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Our summer sermon series through the parables continued this weekend with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21.

“What do you think he’ll do when he comes back?” Jesus asks on the eve of his own destruction. 

“When he comes back, what do you think he’ll do?”

And they said to him: “When he comes back (when he comes back to judge the quick and the dead) he will put those wretches to a miserable death.” 

“What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do when he returns?” 

Here’s another question—

Since today is the fifth Sunday in Eastertide, here’s a resurrection question for you. 

Why is the very first reaction to the Easter news fear? 

Across all four Gospels, the immediate response to the news Christ is Risen isn’t Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia! It’s alarm and abject terror. Why?

Mark and Matthew, Luke and John— none of them tell the Easter story in the same way.

Except for the fear.

Fear is the feature Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree upon. 

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear. The women, come to anoint the body, run away, terrified. The disciples lock the door of the upper room and cower in the corner. 

When he comes back, everyone— they’re white-knuckled terrified. 

Just what do they think he’ll do?

—————————————

      Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in the Book of Daniel, chapter twelve. 

     And the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection: 

“Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall be raised up, the righteous to everlasting life, and the unrighteous to everlasting shame and contempt.”

It’s a double resurrection the Bible anticipates. A resurrection to reward, or a resurrection to punishment.Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God in God’s Kingdom. 

But those who’ve committed suffering by their sins— they might be on top now in this life, but one day the first will be last. God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to its everlasting opposite.

The “good” news of resurrection in the Book of Daniel is predicated entirely upon your goodness. 

Resurrection was not about yellow peeps and metaphors for springtime renewal; resurrection was God coming back with a list of who’d been naughty and who’d been nice in order to mete out to each according to what they deserved. 

Resurrection wasn’t about butterflies. Resurrection was about the justice owed to the righteous and the judgment owed to sinners. In the only Bible the disciples knew, the Old Testament, resurrection was good news. If you were good. If you weren’t, if you were wicked, resurrection was the first day of a miserable and wretched fate. 

———————-

They all respond to the Easter news with fear not because they fail to understand resurrection but exactly because they do understand. 

They know their Bible— better than you. They knew resurrection was good news or godawful news depending on where you fell according to the righteousness equation. And they know that as God’s elect People in the world God had called them, Israel, to be tenants of God’s vineyard. 

And they know all too well that when God set them apart as his peculiar, pilgrim People, when God gave to them the Law on Mt. Sinai, they promised God not just their effort or their obedience but perfection. 

“All of this we will do and more,” they swore at Sinai, “we will be 

perfect before the Law as our Father in heaven is perfect.” 

When they weren’t—

When they failed to return God’s love with love of their own, when they chose to be like the other nations instead of a light to the nations, God sent them his messengers to call Abraham’s children back to the righteous life owed to God as God’s chosen People. 

First, God sent them prophets. 

And what did the People who’d promised him perfection do the prophets?

Zechariah, who told them that God would redistribute their wealth for the sake of the poor, was killed by the King of Judah on the altar of the Temple. Jeremiah criticized them for turning a deaf ear to lies and making an idol of their politics. They shut him up by stoning him to death. And Isaiah was sawn in two near the pool of Siloam for speaking truth to power. “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah said, “I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”

They killed the prophets— and those are just three examples.

So next this God of second and third and sixth chances, he sends them still another. 

A final prophet. 

And this messenger makes a way in the wilderness. And he baptizes in the Jordan with a baptism of repentance, and he calls God’s wicked tenants a brood of vipers. 

Wearing camel-hair, he hollers about God’s axe lying near, but in the end he’s the one on whom the blade falls. A king of the Jews serves his head on a platter as a party gag.

Yet this God is not a Lord of ledgers but a Father of compassion. 

After he sends his People prophets, after he sends them John the Baptist (it makes no sense at all) God sends them his only-begotten Son. The Kingdom of God comes in the flesh and our response is my will be done.  God’s People say “We have no king but Caesar.” And then they scream “Crucify him!”

His own disciples—

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail. They’d let the wicked world sin all its sins into him. 

And then they left him forsaken on a cross. 

———————-

When the owner comes back— and the word Jesus uses there is kyrios, meaning Lord— when the Lord comes back, what do you think he’ll do?

