Archives For Grace

God Gone Wild

Jason Micheli —  June 16, 2019 — Leave a comment

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued with Jesus’ macabre little drama in Matthew 22.1-14

Last week, some of your lay leaders and I were emailing each other back and forth regarding what we should do about a homeless, undocumented man who’s been sleeping outside near the trash bins at our mission center on Heritage Drive. 

“You should see how he’s dressed— the custodians are creeped out by him.”

And so we exchanged emails, weighing the merits of shelters and county services against our concerns about safety and liability on the one hand and the police and ICE on the other hand. 

At some point during the Reply All email thread, Eldon Hillenbrandt, who— if you don’t know him— is a wonderful, earnest, sincere man without a sarcastic or cynical bone in his body (in other words, he’s everything I’m not) replied with a wonderfully earnest and sincere question. He asked us: “What do you think Jesus would do?” 

WWJD— what would Jesus do?

Totally sincere question, not cynical or sarcastic in any way. 

And probably Eldon had in mind a parable like the sheep and the goats. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What would Jesus do about the stranger sleeping against the dumpster in his stinking, shabby clothes? 

And because I’m the way my Maker made me, when it came to Eldon’s completely earnest and sincere question I couldn’t help myself. 

Like those salmon who swim upstream in order to mate even though doing the deed will be the death of them, I couldn’t help myself. 

Just as some artists work in oil or watercolors, I work in saracasm and middle school boy bathroom humor. 

I couldn’t resist typing in reply: “WWJD? Cuff him! Hand and foot! Torture him! Kill him! Throw him in Hell!” 

Fortunately, as I gazed upon my computer screen, the cursor still blinking at the end of my adolescent quip, I suddenly had what alcoholics describe as a moment of clarity and thought better about sending it.

In case you haven’t met her, I call that moment of clarity, Ali. 

So I deleted the comment and instead sent out some prosaic pastor-speak.

But the problem is— 

We can’t backspace our way away from the Jesus who tells this parable today.

———————-

As liberal mainline Protestants, we’ve all been conditioned into believing that Christianity boils down to being nice and doing nice; therefore, if we have any religious convictions at all it’s that God is nice too. And maybe at first you thought that’s where Jesus’ story was headed. 

An evite goes out for a great extravagant party, but those in the VIP queue— the fat cats and country club set, the season ticket holders and the keto dieters, the cronies of the rich man— mark the invitation read and forget all about it. 

So the rich man says, “Hey, I’ve already paid the photographer. I’ve got a Costco’s worth of beef tenderloin under the broiler, and the DJ’s already started playing the Electric Slide. Go out beyond the suburbs and bring in the folks from the Halfway House— and don’t forget those guys who loiter around the 7-Eleven too. Let them come into my party. The 1% don’t deserve my generosity.” 

Probably as Jesus’ story was being read at first you thought you liked it. You like the idea of God going out like Bernie Sanders to the marginalized and the poor and the dispossessed and inviting them to a fine china, cloth napkin, open bar party. 

It’s a nice thought.

And it would be nice if Jesus just left it alone right there, which is sort of the way Jesus tells it in Luke’s Gospel.

But Matthew? 

I mean— all this festival of death needs to be more terrifying are creepy twin girls, an elevator full of blood, and Jesus with a hatchet saying “Here’s Johnny.” 

And maybe a ginger kid too— a ginger would make it scarier. 

What gets you about Jesus’ story in Matthew is not the graciousness of the King esteeming the lowly onto his guest list, as in Luke. 

What gets you is this King’s totally inappropriate and excessive behavior. 

“Oh, the A-Listers couldn’t be bothered to open the Paperless Post? Some clicked ‘Maybe?’ Really? Well then, I’ll tell you what, Alfred. I want you get some of the hired help and I want you to cross them off the guest list permanently, if you know what I mean. No, that’s right, you heard me correctly, hand and foot. Send them to a place worse than Cleveland! They’ll regret sending their regrets when I get through with them!”

Then, as if the body count wasn’t already high enough, in a flourish only House Lanister could love, there’s Jesus’ finale. Among the good and bad gathered into the King’s party, this panhandling vagrant off Braddock Road makes it past the maitre’d only to get himself shipped off to one of Dick Cheney’s black sites allbecause of the way he’s dressed. 

“You there— yeah you.” 

Actually, the word the King uses in Greek is hetaire, which means, basically, “Buster.” 

“Hey how’d you get in here dressed like that? We’ve got beluga on ice and Chateau Branaire-Ducru uncorked. This party is black tie and tails only, buster.”

“Well, sir, I was sleeping outside next to the Mission Center trash bins only an hour ago, and they don’t stock formal wear in the church’s coat closet.” 

And the “gracious” King responds: “Really? Well then…Bind him, hand and foot! Throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

———————-

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible…

———————-

I know you—

It really bothers you that the formerly sweet baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers would tell a story like this to nice, well-mannered people like you. It bothers you to hear the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world roaring like a lion at…

At what exactly? 

Failure to RSVP? 

A party foul?

What gives?

Admit it—

We all want a God who says of our flagged but unopened evites, “Oh, your kids have a soccer game? You were up late last night? You can catch it online? That’s okay, I know you’re busy. We’ll miss you at the party but no biggie. Raincheck?”

We want a God who is as cool and dispassionate about us as we are about him.

We don’t want this irrational, incongruous God. 

We don’t want this God gone wild. 

We don’t want this King who is ferociously determined to celebrate his free party. 

No matter the costs. 

I mean— that much is obvious, right? 

As much as it tightens our sphincters and gives nice types like us acid reflux, for his macabe little drama Jesus rudely casts his Heavenly Father as this bezerk, damn-the-torpedoes, party-or-bust King. 

Which puts us where in the story?

———————-

Who are we supposed to be at this party?

The A-list?

Does Jesus mean for you to identify with those at the top of the King’s guest list? The ones who for whatever reason (or none at all) don’t accept the King’s invitation? Actually, the Greek in verse three isn’t as neutral as it sounds. The word is amelsantes, and it means literally, “They didn’t give a damn.”

“The King sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the party, but they didn’t give a rip,” Jesus says.

Maybe that is who Jesus means us to be in the story because he conjugates the VIPs’ apathy in the imperfect tense. 

It’s: “They were not giving a rip…” 

That is, these A-Listers’ snubbing of the King’s call is an ongoing rejection; as if to say, the world will always be full of idiots who refuse to trust and enjoy a good thing when they hear it. 

Free grace, dying love, unqualified acceptance, and unconditional forgiveness for you— it might as well be a prostrate exam given the way some of us respond to it. 

Is that us?

Obviously, you all give a rip. 

You wouldn’t have dragged yourself out of bed, showered, and shown up this morning for a subpar sermon if you didn’t care. 

But maybe like that first group of invitees, you make your way in life assuming that God’s good, gracious nature means you’re free to ignore his call upon your life until after you’re finished with all your better plans. 

Maybe that’s why Jesus repeats the word call every other verse, from the top of his story to the bottom. 

As though the King’s call is a countdown. 

Going once. 

Going twice…tick tock.

What about that second batch of evites? 

The King sends out his servants a second time to those on the guest list. And they deliver the message: Look this party is off the hook! The oxen and the fatted calves (plural!) have been in the smoker since last night. The keg is tapped. Come on already! 

Notice—

It’s not that those guests can’t be bothered. 

It’s that they’re too busy. 

Some, Jesus says, are too busy with their farms to celebrate the King’s party. 

Others, Jesus says, are too tied up at the office to join the King’s party. 

It’s not that they don’t give a rip. 

It’s that they give too many. 

Farming, business— those are vocations, good works God gives to us for our neighbors.

These guests are so wrapped up in the good work God has given them to do for others that they ignore the King’s individual invitation to them. 

They’re so focused on doing good works for their neighbor that they’ve neglected, and thus put at risk, their personal relationship with the King— the very relationship to which their good works were meant to be a sign not a substitute. 

Their busyness lulled them into forgetting that their personal yes to the King’s invitation is an urgent eternal matter of life and death. We can be so bent over busy in our religious, deed-doing lives that we lose them. 

And maybe they don’t answer the King’s invite because they assume they can get past the bouncers at a date they name later, on the merits of all their hard work and not on the King’s gratuity. 

Perhaps that’s who Jesus means us to be in the story. 

Or what about that poor bastard who’s caught without a cumberbund and patent leather shoes? Does Jesus mean for us to be the guy dragged off by the King’s SWAT team because of a wardrobe malfunction? I mean, even Janet Jackson got a second chance. 

Is that who we are in the story?

Are you supposed to hear this parable and worry?

Worry that, yes, all are invited to the party of salvation, gratis, but if you don’t meet the dress code? It’s outer darkness for you. 

In other words: yes, yes grace, but…

Yes, salvation is by grace. 

But, your faith better bring something to show for it when you get to the party. 

Yes, all are invited, gratis.

But, only some get to stay. You better show up wearing your three-piece suit of obedience, your gem-covered gown of holiness, or your mink of compassion. 

Yes, yes grace, but…

Nevermind for a moment the not minor point that as soon as you attach a but to grace, it’s no longer grace, such a worrisome takeaway ignores the fact that whatever fancy duds these riffraff at the party are wearing, they’re clothes the King has given to them. 

Free of charge. 

Upon arrival not prior to departure.

So their ability to remain at the party is not conditioned upon the presence or absence of anything they brought with them— not their closet full of loving works and not their suitcase holy living.

The King gave them their garments upon arrival. So for whatever reason, this eyesoar who’s still in his streetclothes and bound for darkness, he didn’t put on the bow tie and tux given out to all the other guests who got there on the same free ticket as him. 

This guy didn’t change his clothes. 

He refused to change. 

Is that it?

If he’s who Jesus means us to be, then is the takeaway for us that, yes, we’re invited but once there we better change and get our act together?

That might be one way to interpret Jesus’ story if Jesus’ story were told by someone other than Jesus, and if Jesus told this story at some point other than three days before he died not to improve the improveable or reform the reformable but to raise the dead in their sins. 

And the only thing the dead do is stink. 

So the takeaway today can’t be that we need first to apply deodorant before we’re allowed onto the dance floor. 

The Cross is Exhibit A.

Jesus saves us in our failures not just in spite of them. 

“The gifts and invitation of God,” the Apostle Paul says, “are irrevocable.”

And the word Paul uses there is repentance. 

The gifts and invitiation of God are without repentance.

Therefore, the moral of this parable is not that God invites us to the party called salvation but we better shape up or we’ll get shipped off. 

No, the parable doesn’t have a moral because it’s a parable. 

It’s not about you. 

It’s about God— that’s why the King and his staff get all the verbs in the story. 

Notice— no one else in the story even speaks.

You can’t ask of a parable, “WWJD?”

You can only ask, “Who is this God who does to us in Jesus Christ?”

But that still doesn’t answer where are we in this parable?

———————-

Last week the Atlantic Magazine published an article entitled Parents Gone Wild: Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School. The story’s about Sidwell Friends School, the Harvard of DC private schools whose Quaker motto is “Let the light shine out from all.” 

Bright lights sometimes illuminate the worst in people. The article details the shocking and over-the-top behavior of some of the school’s parents, which has led to 2/3 of the school’s counselors leaving their jobs. Attempting to help their children get a leg up in the college admissions competition, parents at Sidwell Friends School have engaged in what the school’s headmaster calls “offensive conduct.” 

Among the excessive behaviors, parents have verbally assaulted school employees, secretly recorded conversations with teachers, made badgering phone calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Some parents have even circulated damaging rumors about other parents’ children in order to give their own children an advantage over their peers. 

As one college dean of admissions explained it: 

“When you’re talking about the love a parent has for their son or daughter, the plan they have for their child and all the work they’ve done towards that plan— it can lead to some pretty wild and inappropriate behavior. You could choose to focus in on the crazy behavior, or you could choose to see the parent’s love behind it all. Either way, if you get in the way of that kind of love, if you get in the way of what a parent has planned for the child they love without condition, watch out.”

———————-

If you get in the way of what the Father has planned for the Son…

That’s it. 

You and I— the baptized— we’re not in this parable. 

We’re not.

We’re so hard-wired to turn the good news of grace into the grim pills of religion that we go to Jesus’ parables asking what we must do, or we leave Jesus’ parables worrying about we’re not doing. In doing so, we turn the Gospel into the Law; such that we miss completely the fact that, according to Jesus himself, we’re not in the parable. 

Yet. 

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

Jesus told us at the top of the story. In response to the chief priests and the Pharisees who begrudge his relationship with the Father— his relationship with the Father— Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like…what? 

The Kingdom of God is like a King who gave not just a party but a wedding banquet. 

A wedding feast for his Son. 

His Son to be married to whom?

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

You and I, and all baptized believers, we’re still waiting in the wings, offstage. 

We’re not in the parable. 

We’re in the parlor. 

A friend’s putting a finishing gloss on our fingernails while the curling iron gets hot and the string quartet warms up and the photographer shoots some candids of everyone getting ready and the white dress hangs uncovered from the curtain rod. 

This isn’t a horror story about what God will do to you if you don’t get your act together and get your ass to his party. 

No, for you— this is an absurd romantic comedy about the wildly excessive, inapprorpriate lengths the Loving Father will go to have every last detail of the party perfect, every seat filled, and everyone dressed to the nines with the custom-tailored clothes he’s given away to every undeserving guest to celebrate his Son’s marriage. 

To you.

All are invited, but not all will accept the invitation— the whole world is invited to celebrate at Chez Yahweh, celebrate the Father’s Son’s marriage.

To you. 

No wonder he acts so bezerk. 

This parent has planned this party for his Son since before the foundation of the world, the Bible says. 

Watch out if you frustrate this Father’s feast-going. 

He’s not going to let anything get in the way of a five star celebration for his Son’s marriage to you. 

Jesus left it assumed and unsaid in this story because he’s already said it. 

I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you will be also, Jesus already promised. That’s wedding language.

In my Father’s house there are many mansions, Jesus promises. That’s wedding language.

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me— that’s wedding language too. 

Not to mention, the word Jesus uses today for wedding banquet, gamos, guess the other place in the New Testaments it gets used— the freaking climax of the Bible, at the very end of the Book of Revelation where the angel declares “the marriage supper of the Lamb has been made ready” and Christ comes back to his Church who is prepared for him as what?

