Archives For Cross

Saved by (Dis)Grace

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

5892-sigmund-freud-quotes-on-religionHere’s the sermon from this Sunday’s epistle, 2 Timothy 1.1-8

 

“Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Do not be ashamed, in other words, of the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul is barely a tweet’s worth of words into his final correspondence with the Christians in Ephesus and already, right out of the gate, he’s admonishing them not to be ashamed of the Gospel, which implies that they are ashamed of the Gospel.

Why?

Why are they ashamed?

Obviously, we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Christians, after all, are the ones responsible for the trite, saccharine Jesus-in-my-pants pop odes to the Almighty all over the 91.1 airwaves.

Christians are the ones who revived Kirk Cameron’s post Growing Pains career with the straight-to-video Left Behind movies, and Christians are the ones who bailed Nick Cage out of his back taxes by watching his theatrical reboot of the same crappy film.

Were it not for Christians, Stephen Baldwin, Alec’s evangelical little brother, never would’ve recovered from starring with Pauly Shore in Biodome.

Just right there we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Don’t believe me?

Go to Barnes and Noble after church today and look at the shelves underneath the sign labeled “Christian Literature.”

On cover after cover Joel Osteen’s pearly whites and vacant botoxed eyes pull you in, like the tractor beam on the Death Star, into becoming a better you and living your best life now.

And next to them, 63- I counted them the other day- Amish romance novels. Amish romance novels. And no they weren’t 63 copies of the Harrison Ford-Kelly HotGillis film Witness. They were 63 different Amish romance novels with titles like Game of Love, Let Go and Let God, and- my personal favorite, Mail Order Bride: The Brave and the Shunned.

If anyone here likes to read Amish romance novels, I’m not judging you. Actually, that’s not true but my point is…we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

I mean, Christians are the ones who can’t accept that the Earth is older than 3,000 years but somehow can swallow the $60 price of admission to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Christians the ones who believe that nature isn’t natural; it’s creation. It’s given- every sunset, every rainbow trout, every note of every sonata, every piece of thick cut bacon, it’s all- Christians believe- a good, gratuitous gift from God, who charged Christians to steward and care for his creation.

Yet Christians are the ones who make up the majority of people who deny climate change and disabuse any suggestion they have a responsibility to arrest it.

From Duck Dynasty themed Bibles to thanking the Almighty for every touchdown and goal-line stop to the #Blessed license plate I saw on the Porsche Boxster yesterday to Red and Blue Jesuses in the social media scrum- we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Christians executed Galileo. Christians excommunicated Graham Greene. Christians excuse Franklin Graham. The reason so many protest that Black Lives Matter is because Christians for centuries pimped out their bibles to join in the chorus of those who said they don’t. Matter.

We should be ashamed.

Christians have made bedfellows with colonizers and conquistadors. In whichever nation in whatever era Christians have found themselves they’ve never missed an opportunity to bless every power grab, baptize every war, perpetuate every prejudice.

We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Survey says we’re the ones who want to keep our neighbors in the closet, keep death row open for business, and keep our communities closed to Muslims.

We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed.

And don’t even get me started on19 Kids and Counting.

—————————-

But the sort of embarrassment we feel as Christians knowing that Jeff Foxworthy and MC Hammer are both sheep in the same flock as us- that’s different than being ashamed of the Gospel.

When the Apostle Paul wrote this final letter he was so old that, like Dennis Perry, whenever he stopped moving people would throw dirt on him. And here, in what may be his final letter as he passes the mantle to his protege Timothy, the first thing Paul tells them- he commands them: not to be ashamed of the Gospel.

Why would they be ashamed?

At that point, the Church was incredibly tiny, too young and too small to churn out bad music or cheesy movies or choose the wrong side of history. It would be centuries before Christians cozied up to empires or launched the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

So why are they ashamed?

Just as we have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed about being Christian, Paul assumed it was obvious why his hearers would be ashamed of the Gospel.

What’s shameful about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus.

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To Jews and to Romans alike, our testimony about the crucifixion was shameful.

A disgrace.

Do not be ashamed of this shame, Paul essentially says.

To the Romans, crucifixion was so shameful that until Christianity converted the heart of the empire, nearly 300 years after Paul, the word “crux” was the Latin equivalent of the F-bomb. Crucifixion was so degrading and dehumanizing- designed to be so- you weren’t permitted to speak of it, or use the word ‘cross’ even, in polite society.

But to the Jews, crucifixion was an altogether different sort of shame, for the Jews’ own scripture proscribed it as the ultimate degradation and abandonment. According to one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai: “…Anyone convicted and hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

That’s the commandment Paul wrestles with in his Letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only the cross- being nailed to a tree- do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

Paul must command his churches again and again not to be ashamed of our testimony about the Cross because that manner of death specifically marked Jesus out under God as accursed.

That’s why Christ’s disciples flee from him in the end. It isn’t because they believe his mission ended in failure. No, they flee from him because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness. They abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

So in case you’re still hung up on my crack about 19 Kids and Counting and haven’t been following along, to sum up:

Paul commands Timothy “Do not be ashamed of the Gospel” because the Gospel was shameful. And the shame of our Gospel is the Cross itself.

You can see why to Jews and Romans alike Paul’s Gospel about a crucified messiah was a tougher sell then trying to raffle off Trump Steaks at a South American beauty pageant because no one in Israel expected a crucified Messiah and nothing in Caesar’s empire prepared Romans to pledge allegiance to a man who had met a death so shameful they dare not speak of it.

Paul’s Gospel was scandalously, profanely counter-intuitive.

By any standards, Jewish or Roman, you would’ve had to be insane to worship a crucified man, which, by the way, I believe remains the strongest argument for the truth of the Gospel.

——————————

Sigmund Freud famously argued that human religion is constructed out of wish fulfillment.

Religion, Freud critiqued, is but the projection of humanity’s hopes and desires. Religion is the product of our deep (and maybe insecure) longing for a loving Father Figure.

The human heart, Freud didn’t say but would concur with Calvin, is an idol factory. We need religion. We create religion because we need our wishes to come true.

My wife tells me Freud was wrong about penis envy, and I’ve only thought about my mother in Freud’s way a few times (just kidding), but, by and large, I think Freud was right.

About religion.

I know the Apostle Paul would agree with him. Religion is man-made.

We make God in our image, not vice versa, and then we project all our aspirations, assumptions, and prejudices on to him.

That’s why so often God sounds like an almighty version of ourselves. That’s why so much of the “Christianity” out there in the ether embarrasses us. The plastic pop songs and the Christian kitsch; the Self-Help and the Civil Religion and the Red and Blue hued Jesuses. It’s all what Freud and Paul call ‘religion.’ It’s all just a means of helping us endure life and advance through it.

Plenty of other religions have stories about God taking human form or someone returning from the dead. On those counts Christianity isn’t unique. It’s a religion like so many others.

But only Christianity has as its focus the shameful suffering and degradation of God.

The Gospel, our testimony about the crucified Jesus, is not religious at all. It’s irreligious, Paul writes. It’s a disgrace. It’s so shameful that Paul calls it a stumbling block for religious people.

Freud was right about religion, but he didn’t understand that Paul’s Gospel is something else entirely.

No one would have projected their hopes on to an accursed crucified man.

Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment.

Maybe that’s the only real argument for the Gospel.

