Archives For Gospel

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

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

25. What is the Gospel? 

The Gospel is Jesus.

The Gospel is the life of the 2nd Person of the Trinity made flesh in Jesus Christ and made known to us through the community constituted by the narrative which witnesses to him, what we call the Gospels.

In that narrative we hear the good news of how the God who raised Israel from slavery in Egypt has raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s Kingdom, defeating the kingdoms which had crucified him, and inaugurating a New Age in which Jesus is Lord and we are called to witness to the God who refuses to let our violence and sin determine our relationship to him.

The Gospel is not the effect of the Gospel.

It is not atonement. It is not justification. It is not salvation. It is neither being forgiven your sin nor is it going to heaven when you die.

The Gospel is the entire story of Jesus Christ, for the person and work of Christ cannot be separated or abstracted from one another; that is, there is no meaning to what we mean by Gospel- no universal human dilemma- that can be known prior tom or without submission under, the story we call Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

The Gospel is the entire narrative about Jesus Christ because there is no way to know Jesus apart from discipleship, apprenticing under him through this story in which he reveals himself to us.

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” 

– 2 Timothy 2.8

The Gospel in Strings

Jason Micheli —  October 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dFor the text this weekend from 2 Timothy 2.8-15, I invited a string quartet to participate in the sermon. It was a craptastic disaster in the Saturday evening service, but I think it could turned out nicely by Sunday morning.

I owe a debt to John Nugent for his podcast with me recently and for his new book Endangered Gospel. Both the categories the quartet helped me explicate as well the bite at the end I owe to him.

     I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation who was so kind and so thoughtful, so considerate, to add my name and my contact information to the mass email list of Donald J. Trump.

Thanks to you, ever since last Friday’s hot mic Access Hollywood video, I’ve received approximately 7 emails a day imploring me to do my Christian duty (in $50 installments) to bring America back from the apocalyptic precipice on which it stands and make it great again.

I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation was kind enough and thoughtful enough, considerate really, to add my name and my contact information to the “Christians for Hillary” distribution list.

Thanks to you, ever since the convention, I’ve received approximately 12 emails per week rousing me to my Christian responsibility to protect the greatness of America from the apocalyptic specter of Donald Trump occupying the White House.

This sermon is for you too.

This sermon is for that precious parishioner here in the congregation who, every day, forwards me exhortations and editorials from Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, articles arguing that as a Christian I have an obligation to seek social justice, fight poverty and fight for a fair wage, combat racism and xenophobia, protect the rights of women and homosexuals, and reverse global warming.

This sermon is for all of you who’ve made it possible that not a day goes by in the life of your pastor that you don’t share something on my Facebook Timeline about Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Chris Christie, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell Jr., Planned Parenthood or the NRA urging me, as a faith leader, to fulfill my role to better society in blue or red hues.

This sermon is for that generous congregant who last fall, when I was still on medical leave, snagged me and my plus-one an invitation to an all-expenses-paid, clergy-only weekend retreat with Ted Cruz where, the invitation explained, we would strategize to restore God’s will for the nation.

And even though that sounds about as much fun as taking a bus full of 1st graders to Great Wolf Lodge for an alcohol free weekend- it was a thoughtful gesture. So this sermon’s for you too.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our democracy is hurting, our society is in danger, our nation in decline and believe that it’s our job as the Church to fix it.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our world is broken and think that it’s our responsibility as Christians to change it. To change the world, to make it a better place.

This sermon is for you.

Because when you think it’s our job as Christians to change the world, what’s really in danger isn’t the world, what’s in danger- what’s endangered- is the Gospel.

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     Paul defines the Gospel in verse 8 of today’s text.

“Remember,” he says, “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David- that is my gospel.” 

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

Each of those elements in Paul’s definition of the Gospel they’re like instruments in a string quartet.

“Jesus” [Play Briefly]

     Jesus is the instrument that plays the salvation strand of the story; the name “Jesus” is shorthand for God takes flesh in Jesus and on the cross rescues us from captivity to the Sin of the world.

“Christ”  [Play Briefly]

     Christ means ‘Anointed One.’

In Hebrew, it’s Messiah. Rome used the word ‘Caesar.’ We translate it ‘King.’

“Christ” here in Paul’s definition of the Gospel is the instrument that plays the Kingdom strand of the scripture story, how God comes to us in Jesus as our rightful King and teaches his followers what it means to live as subjects of his Kingdom.

“Raised from the dead”  [Play Briefly]

     Raised from the dead is the instrument that plays the finale strand scripture, the New Age of which the New Testament says Christ’s resurrection is the first sign.

And the final instrument in Paul’s Gospel Music is“A descendant of David.”  [Play Briefly]

     David is the instrument that plays the Old Testament strand of the scripture story. David echoes how the Gospel is the outworking of God’s purposes first promised to the People called Israel.

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

The Gospel is like a piece of music.

The reason there’s so much confusion over who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do is because for so long Christians have been fiddling with the music.

We turn some of the instruments way up and turn others way down, mute some and distort others to the point where we can no longer hear how, so often, the music we’re performing is something different from what the Author intends.

——————————

     One of the primary ways we distort the Gospel Music- we make it Heaven-Centered.

We turn the volume way, way up on Jesus and we turn the volume way down on Christ and David to the point that it throws Resurrection out of time with the others.

[Play]

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the Gospel Music is so loud it sounds like the entire composition is about nothing more than God taking flesh and taking our sin to the Cross.

The only notes anyone can hear from the David part of the music are the ones that show how Jesus’ death for sin fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

But if that’s all you hear from David, you can no longer hear that even larger theme of how God desires to have a People here on Earth who would live with God as their Sovereign instead of following a king like all the other nations.

And you forget that that’s really what the 1st Commandment is all about: “You shall no other kings before me.”

And then you fail to notice that our rejection of Christ comes not on the Cross but when we declare to Pontus Pilate: “We have no king but Caesar.” 

When you turn Jesus way up and David way down, you no longer know why Jesus bothered to spend 3 years before his death and 50 days after it teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God.

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the music blares so loudly, all you can hear is the noise about the world’s sinfulness. In such a world, what sense does it make to say that Jesus is King?

That’s why the Heaven-Centered Gospel turns the Christ part of the music so low it sounds like Jesus is just a King enthroned in our hearts.

Which distorts the fourth part of the music: Resurrection.

The Heaven-Centered Gospel so cranks up the volume on the fallenness of the world and so mutes God’s determination to rule this Earth, it makes the world sound disposable instead of a world where God is determined to have dominion.

And that distorts the Resurrection part of the music.

Because now, in the Heaven-Centered Gospel, what we hear isn’t that God will make this world a better place, body and soul. It’s the signal that God will take our souls from our earthly bodies and take them away to a better place.

This confused Gospel leads to confusion about who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this Gospel, who we are- we’re sinners redeemed by his death who will be rescued from this world upon our own.

