Archives For Barth

Every Last Loser

Jason Micheli —  August 25, 2019 — 1 Comment

Matthew 20.1-16

I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe that Jesus should mind his own business and stay out of the public square. 

“I don’t want to hear about politics at church!” 

It’s maybe the only surviving bipartisan sentiment. Church folks always want the Church to stay out of politics, which for most of us— let’s be honest now— usually means we don’t want the Church to challenge our particular hue of politics. 

I remember—

One Sunday back in my very first church just outside of Princeton, after I preached an allegedly “political” sermon against state-sponsored torture, which both of America’s political parties supported at the time (this was right after September 11), this ruddy-faced church member assaulted me in the narthex and, sticking his finger in my chest, hollored at me, “Just where do you get off preaching like that, preacher?!”

I stammered. 

So he pressed me.

“If Jesus were still alive, do you honestly think he’d having anything to say about torture and the government?!”

“Um, well, uh…I mean, he was crucified, I think…um…maybe he would have…” I started to say.

He shook his head and waved me off.

“Jesus would be rolling over in his grave if knew you’d brought politics into our church!”

Of course, that’s the rub. 

It’s not our church. It’s not my church. It’s not your church. It’s not our church. It’s his Church. We can insist that the Church keep out of politics— that’s fine, I’m not a sadist. It makes my life easier— but notice how such insistence assumes that we’re in charge of the Church. 

Though we spent three long years plotting to kill him, unfortunately for us Jesus Christ is not dead. 

With Gestapo officers standing in the back of his lecture hall, spying on him, Karl Barth said: 

“If Jesus Christ is only a pleasing religious memory, there will be nothing left of the church but a human community which is puffed up with the illusion that it has inherited the kingdom task all to itself—an illusion that works its own revenge upon the church.” 

Most of the time, there, I think Barth’s describing the United Methodist Church, but Barth’s point is that Jesus Christ— God’s only chosen one— is not dead. 

And the God we serve is Living God, a God who speaks and acts, a God who calls and conscripts. The God we serve is a Living God, a God on the move, a God who is able— able to do more than answer the items on your prayer list. 

The God we serve is a Living God who is able to push and pull and prod and provoke his Church to go where it wants not to go.

In our sin, we can do our damnedest to keep politics out of the church, but can we, in our finitude, keep the Living God from dropping politics into our laps if God so elects? Are we able to resist the Risen Lord who persists in recruiting undeserving sinners like us into his labor?

———————-

I’m not being speculative here. 

Having returned from vacation last Sunday, I arrived here at church on Tuesday morning, bright and early, with a long To Do list and my whole work week meticulously laid out. 

Then our Lord, as he’s wont to do, messed up all my preconceived plans. He dragged politics into his church, and he strong-armed us into doing his work. 

We were in the middle of a staff meeting. 

A visitor buzzed the security intercom at Door #2. 

“I need help,” she shouted into the speaker in hesitant, broken English. 

Dottie, our secretary, buzzed her inside and showed her to my office to wait while we finished our work at the staff meeting. I figured if her request was illegitimate then she’d grow impatient with waiting and would move on to the next easy mark. 

When we were finished with our work, I walked back to my office and discovered a woman about my age, neatly but simply dressed, with her black hair pulled back taut. Three children sat across the same sofa as her. 

Their names, she told me, were Scarlett, Edward, and Denis— 6, 12, and 14 years old respectively. 

I offered her my hand and introduced myself in my broken Spanish. 

She introduced herself as Carolina. 

“I was a teacher,” she said out of the blue and looking like she was struggling to get the English right. 

I must’ve looked confused because she went on to explain, and what she told me wasn’t what I was expecting nor was it what I wanted to hear with such a busy week before me.

“We just arrived here,” she said, “last night. From Nicaragua.”

I still wasn’t processing her situation and it must’ve showed because she quickly added: “We left Nicaragua fifty days ago.”

“Porque?”

“My community very dangerous,” she said and wiped away tears, “I left— my home, my work— for them, for my children.” 

And then, as best as she could, she told me about their journey, first by bus, then on foot, and finally stowed away in the back of a delivery truck. 

Seeking asylum, they’d been separated and detained at the border and then eventually reunited and released on her own recognizance to report back at a later date. 

She pulled a cell phone out of her back pocket and showed me the documents that corraborated her story, the first one stamped with her mug shot. 

They arrived here on Monday and are now living in the basement of an acquaintance less than a minute’s walk from here. 

Literally, a stone’s throw. 

God apparently isn’t all that concerned with our concerns about keeping politics out of his Church. 

“Do you have any food?” I asked her. 

“No.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“No.”

“Do you have a lawyer— an abogado?”

“No.”

“What about your children— are they registered for school?”

She shook her head and appeared overwhelmed.

“What are you going to do?”

This time she had an answer. 

“I prayed and I prayed all last night,” she said, and she’d suddenly stopped crying and looked both serious and euphoric. “I prayed and finally God spoke. He answered me, and God said to me to come here.”

“Here?”

She nodded. 

“God said to me that he’d make you help us.”

“He did, did he?”

And she smiled and shook her head and said “Yes.” 

She said “Yes” emphatically, like she’d just witnessed a miracle.

“Isn’t that just like God,” I muttered under my breath, “he knows I don’t have time for one more thing and so he sends you my way.”

“Como?” she asked, confused by my mumbling to myself. 

“Nevermind,” I said, “it sounds like Jesus is determined for us to help you so what choice do I have?”

“None,” she said matter-of-factly, “no choice,” like it had been a serious question. 

As though God had made me her hired hand. 

———————-

Check out this parable. 

Jesus would’ve known it. It was taught by the ancient rabbis before getting recorded and canonized in the Jewish Talmud. 

“A king had a vineyard for which he engaged many laborers, one of whom was especially apt and skillful. What did the king do? He took his laborer from his work, and walked through the garden conversing with him. 

When the laborers came for their wage in the evening, the skillful laborer also appeared among them and received a full day’s wage from the king. The other laborers were angry at this and said, “We have toiled all day long while this man has worked but two hours; why does the king give him the full wage even as to us?” 

The king said to them: “Why are you angry? Through his skill he has produced more in two hours than all of you have done all the day long.”

Notice—

In the Jewish Talmudic parable, the emphasis falls on the exceptional worker’s economic productivity, but in Jesus’ remix of the parable, the stress is not on the laborer but on the landowner.

The focus is not on the worker’s activity but the owner’s activity, going out, again and again, seeking and summoning. The focus isn’t on the laborer’s contributions but on the landowner’s character, “Are you envious because I am generous?” 

Actually, in Matthew’s Greek, the landowner asks the grumbling laborers, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” 

Because I am good— that’s the money line; that’s the clue.

Right before Jesus spins his version of this parable, Jesus chastises a wealthy honor roll student for calling him good. “Good teacher,” the rich young man says to Jesus, “what must I do to have salvation?” 

And rather than answer him outright, Jesus takes him to task for his salutation. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” 

No one is good, Jesus has just said, but God.

If you want salvation, Jesus then tells him, you’ve got to be free for it. Freed for it. Go, offload all your stuff on Craigslist and then come follow me. 

In other words, whatever that word salvation includes it cannot exclude following and obeying Jesus Christ. 

Follow me, Jesus invites the rich kid with the perfect resume. 

But, Matthew reports (this was centuries before Marie Kondo), the rich young man had too much stuff in the way of following after Jesus so he turns around and turns away from Jesus and returns home. 

He is the only person recorded in the Gospels who’s invited by Jesus to become a disciple but refuses. 

And looking on the rich kid walking back home, Jesus says, “It’s hard for rich folks like him to follow me, about as hard as camel squeeing its humps and luggage through the eye of a needle.”

And the disciples, knowing they have more in common with the overachieving do-gooder than with the unemployed, homeless carpenter from Nazareth, throw up their hands, chagrined. 

“Then there’s no hope for any of us!” they gripe, “If a success story like him can’t follow you and following you is salvation, then who can be saved?”