Maybe that’s the only real hedge we have against our suspicions that it’s all so much fantasy and nonsense.

Maybe that’s the only hope we have that we’re not deluding ourselves with our faith.

—————————-

Last Sunday I was headed to Princeton for a week-long con ed course on philanthropy. Just shy of the bridge, ordering coffee at Peets, one of you sent me a text message about a 12 year old boy at Stratford Landing dying (actively so) of brain cancer.

One of you asked Josh’s parents if they wanted me to come be with them.

I changed my order to a double expresso and turned south down Interstate 95. I hate my job sometimes and, just as often, I doubt the existence of the One from whom my vocation supposedly comes.

If there was such a thing as a believer’s thesaurus, then “Pediatric Oncology” would be a synonym for atheism. Especially when the name of the hospice nurse and the palliative morphine dosage is written on the dry erase board.

Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers in a casket.

Josh had written them before his hands palsied, because of the brain tumor, and he couldn’t write anymore. His mother told me he stopped being able to speak that Wednesday. On Saturday he lost control of his eyes. By Sunday when I arrived his breathing was shallow and labored.

After I helped Josh’s mom wash him, for several hours I held her hand and I listened as she whispered to him, in between sobs, “It’ll be okay. God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” she kept whispering to him. But maybe I’ve made a mistake for believing in Him, I thought.

I came back the next night. I stood by his bed and I wiped the spittle from his mouth and I rubbed his head as praise songs played on the tablet laying next to his shoulder.

It was close I could tell. So I prayed something about how Jesus says children are first in the Kingdom, prayed it to the God with whom, in that moment, I was righteously PO’d.

Your heart would have to be tone deaf to hear a mother’s spleen-deep sobs and not feel furious at God.

Or,

Feel foolish for believing in the first place.

When I left, his godmother was rubbing his feet and shouting at him, through stubborn tears, to wake up. He died just a little while later.

It’s the nature of ministry that the doing of it thrusts upon you plenty of moments where you feel like a fool for your faith and you consider quitting not just your job, though that, but quitting this whole Christian thing too.

And I don’t know how to say this with the force with which I feel it, but every time- those moments where I despair that Freud’s right and we’re all just deluding ourselves- it’s the shame of the cross that saves me from unbelief.

The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief.

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But if the shame of the cross saves me from my unbelief how was it able to convert the Apostle Paul out of his former beliefs?

How was this irreligious Gospel able to convert him from his religion?

A Pharisee like Paul knew that according to Jesus’ own bible someone executed on a cross was cursed among the People of God by the God of the Law.

So how was Paul able to get to the point where he could unashamedly proclaim this shameful Gospel?

He spells it out not in this letter to Timothy but in another letter: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel” Paul says “because it is the power of God…” 

Notice, this is everything so pay attention now:

Paul says “the Gospel is the power of God.”

Paul doesn’t say the Gospel is the message about the power of God.

Paul doesn’t say the Gospel points to the power of God back then.

Paul doesn’t say anything like the Gospel is the record of the power of God.

He doesn’t say the Gospel describes how the power of God was worked in Christ upon the Cross.

Paul says the Gospel is the power of God.

Is not was.

Present-tense not past.

That the Gospel message makes NOW the power that was revealed THEN upon the Cross.

You see Paul was able to be converted from his religion to this irreligion, Paul was able to not be ashamed of this shameful Gospel because Paul discovered that the Gospel is not a message about something God did.

It’s a message through which God does.

Paul can be not ashamed because God- as Paul says in Colossians- isn’t the content of the Gospel, God is the active agent of the Gospel.

So no matter what God’s commandments say about the shamefulness of the Cross, Paul can proclaim this Gospel unashamed because God is the Preacher of this Gospel.

In other words, the Gospel is not inert.

When we proclaim the otherwise shameful Word of the Cross the Risen Christ is present to bring salvation and healing and justice and faith, Paul says.

The Gospel can give faith, Paul says, and give life to the dead and give existence to things that do not exist.

Because it is NOW not Then the Power of God.

—————————-

To be honest, for most of this week all that present-tense isness about the Gospel felt like a heavy faith lift for me.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to summon the conviction to convince you today.

But then, as I showed her around the sanctuary for Josh’s funeral, Josh’s mom told me this week that the person from this congregation who sat with them there in the hospital, who comforted them and counseled them throughout his illness and did so again after his death, you were to them the presence of Jesus, she told me.

And as she hugged me in the hallway here, crying, she told me that my prayers with them there in the hospital, which were really just paraphrases of the scripture Josh had scribbled on those printer sheets, those prayers made them feel connected to Christ, she said, and to Christ’s Church, where before, she said, they’d felt terribly alone.

And then as soon as you heard she and her husband did not have the means to bury their son you- and yes some SL families but, I checked, mostly you- raised $20,0000 in less than 24 hours. And one of you told me that if we didn’t raise anything then you’d pay everything.

Do not be ashamed of this Gospel.

Because when we proclaim it, in prayer and in presence, in deed and in generosity, by God- it’s exactly what Paul says.

It IS- now- the Power of God.

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #1: Nominalism

What Is It?

In a nutshell:

Nominalism-

God is free to do whatever God wants

As with anything in philosophy that assertion comes with a corollary:

I am free to do whatever I want, including lying to myself that that’s ‘freedom.’

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Nominalism.

But odds are even better that once you understand what is nominalism, you’ll discover it everywhere. On your lips, on the other end of your prayers. In your mind’s depiction of the ‘man upstairs.’ You’ll hear nominalism preached from pulpits and you’ll see politicos toting its logical baggage.

If money is the root of all evil, then trailing right behind it and just hitting stride is nominalism, the heresy at the root of all theological evil.

Like a parasite that feeds unnoticed until its host is left wasted, nominalist thinking preys unseen on believers and unbelievers alike, leaving the eviscera of Christian orthodoxy in its wake.

While it’s true nominalism is not a heresy in the sense of having been declared anathema by any of the ancient ecumenical councils, nominalism escaped such indictment only because its way of construing God and God’s works was thoroughly foreign to the ancient Christian mind.

Though it didn’t fall under Nicea’s ire, nominalism remains a ‘heresy’ in the strictest sense of the word: ‘choice.’ Nominalism is bad choice made in Christian belief, which begets many more bad choices and beliefs.

In ancient philosophy, nominalism refers generally to the metaphysical view that denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, that is, objects that exist outside of space and time.

For the layman, here’s a for instance:

According to nominalism, words such as ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’ are finite concepts that are determined by culture and language and history. They are words we apply to things in this world of space and time, but they do not correlate to any universal, eternal reality or ground of being.

In the Christian theological tradition, nominalism has been applied to construals of God’s Being and God’s Will. Actually, nominalism has confused God’s Being and God’s Will. Or rather, nominalism pits God’s Being and God’s Will in contradiction to each other.

If ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are purely time-bound concepts and have no ontological status (no being-ness in and of themselves outside space and time), then truth, goodness and beauty do not correlate to any universal, eternal character or nature within God.

Truth, Beauty and Goodness are relative terms, to use the parlance of today.

Here’s where the matter gets, if not less theological at least more urgent.

If Truth, Beauty and Goodness do not correlate to any universal, eternal nature within God, then God is neither guided by nor controlled by (in a non-pejorative sense) his eternal nature.

Indeed it’s no longer clear, according to nominalism’s logic, that God even has an eternal, unchanging nature and character.

