Archives For Baptism

Happy Baptism Day, Elijah— 

By now, this being the third letter I’ve written for the anniversary of your drowning day, you’re old enough and smart enough to be thinking to yourself, “I didn’t choose you, Jason, to be my dogfather.” And, because you’re at that wonderfully honest age where you’re still unpracticed in the lies we grown-ups call “manners,” you’ve probably also embarrassed your parents by observing out loud how you didn’t get to choose me. 

Of course, if you have muttered something along the lines of “I wish Uncle Teer was my godfather instead,” then it’s time your parents taught you some damn manners. 

Besides, you wouldn’t have gotten to choose him either. Just as your Mom and Dad baptized you without your consent— I was there, kid, they did it against your will even— so too did they stick you with me, hoping that I would aid and abet the Holy Ghost’s work of affixing the way of Jesus onto you. It’s an odd job to be sure. Don’t let my collar fool you, it’s work for which I am wholly inadequate to the task. The more you get to know me, Elijah, the liklier it becomes that I’ll be but one reason you grow to suspect your parent’s judgment, for I’m neither an exemplary father nor am I particulary holy when it comes to God. Nonetheless, if you learn anything about Jesus in the years ahead, Elijah, you should know that he delights in calling losers like me to impossible tasks in order to make their lives more interesting than they deserve. If God had a fraction of the hiring standards as your church preschool, then the gospel would’ve become but a rumor by the first anniversary of Easter. Christianity, I hope you’ll one day discover, is neither a religion nor a club. It’s an adventure. 

Stanley Hauerwas, a mentor important to both your Dad and me who preached your baptism, says in his memoir, Hannah’s Child, that he thinks he had to become a theologian in order to be a Christian. Trust, belief, and the habits necessary to sustain a Christian life simply came too unnaturally for him. He needed the obligation of a vocation to hold him accountable to the implications of his baptism. I think I needed to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. Without an every Sunday deadline looming over me and forcing me to engage God’s Word, Jesus Christ, my discipleship would’ve remained shallow and unthinking. I would’ve remained content to live a life of functional atheism. My life still fails to meet the measure I think Jesus sets for us; that is, I do not sufficiently live in a manner that makes no sense if God has not raised Christ from the dead. But, thanks to being a pastor, I’m at least haunted by the possibilities I’m too much the coward to venture. Ministry forces me to recognize there’s more to life than that for which we settle. 

Like Stanley, I needed the burdens of my vocation in order to live into my baptism. Maybe you’ve noticed already, Elijah, a large part of being a pastor is working with words. I’m a skeptic in remission, Elijah, and working with words is how I make sense of the God who makes sense of us. It seems to me, then, that working with words— writing you these letters— is the only sensible way for me to attempt your parent’s silly gambit of making me your godfather. 

Of course, all of my consternation is unnecessary because, right about now, your baptism is not the calendar date heavy on your mind. After all, this is October, and the leaves have turned.  That means it’s nearly Halloween. Despite my suggestion that with your crazy curls and your shit-eating grin you should dress as Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka and the Chocalate Factory, you insist on trick-or-treating this year as Spiderman. My son Gabriel, whom you adore more than Uncle Teer or myself, went through his own Spiderman craze at your age, shooting make-believe webs at unsuspecting bystanders and would-be villains. Perhaps the anniversary of your drowning day and All Hallowed’s Eve aren’t so far apart, Elijah. 

Even a novice theologian like yourself might be able to work out the ways in which Spiderman is the perfect doppleganger for the life of the baptized. Peter Parker is just an everyday kid at Midtown High School. Moreso than any other superheroes, Peter Parker struggles with the burden he feels from the mantle that has been placed upon him. Though he did not choose it for himself, Peter wants to live up to the life he’s been given; at the same, Peter wants to be ordinary, freed in the world from his calling to be different. 

Elijah, if he hasn’t already, your Dad can tell you the Bible word for different.

It’s holy. 

My boys are obsessed with comic books, Elijah, so I know of what I speak. What makes Peter Parker extraordinary is not his spidey-sense or his superstrength. It’s the candid and genuine way he wrestles with the easier life he’d prefer versus the peculiar life providence has placed upon him. You can’t shoot webs or swing from skyscrapers, Elijah (sorry, pal), but, like Peter Parker, God’s great power has placed upon you great responsibility. 

Actually, I hate that word responsibility, Elijah. It makes God sound like the lunch lady who shushes all the kids trying to swap their string cheese for oreos. And Lord knows there are plenty of Christians who specialize in making the God of Grace sound like an IRS auditor. God’s not a librarian reminding you of your overdue books, little man; God’s a librarian who throws her job away forgiving all the fines. 

So let’s say it this way:

God’s great power over words and water has placed upon you great opportunity.

Like Peter his webs, your baptism has thrust upon you a life that would not be possible apart from your incorporation into Jesus Christ. 

And like Peter, this isn’t necessarily a choice, even now, you’d make for yourself. Honestly, I suspect the Church baptizes babies because too many adults would run the other way if they got wise to the fact that they weren’t actually inviting Jesus into their hearts but Jesus was instead conscripting them into his kingdom. Elijah, the irony is that while you didn’t get to choose your baptism your baptism commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices. In other words, by baptizing you against your will, Elijah, your parents have done a fanatical perhaps even cruel act. They’ve said yes to the possibility that you will one day have to suffer because of their convictions. They’ve burdened you with choices you would not need to negotiate if you knew not Jesus Christ exactly because to be a Christian is not to be someone who assents to the articles of the creed. That would be easy. Rather, the articles of the creed make intelligible the way Christians act in the world. 

Christians act in the world as though Jesus Christ really is Lord, and that presents us with no end of choices to navigate. 

     “Will you serve God or Money?” is one such dilemma. 

     “Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?” is another. 

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

They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture. 

Therefore, your baptism— if done rightly— will make you not just a Christian. 

It will make you different.

Holy.

And by the time you’re able to read and comprehend this letter, Elijah, you’ll be the age when “odd” is about the last thing you’ll want to be. Like Peter Parker, what you’ll want most is to conform, to blend in, to be normal. Once such a desire settles in us, we seldom recover. Rightly understood, Elijah, your baptism may be the most counter-cultural act your parents ever commit, moreso even than they’re support for Bernie Sanders. By baptizing you into the way of the cross before you can make up your mind for yourself, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have a mind worth making up. You don’t have a mind worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your mind (and your heart and your habits too) shaped by Christ. 

How could you possibly make up your own mind, Elijah? Choose for yourself? 

After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus? 

Elijah, I realize telling you you don’t have a mind worth making up on your own sounds offensive. I no choice but to be offensive, for we live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid. But notice, Elijah, no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. Your Dad hasn’t even given you the choice about whether or not you’ll follow Washington’s NFL team. As the son of your father, you will be a fan. And so it goes for all sorts of the features that constitute our lives. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God, and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own personal “choice.” As the aforementioned Stanley likes to point out, it’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: “I believe Jesus Christ is Lord but that’s just my personal opinion.” 

When engaged couples tell your Dad or me that they’re going to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, we often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists. In addition to being more honest, straight up, unapologetic atheism would at least require their children to see their parents held convictions. Our (pagan) culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the story of our life for ourselves, which, in itself, is a story none of us got to choose. This makes it not just a story but a fiction, a lie. 

And a lie is a very serious thing if you are a Christian, Elijah.

Listen up, kid. 

Ours is a loquacious God, as Karl Barth said— a God who reveals himself through speech. Indeed the name the gospel gives to the Father’s Son is Word. We are made, says the Bible, by the Word wording us into existence. Therefore, there can be no graver and no more fundamental betrayal of our faith than the lie. Gene Wilder, the dude whom I think you should go as for Halloween, once said, “If you’re not going to tell the truth, then why start talking?” I don’t know if Gene Wilder realized it but in saying “If you’re not going to tell the truth, then why start talking?” he was speaking Christian. The Creator, Genesis tells us, creates by a speech-act. Gpd’s saying it makes it so. As creatures of this Creator, we reflect the image of God most proximately by our speech. The commandments “Thou shall not bear false witness” and “I am the Lord your God, thou shall have no other gods but me” are redundant, for the lie is a form of idolatry. To open your mouth and speak a true word is to imitate the God who declared, “It is good;” whereas, to open your mouth and lie is pervert God’s creation to other ends. This, no doubt, is what Jesus’ brother is after when he warns, “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity.”

Here is one implication of the life into which we’ve baptized you, Elijah. 

You must not lie. 

I wish it were hyperbole, but the third anniversary of your baptism is a time of moral anarchy in America.

You’re still too little to notice, perhaps, but there are liars all over the news.

We grown-ups call them “leaders.” 

The fact that that previous sentence will be taken by many as a partisan polemic, Elijah, is but an indication of how complicated is the path of the baptized onto which we’ve set you. If Christians are not mindful, our lies will deliver us into the same inconvenient truth as Caiphas, who confessed, “We have no King but Caesar.” 

Maybe you can sense, Elijah, how truth-telling, for Christians, isn’t merely about honesty it’s about witness. To tell the truth entails telling the truth about Jesus Christ; that is, truth-telling requires the insistence that what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ— despite all evidence to the contrary— is the true story of the world. This means in part, Elijah, that to live out your baptism is to call bullshit on all the other lies by which the Principalities and Powers attempt to narrate our world. Our mentor Stanley likes to tell the story of how, during the period when America illegally bombed Cambodia, he trained his young son that whenever President Nixon’s name was mentioned in school he was to raise his hand and ask, “You mean, the murderer?” Likewise, your godmother and I trained our boys to stand respectfully but otherwise refrain from participating in the pledge of allegiance at school. “You’re Christians,” we taught them, “You can pledge allegiance to no one else but Jesus.” 

This did not go over well with teachers. 

And, among their peers, it made them odd. 

But we had baptized them, Elijah, and, in baptizing them, we were prepared to make them suffer for our convictions, which is how it should go, I suppose, for that word holy can just as easily be translated odd.

In no small part, faith is the trust that what seems odd to the “real world” is, in fact, reality. Faith is trusting that the patient, peaceable way of Jesus’ cruciform love reveals the logic of creation. This is what the Bible means by calling Jesus the Second Adam. In the incarnation, God has broken through all our obfuscations and, in Jesus, given to us a new definition for what is truly human. And in baptism God’s killed off the Old Adam in you so that, in the New Adam, you might live according to the grain of the universe. 

Truth-telling, you see, requires more than avoiding the lie whilst living however you will. Even the President manages occassion to avoid lying but that does not make him a truthful person. To tell the truth, Elijah, is to live according to the truth that is Jesus Christ. To so live is harder even than it sounds, for it will require you to refuse letting the “real world” determine for you what is real. You’re already a natural at not taking the real world as a given, but— the Bible tells me so— grown-ups are good at keeping children from coming to Jesus. Grown-ups will work to convince you that Christ’s Kingdom is an impossible ideal or an accusing burden, but the water speaks a different word. Your baptism, Elijah, has commissioned you to live as though Christ is Lord. 

Christians do not welcome the stranger because we think, in welcoming them, the stranger will cease being strange to us. We do not attempt to love our enemies because, in attempting to love them, our enemies will cease to be our enemies. Nor do we feed the poor because we believe, in feeding them, the poor will express gratitude or because we think the watching world will be inspired by our example and end hunger. The way of Jesus isn’t a strategy to make the world come out right. The way of Jesus is the way those who believe Jesus has already made the world come out right live. Christians practice such work because we believe, for example, the giver of the sermon on the mount is our King and, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty, he has, by water and the Spirit, made us the peculiar people who witness to his authority. 

Will God still love you if you fail to live in a way that is commensurate with the truth who is Jesus Christ? Will God still accept you if you live a lie? 

Yes, of course. But that’s not what your baptism is for.

We’ve baptized into death, Elijah, so that you will live as though Jesus matters when it comes to matters that matter.

If you insist on trick-or-treating as Spiderman instead of Gene Wilder, then I hope you’ll at least watch Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In last line of the film, Willy Wonka smiles a smile like yours and says, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted….He lived happily ever after.”

It’s not easy to live truthfully in a world that refuses to be the world— that refuses to live as God’s gratuitous creation. I pray, Elijah, that in baptizing you into this odd way of life, you will look back and discover that, despite the challenges, this odd way of life gave you everything you ever wanted precisely by Christ giving you desires you would not have had had you not been baptized. 

Love, 

Jason

    

   

God Gone Wild

Jason Micheli —  June 16, 2019 — Leave a comment

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued with Jesus’ macabre little drama in Matthew 22.1-14

Last week, some of your lay leaders and I were emailing each other back and forth regarding what we should do about a homeless, undocumented man who’s been sleeping outside near the trash bins at our mission center on Heritage Drive. 

“You should see how he’s dressed— the custodians are creeped out by him.”

And so we exchanged emails, weighing the merits of shelters and county services against our concerns about safety and liability on the one hand and the police and ICE on the other hand. 

At some point during the Reply All email thread, Eldon Hillenbrandt, who— if you don’t know him— is a wonderful, earnest, sincere man without a sarcastic or cynical bone in his body (in other words, he’s everything I’m not) replied with a wonderfully earnest and sincere question. He asked us: “What do you think Jesus would do?” 

WWJD— what would Jesus do?

Totally sincere question, not cynical or sarcastic in any way. 

And probably Eldon had in mind a parable like the sheep and the goats. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What would Jesus do about the stranger sleeping against the dumpster in his stinking, shabby clothes? 

And because I’m the way my Maker made me, when it came to Eldon’s completely earnest and sincere question I couldn’t help myself. 

Like those salmon who swim upstream in order to mate even though doing the deed will be the death of them, I couldn’t help myself. 

Just as some artists work in oil or watercolors, I work in saracasm and middle school boy bathroom humor. 

I couldn’t resist typing in reply: “WWJD? Cuff him! Hand and foot! Torture him! Kill him! Throw him in Hell!” 

Fortunately, as I gazed upon my computer screen, the cursor still blinking at the end of my adolescent quip, I suddenly had what alcoholics describe as a moment of clarity and thought better about sending it.

In case you haven’t met her, I call that moment of clarity, Ali. 

So I deleted the comment and instead sent out some prosaic pastor-speak.

But the problem is— 

We can’t backspace our way away from the Jesus who tells this parable today.

———————-

As liberal mainline Protestants, we’ve all been conditioned into believing that Christianity boils down to being nice and doing nice; therefore, if we have any religious convictions at all it’s that God is nice too. And maybe at first you thought that’s where Jesus’ story was headed. 

An evite goes out for a great extravagant party, but those in the VIP queue— the fat cats and country club set, the season ticket holders and the keto dieters, the cronies of the rich man— mark the invitation read and forget all about it. 

So the rich man says, “Hey, I’ve already paid the photographer. I’ve got a Costco’s worth of beef tenderloin under the broiler, and the DJ’s already started playing the Electric Slide. Go out beyond the suburbs and bring in the folks from the Halfway House— and don’t forget those guys who loiter around the 7-Eleven too. Let them come into my party. The 1% don’t deserve my generosity.” 

Probably as Jesus’ story was being read at first you thought you liked it. You like the idea of God going out like Bernie Sanders to the marginalized and the poor and the dispossessed and inviting them to a fine china, cloth napkin, open bar party. 

It’s a nice thought.

And it would be nice if Jesus just left it alone right there, which is sort of the way Jesus tells it in Luke’s Gospel.

But Matthew? 

I mean— all this festival of death needs to be more terrifying are creepy twin girls, an elevator full of blood, and Jesus with a hatchet saying “Here’s Johnny.” 

And maybe a ginger kid too— a ginger would make it scarier. 

What gets you about Jesus’ story in Matthew is not the graciousness of the King esteeming the lowly onto his guest list, as in Luke. 

What gets you is this King’s totally inappropriate and excessive behavior. 

“Oh, the A-Listers couldn’t be bothered to open the Paperless Post? Some clicked ‘Maybe?’ Really? Well then, I’ll tell you what, Alfred. I want you get some of the hired help and I want you to cross them off the guest list permanently, if you know what I mean. No, that’s right, you heard me correctly, hand and foot. Send them to a place worse than Cleveland! They’ll regret sending their regrets when I get through with them!”

Then, as if the body count wasn’t already high enough, in a flourish only House Lanister could love, there’s Jesus’ finale. Among the good and bad gathered into the King’s party, this panhandling vagrant off Braddock Road makes it past the maitre’d only to get himself shipped off to one of Dick Cheney’s black sites allbecause of the way he’s dressed. 

“You there— yeah you.” 

Actually, the word the King uses in Greek is hetaire, which means, basically, “Buster.” 

“Hey how’d you get in here dressed like that? We’ve got beluga on ice and Chateau Branaire-Ducru uncorked. This party is black tie and tails only, buster.”

