Archives For Faith

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.

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      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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     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on one of Paul’s most famous (and most significant) passages, 7.14-25:

“For I know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under Sin. I do not understand our own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things we hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the Law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me. 
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a Law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the Law of God in my inmost selves, but I see within me another Law at war with the Law of my mind, making me captive to the Law of Sin that dwells within me.
Wretched creatures that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death? Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!”

     “I’d seen women who admitted to having an abortion receive forgiveness, and I’d noticed how women who had kept their babies seemed somehow harder to forgive. But the more I thought about abortion, the more I knew I couldn’t go through with it. 

     In my view, abortion is taking a life that belongs to God alone, and I couldn’t do that. I chose what I believed to be the good; I didn’t know all this would follow from my decision.” 

Maybe you read the story in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. Or maybe you caught it on CBS, Fox, or CNN (FAKE NEWS).

Maddi Runkles, soon to be a freshman at Bob Jones University, is an 18 year old graduate of Heritage Academy, a private Christian high school in Frederick, Maryland.

She’s also in her second trimester and due in the fall.

According to her own first-person account in the Washington Post, Maddi Runkles was a straight A student at Heritage Academy. She sported a 4.0 GPA and she played forward on the school soccer team. She was president of the Student Council and vice-president of the Key Club.  She volunteered every Sunday in her Baptist Church’s nursery and taught at Vacation Bible School every summer. Maddi was by her own testimony an over-achieving, brown-nosing, not just a good but a perfect student.

She out-Wobegoned all the children of Lake Wobegone. She was successful at everything except thing.

She failed to keep her chastity pledge.

She was born again and soon to give birth.

When Maddi Runkles confessed her secret to her parents late this winter, they bucked the stereotype of conservative Christian parents. They did not scorn their daughter. Her Dad even told her: “God is in this somewhere with you and we’ll be with you too.” 

Before you smile and tear up, let me tell you about her school.

As word of Maddi’s sin got out, Heritage Academy convened their school board for an emergency meeting where they moved to strip Maddi of all her leadership positions in the student body. They kicked her off the soccer team. They suspended her. They even told her she could not attend her younger brother’s baseball games.

They didn’t hand her a big, fat red A for her letter jacket, but they did they ban her from campus until after she delivered her baby.

The school board even called a school-wide student assembly where Maddi confessed her transgression to her peers, expressed repentance, and asked for their forgiveness.

Nevertheless, the school board informed Maddi that while they would permit her to receive her diploma, they would not allow her to walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony.

That was the straw.

The board’s decision to exclude Maddi from her graduation provoked a public outcry, which emboldened Maddi’s family to fight the graduation ban. When Maddi’s story went viral and the school started to receive mocking press coverage, her community’s reflex was to protect the school.

Eventually, her community turned on her, making the Runkles family the object of nasty emails, inflammatory social media posts, rude remarks in public, and dangerous threats in private. Some of Maddi’s friends from Heritage Academy, seeing their school in danger, said she was spoiled and seeking publicity.

They slut-shamed her.

They attend bible class at Heritage Academy for an hour every school day.

In a letter to the parents, the principal of Heritage Academy wrote that Maddi was “being disciplined not because she is pregnant but because she is immoral…the best way to love her- (pay attention to the words) the good we can do for her right now- is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.” 

     The best way to love her…the good we can do for her.

According to the New York Times, Maddi Runkles keeps an ultrasound photo of her baby on her nightstand. It’s a boy. She refers to him as a “blessing.”

Nevertheless, Maddi confessed to the reporter:

“I chose life. I chose (pay attention to the words) the good, but now that I see what my decision has produced…sometimes it feels like it wasn’t worth it.”

For that very reason, that Maddi Runkles would even entertain regret over what she believed had been the good and right act of not seeking an abortion, pro-life organizations like March for Life and Students for Life rallied to her side.

As Jeanne Mancini, President of March for Life pointed out to the Post:

“In the manner they held Maddi accountable, Heritage Academy, a vigorously anti-abortion school, has made it more likely that future students like Maddi will choose to have an abortion.”

     The theologian Karl Barth said that preachers should approach the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. What Barth meant was that the world, as its described in the Good News of the Gospel- becomes clearer to see when you find it confirmed by and corroborated in the pages of your newspaper.

    Here’s what readers of both the newspaper and today’s scripture text should ask:

In choosing the good of carrying her baby to term, did Maddi Runkles seek to split her school and community apart?

In holding Maddi accountable did Heritage Academy mean to shame and stigmatize her? Was it their goal to encourage other students to opt for abortion in the future?

Did the Heritage school board intend to undermine their school and do its reputation damage by enforcing what they took to be the integrity of the honor code?

Of course, the answer to all of the above is “No.”

The bitter irony- the bitter biblical irony- is that everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good. Everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good.

But through them…

     Through them, a different outcome entirely was worked.

     And the passive voice there reveals everything.

——————-

     If the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans was a play instead of an epistle, it it was a script with a Dramatis Personnae at the beginning, then it would be obvious even before you read it that in Romans Sin has a starring role.

Now, I know, if you all wanted to hear about sin, you wouldn’t have fled your Baptist and Catholic upbringings for a denomination where our only strong conviction is that ‘God is nice.’

You all don’t want to hear about sin; no one wants to hear about sin anymore.

But the drama of Paul’s Gospel story of rectification by grace is unintelligible without Sin as a primary cast member. Paul’s plot is incomplete without Sin as a main character.

Don’t buy it?

In all of his letters, Paul uses the word sin (hamartia) 81 times, more than he uses any other word. Of those 81 times, 60 occur in his Letter to the Romans. Over 2/3 of those usages occur right here in this chunk of Romans, chapters 5-8.

I realize you don’t want to hear about sin in church, but you need to realize the sin you don’t want to hear about in church is not sin as Paul most often uses the word in Romans.

Sin, for Paul, is not primarily a behavior. Sin is not something we do. Sin is not pre-marital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or self-righteously slut-shaming a teenage girl.

Sin is not something we do; Sin is a Something that Does.

Sin is not a lowercase transgression. Sin is an uppercase Power. A Power that ensnares and enslaves and stands over and against God. Sin is a Power whose ultimate defeat the cross and resurrection portend. Sin is an Agency- a Power synonymous with the Power of Satan. It’s Sin with a capital S.

Just notice how Paul here in Romans 7 doesn’t use Sin as the verb we do but as the subjects of its own verbs: “…it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.”

And again in verse 20: “…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that dwells within me…” 

Literally, in the Greek, it’s:

“…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that has set up a base of operations within me.”

It’s a military term. Just as he has in the preceding chapters, the language Paul uses here in Romans 7 is the language of battle and war.

Sin isn’t an attribute of us; Sin is an Antagonist against us.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you- that’s the sin no one wants to hear about in church.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you. Sin is cosmic terrorist that can invade even you.

Sin is an Enemy that can set up a base of operations within you.

  ———————

     Notice what Paul doesn’t say in Romans 7.

     Notice that Paul doesn’t say he is unable to do the good that he wants to do.

