Archives For Cross

God’s Behind

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

It’s not one of the scriptures for our fall series, but this week’s Gospel lection is one of the questions God poses to us: “Who do you say that I am?” In short order, Peter screws the pooch over the answer.

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

– Mark 8

Like Peter, we’ve been determined ever since to get a God by any other means than a cross, a savior who meets us through any other medium than suffering and shame.

“The cross alone is our theology,” Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation. Notice, Luther didn’t say, “The death of Christ alone is our theology.” The distinction determines our theology. To say the cross alone is the core of our God-talk is to make the awful and audacious claim that the glory of God meets us not in our strivings up towards glory but in our suffering and humiliation. The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Christ never chooses any other avenue by which to meet us than condescension into suffering, or, as Chad Bird writes, “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility, anonymity and even foolishness, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.” 

If the cross is God’s attack upon sin, as scripture sees it, then the particular sin revealed in Christ’s crucifixion is our dissembling.

The cross outs all our spiritual pretension as a sham.

It’s our affectations at virtue, not our vice, that abandon God.

It’s our “goodness” that pushes him out of the world on a bloody tree.

In the name of godliness we drive nails through his hands and his feet; in homage to wisdom and justice we reason it’s better for this innocent one to die. God hides behind the mask of a cross in order to reveal the masks we wear to play-act the role of a righteous alter ego. Like Jekyl’s Hyde, this alter ego is as much a killer as it is addictive, for if, as St. Paul insists, God’s righteousness has been gifted to us in Christ apart from any of our religious doings, then our goodness itself- or, our pretense at goodness- is the problem Christ kills by his cross. 

Our goodness itself, and it’s attendant self-deceptions of self-sufficiency and shit-togetherness, is the sickness from which we requiring saving. Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, Christ condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine parts of our lives in the steaming piles of shit in our lives.

Wherever shit happens, grace does too.

God meets us in our shame and in our suffering because only when we’ve been reduced to nothing do we know our need and you can’t receive a gift in joy if you’re determined it’s unnecessary. It’s why God must kill the patient before he can live again. As Luther continued in thesis 18 of the Disputation: “Man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is ready to receive the grace of Jesus Christ.” Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give. It’s only when shit happens that you see you need a savior.

In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy.

Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self: “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.

The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses: 

All at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with God. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

The glory of God always shows forth in Jesus stooping over to kiss the shameful scabs and weeping wounds of lepers like us.

During their sojourn in the desert, still waiting on God to deliver the goods in the milk and honey department, Moses asks God to disclose his glory. No one can see God’s face and live, the Almighty explains to Moses before instructing him to hide in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by the rock, God covers Moses’ eyes, permitting Moses only a glimpse of God’s backside. God is the one who prevents Moses from seeing his glory. Whether from the cleft of a rock or upon a cross, God refuses to be seen in glory. To Moses, God gives only a peek at his behind. To us, God responds to our taunts at glory (“If he’s the Christ let him save himself!) by bleeding and dying. 

“If he’s the Christ let him save himself” echoes an ancient addiction. From Adam onwards, we are addicted to the “glory story;” that is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way. It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?” The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches because it gets God’s directionality backwards.

The Gospel is a one-way story that goes down.

The story of the Cross is not the story of our journey up to God but God’s journey down to us. The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension to us not our ascension up to God. Addicted to the glory story, we’re reliably liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction when we cry out to God for help. Up into glory rather than down in to the darkness we’re in and out into the nothing and shadows that surround us. 

How preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient. In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed.

By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer.

No, God is to be found in our suffering.

God refuses to be seen in any other way in our world than in how he appears when Pontius Pilate declares of him, crowned with thorns and his cloths and skin in tatters: “Ecce Homo.” Behold, the man. Behold the man reduced to nothing; so that, man will know this man is to be found in our nothing. Gerard Manley Hopkins got it half-wrong: God only plays in ten thousand places if those ten thousand places are places of suffering and humiliation, crosses and conjugal beds. If the sin revealed by the cross is our spiritual pretension, then when the dying Christ declares

“It is finished” he ends any of our self-congratulatory projects that would have God be seen in any other way but in our need and by any other means than the cross.

While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” any who insist that God isn’t in suffering. Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering God is hidden, present, there. Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel. Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace.Where is God in my suffering?” just may be exactly the worst question to ask- even if it is an unavoidably natural cry- because the God who shows his ass to Moses shows himself no more clearly than in our suffering. 

     

     It’s vogue in the mainline Christian tribe to insist that “the Gospel is really all about the resurrection not the cross.” I had umpteen emails say just that after my Easter sermon this year.

Never mind that St. Paul in his rundown of the Gospel kerygma in 1 Corinthians 15 links inextricably cross and burial and resurrection, what reveals resurrection alone to be deficient as Gospel is the one feature common to all the Gospels’ Easter narratives. Mark and Matthew, Luke and John- the Gospels all agree: the very first reaction to news of the resurrection is fear.

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear.

The women, come to anoint the body, run away. Terrified.

The disciples lock the door and cower in the corner.

The first response to the news “Christ is Risen” is not “He is Risen indeed!”

It’s panic.

Fear.

Terror.

The word itself makes them white-knuckled afraid. That word, “resurrection,” was enough to provoke not just awe but frightened shock.  Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in Daniel 12. Not only was Daniel the last book added to the Hebrew Bible, it was the most popular scripture during the disciples’ day.

For their entire history up until Daniel’s time, the Jews had absolutely no concept of heaven. When you died, you were dead. That was it, the Jews believed. You worshipped and obeyed God not for hope of heaven but because God, in and of himself, was worthy of our thanks and praise.

But then-

When Israel’s life turned dark and grim, when their Temple was razed and set ablaze, when their Promised Land was divided and conquered, and when they were carted off as exiles to a foreign land, the Jews began to long for a Day of God’s justice and judgement.

If not in this life, then in a life to come.

And so the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection. Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God. But for those who’ve committed suffering, they might be on top now in this life but one day God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to everlasting shame and punishment.

So, in the only Bible those disciples knew, that word ‘resurrection’ was a hairy double-edged sword. Resurrection was about the justice owed to the suffering and the judgment that belonged to God.

     In the disciples’ Bible, if you were long-suffering, resurrection was good news.

If you were good.

If you weren’t, resurrection was hellfire and damnation.

You can imagine, then, how those disciples heard that first Easter message. If God had raised Jesus from the dead- Jesus who was the only Righteous One, the only Faithful One, as St. Paul says- then that must mean God was about to judge the living and the dead.

The disciples are afraid of the Easter news not because they fail to understand resurrection but because they do understand.

They knew their scripture, and they knew they’d abandoned Jesus. They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail, turned a blind eye, washed their hands of his blood. They’d scapegoated him into suffering, and stood silently by while others mocked him and taunted him. They’d let the world sin all its sins into him and then left him forsaken on a cross. 

For sinners like them, resurrection could only mean one thing: brimstone.

What’s so surprising about the Easter news isn’t just that the tomb is empty but that hell is empty too. It’s shocking that the Risen Christ doesn’t encounter his disciples and indict 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 to know me not.

I was hungry for justice, wretched upon the cross, and I remained a stranger to you.

The shock of Easter isn’t just the empty grave it’s that God comes back from it and doesn’t condemn the unrighteous ones who put him there. All of them- while they were yet sinners, God comes back from the death they’d consigned him to and he doesn’t pay them the wages their sin had earned. He forgives their sin. He spares them the everlasting judgment and shame they had every reason from their Bibles to expect.  What should’ve been terrifying news becomes good news.

So then, the Easter expectation given to us by Daniel brings us back to the necessity of Paul’s Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 where Christ’s return from the grave is linked inextricably with his death for our sins. If Paul is wrong, and Christ did not die for our sins (in accordance with the scriptures), then the disciples are right to run away in fright.

That the crucified one is alive again is NOT GOOD NEWS unless it’s true he was crucified for ungodly us.

Neither is it Good News that the Jesus, whom we crucified, is Lord unless we know by his bleeding and dying that he’s for us.

Those who want to focus on the empty tomb as the good news to the exclusion of he cross actually have it backwards.

Only the latter makes the former Gospel.

     Without Good Friday, we should all on Easter make like the eggs and hide.

 

 

For our Good Friday service tonight, I’ll offer these reflections on the traditional Catholic stations of the cross.

Jesus is Condemned to Death 

The Gospels don’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you by letting you kid yourself that you’d ever choose anyone but the other Jesus son of the Father, Jesus bar-abbas.

Arraigned in purple majesty, crowned in thorns, his spit-upon skin in tatters just like the grief-torn garments of Caiphus who’d cried blasphemy before confessing our original sin “We have no King but the President,”Jesus’ career concludes by collapsing, betrayed by a friend, deserted by the rest, denied by the one who’d always wanted a selfie with him.

It’s the high priest who puts the titles together which the Gospel began: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ The’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.

The attendance is always light on Good Friday because we’d like to forget-

Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.

And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world.

The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst. And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good.

The chief priests’ reasoning: “It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…” is correct. It’s a perfectly rational position. It’s how we’ve arranged our world.

So we let the theologians and preachers console us with theories and, worse, explanations, but what the Gospels give us is the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among people like us.

Deep down, we prefer a God up in glory who watches down from a safe, comfortable distance.

Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the other Jesus bar-abbas, every time we would shout “Crucify him, and every time some other Pilate will wash his hands of it and push God out of the world on a cross.

Jesus is Made to Bear the Cross

     “The cross alone is our theology,” Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation. Notice, Luther didn’t say, “The death of Christ alone is our theology.” The distinction determines our theology. The mystery with which the New Testament wrestles is not the fact of Jesus’ death but the manner of that death. It’s the way in which Christ died, on a cross, that proved foolishness to the irreligious and a stumbling block to the religious. The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it. The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.

The shame is the point.

During their sojourn in the desert, still waiting on God to deliver the goods in the milk and honey department, Moses asks God to disclose his glory. No one can see God’s face and live, the Almighty explains to Moses before instructing him to hide in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by the rock, God covers Moses’ eyes, permitting Moses only a glimpse of God’s backside. God is the one who prevents Moses from seeing his glory. Whether from the cleft of a rock or upon a cross, God refuses to be seen in glory. To Moses, God gives only a peek at his behind.

To us, God bears a cross and hides behind suffering.

God refuses to be seen in any other way in our world than in how he appears when Pontius Pilate declares of him: “Ecce Homo.” Behold, the man.

Behold the man reduced to nothing; so that, man will know this man is to be found in our nothing. Later, when the dying Christ declares “It is finished,” he’s ending any of our self-congratulatory projects that would have God be seen in any other way but in our need and by any other means than a bloody tree.

Jesus Falls the First Time 

He stumbles because he’s scared.

Sometime last night or early this morning, the Gospels tell us, “Jesus began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed.”

In the second century, a famous pagan named Celcus wrote a diatribe against Christianity, one of his chief points of attack being: “How could someone who claimed to be the divine Son of God mourn and lament and pray to escape the fear of death?”

And stumble on his way to death.

St. Paul says that “For our sake God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no Sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

If sin is separation from God, then Jesus stumbles because he’s stepping closer to the edge of the only literal abyss where there is only the deafening lonely sound of God’s absence.

