Archives For Aquinas

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

You can find all the previous posts here.

Finally, I’m now done with Part III. I hope to get all this to video format sometime in the coming year as well.

III. The Son

31. Is Trinity an Extra-Biblical Invention of the Church?

It’s true the doctrine of the Trinity is not delineated in scripture, but then, ironically, neither is the doctrine of sola scriptura so why choose the unimaginative option?

Trinity is not an invention of the Church imposed upon scripture. Rather, it is the only possible grammar by which the Church can speak of God given the witness of scripture and the testimony of the saints and apostles that Jesus is the Son; that is, Jesus is God.

For example, we’re told by John the man-who-had-been-blind worships Jesus. The man-who-had-been-blind is a good synagogue-going Jew. As such, he knows he can only worship God. But he worships Jesus who has healed him. If Jesus now can be worshipped as God, how is this revelation disclosed to the man-who-had-been-blind if not through the advocacy of the witness, the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would proceed him as he has proceeded from the Father?

 Trinity is not a coy and arbitrary invention of the Church imposed upon scripture for if it were we would be the worst of all possible sinners, idolators.

Trinity is instead the only possible manner of speaking of God given what we, like he man-who-had-been-blind, have learned: Jesus is Lord. The man-who-had-been-blind learns this of Jesus and then worships Jesus. Very often we are blind only in other ways learn this of Jesus only by worshipping Jesus.

“Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord,* I believe.’ And he worshipped him.”

– John 9

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

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

30. Does Trinity Mean We Worship 3 Gods?

Yes.

If you think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as ‘persons’ of the Trinity.

But the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are not persons; they are relations.

A “person” is an independent, individual subject. Neither the Son nor the Spirit are independent from the Father. None of the three are discrete subjects so as to be individualized from one another. Each of the three is unintelligible apart from the relationship we call Trinity.

The Son is the self-conception of the Father. The Holy Spirit is the delight the Father takes in relationship with the Son. Recall, the Father does not have a relationship with the Son nor vice versa. Rather they ARE relationship.

Not only do we not worship 3 Gods, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit possess only 1 single, unified will.

In other words, Trinity helps us read correctly the story of incarnation, cross, and resurrection as the outworking of the single, unified will of God; that is, Trinity prevents us from ever supposing the Father’s and the Son’s wills are posed against one another in the Son’s sacrifice upon the cross. We call God Trinity to remember the Father did not demand another’s death nor did the Son offer his life to anyone else in our stead. Only because God is Trinity, because Father, Son, and Spirit are relations not persons, can we profess the Judged is none other than the Judge.

Father, Son, and Spirit do not differ in any way. In each case, what they are is God and at no point in their internal life or their external work are they anything but fully God. The Father has no attributes or features the Son lacks; the Spirit has no attributes or features the Father lacks.

Because they are relations not persons, they have a single will:

Whatever we say of the Son is true of the Father.

Whatever we say of the Father is true of the Son.

And whatever we say of the Spirit is true of both.

“For I have come down from heaven to do my Father’s will.” – John 6.38

          Here’s my Ash Wednesday sermon. The texts were Psalm 51 and Luke 15.11-24.

Since Ash Wednesday is a day for confession, I suppose an apology is in order.

Dennis and I- we should say we’re sorry. It’s our fault.

After all, every year, every Ash Wednesday, we make you flagellate yourselves with King David’s hyperbolic guilt and indulgent self-loathing: “My sin is ever before me…Against you, you alone God, have I sinned…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner since my mother conceived me.” 

It’s our fault.

Every year, every Ash Wednesday, we drag you through this liturgy that, no BS,  derives, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists and conquistadors.

And then every year, every Ash Wednesday, we invite you forward to receive ashes to remember that from dust- by God’s grace- you came but to Death- by your sin- you deserve to go.

So I apologize. We’re sorry. It’s our fault.

If you’re one of those people who think that when we do good God will reward us, if you’re one of those people think that when we do evil, when we sin, God will punish us, if you’re one of those people then maybe it’s our fault.

I mean, it’s freaking strange that Christians of all people should think this way about God, think that God doles out what we sinners deserve but maybe it’s our fault.

Maybe we’ve let the sackcloth and ash mislead you.

Sure, it’s not really odd that other people should think of God this way, think of God rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we sin. It’s probably the most common way of thinking of God.

Freud was dead-on right: for most people God is just a great projection out onto the sky of our own interior. Our own feelings. Especially the guilty ones.

But if that’s who God is, rewarding us when we’re faithful and punishing us when we’re sinful, then I don’t believe in Him. And neither should you.

I mean if you think God is like Santa, forever auditing us to reward the nice and punish the naughty, then you better wipe your ashes tonight because you’ve lost the plot.

God, Jesus preaches again and again, isn’t like that all.

——————————

     Just take the parable.

The prodigal son goes off to a distant country, far off from his father, and goes on a Tinder binge. Only after he’s penniless and debauched as Tiger Woods, does the prodigal see himself for what he is.

 “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” 

     Here’s a question for Ash Wednesday:

Where did the son get the idea that his father would ever treat his children like hired hands? Where did he ever get the idea that his father gave his children what they deserved?

Notice- how the prodigal son’s sin- his sin– alters his whole relationship with his father.

Alters how he sees his father.

Instead of seeing himself as his father’s beloved son, the prodigal sees himself as one who gets the wages he’s earned. Instead of seeing his father as someone who loves without condition, he now sees his father as someone who doles out to his children what they deserve.

Notice, and this is everything tonight, seeing his father as someone who doles out what his children deserve- that isn’t who his father is. That is what the son’s sin has done to how he sees his father.  

His father hasn’t changed.

His sin has changed how he sees his father.

Seeing his relationship with his father this way, it’s what his sin has done, and just so you see it too, Luke repeats it twice.

The prodigal son’s sin- it’s something that changes God into a wage-master, into a judge, into a father who doles out what his children deserve.