Paul doesn’t say he is incapable of willing the good he wishes to accomplish.

The problem isn’t that he’s impotent to will the good. The problem is not that he knows the good in his head but he can’t bring his heart or his hands to choose it.

No, that’s not it. The problem isn’t that he’s impotent. The problem is that he is not.

He wills the good that he wants to do- he is able. He does the good he wants to do, but, in doing the good, what he produces, what his good act accomplishes is unrecognizable to his intention.

No good deed goes unpunished, we say. But what Paul is saying: every good deed turns out as a kind of punishment. Every good deed ends up destructive.

     “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I accomplish.” 

     Don’t let the switch to the first-person singular in chapter 7 fool you. Paul hasn’t changed the subject. Paul’s not describing his inner conflict; Paul’s describing an invasion.

His problem isn’t a divided self but a self enslaved to Another. As he says plainly in verse 14, he’s talking about the Self bound to a Slave Master.

Paul’s not narrating shock at seeing what he has done despite his best intentions. He’s narrating the shock at seeing what Sin has done through him, disguised in his best intentions.

William Faulkner said the theme of all lasting literature is the human heart in conflict with itself. Faulkner may be right about literature, but Paul is not writing fiction.

Paul isn’t writing here about the human heart in conflict with itself. Paul doesn’t mean that there is an alter-ego within each us, contending against us. No, Paul means that there is an Antagonist at work in the world, contending against God, an Alien Power that can reach as far down as into us and twist even our good works to evil.

We can will Life, Paul says, but through us Sin can will Death.

And not just through us- Paul says the contagion of Sin’s reach extends even into God’s own Law:

“The Law is holy and just and good. But Sin, seizing an opportunity in the Law, deceived me and through the Law killed me.”

     You see, this is why Paul argues so aggressively against requiring Gentile converts to obey the Jewish Law. It’s why he’s so adamant that requiring Gentile converts to follow the Law is in fact a false Gospel.

It’s not because the Law in and of itself is bad or evil. And it’s not simply that Paul wants to lower the bar for admission because adult circumcision is a tough sell.

It’s that the Law has been taken hostage by the Power of Sin such that the faithful religious person in their service to God actually serves the Lordship of Sin.

That’s the awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here in Romans 7.

It’s not the mystery of the human heart in conflict with itself.

It’s the mystery of God’s Law and God’s People twisted, unwittingly, into conflict against God.

It’s the horror that the Power of Sin can co-opt and contravene even the religion God gave us; so that, the outcome of our faithful actions ends up in contradiction to their intent.

     The awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here is that even in serving God the religious person can in fact be serving God’s Enemy.

And if you need an example of what Paul has in mind by this awful mystery, Exhibit A is hanging on the altar wall.

Look at that and listen to Paul again:

      “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I produce.” 

     Evil is not it’s own agency. Evil is what the Power of Sin does through the minions it fools and conscripts as accomplices. Through the Law, through Religion, through People of Piety.

For 6 chapters, the Apostle Paul has been narrating Sin’s long resume. He’s called it a Power. He’s called it a King. He’s called it a Wage-Master and a Slaver-Taker. He’s given it adjectives like Dominion and Lordship. He’s given it synonyms like Death and Satan.

But on Sin’s resume, Paul saves this talk of the Law and the Enslaved Self for last.

Paul saves the worst for last.

He saves the Law and the enslaved “I” for last because for Paul there is no more awful accomplishment of Sin, no grosser testament to the demonic Power of Sin than Sin’s ability to pervert even the best of our piety, to make a wretch of the most sincere religious person, to take even our godly obedience- even our obedience– and twist it to ungodly ends.

Paul saves the worst for last. The Power of Sin is so insidious that the biggest threat to your soul…is you.

     Show of hands-

     Heritage Academy’s Principal, David Hobbs- how many of you think that he heard about Maddi Runkles’ pregnancy and said to himself “I think I’m going to shame and stigmatize a student today.”

Do you think Principal David Hobbs woke up one morning and said to himself “I think I’d like to drag my school’s reputation through the mud, make its leaders look like hypocrites, and make our religion look ridiculous and shallow.”

Do you think he and his school board members put their heads together and chose to be the bad guys in the story?

If your reaction to this newspaper story is to villainize the principal and the school board members as stigmatizing, self-righteous, slut-shaming sexists, if your immediate impulse is to judge them, then you’re not hearing the Apostle Paul today.

     It’s only in comic books that villains choose to be villains.

And only in comic books do the villains know they are villains from the get-go.

     The rest of us, St. Paul says, we set out to serve the Good.

We set out to serve God.

And only later discover ourselves to be serving his Enemy.

By all accounts Principal David Hobbs is a much experienced and much more beloved educator.

He and the school board reached their decision to discipline Maddi only after “much prayer and scripture-study and spiritual discernment.”  In an interview, Principal Hobbs said:  “We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there is no accountability.” 

And guess what? He’s right.

Forgiveness is not the opposite of accountability; in fact, forgiveness without accountability is what the Church calls cheap grace.

In that same interview, Principal Hobbs explained: “We teach our students about the beauty of marriage and that sex inside marriage is what Christians believe God desires for marriage and is one of the attributes that makes it beautiful.” 

Again, he’s right. That is what the Church teaches, what all Christian traditions teach.

     The good that David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board pursued is a godly good.

     And yet- and yet…through them…

As Kristen Hawkins, President of Students for Life, said to the Washington Post:

     “What this school is doing in advocating for Christian morality is the antithesis of being Christian.”

What they’ve done is the antithesis of what they sought to do.

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it: “Sin, seizing an opportunity in their Religion, deceived them and through them…” 

Maddi Runkles and Heritage Academy Christian School- that’s just one small story ripped from the newspaper.

Never mind what Karl Barth said, you don’t need the New York Times. 

     Just think about your own daily domestic destruction- we do the most damage to the people we love most and, most often, the damage we do we do in trying to do them good.

Or rather, we don’t do them damage.

But through us…through us…

The Power that has set up a base of operations within us…

Can pervert even our best and most faithful and loving intentions.

——————-

    Christians like Principal David Hobbs, Christians like the school board members at Heritage Academy, Christians like Maddi Runkle’s slut-shaming friends- they’re all the kinds of Christians who make Non-Christians write off Christianity.

Let’s face it-

That’s how Maddi’s story made it into outlets like the New York Times; it’s a salacious story that undermines Christianity in the public eye.

But frankly, I’m sick and tired of people who try to dismiss Christianity because every Sunday Christians like you are just as petty and racist and passive aggressive and sexist and corrupt and apathetic and hypocritical and greedy as everyone else.

Really, Christians like Principal David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board members and the straight A, born again slut-shamers…

Imperfect and immoral and hypocritical Christians like you-

You’re not an argument against Christianity

You’re the best argument for Christianity.

Because if St. Paul is right

If the Power of Sin is so insidious it can pervert even the best of our piety

Twist our most godly acts to ungodly ends

Then that means absolutely NO ONE

No one can claim that they do not need Jesus Christ.