Jesus responds, “For mortals, it’s impossible. But for God, all things are possible,” which offends Peter, who gave up his fishing business— all on his own— to come work for the Lord and here Jesus is saying “Well, God will get even losers like this rich guy to ‘Yes.’ Watch, God will make followers of them too.”

“That’s not fair” Peter grumbles, and I get it. Trust me, no one has a beef with Christ’s poor taste in Christians quite like a pastor.

“That’s not fair,” Peter gripes. 

So then Jesus doubles down with a redacted version of a familiar parable. 

———————-

The denarius, which the landowner pays all the laborers, was the daily subsistence pay required by the Torah. 

It’s prescribed in the Book of Leviticus. It’s minimum wage. It’s the equivalent of pulling a shift at Wendy’s. So the workers who show up just before quitting time— their pay is unearned, yes, but its not extravagant by any means. It’s not gratuitous; it’s what the Law requires.

This is not a parable of God’s grace as opposed to our works. 

This is a parable about God’s gracious and determined work to enlist every last loser to his work. Like alot of the parables, this one is misnamed. 

It’s not the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Heck, the laborers don’t do any labor onstage that we see at all. The laborers don’t so much as speak until they grumble at the very end. 

No, this is the Parable of the Land Owner and his prodigal labor of summoning workers to his vineyard. 

Nearly all the verbs in the story belong to him. He goes out— five times he goes out; he even goes out after there’s hardly anything left to be done— seeking laborers for his vineyard. 

Jesus tells you the takeaway at the very top of the story. 

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is like a landowner who went out to find laborers…”

For his what?

For his vineyard.

Jesus assumes you know the Book of Isaiah where God’s self-chosen image for Israel and her vocation— her vocation to be a light to the world, to be a peculiar, set-apart, pilgrim people, to be a holy people, to be a nation within and among the nations, to be a people who embody— unlike the nations— God’s justice and righteousness— God’s image for his elect People and their vocation in the world is a vineyard. 

It’s Isaiah chapter five. 

God is the landowner who labors in this parable. 

It’s about God’s work to find workers. 

The primary difference between a Living God and a dead god, an idol, is that the latter will never shock or surprise you, never offend you or inconvenience you, and never call you to do something you wouldn’t have done apart from conversion and worship.

This parable—

It’s about this vocative God of ours. 

This God who refuses to accomodate our apathy and functional atheism by remaining comfortably distant and idle but is instead always on the move, going out, inviting and enlisting, calling and conscripting, seeking and finding and arm-twisting Kingdom accomplices in a world that knows not that Jesus is Lord. 

We can argue whether or not there’s any work we must do as Christians who are justified by grace alone, but the reality is that Jesus Christ is not dead and if he’s got a work for you to do, by God, he’s going to give it to you and he’s going to get you to do it.

———————-

I remember—

There was a young woman in one of the congregations I once served. Her name was Ann. She was a straight-A student at an Ivy League school. 

She was nearing graduation, and her parents couldnʼt have been more excited about what lay in her future: maybe a graduate degree at another prestigious school; maybe a career and no less than a six figure salary.

Instead Ann threw them all for a loop and one day, out of the blue, announced to her parents that rather than doing anything they wanted, she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in Venezuela.

I only found out about this when Annʼs mother burst into my office one day, clearly assuming I was the one who put the idea in her daughter’s head. 

Red-faced and furious, she said: “Preacher, youʼve got to talk to her. Youʼve got to convince her to change her mind. Youʼve got to show her sheʼs throwing her life away.”

Ever the obedient minister, I met with Ann and communicated all her motherʼs fears: she was being naive, she was being irresponsible, she was being idealistic, her education should come first, she shouldnʼt jeopardize her career. 

The Gospel’s about grace not works, I told her.

Ann looked back at me liked Iʼd disappointed her in some way. “Didnʼt Jesus tell the young man to give up all his stuff and follow him?” she asked.

“Uh, well, yeah but…I mean…Jewish hyperbole and all…he couldnʼt have been serious…that wouldʼve been irresponsible. At least tell me why youʼre doing this.”

“Why do you think?” she asked like there could be only possible answer and it should be obvious. “Jesus sorta came to me and he spoke to me and he told me to go and do it.”

“He did, did he?”

And her eyes narrowed, like she was about lay a straight flush down on the table. 

“Are you telling me, pastor, that I should listen to you instead of him.”

“Um, uh…okay, I think we’re done here. Just leave me out of it when you talk to your parents.”

————————

I know you want to keep politics out of the Church. 

I get it.

But the problem is, it’s not your Church and the Risen Christ, the Living God, he’s on the move. He’s always going out, calling and conscripting.

And he is free to drop whatever work he chooses into your lap whether or not it obeys our boundaries of what’s acceptable. 

The Lord is no respecter of propiety. With pictures of asylum seekers all over the newspapers, God this week brought politics in to his church here. 

And just like that, God got us to working. 

Meredith, our Children’s Director, found games to occupy the kids while they waited. Peter put down what he was doing and left to stuff his trunk with food for them. And I stared at the fourteen items I had on my To Do list for the day as I waited on hold, making calls all day long for Carlina, connecting her with the county, finding her a lawyer, locating services, resourcing her three kids.

When we drove them home later, I carried bags of food inside and I gave her my cell number and I told her that if there was anything else she needed to call me. It was the sort of compassionate gesture you make to someone when you don’t really expect them to take you up on the offer. 

Later that night I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize. 

“This is Carolina,” it said, “thank you to you and your church.”

“De nada.”

And then I watched the text bubbles roll up and down as she texted another message. “The school say I need to go to Central Office to register my children.” 

“How are you going to get there?” I texted back. 

“I prayed,” she replied, “and God said you should take me.”

“He did, did he?”

“Si.”

And then the next text quickly followed.

“God say to tell you that I’m baptized. You have an obligation to me. As a brother. In Christ.” 

“That’s the annoying inconvenience of worshipping a Living God,” I typed but didn’t send. 

And so, thanks to Jesus, I spent most of the next day driving her and her children to Merrifield to get her kids registered and tested and immunized. And then the next day, Jesus apparently summoned my wife and son to go purchase school supplies for all of them. 

———————-

At the end of the week, I mentioned all the details to Dottie, our secretary and she replied, “In order to be a pastor, you must have to really enjoy helping people in need.” 

“Enjoy?” I asked, “Do you know many people in need? Most of them aren’t that enjoyable.” 

“Then why did you choose to do it?” 

“Choose? I didn’t choose it at all. I got summoned.”

When God appears to him in an unconsuming fire, calling and commissioning Moses, who’s on the lam in the desert for murdering a man, Moses rightly asks for God’s name. Moses knows that his hearers in Pharaoh’s court will inquire of him which god has dispatched him to bring them a message of liberation. 

The god of which place? The god of what function? Moses anticipates them asking. 

By answering “I Am Who I Am,” Yawhweh refuses to be confined to a particular place or people. The God who is “I Am Who I Am” is Being itself; this God will not be circumscribed to a specific location nor limited— as the fertility gods— according to utility. 

Likewise, God issues the same refusal earlier in Genesis 12. The God who calls Abram doesn’t appear to Abram in a burning bush. The God who calls Abram doesn’t appear to Abram at all. The God who calls Abram just calls. 

The ancient rabbis believed that Abram’s father was idol maker. Whether that’s true or not, Abram did grow up in a culture populated by a pantheon of gods— useful deities who could be fashioned out of wood and stone, gods that could be sought out when you needed them and put back on the shelf when you didn’t. Abram grew up with gods who were visible and confined to particular places and people and called upon only on particular days.

But this God who calls Abram is different, different from the gods he grew up with.

This God who calls Abram just calls.

Unlike the gods he grew up with, this God who calls Abram is invisible. Invisibility, that’s scripture’s way of speaking of God’s omnipresence. Because God is not precisely there, God can always be here, which is to say, everywhere. You can bet Abram’s takeaway from his encounter with the Living God matched Moses’ takeaway: the discovery that the God who hung the stars in the sky is everywhere. 