As a bride for her bridegroom.

———————-

So Eldon, I don’t know if you’re here today or not, but What Would Jesus Do?

Welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry— that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. 

Because Jesus the Bridegroom would take his hand and pick him up and carry him across the threshold and say “My Beloved, let’s dance.”

———————-

Hear the good news—

You’re not the one who blows off the party. 

You’re not the do-gooder who’s too busy to attend the party

You’re not the eyesore who wears the wrong garment to the party. 

Though at times you might resemble all of the above, you’re not any of them.

Because the party’s for you. 

By your baptism—

A promise signed by the Father and sealed in the Son’s blood and delivered to you by water through the Holy Spirit, you are the betrothed. 

You are free to do the things that Jesus did and you are free not to worry about how little you’re doing or how much you’re leaving undone. 

Because what God has joined together no one— not even you in your pathetic every day run-of-the-mills sins— can tear asunder. 

No, you are his. 

And with all that he is and all that he has, for better, for worse, no matter if your faith feels rich or if it is poor, he will cherish you. 

This is his solemn vow.

(Un)Like a Virgin

Jason Micheli —  June 12, 2019 — Leave a comment

We continued our summer sermon series through the parables with Matthew’s story of the ten virgins, preached by the summer minion, David King.

The Bridegroom Cometh,” but that came too late.  Better than coming too early, I guess.   

The parables are stories Jesus tells about himself. That is, the parables make no sense apart from who Jesus is and what God does through Jesus on the cross.  So, you can imagine my surprise when Jason told me last week that I was preaching on the parable of the 10 virgins.  

I mean, talk about a first impression.

In all seriousness though, if the parables are stories that both are made sense of through the cross and shed light on the mystery of the cross, then the story we have in today’s scripture presents a difficult passage to make sense of.  

Like last week’s scripture, this parable is categorized as a parable of judgment.  And, on the face of it, the parable reeks of an inhospitable bridegroom shutting the door in the face of the virgins.  In fact, the story tells of all doors being shut to the foolish virgins.  And before we start associating ourselves with the wise virgins, remember to whom and for what purpose Jesus tells this parable.  Jesus tells it to the disciples, knowing full well that they will fall asleep when he asks them to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, just a chapter later in Matthew’s narrative.  

The parable of judgment – this parable of the kingdom – it presupposes the disciples unfaithfulness to Christ.  

Why, then, do we so often read the parables of judgment as parables of condemnation, as verses and stories declaring the sorting out of the faithful from the unbelievers that we think will happen at the end of days, that great and glorious time when we can whet our tongues with the wine of heaven while all the non-Christians weep and gnash their teeth?  

Stories, parables like these, we so often read them to satiate our need for validation of our faith in a world that often feels hostile to it.  However, the image of the virgins, the fact that there are ten of them, indicates to us that the people being judged are members of the church.  Their virginity is symbolic: it indicates their preparedness to be married to the bridegroom who is Christ.  As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”  

Already, then, the popular interpretation of this as a judgment levied against non-believers is moot.  The virgins are united in a community called ‘Church,’ their virginity imputed to them as a symbol of grace.  

Further, what this shows to us is that this parable of judgment, it needs to be read through a frame, a lens, that presupposes the gift of grace.  We read the parables of judgment not with condemnation in mind, but with, as Robert Capon insists, a hermeneutic of inclusion-before-exclusion.

This is all the more important since the parable begins with the ever important word, “then.”  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Kingdom using the phrase, “The Kingdom will be like” x, y, z.  But here, Jesus begins by using the word “then,” indicating to the disciples that this is not a parable of judgment preceding the cross.  Jesus is speaking of what the kingdom in the wake of the cross is like.  

The wedding has happened – the grace has been offered.  The virgins are preparing to celebrate their marriage.  

What, then, is all the fuss about the oil?  Fleming Rutledge, who I will only mention once since she’s really Jason’s gal, asks the pertinent question: what really is in those lamps?  

Before I answer that question, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures is listening to bad Christian talk radio.  You know, the all love but no Jesus kind of Christian talk radio.  You know, the kind that prides itself in its acceptance of saints but rejects the sinner.  The kind of Christian talk radio that will couch an hour long sermon on judgment in between two hours of financial planning “from a biblical perspective.”  I love that stuff.  

So, as I was driving in to work here this week, listening to Christian talk radio, learning about how I can plan my retirement in accordance with biblical standards of stewardship and bookkeeping, the oil and the lamps finally made sense to me.  

St. Augustine, in his sermon on Matthew 25, notes that “the foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, wish to please by that abstinence of theirs by which they are called virgins, and by their good works, when they seem to carry lamps.  But wishing to please human spectators, doing praiseworthy works, they forget to carry with them the necessary oil.” 

That is, the parable, the oil stored up by the wise virgins, it can’t be good works because, as Augustine sees, that would make their entrance to the wedding celebration a matter of payment, a payment that no sum of works can make.  It is for this reason that the foolish virgins fear for their selves.  They ask the wise virgins for the oil, saying, “give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”  They fear, that is, that their works will be insufficient, and rightly so! For they think that the oil the wise carry is something that can be transferred, something that can be given or earned.  

You see, the foolish virgins misunderstand the purpose of the oil.  They misunderstand its nature, and in so doing, represent for us the fundamental misconception we so often make when it comes to the Gospel: that anything besides the grace of God could possibly give us entrance on the final day of judgment.  They misunderstand what the wise get right: that the oil is their sin, transformed by the grace of the cross and not by their works.  Truly, then, the oil is non-transferable, nor is it refundable.  The oil is that which can be taken up by one person: Christ the bridegroom.  

Notice, too, what the text says: “but while they went to buy the oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.”  Matthew does not say that the wise virgins go in with the bridegroom because they had extra oil, nor does he say they go in because their lamps are lit.  Matthew does not accredit their entrance to any act that they participated in to distinguish them from the foolish virgins.  

Matthew tells us that the wise virgins enter in strictly because they were ready. The readiness of the wise virgins is qualified not by their own glorification or righteousness, but by their readiness to lay their sin, their oil, before the bridegroom who is Christ.  Their readiness is the posture of the Church in light of the cross.  

The foolish virgins rightly feared, for they misunderstood the nature of the oil.  They did not bring extra oil precisely because they thought they had enough of the oil of good works.  The wise, however, brought extra, because they knew that the preparedness for the wedding celebration, the celebration of the already-given grace of the cross, required but one thing: their sin, laid at the foot of the cross, given to the bridegroom.  

The foolish, however, bring what they think is enough oil to get to the door, the gate of judgment.  But they despair and fear for when the bridegroom arrives, and indeed they flee to seek extra things, to buy their way in. And in doing so, they miss his arrival.  They leave the place already prepared for them, exemplifying the misconceived notion that they could in any way seek elsewhere, and merit, their ticket to the celebration.  

The oil we anoint babies with in their baptism – it is an oil not of our works but of the work of God in Christ.  The oil represents not what we can do, but the forgiveness of sins which can never be merited.  The oil is the blood of Christ that has cleansed our sins. The oil the virgins bring is the oil with which we are baptized: the oil that is the blood of the lamb, the ointment for the disease we are born into and cannot escape.  

You see, the bad Christian talk radio made the parable clear: it matters not if you state the name of Christ at the beginning of your designated radio hour if what follows is not a message proceeding from the grace given in the cross.  To declare one’s belief in Christ, and to immediately follow that with all the requisites for one’s own sanctification, is to go only halfway in believing the good news embedded in His name.  

This is what makes sense of the judgment cast on the foolish virgins.  The foolish virgins, returning in the dark to the door of the party, having found no works to pay their entrance, encounter a Lord who claims not to know them.  They call his name, “Lord, Lord!” and he responds with “truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  

The word for knowledge used in the Greek is “οἶδα.”  It is a word that comes from the root of the verb that means, “to see.”  The bridegroom, we ought to note, literally says he cannot see them.  They, the foolish virgins, have sought the light of grace where it could not be found, and in so doing, miss the very point of the message. 

Notice, again, that the text never tells us that the extra oil is used.  The wise bring the extra oil, but we are never told if it is used.  The bridegroom comes, not when the extra oil has been used, but when the ones who think can be bought have left.  

That is, the judgment levied, the door closed, is against those who obscure the judgment of the cross, the judgment of God on God’s self, for the sake of all humanity.  

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

Here’s the Pentecost sermon I preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. The texts were Acts 2, Romans 8, and John 14.

Today is Pentecost, and as always we read from St. Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, where the disciples are back in the Upper Room where they’d been the night they betrayed him. 

Outside the Upper Room, it’s like the SXSW Music Festival. There’s thousands of pilgrims from all over the Jewish Diaspora, from Mopac and Northwest Hills, from Biderman’s Deli to the JCC on Hart Lane. 

“And suddenly,” St. Luke says, there’s a sound— not like a still, small voice but a mighty rushing wind. And the Holy Spirit descends like fire, and people start speaking, and even though they’re speaking different languages there’s simultaneous translation. 

All these different languages but everybody understands everybody: Swedes and Texans, UT and A&M fans, woke folks and folks who have no idea how to use the word intersectional in a sentence, millenials and geezers in MAGA hats, people who watched the final episode of Rape of Thrones and people who didn’t, parents and their 13 year olds, guys who still wear cargo shorts and everyone else. 

The Holy Spirit descends. 

And everybody starts speaking and everybody understands everybody. 

The commotion gathers a crowd in the street, and the crowd starts to gripe: Those Christians are doing the same thing they did when Jesus was with them— they’ve been drinking (which, if you’re counting at home, is the first and last time anyone ever accused Christians of being fun). 

Peter comes out to the crowd. 

And Peter speaks. 

Remember where we left Peter in the story?

Back on the night they’d been in that same Upper Room—

“Jesus? Jesus who?” 

The third time he actually curses Jesus’ name, which sounds worse when you translate the name the angel gave him: “Jesus? Curse this Jesus whoever he is. Curse this savior.” 

———————-

And then the cock crowed. 

———————-

But today they’re back in the Upper Room, and the Holy Spirit descends and Peter speaks. Peter says to the crowd “We’re not drunk— yet. We’ve still got an hour before brunch. No, no, no. All this your hearing, this is what the prophet foretold.” 

And then Peter preaches this long sermon that crescendos with Peter proclaiming “This Jesus, whom you crucified, God has him raised from the dead [for our justification] and God has made him Lord. Be baptized.”

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

I don’t have anywhere near the time for this sermon as Peter got for his sermon. Cynthia tells me you’re used to sermons shorter in length than the average tenure of a Trump administration official. 

I’d need a flux capacitor just to get in all my normal preaching time. 

So let’s just get right down to it. 

Here’s my question for you: Why does the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost?

———————-

I’m a guest preacher. You don’t know how to hear me. 

So make sure you’ve got my question straight. I’m not asking “Why does the Holy Spirit come?” 

Our teachers all lied. There are such things as stupid questions and that would be one because the Holy Spirit has already come. 

Today is not the arrival of a heretofore absent Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he first preached. The Holy Spirit overshadowed his mother’s womb. Even before the incarnation— the Holy Spirit spoke to us, we say in the creed, by the prophets. 

My question isn’t “Why does the Holy Spirit come?” 

The Holy Spirit already has come more times than…nevermind I can’t tell that joke here.

I’m asking “Why does the Holy Spirit come with fire and wind at Pentecost?”

Or, as the Jews call it in Hebrew, Shavuot. The Festival of Week. Five weeks (penta-) after the Passover. 

I mean— 

If Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to be with us in this in-between time between Christ’s first coming and his coming again, then why does the Holy Spirit not descend upon the disciples as they’re building make-shift tents of sticks and leaves to celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish festival that commemorated Israel’s wandering in the wilderness in between their rescue from captivity and their deliverance into a promised kingdom of God. 

Why Shavuot? Why not Sukkot? 

For that matter, Yom Kippur would make sense too. 

Jesus said that the Holy Spirit’s work would include convicting us of our sin. So why does the Holy Spirit not descend on Yom Kippur as Jewish pilgrims watch the high priest cast all their iniquity onto a scapegoat?

Of all the days of the year, why does Jesus schedule the Spirit for Pentecost?

If the Holy Spirit is who Christ sends so that you know he’ll never give you up, never let you down, never run around and desert you, then why doesn’t the Holy Spirit come on February 6, the birthday of British pop icon Rick Astley?

That’s right, All Saints, you  just got Rick-rolled.

Why Pentecost?

Why not Passover?

You’ve all seen Leonardo’s Last Supper— the shock and the shame on the disciples’ faces when Jesus lowers the boom that they will betray him and deny him and cover their own hides while his is nailed to a cross. 

That’s the exact moment— in the Upper Room— when Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus has dirt on his knees and his sleeves stink of toe-cheese because he’s just stooped over, washed their feet, and given them an entirely new commandment. 

Not the Golden Rule. 

Something much, much worse than the Golden Rule. 

“Love one another,” Jesus commands, “as I have loved you.” 

Or, as St. Paul puts it earlier in Romans, Christ loved not the rewardable or the improveable— not for the good but for the ungodly. 

I don’t even love my neighbor as much as I love brisket and a Fire Eagle IPA. 

How am I supposed to love the ungodly more than me?

Jesus knows not only can we not love the ungodly, we can’t even be relied upon to love God because no sooner does he command this impossible command than he dries off his hands and says “Where I’m going next you cannot go.” 

And Peter responds: “Nonsense, I’ll go right now.”

“Will you lay down your life for me?”

“Absolutely, yes.”

“No,” Jesus says, “just tonight you’ll have betrayed me by the time the cock crows three.”

And then they all flip their s@#$, and that’s it— the chapter divisions weren’t added to the Gospels until the 16th century. That’s the moment when Jesus promises the Spirit.

So why not Passover? 

Why does the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost?

But even that’s not putting it quite right. 

Luke doesn’t say here in Acts 2 “When the day of Pentecost had come…” 

No, the word Luke uses there in Greek is symplerousthai. 

It’s the word Luke used back in the ninth chapter of his Gospel when Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem because, Luke says, his teaching ministry had been symplerousthai. 

Completed.  

