Archives For Cross

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.

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

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-Wales
During Lent I’m writing a series of review essays of Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, at Scot McKnight‘s popular Jesus Creed site. Here’s a snippet from the latest post on Rutledge’s work on justice and divine wrath.

I’ve changed my mind about God’s wrath. 

Or, rather, my friend, Brian Stolarz has changed my mind. 

When reflecting upon the category of divine wrath, thanks to Brian, I no longer think of myself. My mind goes instead to Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian’s client (both pictured above).

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

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

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

To seek rectification, biblically speaking. 

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

Here’s the crux of the matter, and I use that word very literally:

Dewayne is allowed to express forgiveness about the crimes done to him. 

But, as a Christian, I am not so permitted. Neither are you. 

If we told Dewayne, for example, that he should forgive and forget, then he would be justified in kicking in our sanctimonious teeth.

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

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross. 

The cross is more properly about God working justice. 

You can read the rest of the essay at the Jesus Creed here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/03/03/a-wrath-less-god-has-victims-by-jason-micheli/#disqus_thread

12744280_1713461858909999_5768302360489547677_nI was the guest at the most recent Pub Theology gathering. Since its Lent, the topic I was given was Faith and Suffering. I apologize for how much I say ‘um.’ The poem I shared during the event is included below.

 

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”

Lord let me suffer much

and then die

Let me walk through silence

and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue

let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green

so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it

and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly

as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane

bumped by a bumblebee’s head

– by Anna Kamienska

Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  February 23, 2016 — Leave a comment

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-Wales

I’m blogging during Lent over at Scot McKnight‘s popular Jesus Creed site on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. 

Here’s a snippet from the latest post.

I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day drew an unnerving parallel between Jesus’ death upon the cross and Matthew Shepard’s death, beaten and tied to a barbed wire fence in the Wyoming winter. Shepard, one observer noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

The season for that sermon was Lent I believe. 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 an ‘unreligious’ story being equated with the passion story. The parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar pain entailed by crucifixion. ‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was…a sinner’ I remember someone at a lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

To read the rest, click over to Scot’s site:

Amazing Dis-Grace (by Jason Micheli)

lightstock_2350_small_user_2741517-2Preaching on Psalm 51 this Ash Wednesday, I noticed something as I followed along with the lector from the pew bible open on my lap. David’s indulgent confession of sin in Psalm 51 ends with this startling moment of recognition:

‘…for you [God] have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is [only] a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

Surely this is a stunning epiphany to anyone who knows the Old Testament wherein sacrifices are frequent, systematized, and not only a delight to the Lord but prescribed by the Lord himself from Mt. Sinai. Consider even the remarkable dissonance- what I discovered Ash Wednesday only because my pew bible was open flat on my lap- of Psalm 51 with the psalm that immediately precedes it:

‘Those who bring their thanksgiving sacrifice [as commanded in Leviticus] honor me…’

Declares God, in Psalm 50.

Israel’s prophets, who come after David and voice God’s judgment upon the greed and false piety of David’s heirs, introduce an even more virulent strain into the bible’s thinking about the necessity and merit of sacrifice. The Christian Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi heaping scorn upon sacrifices offered in vain, and the angry prophet of the rural poor, Amos, most famously announced God’s wrath thusly:

‘…you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

…the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

 

For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!

Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;  as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.

Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’

Those last lines abut justice are familiar to us from Dr. King’s sermon on the National Mall, but excised from their original context they lose their punch and, I suspect for white Christians, turn Amos from a prophet of judgment into a dispenser of vague liberal hope.

For anyone with ears to hear, there is this unresolved tension running throughout the Old Testament as to whether sacrifice is something that God in any way desires or requires.

What do Christians make of this ambivalence regarding sacrifice when we consider what we consider the ultimate sacrifice, Christ’s expiatory offering of suffering and death upon the cross? 

Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’

9780374298470Marilynne Robinson, in her essay Metaphysics, writes:

‘I know the Bible interprets Christ’s passion as expiatory, the world’s suffering as the consequence of sin, for which Christ is a guilt offering. I note as well that when God speaks through the prophets about sacrifice he treats it as the expression of a human need he tolerates rather than as anything he desires.

Certainly the death of Christ has been understood as expiation for human sin through the whole length of church history, and I defer with all possible sincerity to the central tenets of the Christian tradition, but as for myself, I confess that I struggle to understand the phenomenon of ritual sacrifice, and the Crucifixion when explicated in its terms. The concept is so central to the tradition that I have no desire to take issue with it, and so difficult for me that I leave it for others to interpret. If it answered to a deep human need at other times, and it answers now to other spirits than mine, then it is a great kindness of God toward them, and a great proof of God’s attentive grace toward his creatures.