“Well, sir, I was sleeping outside next to the Mission Center trash bins only an hour ago, and they don’t stock formal wear in the church’s coat closet.” 

And the “gracious” King responds: “Really? Well then…Bind him, hand and foot! Throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

———————-

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible…

———————-

I know you—

It really bothers you that the formerly sweet baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers would tell a story like this to nice, well-mannered people like you. It bothers you to hear the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world roaring like a lion at…

At what exactly? 

Failure to RSVP? 

A party foul?

What gives?

Admit it—

We all want a God who says of our flagged but unopened evites, “Oh, your kids have a soccer game? You were up late last night? You can catch it online? That’s okay, I know you’re busy. We’ll miss you at the party but no biggie. Raincheck?”

We want a God who is as cool and dispassionate about us as we are about him.

We don’t want this irrational, incongruous God. 

We don’t want this God gone wild. 

We don’t want this King who is ferociously determined to celebrate his free party. 

No matter the costs. 

I mean— that much is obvious, right? 

As much as it tightens our sphincters and gives nice types like us acid reflux, for his macabe little drama Jesus rudely casts his Heavenly Father as this bezerk, damn-the-torpedoes, party-or-bust King. 

Which puts us where in the story?

———————-

Who are we supposed to be at this party?

The A-list?

Does Jesus mean for you to identify with those at the top of the King’s guest list? The ones who for whatever reason (or none at all) don’t accept the King’s invitation? Actually, the Greek in verse three isn’t as neutral as it sounds. The word is amelsantes, and it means literally, “They didn’t give a damn.”

“The King sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the party, but they didn’t give a rip,” Jesus says.

Maybe that is who Jesus means us to be in the story because he conjugates the VIPs’ apathy in the imperfect tense. 

It’s: “They were not giving a rip…” 

That is, these A-Listers’ snubbing of the King’s call is an ongoing rejection; as if to say, the world will always be full of idiots who refuse to trust and enjoy a good thing when they hear it. 

Free grace, dying love, unqualified acceptance, and unconditional forgiveness for you— it might as well be a prostrate exam given the way some of us respond to it. 

Is that us?

Obviously, you all give a rip. 

You wouldn’t have dragged yourself out of bed, showered, and shown up this morning for a subpar sermon if you didn’t care. 

But maybe like that first group of invitees, you make your way in life assuming that God’s good, gracious nature means you’re free to ignore his call upon your life until after you’re finished with all your better plans. 

Maybe that’s why Jesus repeats the word call every other verse, from the top of his story to the bottom. 

As though the King’s call is a countdown. 

Going once. 

Going twice…tick tock.

What about that second batch of evites? 

The King sends out his servants a second time to those on the guest list. And they deliver the message: Look this party is off the hook! The oxen and the fatted calves (plural!) have been in the smoker since last night. The keg is tapped. Come on already! 

Notice—

It’s not that those guests can’t be bothered. 

It’s that they’re too busy. 

Some, Jesus says, are too busy with their farms to celebrate the King’s party. 

Others, Jesus says, are too tied up at the office to join the King’s party. 

It’s not that they don’t give a rip. 

It’s that they give too many. 

Farming, business— those are vocations, good works God gives to us for our neighbors.

These guests are so wrapped up in the good work God has given them to do for others that they ignore the King’s individual invitation to them. 

They’re so focused on doing good works for their neighbor that they’ve neglected, and thus put at risk, their personal relationship with the King— the very relationship to which their good works were meant to be a sign not a substitute. 

Their busyness lulled them into forgetting that their personal yes to the King’s invitation is an urgent eternal matter of life and death. We can be so bent over busy in our religious, deed-doing lives that we lose them. 

And maybe they don’t answer the King’s invite because they assume they can get past the bouncers at a date they name later, on the merits of all their hard work and not on the King’s gratuity. 

Perhaps that’s who Jesus means us to be in the story. 

Or what about that poor bastard who’s caught without a cumberbund and patent leather shoes? Does Jesus mean for us to be the guy dragged off by the King’s SWAT team because of a wardrobe malfunction? I mean, even Janet Jackson got a second chance. 

Is that who we are in the story?

Are you supposed to hear this parable and worry?

Worry that, yes, all are invited to the party of salvation, gratis, but if you don’t meet the dress code? It’s outer darkness for you. 

In other words: yes, yes grace, but…

Yes, salvation is by grace. 

But, your faith better bring something to show for it when you get to the party. 

Yes, all are invited, gratis.

But, only some get to stay. You better show up wearing your three-piece suit of obedience, your gem-covered gown of holiness, or your mink of compassion. 

Yes, yes grace, but…

Nevermind for a moment the not minor point that as soon as you attach a but to grace, it’s no longer grace, such a worrisome takeaway ignores the fact that whatever fancy duds these riffraff at the party are wearing, they’re clothes the King has given to them. 

Free of charge. 

Upon arrival not prior to departure.

So their ability to remain at the party is not conditioned upon the presence or absence of anything they brought with them— not their closet full of loving works and not their suitcase holy living.

The King gave them their garments upon arrival. So for whatever reason, this eyesoar who’s still in his streetclothes and bound for darkness, he didn’t put on the bow tie and tux given out to all the other guests who got there on the same free ticket as him. 

This guy didn’t change his clothes. 

He refused to change. 

Is that it?

If he’s who Jesus means us to be, then is the takeaway for us that, yes, we’re invited but once there we better change and get our act together?

That might be one way to interpret Jesus’ story if Jesus’ story were told by someone other than Jesus, and if Jesus told this story at some point other than three days before he died not to improve the improveable or reform the reformable but to raise the dead in their sins. 

And the only thing the dead do is stink. 

So the takeaway today can’t be that we need first to apply deodorant before we’re allowed onto the dance floor. 

The Cross is Exhibit A.

Jesus saves us in our failures not just in spite of them. 

“The gifts and invitation of God,” the Apostle Paul says, “are irrevocable.”

And the word Paul uses there is repentance. 

The gifts and invitiation of God are without repentance.

Therefore, the moral of this parable is not that God invites us to the party called salvation but we better shape up or we’ll get shipped off. 

No, the parable doesn’t have a moral because it’s a parable. 

It’s not about you. 

It’s about God— that’s why the King and his staff get all the verbs in the story. 

Notice— no one else in the story even speaks.

You can’t ask of a parable, “WWJD?”

You can only ask, “Who is this God who does to us in Jesus Christ?”

But that still doesn’t answer where are we in this parable?

———————-

Last week the Atlantic Magazine published an article entitled Parents Gone Wild: Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School. The story’s about Sidwell Friends School, the Harvard of DC private schools whose Quaker motto is “Let the light shine out from all.” 

Bright lights sometimes illuminate the worst in people. The article details the shocking and over-the-top behavior of some of the school’s parents, which has led to 2/3 of the school’s counselors leaving their jobs. Attempting to help their children get a leg up in the college admissions competition, parents at Sidwell Friends School have engaged in what the school’s headmaster calls “offensive conduct.” 

Among the excessive behaviors, parents have verbally assaulted school employees, secretly recorded conversations with teachers, made badgering phone calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Some parents have even circulated damaging rumors about other parents’ children in order to give their own children an advantage over their peers. 

As one college dean of admissions explained it: 

“When you’re talking about the love a parent has for their son or daughter, the plan they have for their child and all the work they’ve done towards that plan— it can lead to some pretty wild and inappropriate behavior. You could choose to focus in on the crazy behavior, or you could choose to see the parent’s love behind it all. Either way, if you get in the way of that kind of love, if you get in the way of what a parent has planned for the child they love without condition, watch out.”

———————-

If you get in the way of what the Father has planned for the Son…

That’s it. 

You and I— the baptized— we’re not in this parable. 

We’re not.

We’re so hard-wired to turn the good news of grace into the grim pills of religion that we go to Jesus’ parables asking what we must do, or we leave Jesus’ parables worrying about we’re not doing. In doing so, we turn the Gospel into the Law; such that we miss completely the fact that, according to Jesus himself, we’re not in the parable. 

Yet. 

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

Jesus told us at the top of the story. In response to the chief priests and the Pharisees who begrudge his relationship with the Father— his relationship with the Father— Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like…what? 

The Kingdom of God is like a King who gave not just a party but a wedding banquet. 

A wedding feast for his Son. 

His Son to be married to whom?

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

You and I, and all baptized believers, we’re still waiting in the wings, offstage. 

We’re not in the parable. 

We’re in the parlor. 

A friend’s putting a finishing gloss on our fingernails while the curling iron gets hot and the string quartet warms up and the photographer shoots some candids of everyone getting ready and the white dress hangs uncovered from the curtain rod. 

This isn’t a horror story about what God will do to you if you don’t get your act together and get your ass to his party. 

No, for you— this is an absurd romantic comedy about the wildly excessive, inapprorpriate lengths the Loving Father will go to have every last detail of the party perfect, every seat filled, and everyone dressed to the nines with the custom-tailored clothes he’s given away to every undeserving guest to celebrate his Son’s marriage. 

To you.

All are invited, but not all will accept the invitation— the whole world is invited to celebrate at Chez Yahweh, celebrate the Father’s Son’s marriage.

To you. 

No wonder he acts so bezerk. 

This parent has planned this party for his Son since before the foundation of the world, the Bible says. 

Watch out if you frustrate this Father’s feast-going. 

He’s not going to let anything get in the way of a five star celebration for his Son’s marriage to you. 

Jesus left it assumed and unsaid in this story because he’s already said it. 

I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you will be also, Jesus already promised. That’s wedding language.

In my Father’s house there are many mansions, Jesus promises. That’s wedding language.

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me— that’s wedding language too. 

Not to mention, the word Jesus uses today for wedding banquet, gamos, guess the other place in the New Testaments it gets used— the freaking climax of the Bible, at the very end of the Book of Revelation where the angel declares “the marriage supper of the Lamb has been made ready” and Christ comes back to his Church who is prepared for him as what?

As a bride for her bridegroom.

———————-

So Eldon, I don’t know if you’re here today or not, but What Would Jesus Do?

Welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry— that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. 

Because Jesus the Bridegroom would take his hand and pick him up and carry him across the threshold and say “My Beloved, let’s dance.”

———————-

Hear the good news—

You’re not the one who blows off the party. 

You’re not the do-gooder who’s too busy to attend the party

You’re not the eyesore who wears the wrong garment to the party. 

Though at times you might resemble all of the above, you’re not any of them.

Because the party’s for you. 

By your baptism—

A promise signed by the Father and sealed in the Son’s blood and delivered to you by water through the Holy Spirit, you are the betrothed. 

You are free to do the things that Jesus did and you are free not to worry about how little you’re doing or how much you’re leaving undone. 

Because what God has joined together no one— not even you in your pathetic every day run-of-the-mills sins— can tear asunder. 

No, you are his. 

And with all that he is and all that he has, for better, for worse, no matter if your faith feels rich or if it is poor, he will cherish you. 

This is his solemn vow.

The Bottomless Glass

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2019 — 1 Comment

John 2.1-11

Were you all paying attention? 

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine for them to drink. 

Listen to the story again:

Jesus doesn’t just top off their glasses. Each of those stone jars held atleast 25 gallons of water. That’s 150 gallons. 

I did the math: 

4 quarts to a gallon

1 quart equals roughly 6 glasses

Giving you a minimum grandtotal = 2160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water.

I mean, unless Pat Vaughn is at your party that’s a prodigal amount of booze. 

And Jesus makes not 3 Buck Chuck, Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink. 

He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it. He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too far gone even to notice what he’s gone and done.As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten hammered, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re sloppy drunk.” 

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” 

Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And come morning— with the hangovers they’re going to have— you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it. They won’t remember what you’ve done. 

For them. 

It’s wasted on them, the maitre’d says to the bridegroom. 

Your gracious act, it’s wasted on them.

There’s more going on here than just a miracle. 

————————

In fact, the word miracle isn’t even the proper word to use about today’s Gospel text. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t do miracles. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, performs signs— only seven of them. Each of these seven signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s hour of glory. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is his humiliation when he’s hanging naked and accursed on the cross. 

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection: 

        • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day. 
        • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
        • Jesus calls his Mother Woman, which sounds like he’s backtalking his Mom until you remember the only other time he’ll similarly address his Mother: Woman, behold your Son. 
        • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All seven signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign— its intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law. Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you— he telegraphs it: “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus pitches his Temple tantrum, flipping off the moneychangers and hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. 

And Grace is not the Law. 

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the six stone water jars. 

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame. 

But it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. So if the abundance of wine signifies our salvation, these six stone water jugs signify our sin. 

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted seven days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests. 

This wedding is only on day three. They’ve got four more days to go. There’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon. 

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to fulfill their duty under the Law, which is to say their shame is deserved. Which is to say, they do not deserve what this other Bridgegroom, Jesus Christ, does for them. So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is what the Apostle Paul tells you. The Law (commandment-keeping, rule-following, morality, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes. It cannot make us righteous. 

“For God has done what the Law could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” 

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and morality— the Law—  “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter two that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter two he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law. He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these six stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then he tells them to fill the jars with it. To fill them to overflowing. 

Do you see? It’s a sign not a miracle. 

It’s meant to help you see— see that Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faithfulness.

When they draw out the wine-that-had-been-water, it’s not any of that Yellow Tail swill. It’s vintage, already aged, all from the very best year. And there’s an abundance of it.  It’s a sign not a miracle. You’re meant to see— see that out of the Law is drawn the Gospel of Grace, the wine of salvation. 

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood shed out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Here at Cana, he transforms what we do to make ourselves righteous before God into a sign of what God does to make us righteous.

Christ’s sign shows what Paul says. 

The Law— all the thou shalts and thou shalt nots in and out of the Bible (and scripture says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone but on every human heart, believer and unbeliever alike, so the Law also includes all the shoulds and musts and oughts we hear in our society and in the back of our heads)— all of it is the Law. 

And all of it is powerless to produce in us what it commands. 

That’s what you’re supposed to see in this sign.

The Law can charge us to give thanks, but it cannot make us grateful. 

The Law can exhort us to offer hospitality to the Other, but it cannot make us more hospitable. 

The Law can command us to love the stranger who is our neighbor as ourself, but it cannot make us loving. 

    ———————-

Fifty-five years ago Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-five days ago I took my son, Alexander, to the DMV in Lexington, Virginia to get his learner’s permit. 

We have a house in Lexington and the DMV there is small so I thought it’d be quicker than waiting all day at a DMV up here. 

Sure enough, we got there and our number was called in less than a minute. My wife Ali, who is an attorney mind you, had already made sure she sent us off with all the requisite documents per the DMV’s website. 

We stepped up to the counter when called and handed over the goods. AM talk radio was droning on in the office behind them. 

Sorting through the documents, the woman at the counter— without even looking up at us— announced: “There’s no birth certificate. He needs a birth certificate to get a learner’s permit. It’s the law.”

“He has a certificate of foreign birth,” I said, “the same as any kid born on a military base overseas. That certificate says he’s as American as you.” 

“I don’t think,” she said, still not looking at us, “I need birth certificate. It’s the law.”

“Not according to the DMV website,” I said. 

She looked up from her clipboard. She sighed like we were a colossal waste of her time. And with blank contempt on her face she said: “Well, if he wasn’t born here in America, then how’d he get into the country? Legally?”

“What?” I said. 

“I’m adopted,” Alexander replied, “from Guatemala.” 

I could tell from the epiphany that spread across his face that he was piecing together her insinuation. 

“Who are you?” she asked, looking at me.

“What?” I said again. “You’ve got my license and the application right in front of you. I’m his Father.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, sorting through the documents again like I was putting one over her. “I’m going to need to see your passport and birth certificate too.”

“You absolutely don’t need to see either of them. We’ve already given you more than your own website says you require.”

She sighed again: “Let me talk with my supervisor.” She walked to the other end of the counter, two stalls away, maybe ten feet. And I heard her say to her supervisor: “That’s the problem with letting them into the country. We’re so much busier now.” 

She came back to the counter and said to me: “We’re going to run this situation by our main office in Richmond. You’re free to wait here but it could take all day to hear back from them. It’s only right and proper,” she said, “that we make sure everything is according to the law.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. 

“You’ve been a complete waste of our time!”

Alexander didn’t get his permit, but turns out it didn’t take that long to get a response. Turns out when you’re a white guy with a large social media platform and you tweet at the DMV about a Civil Rights violation…turns out they call you back pretty quick.

Fifty-five years ago Martin Luther King preached about a dream, and fifty-five days ago my son tried to get his permit and failed not because of the contents on his clipboard but because of the color of his skin. 