Instead God is a Being of absolute power and freedom.

Nominalism is the rival to the ancient Christian view known as ‘Realism.’

Realism holds that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness ‘really’ do exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

According to Realism Truth, Beauty and Goodness derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ then derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness.

And what we call ‘Love’ is but the finite manifestation of Absolute Love that is God’s eternal nature.

Now- pay attention- if God’s nature is so understood and God is Absolute, Perfect Goodness then God is immutable.

Unchanging.

For, if God were to change this would imply a deficiency within God.

God, the church fathers believed, was immutable precisely because in God Perfect Love is actual not potential.

As 1 John 4 puts it with such a deceptive simplicity that it eludes most who read it: ‘God is love.’

With a capital, eternal-sized L.

This is where the s#$% hits the fan, in a good way:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature. As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

In contradiction to the ancient tradition of realism, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A realist answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

According to nominalism, however, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature.

Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will.

To want. To choose.

Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God.

Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Who Screwed Up First

Nominalism is a crime whose first commission has many possible suspects.

There’s William of Ockham, the English Franciscan whose nominalist renderings of God should make you less sure of the simple logic behind his Razor.

Then there’s Duns Scotus, a Christian philosopher from the High Middle Ages, whose arguments for the existence of God were every bit as brilliant as his defense of the Immaculate Conception was not. Ditto his nominalism.

Peter Abelard meanwhile was a 12th century French Medieval theologian, who infamously shared God’s incarnate love by getting carnal with the flesh of Héloïse d’Argenteuil.

Heloise’s family predictably got her to a nunnery and, for good measure, broke into Peter’s home in the middle of the night and cut off his peter.

His dating career thus ended, Abelard took up a monastic one and traded romanticizing for theologizing.

Unfortunately, his nominalist thought leaves Abelard with a God every bit as neutered and impotent as him.

While the lineup of suspects is long and who first committed the crime in the name of Christ unknown, the true damage was done by Martin Luther.

If you finger Martin Luther as the trigger man, then Ulrich Zwingli  is an accessory after the fact.

In his debates with Erasmus, who, as a realist, believed God could not will that which is evil) Martin Luther countered that its verboten to ever say ‘God can’t…’

God, Luther fervently maintained, can do whatever God wants.

That’s what it means, Luther dumped into the previously clear stream of Christian belief, to call God ‘Sovereign.’

Of course, you can’t blame Luther too harshly.

Martin, after all, was a teacher of the Old Testament; he wasn’t a philosopher or a theologian. And so Luther probably could not deduce the logical consequences of his stress on Sovereignty as Will.

I’m sure Luther would’ve changed his tune had he foreseen how the God so conceived is not a God worth believing in.

No longer is God Being and Existence itself, the ground of Absolute Goodness and Love, who is beyond space and time but saturates every cranny of space and time at the same time.

Who always acts in accord with his eternal nature and whose creation, if mysteriously so, is a perfect expression of his eternal nature.

God- as Luther’s crude assertion ‘God can do whatever he wants’ makes clear- is instead just another being.

A god, a demiurge the Greeks called them, sitting upstairs throwing down lightening bolts or serving up magic genie blessings.

Not Being itself but a being believed to be the direct and efficient cause of everything under the sun.

A god so conceived is not even a god worth disbelieving, for the god it rejects is not the immutable God named by 1 John: ‘God is Love.’

But be easy on Luther.

I’m sure if you told him that his emphasis on God’s Sovereignty would lead 21st century Christians A) excuse, justify and rationalize morally repugnant prejuices in the name of Divine Sovereignty and B) to define their own freedom merely in terms of freedom for its own sake (choice, personal liberty), irrespective of the needs of the common good or the moral constraints of the Absolute Good…I’m sure Luther would’ve recanted.

After all, if our wants and wills are not directed to and participating in God, who is Goodness and Being, then they are literally nothing.

And I’m sure the last thing Luther would’ve wanted was for nominalism to lead, as it inevitably has, to nihilism.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that God can break God’s word, his promise, and that the Church has now replaced Israel as God’s Chosen People, then you are a nominalist who should keep his fingers crossed God doesn’t up and decide to change his disposition towards you.

FYI: You’re probably a Marcionite too. Or an anti-semite.

If you leave the doctor’s office wondering ‘Why has God done this me?’ then you’re slipping into understandable but nonetheless nominalist thinking.

If you think God, who is Absolute Immutable Goodness and Love, requires the torture and death of an innocent person as a catharsis for his own Wrath then you are a nominalist.

Ditto to the Nth Degree if you explain how God’s Wrath is really the outworking of Love; you’re defining ‘good’ according to what you think God does rather than trusting that our concepts of ‘good’ correlate to the Absolute Goodness of God.

If you believe all moral categories are relative and thus its up to each person to define what’s moral for themselves, then most likely you think that makes logical sense (it doesn’t) and most definitely you’re a nominalist (it also doesn’t make logical sense).

If you think God is the direct cause behind every event, good, bad or tragic, in the world, then someone should lock you away wherever they stowed Heloise. Because your Christianity is too bad an advertisement to the rest of the world.

Likewise, if you’re an atheist because modern science tells you there’s no such thing as ‘God’ who is the direct, efficient cause behind everything in the world then you’re a particularly pathetic version of a nominalist, one who doesn’t realize the god you don’t believe in isn’t God.

If your politics absolutizes personal freedom (whether its demarcated with ‘freedom of choice’ or ‘personal liberty’) regardless of how the exercise of that freedom impacts another neighbor, born or not, or society at large or how it contributes to the Absolute Good, then your politics hangs on a nominalist understanding of the Almighty.

*Christians be warned, in this way most of the Bill of Rights depends upon a nominalist neutering of the concept of God.

If you consume and shop and purchase and earn, thinking that will make you happy, you’re the victim not only of Mammon and Madison Ave but nominalism’s lie that freedom is found in willing and wanting and choosing in and of itself.

If you mistakenly think it’s morally just to ___________ ‘in the name of freedom’ you, my friend, are a nominalist. Freedom, freedom worth having, is acting in harmony with the Absolute Goodness of God. For Christians, the End (God) alone determines whether means are good.

If you do not believe that God is like Jesus, has always been like Jesus and will always be so- and if you don’t see how this is logically necessary- then you’re a nominalist through and through.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

John Piper

John Piper

John Piper

John Piper

Stephen Hawking

Daniel Dennett

Richard Dawkins

The New Atheists

Secularists

Evangelicals

Christians

Joel Osteen

Wiccans et al

Muslims

Millennials

Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters

Home Remedies 

Read John 1.4, over and over.

Watch the news and practice repeating: ‘God didn’t do that.’

Watch Joel Osteen and practice repeating: ‘God won’t do that.’

Watch John Piper and practice repeating: ‘God isn’t like that.’

Read Richard Dawkins’ and rejoice: the god he doesn’t believe in doesn’t exist.

4131253271_64251f8068For Episode 14 of Crackers and Grape Juice, Jason and Teer are joined by Dr. Johanna Hartelius as they check in with Fleming Rutledge. Johanna is one of Jason’s best friends and is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s almost as much of a fan of Fleming’s as Jason.

This is part 1 of a 2 part conversation. If you notice some sighs or scoffs, that’s just Teer & Johanna noticing how much Jason is kissing up to Fleming.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, so spread the love.