We’re not called to fix society’s ills or change the world or make it a better place because the reality of Sin is such that only God can overcome Sin.

And, according to this distorted music, God’s way of overcoming the world’s Sin is to rescue the faithful from it to a better place.

All we’re called to do as Christians is to give people Jesus so that they too can go to a better place when they die.

——————————-

     Another way we distort the Gospel Music- instead of Heaven-Centered, we make it Human-Centered.

We keep David so it’s barely audible still, but we fiddle with the music so that now the volume on Jesus gets turned down low until all that noise about the sinfulness of humanity and the fallenness of the world fades away. And instead we ratchet up the Christ and Resurrection parts of the music.

[Play]

     in the Human-Centered Gospel, because you can barely hear the Jesus music, you forget that constant refrain of scripture: that our situation as sinners is such that only God can rectify what’s broken in us and in the world.

So Christ, in the Human-Centered Gospel, is no longer a King who triumphed over Evil, he’s a King who taught us how to eradicate evil in the world.

And with the Jesus music and all its noise about sinful humanity and a fallen world muted, it begins to sound as if we’re capable of making the world a better place.

Jesus’ Kingdom teaching begins to sound like a description of God’s politics, like it’s God’s blueprint for us to usher in the New Creation.

In the Human-Centered Gospel, the Kingdom, becomes our job. Christ began the work of the Kingdom and now it’s our task to bring it to completion.

Of course, you can’t fiddle with the Gospel Music this way without, again, neglecting the David part of the music. In the Human-Centered Gospel, the only audible notes from the David part of the music are those from the prophets, who preached about justice and mercy and learning war no more.

The problem with the Human-Centered Gospel is that it relies on an optimism about human progress that is contradicted by the violence of the last century and the first part of this one.

Again, confusion over the Gospel leads to a confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re agents of God’s Kingdom, partners with God.

And we’re called to fix the problems of the world, to make the world a better place according to God’s Kingdom vision.

——————————

     A third way we distort the Gospel music- we make it World-Centered.

In the World-Centered Gospel, we balance the Jesus and the Christ parts. But we turn the Resurrection part of the music so that it’s loudest of all and we make the David part of the music play only the first measure of its music over and over, the creation story.

[Play]

     In the World-Centered Gospel, you can finally properly hear about Christ’s Kingdom in tandem with the reality of Sin and how God is the only agent who can overcome it to fix this broken world.

In that regard, the World-Centered Gospel sounds better.

But because the World-Centered Gospel makes the Resurrection part of the music loudest of all, what we hear is that God made this world. God cares about this world. God will redeem this world and God’s People can play a role.

In the World-Centered Gospel, the Jesus music is loud enough that we don’t lose sight of our sinfulness or the world’s fallenness. So the World-Centered Gospel doesn’t tell us that it’s our job to build God’s Kingdom.

Only God can make this world a better place and that renewal began in Jesus Christ and God is, even now, bringing it to fruition.

We can’t bring the Kingdom of God or make this world a better place, but what we can do, according to the World-Centered Gospel, is go out into the world to join with God in what God is doing.

We can join movements and causes. We can work for justice and advocate for change, and wherever we participate in such work we point to the day when God will, once and for all, make this world a better place.

Confusion over the Gospel Music leads to confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re witnesses who point to what God is doing out there in the world.

And what we’re called to do is roll up our sleeves, get out from behind the walls of the Church and join God in making this world a better place.

The World-Centered Gospel sounds better, no doubt.

But there’s still too many dissonant notes.

For example-

Jesus never tells his disciples to venture beyond the walls of their community, Israel, and work to transform pagan society or make pagan governments more just.

And in Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament, God commands Israel to care for the needy within Israel not outside of it.

Even in the Sermon on the Mount, with a crowd gathered to listen to him, Christ isn’t talking to the multitude. He’s speaking to his disciples. He’s not describing how the world is to live. He’s describing how they’re to live among the world.

Obviously, as good as the music sounds, it’s still not quite Gospel.

——————————

     The Gospel Music Paul wants you to hear is Kingdom-Centered.

David provides the music’s bottom.

[Play]

     David is the foundation but finally all four of the instruments play equally and together to create a single composition.

[Play]

     In the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.

So- this is the part you need to listen for- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People.

God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel.

God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King.

And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.

God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.

God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.

God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.

What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that the other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People.

And according to the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, this is the plan God continues in Jesus. God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.

Jesus takes on the sin of humanity not to judge humanity or to forgive humanity but to restore humanity because redeemed creatures are the first step in a renewed creation. As St. Paul says if anyone is in Jesus, he or she is part of a new creation.

Because the Kingdom-Centered Gospel remembers that those baptized into Jesus are new creatures for a new creation, it knows how to play the Christ part of the music correctly.

Because Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts.

Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future.

Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.

No, what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel is able to hear in the music is that

from the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.

So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom.

The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom.

They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.

Like salt on food, like a pearl among swine, like a mustard seed on a mighty mountain, like a light among nations Christ’s People are in the wider world his Kingdom come on Earth, living as is in Heaven.

And that’s what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel gets right about the Resurrection part of the Gospel Music.

Because it’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.

New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait. New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve. And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.

The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.

The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.

——————————

      That’s the Gospel Music.

And today, I want to dedicate this song to all of you who forward me your political action emails, all of you who put Christian voter guides in my inbox, every one of you who make exhortative editorials on my Facebook Timeline, tweet me your take on the debate, and tell me in breathless tones that if we don’t support this agenda or back that candidate all hope for changing the world and making it a better place is lost.

This Gospel Music is for you.

Because if you listen close you’ll hear-

     As John Nugent says:

     The Gospel does not call us to change the world.

     The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.

     The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.

     The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.

Or we’re supposed to be.

But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our candidate than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture.

We can’t be who the Gospel say we are when we can recite the latest Real Clear Politics polling average but if someone called upon us to pray out loud we’d blush and stammer.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we can argue for or against the ins and outs of HR Bill 501, but we aren’t prepared to tell someone else what difference Jesus makes for how we live their lives.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we’re willing to go door-to-door for Donald or Hillary but haven’t ever once invited someone to Church.

Now that I’m Executive Pastor and know what everyone gives, I know it’s a safe bet that the Democrats and Republicans get more of our money than does Christ’s Church.

And nothing reveals more where we think the stakes lie.

So I dedicate this Gospel Music today to you.

(And to me).

Because if, as the Gospel says, we are the change that God has already made in the world.

Then that means when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.

When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the red and blue means- we get in God’s way.

Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world.

We are the change God has already made in the world.

Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.

Rather than arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.

While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.

Neither gay nor straight for that matter.

And, for that matter, rather than waging war for a seat on the Court we’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage.

Instead of stalemating over economic policy, we should be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community.

Let others debate our nation’s Defense policy and let us Christians be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.