There is no where Abram can go in his life where this God isn’t already.

And calling Abram, this God immediately sends Abram away his land. 

To belong to the true God is to be summoned out of your place of birth and people of belonging.

This God is not a god who can be taken off the shelf to bless the land where you live.

This God is a God who calls people out of their people to be a pilgrim people.

In order to bless the entire world. 

As Karl Barth notes, the Israelites received the Torah amidst a theophany on Mt. Sinai; therefore, the commandments themselves are not natural, universal principles but are a revelation of God. And because this revelation of God comes amidst their delivery from one master to another Master, the commandments also function as a kind of description of an idolatrous society. In as much as “Thou shall not kill” is a command it’s also an indication that the society which worships God falsely is a society marked by violence. Thus the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods except me,” is a command meant to contrast with the land whence they came. 

Unlike Yahweh, the false gods of the Old Testament represent a settling for a partial local identity. 

The late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe, writes that “to worship the local gods of the Old Testament meant seeing oneself as essentially belonging to this tribe, this place, this time.” The false gods with which Moses, Abram, and the Israelites in Egypt were familiar were closely tied to the soil of a particular region, to the fixed rhythms of nature, or to the structures of a particular society. “The call away from this to the worship of the non-god Yahweh,” McCabe insists, “meant a radical dissatisfaction with any such settled belonging.”

Yahweh doesn’t simply give the Israelites the commandments as they’re getting out of Egypt; rather, Yahweh gives the commandments to the Israelites so that the commandments might function as the means by which Yahweh gets Egypt out of the Israelites. The problem with nationalism, then— or, even, patriotism, is that it replicates the very devotion Yahweh would have his pilgrim people renounce. The Ten Commandments essentially confess to our idolatries “I do not believe, and I will not serve you.” 

The danger posed by nationalism is the lure of false worship. 

The false gods made you feel at home in a place, McCabe observes, that was their purpose. The fake gods had to do with the country in which you grew up and loved. The fake gods affirmed where you were and thus affirmed who you were. By doing so, rather than creature to Creator, the fake gods bound your identity as a person to your place of origin. Thus the idol creates a dependent, mutually reinforcing relationship between place and personhood such that to critique the former risks undoing the latter. 

In other words, idolatry requires mythology. 

The fake gods of nation and state demand obeisance to false narratives of exceptionalism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was no stranger to the fake gods, said the danger of nationalism is not love of one’s country but that very often nationalism— even patriotism— does not allow for confession of collective sin nor expressions of repentance. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics that to profess Jesus as Lord in the midst of this “religion” of nationalism is to confess one’s own complicity in sustaining the very Powers the Church by its baptism into the exodus of Christ’s death and resurrection has been commissioned to confront. 

That is, nationalism is an idol which makes it difficult for Christians, in obedience to the true God, to call bullshit, as Stanley Hauerwas counsels Christians, on the Powers of the places where they find themselves and this fake god makes it impossible for Christians to confess truthfully our own promiscuity with these other lords. 

Luke 10.25-37

I’ve had it sitting in my sermon file for years, a review of the book,In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa, by the journalist Daniel Bergner, whose book documents the gruesome aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone. 

The title of Bergner’s book refers to the popular— desperate— belief in the region that certain rituals, going even to the extreme of cannabalism, will guarantee immunity to bullets. Hence, the term “magic soliders.”

What caught my attention in the review is the section that begins with this line:  “What is of value in this book is less what it says about Sierra Leone than about the human condition.” 

Specifically, the reviewer is referring to one human, Neall Ellis, whose story in the book says something offensive about the lot of us. 

Neall Ellis is a white avaitor from South Africa. After a brief stint in the Rhodesian Army, he joined the South African Air Force, where he was awarded the Honoris Crux in 1983, and later attained field rank. 

After retiring from the SAAF, Ellis used his savings and retirement funds to pay the tuition costs for local schoolchildren in war torn Sierra Leone. 

He sent one young woman all the way to England, set her up with lodging, and paid her way through nursing school and, after nursing school, midwifery school. 

He covered all the expenses of another young man’s medical school education in Johannesburg, as well as the extensive plastic surgeries required by a young woman who had been badly burned during the conflict in Sierra Leone. 

And not just her— Ellis raised the funds to construct an entire burn hospital.

I’ve got a c-note that says it’s named after the Good Samaritan. 

Ellis told the journalist that he was building the hospital, “because right now there isn’t a place like that in the whole of Sierra Leone, nowhere a victim can go to get that type of treatment. Seeing such a need, I can’t just pass on by.” 

Admit it— you expect a sermon on this parable to segway into an illustration just like this of some real-life Good Samaritan making good on the lessons we all learned in Kindergarten.

Whenever you hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you expect to hear a story about someone like Neal Ellis. 

Well, here’s the rest of Neal Ellis’ story. 

After he retired from the South African Air Force in the 1980’s, Neal Ellis took a job as a mercenary for the government of Sierra Leone, piloting the sole combat helicopter the nation owned. 

He took the job not for the pay, he admitted to the journalist, but for the work. He loved the thrill of rocketing and machine-gunning from the air, confessing to Bergner:  “It’s better than sex. . . . There’s a lot of adrenaline going. You’re all keyed up, and when you realize you’re on target, that you’ve taken out the enemy, it’s a great feeling.” 

According to Human Rights Watch, they’ve documented dozens of dead and wounded civilians, women and children, in scores of towns that Neal Ellis attacked. The burn victims whose medical bills Neal Ellis covers— Neal Ellis is responsible for their condition. 

They’re in the hospital, because he put them there. 

Even after In the Land of Magic Soldiers went to print, Ellis emailed the author mentioning another civil war that had broken out on the continent and how he was “hoping for a possible contract.” 

Writing about Neal Ellis, journalist Daniel Bergner doesn’t call him a Good Samaritan. 

Instead, Ellis makes Bergner question if there’s any such thing as a Good Samaritan. 

Until the complexity of casting someone like Neal Ellis as Jesus’ protagonist in today’s parable has stuck in your craw, you’ve not really comprehended Christ’s answer to the lawyer.  

———————-

     We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable passes us by.

     It’s so obvious we never notice it:  Jesus told this story to Jews. 

     The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the twelve disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered round to hear about their Kingdom, work. 

    Every last listener is a Jew. 

     And so, when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked, and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. 

     When Jesus says, “So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,” NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like, “That’s outrageous!”

     When Jesus says, “There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch, so he crossed to other side and passed on by,” EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking, “What’s your point? Of course, he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.”

     

     Ditto, the Levite. 

     No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.  

No one would’ve been outraged.

     As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking. 

     The priest had no choice— for the greater good. 

     According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. 

     Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.    

     And, if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, (according to the Mishna), the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs. 

     Now, of course, that strikes us as god-awful. 

     But, the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. 

     As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but, exactly, what Jesus says they did. 

     So— 

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable. 

     If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then— no matter how many hospitals we name after this story— the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.  

     If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need, then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway. 

     The takeaway is the who, who is doing the helping.

The point of the parable doesn’t start with the what, but the who.

———————-

     Just like Neal Ellis, this Samaritan has a more complicated backstory. 

    In Jesus’ own day a mob of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke into the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. 

Looted it. 

     And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses, bodies they dug up and bodies killed.  

     Whereas, the priest and the Levite would not touch a dead body in the ditch out of deference to the Law and it’s ritual obligations, the Samaritans made a mockery of God’s Law by vandalizing the Temple with bodies they’d robbed from the grave.

     In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

     That’s why, when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word “Samaritan.” “The one who showed mercy” is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth. 

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. 

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. 

The offense of the parable is that Jesus casts someone like a Samaritan as the protagonist.  

We get it all backwards. 

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. 

I wish. 

How flattering is that? 

It says a lot about our privilege that we automatically identify with the rescuer in the story.