Everyone in the Easter story responds to the news that Jesus is longer dead with dread because they expect the Lord to put wretches like them to a miserable death.

For the Bible tells them so. They lock the doors. They run and hide. They faint and cower because, according to scripture, resurrection for sinners means judgment. They have every reason to expect the Lord who’s come back to condemn them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me. I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink. I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending me a stranger.

If Jesus was risen indeed, then there weren’t any alleluias for them. Resurrection could only mean one awful thing for wicked tenants like them. 

But no—

When he comes back, he doesn’t pay them the wages their sins had earned. He doesn’t put wretches like them to a miserable death. The Lord who’d sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, slips past their locked doors and he doesn’t give them payback. He gives them pardon. 

“Peace,” he says. 

When he comes back, he doesn’t give them what Daniel promised they have coming to them, everlasting punishment. No, he gives them his Holy Spirit that he had promised would come to them. 

He gives them his Spirit. 

He gives them his pardon. 

And he gives to them the ministry of pardon. “Wherever you forgive the sins— any sins— of anyone, their sins are forgiven,” Jesus commissions them. 

Even Peter, who’d lied and denied the Lord thrice, when he comes back to wretched Peter, he doesn’t indict Peter and condemn him. He invites Peter to confess his love for him. 

Three times. 

A do-over:

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

When he comes back to his wicked tenants…

Wait—

WHERE’S THE BRIMSTONE?

Resurrection is supposed to be a double-edged sword. Resurrection is about reward and punishment. Resurrection is about the justification of the righteous and the judgment of the unrighteous. 

The Bible tells them so— that’s why they’re terrified. 

But when the Lord returns to his vineyard, his tenants do not receive what they deserve. 

They receive what only he deserves.

As though, resurrection isn’t a double-edged sword so much as an exchange.

———————-

Eight years ago exactly to the day, I was in Old Town Alexandria shopping for a black tie to wear for the funeral of a boy I was burying. He’d been a little younger than my youngest boy is now. In a closet filled with Lego pieces and action figures, he’d done it himself with a fake leather belt bought at Target. 

It was a couple of days before the day that Harold Camping, a huckster preacher and president of Family Christian Radio, had predicted the world would end, in judgment and fury, the twenty-first of May. 

Standing on the corner of King Street, blocking my path, were four or five of Camping’s disciples. A couple of the “evangelists” of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of God’s wrath and damnation. 

I remember one image— an image borrowed from the Book of Daniel— was of an awful-looking lion with scars on its paws. At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women and children, looking terrified to be caught in their sins by Christ come back.

A young twenty-something man tried to hand me a tract. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us. He gave me a syrupy smile, and said, “Did you know the wicked world is going to end on May 21? The Lord is coming back in just two days. What do you think he’ll do when he returns? To sinners?” 

Then he started talking about the end of the world. I flipped through his brochure.  

“Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots,” I mumbled. 

“What’s that?” he asked. 

“Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.”

Now, I’m still new here at Annandale United Methodist Church. Maybe you don’t yet know. Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm. Sometimes, my sarcasm is of the abrasive varietal. But that day, the day before I had to bury that boy who’d died by his own foolish hand, what I felt rising in me was more like anger. 

Because evangel in scripture means literally good freaking news.

And these “evangelists” weren’t dishing out anything of the sort.

“Lemme ask you something,” I said, “since you seem to know your Bible.”

The evangelist smiled and nodded. He looked electrified to be, all of a sudden, useful. 

“Doesn’t the Bible call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world?” I asked, feigning naïveté. 

He nodded a sanctimonious grin. 

“Well then, which ones did he miss?” 

He looked confused, as shoppers pushed past us to get to the bus stop. 

“Sins,” I pressed, “which sins did Jesus miss?” 

I’d raised my voice now, my pretense falling away and my righteous anger welling up in the teardrops at the corner of my eyes. “Did Jesus take away all the sins of the world, or did he only get some of them?” 

No sooner had he started to mouth the word “all” than I was back down his throat. 

“Really?! Because from your signs and pamphlets, it sure as hell looks like Jesus missed a whole lot of sins, that he’s none too pleased with folks who can’t get their act together.” 