When the promised Holy Spirit descends, Luke’s telling you, the day of Pentecost is symplerousthai. 

Pentecost is fulfilled. 

———————-

  Chris Arnade is a photojournalist who published a book entitled Dignity earlier this week. Arnade was an unbelieving, french-cuffed financier on Wall Street. 

When the market crashed in 2008 and he lost his job, he began travelling through urban America, interviewing homeless addicts and prostitutes and squatters and taking their pictures. 

In one of his essays, Arnade writes about a forty-something woman named Takeesha. She talked to him for an hour standing against a wall at the Corpus Christi Monastery in the South Bronx. 

When she was 13, Takeesha’s mother, who was a prostitute, put her out to work the streets with her, which she’s done for the last thirty years. 

“It’s sad,” Takeesha told Arnade, “when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. The Holy Ghost. Whenever I got into [a guy’s] car, the Holy Ghost stuck with me and got into the car with me.” 

Takeesha has a framed print of the Last Supper that she takes with her— a moveable feast— wherever she goes to sleep for the night. 

This moment when Jesus promises the Holy Spirit— she’s hung the image of it above her in abandoned buildings and in sewage-filled basements and leaned it against a tent pole under an interstate overpass. She’s taken it with her to turn tricks.

“He’s always with me,” she told Arnade, “reminding me.”

When Chris Arnade finished his interview of Takeesha, he asked her how she wanted to be described for the reader. And without missing a beat, Takeesha responded: “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a beloved child of God.” 

When the author expresses surprise at her candor, Takeesha said— pay attention now— “the Holy Spirit tells me that I am not what I do; I am what has been done for me.” 

“My worth,” Takeesha said— preached is more like it— “is not in what I do— or don’t do— but in who God says I am.”

———————-

All those pilgrims, they’re gathered there in Jerusalem not because they’re waiting around for the Holy Spirit but because it’s Pentecost, the day when Jews would remember the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, not just the Top Ten but the 603 other commands God gives before capping them all off, like Jesus does on a different mountain with “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  

When Moses returns to his people from atop Sinai, he reads to them the Law, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. 

And the people respond to the Law by promising all you’ve said to do, God, we will do and more.  

When the Holy Spirit shows up on that day, the day when God’s People remember their promise to do everything God had commanded them to do, Luke tells you that Pentecost is fulfilled— that’s why there’s no mention of Shavuot again in the New Testament. 

It’s symplerousthai. 

As the Apostle Paul says at the top of Romans 8, God has fulfilled the Law in the Son, who was the only one to live the Law perfectly.

I realize you don’t know how to hear me. 

So let me it put it plain for you to see— 

This is why the Spirit Jesus promises on Passover comes at Pentecost: 

In Jesus Christ, the promise of Pentecost is no longer “All this we will do for you, God.” 

When the Holy Spirit comes and Pentecost is fulfilled, the promise we remember now is that in Jesus Christ everything has already been done. 

All the commands the Lord spoke have been done for you by the Word made flesh.

Everything the Father said to do has been done—for you— in the Son, and his perfect obedience has been reckoned to you as your own irremovable suit of righteousness.

You are not what you do (or what you fail to do). 

You are who God declares you to be. 

That’s the promise we pray over the water at baptism: 

Clothe Elin in Christ’s righteousness. 

Clothe Elin in Christ’s permament perfect record.. 

This is why the language the Apostle Paul uses in our text today is the language not of earning and deserving but the language of adoption and inheritance. 

Your being recknoned as a righteous child of God, your being credited Christ’s permament perfect score—  it’s neither natural nor is it your hard-earned reward. 

It’s grace. 

And it’s not cheap. 

It’s not even expensive. 

It’s free. 

And it’s yours by faith.

———————-

“The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes, homeless and squatters.” 

Chris Arnade writes in Dignity:

“On the streets, with their daily battles and constant proximity to death, they have come to understand viscerally the truth about all of us which many privileged and wealthy people have the luxury to avoid: that life is neither rational nor fair, that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes.” 

I’ve heard from Rev. Cynthia and from some of you all about All Saints. 

I gather you all know as well as any church that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes. 

You all have hit up against the hard truth that most of us have the cash and the comfort to avoid— the truth that our lives are not in our control. 

Hear the good news:

Not only are you enough

In Christ, right now, as you are, no matter what qualification is running through your head, you’re enough— indvidually and as a congregation— in Christ you’re enough. 

That’s the promise the Spirit brings on the day Pentecost is fulfilled. 

That’s the promise of your baptism. 

But not only are you enough, you’re not alone. 

The Spirit, who comes at Pentecost so that you might trust and believe this crazy, impossible promise that all of what God demands in the Law— perfect obedience and righteousness- is given to you (given away!) in the Gospel, has since become a squatter. 

That’s what the name Jesus gives for the Spirit, paraclete, means. 

Para means to come alongside of, to attach to, to cling to. 

When the Day of Pentecost is fulfilled and the Spirit descends like fire and wind, the Spirit becomes like a house guest you can’t get rid of. 

The Spirit who comes when Pentecost is fulfilled now clings to the word, to water, and to wine and bread. 

These sacraments are the Holy Squatter’s rites, and he uses them, Jesus promises to us today, to help you keep all of his commandments, which…chillax All Saints, it isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. 

Because in John’s Gospel—

Other than that impossible command in the Upper Room he knew we couldn’t keep the very moment he commanded it, the only other commandments Jesus gives in John’s Gospel are all the same commandment. 

To believe.

To Nicodemus under the cover of night.

To the woman at the well.

To the 5,000 with fish and bread in their bellies.

98 times in the Gospel of John the commandment is always the same.

To put your trust in him.

To believe.

So all you saints at All Saints, chillax. 

And hear the good news:

The message of Pentecost is not Do your best and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

The message of Pentecost is Everything has been done, gratis; so go, with the Holy Spirit with bread and wine and water and word tell the nations. 

Or, just, you know…your neighborhood.

With these Holy Squatter’s rites, word and sacrament— that’s it, just these— Jesus promises you will do greater things than him. 

Notice, All Saints—

The burden on you is not to do great things. 

The burden on you is his only command: to believe. 

To trust— no matter how out of control your life feels— that the simple things he has given you— bread and wine, water and word—  can yield something greater even than loaves and fishes. 

You’ll see for yourself at the font— they can kill and make alive.

   

Matthew 25.31-46

I celebrated a wedding last weekend for a family from my former parish. 

I hate weddings. 

Wedding planners are the bane of my existence— they’re almost always like those women Sandra Bullock brunches with in The Blind Side. 

No matter who gets married, every single time they stick me at the grandma table for the wedding reception. 

And when it comes time to get my party on and do the white-man overbite on the dance floor, almost always all the guests hide their drinks and keep their distance from me because we all know Pastor must be an ancient Greek word meaning Fun Sponge.

I hate weddings. 

As a pastor, I’m not even a fan of parties. 

I avoid parties. I go to parties only begrudgingly and whenever I’m at a party, I’m tempted, like George Castanza from Seinfeld, to pretend I’m anything other than a pastor— a marine biologist, say, or an architect. 

Nothing stops party conversations in their tracks— or starts unwanted conversations— like saying you’re a pastor. 

The problem with wedding parties, though, is that you can’t pull a Constanza. You can’t lie and pretend to be an orinthologist because everyone has already seen you dudded up in robe and collar. 

At wedding parties, I’m stuck being me.

So, there I was at this wedding party. The DJ had already played like his fourth Harry Connick Jr. song. 

I was nursing a beer and gnawing on nibblers like a beaver when this salt-and-peppered guy wearing white pants, a seersucker jacket, a bow tie, and suede shoes ambled up to me. 

“You must be a lawyer,” I said. 

“How’d you know?” 

“Well, the guy who wrote the Bonfire of the Vanities is dead so you’re not him,” I said, “you must be a lawyer.” 

“That was an interesting sermon,” he said, “if that’s your thing.”

Here we go, I thought.

“I’m actually a marine biologist,” I said, “that’s my day job.”

“Really?”

“No. No, I’m a pastor. Believe it or not, people really pay me to do this.”

He nodded. 

“I’m not a Christian,” he said, putting up his hands like a suspect getting nabbed red-handed, “but I do try to live a good life and to be good and to help people when I can. When you scrape off all the other stuff, isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about— the golden rule?”

And I thought: “Wow, that’s really deep. Did you come up with that all on your own or is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? Damn, I should write that down: It’s really all about doing good for others. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon some day.”

Instead I said: “Yep, that’s Church— everything you learned in Kindegarten repeated Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday and then you die.”

And he looked at me like he felt sad for me, giving my life to something so boring. So I raised my beer to him and said: “But sometimes we get to argue about sex.”

———————-

If you want proof that deep-down we want the comfort of merits and demerits rather than the indiscriminate acceptance of Easter, if you want evidence that in the end we prefer the Golden Rule instead of the Gospel, you need look no further than the fact that Matthew 25 is every Methodist’s favorite parable. 

The parable of the sheep and the goats is Jesus’ final parable. 

And, sure, this final parable sounds like it’s finally the end of Jesus’ preaching on bottomless, unconditional, no-matter-what-you-do-I-do-for-you grace. 

The closer he gets to his passion, it sounds like the prodigal father has run out of fatted calves and now is going to reward the rewardable. 

It sounds like Jesus has pivoted from gift to grades, from mercy for sinners to merit pay, from free undeserved pardon to punishment. 

Grace is God’s unmerited favor. 

Grace is God’s one-way love.  

Grace is the melody the New Testament returns to over and over again: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of good deeds you do— so that no one may boast about what they’ve earned.”

But—

There seems to be alot of earning and deserving going on here with the sheep and the goats.

As a Shepherd, this King doles out punishments and rewards based not on our faith but on our deeds alone. 

(We think) 

The sheep fed the hungry. The sheep gave water to the thirsty. The sheep welcomed the stranger. The sheep clothed the naked. The sheep cared for the sick. The sheep visited the prisoner. 

The sheep did all the things you need not believe in the Good Shepherd to believe are good things; nevertheless, the Good Shepherd rewards them for the doings they did.

And the goats did not do those deeds. 

And they are punished precisely for not doing them— we think. 

Salvation is based not on what Christ accomplished for us (so it seems here). Salvation is based on what we accomplish for Christ. 

The Gospel (it sounds like here) is not Christ the Lamb of God became a goat so that goats like us might be reckoned among the Father’s faithful flock. The Gospel (it sounds like here) is that you must get over your goatness and become a better sheep by doing what the Good Shepherd tells you to do.

The promise (it sure sounds like here) is not that everything has already been done for you in Christ and him crucified. The promise (it sure sounds like here) is that Christ is for you if you do everything for him. 

Even though Jesus thus far has studiously avoided making badness an obstacle for admittance into his Kingdom and spent all of his time eating and drinking not with sheep but with goats, it sure sounds like Jesus here has scrapped the prior three years of his preaching, taken off the velvet glove of grace and now put on the brass knuckles of the Law. 

Your sins of omission— what you’ve left undone— they’re sins against me, Jesus says. 

We think. 

Based on the conventional, cliched reading of this parable, even a busy flock like you all better buckle down and pump up the volume on your good deed doing. 

No matter how much you’re doing, do more. 

Do more; so that, when you meet the Lord for your final exam, your performance review, your everlasting audit, you can say to Christ your Savior: You gave us the course curriculum in Matthew 25— you gave us your marching orders. 

And we did what you said to do. 

And with our report cards and resumes in hand, with our discipleship diplomas and extracurricular accomplishments— with all our good deeds done for another— we will be able to give our valediction to Christ our Savior: 

Graduate us, Lord, to what we’ve earned. 

Pay us what we’re owed. 

Give us what we deserve.

Except—

If we said such to Christ, we wouldn’t be speaking to our Savior because he told us what to do and we did it so, really, we saved ourselves. 

Let me say it again: 

If Christianity boils down to doing what Christ said to do, then Christ is not a Savior, for by doing what he said to do we’ve effectively saved ourselves, which is sort of unfortunate because Jesus promptly goes from here to Jerusalem where he’s bound and determined to save us from our sins by dying for them.

As the angel at the gates of heaven says to the do-gooding dead guy in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Nothing here can be bought or earned. Everything here is bleeding charity, grace, and its yours only by the asking.”

It’s yours by the asking. 

———————-

The Bible says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone, but on every human heart too. Every single one us— we’re all hard-wired to be score-keepers and debt collectors, hellbent on turning the Golden Rule into a yard stick by which we can measure our enoughness over and against our neighbors. 

And because I’m just like you, I can bet what some of you are thinking right about now. 

Does this mean our good deed doing doesn’t matter?!

Of course what we do matters. 

The Paul who says that you are saved by grace through faith not good deed doing is the same Paul who tells the Philippians that “God is at work in you and through you to will and to work for his pleasure.”

So don’t misunderstand me: 

Yes, good works are important. 

Yet— 

We’re so stubborn about shaping Jesus in our score-keeping image, we’re so determined to turn Jesus into the Almighty Auditor from the Department of Afterlife Affairs, that we miss the embarrassingly obvious epiphany in this parable. 

The big reveal behind this parable of judgment is that good godly works cannot be tallied up on a scorecard. 

The good works that count for the Kingdom cannot be counted because— notice now— when the Shepherd hands out report cards neither the sheep nor the goats have any idea they’ve done what the King says they’ve done or left undone. 

When the King of the nations separates them as a Shepherd one from the other, the sheep are not standing there waiting to be handed their magna cum laude for a lifetime of charitable giving and community service hours. 

No.

For the sheep and the goats alike, there’s just surprise: “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”

The sheep are surprised by the grade the Good Shepherd gives them. 

They’re stunned. 

To use this parable to exhort members of the flock to go and do good deeds for the Shepherd is to ignore the point that the sheep are blissfully ignorant that they’ve done good deeds for the Shepherd. 

Wait, wait, wait— when did we that?

They’re surprised. 

They’re surprised because they weren’t thinking at all about doing the good deeds they did.  

All their good works— the sheep did them not because they were told that’s what sheep ought to do. 

The sheep just did them as they were caught up in the joy of their Shepherd. 

The good works that count were not done to be counted; the good works that count were unpremeditated, done out of love— organically, such that the sheep weren’t even aware they’d done them. 

