Archives For Faith

James 3

Harrison Scott Key teaches writing at SCAD in Savannah, Georgia. His memoir The World’s Largest Man won the Thurber Prize for Humor. Southern Living described Key as a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Seinfeld. 

In a recent essay entitled Confessions of a Bad Christian, Harrison Scott Key fesses up:

“The rumors are true. I am a Christian. I go to church. There, I said it.

Let me begin this confession by apologizing to my godless friends: I know you’re worried about me. I know a respected atheist scholar who thinks I’m insane because I believe the Christmas story actually happened in space and time. 

I’ve known many young mothers who are virgins, [in the South] we call them “Baptists.” But I’m not here to preach the Virgin Birth or cite studies showing how weekly church attendance reduces gingivitis. I’m here to confess.

I may be a Christian, but I am a very bad one.

I’m not good at that honeysuckle sweet Christianity that treats Jesus like a baby kitten who says church is silly and all you need is to love your neighbor. I don’t love my neighbors. I can’t even tell you their names. 

One is named Janet or Joy or Cheryl, and she has two loud tiny dogs that I pray will soon die. She is too old to be cutting her grass, and I should volunteer to help her mow it, because one day she is going to die out there in the yard. But I don’t help, because she derives great pride from her independence, I internally surmise, based on absolutely zero evidence.

I’m not even good at the social justice Christianity that longs to affect change with protests and placards featuring clever genital puns. I don’t march in the Women’s March or the Pro-Life Parade or the Pro-Death Parade. I marched once in a Pirate Parade and instantly regretted it, and I am ashamed.

I am ashamed that I find it hard to hunger and thirst for righteousness, as Jesus says I should. Remember everybody standing with Standing Rock? I envy people who cultivate informed, nuanced positions of righteous anger. I barely have time to mow my grass. I stand with a lawnmower, and I push it, after which I hunger and thirst for food and water.

If I find matters of social justice so boring, why do I persist in believing in a God who showed the greatest compassion for the downcast? Fair question. Pray for me. It will have to be you who does the praying. I start in praying about a friend’s fragile marriage and in a second or two, I’m wondering why Amazon makes it so difficult to return gifts.

I’m a bad Christian— we all are in various states of lapse and relapse.” 

————————-

If you were looking for reliably good Christians— if good Christian were even a coherent category— James’ congregation in Jerusalem should be ground zero for Christian perfection. 

Think about to whom James is writing. The church in Jerusalem, these were first generation Christians.

We know from the Book of Acts that James himself was the leader of the “Circumcision Party.” You think the Methodist cross-and-flame logo is a problematic image for a denomination that started in the 1960’s South? 

“Circumcision Party” has got to be the worst branding in the history of the Church. Still, it says more than a bit about their commitment. 

The Christians in this congregation in Jerusalem— their faith was so intense, their discipleship was so earnest that grownup Gentiles among them got circumcised for Jesus. Of all the possible places, you’d think you’d find “good Christians” here in James’ congregation. 

Don’t forget, they were ringside to redemption. The proof doubting Thomas had demanded in order to believe they all received. 

Like James, some of these Christians in Jerusalem had encountered the Risen Christ, face-to-face and hand-to-hole-in-the-hand. They’d eaten breakfast with the Risen Christ. 

If anything could get you to take the log out of your own eye, you’d think it would be the crucified Christ (who’s no longer dead) sitting across a fire from you and passing you sausages. 

These Christians— their faith was such that after Easter, almost overnight, they broke the greatest commandment and started to worship James’ brother as the Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

Blaspheming the sabbath had gotten Jesus strung up on a tree, but almost immediately after Easter these Christians wantonly violated the fourth commandment by worshipping Jesus not on the sabbath but on Sunday. 

I mean, they even pooled all their money together and shared it with one another— that’s not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; that’s the Book of Acts. 

You all don’t even like sharing your pew. 

These were not your lukewarm Christmas-and-Easter-only Christians. You’d expect them to be good Christians. They’d experienced Pentecost firsthand.  The Holy Spirit had fallen on them like tongues of fire, and yet their own tongues set blaze after consuming blaze.

James says today that we cannot do the one thing God in the Garden gave to us to do. In the beginning, God gave us to name every living creature, and then God gave us dominion over all of them and we did a pretty good job of it. 

We managed to tame every kind of beast and bird, every sort of sea creature and reptile. We have tamed every last creature except the beast inside of us. We can charm even a snake, but we cannot control our own forked tongues. 

“You bless God and you curse others with the same mouth, setting off fire after fire,” James judges the church. 

“Your tongue is a world of iniquity, James says, it stains the whole body.”

“This ought not to be so,” James concludes in verse ten. 

Notice—

James, who is a moralist, doesn’t lay down the Law. James doesn’t write: You ought not to be this way. James doesn’t offer: Here’s some advice to get your act together. He doesn’t give them 3 easy steps to tame their tongue. 

He just says: “This ought not to be so.” 

St. James here sounds like St. Paul when Paul describes the Christian life after baptism. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes after Romans 6, “the one thing I want to do is the very thing I do not do, and the very thing I do not want to do is what I do.” 

Both of them sound like Martin Luther describing the life of discipleship “The Law says ‘Do this,’ Luther says, “but it is never done.”

This ought not to be so, James says. 

As though to say: This will always be true of you. 

———————-

Harrison Scott Key, St. Paul, Martin Luther, the believers in James’ congregation— when it comes to being bad Christians, they’re in good company. 

In the days before indoor plumbing and cold showers, St. Francis of Assisi rolled naked in the snow to stave off his dirty, lusty thoughts— just imagine that as a statue in your garden. St. Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for 17 years. St. Bernard led the 2nd Crusade, which makes the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones seem Christian by comparison. 

My Mt. Rushmore hero, Karl Barth, had a live-in mistress his whole life— in addition to his wife. John Wesley preached about Christian perfection and growing in holiness, but even he never stopped being anxious about his salvation and in the name of piety left his family destitute when he died. 

This ought to be so. 

If you were searching for some good Christians, you’d start with saints like these, yet even the best Christians aren’t all that good. 

Mary Karr is another funny, Flannery O’Connor type writer. About her own conversion to Christianity, she writes:

“After years of being a Christian I realized one day I only wanted to kill some of the people on the subway in the morning; whereas, before I was a Christian I wanted to kill every single one of them.” 

What Mary Karr expresses there in her lessened inclination to murder is the Protestant doctrine simul iustus et peccator. Again, whenever the Church whips out its Latin you know it’s important so pay attention. 

Simul iustus et peccator is a fancy catchphrase meaning “at once justified and a sinner.” 

That is, we are always simultaneously (simul) sinful and yet justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. Simul iustus et peccator. 

As that black-and-white television gangster tells Kevin in HomeAlone: “We’re never no better than angels with dirty wings.” You dear faithful— though you are baptized believers, you do not ever advance appreciably beyond being what Harrison Scott Key calls “fools in varying states of lapse and relapse.” 

Simul iustus et peccator. 

To render the Latin into the language of everyday: even on your best Jesus day, you would simultaneously give David Pecker and the folks at AMI ample fodder for you to be found out as a hypocrite. 

Notice— 

This doesn’t make you a bad Christian. 

It makes you a Christian. 

———————-

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that the message of Christianity is foolishness to the Greeks— foolishness because they expected that the Gospel should give them what Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle had given them. 

Morality. Ethics. Teaching. 

Christianity was foolishness because they expected the Gospel to give them a philosophy, a manual, a way of life. Christianity was foolishness because they were looking to grow in goodness. 

In order to find happiness. 

In order to tame the tongue. 

In order to live your best life now. 

That last bit was Joel Osteen not Plato but the point still stands. 

Christianity was absolute foolishness to the Greeks because Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

I’m going to say that again because most Christians today are more Greek than a full house of John Stamoses, and this— though true— likely sounds foolish to you too. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people coping with their failures to be good.

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people holding on for dear life— literally, for life— to the promise that God in Jesus Christ has met you in your failures to be good. 

And God has forgiven you. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people proclaiming to other bad people that God has met you in your failures. 

God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself. God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.  God has met you in your failure to be a good mother, to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister, or a compassionate son, or a good boss, or an understanding daughter. 

God has met you in your failure to tame your two-faced tongue and God has said: “You know not what you’re doing. I forgive you.” 

I know what some of you are thinking: 

Christianity isn’t about good people getting better, it’s about bad people coping with their failures to be good— that can’t be all there is to being a Christian?! 

Even the Boy Scouts manage to make more sense. They’ve got “Do a Good Turn Daily” as their slogan. 

There’s got to be more to being a Christian, right? It can’t all be grace. It can’t be grace and nothing but grace— so help me, that would be foolishness. 

In order to be a good Christian, surely there’s stuff we should do. 

Of course, I’d argue that as soon as you attach a “should” to grace it’s no longer grace, but that’s a debate for another day. 

In the meantime, I’ll see your questions, and I’ll raise you. 

I’ll ask my own question:

Just how is it, do you think, that a religion based on acknowledging our own sins and faults and shortcomings has become (in America especially) virtually synonymous with judgmentalism and self-righteousness and hypocrisy? 

How is it that good news for sinners has become bad news for so many? How is it that what Jesus says is medicine for the sin-sick tastes like poison? How is it that his yoke feels hard and his burden heavy? How is it that the Great Physcian has gotten wrapped up in a Judge’s robe? 

Is it because when you circumscribe Christianity to a religion of good people getting better— or just people becoming good— it’s not long before you’re telling people to do better, be better, which inevitably sounds like “I’m better than you.” Or worse, “You’re not good enough.” 

Good enough for God. 

This isn’t an abstract issue. 

I’ve been a pastor for almost 20 years. You know how many atheists I’ve encountered who’ve told me “Oh Christianity, it’s just too merciful for me, too gracious?” 

Goose egg. 

You know how many I’ve met who’ve written us off because we’re the opposite? 

Too many to count. 

Christianity is endangered in our culture because of a self-inflicted wound. 

We’ve defined Christianity in terms of the Law and not the Gospel. 

And the Law, Paul says, is not only exhausting and futile, it’s a ministry of death.

It’s the Law that says “Do this.” It’s the Gospel that says “It’s all already done.” The Law is what God demands. The Gospel is what God gives. And God gives in the Gospel what God demands in the Law. 

But we’ve mucked it up and muddled it. 

And if you don’t believe me, notice. 

Notice how we distinguish good Christians from bad Christians based— not on their trust in the promise of the Gospel— but upon behavior, morality, deeds. And we do this on the Left and the Right, conservative and liberal alike. 

Notice how we define a good Christian versus a bad Christian based upon obedience to scripture’s commands or adherence to Christ’s teachings. 

In other words: to the Law. 

But the purpose of the Law, scripture says, is to shut our mouths up. 

In repentance and humility. 

No human can tame the tongue, scripture says. 

But the purpose of God’s Law— Old Testament and New— is to shut us up. 

The first step in being a good Christ-following Christian— and, for Greeks like you, it’ll likely take you a lifetime to learn— is knowing that Christ has to carry you most of the way. 

———————-

“I used to be a good Christian,” Harrison Scott Key writes in his Confessions of a Bad Christian. 

  In my boyhood, I was attentive in Sunday school and sang songs about the devil without irony. I was a good boy back then, and longed to be loved for my goodness. And then, around puberty, something happened to transform me into a bad Christian, in addition to puberty.”

  Harrison Scott Key was asked to help a little blind boy find his way to the sanctuary. He was so caught up in thoughts of his own goodness, he walked the blind boy face-first in the floor-mounted drinking fountain.

Key confesses:

“The experience permanently fractured my belief in the purity of my intentions. It would take me years to understand this fact, but the understanding commenced in that church hallway: that a good human being is a temporary and imaginary creature, that even the best of us can believe ourselves gods, and that we are all fools, in various states of lapse and relapse.

I am grateful to the thing we call God for that enduring awareness of my tendency to forget I am no god, not even close, which is what allows me, if not to do good in every moment and for the right end, at least to spot the good from far off and pray for the strength to walk in that direction.

If there’s one thing my long internship at Jesus Enterprises, LLC, has taught me, it’s that I should be much more watchful of what’s inside me than what’s inside you. That is where we have to start.”

The irony?

Just like the owners of those untamed tongues in James’ Church, the author of Confessions of a Bad Christian, he’s actually good one. 

This one is from our upaid contributor, colleague, and friend Rev. Drew Colby— 

Over the last month, with the Covenant Catholic boys’ debacle, and the Wall shutdown, and Northam, and Herring all in the background, I’ve been reading a book a church member gave me: No Future Without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It’s his account of his time on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa.

By 1990 Black and Brown South Africans had experienced decades (in some ways centuries) of oppression based solely on skin color. The Afrikaans “pigmentocracy” in which Blacks were segregated, dehumanized, intentionally under-educated, and ultimately tortured and killed in droves through armed conflict, had just fallen, and the window for healing was open; but fleeting.

In what Tutu describes as a miracle, rather than inflict proportionate justice, or even pursuing the “Nuremberg Option” against the perpetrators of war crimes and state killings, the citizens chose to pursue reconciliation. The commission called for reports of abuse and crimes of apartheid. They received over 20,000.

Under the terms of the TRC, the criminals and human rights abusers named in such reports were not arrested, or hanged by an angry mob. Instead they were given a chance to apply for amnesty. Complete amnesty. No reprisals. No prosecutions. No fines. Amnesty. What Christians such as Tutu might call unmerited grace.

And what happened was a miracle upon a miracle, what the gospel of John refers to “as grace upon grace.” In the wake of profoundly evil oppression, the oppressors–racist murderers and rapists–came forward and offered the only thing they had: the truth. Victims were present to hear the story of how their loved ones were humiliated, or raped, or killed, shot in the back, burned alive. And the perpetrators then testified, having already been granted amnesty.

Notice this with me.

The victims consented to a process that would let their perpetrators go free in exchange for the truth.

The victims wrote their report with this understanding, then the perpetrators applied for amnesty, and then, once amnesty was already approved, they would be free to give their confession.

It was not the confession that was the pre-condition for their amnesty. It was their amnesty that made way for their confession. It was not repentance that merited grace. It was grace that illicited repentance. It was not their transformation that earned them forgiveness, it was their forgiveness that freed them for transformation.

Unmerited grace, the blotting out of their sins, liberated these Whites in a way that nothing else could.

And it paved a way for the national racial reconciliation and healing which, though ongoing, makes America’s attempts at reconciliation look like child’s play.

Obviously the American story is different. It’s a totally different context, and our “window” for such a process may be closed. The racism we live with now in America is generally more covert, even accidental. Much of the structural, institutionalized racism still exists but without a process like TRC, American racism has been permitted to go underground. There is likely not much hope for thorough reconciliation or restoration in our lives.

Nonetheless, in our current culture, I don’t see anyone coming close to trying. There have been attempts but they’ve been more like virtue signaling than creating space for the open, honest, confession of the sin of racism.

When White politicians or other leaders talk about racism, it’s usually to acknowledge the problems of our racist past. Acknowledgment of past mistakes is not confession of present sin. But, then again, can you blame them?

In our current national and social media discourse, what does anyone have to gain from confessing honestly and openly to inherent racism? What do we do when we find racism or any sin? We call it out and call for their resignation. We assassinate the character and end the career of the person in question.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. This response is largely justified. It may be that Northam must resign, and people have every reason to ask for it; but it is not a solution. It resolves nothing. Consequences make sense but they do not improve race relations.

Nevertheless, the telling of the honest truth is something that can bring resolution.Take it from Archbishop Tutu:

“We were seeing it unfolding there before our very eyes as we sat in the commission… Now it was all coming out, not as wild speculation or untested allegations. No, it was gushing forth from the mouths of perpetrators themselves how they had abducted people, shot them and burned their bodies or thrown corpses into crocodile-infested rivers.”

This kind of amnesty for the sake of letting the truth out may not be available to us. It would be nice if we had an American Tutu ready to lead such a process for us. But, even if we had all that, and we could grant amnesty sufficiently so that the truth could be open enough for us to grow past it, there remains one more question.

Any understanding of justice that holds water would say that the history of both Apartheid South Africa the United States of America includes evils that deserve to be accounted for. Punished. To deny this is to leave the wound open.

Amnesty, forgiveness, mercy, grace, will always illicit repentance, but repentance is not atonement. That begs the question, if no one gets punished for these sins, then where have they gone and who will atone for them?

This is why what we say about atonement matters. And it’s why I’m coming to believe that substitutionary atonement is White Liberation Theology…

Down the Up Staircase

Jason Micheli —  February 11, 2019 — Leave a comment

James 2.1-5, 8-10

Along the way and over the years there have been certain game-changing moments that have forever altered how I’ve understood and performed my ministry. 

For example, there was the time when I decided to preach off-the-cuff, without notes— just shoot from the hip. And I got animated and agitated and argumentative—as I’m wont to do— and what shot out of my hip and into my congregation’s earballs was a certain four-letter word. 

Let’s just say the word was not YHWH. Nor was it— as the bishop made clear to me— holy. In order to tame my tongue, I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.

For example, there was the Holy Thursday at my first parish in Princeton. When kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insisted on filling those ridiculous little personal-sized communion cups themselves and when they then insisted on carrying those stacks of tiny cups in their kindly but shakey hands from the basement sacristy to the altar table the night before, I said “sure thing, ladies.” 

I didn’t realize that the grape juice would spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the heavy brass trays of cups. Neither did I realize that when I presided at the table the next evening and solemnly attempted to lift the lid from the blood of our savior, for a chilling second or six, I would lift the lid along with all five of the brass trays. 

Locked by the sugary seal of the spilt grape juice, they all came up together— lid and brass trays— in one terrifying motion. 