You see-

     Sin turns God into exactly who Freud said God was: the projection of our feelings of guilt. Sin turns God into the projection of our shame so that we no longer see the real God at all.

‘God’ isn’t a proper name, don’t forget. It’s an answer.

Fundamentally, ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ a question to which there is never any other answer but grace and love.

But instead, according to Jesus here in Luke 15, our sin turns God into an accuser, a wage master, a judge who weighs our deeds and damns us.

Maybe tonight, more so than any night, when we put forth confession and put on ash, it’s crucial that we stop and notice how so much of our Christian speech and thought is in fact a kind of Satan worship.

It’s worship of an Accuser.

Which can never be motived by love or joy.

     Maybe tonight of all nights, instead of confessing, we should be lamenting, lamenting how for many of us, because of our sin, the only glimpse of God we ever see is how God looks from Hell.

That’s what Christians means by ‘damnation’- it’s self-imposed exile.

To be damned is to be fixed forever in this illusion about God. It’s to be so stuck on justifying your self, so shut-eyed towards your sins that you end up seeing our Father as your Auditor in Heaven.

——————————

     Don’t let the ash get in your eyes and blind you to the real God.

The real God isn’t a kind of Satan, an accuser, weighing your sin to dole out the wages you deserve. The real Father is like this father. And this father, Jesus says, his heart towards his son is no different on the day his son forsakes him than on the day his son returns home to him.

The real God doesn’t mete out reward or punishment according to our merit. Freud was right- that god is a caricature drawn by sin. Our Father in Heaven is like this father, Jesus says, always helplessly and hopelessly loving.

     God is like a father whose love without condition.

Because God- pay attention now- is without change. God, by definition is immutable.

God doesn’t mutate. God doesn’t change.

Therefore-

If God does not change, your sin cannot not change God’s attitude towards you.

Your sin does not change God’s attitude about you.

No, what sin does- it changes your attitude about God.

Sin blinds us, distorts our vision, so that the Father we see is a punitive paymaster, an angry judge, a kind of satan.

Just look at all the trouble we’re going to tonight. We’ve carved out a day on to the calendar. We’ve mixed oil with ash- who would ever think to do something like that? You’re skipping Tucker Carlon’s show on Fox News.

Look at all the trouble we’ve gone to tonight- sin matters enormously… to sinners.

Sin matters enormously to us if we’re sinners.

But it doesn’t matter- at all- to God.

God doesn’t change. Your sin cannot change God.

God, literally, does not give a damn about our sin. It’s we who give the damns. We wish our father dead. We hate our brother. We give the damns.

And then we justify ourselves for having done it.

Until finally all we can see is a Hell’s eye view of God.

——————————

     Before I graduated, my Jedi Master at Princeton, Dr. Robert Dykstra, a counseling professor, told me that it’s not until year seven in a congregation that the curtain comes up, the pretenses fall away, and you see who your people really are.

“You need to stay in one place long enough,” he said, “so that they no longer have the energy to keep their secrets.” 

Well, this is my twelfth Ash Wednesday here. And, by now, I’ve worn you down.

I know a lot of you pretty well. I know who’s cheated on their taxes and who’s cheated on their husbands. I know which husbands were on the hacked Ashley Madison website I know who used to hit their wife and I know the friends that pretend they didn’t know it happened.

I know the fathers who refuse to welcome their own prodigal sons home. I know the children who can’t forgive their parents. And I know who fills a hole in their marriage with stuff or drugs or drink.

After all this time, I know a lot of you pretty well.

And I know a lot of you see God as angry. At you.

As judging, damning. You.

I know a lot of you worry about getting from God what you have coming to you.

I know some of you are here tonight, hoping that if you muster up enough contrition, kneel in penance, pray for forgiveness, and bear your ashes then maybe, just maybe, God will forgive you.

Listen up-

You see God the way you do because of your sin.

Freud’s right, you’ve made that god in your image. Or your sin has.

God’s not angry at you because of your sin. That’s not how it works.

Rather, because of your sin you see God as angry.

God doesn’t give a damn about your sin.

Rather, it’s because of your sin that you see God as damning.

God doesn’t mete out what you deserve.

Rather, because that’s the currency you pay others, you see God as a merit-weighing, sin- auditing, wage-master.

     God doesn’t mete out the punishment you deserve.

If you think that then you’ve lost the plot.

God responds to the crosses we build with empty tombs.

After all this time I know you pretty well. I know the damns you’ve given to others in your life. So on this night of sackcloth and ash I want you to know:

God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do or who you’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make the Father love you more and there’s nothing you have done to make the Father love you less.

Our heavenly Father doesn’t care whether you’re a sinner or a saint, a prodigal or a self-righteous elder brat.

It makes no difference to our Father because nothing can make our Father different.

Your sin doesn’t do anything to God, but it can distort everything about you.

It can ruin your eyes even, to the point you don’t recognize your own Father anymore.

——————————-

     Don’t let all this talk tonight about sin mess with your sight.

Don’t let your sin change how the Father’s seen by you.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you have contrition, if you confess your sins, if you bear your ashes with the proper penitence then God will come and forgive you, that God will be moved by your heartfelt apology, that God will change his mind about you and forgive you.

Not at all.

God never changes his mind about you.

Because God doesn’t change.

No, what God does do- over and again, as long as it takes- God changes your mind about him.

If you’re sorry for your sin, that’s why. If you’re contrite over your sin, that’s why. If you want to be forgiven of your sin, that’s why.

It’s the unchanging God, at work, in you. To change you.

It’s God changing your mind, helping you to see your sin, and see how your sin has changed how you see him.

You are not forgiven because you confess your sin.

You confess your sin, see yourself for what you are, because you are already forgiven.

Forgiveness is not the product of something we do to change God.

Forgiveness is the product in us of what God does to change us.

God’s forgiveness always precedes our confession and contrition.

