Archives For Baptism

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.

 

 

 

 

Most Popular Posts of 2015

Jason Micheli —  January 6, 2016 — 1 Comment

10917296_10205661027787221_3674691722071054151_n2015 was a big year for the blog. I got hacked by ISIS cyber terrorists, and then I got cancer.

Tamed Cynic grew to about 25K discrete readers per month and attracted subscribers in over 189 countries with Val Gass being the most active reader (yes, I can tell…Google Analytics are creepy).

More importantly, I was blessed (and if you know me you know I don’t use that word lightly) to have readers I’ve never met provide not only thoughtful feedback and stories of their own but counsel and care during my battle with MCL this year.

Here’s the most popular post from 2015– by a lot- which is surprising given that it was only available for a day before cyber terrorists took over my blog and erased it. Ironically, the 2nd most popular post in 2015 was my response to the Islamic Cyber Terrorists who hacked my blog. You can read that post here. Number 3 was the letter I wrote to my congregation after I learned I had a rare form of stage 4 cancer. You can find that here.

To the Church about to Baptize My Baby:

Be warned.

It’s all cuteness and lace now, but in no time at all, my little baby boy- after a brief sojourn in childhood- will hit adolescence. His hormones will kick in and quickly conspire to undo all the good you’ve done in him.

These will be the years that he’ll push you, Church.

He’ll suddenly wonder how Jonah could survive that dark trip in the whale’s belly. He’ll argue that David may have bested Goliath but that he’s no match for Tom Brady and, besides, David’s hardly the unblemished hero his SundaySchool teachers made him out to be. Proud of himself, he’ll point out that Noah never would have had to build the ark had God not decided to flood everything and everyone in the world.

He’ll push you, and if you’re not up to the challenge he’ll be tempted conclude that everything you’ve taught him and everything you teach is, at best, a fairy tale and, at worst, a lie.

And this might be the first time someone he knows or loves dies.

When that happens, Church, you better not resort to clichés. You better be prepared to show him resurrection-of-the-body hope at work among you.

You might as well get ready now, Church, because when those years arrive you will have to struggle just to have your voice heard above all the callings that claim his attention and tempt his loyalty.  Just when time seems to race by for his parents, tomorrow will seem forever away to him. Everything, from the face he sees in the morning mirror to the fickle loyalties of his friends, will change almost every day.

And whether he knows it or not, Church, what he will need from you all is a community of constancy. He will need a people who refuse to let go of him, who refuse to let go of what they know to be true and enduring, who refuse to let him slip away before he learns to describe his world with the language you speak.

And he’ll never admit it to you Church, but what he’ll need in those years is a place where he need not wear a mask, a place where vulnerability isn’t a dirty word, a place where a life of mercy and love and gratitude is a viable and even compelling alternative.

And then he’ll start high school. You’ll only have four years of Sundays left with him. Be warned: it will be harder for you to get his attention because he’ll no longer be listening to your words.

He’ll be looking at your life.

I know, scary right?

When he worships with you, he’ll wonder if you’re as friendly as you think you are. He’ll wonder if you ever experience awe and mystery or whether you’re just ticking off your weekly obligation and hoping it won’t be too boring. He’ll wonder if you’re loose and free enough to allow the Spirit to enter your worship.

And your lives.

He’ll look at your life, Church, and he’ll question whether you conform your views and values to the God of Jesus Christ or whether you’ve sketched an idol in your own unthreatening image. He probably won’t put it in those words, Church, or any words at all for that matter, but trust me he’ll be thinking it.

In these years, his BS Radar will be acute so you better not patronize him, Church. You have a tendency to do that when a young person puts you on your heels by asking questions. You better learn how to treat him as a member of the Body of the Christ.

This may be the last time you have his attention. So, for his sake, I hope you lead a life that leads to the Gospel.

And I pray that, just when he’s being pressured and pushed to get ahead, to pursue his future, to achieve success, and to grab after his dreams, by then you will have taught him that servant-hood is the only path that leads to treasure.