If the Power of Sin is such that it can turn God’s saints into unwitting servants of God’s Enemy, if even the best of us cannot be good, then nothing you do can be relied upon to make you right with God, to rectify the balance sheet of your life, to justify you before the judgement of God.

If Paul is right about the Power of Sin, then nothing you do- not your piety or your prayers, not your religion or your resume, not your good deeds or your good name, not your charity or your character or your career or your church attendance, not your beliefs or your bible study- nothing you do can be relied upon to justify you before God because in all of it, Paul says, you could just as likely be serving God’s Enemy.

If Paul is right, if the Power of Sin is such that it can pervert what we do for  God for the Enemy’s own ends, then we can never trust what we have done.

We can never trust what we have done to justify us.

We can only ever trust what God has done for us.

Imperfect, impatient, petty, immoral, hypocritical Christians- you’re the best argument for Christianity because if the Power of Sin is such that it can corrupt even you then NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE, NOBODY can say that they do not need the justification that God offers us by grace alone in Jesus Christ.

No one-

No one here

And no one who would never be caught dead in here

No one

Religious or Irreligious

Secular or Spiritual

Christian or Non-Christian

Sinner or Supposed Saint

     No one can say they do not need the grace offered in Jesus Christ.

Because no one can say for sure that in serving God…

They haven’t actually been serving Another instead.

The fact is- you don’t need to believe Paul.

The truth of it is all over the newspaper every day.

We can never be certain which Lord we’re really serving.

Which makes you- me- the perfect argument not against the Gospel but for it. Because the Gospel message is that no matter what you have done, because of what Christ has done, regardless of what Lord you have served, our Lord declares you in the right. As a gift.

That’s good news.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” in Dallas is following up last Sunday’s worship idolatry “Patriotic Sunday” with a concert at the Kennedy Center this Saturday. I blogged about it here. Along with President Trump, Jeffress will debut the new “praise” song “Making America Great Again.”

Where’s Woody Guthrie when you need him?

‘Pastor’ Jeffress’ golden calf shenanigans this week got me thinking of Monty Python and Pliny, the Roman Governor, in that order.

I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Rome not only knew how to dig a sewer and pitch an aqueduct, they knew better than many Christians today know the fundamental claim of Christianity.

Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia  in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor, Trajan, offering explanation for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he’d encountered called Christians.

Some he punished. Some he tortured and executed. Still others, those who were like Paul, Roman citizens, he transferred back to Rome.

But what about those Christians who, in the face of persecution, offered to cease being a Christian?

You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.

To prove to Roman authorities that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense before a statue of the Emperor while confessing “Caesar is Lord.”

And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renouncing Christians to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private. Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession. Pliny didn’t gather them all together, have them close their eyes and bow their heads, and ask them to raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar.

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

When so many Christians today think being a Christian is about inviting Jesus into their hearts to be a personal Lord and Savior (whatever that means) or having faith in him, and when so many others think it’s primarily about following Jesus’ teachings or, even worse, that it’s about belonging to an institution, Pliny saw that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as present-tense Sovereign Lord was the fundamental claim of Christianity.

What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to their faith.

Christianity, Rome helps us see, is about choosing between rival and irreconcilable claims upon us.

If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is ‘Lord’ was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then it follows that to repent and confess Jesus meant to reject and condemn the another’s lordship.

So it’s not just roads and sewers and medicine and peace, Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding that the core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

And allegiance, Pliny points out for us, cannot be offered in a vacuum. To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Affirmation is a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes an other contending for your loyalty.

Most often defined as faith or belief, the pistis word group in the Greek New Testament can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But, as Matthew Bates argues in his new book, if the stage we occupy in the Creed and Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then the strongest and clearest definition of pistis/faith is allegiance.

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him.

Caesar cared whether his subjects were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not trust so much as 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,’ a personal Lord and a Cosmic Lord, moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

Imagine what becomes possible when in recasting pistis in terms of allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed makes 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…”

It works at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…”

And 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: “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 Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who gives allegiance.” 

If faith is a matter of believing in Jesus, then Christians can disagree about the relative importance of racism, immigration, or poverty, dismissing it as ‘political.’

If faith is a matter of allegiance to Jesus, then how we address those issues might be debatable but that they merit our attention is no longer negotiable.

Translating pistis as allegiance just might be the way to make the Christian faith great again.

Stanley Hauerwas asserts that the essence of Christianity is:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bull@#$%.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos then the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, an allegiance that requires a readiness to call BS when we see it.

You do not have to believe in Jesus’ Lordship to know that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

Or, simply working to dilute, confuse, or qualify our allegiance.

Again, witness Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” of Dallas

When the Risen Jesus commissions the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he tells them the way they will manifest his lordship is by baptizing and making disciples of all nations; that is, Jesus commissions to plant churches. 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.

The ordinary practices Jesus has given us are the ways we stand before all the golden calves, be they statues of Caesar or Robert Jeffress’ civil religion pageantry, and call BS.

David King was about 7 when I came to Aldersgate. He’s interning for me this summer. He preached this past weekend and did a great job. Everyone told me how much he preached like me. Preaching is only learned through apprenticeship and imitation so I suppose, the extent that it’s true, that’s exactly as it should be.

Here is the sermon. His text was Romans 4.1-8.

Would you all pray with me?

Lord, you are faithful to us.  In this time of learning, reveal that faith to me, and preach to me so that you might preach through me.  Let these words not be mine, but yours.  Amen.

[Thank you] [Jason joke]

Fair warning, this is a little bit of a personal story.  By the time this is over, you’ll know a little bit more about me, and hopefully, God-willing I don’t severely screw this up, you’ll know a little bit more about faith.

Those of you that know me know that I have been doing service trips since, well, since I was considered old enough to endure the cultural shock that lies just three hours southwest of here.  The summer after the 6th grade, I was signed up to go on the Jeremiah Project.  It was Andrew DiAntonio’s first week on the job, and I wrecked a bathroom while sleepwalking, so it’s no wonder to me that he decided divinity school was probably better suited for him.

After three years at JP, as those close with the program fondly called it, I began going to Guatemala, doing my due diligence as a Christian to my one week of good deeds for the year.  Granted, those good deeds were interspersed with a fair amount of tourism, so I’m not really sure how much they count for.

Those of you who know me well know that I spent the majority of my summer last year actually living in Guatemala, working HSP.  I could tell you all about how this time of a little over a month was so transformative and blessed and wonderful and [insert your own favorite good adjective here], but if I did that I’d be lying, which I hear is a bad thing to do in church, especially if you’re preaching.

I’d be lying if I told you it was all great, because it was in Guatemala that I first really “lost contact” (emphasis on those scare quotes) with God.  One could say I had a reckoning of faith, lowercase f.  You see, from almost every single one of my standards, my life fell apart in my tenure in Guatemala, and all within about a week.

My sister had broken her arm.

My best friend’s boyfriend had just committed suicide.

My godmother, whom I love dearly, was daily sitting at the bedside of her dying friend, while her sister battled cancer in the same hospital.