That’s why when you come forward for a smear of ashes, you are not coming forward in order to have your sins forgiven. You’re coming forward to celebrate that your sins are forgiven.

Which means-

    These ashes are not a sign that we are the people who have changed how God views us.

     These ashes are the sign that we are the people whose vision God has changed.

Sure, these ashes are black and gritty and oily but you should bear them as though you are wearing the finest robe and gaudiest ring, as though someone has kicked on the turntable and set out the flatware and linens, killed the fattest calf, and invited you to get drunk out of your mind because you once were blind but finally you see.

See-

The God you thought was an angry judge.

An auditor.

An accuser.

He’s just a Dad on a porch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

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

Recall the basic principle:

Everything that is in God is God.

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

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

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

Therefore:

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

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

The Father is a relation with the Son.

And the Son is the relation with the Father. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

28. How Can We Conceive of the Trinity? 

We cannot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything that is in God is God.

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

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

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

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

Inconceivably, they are God, three yet one.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sermon for Every Sunday

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

adcfd2d05c188b8c49c4a8f5f709e357Jim Somerville, the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, founded A Sermon for Every Sunday a couple of years ago with David Powers, President of Belltower Pictures (check out Shooting the Prodigal) as a way to help churches that didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, a regular preacher.  They recorded sermons in high-definition video that could be projected during worship. Now they are being used by small churches, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Sunday school classes, and for individual viewing on laptops, tablets, and smartphones all over the country.

Their preachers include the likes of Brian McLaren, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, and Lauren Winner.

Jim invited me to participate recently and below is my sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent.

Not only am I thrilled to be counted among the other preachers on this roster, I was grateful to make the acquaintance of Jim and David, the former is a homiletics nerd like myself and the latter is the kind of lay person who makes you happy to be a preacher in the first place.

I encourage you to check out A Sermon for Every Sunday‘s website. On most Sunday’s they’ll deliver you a better sermon than I will!

Advent for Average Sinners

Isaiah 11.1-10 

Matthew 3.1-12

Maybe its my Contrary Personality Disorder, but am I the only one at Advent who hears a fire and brimstone indictment like ‘…you brood of vipers…even now the ax is lying near to cut you down and throw you into the fire…’ am I the only one who hears that and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know much about you but does God look at this face that any woman could love and just see a sinner? Chaff to burn up in God’s unquenchable fire?

Does God look at you with a broom in one hand and a match in the other, ready to strike at the first sign of your sin?

I mean- am I even allowed to ask the question:

Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but does my sin really make me no better than a fruitless tree to be tossed into the fire?

Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?

Does my sin so inflame God that God would just as soon sweep me into the rubbish fire? Does yours?

And I don’t know if my sinfulness extends all the way back to the womb like David indicts himself in Psalm 51- seems awfully grim to me- but I do know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I deserve to be cut down by God’s holy hatchet and thrown into fire sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath?

With the Feast of the Incarnation only a few weeks away, shouldn’t we all agree that God is at least as nice as Jesus?

Shouldn’t we concur that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same as the God who came to us in Christ?

—————

Since John the Baptist isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep, you probably noticed how Christmas begins in the dark.

With the season of Advent, a season when we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity because the world is filled with people like you and me.

And that it’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again.

And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming.

Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.

We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who, just before this pastoral image in chapter 11 of wolves making nice with sheep, promises that the destruction of sinners has already been decreed, that God’s hatchet- guess where John gets his imagery- is raised ready to lop off all the unfaithful.

And every Advent the first character to step onto the stage is John the Baptist, whose lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”

The Medieval Church, taking their cue from Malachi, spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and- the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Eternal Hell.

No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.

Denial that we are sinners.

Okay.

But, since Advent is a season for honesty-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae– which means, the Day of Wrath.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but our Advent hymns are so filled with the world’s depravity, there’s no room in them for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ 

     It’s over the top.

It’s a bit much even for these Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.

I mean, the average American Christian is willing to drive through no more than 3 traffic lights to go to church on a Sunday morning.

Yet these Pharisees and Sadducees hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to check out John and be baptized with his baptism of repentance.

To call us, much less them, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems like overkill.

You all come to church during Advent to anticipate the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and maybe you come to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you secretly voted for Trump or Hillary and what do we the Church do?

Bam.

We hit you over the head with a winnowing-fork. 

And we holler through our bullhorns, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.

     What? 

No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.

     You listen to John’s brimstoney bullhorn long enough, Advent after Advent, and you can start to hear some crazy things.

For example, it can start to sound like your sins anger God.

—————

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.

So let’s be honest: when it comes to you and me, a lot of this Advent language- it misses the mark.

As an almost English major, I gotta say a lot of this Advent language is bad language.

It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial. So here, of all seasons, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.

I mean, I’m a United Methodist, and I can tell you the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like, say, King David, but I for one don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners.

I mean- you’re listening to a sermon on a computer screen. You’re not a great sinner.

We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  Church people have made passive aggressive behavior an art form, sure, but seldom do they rise to the level of brood of vipers.

We certainly haven’t been sinful since our birth. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on our skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.

Most of us, we’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or oppressors. Advent is a season that forbids denial so forget the Baptizer’s brimstone and bullhorn for a moment and let’s be truthful.

Your sins do not offend God.

There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.

John’s brimstone bullhorn and winnowing fork make it sound like you’re a Game of Thrones-level sinner, but let’s be honest: most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.

No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.

You’re not worthless, burn-worthy chaff to God- that’s insanity. No, you just block your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.

But brood of vipers? Don’t flatter yourself. I don’t know you, but I know enough church people to bet on it: you’re not that much of a sinner.

No matter what you hear in the hymns and liturgy, your sins do not- your sins can not- provoke God’s wrath.

I know it’s Advent, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.

—————

Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.

They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you.

They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear:

Sin is about where your love lies.

Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite- God’s love doesn’t change.

Because God doesn’t change.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.

God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.

So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you.

Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love for you is unconditional- unchanging- because God is unchanging.

Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay.

Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor.

Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No.

When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him.

God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

Who the heck are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?

You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love.

You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics.

Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.

And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers.

Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them.

And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

You listen to John’s brimstone bullhorn long enough and the honey sticks in your ears. You can start to hear the wrong message.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.

Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to die. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.

Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.

Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgI’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

27. What Do We Mean By Naming God Trinity?

We mean that Jesus is Lord.

That is, we know God to be Triune because we know that Jesus is Lord, to him belongs all honor, glory, and praise otherwise rightly owed to God, and because we know that there exists only by the power of the Holy Spirit a community that witnesses to Jesus’ cross-shaped Kingdom. Therefore, whatever Christians mean by the word God we must mean that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We mean that we can no longer say ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’ without saying Jesus.

Trinity is our rule of speech, insuring that we do not cite as from God or attribute to the Spirit any belief or work that does not conform to the revelation given to us in the Word of God we call Jesus Christ.

By naming God as Trinity, we also mean that we pray as Jesus prayed.

With the Son, we pray, as the Son commanded us, to the Father through the Holy Spirit. So praying, we trust that we are incorporated properly into the story of the God who lives among his People.

By confessing a Triune God, we mean as well that the person of Christ cannot be separated from the work of Christ.

In other words, the existence of the human Jesus is the result of the Father sending the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. God is Triune, then, because the mission of Jesus Christ is God’s own mission. God must be Trinity because the teachings of Jesus do not convey the will of the human Jesus, they convey the character of God.

By calling God Father, Son, and Spirit, we mean that creation itself coheres with the peaceable Kingdom revealed by Jesus on the mount and on the cross.

If God is Trinity then the fundamental reality to existence is peace, for in the Triune life we witness a community comprised of both difference and harmony. If peace is the chief attribute of God and the determinative characteristic of creation, then violence is an intrusion upon the original order of God’s creation- violence is not original to creation.

So then, by confessing a Triune God we profess that God’s act of creation is a bringing about in existence of God’s own harmonious difference and that God’s act of redemption is the Son, through the Spirit, and in faithfulness to the Father returning creation to its original harmony of difference and peace. By calling God Trinity we insist that Jesus’ cross-bearing, non-violent witness works not agains the grain of the universe but with it.

“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” – John 15.26

 

 

 

 

 

 

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgI’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

26. What Do We Mean By Salvation?

Healing.

In the Greek New Testament, to save (σῴζω) means “to heal.”

First and fundamentally, by salvation we mean the healing of God’s creation in the time made possible by God’s having raised Jesus from the dead. Thus salvation, the healing of God’s creation so that it becomes Easter new, is nothing other than the inauguration of the Reign of God, in which the prodigal world comes to itself and learns that it belongs to the Father and is in need of his redemption.

Secondly and correlatively, because the world needs to learn that it is the world, that is, that it is God’s good creation, by salvation we also mean the creation by the Spirit of a People called Church who are the witnessing embodiment of the alternative Kingdom that has come to us in Jesus Christ.

In this way, the Body of Christ, the Church, is both the means of salvation but also itself the goal of salvation.

Finally, by salvation we mean that it’s only as participants in the community of Jesus that we are healed of our own sin, for the restoration of our created image is only by conformity to the one who is the image of the invisible God. We are saved then only by being incorporated in to the Body of Christ through baptism- being drawn up into the story of God’s creation, reconciliation, and redemption of the world in Jesus Christ- where we learn to name the Powers that sought to crucify Christ and seek still to rule over us. Only in naming the Powers do we learn, slowly as Israel in the wilderness, to be emancipated from them.

By salvation, in other words, we mean deliverance from slavery to Sin and Death and into the promised land of Christ’s Body, which is the community of the cruciform Kingdom. Because salvation is the exodus from captivity by which Christ, our Passover, transfers us into himself, there is therefore no salvation outside his Body, the Church.

“Jesus said to Zaccheus, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

– Luke 19.9

 

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgI’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

25. What is the Gospel? 

The Gospel is Jesus.

The Gospel is the life of the 2nd Person of the Trinity made flesh in Jesus Christ and made known to us through the community constituted by the narrative which witnesses to him, what we call the Gospels.

In that narrative we hear the good news of how the God who raised Israel from slavery in Egypt has raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s Kingdom, defeating the kingdoms which had crucified him, and inaugurating a New Age in which Jesus is Lord and we are called to witness to the God who refuses to let our violence and sin determine our relationship to him.

The Gospel is not the effect of the Gospel.

It is not atonement. It is not justification. It is not salvation. It is neither being forgiven your sin nor is it going to heaven when you die.

The Gospel is the entire story of Jesus Christ, for the person and work of Christ cannot be separated or abstracted from one another; that is, there is no meaning to what we mean by Gospel- no universal human dilemma- that can be known prior tom or without submission under, the story we call Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

The Gospel is the entire narrative about Jesus Christ because there is no way to know Jesus apart from discipleship, apprenticing under him through this story in which he reveals himself to us.

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” 

– 2 Timothy 2.8

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgI’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

23. What Do We Mean By Professing that Jesus Ascended into Heaven?

We mean that Jesus is exactly what Israel anticipated, what their prophets promised, what the magi sought and Herod feared, what the Palm Sunday Passover pilgrims hailed him as, and what Pilate’s sign above his wounded head says he is: King.

We mean that he ascends into Heaven not to be King of Heaven but from Heaven- from the righthand of the Father- rule the Earth with all dominion and authority.

In professing that Jesus ascended into heaven, we mean that if Jesus did nothing more than suffer on the cross and rise from the dead then our faith is futile, for then even Jesus’ own mother was wrong about him in the song she sang to him and about him in utero, Mary’s song and all the carols that came after her greeted his birth not as the advent of one who suffer’s death in our place or secures our life after death but as the advent of the long longed-for King.

We mean as well that the incarnation is incomplete apart from Jesus’ return to God.