Then, just like that, the seal broke, the trays fell, the off-brand generic Welch’s grape juice poured out like that elevator in the Shining, and, though Good Friday was still another twenty-four hours away, the table suddenly looked like I had just desanguinated Jesus Christ on that very altar. 

Let’s just say that was another time a certain four-letter word escaped my lips. I’ve double-checked the Lord’s Supper before the worship service ever since. 

For example, there was the Lent when I thought it would be a good idea as fundraiser for the church’s mission project (a sanitation system in Latin America) to shoot a series of videos of me wearing my clergy collar sitting on a toilet talking about the importance of sanitation in rural villages. 

We’ve go to make sanitation sexy, I told our mission committe. 

Let’s just say I went from safe anonymity to the bishop’s doodie list so fast you’d swear I had a flux capacitor strapped to my back. I’ve kissed the bishop’s ______ ever since. 

Along the way, there have been moments that have hijacked me and changed how I understand ministry.  

For example, there was the Atlantic Monthly article I read a while back. It was the article’s headline that grabbed me: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.”

In it, the author, Larry Taunton, described how his non-profit organization, the Fixed-Point Foundation, conducted a national survey of college students. 

They canvassed students from campus groups like Secular Student Alliance and the Free Thought Society— atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade for Christ. 

To the Foundation’s surprise, thousands upon thousands of students from all over the country volunteered to share their journey into unbelief. Almost of all of them, the author noted, were former Christians. 

Let’s just say the findings from the survey surprised the Fixed-Point Foundation. 

According to Larry Taunton, the Foundation’s director, the overwhelming majority of those young people who now identify as former Christians attribute their lost faith to the fact that the teaching of their churches was soft and vague:

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the necessary relationship between that message and Jesus Christ or the Bible. They didn’t see why the church was necessary for those messages which they heard echoed everywhere else in the culture. This is an incisive critique. These young atheists— former Christians— seem to have intuitively understood what the church often doesn’t understand about itself; namely, that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim a message, Jesus Christ— his death and resurrection. Because that was missing in their churches, they saw little incentive to stay.

The church does not exist to address social ills, but to proclaim a message, Jesus Christ— his death and resurrection. “We would hear this response again and again,” Larry Taunton writes— in the Atlantic, which is not a Christian or even a religious magazine.

Let’s just say the article convicted me. 

And now ever since I’ve been a lot more cognizant of how I speak Christian. 

———————- 

When it comes to the Letter of James, everyone always wants to rush to the end of chapter two where James writes to the church in Jerusalem that “faith without works is dead.” 

Clearly, you can see from today’s passage at the top of chapter two that the church in Jerusalem needed to be convinced that faith without good deed doing is dead. The church in Jerusalem needed to be convinced. But do we? 

According to the survey in the Atlantic Monthly, not only does the church in America not need to be convinced about the goodness of good deed doing, no one in America needs to be convinced. Social justice, community involvement, doing good— it’s in the ether. 

Even secular schools require community service hours. 

Not only do we not need convincing about good works, survey says our always rushing to the end of James chapter two has undone God’s work of faith in young people. 

Our words have consequences, James tells us in his letter. All our words about good works, the survey says, have had consequences for faith. The survey says that by stressing the effects of the Gospel (good works) rather than the Gospel itself we’ve starved people’s faith on the vine. 

The survey says we don’t need to remind anyone that faith without works is dead. 

The survey says need to remind Christians that Christ is not dead. 

Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins, is not dead; he has been raised for your justification—  for you to be in the right with God, there is therefore now no condemnation— that is the faith.  That is the faith whose fruit is good works. 

Follow the logic: if the former dies, the latter disappears. 

If he is the Vine and we are the Branches and good works are the Fruit, then works without faith— they’re like apples on the ground; they’re not going to last long.

So I don’t want to rush to the end of chapter two today. I want to point you to the very top of chapter two. And I don’t want to exhort you to do good works. I want to make an argument to strengthen you in the faith.. 

———————-

In the first verse of chapter two, James refers to his half-brother Jesus as “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the translation you heard this morning. Except, in the Greek, it’s not adjectival. 

In the Greek, what James writes is “our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory.”

In Hebrew it’s called shekinah. 

James, who’s Mary son also, a good Jew, would know that “the glory” is what appeared to the Israelites as a pillar of cloud and fire and accompanied them along their exodus from Egypt. James would know that “the glory” is what Moses had to hide his face from in the cleft of a rock as God passed by him. It’s what resided behind the temple veil in the holy of holies.

Jesus is that, James is saying so simply you run right past it to the end of chapter two.

The reason James here at the top of chapter two asserts that God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the Kingdom is because James believes God chose Jesus to be the heir of his Kingdom. And James knew better than anyone that Jesus was poor. 

The reason James is so hot and bothered here about Christians making distinctions between rich and poor is that such partiality lures us into forgetting that the glory of God has come down the up staircase and disguised himself in the poverty of Jesus Christ. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory. 

Don’t forget— James was not his brother’s disciple. James thought his brother was a nut job, but here in chapter two James is quoting his brother almost verbatim about the Law of God. “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point of it becomes accountable for all of the Law,” James says, just like his brother said in the sermon on the mount right before he said “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” 

James, who did not believe in his brother, here at the top of chapter two quotes his brother. 

And we know from the Jewish historian Josephus that  James was executed by order of the very same Sanhedrin that sent Jesus to a cross. That is a FACT of history.  The charge against James? Blasphemy. James, who had not believed in his brother, was executed for worshipping his brother as the Christ, the Messiah.

It’s a claim of faith that Jesus is worthy of our worship, but it’s a fact of history that James worshipped Jesus. 

Of course, as a good Jew, James would know that even messiahs do not warrant our worship. It’s in the Top Ten. Even a bad Jew would know it, would know that the first and most important commandment is “you shall worship nothing but God.” 

And here at the top of chapter two, James calls his brother not only Lord and Messiah he refers to him as the Glory.   He’s the blaze that did not burn up the bush before Moses in the desert, James all but spells out for you. 

James wasn’t the only one. 

Think about it—

What would it take for Jews, virtually overnight, to worship Jesus as Lord, which they’d never done for any previous messiah? What would it take for Jews, almost overnight, to start worshipping on Sundays, which violated the fourth commandment? Don’t forget as well that if they just made it up— well, that’s false witness; that’s the ninth commandment. And probably if anything qualifies as taking the Lord’s name in vain it’s called Jesus God, that’s commandment number three. 

What would it take? 

What would it take for Jews almost immediately to begin breaking four of the ten commandments?

By definition, the resurrection is beyond reason. 

But belief in the resurrection is not unreasonable. 

Christianity is the only movement in history that began after the death of its leader. 

Riddle that. 

There’s an argument for the resurrection right here hidden like an Easter egg in the top of chapter two. Think about it— James is still so Jewish he refers to the church in chapter two as a synagogue, but the One whose name Jews will not even utter aloud James calls by his brother’s name. 

Think about it—

What would it take to convince you that your brother is God?

The resurrection is beyond reason— yes—but belief in the resurrection is not unreasonable. 

———————-

In the Young Atheists article in the Atlantic Monthly, Larry Taunton quotes one former Christian who says: 

“I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he or she isn’t trying to convert me. I don’t respect Christians who don’t evangelize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s resurrection and eternal life, but you think that it’s not really worth telling someone about because it would might be socially awkward for you…How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that something as good as the resurrection is true and never tell them about it?

Christians talk about good works all the time, but how could you be good and never share something so good?

———————-

As much as we muddle Easter with metaphors about springtime renewal, we forget that the first Christians did not think it a myth or a metaphor. As the Apostle Paul puts it in the Book of Acts, “these things did not happen in a corner.” In other words, Christ’s empty tomb first was proclaimed to the very people who had seen him die and who could have gone to his grave with a wheel-barrow and brought back for themselves his nail-scarred bones. If they’d been there.  

Paul and James didn’t think resurrection revealed a timeless truth. They believed it was true, something that made Paul, an Ivy League Pharisee, call all of his good works no better than a four-letter word. 

Paul doesn’t make metaphors.  Paul names names. Paul names more than 500 people. He appeared to these people, Paul says, go ask them. It’s intellectually dishonest to turn the resurrection message into a myth. A myth is something that could happen anywhere or nowhere, at anytime or no time. A myth is Once upon a time. But the first Christians didn’t give you A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They gave you: It happened, in history, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, at Jerusalem, on the Sunday morning after the Passover when he died between noon and 3:00 in 33AD.  Around tea time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it.

They didn’t believe the resurrection was a metaphor. They didn’t believe it was a myth. They believed it happened. An event. In real history. 

Which means those young atheists in the survey, the ones who left Christianity, they’re not wrong about Christianity. They’re absolutely right that Christianity is not primarily about doing good or correcting social ills. If the resurrection of the crucified Christ is an event, if it happened in history, then they’re absolutely correct— Christianity isn’t about the good you must do for God. If the resurrection really happened, then Christianity— it’s about the good God has done.

If the resurrection isn’t a timeless truth, if the resurrection is true, if it happened, then Christianity— before it’s anything else— it’s news. 

It’s news. 

And what is there to do with news but trust it and tell it?

———————-

Along the way, over the years, there have been moments that have grabbed me and changed how I understand our ministry. 

For example, there was the service just a couple of years ago, a funeral for a woman about my age. She left behind two kids and a husband who was shell-shocked by grief. 

The man and his wife were every Sunday types. 

I stood in the front of her casket, my hands outstretched, and I delivered my lines memorized from the prayerbook— Jesus’ lines from his friend’s tomb: “ I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks his dead friend’s sister.

At that point, I’d buried probably four hundred people and two dozen kids. But never once— never a single instance— had anyone engaged my memorized Jesus lines as anything but a rhetherical question. “ I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 

“No.”

“No,” the deceased’s husband said from the front pew. 

“ I am the resurrection and the life…do you believe this?”

“No,” he said. 

Let’s just say he looked as surprised as me at his answer, and neither of us was the same afterwards. Let’s just you’d never dare suggest that faith in the resurrection had nothing to do with this life if you could see the expression their Dad’s “No” left on those kids’ faces. 

The survey says we’re all bound and determined to rush to the end of chapter two and hear James tell us that faith without works is dead. Okay— here’s a good work you can do.  Get someone like that Dad to “Yes.”

Because resurrection might be beyond reason, but it’s not unreasonable.

It’s not unreasonable.

 

 

The Alien Word

Jason Micheli —  February 4, 2019 — 2 Comments

James 1.18-25

True story— I heard it on NPR:

One warm summer night in DC, eight friends gathered around a backyard supper table. Toasting family and friends, clinking wine glasses, laughing— they were throwing a celebration. 

“It was one of those great evenings,” the celebrant of the party, Michael, told the host of Invisibilia, “lots of awesome food and french wine. It was a magical night.” 

It was getting late, he remembers, maybe around 10:00 PM, when it happened. 

“I was standing beside my wife. And I just saw this arm with a long-barrel gun come between us. It was as if in slow motion…this hand and a gun, and then it just really quiet.” 

The trespasser was a man of medium height in clean, high-end sweats. The trespasser raised the gun and held it first to the head of Michael’s friend, Christina, and then to the head of Michael’s wife and then he said: “Give me your money.” 

And he kept repeating it, louder and louder. 

“The problem was,” Michael said, “none of us had any cash.”

So the celebrants started to grasp for some way to dissaude the instruder out of his trespass, grasping for some way to change his mind. 

But then—

One of the women at the supper table, his friend Christina, piped up and she spoke a strange word, a word that passed from her lips to the trespasser’s ears and cut through all the angry noise and frightened chattering. 

She said: “We’re celebrating here. Why don’t you have a glass of wine?” 

“The words, her invitation…it was like a switch. You could feel the difference it made,” said Michael to Invisibilia. “All of a sudden, the look on the man’s face changed. The words arrested him. It was like the words gave him something he didn’t know he was searching for.” 

According to Michael— 

The trespasser tasted the wine offered to him in spite of his trespass. “That’s really good wine,” the trespasser said to Michael. 

“We had some bread too,” Michael added, “so he reached down for some of it but because he had the wine glass in his other hand…he put the gun in his pocket to free up his hand.”

The trespasser drank his wine. 

And then the trespasser said something surprising: “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” Everyone stood there in the backyard garden, the trellis walls like a sanctuary and the treetops a steeple, everything silent as a grave save the thrum of summer insects. 

Then the trespasser said something strange: “Can I get a hug?”

First Michael’s wife embraced him. 

Then his friend Christina embraced him. 

Finally, like they had no choice— like they had to celebrate with him— the whole party gathered around and embraced the trespasser. “I’m sorry,” the man said, “I’m sorry I trespassed against you.” And then he walked out into the street, still carrying the wine as though he were savoring still at how he’d been given it. 

In the episode of Invisibilia, Michael’s story is cited as an example of what psychologists call noncomplementary behavior. 

But in the Church, Michael’s story is an example of what scripture calls saving faith. Michael’s story of the word of invitation to the trespasser who trespassed against them— it’s an example of how saving faith works. 

Now, I know that’s not immediately obvious to you so I’m going to say it again. 

Michael’s story is an example of how faith works. 

———————-

Despite the word on the street, the gossip’s got him all wrong. 

St. James in his four page letter— and keep in mind, it’s just four pages— does not contradict the teachings of the Apostle Paul, which, keep in mind, total almost two hundred pages of your New Testament.  And you don’t need to take my word for it. 

According to Luke in the Book of Acts, James, who was Jesus’ half-brother and the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, eventually agreed with the Apostle Paul’s preaching.  In the Book of Acts, Luke records James agreeing with the Apostle Paul that absolutely nothing should be added to the Gospel of Grace. And nothing can substract from your standing in it.

So if you hear James here exhorting you that God’s work of grace in Jesus Christ requires you to respond with good works of your own, then read it again. Read it through the Apostle Paul rather than alongside him because, well, it’s two hundred pages to four pages, and James himself says that’s how you should read him. 

In fact, James here in chapter one is riffing on what St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans: “Faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” And what James tells us here in chapter one echoes what St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “No one can confess Jesus is Lord— no one can have faith— except by God.” In other words, saving faith comes not from within but from without. 

Faith is not your doing— that’s Paul to the Ephesians. 

James makes the same point in today’s text. “In fulfillment of his own purpose,” James writes, “God gave us birth…” God gave us birth as believers. That is, God gave to us faith. How? By “the word of truth,” James says. By the promise— by the Gospel of grace. 

And God gives us faith, James says, “so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” 

Fruit— just like Paul and just like his brother Jesus, the controlling image that James chooses is a passive one. We’re not the Gardener. We’re not even the plant. We’re fruit. God gives us faith not so that we will go do. God gives us faith so that we might become fruit— signs— of what he has done. 

It’s not so much that we are to bear fruit. It’s that faith makes us fruit. A couple of verses down from here, James continues with the metaphor of God as Gardener by calling the Gospel the implanted word.

What James tells you here is no different than what the Apostle Paul preaches in the other two hundred pages of the New Testament. Namely, God uses the Gospel promise to plant faith within us. 

The promise that Christ has died for all our sins, once for all, that everything has already been done, that nothing needs to be done to redeem you or your neighbor, creates faith. 

You see, when scripture speaks of saving faith, it’s not primarily faith in something— you can have faith in all sorts of things, just ask the Golden Calf or Tom Brady fans. When scripture speaks of saving faith, it’s faith from someone. 

———————-

Faith, the Protestant Reformers said, is an alien word. That’s what James means by that phrase “the implanted word.” 

Faith comes extranos, the first Protestants taught. And whenever someone whips out the Latin, you know it’s important, so pay attention: faith comes extra nos, from outside of us. Faith, the Bible says again and again, is a gift. A gift, not like an attribute innate to you. A gift given to you, from outside of you. 

What makes faith personal isn’t that you discovered it on your spiritual journey. What makes faith personal is that it was given to you by the person of Jesus Christ himself. We think of faith as our part of the Gospel transaction. God gives sinners like us justification by grace, and we must return the favor by giving God faith, which God needs…why exactly? Grace isn’t amazing if God demands payment in return. No, faith is not what God requires you to give him in order for your justification to be true for you. 

The Good News is better than that!

Faith is what God gives you; so that, you will trust that your justification is fact. Faith is what God gives you to trust that the party-called-salvation has already started and it’s for you— no matter your sins or your second-guessing it. The promise of the Gospel is that you are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone.

Not by faith alone. 

Through faith alone. 

Faith isn’t the expectation you must meet in order to be invited to the party. 

Faith is the means God gives you to enjoy the party to which your invitation has already been sealed by his blood.

Faith is a gift from outside of you, scripture says. 

Faith comes by what is heard. 

Not inside of you. 

Extra nos.

And notice— our way of thinking about faith, as something we do, it turns faith into another work of the Law, and then you’re left with the same dilemma as riddles all your other good works:  How do you know if the faith you have is enough faith?  How do you know you feel your faith for the right reasons? What if you can’t feel your faith like you felt it when you first felt your faith? What if you don’t feel it like the person in the pew in front of you feels it? What about your doubts and your questions? How many are too many?

Faith understood as something we do— faith as something that comes from within us— is bad news. 

It’s the worst kind of news because it makes your salvation determined not by a savior but by your own inner subjectivity.

Not only is it bad news, it loses the plot of the Good News because according to the plot of the Good News, apart from God giving you faith, you have no capacity to find it on your own.

Go back to James’ birth image in today’s text, saying to someone without faith “Well, you’ve just gotta have faith” is like telling an unborn fetus to deliver itself. 

Faith is not the faculty by which you grasp after God. 