    We get it backwards. 

     Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need. 

Of course, loving your neighbor means caring for someone in need. 

But that’s not what Jesus is doing here. 

———————-

 

Not only do we forget that every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew, seldom do we notice what prompts Jesus’ story in the first place. 

What does Luke tell you? 

Luke reports,  “The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus:  ‛Who is my neighbor?’”

This lawyer is attempting to establish his enoughness before God all on his own. 

This is what Jesus is picking apart with his parable. 

Jesus shows you what St. Paul tells you in Galatians— that, if justification could come through our keeping of the commandments, (if it was as easy as this lawyer supposes), then Christ died for absolutely nothing.

So, what does Jesus do to this lawyer and his self-justification project? 

To this expert in the Law, Jesus tells a story where the hero is the personification of unrighteousness under the Law. 

Jesus skewers the lawyer’s good, godly self-image by spinning a story starring an ungodly sort like Neal Ellis. 

And then, like Jesus does in the sermon on the mount, Jesus amps up the expectations to an impossible degree. Jesus overwhelms the lawyer by crediting to the Samaritan a whopping fourteen verbs worth of compassion and care, count them up.

And finally, in order to blow the lawyer’s self-righteousness to smithereens, Jesus lowers the boom and says, “Go and do likewise.”

Pay attention. 

This is where our reading of this passage tends to run off the rails. What Jesus is driving at here with his, “Go and do,” is heavy, and the demand is the same for me, and it’s the same for you too. 

Go and do like that Samaritan, Jesus is saying, help every single person in need who comes your way, regardless of how busy you are. 

No matter the circumstances, no matter the cost, no matter the safety. Book them a room. Give the front desk your Amex Gold Card and put no restrictions on room service.   

And do it, Jesus is saying, like that Samaritan. Do it with the purest of intentions, with no thought about yourself, without any expectation of recriprocation or promise of reward. Do it spontaneously, provoked solely by the love of God alone, and do not be disappointed when they recidivize. 

Do it just like that— spend fourteen verbs on every single person. Do it no matter if they’re wearing a “MAGA” hat or a “Black Lives Matter” tee. 

Do all of that, perfectly, from the heart, and on your own, all by your lonesome, you will be justified.

How’s that working for you?

This parable is not about helping people in need. 

This parable is about helping you recognize your need. 

For a savior.

YOU’RE THE ONE IN THE DITCH!

And while we were yet enemies, when there was “no health in us” and we were as good as dead in our trespasses, the Son of God condescended to us— he took flesh— and he got down into the ditch with us and he loved you, his neighbor, more than himself, carrying you in his body, lavishing upon you his every last verb, sparing no expense, until his love for you drove him to fall among thieves, bloodied and beaten and ditched by a world too busy to do anything, but pass him by. 

———————-

In his book,In the Land of Magic Soldiers, journalist Daniel Bergner  doesn’t call Neal Ellis a Good Samaritan. 

He calls him “a haunting figure…haunting, because the strange blend of compassion and cruelty in his life is a reminder of what we all carry within us. He’s a reminder of how fragile is our human predicament and of how we are all in need not only of rescue, but also repair.”

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts in Romans, rectification. 

We’re in need not only of rescue, but also rectification.

———————-

We’re the ones in the ditch. 

But before Jesus Christ departed us by Death and Resurrection, he left us not his Discover Card, but his Holy Spirit. 

He left us his Holy Spirit to nurse us back into health. 

He left us his Holy Spirit to rehabilitate us. 

To rectify— to make right— the image in which God, the Father Almighty made you.  

Before he left, he left you his Holy Spirit. 

And his Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians, is the deposit that guarantees the inheritance this lawyer was inquiring about with Jesus. 

Eternal life. 

The Holy Spirit is the deposit of eternity in time.

The Holy Spirit is the present-tense downpayment of the future life this lawyer seeks.

That’s this lawyer’s other error; he thinks eternal life can only begin somewhere down the line past the present. 

As Karl Barth liked to joke—what sort of eternal life would it be if it begins after something else? If eternal life is eternal, it cannot come after anything.

Because it’s eternal, it’s always already and always ongoing, and though it is always also still not yet, the Holy Spirit is the deposit of it in the here and now. 

The Holy Spirit is the deposit of the not yet in the now.

The practices of the faith, therefore, the work we engage in the Spirit:

The sandwiches you make at the mission center;

The tutoring you contribute to at-risk kids;

The service you offer to our neighbors;

The shelter you provide for the homeless, and

The support you send to churches along the border.

They are not ways we in Christ’s stead help the poor. 

They are the ways that Christ’s Spirit uses the poor to heal us. 

They are not ways we rescue the needy stranger. 

They are ways the Spirit rectifies the stranger in need that you call “you.”

They are not ways we go and do likewise— there’s only one way for us to be justified. 

The practices of the faith— they are not ways we go and do. 

They are ways we are done to. 

Done to by the Holy Spirit. 

Until the Holy Spirit has rendered us likewise.

———————-

We’re all born lawyers. 

We need to be made Christians. 

So hear the Good News:

While we were yet enemies, Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification to be given to you not as your wage for what you go and do, but as an unconditional gift, no matter where you go or what you do. 

By grace through faith, you already possess irrevocably what that lawyer pursued.

Your justification.  

But your rectification?

For that, our Rescuer has left his Spirit. 

So all you lawyers, lay all your doings down. 

They can’t cure what ails you still. 

Lay all your doings down.

And come to the table. 

Come and be done to.

Come and be done to by the Spirit of our Good Samaritan. 

Come, and with bread and wine, be done to by the Spirit of the Samaritan, who is determined not only to rescue you from the ditch of Sin and Death, but to bind up all your wounds, heal your every affliction, and strengthen you in your weakness until you are what you eat.  

Can the oppressed nonetheless also be unrighteous?

Are the poor blessed by virtue of being poor, possessing an inherent righteousness, or do they not also need atonement made?

Can a victim of systemic sin still be a sinner in need of forgiveness? And speaking of victims, what about victimizers? If God’s preferential option is for the former, can the latter be justified?

I’m wondering about these questions because in the Gospel lection for this coming Sunday, Jesus pitches his (premeditated) Temple tantrum, whipping the money-changers, driving the livestock out of the sanctuary, and drop-kicking the cash registers. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ violent protest takes place the week of his Passion, but in John’s Gospel, the text for Sunday, the Temple tantrum comes right after the first of his signs, the wedding at Cana.

That the Jewish Leaders respond to Jesus behaving badly only by asking by what authority he has said and done this but do not call for his arrest implies that they likewise recognize the problem at hand. Because Roman coinage bore the image of Caesar and was stamped with a profession of faith to Caesar’s Lordship, it was unclean and out of bounds for Jewish ritual use. Moreover because it’s inconvenient to travel very far with your prized 4-H bull, Jewish pilgrims who came to the Jerusalem Temple for festival days often needed to purchase sacrificial animals after they arrived. So, in the text, the sheep and doves are being sold on the Temple grounds because neither would fit in a pilgrim’s wallet or duffle bag, and the money-changers have their tables set up there too because there’s little point in sacrificing an animal to make atonement for your sin if you’re going to buy that animal with cash that itself breaks the first and most foundational of commandments.

What Jesus diagnoses as a “den of thieves” began as an understandable and well-intentioned system. But, if you’ve been trapped in a movie theater, airport, or baseball stadium, then you can easily imagine how this process devolved into price-gouging poor pilgrims, extorting the faithful for ever greater sums.

That Jesus’ Temple tantrum is premeditated (he wove the whip from ropes) underscores how Jesus intended it as a performed parable. Rather than spontaneous anger, the Temple tantrum is a prophetic demonstration against an unjust and exploitive economic system.

Sure enough, this is how the John 2 text will get preached in many pulpits this coming Sunday. Jesus’ meme-starting moment in the Temple will be used as an example to exhort Christians to go and do likewise, pitching their own Temple tantrums to rage against modern day money-changers.