In professing that Jesus ascended into Heaven, we recognize that this was the impetus behind the incarnation all along: in Jesus the eternal God takes on our humanity in order to take our transitory humanity back into the timeless life of God. Or, as the first Christians put it, God became what we are; so that, we might become what God is. So confessing, we concede that apart from Christ’s ascension  we have no ground on which to hope that humans, characterized by becoming, will ever one day enter into Being.

Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  

– John 19.19

24. What Does the Ascension Mean for Believers Today?

Obedience.

The ascension names the crowning of Jesus Christ as King.

And a King requires not your opinion but your obedience. A King asks not to be invited in to your heart; a King demands your objective loyalty, your pledge to him over all other allegiances.

Therefore, the ascension means we pledge to welcome strangers and aliens, to pray for our enemies, to forgive those who trespass against us, to show mercy to those who curse us and to show compassion to the poor. We do it so because Jesus commanded us, and the ascension reminds us that Jesus is not just our teacher, savior, or guide. He’s our Lord and King. To him, God has given all authority and dominion over the Earth.

Because of the ascension, Jesus’ teachings can never now be suggestions for a better way to live nor can they can be construed as strategies to make the world a better place.

Because of the ascension, Jesus’ teachings are, simply, the commands of a King upon his subjects.

Inconveniently, this means that, in Jesus, God has already revealed more of God’s will for our lives than we’re willing to do.

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.

– Revelation 4.11

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024-683x1024.jpgFor the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

22. Why Did Jesus Give Us the Eucharist?   

Because Christ is our Passover.

When Jesus sits down with his betrayers on the night of the Passover, their table in the upper room looked like any other Passover feast. Except Jesus changes the familiar script.

When Jesus takes the bread with the lamb, he doesn’t say This is the body of the Passover’ as he’s supposed to say. He says ‘This is my body broken for you.’ And when Jesus pours the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption, the cup that remembers the deliverance God worked all in Egypt; Jesus doesn’t say: ‘This is the blood of the Passover.’ He says: ‘This is my blood…’

So then, while the meal is known by many different names (The Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist, etc.), Jesus intends it most fundamentally as our Passover meal whereby Christ redefines the bread and the wine; so that, they now signify him. He is the first born son who is the price for deliverance. His blood, streaked on the doorposts of our hearts, marks us out his elect People. He is the New Moses, who leads us from captivity to the Pharaohs of Sin and Death to be a pilgrim people, living as God’s peaceful alternative to the Principalities and Powers of this world.

As in the Exodus of Israel, where God was present to his People during their sojourn, in a pillar of cloud and fire, the bread and the wine become the means by which the Risen Christ is present to us on our pilgrimage.

Because only God can reveal God, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are more than bread and wine.

They are, literally, a New Creation. They are the substance through which God speaks Christ into our presence. They become Christ in that the Word is made flesh, not through a womb but through wine and bread, and dwells among us.

Therefore, the Eucharist is not simply a foretaste of the Kingdom to come; it is the Kingdom come, where strangers and sinners from East and West, North and South, gather to celebrate at Table the wedding feast of Father, Son, and Spirit.

“People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

-Luke 13

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

My point:

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 were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

My teacher David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgFor the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

20. Why Did Jesus Die?

Because we killed him.

A crucifixion is how a cross-building world responds to the incarnate God come among us.

The theologians and church fathers have called the theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross ‘atonement theories.’

Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians. But Mark, the author of the earliest Gospel, shows you bitter irony.

Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him. He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him. He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’

For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects. It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.

The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.

Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies.  At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.

Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.

And perhaps the most threatening irony of all is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best.

Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, and in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good.

The chief priests’ reasoning: ‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ is correct, a perfectly rational position.

The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves. But what the Gospels give us is different. Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us.

The theologians give answers, but Mark leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?

Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross. All our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to a confrontation with God. A God who wills only to be gracious that ends with Jesus dead.

‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ – John 18.14

 

 

Untitled101111For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

19. How Did Jesus Establish His Kingdom?

Jesus established his Kingdom by failing to establish a kingdom.

To say Jesus failed to establish a Kingdom is not to say his death should be circumscribed according to religious terms alone. If Jesus had been condemned for the crime of religious blasphemy or if his death had satisfied as a cultic atonement, then Jesus would have been stoned to death by the chief priests. That Jesus was executed not by Caiphus’ stone but by Pilate’s cross, a mode of execution reserved for sedition against Rome, confirms that the charge against him, albeit ironically intended, was true: Jesus presumed to be King.

If Jesus presumed to be King, as the first Christians professed, then Caesar was merely a pretender.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time to celebrate, with the bread and wine of the Passover, Israel’s story of liberation from Empire, he initiates a final confrontation with Rome and its sycophants. The confrontation begets a choice. Will Jesus rebel by the sword and establish his Kingdom by force, or will Jesus remain faithful to his vision of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom which he’s taught is marked by putting away the sword and renouncing force in favor of forgiveness?

By choosing faithfulness over force, Jesus chooses to be the meaning of his Kingdom rather than its founder.

Thus, Jesus becomes the son who has forsaken everything to venture out into the far country only to lose everything, he makes himself the tiniest bit of yeast from which newness might rise, he turns the other cheek all the way unto death, and he becomes the despised Samaritan who meets us on the road and lifts us up out of the ditch even though his own chosen path leads to suffering, abandonment, and death.

He fails to establish a kingdom out of faithfulness to his Kingdom.

And God vindicates his faithfulness by raising from the dead and then, forty days later, raising him up to sit at the right hand of the Father, confirming as the sought-after Son of Man to whom belongs dominion on Earth and Heaven.

The rule of his Kingdom is thus real and ever-present, but, as at his cross, it requires the optics of faith. Only in the fullness of time will what is real be revealed.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  – Ephesians 1.21-23

 

 

Ascension

…Until Jesus Ascends to the Father

Here’s my Mother’s Day Ascension Day sermon from this weekend. I used God’s self-revelation in Exodus 3 and the Ascension story in Acts 1 as texts. You an listen to the sermon below. Or, you can download it in the iTunes store here.