If you appreciate this as much as you tell us, give us a rating and review here 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.

Here it is:

 

nt-wrightDelicately: “None of us conform to what Genesis 1 says about us.”

Here’s the second installment of the Crackers and Grape Juice interview with NT Wright wherein Morgan delicately tries to ask him about gender binaries and homosexuality.

Here’s some of the nerdy text messages Morgan and I exchanged after we talked with him and with Fleming Rutledge:

Morgan Gunton:

So what do you make of the debate over apocalyptic?

Jason Micheli:

I’ve never been convinced by NT Wright’s ‘this is what God was up to all along’ angle. I think it ignores, like Fleming said, the shock of the cross, and the theme of discontinuity in Paul. Wright too often brushes critiques aside by saying his critics or the reformers et al just don’t know 1st c Judaism as well as him.

Morgan Gunton:

I feel like he makes Paul into a default first century Jew

Jason Micheli:

It’s stretches credulity to suppose that the fathers and reformers, and were completely wrong in all their impulses. Marcionism is a heresy obviously and the law wasn’t as bad as Luther made it out to be but still those sentiments are not without a textual grounding. It’s not a little thing, as Fleming Rutledge mentioned, that Paul doesn’t speak of the covenant- esp when NT would have us think that that’s the whole arc of scripture.

Morgan Gunton:

Yeah it was really eye-opening for me when Fleming said that because the whole reformed theological system is built upon covenant.

Jason Micheli:

Of course, I freely admit NT’s criticism in his most book- that those who espouse apocalyptic do so bc it’ll preach in a way that doesn’t force preachers to be fundamentalists. That’s me I know.

Morgan Gunton:

How is that though?

Jason Micheli:

It allows room for God to be the acting agent, for the world to be a dark place, for the church to be a pilgrim people living according to a diff time…all without being literalists. Basically, Barth and Hauerwas.

Morgan Gunton:

Yeah I guess it seems to me like NT Wright over-historicizes his theology if that’s the right terminology.

Jason Micheli:

It’s hard to put a finger on, but it’s def true that I don’t think he ‘preaches’ like Kasemann and Martyn. Nor do I think his own sermons are urgent enough but he is English so…

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Here it is:

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteFleming Rutledge, if you don’t know her, is the best damn preacher in the English language. It’s most appropriate that she should be guest who breaks the Crackers and Grape Juice glass ceiling.  I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…

Fleming recently published a magisterial book on the cross, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I believe its the sort of book that every preacher must read and every lay person should read, both, if they do, will find themselves not only grateful but emboldened.

Teer and I enjoyed a long conversation with Fleming about preaching, the satan, what makes for a ‘good’ sermon, and inclusivity. Here’s the first part our conversation with her.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

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13267779_1598247963837157_8683614937225097742_n

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Memorial Day Weekend is approaching.

Memorial Day, though it’s not a Christian holy day and though we won’t change out the paramant colors to observe it, it’s a tricky time for preachers of the Gospel. It’s tricky not because the valor of the fallen lacks honor but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, is a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story. You don’t need sociological surveys on the Nones to give you a picture of religion in America; the fact is (and maybe always has been) many of us are more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the eucharistic liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us. And, especially, our children.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended the Nats home opener with my boys. The entire field was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Silence was observed. Colors were processed in with priestly soberness. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung. There was even organ music. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes. If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up would’ve been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of worship service, a liturgy, that was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular narrative. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if/when called upon.

(My friend tells me this ‘liturgy’ is even thicker at NASCAR races, which I take to be ironic since only Southern Baptists go to NASCAR and they’re all on record as loathing liturgy. But maybe it’s just the Christian liturgy they’re against.)

I’m not suggesting (as some might do) that there’s anything wrong with any of the above. I’m instead suggesting that Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it a temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story. Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel from offering God a qualified obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then why are we so cavalier about God and Country?

The Christian ‘We’ can include but never necessarily so the American ‘We.’ God has called not our nation but first Israel and now with it the Church to be a light to the nations. The Church, not our nation not any nation, is the means by which God has elected to finish his New Creation. As a leader of the Church, I think it’s a dumb strategy too, more so even than you, but as a preacher in the Church I’m stuck with the message I’ve been given to relay.

Christians, after all, are not, from the vantage of the fullness of time, invested in democracy. We’re not republicans or democrats. We’re theocrats. We live in America, yes, but we belong to a Kingdom. We may vote for a president (or we may not, Christians are free of any ‘duty’ to vote), but by our baptism we pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace. And that peace, we believe, is wrought not by the sword/gun/battleship/drone but was wrought by the cross.

If you doubt the danger I’ve posed actually exists, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it- that’s what the ‘liturgy’ of the baseball game intends. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. Fine.

Except…people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’ The only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones. It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ And its just such nonsense that makes one rightly wonder if the Church is really the entity the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as my faith is relegated to the private/personal then the State will always be the beneficiary of any such separation.

The Church is called to reframe everything in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Lord’ of course isn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It’s a title: King.

And so on a day like Memorial Day that call upon us doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of the fallen or beat our breasts and pretend that America is anything but a unique nation among nations (because no matter what the Huffington Post says, it is).

It instead means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on America’s calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death delivered up by the best and brightest of the Church, and the State, and the Military, for the ungodly.

‘Ungodly’ happens to be a border-breaking (Don’t tell The Donald), multinational, trans-historical catch-all category of humanity.

Thank God.

On Memorial Day Weekend preachers of the Gospel remind adherents of the Gospel that Jesus made is the Ultimate Sacrifice, that he is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including the sacrifice of war), and that Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

We preach the Gospel and, I think, we search for ways to make that story register as deeply as the story I saw felt in section 136 at Nationals Park.

 

Crackers & Grape Juice 2We’re only on Episode #7 of the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast and already we’ve hit a regular diaspora of listeners that would put us among the largest of United Methodist Churches.

In this installment, intentional mentor that I am, I delegated Teer to talk with my friend Tony Jones. Not only is Tony the editor of my forthcoming book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, he is the author of many books himself, including last year’s phenomenal Did God Kill Jesus? which comes out in paperwork soon. I first “met” Tony when he was finishing his PhD at Princeton and I was a lonely MDiv student working in the mailroom. I still have the muscle memory to place Tony’s Field and Stream in his box without looking.

photoListen up. Tony’s a good dude, who does good theology and cares about the Church. Here, Teer and he talk about the United Methodist General Conference, the Cross, manipulative preaching, and how cancer is the perfect drop the mic excuse.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this shit, so spread the love.

Give us a Many Starred 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.

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgFor the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

20. Why Did Jesus Die?

Because we killed him.

A crucifixion is how a cross-building world responds to the incarnate God come among us.

The theologians and church fathers have called the theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross ‘atonement theories.’

Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians. But Mark, the author of the earliest Gospel, shows you bitter irony.

Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him. He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him. He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’

For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects. It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.

The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.

Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies.  At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.

Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.

And perhaps the most threatening irony of all is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best.

Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, 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 doing what they were appointed 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, a perfectly rational position.

The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves. But what the Gospels give us is different. Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us.

The theologians give answers, but Mark leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?

Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross. All our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to a confrontation with God. A God who wills only to be gracious that ends with Jesus dead.

‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ – John 18.14

 

 

As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’ve been observing Holy Week/Eastertide this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.

