beloved’ the Holy Spirit thrusts Jesus into the wilderness. And in the wilderness, after 40 days of fasting, when Jesus is weak and lonely and at his lowliest, Jesus hears another voice:
‘If you’re really God’s Beloved…
Turn those stones to bread.
Take a leap and let everyone see.
Bow down and I’ll give you power the world will recognize.’
Each step of the way Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes Israel’s own. And where Israel forgot who they were, Jesus remembers. And believes it.
Not only that, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden.
The questions the devil puts to Jesus aren’t really any different than the very first question the devil ever asked: ‘Did God really say…? That you’re very good…that you’re Beloved?’
Isn’t it interesting how scripture never personifies the devil with horns and a pitchfork but as that voice in your head, that voice around you, tempting you to forget what God has said about you, to forget who you are?
I never went back to my neighbor’s house church.
I never went to any church for a half-dozen years. It was pre-smartphone, so I don’t a lot of pictures, but if there’s 1 image from those years, 1 image that best captures who I was becoming, it’s this one.
Empty inside. No joy. Nothing to me besides what I presented on the outside.
And because of who she was afraid I was becoming, my mom one day announced we were going to church, which in our family was about as casual an announcement as ‘I have a tapeworm.’
The church she took us to was a new church. It didn’t even look like a church. It looked like an auditorium, and it was Christmas Eve. I now know that’s a night when many folks try out a church for the first time, but I didn’t know that then. I thought I was the only one there who didn’t belong. So I sat through the service feeling cynical and scornful and fake.
And I kept at it like that, kept up that attitude, Sunday after successive Sunday. My mom kept at it too, kept making us go.
One day, I don’t know how many Sundays after that first day, we read this story. The story before today’s story. The story where Jesus hears God say ‘You are my Beloved, in you I delight.’
But I do. Because it changed my life.
If Jesus took on our humanity, if each one of us is represented in Jesus, then that means that what God says to Jesus, God says to each one of you.
You are beloved. In you God delights.
He told me who I am.
Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved.’
It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, 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 suffering and that other voice from the wilderness creeps back for another go at him.
The theologian Hebert McCabe says that what sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or preaching. Or, even, that he died on a Cross.
No, what sets Jesus apart:
is his deep and abiding belief that he was loved by God.
Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s ever been since Adam.
Except one way.
Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved.
And knowing, all the way down, that he was loved, set him free to live as though the whole world was a new and different creation.
That’s why Jesus’ baptism comes at the beginning of the Gospels. It’s what kick-offs his ministry. We make a big deal of Christmas, but it’s those words ‘You are my Beloved’ that’s when Jesus ‘becomes’ Jesus.
‘You are my Beloved, in you I delight.’
It’s just a few words, but the Gospels put those few words right before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry so that you can see that all it takes is to believe those few words.
That if you just believe those few words
That if you trust that who you are is loved
Then that can change literally everything.
Scripture says that pride- forgetting who God has said you are and trying to manufacture a different you- is the ‘head of all sin.’
But scripture also says Jesus ‘re-heads’ the human story.
That’s what Paul says in Ephesians 1: that God has ‘recapitulated’ all things in Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth.
The word Paul uses there, recapitulation, means literally ‘re-head.’
Jesus renarrates the human story. He renews our humanity.
He redefines what it means to be human.
The first Christians believed that’s one of the ways Jesus saves us.
Their way of putting it was that in Jesus, God became what we are- prideful sinners, people who don’t know who we are- so that we might become what Jesus is:
someone who knows he is beloved
and trusts it enough to live into it
and live it out in a way that changes the world.
In other words,
If that’s true,
Then Jesus isn’t just a prophet.
He isn’t just a preacher.
And he sure isn’t just a person who’s punished for your sin.
He’s the prototype for your life.
That’s what scripture means when it calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.
He’s the prototype of a new humanity.
And you don’t bother to make a prototype if you don’t desire that one day there will be others just like it
There are some who will tell you that Christianity is about just being forgiven for your sin. But if Jesus is the prototype, then Christianity is about learning to become as fully human as Jesus.
There are some who will tell you that Christianity is all about believing in Jesus. Or believing certain things about Jesus.
But if Jesus is God’s prototype for a new way of being human then believing in Jesus has got to begin and end with believing like Jesus.
Believing like Jesus believed.
Believing that you can face trials without fear.
Believing that you can show mercy rather than cast stones.
Believing that you can love your enemies and bless those who curse us and forgive 70 x 7.
Believing that you can be a person of compassion and hope.
Believing that you- you– can bring news to the poor.
You can lift up the lowly.
You can show the world snapshots of what God’s Kingdom looks like.
If you only believe.
If Jesus is God’s prototype, then believing in Jesus has everything to do with believing like Jesus.
And believing like Jesus- for you that begins just like it began for Jesus: with knowing who you are.
You are God’s Beloved. In you God delights.
And that’s who I am.
You don’t wear shorts this short unless you’ve been set free.
From shame and self-consciousness.
You don’t wear shorts this short unless you’re completely confident that you’re delight to the Source of all Delight. Unless you’re sure, all the way down, that you’re beloved.