I think we can measure the progress we’ve made on King’s dream by the fact that I’ve got more leeway to tell a story like that from the pulpit than does a preacher of color, Peter or Chenda for example. 

And sure, I have a different style. 

Maybe I told the story differently than the way they’d tell it. 

But, to be honest, if I had that DMV day everyday, or even once a year, I probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to begin this sermon with a silly Mr. Bean clip.

   ———————-

Jesus Christ died not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improveable. 

Jesus Christ died for a drunk world. 

That’s what this sign shows us: that if Jesus Christ makes the very best wine for drunk people to drink, then Jesus Christ in his hour of glory shed the wine of salvation, wasted the wine that is his blood, poured out himself— particularly so— for that prejudiced paperpusher at the DMV. 

That’s the promise we call Grace.  

And sure, it’s offensive. 

By defintion, grace only begins where and when you think it should end.

But grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. The message of Grace, the Bible says, is the power of God unto salvation. Grace alone has the power to produce in people what the Law commands of them. In other words, the way for that woman in the DMV to be made less prejudiced isn’t the Law. It isn’t by telling her that she ought to be less prejudiced. It isn’t by exhorting her that she should love her neighbor as herself. 

No— pay attention to the story: THE STONE JARS DON’T WORK.

The way for her to be changed (and the passive voice there is everything), the way for her to be transformed like so much useless water into topshelf wine, is to give her not the Law but to give her the Gospel of Grace and to give it to her over and over again, as long as it takes. 

The way for her to be changed is to give her the news that while she was yet a sinner, God in Jesus Christ became her neighbor and loved her as himself. 

Grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. It is, as the Bible says, God’s weapon in the world. 

And this is why, as your pastors, we may preach out of our stories differently from one another, but we will always proclaim the Gospel of Grace to you because the message of Grace is the power with which God has armed his Church. 

So as your pastor, I pledge that you will never leave here on a Sunday morning not having received the Gospel goods. I promise you’ll never go home not having heard the good news of Grace. 

But that’s not a guarrantee you’ll always leave here happy.

Or comfortable. 

We will always proclaim to you Christ’s punch-drunk love, but the bottomless glass of his Grace isn’t the whole story. 

The six hundred quarts of wine is not glad good news apart from you knowing about the six stone jars and the water that does not work. 

Grace is unintelligible apart from the Law. 

And what the Law does, Paul says— the Law accuses us. It exposes our sin. It reveals how far we fall short. 

So hearing the Law, even in the context of Grace, can make us uncomfortable and worse. 

It’s why Martin Luther said the Gospel is a promise that kills before it makes alive. 

You’ve got to swallow the bitter pill of the Law before you can taste the goodness that is the wine of grace. 

So I promise that you will always leave here having heard the Gospel of Grace, but you will not always leave here having been made happy or comfortable. And that’s okay. Because by your baptism, you’ve been given something better than comfort.

Notice in the story—

The bridegroom and his family who failed to do their duty under the Law, who deserve their shame. Not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves. The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance. They get the credit that is Christ’s credit alone.

You can hear about the unrightousness in our world. You can even hear abour your part in it, witting or unwitting. And you can do so unafraid and without anger. Because the Bridegroom who died for a drunk world— he has gifted you with his own righteousness. 

Are you paying attention? 

It’s what we say at every baptism. 

More importantly, it’s what was said at yours:

“Clothe her in Christ’s own righteousness, that dying and being raised with Christ she shares in his final victory.”

Nothing can threaten that so nothing should threaten you.

The credit of Christ’s permanent perfect record is yours by grace. 

You can be made uncomfortable some Sundays because what’s better even than comfort is the news that God has given you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit that Christ our Bridegroom deserves. 

As John shows us here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.” 

Or, as we say over a different barrel of water: “Remember your baptism, and be grateful.”

   

    

A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2019 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, which I never got to preach since snow shut us out. It’ll go in the locker for another time.

Luke 3.15-22

I realize this will come as something of a shock to many of you, but I can be an acquired taste for some people— like black coffee, dark beer, or the music of Coldplay. But, believe it or not, though I am an acquired taste, eventually (like hair on moles, like skin fungus, like the music of Coldplay) I grow on people. 

One such person with whom I went from skin fungus to simpatico is my friend CJ. Years ago CJ and her son came to a bluegrass Easter sunrise service where I was preaching. She loved the music, but she thought I came across as something I can’t say in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, this bottle of dark beer— this handsome, charming, witty, brilliant bottle of dark beer— convinced her to come back to church. And she did, and she kept coming back to church. And we became friends. 

Her initial assessment of me notwithstanding, CJ is a genius, a legit DoogieHowser type genius. She enrolled in Harvard as she was entering puberty. She’s got multiple degrees and juggles diverse careers. Her most recent— she does GoodWillHunting type stuff for the NSA, keeping us all safe with math I don’t understand. Last fall, at the end of the early service, she came up to me. With her arms crossed and wearing a wry smile, she said:

“You know, I used to be grateful for you. But now I’m not so sure.” 

“You didn’t like the sermon?” I asked, smiling back.

“Didn’t like the sermon?! I’m not sure I like any of your sermons NOW!”

“What do you mean?”

And then she told me what I had done to her. Or, as I prefer to think about it: what God and God’s Gospel had done to her.

“I had to reup my security clearances, same thing every few years. They sifted through all my bank statements and tax returns, interviewed all my old roommates, talked to my old boyfriends. It’s hairy harrowing stuff and all of it was FINE until I had to do the polygraph at the end. A polygraph— it should be a piece of cake, right?”

“Let me guess,” I guessed, “it wasn’t a piece of cake?”

“It was at first— until you messed it up.” Only, she didn’t say messed. She said something I can’t say here in the sanctuary. And then she punched me in the shoulder.

As I rubbed the bruise, she told me. 

“They started out asking me my name, address, job— piece of cake, just routine stuff. I rattled them off calmly, no problem.”

“But?”

“But then they asked me— get this— the guy asked me: “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

I could already fill in the blanks, but I played dumb: “What’s the problem?” 

“What’s the problem? What’s the problem?! The problem is that I said ‘yes’ and then they moved on to the other questions, yet even as I answered those questions I sat there with probes stuck to my temple and my chest and my fingers and I thought about you and your sermons and that question Do I consider myself a good person? and it hit me, like an epiphany, and I knew. I’d lied.” 

I didn’t say anything. It’s best to stay quiet when you’re creeping up on holiness.

“All my answers to all the other questions were off,” she said, “because I’d lied on that one question and I knew it. I failed the polygraph because of your preaching!? What do you have to say about that?!”

“Um…see you next Sunday?”

And she punched me in my other shoulder. 

———————-

The truth that revealed itself to my friend in the polygraph test is the same truth— the epiphany— disclosed to us in the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus dips his toes into the Jordan, John protests: 

“What are you doing Jesus?! I need to be baptized by you. I’m not even worthy to untie your sandals, Jesus (which was the job of a slave). I need to be baptized by you not you by me.”

All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire— a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them. You think Chenda’s a heavy preacher. John the Baptist wouldn’t last two Sundays here.

All four Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism.  In fact— pay attention now— the only two events mentioned across all four Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross. That’s because they’re connected.

The baptism by fire predicted here by John the Baptist is the fire of God’s judgment— judgment that falls, once for all, upon Jesus in our place on the cross. The water John plunges Jesus down into here at his baptism is the water that pours out from Jesus’ wounded side, baptizing us into his death. Just as Christ’s ministry begins here standing along the Jordan amidst sinners counted as a sinner, Christ’s work ends— it is finished— hanging amongst sinners, thieves, treated as a sinner just like them. 

And just as they heavens tear open here at his baptism, on his cross the temple veil is ripped (it’s very same word in Mark’s Gospel), torn in two, tearing heaven open to you and to me and making you, who once was a slave to Sin and Death— making you a beloved child of God.  All four of the Gospels tell us about the baptism of Jesus and the passion of Jesus. 

The two stories, they’re connected. Therefore, the meaning of the Gospel lies in that connection.

———————

Luke leaves out what Matthew tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions. Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?

The connection between his baptism and his cross, the epiphany to be discovered in today’s text, lies in John’s question: “Jesus, how can I baptize you? Jesus, you don’t need the baptism with which I baptize.”

  “How can I baptize you?”

It’s a good question. Maybe, it’s the most important question. You see— John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. For sin. And Jesus is without sin. He’s perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect. He’s the only one of us who doesn’t need John the Baptist’s baptism, yet he insists upon it. By objecting to baptizing Jesus, John distinguishes for us between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and our baptisms into Jesus Christ. 

Again, this is important so pay attention: 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT Christian baptism. 

If you miss this distinction, you’ll miss how these two stories, baptism and cross, are connected and if you miss this connection, you’ll miss the central claim of the Gospel promise. 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT the Christian baptism performed by God in his Church. John’s baptism was a work we do— a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy. John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness).

     The water was an outward visible sign of your inward admission of guilt. 

     But the water did not wash away your guilt. 

    John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. 

     But it could not make you righteous. 

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism— not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do. John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God. 

By being plunged down into John’s baptism, Jesus condescends—Jesus goes down into the very depths of our unrighteousness. As Martin Luther said:

At Christmas, Christ becomes our flesh but at his baptism he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. As the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians: “He who knew no sin becomes sin so that you and I could become the very righteousness of God.”

That’s the connection between the two texts, baptism and cross. And it’s why they’re the only two texts all four Gospels give you. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with sinners beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with every sin all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism— the baptism of his death and resurrection— we may be made what the former baptism could never make us.  

Righteous.

As the Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

At Christmas, he takes on our flesh. 

Here at the Jordan River, he takes on the curse; so that, the curse hanging over us is carried in him unto the cross.  And there, by the baptism of his once-for-all death for sin, he completes the joyful carol we sang at his nativity. He makes his blessing known as far as the curse is found— the gift of his own righteousness, his own permanent perfect record. 

As Paul writes to the Colossians: “You who once were estranged from and hostile to God Christ has reconciled to God in his body through his death, so as to present you to God as holy, blameless, and irreproachable.”

   ——————-

 “All your CrossFit sessions really work,” I said to CJ, rubbing the burgeoning bruise in my other shoulder.  

“Sorry I keep hitting you” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, “they don’t warn you in seminary but working with church people is a contact sport most days.”

“It just goes to show,” she said, getting serious, “how secular, how post-Christian, unChristian, anti-Christian is our culture that a question like “Do you consider yourself a good person?” isn’t considered in any way a problematic way of putting the question.”

And I couldn’t help but smile at the number this dark bottle of beer, yours truly, had done on her with God’s Gospel help. 

“Look, I get it,” she said, “Most people— cognitive dissonance and all— probably do think they’re basically good people, but Christians at least— at the VERY LEAST— should understand that as soon as you’re considering yourself a good person you’re no longer speaking Christian.”

She didn’t say so and probably she wouldn’t put it like this, but the confusion is a confusion between these two baptisms, Jesus’ by John in the Jordan and ours by God into Jesus. 

     John’s baptism was a work we do— we’re the active agents in John’s baptism. 

    John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism is a work God does. 

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism incoporates us into the work God has already done to pardon us. 

     Once. 

     For all. 

     For everything you’ve done and everything you’ve left undone.  

     Our baptism is not an act of repentance.

Our baptism incorporates us into Christ’s act of redemption by which God declares you (though a sinner you are and a sinner you remain) his beloved son…his beloved daughter… to whom heaven will always be open not because you’re good but because he is gracious. 

It’s John’s kind of baptism— the work that we do— that misleads us into thinking that we’re basically good people because, according to the rules of John’s Old Age— and that’s what scripture calls it, the Old Age (even though most of us insist on living there still)— you and I have to be good. 

Perfect even.  As perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect— perfection, according to the rules of the Old Age under the Law, is actually the expectation. Yet the Law came with Moses, the Gospel promises, but Grace has come with Jesus Christ and in Christ the perfect righteousness required of us has been fulfilled by his own faithfulness for us.

In other words, our baptism into Christ—the work of God and his grace— frees us to admit that we’re worse than good. Those of us who are baptized into Christ— we should be the freest to admit our brokeness, to be vulnerable about our sinfulness, to be authentically imperfect. 

Baptized Christians should be the least defensive people.

I mean— I don’t know what newspaper you read, but the world could certainly use Christians who are quicker to confess their own sins rather than castigate others for theirs.

John’s baptism leaves you in your sin. 

And left in your sin, you’ll either refuse to admit the truth about yourself or you’ll be anxious about whether or not God will forgive you. But your baptism is not John’s baptism. By your baptism you are not in your sin— though a sinner you are— because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.  That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism. In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. 

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says. Your sin and your old self— it’s left behind, Paul says. Buried with him in his death, Paul says. Your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.  And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his perfect record. Permanently. 

No take-backs. No do-overs. No need ever to earn or deserve it. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

Notice—

The Gospel of Grace is not God loves you just as you are and accepts you just as you are.

No, that’s liberal sentimentality.

The Gospel of Grace is that God the Father loves Jesus Christ the Son.

And God loves and accepts you— just as you are— not because of who you are but because of where you are.

In Christ. 

By your baptism, you are in him.

He is your new you. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

And if you add anything to it at all, a single footnote or condition (especially a qualifier like “I’m basically a good person”) you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens. 

Grace can only begin where you (and all your pretensions) end. 

Put it this way— 

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own by our own initiative. I’m going to be more grateful today— go ahead and try it; it won’t work— the Bible tells me so (Romans 7). It just turns gratitude into another Law.

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own. 

Gratitude is the spontaneous response elicited in us by a message that comes from outside of us, by something surprising and undeserved that has been done by another for us. 

Christianly speaking, what has been done for us in Jesus Christ has no content apart from the why: what it is about us such that it had to be done for us. In other words, Christianly speaking, people who insist that they’re good, people who refuse to live into the freedom that their baptisms gives them, the freedom to be honest about their own sin or the societal sins they’re complicit in, such people can never be grateful. 

And without gratitude you cannot be a gracious, grace-giving person. 

Gratitude can only begin where you end. 

Of course, I’m not saying anything here we don’t already say with bread and wine. This Table of Thanksgiving— that’s what the word Eucharist means— is also at the same time a table for traitors. To deny or ignore the latter is to foreclose the former from you.

Don’t take my word for it. 

Check out the first two questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer:

That I am not my own but I belong by baptism—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful savior and substitute Jesus Christ.

Question 2:

What must I know to live and die in this comfort?

Answer :

1. The greatness of my sin.

2. How I’ve been forgiven and set free from all of them.

3. The gratitude that comes from such a redemption.

———————-

I followed up with CJ later, over black coffee. 

“Do I consider myself a good person?” she dwelled on the polygraph question like it was a missing button on her blouse. 

“The trouble is— it’s a lie detector test, right? You can only give Yes or No responses. How am I supposed to respond when the answer is ‘No, but…’?”

“No, but?” I asked.

“Yeah, no, but: ‘No, I’m not a good person, but at once and the same time, I’m something better than good. I’m righteous.’”

“If you really want to mess with him,” I said, “you could just say that ‘I’ve been baptized.’”

 

 

Steven Paulson says all of American Christianity is a conspiracy to undo baptism. In this latest episode we talk with New Testament scholar and baseball fan and recent convert to Anglicanism, Scot McKnight about his new book, It Takes a Church to Baptize: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1587434164

From the back jacket –

The issue of baptism has troubled Protestants for centuries. Should infants be baptized before their faith is conscious, or does God command the baptism of babies whose parents have been baptized?

Popular New Testament scholar Scot McKnight makes a biblical case for infant baptism, exploring its history, meaning, and practice and showing that infant baptism is the most historic Christian way of forming children into the faith. He explains that the church’s practice of infant baptism developed straight from the Bible and argues that it must begin with the family and then extend to the church. Baptism is not just an individual profession of faith: it takes a family and a church community to nurture a child into faith over time. McKnight explains infant baptism for readers coming from a tradition that baptizes adults only, and he counters criticisms that fail to consider the role of families in the formation of faith. The book includes a foreword by Todd Hunter and an afterword by Gerald McDermott.

And before you listen, we’ll be launching a new project for Advent starting Monday called Advent Begins in the Dark, a serious of daily reflections inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s new book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Reflections will be provided by folks like Will Willimon, Sarah Condon, Scott Jones and more. You can find the devos here.

Happy Baptism Day, Elijah—

Other than giving you verboten soda when your Mom isn’t looking, my role as your godfather appears to come down to these daft, dutch-uncle letters, explaining once a year what the hell we did to you by drowning you with water and word. 