———————-

Listen again to who was counting. 

“Then those on the King’s left will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’”

It’s amazing how we mishear this parable.

It’s not that the goats didn’t do any good deeds. 

It’s that they felt justified in having done enough.

We fed the hungry. We clothed the naked. We did all those things— when did we not take care of you too?

It’s not that the goats didn’t do any good deeds. 

It’s that the goats come to Jesus dependent upon their good deeds. 

The goats think they’re good enough; meanwhile, the sheep were so in love with their Shepherd they’re stunned to hear they’ve got any good grades on their report card at all.  

———————-

The danger in taking the Bible for granted is that we’re all natural born Pharisees, and we turn the Gospel in to the Law without even realizing we’ve done it.

We’re as stubborn as goats when it comes to this parable. 

We insist on hearing it in terms of reward and punishment, earning and deserving, but that contradicts the clear conclusion Christ contributes to it: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”

Notice, Jesus does not say to the sheep Here’s your wage. Here’s your reward.

No, Jesus says to the sheep Inherit the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is not their compensation. The Kingdom is not their accomplishment. 

The Kingdom is their inheritance.  

You can’t earn an inheritance. 

Not only is this parable about inheriting instead of earning, Jesus says as plain as the nose on your face that this inheritance has been prepared for the sheep from before the foundation of the world. 

Before God put the stars in the sky, God made this promise to you. 

Think about it—

This parable isn’t about our works, good or bad, because before any of our works, good or bad, had been done, what work was God doing? 

Preparing a place in the Kingdom for you. 

For all of you. 

For every last one of you.

How do I know?

Notice—

In the parable, the King doesn’t say to the goats what he says to the sheep. 

He doesn’t say to those on his left “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” 

No, he says “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” 

Sure, we can get our sphincters all in a pinch over that image of eternal annihilating fire. 

But if this parable is about our inheritance, then the point is that the place of punishment wasn’t prepared for them. 

Don’t you see— the place where the goats are going is not a place they were ever meant to go. 

The place the goats go is not a place that was prepared for them. 

Where the goats are going they don’t have to go. 

Don’t you see—

No one is out who wasn’t already in.

Nobody is excluded from the Kingdom who wasn’t already included in the Kingdom from before the foundation of the world.

The goats get themselves where they’re going by stubbornly insisting they’re earned what can only be inheirited. 

The goats are like the elder brother in that other parable, pouting with his arms crossed and gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness beyond the prodigal’s party. Father, I’ve worked for you all these years. I deserve that party.

In Heaven, there is nothing but forgiven sinners. 

In Hell, there is nothing but forgiven sinners. 

The only difference between the two is that those in Hell don’t think they deserve to be there.

And those in Heaven know they don’t deserve to be there. 

———————-

The DJ at the wedding party had stepped onto the parquet to lead some of the guests in dancing to the song Uptown Funk, which isn’t exactly eternal conscious torment but it’s close.

I was sitting at the grandma table, watching and picking at the leftovers on my dinner plate, when a woman in a mauve dress pushed some of the plates to the middle of the table, and sat down next to me. 

She sort of laughed to herself and shook her head and looked straight down at her lap, and when she looked back up at me, I could see she was crying. 

I held up my hands.

“Don’t look at me. I’m a marine biologist.”

She smiled and sniffed her runny nose. She looked to be about sixty. 

“Seeing you do the wedding,” she said, “I couldn’t help but think of my daughter.” 

“Did she get married recently?” 

She winced at the question and wiped her eyes. Then she took a deep breath like she was coaching herself up, and she told me her daughter was gay. 

She told me how her daughter had MS and how she’d found a partner, someone who would be there to care for her one day. 

“Watching these two get married today, it just reminded me of all the things I’ve heard people in my family and in my church say about my own daughter.”

“Like what things?” I was dumb enough to ask.

“They say she’s abomination. One of my good friends told me, matter-of-fact, that my daughter wouldn’t be with me or Jesus when she died, that she’d go to Hell like she deserved, but that I shouldn’t worry because in the Kingdom I won’t even remember her anymore.” 

That and the rest she told me— it honestly took my breath away. 

“What do you think?” she wiped her nose and asked. 

“What do I think? It’s not what I think; it’s what the Church and the Bible teach— and that’s that not a one of us gets in by the uprightness of our lives nor are even our awful sins an obstacle for admittance. We’re justified by grace through faith, alone. When it comes to the Kingdom, the only relationship of your daughter’s that matters is the relationship she has with Christ. Saying “I do” to that Bridegroom is all any of us gotta do to gain entry into the party.”

“But my friends say that she and her partner will go to Hell…”

I cut her off. 

“They might go to Hell— sure— but if they do it won’t be because Jesus sent them there and it won’t be for the reasons you fear. In fact those Pharisees you call family and friends— they might be surprised how things shake out for themselves too. Jesus is annoyingly consistent on the matter— the only ones not in the Kingdom are the ones who insist they ought to be there.”

———————-

I didn’t think of it until this week as I studied this scripture text. 

That mother at the wedding, worried sick over whether her daughter was a sheep or a goat, I could’ve pointed out to her that according to Jesus here there is one fool proof way of knowing for certain that he is with you. 

This parable of judgment— there’s a third category of people here. 

Not just sheep. Not just goats. 

There’s a third flock of people in this parable.

Those in need. 

Jesus says it bluntly: the place where his presence is promised— where there should be no surprise or speculation— is not with the good but with those in need.

And so if you’re worried about whether you’re a sheep or a goat, then your refuge should not be the work you’ve done for Christ but the work you need from him. 

The assurance that Jesus Christ abides with you lies not in your merits outmeasuring your demerits. 

The assurance that Jesus Christ abides with you— is for you— lies in your lack. 

The guarrantee that you are not alone— the guarrantee of God’s blessing upon you is not your awesome list of accomplishments but your inadequacy. 

I should’ve told that mother that the very fact of her tears and grief, the very fact of her daughter’s illness, the very fact of their rejection by and estrangement from others, the very fact that a lot of self-identified sheep treat them like goats and presume to do the King’s work of sorting and sending for him— those very facts are red-letter proof-positive that Jesus Christ— if he’s with anyone, he’s with them. 

Because Jesus puts it plain to both the sheep and the goats alike— he makes his office is at the end of your rope.

I didn’t think to tell her.

But I can tell you. 

Has the treadmill of good works alone left you exhausted and starving?

Do you thirst for the kind of faith and joy you see in others?

Are you sick of all your best efforts to be a good sheep?

Or are you just sick?

Is there something in your past that leaves you feeling naked and ashamed?

Are you in a relationship locked in resentment?

Are you captive to abuse? Or addiction?

Do you feel out place, wondering what the hell you’re even doing here?

If so, hear the good news. 

In the same way you come up here with the gesture of a beggar to receive him in bread and wine, Jesus Christ is present to you in your poverty, in your lack, in your inadequacy. 

Hear the good news: the ticket to this Table is the only ticket you need for his Kingdom. 

And that’s your need. 

You need only know your need. 

Nothing in the Kingdom can be bought; it is yours only by the asking.

Ephesians 4, 1 John 4

Since Jesus promises that wherever two or three are gathered under the power of his name there he is present too, I probably shouldn’t lie. I’ve never really liked weddings. Wedding planners are the bane of my existence. At receptions, I almost always get stuck at the grandma table, and don’t even get me started on mothers-in-law. 

I’ve never really liked weddings (and I say no to alot of couples). What I do like though is the wedding rite.

The wedding rite: your pledge today of free unmerited forgiveness and unconditional love come what may from this day forward. Not only are the promises you make one another the very definition of faith, by them you become for us all a parable of the prodigal, unnatural, foolish love with which God loves us all. 

But note—

The love with which you love one another is not God. 

God is love, but love is not God.

St. John, who tells us today that “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” goes on in chapter four to write that “No one has ever seen God; if we love love another, God lives in us…” 

Hold up— 

No one has ever seen God?! 

Clearly, John can’t mean that as we hear it, for the entirety of John’s epistle is a no-holds-barred attack on those who would deny that the almighty, invisible God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, took up a body and resided among us as one of us in the flesh. John even has a name for those who would deny that in Jesus Christ we’ve seen all of God that there is to see. He calls such incarnation deniers antichrist. 

Before you start wondering what sort of wedding sermon this is, pay attention: a better way for us to hear verse eight then is “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is Jesus.” Whoever does not love does not know God, for Jesus is God. Whoever does not love obviously does not know the God is Jesus.

When St. John says today that God is love, he doesn’t mean that God is analogous to whatever the two of you feel today. Ask any married person, feelings are fleeting. I like to tell people about to be married: the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary precondition to loving your spouse. If that strikes you as unromantic, I can make it even worse. Consider, the vows you two make today derive from ancient monastic vows; that is, the promises you two make to each other derive from the promises made by single people who pledge poverty and chastity to Christ and his Church. Not very romantic.

When St. John tells us that “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” his point is not that your feelings of love are akin to God. His point is that Christ, who was God seen, in the flesh, the image of the invisible in whose image therefore you are made, is the measure of the love you two promise one another. This is why the marriage rite tonight begins with Jesus. 

The ancient rite doesn’t begin naturally. 

The ancient rite doesn’t proclaim— as you might expect— that Adam and Eve give us the example for marriage; it says Jesus gives us the example for married love. But Jesus was single and spent most of his time hanging out with twelve other single dudes. 

That Jesus is your example of married love, the prayerbook says, which changes how we often think about marriage.

If the unmarried Jesus is the example for marriage then marriage— Christian marriage— is not about bearing children but about bearing witness.

It’s not about procreation but about proclamation.

This is because what secures the future of the world now is not our progeny but the promise of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

As the Book of Common Prayer paraphrases St. Paul: “Marriage signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” The marriage of Christ and the Church is not a metaphor. The marriage of Christ and the Church is the real marriage, to which starting today, your marriage points. So maybe Jesus isn’t such a bad example for married love after all.

When you step back and understand what St. Paul says in Ephesians, you realize that the reason Jesus is single is because for every (Christian) married couple, Christ is your bridegroom. 

To take scripture seriously then is to understand that every marriage— every Christian marriage— like the Trinity in whose name we wed, is a three-personed affair.  It’s not just the two who say “I do” but also Christ for whom both spouses are his bride. That’s why Jesus calls his Spirit the Paraclete. 

Para, in Greek, means “alongside.”

Indeed Christ in his Holy Spirit coming alongside of you two, the bridegroom making your marriage a threesome, is your only hope if your marriage is to yield the fruit we heard Paul describe in Ephesians. We can only love, as St. John writes, because he first loved us. We cannot on our own muster up love that is patient and humble. Paul isn’t giving advice there to the married folks in Ephesians. Paul is describing the fruit grown in us— not by us but by our marriage to Christ who is our Bridegroom. 

The Apostle Paul tends to get a bad rap from readers who read badly, but when Paul turns to the meaning and mission of marriage he does not associate marriage with the creation of children nor does he associate marriage with the complementarity of men and women.

No, when it comes to marriage Paul turns to typology. Paul says that by your daily undeserved “I dos” and by your desire for one another, you signify the mystery— the word Paul uses there is sacrament— of Christ’s union with us. 

Your marriage is a sacrament within a still larger sacrament. 

And a sacrament, as we say in the Church, is a means of grace. Your marriage today, therefore, does not justify your love. Your marriage today does not make your love official. Starting today, your marriage is the means of your love’s grace. 

Marriage is one of the chief places where we, as Christians, pay one another’s debts, forgive one another’s trespasses, and walk many miles in each other’s shoes. Marriage is where we learn to love the ungodly, welcome the stranger you call you, and to lay down our lives. In marriage, we suffer with and substitute for one another. 

The wedding of the Lamb— to which your wedding today points—and the blood of the Lamb, in other words, are inseparable. 

To put one’s body on the line in friendship with another, for better and worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part— to commit your loving actions in spite of all the conditions that will work to extinguish your loving feelings— marriage is a means where Christians daily and incarnately live out and partake in the cruciform love by which Christ re-befriends the world; that is to say:

Marriage makes a home a hospital

where Christ the Great Physician can make sinners well

by the constancy and forgiveness of a spouse. 

Or, as St. John says in his letter, through our love of one another, Christ’s love heals us. 

Perhaps that’s why Jesus saves some of his darkest, harshest rhetoric for those who refuse to celebrate the wedding of those whom God has joined together. 

Becauses there’s no reason to refuse the celebration, for the only qualification any of us must meet to enter the marriage supper of the lamb called the Kingdom of Heaven is our faith alone. Not a one of us gets in by the goodness of our deeds or the rightness of our doctrine. We are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. Saying “I do” to the Bridegroom is all any of us, sinner or saint, gotta do to gain entry into the party.

Speaking of marriage suppers—

Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven not to a wedding but to a wedding feast. Jesus likens the Kingdom not to a wedding’s couple but to the whole party. That’s because you’re not the only people making promises today. 

There are three vows in the marriage rite not two. 

Not only do you two commit vows to God and to one another, those gathered here today— they too pledge to God uphold you in your love and to hold you accountable to the promises you offer each other. 

And where there is one who gives a promise of love and another who receives a promise of love and still another— all of you— who witness and bless and celebrate their promise of love— one, two, three— like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven.

No one has ever seen God apart from Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, but today, you two along with all of us partygoers here become a parable of how the prodigal God loves us as God loves God. 

Amen.

We started a new sermon series on Jesus’ parables that will take us through the summer. First up, Matthew 18.21-35, the parable of the unforgiving slave.

 I presided over a wedding yesterday here in the sanctuary. The bride and the groom, both of whom were in their sixties, said “I do and when we were all done, I went up to Starbucks to write my sermon. I had my clergy collar still strapped around my neck. I sat down at a little round table with my notes and my Bible, and before I could get very far a woman crept up to me and said: “Um, excuse me Father….could I?”

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me. 

     “Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______” I started to say but she just looked confused. 

     “Never mind” I said. “Sit down.”

     She looked to be somewhere in her fifites. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red. 

     No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts. 

     “Maybe this is a mistake. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…”

     She fussed with the button on her shirt while she rambled, embarrassed. 

     “It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.”

     “Put what down?” I asked. 

     “Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.” She fussed with her hair. 