So it’s only reasonable that I have one of these moments where I ask, do I really have the faith to get through this?

It was only reasonable that I realized that for several years, I’d been wearing a cross around my neck, but never believing in it.  Belief in Christ was something I realized I well and truly did not have.  High school has that effect on people.

This led me to the realization that the way we speak about faith is so vastly different than how Paul conceived of faith.  You see, we think about faith with a lowercase f, as something very personal to us.  The most radical conception we ever use to speak about faith is by saying that “God has endowed us with faith,” or we use the language of the born-again Christians, which is dangerous in its own right.

We speak of faith as though it is something we own, something we have, something that is completely of us and our volitions.

We talk about faith with a lowercase f, but we never talk about the Faith, uppercase F, of God.  Faith, with a capital F, is the faith of which Paul speaks in Romans 4.  Our grammar has simply abandoned this for a syntactic structure that places the onus of faith on us, fallible humanity.

Just as I experienced in Guatemala, a human-based methodology of faith was, is entirely insufficient.

 

Now, Paul’s main example for faith is the story of Abraham’s obedience to God.  But nothing prepares us for how Paul describes Abraham.  For Paul, Abraham is ungodly.  Not only does our translation say that he is ungodly, the word in the Greek, asebē, also translates to unholy, sacrilegious, impure.  More to the point, the word asebē used as a descriptor of Abraham is the only time that word appears in the Bible, New Testament and old, Hebrew and Greek.

Just to put that in perspective for you, the King James translation of the Bible has 774,746 different words in it.  For you truly Methodist folks, the New Revised Standard Version has 895,891 different words.  Hundreds of thousands of different words, and this is the only time anyone uses the word asebē to describe anyone.

Abraham, this revered, patriarchal figure, a pillar of the Old Testament and the grounding for our faith, is declared by Paul ungodly.  This man who almost kills his son in reverence and obedience to God is ungodly, sacrilegious, unholy.  None of us are like Abraham.  He was the pinnacle of obedience for the Hewbrew scriptures.  And if Paul is calling him ungodly, then that should say something about us.

Point being, Paul’s discussion of Abraham is never about Abraham’s faith in God.  And that’s the key point of God’s agency in imparting faith on Abraham.  Abraham was not good at faith, in fact, he did not have faith.  It was not until God invited Abraham to participate in a full communion with him that Abraham was ready to receive the covenant.

The metaphor Paul uses to describe the relationship Abraham has with God is a legal one, and purposefully so.  Works, and thus wages, are not the reason for Abraham’s justification.  “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”  Paul takes on legalism, and for us modern readers, he takes on the entire structure of law, payment, and transaction theology.  The structure of interaction, this idea that we get only what we deserve, that we must work for our wages, is Paul’s way of illustrating for us that the love and faith of God to humanity is so fantastically different than any relationship we conceive of.  You see, God takes us.  That’s it.  That’s the message, that’s the faith Paul’s talking about.  The discrepancy between God’s Faith, capital F, and our faith, lowercase f, is an abyss we cannot bridge ourselves.

So God does it for us.  That’s his covenant.
When Paul’s talking about Abraham, he’s specifically talking about the man with whom he drew the first covenant.  The instance that Paul is referring to, when “Abraham believed God,” he never says he had faith.  Belief and faith are so often conflated that the latter has lost most of its substantive meaning.

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Reckoned, says Paul, to him.

And we have to remember that when Paul speaks about righteousness, it’s not a value or a set of morals to which he is referring; righteousness is a gift of the covenant, which means it’s a gift that is completely and utterly of and from God, just like faith.

For two weeks, I did not go a day without crying, without feeling utterly set apart, disjointed and broken.  I was surrounded by people on service projects, experiencing the joy of humility, but I could not participate in their ecstasy.  I could not think of anything other than going home, being with my godmother, sitting with my sister, and holding my friend.  I could not think of anything other than their pain.  By all accounts, I was lost.  Lost in a foreign country, with a foreign people, in the mountains where even the air was different.

It would be a cliché to tell you that I had a revelation, and to do that would make it seem like I had done something to deserve that.  I’m a sinner, and by all worldly accounts, I don’t deserve a revelation.

But I was sitting outside of the community center in Chiucutama one night when it dawned on me that I’d been thinking about it all wrong.  I’d been thinking about faith, about Christianity, as something I chose, something I elected.
I had disregarded the Faith, capital F, of God to us.

In fact, if that weren’t true, if God were not ever there for us, in the covenant fulfilled and revealed in Christ, we would have nothing to turn to once we’ve turned away.  You know, sitting there in Chiucutama looking at the hills under the moonlight, if God was not faithful to us forever, I would’ve realized the opposite.  Nihilism would’ve reigned, and I would not be in the communion of Faith, capital F, that I am right now.

God is faithful, to us.  Faith, capital F, is never ours, never something we do.  It is a gift, of the eternal sort.

Abraham wasn’t good at faith.  Neither am I.  But that’s because the kind of faith that really matters, the kind that counts for something, is not a kind of faith I could ever embody.  Nor could you.

We come to church thinking that we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts for Jesus, who we have faith in, but really, and if we are thinking about this in the way Paul thinks about it, coming to church is not about our faith.  It is about us participating in God’s faithfulness to us, through Christ.

When we talk about faith in the possessive, we reduce God to something we can manipulate, to something we can use and disregard.  Faith, lowercase f, reduces God to god, lowercase g.

Faith comes easiest to those who come into church, sing about Jesus, and go on their merry way.  We have to understand that to be a Christian means, uniquely, to be bad at faith.  Being bad at faith is part of our relationship with God, because if we were good at faith, his faithfulness to us would not be unique and unquestionable and beautiful.  God’s faithfulness to us would not have changed the world in Christ if we were “good at faith.”

During my last week in Guatemala, I walked into the cathedral in the square in Xela, where HSP is located, right in the middle of mass.  I know, that’s a cringeworthy word here, but everyone in Guatemala is either Roman-Catholic or some form of evangelical, and frankly, I prefer the former.  As I was walking in, the priest had just risen and spoken four all too important words.

“The mystery of faith,” he pronounced, just as I sat down in the back pew, across from a family of four.

In retrospect, the priest was right.  We call it the mystery of faith for a reason:  precisely because it is not ours to command and possess, but a given gift.

I have never been so comforted by a mystery than I was in that moment.

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

We had a great conversation with Dr. Normal Wirzba for the podcast recently. We’ve not edited the audio to post, but I thought I’d give you a peek at the video. In this conversation, Dr. Wirzba talked about food and drink as the means God has given us to experience the Triune life, sacrifice and eating, and scripture as an agrarian book.

Dr. Wirzba is a Professor of Theology at Duke and is the author of many books including Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.

 

I made an offhand comment this past week while my friend Scott Jones interviewed me for his podcast Give and Take. I said that Christians need to countenance the possibility that God could be using Donald J. Trump (who, let’s be clear and honest, is in NO way a Christian) as a Cyrus-type character.

Apparently Scott’s podcast has as many listeners as he tells me because in short order I was besieged with apoplectic responses to the contrary.