Faith is the bruise left behind by the God who has grasped you and pulled you into newness of life.  

We’re all like that intruder in the garden. We need a word from outside of us to arrest us in our trespasses and get us to join in the celebration that started long before we showed up.

Faith is a gift. 

You can’t give yourself faith anymore than you can take away your sins. 

You need Jesus Christ for both. 

Nor can you give anyone faith. Christ is the Giver and the Preacher.  You can’t give anyone faith. 

But— You can get in the way. You can get in his way.

———————-

“Give me your money,” the trespasser said in Michael’s backyard garden.

“But none of us had any cash,” Michael told Invisibilia. 

So we started grasping for ways to dissaude him, to change his mind. 

Some of the celebrants tried guilt. What would you mother think? they asked him. Other celebrants tried reasoning with the trespasser. This is only going to land you in prison— can’t you see that mister? A couple of celebrants appealed to the trespasser’s emotions and aspirations. Is this who you want to be? How does this make you feel? Still other celebrants got angry at the trespasser. Just who do you think you are? 

All of them, the whole congregation of celebrants, they started talking at him. 

This cacophony of anxious, angry chattering. 

None of it— not their anger or anxiety— made the situation right. 

“I remember thinking,” Michael told Invisibilia, “it was getting so noisy…this is headed towards a bad end. Someone is going to get hurt. If all our noise had drown out Christina— if the trespasser hadn’t heard Christina’s words because we were raising so much other commotion, if he hadn’t heard her words of invitation, because of all the other angry noise we were making— it would’ve ended bad.” 

———————-

Despite the grapevine, James and the Apostle Paul do not contradict one another on the miracle that is the unconditional mercy of God in Jesus Christ for sinners like you. But unlike Paul, James spends a lot more time on the noise that can get in its way. 

Faith comes by what is heard, scripture says— by a promise where Christ is the Preacher. 

But unfaith comes by what else is heard— in the church. 

“…your anger does not produce righteousness” James warns the church today. The New Testament teaches us that righteousness is ours through faith; in other words, your anger frustrates God’s work in the church to give to another faith. 

Whenever I hear someone lament that Christians today need to be more like the early church, I usually respond with “What are you smoking?” I mean, James’ church in Jerusalem makes Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity seem like kissing cousins. James’ church was diverse with believers from different races and religious backgrounds, rich and poor. So the congregation was divided into clicks and factions, insiders and outsiders, and they were consumed by conflict. 

Conflict over politics. 

Conflict over worship traditions. 

Conflict over leadership. 

Conflict over how they allocated their time and their resources. 

I know it’s difficult to imagine such a church— just do your best. Unlike Paul, James spends so much time on behavior because his congregation was a congregation beset by conflict, consumed with anger and apathy, gossip and back-biting, undercutting and second-guessing, hypocrisy. So James warns them here: “…your anger does not produce faith.”

You see— James is not saying that your anger or your gossip or your second-guessing disqualifies you from what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. No, nothing can undo what Christ has done for you. Your anger and all the rest of it— it doesn’t disqualify you. It just disables another from hearing from Christ what he has done for them. 

James’ point is not that gossip or back-biting make you a poor Christian.  His point is that your gossip or back-biting prevent another Christian from being made. We do not have the power to create faith in Christ, but we do, James is saying, have the power to create alumni of the Christian faith. A survey just this week in Christianity Today echoes James’ point— most of the people who leave church do so (any guesses why?) because of people in church. 

Sticks and stones we say but words…but think about it. If God’s work in the world is oral and aural, then any other racket we add it does hurt. ALL YOUR NOISE—stop getting in my brother’s way with your behavior. You see— James would have you think of the whole church as a pulpit or an altar. Just as you expect Chenda or me to have nothing on our lips but Christ and his mercy for sinners, James would have you bear nothing on your lips but grace and mercy. Don’t let anything you say or do get in the way because you never know when the real Preacher will show up. 

———————-

“We later found the empty wineglass the trespasser had taken with him. He’d wiped it clean and placed on the sidewalk in front of the house” Michael said. 

But before they found the wineglass, Michael said, they cried. 

In gratitude. 

“We had no idea that words— an invitation to a celebration— could grasp hold of someone and change them. It was like this miracle. It was like a miracle. But it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t heard those words, if we’d gotten in the way of the miracle.” 

Faith in Jesus Christ

Faith in the promise he preaches to you (“Your sins are forgiven”) 

Whether it’s the size of a mustard seed or a mountain, it’s not your own doing. 

Faith in Jesus Christ is never not a miracle. 

And don’t forget—

No one knows that faith in Jesus is always a miracle better than Jesus’ brother. 

Don’t forget—

James thought his brother was crazy. James was not with his mother at his brother’s cross. James did not bury his brother, as was his obligation under the Law. Yet James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Until he was condemned to death. By the very same Sandhedrin who sent his brother to a cross. 

Like Paul, James knew: Jesus Christ is not dead. The one who came preaching the forgiveness of sins preaches still. With his word, with water, with wine and bread. Faith is his work to do. Just don’t get in his way.

Because the wine? It’s really good.

Nude Faith

Jason Micheli —  November 12, 2018 — 1 Comment

Galatians 3

He’s a lumbering giant of a man.

A Norwegian, Jim is 6’6 with all the girth that goes with such a hulking frame. He looks like and sounds like a clean-shaven Santa Claus in street clothes. He’s a pastor and a professor of theology. 

 

I heard him lecture on faith and absolution at an event, and during his presentation he shared a story about how he’d been traveling long hours and many miles from conference to conference. 

“I hate traveling, he said, “and I despise airplanes— when you’re my size, riding on an airplane is like doing penance. I don’t hardly fit on any of them.” 

“I was flying coast to coast— a long flight,” he said, “and I got on this plane and, of course, per every airline’s policy wouldn’t you know it but the guy sitting in the seat next to me was every bit as big and fat as me. We buckled up as best we could and got ready for take-off. Sitting there on top of each other, I’m sure we looked like two heads on the same pimple.”

“Since we were practically on each other’s laps, it would’ve felt strange if we didn’t visit with each other and chat the other up. As the plane was taking off, he asked me what I did for a living. I said to him: ‘I’m a preacher of the Gospel.’ Almost as soon as I got the words out, he shouted back at me: ‘I’m not a believer!’”

“He said it loud to me too because it was take-off and the plane was noise.” 

“But the man was curious,” Jim said in his presentation. “Once we got to cruising altitude, he started asking me about being a preacher. After a bit, he said it to me again: ‘I’m not a believer.’ So I said to him: ‘Okay, but it doesn’t change anything— he’s already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.” 

“The man next to me,” Jim said, “was quiet for a while and then he started talking again and, at first, I thought it was a complete non sequitor, complete change of subject. He started telling me stories about the Vietnam War.”

He’d been an infantryman in the war. 

And he’d fought at all the awful battles— Khe San, the Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill. 

Jim said: 

“He told me— ‘I did terrible things for my country and when I came home my country didn’t want me to talk about it. I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.’”

“This went on the whole flight,” Jim said in his presentation, “from coast to coast, him giving over to me all the awful things he’d done.”

“As the flight was about finished, I asked him. I said to him— ‘Have you confessed all the sins now that have been troubling you?”

And notice—

Jim used the language of confession and sin. 

He didn’t just listen. He didn’t say I feel your pain. He didn’t minimize it and say Well, you were just doing your duty, don’t be so hard on yourself. He didn’t dismiss it Sounds like PTSD. He didn’t deflect and say I’m here for you. 

No, he offered him absolution. 

He offered him the Gospel.

“Have you confessed all the sins now that have been troubling you?” Jim said to him.

“What do you mean confessed?! I’ve never confessed.” The man replied.

“You’ve been confessing your sins to me this whole flight long. And I’ve been commanded by Christ Jesus that when I hear a confession like that to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, you have any more sins burdening you? If so, throw them in there.” 

“I’m done now,” the man next to him said, “I’m finished.” 

“And then he grabbed my hand,” Jim said to us in the presentation, “He grabbed my hand like he’d just had a second thought, and he said to me: ‘But, I told you— I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.’”

“I unbuckled my seatbelt and I said to him: ‘Well, that’s quite alright brother.  Jesus says that it’s what’s inside of you is what’s wrong with the world. Nobody has faith inside of them— faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature.  I’m going to speak faith into you.’”

“So I unsqueezed myself from my chair and I stood up. The seatbelt sign had already dinged on and the tray tables had been secured back in their upright positions and the seats were all back up straight and proper, but I stood up over him.”

“The stewardess then— she starts yelling and fussing at me: ‘Sir— SIR— you can’t do that. Sit down. You can’t do that.’”

“I ignored her, which meant pretty soon others around us were fussing and hollering at me too. ‘You can’t do that. Sit down,’ they said to me.” 

“Can’t do it?” I said to the stewardess. “Ma’am Christ our Lord commands me to do it.”

  “And she looked back at me, scared, like she was afraid I was going to evangelize her or something. So I turned back to the man next to me and, standing up over him, I put my hand on his head and  I said: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’” 

“You— you can’t do that.” 

He whispered to me. 

“I can do it. I must. Christ compels me to do it, and I just did it and I’ll do it again.”

“So I gave him the goods again. I tipped his head back and I spoke faith into him, and I did it loud for everyone on that plane to hear it: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” 

“And just like that,” Jim said, “the man started sobbing… like somebody had stuck him. Soon his shirt was wet from all his weeping. It was like he’d become a little child again and so I sat down and I held him in my arms like I’d hold a child.”

And then Jim, in telling his story, started to weep too. 

He said:

“The stewardess and all the rest who’d been freaking out and fussing at me— they all stopped and became as silent as dead men. They knew,” he said, “something more imporant was happening right in front of them— something more important. 

“This man’s life was breaking open. Jesus Christ by his Spirit was raising this man from the dead— from being dead in his trespasses— right in front of them, and even if they didn’t know it to put it that way, they knew it was grace they were seeing. They knew it was holy.”

And telling the story, Jim looked out at the conference audience and smiled and patted his Santa Claus paunch, and he said: “After he stopped sobbing, as the plane was landing, he asked me to absolve him again, like he couldn’t get enough of the news, and so I did (‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’), and the man laughed and wiped his eyes and he said to me: 

“Gosh, if that’s true, it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

“And I just chuckled,” Jim said, “and I told him: ‘Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.’” 

———————-

Faith in the promises of some gods come easy to all of us. Faith in the flag. Faith in tribes whose flags are the colors of our skin. Faith in the god whose altar is politics. 

Our hearts are idol factories indeed— and maybe it’s because the unconditional promise God gives us is so prodigally gratiuitous that it would take a miracle for us to believe it. Maybe we’re so quick to forge idols because faith in the Gospel is impossible.

I don’t need any help at all to believe in the Law— that’s easy. 

You ought to love your neighbor as yourself. You ought to forgive the enemy who wronged you. You ought to show compassion to those less fortunate than you. Every religion teaches those Commands; no one disagrees with them. 

I mean— if we think Christianity is about commandment-keeping then it’s no wonder we suppose it’s the same as all the other religions. It would be the same as all the other religions.

I don’t need any help at all to believe the Golden Rule. I can believe them on my own just fine— and so do you.

The same goes for the muddled concoction the church in Galatia had cooked up. If you recall from our reading last week, the Galatians had taken the Gospel and added the demands of the Law back into it, creating a kind of Glawspel. 

God has done his part (forgiving us our sins in Christ), but now, the Galatians taught, we must do our part (faithfully following his commands). 

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, the Galatians exhorted, but now God will one day judge us based on what we do with that new slate. Christianity is about deeds not creeds, the false teachers in Galatia insisted.

By your baptism, Christ has given you— freely— the riches of his righteousness. But now— the false teachers taught— you’ve got to earn it. 

The burden is back on you. 

Of course, this Gospel muddled with the Law— it makes sense: God’s done his part but you must do your part. It sounds fair. It’s no wonder Paul’s churches kept falling under the spell of false teachers. 

You’ve got to earn what you’ve been given— that strikes us as right and good. 

You don’t require any help— not really— to believe it. 

But the Gospel—

The unconditional promise that you are justified. 

You are in the right with God. 

By grace alone— by God’s irrevocable gift alone. 

In Christ alone. 

In his deed for you, not in any of your deeds for him. 

You are in the right with God, always and forever— irrevocably. By grace sola. In Christ sola. And all of this is yours— everything, he has done everything already for you— through faith sola. 

Faith alone. 

Nude faith.

Trust and nothing else. 

Nothing else— no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you will do, no matter what you’ve left undone or will leave undone, nothing— nothing in all of creation in fact— can undo what he has done for you. 

The everything he has accomplished will always be yours through faith. 

Alone. 

Who could believe that?

Paul says just before today’s text that if God in any way regards us relative to our obedience to his teachings and commands, then Jesus Christ came for absolutely nothing. Think about that— it’s crazy and counterintuitive. 

None of the good you do matters— that’s offensive.

None of the sin you do matters— that’s immoral maybe. 

The Gospel in Paul’s shorthand to the Galatians is this: 

Christ + Anything Else at All = Nothing at All.

He’s taken your sins by his dying and rising. 

And by your baptism he’s given you his own righteousness. 

Christ + Anything Else at All = No Gospel at All. 

But it’s no wonder we add all sorts of things to this Gospel.

This Gospel of Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone— who could possibly believe it? 

It would take a miracle to believe it. 

———————-

In teaching children about the Apostles’ Creed, the Small Catechism professes: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, nor come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me into the Gospel and kept me in the faith.”

Faith is the Spirit’s doing, the catechism instructs us. 

And that way of understanding faith— it comes straight out of today’s scripture, towards the end of chapter 3 where Paul writes: “Now before faith came, we were guarded under the Law which came until faith would be revealed. Therefore the Law was our Schoolmaster until Christ came.”

Notice how the Apostle Paul speaks of faith in the same way he speaks of the Law. Notice how Paul makes faith the subject of a verb. Notice how Paul makes faith synonmous with Christ himself. 

In other words—

Just as God gave to us the Law, God gave to us Jesus Christ. 

And just as God gave to us Jesus Christ, God gives to us faith. 

That’s exactly Paul’s point here today at the top of chapter 3. When the Galatians received the Gospel in faith, Paul says— when they trusted the promise— they experienced what no one ever experienced through commandment-keeping. 

They experienced the Holy Spirit.

When they trusted the Gospel alone they experienced the Spirit because— pay attention now— it is the work of the Holy Spirit to give faith to us. 

It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to give us faith. 

I know it’s popular nowadays to pit Paul against Jesus, but Christ says the very same thing about the Holy Spirit. He says it on the night we betrayed him. 

Right after washing our feet, Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit, and he promises that the work of the Holy Spirit will be to convict us of our sins and to convince us of righteousness— his righteousness reckoned to us as our own. 

The Spirit is Jesus Christ’s answer to the grieving father who begs of him “Lord, help my unbelief.” 

Faith is not another work of the Law because faith is not our work. 

Faith is not even our response to God’s work in Jesus Christ. 

Faith is the work of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ upon us. 

     Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up. 

     How much faith or how little faith you have matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith, Jesus Christ, whose very Spirit gives you the faith to receive him. 

      So whatever sized faith you have to receive this promise, you’re sitting on a miracle.

———————-

I know what some of you are thinking: 

In 4 months worth of sermons, Jason, you’ve not handed out any homework. You’ve given us zero Go and Do marching orders. You’ve offered up not a single exhortation about what we ought to do as Christians. 

And now— you’re telling us our faith isn’t even something we do?!   It’s all God’s doing?! 

It’s odd. 

And I think it reveals the extent to which we’re all captive to civil religion that when we hear the Gospel of justification in Christ alone by grace alone through nude faith— when we hear the promise that everything has already been done by Christ’s bleeding and dying and rising for you— it’s odd that when we hear the Gospel promise of grace, we rush to the conclusion that there’s nothing for us now to do. 

Why do we assume that the Gospel message that everything has already been done means that there’s nothing for us to do? 

Why do you think the promise that Jesus did it all leaves you with nothing to do?

How could there be nothing to do?

NOBODAY BELIEVES THIS CRAZY PROMISE! FESS UP— YOU DON’T EVEN BELIEVE THE GOSPEL MOST OF THE TIME! I ONLY BELIEVE IT HALF OF THE TIME!

HOW COULD THERE BE NOTHING FOR YOU TO DO?!

YOU HAVE ONE VERY BIG THING TO DO!

Bear witness. 

Bear witness to the absolution that is for all by grace through faith. Bear witness— this one thing could keep you busy for the rest of your life. All you need to do this one thing are sinners— people who’ve screwed up their lives or screwed over people in their lives. All you need to do this one thing are sinners— people with heavy hearts, people carrying a burden of shame and a yoke of regrets. All you need for this one thing to do are sinners, and— guess what— they’re everywhere and there’s danger of them becoming endangered. 

And (just as an aside) as a pastor I can tell you—The difficulty is not in getting people to confess to you; the difficulty is in learning how to listen so you notice they’re trying to unburden themselves to you. 

This one thing is the first thing you promise to do whenever you witness a baptism. At every baptism, we promise that “With God’s help, we will proclaim the Good News.”  With the Holy Spirit’s help, we will bear witness to the absolution that is in his blood. At every baptism, you’re promising to be party and accomplice to the Spirit’s faith-making miracle.  

This one thing—

It’s actually the one and only thing the Risen Christ commands us to do. 

It’s odd. 

Whenever Christians talk about doing the things Christ commands us to do, we usually mean feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or lifting up the lowly.

That is—

we’re usually talking about the good things you need not be a Christian to agree are good things. 

 

But the one and only thing the Resurrected Jesus comands us to do is to bear witness.

It’s the one thing.