Jesus Meets his Mother

She’d taken her boy to Jerusalem every year for years to celebrate the meal which remembers God’s rescue of them.

But now, the sacrifice is her son. The mother’s boy is the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. And she has to watch as we put those sins on him.

Standing amidst an angry mob, her lips trembling and tears welling up in her eyes, as she watches her boy outrage the chief priests and elders for the last time, watching on as he stands with torn clothes and a bloody face and tells Pilate that he’s actually the One with power and wisdom and authority. I bet Mary will wish she never taught her boy that song:

“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones/and lifted up the lowly.”

Simon Carries Christ’s Cross

Is it a brave, noble deed?

Or is Simon just getting the condemned man off his sidewalk?

St. Paul says we’re a mystery to ourselves. Our sin deceives us; such that, what we want to do we leave undone and what we want not to do we do.

Sin, St. Paul says, seizes an opportunity in us and elicits the opposite of what we intend. If so and if our sin is in Christ, then who’s to say whether Simon helps to carry Christ’s cross out of simple charity or out of sin? As an act compassion or as an act of cowardice, wanting to get the whole mess over with as quickly as possible and far away from him?

Simon couldn’t be sure about Simon’s motives any better than we can assess Simon’s motives. The truth of himself is in the cross he helps to carry. The cross to which Christ is condemned is the cross from which Simon is freed from no longer pretending he’s anything other than a sinner in need of the righteousness that God will credit to him from Christ’s account alone.

Veronica Wipes Jesus’ Face 

It’s a wasted gesture, wiping his bloody face when very soon it will be flowing from his hands and his feet and his side. The word “lose” is the same word in Greek for “waste.”

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” Jesus had said. “For those who want to save their life will waste it, and those who waste their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew uses that same word ‘waste’ when Jesus visits the house of Simon the Leper. Two nights before he dies, Jesus goes to Simon’s house for dinner. They’re eating dessert and drinking coffee when in walks a woman.

She doesn’t have a name but she does have a crystal jar filled with expensive oil- about $35,000 worth. This woman, she break the jar and she pours the oil over Jesus’ head and body and his face. She anoints him.

And Jesus, he praises her for not holding back, for sparing no cost in pouring out her love on him, for her waste of a gesture. Meanwhile the disciples look on in anger, and all they can do is grumble over all the ‘good’ they could have done with that much money. They estimate the number of hungry that could’ve been fed, the count the naked who could’ve been clothed, the poor they could’ve served. If she hadn’t wasted it.

Yet it’s her faith that Jesus praises.

The disciples look at her and they get angry at the ‘waste.’ Jesus looks at her and sees a holy waste, an example of how we too should pour ourselves out in love for one another. With Jesus all the ‘good’ we can do isn’t the point. It’s not an End in itself. It’s just what happens when we pour ourselves out completely, when we waste everything we have, for someone else.

Jesus Falls Again 

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

And in Gethsemane early this morning, Christ emptied himself even of that,

pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says there’s nothing left of Jesus now. There’s nothing left of his humanity.

Jesus isn’t just a substitute. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.

It isn’t that Jesus will die an innocent among thieves. He will die 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.

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 gun violence.

He is everything we scream at each with signs.

He has become all of it.

He has become Sin.

     St. Anselm argued that those who dispute Christ’s substitutionary death in our place “fail to consider the weight of sin.”

It’s the weight of sin, all of our every sins, upon him that causes Christ’s knees to buckle a second time.

Jesus Consoles the Women of Israel 

     The Book of Revelation calls Jesus ‘the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.’ According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible ‘what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’ The blood of Jesus, says Luke, ‘makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.’

And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was ‘destined since before the foundation of the world.’ St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that everything that unfolds in Christ from cradle to cross is “in accordance with the scriptures.” The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross. When we arrive at the foot of the cross, the Gospels want to confront you with the claim that all of this was planned before the foundation of the world. The comfort Christ offers his mother and the women of Israel, whilst bleeding and dying, is the comfort longed for by the prophet Isaiah. Finally, God is comforting his comfortless people. Only, it’s the cold comfort of the cross. Only a death paid in our place by the Son who is the suffering servant will ransom captive Israel.

Jesus Falls a Third Time

Once for every time we deny him, Jesus falls carrying his cross where he’ll die nailed up like a scarecrow. He falls whilst we deny him to the tune of the cock’s crowing, hiding like Adam behind a fig leaf with fruit stuck in his teeth.

In falling with the cross religion and justice have handed him, Jesus makes clear the Fall need not refer to Eve and Adam in a garden. To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, we make the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of ourselves. The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular people revealing their inhumanity to man. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The cross is our fall.

The cross is our original sin.

Jesus is Stripped

Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, Jesus is naked, absolutely vulnerable before us. The Church has always read that erotic Old Testament poem as a parable for Christ’s love for his Bride, the Church, the people joined to his body by their baptism into his death.

Like scorning, unfaithful lovers, we betray him with a kiss and strip him bare, but all God needs is nothing to do anything and God takes the naked shame of Christ’s cross and by the baptism of suffering and death he makes us his betrothed.

Jesus is Nailed to a Tree

We boast in the cross, Luther says, because in nailing him to the cross God has nailed all our sins there once and for all. They’re forgotten in his body. ‘He has born our grief.’ ‘He has carried our sorrow.’ ‘Laid on him is the iniquity of us all.’

Jesus Dies

He could not die because it’s impossible for God to die.

He ought not to have died because Death had no claim on him.

Were you and I not in him, he’d have no sin in him. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly. He dies with the ungodly in 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.

In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. In Christ, you’re crucified, Paul says. You’re Buried with him in his death.

Good Friday is your funeral.

You’re condemned with him because you’re in him who is the pardon of God; therefore, after tonight there is now no condemnation.

His Body is Taken Down

St. Paul calls Jesus the Second Adam, the first fruit of a second creation.

Adamah, is the name of the dirt from which God made the first Adam.

When Jesus finally dies, and all of his friends have fled in fear or shame and even his mother is gone. It’s Nicodemus who had lurked in the shadows who steps from the safety of the sidelines to take his body down from the cross and bury him in the plain light of day.

The priest who had scoffed at his teaching about being born again is the one who lays his body like a seed in the adamah of a garden as though he is who were always meant to be.

His Body is Laid in a Tomb

He was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome.

He wasn’t even the only one crucified on Good Friday.

The names of all the others are unknown to us. Only his name abides.

And the Jewish people to which he belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death. Take those together and I am convinced that we would not be here tonight with him in his death had God left him there.

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

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. He doesn’t die with the ungodly beside him; he dies with the ungodly in him.

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.

     Christ becomes our hatred for God.

He becomes all of our injustice.

He becomes Sin.

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. Every ungodly act and every ungodly person.

He becomes all of it.

He becomes Sin.

So that God can forsake it. For our sake.

They weren’t wrong to shout “Hosanna!” last Sunday. 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.

Not a generic word for any trial or hardship, it’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.

St. Paul’s argument for Christ’s resurrection is older than the Easter narratives themselves, and in it the Apostle presents the resurrection as the necessary corollary to Christ’s dying “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” The two together, along with his burial, comprise what Paul proclaims as “the Gospel.”

     We like to say that every Sunday is a little Easter.

But, really, every Sunday is a little Good Friday too.

That Christ was raised from the dead is an unintelligible message apart from the news that his empty tomb is the sign that your slate is empty of any sins.

The “therefore” of God’s absence of condemnation of us hinges on the “because” of Christ’s death for us.

Its cliche, for those in mainline and progressive circles to say they favor the Church Fathers’ emphasis on the incarnation rather than the modern, Western emphasis upon the cross.  Such a position however, ignores how, in the Church Fathers especially, God’s conquest of Sin and Death is the only way we’re incorporated into an incarnate new humanity and that this new humanity is a present, social reality nowhere else but in the community that preaches Christ crucified and baptizes its members into his death.

Criticisms of (sub)versions of substitutionary atonement are valid, but, as Fleming Rutledge argues in her book, The Crucifixion: the solution to the abuse of the tradition’s atonement language is not to jettison it. Not only is the language of substitution the dominant key in which scripture speaks of God’s redemptive work, substitutionary atonement’s concerns echo throughout the bible:

Something is terribly wrong in the world and needs to be set right.

God’s justice demands that sin not go unheeded.

Compassion alone will not make right what is wrong.

Rectification requires the action of God from beyond our sphere.

As Rutledge notes, the popular impressions of Anselm’s God as petty and capricious, easily offended and demanding a tribute of blood in order to forgive us, are so wildly off the mark it makes one wonder if anyone has actually read Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo or, if they’ve paused to consider the title of it: ‘Why the God-Man?’

The title itself indicates that Anselm does not commit the misstep of which he’s commonly accused; namely, he does not pit the Father and Son against one another nor does he posit Christ’s humanity as the sole agent of our salvation, another frequent charge against him. As the title makes clear, from the front cover forward, Anselm sees salvation as a fully Trinitarian work enfolding incarnation and unfolding from it.

Those who resist substitutionary language disregard the extent to which the claim Christ’s death is “for sin” is found all over the New Testament.

And, in most instances, that “for” means “for the sake of” or “on behalf of” or “in place of.”

It simply overwhelms any other manner of speaking of the cross. Much of the resistance to substitution rightly resists what sounds like an individualized reduction of sin, but again we should not erase the bible’s primary motif for understanding the cross simply because of errors in its application. The substitutionary death of Christ is a death for our collective sin, as the long record of the prophets shows.

A theology of the cross is deficient if it neglects an account of the corporate and systemic nature of sin. As Rutledge distinguishes, Sin is an alien power to which we’re in bondage, but sin is also a kind of contagion of our nature, for, in our bondage, we become active agents of Sin. We require, therefore, two modes of deliverance. We need God to remove our guilt but also to liberate us from the Power of Sin. The cross is ground zero for both.

While the wages of sin merit his death for us, his death is where God wages battle against Sin and Death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this episode, I talk with Chad Bird about his two new books Night Driving and You’re God is Too Glorious, both of which debuted in the past year. A PhD in OT, Chad is an oil rig driver in Texas- the story behind that is in Night Driving.

Chad Bird has served as a pastor in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, as assistant professor of Hebrew and exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and as a guest lecturer at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosibirsk, Siberia. He has contributed articles to the Lutheran Witness, Gottesdienst, Concordia Journal, Concordia Theological Quarterly, Modern Reformation, Concordia Pulpit Resources, Logia, Higher Things, and The Federalist. He is the author of The Infant Priest, Christ Alone, and Night Driving. In addition to hosting chadbird.com, he is a regular contributor to christholdfast.org and 1517legacy.com. He lives in Texas.

You can read more of Chad and find his books at www.chadbird.com.

Here’s a powerful video of Chad’s talk at the Here We Still Stand Conference: 

If you’re receiving this by email and the player doesn’t come up on your screen, you can find the episode at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

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.

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

Okay, here’s the latest episode.

 

 

 

 

Modern Reformation Magazine has featured my essay on atonement and wrath about my friend Brian Stolarz’s work freeing Alfred Dewayne Brown, who is also now my friend, from death row in Texas.