A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.

chagall

‘The crucifixion is the supreme expression of Jesus’ humanity- that is what crucifixes are for, to remind us of what human beings are, when we try to forget.

The crucifixion is the supreme expression of his obedience to the Father, of his eternal Sonship.

On the cross he casts himself simply on the Father. It is his prayer to the Father, the only prayer known to Christians, and the Resurrection is the Father’s response.

The crucifixion and the resurrection are no more to be separated than prayer and response, than two sides of a communication.

The resurrection is the full meaning of the crucifixion.

And this communication of eternal prayer and response is what the Holy Spirit is- which is why Jesus speaks of sending the Holy Spirit in history when he is united with his Father.

Just as the crucifixion/resurrection is what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father looks like when projected upon sinful human history, so the sending of the Holy Spirit is what the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit looks like when projected onto that sinful human world.

And the Holy Spirit appears in our world of course as catastrophic and destructive, as a revolutionary force making the world new, or the Church new, the individual new.

By reducing them first to chaos.

That, I’m afraid, is a very compressed sketch of what the Christian means to be saying when he or she speaks of God as Trinity. And in the end what it all boils down to is this central mystery:

God is love.’

 

Christ is Risen.

He is Risen indeed.

And indeed (sorry NT Wright) it’s not with ambiguity.

I marked this Holy Week by dipping again into the work of the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe. Here is an excerpt from his essay on Easter Vigil.

In it, McCabe reads the Easter stories as they are, straight up, in the Gospels- not as full-throated victory shouts but as qualified, murky signs of something more to come.

Jesus’ resurrection, says McCabe, belongs better to that category the Church calls sacraments.

marc-chagall-revolution-resurrection

“The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection.

It says something permanent about God:

not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering.

The cross, then, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph and it is just as important to see the ambiguity in the resurrection.

If the cross is not straightforward failure, neither is the resurrection straightforward triumph.

The victory of the resurrection is not unambiguous; this is brought out clearly in the stories of the appearances of the risen Christ.

The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, in any sense, be an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time.

Perhaps we could think of Christ’s resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either in history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection).

‘Your brother’ said Jesus to Martha ‘will rise again. Martha said ‘I know he will rise again on the last day.’ Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection…’

Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of humanity, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself.

Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times.

Just as with the change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the resurrection can have a date within history without being an event enclosed by history, without being a part of the flow of change that constitutes our time.

The resurrection from the tomb then is ambiguous in that it is both a presence and an absence of Christ. The resurrection surely does not mean Jesus walked out of the tomb as though nothing had happened.

On the contrary, he is more present, more bodily present, than that; but he is, nevertheless, locally or physically absent in a way that he was not before.

It is important in the Thomas story that Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus but reaches into his bodily presence by faith.

It is important in the Mary Magdalene story that Mary does not at first recognize Jesus.

Here is a resurrected, bodily presence not too tenuous but too intense to be accommodated within our common experience.

So then Christ’s resurrected presence to us [through the sacraments] still remains a kind of absence: ‘…we proclaim his death until he comes again.’

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nLibby asked. Here’s the Easter sermon from this weekend. Texts: Matthew 27.15-28.10 1 Corinthians 15.12-17a

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there you can choose.

For example, there’s the Jesus on the cover of the sympathy card I received from one of you a year ago.

Jesus is depicted from the rear. His cloak is piled around his ankles falling on the tile of a bathroom floor. Someone- maybe his mother, Mary- is holding his long, dark hair back away from his face. He’s squatting.

You know it’s Jesus even from the rear because you can see his wounded feet tucked under his knees. And his pierced hands are gripping the sides of a toilet bowl with the lid up.

He’s about to hurl.

The speech balloon above Jesus’ head reads: ‘Don’t listen to my followers. I never said my Father won’t give you more than you can handle.’

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.

I don’t think I realized how many until last year.

At the beginning of Lent last year, I learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, and incurable cancer. I’ll spare you the grisly, melodramatic details.

Easter is not a day to dwell on me sniffing Death and living again.

Suffice it to say, by this time last year I’d received hundreds of sympathy cards and emails, and I discovered just how many different Jesuses are available to us.

 

One came to me as a YouTube link to a music video titled ‘Cancer Jesus’ wherein a skinny, bald Jesus who looks either like Sinead O’Connor in the ‘Nothing Compares to You’ video or like a caucasian Fight Club Gandhi.

This Cancer Jesus is wearing a hospital gown and, to an electronica soundtrack, Cancer Jesus gatecrashes a concert and then proceeds to get medieval on a fictitious boy band who, I guess, must symbolically represent cancer.

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.

One card I received showed Jesus wearing not a crown of thorns but a stocking cap, crucified on two IV poles. ‘Feeling forsaken?’ this Jesus asks. ‘Remember, I’m with you always’ he goes on on the inside of the card.

There’s a lot of Jesuses to pick.

Like the pen and ink Jesus who stood in the middle of a card with sheep on one side of him and goats on the other side and above him were the redacted words from Matthew 25: ‘….I was naked and you clothed me; I was hungry and you fed me; I was in chemo and you gave me medicinal marijuana.’

That card came from a seminary student. An Episcopalian.

 

When it comes to Jesus, you have a lot of choices available to you- even if you don’t have cancer.

I mean-

If you want a Jesus who sounds more like a horny boyfriend than a Lord and Savior, you need only tune your radio to 91.9 FM.

If you want a Jesus who sounds more practical and helpful than a Vitamix, you can tune in to Joel Osteen after church this morning.

There’s lots of Jesuses to choose.

If you want a Jesus so good-looking he makes me question my own sexuality, then you just have to wait until August when Paulo from season three of Lost plays Jesus in the remake of Ben-Hur.

If you want a Jesus who leans forward towards all of your pet social justice issues then all you have to do is login to www.progressivechristianity.org or, I suppose even, www.umc.org.

Or, if you prefer your Jesus camouflaged in red, white, and blue then you can order the Duck Dynasty Faith Commander Bible (I’m not lying, such a thing exists) from Amazon for the hardcover price of only $21.14.

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there.

 

There’s even more than one Jesus to choose right there in Matthew’s Gospel.

——————————

One of the things we forget in all our Easter piety is that there was always going to be three crucifixions on Good Friday.

There was always going to be a man in the middle named Jesus.

————————

If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.

If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think King Herod.

Instead of collaborating, you could spiritualize your faith and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.

A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.

Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either terrorists or freedom fighters.

The real Barabbas was not like the suave, manscaped actor who played him last Sunday in Fox’s The Passion: Live. 

The real Barabbas was a Zealot, and the Gospel indicates that he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover.

Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Or, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds.

Usually, Pilate chose both.

So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.

And notice, here it is, according to the Gospel: they’re both named “Jesus.”

They both bear a name which means ‘Savior.’

The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means (you don’t even have to know Hebrew to figure it) ‘son of the Father.’

The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. To be the Son of the Father, the Son of God, the Father.

In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’

They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.

They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.

They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be delivered.

Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two Jesuses.

‘Pick one’ Pilate asks.

You get your choice.

Between a Jesus who tells you to return hate with love, or a Jesus who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil.

You can choose between a Jesus who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a Jesus who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains.

 

A Jesus who promises to liberate the poor or a Jesus who becomes poor and invites you to do the same?

Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesuses.

Pick one, Pilate says.

Jesus Barabbas asks his people to take up arms, to make his country great again.