He started to give me a patronizing chuckle, so I pressed him. 

“And, wait a minute, didn’t Jesus say, whilst dying for the sins of the whole world, ‘It is finished?’ Isn’t that, like, red-letter?”

He nodded and looked over my head to his supervisor behind me. I was shouting now. 

“And doesn’t it say, too, that in Jesus God has chosen all of us from before the foundation of the world?” 

“I think so,” he said. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, damn straight it does,” I hollered. “Ephesians, and, looking at you all with your bullhorns and pictures of lions and dragons and brimstone and judgment, I’m just wondering how, if God’s chosen us all in Christ from before the beginning of everything, you think so many of us with our puny, pathetic, run-of-the-mill sins—which have all been taken away already—can gum up God’s plan?”

“Riddle me that,” I shouted.

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic. 

“I’m not sure you understand how serious this is, sir,” he said to me. 

“Oh, I got it, all right.”

He suddenly looked like he was trying to remember the safe word. 

“I get how serious it is,” I said, “I just think it’s you who doesn’t take it seriously, not enough apparently to take Jesus at his word that when he comes back he’ll come back already bearing every sin we’ve ever sinned in his crucified and risen body. The Judge has been judged in our place. It’s not about reward and punishment anymore. It’s about promise. The Gospel promise that he has gotten what we all deserve and we’re given gratis what he alone deserves.”

You wonder why I repeat myself Sunday after Sunday—

It’s because this “evangelist,” this preacher, just stared at me like he’d never the Gospel before. He hadn’t.

“The only basis on which God judges now is not our works— not our behavior, good or bad (thank God)— but our belief.  Our faith. The only basis on which he judges now is on our simple trust that he’s gotten out of the judgment game. It’s in your Bible, man: “There is therefore now no judgment for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

“It’s “There is therefore now no condemnation not no judgment.”” he tried to correct me.  

“It’s the same word,” I said. “Krima. Judgment. Condemnation. Krima. Same word. And when St. Paul says in Christ Jesus, he’s talking not about behavior but about baptism.”

It was right about then I became aware that I was creating a scene.

But I didn’t care.

Standing there, needing to buy a necktie I could wear beside a four-foot coffin for a boy I’d baptized, let’s just say, it was not an academic debate.

———————-

“When the owner of the vineyard comes back, what do you think he’ll do to those wicked tenants? And they said to Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

And Jesus doesn’t respond: WRONG ANSWER.

Pay attention, this is important.

Jesus tells all of his parables of judgment in the space of four days before his crucifixion—

that’s the interpretative key to them. 

We’re supposed to read the parables of judgment as pointers to the cross. 

You see, it’s not that after three years of preaching about God’s bargain free grace and bottomless forgiveness Jesus suddenly gave up and decided to preach instead like John the Baptist. The Gospel is not a bait and switch. Jesus doesn’t take away with these parables of judgment the grace he already gave with his left-hand. 

The judgment at the center of these dark parables is the cross. 

When you read them in light of the cross, you discover that the parables of judgment, every bit as much as that one about the father and the fatted calf, are Gospel not Law. 

The cross is our judgment— Jesus already told you that at the very beginning of the Gospel: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness.” 

He’s talking about the cross. 

It’s likewise with Paul. “God made Jesus to be our wickedness,” Paul writes, “…and through the cross God put to death— krima’d— the enmity between humanity and God.” 

The cross is our judgment. 

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” they tell Jesus. 

And Jesus doesn’t correct them or contradict them because they’re right. We’re all put to death in him. “Do you not know,” the Bible promises, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…we have been buried with him by baptism into his death for sins so that we might be raised up with him.” 

That promise is no different than the promise with which Jesus ends the parable today. 

Our judgment on the cross is the cornerstone of God’s new creation.

All that the world has to do now to escape judgment is to trust that in Jesus Christ you’ve already escaped it. 

That’s it. 

And that’s red-letter: “God the Father judges no one,” Jesus says, “God has given over all judgment to the Son…and he who trusts in him is not judged.” 

Let me make it plain.

GOD’S NOT MAD AT YOU. 

Even if God should be.

God’s forgiven you for every single thing— and that thing too you’re now thinking about in your head.

God’s not mad at you.