You can read Brian’s book Grace and Justice here. The theme of wrath as it relates to Dewayne’s case is even more pertinent now than when I wrote this as the Houston Chronicle recently broke the story that the DA in the case intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence from the very beginning of the case. To wit, the institutional racism was such they so didn’t give a damn about an innocent black man’s life they were willing to damn him to death.

Here’s the piece:

Like many upper middle class mainline Protestants, which is to say white Christians, I’ve long taken issue with the concept of divine wrath, believing it to conflict with the God whose most determinative attribute is Goodness itself. Whenever I’ve pondered the possibility of God’s anger I’ve invariably thought about it directed at me. I’m no saint, sure, but I’m no great sinner either. The notion that God’s wrath could be fixed upon me made God seem loathsome to me, a god not God.

I’ve changed my mind about God’s wrath. Or, rather, my friend, Brian Stolarz has changed my mind. When reflecting upon the category of divine wrath, thanks to Brian, I no longer think of myself. My mind goes instead to Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian’s client.

Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas. Dewayne had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case; in fact, the evidence which could’ve proved his alibi was hidden by prosecutors and only discovered fortuitously by Brian, years later. Dewayne was released by the state in the summer of 2017.

Meanwhile, Dewayne has a civil rights case pending to seek restitution for the injustice done to him. To seek rectification, biblically speaking.

I spent about a half hour alone with Dewayne this fall as we waited for his presentation, with Brian, to a group of law students. I’ve worked in a prison as a chaplain and interacted with prisoners in solitary and on death row. Like my friend, Brian, I have a good BS radar. Dewayne was unlike the prisoners I’ve met. My immediate reaction from spending time with him was how difficult it was for me to fathom any one fathoming him committing the crime of which he was accused. My second reaction was to feel overwhelmed by Dewayne’s expressions of forgiveness over the wrongs done to him by crooked cops and lawyers, a prejudiced system, and an indifferent society. ‘I’ve forgiven all that,’ Dewayne told me in the same sort of classroom where lawyers who had turned a blind eye to his innocence were once trained into a supposedly blind justice system.

Here’s the crux of the matter, and I use that word very literally: Dewayne is allowed to express forgiveness about the crimes done to him. But, as a Christian, I am not so permitted. Neither are you. If we told Dewayne, for example, that he should forgive and forget, then he would be justified in kicking in our sanctimonious teeth.

In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge points out in her third chapter, “The Question of Justice,” we commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross. The cross is more properly about God working justice.

The most fulsome meaning of ‘righteousness,’ Rutledge reminds her readers, is ‘justice’ understood not only as a noun but as an active, reality-making verb. Though righteousness often sounds to us as a vague spiritual attribute, the original meaning couldn’t be more this-worldly. Justice, don’t forget, is the subject of Isaiah’s foreshadowing of the coming Messiah. Justice is the dominant theme in Mary’s Magnificat, and justice is the word Jesus chooses to preach for his first sermon in Nazareth.

To mute Christianity into a message about forgiveness is to sever Jesus’ cross from the Old Testament prophets who first anticipated and longed for an apocalyptic invasion from their God. And it’s to suggest that on the cross Jesus works something other than how both his mother and he construed his purpose.

Rather than forgiveness, Rutledge asserts, we see on the cross God’s wrath poured out against Sin with a capital S and the upon the systems (Paul would say the Powers) created by Sin. On the correspondence between Sin as injustice and God’s wrath, Rutledge cites Isaiah’s initial chapter:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt-offerings… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow… Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you…

Christianly speaking, forgiveness is a vapid, meaningless concept apart from justice. The cross is a sign that something in the world is terribly wrong and needs to be put right. The Sin-responsible injustice of the world requires rectification (Rutledge’s preferred translation for ‘righteousness’).

Only God can right what’s wrong, and the cross is how God chooses to do it. God pours out himself into Jesus and then, on the cross, God pours out his wrath against Jesus and, in doing so, upon the Sin that unjustly nailed him there.

Summarizing the prophets’ word of divine wrath in light of the cross, Rutledge writes:

Because justice is such a central part of God’s nature, he has declared enmity against every form of injustice. His wrath will come upon those who have exploited the poor and weak; he will not permit his purpose to be subverted. [CITE]

Despite the queasiness God’s wrath invokes among mainline and liberal Protestants, how could one think of Alfred Dewayne Brown and not hear the above lines as good news? The example of Dewayne Brown points out the problem with the popular disavowal of divine anger; namely, what we (in power) find repugnant has been a source of hope and empowerment to the oppressed peoples of the world.

The wrath of God is not an artifactual belief to be embarrassed over, it is the always timely good news that the outrage we feel over the world’s injustice is ‘first of all outrage in the heart of God,’ which means wrath is not a contradiction of God’s goodness but is the steadfast outworking of it.

The biblical picture of God’s anger, Rutledge shows, is different from the caricature of a petulant, arbitrary god so often conjured when divine wrath is considered in the abstract. ‘The wrath of God,’ she writes, ‘is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right.’ Put so and understood rightly, it’s actually the non-angry god who appears morally distasteful, for ‘a non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.’

Maybe, I can’t help but wonder, we prefer that god, the one who is a passive accomplice to injustice, because, on some subconscious level, that is what we know ourselves to be: accomplices to injustice.

I did no direct wrong to Dewayne Brown, for example, but on most days I’m indifferent to others on death row like him. The inky facts of injustice are all over my newspaper but I don’t do anything about it. I try not to see color even as I neglect to see it through the prism of the cross. I’m not an oppressor but I am most definitely an accomplice. Odds are, so are you.

Perhaps that is what is truly threatening to so many of us about a wrathful God; we know that the Bible’s ire is fixed not so much on the hands-on oppressors as it is against the indifference of the masses.

As Rutledge points out:

,,,in the bible, the idolatry and negligence of groups en masse receive most of the attention, from Amos’ withering depiction of rich suburban housewives  (Amos 4.1) to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13.34) to James’ rebuke of an insensitive local congregation (James 2.2-8).

As Brett Dennen puts it in his song, ‘Ain’t No Reason,’ slavery is stitched into every fiber of our clothes. We’re implicated in the world’s injustice even if we like to think ourselves not guilty of it. Rutledge believes this explains why so much of popular Christianity in America projects a distorted view of reality; by that, she means sentimental. Our escapist mentality protects us not just from the unendurable aspects of life in the world but also from the burden of any responsibility for them.

Such sentimentality, however popular and apparently harmless, has its victims. They have names like Alfred Dewayne Brown.

Having a friend like Brian and having met someone like Dewayne, I’m convinced we risk something precious when we jettison God’s wrath from our Christianity. We risk losing our own outrage.

Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion might’ve convinced all on its own:

If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God. It depends on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one’s own group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ.

To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God.

 

The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once remarked that God in Jesus Christ gets so close to the muck and mire of our lives that “his skin smokes.” That is, the incarnation is more than the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers; it’s like the steaming pile of…you get the picture…that our life so often feels. Is that in any way beautiful?

Luther, more than any other theologian, focuses on the centrality of the crucified Christ for you? Is the naked and shamed Jesus nailed to a tree in any intelligible way beautiful?

In this episode, I talk with Dr. Mark Mattes about his new book, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty. He reflects on how Luther’s reconceptualizing beauty can inform us in how we think about what constitutes a beautiful life, how we parent and love. Along the way, he pushes back on frequent podcast guest David Bentley Hart and also helps this United Methodist think through how to square Wesley’s notion of sanctification and perfection with Luther’s insistence that we always remain sinners who nonetheless already possess Christ’s perfect righteousness.

If you’re receiving this by email and the player doesn’t come up on your screen, you can find the episode at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

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.

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

Temple Tantrum

Jason Micheli —  March 5, 2018 — 1 Comment

Mt. Olivet UMC – Lent 3: John 2

I want to thank you all for taking the time out of your Oscar Party preparations to be here this morning. I mean, Teer Hardy didn’t get a hipster haircut or start wearing beard oil until he became a pastor here at Mt. Olivet so I assume that means you’re a sophisticated, culturally savvy bunch of cinephiles.

For an erudite community of aesthetes like yourselves, coming to church on the dawn of Oscar night is akin to worshipping the Sunday after Christmas, a day when only the old, lonely guy from Home Alone attends church. Oscar Sunday is like the Sunday of Thanksgiving or Memorial Day.

Just for being here this morning, you deserve a gilded statue all your own.

I had a special Oscar-themed outfit I was going to wear for you this morning, but my wife thought it showed a little too much nipple for a guest preaching gig. Plus, I’ve not shaved my chest in days.

Show of hands, how many of you are planning to watch the Oscars tonight?

Show of hands, how many of you have seen the Vegas favorite Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? How many of you have seen the Darkest Hour? The Post? Dunkirk? How many of you have seen the critical darling the PT Anderson flick The Phantom Thread?

How many of you are lying?

Every Oscar season I think of an article I read in Slate Magazine 10 years ago.

Back in 2008, when Netflix was not yet a streamed-movie service, reporter John Swansburg investigated which mail-order Netflix movies languished the longest on customers’ coffee tables and television consoles.

Swansburg discovered that it was Hotel Rwanda.

Even though at the time Hotel Rwanda was the 10th most popular rental among Netflix’s 8.4 million customers, only a fraction of people ever got around to watching it.

In fact, Steve Swasey, spokesman for Netflix, confessed to having had a copy of Hotel Rwanda on his nightstand for 2 years without having watched it, which is about how long we left it on our nightstand before sending it back, unwatched.

Other Oscar-bait films that people requested by mail but never got around to watching included No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, Pan’s Labyrinth (made by this year’s Best Director favorite, Guillermo del Toro) and Last King of Scotland about dictator Idi Amin.

It goes without saying that Schindler’s List and the English Patient were also perennial dust collectors.

Turns out many of Netflix’s most popularly requested movies never left their red pre-paid postage sleeves. Their most requested films are also some of their least watched films.

As Swansburg notes, you add a movie like Hotel Rwanda to your Netflix queue because you don’t want to be thought a bad person who turns a blind eye to unspeakable tragedy.”

Truthfully, most of us don’t want to watch a movie about genocide, we’re too tired for aThere Will be Blood, and we’re already too depressed for a No Country for Old Men but neither do we want to appear as the sort of people not interested in watching those worthwhile films.

We don’t want to watch movies like Hotel Rwanda, but we do not want to be perceived as people who do not watch movies like Hotel Rwanda.

Unlike political pollsters who have difficulty prognosticating how prejudiced we’ll prove to be behind the voting booth curtain, Netflix knows the truth about us.

     We’re not who we pretend to be.

We’re not as sophisticated or concerned or altruistic or woke as we feign.

     Our queue reveals more about us than our feed.

Netflix knows that, when it comes to social justice, we’d rather hashtag than roll up our sleeves.

Netflix knows we’re more likely to stick a sentiment on our bumper than we are to know an honest-to-goodness human-style poor person by name.

Netflix knows that even though we have 12 Years a Slave sitting in our queue, we’re just as likely as anyone to cross the street when we see a black man in a hoodie walking our way.

Netflix knows that no matter what we tweet or pin or like, Vegas-odds are we spend more on our gym memberships- we spend more on Netflix– than we do on church or charity.