The righteous anger of the students in Parkland, Florida, for example, is an easy parallel to draw to Jesus’ own fury in his Father’s House and I’d bet a bull and 2 sheep that many preachers will go there. And to connect those dots from the pages of John’s Gospel to the newspaper pages isn’t wrong per se; it’s insufficient, for to employ this passage for imperatives exhorting social justice is to narrow the frame of the text.

As Pope Benedict writes, to ‘cast Jesus [merely] as a reformer in this passage of the cleansing of the Temple fails to do justice to the witness of the passage.’

To read the cleansing of the Temple as a prophetic act of social justice that compels our own similar acts misses what Jesus says in response to the leaders’ questions about his authority- and it misses how his answer differs from the Synoptics’ rendering of this response. In John, Jesus responds to their questions about his authority by saying “Destroy this Temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” In the Synoptic Gospels, by contrast, this statement is put on the lips of Jesus’ accusers. What’s more, his accusers edit the statement, saying Jesus said: “I will destroy this Temple and in three days I will build another…” In the latter, Jesus is the agent of destruction but in the former, in John’s Gospel, we are the agents of destruction.

Which means:

Jesus is the Temple

And the sign of his authority is his Cross and Resurrection

Jesus identifying himself as the Temple where atonement is made echoes how the Book of Hebrews understands Christ’s own flesh as the Temple veil that mediates the holiness of God and the sin of humanity and Christ’s cross as the mercy seat upon which the propitiation of blood is sprinkled, once and for all.

In answering with himself as the Temple, Jesus points out that the system of Temple sacrifice wasn’t only problematic for those who made an exploitive mockery of it, it was problematic- maybe more so- for those who were sincere about it because it could not atone for your sins, once for all.

As common as it is for preachers to interpret Jesus’ Temple tantrum as the impetus for what we do against exploitive systems of injustice, scripture itself- notably, the Book of Hebrews- uses this passage not in terms of what we must do for God but what God has done in Christ for us.

That Jesus is the Temple, his flesh its veil, and his cross its mercy seat shows that the problem humanity faces is more systemic than the problems about which we prefer to preach

The New Testament, indeed all of the Bible, points to a far deeper and far graver source of human misery than injustice and oppression. It’s popular to the point of cliche to insist that God stands on the side of the marginalized and dispossessed and while that’s certainly true, it’s insufficient for, according to scripture, the marginalized and oppressed with whom God stands are also sinners in need of forgiveness and mercy.

To put it another way:

Liberation is not Salvation.

The emphasis upon social justice in the Church, whose premise is that what defines God’s redemptive activity is liberation from oppression, displaces the centrality that belongs to Jesus Christ alone as Savior of the world. What defines God’s redemptive activity is not liberation from oppression but from the Powers of Sin and Death, for the sign of God’s redemptive activity, so says Jesus, is Cross and Resurrection.

Liberation from oppression, standing up against social injustice, solidarity with the marginalized- those are all faithful frames and postures but they are not sufficient for what scripture names by ‘salvation’ because the oppressed still require atonement for their sins.

The dispossessed do not posses an inherent righteousness.

As my teacher George Hunsinger notes, referring to Karl Barth‘s work:

“The New Testament message, as I understand it, is that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that we are helpless to save ourselves, and that our only hope lies in God’s gracious intervention for us in Jesus Christ. There is only one work of salvation. It has been accomplished by Christ. It is identical with his person…

Victim-oriented theologies, such as we find among the liberationists, fail to do justice to this central truth. The fundamental human plight is that of sinners before God not of victims before oppressors.”

 

It was the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-5th century that hammered out the Christology (‘speech about Christ’) that became orthodox for Christians everywhere. According to the Chalcedon formula, the best way to refer to Jesus Christ is as ‘the God-Man.’

Makes him sound like a super-hero, I know, which is unfortunate since that’s the last thing the Church Fathers were after. Their formula was just the best way to insure that latter day Jesus-followers like us didn’t forget that Jesus the Son is true God and true Man, without division or confusion between his two natures.

He is fully both God and Man.

And, in a latent sense, he has always been both.

Eternally.

In other words, the Son who is the 2nd Person of the Trinity was always going to be the eternal Son who became incarnate and thus the son of somebody like Mary.

According to Maximus the Confessor– indisputably one of the greatest minds in the history of the faith:

The Chalcedonian formula necessitates we affirm that the incarnate Logos is the elect unifier of all things which are separated.

Whether- and this is key- by nature or by sin.

We all know Sin separated us from God.

That’s an every Sunday, altar call kind of presumption- so much so, in fact, that we neglect to remember or notice that less nefarious but even more fundamental fact separates us from the infinite.

Our finitude.

Our createdness.

Our materiality.

That the son of Mary is the eternal-eventually-to-become-incarnate Son of the God we call Trinity shows, says Maximus, that the Logos is the One through whom all things physical and spiritual, infinite and finite, earthly and heavenly, created and uncreated would be united and made one.

Union, says Maximus, was God’s first and most fundamental aim.

At-onement of a different sort.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins. Because if Christ is the God-Man, then everything goes in the other direction.

Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him. By him.

We are the ones with whom, through him, God wants to share God’s life.

It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas; it’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.

We’re the extravagance the superabundant love of Father, Son and Spirit gratuitously seek to share with one another.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but one of the reasons for Jesus is that before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed God’s deepest desire is, was and always will be friendship.

With us.

(Of course Robert Jenson, by way of Barth, argued that the preexistence of the Son in the Trinity implies the Incarnate Son’s cross- that Jesus was born to die, that all was made alive knowing that it would have to be made alive again through his death and resurrection-but that’s a question for another day.)

I Yet Not I

Jason Micheli —  April 28, 2017 — Leave a comment

Peter, for whom words were always a stumbling block, preaches his first sermon in Acts 2 to a crowd of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for Shavu’ot. Having remembered their deliverance fifty days prior at Passover, on Shavu’ot Jews like Peter gathered again in Jerusalem to remember their receiving of the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai.

That the lectionary assigns this text for the third Sunday of Eastertide and pairs it with the Emmaus road revelation is a telling reminder that more is to be seen here than, as is customarily preached, the arrival of the Holy Spirit (as though the Spirit previously has been a deadbeat member of the Godhead).

Don’t forget-

Luke has already told us the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, alighted upon Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon, compelled Christ’s first sermon, and baptized Jesus in his vicarious repentance.

Never mind the activity of the Holy Spirit throughout the Old Testament.

What Luke would have us see in Acts 2 is not the arrival of a heretofore absent Holy Spirit. The Spirit was never absent neither from Israel nor the disciples. The Holy Spirit was as present and active among the People of Israel before this Shavu’ot as the Holy Spirit is present and active among the People called Church after it.

Too often by relegating Peter’s rookie sermon to Pentecost preachers make the point of this passage Peter’s ability to preach as a product of the Holy Spirit’s arrival and, in doing so, we ignore the actual content of Peter’s preaching: the Risen Christ who is always not only the content of our proclamation but the active agent of our proclamation.

Christians joke that the Holy Spirit is the forgotten member of the Trinity but I actually think it’s Jesus. We teach Jesus’ teachings and we pray to Jesus and we preach his cross and resurrection but we neglect the ongoing agency of the Risen Christ both in the post-Easter scriptures and in our own world.

The story Luke tells in Acts 2 is no different than the story Luke tells of the encounter on the Emmaus road.

They’re both narratives about the Risen Christ making himself known to his disciples.

In the latter, the Risen Christ makes himself known in the breaking of the bread. In the former, the Risen Christ makes himself known in the proclamation of Peter. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus do not perceive Jesus on their own nor do they deduce his presence among them; likewise, Peter does not persuade his listeners to repent and be baptized nor do his listeners draw on their own any conclusions from their hearing.

The Risen Christ makes himself known in Peter’s proclamation and calls them himself to repent and be baptized, adding 3,000 to their number.

Numbers, as Brian Zahnd told me, are always important in the Bible.