On Easter Eve, Jesus finds his frightened faithless disciples hiding behind locked doors. Peace be with you he says and says it again, Peace be with you.

And then He breathes his Holy Spirit out upon them. 

And he says to them: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, by my authority, they are forgiven them. 

The Easter Jesus commissions us, and the Holy Spirit conscripts us to bear witness to the absolution that is for all through faith, and to do it over and over and again— drilling it into sinners’ earballs— until, by the Spirit’s miracle-making, they have faith.

———————-

When we thought Jim’s airplane absolution story was over, he started to cry all over again and he said: 

“After the plane had landed, we were getting our bags down from the overhead compartment. I pulled my card out of my briefcase and I handed it to him. I told him: ‘You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or a week from now. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep on doing it until you do— you really do— trust and believe it.’”

And then Jim laughed a big, deep laugh and said:

 

“Wouldn’t you know it. He called me every day— every day— just to hear me declare the forgiveness of the Gospel. It got to be he couldn’t live without it. And I bore witness of it to him every day right up to the day he died.” I told him: In the name of Christ Jesus I forgive you all your sins. 

He said and paused, before adding through his tears: 

“I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear Jesus himself say to him in the next life.”

———————-

  This is what you can do even though everything has already been done. You can bear witness, offering the world the promise of forgiveness that Jesus himself will speak when this world passes away. With God as your Helper, give them the goods of Gospel absolution again and again and again…until, by some miracle, they believe it.

. 

Alright, alright, alright— The intersection of faith and doubt is viewed either as a badge of honor for some Christians but for others, doubt has no place.

In his new book, Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt, pastor and author— and fellow DBH Fanboy— Austin Fischer (who sounds exactly like Matthew MaconnaHEY) explores this intersection, drawing on his own experience as a doubting pastor.

Check it out here

https://www.ivpress.com/faith-in-the-shadows

Austin Fischer is the Teaching Pastor at Vista Community Church. His first book – ‘Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed’ – was published by Wipf & Stock in January 2014. He writes and speaks and you can follow him on Twitter @austintfischer or check out his website: www.http://austinfischer.com

But wait! Before you listen, help us out. This goodness is free but it ain’t cheap— help us out:

Go to Amazon and buy a paperback or e-book of Crackers and Grape Juice’s new book,

I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Roman. 

If you’re getting this post by email, you can find the audio here.

 

No Ground for Boasting

Jason Micheli —  September 24, 2018 — Leave a comment

It’s funny— is our definition of social activism too passive?

I continued our fall sermon series on The Questions God Asks by looking at Sarah’s laughter in Genesis 18.1-15 and how the Apostle Paul uses her laughter and Abraham’s shady character in Romans 4.

Did you ever notice how quickly God raised the degree of difficulty in the Bible? Adam, don’t eat the fruit of that tree in the garden. Noah, build me a boat. Abraham, cut off the tip of your….

Uh…can’t I just build you a bigger boat?

I mean, how do you think Sarah reacted when she came home and found Abraham in the shower? 

Why did you do that to yourself?! 

God told me. 

Abraham, if God told you to kill your first born child would you do that too?! 

There’s not a lot of laughter in the Bible. 

There’s jokes we could make about the Bible. 

Jokes like:

Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and said to the Israelites: Look guys, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news— I got him down to 10 Commandments. The bad news— the one about adultery is still there.

Speaking of the 7th Commandmet:

Why is divorce is so expensive?

Because it’s worth it. (My wife came up with that joke.)

There’s not alot of laughter in the Bible; though, there’s jokes we could make about the Bible. 

Jokes like:

Jesus walks in to a bar and says to the bartender: “Give me a wine glass and fill it with water.”

How long did Cain hate his brother?  As long as he was Abel.

Look people, I published a book with the word funny in the title. That’s practically like a comedy diploma. If I say laugh, you say how high.

Adam said to Eve: “Stand back, we don’t know how big this gets.”

Speaking of Eve, you might not know it but there was a midget in the Garden of Eden too. You never hear about him because he got kicked out before the Fall. He kept sticking his nose in Eve’s business.

Jesus came across a woman caught in adultery, surrounded by angry priests and Pharisees. So Jesus said, “Whever is without sin may cast the first stone. And one by one the priests and the Pharisees dropped their rocks and slank away, but then suddenly a stone came sailing through the air and struck the woman upside the head, killing her dead. And Jesus said, “Sometimes you really torque me off, Mother.”

There’s not alot of laughs in the Bible, but there’s things in it that might make us giggle, like the story of the prophet Elisha and the children and the 2 she-bears. 

You know that story? 

Check this out:

  Maybe church folks like you get your reputation for tight-sphinctered humorlessness honest because, while there are stories in the Bible that might make us scratch our heads and chuckle, there’s not alot of laughter in the Bible. In fact, by my reckoning, there’s just two instances of laughter in all of scripture. 

The first place is Matthew 9 where Jesus is called to the home of a ruler of the synagogue and it’s no laughing matter. The ruler’s little girl has just died. Jesus comes to a place of death and the crowds gathered at the man’s home laugh at him. 

They laugh at Jesus. 

What was the punchline? 

The punchline was Jesus’ promise: “Your daughter will live.”

Life from Death. 

Good news in the face of grief.

The Living God shows up and all of us gathered around Death laugh him off. 

The second place is today’s passage in Genesis 18. Her husband entertains God himself unawares while Sarah eavesdrops from the flap of the tent. Her back is bowed. Her hair is thinned. Her hands are palsied and liver-spotted. She’s all gums. She’s got just a few teeth, which is fine because all of her appetites are about gone. She’s closing in on 100 years old. 

Eavesdropping, she overhears God’s promise of redemption through a child— her child— and she laughs. She hears the promise of God as a punchline. God’s redemptive promise sounds to her ridiculous. And why wouldn’t it? This was 4,000 years before the invention of Viagra. 

Where Mary receives her part of this same promise and replies “Let it be with me according to your word,” Sarah laughs. Like the crowds ready to bury the dead girl, Sarah laughs. 

Not “Ha ha!” but “Yeah, right, when Sheol freezes over.” A cynical laugh. An understandable laugh. A laugh we would all likely laugh but a laugh that, nonetheless, is the opposite of faith.

Before we pile on Sarah, I should point out— Sarah laughs at God’s redemptive promise (for you, through her) because she’s hearing God’s redemptive promise for the first time. Old Abraham never told her. Go back to Genesis 12. To undo all that we had done at Babel and before, God first made this promise to Abraham 25 years earlier. 

Abraham sat on this promise of God longer than Diane Feinstein did on the Kavanaugh letter. For almost 3 decades Sarah’s dearly beloved didn’t bother to share with her what God had promised for both of them. 

It’s true that her laugh is a cynical laugh, the opposite of faith, but that’s because her hubbie didn’t believe the promise enough to pass it on to her. 

It’s funny— these are not impressive people. 

By the way, when God first called him, Abraham left behind his home and his family and his belongings and his country in order to go to the land that God would show him. Left it all behind. 

The reason Abraham here has servants whom he can order to grind and knead and bake— the reason Abraham here has not just a calf but a whole herd of cattle from which he can feed his guests— is because, back when she was young and beautiful, Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister and pimped her out to the Pharaoh. 

He lied about her. 

And then, with dollar signs in his eyes, he rented her out for money, which I’m guessing required more than chocolates and roses to reconcile.

The wealth Abraham lavishes on his mysterious guests here in Genesis 18– it was ill-gotten gain. God has been eating and drinking with sinners from the very beginning. 

But before you start feeling sorry for Sarah, remember. 

Turn the page and Sarah is the one who will pitch a jealous fit and demand that her husband forsake their servant-girl and her baby to the wilderness and God only knows what else. 

What a joke!

Of all the people in the world, the God who knows the secret thoughts of all of our hearts chose these two for his redemptive purpose. 

These two: lying, pimping, coveting, conniving, unbelieving— ungodly even— Abraham and Sarah. The two people to whom God gives this promise— they’re not even God’s people. They are literally the ungodly. 

Don’t forget, Abraham and Sarah were from Ur of the Chaldeans, which means Abraham and Sarah were zigarat-attending moon worshippers. According to the Talmud, Father Abraham’s father was an idol maker by trade. When the Living God first encounters Abraham with this promise to redeem the world from its sin through him, Abraham is a pagan. Sarah is a pagan. 

They are sinners— their story in scripture bears that out. 

But even before their story in scripture begins, they are ungodly, both of them.

Abraham and Sarah— their character is as barren as her womb, and their religious potential is as unlikely as him rising to the occassion without the help of one of those little blue pills. 

There’s not a lot of laughter in the Bible, but we could chuckle at the absurdity of God using the likes of these two for his redemptive purpose. 

Not just absurd, it’s offensive. I mean— why would God use two people like this when he’s got good like us to choose?

Of course (Haha!) the joke’s on us. 

God works his redemptive purpose through ungodly people like them; so that, good people like us will realize that we do not contribute anything to God’s promised work of redemption. 

That grates against everything you’ve ever been told so I’m going to say it again:

God works his redemptive purpose through ungodly people like Abraham and Sarah; so that, good people like you will realize that you do not contribute anything to God’s promised work of redemption

The only thing we contribute to our redemption is our resistance. I mean— no sooner has Sarah heard this promise than she’s urging Abraham to hurry its happening by sleeping with their servant, Hagar. Like her we hear the promise and then we refuse to believe its happening isn’t our responsibility. 

Don’t let the cakes or the curds or the fatted calf in today’s feast fool you. When it comes to God’s work of redemption, you and I bring nothing to the table. 

That’s what we’re supposed to take away from this question God asks us: “Why are you laughing? Is anything too hard for God?”

Notice—

He didn’t say:  “Is anything too hard for you when you’re partnered with God.”

He didn’t say:  “Is anything too hard for you when you have God on your side.”

He didn’t say: “Is anything too hard for you if….” If you pray on it. If you have faith. If you commit yourself to the Lord. If he blesses you.

No, and in the Bible it’s the Devil who speaks in if/then.

It’s “Why are you laughing_______? Is anything to hard for God?”

Listen— this is no laughing matter.

When it comes to God’s work to redeem the world from the Powers of Sin and Death— you and I— we bring nothing to the table. 

This is what we’re meant to hear in this question that God asks us today, which is the very same takeaway we’re supposed to see in the scene just before today’s text.

Just before this mysterious visit from God in Genesis 18, God visits Abraham in order to seal God’s promise in the blood of a covenant. 

God orders Abraham to bring him 3 animals and 2 birds. God instructs Abraham to slaughter them, to cut each of them in half, and then to lay out the slaughtered pieces in rows, forming an alley in between. 

The contract’s fine print said that whoever broke it “may the curse fall upon them so that what was done to these animals will be done to them.” 

According to the conditions of the contract, if the two parties sealing the covenant were equals then both of them would pass through the pieces of slaughtered animals, swearing aloud: “Thus let it be done to me.” 

If the two parties were not equals in power, then only the weaker party would walk between them and swear “Thus let it be done to me.”

It’s funny though— that’s not how God ratifies his redemptive promise. 

The weaker one doesn’t pass through the bloody passageway at all. In fact, Abraham doesn’t do anything at all. 

Like the disciples in the garden at Gethsemane, Abraham can’t even stay awake. He instead falls in to a deep sleep, as cooperative as a corpse. 

He’s stirred awake to find that Almighty God— as though God had been made the weaker one, as though God had poured out all of his power— had condescended to him and was now passing through the blood and invoking the curse upon himself. 

“Thus let this death be done to me,” the Living God says.

The joke’s on Abraham— after all that bloody busywork of finding and catching and killing and carrying and cutting, Abraham is a completely passive party to the promise.

The author of Genesis assumes you get the joke. It’s a two-party promise, but other than fetching the ingredients Abraham brings absolutely nothing to the table. 

All he does is fall asleep, as though he’s dead in his sins. 

Let’s give Sarah the benefit of the doubt. 

Maybe that’s why she’s laughing. Maybe she’s laughing because she knows better than anyone but God that, other than the cakes and curds and fatted calf, she and Abraham bring absolutely nothing to the table. For them to be a part of God’s promised work in the world they will have to be made a part of God’s redemptive work in the world.  Abraham and Sarah— they have “no ground for boasting.” That’s how the Apostle Paul speaks of them in Romans. No ground for boasting. 

They brought nothing to the table, Paul says, they simply trusted— eventually— that the Living God is able. They simply had faith that the Almighty is able. They brought nothing. They could only believe— believe that the Living God is powerful to work what his word promises. They simply trusted God’s word and, by their trust— by their faith, the Apostle says— God reckoned to them “righteousness.” As it says just before today’s passage: “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

 

Righteousness. 

Now the Apostle Paul is no one’s idea of a comedian, but here’s the funny thing and Paul, a Hebrew who wrote in Greek, assumes you’re in on the joke. 

That word “righteouness” (as in, you’re in the right with God) in Hebrew and in Greek (in other words, in the entire Bible) it’s the same word as “justice” (as in, to do right according to God). 

You got it? 

The word “justice” in the Bible is the same word as the word “righteousness.” 

And so at baptism, when we pray over the water “clothe this child in Christ’s righteousness…” we could just as easily pray “clothe this child in Christ’s justice…” 

Or in the Sermon on Mount, you could just as easily hear Jesus preach “Unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you wil not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

And in Paul’s proclamation, it could just as easily read: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might become the right-making of God.”

Except that’s not exactly it either— all of those examples make justice/rightousness sound like nouns, like a quality or an attitude or an idea that we possess or that God possess. 

But, in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for righteousness/justice is a noun that functions with the force of a verb. 

Believe me, I know this sounds like we’re getting lost in the weeds. Just trust me— I mean, half of you are odds with the other half about the place of social justice in church. You need to hear me.

In scripture, justice and righteousness are nouns that function with the force of a verb. And verbs do work. But, remember too, St. Paul says Abraham is the example. What’s true of Sarah is the same for all of us. We bring nothing to the table. 

Verbs do work, but on our own we can only work sin. 

Thefore this noun with the force of a verb— it belongs to God. Rightousness…justice…it’s all God’s work, from beginning to end. We’re the objects of God’s verb.

It’s not we do our best and God does the rest. 

It’s not we do our part after God has done his part. 

It’s not God declares us righteous so that then we can go out and deliver the world from injustice. 

It’s all God’s work— that’s the point Paul makes with Abraham and Sarah. The God who is both sides to his 2-party promise is the subject to both meanings of the verb. 

Put it this way:

By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, God declares you forgiven by the justice of his cross for you. 

 

The God who has done for you in the work of Jesus Christ is the Living God who is able to draft you into his work for your neighbor.

Righteousness. Justice. 

It’s the same word, in Hebrew and in Greek. And in both, it works like a verb. And in both, God is the active agent. God is the subject of the sentence. 

This why the question Isn’t there work we have to do as Christians?— pardon the bluntness— it isn’t a very good question. 

By faith, you’ve been reckoned in the right with God. 

There is therefore  now no condemnation— there’s nothing you have to do. 

But, by faith, God is able to reckon onto your doorstep some part of his right-making work in the world. 

You could say no to it. I know it sounds crazy funny but your status before God won’t suffer one iota for it. But your neighbor may suffer.

 

Here’s a joke:

What do you call a Catholic who practices the rhythm method?

Mom.

Here’s another:

A guy is on his couch and hears the doorbell ring. He goes to the door and sees a snail. Snail says “Hey I got something to talk with you about.” Guy picks the snail up and throws him and says “Get the heck out of here.”  

Three years later the same guy is on the couch. He hears the doorbell. It’s the snail. Snail says “What the hell was that all about?”

I know. They can’t all be pearls. 

Those two jokes are the favorite jokes of one of my best friends, Brian Stolarz. He’s a lawyer here in DC. Let those jokes serve as Exhibits A and B, proof that Brian brings nothing to the table. 

Trust me, he’s not a very impressive person. A Mets fan, Brian still wears Kirkland brand pleated pants and unironically listens to Run DMC. 

An evening out with Brian mainly involves fart jokes, jabs about the measurements of man parts, and pranking the drive-thru worker at Taco Bell. Thurgood Marshall he is not.

He brings nothing to table.

Brian grew up Catholic. He belongs to my previous congregation, and he’ll be our guest here in a few weeks. Brian works at a fancy white-collar firm. 

Because he’d come up as as public defender in NYC and because he had a good BS radar, a few years ago Brian’s firm asked him to head up a death penalty case in Texas, a case his firm had taken pro bono. 

It was one of those bleeding heart cases firms take to make themselves feel good about themselves and use to boast about themselves to their paying clients and prospective hires. 

It was a cop-killing at a cash-checking store in Houston. With no DNA, the DA had prosecuted Dewayne Brown, a mentally handicapped black man with no record whose IQ the state doctors ginned up a few points so the prosecution could notch another win. 

After Brian visited Dewayne for the first time on death row, he walked out into the parking lot, his heart racing, and he threw up on the pavement. 

It hadn’t really ocurred to Brian until meeting Dewayne but meeting Dewayne, Brian realized Dewayne was innocent. 

Dewayne’s free now. 

And Brian will tell you about that part of the story in a few weeks. 

What he might not tell you though, he’s told me. 

Told me how the case almost ruined his marriage. 

How it hurt his career. How it made him a stranger to his young kids.

How if it was up to him and he could do it all over again he wouldn’t. 

If it was up to him, he would not take Dewayne’s case again. 

In the drive-through at Taco Bell one night, making jokes about his man-parts, Brian said to me:

“I’m not a social justice warrior. I grew up Catholic hearing that the death penalty was wrong. And then— out of the blue— it was thrust upon me [pay attention to how he puts it]. It was like God put this good work in front of me to do. Still, I didn’t want to do it. I felt compelled—something compelled me— to do it in spite of what maybe I wanted to do.