A place where he’ll find the Lamb of God in your flesh. A place where he’ll discover the coming Kingdom previewed in your lives. A place where he’ll learn that God is to be found among the lame and the poor and the outcast- not because you tell him but because you, Church, invite him to come and see for himself.

When my baby boy becomes an old man, when his waist is slightly thicker and his hair a little thinner- when he has a whole new set of questions, new hopes and different struggles ahead- I hope he will be able to remember his baptism and be thankful.

There’ll come a time- there always does- when my boy will look desperately for where the living God can be found. When that time does come, Church, I hope he will have a community who won’t just shrug their shoulders, who won’t refer him to the pastor, who won’t quote the Bible at him or try to prove anything to him.

Don’t you dare do that to him, Church.

Instead you better be able, because of the integrity of your life, to say to him: ‘Come and See.’

Church, that’s the sort of Church I would want to give my life so I’m willing to bet he’d give his life to it too.

In closing, Church-

Before the water hits my baby’s head, I hope the irony will have hit you upside yours: my boy will never be able to live out his baptism if you, Church, don’t live out yours.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Parent

Saturday is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life and what, increasingly over the years, I’ve become convinced is one of the most important questions:

 

‘Can we pray to the saints?’

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It’s a good question, a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

Those, I think, are better ways of putting the question.

Of course there’s the standard Protestant tropes about how praying to anyone but Jesus Christ is…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

And there’s the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

 

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Baptist or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them. And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

 

At funerals, the Book of Worship guides officiants to draping a white pall over the casket while proclaiming:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism __________ put on Christ, so now is __________ in Christ and clothed with glory.

 Then facing the gathered, the pastor holds out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

 And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor lays her hands on the casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave __________ to us, now we give _________ back to you.

Receive __________ into the arms of your mercy.

Receive __________ into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in my congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne and Peg, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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It’s an important question because it’s one I think about every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

In preaching, I work hard never to make myself the hero of a story. The rules of rhetoric require it. Even with those anecdotes where I did say or do the right, bold thing, I will instead labor to make myself sound like a d@#$, putting those right, bold words in to someone else’s mouth. I don’t want listeners to think I have a messiah complex and thus miss the message of the actual Messiah.

But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t flatter me in a sermon.

My friend, Taylor Mertins, recently shared a story about me and my family in his sermon on Exodus 2. While embarrassing, it was warmly intended and warmly received. You can check out his blog here, and here’s a post he wrote this summer for Tamed Cynic on what he learned during his first year of ministry.

Without permission, here it is:

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Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

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Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him.Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

rainbow-cross_aprilMy modest cranny of Methodism recently tabled a motion to ameliorate the denomination’s official language on homosexuality.

Rather than call what surely would have been a divisive and possibly rancorous vote, a counter-motion proposed that Methodist churches in Virginia instead spend the next year engaged in ‘conversation’ over the issue.

I’ve taken initial stabs at the conversation here and here in case you’re late to the party.

Probably not unlike working at Pontiac or Radio Shack, it’s discomfiting to be part of an organization where a bleak and battered future is both a live possibility and largely out of your hands.

A discombobulating experience, yes.

But an unbiblical experience? No.

Those who wring their hands with fright that the Church must face thorny, divisive questions of faith and experience forget that the New Testament itself was written in such a climate.

What we unthinkingly call ‘scripture’ was formed-largely- in the midst of churches arguing over how to read their scriptures (Old Testament) in the presence of the Spirit (potentially doing a new thing in the inclusion of Gentiles in to the People of God).

In arguing over how we should read our scriptures, Old and New, in the presence of the Spirit possibly doing an extraordinary thing in the inclusion of gay Christians, the Church merely mimics an ancient acesis.

So we shouldn’t shy away from the conversation debate.

One of the most prominent parts of this debate has nothing to do with those icky stone folks for who-lies-with-who passages in Leviticus.

No, the grown-up part of this debate has to do with scripture’s positing the male-female complement as the created norm.

What do gay Christians do with that?