The other Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.

Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus.

But you know as well as I do, they didn’t have to try very hard.

The reason we hang crosses on walls is so we don’t lie to ourselves that we’d ever choose a different Jesus than the crowd chose.

————————

Of course, the promise and the threat, the good news and the bone-wracking, bad news of Easter is that we’re not the only ones who make a choice.

Even louder than we can cry crucify him, even before Jesus’ body is cold and buried in the ground, God announces his choice- by splitting rocks into shards, cracking open the graves of the dead, and quaking the earth itself.

God calls forth his entire creation- rocks, graves, tectonics- to witness that this is the Jesus God wants, this is is the savior God chooses.

That’s what resurrection meant for the first Christians: vindication.

Resurrection was about God declaring with the rumbling of the earth and the shock of zombies and a verdict as loud as an empty tomb that this Jesus is the life God intended for us from the very beginning.

 

For three years, this Jesus had taught a different kind of Kingdom than that other Jesus, a Kingdom where the poor are lifted up, where those who curse us are blessed, where strangers and aliens are welcomed not walled off, where those who have hungered for justice are filled with good things.

A Kingdom where cheeks are turned and enemies are prayed for, where trespasses are forgiven even when the trespassers know exactly what they’re doing.

He preached a Kingdom of mercy not might.

For three years, this Jesus had taught this kind of Kingdom, and on Friday we put all our chips on the kingdoms of this world and we bet on a president called Pilate to have the last word.

But then on the third day, God rocks the earth, pops open the grave and plucks this Jesus up from the dead and says ‘Yeah, my Kingdom is exactly like that.’

And just in case you’re deaf to the shaking of the foundations, God rolls away the stone from the tomb, a stone that bore King Caesar’s image, and God has his angel sit down on top of it.

God’s angel sits his butt right down on King Caesar’s face and says ‘This Jesus, he’s not here, he is risen.’

Don’t miss this. This is everything Easter-

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom. He doesn’t repay evil with evil on his way to Calvary. He turns the other cheek all the way to the cross and, from the cross, he forgives his enemies and even prays for them with his dying breath.

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom and the empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.

The empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.

God’s vindication of Jesus.

This Jesus is exactly what the sign above his head says he is: a King.

——————————-

Of course, the bad news is that a King requires not your opinion but your obedience.

A King demands not to be invited, subjectively, in to your wishy-washy heart.

A King demands your objective loyalty over all other allegiances.

Look-

I’m just like you. I’m fully invested in the kingdoms of this world. If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.

I’d prefer to think of Easter as a metaphor for springtime renewal- even though it’s winter in Israel now.

I’d prefer to imagine Easter as story about how our soul lives on after our body dies- even though that’s pagan not scripture.

I’d prefer to dismiss Easter as a primitive superstition- even though resurrection was no easier to swallow for the ancient Christians than it is for us.

If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.

I’d choose to think of Easter as a sign we’ll go to heaven after we die- even though Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in heaven.

I’m just like you. The kingdoms of this world have worked out pretty well for me so, if it were up to me, I’d pick a different sort of Easter.

I’d take tulips and bunnies over tremors and zombies. I’d choose an Easter where my soul flies away into the sweet bye and bye. I wouldn’t choose this quaking invasion by God that shakes loose any excuse I might have not to pick up my cross and follow.

I’d choose anything other than this Easter where God grabs creation by the collar, shakes away our obfuscations, and shouts with an empty grave: ‘What do I have to do to get your attention?! This is the way and the truth and the life I want from you.’

I’m with you.

I’d like to have Easter / and / have my world left alone.

My life is pretty good. Like most of you, I’ve got the right skin color, the right passport, and the right education to make the principalities and powers of this world work for me.

If I were to swap my citizenship to his Kingdom, it would rock my world to rubble.

It would feel like an unnatural disaster.

That’s what St. Paul is getting at when he says ‘If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile.’

If God has not resurrected this Jesus then we’re off the hook, you can take what Jesus taught or you can leave it. Allegiance not required.

If God has not resurrected this Jesus, then you can put his Kingdom teaching away in to a nice, gilded box and bring it out on Facebook when it suits you.

But-

If God has raised this Jesus from the dead, then we Christians-

We welcome strangers and aliens, we pray for our enemies, we forgive those who trespass against us, we show mercy to those who curse us and show compassion to the poor, we offer grace where it’s not deserved.

We do so not because we have a My Little Pony naiveté about the world, not even because it’s a strategy to make the world a better place. It probably doesn’t work.

But we do it simply because Jesus commanded us.

And God has raised this Jesus from the dead, so he’s not just our teacher.

He’s our Lord and King.

—————————-

Look, I’m no different than you.

I’m a nice guy. And I need to be needed. You can ask Dennis- they don’t let you become a United Methodist pastor unless you’re fundamentally risk-averse and narcissistic.

 

I want you to like me, especially you every Sunday types who pay my health insurance.

I wish it was my job to comfort you with any of those other versions of Easter that we’d prefer over this one.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t ordained to serve you. I was ordained to serve this Risen Lord. To herald this Easter announcement.

And just as much as you, I’d like to ignore this Easter. I’d rather choose another Jesus.

But I can’t because this Jesus…he’s alive.

He is. Trust me, after the year I’ve had- I know it.

——————————-

But I understand. It’s no wonder we put so many Jesuses out there to choose from because the Jesus God chooses- it would shake our world if we took him seriously enough to give him our obedience.

Our loyalty. Our pledge of allegiance.

Maybe (look again) that’s why the angel at the tomb doesn’t bother to tell Caesar’s guards ‘Do not be afraid.’

The angel tells the women with their spices not to be afraid, but the angel doesn’t say ‘do not to be afraid’ to Caesar’s people.

And, let’s be honest, here in 22308, that’s who most of us are in the story: Caesar’s people, people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty well.

Maybe for people like us, we should be afraid.

Maybe for people like us Easter shouldn’t be a comfort.

Maybe Easter should afflict us with the right kind of nightmares.

Maybe we should be afraid.

Because God has raised this Jesus from the dead, he’s alive- I know he is- and that means we’ve already learned more of God’s will for our lives then any one of us are willing to do.

 

 

Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  March 26, 2016 — Leave a comment

descent     Here’s the Good Friday sermon. Texts were Mark 15.25-34 and Galatians 3.10-14.

You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. Or, you can download the free Tamed Cynic App.

     I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel one Lenten morning when I was a student at Princeton. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day- my teacher and Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra- drew an unnerving parallel between the death of Jesus upon the cross and the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay teenager who was beaten savagely and then tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die, humiliated and alone, in the Wyoming winter.

Matthew Shepard, one of his neighbors noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

It was Holy Week when I first heard that sermon. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked.

On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at what they took to be an ‘unreligious’ story getting equated with the Passion story. The preacher’s parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar, excrutiating pain entailed by crucifixion.

‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was gay so he definitely wasn’t without sin…’ I remember someone at the lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

My liberal colleagues, on the other hand, who typically had less enthusiasm for the cross, applauded the sermon that day, seeing the mere mention of a gay person from the pulpit as an important witness for social justice.

They saw both Matthew Shepard and Jesus Christ as victims of oppression against which Christians called to minister.

Where conservatives saw Christ’s cross as unique, they saw it as symbolic of the unjust sacrifices humanity repeats endlessly.