My good friend Brad is a political adman and strategist presently working on a book about the Trump voter. He’s narrow-focusing on those voters, who had voted for Obama but voted for the Donald in ’16, in the few districts in the MidWest that swung the election. Brad tells me that most Trump voters generally and Evangelical Christians in particular were under no illusions about the Donald’s character or his pretense at Christian discipleship- nor did they have any real expectations the Donald would deliver any concrete policy accomplishments.

Evangelical Christians primarily were driven by animus to vote Trump; that is, evangelical Christians knew (correctly, I’d concede) the same people who hated Trump hated them too.

A few of them- but not as many you’d guess- Brad tells me, hold out the possibility that Donald Trump is a Cyrus-like leader.

Cyrus, for those of who you skipped Sunday School, was the (pagan) King of Persia who (unwittingly according to Isaiah’s prophecy) freed the Israelite exiles from their captivity in Babylon, delivering back to the promised land and, even, helping them rebuild their razed temple in Jerusalem. In scripture, Cyrus stands as paradigmatic of God’s active but unseen agency, directing history to God’s chosen ends.

Cyrus knew not God but the Living God nonetheless used him for God’s own ends.

Might the orange-hued president with the little hands and even slighter control of his compulsions prove a different sort of Cyrus for a unique time?

Might God be using this p@##$-grabbing pagan leader to deliver God’s People from the exilic captivity of nihilistic secularism and into a new Promised Land? Or simply to appoint a pro-life court?

I get the urge- the visceral urge- to say hell no. The mere hypothesis angers my wife. A man who hated his way to the White House, often demonizing immigrants who look like my own Hispanic children, CANNOT be God’s vessel. He is anathema precisely because he makes everyone counted under Matthew 25 anathema to America.

I get the urge to say “No way.”

But-

I wonder. Does the black/white, absolute, reflexive “No” betray another conviction; namely, that God is dead or, if not dead, at the very least not an active agent?

I wonder if those who dismiss outright even the possibility of Trump being Cyrus do so because they believe to the extent that the Kingdom of God is furthered in the public square it’s up to them alone to bring it.

I wonder because- Donald aside- so much of the way we speak Christian does not rely upon a living God being the subject of our sentences.

In my parish, we will celebrate confirmation next weekend at Pentecost, and, in preparing, I’ve noticed how the baptismal vows in the tradition have “evolved” over the years.

For example, in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer the questions posed to godparents came with this God-dependant answer: “I will, God being my helper.”

Here and throughout that prayerbook there was the awareness that faith itself is the creation/result of the agency of the living and active God.

By the 1978 revision of the Book of Common Prayer that same profession had been neutered to: “I will with God’s help.”

Notice how the change in the language invests considerable more trust in confessor’s unaided human ability to be faithful. Already we’re far gone from the language of Romans where only the faithfulness of Christ can elicit anything resembling faith on our part. Farther still is the phrasing in the United Methodist Book of Worship which omits the agency of God altogether from the baptismal vows. There’s only a semantic change between ‘God being my helper” and “I will, with God’s help.”

In the United Methodist Church’s Baptismal Covenant, the human being is the only active agent:

“I will.”

This is a far cry from the old Catholic rite that so believed in the Living God and God’s Enemy it included exorcism and placing salt on an infants tongue to preserve them from the forces of Sin and Death.

I will is indistinguishable from ‘I am able’ and apparently that I is capable of resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms (we’re afraid apparently of saying ‘Satan’). That I is capable unaided to repent of sin and put our whole faith in Christ and serve him through the Church.

“I am able” in now way corresponds to the language of bondage and rectification and gift in the New Testament. Nor does it cohere with the language of the Holy Spirit which at Pentecost reverses our proclivity for idolatry by compelling faith in Peter’s listeners. Whenever the Old Testament mentions the Holy Spirit it does with verbs; the Spirit does because without it we cannot.

How ‘I will’ is any different than Pelagianism I’ll wait for someone to email and explain it to me.

I wonder if we resist the notion of the Donald being a Cyrus because we’ve lost our theological nerve when it comes to God being an active agent in the world?

In the mainline church we’ve certainly not failed in offering people a Loving God but have we, I wonder, offered them a Living God?

 


In Episode 96, author Matthew Bates joined me to talk about his book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. This is a timely interview as we approach Memorial Day Weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This weekend Dennis Perry and I shared the sermon, dialoguing on John 20.24-29 about doubt and the shame of the cross, faith as obedience, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Here’s the sermon:

The Risen Substitute

Jason Micheli —  May 1, 2017 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon on John 20.19-31 that I preached at my friend Todd Littleton‘s church in Oklahoma City. It was the first time I preached in a Baptist Church, somewhere an angel must’ve gotten his wings.

    “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” 

Uh………………………………………………………………………………….

What’s that about?

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book!?!?!?!?

     Did John’s first draft come back to him marked up with red ink?

Did John have a word limit?

Should our response to scripture reading be: “This is most of the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God”?

Think about it.

John believes he’s telling you the most important thing that’s ever been told- about the most important person who’s ever been and the most important cosmic event that’s ever happened.

Why would John leave anything out?

If the whole point of the Gospels is to convince beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord…

if the whole point of the Gospels is to prove to us that the world responded to God’s love made flesh by crucifying him but that God vindicated him by raising him from the dead…

if the whole point of the Gospels is to explain to us why he came and why he died and why God raised him from the dead and what that means for us today…Then why would John not include every detail?

Why would John not submit every possible piece of evidence?

If the whole point of the Gospel is to convince us, then shouldn’t John’s Gospel be Stephen King long not Ernest Hemingway brief?

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his discipleswhich are not written in this book.” 

     Of course, the operative phrase there is ‘…in the presence of his first disciples.’ 

Because we weren’t there.

We weren’t there like John was.

We weren’t there like Peter was.

We weren’t there like Matthew or Andrew or Mary Magdalene.

We didn’t get to see with our own eyes the things Jesus did.

We didn’t get to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him with our own ears.

Jesus didn’t wash our feet.

I realize that just because you come to church doesn’t mean you don’t harbor serious doubts about God to say nothing of God raising a crucified, Galilean Jew from from the dead.

I also realize that the Easter season is an occasion when the every-Sunday sort of Christians think they need to hide their doubts.

And usually we hide our doubts by acting as though others shouldn’t have any doubts of their own.

As my muse, Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

“We try to assure ourselves that we really believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.”

Got that?

He means:

Easter is an occasion for doubt as much as it is an occasion for faith.

So why don’t we just admit it?

This whole believing business would be a lot easier if we weren’t 2,000 plus years removed from his resurrection.

This whole having faith thing would be a lot easier if we had just been there ourselves.

———————-

     But then again-

Thomas was there.

With Jesus.

Every step of the way.

With his own two eyes, Thomas saw Jesus feed 5,000 with just a few loaves and a couple of fish.

When Jesus raised Lazarus, called him out of his tomb, stinking and 3 days dead, Thomas was there.