I saw you just the other day, little man, and I was blown away by how much you’re talking now. Per your age, you’ve advanced from saying our names to attaching demands and imperatives to our names: JasonAliIwantmoremacuncheeeese.  I suppose, given the locquaciousness of your Dad, that you’re fated to talk people’s ears off. Your Dad will want the previous sentence to be a lesson to you. That was an example of the pot calling the kettle a motormouth.  

Before the macuncheese, you were playing with a toy car at my house, a Lightening McQueen I bought Gabriel back when he was your age. Telling me about it, you showed it to me. Unwisely, I grabbed it from you. I wanted to appear as though I was appraising what you were apprising me of.

JasonJasonJasonthat’sminegiveitbacktome—-please. 

Your Mom corrected you (that’s what they do, little man). 

You said IsorryJasonhereyoucansee.

And I replied: “I forgive you.”

I said it matter-of-factly, Elijah, but now, considering the anniversary of your baptism, it occurs to me that it was really a matter of faith, the matter of faith. Strip away the lace gowns, ornate liturgy, and lukewarm water, the faith into which we baptized you all boils down to how you receive the selfsame promise: you are forgiven. 

It’s a promise with your name attached to it: Elijah, you— your sins— are forgiven.

Actually, the promise goes all the way back to your name Elijah. Folks in the Gospels mistook John the Baptizer for the prophet by whom you are named.

The difference between the baptism with which John baptized and the baptism into which you’ve been baptized is often misunderstood in churches or missed by Christians altogether, but the distinction couldn’t be more critical, Elijah. 

John invited people to repent of their sins, get their act together, turn their lives around, and be baptized. John’s baptism was a work we do- we’re the active agents in John’s baptism. 

John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon.

Our baptism is a work God does. Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon. It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us. John’s Baptism was a baptism of repentance. Our baptism is a baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, it’s a baptism of righteousness— a gifting of righteousness not a giving of repentance.

Let me put it another way, little man. 

To answer the rich young ruler who queries, now that you’ve died with Christ, Elijah, here’s what you must do in your Christian life: _______________.  

Nothing.

As Paul insists in Galatians— and give it time, Elijah, you’ll soon enough discover we’re all Galatians deep down: Christ + Anything Else = No Gospel at All. 

We’re all born lawyers, Elijah. We do better with conditions and contracts. We’re not good at remembering such math. Like lawyers, we’re better with contracts. Conditions make sense to us not the unbalanced equation called grace. We prefer to parse our piety in if/thens, not realizing that, in doing so, we sound like satan in the wilderness. 

Because God baptized you in to what Christ has done— his death (for sin) and resurrection (for justification)— there’s nothing you need to do now Elijah. In Christ, everything has already been done. You are forgiven, it’s full and finished— full stop. In that same letter to the Galatians, Paul says that in dying with Christ by our baptisms we have also died to the Law, to our religious doings. The good news, Elijah, is that you are not the good news. Because Christ won, you can never lose the freedom to lose. 

But the same letter to the Galatians amply illumines our proclivity to confuse this crazy good news for a bitter pill we refuse to swallow. 

Just wait until you have a truly close friendship, Elijah, or a lover or spouse. You’ll find out soon enough: to have your debt paid, gratis, is to grapple with a different kind of owing. Forgiveness is not a monotone word. Forgiveness is a word that kills as much as it makes alive, for accusation always precedes pardon in our ears. To hear “I forgive you of your sins” is to hear that you’re a sinner. We rush to respond to our forgiveness-ness in order to right the scales and to restore the balance of power. The Old Adam in you, Elijah, supposedly was drowned and killed in your baptism, but the Old Adam, as the adage goes, is a mighty strong swimmer.  And a system of merits and demerits, a quo for every quid, comforts the Old Adam in us who is addicted to control.

The Word who takes flesh gives himself to our flesh in particular words. The presence of the Word is in the words of grace promised to us. Instead, like Eve and Adam, we go looking for other words to trust. They’re usually the ones we tell ourselves with forked tongues: Do your best and God will do the rest. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Forgive but don’t forget.

Look it up in the Action Bible we gave you, Elijah. Looking for other words to trust is the very heart of sin.

Since I worry that your Dad is a closet pietist, let me make sure you’ve got the necessaries down, Elijah. Only after 15 in the years the pulpit did I realize I’d assumed the main thing— grace— and instead had been majoring in the minors every Sunday. Turns out, most church folks love singing “Amazing Grace” and will surely sing it with gusto at funerals but ask them to articulate the doctrine behind it and their music-making will turn to mumbling. Forgiveness, Christians say, comes to us solafide, by faith alone.We receive God’s forgiveness not by anything we do but by (not so) simply trusting God’s declaration that everything has already been done. We’re justified as a gift from God, Paul preaches.

God’s non-accusation of us is actual. 

It’s not something we achieve. It’s already been accomplished by Jesus. We only apprehend it by faith. 

Alone. 

What the Church has called the Great Exchange, Elijah, Luther compared to the exchanging of rings at a royal wedding where by her “I do” all that belongs to the bride becomes the groom’s possession, fully and irrevocably, and by the groom’s unconditional “I do” all that is his becomes the bride’s. The bible refers to the Body of believers as Christ’s bride; therefore, as Paul puts it, our sin becomes Christ’s irrevocable possession and his righteousness becomes our irremovable wedding garment. Jesus is the fattest groom ever having ingested all our iniquity and imperfection. There is nothing you need to do for this to be true of you. 

Like your Dad at a wedding, it’s simply pronounced, declared true of us, and not one of us nor any of our sins can tear it asunder. 

Nor can any of our our right-doing improve upon it. 

And very often our right-doing can tempt us to forget our perpetual need for it.

Despite all the evidence otherwise available to your eyes, Elijah, you are not only forgiven, you are perfect in God’s eyes because your imperfect record has been reckoned onto Christ— your rap sheet, however long or short it is by the time you read this, is forever his and his perfect record has been credited as yours. There is nothing for you to do to improve your relationship with God. 

Your trust is all you have to offer. Now, at first, this sounds like a crazy lopsided deal, right? Christ gets all the bad shit we’ve pulled and all the shit we ever will pull; meanwhile, we get all the good he accrued. And all we’ve got to do is trust that it is so?! 

It’s not called good news for nothing, Elijah. But the rub about “news” is that news necessarily comes from outside of you. News is a report of what another has done that impacts your life without you having done a thing. News might effect you but it isn’t about you, and if you’re not the content of the news then neither are you in control of it. As much as the ticker tape headlines that scroll across the CNN screen, this news of your forgiveness that’s received by nude faith— it can leave you feeling vulnerable. 

It’s no wonder Christians are never satisfied with the answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” There is now no condemnation, the Apostle Paul promises. Nevertheless, to trust that promise alone is an enormous risk because it requires you to take the giver of that promise at their word. If there is any possibility of condemnation whatsoever, then nude faith, trust alone, is an outrageous, irresponsible gamble. 

Frankly, little man, it’s not until you’ve had this sort of free forgiveness practiced on you by another in your life that you realize how the forgiveness offered by God leaves you naked and utterly empty-handed.

To receive forgiveness by trust alone is to shove all your chips to the center of the table, go all in, betting not just the house but your eternal home, wagering that the one offering you free forgiveness is trustworthy. 

To do nothing but trust another who tells you your ledger is in the black is to trust that tomorrow or the next day or the day after next Wednesday, depending on what you do or what you leave undone, they’re not going to waylay you with a red ALL CAPS past due notice. Like Lady Justice wearing her blindfold, to receive free forgiveness by trust alone requires you to shut your eyes to the gauge on the scales and believe that the forgiving one will be faithful to their word. 

Free forgiveness can cut us down to a size we spend our whole lives posturing against. To be in the right with another you’ve got to do right by them- seek restitution, make reparations, repair the damage you did— that makes sense to us. It’s how we’ve arranged the world. It actually gives us more control than does the free offer of forgiveness. To be in the right with another is to do right by them might put you on somebody’s shit list but it at least leaves you in the driver’s seat for what will follow. Whereas to be in the right with another is to be declared right by them takes away everything from you and leaves you empty-handed. 

Faith alone in your promise of forgiveness is a total and complete disavowal of your own performance to merit it. 

If I have to earn your forgiveness, for example, then at least I’ll accrue evidence external to either of us to which I can point and justify myself later that I did all I could or which I can use as leverage against you should you withhold forgiveness. Look at all that I did to make it up to you and still it wasn’t enough, I’ve griped to more than just my wife. If forgiveness is free though then, like on my wedding day, I’ve got absolutely nothing to hold onto but you. I’ve got nothing to hold on to but my trust in you. To trust that you forgive me is to have faith you won’t use my debt later to burn me. 

Forgiveness isn’t cheap. 

It’s free. 

Yet, the bitter irony is this free forgiveness could cost you everything. 

Your Dad preaches about holiness often so I’ll end there. 

We are made holy, Elijah, we become more nearly the creatures God originally intended, not by ascending up to God in glory by way of our spiritual progress or pious practices or right-making doings. We do not grow closer to God or grow more like God through improvement. The language of spiritual progress implies a gradual lessening of our need for grace the nearer and nearer we journey to God. 

Yet the God who condescends to us in the flesh of Christ is not ever a God waiting for us to make our way up to him. The God who came down to meet us in crèche and cross continues to forsake his lofty throne and comes down still, hiding behind ordinary, unimpressive words like “I forgive you.” 

The words which justify us are the very means that sanctify us. 

God does not change us by means of our religion. 

God changes us- makes us holy- through these particular words.

We never advance beyond being sinners who are declared by God to be forgiven, gratuitously so. Holiness is our getting adjusted to our justification. By returning daily in myriad ways to this news of our abiding sinfulness and God’s free forgiveness, we become holy. 

Or Paul puts it in a different letter, the holiness we already possess in Christ’s gift of perfect righteousness— it’s unveiled to us one degree at a time as we trust those words: you are forgiven. All is forgiven.

Your Aunt is an artist so she probably knows how Michelangelo famously said of his David statue: I just chipped away all the stone that wasn’t David. 

Likewise, God is the Artificer who, by his justifying word that convicts and forgives, blasts away all the bits of you that do not conform to the blueprints. 

For my money, though, Ali and I think you’re perfect.

Love,

Your Godfather

Mortalism Not Moralism

Jason Micheli —  September 2, 2018 — Leave a comment

I closed out our summer series through Ephesians by preaching on Paul’s epilogue in the epistle, 6.10-20.

Dear Aaron, Ryan, and Maddie,

There have been a lot of funerals in the news this week. In all the coverage of the funerals of the Maverick McCain and the Queen of Soul, I don’t want the news of your deaths to get missed. You heard that right. Mark this day down, kids. Sunday, September 2, 2018. 

This is the day you died. 

Hold up, kids. 

You’re probably thinking that writing and reading a letter is an odd way to deliver a sermon. Well, back in the day, believe it or not, this white boy was the teaching assistant for the professor of black preaching at Princeton, Dr. Cleophus Larue. 

And one of Dr. Larue’s maxims was that in biblical preaching the form of the scripture text should determine the form of the sermon. So, if the text is a poem, the sermon should be poetic. If the passage is prophetic then the sermon could be prophetic, and if the scripture was a letter then the sermon could be epistolary. 

Today’s passage is a bit of a letter, about baptism. 

So I’ve written you a letter about your own baptisms.

Aaron, you’re the only one your parents burdened with a biblical name so I’m going to pick on you a bit here.

The story that is your namesake, Aaron, isn’t nearly as sweet as the song we sang at your baptism, “God Claims You.” The story that is your namesake, Aaron— the story of the Exodus and the Red Sea— is either grim news or good news depending on your perspective. The God of the Exodus, the God who conscripts Aaron into his service, is a God who delivers and drowns. God, Aaron learns along with his brother and sister on the shore of the Red Sea, is a God whose deliverance comes by drowning.

God works likewise with us, kids. Deliverance by drowning. Killing to make alive.

Which is to say, I’m not the one who baptized you, kids. Nor is the Church who baptized you. God baptized you, kids.

God baptized you. 

That’s why it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember it years from now when you feel as though you had no say in the matter. Your cooperation with it matters not at all because God was the one who baptized you.

You kids at your baptism were no different than the rest of us grown-ups in that the only thing you contribute God’s salvation of you is your sin. And your resistance.

God baptized you today. The Church was just the beach from which we stood and watched as bystanders, like the original Aaron and his siblings, and then dragged you ashore after the drowning deliverance was all over.

Actually, Aaron, your name is perfect for a baptism, for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns.”

Maddie, Ryan- take your brother’s name as your clue, for the life of the baptized Christian is not about growing towards glory. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation.

With water, today, God delivered you by drowning you.  

And with the promises we make to you, we commit you to a life that is nothing less than daily, often painful, unending death.

When your parents were married, the pastor likely began the ceremony by telling both Joe and Caroline to remember their baptisms. Marriage, the wedding liturgy implies, flows from your baptism, which makes death and drowning a sort of synonym for the married life. Trust me, when you’re married yourselves one day, kids, that won’t strike you as odd as it does today.

What we do to you with water, kids, St. Paul says, it is itself a betrothal.

In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Jesus Christ himself. Just as Reverend Peter prayed over the water, in baptism you are now clothed with Christ.

In the New Testament, the language of clothing is always the language of baptism. 

At the end of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of God; that is, to clothe ourselves in faith and truth and righteousness. To a mostly Gentile audience, St. Paul is simply alluding here to the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who promised that the Messiah would come forth from the root of Jesse. 

This Christ, Isaiah prophesied, would kill with the truth of his word. 

This Christ, Isaiah foreshadowed: would be girded with righteousness and faith. 

And remember, kids, though “put on the armor of God” sounds like something we do (have more faith, speak more truthfully, live a more righteous life, put on that armor) every Roman citizen among Paul’s listeners would known what we so often miss about this passage. 

A Roman soldier’s armor was not something the solider could put on by himself.

It was too heavy. The armor had to be put on you by another. The helmet laid on your head by another. The belt cinched tight behind you by another. 

The armor of God isn’t about something you do. 

The armor of God is about something done to you.

The armor of God (faith, truth, righteousness) is none other than Jesus Christ. To put on the armor of God is to clothe yourself with Christ. To put on the armor of God is to be baptized. To be baptized is to have God outfit you with Christ’s faith and righteousness.

You are dressed, in other words, kids, in Christ’s perfect score. That’s what that word ‘righteous’ means. You have been clothed in Christ’s perfect score. His faith has reckoned to you as your own faith.

Permanently. 

You got that? 

Permanently.

No amount of prodigal living can undo it. 

You might keep your mom and dad awake at night in high school, Ryan, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God has done to you with water and his word.

Maddie, you are now clothed with the armor that is Christ himself, and, as such, you will always forever be regarded by God as though you were Christ. 

Pay attention kids-

By your baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).

That might not sound like a big deal to you now, kids. Wait until you’ve lived some and have sinned alot (against the people you love the most) and you’ll find out it’s exactly what the Church has always called it. It’s good news.

Because of your baptism, kids, you have an answer for anyone who ever asks you that terrible question: “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” You can just tell them you’ve been baptized; therefore, you’ve already died the only death that matters. 

You see, kids, Christianity isn’t about moralism (though that’s the impression you’ll get a lot of time in a lot of churches).

Christianity isn’t about moralism.

Christianity is about mortalism. 

By dying with Christ in baptism, you never have to worry about how much faith or how little faith you have because by water you permanently possess the only faith God will ever count. 

You have Christ. 

Christ’s faith. 

You’ve been clothed with it. 

Despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, kids, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered, self-serious pious types, religious folks who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.

Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.

“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Aaron (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and just and obedient. If you ever take a pyschology class in college you’ll learn the ‘freedom to be obedient’ that’s called cognitive dissonance.

You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon the character of your life henceforth.

Aaron, Ryan, Maddie- 

Laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.

The Gospel of total, unconditional, irrevocable freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is. 

We like to quote Jesus’ brother, James, and say that “faith without works is dead” but seldom do we stop to notice that just before that verse James also reminds us that if we have failed in any one part of the Law we are held accountable for all of it (and thus, before the Law, we stand condemned, dead in our sins). Under those conditions, faith with works required doesn’t sound like such good news, does it?

Christ is the end of the Law. Only that grace, given to us by baptism, makes our works anything other than futile. 

Hell yes, the wages of sin is death. But today, Sunday, September 2, 2018 in a grave of shallow water, you died. Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No condemnation.

And thus, no conditions. 

Think of it this way, kids: all your sins from here on out are FREE.

All your sins are free. 

There is no cost to any of your sins (other than what they cost your neighbor).

You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. You can persist in your prejudice. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.

No matter how you regard your life, it has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him. 

Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.

“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear the offense as Jesus intended it: 

God will bless you even if you’re bad.