Both groups of hearers- and I honestly can’t recall where I fell among them that day- received the preacher’s message according to the reified political and theological categories we had brought with us to chapel that morning and, in doing so, we unwittingly underscored St. Paul’s insistence that the message of the cross is deeply offensive to the religious and ill-fitting to the assumptions of the secular.

The religious, says Paul, will forever conspire to mute the cross’ offense while the secular will always prefer more palatable notions of justice, not to mention more charitable appraisals of humanity.

Only recently have I been able to grasp the word the preacher was likely attempting to proclaim that day in Holy Week in Miller Chapel.

The preacher was not announcing that Christ died a martyr’s death, a victim of injustice in solidarity with other persecuted victims. Nor was the preacher suggesting that Christ’s death was archetypal rather than absolutely singular.

The preacher was focusing, as we should do tonight, not on the fact of Christ’s death but on the manner of it.

The manner of Christ’s death, the impunity of it, is what proved to be a stumbling block to us students every bit as much as the Corinthians.

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.

Like Matthew Shepard, Jesus’ death was primarily one of degradation and abasement.

When we proclaim at Christmas that ‘God became human so that we might be with God’ we’re not telling the whole story or, even, the critical part of the story.

God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.

No, God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God.

To say that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death. But neither does supposing the point of the passion is the pain suffered.

It’s the manner of Christ’s death not merely the fact of it with which we must contend. The question Christians so often ask this week ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.

The better question- the right question- to ask is ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

Anything we say on this Good Friday must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.

When United Methodists actually open their bibles and try reading them, they’re often surprised to discover how spare the gospels are in narrating the grisly details of crucifixion. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t do what Tyler Perry did in The Passion: Live on Fox.

Little is said by the gospel writers about the cross because little needed to be said. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost not a painful means of torture but a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, an image every bit as irreligious as Matthew Shepard hanging like a sodden scarecrow on a barbed wire fence.

The one certainty the disciples don’t need to puzzle out on their walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus is the scandalous nature of Jesus’ end.

The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end, isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure.

No, they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.

The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

No one, in other words, expected a crucifixion. In no way did anyone in Israel expect the Messiah to meet with such a shameful death.

God, so far as the disciples could surmise on that first Good Friday, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment.

Consider this, one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai:

“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

– Deuteronomy 21.22-23

Paul takes up this commandment in his letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only this particular method of death, being nailed to a tree, do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

 

According to Jesus’ own scriptures:

“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”

Again, it’s not sufficient on Good Friday to ask why Jesus died.

Just as it would be offensively dismissive to say, blithely, that Matthew Shepard died from exposure, to take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law?

Why did God choose for Christ a manner of death that signaled to his own People the ultimate shame before God?

Why a manner of death that marked Jesus out under God as accursed?

It’s not enough tonight to ponder ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder: ‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’

Why a death that made him exactly what he cries out with anguish: forsaken?

You see-

Heard agains the backdrop of the Torah, Jesus’ cry of dereliction expresses not just his existential anguish or his physical pain. It narrates something objective that transpires upon the cross.

God puts God’s self voluntarily into the position of greatest accursedness on our behalf.

God forsakes God for us. In our place.

Which means-

Our enslavement to Sin, our unrighteousness before God, is such that it can only be rectified by God choosing the one manner of death singled out in the Old Testament as being degrading to the point of eliminating the sufferer’s humanity?

——————————-

Paul writes in Romans 6 that in baptism ‘we have been united in a death like his.’

His accursed, godforsaken death.

You can’t sit with a mystery like that for long before you start asking other troubling questions.

Does it mean that we, with Christ, are put in a position of grave accursedness? Does it mean we should identify ourselves not with someone like Matthew Shepherd, degraded and left to die a shameful scarecrow’s death, but that we should identify ourselves with those attackers who left him there?

Does it mean we’re more like the victimizers than we’d ever admit? Does it mean, as religious as we are, that we’re actually the ungodly?

And perhaps the most troubling question of all on this night when good and religious people like ourselves push God out of the world on a cross:

Is God’s ‘Yes’ to us in Jesus Christ itself also God’s ‘No’ to us?

By getting so close to us, in the flesh, does God, in fact, reveal our distance from him?

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

 

As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’m observing Holy Week this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.

A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.

This is from his essay ‘Freedom’ in the volume God Matters, which was published shortly after McCabe’s death.

chagall

‘The story of Jesus is what the eternal trinitarian life of God looks like when it is projected on to the screen of history, and this means on the screen not only of human history but of sinful human history.

The obedience of Jesus to the Father, his obedience to his mission, is just what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father appears as in history. His obedience consists in nothing else but being in history,  human.

Jesus did nothing but be the Son as human; that his life was so colorful, eventful, and tragic is simply because of what being human involves in our world.

We for the most part shy off being human because if we are really human we will be crucified.

If we didn’t know that before, we know it now; the crucifixion of Jesus was simply the dramatic manifestation of the sort of world we have made, the showing up of the world, the unmasking of what we call, traditionally, original sin.

There is no need whatever for peculiar theories about the Father deliberately putting his Son to death.

There is no need for any theory about the death of Jesus.

It doesn’t need any explanation once you know that he was human in our world.

Jesus died in obedience to the Father’s will simply in the sense that the Father will the Son to be human in our world.’

 

descentMany of ‘theories’ of the atonement rely upon a literal reading of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis to which probably Jesus himself, being a Jew and Rabbi, did not subscribe.

That’s not the only problem with how we often speak on Good Friday.

To many Christians, the crucifixion is the means by which God solves the problem incurred by Adam’s Fall. Not only does this ‘solution’ seem much worse than originating problem (fruit of the tree vs. torture and execution of an innocent man), it seems to miss the (obvious) extent to which the crucifixion is an intensified instance of the first sin: the rejection of God’s love.

Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who died a decade ago, enjoyed subverting the conventions of popular piety. In the excerpt below, McCabe meets head-on the challenges posed by Darwin et al to any literal understanding of the ‘Fall.’

By first concurring that social science suggests humanity’s ‘Fall’ was up not down, McCabe locates what Christians mean by ‘original sin’ not in a mythic, primordial Garden but in the historically concrete case of the crucifixion:

“I can remember a time, it seems quite long ago, when it was definitely not respectable to talk about original sin. The notion plainly belonged to some depressing and pessimistic version of Christianity…the other thing that made original sin less respectable was its connection with the whole Adam story.

It seemed ludicrous that one man’s failure should somehow infect everyone else.

And, any way, how many people could still possibly believe in anyone called Adam?

But it seems reasonable for us to try in terms of our ways of thinking to answer the question ‘How come human society is the way it is?’

I would say that the answer is that human beings ‘fell’ not down but up.

That is to say, humans are maladjusted because they have powers which are greater than they can control…

I would also like to propose a Pickwickian sense in which the occasion on which original sin was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus- that this finally gave meaning to this state of Sin.

In the crucifixion of Jesus it is finally manifested that the maladjustment of man amounts to a rejection of God’s love.

The sin of the world comes to a head in the crucifixion, shows itself fully for what it is. And, of course, in coming to a head is simultaneously conquered.

The Cross is both the manifestation, the sacrament, of the sin of the world, and the manifestation, the sacrament, of the redeeming act of God. It is just as we realize our death that we find life. It is only when it appears as sin that it can be forgiven…

To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, people are making the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of themselves.