It doesn’t matter who you are. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve left undone. 

On account of Jesus Christ— propterChristum, the first Protestants liked to say— God literally doesn’t give a damn. 

After Jesus Christ announces from his cross “It is finished,” there is now— for those who trust it— nothing but the “blessed silence of his uncondemnation.” 

No matter who you are or what you’ve done. 

There is no case against you. There is no indictment filed. There is no evidence locked away in storage. There’s not even a courtroom for you to exhibit all your good works. 

There is therefore now no judgment.

Because when the Judge came back to his vineyard, he came carrying not a gavel in his hands but nails. He returned wrapped not in a Judge’s robe but naked. 

Forsaken. 

For you. 

What Jesus says at the end of this parable is dead on— the indiscriminate acceptance of his uncondemnation, it crushes those of us who persist in our stubborn belief that God’s judgment is about rewarding the rewardable. 

God’s free grace isn’t just a stumbling block to those of us who insist on supposing that being well-behaved is more important to God than just trusting his forgiveness. 

It breaks people like us to pieces. 

It kills people like us who’d prefer to think of ourselves as good than loved. 

In the end, that’s what’s so scary about this parable of judgment. 

You and I— the quick and the dead— we’re slow to believe that all he’s ever wanted was for us to believe. 

 

     

 

Nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

It insists upon a Church where there is no distinction between us. 

Because not a one of us is righteous. 

We’re all the ungodly. 

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading is Paul’s great text on the necessity of the resurrection for Christian confession. At the top of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes his hearers back to the Gospel he delivered to them. The Gospel, Paul reminds this unholy lot, is “our most important urgent concern.” It’s an important text not only for thinking through the logical necessity of the resurrection for Christianity but also for reflecting on the current divisions in the United Methodist Church over the issues of human sexuality. 

Just shy of two weeks from now United Methodist leaders, clergy and lay, from around the globe will gather to debate whether “it” is or isn’t a sin and what implications that should have for our polity, which currently labels homosexuality a lifestyle “incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

Side Note for Later:

Does the justification of the ungodly make the very concept of  “the Christian lifestyle” a non-sequiter? Or, is a better construal of “the Christian lifestyle” the everyday ways by which Christians prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt “Yes, Christians also, in fact, require Christ to be crucified in our stead?”

Given our denominational bickering over “holiness” I think we United Methodists would do well to notice that in Paul’s rundown of the Gospel the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them.

As Robert Capon says, throwing mud in the eye of all of us woke and pious types:

“The only people in heaven will be sinners made safe in his death, gratis.

And the only people in hell will be sinners, forgiven free of charge as well.” 

As I make plans to journey to St. Louis for the UMC’s Special Sex Conference, I can’t help thinking we’ve jumped the Jesus shark, arguing to brinksmanship just what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. Once for all.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave, we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

Though, red-handed and pants-down, sinners we remain.

Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. Therefore— by your baptism— there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

Or, are we instead implying that we’re in Christ not by way of Christ’s doing for us but because of our own holy living and righteous doing?

If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin— their every sin too. This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his).  And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed?

Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

Jesus was stipped naked to clothe you, in your naked and ugly sin, with his own righteousness.

By fixating on the sin in another you’re just giving Jesus his clothes back— but he doesn’t want them returned.

In fact, he left them in the tomb.

And when he returned, a new Eve found him in a garden as naked as Adam. 

To be blunt about it- 

Whether you’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it. None of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. And if you’re tempted to interrupt now and say something along the lines of “Yes, but as baptized Christians declared righteous for his sake we should live according…” I’ll insist, as Paul does in Romans 6, that the introduction of any “shoulds” eliminate the Gospel of grace altogether. 

If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself, then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

Holiness doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then— in our post-Will and Grace culture, this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. Why would he?

The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there STILL IS CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.

THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

I don’t know what will come of the Special Sex Conference, and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us. Nonetheless, the Church’s primary mission remains unchanged even if our denomination— and, as a consequence, our church— changes. Our mission is to proclaim to sinners that God in Jesus Christ loves ungodly them.

To the grave and back. 