The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our angry hearts and wounded, anxious imaginations

I thought it important to write to you, kids, because Pat Vaughn keeps saying I’m not going to last long here, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.

They’re easy to identify, kids. 

Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot.

They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind (on the right) or the social justice kind (on the left), making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to do better, to be a better you or to build a better world.

Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water or wine or bread.

Someone named Aaron should know better.

St. Paul says in Ephesians 5 that the Devil gets at us primarily through deceit. Piggy backing on Paul, Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to deceive us that this sin we’ve committed- or are committing- that sin out in the world that we’re just too busy to combat- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.

If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.

In the face of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.

Remember-

You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore now or ever any condemnation for you. All your sins are free.

Aaron, Ryan, Maddie-

To those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.

Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.

As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.

For one thing, scripture itself testifies that the Law is powerless to produce what it commands (Romans 7); in fact, all the oughts of the Law only elicit the opposite of their intent. Exhorting another to be more compassionate, for example, will only make them less compassionate. 

I guarrantee you, kids, your parents know this to be true. 

Telling kids what to do is a good way to make kids not want to do it.

The mistake we grown-ups make in Church is in thinking we’re any different than children when it comes to what the Law tells us to do. 

The oughts of the Law only elicit the opposite of their intent. Only grace- only free, unconditional, for always, grace can create what the Law the compels. The hilarity of the Gospel, kids, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. That’s why the Church can never afford to assume the Gospel and preach the Law instead. That’s why the Church gathers every week to hear the Gospel over and over again- because the news that all your sins are free is the only thing powerful enough to set you free from sinning. 

Skeptical? 

Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.

Still not buying it?

Your dad is a chef and your mom a musician. Both of them work with scales and measures, kids, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do? 

Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.

What’s more likely is that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others. You’d stop seeing sin everywhere you looked. You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them. You’d stop pretending, and you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you. 

You’d take off the masks you think you need to wear. 

I mean, you’re already wearing armor. Adding anything else onto you just sounds…heavy, a burden. 

Such a scenario, kids, 1K free sins- it isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into.

All your sins are free.

Don’t get me wrong, kids.

It’s not that the good works you do for the poor and oppressed don’t matter.

Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word.

And even the poor and oppressed need this work of Christ gifted to them by water and the Word more than they need the good works of a Mother Theresa.

Look kids, brass tacks time:

Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church. If it’s just about the Golden Rule go join the Rotary Club, it’ll cost you less.

Christianity isn’t about nice people doing the nice things they were already going to do apart from God. Someone this week asked me why I keep repeating that message in sermon after sermon, and I replied: “I’ll stop preaching it just as soon as you actually start believing it.”

Your Mom is in the Navy, she knows: the world is a wicked and hard place.

And, in it, you will fail as many times as not.

You need only read the story that is your namesake, Aaron, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. 

It doesn’t make you nice and clean.

It makes you new.

After first making you dead.

As you grow up, Aaron, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name, the Exodus story. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really drown all those people in the Red Sea long ago?”

And you, Aaron, and your brother and sister, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly: “God kills with water all the time.”

 

    For our Saturday Service, I wrote a letter to Noah on the occasion of his baptism. The texts were 1 Corinthians 15 & Romans 6

Dear Noah,

Mark this day down- May 5, 2018.

This is the day you died.

The story that is your namesake, Noah, should’ve been my clue. The first Noah’s story isn’t all rainbows and two-by-two teddy bears. By so naming you, I should’ve known that one day, before you were old enough to protest or have any say in the matter for yourself, your doting parents would prove to be happy and willing accomplices to your death.

Your grandpa is obsessed with his Go-Pro so just check the pictures, Noah. Your parents stood right next to me, wearing grins, and acquiesced as we drowned you in water.

We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Noah. We baptized you.

By ‘we,’ I mean the Church. No, that doesn’t get it right either.

God baptized you, Noah.

 God baptized you.

That’s why it doesn’t matter you were still in diapers, still smelled like a baby, and couldn’t yet muster a single yay or nay for or against Jesus.

Your cooperation mattered not at all because God was the one who baptized you.

You in your bonnet and sucking on your fingers were no different than the rest of us grown ups in that the only thing we contribute God’s salvation of you is our sin.

And our resistance.

God baptized you Noah. The Church was just his ark from which we watched as bystanders and then dragged you on board after it was all over. Actually, Noah, your name is perfect for a baptism- it’s perfect for a Christian- for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns (Willimon).”

Take your name as a clue, Noah, the life of the baptized Christian is not about turning over ever more new leaves in your life. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. What we’ve committed you to with water, by killing you and making you alive, is nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death.

Who knew your parents, the shy and awkward high school kids I met my first day here at Aldersgate, would one day make me an accomplice to something so macabre. That was so long ago, Noah, my wife still let me get away with wearing cargo shorts, and back then it was still funny to make fun of Dennis Perry’s age.

Back then, I often crossed lines and offended people. For instance, shortly after I arrived at Aldersgate the youth director asked me to come to your future parents’ youth group to talk about a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.

Asking your pastor to come talk to teenagers about sex is about as enticing as inviting your plumber to a nude photo shoot so, wanting to puncture the awkwardness which overwhelmed the room, I resorted to a bit of wisdom from Woody Allen and I told them: “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.” You can ask your grandma to explain that to you sometime, Noah.

I like to think that wasn’t the only lesson on love and marriage your Mom and Dad gleaned from me and my beloved. When they college students, your parents traveled with Ali and me to Taize, a monastery in the French countryside. During the day we prayed and we played, and at night we camped out on the monastery grounds in tents.

Your Dad hid in one of those tents one night, specifically our tent, and scared the piss out of Ali. And from their (separate) tents your future Mom and Dad heard my wife in our tent foreshadow the married life with nuggets of advice such as: “Get that thing off of me (ie, my book)” and “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger; stay up and fight.”

Not long after, Noah, I married your Mom and Dad, which makes your baptism a fitting bookend to my time at Aldersgate. They were the first two people I met at Aldersgate. I celebrated their wedding, and now what we do to you with water, St. Paul says, is itself a betrothal. When you’re married one day, Noah, you’ll not think it odd that the two chief metaphors for baptism are death and marriage.

Ironically, the scripture passage from which I preached at your parents’ wedding was itself about baptism. In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

    You are dressed, in other words, Noah, in Christ’s perfect score.

     Permanently.

Permanently. No amount of prodigal living can undo it. You might keep your grandmothers awake at night in high school, Noah, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God does here with water and his word. You are now clothed with Christ, and, as such, will always forever be regarded by God as Christ. The Son’s righteousness, not your own goodness, has betrothed you forever to the Father.

This is why St. Paul in his grand argument on the resurrection is so adamant about the absolute necessity of Christ’s empty grave otherwise, Paul insists, our faith is futile and our hope is pitiful.

Pay attention Noah-

 If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness.

His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin.

And by your baptism, Noah, the Bible promises that you are in Christ.

You’ve not only been crucified with him in his death for sins- all sins, all sins, once and for all- you’ve been raised with him too. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).

What God does to you with water, killing and making alive, the Church has called it the great exchange, and it is great, good news. But despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, Noah, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered pious types who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.

Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.

“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Noah (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and obedient. If that strikes you as cognitive dissonance then your mother, a school psychologist, must’ve taught you a thing or two.

You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon you feeling sorry for your sins and, even then, as my mother used to say, saying sorry doesn’t cut it, they’ll say. No.

Noah, laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.

The Gospel of total, unconditional freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is. 

Christ died for all your sins. All of his perfect record has been reckoned as your own- all of it is yours.

Hell yes, the wages of sin is death.

But today, May 5, 2018 in shallow water, you died.

Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No condemnation.

     Think of it this way, Noah:

All your sins from here on out are FREE.

All your sins are free. There is no cost to any of your sins other than what they cost your neighbor. You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.

Such a life has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him. Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.

“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear it as Jesus intended for the baptized to hear it: God will bless you even if you’re bad.

    The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our anxious hearts and fearful imaginations

I thought it important to write to you, Noah, because soon I’ll be gone, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.

They’re easy to identify, Noah. Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot. They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind or the social justice kind, making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to be a better you and build a better world.

Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water. Someone named Noah should know better.

Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to convince us that this or that sin we’ve committed- or are committing- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.

If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.

In the face, of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.

Remember-

You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore no condemnation for you. All your sins are free.

Noah, to those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.

Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.

As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.

Speaking just from my own experience, most of the damage I do to myself and to others isn’t because I’m convinced God doesn’t condemn me for my sins but because I fear- despite my faith, I still fear God will condemn me for my sins.

And so I do damage, making others the object of my anxious attempts to make myself look better and be better than I am, in other words, to justify myself. I think this explains why the people against whom we sin the most are the people we most love. They’re the ones we most want to impress so they become the ones against whom we most sin.

The hilarity of the Gospel, Noah, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. Skeptical? Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.

That Jesus was without sin was the consequence not of his goodness and perfection but of Jesus’ perfect trust in the goodness of his Father.

Still not buying it?

Your Dad is an engineer, Noah, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do? Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.

Your Mom the psychologist, though, would tell you it’s more likely that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others.

You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them.

You’d stop pretending.

And you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you.

Such a scenario, Noah, isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into. All your sins are free. Don’t get me wrong, Noah.

It’s not that the good works you do for God and for you neighbor don’t matter. Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word. 

Look kid, brass tacks time:

Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (and I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church.

The world is a wicked and hard place.

And, in it, sorry to disappoint, you will fail as many times as not.

 You need only read the story that is your namesake, Noah, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. It doesn’t make you nice and clean. It makes you new. After first making you dead.

As you grow up, Noah, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really kill all those people in the flood long ago?”

And you, Noah, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly:

“God kills with water all the time.”

Sincerely,

Jason

A Hole in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2018 — 3 Comments

Here’s my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent where I was the guest preacher at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, Va. The lectionary text is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John but I chose to lean on Matthew’s fuller version of it.

Even though Blades of Glory is one of my favorite movies, I’ve steered clear of the Winter Olympics ever since my second year at UVA when, during a Halloween party, I was mistaken not once, not twice, but four times for Brian Boitano.

On the prowl for girls, I didn’t think I could afford for girls to confuse my costume for that of a gay figure skater. I had thought my purple crushed velvet tights and loose, flowing shirt- the sort worn by Meatloaf in the Bat Out of Hell video- gave me away as a dead-ringer for Hamlet, which, it occurs to me now, is just as gay.

But no, I got Brian Boitano. I didn’t have a sword.

And South Park had just gone viral the year before with an episode of the animated Olympian refereeing mortal combat between Jesus and Santa Claus.

What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?

Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.

But this Winter Olympics a headline in the Washington Post grabbed me:

“She killed 115 people before the last Korean Olympics. Now she wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The Post article tells the story of Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korean spy, who, 30 years ago, boarded South Korean Flight 858 and got off in Baghdad during a layover, having left a bomb, disguised as a Panasonic radio, in the overhead bin.

All 115 passengers and crew were killed when the plane exploded over the Andaman Sea.

Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.

Recruited by the Party as a student, she received physical and ideological training for 10 years before she was given orders to disrupt the Winter Olympics in South Korea by blowing up a plane full of energy workers on their way home to Seoul to visit their husbands and their wives and their children.

The cyanide cigarette she bit into when she was caught didn’t work, and she woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with machine guns pointed at her.

Kim Hyon- hui attempted suicide again during her interrogation, and a year later a South Korean judge sentenced her to die.

But she didn’t die.

Today she’s a 56 year old mother of 2 teenage girls. She’s married to the agent who first apprehended her, but she’s never escaped the guilt and the shame of her trespass.

She escaped execution and, as she puts it, “escaped the wrath of the South Korean people when she offered them her repentance” but she still wonders if she’ll escape the wrath of God.

Kim Hyon-hui lives an ordinary life cooking and cleaning, raising her kids and going to church. She was pardoned by the South Korean president for her crimes, yet she remains haunted by the question: “Can my sins be pardoned?”

     “They probably won’t be,” she confessed to the reporter, “My sins probably won’t be forgiven. By God.”

The headline is what grabbed me. It could’ve been a different story, still with a similar headline. The headline could’ve read:

“He killed 17 people at Douglas High School. Now he wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The headline could’ve read:

“They watched apathetic as 122 children got shot since Columbine (home of South Park) and they did nothing. Now they wonder: ‘Can our sins be pardoned?’”

     The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:

“Through hole in heaven, Father declares love with a dove. Wild-eyed prophet asks: ‘Can I baptize you?’”

‘Can I baptize you?’

The answer to all our questions about pardon come by noticing John the Baptist’s question: “‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’

All 4 Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire- a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them.

All 4 Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism; in fact, the only 2 events mentioned across all 4 Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross- they’re connected. Mark doesn’t have an Easter encounter. John doesn’t have a Christmas story. But all of the Gospels have got a baptism story. Mark leaves out what Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions.

     ‘Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?’ 

John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. John’s initial objection to baptizing Christ is important because it reminds us to distinguish between Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. John’s baptism was a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy.

John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness). The water was a visible sign of your admission of guilt. But the water did not wash away your guilt.

John’s baptism did not make you righteous. John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. But it could not make you righteous.

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism. It’s not because Jesus needed to repent. Jesus is without sin, as such, he’s got no reason to be baptized. No, Jesus insists on baptism not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do.

     John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God.

“It is necessary,” Jesus tells John, “[not for me or my repentance] to fulfill all righteousness.” 

In other words, the winnowing fork judgement that John the Baptist had preached, Christ takes on in his baptism. The winnowing is in the water. With his baptism, Christ isn’t acknowledging his unrighteousness. He’s entering into ours. He’s not repenting. He’s repenting us.

     By plunging himself into John’s baptism-

Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.

As Martin Luther said, at Christmas, he becomes our flesh but, at his baptism, he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with thieves beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with thieves all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.

Right before God.

Justified.

As the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” And as Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

Either headline could work as an alternative for what God declares with a dove through a hole in heaven.

     “Can my sins be pardoned? Probably not.” Kim Hyon-hui told the Post.

Probably not? Probably not!?

Look, I get the offense, I really do, but obviously that’s her shame talking because she’s not speaking Christian.

You only get an answer like ‘Probably not’ when you don’t understand the distinction between Jesus’ baptism by John and your own baptism by Jesus into him.

John’s baptism was a work we do- we’re the active agents in John’s baptism.

John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon.

Our baptism is a work God does.

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon.

     It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us.

Once.

For all.

For everything.

Our baptism is not an act of repentance. Our baptism incorporates us into the act by which God repented us into righteousness.

“Probably not?”

It’s John’s kind of baptism that produces “probably not” because John’s baptism is just a token of your contrition. It’s not a visible pledge of your pardon. John’s baptism leaves you in your sin, hoping that God will forgive you.

But your baptism is not John’s baptism.

By your baptism you are not in your sin- though a sinner you are- because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.

Probably not– NO.

That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism.

In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness.

In your baptism, you enter into Christ.

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says.

Your sin and your old self- it’s left behind, Paul says.

Buried with him in his death.

And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.

And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.

His perfect record.

His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.

There is no place on that record for our “Probably nots.” Because if you have been baptized into this baptism, then you are in Christ. And if you are in Christ, then there is now no condemnation.

No matter who it is who is in Christ, there is for them no condemnation.

No matter what you’ve done it cannot dilute what God has done.

In Christ.

And it cannot dilute what God has done to you by drowning you into him.

The answer to Kim’s question about her sins being pardoned- it requires another question: ‘Have you been baptized?’

Because if so, whether as a baby or a born-again, your sins have already been pardoned. Because by your baptism you are in Jesus Christ, who is himself the pardon of God. At his baptism, a hole in heaven declared him to be loved. And by your baptism into the holes of his hands and his side, heaven is opened to you- you, though you belong to a brood of vipers, are beloved.

     “Can his sins be pardoned?”

     Surely not. 

One of my friends, a member of my church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

He was on a group text thread with his runners as they fled.

And bled.

He messaged me that night to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery and asked me to add them to the prayer list.

“Pray for Maddie. She has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.

I’m not in denial or shock. I’m not depressed. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did.

If this is blasphemy so be it:

Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

     Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.

     What we do with water is not sentimental.

     It’s outrage-ous.

Our reconciliation by grace through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection- it can’t be reconciled with any of our notions of right. What we mean by what we do with water- it’s not sentimental nonsense (though it may be nonsense). A message that makes sense, message that squares with the headlines, would be:

Your sins are forgiven if

Your sins are forgiven provided that…

Your sins are forgiven as long as…

You repent. You make amends. You pay back what you’ve taken.

But the promise of the Gospel that comes attached to water and wine and bread is that because you have been baptized in to Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, your sins are forgiven.

The grammar of grace is Because/Therefore not If/Then.