And Thomas was there to hear for himself when Jesus told Martha, the grief-stricken sister of Lazarus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.”

But all the first-hand evidence, all the eyewitness proof, all the personal experience wasn’t enough to convince Thomas.

Because on Easter night, after the women have run from the tomb terrified to tell the disciples that he is risen, the disciples run, terrified, and hide.

They hide behind locked doors and the Risen Christ comes and stands among them- just as he’d predicted he would- and says “Peace be with you.”

But Thomas wasn’t there.

The Gospel doesn’t give even an inkling of where Thomas was.

     It just says “Thomas was not there with them when Jesus came.” 

‘Seeing is believing’ we say, but three years of seeing for himself, of hearing for himself, of being right there with him- it wasn’t enough to convince Thomas that Jesus really was who he claimed he was.

Afterwards when the disciples tell Thomas what had happened, Thomas doesn’t respond by saying: All ten of you saw him? Alright, that’s good enough for me. 

No.

Thomas insists.

The shame of the cross was to great for him to believe God would redeem it.

Resurrect it.

I will not believe unless, he says.

Unless I see his hands and his feet.

Unless I can grab hold of him and touch his wounds.

Unless I can see for myself what Rome did to him.

I need proof. I need facts. I need evidence before I will believe.

————————

     This past fallI I was at the gym exercising this remarkable specimen of a body.

My head was covered in a bandana. I was wearing running shorts and a ratty old t-shirt and sneakers and looked, I thought, unrecognizable from the robed reverend I play up here on Sundays.

I was grunting and sweating and half-watching/half-listening to Luke Cage when a man, not a lot older than me, came up, tapped me on the shoulder and asked: ‘Don’t I know you?’

I told him I didn’t think so.

Maybe it was my voice that placed me.

He told me he’d met me at a funeral service- the funeral my church did a boy named Joshua in October, a little immigrant boy with brain cancer from my boy’s elementary school.

I put the weight in my hand down on the floor, wiped the sweat off on my shirt, and shook his hand.

And I suppose it was the mention of the boy’s name, his memory sneaking up on me like that, but neither one of us spoke for a few moments. We just stood there in the middle of the gym looking past each other, and probably we looked strange to anyone else might be looking at us.

‘I couldn’t do what you do’ he said, shaking his head like an insurance adjustor.

I assumed he meant funerals, couldn’t do funerals, couldn’t do funerals like that boy’s funeral.

‘Couldn’t do what?’ I asked.

‘Believe’ he said, ‘as much as I’d like to have faith I just can’t. I have too many doubts and questions.’

Thinking especially of the boy, I replied: ‘What the hell makes you think I don’t have any doubts?’

‘I guess I’m just someone who needs proof’ he said.

———————-

     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 this passage 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.

The same God who created from nothing.

The same God who called Israel- who had been no people- to be his People.

The same God who, Paul says, calls into existence the things that do not exist.

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 has brought you here

Whatever of the Gospel you are able to trust and believe

Whatever Word from the Lord you can hear in this sermon

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.

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.

 

St. Luke tells of Jesus encountering a woman possessed by a spirit. She has been bent over, unable to stand up straight, crippled for 18 years. At least, bent-over and crippled is how her neighbors see her and, presumably, Jesus’ disciples. But at the end of the story in Luke 13, after the exorcism slash healing, Jesus proclaims her to be a “daughter of Abraham.”

The point isn’t so much Jesus healing her as it Jesus teaching his listeners how properly to see her. She was a beautiful daughter of Abraham even before Jesus freed her of the spirit. Such is the entire Gospel.

It’s about learning to see.

Despite having been told that Christ is risen, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus speak of Jesus (to the stranger who is Jesus) in the past tense: “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Having been crucified, Jesus now belongs to past history.

In the moment their eyes are opened to him- and the passive voice is key, Jesus is the agent of the revelation and Jesus remains ever thus- they don’t simply see that it’s Jesus there among them. They see that Jesus does not belong to the past, or rather they see that the past history of the historical Jesus has invaded their present, that the Jesus of this Gospel of Luke is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Resurrection means that what is past now isn’t Jesus.

What is past is their lives lived apart from him.

In Luke’s Emmaus story, it’s not- as it’s so often interpreted from pulpits and altars- that the breaking of the bread opens their eyes or that the breaking of the eucharistic bread, magically or mechanistically, can open ours. It’s that Jesus, who is not dead, chooses that particular moment on the way to Emmaus to reveal his presence to them and that Jesus can freely choose still to reveal (or choose not to reveal) his presence to us.

The point of Luke’s story, which Karl Barth said was a lens through which the entire Gospel should be seen, is that these two Emmaus bound disciples do not deduce Jesus’ presence among them. They do not perceive it through their own agency. Jesus, risen and alive, is not only the head of the Church. He is its acting subject.

Disciples are not, in the evangelical parlance, those who’ve come to know Jesus.

Disciples are those to whom Jesus has made himself known.

As obvious a point as this may appear to you and as clear a takeaway as it is in Luke’s Gospel, post-cancer I’ve been convicted (I freaking NEVER use that word) by the extent to which my preaching, prayer, and pastoral ministry treats Jesus in the very manner those two Emmaus bound disciples do, as belonging to the past– distant in history and disappeared now to sit at the right hand of the Father.

Sure, every Eastertide I proclaim his resurrection and I’m even willing to posture apologetically to assert the historical plausibility of his resurrection; nonetheless, I treat his resurrection primarily as an event in the past and his ascension as his departure from earth to heaven, forgetting his Gospel-ending Easter promise: “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age.”

I shouldn’t need to point out how such forgetting conveniently makes our Christianity no different than functional atheism, for it allows us to live in this world as if Jesus isn’t really, here and now, the Lord of it.

I’ve seen Jesus the same way the disciples see that bent-over woman such that those two Emmaus-bound disciples might as well have never sat down at table with the Risen Christ because I- we- still usually render him they way they did before supper. We study the Gospels as texts of what Jesus did, what Jesus taught, what Jesus said rather than proclaiming that Jesus, being very much not dead, still speaks and teaches and DOES.

To take one important example, we think of faith as something we do. Belief is our possession, we think. Faith is our activity of which we’re the acting subjects. We make a decision for Christ. We invite him into our hearts. But if Jesus is alive, if he reveals himself and open eyes on the way to Emmaus, if he confronts us behind our locked doors and summons out of us, despite our doubts, confessions like ‘My Lord and my God” then our faith is the act of the Risen Christ upon us. What Jesus does on the road to Emmaus is what Jesus only ever does still.

We don’t invite Jesus into our hearts.

The Risen Christ invades our hearts.

To take another important example, we think of the Church in such a way that effectively conjugates Jesus in the past tense the same way these Emmaus-bound disciples do.

This week in my little stream of the Church, the UMC, a Judicial Council is meeting to adjudicate the election last year of a gay bishop. How the UMC is structured just like the U.S. government and we think sexuality is our primary problem is a mystery to me, but my point is:

The UMC is fraught right now with speech about the “future of the Church” that in itself betrays a lack of resurrection faith.