Netflix knows we’re all going to add The Florida Project to our queues when it becomes available because we all want to be perceived (and to perceive ourselves) as the sort of person who watches a film like The Florida Project.

But, odds are, we won’t.

Watch it.

Because, after a day of dealing with your boss and yelling at your kids about homework, who really wants to watch a movie about child homelessness?

For example, I’ve had The Hurt Locker in my Netflix queue for years, but I’ve never watched it; meanwhile, I’ve seen Sahara, the Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz straight-to-video action movie about Confederate gold and Civil War Ironclads in Africa at least 60 times.

And I love it.

Netflix– it’s just one example of what we do across our lives.

We pretend and we perform and we prevaricate.

We crop out our true selves and filter it through a social media sheen.

We virtue signal from behind the masks we wear.

We project a false self out onto the world.

Which makes it ironic that the one theological conviction our culture has conditioned you into believing is that God loves you just the way you are.

You don’t even love you just the way you are. You wish you were a Hotel Rwanda, Phantom Thread kind of person.

You don’t even love you just the way you are, yet our culture has conditioned you into thinking that God is just like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which- again- is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you Baby Boomers love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you.

Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you. Look, I know guest preachers, like Oscar hosts, are supposed to charm and delight. I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. But today in John’s Gospel- Jesus doesn’t just cleanse the Temple, whipping the money-changers and turning over their tables.

Notice- in the midst of his Temple tantrum, Jesus refers to himself as the Temple: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, by contrast, this statement is put on the lips of Jesus’ accusers at his trial. What’s more, his accusers edit the statement, claiming Jesus said: “I will destroy this Temple and in three days I will build another…”

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the accusers make Jesus the agent of destruction but today, in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes us the agents of destruction.

Which makes Jesus the Temple. And if Jesus is the Temple then it makes sense today to point out the basic presupposition behind the Temple.

It’s this:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between your sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. You have to be rendered acceptable. You have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple.

And that’s the thread that stitches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death and understood himself as the Temple.

You have to go back to Jesus’ Bible, to the Book of Leviticus, which begins with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even.

We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice.

—————————

     But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Or, at least, knowingly.

Not one.

By contrast, the New Testament Book of Hebrews, which frames Jesus just as Jesus frames himself here in John 2- as the Temple, describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin.

All. One sacrifice. Offered once. For all.

    Ephapax is the word: “once for all.”

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.  For just the way you are and all the ways you aren’t who you pretend to be.

———————-

     Not only is Jesus the true Temple. Not only is he the sacrifice to end all sacrifices for sin. He’s our Great High Priest.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too. And there this Great High Priest offers a gift. Not a calf or a goat or grain. But a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

A gift that can’t be reciprocated, it can only redound to others. He offers a gift exceeding our every debt. Such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again. His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross.

To make atonement.

Once for all so that all of us can be free and unafraid before the holy love of God just the way we are.

——————————-

     Ironically, Atonement, the high-brow, arthouse film starring Keira Knightley and based on the award-winning novel by Ian McEwan, has sat idle and unwatched in my Netflix queue since 2007.

I put it in my queue after it cleaned up at the Oscars.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched all 7 seasons of Californication 3 separate times, and just last night I wasted 2 hours of my life watching 3,000 Miles to Graceland starring Kevin Costner and Christian Slater and Courtney Cox,

(And I loved it).

     And last night too, I was short with my kids.

And I only half-listened to my wife as she told me about her day.

And I didn’t call a friend who I know is hurting and then I told myself I’d forgotten, but I hadn’t.

And after dinner I tossed the recycling into the trashcan because it was too chilly to take it outside. 

     Martin Luther said the cross frees us to cut out our BS and call a thing what it is.

So here goes: Despite how sexy I am, I’m not anyone’s idea of a leading man. I’m no hero. I’m certainly no saint.

But I don’t have to be. There’s no role I have to play. There’s no mask I need to wear. There’s no character I need to project out onto the world other than the broken, butt-headed but baptized person I am.

     Because Jesus Christ has taken on the role of our Great High Priest…

Because God judges me not according to my sins

But according to Christ’s perfect sacrifice…

I’m free.

Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross, the Apostle Paul says, sets us free from performing the obligations of the Law.

And that frees us from the obligation to perform.

It frees us from the obligation to pretend. It frees us from the burden of projecting a false more faithful self. The cross frees me to be me. The cross frees me to play no other role than me because, honestly, if anyone were to play me it would probably be Steve Buschemi. Or that creep Willem Defoe.

     The cross frees me to be me, unafraid and unashamed

Because my life is not the good news- and that’s good news.

You’re free to be you, just the way you are, like Adam before the apple: naked and unashamed.

Because you are not what you do.

And you are not what you have done.

You are what Christ, our Great High Priest, has done in the Temple that is his Body by his blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of a cross.

     Because his sacrifice is perfect, once-for-all:

There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.

And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more.

     That’s called the Gospel.

     And you don’t have to wait in any queue for it.

     You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to deserve it.

You certainly don’t need a fake ID to purchase it.

It’s yours. By faith. And it’s free.

Just the way you are because of the way he was all the way unto a cross.

Ironically, this free gift alone has the power to transform you into more than just the way you are.

 

 

I was a guest on Scott Jones’ Synaxis podcast to talk about the lectionary scripture texts coming up for the 2nd Sunday of Lent. During the conversation, we reflected on using the Romans 4 lection, where Paul talks about faith being worded (‘reckoned’) to us as righteousness, to rethink Jesus’ command in Mark 8 to take up our cross and follow him.

If the only righteousness we possess comes to us as Christ’s own, by imputation not sanctification, then perhaps the mortification of self that Christ commands looks more like a continual revisiting of our justification. We take up our cross, in other words, by remembering, in word and sacrament, that on our own we have neither the desire nor the capacity to follow Jesus.

Here it is:

 

For the season of Epiphany, we’re preaching our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Certainly it’s Romans in utero. Possibly it’s the most revolutionary book of the New Testament. The text for this Sunday was Galatians 1.3-9, 2.21:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Shame on you-

All of you who’ve already kicked your Christmas trees to the curb like first wives and old lawn mowers, shame on you.

You all practically begin celebrating Christmas during Lent so the least you can do is keep the tree up until the season of Christmas is over.

Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the high holy day when the magi bring their gifts to the Christ child in his golden fleece diapers.

Epiphany always falls after the 12th Day of Christmas because it actually takes 12 days to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings.”

As a holiday, Epiphany is right up there with Ash Wednesday in terms of what it says about you and me. The name of the holiday says it all: Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday says that the grime outside on your forehead matches the grime inside in you, and the wages of sin is death; ergo, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Have a nice day.

Ash Wednesday- the takeaway for the day is built into the name.

Likewise, “Epiphany.”

Epiphany reminds us that you and I require one, an epiphany.

The name says it all.

Epiphany says that our situation before God is such that we cannot come to God or discover God- much less, follow God or have faith in God on our own, by our own lights, or through any innate ability that we possess.

We need an epiphany to discover the true God.

Epiphany says:

No-

You cannot find the true God on the golf course.

It doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual but not religious because neither spirituality nor religion can convey the Incarnate God to you.

Generic meditation cannot mediate the meaning of Christ and him crucified to you.

The takeaway for the day is in the name.

Just as the magi needed God to manipulate a Star in order to meet Christ, we need an epiphany; that is, we require a revelation from outside of us.

Epiphany is the opposite of what Luke Skywalker tells Rey in the Last Jedi just before Luke dies (oops). Luke tells Rey that the ability to find the Force lies within her.

Epiphany calls BS on Luke.

Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us, is not innate inside of us. The Gospel, the Apostle Paul says, is the power of God breaking into our world from outside of us, beyond us, which brings me to my first point.

I know, I never preach 3-point sermons but, hey, new year, new you, right?

———————-

     My first point is this:

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel does not come naturally to any of us.

It must be revealed.

Given as an epiphany by God.

As the Small Catechism puts it, when we profess in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re professing that “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Gospel does not come naturally to any of us because the Gospel comes as Jesus Christ and him crucified, which the bible says is foolishness to unbelievers and a stumbling block to believers.

And so we cannot afford to take the Gospel for granted and just get on with the hands-on “stuff” of Church: the serving and the Kingdom-building.

This is why St. Paul saves his harshest criticism for the churches in Galatia.

In Corinth, church members were having sex with their mother-in-laws, showing up drunk to the Lord’s Table, and fighting over scraps of meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a wilder read than Fire and Fury, yet St. Paul lays it on thick for the Corinthians. He calls them saints and dear ones and he thanks God for them.

By contrast- in today’s text, Paul skips the traditional salutations entirely, gets right to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4, and by the time you get to verse 7 he’s calling them perverts and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them.

Why is Paul so PO’d?

The Galatians were Christians- the Galatians were Christians, it doesn’t hurt to remember- who assumed that they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins every week.

     Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do.

They took that Gospel for granted, and they turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all for it nullifies the Gospel.

This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands to love our neighbor, care for the stranger, honor our family, and forgive those who trespass against us.

In other words, in taking the Gospel for granted, they’d reverted back to the Law.

As angry as Paul gets at the Galatians, he shouldn’t be surprised.

     Whereas the Gospel does not come naturally to us, the Law, which the bible says is inscribed upon every human heart, does come naturally to us.

The Law is like the Force. The Law does not require an epiphany. The Law is innate to us.

We’re hardwired for commands. We want someone to give us instructions and advice and marching orders (that’s why Joel Osteen is so popular). It’s natural for us to want to do and perform and work and earn our way up to God.

And so if we take the Gospel of God’s coming down to us in Christ for granted, it’s only natural that we’ll pervert the Gospel away from the proclamation of what God has done for us, once for all, into the exhortation of what we must do for God.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted, then, because it’s natural for us to turn the Gospel into the Law.

———————-

     Which brings me to my second point.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted because turning from what God has done to what we must do- it will prove our undoing.

Whoever wrote the first Christmas pageant hadn’t read their bible because the Old Testament does not consider the magi wise men. The magi were pagans and sorcerers. The magi are where we get the word magic. The magi were idolators.

Isaiah and Ezekiel both consider magi from Persia and Babylon as God’s enemies and they both prophesy God’s wrath upon them.

If you don’t know that about the magi then you can’t see what Matthew tries to show you with them.

The magi show us what St. Paul tells us about ourselves: that we who were once far off as enemies to God have been brought near to God not by our own doing but by God.

The magi follow their star charts and their reason westward to Israel, but their science and their reason only get them as far as Jerusalem where they seek out King Herod who promptly plots to kill them. In other words, relying only on their own wisdom and their own efforts leads them only to Death. Matthew wants you to see that relying on their own work and wisdom would’ve been their undoing.

The magi’s star charts do not lead them to Bethlehem.

The magi have to be told by a Word from the Lord, from the prophet Micah, to find Christ in Bethlehem.

Paul tells us what the magi show us.

This is why Paul is so amped up over the Galatians’ other gospel.

To think that the Gospel requires you to contribute anything to it means you don’t understand the Gospel and what it says about your condition.