I do not by any means doubt the gravity of human sin or question our radical indebtedness to God. I suppose it is my high Christology, my Trinitarianism, that makes me falter at the idea God could be in any sense repaid or satisfied by the death of his incarnate self.’

Is our thinking, I wonder in Lent, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?

God Became Sub-Human

Jason Micheli —  February 17, 2016 — Leave a comment

I’ve long been a fan of Athanasius’ catch-phrase ‘God became human so that we might become God.’ I’ve relished the precision with it captures the plot of the scripture story; however, reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, I’m now convicted the summation is too cute by half because, of course, God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.

God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God. 

Athanasius’ quote, if unexamined, bypasses the peculiarly godawful mode of death by which we are incorporated mysteriously into God’s own life. To say, as Athanasius does, 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.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhite

As Rutledge points out, the common way of interrogating the atonement ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.

The better question to ask, Rutledge counters, is:

‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

The merit of any atonement theology 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.

Often critics of substitutionary atonement will cite the four evangelists’ own reticence in describing crucifixion as evidence that the cross is not as significant as claimed. Fleming Rutledge cites the evangelists’ same spare narration of the crucifixion to argue the very opposite point: little is said in the gospels about the cross because little needed to be said in the ancient world. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, and the very opposite of what we take it to be: irreligious.

Consider the way Paul consistently modulates his rhetoric to emphasize the shameful manner of Jesus’ death: ‘…even death on a cross’ or ‘…and him crucified.’ The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure; 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.

God, so far as the disciples could surmise, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment:

“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 law stipulation in Galatians 3.10-14, a passage which, tellingly, the lectionary can find no room for in its 3 year calendar. Only this particular method of death does the torah identify as being godforsaken. On this insight, Rutledge quotes Jurgen Moltmann:

“…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 to ask why Jesus died.

To take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law, a manner that signaled the ultimate shame before God and marked one out under God as accursed.

Rather than asking ‘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?’

And just as important a question to ponder, what does such a death say about the gravity of our condition?

images

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesScot McKnight, who hosts the popular Jesus Creed blog, has invited me to post a series of reflections during Lent on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of JesusFleming Rutldge BandWhite

I want to give Scot the love and force you to read it over on his site so here’s my teaser:

The spiritual intuition of god in your garden will never lead you to submit to a naked, homeless, cheek-turning, executed Jew.

Perhaps more importantly, ‘spirituality’ will never compel you to identify with the world’s forsaken as a necessary implication of your faith.

Vague spirituality, untethered from orthodox tradition, certainly won’t require you to identify with the world’s forsakers.

But the cross, where Christ dies for the ungodly, demands exactly that, as offensive and counter-intuitive as it is to all our natural religious and moral impulses.

Okay, whistle wetted, read the post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/02/12/fleming-rutledge-and-the-atonement-by-jason-micheli/ 

 

Here’s my sermon from Ash Wednesday. You can listen to below, in the sidebar to the right, or download the Tamed Cynic app here.

Psalm 51

Maybe its the last dregs of chemo brain, but am I the only one who hears ‘…against you, you alone God, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…’ and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know what you look like in your baby photos but I look absolutely adorable. Even back then I had a face any woman could love. Did God really look at me, wearing an OshKosh onesie and a world weary expression, and think to God’s self: Baby Jason, he’s a miserable, wicked sinner? Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but from the moment my mother conceived me?

And I don’t know if my guilt extends all the way back to the womb like today’s scripture contends- seems awfully grim- but I know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic on Route 1.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the next traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I rebel against God, day and night, and that I’ve done evil in his sight sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath? Shouldn’t God be at least as nice as Jesus?

—————

     We’ve all heard the cliche that the Church is a place not for great saints but for great sinners. ‘The Church,’ as the sign out front of Bethlehem Baptist Church said last week, ‘is a hospital for sinners.’

Fine. Whatever.

But-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Ash Wednesday liturgy the Church with a capital C has given us- there’s no room in it for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for Ash Wednesday, where Isaiah says we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ It’s over the top.

And consider King David who wrote Psalm 51. David is exactly like a Game of Thrones character. David is a peeping tom, a sexual predator, a murderer and a religious sycophant. David collected 100 foreskins just to impress his girlfriend and I’m willing to bet at least 99 of them came from reluctant donors. David tore off his clothes and danced naked on the altar of the covenant.

Even by the Jersey Shore standards of his Old Testament day, David was terrible, a terribly exceptional sinner.