Books like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option portend ominously the demise of Christianity in the West while denominations ratchet up the pressure on pastors to play hero and arrest sobering statistical trends.

As my former teacher Beverly Gaventa says:

“We act as if the Christian faith itself were on life support and it’s our job to find ways of resurrecting it.

We act as if pollsters [behind the Pew Survey on Religion] were in charge of the world rather than simply being in charge of a few questions.”

The Church isn’t our work or creation. It is the means through which the Risen Christ works and creates.

To the extent we ‘see’ him to as he is, risen and alive and acting still, the Church- in some form or another-will always have a way forward.

 

 

 

I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Romans 5.1-11 which begins thus:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…”

The question is- or should be- by whose faith are we justified? Ours? Or Christ’s? By faith here in Romans 5 is an echo of an earlier theme Paul picks up from Romans 3:

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23.

Sometimes a preposition can make all the difference.

I remember my first theology course as a freshman undergraduate, Elements of Christian Thought, with Euene Rogers. I’d just become a Christian as a Junior in High School and was only beginning to become acquainted with the actual content of our faith. The topic one week was Justification & Salvation, and I remember another student asking the TA:

‘If Christians believe we’re justified by faith in Christ, then what about people like me who don’t have faith, who’d maybe like to have faith but can’t seem to find it?

Is it our fault then if we’re not saved? Why faith is essential why is it so hard?

That seems like a pretty limited God.’

It hit me then and still does as a very good question. Not only does it make essential something that is sincerely elusive for many people, it also turns faith into a kind of work- the very opposite of Paul’s point- in that we’re saved by our ability to believe.

Justification by (our) faith (in) Christ turns faith into the very thing Paul railed against: our work.

That is, religion

The irony of the historic Faith vs. Works, Gospel vs. Law debate among Christians, however, is that the very idea of justification coming through faith in Christ is premised on a bad translation of scripture. 

Almost everywhere, other than the King James, that is written in English it is a wrong translation. In Greek, the actual wording is  that we’re justified “through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”

Grammar Lesson: 

It is a possessive or genitive phrase. Now a genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. In other words, it is like the phrase, the Love of God. That is either our love for God, or the love that God has. In one case it is objective (love for God), in the other subjective (God is the subject) and it describes the love that belongs to God, or God’s love.

In Greek, the faith of Jesus Christ is also a subjective genitive, but has been interpreted as an objective in almost every translation.

Why is this important?

Because it is not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us.

Faith isn’t a work.

Isn’t our work at least.

The faith that saves us and justifies us is the obedience of Christ.

In other words, it is his faith at work in us and in our hearts which produces righteousness and the God kind of life. This explains why faith is a gift and why we are saved through faith by grace and not as a work of our own. It is not our faith which justifies, but the faith of Jesus given to us, which resides in us.

The good news is, it isn’t my faith that matters. It is the faith OF Jesus Christ given to me, that when God regards you or me God isn’t measuring our feeble attempts at faithfulness. In other words, when God looks upon us God chooses not to see us but to see Jesus.

 

Cancer is Funny (?!)

Jason Micheli —  August 3, 2016 — 3 Comments

MicheliCover_FINALApparently, unbeknownst to me, my forthcoming Fortress Press book is available for pre-order on Amazon. Hell, it’s even the #1 New Release in Religious Humor, no big feat considering how humorless we are as a tribe.

Almost a year ago, Fortress approached me to ask if I’d consider writing about my cancer exile and wandering.

Some have questioned the appropriateness of the title. Fair enough. Obviously, it was meant to grab attention.

“How can something so painful and horrific be funny?” I’ve been asked.

Don’t forget, I’m not nor will I ever be ‘cured’ so I get better than most the unfunny bits of cancer.

Still, I believe cancer is funny because God is present in cancer.

John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Christian clergyman, whose oratory netted him the nickname John Goldenmouth, once preached, “Tears bind us to God not laughter.” 

You might expect to find such esteeming of seriousness and suffering in a religion with a cross at the front of every sanctuary and an execution at the heart of its story, but the Gospels frame their narratives not from the perspective of the crucifixion, but from the hindsight of resurrection’s happy surprise. In other words, the laughter of Easter, not the laments of Good Friday, should determine for us how we conceive of God and ourselves as God’s creatures.

Everyone assumes that suffering leads the sufferer to God, and sometimes it does. Suffering can knock down all our other (self-) defenses so that we can finally, wholly, depend upon our maker. But if suffering leads us closer to God, suffering should not leave us mirthless.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and priest from the twentieth century, posited as a sort of first principle:

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

The first time I heard my youngest son’s belly laugh, I marveled over how a celibate like Pierre had understood about God what it took fatherhood to teach me.

Everyone assumes suffering leads you closer to God. And no one registers surprise to hear how cancer has led someone to a deeper (i.e., more serious) faith, but people betray something like shock when you suggest to them that cancer can be funny.

If God is Joy, then we can’t rightly be said to have grown closer to God, through suffering or any other means, without a marked increase in joy, and with joy comes laughter.

Mirth and levity that only the good news of grace makes possible.

Despite the finality with which he expressed it, John Chrysostom was only partially correct. Tears, and the suffering that provokes them, can in fact bring us closer to God by leaving us no other options but turning to God.

But tears and suffering cannot fetter us to God.

Only joy can bind us fully to the God who is most infallibly Joy.

Cancer is funny, then, because the suffering occasioned by cancer draws you nearer to God, and the closer you get to God, the louder laughter becomes.

Pre-Order the Book!

The more people who do, the more people will happen upon it by accident. The whole reason I wrote about my cancer in the real, raw language I was feeling was because of the number of people I met still carrying unresolved grief and pain from cancer in their own family. I wrote about my cancer the way a lot of people (non-pastors) speak so that those people might find a way to speak their grief, worry, rage, and laughter.

It’s available on Amazon for pre-order.

Check it out.

Order another copy for someone who might be helped by it.

Here’s the book

If you get this by email, here’s the link to cut and paste:

https://www.amazon.com/Cancer-Funny-Keeping-Faith-Stage-Serious/dp/1506408478/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470192757&sr=1-1&refinements=p_27%3AJason+Micheli

political-convention     Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Colossians 3.1-17. 

According to my Facebook Timeline, I preached on this lectionary text from Colossians 3 exactly two years ago today.

Actually, my Facebook Timeline reminded me that Will Gerig and Becca McGraw, two youth who grew up here at Aldersgate, exchanged marriage vows here at Aldersgate two years ago today.

Will and Becca chose this passage from Paul about putting on Christ for their wedding service. Well, not the part about fornication.

And they didn’t just choose this text; they also chose a reading from the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem from the Old Testament that makes 50 Shades of Grey sound like a Cary Grant and Doris Day movie.

Since Dennis is on vacation- I mean sabbatical- it’s probably for the best that the lectionary today only gives us one of those passages I preached for Will and Becca.

I’d known them since Will was 8 and Becca was 7.

And so I wanted to do a good job with their wedding. I wanted to make sure I preached clearly this passage from Colossians 3 that they’d chosen and that through it I said something not only helpful but gospel true.