     Show of hands-

How many of you made sure to call your mothers this morning to wish them a Happy Ascension Day?

Or maybe you’ll go out to lunch after church to celebrate Ascension Day, this ancient Christian holy day that is the climax of the Easter season where we learn that Jesus is not only risen from the dead but he is Lord of Heaven and Earth too?

Don’t feel guilty.

What was once the high holy day when Christians rejoiced that God has made Jesus King and given him dominion over all the nations of the Earth is now just Sunday. Or, thanks to Hallmark, Mother’s Day.

Ascension is now largely ignored. It’s not hard to see why it’s ignored.

For one thing, if Christ has been given dominion over the Earth, if God has made Christ King of the world then Jesus doesn’t appear to be doing a very good job. What about world hunger and war? What about Cancer and Verizon Wireless? What about the fact that the music world no longer has Prince in it but still is stuck with Huey Lewis and the News?

Maybe going from carpenter to King was too big a promotion for Jesus. Maybe that’s why we ignore the Ascension.

But I think the real reason we ignore the Ascension is the embarrassing, unbelievable imagery of it. Just look at the picture Luke draws for you.

The Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world.

I mean the physics of it are all wrong: Jesus being lifted up into the air like he’s drank too much fizzy lifting drink, Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away. Exit stage heaven.

Why wouldn’t we ignore such a ridiculous image in the 21st century? Why wouldn’t we trade Ascension Day for Mother’s Day. It’s more fantastical than a Norman Rockwell family.

Ascension is the perfect example of why it’s so hard for modern people to take Christianity seriously. To take belief in God seriously.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the 2 angels ask the 11 disciples.

But why wouldn’t they be looking up to the sky? Isn’t that the whole problem with this passage? With believing in God in general?

Those disciples, and the ones that came after them, the ones who wrote the creeds and compiled the canon- they believed God was ‘up there.’ They believed the Earth was a flat, disk-shaped place around which the sun and the stars revolved. Not only that- They believed the Earth floated on water, with the underworld below and heaven above just beyond the clouds.

And it gets even more embarrassing- They believed that between Heaven and Earth was more water, water that could inundate the Earth at any moment were it not for the firmament, seriously the ‘firmament,’ a sky-colored bowl that sits over the Earth and holds back the oceans of universe.

It’s laughable.

And they believed in a Being who lived ‘up there’ above the Earth. Beyond the clouds and the firmament. Up there. In Heaven.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why wouldn’t they stand there looking up? They lived in an age where everyone believed in a Being up there.

     And isn’t that the problem the Ascension makes unavoidable for us? We know God’s not up there, not above the clouds, not beyond the firmament. Ascension calls BS on our unspoken secret- we know that that God doesn’t exist. And if that God doesn’t exist, who’s to say God exists at all?

Where the disciples lived in an age where everyone believed in a God up there and disbelief was inconceivable, we live in an age where no one believes in a God ‘up there’ and disbelief in God altogether isn’t just a possibility it’s the fastest growing faith in America.

Maybe that’s the reason we ignore the Ascension. It reminds us that we live in a different age. But we didn’t get here overnight. It’s been a long time coming.

In the survey we sent out this week about the video screens, a lot of you said in the comments section that you’re so smart you don’t need images or visual aids to dumb down the sermons. Think so, huh?

We’ll see if you can keep up:

In 1637, Rene Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, gave birth to the modern world in which we all live. Descartes was plagued by the anxiety that everything he’d been taught to believe to be true might be false.

Descartes locked himself away and set out to strip away all his received certainties- even 1+1 = 2.

Descartes wanted to arrive at what can be known apart from revelation.

Apart from God.

Where the ancient starting point for all knowledge had been God, Descartes’ starting point was himself, his own interior life.

I think; therefore, I exist, Descartes concluded.

After Descartes, we became the center of the world. Not God. And when we became the center of the world, the goal of life shifted too. From ‘The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever,’ as the catechism begins, to ‘the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.’

With Descartes, we became the center of the world and the starting point of all knowledge and ever since Descartes what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us.

To our senses. To our experience.

But, the problem with thinking that is that…the universe is expanding. Changing. In transition.

And we know that the visible universe is a million million million million miles across, and all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from all the other galaxies in the universe at the same time.

They’re moving. They’re changing. They’re in transition. It’s called the galactic dispersal.

We know the Earth is moving around the sun at roughly 66 thousand miles per hour and does so while rotating at the equator at a little over 1 thousand miles per hour.

We know Earth’s surface is made up of about 10 big plates and 20 smaller ones that never stop slipping and sliding. They’re moving and changing and in transition.

The Universe, the Stars, the Earth- everything is constantly moving and changing and expanding. And so are we.

We lose 50-150 strands of hair a day (which is worse news for some of us than others). We shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day.

90% of the dust in our homes is made up of the dead skin we shed. Just think about that…right now, you’re breathing in the dead skin of the people from the _____ worship service.

We’re in transition. Every 28 days we get completely new skin.

Right down to the atoms and cells, we are constantly moving and changing. Even bodies we bury in the ground keep changing; when God raises them from the dead, they will not be the same collection of atoms they were when they were buried.

We know that.

Not only do we know that there’s no firmament, we know there’s nothing ‘firm.’ Nothing is stable or constant. Nothing is unchanging. Nothing is not in transition. Everything is constantly moving, in flux. Everything is transitory, momentary. Moving from one way of existing to a new way of existing. But that begs the question, a question even better than the one the angels ask:

 If everything is constantly changing, 

if we are constantly changing right down to the hairs on our head and the skin that we shed, 

then how can we be the measure of all things? 

How can something in motion, something constantly changing, be the measure of anything?

Ever since Descartes, what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us, to our experience.