I dedicate this Gospel Music to all of you who think we’re called to make this world a better place.

Listen to it again-

We’re not.

     We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.

This song’s for you.

      [Play Whole Song]

 

Saved by (Dis)Grace

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

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

 

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

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

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

Why?

Why are they ashamed?

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t believe me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should be ashamed.

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

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

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

We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed.

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

—————————-

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

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

Why would they be ashamed?

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

So why are they ashamed?

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

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

—————————-

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

A disgrace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

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

About religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment.

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

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

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

—————————-

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

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

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

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

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

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or,

Feel foolish for believing in the first place.

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

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

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

The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief.

——————————-

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

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

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

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

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

Notice, this is everything so pay attention now:

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

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

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

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

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

Paul says the Gospel is the power of God.

Is not was.

Present-tense not past.

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

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

It’s a message through which God does.

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

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

In other words, the Gospel is not inert.

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

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

Because it is NOW not Then the Power of God.

—————————-

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

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

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

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

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

Do not be ashamed of this Gospel.

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

It IS- now- the Power of God.

13502037_1615405398788080_7321135075900787492_nThe summer has been a busy time, and it’s been a while since my Crackers & Grape Juice co-conspirators have all recorded a podcast together. Morgan, Teer, and I recently got up at the butt-crack of dawn to discuss the Confessing Church Movement and just how we understand the Gospel.

In this episode, I rib Morgan for being on the Confessing Church’s mailing list in the first place and later I rant about the Confessing Church Movement co-opting their name from those few Christians who resisted the rise of Nazism in Germany.

We’re now up to 1k individual downloads per episode.

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

So PLEASE…

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

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.

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. Check out his new album.

14DavidFitch-420For our 16th Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast, I sat down for a conversation with David Fitch. David teaches at Northern Seminary in Chicago, hosts the Theology on Mission Podcast, and is the author of Prodigal Christianity and the Great Giveaway.

He’s pastored and participated in many church plants including Life on the Vine Christian Community a missional church in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Most recently he and his family have joined Peace of Christ Church, Westmont, a church planted from Life on the Vine. He writes on the issues the local church must face in Mission including cultural engagement, leadership and theology. His theology combines Neo-Anabaptist streams of thought, his commitments to evangelicalism and his love for political theory.

Here, David talks about the challenges of the Church’s present post Christendom context, and he and Jason share their mutual affection for both Fleming Rutledge and Stanley Hauerwas.

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

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

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

What is the Gospel?

Jason Micheli —  June 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

13507008_887704071358691_3074117591234776256_n This week, a group of about 45 of us are continuing our mission partnership with the community members at Ft Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Here’s one of my reflections from our evening worship.

A few springs ago, I was walking down the sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria. Heading into a Banana Republic to buy a tie for an upcoming funeral, I came across a group of self-professed Christians standing with sandwich-board signs on the street corner. They were preaching- gleefully I might add- about the imminent end of the world on May 21, which to my relief has come and gone without any of the anticipated apocalyptic misery.

Unable to avoid them, I crossed an intersection, smeared a weak smile across my irritated face and received one of their slick tracts.

It was illustrated like a graphic novel, showing contemporary-looking Americans being consigned to perdition while other joyous, virtuous-looking people (who kind of looked like the cast from Mad Men) ascended to heaven.

At the tract’s end, a happy ending was dangled as a possibility. The caption read: ‘Avoid Eternal Damnation, Become a Christian Today.’ Sounds like a commercial doesn’t it? Eternal Life for Only Three Installments of $49.95. 

Below the caption it explained:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save you from the guilt your sins. He shed His blood at Calvary to pay your penalty and to provide for your cleansing. Believe in Him and not only will His salvation deliver you from eternal death and hell, but because He is risen from the dead, it will give you the present possessions of eternal life.”

Not every Christian is the sort who stands on street corners with theological picket signs; nevertheless, their version of the Gospel is how a great many mainstream Christians if asked would define the Good News. Street corner preachers distinguish themselves from other Christians in the vividness of their imagery, in the ferocity of their apocalypticism, or in the urgency of their evangelism, yet in their rendering of the Gospel into an otherworldly, spiritualized message they are hardly distinctive at all.

We assume the Christian Gospel is a message about how Jesus died on the Cross for our sin. We assume the Gospel is a message about how God raised Jesus from the dead to be the first fruit of an eternal like offered to us too if only we have faith in Jesus. We assume the Gospel is a message about our admission into the next world that Jesus’ death makes possible for us.

The Gospel, we assume, is a message about Jesus.

For me. But isn’t the Gospel also (or first and foremost) a message from Jesus? Or the message of Jesus?

Christians often are guilty of taking the Gospel preached by Jesus and narrowing it to a simple transaction between God and me. We’ve circumscribed the Gospel to a message about a far-off Kingdom, about heaven or eternal life when the Gospel preached by Jesus was a message meant to change and challenge and redeem this world.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, just after he’s emerged from the wilderness having been tested for 40 days, Jesus returns to Nazareth to preach his first sermon before his hometown congregation.

The text he chooses comes from the prophet Isaiah (61):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Gospel to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That’s the first time Jesus uses the term ‘Gospel’ himself, and he ties it Isaiah’s prophecy about the ‘year of the Lord’s favor.’

The year of the Lord’s favor- that’s shorthand for Jubilee.

Jubilee was part of the covenant God gave to Israel after he rescued them from slavery. Within the Torah, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the notion that Sabbath applies not just to individual believers but to the land and the community as well.

The Jubilee year came at the end of seven cycles of seven years- so every fifty years. God commanded that at Jubilee:

  • All those enslaved (by debt usually ) would be released, gratuitously. 
  • Fields would lie fallow in trust that God would provide. 
  • Strangers and Enemies would be seen to share in God’s promise and blessing. 
  • All debts incurred by the poor would be forgiven by the rich, gratuitously. 
  • All property that had been lost through hardships or lawsuits or debts would be redistributed to its original owners, gratuitously.  

Jubilee is Sabbath spelled out in social and political and economic terms. Jubilee is exodus embodied and remembered by the whole community of the faithful.

Jubilee was a time when all the inequities accumulated through the years were crossed off and all God’s people would begin again as though there’d been a new creation.

Here’s the thing: there’s no evidence Israel ever actually followed through with Jubilee. Once the People of God moved into the Promised Land, once the majority of believers were no longer poor themselves, once they’d forgotten what it was like to be oppressed or just unlucky- Jubilee didn’t sound like good news anymore.

So Jubilee was never practiced by Israel, but it was never forgotten either. Centuries after God delivered them from slavery, the memory of Jubilee lingers among prophets like Isaiah who looked at the affluence and greed and poverty of their people and began hoping God would send a Messiah who would establish Jubilee once and for all.

And for his very first sermon, his first public words, Jesus opens the pulpit bible in his home church and of all the passages in the bible he turns to the prophet Isaiah 61 and he reads this long-abandoned promise.