The creation story wherein Adam and Eve are made for each other has been understood in the Christian tradition as the foundational text for the normativity of the male-female union.

RogersDr. Eugene Rogers, the teacher with whom I cut my theological teeth, observes how neither Jesus nor Paul ever quote the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ of the creation story when they quote Genesis. Children, then, are not requisite or constitutive of any understanding of marriage for Paul or Jesus.

Not only is a ‘natural’ law understanding of marriage not primary for Jesus or Paul, Rogers notes, how when Paul does quote the creation story (in Galatians 3) he maintains its precise wording in telling fashion:

“…Paul preserves it just when parallelism might prompt him to change Genesis’ wording. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no ‘male and female:’ for you are all one in Christ Jesus (v. 28).’ 

The first two pairs have ‘neither…nor’ (ouk…oude); the last pair correctly quotes the Septuagint to read ‘no male and female’ (ouk…kai).

Paul denies that the gender of the believer can hinder Christ. Male and female, Christ can draw them: Christ can be all to all.

Christ is bridegroom for women and men; the Church is Christ’s bride regardless of gender. Precisely because Christ is all -the omega- there can also be ‘no male and female.’ 

Christ attracts or orients all desire to God.

‘No male and female’ denies, therefore, strong forms of the complementarity theory (where the male-female relationship is inherent to God’s creative design).

Such a theory of complementarity effectively denies the Christ in whom all things are summed up. 

Thus Paul, when he does quote Genesis 1 at Galatians 3.28 subordinates it to Christ and blocks the implication that complementarity of ‘male and female’ is exclusive.”

Those who oppose the inclusion of gays into the Church and into the covenant of marriage are quick to cite St. Paul and Genesis 1 respectively. Not only does Paul list homosexuality as a vice worthy of God’s wrath (it’s supposed), same-sex unions violate the clear (it’s supposed) creative intent of God (it’s supposed).

As much as Paul becomes the rallying point for the traditionalist perspective, it’s odd- or revealing- that it’s seldom pointed out how Paul minimizes the very categories so crucial to the conservative argument.

If the Jew-Gentile distinction has been obliterated by Christ much more surely has a lesser distinction like gender or sexuality been  transcended.

The normatively of the male-female union may have been biblical in Genesis 1 and onward, but because of Christ it is no longer.

So to speak.

Of course, that Paul makes such a rhetorical move shouldn’t surprise us.

If the male-female union, if being fruitful and multiplying is God’s ironclad intent for human creatures both he and Jesus were in clear violation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517   …and to the Way for which his Cross stands…’    

I remember my first day at my first church:

My secretary 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 my self-destruction.

Independence Day Weekend is a time when a lot of churchgoers expect their pastors to preach about America or politics or patriotism. And there’s nothing wrong with those things.

     But, in my denomination at least, the bishop laid hands on me to proclaim not America but the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

     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 from heaven.

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.

I was commissioned to preach the Gospel.

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.

     And in our day, the Gospel has a counter-cultural correlative 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.

     Independence Day is as good a time as any for Christians 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…’

     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.’

    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 is our naturalization ceremony in which allegiance and loyalty is transferred from the kingdoms and nations of this world to the Kingdom of God.

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 service.

And sacrificial love.

 

 

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis past weekend a former youth in my congregation who since has become a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.

The event put me in a recollecting mood as this month I’ve spent a dozen years as a pastor in 3 different congregations, 2 here in Virginia and 1 in New Jersey. I’ve changed in many ways during those years and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.

Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual.

First up, is my thinking around infant baptism, the 3rd rail of the United Methodist ordination process.

When I was working my way through the United Methodist ordination process, any suggestion that infant baptism was not the biblical norm as verboten as uttering Lord Voldemort’s name. The United Methodist powers-that-be needed to insure I could articulate a traditional theological explication of infant baptism; in truth, they needed to protect the Church from infiltration by too many crypto-baptists.

Now that I’m duly ordained, however, I can say what I couldn’t say during my provisional period: the New Testament and early Church literature offers us no definitive evidence that infant baptism was or wasn’t practiced by the first generations of Christians.