It makes no sense, but if you add anything to the forgiveness of sins, a single qualifier or condition, you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens.

Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-

It isn’t expensive. It is even cheap. It’s free.

     And grace begins exactly where we we think it should end.

———————-

Can his sins be pardoned? 

Has he been baptized?

———————-

     You can object. It is offensive. It is outrage-ous. After this week it sticks in my mouth too. I’m right there with you. If God’s grace for sinners offends you, if his pardon seems awful instead of amazing, I’m right there with you. It’s just, we should notice where we are in our indignation:

We’re standing outside the party our Father’s decided to throw for our rotten, wretch of a brother.

It’s offensive, I know. And not to take the edge off of it, but I wonder if maybe the offense is also the antidote.

In a different interview, Kim Hyon-hui reflects on how overwhelmed she felt by the gratuitous (her word) pardon she received from the people of South Korea:

“As a spy in North Korea, I was brainwashed. I was a robot. The only thing that might have been powerful enough to prevent me from committing my trespass would have been to know the possibility of such a pardon.”

Maybe the possibility of a pardon so gratuitous it offends- maybe that’s the only antidote powerful enough to stop us in our trespasses.

 

 

 

 

Here’s the second part to our conversation with Dr. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez.

Back in the day, Ruben taught me Barth for the first time. Now, we’re both black sheep, closet Reformation guys in Catholic and Wesleyan folds respectively. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez is professor of theology at St. Louis University and is the author of the powerful new book Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence.
In this installment, Ruben talks particularly about racism in both the academy and in the student body.

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Letter to My Godson

Jason Micheli —  October 18, 2017 — 1 Comment

10/23

Happy Birthday Elijah!

Don’t let your mother read this letter or she’ll surely have some of her salty language for me. Even at whatever age you’re reading this letter, your grandmother will not appreciate you hearing such language. How she’s tolerated me for so long is a mystery.  I meant your grandmother but that probably goes for your mother at this point too.

Obviously, Elijah, my memory isn’t as bad as your father suspects. I know October 23 is not the day your mother gave birth to you.

It’s the day you died.

Which is to say, as I said already: Happy Birthday!

Chances are, your mother would like me writing about your death even less than she’d appreciate me getting your birthday wrong; nonetheless, if I’ve done my job as your Godfather, then hopefully you know by now that ‘the day you were born’ and the ‘the day you died’ are redundant, simultaneous phrases.

As paranoid as your parents are about your safety, you should’ve seen what happy and willing accomplices they made on the day you died. They stood right next to me, wearing shit-eating grins (apologize to your grandmother for me), and acquiesced as we drowned you in water. We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Elijah.

We baptized you.  By ‘we,’ I mean the Church.

Baptism, I’m sure your Dad has taught you, is what the Church calls a ‘sacrament.’ The Church likes fancy $10 words to justify the pay and pensions of people like your Dad and me.  A sacrament, to put it plain, is a sign accompanied by a promise. The sign on the Table, that other sacrament, is the bread and the wine. The sign in the bowl-shaped-grave is the water.

Signs: you can see them, taste them, touch them; they’re the tangible, seeing-is-believing proof one of Jesus’ dunderheaded disciples demanded.

While the words we pray at the Table sound different, the promise attached to both signs sounds the same when you make it simple: they’re for you.

It’s a promise, in other words, with your name attached: it’s for you, Elijah. Christ and all his benefits.

God takes his ginormous Gospel promise of grace in Jesus Christ and he sticks it on a creature called bread or water or wine, and he signs your name on it.

They’re for you, Elijah. Christ and his benefits.

“Just who the Hell are you to be bestowing Jesus Christ and his benefits?!” you’d be correct in thinking to yourself right about now, for in truth, the parlance of piety aside, I did not baptize you. Your Dad didn’t baptize you either though he had wanted to do so. I talked him out it. Precisely because you’d grow up to love him so much and look up to him, I feared that the fact your Dad had baptized you would obscure who really baptized you.

God baptized you, Elijah.

God did. I was every bit the bystander as your blood family.

Despite the junk you see on Cable TV Christianity, these sacraments are not ways you seek out a spiritual connection to God. They’re certainly not symbols by which you signify having found a connection to God.

The true God, the God of Jesus Christ, isn’t a God who can be found.

If I’ve done my job as Godfather then you already know how fraught is the passive voice of that preceding sentence. God isn’t a God who can be found by us.

If we’re the subject of the sentence, Elijah, then you know the clause that comes next can never lead to an accursed cross and a crucified God.

We don’t find God. God finds us.

The former St. Paul calls the Law.

The latter is the Gospel your Dad was ordained to proclaim.

We’re found by God, Elijah. In the sacraments. 

The sacraments, like your baptism Elijah, are more than signs affixed to promises. They’re events in which God breaks through to us.

Your Aunts will tell you how I’m prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, but I couldn’t be more serious on this point, Nugget. If your slice of eternity resembles at all the collective calendar that has come before you, then you will have already and you will henceforth experience plenty of people- maybe yourself included- wondering where God is in this broken world. And, I’m willing to bet, the latitude-longitude point that most bedevils them is the one that intersects through their own broken heart.

Notice, Elijah, the questions we ask about God and the accusations we make at God, shaking our fist at the sky, all assume that God is there, up in the sky. Even if we only think figuratively that God is up on the clouds we nevertheless believe God, literally, is not here.

The true God isn’t sought.

The true God seeks.

And God does so in and through these sacraments.

God does not want to be known as far off in the heaven, the subject of our speculations. God does not want to be known in general, the object of our manipulations. No matter what the religious marketplace tries to hawk you, the life of faith is not a journey of becoming a better you, ever upwards to God- have you been to the gym?! Only a sadist enjoys the stair-master.

No, the God who puts on skin to get too close for comfort in Christ is a God who never stops condescending. He comes to us. He meets us in the watery grave and the broken bread. He’s really there, killing the old you and making you new again. He’s really there, filling your belly, him inside you so that you’re forever in him.

Wherever in your life this letter finds you, Elijah, if you haven’t already experienced brokenness and death then you will so soon. I hope to God the Church will have taught you to look for the aforementioned in the muck of your life and not to blame him for it.

God makes himself known in the broken bread and in the morbid water in part so that we’ll know he’s not to blame. But rather, he’s at work, most especially, in the shame and muck of our lives, in the fist-shaking brokenness of the world.

This is why it’s so dangerous to sentimentalize a baby’s baptism, particularly, and the Christian religion, broadly.

The very pain, shame, and ugliness of life we’re tempted to gloss over with kitsch and sentimentality is, in fact, the crucible where the true God is to be found.

I mean, it’s the crucible in which the true God finds us.

He’s really here, in bread and water and wine. He’s not far off. I hope to God the Church has taught you so. 

Of course as Samuel L. Jackson says in the Long Kiss Goodnight, when you make an assumption you risk making “an ass out of you and umption.” I don’t know who Umption is, Elijah, but I want you to be clear. If there’s anyone who might not appreciate the definition of the Church it’s the son whose father is an employee of its moribund, institutionalized form.

Robert Jenson, a giant who died just before the anniversary of your death-in-Christ day, wrote

“The church is the gathering of the tellers and the hearers of the gospel word of promise.”

Jens also said what the Church is not:

“The message of the Church is a specific word.

If the Church does not get this word said, all other words it might say are better said by someone else.”

Again, as a preacher’s son you’ll likely know better than most how Jens was dead-on.

The Church is the People who tell and hear the promise of God affixed to those signs we call sacraments. If we’re God’s People then Jenson’s is a good definition for the Church. Scripture says that “all will know God is the true God when his last promise is fulfilled.”

i.e., what reveals God as God are the promises God keeps; ergo, God’s People, the Church, are tellers and hearers of the promise.

If you’re near marrying age, Godson, then you may already perceive how the beauty of a promise is that it offers the future as a gift. I promise to be yours in sickness and in health. A promise makes the future not an obligation (think: student debt, if you have any…you no doubt do). A promise makes the future not an object of dread ( think: sickness and health).

A promise binds the future to a prior condition, to a past (think: future love to past and present failure); as such, a promise makes the past depend upon the future rather than vice versa (think: the way of the world).

A promise grants a future free of the past, for if you’re accepted regardless of your past, you’re free to recast and reevaluate your past. If you’re loved forever into the future, then your past isn’t quite as shameful or tragic as you once feared.

You were baptized with people of the promise as happy bystanders. We’re all accomplices to the blood on the bowl. We made the promise that your future is not nor will it ever be determined by your past. God’s grace, as the song goes (do you sing it?) is amazing and unconditional.

Except-

All our promises in life, in our religious and secular lives alike, are conditioned by 1 hidden ‘umption.’

We all die.

Death comes to us all.

I’ll love you through sickness and health, for richer and poor, but I will die. 

Every promise in this life, no matter how unconditional we try to make it, is conditioned by Death. Until we are parted by death I made your parents say when they made their vows to one another.

The only promise that is unconditional is the promise where Death is behind it.

Love, forgiveness, friendship…they can only be unconditional promises where Death, and the fear of it, is swallowed up in the past.

But you’ve died Elijah! The only Death that matters is behind you. Take it from someone who thought he was going to do and just well may even still: that’s good news.

We’ve killed you. Happy Birthday! The only Death that matters is behind you now and forever. Freed from the fear of Death you can learn to love, forgive, and befriend. No matter what the world tells you, death doesn’t come at the end of life. For the baptized, life follows death and so it can be a life lived without dread.

Lately, Elijah, you’ve learned the word ‘cookie’ and have been saying it with equal parts glee and insistence. You’ve learned how the word itself can effect what the word promises; saying the word ‘cookie’ with your lips can produce a cookie in your hand.

In the same way the promises we make do something to others (e.g., reevaluate the past), the promise of God does not just declares. The promise of your baptism doesn’t just declare through sign that you, Elijah, have died and risen in and with Christ and so forever belong to God, come what may. The promise of baptism is the means by which God creates faith in us to trust that promise for each of us every time we see someone like you drowned in the bowl-shaped-grave.

That’s why, Elijah, we didn’t wait until you were out of diapers and could ‘choose’ for yourself (whatever that may mean).

Faith isn’t a precondition for baptism.

God isn’t content to wait around, fingers crossed, hoping we’ll ‘make a decision’ for him. God doesn’t wait for us. God comes at us in the sacrament, killing and making new and giving faith. Maybe you’ll hear in that how fraught is our language about ‘having faith’ as though faith is our possession having first been our achievement.

Faith isn’t so much something we have, implying we’re the doers. Faith is received. It’s a gift.

It’s grace; that is, it’s a gift we do not deserve that God gives to us without price or merit.

If faith is grace, if it’s chiefly God’s work, then I’m in no position as your Godfather to give you faith. What I can do, what I hope I’ve helped do by the time you read this, even if but a little, is teach you to receive faith.

We’ve held hands, you and I, but maybe my role as your Godfather is to teach you to hold out your hands, open for the gift only God can give.

Love,

Jason

 

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Cue the candidate’s response: “I do.”

Recently I presented on the Lordship of Christ at a retreat for ordinands. A friend presented on the sacraments. When she got to discussing the rite for baptism she mentioned how this second vow from the United Methodist liturgy about our freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression meant a lot more to her of late.

In the wake of The Donald’s election, she didn’t need to add.

Afterwards, as headed home, I half-joked to her that “I don’t think the Apostle Paul was quite as sunny as our Book of Worship about our power and potential to resist.”

“I’d like to talk more about that sometime,” she replied.

I shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t much matter though since we’ve excised Satan from the baptismal liturgy anyways. That we might be wrong about our power isn’t a problem if the Power of Satan is no longer the problem.”

I was only half-joking.

J. Louis Martyn writes that for the Apostle Paul:

“The Church is God’s apocalyptic beachhead and Paul sees in baptism the juncture by which the person both participates in the death of Christ (Romans 6.4) and is equipped with the armor for apocalyptic battle (Romans 13.22).”

Baptism, for Paul, is both a being put to death and an ongoing empowerment by God the Holy Spirit. Through baptism and the baptized, God contends against Another: Satan, whom Paul variously makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, and the Principalities and Powers.

Not only does God put us to death in Christ through baptism, transferring us from the Lordship of Death to the Lordship of Grace, prior to baptism we are slaves to Death and after, Paul says, slaves to righteousness. Or, as Paul puts elsewhere, apart from the righteousness of God in Christ, Sin is a Power who we are all under and from whom not one of us has the freedom or the power to liberate ourselves.

Christians then have peculiar definitions for freedom and power, and we have a more specific set of names for evil and injustice. Prior to our baptism in to Christ, we have no freedom or power at all, as we are captives to the anti-God Powers, and proceeding baptism freedom is slavery to the righteousness of God. This is why Paul doesn’t use the language of repentance, as the baptismal liturgy does. It makes no sense to tell prisoners to repent their way out of captivity; they can only be delivered.

While God has defeated the Power of Satan through Cross and Resurrection, once for all, this defeat, though real, is not yet realized. God is yet contending against a Power whose defeat is sure if not surrendered. Thus Paul reveals the theme of his letter to the Romans only at the very end: “The God of Peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

In the sacraments, says theologian Joseph Mangina in Baptism at the Turning of the Ages, “the apocalypse (invasion/irruption/revealing) of God in Jesus Christ becomes an apocalypse now.”

Baptism and Eucharist, in other words, are means (for Paul, in Romans, the Gospel kerygma itself is the primary means) by which God invades territory held by an Enemy, a world that, as the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal service once put it: “…is the realm of Sin and Satan.”

Note how different that is than today’s baptismal question:

“…evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Here, evil, injustice, and oppression present themselves in varying forms in our world. There is no acknowledged agency behind them.

In the older liturgies (and Romans 8) evil, injustice, and oppression are the forms by which the Power Sin/Satan/Death manifests in our world.

What’s critical about the apocalyptic character of Word and Sacrament in Paul is the active agency of God. When it comes to resisting evil and injustice, God never stops being the subject of the verbs. Even our growth into Christ likeness Paul casts in the passive voice: “…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed…”

It is not that God begins this process of transformation in Christ and then hands it off to us to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Indeed apart from the activity of God in and upon us, we cannot be trusted to identify evil or rightly to resist injustice for the insidious Power of Sin is such that in can corrupt even our best religious impulses. 

God is the acting agent of our transformation into conformity to Christ from beginning to end, acting against the agency of the Enemy.

Likely, Paul would put our baptismal question in the passive as well:

Do you trust that you will be used by God to resist…?

In much of our liturgical practice today, we’ve demythologized the rites such that Satan becomes vague, as in, “spiritual forces of wickedness” or, worse, vaguely anthropocentric, as in, “injustice and oppression.”

Even worse is the example in the present Book of Common Prayer: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

As Joseph Mangina notes: “Striving for justice and peace, respecting human dignity- these high, humanitarian aspirations are as generic as they are idealistic. It is not clear what they are doing in a Christian baptismal liturgy…for only by the agency of Christ can we grasp the true contours of ‘justice’ and ‘peace.’ “

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the baptism ritual asks the candidates questions such as “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching…will you persevere in resisting evil…will you seek and serve Christ…?”

In each case, the requisite reply is “I will, with God’s help.” 

In the previous iterations of the Book of Common Prayer, similar questions required a much stronger affirmation of God’s agency (and betrayed much less interest in our own potential): “God being my helper.” 

The prescribed answer in the United Methodist Book of Worship: “I do.” 

Note the (only) subject of the verb.

God’s agency is assumed to the point of obscurity.

Compare this to the Tridentine rite- if you’ve seen Godfather I you’ve seen it.

Salt is placed on the infant’s tongue to protect it from corruption by the Power of Sin. The priest performs an exorcism, blowing 3 times, on the child. The confession of faith is followed by a robust renunciation: Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his pomps?

Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer kept the exorcism as part of the baptismal rite but it disappeared as the biblical worldview waned and the modern liberal world waxed. In fact, the shift from God as acting subject responsible for faith to acted upon object of our faith, from theology to anthropology, in modern Enlightenment theology is mirrored in worship.

Ludwig Feuerbach famously (and correctly) diagnosed most Christian speech about God as really being speech about ourselves. We could not turn to some of our liturgical texts to disprove him.

Compared to the Tridentine rite and the Book of Common Prayer of John Wesley’s day, the emphasis, intentional or not, in our contemporary liturgies is on human promise-making at the expense of God’s singular action in Jesus Christ. This sole agency of God is itself the foundational principle of baptism’s un-repeatablity. In the act of baptism and in the life of the baptized thereafter, God is the acting agent, overturning the world.

“That a Christian has been baptized should be nothing less than a cause for astonishment,” Joseph Mangina says, for it is the work of the Living God.