And then he says: this time there really is going to be a Jubilee and it’s starting today and I’m it.

It’s tragically ironic, suspiciously convenient, and scripturally tone-deaf that well-off Christians so often reduce the Gospel to a sanitized, spiritualized, otherworldly message about Jesus when Jesus’ own Gospel was so much the opposite of our ‘Gospel’ that his first sermon was met with rage and death threats from the very people who knew him best.

Why all this talk about Jubilee?

As you engage in mission this week, it’s critical you not mistakenly think that hands-on service is somehow a practice separate from the ‘Gospel.’

As though ‘service’ and ‘proclamation’ were two distinct Christian practices.

As though ‘spirituality’ is what happens in a sanctuary and ‘service’ is only an implication of our worship.

Jesus’ Gospel was Jubilee. His ‘spirituality’ was Jubilee. His ‘mission’ was to bring Jubilee once and for all. Jesus’ Gospel was about this world, about rich and poor, about discovering the blessings of strangers and enemies, about setting things right in anticipation of God’s new creation.

And where the People of God had so often failed to live up to Jubilee, Jesus called a new community of followers to practice and embody it.

 

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Memorial Day Weekend is approaching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a title: King.

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

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

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

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

Thank God.

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

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

 

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

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

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

Sounds good and obvious, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

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

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

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

– The Crucifixion

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

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

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

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

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

 

10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_nWe just arrived in Guatemala this afternoon to begin the first phase of building a sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. If you’d like to support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:

Guatemala Toilet Project.

As part of our week, we’re reflecting on the bible’s commandments about Jubilee. You can think of Jubilee as scripture’s economic policy. Jesus unveiled his own Gospel in terms of Jubilee.

Last spring I was walking down the sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria. Heading into a Banana Republic to buy a tie for an upcoming funeral, I came across a group of self-professed Christians standing with sandwich-board signs on the street corner. They were preaching- gleefully I might add- about the imminent end of the world on May 21, which to my relief has come and gone without any of the anticipated apocalyptic misery.

Unable to avoid them, I crossed an intersection, smeared a weak smile across my irritated face and received one of their slick tracts.

It was illustrated like a graphic novel, showing contemporary-looking Americans being consigned to perdition while other joyous, virtuous-looking people (who kind of looked like the cast from Mad Men) ascended to heaven.

At the tract’s end, a happy ending was dangled as a possibility. The caption read: ‘Avoid Eternal Damnation, Become a Christian Today.’ Sounds like a commercial doesn’t it? Eternal Life for Only Three Installments of $49.95. 

Below the caption it explained:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save you from the guilt your sins. He shed His blood at Calvary to pay your penalty and to provide for your cleansing. Believe in Him and not only will His salvation deliver you from eternal death and hell, but because He is risen from the dead, it will give you the present possessions of eternal life.” 

Not every Christian is the sort who stands on street corners with theological picket signs; nevertheless, their version of the Gospel is how a great many mainstream Christians if asked would define the Good News. Street corner preachers distinguish themselves from other Christians in the vividness of their imagery, in the ferocity of their apocalypticism, or in the urgency of their evangelism, yet in their rendering of the Gospel into an otherworldly, spiritualized message they are hardly distinctive at all.

We assume the Christian Gospel is a message about how Jesus died on the Cross for our sin. We assume the Gospel is a message about how God raised Jesus from the dead to be the first fruit of an eternal like offered to us too if only we have faith in Jesus. We assume the Gospel is a message about our admission into the next world that Jesus’ death makes possible for us.

The Gospel, we assume, is a message about Jesus.

For me.

But isn’t the Gospel also (or first and foremost) a message from Jesus?

Or the message of Jesus?

As Richard Stearns argues in The Hole in Our Gospel, Christians are guilty of taking the Gospel preached by Jesus and narrowing it to a simple transaction between God and me. We’ve circumscribed the Gospel to a message about a far-off Kingdom, about heaven or eternal life when the Gospel preached by Jesus was a message meant to change and challenge and redeem this world.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, just after he’s emerged from the wilderness having been tested for 40 days, Jesus returns to Nazareth to preach his first sermon before his hometown congregation.

The text he chooses comes from the prophet Isaiah (61):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Gospel to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That’s the first time Jesus uses the term ‘Gospel’ himself, and he ties it Isaiah’s prophecy about the ‘year of the Lord’s favor.’

      The year of the Lord’s favor- that’s shorthand for Jubilee.

Jubilee was part of the covenant God gave to Israel after he rescued them from slavery. Within the Torah, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the notion that Sabbath applies not just to individual believers but to the land and the community as well.

The Jubilee year came at the end of seven cycles of seven years- so every fifty years. God commanded that at Jubilee:

Fields would lie fallow in trust that God would provide. 

All debts incurred by the poor would be forgiven by the rich, gratuitously. 

All those enslaved (by debt usually ) would be released, gratuitously. 

 All property that had been lost through hardships or lawsuits or debts would be redistributed to its original owners, gratuitously.  

Jubilee is Sabbath spelled out in social and political and economic terms. Jubilee is exodus embodied and remembered by the whole community of the faithful.

Jubilee was a time when all the inequities accumulated through the years were crossed off and all God’s people would begin again as though there’d been a new creation.

Here’s the thing: there’s no evidence Israel ever actually followed through with Jubilee. Once the People of God moved into the Promised Land, once the majority of believers were no longer poor themselves, once they’d forgotten what it was like to be oppressed or just unlucky- Jubilee didn’t sound like good news anymore.

So Jubilee was never practiced by Israel, but it was never forgotten either. Centuries after God delivered them from slavery, the memory of Jubilee lingers among prophets like Isaiah who looked at the affluence and greed and poverty of their people and began hoping God would send a Messiah who would establish Jubilee once and for all.

And for his very first sermon, his first public words, Jesus opens the pulpit bible in his home church and of all the passages in the bible he turns to the prophet Isaiah 61 and he reads this long-abandoned promise.

And then he says: this time there really is going to be a Jubilee and it’s starting today and I’m it.

It’s tragically ironic, suspiciously convenient, and scripturally tone-deaf that well-off Christians so often reduce the Gospel to a sanitized, spiritualized, otherworldly message about Jesus when Jesus’ own Gospel was so much the opposite of our ‘Gospel’ that his first sermon was met with rage and death threats from the very people who knew him best.

Why all this talk about Jubilee?

     As we engage in mission this week, it’s critical we not mistakenly think that hands-on service is somehow a practice separate from the ‘Gospel.’

As though ‘service’ and ‘proclamation’ were two distinct Christian practices.

As though ‘spirituality’ is what happens in a sanctuary and ‘service’ is only an implication of our worship.

Jesus’ Gospel was Jubilee. His ‘spirituality’ was Jubilee. His ‘mission’ was to bring Jubilee once and for all. Jesus’ Gospel was about this world, about rich and poor, about discovering the blessings of strangers and enemies, about setting things right in anticipation of God’s new creation.