To this point, you could counter by citing what are known as the ‘oikos’ passages in the New Testament.

Oikos, in the Greek, means ‘household.’ In the book of Acts, especially, when the Spirit and ministry of the Church lead to another’s conversion, that individual’s conversion frequently occasioned the conversion and baptism of their entire household.

Obviously this presumes the initial convert was typically a head of household.

It also presumes those included under the rubric ‘household’ were very often servants and slaves who were baptized against their will- hardly an ideal ministry model for us today.

Here’s a quick rundown of the oikos passages in the New Testament:

The household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48; 11:13-18)

The household of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15)

The household of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:30-34)

The household of Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14)

The household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16)

The household of Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14)

While it’s entirely possibly ‘household’ in these passages included infants and children, none of the available texts makes that explicit. It’s also true none of the texts eliminate that possibility.

What I dared not say when I was in the midst of the ordination process is that, fact is, for the first centuries of the Church the record is ambiguous.

     Any Church striving to be faithful to the first Church must necessarily struggle with the fact that adult baptism was the norm for the early Church.

While I was jumping through the commissioning and ordination hoops, I articulated the textbook- and expected- Wesleyan response on baptism.

Baptism, like the Eucharist, is, as Wesley described it, an ‘ordinary channel’ by which God gets to us. Baptism reminds us that salvation comes by God’s gracious initiative. Baptism is a means of what John Wesley called prevenient grace, God’s claim of us before we ever even desire God.

     Before someone outs me as a heretic to the bishop, it’s important that I’m clear:

     I don’t disagree with the traditional Wesleyan theology of infant baptism.

1001446_4988885010893_488859186_nRather after 12 years of congregational ministry in a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christian, I’m increasingly aware that the Wesleyan emphasis on baptism as a means of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace is a second order mode of reflection on the sacrament- a mode of reflection that was inherited from the Medieval Scholastics and was suitable to Wesley’s own day when the average citizen knew the particulars of the Christian story by virtue of being a participant in the wider culture.

     But 21st century America is not Wesley’s Enlightenment-era England and hasn’t been for longer than we’ve wanted to admit.

     Instead, after 12 years of serving in a local congregation, I’m increasingly aware that our culture is quickly resembling the context of the first century culture in which the faith began: a culture where Jesus-followers were a witnessing minority in the midst of rival religions and ideologies.

And after these dozen years as a minister, I wonder if it would be more helpful to recover an emphasis on baptism more nearly patterned after the early Church’s primary  baptismal message:

Christians are made not born.

To become a Christian you need to be initiated.

No one is born a Christian. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the Church and the Synagogue, save Jesus Christ himself, is the fact that the Church isn’t a community that grows biologically.

The Church only grows by witness and conversion. Presently, the mainline Protestants traditions in the West are all experiencing trying decline in numbers and vitality. In the United Methodist Church today, most congregations do not make a single new disciple in a year and are ‘dying’ churches by most objective metrics.

I can’t help but wonder if such decline is exacerbated by a singular emphasis on infant baptism that has left the Church no longer adept at what was once its primary mission: converting people into a new way of life of which baptism is the visible sign.

We can quibble about baptismal theology but it’s very clear that as the United Methodist Church leans into the future it’s going to have to relearn how to convert adults to the way of following Jesus Christ.

Typically in the ancient Church it took several years for a prospective Christian to be admitted into the Body. During those preparatory years, a period known as the catechumenate, the inquiring student participated only partially in the life of the community.

For example, it was commonplace for catechumens to be dismissed from worship (not unlike our children’s sermons) after the word was read and proclaimed and before the Eucharist was celebrated.

Catechumens would spend these liminal years receiving doctrinal instruction and ethical guidance, submitting to moral scrutiny, disciplining their will, amending past sins, changing their vocation if their work was contrary to the Kingdom and gradually growing accustomed to living the Christian life.