The number 3,000 here in Acts 2 is another reminder that not only are we to read this passage in light of the resurrection we’re also to read it in terms of Shavu’ot.

 

The first Shavu’ot, as told in Exodus 32, ended with Moses and the sons of Levi taking up the sword and killing- brother, friend, and neighbor- 3,000 of the Israelites.

Why?

Because while Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God- the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me- the Israelites were busy down below making God into, if not their own, a cow’s image. Seeing them worshipping the golden calf, Moses orders the Levites to kill the idolaters.

3,000 were substracted from God’s People that first Shavu’ot.

So when Luke reports that 3,000 were added to the disciples on Shavu’ot, as a result of the proclamation of the Gospel, we’re to see more than the Holy Spirit’s arrival, more even than a crowd compelled by Peter’s preaching to repent.

We’re to see the Risen Christ overcoming- for us, in our place- our natural proclivity to idolatry. 

We typically think of conversion as something we do. Hearing a sermon such as the one Peter delivers in Acts 2, we “make a decision” for Christ, we think.

It’s true the Gospel tells us to repent and believe, to take up our cross and follow, and it’s true that this ‘decision’ is something no one else can do for us. No one else, that is, except Jesus.

If we do not allow Jesus to be a substitute for us even in our repenting and believing then, as Thomas Torrance argues, we make his atoning substitution for us something that is partial and not total, which finally empties the cross of its saving significance.

“Jesus,” says Torrance, “constitutes in himself the very substance of our conversion, so that we must think of him as taking our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision, for without him all so-called repentance and conversion are empty.”

What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf.

The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ.

Jesus acts in our place in the whole range of our life lived before God. Says Torrance:

“He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father.”

Those 3,000 added on Shavu’ot are no different than the 3,000 on the first Shavu’ot. By themselves and their own faithfulness, Peter’s audience is every bit as prone to fashion and worship a golden calf.

The only difference is that the 3,000 in Acts are now in Christ. The Risen Christ is their substitute, his repentance and believing and faithfulness standing in for and empowering their own.

In him and through him, they are able to repent and believe and be baptized.

“When we say ‘I believe’ or ‘I have faith’ or ‘I repent’ we must correct ourselves and add ‘not I but Christ in me.’ That is the message of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ on which the Gospel tells me I may rely: that Jesus Christ in me believes in my place and at the same time takes up my poor faltering and stumbling faith into his own invariant faithfulness.”

What see in the Shavu’ot in Acts 2 is God overcoming our idolatry in the first Shavu’ot through the ongoing substitution of the Risen Christ in our place.

 

 

 

     Here’s my sermon from Palm-Passion Sunday on Matthew 26.36-46, Jesus in the Garden in Gethsemane.

Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus and his friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that holy week, these hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would gather at table and temple and they would remember.

They would remember how they’d once suffered bondage under another empire, and how God had heard their outrage and sent someone to save them.

They would remember how God had promised them: “I will be your God and you will be my People.” Always.

They would remember how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God had delivered them from a Caesar called Pharaoh.

Passover was a political powder keg so every year Pontius Pilate would do his damnedest to keep Passover in the past tense.

Every year at the beginning of Passover week Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph, a shock-and-awe storm-trooping parade of horses and chariots and troops armed to the teeth and prisoners bound hand and foot and all of it led by imperial banners that dared as much as declared “Caesar is Lord.”

———————————

      So when Jesus, at the beginning of that same week, rides into Jerusalem from the opposite direction there could be no mistaking what to expect next.

Deliverance from enemies. Defeat of them. Freedom. Exodus from slavery.

How could there be any mistaking, any confusing, when Jesus chooses to ride into town- on a donkey, exactly the way the prophet Zechariah had foretold that Israel’s King would return to them, triumphant and victorious, before he crushes their enemies.

There could be no mistaking what to expect next.

That’s why they shout ‘Hosanna! Save us!’ and wave palm branches as they do every year for the festival of Sukkoth, another holy day when they recalled their exodus from Egypt and prayed for God to send them a Messiah.

The only reason to shout Hosanna during Passover instead of Sukkoth is if you believed that the Messiah for whom you have prayed has arrived.

There could no mistaking what to expect next.

That’s why they welcome him with the words “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” the very words with which God’s People welcomed Solomon to the Temple.

The same words Israel sang upon Solomon’s enthronement. Solomon, David’s son. Solomon, the King.

There could be no mistake, no confusion, about what to expect next.

Not when he lights the match and tells his followers to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (i.e., absolutely nothing).

Not when he cracks a whip and turns over the Temple’s tables as though he’s dedicating it anew just as David’s son had done.

Not when he takes bread and wine and with them makes himself the New Moses.

And not when he gets up from the Exodus table, and leads his followers to, of all places, the Mount of Olives.

The Mount of Olives was ground zero. The front line.

The Mount of Olives was the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised that God’s Messiah would initiate a victory of God’s People over the enemy that bound them.

From the parody of Pilate’s parade to the palm leaves, from the prophesied donkey to the shouts of hosanna, from Solomon’s welcome to the exodus table to the Mount of Olives every one in Jerusalem knew what to expect. There could be no mistaking all the signs.

They knew how God was going to use him.

He would be David to Rome’s Goliath.

He would face down a Pharaoh named Pilate, deliver the message that the Lord has heard the cries of his People and thus says he: “Let my People go.”

As though standing in the Red Sea bed, he would watch Pilate and Herod and all the rest swallowed up in and drowned by God’s righteousness. God’s justice.

They knew how God was going to use him.

———————————

     And when he invites Peter, James, and John, the same three who’d gone with him to the top of Mt. Horeb where they beheld him transfigured into glory, to go with him to the top of the Mount of Olives they probably expect a similar sight.

To see him transfigured again.

To see him charged with God’s glory.

To see him armed with it.

Armed for the final and decisive battle.

The battle that every sign and scripture from that holy week has led them to expect.

Except-

There on the top of the Mount of Olives Jesus doesn’t look at all as he had on top of that other mountain.

Then, his face had shone like the sun. Now, it’s twisted into agony.

Then, they’d seen him dazzling white with splendor. Now, he’s distraught with doubt and dread.

Then, on top of that other mountain, Moses and the prophet Elijah had appeared on either side of him. Now, on this mountaintop, he’s alone, utterly, already forsaken, alone except for what the prophet Isaiah called the ‘cup of wrath’ that’s before him.

Then, God’s voice had torn through the sky with certainty “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Now, God doesn’t speak. At all.

So much so that Karl Barth says Jesus’ prayer in the Garden doesn’t even count as prayer because it’s not a dialogue with God. It’s a one way conversation. Because it’s not just that God doesn’t speak or answer back, God’s entirely absent from him, as dark and silent to him as the whale’s belly was to Jonah.

There, on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, and John with their half-drunk eyes- they see him transfigured again.

This would be Messiah who’d spoken bravely about carrying a cross transfigured to the point where he’s weak in the knees and terrified.

This would be Moses who’d stoically taken exodus bread and talked of his body being broken transfigured so that now he’s begging God to make it only a symbolic gesture.

This would be King who can probably still smell the hosanna palm leaves transfigured until he’s pleading for a Kingdom to come by any other means.

Peter and the sons of Zebedee, they see him transfigured a second time. From the Teacher who’d taught them to pray “Thy will be done…” to this slumped over shadow of his former self who knows the Father’s will not at all.

He’d boldly predicted his betrayal and crucifixion and now he’s telling them he’s “deeply grieved and agitated.”

Or, as the Greek inelegantly lays it out there, he tells them he’s “depressed and confused” such that what Jesus tells them in verse 38 is really “Remain here with me and stay awake, for I am so depressed I could die.”

And then he can only manage a few steps before he throws himself down on the ground, and the word Matthew uses there in verse 39, ekthembeistai, it means to shudder in horror, stricken and helpless.

He is, in every literal sense of the Greek, scared out of his mind. Or as the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus here, crying out frantically with great tears.