Its funny— its like our definitions of activism aren’t passive enough.”

It’s funny. 

I don’t think Brian really thought too much about the title to his book. 

He called it Grace and Justice as though they were one and the same.

The Living God, who declares you in the right in Jesus Christ, is able. 

Able to draft you into his work that is even now rectifying the world.

     Even after Good Friday.

The first Easter wasn’t just a day. The Risen Jesus hung around for 50 days, teaching and appearing to over 500 people. 7 days after the first Easter Day, Jesus appears again in that same locked room as before and Jesus says ‘Peace be with you.’ And this time, this time Thomas is there.

     Jesus offers Thomas his body: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ And Thomas reaches out to Jesus’ body. And Thomas touches Jesus. And Thomas grabs at the wounds of Jesus. He grasps Jesus’ wounded feet. He holds his hands against the holes. Puts his hand on Jesus’ pierced side to see the proof for himself…

Actually…no.

He doesn’t.

That’s the thing- We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds. Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands. Duccio drew it that way. Caravaggio illustrated it that way. Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way.

Artists have always shown Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.

And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations.

Yet, read it again, it’s not there.

The Gospel gives us no indication that Thomas actually touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands.

John never says that Thomas peeked into Jesus’ side. The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.

No. That’s got to be important, right?

I mean, the one thing Thomas says he needs in order to believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to mention. What Thomas insists he needs to see is the one thing John doesn’t give you the reader to see. Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: ‘My Lord and my God!” 

     Which- pay attention– is the first time in John’s Gospel that anyone finally and fully and CORRECTLY identifies Jesus as the same Lord who made Heaven and Earth.

“Doubting” Thomas manages to make the climatic confession of faith in the Gospel. After so many stories about the blind receiving sight and those with sight stubbornly remaining blind to who Jesus is, “Doubting” Thomas is the first person to see that the Jesus before him is the God who made him. And “Doubting” Thomas makes that confession of faith without the one thing he insists he needs before he can muster up faith.

———————-

     St. Athanasius says that Christ, as our Great High Priest, not only mediates the things of God to man but Christ also mediates the things of man to God. Including- especially- faith.

We think of faith as something we have, something we do. We think of belief as something we will, mustering it up in us in spite of us, despite our doubts. Believing is our activity, we think. Our act. But- If we think of faith as something we do or possess, as an autonomous act within us, we’re not speaking of faith as scripture speaks of it.

In scripture, faith- our faith- is made possible only through the agency of God: “Lord, help my unbelief” the father in Mark’s Gospel must beg Jesus, as we all must beg.

Jesus doesn’t just put on our flesh and live the life we live. He puts on the belief, lives the faith and trust in God we owe God as creatures of God.

     Jesus doesn’t just stand in our place when it comes to our sin.

He stands in our place when it comes to faith too.

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

The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ. Our faith, our belief, is made possible by him. It’s his work not ours, and like a parent’s hand grasping a little child’s, our faith, such as it is, is enfolded within his perfect faith; so that, in him, enclosed within his faith, our faith is mediated to God the Father. That’s what the New Testament means by calling Christ ‘the author and the finisher of our faith.” The faith we possess is the work of the Son within us not our own, but the faith by which the Father measures us is the Son’s not our own.

     ———————-

     So often preachers make the point of the story of Doubting Thomas a kind of permission for us to have our doubts, that its okay we’re all like Doubting Thomas, that “doubt is a part of faith” goes the cliche. But John would not have you see here simply Gospel approval for your doubts. This is the freaking climax of the Jesus story where someone finally and fully and correctly calls upon Jesus as his Lord and his God.

     “…but its okay to have your doubts too.” 

What kind of crappy whimper of an ending is that?!  That’s not the takeaway John intends Thomas to leave with you. No. John wants you to see Jesus, the Risen Lord. John wants you see the Risen Christ bringing into existence in Thomas, who had insisted unless I can touch his hands and feet for myself, a faith that can confess Christ as Lord and God.

Doubts are okay, sure. I’ve got plenty of doubts and, I’ll bet, I’ve got more reasons to doubt than you do. Sure, you’ve got doubts. Big deal. That’s not very interesting.

If faith is Christ’s work in us then doubt is just our natural human disposition, like Adam and Eve wondering in the Garden “Did God really say?”

Thomas’ doubt is not what John would have see.

     What John would have us see:

Is that Thomas’ faith-

It’s the work of the Risen Christ.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith. Think about it: that puts all the onus on you. It makes faith just another work. Your work. It empties the cross of its saving significance and it makes his substitution in your place partial. Imperfect because its incomplete with out your faith.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith. The Good News is that you are saved by faith by grace. By the gifting of God. By the agency of God. By the mediating activity of the Risen Christ. Who is every bit as present to us now as those 10 disciples hiding behind locked doors.

You are saved by faith through the gracious work of the Risen Christ, who can compel you- against your natural disposition to doubt- to call upon him as your Lord and your God. Such that whatever of the Gospel you are able to trust and believe, whatever Word from the Lord you can hear, whether your faith is as meager as a mustard seed or as mighty as a mountainside-

Your faith is NOT

YOUR doing.

It is a miracle. Grace. An act of the Risen Christ.

In you and upon you and through you. And it makes you- even you! It makes you exactly what Thomas insisted he required. It makes you proof that he is risen. He is risen indeed. You’re why John ends his Gospel the way he does. You’re the reason John doesn’t need to write down everything Jesus did among those disciples. Because Jesus is neither dead nor disappeared from this world. He’s alive and still doing work among his disciples. And for proof you need look no further than your own faith, your own ability to call him your Lord and your God.

Joined by Rev. Drew Colby, Teer and Jason interview Dr. Andy Root of Luther Seminary and author of “Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness.” Andy’s book is an engagement on the implications for ministry, particularly youth ministry, posed by the philosopher Charles Taylor’s monumental work the Secular Age. Also in this episode are the cultured tunes of whatever classical station Teer’s mic were picking up during the interview.

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

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Here’s my sermon from Galatians 3 for this weekend.

I spent this Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

Now if you’ll feel really bad if you fall asleep during my sermon.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network. On Tuesday my nurse poked around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show. Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what Skynet is promising.”

“Skynet?”

“Nevermind.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

———————-

     Seriously, your duly ordained reverend shrugged his shoulders and said: “I dunno.” No wonder Young Life rejected me as a leader in college. A question like that should be my bible bread and butter.

You people pay me a salary and benefits- too much, Lew says- but someone asks me point blank about faith and heaven and eternal life and the best I can do is shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I was so inarticulate with her you’d think it would take a miracle for me to give her the Gospel.

———————-

     The Apostle Paul says that God has spoken to us in two different words, Law and Gospel, that’s what he’s getting at in the end of our reading today.

And in another of his epistles, Paul urges believers to learn how to rightly divide the Word between Law and Gospel.

And here in today’s text in Galatians 3 we see one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.

The Law does not bring the Holy Spirit:

“Answer me one question: did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the Law or by believing the Gospel?”

      It’s not just that what you do for God does nothing for you and your standing before God; it’s that the Holy Spirit does not come to you through what you do for God.

The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of charity or compassion. The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of piety or hospitality. The Holy Spirit does not come through your spirituality.

Or your service to the poor. Or your standing up for social justice.

Obeying the Law does not bring the Holy Spirit. Following the Sermon on the Mount does not bring the Holy Spirit. Imitating Jesus does not bring the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit comes to us not by what we do. The Holy Spirit only comes to us by trusting the promise that all has been done. By Christ. That’s Paul’s point here in Galatians, that in exchanging the Gospel for the Law they’ve exorcised the Spirit:

“When God gives you the Spirit…is it because you keep the Law, or is it because you believe the Gospel?”

Those who were best at discipleship and bible study and prayer nailed God to a tree.

If that doesn’t reveal the Law’s inability to make you righteous and justified then the gift of the Holy Spirit should be a convincing Exhibit B.

That’s what Paul is arguing at top of chapter 3:

“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified…Did you receive the Holy Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by faith in the Gospel you heard?”

The Holy Spirit was present in thunder and fire and wind at the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

But after that first Pentecost on Mt. Sinai, the Holy Spirit did not come to anyone through following the Law.

Not to Moses or the Prophets. Not to John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit did not come even to Paul back when he was Saul and following the Law so fully as to be blameless before it.

The Holy Spirit did not come to anyone doing the Law. The Holy Spirit only came to those who trusted the Gospel.

When Peter preached the Gospel at the second Pentecost and the crowds received it by faith, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. When Phillip was explaining the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit came to him and baptized him, this most untouchable of outsiders. While Peter was sharing the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the Holy Spirit came over him, the enemy. And the Galatians- they received not only the Gospel from Paul but the Holy Spirit too, Gentiles all of them.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through the Gospel not the Law.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through trusting in what Christ has done for us not in our own doing for Christ.

Through faith not works- not, even, your work of worship.

We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as this mysterious, mystical, subjective spirit inside of us, and, as a consequence, people like us- people who tend not to raise their hands during hymns or dance in the aisles or speak in tongues- tend not to speak about the Holy Spirit.

Because we don’t look or act or worship like charismatics, we all quietly conspire to assume that we must not be spirit-filled.

You can take it from the reverend: that’s nonsense.

Mysterious and mystical and subjective- emotional: nothing could be further from how St. Paul and even Jesus talk about the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not primarily something we experience subjectively inside of us because the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to mediate something that is objective, outside of us, something that is historical before it is emotional: Jesus Christ.

     The Holy Spirit comes with the Gospel not the Law because the Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ promised in the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just any spirit but the Spirit of the Crucified Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence in our world of the absent Christ.

How Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit is how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room:

“The Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father;  about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

According to Jesus explicitly and echoed by St. Paul, the Holy Spirit, as the presence of the absent Christ, mediates the work of Christ to us and the Holy Spirit does so in 3 ways.

1. The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

2. The Holy Spirit mediates the priestly work of Christ.

3. The Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ as King.

I thought I’d preach another 3-point sermon just to show off how I can keep my New Year’s resolutions longer than you.

So my first point…

———————-

    The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

Or, as Jesus puts it in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, therefore, is not experiential but ethical. It’s not the role of the Holy Spirit to give you a transcendent personal experience; the golden calf gave God’s People a transcendent personal experience.

     Ignore your Pentecostal in-laws.

     Your emotions are not reliable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity in your life.

     But your contrition is.

Because Jesus says it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to teach you about yourself.

It’s the Spirit’s work to show you, prophetically, the truth about you and the world to which, at best, you’re a guilty bystander.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose is not like Kevin Bacon’s in Footloose.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions and get you to dance and sing with abandon. King David did that in front of the ark and that story ends as badly as it did for Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to break down your lies and your self-justifications.

To cut you, as the Spirit did at Pentecost, to the heart.

This is why Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, as in, the Attorney. The Holy Spirit prosecutes Christ’s case against our greedy, eye-for-an-eye world of white-washed tombs. And the Holy Spirit does so by cutting us and speaking the accusation of the Law into our broken hearts.

I know for you baby-boomers who have an overly optimistic self-estimation (even after the Clinton administration) that any talk of sin turns you off, but the Holy Spirit’s work to convict us of the s-word isn’t bad news.

So often when we become aware of our sin we suppose that God must be angry with us or far off from us.

No. Your awareness of your sin is all the evidence you need that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself.

For self-deceivers like us- if you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you don’t measure up, that you need to be forgiven, that’s an achievement. You’ve outdone even the President Trump.

To know you need forgiven- that’s proof the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

For self-justifiers like us- if you can read the newspaper and name racism as sin, sexism as sin, nationalism as sin, in a culture of fake fake news that’s an accomplishment.

Not everyone can do that- that’s proof of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ working on you.

————————-

     But the Holy Spirit doesn’t just convict us of our sin, the Holy Spirit comforts us as well, which brings me to my second point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the priestly work of Christ.

Jesus in the Upper Room calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, the Comforter, but Jesus doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, there for you to call whenever you’re feeling sad and lonely.

Jesus doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is a hug from heaven anytime you need one.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter in the sense that, after convicting us of our sin, the Holy Spirit mediates to us the comfort accomplished by Christ our Great High Priest.

That is, the Holy Spirit assures us of Christ as the forgiveness of our sins and the source of all our righteousness.

Contrary to how Christians often (mis)speak, the Holy Spirit is not in you. Your conscience is in you. And the Holy Spirit, who is outside of you, speaks into you. Into your conscience.

As Martin Luther said, the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s priestly work to us by being a Preacher, that if Christ and his Cross are the pledge of the Father’s love for you, then the Holy Spirit is the Preacher of that promise.

And like any preacher of the Church, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim, and the Holy Spirit preaches that particular promise by attaching to particular things: to the Word, to Water, to Wine and Bread.

And, heads up, this particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call BS on counterfeit preachers like Joel Osteen, who speaks of the Spirit through his toothy vacant smile but even while speaking of the Spirit neglects to speak of our sinfulness.

Joel O (baby-boomer) says sin is a downer.

And instead of Christ’s righteousness, Joel O invokes the Holy Spirit so that we can accrue our own righteousness, of which prosperity is the sign.

The particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call foul on the TV preachers. Ditto the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams and the Al Sharptons. The Holy Spirit might be an accuser of our politics. But the Holy Spirit is not a Preacher of our politics.

Like me, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim to you:

Cross and Resurrection

Grace

The Gospel:

The forgiveness of your sins

The gift of Christ’s righteousness reckoned as your own

Despite how trendy it is to say today, the Holy Spirit does not speak a new word. The Spirit is still speaking, but the Spirit speaks the same word, over and over, in new and different ways. The One by whom the Word was made flesh is now the Preacher of the Gospel Word to our flesh.

———————-

     And St. Paul says that Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, frees us from captivity under the Law to be his subjects under grace, which brings me to my final point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the work of Christ as King.

As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room, the Spirit “will prove the ruler of this world wrong for the ruler of this world has been condemned.” 

He’s talking about Satan, whom St. Paul calls the Power of Sin, who- in case you haven’t read the newspapers or checked Twitter lately- doesn’t appear to have been deposed.

Because our world in no way looks like anyone has defeated the Power of Sin, the Holy Spirit gives us faith.

When Protestant Christians speak of the solas, faith alone and scripture alone, this is what we mean. We mean that only by faith alone can we possibly believe the Good News isn’t fake news. Because everywhere our eyes would have us believe the opposite.

———————-

     When St. Paul writes about the curse of Christ’s cross and our redemption, he uses the aorist tense; that is, his cross and our redemption are concurrent.

They happen at the same time.

Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Galatians receiving the Gospel in faith and their receiving the Holy Spirit, he uses the aorist again.

They’re concurrent.

———————-

     The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith.

They’re concurrent, which means our faith in the Gospel is not our doing. Our faith is not another work of the Law because our faith is not our work. It’s not an accomplishment.

Which gets back to my undercover lesbian evangelist nurse-

Maybe my pathetic dribbler of an answer to her question was accidentally more biblical and Yoda-like than I intended. Because if the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith, then “I dunno” isn’t a half-bad answer for me or for you.

Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up.

It’s all miracle.

Look, I used to hate questions like the one my nurse asked me Tuesday: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

Like every good liberal Mainline Christian, I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers.

I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got the medical bills to prove that eternity’s no longer abstraction for me, but, while the question is a reduction of the Gospel, it’s also true that if you can’t answer the question simply and straight-up then you don’t understand the Gospel.

It’s another simple formula:

     Your sins are forgiven.

Christ’s righteousness is your own.

Ergo, as far as eternity goes, you already have everything necessary.

     How much faith or how little faith you have in that matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith:

Jesus Christ.

And whatever sized faith you have to receive this news you’re sitting on a miracle. It’s not your doing. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So if that undercover lesbian evangelist nurse ever asks you that same question, like Peter Venkman advises in Ghostbusters: For God’s sake, say yes.

Say yes:

With water the Holy Spirit drowned me in Christ’s death for my sins.

And with water the Holy Spirit raised me up to give me Christ’s righteousness for my heaven.

And even now the Holy Spirit gives me the miracle of faith to trust what my eyes cannot on their own believe.

Say yes.

Whether you say it sure of yourself or in spite of yourself, that you can say it at all is a miracle.

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

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

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

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

Shame on you-

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

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

Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.

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

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

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

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

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

Likewise, “Epiphany.”

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

The name says it all.

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

We need an epiphany to discover the true God.

Epiphany says:

No-

You cannot find the true God on the golf course.

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

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

The takeaway for the day is in the name.

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

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

Epiphany calls BS on Luke.

Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.

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

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

———————-

     My first point is this:

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

It must be revealed.

Given as an epiphany by God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is Paul so PO’d?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

     Which brings me to my second point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul tells us what the magi show us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     There is no middle ground at all between:

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

&

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

There’s no reconciliation between those two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

Which means-

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

In other words, they’ve changed.

They’ve been changed.

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel is what God does.

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

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

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

Thus:

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

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

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

To put it in churchy terms:

Our sanctification

our growing in holiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.

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

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

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

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

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

Abound in sin?

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

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

———————-

     Maybe this will help your unbelief:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.

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

Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ alone is sufficient.

Sufficient as to be everything.

 

Fides Qua Creditur OR Fides Qude Creidtur? Faith by which we believe or faith which we believe?

Dr. Johanna breaks it down in the latest episode of the (Her)Men*You*tics podcast.