Baptism nearly always came on Easter Eve but not before spending the prior forty days of Lent learning the story of redemption: how once we were all prisoners and slaves in the household of Death, atrophying in ignorance of our true home; and how Christ had come to set the prisoners free, to rescue us from bondage, to make himself our Passover from Death to Life, to unwind the story of Sin and be the Second Adam to a New Creation.

This is the story rehearsed and ingrained in the weeks leading up to baptism because it was into this story that the initiate’s own life was merged when they at last sank down into the life-ending, life-giving waters of baptism.

Precisely because it was a submersion into the death of Jesus, baptism came on Easter Eve, during the midnight vigil, when the Church believes, having rescued souls from Hell, Jesus passes from Death to Life.

At a fixed point in the long, intricate worship service, after the arc of the scripture story had been proclaimed, the catechumens would depart the sanctuary for the baptistery, which usually housed a flowing stream. There, at the bishop’s direction, the initiate would face West, the direction of nightfall and so the direction of spiritual darkness. Facing West, the candidate would submit to an exorcism followed by a forceful renunciation of Sin and Evil; in fact, the initiate, in their renouncing, was instructed literally to ‘spit at’ the devil and the devil’s servants:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? 

I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? 

I renounce them.

     Having renounced the ways of the world, the candidate would turn East, the direction of the rising sun, and would confess faith in and allegiance to Christ.

     Given the early Church’s minority, persecuted status in the empire this act of renunciation and allegiance was hardly a sentimental or purely spiritual experience.

It was a very real transferral of obedience from one master to another and very real consequences were expected to result from it.

In darkness then and to a cacophony of prayers, chants and blessings, the candidate would descend into the water as naked as the day they were born. The bishop would then immerse the initiate three times, in the name of the Trinity.

Rising from the water, the new Christian would be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Spirit, robed like a bride in a new garment of white and led back to the sanctuary where, for the first time, they could see the Eucharist celebrated and share in it.

Considering the dangers and risks involved in becoming a Christian in the early generations; considering the relationships that were likely severed; considering the obligations and sacrifices ahead; considering the strangers to whom one now belonged and the strange way of life to which allegiance had been pledged; nothing less than primal, base language would do to describe the initiating ritual: Death, Birth, Marriage.

After a dozen years pastoring in what is, with each new passing day, a new cultural situation, I wonder if it would be wise to recover the ancient Church’s primal, base, alternative-Kingdom language to speak about baptism.

I wonder if it would behoove us to recover their emphasis on baptism as transferral of citizenship and loyalty. I wonder if it would help us in pursuing our mission to reclaim their understanding that infant baptism is an acceptable subset of which adult baptism is the scriptural norm.

 

 

No to Women Bishops

Jason Micheli —  November 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Maybe you already heard– The Church of England just voted by a hair NOT to allow women in the episcopacy. It’s funny to me that there’s still enough residual cultural Christianity left in the West for the media to continue reporting on the inner machinations of the Anglican Church. But that’s not the point I want to make.

Here’s my point. And it has nothing to do with how culturally antiquated, sexist, undemocratic etc this story makes the C of E appear.

It’s more like a quick nugget of theological observation:

I’ve long thought the best argument in favor of ordaining gay Christians to ministry is that the Church has already baptized them. Baptism, after all, is the beginning of Christian vocation. In a sense, we’re all ordained in our baptisms to some form of Christian service/witness in our lives.

Pastoral Ministry is but one form that baptismal vocation takes. If the Church isn’t ready to ordain gay Christians, then, it shouldn’t baptize them.

Shut the door where the theology starts, in other words. 

The same logic holds true when it comes to women serving as bishops- especially in the Anglican Church. The Church already has women ordained to ministry as priests. Having them serve as bishops is a matter of promotion not ordination. It’s functional not theological. If the Church isn’t ready to have them serve as bishops they shouldn’t have ordained to serve as priests. It’s sloppy thinking to such an extent that sexism is the only credible explanation.

Sadly, this is another knock on Archbishop Rowan Williams, one of my heroes. Another case of a good, brilliant leader proving unable to dent an ineffective bureaucracy.