Not a New Moses

Jason Micheli —  August 5, 2018 — Leave a comment

Ephesians 3.14-21

The first sermon I ever preached I preached behind bars.
While I was a student at Princeton, before I ever worked in a church, I served as a chaplain at Trenton State, a maximum security prison in New Jersey.

I had no idea what I was doing when I began my ministry there, but by the time I left there I’d learned that the freedom of the Gospel, what St. Paul refers to today as the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, is a message best heard- maybe, only heard- by those who know they’re in captivity.

———————-

My first sermon-

I’d only been there a couple of weeks. It was a morning service in July, and it was held in a prison gymnasium. For an altar table, I had an old, metal teacher’s desk, and instead of candles on either side of the table there were two rusting electric fans. Greasy strings of dust clung to the blades as they kneaded the thick summer heat.

I counted them as they shuffled into the sanctuary, some bound hand to foot. Out of about 75 worshippers only 3 of the faces were white, and 1 of them was mine.

No one wore their Sunday best in that congregation. The men all had their state—issued beige jumpsuits. “We all look like Winston that worthless Ghostbuster in these,” Barone, one of the inmates who worked in the chaplain’s office, had joked to me when I met him. Barone was a heavyset Italian chef doing time for dealing cocaine out of his kitchen.

Sister Rose, the nun who was the Chaplain Supervisor, wore not a habit but her order’s plain gray pants and plain white shirt. No one wore their Sunday best that morning.

Except me.

I didn’t wear a robe because I wasn’t an official minister yet and, at that point in my life, still had some serious misgivings about ever being one. So I wore a suit with a pink shirt and a flowery pastel purple tie.

Let me just say that again so I’ve set the stage clearly: I was going to preach to prisoners (some in for life, some on death row, all hardened criminals) wearing a pink shirt and pastel purple tie with flowers).

My wife that morning had said I looked “handsome.” When the inmates saw me, they said I looked “pretty.” At least the word “pretty” is how I chose to translate the kissy noises they made.

“Do we have two lady preachers this Sunday?” one of the men asked from the back row.

It went downhill from there.

Sister Rose tried to begin the worship service with singing.
I say tried because the music was played on a cassette player (children, you can ask your parents what those are later) and because Sister Rose was one of those worship leaders who mistakenly believed that adding hand motions to the singing would somehow make the songs more “contemporary.”

It’s not easy to do something even more white than a pink shirt with a flowery pastel purple tie, but Sister Rose managed to pull it off, insisting that we all do what looked like jazzhands as we mumbled our way through “Trading My Sorrows.”

The Hispanic innmates who all spoke perfect English when bartering cigarettes, snacks, and Playboys all pretended, suddenly, not to know a lick of it.

So, despite being prisoners, they were about the least captivated audience I’ve ever seen at the start of a sermon.
Because Sister Rose was a Shiite Catholic and insisted that I preach from the lectionary, the readings assigned according to the Christian calendar, my passage that summer morning was this morning’s text from Ephesians 3.

I was both a new preacher and a new Christian. I hadn’t yet taken any homiletics classes so I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to talk about the scripture straight away. I hadn’t learned that I was supposed to sneak up on my listeners, slant-wise, with a personal story, disarm them first with humor, and thereby trick them into giving a crap about the text.

So I tried to keep it simple and give it to them straight up. I took it from the top.

———————-

“To understand the reason Paul is praying here, I said, you have to go back to what Paul said before this in chapter 3 and before that even in chapter 2.’

“I thought what you read to us was plenty long already, preacher,” one of the inmates joked.

I could feel my skin blushing a darker shade of pink than my ill-chosen shirt.

What prompts Paul to pray, I doubled down, is what Paul calls the Mystery of Christ.

“Mystery?” a 40-something inmate in the front said, “Speaking of mysteries, what’s this Paul got to say about the mystery of why I’m in here when I’m an innocent man?!”

“Amazing, everybody’s innocent here,” Barone laughed and others followed.

I looked up from my notes and, with the zeal of a recent convert, I said to them: “Actually, Paul does have something to say about it. He said it earlier in chapter 2.

He said that in the supermest of supreme courts not one of us is innocent, and the sentence we all deserve is death.”

And I flipped back in my bible to the chapter prior and read it to them: “You who were dead through in your trespasses and sins…by grace you have been saved.”