God did his part; now we must do our part. No, the Gospel is that you’re not in a position to do anything.  The Gospel is that “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.” If we’re so sinful we require a substitute condemned in our stead, then we’re too sinful to contribute anything to our salvation or even cooperate with it.

Not only, according to the Gospel given by Christ to Paul, we’re captives too. We’re not just sinners. We’re prisoners to the evil age, what Paul calls elsewhere the Power of Sin.

God does his part; and we must do ours. No, that’s like telling a drowning man to kick harder. A drowning man doesn’t need to be taught how to swim. He needs a savior.  A rescuer don’t insist that captives cooperate with their deliverance.

     By definition, rescue is one-sided, one-way love.

That’s why Paul’s tone is so uncompromising.

     There is no middle ground at all between:

“Christ has done everything for you” (the Gospel)

&

“This is what you must do” (the other gospel)

There’s no reconciliation between those two.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians in 5 words is this: Christ plus anything is nothing.

     The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to the everything Christ has already done.

Just as the magi require God’s Word to save them from sure and certain Death, we require God’s Word made our sinful flesh to free us from certain condemnation.

That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion. Because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.

He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly.

When it comes to the Law, it’s all or nothing. And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed.

Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high.

This other gospel, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.

They’ve taken the great exchange, Christ’s righteousness for our sin, and they’ve exchanged it for the very burden of the Law from which Christ came to set us free.

No wonder the midwinter’s so bleak in Christina Rosetti’s Christmas carol.

Because as soon as you start wondering what gift you must give to Jesus, you’re on the path to your own condemnation because, then, it’s not just one gift you must give to Jesus it’s every gift.

It’s not just a few of God’s commands. It’s all of them.

But the promise of the Gospel is that every possible gift of obedience has already been given to the Father by the Son for you in your place.

So ignore the bleak Christmas carol. You don’t need to give Jesus any gift.

Certainly not your heart- there’s nothing in your heart but cholesterol, darkness, and sin.

And even if I don’t know you, I know it to be true about you. I know it because the Bible tells me so. Why would you give him your heart?

No, if you want to give him a gift then give him your sin, give him your regret, give him your racism, give him whatever keeps you up at night because, really, it already belongs to him.

———————-

     The magi were pagans. The magi worshipped not God but the heavens, which means the Star that God employs to beckon them and their gifts to Christ was their idol.

The Star was their false god. The Star was their golden calf.

Which means-

When the magi reach Bethlehem and- with the Star above them- bow down and kneel before Christ, they’re not just paying homage; they’re pledging a new allegiance.

In other words, they’ve changed.

They’ve been changed.

And it’s all been God’s doing. The change that has come to them has come upon them- they have received it passively.

And that brings me to my third point. Paul’s point running to the end of his angry letter.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel is like that Epiphany Star.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us.

The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted and focus instead on giving to the church or serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel alone is how God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.

That is, you cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect.

Thus:

We’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus.

People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.

People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.

To put it in churchy terms:

Our sanctification

our growing in holiness

does not come by being told that we need become sanctified.

Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. Full stop.

We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves us.  Period.

The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because this Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful.

The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it.

That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free from the burden of perfect obedience.

In Christ, God has set you free from the demand to have faith as big as a mountain- you’re mustard seed is just fine now.

This Gospel- it’s as odd as a Star that zig zags across the horizon and then just lingers.

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural.

Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. It’s the way we all parent.

     There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy.

     No wonder the Galatians traded it out for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.

Who wouldn’t be afraid to give people that sort of freedom? If we don’t set limits- lay down Law- then won’t people just do whatever they want?

Abound in sin?

Paul is adamant that we not blink from this Gospel, but there is nothing natural about this Gospel.

To believe this Gospel- it requires a giant leap of faith.

———————-

     Maybe this will help your unbelief:

Last month in Charlottesville at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd.

Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South in the mid-1960’s. At the time, Sales wasn’t especially religious and she didn’t see the Civil Rights movement as a Christian one.

Then in March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy.

When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales.

He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd last month in Charlottesville.

And then she said, listen to how she put it:

Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.

He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.

Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.

Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.

When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.

     The KKK used to chase us, and now we’re chasing them, she said.

And this is what unsettled the crowd, what struck them as unnatural, Ruby Sales said:

Justice should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.

When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of redemption for white nationalists- how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this, listen, this isn’t some other gospel:

Whatever hope I have and whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’ redemption comes from hearing about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.

The Apostle Paul says that Christ + Anything Else = Nothing At All.

But as you come to the Table to receive Christ in your mouth, Ruby Sales says to you that the inverse of Paul’s formula is also true.

Christ alone is sufficient.

Sufficient as to be everything.

 

      Second Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 40.1-11

We listen to a lot of music in my house.

Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants.

I’m a fan of all music except Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend Christian Music or that Baby-Making Smooth Jazz that Dennis likes to play in his office, which makes the sofa bed in there all the creepier.

I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job to which I was the only applicant.

I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.

In my apartment.

Every last album.

‘Every’ except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people.

I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’

Cliche, I know.

Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than Ronald Moore has credible accusers.

We love music in my house.

 

We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year.

There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond singing ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Bubble. Save the Amy Grant for the Dentist’s Office.

No, any savior worthy of our worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe, and Wynton Marsalis.

The boys and I- our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

Favorite because it drives Ali crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.

Seriously, nothing tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas? Shouldn’t a pastor be on the front lines with Roy Moore, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

I mean- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent? If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be the true miracle of Christmas.

And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith. So I never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until one day a couple of years ago.

We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo.

And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel said- to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa if,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse was dead to me.

———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

For goodness sakes, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace.

They’re just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions.

Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian tradition wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

A terrifying Goat-Demon if you’ve been naughty.

Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.”

In Holland, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men.

Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends.

“I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility” (David Sedaris).

But Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine.

In any case, Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men beat the child with sticks, and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and carry him away from his home forever.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad.

That sounds amazingly like grace.

It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves.

According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts and as creepy as that doll from Annabelle, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, judging your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick.

So not only are gifts conditioned upon your child’s merit, you also get to encourage your child to bond with a magical elf friend for nearly a month so that then, long before they go through their first nasty break-up or divorce, your child can experience betrayal when their elf friend absconds northwards to rat them out to Santa.

     It’s like John says: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…

———————-

     Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf– it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the rest of the year.

The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe.

The balance sheet of your life has been reckoned right- not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace- but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.

Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup:

The word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.

God forgives all your sins but you must have faith.

That’s not a promise.

That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.

How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice if/then conditionality- it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat.

If you repent…then God will love you.

If you believe…then God will have mercy on you.

If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you.

And if you don’t?

Krampus.

———————-

     “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots.

You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness.

I’m only half-joking.

In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, pornography, drug addition, war, or health insurance companies.

No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and a Gospel that is Law.

If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise.

But I do know- getting us to believe that God’s gift of grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work.

Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness.

If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”

We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert.

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

And you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ in John’s Gospel has no positive connotations at all; therefore, it emphasizes the unconditional nature of the gift.

God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ in order to list our names in the book of life.

When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan. There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached.

There’s just the unconditional promise that-

Yes, you’ve been naughty.

No, you’ve not been nice.

No matter, all your penalties have been paid.

The IOU on your debt has been folded over and someone with enough riches to cover it for you has signed his name- that’s what the prophet Isaiah means when he refers to our receiving double for all our sins.

The invoice has been folded over, doubled, and signed by a surrogate.

     Krampus is not Christmas because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness- upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.

By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift.

The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness.

Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it.

     By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one.

In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives, the forgiveness of all your sins and Christ’s own complete righteousness, is true whether you ever open it or not.

You see, the gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good.

———————-

     Obviously the gift changes lives. The gift changed my life- and not in a good way. I’d have preferred to go to law school.

Yes, this gift can change lives but the power of this gift to change lives is not the promise we proclaim- because what God has done in Jesus Christ for you is true for you whether or not it changes your life.

For goodness sake, the truth of God’s salvation is not tied to your subjectivity.

The promise we proclaim is not what God’s gift can do in your life. The promise we proclaim is what God has done to forgive and redeem and save your life.

And this is important to remember- pay attention now- because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better, that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life, that the Church is here to help you become good.

Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many.

     You don’t need the Church to become a better you.

Joel Osteen and Soul Cycle can make you a better you.

You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel- to be saved. Your therapist can improve your life, no doubt, but your therapist cannot redeem you from Sin and Death.

Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that. The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process). We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we here to hear that we’ve been rescued from our badness.

The prophet Isaiah paints a pretty grim picture of who we are and our situation before God. According to Isaiah, we don’t need a life coach; we need a savior.

Even if it’s what you came here looking for, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of Isaiah, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together.

That’s why the language Isaiah uses in chapter 40 is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! The language Isaiah uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been delivered!

     Christ does not come to show us the highway to a holy God.

     Christ comes to be the highway: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is our goodness.

He is our faithfulness and virtue.

He is our exodus.

And we are led in the path of holiness not by following in his steps but in him, by being incorporated into him in our baptism.

The Gospel according to Isaiah is that our salvation is not found within us.

No matter what your life looks like, whether you resemble Christ or Krampus, how good or bad you are is beside the point because you are on that holy highway to God because Christ is the highway and by faith through your baptism you are in him.

And because you’ve been baptized into him who is the highway-

You can never wander

You can never go astray.

You can never be lost.

———————-

     So this Christmas-

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9, here’s my advice:  Turn it off.

And when your children ask why you did so, use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the Devil himself and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Devil will hear it and come for them.

Just a piece of advice.

And if you put your kids on Santa’s lap this season, then here’s another, out of the box, suggestion:

Stand your ground.

Stick a shiv to Santa’s bourbon belly and force him to tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong.

He’s not watching every move they make and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows they’re sinners like him. And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.

And tell that Judas on your shelf to pack it in early.

When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little tattling rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so- like Christ crushing the head of the serpent- you interceded for them (Paul Koch).

And you killed the elf instead.

Tell them you killed the elf.

Tell them you killed that accusing elf because you love them.

And the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness.

I offer it to you, in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

     

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.)

On Tuesday a 30-something journalist from Redskins country, Danica Roem, defeated, soon-to-be-octogenarian, Robert Marshall for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly. Marshall has served as a Delegate for decades and has done so, in his own self-indicting words, as “Virginia’s Chief Homophobe.”

As with male pattern baldness- apparently there’s a club of which he’s not only a member but it’s president.

Marshall represents a district of the Northern Virginia exurbs sufficiently conservative as to make the Ayatollah seem middle of the road; nonetheless, on Tuesday they handed Marshall an embarrassing drubbing at the hands of Danica Roem who, it’s not incidental, is transgender.

Take it from me, Gainesville, Va is not San Francisco.

Turns out, regardless of their views on sexuality and identity most ordinary voters don’t care all that much about issues of sexuality and identity. They care more about the concrete, literally; as in, tolls and transportation.

Caveat Ecclesia 

As Gainesville, Virginia goes likely so will go the Church of Jesus Christ in all but the flyover states.