He is here exactly as Delacroix painted him: flat in the dirt, almost writhing, stretching out his arms, anguish in his eyes, his hands open in a desperate gesture of pleading.

God’s incarnate Son twisted into a golem of doubt and despair.

Transfigured.

As though he’s gone from God’s own righteousness in the flesh to God’s rejection of it.

———————————

      Peter, James, and John, the other disciples there on the Mount of Olives, any of the other pilgrims in Jerusalem that holy week- they’re not mistaken about what should come next. They weren’t wrong to shout “Hosanna!”

They’re all correct about what to expect next. The donkey, the palm leaves, the Passover- it all points to it, they’re right. They’re all right to expect a battle.

A final, once for all, battle.

They’re just wrong about the enemy.

The enemy isn’t Pilate or Herod but the One Paul calls The Enemy.

The Pharaoh to whom we’re all- the entire human race- enslaved isn’t Caesar but Sin. Not your little s sins but Sin with a capital S, whom the New Testament calls the Ruler of this World, the Power behind all the Pharaohs and Pilates and Putins.

They’re all correct about what to expect, but their enemies are all propped up by a bigger one.

A battle is what the Gospel wants you to see in Gethsemane. The Gospel wants you to see God initiating a final confrontation with Satan, the Enemy, the Powers, Sin, Death with a capital D- the New Testament uses all those terms interchangeably, take your pick. But a battle is what you’re supposed to see.

Jesus says so himself: “Keep praying,” he tells the three disciples in the garden, “not to enter peiramos.”

The time of trial.

That’s not a generic word for any trial or hardship. That’s the New Testament’s word for the final apocalyptic battle between God and the Power of Sin.

The Gospels want you to see in the dark of Gethsemane the beginning of the battle anticipated by all those hosannas and palm branches.

But it’s not a battle that Jesus wages.

Jesus becomes its wages.

That is, the battle is waged in him.

Upon him.

From here on out, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, the will of God and the will of Satan coincide in him.

That’s why they’re both- God and Satan- absent from him here in the garden.

Here in the garden he can longer hear God the Father in prayer.

And here in the garden he lacks what even in the wilderness he had- the comfort of a clear and identifiable adversary.

Here in the garden, they’re both absent from him because they’re both set upon him. Their wills have converged on him. They’ve intersected in him.

He can’t see or hear them now because he’s the acted upon object of them.

He is forsaken- by both God and Satan.

They’ve taken their leave of him to work their wills upon him.

Just as we confess that in Christ’s flesh is the perfect union, both fully divine and fully human; here in the garden we also confess that in him there is another union, a hideous union, of wills:

The will of Sin to reject God forever by crucifying Jesus.

The will of God to reject Sin forever by crucifying Jesus.

That’s the shuddering revulsion that overwhelms Jesus in Gethsemane.

     The cross isn’t a shock.

But this is: the realization breaking over him that the will of God will be done as the will of Satan is done.

In him, upon him,‘thy will be done’ will be done for both of them, God and Satan, on Earth as in Heaven and in Hell.

But that’s what Jesus freely assents to here in the garden.

He accepts that he will be the concrete and complete event of God’s rejection of Sin.

He agrees to be made vulnerable to the Power of Sin and God’s judgment of it.

     He consents to absorb the worse that we can do, as slaves to Sin.

     And he consents to absorb the worst that God can do- the worst that God will ever do.

As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: “For our sake, God made him to be Sin who knew no sin.”

That’s what he accepts in getting up off the ground in Gethsemane.

And only he could accept it. Only he who was without sin- who was not enslaved by it- only he could freely choose, freely choose, to become it.

To be transfigured into Sin.

———————————

      Thursday morning one of Aldersgate’s college students texted me a photo from the Washington Post along with a link to an article.

It was a photo of a little child, maybe 2 or 3 years old.

A boy or a girl, I don’t know- I couldn’t tell from the thick curly hair and red cheeks and a drab olive blanket covered up any pink or blue hued clue the child’s clothes might’ve given me.

From the child’s bright black eyes it looked like the child might be smiling, but you couldn’t be sure because a respirator was masking the child’s face where a smile might go.

Gloved grown-up hands rested on the child’s shoulders.

It wasn’t until I read the whole story that I realized those bright black eyes were empty.

Dead.

“World Health Organization says Syria Chemical Attack Likely Involved Nerve Agent” ran the headline texted to me. And under the headline, under the hyperlink, the student texted me a question: “What do Christians say about this.”

And in the second line of text: a question mark.

Followed by an exclamation point.

What do Christians say?!

———————————

     What do Christians say?

Looking into the vacant eyes of a nerve-gassed toddler?

What do we say?

Something trite about God’s love?

Maybe because we’ve turned God’s love into a cliche, maybe because we’ve so sentimentalized what the Church conveys in proclaiming “God loves you” but many people assume that Christians are naive about the dark reality of sin in the world.

But we’re a People who hang a torture device on an altar wall- we’re not naive. We’re not naive about the cruelties of which we’re capable. Nor are we naive about the dreadful seriousness God deals with those cruelties.

What do Christians say? 

     I don’t know that we have anything more to say than what we hear God say in Gethsemane. 

     No.

No.

The dread, final, righteous, wrath-filled “No” God speaks to Sin.

And, yes.

Yes.

The nevertheless “Yes” God speaks to his enslaved sinful creatures.

The “Yes” God in Christ speaks to drinking the cup of wrath to its last drops.

That word ‘wrath’ gets confused in Church.

Sure, we’re all sinners in the hands of a wrathful God but scripture doesn’t mean it the way you hear it. God’s wrath doesn’t mean God is petulant and petty, raging at sinful creatures like you and me, reacting to our every infraction.

God, by definition, doesn’t react.

God’s wrath means that God never changes, that in Jesus Christ God has always been determined to reject the Power of Sin that binds his creatures as slaves.

So much so that God is dead set, literally over his dead body, dead set on killing it.

Killing Sin.

To set his people free from that Pharaoh. Once. For all.

——————————

     St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.

Here in Gethsemane, Christ empties himself even of that.

     He empties himself completely, pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says when Jesus gets up off the ground in Gethsemane there’s nothing left of Jesus.

There’s nothing left of his humanity.

He’s an empty vessel; so that, when he drinks the cup the Father will not not move from him, when he drinks the cup of wrath, he fills himself completely with our sinfulness.

From Gethsemane to Golgotha, that’s all there is of him.

He drinks the cup until he’s filled and running over.

You see, Jesus isn’t just a stand-in for a sinner like you or me. He isn’t just a substitute for another. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.

It isn’t that Jesus dies an innocent among thieves. He dies as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal.

Jesus swallows all of it. Drinks all of it down and, in doing so, draws into himself the full force of humanity’s hatred for God.

He becomes our hatred for God.

He becomes our evil.

He becomes all of our injustice.

He becomes Sin.

     So that upon the Cross he does not epitomize or announce the Kingdom of God in any way.

     He is the concentrated reality of everything that stands against it.

He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad.

He is every Caesar and every Judas.

Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror, and every chemical bomb.

All our greed. All our violence.

He is every ungodly act and every ungodly person.

He becomes all of it.

He becomes Sin.

So that God can forsake it.

Forsake it.

For our sake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteSome of you have expressed chagrin that I’ve not been blogging as much of late. Partly that’s due to work demands but mostly it’s because the podcast has taken up the free time I’d normally give to the blog.

I don’t regret that or apologize for it, however, because the podcast has allowed me to develop some surprising and life-giving relationships, most notably with Fleming Rutledge. I’m not full of shit at all when I say that I thank God the podcast brought her into my life, and I know from her that she’s equally grateful to have a new usefulness and audience at this season in her vocation.

So here’s our latest Friday’s with Fleming. We recorded it several weeks ago and it was the first time we’d gotten to connect since July. While you’re at it, you can check out Teer’s post, reflecting on our conversation with Fleming.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve got lined up with Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Danielle Shroyer, Ephraim Radner, William Cavanaugh et al.