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

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

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Just in time for Election Day ~
I had the opportunity to have Mike McCurry as a guest in my office late this summer for a conversation about faith and politics and Christian witness in the public square. And, of course, because my friend Johanna begged me to ask: CJ Cregg.
Mike McCurry was the White House Press Secretary during the Clinton administration and now teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary. The conversation covers a range of topics including Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, the cynicism that comes with working for the government, fighting Newt Gingrich, the absence of faith in politics, and thoughts on A Way Forward through the sexuality impasse for the United Methodist Church.
A special thanks to my friend Scott Warner for hooking me up with the interview.
Mark you calendars…Saturday, December 16 in Alexandria, Va we’re going to do a live podcast with our friend Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. Details to follow.

Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

      The 500th Anniversary coincided this Sunday with our trek through the Book of Exodus. The text for the day was Exodus 16.

“You’ve brought us out here to kill us!” I grumbled to my wife a couple of weeks ago when I realized what little water she’d packed to hike Joshua Tree National Park.

So I can empathize with the recently-rescued Israelites who lodge the same complaint against God.

Still, it sounds a little ungrateful considering they’re still damp from the Red Sea through which God FREAKING DELIVERED THEM FROM CENTURIES OF SLAVERY. Really?

All it takes is the munchies for their Bob Marley Exodus song to turn Janet Jackson circa 1986: “What have you done for me lately?!”

Ungrateful or not, it’s a fair gripe because they’re not lost. No one took a wrong turn into the desert. It’s not Siri’s fault.

From the Red Sea forward, God guided them, appearing in a pillar of cloud and fire, straight into godforsaken-ness.

They’re there because God has led them there.

And not only is it a justified complaint, it’s correct.

God has brought them there to kill them.

     (You won’t hear that from Joel Osteen! You’re welcome.) 

———————-

     God has brought them to the desert for the desert to be the death of them, for their hunger to be the hospice through which God kills off their old selves. That they recall their bondage to Pharaoh fondly is proof that they’re not yet free. So God brings them to the desert for a different kind of deliverance. God answers their nostalgia for Egypt’s stewpots by upping the ante and providing quail every evening.

Quail was considered a delicacy and according to Moses every evening at twilight this abundance of expense, quail, covered their camp. Wherever they were in the wilderness, it was there. God responds to their petty, ungrateful griping with a gesture of unmerited extravagance. Even though they begrudge him their deliverance, God gives them the opposite of what they deserve.

Every day a feathered two-part message: 1) Lose your illusions about Egypt and 2) I, the Lord your God, am not a Pharaoh.

“Quail covered the camp” Moses writes. Every evening, fancy 5-Star fare.

And every morning, under the dew of the desert, the opposite of extravagance: manna.

Bread. From Heaven.

Because we put the loaves on the altar table instead of smearing the dough on foreheads at Ash Wednesday, it’s easy for us to forget.

Bread, in the Bible, is not quail. It’s not food for a fancy feast.

Bread, in the Bible, is a token of the Fall.

Bread is a symbol for original sin. 

After Adam and Eve distrust God in the Garden and disobey God’s only law, God shows them the exit to Eden and God’s parting words to Adam: “Because you have disobeyed…by the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread until you die.”

That comes right before the Ash Wednesday warning: “…for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Garden.

After the Fall, bread becomes a kind of sacrament of their estrangement from the Garden.

And it’s work that requires work: harvesting and grinding and mixing and kneading and rising and waiting and folding and rising and waiting and folding and baking. Bread is the work that marks their sin and fall from grace but now, in the Desert of Sin, God gives it to them as grace. Their work- the wages of their sin- becomes grace.

And it’s all God’s work. There’s no harvesting or grinding or mixing or kneading or rising or waiting or folding or rising or waiting or folding or baking. There’s nothing for them to do but receive it. Every morning, what had been their work to perform is God’s grace to provide. Not on any morning is there anything for them to do except trust that wherever they are it will be there and it will be enough.

God takes their work and God makes it grace because God has rescued them from Egypt in order to return them to Eden. God has delivered them from the despot Pharaoh and delivered them into the Desert of Sin in order to undo their original sin.

Our original, originating sin- it wasn’t disobedience. It wasn’t picking the fruit of the tree in the Garden. That would be a stupid story. Our original, originating sin wasn’t disobedience; it was disbelief.

Did God really say?

Our original sin was unbelief, not our failure to obey God’s law but our failure to trust God’s promise, to trust God’s promise that avoiding the tree in the Garden was for our good. And so in the Desert of Sin, every morning God gives them manna according to his promise. The work that had been theirs to do becomes God’s work alone.

The symbol of their unfaithfulness becomes a sign of God’s faithfulness. And God gives it to them as grace.

There’s nothing for them to do but trust God’s doing. Anything other than trust alone in the doing of God and the bread of heaven breeds worms. From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.

Whether they knew or not- the grumblers were absolutely right. God has brought them there to kill them, to exterminate the old, untrusting Adam in them. God has gotten them out of Egypt and now, in the Desert of Sin, God is getting the Egypt out of them.

     Because it’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”

It’s slaves who ask “What do I have to do now? What should I being doing, Lord?”

But it’s children who trust their Father to do everything for them.

It’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”

It’s children who trust their Father’s promise that it is done.

It’s children who trust when they’re told “It is finished.”

They might be cranky with the munchies and ungrateful as all get out, but the Israelites- they’re right. God has led them there to Sin to kill them.

     Nude faith-

Faith clothed only in the grace of God, trusting that there’s nothing for us to do but believe and receive, for those of us whose self-image is so determined by what we do, faith alone in the grace of God alone- don’t lie- it isn’t just offensive; it feels like dying.

———————-

     BJ Miller is a palliative care doctor at a facility called Zen Hospice in San Francisco. I heard Miller give a TED Talk a couple of years ago, and this winter I read a story about him in the NY Times.

When BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, one Monday night, he and two friends went out drinking. Late that night, on their way back, drunk and hungry, they headed to WAWA for sandwiches.

There’s a rail junction near the WAWA, connecting the campus to the city’s main train line. A commuter train was parked there that night, idle, tempting BJ Miller and his friends to climb up it.

Miller scaled it first.

When he got to the top, 11,000 volts shot out of a piece of equipment and into Miller’s watch on his left arm and down his legs. When his friends got to him, smoke was rising from his shoes.

BJ Miller woke up several days later in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital to discover it wasn’t a terrible dream. More terribly, he found that his arm and his legs had been amputated.

Turmoil and anguish naturally followed those first hazy days but eventually Miller returned to Princeton where he ended up majoring in art history.

The broken arms and ears and noses of ancient sculptures helped him affirm his own broken body as beautiful.

From Princeton, Miller went to medical school where he felt drawn to palliative care because, as he says, “Parts of me died early on. And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around my death, and I can tell you it has been a liberation. I wanted to help people realize the shock of beauty or meaning in the life that proceeds one kind of death and precedes another.”

After medical school, Miller found his way to Zen Hospice in California where their goal is to de-pathologize death; that is, to recover death as a human experience and not a medical one.

They impose neither medicine nor meaning onto the dying. Rather, as Miller puts it, they let their patients “play themselves out.” Whomever they’ve been in life is who they’re encouraged to be in their dying.

For example, the NY Times story documents how Miller helped a young man named Sloan, who was dying quickly of cancer, die doing what he loved to do: drink Bud Light and play video games.

Talking about Sloan’s mundane manner of dying, Miller said this- this is what got my attention:

“The mission of Zen Hospice is about wresting death from the one-size- fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse: our need for death to be a transcendent experience.

Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.”

     Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.

They’re going to feel like there is something they must be doing that they’re not doing. They’re going to worry that they’re doing something wrong or they’re going to fear that they’re not doing enough.

———————-

     In the Gospel according to John, no sooner has Jesus fed a hungry crowd of 5,000 with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish than some grumblers in the mob start to measure this Messiah’s manna-hood.

“5 loaves and 2 fish…that’s a nifty trick, Jesus. Good for you! Now Moses…he was something else. Moses fed all of Israel every morning with manna for 40 years.”

And Jesus replies (in my Southern paraphrase edition): “Bless your heart.”

No, Jesus replies: Moses isn’t the One who gave you manna. I AM the Bread of Life. I AM the Bread of Heaven, Living Bread. Manna is me, come down for you. 

And then Jesus shifts metaphors: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life and whoever does not will not. 

Those who ate manna in the Desert of Sin, Jesus points out, still died of sin. So Jesus warns them: “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

     Do not work for the food that perishes. 

     And what comes next in the Gospel according to John- it’s only 2 verses, it’s just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.

It’s the sum of St. Paul’s message. It’s the core of the Protestant Reformation. It’s the reason we’re not worshipping at Good Shepherd Catholic Church this morning.

It’s only 2 verses, just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.

It’s the Gospel.

First, they ask Jesus a question. They ask Jesus the question, the question that captives like us are always asking: “What must we do?”

     “What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?” 

Should we…and you’ve asked the question enough yourself that you can fill in the blank for them. Should we pray more? Should we study the scriptures more? Should we serve the poor more? Spend less at Christmas?

“What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?”

And Jesus answers by correcting the grammar of their question. He changes the subject of their sentence, from us to God: “This is the work of God…”

     What we think is our work, our burden and obligation, to get right with God, to be reckoned to the good, to be justified before God-

it’s the work of God.

That’s not a ‘we’ kind of question, Jesus says. It’s a God question. It’s the work of God. Alone.

Jesus doesn’t just change the subject of their sentence. He changes the object of their sentence too. We put the question in the plural: “What should I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

What stuff should we be doing? How much do we have to do?

But Jesus answers in the singular: “This the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.” 

There isn’t any stuff we have to do.

We do not have to do several things, or even one good thing, to be justified before God. There is only 1 thing to do, 1 work: your trust.

     Like manna under the desert dew, all you have to do is believe and receive.

Trust.

All you have to do is trust that it’s all already been done. All you have to do is trust what he has done.

Jesus Christ, this manna made flesh, has finished what the Father started in the Desert of Sin. He’s killed off the Old Adam in you, once for all, by drowning him in the baptism of his death and resurrection.

The old untrusting Adam in you has been crucified in him; so that, now, in him, in the New Adam, (present-tense, no conditions or qualifiers) the Gospel promises that you are a New Creation.

Where bread was given to the Old Adam as a sign of sin and punishment, this New Adam, the Living Bread of Heaven, has taken on all your sins and suffered punishment in your place; so that, the curse you deserve becomes the blessing you do not.

     Don’t just do something, Jesus all but answers, stand there.

Stand still- all you have to do is believe and receive.

Trust.

Like manna in the morning, there’s nothing left for you to do but eat.

Eat this promise.

Trust.

Trust that you are the pearl of great price that the King has bought by giving away everything. Trust that you are the prodigal child for whom the Father did not wait to come home to him but has sought you out in his only Son.

All you have to do is trust the doing of God.

Trust that God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, you might become the righteousness of God. Trust that you who were dead to your trespasses have been made (past perfect tense) alive in Christ. Trust that your slate is wiped clean because your sins have been washed in the blood of the lamb. All you have to do is trust.

Trust that in all the ways and places you’ve been unfaithful, your manna molding, the Bread of Heaven has been faithful. He has done what you could never do.

He alone is righteous and by grace alone God reckons his righteousness to you. He credits your account with Christ, such that there’s nothing left to do but trust that it’s all been done.

Faith alone- that’s all there is for you to do because the righteousness of Christ imputed to you is already and will always be overflowing.

Faith alone is the only work you must do.

And it’s not even your work to do because, notice, Jesus changes the verb of their question: “What should we be doing…?” they ask.

And Jesus responds: “This is the doing of God…”

This is the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.

It’s God’s work. The one and only work we must do, God does in us: trust.

God works faith into us.

The one work we must do to respond to what God has done in Jesus Christ, God also does in us.

It’s just 2 verses in John’s Gospel: 6.28 and 6.29.

It’s just 30 Greek words in John’s Gospel, but it’s the Gospel:

You are saved by God’s grace alone

By Christ alone

By the blood of the Living Bread of Heaven

Through faith alone.

It’s only 2 verses, 30 words, but it’s enough to puncture what BJ Miller calls the competing impulse within us.

“The dying are still very much alive and we are all dying,” BJ Miller tells the Times writer, “we die the way we live.”

We die the way we live.

He means-

Just as many die thinking that there’s something more spiritual or profound or meaningful they’re supposed to be doing and worry that they aren’t doing it or aren’t doing it right or doing it enough, we live with that same anxiety: “What must we be doing so that we’re doing the works of God?”

     We think that Jesus came down from Heaven, cancelled out our debts upon the cross, but now it’s on us to work our way up to God.

     The Golden Rule may not justify us before God but we sure think it makes a good ladder up to him.

And we’re forever anxious that we need to climb it.

Or that we even can.

The Book of Exodus says that way of thinking- it breeds worms.

What’s miraculous, BJ Miller contends, more miraculous than empty, contrived spiritual gestures- more miraculous, I’d argue than 5 loaves and 2 fish or manna every morning- is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.

      What’s miraculous is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.

“My work,” Miller says, “is to unburden them from the crushing weight of unhelpful expectations.” 

Today is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

And it says a whole lot about how far we’ve drifted from it that it takes a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast to point it out to us, BJ Miller’s work-that’s the work of the Gospel too- to unburden you from the crushing weight of expectations.

The Gospel is that you are saved by God’s grace alone by Christ’s atoning blood alone and that is yours through faith- trust- alone. The Gospel is like palliative medicine for the died in Christ. The Gospel is that you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.

The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful.

This question:

     What are you going to do with this faith of yours?

Now you have the freedom not to do anything?

Letter to My Godson

Jason Micheli —  October 18, 2017 — 1 Comment

10/23

Happy Birthday Elijah!

Don’t let your mother read this letter or she’ll surely have some of her salty language for me. Even at whatever age you’re reading this letter, your grandmother will not appreciate you hearing such language. How she’s tolerated me for so long is a mystery.  I meant your grandmother but that probably goes for your mother at this point too.

Obviously, Elijah, my memory isn’t as bad as your father suspects. I know October 23 is not the day your mother gave birth to you.

It’s the day you died.

Which is to say, as I said already: Happy Birthday!

Chances are, your mother would like me writing about your death even less than she’d appreciate me getting your birthday wrong; nonetheless, if I’ve done my job as your Godfather, then hopefully you know by now that ‘the day you were born’ and the ‘the day you died’ are redundant, simultaneous phrases.

As paranoid as your parents are about your safety, you should’ve seen what happy and willing accomplices they made on the day you died. They stood right next to me, wearing shit-eating grins (apologize to your grandmother for me), and acquiesced as we drowned you in water. We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Elijah.

We baptized you.  By ‘we,’ I mean the Church.

Baptism, I’m sure your Dad has taught you, is what the Church calls a ‘sacrament.’ The Church likes fancy $10 words to justify the pay and pensions of people like your Dad and me.  A sacrament, to put it plain, is a sign accompanied by a promise. The sign on the Table, that other sacrament, is the bread and the wine. The sign in the bowl-shaped-grave is the water.

Signs: you can see them, taste them, touch them; they’re the tangible, seeing-is-believing proof one of Jesus’ dunderheaded disciples demanded.

While the words we pray at the Table sound different, the promise attached to both signs sounds the same when you make it simple: they’re for you.

It’s a promise, in other words, with your name attached: it’s for you, Elijah. Christ and all his benefits.

God takes his ginormous Gospel promise of grace in Jesus Christ and he sticks it on a creature called bread or water or wine, and he signs your name on it.

They’re for you, Elijah. Christ and his benefits.

“Just who the Hell are you to be bestowing Jesus Christ and his benefits?!” you’d be correct in thinking to yourself right about now, for in truth, the parlance of piety aside, I did not baptize you. Your Dad didn’t baptize you either though he had wanted to do so. I talked him out it. Precisely because you’d grow up to love him so much and look up to him, I feared that the fact your Dad had baptized you would obscure who really baptized you.

God baptized you, Elijah.

God did. I was every bit the bystander as your blood family.

Despite the junk you see on Cable TV Christianity, these sacraments are not ways you seek out a spiritual connection to God. They’re certainly not symbols by which you signify having found a connection to God.

The true God, the God of Jesus Christ, isn’t a God who can be found.

If I’ve done my job as Godfather then you already know how fraught is the passive voice of that preceding sentence. God isn’t a God who can be found by us.

If we’re the subject of the sentence, Elijah, then you know the clause that comes next can never lead to an accursed cross and a crucified God.

We don’t find God. God finds us.

The former St. Paul calls the Law.

The latter is the Gospel your Dad was ordained to proclaim.

We’re found by God, Elijah. In the sacraments. 

The sacraments, like your baptism Elijah, are more than signs affixed to promises. They’re events in which God breaks through to us.

Your Aunts will tell you how I’m prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, but I couldn’t be more serious on this point, Nugget. If your slice of eternity resembles at all the collective calendar that has come before you, then you will have already and you will henceforth experience plenty of people- maybe yourself included- wondering where God is in this broken world. And, I’m willing to bet, the latitude-longitude point that most bedevils them is the one that intersects through their own broken heart.

Notice, Elijah, the questions we ask about God and the accusations we make at God, shaking our fist at the sky, all assume that God is there, up in the sky. Even if we only think figuratively that God is up on the clouds we nevertheless believe God, literally, is not here.

The true God isn’t sought.

The true God seeks.

And God does so in and through these sacraments.

God does not want to be known as far off in the heaven, the subject of our speculations. God does not want to be known in general, the object of our manipulations. No matter what the religious marketplace tries to hawk you, the life of faith is not a journey of becoming a better you, ever upwards to God- have you been to the gym?! Only a sadist enjoys the stair-master.