And where the People of God had so often failed to live up to Jubilee, Jesus called a new community of followers to practice and embody it.

 

 

scot-mcknight-jesus-creedWe continue our Romans sermon series, Justified, this weekend by taking a dip in Romans 3.21-31, the magna carta for the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone: that because of Christ’s death in your place, you’re made right with God by nothing other than faith.

Indeed for many in Reformed and Evangelical circles, Justification is synonymous with the ‘Gospel.’

The problem with conflating Justification with the Gospel is that the Gospels themselves do not so identify Justification as the Gospel.

According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (in fact, Peter and Paul as well), the Gospel is the proclamation that Jesus the crucified Messiah has been raised and ascended to be Lord over creation.

Conflating Justification with Gospel leads to this provocative question: Did Jesus preach the Gospel?

Listen to Scot McKnight tackle this question, taking many a evangelical to task:

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday and, with it, the beginning of Holy Week. We’re following Jesus to the Cross.

The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:

It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.  

     The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose. 

     Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town. 

     As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River. 

     ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.  

     And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’ 

     Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before. 

     It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  

     It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum. 

     This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth. 

     ‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly. 

     ‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard. 

‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.

But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’ 

     Then he got out of the hearse. 

     By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.

Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.

     When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.

     You only need the cross for salvation. 

     Not the sermon on the mount. 

     Jesus came to die for me. 

     Not to form me as part of a particular community.

     What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my           participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.

What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.

But here’s the real kicker:

Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?

How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?

alain_de_botton_melbourne_7-620x349Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy, has this list of virtues or ‘commandments’ for those who can’t believe in the God of the more famous 10 commandments. This is a good list; in fact, in several ways this list seems a bit more practical and everyday than the list Moses brought down with him.

But de Botton’s list suffers from the same mistake as though who wish to post the Mosaic Commandments in public spaces: it’s a list of virtues stripped of any guiding narrative or interpretative community. Just as it’s not self-evident what it means to refrain from covetousness (in the case of scripture), it’s not self-evident what the practice of empathy entails. One person’s version of empathy will differ markedly from another person’s definition based upon the narrative around which they orient their lives. For Christians, after all, any definition of empathy, hope, forgiveness etc is determined and shaped by the Christ story. Because that’s our narrative we’re stuck with a 70X7, turn the other cheek notion of forgiveness.

It’s not a question of whether we will be shaped by a guiding narrative but which one we will allow to shape us. The very notion that we don’t need a controlling narrative to our lives is in fact the narrative of modernity; it’s its own story.

  • Resilience: Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
  • Empathy: The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
  • Patience: We should grow calmer and more forgiving by being more realistic about how things actually happen.
  • Sacrifice: We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
  • Politeness: Politeness is closely linked to tolerance, -the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, cannot avoid.
  • Humour: Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it is disappointment optimally channelled.
  • Self-awareness: To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
  • Forgiveness: It’s recognising that living with others is not possible without excusing errors.
  • Hope: Pessimism is not necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
  • Confidence: Confidence is not arrogance – rather, it is based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we will ultimately lose from risking everything.

Kirk-Cameron-Mike-Seaver-growing-pains-2It will surprise about no one, I expect, that I loathe those Left Behind novels, the serial fiction that imagines the Rapture (while simultaneously imagining it is in any way a Christian reading of revelation).

Besides the terrible theology of the books, the films are guilty of reviving Kirk Cameron’s acting career, a sin by itself for which the authors should be left behind to perdition.

Even though the books are wrong in their interpretation of scripture, they are-surprisingly to you perhaps- appropriate to this Advent season. 

At the end of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer I pray over the Eucharist, it says: ‘By this meal, make us one in Christ and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back and we feast at his heavenly banquet.’

Whether we know it or not, every time we share communion we’re praying for Jesus to come back.

The direction of our hope is not our departure, it’s his return. 

A major theme of our Christian hope centers on the ‘parousia’ (the second coming) of Christ. It’s this second coming that Revelation prays for when it says ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (22.20).

Traditionally, the season of Advent- the season before Christmas- is about the parousia, the second coming of Christ, not the first.

This is why the assigned scripture for Advent worship is so often taken from Old Testament apocalyptic passages and harsh passages from John the Baptist.

To many modern Christians, a hope in Christ’s return seems antiquated and irrational. Too many Christians do not know what to make of this hope if it’s not to be cast in the fantastical way contemporary apocalypticism paints it.

But as theologian David Tracy rightly warns: ‘Without the hope of the Second Coming, Christianity can settle down into a religion that no longer has a profound sense of the not-yet, and thereby no longer has a profound sense of God’s very hiddeness in history.’ To lose hope in the Second Coming, in other words, is to accommodate the faith to the world’s status quo.

It’s to grow complacent with the way things are and lose our faithful restlessness with what can be because it will be. 

So if it’s an important hope, as Tracy suggests, what does it have to teach us? The doctrine of the Second Coming first of all grounds Christian hope as hope in someone

We don’t hope to ‘go to heaven’ when we die if what we mean by that is a vague, billowy by-and-by. Confronted by the problems of the world, we don’t hope in abstractions or concepts like justice or freedom or peace. We hope in Jesus. Our hope for things like peace and justice and freedom only find their coherence in our hope for Jesus’ reign.

The doctrine of the Second Coming means our hope for the future is not an unknown hope. The future is not totally unknown to us. Because the future is Jesus’ return, we’ve already seen it in Jesus’ life and death.

If Jesus is the fullness of God revealed in the flesh, then there is nothing about the future we haven’t been given glimpses of in the Gospels. The future will not be at odds with the forgiveness, grace and mercy already shown to us in Christ. 

The doctrine of the Second Coming affirms that God’s final purposes will be consistent with what God has already done. Jesus Christ, who was perfectly faithful unto the Cross, will not abandon us or creation in the future.

We need not fear judgment because the Judge is the Crucified Jesus.

And that Judge has already been judged in our place. 

IMG_6036

Sermon based on Nehemiah 8.13-17

*For those non-church members out there, ‘Dennis Perry’ is the Sr Pastor of Aldersgate. Senior = Old 

—————————————————————–

A few weeks ago Dennis threw a lot of numbers at you, data, from the recent Pew Trust Survey on Religion, the one that found that 20% of Americans now identify themselves as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.

But for me it’s a different Pew Trust Survey that’s gotten stuck in my craw: The Pew Trust Survey of Religious Knowledge. It’s from 2010 and contains 16 multiple choice questions.

You can still take the survey online. For the record, I got a perfect score.

Here’s what the survey found:

40% of Americans can correctly identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as books called Gospels. Not too bad, right?

Even better, 72% correctly answered that someone named Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea.

However, 55% of Americans- presumably not in Alabama- think the Golden Rule (Do unto others…) is one of the 10 Commandments.