     “Beginning at the beginning usually works,” I said. 

     “Yeah,” she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head. 

     And then she told it to me. 

     About her husband and their marriage. 

     About his drinking, the years of it. 

     About his lies, the years of it. 

     She told me about how he’s sober now. 

     And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never be paid back what she spent. 

     Then she bit her lip and paused. 

     And so I asked her: “Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’

    “No, I know I ought to forgive him” she said. “Our priest told me years ago —he said I should forgive but not forget.”

“He told you to forgive but not forget?” I asked. 

She nodded.  

“Well, that’s why God gave us the Reformation,” I said under my breath. 

“What was that?” 

“Nevermind— what’s your question then if it’s not about forgiveness?” I asked.

     “I’ve forgiven him— at least, I’ve tried, I’ve told him I have— but…why can’t I just wipe this from my slate and move on?”

And when she said that (“Why can’t I just wipe this from my slate?”) I excused myself and I walked to the restroom and I closed the door and I threw my hands in the air and I shouted: 

“Thank you, Jesus, for, as reliably as Papa John’s, you have delivered 

unto me this perfect anecdote for tomorrow’s parable!” 

Just kidding. 

But without her realizing it, I did tell her about the slave in today’s text, who even before you get to the parable’s grim finale is in a cage he cannot see. 

———————-

When Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. 

     Peter’s a hand-raiser and a rear-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer. 

After all, the Jewish Law commanded God’s people to forgive a wrongdoer three times. Seven times no doubt struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness. Not only does Peter double the amount of forgiveness prescribed by the Law, he adds one, rounding the total to seven. Because God had spoken creation into being in seven days, the number seven was the Jewish number for completeness and perfection. 

Peter might be an idiot, but he’s not stupid. Peter knew seven times— that’s a divine amount of forgiveness. Think about it— seven times:

Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as a for instance. 

     Imagine someone gossips about you. 

And you confront them about it. 

1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. 

Fool me 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

“What’s the limit, Jesus? Where’s the boundary?”

And remember, Matthew 18 is all one scene. 

It’s Jesus’ yarn about the Good Shepherd, who all but abandons the well-behaved ninety-nine to search out the single sheep too stupid to stay with the flock, that prompts Peter’s question and the parable that answers Peter’s question. 

How many times should the lost sheep be sought and brought back, Jesus?

How many fatted calves does the father have to slaughter for his kid?

How many times do we have to forgive, Jesus?

     And Peter suggests drawing the line at seven times. Whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery or synagogue shooters, seven is a whole lot of forgiveness. Probably Peter expected a pat on the back and a gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one. 

Notice what Jesus doesn’t do with Peter’s question. Notice— Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s question with another question. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter “What’d they do?” Jesus doesn’t say “Well, you know, it depends— the forgiveness has to fit the crime. Roseanne Barr and racist tweets, maybe four times forgiveness. But Trysten Terrell at UNC-Charlotte…”

No, Jesus takes it in the other direction: “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times.”

Seventy-seven times— pay attention, now, this is important. 

Jesus didn’t pull that number out of his incarnate keister. 

———————-

By telling Peter seventy-seven times forgiveness for those who sin against you, Jesus hearkens back to the mark of Cain and the sin of all of us in Adam. 

In Genesis 4, after Cain murders his brother Abel, in order to prevent a cyle of bloodshed,  God— in God’s mercy— places a mark on Cain, and God warns humanity that whoever harms Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. They will receive seven times vengeance, God warns. 

Later in Genesis 4, after civilization is founded east of Eden on the blood of Abel, Lamech, Cain’s grandson, murders a man. And in telling his two wives about the murder, Lamech plagiarizes God’s promise for himself and Lamech declares that if anyone should harm Lamech then vengeance will be visited upon them— guess how many times— seventy times. 

If you don’t get this, you won’t get it. 

When Jesus tells Peter he owes another seventy-seven times forgiveness, Jesus is not fixing a boundary, albeit a gracious and superabundant boundary. No, Jesus is saying here that in him there is no limit to God’s forgiveness because his is a pardon powerful to unwind all of our sin as far back as Adam’s original sin. 

Seventy-seven times— he’s not simply raising the ceiling even higher on Peter; he’s saying that there is no floor to God’s grace. Seventy-seven times. God’s forgiveness for you in Christ is bottomless. 

Make no mistake—This is the radicality and the scandal of the Gospel. This is the beating heart of Christianity. 

I know I’ve said this before, but I also know that not everyone who shows up on a Sunay morning is a believer so I’m going to say it again. 

What makes Christianity distinct among the world’s religions is that, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a religion of do. Christianity is not even a religion, for that matter, it’s an announcement— it’s news— that everything has been done. 

And Jesus gives you a hint of that here in his response. Jesus reframes Peter’s question about the limits of the forgiveness we ought to do by alluding to the forgiveness God will do in him. In other words, Jesus takes Peter’s question about the Law (what we ought to do for God) and he answers in terms of Grace (what God has done for us). 

Think about it—

When you make Christianity into a message of do this instead of it has been done, you ignore the trajectory of the parable Jesus tells where it’s your failure to appreciate just how much you’ve been forgiven that produces in you unforgiveness for another. 

The road to hell here in this story is paved not with ill intentions but with amnesia. What damns this slave is not his sin but his forgiven sin getting forgotten. 

“Lord, how much do I have to forgive?” And Jesus responds: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…“ 

As if to say, the very question “How much forgiveness do I have to give out to those who owe me?” reveals you’ve forgotten how much mercy has been given to you.

Ten thousand talents worth. 

The key to this entire text today is in the numbers. 

Seventy-seven times of forgiveness. 

Ten thousand talents of debt.

———————-

As soon as Peter and the disciples heard Jesus say that the Kingdom of God is like a slave— a slave— who owed his king ten thousand talents, they would’ve known instantly that Jesus is taking forgiveness out of the realm of do and recasting it in terms of done.  

In case you gave up Lou Dobbs for Lent and are rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

This slave owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 170,000 years worth of debt. The Kingdom of God is like a slave who owed his king a zillion bitcoin, that’s how Peter and the rest would’ve heard the setup. 

What’s more, ten-thousand was the highest possible number expressible in Greek; it was a synonmyn for infinity.

“What’s the limit to the forgiveness we ought to give, Jesus?”

“There was a king who had a slave,” Jesus says, “and that slave owed that king infinitely more than what Nick Cage owes the IRS.” 

     Ten thousand talents. 

It’s a ridiculous amount he owes his king, which makes the slave’s promise to the king all the more pathetic: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you back everything.” 

I’ll pay you back? To infinity and beyond?

This is what heaven sounds like to God: I’ll make it up to you, God. I’ll do better. I’ll get my act back in the black. Give me another chance, God. Be patient with me. This is what heaven sounds like—a cacophony of our pathetic pleas all of which drown out his promise that a debt we can neither fathom nor repay has been forgiven. 

Look, it’s great that God, as the Bible promises, is patient and slow to anger, but God giving you another chance is not what you need. God’s patience is not what you need. You need pardon. Jesus’ point right at the get-go here in his parable is that God’s patience will not really remedy your ultimate situtation. 

This is why the Church doesn’t charge you admission because of all the outlets in the world only the Church is bold enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Your problem is infinitely bigger than your best self-improvement project. No good deed you do can undo your unpayable debt. Before God, you are like a slave so far in the red it would take a hundred thousand lives to get it AC/DC.  

Or, it would take just one life. 

———————-

Seventy-seven times, ten thousand talents— one life. 

Remember the amount. 

It’s a kingdom’s worth of cash the slave is in hock to the king. So when the king forgives the slave’s debt, the king dies. 

In forgiving his servant, the king forsakes his kingdom— he forsakes everything— because there’s no way the king can dispose the servant’s debt without the king also sacrificing his entire ledger. 

The king’s whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is earned and deserved the king DIES to that life so that his servant can have new one. 

     But notice. 

     After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score?

    No sooner is the slave forgiven and freed than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about three months wages. Not chump change but small potatoes compared to his infinite IOU. 

    He grabs the servant, demands what’s owed to him, and he sends the man to prison, turning a deaf ear— notice— to the very same plea he’d pled to the king: “be patient with me and I will pay back everything…”

How many times do we gotta forgive somebody, Jesus?

     When the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received, the king gives to the slave exactly what the slave wants. 

You want to keep living your life keeping score? Even though I died to score-keeping? Fine, Have it your way. But that way of life— I gotta warn you— it’s torture. 

You see, even before the slave ends up in prison, that slave was already stuck inside a cage he couldn’t see. 

———————-

“Why can’t I just wipe the slate clean and move on?” the woman at Starbucks asked me.

     I sipped my coffee. 

“Look,” I said, “provided you’re willing to be exploited for the purposes of a sermon illustration some day, I’ll give you the goods, straight up, and you won’t even have to pay for the refill on my coffee.”

She smiled and nodded.

“It’s not about wiping your ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the life of ledger-keeping altogether— it’s about dying to it. The ledger is the whole reason you’ve forgiven him but still don’t feel free.”

And I paused, wondering if I should tack on the truth:

“And my guess is as long as you’re holding onto your ledger it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve told your husband you forgive him— my guess is he doesn’t feel very free either.”

She bit her lip. 

“When the Bible says “Christ is the end of the Law,” I said, “it’s just a pious way of saying that Jesus is the end of all score-keeping. He’s gotten rid of all it— the sins and the spreadsheets both.”

And I could tell what she was about to counterpunch me with so, being an Enneagram 8, I interuppted her and talked over her: 

“We say “forgive but don’t forget,” sure. 

But Jesus says: Don’t forget— you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten all your sins in the black hole of his death. Ditto for whomever has trespassed against you and whatever was that trespass against you. Remember that you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten everything— remember that and, eventually, you can forgive and forget.”

She took off her glasses and wiped the corners of her eyes. 

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, “that doesn’t sound fair.” 

“Of course it’s not fair,” I said, “if God were fair we’d all be screwed.”

And then her phone rang and she had to leave as quickly as she’d came.

———————-

The woman at Starbucks and the slave in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger. 

Admit it—

Some of you excel at Excel, carrying around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you. 

Names of people who’ve taken something from you. 

       Names of people who’ve wronged you. 

    People that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book. 

  Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you. 

Jesus says with his story that in order for you to enjoy your forgiveness his death makes possible you’ve got to die too— to that whole way of living that produces questions like “How many times do I have…?” 

No— just as there is no empty grave without a cross, there is no salvation for you without your death. 

You’ve got to die to your life of book-keeping.

Limitless forgiveness— of course it sounds impossible. 

I get it.

Forgiveness without limits comes so unnaturally to us it first had to come to us as Jesus. 

And— no less than then— Jesus comes to us still today. 

Jesus comes to us in his word. He comes to us in wine and bread 

And Jesus comes to us preaching the promise of this parable:

The promise that those who know how much they have been forgiven— ten thousand talents— in the fullness of time, through word and wine and bread, much will they be able to forgive. 

So come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see that God is not fair; God is gracious. 

Come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see and enjoy your forgiveness, for the promise that everything has been done for you— that promise alone has the power to enable you to do for another.

THE POWER TO DO IS NOT IN YOU!

THE POWER TO DO IS IN THIS PROMISE OF DONE. 

So come to the table; so that, you might become what you eat.

           

Calvin said the human heart is an idol factory. Augustine said our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. DZ of Mockingbird Ministries and the author of the new book, Seculosity, says we’re more religious than ever before we’re church “in church” in different ways.

Love, politics, parenting, technology, fitness are not secular alternatives to religion. They are, says DZ, secular ways of being religious. We’re never not in church now says David, but because the Church of Politics or Soul Cycle are inherently religions of Law, we’re increasingly exhausted, self-righteous, and cruel. We’er searching for “enoughness” from gods that, without the promise of grace, cannot bestow it.

Check out his work at www.mbird.com and grab a copy of his book over at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

And after you do David a solid, pay it forward by helping us out at the podcast to keep delivering you conversations about faith without using stained-glass language. Go to our website (www.crackersandgrapejuice.com) and click on “Support the Show” to become a patreon for chump change.

Micro-Aggression

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2019 — 1 Comment

Lent 2 — Romans 3.19-24

This is a while ago now—

I’d made a promise to Ali to take steps to save money. We’d talked about cutting costs, stopping the silly spending, and making an effort to be thrifty. 

“Are you on board?” she’d asked me. 

With this tongue, yours truly— a pastor, this professional Christian— said “I do.” 

As part of our mutual cost-cutting vow, Ali and I made the decision to liberate ourselves from the People’s Republic of Verizon. 

We decided to cut the cord and get rid of our cable so that, we would get zero channels on our television. Between Netflix and Tom Brady going to the Super Bowl every year what difference television does it make?

You can imagine how popular our decision was with our children (not). 

     Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our FIOS receiver in its box and shipped it back to Weimar Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision. 

     For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the People’s Republic of Verizon’s bill— I mean, do they think we live in aiport terminals with inflated prices like that? 

     For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want. We didn’t want them inundated with promise after promise after promise that this or that could solve all their problems. 

     Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband—me—is a complete sucker for informercials. 

      A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark. And it’s true. 

Make me a promise about giving me the power to unlock the better me inside me and I’m all yours faster than you can say shipping and handling not included.

     If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words “set it and forget it” fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens at one time. 

     If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine. 

     If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never “that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.”

     No, my first thought was always “that looks like something I need. That will solve all my problems.”

     So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition. There are advertisements and advice and promised solutions everywhere. 

     A couple of years ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish. 

     At that point, having cut the cord, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section? 

     Uh huh, a product demonstration. 

And— truth be told— I thought about my promise to Ali. And I’d meant it, I’d really meant it.

     The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s. 

For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which, let’s just say, got me to thinking of myself as Brad Pritt in some extended, unrated director’s cut scenes

     “Hey, let’s stick around and watch this” I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment. 

     In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call. 

     The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix. 

     Have you seen one? Do you own one?

     If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is the blender-equivalent of that new yacht recently purchased by Dan Synder. 

     Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick: 

“The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems. 

With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.”

     And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: “Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.”

     No, I was thinking…

     “This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.” 

     I looked to my side. Gabriel was transfixed too. 

     The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: “Who enjoys pesto?”