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. 

PLEASE HELP US REACH MORE PEOPLE: 

GO TO OUR PAGE IN ITUNES AND GIVE US A REVIEW AND RATING

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.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909For Episode 34 of our Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast I got to sit down with my former teacher and ongoing muse and man crush Dr. David Bentley Hart. Anyone who’s spent any time here at Tamed Cynic will already know DBH’s name and his influence upon me. He was my first theology professor at the University of Virginia, coming not long after I became a Christian. As such, he had a lasting imprint upon my faith and thought.

David Bentley Hart may well prove one day to have been the most significant theologian of the 21st century. He is the author of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, Atheist Delusions: Christianity and Its Fashionable Enemies, and The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. You can find all his books, including his work of fiction here.

You can find a short Wall Street Journal essay that served as the genesis for The Doors of the Sea. It’s a great starting point into DBH for newbies and laity.

And, as you’ll hear, he’s just translated the New Testament for Yale University Press.

With his famous dog Roland at his feet, DBH discusses the Church’s loss of classical theism, the (evil) God most Christians worship, the logical incoherence of Process Theology, Hell, Christian Freedom, Reformed (mis)translations of Scripture, and his own personal suffering.

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Rob Bell and others.

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.

For those of you getting this post by email, here’s the link to the podcast for you to cut and paste:

http://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/episode-34-all-creation-afire-as-a-burni

 

 

 

 

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

15. Do Only Christians Sin?

Yes.

To describe oneself a sinner is not a lowest common denominator available to all irrespective of faith claims but it is an accomplishment made possible only through proclamation, baptism and discipleship.

Of course, this is not to argue that only Christians err, lie, commit violence or forsake the good for trivial goods. But sin, meaning as it does the rejection of God’s love and goodness as revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, is a vocabulary term available only to those who speak Christian.

Sin is not synonymous with the general human condition nor is it empirically verifiable apart from revelation. One must learn to know oneself as a sinner, and to know oneself as a sinner first requires knowing oneself as a forgiven sinner.

Only those who’ve experienced the embrace of the Father who declares ‘…we had to celebrate for what was lost has been found…’ can know the distance of the far country whence they came.

Just as no one can know God apart from God’s self-revelation, we cannot know ourselves as standing apart from God apart from the revelation of God in Christ.

In the same manner that cross and incarnation are only intelligible in light of the resurrection, the brokenness of sin only becomes comprehensible in light of the reconciliation made possible by Easter, in which Christ makes all things new.

The assurance of pardon then necessarily precedes, spiritually if not liturgically, the confession of sin.

‘…Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.’ – Luke 15.23-24

Barth_WritingIn §16.1 Barth pointed out relentlessly that Jesus, the God-Man, is the singular revelation around which all Christian speech of God must cohere. Nevertheless God’s revelation also comes to people who receive and respond to it.

The question asked by Barth in §16.1 is this:

Just how is it that people hear the Word of God (Christ) in the word of God (scripture)?

How is it that some hear God speak?

In §16.2 Barth turns to the question begged by those former questions:

Why is it that others do not hear God speak?

If the whole ball of wax- our fulfillment as creatures of God, our salvation and our being caught up in the redemptive story- hinges on our hearing the Word of God then how come some hear but some do not?

Is it their fault for not hearing? Their hardness of heart, to use scripture’s language?

Or is their not hearing God’s choice? Does/did God harden their heart, to use scripture’s language?

In my own Anglican/Wesleyan tradition, the salvation made possible through Christ’s atoning work is freely available to all. We’re all able, to use Barth’s terms, to hear God speak.

In the Calvinist tradition, towards which Wesley felt little sympathy, this question is answered by the ‘L’ of TULIP: Limited Atonement. That is, Christ died for some, not all. And thus with floral imagery, Calvinists skirt the logical problem of why some do not believe, do not hear God speak: Christ didn’t die for them. They do not belong to the eternal elect.

And if God didn’t choose you for salvation- the pretty flower imagery runs out of gas right about here- God chose you for damnation.

Don’t believe? Scratch your head when your religious friends share how God spoke to them in prayer last night? Wonder what the catch is when everyone responds ‘Thanks be’ to the churchy cue: ‘The Word of God for the People of God?’

Don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s God.

He chose you for damnation.

Before the foundation of the world.

A Swiss Reformed pastor, Barth’s tradition was steeped in Calvinism, but in §16.2 Barth again charts new ground.

As he did in §16.1 Barth responds by way of the Holy Spirit.

Too often the question is posed rigidly (and simplistically) by both Wesleyans and Calvinists, as though it’s an either/or dichotomy of ‘free will’ versus ‘predestination.’ Either we’re free to choose or not choose God or God chose for all of us before all time.

Barth pushes back by arguing that any freedom we have to hear or be for God is a freedom that God gives to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We’re free says Barth only because God the Holy Spirit makes us free, which is Barth’s way of channeling Luther who himself channeled Paul: it’s only in slavery to God that we’re ever really free.

It’s what Paul means when he speaks of Christ transferring us from one kingdom to another Kingdom.

It’s what Paul intends by marrying language of our submission to Christ as a consequence of Christ having set us free from the powers of Sin and Death.

What the typical ‘free will vs predestination’ debate misses is the New Testament belief that we are free only to the extent that we participate in the freeing work of Christ. We need to rethink what sort of freedom we do and do not have inside and outside of Christ. Too often Wesleyans overestimate human freedom while just as often Calvinists do away with it altogether, as though all of life were an episode of Lost.

Those who follow Wesley need to hear Barth’s reminder that the freedom that comes to us through the Spirit is a freedom that comes to us from outside ourselves.

It’s not something which we’re naturally imbued.

We’re not all born free, theologically speaking.

Those who follow Calvin, on the other hand, need reminding that this freedom from outside ourselves does actually to us.

In the end, Barth doesn’t really answer the question (Why Do Some Not Hear God Speak?) so much as he muddles it. With Barth, human freedom (or lack thereof) is such that you can’t easily accuse someone of being hardhearted. Then again, with Barth, the Spirit does give freedom to hear so it’s not simply that God has hardened every unbeliever’s heart.

The answer, as it should, is more mysterious.

barthA friend and 3rd year seminary student, Taylor Mertins, recently expressed his excitement over finally diving into the writing of Karl Barth. Long ago in my college and seminary days, I made my way through Karl Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics. I was taught to do theology at UVA and Princeton and in both schools Barth casts a considerable shadow.

Barth, the most significant theologian of the 20th century- maybe since Aquinas, wrote his Dogmatics from 1927 until his death in 1968. It contains 2 million words on 9,000 pages. Even more impressive when you consider Barth wasn’t a traditional academic theologian. He never earned a PhD though he taught others who did. Even better, Barth was one of the leaders of the Confessing Church Movement, the small band of Protestant Christians who actually opposed Nazism.

The depth and breadth of Barth can seem daunting to some and can discourage others from ever cracking a volume open. But once you immerse yourself in Barth, get to know the rhythm of his writing style, he opens the scripture in an almost symphonic way.

So here’s my plan and my invitation. I want to form a Barth reading group. I’ve drawn up a schedule that will take a bit more than 2 years, reading about 20-30 pages a week. Click: Karl Barth Reading Group- Year 1

I’ll begin next Monday so order your copy today.

Each week, I’ll write a post summarizing and reflecting on what we’ve read and invite your responses as well. Think of this as a small group study for which you don’t have to get dressed and come to church.

I know there are plenty of you who read this blog who are bible and theology nerds deep down. You come to every class I teach. You read every post. You email me questions and pushback.

If that’s you, then email me at jamicheli@mac.com and let me know.

First person not named Teer Hardy to tell me they’re in gets a free copy of Volume 1.1.

You can purchase the Dogmatics here.

The recent Study Edition Volumes have broken the CD into smaller, manageable books that leave out Barth’s long, sometimes distracting footnotes.

What do you say? You’re not chicken are you?