No, the God who puts on skin to get too close for comfort in Christ is a God who never stops condescending. He comes to us. He meets us in the watery grave and the broken bread. He’s really there, killing the old you and making you new again. He’s really there, filling your belly, him inside you so that you’re forever in him.

Wherever in your life this letter finds you, Elijah, if you haven’t already experienced brokenness and death then you will so soon. I hope to God the Church will have taught you to look for the aforementioned in the muck of your life and not to blame him for it.

God makes himself known in the broken bread and in the morbid water in part so that we’ll know he’s not to blame. But rather, he’s at work, most especially, in the shame and muck of our lives, in the fist-shaking brokenness of the world.

This is why it’s so dangerous to sentimentalize a baby’s baptism, particularly, and the Christian religion, broadly.

The very pain, shame, and ugliness of life we’re tempted to gloss over with kitsch and sentimentality is, in fact, the crucible where the true God is to be found.

I mean, it’s the crucible in which the true God finds us.

He’s really here, in bread and water and wine. He’s not far off. I hope to God the Church has taught you so. 

Of course as Samuel L. Jackson says in the Long Kiss Goodnight, when you make an assumption you risk making “an ass out of you and umption.” I don’t know who Umption is, Elijah, but I want you to be clear. If there’s anyone who might not appreciate the definition of the Church it’s the son whose father is an employee of its moribund, institutionalized form.

Robert Jenson, a giant who died just before the anniversary of your death-in-Christ day, wrote

“The church is the gathering of the tellers and the hearers of the gospel word of promise.”

Jens also said what the Church is not:

“The message of the Church is a specific word.

If the Church does not get this word said, all other words it might say are better said by someone else.”

Again, as a preacher’s son you’ll likely know better than most how Jens was dead-on.

The Church is the People who tell and hear the promise of God affixed to those signs we call sacraments. If we’re God’s People then Jenson’s is a good definition for the Church. Scripture says that “all will know God is the true God when his last promise is fulfilled.”

i.e., what reveals God as God are the promises God keeps; ergo, God’s People, the Church, are tellers and hearers of the promise.

If you’re near marrying age, Godson, then you may already perceive how the beauty of a promise is that it offers the future as a gift. I promise to be yours in sickness and in health. A promise makes the future not an obligation (think: student debt, if you have any…you no doubt do). A promise makes the future not an object of dread ( think: sickness and health).

A promise binds the future to a prior condition, to a past (think: future love to past and present failure); as such, a promise makes the past depend upon the future rather than vice versa (think: the way of the world).

A promise grants a future free of the past, for if you’re accepted regardless of your past, you’re free to recast and reevaluate your past. If you’re loved forever into the future, then your past isn’t quite as shameful or tragic as you once feared.

You were baptized with people of the promise as happy bystanders. We’re all accomplices to the blood on the bowl. We made the promise that your future is not nor will it ever be determined by your past. God’s grace, as the song goes (do you sing it?) is amazing and unconditional.

Except-

All our promises in life, in our religious and secular lives alike, are conditioned by 1 hidden ‘umption.’

We all die.

Death comes to us all.

I’ll love you through sickness and health, for richer and poor, but I will die. 

Every promise in this life, no matter how unconditional we try to make it, is conditioned by Death. Until we are parted by death I made your parents say when they made their vows to one another.

The only promise that is unconditional is the promise where Death is behind it.

Love, forgiveness, friendship…they can only be unconditional promises where Death, and the fear of it, is swallowed up in the past.

But you’ve died Elijah! The only Death that matters is behind you. Take it from someone who thought he was going to do and just well may even still: that’s good news.

We’ve killed you. Happy Birthday! The only Death that matters is behind you now and forever. Freed from the fear of Death you can learn to love, forgive, and befriend. No matter what the world tells you, death doesn’t come at the end of life. For the baptized, life follows death and so it can be a life lived without dread.

Lately, Elijah, you’ve learned the word ‘cookie’ and have been saying it with equal parts glee and insistence. You’ve learned how the word itself can effect what the word promises; saying the word ‘cookie’ with your lips can produce a cookie in your hand.

In the same way the promises we make do something to others (e.g., reevaluate the past), the promise of God does not just declares. The promise of your baptism doesn’t just declare through sign that you, Elijah, have died and risen in and with Christ and so forever belong to God, come what may. The promise of baptism is the means by which God creates faith in us to trust that promise for each of us every time we see someone like you drowned in the bowl-shaped-grave.

That’s why, Elijah, we didn’t wait until you were out of diapers and could ‘choose’ for yourself (whatever that may mean).

Faith isn’t a precondition for baptism.

God isn’t content to wait around, fingers crossed, hoping we’ll ‘make a decision’ for him. God doesn’t wait for us. God comes at us in the sacrament, killing and making new and giving faith. Maybe you’ll hear in that how fraught is our language about ‘having faith’ as though faith is our possession having first been our achievement.

Faith isn’t so much something we have, implying we’re the doers. Faith is received. It’s a gift.

It’s grace; that is, it’s a gift we do not deserve that God gives to us without price or merit.

If faith is grace, if it’s chiefly God’s work, then I’m in no position as your Godfather to give you faith. What I can do, what I hope I’ve helped do by the time you read this, even if but a little, is teach you to receive faith.

We’ve held hands, you and I, but maybe my role as your Godfather is to teach you to hold out your hands, open for the gift only God can give.

Love,

Jason

     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans with 12.1-2, 9-16.

Pay attention to the passive voice:

“Our society is broken, pretty much, but there will be a time when these times will be made right.”

“…these times will be made right” said the principal of Goose Creek High School in Charleston, South Carolina.

“…these times will be made right” he said just days after Dylann Roof stormed into Mother Emmanuel AME Church and shot 9 parishioners gathered for bible study. One of the nine victims was the track coach at Goose Creek High School.

“…these times will be made right.”

Which is to say, despite the brokenness we can see everywhere an unseen agency is at work, making right. Or as Paul would say, rectifying.

Only four days after Dylann Roof stormed into Emmanuel AME and left six black women and 3 black men in a bloody pile in the church basement, the leaders of the congregation concluded the only way to press forward was for them to go back to exactly what they’d done before, to do the Sunday after that shooting what they had done the Sunday previous.

Worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

Proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel which Paul says is the rectifying power of God unleashed in our world (1.16-17).

Preaching that Sunday at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Reverend Norvel Goff, an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed: “through our proclamation of the Gospel on this day a message will be sent to Satan.”

Note the passive voice again: “through our proclamation…a message will be sent.”

The worshippers at Emmanuel Church were not the ones sending the message.

Later in his sermon, his voice roaring, Reverend Goff added: “Something wants to divide us- black and brown and white- but no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”

Notice- he didn’t say Dylann Roof wanted to divide us. He didn’t say racists and bigots want to divide us. Something wants to divide us– there’s another agency at work in the world.

Speaking of that other agency, that same Sunday, outside the church, the Reverend Brandon Bowers, who is white and the pastor of Awaken Church, said: “What the Enemy intended for evil, God is using- God is using us- for good.”

He said Enemy with a capital E- even the NY Times caught it.

And he did not say we’re using this for good.

Pay attention to the passive: “God is using us for good.”

We’re being used by God for good.

The service at Mother Emmanuel AME Church began with a hymn: “You are the Source of my strength, you are the strength of my life.”

Meanwhile, while they sang at Emmanuel AME, the family of 21 year old Dylann Roof worshipped at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

The pastor of St. Paul’s read the names of the victims and the congregation prayed for them and their families. The victimizer’s family prayed for the victims and their families.

About the victimizer’s family, the pastor of St. Paul told his congregation later: “They are shattered but through their faith they are being made strong.”

“…they are being made strong.”

——————————

     “…these times will be made by right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…do not be haughty…do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…overcome evil with good.”

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed… but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

If you don’t understand what the therefore is there for, not only do you miss Paul’s point here you mishear this passage as bad news instead of good, as burdensome rather than freeing.

Because, let’s face it-

Genuine, 100% of the time, love

Unflagging zeal

Patience in suffering

Perseverance in prayer

Feeding your enemies

I’ve been here coming on my 13th year and I don’t know any of you who score better than a D on this long list of attributes of what transformation looks like. I’d bet the house that behind closed doors Pope Francis doesn’t do better than a B-.

I mean, half of you can’t even get along on Facebook, let alone blessing those who curse you. This is DC- a lot of you make your livelihood claiming to be wiser than you really are.

“Do not be haughty?” So long as Donald Trump is in office that’s an impossible command for some of you.

Assuming it’s a command, that is.

If you don’t know what the therefore is there for, you’ll mishear this passage.

You won’t hear it as Gospel. You’ll hear it- if you’re honest enough to admit it- as a guilt trip. You’ll hear it as a To Do list of musts and shoulds, as a prescription of what we have to do.

Without the therefore there, you’ll hear Paul saying: A real transformed Christian looks like this…a genuine Christian must do this…must love enemies, must bless those who curse them, must be patient in suffering and ardent about their faith.

     No.

That’s what the therefore is there for.

The therefore signals that what comes next depends upon what came before.

The therefore signals that what proceeds is possible only because of what preceded.

The therefore signals that what follows is a part of everything prior.

Or, in other words, chapter 12 comes after chapter 11.

Chapter 12 comes after chapter 8 and chapter 6 and chapter 5 and 3 and 1.

The therefore is there for you to remember that what comes next here in chapter 12 continues and concludes what has come before.

Just before this, the verse that sets up this therefore- it’s a doxology. It’s a song of praise, thanking God for the work of God to save all of God’s creation (11.33-36).

And before that, Paul has said that even the disbelief of some is a part of God’s work to show mercy to all. Before that, Paul has said that the all-ness of God’s saving work includes not just creatures like you and me but all of creation.

All of creation because all of creation, Paul has said before, is in captivity to the Power of Sin with a capital S. A Power that, just before, Paul made synonymous with the Power of Death with a capital D.

A Power, Paul said before that, whose power we are all under such that not one of us can free ourselves. We have no power against this Power. We’re prisoners, Paul has said before.

Which gets back to what Paul said just before that, at the very beginning of his argument (and remember, it is all one, long argument). In his thesis statement at the beginning, before the therefore and everything else, Paul announced that his letter is about what God is doing:

“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for in it the rectifying power of God is invading [the world].”

You can only invade territory held by an Enemy.

The Gospel is the Power of God to take God’s world back from the Enemy who binds it. The Gospel, Paul has said, is the means by which God takes God’s world back from the One who holds it captive.

Pay attention to the present tense.

The Gospel isn’t about what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

Everything that has come before the therefore has been about God’s doing.

     You didn’t invite Jesus into your heart. God has poured God’s love into your heart through the Holy Spirit, Paul has said.

You didn’t journey to God. God has transferred you from the dominion of Sin into the dominion of grace.

You didn’t decide to become a new you. God killed off your old self- you have died with Christ- and now you are in Christ.

You didn’t sign up to serve God. God has set you free from slavery to Sin and Death and made you instead a slave of righteousness.

It’s all been about what God does.

——————————

     So, why should we suppose that when he gets to this point in his letter Paul is suddenly talking about us, about what we do?

What the therefore is there for is to remind you that what comes next describes what God is doing not what we do.

It’s proclamation not exhortation.

It’s indicative not imperative.

The therefore is there so you don’t mistake this as a prescription of what we must do: We must be genuine in love. We must be patient in suffering. We must be zealous for God all the time. We must bless those who curse us and love our enemies. 

If there’s a must or a should or a have-to in your sentences, you’re not speaking Gospel.

The therefore is there for you to know this is not a prescription of who you must be or what you must do. It’s a description of who Jesus Christ is and what God is doing.

Pay attention to the passive: “I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

We’re not the ones doing the transforming.

The therefore is there for you to see that this transformation isn’t up to us. You’re not left to your lonesome to live up to impossible ideals. The point of this passage isn’t that you have to become a new you; it’s that you are being made new.

By God.

By the mercies of God, Paul says.

That’s not a throwaway religious cliche.

The word Paul uses there, dia, refers to the instrumentality of God, i.e, what Paul is saying: Only by the merciful activity of God upon you can you be conformed not to this world but transformed into conformity to Jesus Christ.

That’s different.

That’s different than Paul simply telling you to emulate and imitate Jesus. Jesus didn’t even have an easy time being Jesus; how could you possibly emulate and imitate him? No, Paul’s not exhorting you to imitate Jesus.

Paul’s already told you before, back in chapter 6, by faith and by baptism- by God- you NOW are in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t mean that as a metaphor.

You are in Jesus Christ.

And now- therefore- Paul is telling you, God is shaping you into Christ likeness.

Patience in suffering. Blessing those who curse you. Perseverance in prayer. Genuine love. This isn’t a To Do list or a Christian Code of Conduct. They’re not exhortations or expectations. They’re attributes of Christ.

He’s describing the mind of Christ.

The mind according to which God is at work to conform us.

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Pay attention to the language.

That word renewing- it’s anakainosis. It means literally “completely taken over.”

God is at work to transform you. To conform you to Christ.

To completely take over your mind with the mind of Christ.

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no sin (why?) so that (therefore) we might become the righteousness of God.”

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Philippians: “…the God who began a good work in you will in the fullness of time bring it to completion.” Not, you now have to bring it to completion. God will bring it to completion.

What Paul says here is what Paul said at the very beginning of this letter:

The Gospel, what we announce in Word and Sacrament- it is the power of Almighty God to invade, to completely take over, until you are rectified, put right, according to the mind of Christ in whose image you are made.

And through you…the world.

“…these times will be made right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive.

Last May, Dennis and I attended Hedy’s graduation from Wesley Theological Seminary, held at the National Cathedral.

The pastor of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, killed by Dylann Roof, would’ve been in the graduating class.

They awarded his degree posthumously, and when it came time for Reverend Pinckney’s name to be read, they invited his wife Jennifer forward to receive his diploma and to speak.

She acknowledged that the ceremony was a bittersweet moment for her. She painted a picture of her husband asleep in his man cave, his coursework still on his lap. And then she confessed that she’d had no idea what to say to those gathered there in the cathedral.

She’d had no idea what to say.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘I was hit with the words to share.’

I was hit.

By God. By the Holy Spirit.

And what followed was plain and unremarkable, but it was powerful- more so than the sermon that had come before, a sermon that had been all exhortation, an exhausting litany of musts and shoulds.

But what Jennifer Pinkney from Emmanuel AME Church said was powerful not because of the pathos of the moment nor for the profundity of her words.

It was powerful because she had reminded us- testified to us- that God is real.

God is living.

Acting.

At work: “…I was hit with what to say…”

——————————-

     Look-

You can’t become unflagging in your zeal by exerting more zeal.

You don’t persevere in prayer by practicing prayer.

Your love doesn’t become genuine through effort.

You don’t achieve patience in suffering by enduring it.

Blessing those who curse you doesn’t come about by you biting your tongue.

You can forgive 70 x 7 times but if it takes in your heart even 1 of those times it’s not your own doing.

You don’t walk in newness of life because you set out to do so.

You don’t become lovers of enemies by trying- neither will they cease to be your enemy because you’ve attempted to love them.

     None of it is possible for you to do.

     But all of it is possible for the Living God to do in you.

The therefore is there for you to remember that the Christian life is pointless if the God we serve is not a Living God.

The therefore is there for you to remember that Christianity is bigger than simply doing the things Jesus did because you can’t do any of the things Jesus did if God did not raise him from the dead to conform and transform you.

And sure that takes different kind of patience, sure that sounds messier and slower and more frustrating than if Paul just handed us a simple To Do List of Musts and Shoulds.

But our understanding of the Gospel, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian, should at least require that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the world.

—————————-

     The Sunday after Dylann Roof shot nine at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston members of Citadel Baptist Church, a white Southern Baptist Church with a long and complicated relationship with racism, walked the mere steps from their church to Emmanuel Church and they placed purple daises around the front of Emmanuel.

The Reverend David Walker, pastor of Citadel Baptist, explained the gesture thus.

Pay attention to the passive: “Something compelled us to do this…”

Christ is Risen indeed.

   

 

 

Razing Hell

Jason Micheli —  July 31, 2017 — 3 Comments

        Here’s my sermon from this weekend, continuing our summer series through Romans. The text was Romans 11.25-32.  

Back in the day, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you, I worked for a couple of years as a chaplain at the maximum security prison in Trenton, New Jersey.

I enjoyed it.

In a lot of ways, the Gospel makes more sense in a place like that than anywhere else. Not to mention, preaching is different when the men hearing you aren’t there because their wives or mothers have forced their attendance.

So I enjoyed the prison, but I didn’t enjoy everything about the job.

Part of my routine, every week, was to visit and counsel the inmates in solitary confinement. It was a sticky, hot, dark wing of the prison. Because every inmate was locked behind a heavy, steel door with just a sliver of thick plexiglass for a window, unlike the rest of the prison, the solitary wing was as silent as a tomb. Whenever I think of Hell, I think of that place.

But not for the reasons you might expect.

Whenever I visited solitary, the officer on duty was almost always a 50-something Sergeant named Moore.

Officer Moore had a thick, Mike Dikta mustache and coarse sandy hair he combed into a meticulous, greased part. He was tall and strong and, to be honest, intimidating. He had a Marine Corps tattoo on one forearm and a heart with a woman’s name on the other arm.

Whenever I visited solitary he’d buzz me inside only after I refused to go away. He’d usually be sitting down, gripping the sides of his desk, reading a newspaper. I hated going there because, every time I did, he’d greet me heated ridicule.

      He’d grumble things like: ‘Save your breath, preacher, you’re wasting your time.’

He’d grumble things like: ‘Do you know what these people did? They don’t deserve forgiveness.’

He’d grumble things like: ‘They only listen to you because they’ve got no one else.’