But here’s the better-pay-attention-now number:

16%, only 16% of Americans know that Christians believe ‘salvation comes to us by faith alone’ not by anything we have to do or prove or be.

Just 16%

I scored higher than that in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Survey.

16%

More people follow Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher on Twitter than know the basic claim of the Gospel:

that a gracious God died in your place and the only way you participate in that salvation is through faith that changes you from the inside out.

16%

It’s a scary number.

And so this week I decided to test out how accurate that number really is; I decided to conduct my own little ‘experiment.’

Like previous ‘experiments,’ my wife call it a bad, jerky idea.

You might call it shamelessly trolling for sermon material.

I just like to call it ministry.

Friday afternoon I decided to take a guided tour of the National Cathedral, posing as one of the 84% who apparently don’t know our Story.

After paying my ‘suggested donation’ of $10, I walked into the sanctuary to the Docent’s desk where I waited for the next tour to begin.

Waiting with me was a slim couple in their 40‘s, speaking what sounded like Swedish to each other, along with 4 other couples, with sullen preteens in tow. They were all wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts and hats that said ‘DC’ or ‘FBI’ on them. So obviously they were from somewhere else.

A man in a crewcut and an Ohio State Buckeyes sweater looked at me and said: ‘My name’s Gary.’

Then he just stared at me, waiting for me to introduce myself.

So I said: ‘Dennis. My name’s Dennis Perry.’

‘You from around here?’ Gary asked.

‘No’ I said, ‘I’m from Harrisonburg, Va.’

At the top of the hour, the docent arrived and using her ‘inside voice’ gathered us together.  She had silver rimmed glasses and long, silver hair.

She was wearing a purple choir robe, for some reason, and a floppy satin hat she’d apparently stolen from Henry the 8th.

Maybe it was the silliness of her outfit or the stone confines of the church but it felt like we were all at Hogwarts and she was Professor Maganachacallit, showing us to our respective houses.

She began by telling us how much the largest stone weighed: 55 tons. She told us the original cost of all that brick and mortar: 65 million. She told us the number of stained glass windows: 231.

What she didn’t tell us, I noticed, was anything about why the church was there in the first place.

As the walking tour began so did my “experiment” in which I, Dennis Wayne Perry, pretended to be a complete ignoramus.

Fortunately, it’s a character I know well and can pull off convincingly.

For example, at the famous Space Window, the stained glass window containing a piece of lunar rock, I said loudly: ‘I didn’t know the moon landing was in the bible.’

Gary from Ohio squinted and said with authority: ‘I think it’s predicted in the bible, you know, like a prophecy.’

And when we were standing near a window showing Moses holding the 10 Commandments, I pointed at the window and said: ‘Wait, who’s that guy holding those tablet thingeys?

Sure enough the Pew Survey must be accurate because about 3/4 of our group all mumbled: ‘Moses.’

But Gary from Ohio whispered to me: ‘It’s Jesus. Gotta be Jesus.’

The tour continued and all along the way Dennis Perry, ignoramus extraordinaire, kept asking questions.

And while it’s true no one in the group necessarily thought that, say, Abraham’s sacrificial son was named Steve, as I speculated aloud, it’s also true no one in the group had enough confidence in their own answers to argue with me.

In the Bethlehem Chapel, I asked why Jesus is born in Bethlehem, to which the only response I got was from one of the sullen seventh graders: ‘Because otherwise we’d have to celebrate Hanukkah and Hannakah means less presents.’

Fair enough, I thought.

But standing in front of a gold crucifix, I pointed and asked innocently: ‘Who’s that?’

Several murmured ‘Jesus.’

But it wasn’t clear whether by ‘Jesus’ they were identifying the carpenter on the cross or the idiot named Dennis.

‘I don’t get it,’ I said, ‘why’s he on that cross?’

A middle-aged woman clicked a picture and said ‘He got crucified because he wanted us to love one another.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone kill someone for that?’ I said.

She just shrugged her shoulders and said ‘Dunno, that’s what I’d always heard.’

Gary from Ohio said: ‘He died so we can go to heaven, Dennis.’

‘Really? How’s that supposed to work?’ I asked.

And while the docent pointed upwards at the scaffolding and construction, Gary from Ohio blushed: ‘I’m not sure.’

After 50 years of God’s People suffering captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to the Promised Land armed with a vision to rebuild the city walls which Babylon had laid to waste.

The work took several months.

But it wasn’t until the wall was complete that it sunk in:

God had delivered them from captivity.

Even though they hadn’t deserved it.

God had redeemed them.

And they’d taken him for granted.

That’s why, not long after the last bit of mortar is spread and the trowels are put away, the people- all the people- with no goading or prompting from Nehemiah or Ezra or any of the priests, the people flash mob Jerusalem.

They realized what they needed more than anything else- more even than the bricks and mortar they’d just finished- was God.

So the people gather at the Water Gate and the prophet Ezra reads the Word of God to them.

While listening at the Water Gate they hear Ezra read about a festival, a holy day, that God had commanded them to keep: Booths.

The Festival of Booths was meant to remind Israel of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and how God had provided for them every step of the way.

God commanded them to construct Booths once a year to remind them of the tents they lived in as they were making their journey from slavery to freedom.

The booths were meant to be a visible, tangible reminder of a salvation they did nothing to earn or deserve. That (the booth) was meant to function just like that (the cross).

Did you catch the end of our passage?

Nehemiah says Israel had not celebrated Booths since the days of Joshua.

In case you don’t know your bible, Joshua’s the one who picked up where Moses left off and led the people into the Promised Land.

Hundreds of years before Nehemiah.

This good news of salvation. Their core story of redemption.

They’d forgotten it. What’s more, they didn’t realize they’d forgotten it.

And you know what’s scary for us?

What’s scary for us is that that means, for generations, God’s People had said their prayers, and done their rituals, and built their sanctuaries, and they’d even worked against injustice and poverty.

For generations they’d done religion

Without celebrating their core story, their Gospel.

“Not since the days of Joshua” means that for a long time they’d just been going through the motions without having their hearts changed by this story of a gracious God who had saved them and asked only for faith in return.

This is from Jamie, a colleague, who’s recently returned from serving as a missionary:

“I always think it’s interesting when people pat us on the back for being missionaries to Latin America. Perhaps they think we were doing something difficult because they don’t know that in Latin America there’s a bleeding-Jesus-in-a-crown-of-thorns bumper sticker on every bus, taxi, and pizza delivery scooter. 

     You can easily engage nearly every person you cross paths with in a conversation about God or Jesus or Faith or whatever. It’s really not hard. 

     In Latin America, “Jesus” is generally a familiar and comfortable word – not an instant conversation killer.

     I’ve been back in the NorCal suburbs for a whole three months now, and all I can say is that ministry is way harder here than it ever was in Latin America. 