My United Methodist tradition stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed, butt-cheeks-tight- and-nervous impasse over the issue of sexuality, awaiting a recommendation from a special 30-person commission on a “way forward” that will inaugurate what may be the United Methodist Church’s final debate over the issue. The result will either be peace amidst difference, agreeing to unity generally amidst our disunity particularly on this topic, or the result will be for us to contribute (at least) two new denominations to the carnage created by the Reformation’s rupture with Rome (40K+ denominations since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses).

The election of Danica Roem, I suspect and fear, reveals how the very fact we’re even having this all-consuming argument is evidence that we’ve already wandered too far down the mineshaft holding hands with the likes of Robert Marshall.

Look- I get it.

I really do.

I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.

Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

On the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.

I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, the election of Danica Roem grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

Like those NOVA voters who cared more about public works than Danica Roem’s privates, as much as I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate, I find other issues more urgent.

Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

In all our arguing about getting it right on this issue-

I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:

everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel frees us from the Law.

The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies us before God not at all.

The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex.

Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.

As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder shouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.

In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.

Like those voters this Tuesday who cared more about the tolls and transportation of their daily lives than transgenderism, I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law.

And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law.

The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.

The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.

I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in his perfect righteousness.

I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.

Every last one of us.

More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of their lives. God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing.

If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone unlike them, then the fighting isn’t worth it.

If our leveraged-future brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

And if the election of Danica Roem is any indication, to say nothing of the confused look on my 15 year old son’s face that I’m even writing this post, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this debate.

Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Daphne was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. The culture has moved on whether we like it or not. This isn’t a hill the Apostle Paul would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel.

So, given the missional context of the culture in which we find ourselves, I offer this modest proposal for the Way Forward. 

I’ve read reports that the UMC’s Special Worldwide Sex Conference (my name for it) in 2019 will cost the UMC approximately $11 million dollars. 

Given that this issue of sexuality was already settled for most potential converts to Jesus Christ  back in 1996 when Robin Williams starred in the Bird Cage, I propose:

We, the United Methodist Church, instead invest that $11 MILLION DOLLARS until the day, say, when my son is my age, 2050.

On that day, sex will be even less the issue for his children as it is for his peers, but- I’m betting, broken world as this is- they’ll still be hungry for grace.

And- unless the Donald or Skynet screws things up-

At 3% interest that $11,000,000 will be worth close to $24 MILLION DOLLARS.

I know, like Solomon and the baby, it’s an incredibly difficult choice to weigh.

Do we spend $11M now for the same people who couldn’t reach a decision 2 years ago to argue it again and hope for different results?

Or, do we invest for the future so that we have 24 million dollars to proclaim the good news that God in Jesus Christ is for sinners?

Love Notes

Jason Micheli —  October 16, 2017 — 1 Comment

     Here’s my sermon on Exodus 12.1-13 from Sunday.

On the night we betrayed him, Jesus’ Passover table in the upper room would’ve been set according to the Seder instructions in the Haggadah from the Book of Deuteronomy.

The reason the disciples fall asleep later that night in the garden is because the Haggadah requires enough wine for 4 cups for each of them. 4 cups of wine not 1.

4 cups, each of which represents one of the promises God makes to Israel about their deliverance:

Cup 1: ”I will take you out of Egypt…”

Cup 2. “I will save you from Pharaoh…”

Cup 3. “I will redeem you from captivity…”

Cup 4. “I will take you as a People…”

Along with the 4 cups, at the center of Jesus’ Passover table would have been brick-shaped mixtures of fruits, nuts and vinegar symbolizing the bricks that Pharaoh forced them to build, a plate of bitter herbs and a bowl of salt water symbolizing the bitterness and tears of their captivity, unleavened bread, symbolizing the urgency of their escape, and the lamb itself which the head of the household, the host, would’ve taken home from the Temple to skin it and then roast it for the feast.

Presumably Jesus is the one who kills and skins and roasts the lamb as he’s the host who leads the script that night.

According to the Haggadah, that night in the upper room Jesus blesses the first cup of wine and invites them all to drink.

Then the bitter herbs, which Jesus blesses and invites them to eat with the salt water. Then comes the bread and the dried fruit and the lamb. Next, Jesus the host would have poured the second round of wine, retelling the story of the Exodus, before inviting his disciples to drink. Then, according to the script, Jesus breaks the bread. And according to the script, according to the Haggadah, what Jesus is supposed to do next is bless the bread, mix it up with some of the herbs and fruit and lamb and say to his table mates: ‘This is the body of the Passover.’

But Jesus changes the script.

He inserts himself into it. He doesn’t say ‘This is the body of the Passover.’ He says ‘This is my body.’

He connects the body of the Passover Lamb to his body and then he connects it to their bodies by saying‘Take and eat.’

Jesus changes the script.

Jesus takes the symbolism and promises behind the herbs and the fruit and the bitter herbs and the bread and the lamb and he ties them not to his teaching or his preaching, not his miracles, not to his compassion for the poor or his prophetic witness against power.

Jesus changes the script.

     Jesus takes the symbolism and promises of the Passover meal and ties them to his body. To his death.

‘Take and eat. This is my body broken…’

As the host of his last Passover, Jesus doesn’t just change the script. He adds to it.

According to the Haggadah, after they feast on the meal, Jesus is supposed to pour and bless the third cup of wine, and invite the disciples to drink it. Then, according to the script, they’re supposed to sing from the Book of Psalms before blessing and drinking the fourth cup of wine.

Except, after they feast on the meal, when the time comes, Jesus takes the third cup of wine, the cup symbolizing God’s redemption promise (“I will deliver you from captivity”,) and Jesus says: ‘This is my blood…drink from this all of you…’

     Hang on. Drink what? What’s blood doing on our table? 

     Leonardo DaVinci didn’t quite capture it in his Last Supper but if there was a WTF moment in the upper room it went down right there and then. They’d be better off going back to eating and drinking with hookers and thieves. Blood shouldn’t be anywhere near their table. You didn’t need to be a rabbi like Jesus to know that according to the Law it was verboten to consume blood much less drink it.

The law stipulated that “anyone of the house of Israel who eats any blood, I the Lord will set my face against that person who consumes blood, and will forsake that person as accursed…”

Blood is forbidden. Anyone who consumes it in any way is accursed. That’s why verse 9 in Exodus 12 commands Israel to roast the Passover lamb over a fire not boil it or consume it raw. None of the blood of the lamb can end up on the table.

And this isn’t an arbitrary law designed to bless the world with Jewish delis and kosher hot dogs.

Blood was forbidden because blood symbolized life.

As the Law says: For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be accursed.”

Blood was forbidden because blood symbolized life.

As such, the blood belonged to the Giver of Life alone. The blood belongs to God. Blood can’t be on your menu because it’s not yours to serve.

And because God is the giver of life to every creature the blood of every creature, in fact, represents God’s own life. What makes it a sin to take life, to shed bled, is what makes rabbis give life, sacrifice the blood, back to God.

But now, this rabbi is once again breaking the law of the covenant by inviting them to drink it: “Drink from this all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for deliverance from sins.”

You don’t need to be a rabbi to know.

According to the Law, the blood on the table makes him forsaken. Which is to say, to obey him and drink his blood is to disobey the Law and share in his forsakenness. To share in the curse he will bear.

You don’t need to be a rabbi to know.

He’s offering them what belongs to God alone. He’s offering them his life. Which is to say, he’s offering them his death. He’s offering them a share in his death.

We got a puppy last month. So now we have two Australian Shepherds in the house. If you’re not familiar with Australian Shepherds then just imagine that you’re in the ocean, just barely treading water, drowning really, and then someone hands you a baby.

I’ve been walking the puppy a lot around the neighborhood, which means I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately.  I listened to an old episode, a rebroadcast, from the NPR program Snap Judgement recently about a rabbi.

A rabbi named Michael Weisser who moved his family from New York City to a synagogue in Lincoln, Nebraska of all places.

No sooner had the rabbi arrived when he gets an anonymous phone call from a voice that says simply, “You’ll be sorry you ever moved into that house, Jew Boy.”

A couple of few weeks later a package arrived at the rabbi’s house filled with racist tracts and a business card from the KKK (apparently they have business cards) that read, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”

The rabbi called the police who quickly figured the perpetrator was Larry Trapp, a man who was notorious in the Lincoln community as a white supremacist. The police suggested to the rabbi that his daughter not walk the same way home from school every day.

This is where the story gets good, Jesusy good: What the Rabbi did next- he figured it be a good idea to reach out to Larry and see if they could talk.

Seriously.

And so every week, right before he taught Bar Mitzvah lessons, this rabbi, Rabbi Michael, would call Larry and leave what the rabbi called “love notes” on Larry’s answering machine.

No BS.

This rabbi would call and say things like: “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there and you’re not getting any of it. What’s wrong with you?”

This rabbi kept at it, kept calling for months, and one day Larry finally picked up the phone.

“Why are you calling me? You are hassling me!” Larry griped.

“I just want to talk to you,” said Rabbi Michael.

“What do you want to talk about?”

And this rabbi says: “I hear you’re disabled and you might need a ride to the grocery.”

“I’ve got that covered, don’t call me anymore” Larry snarls and hangs up.

But this rabbi- he kept calling, week after week, month after month. Love notes on Larry’s answering machine.

Like signs.

Then one evening, on the sabbath, Larry Trapp calls the rabbi back.

Larry tells the rabbi he wants out. He tells the rabbi he is done with his life and he wants to escape. He asks the rabbi to come over, to his house.

And Rabbi Michael and his wife do. When Larry opens the door, he’s holding a gun and you can guess what the rabbi’s thinking.

But Larry hands the gun to this rabbi.

And then he tells the rabbi that he wants to take down all the racist crap he has hanging in his home but he can’t do it himself because he’s in a wheelchair.

So this rabbi helps him take it all down and while they do Larry tells the rabbi about his (unsurprising) childhood history of abuse.

Before they finish, Larry weeps and confesses to the rabbi that he doesn’t want to be who he has been.

This is where the story made me cry on Culver with a sack of dog doodie in my hand.

Larry wasn’t just disabled. He was sick, chronically so. His kidneys were failing. So this rabbi and his wife they decide to welcome Larry into their home, to take care of him.

They invited him to sleep in the bed of the daughter he’d once threatened.

Rabbi Michael’s wife, Julie, gave up her job in order to take care of Larry full time.

During the months the rabbi and his wife cared for him, Larry, the former Klansmen, started talking about becoming a Jew. And, eventually, he did right before he died.

In the podcast, this rabbi observed that it wasn’t enough to say that Larry Trapp had changed or improved or repented or become a different person.

The old Larry Trapp had died, the rabbi said.

When Larry’s kidney’s finally failed, Rabbi Michael told NPR that it felt like he had lost a member of his family.

“This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the deliverance from sins.”

Not only should the blood of the lamb not be in the third cup or even on the Passover table at all, what’s left of the lamb’s blood Jesus should’ve smeared across the door to the upper room.

The blood-smeared door will a sign, God promises; so that, when Death- God’s angel of Death- passes over, God’s People will be spared the wages of Pharaoh’s sin.

The blood- it will be a sign, God promises.

But hold up, God doesn’t need a sign!

The Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, doesn’t need an SOS streaked in neon blood. God found Moses in all of Midian and met him in a burning bush.

God doesn’t need a sign like the Bat Signal to find his People.