Once, when we gathered for a worship service, I’d invited Officer Moore to join us.

He grumbled that he’d have ‘nothing to do with a God who’d have anything to do with trash like them’ and he refused to come in.

Instead he sat outside with his arm crossed. The locked prison door between us.

About halfway through my time at the prison, Officer Moore suffered a near fatal heart attack; in fact, he was dead for several minutes before the rescue squad revived him.

I know this because when he returned to work, he told me. Tried to throw it in my face.

‘It’s all a sham’ he grumbled at me one afternoon.

‘I was dead for 3 minutes. Dead. And you know what I experienced? Nothing. I didn’t see any bright light at the end of any tunnel. It was just darkness. Your god? All make believe.’

Back then- at the beginning of my ministry, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you- I tended towards sarcasm. So even though I don’t put much stock in the light at the end of the tunnel cliche, that didn’t stop me from saying to Sergeant Moore:

‘Maybe you should take that as a warning.

Maybe there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for you.’

He grumbled and said: ‘Don’t tell me you believe in Hell?’

‘What makes you think I wouldn’t believe in Hell?’ I asked, playing with him.

‘Oh, since I don’t believe in your Jesus, I’m going to Hell? Is that it?’

Officer Moore pushed his chair back and fussed with his collar. He suddenly seemed uncomfortable. His eyes took a bead on me. ‘So what the Hell’s Hell like then?’ he asked, smirking. ‘Fire and brimstone, I mean, really?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘fire, brimstone, gnashing of teeth, those are probably all metaphors.’

He let out a sarcastic sigh of relief.  So then I added: ‘Metaphors for something much worse maybe.’

That got his attention.

‘Your loving God sends people to a place worse than brimstone just because they don’t believe in him?’ he asked.

     ‘Who said anything about God sending them there?’ I said.

‘No, I think Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside.’

Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and mature pastor you see before you, so I didn’t mention to him that I’d plagiarized that line from C.S. Lewis.

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Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside. 

By us.

I said.

Back then.

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But is it?

Is that even possible?

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“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks 3 chapters prior to today’s text.

If God is for us- all of us

If God is determined to reconcile and redeem all of us

And not only us-

If God is determined to rescue and restore all of creation from its bondage to the Power of Sin, then what could stand in God’s way?

“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks back in Romans 8.

If God made each of us and all that is and called it very good- that’s Genesis 1.

And if God is determined to make each of us and all that is beautiful again- that’s Genesis 12.

If God in Jesus Christ came for all- that’s John 1.

If Christ died for all- that’s 2 Corinthians 5.15.

If Jesus the Judge was judged in your place, once for all- that’s Hebrews 10.

And if God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit, the first sign, the harbinger of what God intends to do for all of creation- 1 Corinthians 15

If that’s what God intends, then what is to stop God from getting what God wants?

If God’s unambiguous aim is the salvation of all, then what ultimately can get in God’s way?

Because by definition NOTHING can deny God what God desires.

That’s 2 Timothy 2.13.

Or, as Paul frames it back in Romans 8: ‘What can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? What, in the end, can separate us from God?

And one by one Paul proceeds to eliminate the possibilities:

Hardship. Check. Injustice. Check. Persecution. Famine. Check. Check.Nakedness. Nope.War. Not it either. It can’t separate us from the love of God. None of them. Not Death. Not Rulers. Not Powers. Neither things present nor things to come. Not anything in all of creation. Nothing can separate us from what God wants to do with us.

Except-

The Apostle Paul does leave one possibility off his list: Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. War. Death. Rulers. Powers.

There is one possibility missing from Paul’s list.

One potential disqualifier remains: Us.

Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. Sword. Not any of them can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but what about us?

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What about us? Can we separate ourselves from the love of God?

Can we separate ourselves from God through our unbelief, through our lack of faith, through our disobedient refusal to accept the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

Do we possess that power? Do we possess the ability to separate ourselves forever from the love of God? To slam the door and throw the lock?

Can we really run away and hide forever from a God who’s so determined to get us he chases us all the way to a cross and back? If Nakedness and Famine and War can’t do it, can we? Can we separate ourselves from God so that the God who desires the salvation of all only ends up with some?

    Can we make it so that the God who wants all only gets some?

Do we have the capacity to keep from God the everything God wants?

That’s the question Paul takes up next in Romans 9-11 and he does so by turning to the most obvious example available to him.

Israel.

The Jews- those who’ve received the message of the Gospel and not responded in faith and obedience.

When it comes to unbelievers like them, has the Word of God failed? Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 9.

How are they to be saved by him in whom they have not believed? Paul asks in Romans 10.

It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it? Paul asks at the top of today’s chapter.

And just the grammar of that last question gives away the answer. As soon as Paul refers to Israel as God’s People he’s already shown his tell: “By no means!” Paul answers immediately in verse 1.

By no means! God has not rejected God’s People. His chosen People.  The People he’s promised, no-strings-attached: “I will be your God and you will be my People.”

It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it?

By no means – for if God will break his promise to them, then Paul could’ve ended his letter back in Romans 8.

And his list could’ve been a lot shorter.

Who can separate us from the love of God? Well, Paul, it turns out God can separate us from God. God can break his no-strings-attached unconditional covenant promise. God can reject God’s People.

So-

Has God rejected God’s People?

By no means! is the only possible answer for Paul.

God has not rejected God’s People because they reject God’s Messiah.

Or rather, in rejecting God’s Messiah they have not separated themselves from the love of God. Because Israel- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.

Paul’s whole letter to the Romans has been about what God does not about what we do, and Paul’s focus on the agency of God doesn’t change when he turns to God’s People in chapters 9-11.

God’s People- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.

They’re not the acting agents. They’re not behind their lack of belief. Their failure of faith is not their fault. They’ve not decided to disobey. No.

If God cannot break a no-strings-attached promise, if- by no means- has God rejected his People, then that leaves only one possibility for Paul.

Israel’s rejection of Christ and God’s apparent rejection of them- it’s God’s doing, not their own.

And, Paul says, it fits a pattern of what God has always done:

God choosing Abel over Cain. God choosing Jacob over Esau. Moses over Pharaoh. God choosing David over Saul. God choosing Israel over all the other nations of the earth.  What looks like God’s rejection of some in scripture always serves God’s election of all. Even the Father rejecting the Son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” even that forsaking is for all.

Have God’s People stumbled so as to fall away forever from God? Paul asks in verse 11 before he answers in the very same breath: “No!”

Instead their stumbling, their rejection- like Abel instead of Cain, like Sarah instead of Hagar, like Isaac instead of Ishmael- their stumbling is for the reconciliation of the whole world, Paul says in verse 15.

The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.

Let me say that again because it’s so paradoxical it can only be Gospel:

The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.

The failure of some to believe is in fact the means by which God is working even now to show mercy to all.

Paul calls this means a “mystery.”

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon some of Israel, until all [the world] has come to God.”

Only, in the New Testament, the word mystery doesn’t refer to something still unknown to us. In the New Testament, a mystery isn’t something that leaves you still in the dark scratching your head. In the New Testament, a mystery is a secret that’s been revealed to us by God- a mystery is a secret that can be told.

As when the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery…” and then Paul proclaims the secret that’s been revealed to us: “We will not die…we will be changed…for on the day of Resurrection we will be raised…that which is perishable will become imperishable.”

Likewise, here Paul writes to the Church at Rome: “I want you to understand this secret that’s been revealed to us…”

The mystery- the mystery is that God has chosen some for disobedience so that others might obey.

The mystery is that God has chosen some for disbelief so that others might believe.

The opened secret is that God has chosen ungodliness for some so that others might find God.

“…a hardening has come upon them…” Paul says.

Note the passive voice. Notice, it’s not: “They’ve hardened their hearts.” It’s come upon them. God is doing it.

Just as you believe in Jesus Christ solely by the gracious work of God upon you, so too they disbelieve because of the work of God upon them.

A hardening has come upon some so that all might come to God, Paul says.

And then in the next verse, Paul declares: “…so all Israel will be saved.” Pantes is the word and Paul doesn’t qualify it all. It means all.

Notice what Paul doesn’t say-

He doesn’t say all Israel will believe. He doesn’t say all Israel will confess Jesus Christ and thereby be saved. He just says all Israel will be saved. Your belief, their unbelief- it’s a mystery.

It’s all God’s doing.

Your belief is not your doing. Their unbelief is not their doing.

It’s all God’s doing.

So-

Those who reject the love of God in Jesus Christ, those who reject the Gospel, they’re not enemies of God. God has made them enemies of the Gospel for you.

For your sake: “…God has imprisoned some in disobedience so that God might be merciful to all.”

You see, for Paul the danger isn’t that unbelievers could ever separate themselves from the love of God in Christ Jesus; the danger is that believers like you will draw that conclusion.

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A few days after our conversation about Hell, I left in Officer Moore’s mailbox a copy of a book, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

It’s a fable about the residents of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven. They’re given the option to stay but, one by one, they choose to turn and go back.

I had dog-eared some pages and highlighted some text for Officer Moore, hoping we could talk about it the next time I saw him.

Specifically, I highlighted these words:

It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’

I left the book in his mailbox.

A week later I went to solitary to see if he wanted to talk.

As always he refused to buzz me in but this time when I mentioned I was there to talk to him, he didn’t give in. He wouldn’t let me in.

I asked if he read the book. Not saying anything, he got up and walked to the entrance door, his body was one big snarl. He slid the book between the bars.

‘A whole lot of nonsense’ he grumbled at me. And then he told me to go the Hell away.

Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and quick-witted pastor you see before you today. To be honest, back then I hadn’t ever read the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Because if I had I could’ve told him.

You’re right, I could’ve said to him. It is a whole lot of nonsense. C.S. Lewis might’ve known a lot about lions and wardrobes and Turkish Delight, but he didn’t know jack abut this secret that’s been revealed to us: the mystery. 

     The mystery of our disobedience.

You’re right, I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve said to him.

Hell is where the door is locked from the inside by us?! That’s a whole lot of nonsense. 

     Not only is it idolatrous, for it imagines a Self who desires are stronger than God’s desire. 

     It completely misses the mystery that’s been revealed to us: that salvation is the work of God where even our ‘No’ to God serves God’s ultimate ‘Yes’ to us. Even our ‘No’ to God is itself the work of God working towards what God wants for all. 

     You’re right, I could’ve shot back at the Sergeant.  

     It is a whole lot of nonsense. 

     How could we ever separate ourselves forever from the love of God in Jesus Christ when even the disobedience of some is part of God’s plan for all? 

     God is bigger than our badness. 

     We can’t lock Hell’s doors from the inside because ultimately the work of God is going to make even our disobedience and disbelief work in our favor because of his favor, his unmerited favor, which is his grace. 

     The disobedience and disbelief of some is only temporary. 

     God will banish all ungodliness. 

      God will turn disobedience to obedience. God will turn disbelief into belief. 

     God will transform unfaithfulness to faithfulness as surely as he can bring life from death. 

     And in the meantime- I could’ve told him.

     There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord- whether you like it or not.

     There is nothing about you that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

    There is nothing in all of creation- not war, not famine, not powers or persecution, not even you- there is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God because everything in creation in is a work of God’s grace. 

     Even your disbelief. 

Maybe you can lock the door for a time, I could’ve said to him, but forever? In the end God will raze even Hell to get what God wants.

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Of course, if I had told him all that back then, he would’ve just grumbled some more.

If all are saved, no matter what, then what’s the point? He might’ve replied.

Why should I bother following your Jesus?

     Back then I wasn’t the wise and seasoned preacher you see before you. I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to say to him what I’d say today:

What’s the point if all are saved? 

     What’s the point of being first rather than last? 

    Why be found rather than lost? 

     Why know the truth rather than live in ignorance? 

     

     Why be fully human?

     What’s the point? 

To ask the question is to miss the point.

     

     

 

 

 

 

     The present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord, who is yet contending against the Principalities and Powers, should determine how we define the meaning of faith (pistis)

The pistis word group can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But if the stage we occupy in the Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then, as Matthew Bates argues in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the strongest and clearest definition of pistis is allegiance. 

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him; he cared whether they were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not affectation but allegiance.

Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

To be allegiant subjects of this King is not to coerce others into obedience but to conform ourselves in obedience to him, an obedience that might itself call out and invite others to become a part of his people. Added to the scandal of particularity is the scandal that what God has done through a particular crucified Jew is for all people. That Christ’s Lordship is a claim for and over all people; however, does not mean as his subjects we’re tasked with subjugating all people to that claim.

As John Howard Yoder says:

“Our faithfulness to Jesus the Lord entails becoming locally explicit about Jesus” not through Christendom coercion (or attractional manipulation that profits from the vestiges of Christendom) but through “the reign of God being concretely and locally visible in laces around the world.”

“The primary task and indeed mission of the church is its own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Virtually all of the epistles are written to that end. As such, however, the church as a converted and converting people is also itself a constant invitation and call to the citizens of the wider world to enter the life of the people of God.”

Put another way, Christians did not change Rome by attempting to change Rome. Christians changed Rome by living faithfully within Rome as subjects of a different Caesar.

Consider how our own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can be conveyed through the liturgy simply by retranslating pistis as allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed could be rephrased so it became more obvious what is at stake in the profession: “I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

And at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…” 

At the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”

Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis in alignment with our confession that Christ is Lord: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.

Or this week’s lectionary Gospel: “Whoever has allegiance [to me] the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.” That’s a mighty word when you remember Jesus has in mind King Herod who, at his despotic whim, had a mountain moved for his palace.

Stanley Hauerwas identifies the essence of Christianity thus:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bulls@#$.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos and the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge and the power of the practices of the Church to call BS becomes more apparent when we translate faith in terms of allegiance.

 

     “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord…you will be saved”

– Romans 10.9-10

     As Matthew Bates points out in his great book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means “a public declaration of fealty.” In other words, what Paul says will save you for God is the equal and opposite expression of what Rome said would save you from its wrath by confessing “Caesar is Lord.”

Notice:

Paul doesn’t say “If you confess that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to David (or Abraham), then you will be saved.”

Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God incarnate then you will be saved.

Nor does Paul say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins.

When it comes to salvation and the necessary confession of faith for it, Paul focuses squarely on one specific stage of the Gospel: the Lordship of Jesus.

Why?

Why does Paul fix our participation in God’s salvation to the confession of Jesus as Lord? Why not confess that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; believe and be saved? Why not while we were yet sinners…put your faith in what he’s done for you and you will be saved?

Why does Paul say that in order to be saved we must confess Jesus not as Savior or Substitute or Sacrifice, not as Son of Man or Son of God, but as Lord?

Because, for Paul, the incarnation and crucifixion, the resurrection and reconciliation- those are all past perfect events.

     The present Lordship of Christ is the stage of the Gospel we now occupy.

What Paul summarizes as the Gospel in Romans 1 he spells out in 1 Corinthians 15. The Gospel he receieved which he in turn handed to the Church in Corinth has 8 parts to it or stages. Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus:

  1. preexisted with the Father
  2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promise to David
  3. died for sins in accordance with the scriptures
  4. was buried
  5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
  6. appeared to many
  7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord
  8. and will come again as judge.

Note the shift, both in Paul’s Gospel and in the Apostles Creed, from the past tense to the present tense. Paul says that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus is Lord because that’s where we are all at in the story.

It’s a non-negotiable part of the Gospel. Jesus is Lord right now, currently in residence as Lord and King to whom God has given dominion over heaven and earth.

To accept that present-tense point in the Gospel is to acknowledge the other parts of the Gospel that preceded it; likewise, to deny Jesus’ Lordship is to devalue the Gospel that precedes it. The enthronement of the crucified and risen Jesus to the right hand of God to be Lord isn’t ancillary to Paul’s Gospel but is the climax of it. The cross and resurrection aren’t ends in themselves; they are the means by which God establishes Jesus as the Earth’s true and rightful Lord.

As Abraham Kuyper said:

“There is not a square inch now in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ who is Sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!””

     When we deemphasize the Ascension of Jesus, we immediately neuter the Gospel of the only present-tense element to it.

All that remains is the Gospel’s past and the future tenses. We demote Jesus from Lord of the cosmos to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs, which produces a false distinction between Jesus as a personal lord and Jesus as Lord of the Cosmos.

Salvation then becomes the promise of a future reality we access by agreeing to propositions about what Jesus did in the past rather than salvation being a present reality into which we’re incorporated by baptism and in which we participate already as subjects of the Lord who reigns now.

If this sounds like a picayune grammatical distinction, then consider the qualitative difference for discipleship:

“Jesus taught 2,000 years that we should love our enemies.”

   Versus:

“The one who taught us to love our enemies 2,000 years ago is, this very moment, Lord of heaven and earth.”

Without Ascension, the Sermon on Mount can remain safely in the past, leaving us free to argue with it or agreed to it. If the Preacher on the Mount is right now Lord, suddenly his sermon becomes less about assent and more a matter of obedience.

His colleague at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas, says that all theology is but preparation for prayer. Almost as an illustration of what Hauerwas means, in Episode #104 theologian Norman Wirzba discusses creation, gratitude, and the food industry, encouraging Christians to exhibit food practices such that when they say grace they can truly say Amen (“May it be so”) to the agricultural and labor processes that led to the food on their table.

Dr. Wirzba convicted me and got me thinking about other interesting questions such as ‘Will there be food in heaven?’ I commend his work, such as his book Food and Faith, to you. You can find his books here.

Raised on a farm in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, Wirzba is a Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke University. He writes and makes public presentations on a wide variety of topics ranging from environmental philosophy and ethics to food studies and sustainable agriculture from a theological point of view. He hopes to show that Christian faith is a lot more interesting and compelling than people might think.

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