But we’re all passengers on the train called Earth, traveling through space and time at 295 times faster than the fastest bullet train in India.

And anyone who’s ridden on a train knows that everything looks normal and still until you try to take the measure of something out the window.

So how- How could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure of anything like God? On this moving train called Earth, how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure there’s no God? No Divine Being?

And just think about that word ‘being.’ We call ourselves ‘human beings.’ But that’s not right. The word being means someone who is constant. Someone who is still. Someone who is dynamic but doesn’t change.

The word being means someone who is necessary, as in, not caused by anything prior to it, like say a mother.

A being is someone who just is.

But we’re not like that at all.

Everything that’s created is caused by something else, is changing all the time. Every time you or I do something we change.

Our history changes. Our experience changes. Our identity slowly and subtly changes. We become something that didn’t exist previously.

So when you think about it, we’re not really beings at all.

We’re not constant. We’re not changeless. We’re not necessary or permanent.

We’re not beings.

More and more, modern people look up to the heavens convinced there’s no Divine Being that exists out there. But the irony is- it’s human beings that don’t exist. As human beings, we don’t exist.

I mean, we can fly through the air through the miracle of aviation. We can split the atom. We can take someone who’s done nothing of consequence, like Kim Kardashian, and make them into a celebrity.

For that matter, we can take a celebrity and make them a presumptive Presidential nominee. Even more impressive, we’ve learned how to wrap a chocolate chip pancake around a breakfast sausage and put it all on a stick.

We can do a lot of things but we don’t know what those disciples knew staring up at the sky.

That human beings…they don’t exist. There’s no such thing.

Only human becomings exist.

Everything in creation is a becoming.

Everything is growing and changing until it decays and dies.

 

Human beings- don’t exist.

Only human becomings exist.

Listen up-

‘God’ is the name we give to Being.

‘Being’ is the name God gives to himself at the Burning Bush: ‘I Am He Who Is.’ In other words, I am Existence itself. Being.

As Dennis first taught me when I was a confirmand: God is name we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’

Only God is Being. Only God is permanent and unchanging, eternal and necessary, without cause or antecedent. Everything comes from something else and when it dies or decays it contributes to the becoming of something else. Only God is Being. There’s only 1 Being. There’s only 1 God.

You can be sure the Jews staring up at Jesus in the sky knew that, knew that the One who said at the Burning Bush ‘I Am He Who Is’ is the only 1 who IS.

And that’s the answer to the angels’ question: ‘Why do you stand looking up?’

It’s not because they thought God is ‘up there.’ The God who is Being itself can’t be any where. Because such a God must be everywhere.

I bet the reason they’re staring up at heaven is that the disciples have a question of their own.

They’re wondering how it is that Jesus- flesh and blood Jesus, born of Mary Jesus, fully human Jesus, hair-losing, skin-shedding Jesus, a human becoming, like you or me, could enter Being.

How can a becoming enter into Being? How can something that is constantly changing enter into what never changes?

It’s a good question.

It’s a question that gets at the very heart of the Gospel.

The whole story of the gospels, from Christmas to Ascension, is how Being entered our world of becoming.

The whole story of the Gospel is how the Holy Trinity, the one true Being took on the full reality of becoming: birth and life and suffering and death.

The whole point of the Ascension is that:

having taken on our humanity at Christmas

and having experienced our humanity to its fullest on Good Friday

and having that humanity emptied from the grave on Easter

today Jesus takes our transitory humanity into the timeless life of the Trinity

today Jesus takes our becoming

Into Being.

Or, as the first Christians put it:

     God became what we are; so that, we might become what God is.

The whole point of the Ascension- what the Church wants you to see in this image- is not the physics.

It’s that now the Trinity is no longer just an eternal community of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.

Now, because of the Ascension, the Trinity is 3 plus you.

I know what you’re thinking: I wish we had the video screens back.

Being and becoming- you’re thinking:

Jason, this has nothing to do with my life.

But trust me, it’s not. And it does.

It does. Here’s what I mean:

Not long before I got sick last year, I got called to Mt Vernon Hospital to visit a teenager from Aldersgate who’d tried to commit suicide. It was morning and the attempt had been just the night before so when I saw him he was still angry.

To be alive.

‘I have no one’ he said.

‘And I don’t think I deserve to.’

I wish I could say I’ve sat through fewer conversations like that than I have.

The tragedy isn’t just that all of us, we’re all just becomings- in motion, changing and growing until we die and decay- the tragedy isn’t that we’re all just becomings and he wanted to cease his becoming prematurely.

No, the tragedy is that that boy last year, when he looked in the mirror he didn’t see something that is beautiful and holy and mysterious.

The tragedy is that when he looked in the mirror he didn’t see someone who is a sacrament, a flesh and blood vessel that points to and participates in the eternal Being of God.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look in the mirror.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look upon, speak to, interact with someone else.

It’s tragic because it flies in the face of the good news we learn today.

The gospel good news that you’re more than just a constantly changing creature.

You’re more than just a becoming.

You’re more than just someone who needs to lose a few pounds.

You’re more than what your ex thinks of you.

You’re more than what that voice in the back of your head says about you.

You’re more than what you do to pay the bills or pass the time.

You’re more than whatever lines will be written on your gravestone. You’re more than something that’s losing skin until you lose your life. You’re more than dust until you return to the dust.

You’re holy. You’re Beloved. You’re sacred because you’re a sacrament.

And so is each and every person in your life.

Because in Jesus Christ Being became what we are.

And today Jesus takes what we are into the very Being of God. And that means we can handle whatever changes that come to us in life because we live and move and have our being in the Being of God who never changes.

“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” the angels ask.

But of course they would.

They’ve just learned the answer to the most important question of all.

Not: ‘Does God exist?’

God is the name we give to Being itself.

God is the answer we give to the question ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’

God, by definition, has to exist. God is the most obvious thing of all.