I mean, it’s no wonder hardly anyone brings their kids to Ash Wednesday service. You all come here to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you’re secretly thinking about voting for Trump and what do we do?

Bam, we hit you over the head with ‘…against you, you only, God have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’

And then, as if that wasn’t overkill enough, we invite you to participate in this liturgy of sackcloth and ash that derives, lemme tell you, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation and forgiveness of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists.

When it comes to you and me, the scripture, the ceremony- it misses the mark.

—————

     King David’s language in Psalm 51 is beautiful, but as gorgeous as the words are, it’s bad language. It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Here, of all places, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.

I mean, the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like David, but I for one, after the year I’ve had, don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners. We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  We haven’t been guilty since our mother’s first trimester. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.

We’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or spiritual psychopaths. Other than Dennis Perry, I’ve not seen one of you dance naked at the altar. So forget the psalm. Forget David’s confession for a moment and let’s be honest.

     Your sins do not offend God.

     There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.

Let David narrate David’s experience for himself, but let’s be honest about ours. There’s a difference between David and you. He’s a lot more interesting of a sinner. Fine. Whatever. So be it.

Let’s be precise, David’s a Game of Thrones sinner and most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.

No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.

You haven’t been committing evil since you were teething- that’s insanity. No, you just screen your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.

But compared to David? Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not much of a sinner.

No matter what the liturgy says, you haven’t been guilty since the day your mother conceived you.

I know it’s Ash Wednesday, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is.

Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.

—————

     Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

They’re not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

     Sin is about where your love lies.

     Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like David or a jackass like me or a comfortably numb suburbanite, doesn’t change. Because God doesn’t change.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.

God’s heart is no different whether you leave here with your forehead smooth or smudged tonight.

So before you come up here today to put on ash, before we invite you follow Jesus into the wilderness for the 40 days of Lent, don’t think it has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love for you is unconditional because God is unchanging.

Don’t think an ashen cross keeps the fires of hell at bay. Don’t think Lenten penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No. When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

Who the hell are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?

You’re not putting on ash tonight to change God’s love, you’re putting on ash to change your love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip.

Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.

And so with sackcloth and ashes, we invite you, over the next 40 days, to kill your lovers.

Or if the sound of that makes you squeamish, we invite you to die to them.

Because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us. That’s a lesson I learned about a year ago tonight when the doctor called and asked if I was sitting down.

Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.

Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.

Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

Tattoo You

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

‘My name’s Hawk’ he said, offering me his meaty orange and scarlet painted hand, flames I think, whose red tongues lapped seamlessly into the illustration running up his arm.

My hand disappeared into his and I thought to myself: Of course your name’s Hawk

Shorter than me, he looked like a squat version of one half of the Road Warriors, the Mad Max inspired WWF tag team I idolized as a kid. Maybe Hawk was a fanboy too because that clothes-lining, from the top rope, road warrior was also named Hawk. Road_Warrior_Hawk

’Is that Hawk? Or Mr. Hawk?’ I asked…like a tool. He did me the courtesy of faking a chuckle before opening the waist high ‘Staff Only’ gate and ushering back into his studio.

Once I realized a few months ago that my stage-serious cancer wasn’t going to kill me, at least not for now, I passed the infusion and transfusion time sketching a sort of bucket list, a concept nearly ruined for me in 2007 by that dentures dud of a movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, a ‘film’ which proved not everything is made awesome simply by the presence of Morgan Freeman. It’s hard to sail around the world on a pastor’s salary and I’ve already read all the Dostoyevsky I ever want to read so I settled upon less ambitious but no less important items for my Cancer Didn’t Kill Me Yet Bucket List, such as

#3: Spend More Time with Friends

#7: Take My Job Less Seriously and

#2: Try to be Less of an A-hole to My Wife. 

#6 on the list was something I’d always had in the back of my mind but had never gotten around to doing, getting a tattoo. Not only did the scare of the past year compel me, any tattoo I did get, I discerned, should in some fashion testify to the struggle we’d experienced and to any epiphanies with which we’d emerged on the other end of our nightmare.

Jacob, in Genesis, laid an altar to remember (and maybe warn away others) the place where God had struggled with him. Lacking any ebeneezers, I went to a tattoo parlor instead. So it was that I sat a few afternoons ago in Hawk’s brightly animated studio, my arm draped over a vinyl cushion, sucking on lollipops to stave off the sugar crash he’d warned me the needle would provoke. It’s a surprisingly intimate moment, having someone inscribe what might be a terrible mistake into your flesh. Like sex, it’s sweaty and you can’t take it back and, like sex, I felt it would’ve been even more awkward in the absence of pillow talk. Or, in this case, banter.