No.

From God’s side, the blood is superfluous.

From God’s side, the blood is absolutely unnecessary.

God doesn’t need a sign.

We do.

Even before he’s delivered them through the Red Sea, even before he’s drowned us in the baptism of Christ’s death and parted the way through Christ’s grave- before we’re freed God makes sure we won’t forget to remember.

He gives us a sign. A love note- the blood: on the door, in the cup.

If God goes to all this trouble before our rescue to make sure we’ll remember, then if the blood is a sign of anything, it’s a sign of our propensity to forget.

When it comes to God’s grace, we can talk a good game.

We can talk about how Jesus Christ has offered his life in your place.

We can talk about how you have died with him and how through him God has redeemed you of all your sins because in him- in his body- all your sins have been nailed to the cross, once-for-all, such that now there is now no condemnation because of Jesus Christ.

No condemnation. The message of grace is the message that God is not in the judgement game.

But we forget.

We talk a good game about what God has done for us, but then we turn around and we act as though our relationship with God depends not on what Christ has done for us but on what we do for God.

We talk about unconditional grace but then we turnaround and we act as though there’s fine print we must meet in order to merit it.

We’ve got to pray. We’ve got to give. We’ve got to serve. We think.

     We talk a good game about how God in Christ loves you despite who you are, but then we turnaround and we act like you must become someone other than who you are.

You must become more virtuous. You must become more spiritual. You must become more compassionate and generous and justice-minded. We say.

We talk about grace, but then we act like what makes us right isn’t Christ’s own righteousness but our works.

A “faithful” Christian must oppose this agenda, we tweet. A “real” Christian must conform to these politics, we comment on Facebook. A “righteous” Christian must stand up for that issue we forward an email to our friends.

     We can talk a good game when it comes to grace, but all the time we forget.

We act as though the cross isn’t effective for us until we do something about it: repent, believe, find faith, get saved, go inward.

     But grace isn’t all that amazing if it’s just available.

Grace isn’t amazing if it isn’t actual until we act to access it for ourselves.

Not only is that not very amazing, notice- it makes us the way, the truth, and the life instead of Jesus Christ.

It puts faith not in Christ and what Christ has done; it puts faith in what we do; in fact, it puts our faith in the very doing of our faith.

It relies on us to make our way up to God rather than trusting that God has come down to us and by the blood of the lamb delivered us.

Martin Luther put it thus:

“The Law of the Old Covenant says ‘Do this and you will live, but it is never done.’

Grace in the New Covenant says ‘Trust. Everything is already done. Live.’”

Everything is already done. It’s all been done- that’s the New Covenant Christ pours into the cup. That’s the unthwartable promise of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Our memory though is more easily thwarted.

Including my own.

I forget.

For example, I was tempted to share that Snap Judgement story about Rabbi Michael with you and then to use it to exhort you to go and do likewise: Love your enemy. Forgive your trespassers. Welcome the outcast. Care for the sick.

‘Go and do like that rabbi’ I was tempted to exhort. And it would be good if you went and did like that rabbi. No doubt, the world would be a better place for it but– I forget, I’ve got to remind myself- that’s not the Gospel.

I forget too.

I forget that Jesus Christ is not a new Moses.

Christ does not come to give you a new way to try to become righteous; he comes to give you his own righteousness by his broken body.

He’s not a new Moses. Christ does not bring a new and different Law; Christ brings something new and different.

He brings a promise.

He brings the Gospel- the good news of God’s grace.

The promise that even though you do not love your enemy, despite your failures to forgive your trespassers, whether or not you welcome the outcast or care for the sick, no matter how much or how little you perform your faith like that rabbi in Nebraska, a different rabbi has already forgiven all your trespasses.

     A different rabbi has already shown compassion on your sin-sickness.

A different rabbi has already loved you, his enemy.

This rabbi has loved you enough to welcome you into his home, to share his family with you, to adopt you as his sons and daughters.

This rabbi has done it all.

Everything has been done by him. He needs nothing from you.

Well, except your need. He needs nothing from you but your need.

Before the Passover, Jesus gets up from the supper table, he sets aside his robe, and puts on an apron.

Then he pours water into a basin, stoops over onto his knees and one-by-one he begins to wash his friends’ dirty feet.

When he gets to Peter, Peter starts arguing, “You’re not going to wash my feet-ever!” And Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you can’t be part of me or my kingdom.” And Peter replies: “Not only my feet, then. Wash my hands! Wash my head! Wash all of me.”

We forget how the rest of that story goes. We forget how Jesus says to Peter and his disciples “Now, I need only to wash your feet- I will make the rest of you clean forever.”

I’ll make the rest of you forever clean.

We forget how that story goes.

We forget how no sin we do can stain us because, by his broken body, he’s in us and we’re in him and in him, through the waters of baptism, we have died with him.

He’s rescued us from our sin into his own righteousness. Our exodus is over. No matter how far you wander in whatever wilderness you find yourself, you’re never lost and you will never be forsaken.

No matter what you do or do not do it cannot undo what God has done for you.

Everything. Everything has been done.

We can talk a good game when it comes to grace, but we’re so prone to forgetting.

So Jesus gives us a sign. A love note.

And he puts your name on it.

He takes the promise of the Gospel and he gives it a pronoun: ‘Here, take and eat…drink from this…it’s for you.’

The bread on the table. The blood in the cup.

God doesn’t give you these signs as ways for you to earn forgiveness. That’s not the proper application of the pronoun.

God gives these signs for you- for you to remember:  God has already forgiven you.

Once. For all.

No sin you do can undo that because you are forever stained by the blood of the lamb.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s difficult for me to express how grateful (to God) I feel that the inter-webs and something called a podcast would be the means by which I have developed a friendship with Fleming Rutledge. Our regular conversations for Crackers and Grape Juice and correspondence in between have become a surprising and deeply treasured part of my life and vocation.

I caught up with Fleming last week. Here’s the interview. You can also go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com to view the video of the conversation.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

We’re doing a live podcast and pub theology event at Bull Island Brewery in Hampton, Virginia on Thursday, June 15th. If you’re in the area, check it out here.

Clay Mottley will be playing tunes for us and Jeffery Pugh is our special guest.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Before you go, here’s a Crucifixion 101 Interview Fleming did recently with Jonathan Merritt.

RNS: I know churches that feel uncomfortable about discussing the cross in all its bloody violence. Why do you think churches avoid preaching about the cross?

FR: One significant reason, as I explain in my book, is reaction against overemphasis on a particular version of “penal substitution,” which became an idée fixe in some Protestant circles. Other reasons may be cultural, since many mainline Protestant churches have associated the preaching of the cross with supposedly less-educated, right-wing Christians — and also, a bloody corpus on the cross was more typical of Spanish and Latino Roman Catholic imagery. A third factor is American optimism, a preference for what makes us feel good, and an unwillingness to talk about the power of Sin — in spite of the persistence of Sin throughout the world.

RNS: I grew up in a religious context that saw “penal substitution” theory of atonement — that Jesus died for our sins to satisfy God’s wrath — as a non-negotiable doctrine. How does your view compare?

FR: I argue strongly against (1) making this model the “non-negotiable” feature of authentic faith; (2) presenting any feature of the Bible as a “theory,” since the Bible deals largely in images and narrative; (3) the rationalized, schematized nature of the penal substitution model as expounded in 19th century Protestantism; 4) any model that splits the Father from the Son.

I do, however, attempt to present the strongest case possible to show that the theme of substitution — in the words of a great hymn, “the slave has sinned, and the Son has suffered” — is embedded in Scripture and tradition and, if discarded, is a serious impoverishment.

RNS: You also embrace “Christus Victor” as an atonement motif. Can you explain this briefly for those who don’t know, and what are you saying about this that’s fresh and perhaps more convincing?

FR: Christus Victor is not really an atonement motif. Paul Ricoeur points out that the Bible speaks of Sin in two essential ways: (1) as a responsible condition for which atonement must be made; and (2) as an Enemy that must be driven from the field. Sin is therefore both a guilt and a Power.

The biblical motifs of substitution and sacrifice address the first problem, and Christus Victor (incorporating the Passover-Exodus imagery from earliest Christian liturgies) depicts Christ the conqueror of the cosmic Powers of Sin and Death. It’s important to hold both of these pictures simultaneously. Taken together, they are the most complete account of the human predicament that we have. Of course, if you don’t think humanity is in a predicament, this won’t mean much to you.

I try in my book to show as clearly as possible that the Christian message is the most universal geo-political worldview that has ever been offered.

RNS: You think churches should embrace the gruesomeness of the crucifixion. Why?

FR: I wouldn’t put it exactly that way. As I point out in my book, the Evangelists don’t dwell on the gruesomeness. I do think it’s important for people in our sanitized society to know what is involved in this method of executing a person, but the shame, degradation, dehumanization, and, above all, godlessness of crucifixion are what’s most important. Those features, I believe, lie at the heart of what Christ suffered, and I argue that it is crucial (“crucial” derives from Latin crux, cross) for the church to ask why God chose to die in that particular way.

RNS: But don’t you think that the cross can be voyeuristic or manipulative? I think of “Passion of the Christ” and the way it uses violence in a kind of evangelistic shock-and-awe campaign.

FR: I know what you mean. I mention in my book that I used to see this manipulative approach used in youth groups. I don’t agree with this technique. I have taken pains to avoid it.

RNS: Why do you believe that Jesus’ crucifixion is the “center of the gospel?” Why not the incarnation and birth of Jesus? Or the resurrection of Jesus?

FR: In my book I emphasize the essential doctrine of the incarnation, because it proclaims that the man who was crucified is none other than God’s own self, God’s Second Person in human flesh. I also make a point of insisting that the crucifixion and resurrection are a single event, incomprehensible if separated. But the cross is the uniquely non-religious feature of the Christian message, and that gives our faith its ultimate grounding. There is nothing remotely like this shocking dénoument in any other faith. In the final analysis, I find this a convincing argument for the truth of the Christian proclamation.

 

 

 

 

 

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 Good Friday sermon from tonight, using the lectionary text from Hebrews 10.11-25

     On Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo.

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner here at Aldersgate named Jonathon.

Jonathon’s a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear. No.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of forsakenness nor to protect God from them. My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him.

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

    You’re not, FYI, getting out of life alive.

When you give up the ghost, your soul isn’t going to fly away to the great by-and-by.

Your body isn’t going to become just a shell while your spirit whisks away down a bright tunnel filled with warm light.

People will stand by your grave and weep, as they should, because you are not a thousand winds that blow. You are not the diamond glints on snow.

You are there. Planted in the ground. Earth to earth. Dust to dust.

Ashes awaiting God’s final resurrection.

None of us is getting out life alive.

Someday, maybe soon maybe later, your breath will become air.

And you will be as dead as Jesus is tonight, every bit as dead as Jesus is tomorrow and tomorrow night.

If Jesus doesn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday then neither do we. We are baptized, after all, not into a club called church. We’re baptized into death, his death.

Death is not natural. It is the enemy of God, says scripture; however, death is as ubiquitous as it is inexorable.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

And we don’t like to talk about it much anymore in churches like ours with tax brackets like yours but, before the final resurrection, you will be called before the mercy seat of Almighty God, what the Book of Common Prayer calls “…the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all our hearts shall be disclosed.” 