So I started by asking them a question, a Colossians 3 sort of question, the question begged by every bridal magazine, rom-com, and wedding ceremony.

I asked them this question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

If love is a feeling, how can two people promise that to each other forever?

Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Two years ago today I’m not sure Will and Becca heard that as good news.

And then-

Then it got worse for me.

Because then I turned to the New Testament and reminded them that love in the New Testament isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’

And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another. Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another. They’re imperatives not aspirations. They’re commands not considerations. Here’s the thing. You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion. You can only command an action. You can only command a doing. A practice. A habit. I told them two years ago today.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it; so that, you feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And just ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. Where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it. Love is something you do and you promise to trust that the doing of love will transform your heart so that you do feel love.

Two years ago today, I led with that question: If love is a feeling, how can you promise to love someone always and forever?

Today, two years later, I have a different Colossians question:

     If that’s how love works for a spouse

If that’s how love works in a relationship

Then why do we suppose it’s any different when it comes to our love for God?

      If our heart works this way when it has a person as its object of desire, then why do we suppose that our heart works any differently when the object of its desire is three-personned, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians roughly a generation after Jesus and 250 years before the Gospel about Jesus converted the Empire. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, Christians’ faith made them like unwelcome immigrants in a hostile land.

For the Christians in Colossae,  you couldn’t accept Jesus as Lord without rejecting Caesar as Lord. To make a commitment to Christ was to make enemies. So you didn’t join a church without thinking about it. Seriously and hard.

In fact, the Church wouldn’t let you. The Church first required you to undergo rigorous catechesis, throughout the long season of Lent.

Then, and only then, you would be led outside the sanctuary on Easter Eve to a pool of water. There the Church would strip you naked. And facing the darkness you would renounce Caesar and Satan and all their works.

Then, like Pharoah’s soliders, you would be drown in the water three times and, rising up from the water as Jesus from the grave, you would turn the opposite direction to affirm his Lordship and every practical implication that now had for your life.

Maybe it’s TMI but I certainly wouldn’t want to strip naked, plunge down into night cold water (with its, you know, shrinkage factor) and then stand around with a crowd of church people looking at me and what God gave me.

To do something like that- you’d really have to feel and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And yet-

Those same Christians who faced down Caesar and spit in Sin’s face and renounced the world and took the plunge into a new one, naked and unashamed, still had trouble forsaking their former ways of life.

Just before today’s text, Paul chastises them for worrying about pagan food regulations, lunar festivals, idolatrous mysticism and ascetic practices.

And again here in chapter 3 Paul scolds them that though they’d died with Christ they still haven’t put to death their prior way of life: their malice, their deception, their fornication.

How does that happen?

They’d risked too much when they’d become Christian not to have felt its truth down deep inside them. But, it didn’t stick.

They knew that Jesus is Lord; too much was at stake for them not to have taken their faith with life and death seriousness. Still, it didn’t take.

They believed that they’d been set free to live as in a New Creation. Yet, they fell back to doing what they’d done in the Old Creation.

They had stripped naked for Christ- shrinkage factor and all- but they still hadn’t stripped off their old selves.

They had stripped naked for Christ, but they still hadn’t put him on. Why not? Or, how not?

It’s revealing-

In chapter two Paul admonishes the Colossians against false philosophy, wrong thinking, and deceitful beliefs. In other words, Paul scolds them to get their heads straight, but then his prescription for false thinking and wrong belief is through their hands. Through their habits.  And then here in chapter three it’s the very same dynamic. Paul tells them in verse two to “set your minds on things that are above.” But then, further down in verse 12, what Paul commends to them is not beliefs but practices, not ideas but doings. Paul uses a clothing metaphor:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

    Any one who’s been around little kids knows- putting on clothes takes practice. Compassion, humility, patience- these aren’t attitudes in our heads. They’re not affections in our hearts. They’re virtues. They’re moral attributes that you can only acquire over time through habits. Though hands-on practice.

We assume our feelings of love for God produce works of love, that faith leads to action. I mean, we make habit a dirty word and suppose that we’re saved by the sincerity of our feelings for God or the strength of our belief in God.

But for Paul it’s our habits that shape our feelings and beliefs. For Paul, the way to our hearts, the way into our heads, is through our hands. Through practices and actions and habits and every day doings.

Before you can invite Jesus in to your heart, before you can conform your mind to Christ, you’ve got to put him on and practice.

You’ve got to practice serving the poor so that it becomes a habit until that habit becomes compassion.

You’ve got to practice praising God, week in and week out, until it becomes such a habit that you know without thinking about it that you are creature of God- which makes you NOT God- which becomes humility.

You’ve got to practice confessing your sins and bringing another’s sins to them without malice and passing the peace of Christ until those practices become habits because eventually those habits will make you forgiving.

You’ve got to practice praying “Thy Kingdom come…” and working towards that Kingdom in places like Guatemala and Route 1 and DC.

You’ve got to practice the Kingdom until it becomes a habit so that it becomes, in you, patience and hope.

You’ve got to practice receiving with outstretched hands the body and blood of Christ so that the habit of the sacrament makes you hunger and thirst for God’s justice.

You’ve got to put on Christ in order to calibrate your head and your heart to him.

Your love for God can never be just a feeling that you feel. It can never be just a belief that you believe.

If that’s all it is, then your love for God will never last because- here’s the rub- it’s not just the practices of Christ that become habits that then shape your head and your heart. It’s every kind of practice. It’s all your habits and every day doings.

So it’s not that your heart can either belong to God or to nothing at all; it’s that your heart will belong to God or to another god. The gods of capitalism or consumerism or partisan politics. The gods of nationalism or individualism.

If the way to our heads and our hearts is through our hands- through our habits- then our heads and our hearts will belong to something if they do not belong to God.

As James KA Smith says, Victoria’s secret is that she’s after your head and your heart not just your wallet. And so is Hollywood. And so is the Republican Party and so is the Democratic Party and so is Amazon and Apple and Wall Street and the NFL and all the stuff and noise that make up our everyday habits.

You see if you do not put on Christ, if you do not practice the habits of Jesus following, then all your other habits will shape you.

That’s why it’s not a bad idea, for example, to give God one day of your week.

Because your heart will have a lover. And your habits determine who.

When Will and Becca got married two years ago today, I told me them how lifelong monogamous love, for better and for worse, was an enormous, outrageous promise to make and even more impossible promise to keep.

That is, without a community to hold them accountable to it.

“That’s why, for Christians, there’s no such thing as a private wedding,” I told them.

Of course, the same goes for our lifelong, monogamous love for God.

It’s why there can be no such thing as a person who is a Christian in private.

It’s why there can be no such thing as a Christian who is not a practicing part of the Christian community.

It’s why there’s no salvation outside of the Church.

Because without the practices that become habits of the Christian community- without putting on Christ: in prayer and praise and passing peace and serving the poor- your mouth might confess that Jesus is Lord but your heart will eventually hunger for another lover and soon you’ll be worshipping idols unawares.