No doubt I’m judging, but I assumed the Republican Primary or America’s refugee policy to lie outside his conversational wheelhouse, so I asked Hawk:

‘What’s the strangest tattoo you ever did for someone?’

‘Please don’t tell me it was a dolphin leaping through a clovered trinity or a Chinese script character that actually translates to ‘Kick Me’ I joked. But his countenance fell. He looked bothered. Disturbed even. He turned the ink gun off and laid it down. Staring at the floor, he looked as though all that was missing was a fire around which he could tell this horror story. He was quiet for several moments before shaking his head and said: ‘Dude, this one time…this guy had me ink this giant butterfly on his entire back.’

This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. ‘Well, that’s not quite Flannery O’Connor’ I laughed, ‘but that doesn’t sound too strange.’

‘No, dude, that’s not it. You see, the body of the butterfly…’ he looked back at the fake wood floor, ‘the body of the butterfly was a…giant _________.’

Since I’ve only recently petitioned the United Methodist powers-that-be to be reinstated off of medical leave, let’s just say the word Hawk shared with me rhymes with ‘Loner.’

‘Seriously?’ I asked him.

‘Yeah dude, and where the feet on the butterfly are supposed to go he wanted me to put a pair of _________. ‘

‘Of course. It would look ridiculous without them’ I deadpanned. He started to grab his ink gun but put it down again when I asked him: ‘Did you ask him? What was the story behind that tattoo?’

‘Naw dude. I figured it was best I didn’t know.’

‘Probably a good call.’ He started again on my arm. I watched him, looking down at the upside down A he had started to outline.

Attachment-1

‘This is the Alpha and Omega, right?’ he asked over the whirr of the gun and the Dead Weather playing over the Bose.

He must’ve read my ‘How’d you know that?’ expression because he added, ‘We get a lot of Christians in here.’

‘I imagine so’ I said. ‘I guess crosses have more staying power than the Tasmanian Devil or Calvin and Hobbes.’ He did me another favor by laughing.

‘These here, then, this means the Beginning and the End, right?’ he pointed to the other letters in the corner of the cross. I nodded, unwrapping another lollipop.

‘Then this,’ and with the needle he outlined the crow in which the cross and letters were all contained, ‘must be Peter denying Jesus? The cock crowing three times?’ ‘Why does it look like it’s falling?’ he asked, sounding genuinely curious now.

‘Because while Peter’s denying Jesus, Jesus is falling down, carrying his cross.’ I explained.

‘Carrying it…for Peter’s sake, huh?’ Hawk closed the gospel loop.

‘Yeah. In a way,’ I said, ‘you can think of it as the ultimate tramp stamp.’

‘The three?’ he asked, ‘the Trinity?’

‘No, but that works too. Stations of the Cross, the third one.’

‘Why’d you decide to get a tattoo?’ he asked.

‘I’ve always wanted one,’ I said, grimacing at how cliche that sounded ‘and then cancer nearly killed me this year.’

‘How’d you settle on this image?’ he asked, wiping the blood that was dripping down from my cross.

I sucked the lollipop spit back into my mouth. It was my turn to look at the floor.

‘There’s nothing like cancer and your own looming death to point out just how imperfect and unfaithful- scared and sinful- you are’ I confessed.

‘When you’re afraid you’ve already done most of the living you’re going to do and all the important decisions you’ll make in your life have already been made, you take account. And no matter how many times you count, you fear you don’t measure up.’

He’d stopped the ink gun again and was considering me, like I would at someone in my office who’d revealed more than they knew.

‘Anyway,’ I mumbled through the lollipop I’d returned to my mouth, ‘this past year I’ve sought refuge in the fact that, in Jesus, God takes all those experiences and emotions of ours into himself’ I said, unintentionally saving the most important point for last.

‘God doesn’t cause our pain and suffering.

God doesn’t shun us because of our shortcomings.

God makes them his own.’

And, as though an affirmation, he stretched out the two solitary syllables: ‘Dude.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I think maybe I wanted the tattoo because I’ve had to remind myself of it a lot this year.’

He nodded like he understood or sympathized. ‘So…’ Hawk struggled to summarize, ’this basically means s#$% happens but, in Jesus, God shares in it with us.’

I nodded. ‘I thought an image like this would make a better tattoo than, say, a quote like yours.’

He chuckled. ‘You go to church?’ he asked me. ‘You don’t look the type.’

‘Just about every Sunday’ I said.

Letter to Seminary Me

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2015 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgSeptember 10, 2015

Dear Jason,

The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.

By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.