That line about “the dreadful day of judgment” comes from the wedding liturgy, right before the vows so that the bride and groom know the stakes before they promise not to destroy each others’ lives.

Because all of us, married or not- we are a people who actively every day do damage to the people in our lives and every day by our apathy do damage to people we never see except in the news.

We’re sinners.

And as we are, just the way we are, to stand before the Lord would be a terror not a joy. We forget- that’s why the Israelites charged Moses to go up Mt. Sinai to go before the Lord. They didn’t want to do so themselves.

That isn’t to say God is awful or angry; it’s to recognize that very often we are both, awful and angry, and if God is a refining fire then to stand before the Lord just as we are, the way we are, the sum of so many of our sins- to stand before God who is a refining fire means that there is much of us- much about us- that will get burned away by the holiness of God.

———————-

     Speaking of fire, no doubt talk of judgment sounds brimstone harsh to you.

Of course it does. You have been conditioned by a culture that has made that word ‘judgment’ the worst of pejoratives: judgmental. And if its the worst that can be said of us, it’s the last that should be said of God.

We think.

God, our culture has conditioned us to think, is like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you. Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you.

I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. Since it’s Good Friday, I mean only to point out the basic presupposition of Jesus’ Bible.

This:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. We aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. We have to be rendered acceptable. We have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the thread that stiches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death.

———————-

     Thus does the Book of Leviticus begin with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

 God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

It’s easy for us to dismiss this God behind the tent door as aloof and unapproachable.

It’s easy for us to miss that it’s God who gives his People the instructions for all these sacrifices; that is, God himself gives his People the means for the ongoing restoration of their relationship with him.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are.

God gives his perpetually wayward People the means to stand before him unburdened and unafraid. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7).

—————————

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single answer to the question “How does the death of Christ save us?”

The Gospels, after all, exposit Jesus’ crucifixion but they never explain it.

The creeds require us to profess that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but the creeds do not ask us to agree on what that death accomplished or how.

Through the centuries the Church has offered possible answers.

On the Cross, God in Christ defeats the Power of Sin and Death. On the Cross, God in Christ transforms our hearts by demonstrating the love in his own. On the Cross, Jesus suffers the punishment owed to us, setting us free from our debt of sin by paying it in our place.

And so on.

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single explanation for Christ’s death.

Except, that’s not exactly true.

The Church did decide to include in the New Testament canon the Book of Hebrews. Not only is it one of the longest books in the New Testament, it is the only book in the New Testament devoted entirely to describing the meaning of Jesus’ death.

And it does so exclusively by framing Jesus’ death in continuity with the sacrificial system of Jesus’ Bible.

But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Not one.

By contrast, the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin. All.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

For all.

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.

A sacrifice not just for God’s People but for all people.

———————-

     Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, isn’t a victim of our wrath. He isn’t a ransom paid to the Devil. He isn’t the punished in your place or the debt that ameliorates God’s offended honor.

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, is our Great High Priest.

He’s our Great High Priest not through lineage like those other high priests but “through the power of his indestructible life.” 

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, bears the stamp of God’s own nature. He’s the heir of all things and through him all things were made.

But-

But he was made like us in every respect. This priest was made like his people in every way.

Just as we are tempted and weak, he was tempted and weak. Just was we hunger and thirst and fear and feel forsaken, so too did he hunger and thirst, fear and feel forsaken. He suffered just as we suffer. And, he died just as we die.

 Just as none of us is getting out of life alive, neither did he.

His death, in other words, isn’t the death we had coming to us.

His death was a death that comes to us all.

His death isn’t a penal punishment but the product of his having been made like us in every respect.

He died the way he did because of the way he lived, but he died because he lived, because he was made like us in every respect.

And because he has been made like us in every respect, not only do we have a Great High Priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness we have a priest who when he enters the presence of God he does not go alone.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too.

And there this Great High Priest offers not a ransom or a debt.

    This Great High Priest offers a gift.

    Not a calf or a goat or grain but a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

    A gift that can’t be reciprocated it can only redound to others.

His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross, to make atonement.

For us.

A gift exceeding all cost such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again.

——————————-

     Jonathon died this evening.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

But none of us need fear. None of us need to fear death, fear that day when the secrets of our hearts will be disclosed.

We need not fear because, after he gifts himself as a perfect once for all sacrifice, this Great High Priest never leaves the Father, because he draws near and stays near, because he sits down at the right hand of the Father permanently, says the Book of Hebrews, he intercedes for us.

Perpetually.

He intercedes for us. Perpetually. He prays for us. Without ceasing.

He confesses for us.

Perpetually.

So that-

Although we know we are not acceptable before the Lord just as we are, we need not fear.

We need not fear that God will make us more than we are.

We need not fear that the secrets of all our hearts one day will be disclosed and God will render us into something other than what we are now.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we can trust.

We can trust that when we die and our breath becomes air and the dust of our bones returns to the dust we will experience the refining fire of God’s holiness.

We will.

But we will not experience it as the wrathful heat of hell.

We will experience it as the warm light of God’s love.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we will all become as the Burning Bush, ablaze with God’s refining fire.

But not consumed by it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A colleague recently advocated altering the traditional serving words for the eucharist (The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.) to: ‘Christ is here, in your brokenness. Christ is here, bringing you to life.’ Or, ‘Christ broken, with us in our brokenness. Christ’s life, flowing through our lives.’

Such redactions just won’t do the heavy lifting if one is committed to taking seriously the language of scripture. While the traditional imagery of blood sacrifice may make some squeamish as Fleming Rutledge insists:

It is “central to the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, and without this theme the Christian proclamation loses much of its power, becoming both theologically and ethically undernourished.”

Mainline Christians frequently express disdain for the blood imagery of scripture. We judge it, snobbishly Rutledge thinks, to be primitive; meanwhile, we let our kids play Black Ops 3, we fill the theaters for Fate of the Furiousand we refer to those innocents killed by our drones as ‘bugsplat.’ That is, if we care about the droned dead at all.

We exult in gore and violence in our entertainments, but we feign that we’re too fastidious to exalt God by singing ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

In our disinclination towards the language of blood and sacrifice, treating it as a detachable option in atonement theology, Christians today could not be more different from the writers of the Old Testament who held that humanity is distant from God in its sin and atonement is possible only by way of blood. Viewed from the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, we make the very error Anselm cautions against in Cur Deus Homo. We’ve not truly considered the weight of sin.

Editing out blood sacrifice commits the very act is intended to avoid, violence. It commits violence agains the text of scripture by eviscerating the language of the bible.

Scripture speaks of the blood of Christ 3 times more often than it speaks of the death of Christ.

Such a statistic alone reveals the extent to which blood sacrifice is a dominant theme in extrapolating the meaning of Christ’s death.

Scripture gives the witness repeatedly:

God comes under God’s judgement as a blood sacrifice for sin.

Put in the logic of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system: something of precious value is relinquished in exchange for something of even greater gain. Blood for peace.

We might find such language repellent. Many do. Perhaps we should recoil at it considering how its an indictment upon our own sinfulness. We might wish to alter the words we say when handing the host to a communicant. What we cannot do is pretend blood sacrifice is not the way scripture itself speaks.

Not only is blood sacrifice a dominant motif in scripture, its a theme upon which many other atonement motifs rely, such as representation, substitution, propitiation, vicarious suffering, and exchange. Something as simple as switching from ‘The blood of Christ shed for you’ to ‘The cup of love’ effectively mutes the polyvalence of scripture’s voice.

And what does lie behind our resistance to blood sacrifice?

I can’t help but wonder if the popular disdain for blood sacrifice owes less to our concern for violence and more to do with our contemporary gospel of inclusivity.

Along with the mantra of inclusivity’s charitable appraisal of human nature and its ever progressing evolution.

The self-image we derive from American culture is that I’m okay and you’re okay. We translate grace according to culture so that Paul’s message of rectification becomes ‘accept that you are accepted.’ God loves you just as you are, we preach, Because of course, God loves us. How could a good God not love wonderful people like us?

As Stanley Hauerwas jokes, we make the doctrine of the incarnation ‘God put on our humanity and declared ‘Isn’t this nice?!’

The governing assumption behind blood sacrifice could not be more divergent. ‘The basic presupposition here [in Leviticus],’ says Rutledge,

‘is that we aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. Something has to transpire before we are counted as acceptable…the gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings is assumed to be so great that the sacrificial offering has to be made on a regular basis.’

The self-satisfied smile we see in Joel Osteen is a reflection of our own. Our glib view of ourselves is such that we cannot imagine why God would not want to come near us. Scripture’s sober view of us is that we cannot come near God, in our guilt, without God providing the means for us to live in God’s presence. Another life in place of our own, a blameless and unblemished one.

Whatever our reason for spurning blood sacrifice, our disdain for it raises an even more pernicious problem.

If we refuse to interpret Christ’s death as a blood sacrifice, ruling such imagery as out of bounds, what connection remains between Jesus and Jesus’ own scriptures?

To jettison blood sacrifice is to unmoor Jesus from the bible by which he would have understood his own deeds and death, making it unclear in what sense it makes any sense to say, as we must, that Jesus was and is a Jew. Disdain for blood sacrifice becomes a kind of supercessionism. Desiring to cleanse our view of God of any violence we unwittingly commit a far worse sort of (theological) violence: cleansing God of God’s People.

Which begs the question,  if progressive Christians in America today are substantively different than the Christian European sophisticates of the late 19th century who viewed the ethnic, cultic faith of the Jews with similar disdain.

If we profess the conviction that a crucified Jewish Messiah is Lord, then we must submit to understanding him according to the terms by which he would’ve understood himself.

In many mainline congregations this Holy Week, the dominant motif with which scripture describes the meaning of the death of Jesus, substitution, will be judiciously avoided. Substitutionary atonement, it’s often said with no small amount of enlightened self-congratulation, is a medieval caricature, depicting an angry, wrath-filled God who kills Jesus- in our place- to vindicate and avenge his sin-besmirched honor.

To the extent this critique of scripture’s substitution motif is valid, it is valid only because we have narrowed the cast of characters in scripture’s salvation drama.

With the antagonist removed from the stage, humanity becomes the object of God’s wrath and, truth be told as unintelligible as it is, God the Father becomes the antagonist from whom God the Son saves us.

Such is what happens when we excise the Devil from the story.

Like Fred and Vilma, the Enlightenment tempts us to want to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.

Call it what you will:

The Devil

Sin and Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says in the Gospels

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point: the Devil is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together. The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.”

When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”

You can count up the verses.

More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist and nowhere more so than upon the cross.

Not only is Sin, as in the Power of Sin- Satan, the New Testament’s narrative glue, it is the necessary antagonist to any coherent understanding of substitutionary atonement.

If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.

Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama.

It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.

It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross. According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.

The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place.

The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.

God’s wrath isn’t directed at us or character flaw within us called ‘sin.’ God’s wrath, out of love for us, is directed at that which holds us in bondage, the Power of Sin.

It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan, and the battlefield runs through every human heart.

Without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.

Because when we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama, when we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us), what happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.