     And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘“I do. I am Italian after all.”

     And she smiled at me— only at at me— and she said: “I’ve always had a thing for Italians.”

     Aheh. 

“I went to Princeton,” I blurted out like we were speed-dating and the clock was about to sound.

     “Can you cook?” she asked me. And I nodded my head, like Fonzi, too cool for words. 

     “Even better” she purred. 

     And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew now she only cared about me. 

     “Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.” 

And all of us men, like mosquitos headed stubbornly towards the light that will be their demise, we nodded like Stepford Husbands. 

     “But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem worthy of declaring a national emergency) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?” 

     And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience. 

     Hypnotized, I said: “No, they won’t do” even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem. 

     She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or a Carl’s Jr commercial, and and then she said in her come-hither voice: 

“I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.”

     I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon. 

It was like I couldn’t help myself— like I was bound and determined to do the one thing I wanted not to do.

 

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This fall Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage in Cupertino to hawk the latest generation of Apple’s wearable technology. 

The series 4 Apple Watch was itself not really new or a noticeable upgrade over its precessors. 

What was new, what was distinct, was its promise in the sales pitch: 

“It’s all new. For a better you.”

The unveiling commercial at the showcase continued with the promise: 

“There is a better you in you.” 

There’s a better you in you and with this product you will have the freedom and power to unlock it. 

The new Apple Watch is but an overt example of the same promise pitched to us three-thousand times a day. 

St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike. 

Therefore, we’re hardwired to want to do and improve. 

You’re hard-wired to want to be a better you and to build a better world. 

Because the Law is written on your heart, you’re hard-wired to be a sucker for the promise of progress. 

You’re hard-wired by the Law on the your heart to be a sucker for the promise of a better you inside you. 

And so it’s not surprising that is the very same promise dangled in front of us three-thousand times a day. From our TV screens to our Facebook feeds, from our watches to our smartphone notifications, you and I are exposed to over three-thousand advertisements a day. 

Three-thousand per day. 

Every last single one of them relies upon the Law written on your heart. 

Three-thousand times a day— the same simple, seductive formula. They identify a problem— maybe a problem you didn’t know you had until they told you you had that problem. Then they make you a promise: With this product, you can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems) and unlock the better you inside you. 

Three-thousand times a day we’re promised what the Law on our hearts deceives us to believe. 

There’s a better you in you. 

What’s my point?

There’s a better you inside of you— very often, it’s the pitch Christians make too. 

Just invite Jesus into your heart, and you’ll unlock the happier you inside of you.Your marriage will be healed. Your kids will stay the straight and narrow. You’ll feel fulfilled. 

Worship, pray, serve, give— and you can unlock the Jesus-version of you inside of you, the you who’s patient and kind and utters nary an angry word. 

With just three easy installments of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, you’ll live like Jesus, turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy-times-seven, you’ll never commit adultery in your heart and the log in your eye— shazaam, never to return. 

Not only has my Apple Watch not liberated the better me inside me, it can’t even reliably distinguish between me sitting down and me standing up. 

It failed to wake me up on time this morning, and whenever I ask Siri to play Ryan Adams music (which I won’t be doing anymore) it always plays Summer of ‘69 instead. 

Likewise, what the Church often promises about faith being the key to unlock the better you inside you— to the buyer beware.  

————————

Here’s the lie behind all those promises we’re pitched. 

Here’s the lie the Law, written on our hearts, deceives us to believe.

Here’s the lie— the you inside you is not better. 

In fact, as Jesus teaches again and again, the problem out there in the world is what comes from inside of you.

The answer to what’s wrong in the world… is you, Jesus says.

As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “…there is no health in us.”

That’s why, St. Paul tells us today, our justification comes completely by Grace, entirely apart from the Law— because we have nothing to contribute to our salvation save our sin.

The you inside you is not better. 

You’re not basically a good person who just requires a little bit of help from your friend Jesus so that you can unlock the better you inside you and live your best life now— no, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism and, though it’s the most popular religion in America, it’s a lie. 

The you inside you is not better. 

The you inside you is bound. 

The you inside you is bound.

We forget— God’s grace, God’s One-Way Love, reveals not just the character of the Giver but the condition of the Receiver. 

The medicine should indicate the disease; the prescription should betray the diagnosis. You don’t require some advice or a nudge in the right direction; you require a savior.

That you require the liberating, unilateral, one-way love called Grace should tell you something about your predicament. 

As Paul Zahl says, the New Testament’s High Christology— it’s view of who Christ is and what Christ has done— comes with a correlative Low Anthropology— a dim view of who we are by nature and the good we’re capable of doing. 

Notice, today—

Paul announces the invasion (that’s the word Paul uses in Greek, apokalyptetai) of God’s grace in Jesus Christ without a single “if” here in chapter three. 

For almost three chapters, Paul’s been raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our sins, implicating each and every one of us. 

The first three chapters of Romans— it sounds like Paul’s whipping you up for an altar call until what you anticipate next from Paul is the word if. 

If you turn away from your sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you plead for God’s mercy…

If you believe THEN God will justify you. 

No— there’s no ifs there’s just this great big but, what Karl Barth says is the hinge of the Gospel, the turning of the ages: “But now, apart from the Law, apart from Religion, apart from anything we do, the righteousness of God has been revealed…” 

The grace of God has invaded our world without a single if, without a single condition demanded of you, without a single expectation for your cooperation.

Because, Paul’s already told you, you’re not capable of cooperating with a single one of those conditions. 

As Paul told us at the top of his argument in verse nine: All of us are under the Power of Sin. And the language the apostle uses there is the language of exodus. All of us are in bondage, Paul says, under the dominion— the lordship— of a Pharaoh called Sin. 

This is a Power from whom we’re never totally free this side of the grave. 

Don’t forget the Paul who celebrates the baptized walking in newness of life just after today’s text is the same Paul who laments (just after that) how the converted heart remains a heart divided against itself; such that, we all do what we do not want to do and we do not do what we want to do. 

There is no health in us.

———————-

Here’s the dark but necessary underside to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love called Grace. And, brace yourselves, in our American culture with its high, optimistic anthropology, this is going to feel like a micro-aggression, so here it comes: 

You are not free.

I’m going to say it again because I know you don’t believe it: You are not free. 

You are not free. 

Your neighbor is not free. Your mother-in-law is not free. Your co-worker is not free. Your boss is not free. Your son? Your daughter? You might already suspect as much, neither is free. Your spouse— hell, every married person already knows this is true— is not free. 

Christianly-speaking, free will is a fantasy. 

Free will is a fiction. 

And that’s an assertion upon which traditional Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, concur. Christianly-speaking, your will is not free. 

Your will is bound. 

All those promises we’re sold three-thousand times a day— they’re pitched to prisonsers not to free people (that’s exactly why they work on us!). 

I realize this is the most un-American thing I could say but to speak the language of free will is not to speak Christian. Your will is not free. 

It’s right there in Romans, the book of the Bible that the Church Fathers put in the middle of your New Testament so that you would know its importance for our faith. 

Your will is not free. Your will is bound, doing the evil you want not to do and not doing the good you want to do. 

You will is not free. Your will is torn, between a Pharaoh called Sin and a Lord named Jesus Christ; such that, all of us who’ve been rescued by grace are like the Israelites in the wilderness. 

God has gotten us out of Egypt but we’ve still got Egypt in us. 

The shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love is your bound, unfree will. 

Now don’t get your panties in a bunch, this doesn’t mean you’re a robot. It doesn’t mean that every moment of your life is pre-determined— the only thing predetermined in life is UVA Basketball’s disappointing play in March. 

It doesn’t mean you had no choice this morning between sausage or bacon, jeans or khakis. No, when Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it means that your will is not free to choose (reliably) that which is good. 

When Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it teaches that no one— because of our bondage to sin—by sheer force of will can reliably choose the right thing, which is God, for the right reason, which is selfless love. 

You might choose the good and godly thing, for example, but do you do so for the right reasons? And are those reasons even always evident to you? 

Our love compass is off—that’s what the Church means by the boundedness of your will. 

As John Wesley’s prayerbook puts it in Article X of the 39 Articles: “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and God.” 

And if all of this sounds like so much theological hocus-pocus to you, consider that Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at UVA, writes that most of us only make free, rational decisions about 13% of time— a statistic that Pat Vaughn’s wife, Margaret, corroborates. 

Most of the time, Timothy Wilson argues, we’re exactly what St. Paul says we are. 

We’re strangers to ourselves. 

Our wills follow our hearts and our reason tags along behind. 

———————-

     

     I drove that Vitamix home from Whole Foods, and I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave. 

     And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because, as my wife pointed out, I already had a blender and a food processor. 

“Who convinced you to buy such ridiculous thing?” she asked me, and I quickly covered Gabriel’s mouth with my hand. 

I shrugged my shoulders. 

“I couldn’t help myself.”

And she smiled and shook her head at unfree me. 

“I know you couldn’t” she said, “I forgive you. Now go return it.”

———————-

For over six months now I’ve been preaching God’s grace to you, Sunday after Sunday. And some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to get around to giving you some advice. Some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to tell you what to do. 

And just so you know— I’ll stop preaching God’s grace just as soon as you actually start believing it. 

I’m not going to stop preaching to you God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean God’s grace isn’t practical for everyday life. 

It is practical for everyday life because everyday everywhere you go everyone you meet has a bound, unfree will. 

So here’s some advice, advice on how to see other humans in light of the Gospel. Your bound, unfree will is the necessary, shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One Way Love, but it is not bad news. 

It is the birth pangs of compassion. 

The moment you understand the Gospel’s implication that people are not as free as they think they are, you’re able to have compassion and tenderness for them. Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you can find sympathy for them. 

What the Gospel teaches us about the bound will is the grace-based way to mercy. 

It’s when you mistakenly think people are free, unbound, active agents of everything in their lives, choosing the terrible damaging decisions they make, that you get angry and impatient with them. 

It’s then that you judge them. 

And it’s then that you begin to confuse what they do for who they are. 

Just because Grace is a message about what God has done doesn’t mean it has no practical implications for what we do. 

Botton line—

Grace means we look at each other with the Savior’s eyes. 

Grace means we look upon each other as fellow captives. 

As those who never advance very far beyond needing Jesus’ final prayer: “Father forgive them, they still know not what they do.”

Exodus International

Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2019 — 1 Comment

Transfiguration Sunday — Luke 9

    If you’ve endured more than a handful of sermons in a United Methodist Church, then, chances are, you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go. 

     I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all wrong. 

If you’ve sufferd through a few sermons on the Transfiguration, then you already know I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience instead of rolling up his sleeves and going back down into the valley of life where we are called to serve the least, the lost, and the left behind (which, for the record— just so you get to know your pastor a little better— is my least favorite Christian cliche). 

But that’s how preaching on the Transfiguration is supposed to go, right? 

The way down the mountain is almost always a descent into moralism— about how discipleship is about going back down into the valley, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and embrace the outcast and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm in front of their non-Christian co-workers. 

     If you’ve endured more than a few Sundays in the mainline church, then you already know that’s usually the way preachers preach this text on the Transfiguration: Don’t rest in Christ.  Go back down the mountaintop, back into “real life,” and do like Christ.

     Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think that’s the only  option allowed. 

——————

     Except- 

If Peter is wrong, if this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, then when Peter professes “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him? 

     Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

     Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about resting in me. It’s about doing like me, for the Son of Man came not to serve but to send you out to serve?” If Peter’s suggestion that they rest there is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does just before this scene and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?  It’s not an idle question.

      In fact— pay attention now— here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him. 

You got that? This is the only instance in the Bible where someone says something to Jesus and Jesus doesn’t reply. 

—————-

     Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, most of the time we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice. 

     There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this preview of the Gospel message into moralism. 

     Just think- 

     What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching— how we should go and do what he doesn’t seem to understand he should go and do? Which is but a way of making ourselves the focus of this story. 

     Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down. More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that the takeaway from the Transfiguration is not what we must go down and do for God through our good deeds or holy living. The takeaway from the Transfiguration is what God is about to go down and do for us. 

For ALL of us. 

For ALL of us. 

I’m going to say it again— for ALL of us.

The Transfiguratin is about what God is about to go down and do.

Once for ALL. 

The Transfiguration— it is a preview of the Gospel. 

————–

Luke spells it out for you:

Just before this scene, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the super-pious holiness enforcers, and get crucified by an angry crowd taking the only democratic vote in scripture (“We want Barabbas!”)

Next scene, today’s scene: 

Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, are there on this mountaintop “speaking with Jesus about his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Accomplish. 

Luke doesn’t say Jesus was about to experience something unfortunate or unintended in Jerusalem. He says accomplish.

It’s vogue among preachers today to downplay the crucifixion, but when you read the Gospels straight through you discover that not only does Jesus talk about his death all the time, he speaks of it as a necessity. 

He speaks of it as a mission he will accomplish.

Luke says here that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a departure that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  

And the Greek word Luke uses for departure? Any guesses?

Exodus. 

They’re talking about the exodus he will accomplish in Jerusalem.

You see, what St. Luke shows you here on the mountaintop is what St. Paul tells you in his Letter to the Romans: that our baptism into Christ’s death— it is our exodus from the Pharaoh called Sin.  In case you miss that point— Luke piles on the clues. He tells you about Jesus’s shining happy people face and his bedazzled Rick Flair clothes.  And Luke tells you that Moses and Elijah appeared there in glory.  And that Christ became it. Became the glory That Christ was transfigured before them into glory.

————–

Luke doesn’t throw around glory as just any generic adjective. 

It’s like Indiana Jones asked in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” 

In the David story, the glory of God is what spilled forth from the ark of the Law and struck an innocent bystanding boy named Uzzah dead. That’s 2 Samuel 6. That’s why Indiana Jones tells Marion to close her eyes when the bad guys open up the ark— he knows the Uzzah story.

And likely, Indiana Jones knows too that the glory of God is what dwelt in the Temple. 

In the holy of holies. 

Behind the temple veil. A veil that was there— pay attention now— not to protect the holy God from sinful us.  A veil that was there— by God’s own mercy and design— to protect sinful us from the holiness of God. 

Elijah and Moses appeared to them on the mountaintop in glory, Luke tells us. 