And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.

In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.

I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.

The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.

I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.

You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.

It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.

Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.

Allow me.

Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made. 

For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.

When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.

Speaking of the sacrament-

When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.

You’re going to make mistakes.

When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.

Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.

By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.

Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.

Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.

Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.

If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.

Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.

For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’ 

And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’

I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.

And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.

Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.

And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.

Just like Joel O would do.

As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’ 

Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.

They’re not seminary’s fault.

The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.

As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.

You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.

Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.

Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.

I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.

Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.

In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.

I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin,  requires discipleship.

Cross-bearing.

But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:

‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’

It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.

Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.

One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.

Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’

And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:

‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’ 

I did, sorry.

But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.

You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.

Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.

I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.

Breathe.

And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.

It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.

Silver lining-

When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.

There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.

Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.

I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Something you cannot see yet, Jason.

Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.

If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.

Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.

Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.

Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.

It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.

When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:

How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.

But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power.

Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.

I’ve freaking got cancer.

I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.

And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.

But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.

The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?

The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?

Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?

In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.

Blessings,

Jason

Of the disciples fleeing Jesus’ execution, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

‘The disciples have not yet understood the radical character of Jesus’ Kingdom that would challenge the violence of the world by refusing to respond to it on the world’s own terms…What they failed to understand was that Jesus is more radical than those who rebel against Rome or other empires using the force of arms. Rome knows how to deal with those who oppose it on its own terms. What Rome and all empires fear are those who refuse its terms of battle.

Jesus has more time than Rome to engage in the world of calling into existence a people who have learned to live trusting in the righteousness of God.’

Faithfulness, Hauetwas argues, is fundamentally about patience, a commitment to work in this world confident that, in Jesus Christ, God has already disclosed to us the way of the world.

My friend, Brian Stolarz, knows about patience; consequently, whether he’d own up to it or not, he knows more than most about faithfulness to God’s righteousness. He also knows, thanks to yours truly, that in scripture righteousness is just another word for justice. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that I count Brian one of those gifts with whom cancer has given me the chance to nurture a deeper friendship; he’s been there for me.

Just as he’s been there for others:

As I’ve blogged about before, Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

You can read the previous posts about Brian’s work and watch our dialogue sermon from last summer here here and here.

 

Since the analytics tell me that many of you followed the story on the blog, I’m happy to post that Brian sent me giddy texts yesterday afternoon letting me know his patience had finally paid off. After having his conviction dismissed earlier this year, Texas finally released Alfred to his family last evening.

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And what’s amazing, and fitting to Hauerwas’ observation above, is that Alfred is not angry. Despite the time lost for him and the time sacrificed by Brian, God has given us more time in resurrection to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.

You can read last night’s story about Brown’s release here.

The reporter for the Houston Chronicle, by the way, who helped bring publicity to Alfred’s case by relying on Brian’s work, won a Pulitzer this year.

Here’s a video of Alfred’s release. If you understood Hauerwas’ quote above, then you’ll know it’s an Easter video.

 

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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.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

9. What do we mean by saying Jesus was ‘truly human?’

We do not mean that Jesus was as fully human as you or me.

Jesus, as the God-Man, has no human existence apart from his divine existence and our humanity is not like that at all.

While it’s often proclaimed in sermons on Christmas and about the Cross that Jesus being ‘truly human’ means he’s as human as you or me, to suppose that Jesus is every bit as human as you or me might be correct in terms of the biological bits- if you’re a man- but, beyond biology, such a suggestion bends backwards the entire trajectory of Christian salvation.

 

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be tortured and crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus be human, truly and authentically human.

The grammar of Christian salvation is not that Jesus, the truly human one, is just like us, who are sinners through and through; the grammar of salvation is that, through Jesus, the truly human one, and by the power of Spirit and Sacraments, we might become as human as him.

We are not his aspiration.

He is ours.

To be fully, truly human- this is the command Jesus perceived to have been placed upon him by the Father. The fact that to be fully human meets with rejection, betrayal, torture and crucifixion is not something God the Father planned but is a consequence of the world as we’ve constructed it.

To be fully human is to love and to love, in the world as we’ve made it, is to suffer.

So then, to say that Jesus is ‘fully human’ is to confess that Jesus is the first human after a long list of begats in which God’s original intent for humanity came to fruition.

To live a fully human life, as Jesus does, is to embody the greatest commandment: to love self, neighbors and God without qualificaiton or fear.

From the very beginning this was the intent for humans made in the image of 3-Personned God, who just is Love and Friendship.

To profess that Jesus is fully human then is not to argue that he was really like us.

To profess that Jesus is fully human is to express the hope that we can become as human as him.