Then I turned the page: “You who were once far off from God in your trespasses and sins have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

“Amen!” some of them responded.

“Preach it! Preach it!” some others encouraged me.

“That’s the mystery that makes him pray,” I said. “That’s the mystery: that the Judge has been judged in our place, that the sentence gets served not by us but by a substitute, by the very object of our sin.”

“Come on now,” a few listeners shouted. I was finding my stride.

“The Mystery of Christ is what makes Paul pray. The mystery that by his bleeding and dying the Son has purchased peace between us and the Father.”

“Amen” an elderly inmate covered in faded out tattoos yelled from the back. “Shush!” Sister Rose whispered with a finger over her lips, “Inside voices!”

“The Mystery of Christ is what prompts Paul to pray.

The mystery that we are justified before God not by any good work we do but only by the work of Jesus Christ in our stead- even the best good works done by the very best people do not justify them before God- and this is ours soley through the gifting of God. By grace- alone.”

I noticed then that those who’d refused to show any rhythm at all during the singing were nodding their heads.

“By grace, your rap sheet is Christ’s now and his perfect record is reckoned to you as your own.

By grace, though not one of you is innocent or pure all of you are counted as such on account of Christ.

By grace, you are reckoned in the right by the only Judge that ultimately matters.

All of us, every last one of us, religious or not, it doesn’t matter because God has gone and done it for us entirely apart from religion.

God has gone and done it by the most irreligious means possible, by a cross.”

Some of them were squinting at me now, not sure if they were following me.

“In fact,” I said, “the mystery that makes him pray is that God has gone and done away with religion altogether.

Religion- what we do to get right with God; what we do to our neighbors to get God on our side- God’s gotten rid of all of it. He’s forsaken it in his own forsaken body.”

———————-

I still have the moleskin in which I wrote this sermon all those years ago. In it, I’d double- underlined the next part of my maiden sermon.

“The Mystery of Christ, Paul says, is that God has abolished the very commands God gave to us.”

And then I read to them the money line from Ephesians 2: “Christ has abolished the Law and the commandments that he might create a new humanity in himself.”

“It’s like what Paul tells the Galatians,” I said to them, “If we can be made right with God through good works or commandment-keeping then Christ came and died for absolutely nothing.”

“You shall love God with everything you are, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, you shall care for the poor and the stranger among you, forgive 70×7, turn the other cheek, love your enemies and pray for them…

All of that- Christ has abolished all of it, all of the Commandments, even the commandments he taught us; so that, all those do-good pious types who secretly insist on thinking God will grade them on a curve- they’ll have no where else to turn but to him and his mercy.

Like Jesus tells the rich young ruler, the only works of ours that are truly ‘good’ are the ones that come as a consequence of knowing that not one of those good works is necessary; otherwise, the bible says, even our best deeds are no better than filthy rags.”

I looked around the room at these men more acquainted with their bad deeds than their best deeds.

“That only sounds harsh if you think you’re free,” I said, “but if you know what the bible says about you to be true, that you are a captive to sin, then it’s the very best news you’re ever going to hear.

Because it means the Law is now and forever a rap sheet that the Judge refuses to read because Jesus Christ, by his perfect faithfulness, has fulfilled the Law for you and, by his bruised body, he has born for you your failure under the Law.”

All the Law talk was losing them, I could tell.

So I said-

“Look, this is what it means: everything God commands you to do in scripture has already been done for you by Jesus Christ and every sin you have done has been undone by his death for you.

Christ has set you free from any anxiety or burden you might feel over keeping his commands or following his teachings and if you but trust this news you might be behind bars but, trust me, you are more free than almost everyone outside these walls sitting in churches this morning.

They’re all in cages they can’t see.”

But they looked confused, like I’d just told them the opposite of everything they’d ever heard about Christianity.

So I changed tack.

“Hang on,” I said, “what’s Paul doing praying on his knees? Jews like Paul didn’t pray on their knees.”

“Except, after Job loses everything, he kneels down to pray. He gets down on his knees and, on a heap of ashes, prays.
And Stephen, before he’s executed, he bows down on his knees and prays.

And Jesus, before he’s arrested by the authorities, he gets down on his knees and prays.