     Being an agent for Love and Grace in a place where people truly don’t recognize their own need is really tough. 

      I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it’s hard to see the Light. 

     Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity. 

     This place is overflowing with people who have full closets, full bank accounts, full bellies… and empty hearts. Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent. 

     But it’s there.

     Behind the facade of perfection in suburban America, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there’s a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption. 

     I’ve only just returned from Latin America, and now for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe I’m supposed to be a missionary…”

As our Cathedral tour ended, the docent encouraged us to sign the guest book. I couldn’t resist so I did.

Under ‘name,’ I signed Dennis W Perry.

Under ‘from,’ I put Harrisonburg, Va.

And under ‘comments,’ I wrote:

“You treat this place like a museum when you’re surrounded by a mission field”

The thing is- that’s a comment I could leave in any church in the country.

This week I sent you all a mass email, saying our theme this weekend would highlight our mission and service ministries.

And probably many of you came here this morning expecting me to tell you about what we’re doing in Guatemala and the difference we’re making in hundreds of lives there and how we can do more.

Or maybe you expected me to tell you about how our church serves the poor along Route One and how we can do more.

And we can

do more.

But if the term ‘mission field’ only refers to places like Guatemala or homeless shelters, we’re not really clear about what our mission is as Church.

The fact is- the poverty that can be fought with food drives is NOT the only poverty Jesus cares about.

As Mike Crane told me this week: “Aldersgate’s doing a great job serving the poor here and around the world but there are thousands who are spiritually poor, who don’t even realize what they’re lacking. And, just like the song says, Mike said, they’re not too far from here.

Some are as close as these pews. Some have been doing religion for years but haven’t yet let the Gospel into their hearts and let it change them from the inside out.

And that’s a kind of poverty.

These last few weeks we’ve been throwing a lot of numbers at you.

Data.

20%

16%

Here’s another number I want to grab you: 63%

That’s the percentage of people in a 10-mile radius of Fort Belvoir who currently are not a part of any church.

63%- I want that to change.

So listen up.

Here’s the God-Sized-Ante-Up-Let’s-Stop-Playing-Church-And-Find-Out-If-We-Really-Believe-in-the-Holy-Spirit-Vision:

Our bishop has asked us, as in, us, to consider planting a second congregation- a satellite congregation- in the Ft Belvoir region in the next 18 months.

Because every study shows- and the Book of Acts shows- the best way to make new Christians is to start new churches.

But I’m not talking about bricks and mortar; I’m talking about extending the ministry of this church, south.

I’m talking about people from here willing to imagine new ways to reach people there with the Gospel.

I’m not talking about starting yet another church for church people.

I’m talking about creating a worshipping community to reach the kinds of people who might need a different kind of church in order to meet Jesus.

Nehemiah says, when the people make booths and rediscover this God who saves us sinners, Nehemiah says they rejoice.

They’re changed.  That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want.

For you. For my kids.

For the 84% who don’t know the Story behind that (the cross).

And for the 63% not too far from here.

If we do this, if we discern that this is where God is calling us, then it can’t just be owned me or Dennis.

It’s going to take all of us.

And specifically, we’re going to need a team of 40-50 of you to commit yourselves to it.

The how/when/where/what/who questions are still down the road.

And you’ll be hearing more about.

But the first step?

The first step is probably for us to build ourselves some booths and rediscover the Gospel for ourselves.

For our sermon series, this weekend I’ve been thinking about Justification by Faith Alone (vs Works). There’s no way to talk about Justification without talking about Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

Because the Gospel is God’s declaration to us and because this is a grace that is totally outside of us to which we can only respond with trust, there is no discernible interior change in us.

God looks on us with favor. God declares the Gospel to us: ‘For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.’ And the only response possible to such a promise is trust.

What Luther understands happens in justification then is that God chooses to see Jesus when he regards us. And God always does choose to see Jesus when he looks upon us. For Luther, even after we’ve responded in trust (even after we’ve had faith for a lifetime) we never cease essentially to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Fundamentally, sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’ Properly understood (and logically) Luther does not have a doctrine of sanctification, whereby God’s grace works within us to grow us in holiness. Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, emphasized this point by using the term ‘vocation’ rather than ‘sanctification.’ Christians have a calling in the world even though living out that calling does not effectively change or heal our sin nature.

Thomas Aquinas (and John Wesley after him) would argue this point. While admitting our sanctification can never be complete this side of heaven and so we retain a proclivity to sin, they would argue that once we respond to God in faith we truly do begin to heal. Wesley would even make the plain point that Jesus’ teachings seem superfluous if our nature never heals sufficiently that we can live out those teachings. Jesus’ teachings, for Wesley, were attainable expectations for Christians, but for Luther-convinced of our permanent sin nature- saw such an expectation as a depressing command (‘Law’ in Luther’s terminology as opposed to ‘Gospel’) we can never meet.

To be fair to Luther, his doctrine of ‘simul iustus et peccator’ wasn’t intended to recommend Christian passivity in the face of sin. We shouldn’t just resign ourselves to our sin nature; however, many of those who followed after Luther argued precisely this perspective.

 

By Grace Alone?

Jason Micheli —  September 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

For our sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs. Works).

In Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of grace, grace begins with God. On that starting point there’s no difference between the Catholic perspective and what Luther fleshes out in his re-formation.

The second procession of grace, sanctifying grace, is grace that is in us. But how do you know if you have sanctifying grace? That question starts to get at Luther’s criticism.

The third procession of grace, according to Thomas, is our response of faith, hope and love that sanctifying grace makes possible. Again, if you don’t really have sanctifying grace- if perhaps you’ve deceived yourself and only thought you did- then necessarily you can’t possess genuine faith, hope and love.

Thomas’ formulation of grace, though it boasted a pedigree that went all the way back to the church fathers and though there appears to have been no other reformation era critics of it, in Luther’s mind placed for too much on us.

Whereas Thomas believed sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us in baptism and through the sacraments, Luther re-conceives grace’s movement.

Grace, first of all, names God’s favor, loving inclination, towards us. This is where Luther and Thomas agree. Second, grace is a Word addressed to me, a declaration. For Luther this declaration is the Gospel. Rather than a gift God implants within us, this Word God declares to us is the gift. Third, this word-gift is what enables me to respond in faith.

Part of the difficulty in the reformation debates is the confusion of terms. Thomas and Catholic theology in general use the term ‘justification’ to name the entire process of God’s favor towards us, God’s sanctifying grace and our response. Luther and the reformers after him instead use ‘justification’ to refer exclusively to God’s inclination and declaration to us. Our healing and response tend to get treated separately as ‘sanctification’ or ‘vocation’ or, in Wesley, ‘perfection.’ So, often, when Protestants accused of Catholics of ‘works righteousness’ it’s because Protestants thought Catholics were speaking of justification when, really, Catholics were talking about sanctification. And when Catholics thought Protestants were eliminating any role for works of faith and making faith totally passive it’s because Catholics thought Protestants were speaking of sanctification when, really, Protestants were speaking specifically about justification. That both sides tended to be led by stubborn, recalcitrant men didn’t ameliorate the confusion.