Such astonishment at the agency of God is either muted or altogether missing in any question where we are the answer: I do. 

Freedom is Free

Jason Micheli —  July 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

Jesus Christ, the Predestined One, is the only fully free human being.

Christ is so liberated as to free others from their captivities and deliver them into the divine freedom we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For God to be free is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

Likewise, as creatures made in this God’s image, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for’ others NOT freedom ‘from’ external constraint or obligation to others.

Liberty is not independence but rightly ordererd dependence on God.

We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ that is God, in which we all move and live and have our being.

We’re free in that we share in Christ’s freedom by our baptism and through our faith.

That freedom is freedom in Christ and, like Christ, is freedom for others reminds us that how normally think of the word ‘free’ (to have a will independent of any other agent) involes a false, idolatrous notion of God, for it pictures a god who inhabits the universe, existing alongside creatures, sometimes interfering with their lives and other times no, leaving them alone to be ‘free.’

Yet everything that exists exists- at every moment of its existence- because of the creative act of God.

Nothing that is can be except because of God, including our free spontaneous choices.

God is the Source of our free actions; therefore, there is no such thing as a human action independent of God. Our free acts are also, part and parcel, God’s creative acts. This does not constrain us; it is by them that we are ourselves.

Free will then cannot mean our acting apart from or independent of God acting upon us. Rather, like Christ, freedom means fully cooperating with the action of God.

Freedom is embracing grace, the free gift of God in Christ. As the Apostle Paul says, we are most free in slavery and conformity to Jesus Christ.

Nocturnal Omission

Jason Micheli —  January 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

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

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

———————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————

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

Having stumbled upon Jesus here, curious and questioning, we’d like to slip away, under the cover of night, and pretend Jesus never said what Jesus so clearly said: ‘If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’

You must be born again.

Or-

You must be born from above.

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

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

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

Not that question.

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

This question:

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except-

That you in “You must be born again” is plural.

It’s “You all must be born again.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says.

And Jesus answers with “You all…”

Like it or not, we are in that you.

But-

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

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

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

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

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

So maybe-

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

Only-

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

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

But where’s that leave us Nicodemus Christians?

What if-

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

Take it back.

From those other kind of Christians.

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

Being born anothen

It’s something God does; it’s not something we do.

Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind- the Holy Spirit- blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Being born anothen, Jesus says, it isn’t something we can control or manipulate or plan. It cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me.

You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?

That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…”

Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God.

What is flesh, i.e. you and me,  is incapable of coming to God. Only God can connect us with God. We’re not on a spiritual journey to God; God the Holy Spirit is always journeying to us. It’s always grace. It’s always a gift.

You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given.

Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does.

We could push back.

And we’d be right.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters: It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God. 

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

———————

     Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says.

We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us.

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

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

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

And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit.

Skip ahead.

To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.”

And what does John show you?

Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate.

And what does Pilate say?

“Behold, the man.”

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

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit.

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

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

Water and the spirit, the sixth day.

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

Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week.

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

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

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

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

He breathes on them.

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

They’re made new again.

Anothen.

And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right.

The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.

———————

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

But-

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

That we are.

Born again. Born from above.

All of us.

Every one of us.

Even you all.

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

There is no distinction.

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

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

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

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

There is therefore now no condemnation because of Christ Jesus.

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

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

Consider yourselves anothened.

Being born again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we get born again.

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

For all of us.

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

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

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

And if that same someone asks you for a when-

When were you born again? When were you saved?

You just say sometime between Good Friday and Easter morning.

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

———————

     It’s Good News.

But it’s not easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve got to see.

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

It’s about sight.

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

To be born again is to be given new eyes.

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

He should know-

Even that’s easier than to be born again

To become who you already are in Jesus Christ

To see with new, anotheno-ed eyes.

 

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

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

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

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

“Sounds fascinating” I lied.

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

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

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

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

He didn’t blush.

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

Nonetheless, he wasn’t entirely incorrect.

 

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

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

For example-

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

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

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

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

     It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle.

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

     And that’s not all.

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

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

Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.

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

Mark shows you a Dove.

And Mark tells you Beloved Son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

kenneth-tanner-headshot-400x401For Episode #48 (#50 is fast approaching), we talked with our #1 Fan, Kenneth Tanner.

Who is Kenneth Tanner?

Ken is best known for his Facebook memes. No, they are not memes about cats playing a piano but instead are of the theological flavor. Ken has found a way to utilize what is normally a means of poking fun or ridiculing someone, to now be a way of sharing theological ideas in a way that is more accessible than most blogs.

This is from my podcasting partner Teer Hardy. If you haven’t already, check out his blog.

Who is Kenneth Tanner?  This is what I asked Jason a few months ago as our podcast, Crackers & Grape Juice, began to gain more followers than the average United Methodist Church has sitting in the pew each Sunday morning.  Kenneth Tanner is a Charismatic Episcopal Priest in Rochester Hills, Michigan.  Before meeting Ken on Facebook a few months ago, I had no clue there was such as a thing as a Charismatic Episcopal.  Having grandparents who are and were Episcopalian, and even taken a class at an Episcopal seminary, a Charismatic Priest in the Episcopal church is like a Millennial walking into a mainline church.  They just don’t exist, and if they do, we need to study them.

Ken is best known for his Facebook memes.  No, they are not memes about cats playing a piano but instead are of the theological flavor.  Ken has found a way to utilize what is normally a means of poking fun or ridiculing someone, to now be a way of sharing theological ideas in a way that is more accessible than most blogs (including this one).

I want to share one of those Facebook commentaries with you.

Ken wrote the following as a response to a video showing what can only be described as a WWE-style baptism.

Ken’s response:

A sad mockery, which exposes what must be a total misunderstanding of the sacrament. Baptism is a participation in the death of Christ, a reenactment of the cross. It’s a gift but also one approached with great reverence and humility. It is the work of the Spirit of God and not, as the actions here suggest, something that *we* do. Yes, it is to be celebrated but this practice loses connection with the hard wood realities of the cross.

Baptism is not a spectacle.

And this is not a matter of worship “style.” I disagree with any sense of subjectivity —you have your way of doing it and they have theirs—because the vast majority of Christians around the world across all denominations who are alive and walking the earth today, including the vast majority of those who lived in past centuries, would not recognize what’s happening here as Baptism.

Ken will be joining us on an upcoming episode of Crackers & Grape Juice.  We will talk about what a Charismatic Episcopalian is, he will dive into this video a little more, and I even attempt a Fleming Rutledge podcast prayer.  Use the links below to subscribe to the podcast so you do not miss our conversation with Ken and our other great guests.

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Brian McLaren, Father James Martin, Becca Stevens, Danielle Shroyer, and Mihee Kim Kort.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

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

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

Help us reach more people: 

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

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

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

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

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517When I was about to begin serving as a pastor for the first time over a dozen years ago, I decided to ask one of my seminary professors, Dr Jim Stewart, for advice on what to do when starting out in a congregation- something for which seminary doesn’t actually prepare you.

Dr. Stewart looked top heavy with his mop of curly white hair on top of his short, heavyset body. He wore thick brown glasses, which when removed revealed that Dr Stewart was a dead ringer for the actor Charles Durning who played Doc Hopper in the Muppet Movie.

After class one day, I walked up to Dr Stewart as he was stuffing papers into his leather satchel and I asked him for advice on beginning in my first congregation.

He answered so quickly I almost thought he was responding to someone else’s question:

“Don’t change ANYTHING for the first 6 months. Earn their trust. Don’t do or say anything provocative. Don’t ruffle feathers. Don’t upset anyone. Don’t rock the boat. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.”

He slid more papers into his satchel as I processed what sounded to me like an insult in the form of advice. Dr Stewart looked up and smiled and said:

‘Don’t worry, that’s a comment about you. I give the same advice to every new pastor.’

I can’t speak for the other denominations whose clergy Dr Stewart has advised, but I can say that his words are frustrated by the fact that United Methodist bishops appoint their pastors to churches during the last week of June/first week of July.

So, in the United Methodist Church new clergy are making just their first or second impressions over Independence Day weekend, a time when most folks are not in church and others come to church with a diversity of expectations.

I packed Dr Stewart’s advice along with my books and my belongings and I took it with me to my new church.

On Day 1, my secretary first walked me through the church directory. Second, she gave me the skinny on church gossip, and third she informed me that, as the new pastor in town, I was scheduled to preach the sermon at the annual, ecumenical Independence Day Service.

‘But Independence Day isn’t even a Christian holiday.’

My secretary just stared at me, saying nothing, as though she were a soothsayer foreseeing the self-destructive implosion that would be this new pastor’s Independence Day sermon.

Like all things 4th of July, the ecumenical service was held outdoors, in a city park. I arrived early. Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ was booming through the speakers as I parked my car.

When I got to the pavilion area, I spotted a large, wooden cross in the center of the stage- the kind of cross you’d see on the side of the highway.

Only this cross had a large, car dealership-sized American flag draped over it.

And I swear, in that instant, Dr Stewart appeared to me like Yoda to Luke Skywalker. And starting at old glory covering up the old rugged cross, I heard Dr Stewart’s advice ring in the air:

‘Don’t ruffle feathers. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.’

I walked up to a guy who looked like the master of ceremonies- a Pentecostal preacher, it turned out. I introduced myself and then I said:

‘Say, maybe we should take the flag off the cross before people show up for the service and get upset.’

The Pentecostal preacher just stared at me- the same soothsaying way my secretary had- and then he said: ‘Why would anyone get upset? This is the Independence Day Service after all.’

And I was about to respond at least as colorfully as the stars and stripes, but then I saw Dr Stewart appear in an angelic haze, like Obi Wan to young Luke, and I heard Dr Stewart say:

‘Don’t upset anyone.’

So I said nothing.

Cross-Wooden-with-Draped-American-FlagA couple hundred people gathered for the ecumenical Independence Day Service, which began with a greeting by a Brethren pastor.

Before we realized what was happening, the Brethren pastor had slid from words of welcome into a ‘Fatherwejust’ prayer. His prayer was a confession, a lament, of all the ways America has absconded from the Christian values of its founding.

His lament was exhaustive and exhausting, and all the while I gripped my bible and sighed, trying to conjure the image of Dr Stewart.

After the fatherwejust prayer, we sang ‘America’ and the ‘Battle Hymn,’ which in hindsight were the high points of the service. And after the ‘glory, glory, hallelujahs’ the local Episcopal priest got up and offered another prayer- this one thanking God that we live in a nation where we’re free to pursue what sounded to me like positions from the Democratic Party platform.

Again, I sighed and death-gripped my bible, waiting for some mention of Jesus to make its way into the prayer. But it never did.

Next, the Master of Ceremonies, the Pentecostal preacher, stood in front of the flag-draped-cross and read the Declaration of Independence, and when he finished, he said:

‘I’d like to invite the new Methodist pastor, Rev James MacChelly, to come up and preach for us.’

I’d come that day armed with a few pages of a sermon on serving your neighbor, a harmless, vanilla homily I could’ve easily delivered at a Kiwanis meeting as at a worship service.

But walking up to the flag-draped-cross, I decided a different message was needed. I decided to change gears and improvise. I decided I should trust the Holy Spirit not to let me crash and burn.

And I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.

First, I read not from the Golden Rule as I’d planned, but from the Apostle Paul- not today’s text but one just like it, where Paul writes:

God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and exalted him to sit at the right hand of the Father and given him the name that is above every name; so that, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

When I finished reading the scripture, a few people said ‘Amen,’ which I erroneously took as a promising sign.

And then I began:

I know a lot of you are expecting me to speak about America or politics or patriotism. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. But I’m a preacher. The bishop laid hands on me to proclaim not America but the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

I looked out in the crowd and saw Dr Stewart sitting on a lawn chair near the 3rd row. He was shaking his head and mouthing the words: ‘Don’t rock the boat.’

But I ignored him.

     The bishop laid hands on me to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     The Gospel isn’t Jesus is going to be Lord one day; the Gospel isn’t Jesus will be Lord after he returns to Earth to rapture us off to the great bye and bye. 

     The Gospel is that Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is Lord. The Gospel isn’t that Jesus rules in heaven; the Gospel is that Jesus Christ rules the nations of the world fromheaven. 

     You see, I said, to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that something fundamental as changed in the world, something to which we’re invited to believe and around which we’re called to reorient our lives and for which, if necessary, we’re expected to sacrifice our lives. 

     To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that at Easter God permanently replaced the way of Caesar, the way of the world with the way of Jesus, a way that blesses the poor, that comforts those who mourn, a way where righteousness is to hunger and thirst after justice and where the Kingdom belongs to those who wage…peace. 

Dr Stewart sat in his lawn chair, giving me a sad, ‘it’s-not-too-late-to-turn-back’ look. But it was too late.

I was commissioned to preach the Gospel, I said.

     And the Gospel- the Gospel of Paul and Peter and James and John and Luke and Mark and Matthew- is that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     And in their day the Gospel announcement had a counter-cultural correlative: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. 

     I could tell from the crinkled brows in the crowd that they could yet tell if or how I was subverting their expectations.

So I decided to make it plain.

     And in our day, the Gospel has a counter-cultural correlative to it too. 

     Jesus is Lord, and ‘We the people’ are not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and the Democratic Party is not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and the Republican Party is not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and America- though it’s deserving of our pride and our commitment and our gratitude- is not Lord. 

     As wonderful as this nation is, we are not God’s Beloved because Jesus Christ is God’s Beloved and his Body is spread through the world. 

The crinkled brows in the crowd had turned to crossed arms and angry faces, and a few people got up and left.

Dr Stewart was now sitting in his lawnchair mouthing the words ‘I told you so.’

I’d lost them, all of them, and I knew if any of them in the crowd were members of my new congregation they wouldn’t be for much longer. I knew I had to steer this wreck of a sermon off the road as quickly as possible.

So I said:

Independence Day Weekend is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians we carry 2 passports. We have dual citizenship: 2nd to the US of A and 1st to the Kingdom of God. 

     Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians, our politics are not determined by Caesar or Rome or Washington. As baptized Christians, our politics- our way being in the world- are conformed to the one whom God raised from the dead. 

     Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that you can be a proud American. You can be thankful for your country. You can serve your country. 

     But if you’re baptized, then you’ve pledged your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and your ultimate citizenship is to his Kingdom, and even as we celebrate the 13 Colonies’ independence we shouldn’t forget that our primary calling as baptized Christians is to colonize the Earth with the way of Jesus Christ. 

     That’s what we pray when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come…’ 

I thought that sounded like a good place to end the sermon so I said: ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

And the gathered crowd responded with ‘harummphhhhhhhhhhhhh…….’

I looked up in the crowd and saw that Dr Stewart was no longer there, which wasn’t all that surprising because neither were several dozen other people.

Though its harder to decipher, in Romans 6 Paul makes the same point as that passage I read a dozen years ago.

Paul builds on his argument by showing you how Jesus is the 2nd Moses, how Christ has delivered us from the domain of Sin and Death so that we might walk in newness of life.

And that word ‘walk’ is key. It’s ‘halakah.’

It comes from the Exodus, when God- through Moses- rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and delivered them to a  new life by parting the Red Sea so that they could walk across it on dry land.

 Paul’s point is that through our baptism we leave the old world and we are liberated into God’s new creation; so that, as baptized Christians, we live eternity in the here and now.

That’s what Jesus means by ‘eternal life.’

For Paul, the resurrection inaugurates a new reality in the world; so that, baptism is for us what the Red Sea was for the Israelites: a doorway into a new Kingdom, a new and different and distinct People in the world.

That’s what Paul means when he says elsewhere that all the old national and political and ethnic distinctions do not matter because the baptized are now united in Christ.

     For Paul, baptism isn’t so much the outward symbol of a believer’s faith. Baptism unites into Christ so that what is true of him is now true of us, and what’s true of him is that he has been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God where he is the Lord over the nations of the Earth.

 

You see, for Paul, baptism is our naturalization ceremony in which allegiance and loyalty is transferred from the kingdoms and nations of this world to the Kingdom of God.

After the service ended, the pastors formed a receiving line to shake hands with folks as they left. I was at the far end of the line. Not wanting any guilt by association, the other pastors had left ample buffer space between them and me.

Most people just walked by me and glared at me like I was a wife beater.

A few people joked: ‘I wouldn’t unpack my new office just yet if I were you Rev. MacChellee.’

 Finally a man in his 50’s or 60’s came up to me.

He had a high and tight haircut and was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and a Marine Corps tattoo on his forearm.

And he said: ‘Preacher, I just want to thank you.’

‘Thank me? For what exactly?’

     ‘I never have understood how Paul got himself executed, but listening to you preach I finally understand why people would want to kill him.’