Prayer was done standing up except when you were at the end of your rope.

Paul’s on his knees, praying, because he’s behind bars.”
And notice what he prays for in prison- he prays that Christ would dwell in your heart by faith so that you may comprehend the scope of his love.”

I got some amens.

“The Mystery of Christ, your redemption from sin and your reconciliation to God, it’s yours,” I said, “if you just have faith.”
“It’s yours,” I said, “if you have faith.”

“God’s gift of grace. It’s yours,” I said, “if you have faith, if you invite him into your heart.”

———————-

“Hold up, preacher” one of the inmates, Victor, raised both of his hands.

Victor’s wrists were bound together and chained to his ankles. His jumpsuit was starched and unwrinkled and buttoned neatly all the way up to his collar. His long black hair was pulled tightly into a ponytail.

“Um…okay…what?”

“What do you mean if?”

“Um…I don’t follow…”

“You said everything’s already been done by Christ,” Victor said.

I nodded.

“But it sounds like there’s more to be done if I gotta have faith in it.” Now everyone else was nodding, even Sister Rose.

“I mean, Jesus- he said ‘It is finished,’ right? But how is it finished and done if you need faith first?”

“Uh…umm…look, I’m not a real preacher…”

“And you said that Paul says we’re justified by his work of grace not by any good work we do.”

I nodded, nervous knowing that Victor liked brag about representing himself in court.

“Well, if the gift isn’t really mine until I have faith in it doesn’t that make my faith just another good work?”

“Maybe we should sing another song,” Sister Rose suggested.

“No,” this is good, Barone laughed, “Look at the preacher sweating it like a defendant.”

“Say it again,” I said to Victor.

“You said we’re saved by grace, by the gift of God, but how is it a gift if we gotta do something to get it?”

“Yeah,” someone said, “grace isn’t amazing at all if we’ve got to earn it with our faith. And how is that a mystery anyway? There’s nothing mysterious about that. Everything in the world works by earning and deserving.”

I’d lost the room completely. It was distracted chaos, like when Peter preaches here. They all turned away from me and towards the middle to each other, talking out the scripture themselves:

If God doesn’t grade on a curve then why is faith the one test we gotta pass?
If you have faith- that sounds like a plea deal not a promise. And some of them laughed.
Yeah, it sounds like a negotiation not news.
If it has conditions it’s a contract not a gift.
And it ain’t free either because it puts the burden back on us to believe.

“Look at the bible passage,” Barone said, “It doesn’t say Paul’s praying for them to get faith so that they can invite Christ into their hearts.
He puts it the other way around. He prays that Christ will dwell in their hearts and the way Christ will dwell in their hearts is through faith. In other words, faith is what Christ does. We’re not the ones getting faith. Christ gives us faith.”

Someone from the back row jumped in:

“Then that means whatever faith we have, whether it’s a lot or a little…” his voice trailed off, puzzling it out.

“It’s Jesus’ work in us; it’s not our own,” Barone finished, “That’s how it fits in with what Jason was saying before he messed it all up. From beginning to end, it’s Jesus’ work- that’s what Paul means by height and length and breadth and depth. Every bit of it is Jesus. Faith doesn’t change anything but our perception. Faith is just what Christ gives us so we can see what’s already true.”

———————-

“Is that right, preacher?” the inmate named Victor asked me. He sat up straight in his metal chair and put his chained hands on his lap, suddenly serious. “Is that true?”

“Um, well, yes.”

“So, if there’s nothing we need to do for this to be true for us, then if someone asked you what they had to do to become a Christian…what’s the answer?”

I thought about it. I thought about how to put it without using any ifs. “I guess I’d tell them just to enjoy the gift.”

“Enjoy the gift?” Victor said, “How do you start doing that?”

“Well, I guess you’d start by receiving baptism.”

“Ok,” he said, “That, I want that. I want to be baptized.”

“Alright,” I said, “Sister Rose and I can talk and look at the calendar and talk to a pastor…”

“I want it now,” Victor said.

“Well, I’m not really supposed to do that sort of thing,” I said. “I’m just a student. I don’t have the proper credentials. I could get in trouble.”

“Your bishop would never even know,” Sister Rose giggled. “Besides, you just said Jesus freed us from the Law.”