The glory of God transfigured Christ, Luke tells us. 

And Peter and James and John beheld the glory, Luke tells us. 

Notice what Luke doesn’t tell us— they lived. 

They lived. All three of them, they’re like Harry Potter. They’re the boys who lived. 

Peter and James and John— sinners all, Peter maybe most of all— beheld the umediated glory of God, loosed from the Temple, in the flesh in the transfigured Christ, and they did not receive the wage their sins had earned them. 

They were not struck dead. 

They lived. 

That’s why they walk away dead silent. 

They were dumbfounded by this preview of the grace of God where another’s death will do for undeserving sinners. 

————–

    All the news in the United Methodist Church this week, all of the acrimony over inclusion and acceptance, on the one hand, and sin and holiness, on the other hand— it can obscure a basic presupposition of the Bible that’s implicit here in the Transfiguration. 

What even Indiana Jones knew that all those folks at General Conference in St. Louis seemed not to know is this basic Gospel grammar:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

(So who are we to draw lines?)

What makes you a child of God isn’t anything inherent to you or achievable by you. Not a one of you. All of us— the gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. So great, in fact, that when we even begin to argue about whether this or that is a sin is to have lost the Gospel plot. 

     You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

     You have to be rendered acceptable. 

     You have to be made acceptable. 

You are a child of God not by birth but by adoption— an adoption that St. Paul calls an exodus, our baptism into Christ’s death.  You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are— not a one of us. That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple where glory lived, and it’s the assumption that leaves Peter and James and John speechless after they run into that glory on the mountain.  

To understand this you have to go back to the Book of Leviticus. 

Once a year a representative of all the people, the high priest, would draw the short straw and venture beyond the temple veil, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the glory of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord. Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord. Acceptable to be counted among God’s People.

     After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

     And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away into the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God. 

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God veiled in glory as alien from the New Testament God we think we know. But, as Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. 

    We’re meant to see them as preparation. 

We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice. 

That’s exactly how the New Testament Book of Hebrews frames Jesus’ death: 

As the perfect sacrifice for sin. 

    One sacrifice. Offered once. 

The temple veil is no longer needed. 

The glory of the Holy God need be feared no more.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

Such that now our justification before God is based not on who we are or what we’ve done but on who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ. 

Because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice— because of our exodus, our baptism into his sacrifice offered in our stead— our acceptablity before God— for all of us— must always and forever be spoken of in the past, perfect tense. 

It has been accomplished.

It is finished.

Ephapax is the word the Bible uses to describe the sacrifice, which Luke here calls an exodus. 

Ephapax: “once for all.” 

For all sin. 

For past sin. For present sin. For future sin. 

Ephapax. 

Once for all sin. 

Once for all those believers adopted by the baptism of his blood.

————–

So why in the hell are some arguing in the United Methodist Church about who is and is not compatible with Christian teaching? 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

According to the survey I sent, there’s two dozen LGBTQ people in this congregation.

If you think they’re the ones incompatible with Christian teaching, you need to read your Romans, or try the Sermon on the Mount on for size (Be perfect?!). 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Why are we dividing Christ’s Church by arguing over who is acceptable? None of us— not a single one of us— are acceptable. All of us have been made acceptable.

Don’t you see—

The cross of Jesus Christ already contains everything conveyed by a rainbow flag.  

God judges not a one of us according to us. God judges every one of us according to Christ— according to Christ’s perfect (once for all sin, once for everybody) sacrifice. 

Such that, now, by grace alone— not by what you do or who you are— by grace alone— now, like those three disciples on the mountaintop today, you and I (though sinners we are and sinners we always will remain)  We can sleep easy before the glory of God.

We can sleep easy before the glory of God. 

Luke shows you in their sleeping what St. Paul tells you: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…there is therefore NOW NO CONDEMNATION…NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.”

Why are we arguing when all of us— gay or straight, liberal or conservative, married or divorced, addicts or clean, racists or sexists or homophobes, skinny or not so skinny, black or white or brown, male or female (or somewhere in between), old or young, rich and poor, even people who actually like Maroon 5…all of us sinners have been made acceptable.

Not by our behavior.

Not by by our belief.

But by our baptism.

By our baptism into his departure, his exodus, his once for all death accomplished for you, for your sin…by our baptism, you and I— still in our sins— we can sleep easy before the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel. 

Everything else— every single other thing we can say—is the Law not the Gospel. 

And Christ is the end of the Law, scripture says. 

For freedom from the Law, Christ has set us free, scripture says. 

That’s the other takeaway Luke wants you to see in this preview of the Gospel. 

Jesus appears there with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, because the Law— with all of its demands for holiness, all of its expectations of a lifestyle compatibile with its commands— the Law ends in Jesus Christ. 

Full stop. 

Moses and Elijah appear there in glory but their glory fades. 

The glory of God is the Christ who delivers grace. 

You see—

Christianity is either all grace (what God has done for you) or it’s all works (what you must do for God). 

Grace and Works— they’re mutually exclusive. 

That is the insight of the Protestant Reformation. 

If it’s not all of the former, it is all of the latter— no matter the lip service you might pay to grace.

Any attempt to balance or blend grace with works destroys the very notion of grace. 

It muddles the Gospel with the Law. It creates a kind of Glawspel, which is exactly the sort of toxic religion I witnessed this week in St. Louis. 

Everything that is not the Gospel of grace is the Law.  

And as soon as you make Christianity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands— it’s funny how, as much as we fire off scripture at each other, we don’t much quote that scripture. 

As soon as you make Christiantity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands. And thus far, only one guy has been able to clear that bar. He was as perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

So why don’t we worry about proclaiming what Christ has done for us— for ALL OF US— instead of yelling at each other about what we think the other ought to do for Christ?

————–

Whenever you make Christianity about the Law— about living a life compatible with the commandments— you become a debter to every single one of its demands. 

Don’t you see?

That’s why this is the only place in all of scripture that Jesus doesn’t reply. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebut him. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t say “Get behind me, Satan.” 

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here— at least, it should be.

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here. 

It is good for us to see that the Law, according to which not one of us measures up, ends in the glory of his grace; so that, the Law is fulfilled in us not through our pious deeds or holy living but through faith alone. 

Faith alone in the Gospel of grace is what reckons to you the credit of a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching. 

That’s not just good news. 

That’s the good news.

So Peter is right.

It is good for us to be here. 

Because the Church is the only place in the world— at least, it should be— twhere we can lay down all our burdens of what we ought to do but don’t and what we oughtn’t do but did— this is the only place where we can lay those burdens down and rest. 

Rest in his grace.

————–

On Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, after the vote, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept.

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity— it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.

Peter is right. 

Until we learn to lay down the Law and go cold turkey from commandment-keeping and holiness-enforcing, until we learn to rest in Grace, every journey back down the mountain will be a descent that leaves the Gospel behind. 

So come down to the Table. 

And roll up your sleeves. 

Come down to the Table. 

Where Christ invites you not to serve but to be served. 

Wine and bread. The Body and Blood. The tangible promise of grace. 

Come down.

Taste and see the goodness of God  that is yours. 

Not as your wage, something you earn. 

But as your inheritance, something that’s yours by way of another’s death, something that is yours as an adopted child of God. 

       

     

Like scores of other United Methodist pastors, I wrote the following letter to my congregation on my way back from General Conference in St. Louis. I thought it might be helpful to share it here as well.

Hi Folks, 

If before this week you had been paying only minimal attention to matters in the larger United Methodist Church, then you’re likely well-aware that something happened this week. Many of you have forwarded me articles from the NY Times, NPR, Washington Post, et al about the General Conference here in St. Louis. Even more of you have reached out to me over email and text to express confusion, saddness, and anger. Some of you have conveyed that you’ve either decided or are considering leaving the United Methodist Church. Some staff even have acknowledged that this makes them reassess their work relationship to the UMC. 

I understand.  

Ask our last bishop, I’ve never been a company man. I don’t intend to start now. 

So before I communicate anything else about General Conference’s decisions and what they mean for Annandale UMC, let me clear: we’ll still be having church come Sunday morning; that is, what happened here in St. Louis in no way changes the ministry of Annandale UMC. What Annandale UMC did last week to proclaim the Gospel of grace in our context is what Annandale UMC will be doing next week to proclaim that same message. And I believe— to the point where I’d get another job were it not so— that the Gospel of grace is unintelligible apart from the good news that all are welcomed by Christ and, by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, all are incorporated into Christ. 

I often joke that the Church would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I’m not in a joking mood today, but I’ll double-down on my point. It makes absolutely no Gospel sense to me to divide the Church according to who’s in and who’s out when Paul tells us in Romans that by our baptisms we’re all already in Christ. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation when Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that not one of us is righteous. We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our holy-living or right-believing. Paul tells us in Romans that for all of us righteousness is not achieved but received— through our baptisms. We have been have been gifted with an alien righteousness— Christ’s own righteousness. It’s been given to us not through the Law but through Grace. And Grace is always an undeserved gift because Grace grants what you could never earn. What makes us a “child of God” is not anything inherent to us by birth nor anything we accrue in life; what makes us a ‘child of God” is our adoption by Christ through his death for us.

I wish more Christians would actually read Romans because it’s there God gives us the most inclusive of all doctrines:

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

As I repeat all the time to you on Sundays: Christ came not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or salvage the salvageable. Christ came to raise those who are dead in their trespasses. God’s Grace isn’t cheap; it isn’t even expensive. 

It’s free.

It turns out that it’s costly when we forget that Grace is free. Indeed I fear our Gospel amnesia has broken the United Methodist Church.

These past few days have only confirmed for me how easily we end up with a toxic form of Christianity when we fail to make this distinction between Law and Grace.

What I witnessed at General Conference in the tit-for-tat of weaponized parliamentary procedure was a whole lot of people preaching the Law at one another, liberals and conservatives alike. The Law of Inclusivity vs. The Law of Biblical Authority with all the unsurprising talking points and proof texts marshalled to their sides. All this Law-laying left no room for Grace. Without Grace, there can be no charity, and without charity compassion remains only a concept.

I realize all this sounds overly theological compared to what you’ll read in the Atlantic or USA Today this week, but theology matters— especially now. 

What I witnessed from the press box in St. Louis is a theological failure. Over the last four days, 864 delegates have argued (in often unholy and callous tones) about what constitutes a “lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not only is this unfortunate, it’s unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because the Gospel truth is right there in Romans as plain as the nose on your face: 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

So, before I get into the weeds of what the hell happened I want you to know that you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re LGBTQ, you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. Notice, I said still. The unfortunate part of this decision is that it fails to appreciate how local churches already have, in fits and starts, figured out ways to be inclusive. Speaking of inclusivity, if you’re an outright, unapologetic homophobe you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church, too. If you’re somewhere between those poles still working out your own convictions on this question, you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re conservative, you’re welcome. If you’re liberal, you’re welcome. We’ll take you if you’re too skinny, if you thought Green Book actually deserved Best Picture, and even if you post annoying status updates whenever you’re exercising at the gym. 

If all Christ requires of you is your need, then we as a church need nothing from you in order for you to participate fully in the Body of Christ. 

While we’re on it, recent events have made it so I can longer be coy in my own beliefs: I believe marriage and ordination are very clearly vocations through which we live out our baptism. The liturgy makes that point crystal clear. And most Methodists get baptized long before they’ve figured out their sexuality— so if you’re LGBTQ and feel God is calling you to one of those vocations, I want you to know that you’re welcome here with me to discern God’s call upon your life. It’s been my experience that Jesus, in his great humor, persists in calling queer people and I’m enough of a biblical literalist to think we ought not tempt God by thinking we can put up barriers to God’s work in the world. 

Bottom Line—

No matter what a handful of bureaucrats and lobbyists in St. Louis insist, I say all of you are welcome here because the Gospel says the basis for your inclusion is not your goodness but your ungodliness. All you need for admission is your sin and I’ve been your pastor long enough to know that you all, gay and straight, have got that covered. 

Take a deep breath because I’m about to pivot to Church business, and the business of the denomination couldn’t be further from the Gospel. 

On Tuesday afternoon, as you’ve no doubt read in the papers or heard at your kid’s bustop, 438 delegates to 384 (53% to 47%) voted to adopt the Traditionalist Plan. As a pastor, I would never allow such a close, divisive vote to happen in our congregation but that’s exactly what happened here because both sides in the UMC have been playing this brinksmanship, winner-take-all game since before I became a Christian. The General Conference also considered several and approved one plan that would allow for churches to exit from the United Methodist Church with their assets and property.

After the vote, many wept and gathered to pray in the center of the floor in protest. Meanwhile, another group— only an arm’s distance away— sang, clapped, and danced in celebration. The mutual hostility and callousness were bracing.

If you don’t believe in original sin and low anthropology, this would have convinced you.

The Traditionalist Plan not only keeps our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language about homosexuality, it aims to ramp up enforcement of it, expediting the punishment of pastors, bishops, and congregations who marry or ordain LGBTQ Christians. Covering the General Conference as press for my podcast, I can tell you how I was surprised by the sheer number of gay clergy and gay clergy couples in attendance. In other words, parts of the United Methodist Church have found ways, despite the Book of Discipline’s restrictive language, to marry and ordain LGBTQ people. The One Church Plan would’ve protected this reality while respecting traditional norms in other contexts and cultures of the global Church. The Traditionalist Plan does more than maintain the Book of Discipline; it eliminates what has become a norm in many parts of the Church in America. 

This is what my friend Bishop Will Willimon (who is nobody’s idea of a progressive) meant when he said to the Washington Post:

“This is not a victory of “tradition,” but another lurch toward punitive, exclusionary practice.”

The finance department of the denomination, for example, had cautioned the delegates before this week’s General Conference that the Traditionalist Plan was the one option before them that would break the UMC’s pension system because the new degree of loyalty to the Book of Discipline it will demand from churches and pastors likely will mean an exodus of centrist and progressive pastors and churches from the denomination. 