The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular society showing its inhumanity. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The resurrection is the Father’s refusal to accept this self-rejection of man.”

 

I’m marking another Holy Week by reading the work of the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe.

Here, McCabe cautions against any understandings of the cross that are exclusively religious or theological. The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:

chagall

“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

 

I’m marking Holy Week again by reading the work of the late Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who had a gift for articulating the ancient Christian tradition in concise, clear, crisp prose.

ecce-homo-antonio-ciseri

“In the first place, it seems to me that Jesus clearly did not want to die on the cross. He was not crazy, he was not a masochist, and we are, of course, told that he prayed to his Father to save him from this horrible death. Matthew, Mark and Luke all picture him as terrified and miserable and obviously panicking in the Garden of Gethsemane.

He came through this terror to a kind of calm in accepting the will of his Father, but he is quite explicit that it is not his will- ‘not my will but thine be done.’

He did want to accept his Father’s will even if it meant the cross, but he most certainly did not want to the cross itself.

Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified?

And, if so, why?

The answer as I see it is again: No.

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.

Any minimally intelligent people proposing to become parents know that their children will have lives of suffering and disappointment and perhaps tragedy, but this is not what they wish for them; what they wish is that they should be fully alive, be human.

And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid upon him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to the Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human is to be crucified is not something the Father has directly planned but something we have arranged.

We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not lead to suffering and crucifixion.

Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience and his obedience was to the command to be fully human.

Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, Jesus, not Adam, was the first human being, the first member of the human race in which humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love- and this is what beings are for.

The aim of human life is to live in friendship- a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends upon a friendship God has established between ourselves and God.

When we encounter Jesus, in whatever way we encounter him, he strikes a chord in us; we resonate with him because he shows the humanity that lies more hidden in us- the humanity of which we are afraid.

He is the human being we dare not be.

He takes the risks of love which we recognize as risks and so for the most part do not take.”

– Good Friday: The Mystery of the Cross

IMG_05932This Sunday is Palm Sunday, perhaps the most political Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Here’s a sermon from the vault from Luke’s account of the triumphal entry.

At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.

So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.

He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.

He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?” 

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’ 

And he chuckled.

Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’ 

Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’ 

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.

And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.

So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’ 

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’ 

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’ 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’

I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.

‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’ 

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.

‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’ 

Again with mock sincerity I said:

‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’ 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’ 

And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’ 

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

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’ 

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

     At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.

His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.

And establish peace.

The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.

For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.

 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.

They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’ 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.

And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.

He’s talking about:

Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.

He weeps.

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.

They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.

 

‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.

‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’ 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

Well  I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’ 

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’ 

I nodded my head in concession.

‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’ 

That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.

 ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’  

     In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

It’s like he knew.  It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.

And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.

As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.

The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.

 

descentMy friend, Tony Jones, recently featured a guest post on his blog from someone who 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, Fleming Rutledge, in her new book The Crucifixion, 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 and progressive 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 American Sniper, and 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.’

Rare is the Christmas preacher bold enough take the Slaughter of the Innocents as his text while the Washington Post app on my iPhone makes it uncomfortably obvious that the slaughter of innocents goes on every day.

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, Fleming Rutledge demonstrates how 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?

Reading The Crucifixion, I can’t help but wonder if the popular disdain for blood sacrifice owes less to our concern for the violence of the century past (and the ways our theological language underwrote it) and if it has more to do with the way that the worldview of blood sacrifice contradicts our contemporary gospel of inclusivity along with its 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, for, as Fleming Rutledge implies, 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, my own not Fleming’s, 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.

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesI’ve been posting a series of reviews of Fleming Rutledges’ new book, The Crucifixion, over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed site. Here’s a snippet from the latest.

It’s 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, as both Rutledge and Hart point out, 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 and resurrection.

If Rutledge and Hart are correct and Anselm is well within the stream of patristic theology, then what do we with the most troubling and caricatured of Anselm’s atonement analogies? As rookie theology students learn in too cursory a manner, Anselm likens our sin before God to a medieval lord whose ‘honor’ has been offended by his vassals and must be restored, satisfied. In The Crucifixion, Rutledge glosses over this piece from Hart’s A Gift Exceeding Every Debt, and it’s an omission that leads them to two, somewhat dissonant, conclusions and reveals their underlying theological commitments.

Hart translates ‘honor’ as goodness, arguing that in Anselm’s day a lord’s honor was shorthand for the social order to which he was bound and responsible. 

Put biblically, God’s ‘social order’ is creation itself and God’s honor is God’s Goodness to which the good creation corresponds. God’s goodness (honor) requires God to act for his good creation. God cannot not intervene to rectify a creation distorted by Sin and Death.

So then, contrary to the abundant caricatures, Anselm’s God is not an infinitely offended god who demands blood sacrifice, even his own, in order to rectify our relationship with him. Anselm’s is an infinitely merciful triune God who, in order to fulfill his creative intent, says Hart:

‘…recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings…Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.’

Click over to read the full essay:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/03/10/anselm-reconsidered/

descentAs commonplace as it is for Christians to confess, when we say Jesus died for us, in our place, on the cross, we are in effect claiming that God trucks in such violence as the cross.

And as commonplace as such speech is for Christians today, it contradicts the ancient Church Fathers and, even, Ansem of Cantebury who emphasizesd the necessarily nonviolent mode of the atonement.

Even after you’ve avoided the common problems with substitutionary atonement, making clear it is not merely our individual sin (read: moral impurity) for which Jesus dies or insisting we must not divide the Father’s and Son’s wills against one another, that the cross in no way effects a change in God, or that God’s wrath is poured out on the cross not against his creatures but against the Sin that enslaves them, substitutionary atonement still sees the cross as an apocalyptic battle waged by God.

Even after you resolve the popular problems with substitution, a graver problem remains:

God chooses violence to be the means by which we’re delivered.

Whether or not the fact of God endorsing and using such violence is ameliorated by the fact that God suffers it in our stead is a matter of debate.

To my mind, a more urgent question becomes whether or not a community of perichoretic love, the Trinity, whose very nature is peace, could ever employ violence to good ends?

Is not such an act contrary to God’s nature? And God, by definition, cannot act contrary to God’s nature, such a god would be a god of sheer will not a God who is Goodness.

The idea that the cross reveals the nonviolence of God is commonplace in the ancient Church Fathers:

‘God does not use violent means to obtain what he desires.’

– Iraeneus

‘God does not liberate us from our captivity by a violent exercise of force.’

– Gregory of Nyssa

In his retrieval of Cur Deus Homo, David Bentley Hart argues that Anselm, in harmony with the Fathers before him, does not view God as using the violence of the cross as the means to remit sin.

Quite the opposite, the violence of the cross is our violence, our choice. The cross is a product of the system of Sin to which we’re bound.

Says Hart:

 ‘the violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace.’

Hart argues that the same boundless gift God gives in creation the Son gives back in his obedient life offered to God even unto the cross and that such a superabundant gift ‘draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned.’ Thus, Hart concludes, Christ subverts the very logic of substitution and sacrifice from within by subsuming it into the trinitarian motion of love.

As opposed to a violent, apocalyptic defeat of Sin through the cross, Christ’s obedience is simply, as Anselm puts it, ‘a gift that exceeds our every debt.’

 

Image: The Descent from the Cross by Max Beckmann