What’s essential in the divergence of views is how, for Luther, there’s nothing inside me that is different or changed. There’s nothing inside me that empowers me to respond to God with faith, hope and love. Luther did believe that eventually our trust in God would create a new life but that new life would never be the basis of our justification. It would never be why we’re pleasing to God.

Again, this gets back to Luther’s spiritual crisis. For Luther, what’s important is that we don’t look within ourselves to determine if we’re saved.

For Luther, looking within is the problem because, basically, inside we’re messed up. Within us, no matter how much we trust God, is a whole stew of conflicting motives. Obviously this is an incredibly autobiographical insight on Luther’s part. According to Luther if we want to know how we stand before God we look, not within, at the promise of God.

Justification, then, in this classical Protestant formulation is objective (in that it depends not on our apprehension of it) and it is passive (in that it God’s act outside of us).

 

Sometimes a preposition can make all the difference.

I remember my first theology course as a freshman undergraduate, Elements of Christian Thought, with Gene 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.

This week we continue our sermon series on ‘Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ with the theme of Faith vs. Works.

The irony of this historic 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 that is written in English is a wrong translation. It is properly translated by the King James. Take a look at this passage from Romans:

“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

In Greek, the actual wording is “even the righteousness of God, 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.

What does scripture say about homosexuality?

Does scripture condemn loving, monogamous gay relationships? Does it? Are you sure?

The NY Times ran a story on Sunday about Matthew Vines a young gay Christian whose lifelong church, and many lifelong friends, couldn’t abide his sexuality nor his insistence that he was still in the parameters of scripture.

I’ve written here before that Christians of good will can and do disagree over this issue, but here’s what I have no patience for: Christians- on either side- who make their arguments and pronouncements pro or con but have no actual knowledge of what scripture says. I hear a lot of ‘the bible teaches…’ by people who don’t seem to really know what in fact the bible teaches.

And that’s what I admire about Matthew Vines’ story. Rejected by his church and many friends, he’s responded A) not in anger or despair and B) not by giving up on the faith. Instead he’s taken on a teaching mission to unpack just what scripture says on these thorny issues. Disagree with him if you like; however, his drive and zeal to be counted among God’s People is to be admired.

Here’s the story. And just below is Matthew’s presentation on You Tube. It’s worth a full watch.

What the Gospels Are NOT About

To say the Gospels aim at telling a story from beginning to end with a single, primary ‘point’ is also to argue that there things the Gospels are not (primarily, least) about.

I’m reading NT Wright’s new book, How God Became King, in which Wright argues that for most of its history Western Christianity has missed the plot and point the Gospels writers intended to convey in their story. The story the Gospels tell, Wright says, is one in which God in Christ becomes King of Earth as in Heaven. This is why the Gospels give so much space to Jesus’ Kingdom teaching. Ascension then is less denouement than climax.

But if this is what the Gospels are about then the Gospels are not about other, commonly assumed things:

Going to Heaven

The Gospels tell a story not where people go to heaven when they die but where God’s people pray for the Kingdom of Heaven to be brought to Earth.

Jesus’ Ethical Teachings

The Gospels do not tell a story of Jesus the Teacher whose career was upended by those who didn’t like what he had to say. Jesus was not, as we like to think today, a 1st century Jewish analogue to the Buddha or Ben Franklin. Jesus wasn’t offering a teaching as we think of it, as a set of ideals or precepts. Jesus’ teachings were a part of his Kingdom announcement: that through him a whole new world was drawing near.

Jesus, the Moral Exemplar

In the same way the Gospels do not tell teachings, the Gospels do not tell a story primarily about a Jesus whose perfect holiness, faith and love show us how we should live and be. If this were the story the Gospels tell then they’re failures, Wright says, because none of us can possibly hope to live according to his exceedingly perfect example. The Gospels cannot be reduced to Jesus showing us how its done.

Jesus, the Perfect Sacrifice

This is the most difficult assumption to undo because the notion of Jesus dying for our sin is the single most common definition of what Christians mean by ‘gospel.’ But if the Gospels aim to tell the same story that Paul tells then they fail because it’s not at all obvious the Gospels are trying to tell a story of Jesus, the victim without blemish, dying as a sacrifice for our sin.

Proving Jesus’ Divinity

Many assume that the purpose of the Gospels was to prove Jesus’ divinity. The Gospels though don’t try to prove his divinity, they simply presuppose it. Getting back to what Wright sees as the Gospels primary story, the Gospels’ understanding of Jesus’ divinity is wrapped up with the Kingdom Jesus ushers in to our world.

 

Does Being ‘Biblical’= Being Pauline?

I’ve started reading NT Wright’s book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. In some ways it’s a continuation of his work in Simply Jesus. 

Wright’s overarching premise is how Christianity in the West has largely forgotten what the Gospels are about. Christians of all traditions and across the theological spectrum tend to read the Gospels episodically or we read them to buttress theological perspectives we bring to the texts. We do not- and haven’t since the ancient church, Wright contends- read the Gospels, asking the question: ‘What overall story does this Gospel think its telling?’

Wright argues that Christians, especially since the Reformation, have construed the ‘gospel’ in terms of atonement and justification; meanwhile, the story the Gospels attempt to tell is how God in Christ is King of the Earth as in Heaven. The extent to which Jesus’ ascension has become a neglected text and holy day supports Wright’s assertions, and just on a literary level it’s a good charge to level. There are no other narratives we could read where how the authors constructed the beginning, middle and end are incidental to the authorial ‘point.’ It’s not a trivial detail that the Gospels conclude with Jesus’ enthronement nor is it of little consequence that Luke ends the Gospel with Jesus’ ascension and then Luke’s Acts picks up with the disciples living in the form of this new Kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

Whatever one’s theology, Wright thinks it problematic that most Christians can articulate a definition of the gospel that need not make any reference to the actual Gospels. Our definitions of the Gospel center on terms like atonement and justification, terms that feature prominently in Paul but are not in the Gospels themselves and are certainly not their main theme. In the same way, Wright notes a commonly observed problem with the creeds; namely, that they skip from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection and leave out the bulk of the Gospel story.

Instead of shaping our definition of ‘gospel’ by asking what story the Gospels are attempting to tell, we use the Gospels, Wright says, to illustrate arguments derived from Paul. By doing so, Christians have lost the plot…of the Gospels. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Wright doesn’t ask the question but it’s there in his argument: Shouldn’t our reading of Paul be in submission to and in service of the Gospels rather than vice versa?

Is it the case, Wright wonders, that when we claim to be biblical we’re really being Pauline instead? And by neglecting the narrative arc of the Gospels are we actually being something profoundly less than biblical?