No, staring up at the sky, they’ve just learned the answer to the most important question: ‘Do we exist?‘

And the answer is yes.

Because today Jesus Christ has ascended to the Father.

Untitled101111For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

18. How Did Jesus Fulfill God’s Promise to Abraham?

By undoing what Adam did and what Abraham failed to do.

God called Abram to unwind the story of Sin begun in the garden by showing forth a life of trust, which is faith and love, in God. Whereas Adam responded to the satan’s question ‘Did God really say…?’ with mistrust, Abraham sacrificed his past, by leaving the land of his ancestors, and he sacrificed his future, by offering Isaac, to gesture his total trust in God. Such trust was intended by God to be a light to a mistrustful world; through Abraham’s faithfulness the whole world would be blessed as though a new creation.

Where Abraham’s children, Israel, failed in their calling to faithfulness, Jesus calls forth a new Israel, 12 disciples now instead of tribes, and he remains steadfast in his trust of God all the way to a cross. In so doing, he renarrates the human story by telling it, in his flesh, correctly and by Easter God confirms it to us as the eikon to emulate.

“And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by works of the law.” – Galatians 2.16

Untitled101111For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

17. What is the Significance of the Sermon on the Mount? 

If Jesus, as Matthews sees him, is the Second Moses, then the Sermon on the Mount is the charter of the New Israel, the Church, whom God elects to be an alternative community in the world witnessing to God’s creative intent for the world.

As Moses received God’s covenant commands upon Mt. Sinai, Jesus stands upon the Mount of Beatitudes and issues new commands. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of God’s Kingdom People in both senses of the word:

It is the covenant by which Jesus’ People are obligated

And it is the way in which Jesus’ called are formed as a People.

The significance of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ own significance, for the Sermon is firstly a description of Christ’s own character. In this Sermon, the Word who is the preacher and the word preached are one and the same because the proclaimer of the Kingdom’s nature sits at the right hand of this Kingdom’s throne. Indeed he has established this Kingdom through cross and resurrection.

As such:

The Sermon on the Mount does not describe an impossible ideal achievable only one day in the future.

It describes the way Christ’s People live the future now.

It characterizes the habits born out of the community’s conviction that the future arrived, once for all, on Easter: the Old Age has passed, Death and Sin have been defeated, the Powers and Principalities toppled, Christ’s Lordship has been established, and all those in Christ are and embody a New Creation now. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount does not provide general principles for a generic life. It does not prescribe ethical principles practicable by all. It narrates the practices that constitute the community of Jesus.

Therefore-

It commends a way of life that is unintelligible to those who do not confess that Jesus is Lord and that makes absolutely no sense if that confession is not true.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.” – Matthew 5.43-44

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

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

chagall

‘The crucifixion is the supreme expression of Jesus’ humanity- that is what crucifixes are for, to remind us of what human beings are, when we try to forget.

The crucifixion is the supreme expression of his obedience to the Father, of his eternal Sonship.

On the cross he casts himself simply on the Father. It is his prayer to the Father, the only prayer known to Christians, and the Resurrection is the Father’s response.

The crucifixion and the resurrection are no more to be separated than prayer and response, than two sides of a communication.

The resurrection is the full meaning of the crucifixion.

And this communication of eternal prayer and response is what the Holy Spirit is- which is why Jesus speaks of sending the Holy Spirit in history when he is united with his Father.

Just as the crucifixion/resurrection is what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father looks like when projected upon sinful human history, so the sending of the Holy Spirit is what the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit looks like when projected onto that sinful human world.

And the Holy Spirit appears in our world of course as catastrophic and destructive, as a revolutionary force making the world new, or the Church new, the individual new.

By reducing them first to chaos.

That, I’m afraid, is a very compressed sketch of what the Christian means to be saying when he or she speaks of God as Trinity. And in the end what it all boils down to is this central mystery:

God is love.’

 

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

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

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

chagall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Untitled101111For the past year, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

16. What did Jesus teach? 

Most importantly:

Jesus was not merely a teacher among teachers.

As the Incarnate Son, Jesus is what God teaches us.

Jesus was not one who taught us words about God; Jesus is the Word God speaks to us. Jesus, the content and character of his life, is the teaching God vindicates by retrieving it from the dead.

The incarnation presupposes it wasn’t sufficient for God to be for us (on the cross) otherwise Jesus’ teaching would be superfluous. His teaching isn’t necessary if he came only to deliver us, but his teaching is absolutely necessary if he comes because God is determined to be with us, for his teaching is how we learn to be with him and be with others, like him. That is to say Jesus taught the Kingdom of God, the world as it truly is and will be when creatures embrace their createdness, loving God and others as God loves God. Such a Kingdom will always appear upside down to those who’ve inverted God’s creation to their own ends.

Jesus’ Kingdom teaching was not unique to Jesus. Rather, it presumed the preaching of the prophets, who described the world when it obeys God’s creative intentions instead of sin’s false freedom.

While Jesus’ Kingdom teaching was not new, the way in which Jesus presented the Kingdom was new. He taught the Kingdom as a present reality, in and through him. This is why Jesus regarded sinners and outcasts already as the redeemed people they would be one day.

In teaching the Kingdom as a present, urgent reality, Jesus closed off the possibility of a delayed response among his hearers. Unlike the prophets who preceded him, those who heard Jesus teach the Kingdom immediately found themselves either called into its citizenship or realized that they had already rejected it.

Thus, in the way Jesus taught the Kingdom, he robbed his listeners of the possibility of any neutral response  to it.

The Kingdom had arrived and was present in Jesus; hearers of this teaching could only either follow or depart sadly away.

Likewise, the Church does not teach that the Kingdom started with Jesus or that the Kingdom grows through its work. The Church, like Jesus, teaches the Kingdom as an urgent, response-demanding reality that is present through the re-presenting of Christ’s words and deeds, most especially in the eucharist.

‘…and the rich man went sadly away, for he had many possessions.’ – Mark 10.17-31