‘Look, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I admit it. It wasn’t a good sermon for a new guy to preach.’

     ‘No, I’m dead serious. I always thought being a Christian was about believing in Jesus so we can go to heaven when we die and in the meantime we’re supposed to be kind to our neighbors.

‘But that doesn’t make Christians much different than the Rotary Club or any other American.’

‘As stupid as your sermon was, it helped me see that being a Christian is a whole lot more complicated than I thought, but maybe a lot more interesting too.’

     12 years ago, Independence Day Weekend- that was the wrong sermon to preach. I know that now.

It ruffled feathers.  It sounded offensive. It upset nearly everyone.

They didn’t know me. They didn’t know if I was serving up flip opinions or speaking out of a sincere faith. I hadn’t earned their trust.

It was the wrong sermon to preach.

For them.

     But I’ve been here 8 years.

You do know me. You’ve learned how to listen to me. You know that even when I sound flip my faith is sincere.

I’ve been here 8 years and I think I’ve earned at least a little of your trust.

So trust me when I tell you that I’m grateful to live in a nation where I am free to irritate you every other Sunday.

But hear me when I tell you:

as baptized Christians, we are a People who carry 2 passports, who have dual citizenship but only 1 allegiance.

 

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our American identity; I am saying that our primary identity should come from the Lordship of Christ.

(And in too many cases, it doesn’t.)

I’m not saying our independence isn’t something to celebrate; I am saying that our dependence on God, which we’ve been liberated into by the resurrection of Christ, should be a greater cause for celebration.

(And very often, it isn’t.)

I’m not saying that the flag shouldn’t be a powerful symbol for us; I am saying that the Cross and the Bread and the Cup and the Water should be more powerful symbols.

(And, let’s be honest, most of the time they’re not.)

Because as baptized Christians, we belong to a different Kingdom, a Kingdom that can’t be advanced by force or political parties or legislation or constitutional amendments- we belong to a Kingdom that can only be advanced the way it was advanced by Jesus Christ.

Through witness. And faithfulness. And service. And sacrificial love.

Earlier this month the United Methodist Church continued its decades-long impasse over homosexuality.

Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the United Methodist Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.

Namely, ordination.

Ministry.

Our baptismal summons.

Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.

rp_images1.jpegIn the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

rp_barth-224x300.jpgToo often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build an alternative polis in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we are all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.

I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.

Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.

rp_barth_1_3-300x250.jpegOnce we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’

 

Ascension     Sunday is Ascension Day, the 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

To profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

The words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord.

You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other.

Which is why in Paul’s day and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits.

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might.

Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

     In other words, baptism was your pledge of allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

 

A little history lesson:

A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too.

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian. After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’

Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts. What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come. Jesus, as Brian Zahnd likes to say, was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

But for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’

Allegiance.

And for Paul everything God had heretofore revealed to his People telegraphs the way of Christ.

All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

‘Eye for an eye?’ It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

The ‘You shall have no other gods’ command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.

When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that ‘Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.’

    The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.

And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

It’s about following after Jesus.

The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone.

If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, if he is now the ascendant Lord of all the nations, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

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

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

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

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

Bowing to this King should make us a lot more dysfunctional in our world than we otherwise would have been.

It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’ Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

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

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross. Despite what Joel Osteen promises, we’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus.

On the other hand, whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful.

Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe, the King of Heaven and Earth. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

  • Props to Hedy Collver for the image

Spitting in Sin’s Face

Jason Micheli —  February 15, 2016 — 6 Comments

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     This past weekend was my official return to Aldersgate after a year on medical leave. Returning meant more to my family and me than we could have anticipated, and we’re grateful for the warm welcome the congregation showed us.

     Kevin Spacey, as Keyser Soze, says the greatest trick the devil played was convincing us he doesn’t exist. I think the greatest trick Sin plays on us is convincing us that it still has power over us. Here’s my sermon from the first Sunday in Lent, in which I attempted to underscore our liberation from Sin by first laughing at the power of Death and then spitting on Sin. The text, as if there could be another, was Paul’s baptismal passage in Romans 6.1-11.

     ‘Whoever has died with Christ [through baptism] is free from sin.‘      

Speaking of death-

A year ago this week, I woke up from abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. You can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting. When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this room is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon, like each and every one of you took out a line of credit at FTD.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream you all send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like American Pharaoh exploded all over it.

And back in the narthex, for one last prank on the 8:30 service, Hedy sets up a toilet and, next to it, a roll of appropriately mournful black toilet paper. So in my daydream there’s flowers up here and a toilet back there and in here the pews are packed.

Its standing room only in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Cindy Crawford.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the organ Liz plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar table, He Who Must Not Be Named kneels before my casket and quietly confesses his many sins against me and begs me not to haunt him like Jacob to Ebenezer.

Then, he’s followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the bishop slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late and second-guessing his decision to show solidarity with me by wearing a bandana and booty shorts.

But as he squeezes into a spot in the back corner, Stephen Hawking assures the bishop in his Speak-N-Spell voice that the booty shorts look quite nice with his clergy collar.

After the opening hymn, Andreas plays my favorite Old Testament song, ‘Female Bears are Eating My Friends.’ As he strums somberly with his eyes closed members of the Journeys Band notice that for the occasion of my funeral Andreas has bought a brand new pair of dutch boy clogs. Plus, he’s wearing his very best Cosby sweater.

When Andreas finishes, Dennis gets up to preach. And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Hedy and Hedy stands up in the pulpit and, first, she reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then she looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, the choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the choir veers off key because Ernest Johnson’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it. So the choir’s singing their heart out even if they’re singing off key and, while they sing, Scarlett Johansson leans over to Dennis to ask why Terri Phillips is wearing a Cinderella costume.

‘It’s what Jason would’ve wanted,’ Dennis whispers to Scarlett and Penelope Cruz just as the choir belts out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me. She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

As God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved Jason in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to Wesley Hall where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture. Of me.

——————

But I digress.

My point is- For a long time, I thought I was going to die.

When I realized I wasn’t going to die, when I got my bone marrow results back a few weeks ago, and I realized the inevitable wasn’t yet, I was so freaking grateful.

Bowled over with gratitude. To God.

I felt so thankful that I promised a vow to God. I swore an oath to God. For the gift of my life, I would offer the gift of my faithfulness. It’s true. I stared at myself in the mirror at my oncologist’s mens room right after I received my results.

I splashed water on my face to make sure I wasn’t daydreaming. I stared at myself in the mirror and I swore, from here on out, I would be a perfect Christian.

No more snark or sarcasm. No more dark cynicism. No more cussing or anger. No more can’t be bothered apathy or little white lies.

 God had rescued me from death so I promised to the mens room mirror: ‘I will never sin again.’

And I meant it. I was doing a pretty job with it until I walked out of the bathroom and over to the elevator. The elevator at my doctor’s office, no matter the time of day, it’s like the DMV was outsourced to supervise the Final Solution. It’s a constipated, huddling mass of people frantic with their self-importance.

So I waited and waited, as the elevator would come and close, come and close, each time too crowded for me. But I was a good Christian. I kept my vow. I was patient. I did not think any dark thoughts in my heart. I did not sin.

So I was doing pretty good, and my turn was next. I was right there at the front of the line.

But as soon as the elevator doors opened, this old guy with wispy white hair and an oxygen mask, out of nowhere, wedged a walker in between me and the elevator doors and, like he was Patrick Ewing, he threw a varicosed elbow at me and pushed me out of the way to wait longer for another elevator.

Patrick Ewing looked at me as the elevator doors closed between us. And he smirked!

And if anyone had been able to read my mind in that moment I would’ve been whistled for a flagrant foul.

On my way home from the doctor, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. I was standing at the counter about to pay. Next to me, in front of the other register, a homeless man poured coins out of an empty Cheetos bag and, coming up short, he looked over at me and asked if I had any money.

Without thinking about it, without meaning to, just reflexively (which says a lot about me), I said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

My words were still hanging thick in the air when I looked down at my wallet in my hand, which had a wad of wrinkled 5’s and 10’s sticking out of it like a bouquet of dirty green flowers.

Not only had I lied, not only had I refused charity, Jesus says whatever you do to the poor you’ve done it to him so 20 minutes after my I’ll-never-sin-again-oath to God, I’d managed to lie to and stiff Jesus. Not to mention swearing false oaths is one of the 10 Commandments so that was a sin too.

And leaving Starbucks, I accidentally cut a guy off in traffic. It was an accident, not a sin.

But then when he rolled his window down to offer his opinion of me (at the traffic light), and when he offered his opinion of my mother (at the next light), and when he described everything he thought I deserved to do to myself (at the light after that), did I turn the rhetorical cheek? Did I forgive his trespass against me? Did I forgive him 70 x 7 times? Did I offer to walk a mile in his jerk shoes?

No, I said goodbye to him with a sarcastic smile and a one-fingered wave.

When I got home, I watched a clip of Joel Osteen, America’s favorite preacher, that one of you was kind enough to share with me on Facebook. I listened as Joel Osteen talked about how he doesn’t like to preach about the cross or other ‘depressing things.’ He prefers to keep it positive and uplifting.

Jesus says if you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery. By that same moral logic, if you’ve thought about killing someone, knocking in their toilet lid teeth, punching them in their vacant, Botox eyes, pulling out their mousse-hardened hair and turning their syrupy smile upside down- if you’ve thought about it, you’ve committed murder, Jesus implies. Guilty.

After I broke that commandment, I made the mistake of going to the Soviet Safeway just down Ft. Hunt.

I was in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 15 Items or Less Line.

I was in line behind this blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 15 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I kept my vow. I was Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Syrian Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

‘Oh my Lord! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!’ I didn’t say to myself.

If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, and so the opposite of all that produce must be sin, right?

God rescued me from death, and still my new life of sinless perfection was shorter lived than Lincoln Chaffee’s presidential campaign.

—————-

     ‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?’ 

     Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6.

I know our teachers all lied to us and told us there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there is and this is one. The answer is not only obvious it’s ubiquitous. How can we go on sinning? Uh, very easily, Paul. I can do it without even trying.

‘How can we go on sinning?’! The better question is how can we not go on sinning? It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?‘ It’s a rhetorical question. Paul obviously thinks its not only possible but expected for those who’ve been buried in baptism to live free of sin.

According to Paul here, roughly 93% of my waking life should be impossible. I’ve been baptized. I’ve died to sin- Paul means that literally not figuratively- so my sinful life should be impossible. Your sinful life should be impossible.

Maybe you’re different, to me it’s Christ’s life that feels impossible.

But if Christ died to sin and we with him then why? Why do we so often and so easily sin?

So what gives?

What’s the disconnect between what Paul assumes to be true and what we assume to be obvious?

Who’s wrong?

Are we wrong? Is sin really easier to shake than everything in our lived experience leads us to suppose?

Or is Paul wrong? Have we not really died with Christ, died to sin, so that we can live free of it?

But if Paul’s wrong, then that means the Gospel’s wrong too. Christ, good dude though he was, did not set his people free by overcoming the pharaoh of Sin. And we who have been plunged under with him in baptism have not died with him so we have no share in him.

How can we go on sinning?

How can we not go on sinning?

The assumption are not compatible. So who’s wrong? Paul? Or you and me? What’s the disconnect?

     It’s almost as though when we talk about Sin, Paul and you and me, we’re talking about two different things.

—————

     In the ancient Church, baptism would be performed almost exclusively on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus is as dead as you will one day be, when, as the Church says, Jesus is our Passover, passing over from Death to Life.

The baptismal ritual wasn’t a sentimental one with babies and lacey heirlooms. Instead it was imagined and staged like a funeral. In the middle of the Easter vigil, after the Exodus story was read, the worshippers would move outside to the baptistry.

Often those to be baptized were carried in caskets.

When they reached the flowing water, before they stripped naked to shed symbolically their old self and before they were plunged into the water just as the sea drown the chains of Pharaoh’s army, those to be baptized would face West, the direction where the light of the sun sets and the darkness rises.

They would face West and they would renounce Sin.  They would declare their independence from it.

And then, they would spit.

They would spit in Sin’s face. They would spit on Sin. They would draw up all the disgust and anger, all the self-loathing and pain, they could muster in their mouths and then they would spit in Sin’s face.

Here’s the thing-

You can’t spit in the face of a behavior.

You can only spit in the face of a person.

And really, it only has righteous power if you spit in the face of a person who thinks they control you. In the face of a Master.

—————

     When it comes to Sin, Paul and you and me, we don’t mean the same thing.

We think of sin as behavior. We think of sin as something we commit, like lying or cheating on your husband or lusting in your heart to do grave bodily harm to Joel Osteen.

We think of sin as behavior, but Paul thinks of Sin as a Power.

You can think of it as Darkness with a capital D. You can call it Satan if you like. If you’re a nerd, you can compare it to Sauron’s ring of power.

But to understand Paul you have to understand that he understands Sin not as our behavior but as a Power outside of us, as a Pharaoh, as a Master, whose will it is to have dominion over us, to bind us.

Our little ‘s’ sins are just signs and symptoms of our enslavement to the power of Sin with a capital S.

So for Paul, sin isn’t about our behavior. Sin is about our status, which Master do we believe we belong to?

For Paul, sin isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It isn’t about who we are on the inside or behind closed doors. Sin is about where we are.

Do we believe we’ve made an exodus in Jesus Christ? Or not? Do we believe we’ve passed over from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God?

We think of sin as things we do that disobey God’s will and provoke God’s anger.

But not Paul.

Paul doesn’t think of sin as disobeying God’s will for you.

Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

     Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

That’s how Paul can ask a rhetorical question like ‘How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’

It’s ridiculous to him that we would go on living under sin because we’ve been set free from the Power of Sin.

Sin’s let God’s People go. That Master no longer has any dominion over us or claim to us. That’s not who we belong to anymore. And Paul’s not being metaphoric.

     Paul believes emphatically that when we are joined in baptism by faith to Christ’s death something objective happens.

    We are moved, transferred, from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God, and it’s a 1-way, once for all, no going back, nothing you do can undo it, kind of journey.

As we say with bread and wine, Christ has set us free from slavery to Sin.

That’s why Paul’s question is rhetorical, and rightly so. Why would you live your life as though the Power of Sin had any claim on you? That’s like obeying a Master who no longer owns you, submitting to a Ruler who’s already been deposed, fearing an Enemy that’s already been defeated.

Why would you want your life to be a prison when you’ve passed over with Christ from Egypt to freedom?

Paul doesn’t mean that baptism is a magical inoculation that makes it impossible for us to sin. He means to it’s impossible for us to see ourselves as slaves to it, to our sins.  We’ve been set free. That doesn’t mean we’re free of sins. It means we’re free from Sin. We’re free to choose a different story for ourselves. We’re free to turn from our sin, and we’re free to turn away the sins of the world. We’re not powerless against the sins in our lives nor are we excused to be passive about the sins in the world.

We’re free.

—————

     Okay, but that just leaves a big, fat question on the table: How?

How do you do it? If we’re free from Sin, how do we live free of sins?

Chances are, you didn’t hock many loogies at your baptism, and even though you can’t be rebaptized, it’s never too late to take a page from the wisdom of the past and spit in Sin’s face. Renounce it.

Look in the mirror even and pretend its Sin with a capital S staring back at you and spit in its face. Announce your rebellion.

Maybe you were abused. Stare that sin down and spit in its face and announce to it: ‘I don’t belong to you.’

And how about that anger you can’t keep from spilling out onto the people you love- look it in the eyes and spit in its face and tell it what my kids tell me: ‘You’re not the boss of me.’

The prejudice you try to justify, the spending that fills a hole no one can see, the resentment and regret that’s crippled your marriage, the callousness that’s grown up over your wounds- give it all the dead-eye stare.

Spit in its face and say to it: ‘You have no claim on me.You’re not my Master.

I don’t even live in Egypt anymore.’

Spit in its face. Stare down your shame, and declare your disobedience. Say to your shame and self-loathing:

You may call me a slut

You may call me an addict, a freak, a loser, a disappointment

You may tell me I’m a failure, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m old, I’m whatever

But just as God declares of Jesus at his baptism so God declares of me because I’m in him and he’s in me and so I’m a beloved child of God and with God’s only Son I’ve passed over from captivity.

The only chains on me are the ones I put on myself.

Stare Sin down. Spit in its face. Laugh at it.

And say to it: Why would I obey you? I’ve been set free.

—————

      This time last year I thought I was going to die.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought the good news was that I wasn’t going to die. And I’m not saying I’m not happy about it…but in this place, the good news is that with water and promises by people like you I’ve already died.

With and in Christ.

So I don’t need to make any promises, take any vows, or swear any oaths to become a completely different person.

No, I only need to learn how to become who I already am.

Free.