“Um, okay,” I said.

“You know how, right?” Victor asked.

“Sure. I mean, I’ve seen it done.”

“You’ll need water,” Sister Rose pointed out.

“Right, water- can you get us some water?” I asked one of the guards.

“And a bowl,” Sister Rose said.

The guard was gone for a moment or two and then came back with a big clear bowl from the staff salad bar and a dripping water pitcher.

Sister Rose pulled an old donated worship book off the wheeled cart of worn bibles and, as Victor shuffled forward, his chains clinking quietly, Sister Rose turned to the baptismal prayer.

Sister Rose handed me the prayer book. I didn’t ask him any questions.

I just poured the water into the bowl like the italicized directions told me, and I read the prayer on the water wrinkled page: “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and Victor who receives it to clothe him in Christ’s righteousness that, having died and been raised with Christ, he may share in Christ’s victory.”

After the amen, I used my hands and I poured the water over his pony-tailed head.

The congregation all hooted and hollered.

“I never got baptized before because I didn’t think I could live the Christian life,” Victor said. “I didn’t think I could have that much faith, and I knew I wasn’t very faithful.”

“Dude, didn’t you comprehend anything we just said?” Barone laughed:

“There’s no such thing as the Christian life.

There’s just getting used to the mystery that his life has been credited to you.

Gratis.”

And Victor beamed and Barone laughed some more, one of them in chains but both of them free.

———————-

I never got to finish that first sermon of mine.

It got interrupted by a question and then a baptism, and by the time Victor had shuffled back to his seat Sister Rose had started the cassette player for a closing song.

It was all for the better.

The conclusion I’d written- I’ve still got it in a moleskin; it’s as embarrassing as an old yearbook photo- It was all about you coming to Christ by having faith. But that just made faith another work. And it turned the Gospel back into the Law. Or, at best, it muddled the Gospel and the Law into a kind of Glawspel.

The Gospel is not exhortative: here’s what you must do to come to God- have faith, give to the poor, stand against injustice, serve the church.

The Gospel is declarative: here’s what God has done to come to you in Jesus Christ.

And God comes to us not with a prescription of what we must do for him- that’s Law (which Christ has abolished).
God comes to us with the promise of what he has done for us.

Christ is not a New Moses, I would’ve said if I’d gotten the chance. Christ is not just an example, teacher, or law-giver. If Christ is just another Moses then his life is no different than the saints. His life is his life, and your life is still in its sins.

Thinking of Jesus as your example or your teacher or law-giver, in the end, will just make you a hypocrite not a Christian because only he can fulfill the Law and live up to its demands.

Before Christ is your example or your teacher or your law-giver, he must be your gift.
He’s not a New Moses.

He gives himself for all your failures to obey Moses and with his perfect love he fulfills the Law of Moses and that fullness of his love is poured out on you at your baptism and it’s fed to you in wine and bread.

I never got to finish that sermon, but it’s just as well. I was just a student. I didn’t  have the authority to end the sermon the way I should’ve ended it: with an invitation.

Come to the Table.

Come and receive the One who has come to you.

A Hole in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2018 — 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?

Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.

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

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

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

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

Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.

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

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

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

But she didn’t die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The headline could’ve read:

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

     The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:

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

‘Can I baptize you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     By plunging himself into John’s baptism-

Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.

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

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

Right before God.

Justified.

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

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

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

Probably not? Probably not!?

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

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

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

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

Our baptism is a work God does.

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

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

Once.

For all.

For everything.

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

“Probably not?”

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

But your baptism is not John’s baptism.

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

Probably not– NO.

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

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

In your baptism, you enter into Christ.

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

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

Buried with him in his death.

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

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

His perfect record.

His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.

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

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

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

In Christ.

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

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

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

     “Can his sins be pardoned?”

     Surely not. 

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

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

And bled.

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

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

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

If this is blasphemy so be it:

Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

     Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.

     What we do with water is not sentimental.

     It’s outrage-ous.

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

Your sins are forgiven if

Your sins are forgiven provided that…

Your sins are forgiven as long as…

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

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

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

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

Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-

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

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

———————-

Can his sins be pardoned? 

Has he been baptized?

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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