Just last night, Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest church in the UMC, announced that he’d be convening a gathering of like-minded pastors and lay people after Easter to begin discussions about a new form of Methodism in America. Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC is preparing to leave the denomination. The New England Conference has already announced it will not abide the decision. I realize all this could sound alarming, but I think I owe it to you to tell you what I know. Pending a Judicial Council review of parts of it, the Traditionalist Plan will go into effect in January 2020. If the Judicial Council overtuns the Traditionalist Plan, a real possibility, then it is probable that the traditionalist wing of the denomination (the global, but not American, majority of the denomination, keep in mind) will exit with their property and assets. General Conference was already scheduled to meet this time next year so the fight will continue. However, because of the rate of growth in the global church, the traditionalist delegation will only be greater moving forward. 

How Methodists have structured ourselves as a denomination for these past decades is clearly broken— that may be the only observation on which the General Conference delegates would concur and would require no translator. And it was no small part of the sadness I heard from older pastors. Of course, we’ve only structured our Church this way for a relatively short amount of time and, truthfully, United Methodists have never really been all that united. As Will Willimon put it:

“what’s passed for church unity for the last 40 years in the Methodist Church is a kind of bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: That’s a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church.” 

Any honest United Methodist pastor or parishioner who’s not been in a coma during our institutional gatherings already knew the way things have been cannot be for much longer. The status quo needed disruption. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, by giving the United Methodist Church this disruption, has actually blessed it. 

What’s the way forward now that the Way Forward has brought us here? 

All this House of Cards-like ecclessial maneuvering gives you, Annandale UMC, three possible responses. There’s probably more, but three sounds biblical. 

1. You can celebrate the passing of the Traditionalist Plan. 

2. You can watch for the Judicial Council’s ruling on its constitutionality while aligning with like-minded congregations to amend it, undo it, or resist it.

3. You can discern if you want to stay within the United Methodist Church. I’ll get in trouble for acknowledging number three but I’ve told you I believe in transparency, and the reality is other churches will be talking about it so you may as well know it’s on the table.

The survey about the Way Forward I asked you to complete in the fall tells me that most of you don’t have the stomach for number three. Likewise, it tells me that even the traditionalists among you aren’t going to much like the tone of the Traditionalist Plan. That puts most of you somewhere in the neighborhood of number two. 

This isn’t a conversation a pastor with six months in a congregation would ever want to have with a new church, but I believe I would be a bad leader if I pretended like everything was fine and was going to be fine. 

The United Methodist Church is going to be different, no matter what happens. 

I don’t invite conflict into my life, but I’m not afraid of it. Moving forward, we’re going to need to have conversations about this as a congregation, and we need to be honest that not everyone will like that we’re having the conversation. Some may not like where it goes. And that’s okay— after all, what got us into this mess was the expectation for uniformity of belief. What’s not okay, from a leadership perspective, is to wait passively for events to unfold and roll like a tsunami against your church.

However you feel about #1-#3 above, no matter if you would’ve voted at General Conference for the Traditionalist Plan or the One Church Plan, here’s what we should all be able to agree upon. The headlines in the news outlets coming out of General Conference have portrayed the UMC as a prejudiced, bigoted, and homophobic institution. Many in our community won’t take the time to learn the ins-and-outs of our polity to understand how and why the vote went as it did. They likely won’t even read the story. They’ve just seen the headlines shared across social media.

Like it or not, we’re now going to have a perception problem, made all the more tragic because it’s a perception I do not think corresponds to the character of our faith community. 

Whatever is the way forward, I believe it begins with us, both individually and as a congregation, being the local PR in Annandale for the United Methodist Church. We need to find ways to communicate clearly and tangibly the good news:

God’s Grace does not require us to have a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching.  We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching.

After this week and its unhelpful media blitz, I think that work of welcome should probably start with the LGBTQ folks in our pews. If you’re reading this, I want you to know that God’s Grace is for sinners, which makes you every bit as welcome as me*. 

Jason

*Actually, I’m clergy. Next to lawyers, we’re always the bad guys in Jesus’ stories. So you’re probably more deserving to be here than me. 

Marriage is for Sinners

Jason Micheli —  February 21, 2019 — Leave a comment

“For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” 

The marriage vows mark marriage out as an ascetic discipline. 

As the Wesley hymn explains:

“The Church’s one foundation/ Is Jesus Christ her Lord/ . . . From heaven he came and sought her/ To be his holy bride;/ With his own blood he bought her,/And for her life he died.” 

The controlling New Testament interpretation of marriage relies upon Genesis, yet— notice—Paul does not associate marriage with procreation or with complementarity, but with typology: with God’s plan to love and save his people, one God, one people. 

Same- and opposite-sex couples seek to participate not in something natural but in something unnatural— something known to us only by revelation— this typology of marriage. 

It belongs to the church’s mission to introduce them into that witness and discipline.

The question of same-sex marriage therefore comes to the church not as an issue of extended rights and privileges (this is why the language of “full inclusion” is insufficiently Christian language, I believe) but as a pastoral occasion to proclaim the significance of the gospel for all who marry, because marriage embodies and carries forward the marriage of God and God’s people. 

Because the marriage rite itself presumes that marriage is about sanctification, to deny committed couples marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine. 

“It deprives them not of a social means of satisfaction but of a saving manner of healing. Those couples who approach the church for marriage– and those whose priests prompt them to marry—are drawn there by the marriage of Christ and the church, which alone makes it possible for human relationships to become occasions of grace” (Eugene Rogers).

Couples who delay marriage are like those who previously waited for deathbed baptism.

They unaccountably put off the grace by which their lives might be healed. Likewise, the Church which denies them marriage may be like the priest who fails to show up and offer them a saving rite.

There is no question of whether the marriage of Christ and the church is available to sinners.

 Only, how it is so.

The church must know how to respond both to couples who seek marriage and those who delay it. Among those who seek marriage are same-sex couples who offer their relationship in witness to and imitation of Christ’s love. Among those who delay are same-sex couples waiting for the church to discover and proclaim the significance of its marriage to Christ for their relationships. In both cases, the church faces a test of its understanding of atonement, posed in an immediate pastoral query. How will the church receive the couple that would approach the altar, and how will it suffer the couple that delays?

How the church marries couples shapes its witness to Christ’s atonement. Whom the church marries testifies to its understanding of its own sanctification. The church’s practice of marrying is an evangelical practice, proclaiming that the love of God for God’s people is real, that the atonement is real, that reconciliation is real, that salvation is real. The Spirit calls all Christians to witness to that reality, and the church offers practices for doing so.

Because the love of God for God’s people is real, and the declaration “this is my body given for you” is true, the church needs as many witnesses as the Holy Spirit and its mission may draft. Same- and opposite-sex couples who want to marry in the church bear witness to the love of God for God’s people and to the power of that love to atone, reconcile, and heal. Not that they can do those things by their human power alone, but the Spirit can attest their witness to the atonement and healing of Christ.

James 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You all don’t even like sharing your pew. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice—

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

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

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

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

This ought not to be so, James says. 

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

———————-

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

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

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

This ought to be so. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simul iustus et peccator. 

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

Notice— 

This doesn’t make you a bad Christian. 

It makes you a Christian. 

———————-

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

Morality. Ethics. Teaching. 

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

In order to find happiness. 

In order to tame the tongue. 

In order to live your best life now. 

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

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

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

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

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

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

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

And God has forgiven you. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

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

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

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

I know what some of you are thinking: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll ask my own question:

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

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

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

Good enough for God. 

This isn’t an abstract issue. 

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

Goose egg. 

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

Too many to count. 

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

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

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

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

But we’ve mucked it up and muddled it. 

And if you don’t believe me, notice. 

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

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

In other words: to the Law. 

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

In repentance and humility. 

No human can tame the tongue, scripture says. 

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

Key confesses:

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

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

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

The irony?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice this with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

It insists upon a Church where there is no distinction between us. 

Because not a one of us is righteous. 

We’re all the ungodly. 

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading is Paul’s great text on the necessity of the resurrection for Christian confession. At the top of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes his hearers back to the Gospel he delivered to them. The Gospel, Paul reminds this unholy lot, is “our most important urgent concern.” It’s an important text not only for thinking through the logical necessity of the resurrection for Christianity but also for reflecting on the current divisions in the United Methodist Church over the issues of human sexuality. 

Just shy of two weeks from now United Methodist leaders, clergy and lay, from around the globe will gather to debate whether “it” is or isn’t a sin and what implications that should have for our polity, which currently labels homosexuality a lifestyle “incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

Side Note for Later:

Does the justification of the ungodly make the very concept of  “the Christian lifestyle” a non-sequiter? Or, is a better construal of “the Christian lifestyle” the everyday ways by which Christians prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt “Yes, Christians also, in fact, require Christ to be crucified in our stead?”

Given our denominational bickering over “holiness” I think we United Methodists would do well to notice that in Paul’s rundown of the Gospel the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them.

As Robert Capon says, throwing mud in the eye of all of us woke and pious types:

“The only people in heaven will be sinners made safe in his death, gratis.

And the only people in hell will be sinners, forgiven free of charge as well.” 

As I make plans to journey to St. Louis for the UMC’s Special Sex Conference, I can’t help thinking we’ve jumped the Jesus shark, arguing to brinksmanship just what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. Once for all.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave, we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

Though, red-handed and pants-down, sinners we remain.

Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. Therefore— by your baptism— there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

Or, are we instead implying that we’re in Christ not by way of Christ’s doing for us but because of our own holy living and righteous doing?

If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin— their every sin too. This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his).  And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed?

Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

Jesus was stipped naked to clothe you, in your naked and ugly sin, with his own righteousness.

By fixating on the sin in another you’re just giving Jesus his clothes back— but he doesn’t want them returned.

In fact, he left them in the tomb.

And when he returned, a new Eve found him in a garden as naked as Adam. 

To be blunt about it- 

Whether you’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it. None of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. And if you’re tempted to interrupt now and say something along the lines of “Yes, but as baptized Christians declared righteous for his sake we should live according…” I’ll insist, as Paul does in Romans 6, that the introduction of any “shoulds” eliminate the Gospel of grace altogether. 

If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself, then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

Holiness doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then— in our post-Will and Grace culture, this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. Why would he?

The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there STILL IS CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.

THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

I don’t know what will come of the Special Sex Conference, and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us. Nonetheless, the Church’s primary mission remains unchanged even if our denomination— and, as a consequence, our church— changes. Our mission is to proclaim to sinners that God in Jesus Christ loves ungodly them.

To the grave and back. 

To be a Virginian

Jason Micheli —  February 7, 2019 — 2 Comments

This one comes from my friend and colleague, Reverend Drew Colby.

There’s an anonymous quote which gets recited on occasion in Virginia that goes like this:

“To be a Virginian either by birth, marriage, adoption, or even on one’s mother’s side, is an introduction to any state in the Union, a passport to any foreign country, and a benediction from above.”

This week we are reminded that to be a Virginian is also to be acquainted with the disease of racism. As revelations about our governor and attorney general have surfaced, many of us Virginians are honestly unshocked; but not unmoved.

For white Virginians there are likely a spectrum of reactions to the news. Mine was, in part, to reflect on my own racism. I’ve never painted my face black. I’ve never worn a KKK hood. But I do remember the first time I said the N-word. I didn’t say it as a put-down or epithet. I said it the way my black friends seemed to say it.

I went to a predominately Black school and so I had heard the N-word used commonly by my Black classmates. Like all middle schoolers I was trying on new identities to fit in. I even loosened my West End of Richmond braided leather belt and pulled down my pleated khaki shorts once I got on the bus each day so I could “bust a sag” like the cool kids. I ended up just choking off my husky rear end half-way down so I looked like I had two buts.

It was in 6th grade gym when we were playing basketball and I thought I’d try to fit in by talking like the cool kids too. A classmate made a three pointer and that’s when I said it.

“Nice shot nigga…”

I know, it’s cringy on so many levels.

The room went silent and frozen except for the slow bounce of the basketball coming to a stop.

“What did you just say?” asked my classmate.

Another long silence.

Then my friend Ricky spoke up:

“He didn’t say nothin’. Come on let’s play.”

Ricky checked the ball and we moved on. With those words “He didn’t say nothin’,” my sin was blotted out. I had been given mercy. I had been saved. And I believe that Ricky offered me that day is, unfortunately, one of the only things that can save Virginia.

As my friend Jason Micheli once said on his podcast, these days:

“Those who want to expose privilege often do so in finger-wagging ways; and those like me immediately get defensive.”

That’s a good part of what we’ve seen in the last week, and in many ways it’s something we see everywhere these days. As famous people are “found out” to have made major mistakes, intentional sins, and horrifying yearbook photos, they’re called out and, rightfully, exposed as unworthy of the position and prestige of the office they occupy. What seems to happen in the aftermath is a variety of forms of self-preservation, particularly a stance of defensiveness with an excuse-laden apology that no one is really eager to accept.

What I haven’t seen much of, but what I regret to report may be the only way to get from the feigned racial reconciliation we have had thus far in Virginia to actual reconciliation, is some version of what post-apartheid South Africans called amnesty. Perhaps if these politicians were told they would be permitted to stay in office if they were willing to give a full account of their racism, they would have the space necessary to actually, honestly, confess and repent.

The absolution in our liturgy always comes after the confession of sin, it’s true, but if every Sunday is a little Easter then the confession is only made possible in light of the mercy made known to us already in Christ and him crucified.

The Law, Paul says, not only accuses us but exhortations from the Law elicit the opposite of their intent.

Thus, call-outs in our culture, as appropriate and righteous as they are will only exacerbate racism not eliminate it.

Amnesty Mercy is what we need.

Mercy is what all of us need.

To be a Virginian is to be acquainted with the disease of racism. Not just acquainted, afflicted. To be a White Virginian is to have inherited the legacy of slavery like a gene, to have been born into it like, well, like sin. To be a White Virginian is to have a particular version of Psalm 51 to pray, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a racist when my mother conceived me.”

In Virginia our racism is so pervasive and thorough that the only way through it is to seek and swallow the good but grueling declaration “your sins are forgiven.”

The alternative, shame, is too much to bear.

And, as a future post about post-apartheid South Africa will suggest, I really believe it is only in the context of unmerited forgiveness that we can truly know our sin, have the space to face it honestly, and repent.

Maybe that way we could one day say “To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side is, by the grace of God, to be acquainted with both the sin of racism and the joy of reconciliation.”

You know a denomination is in trouble when they dispense press credentials to a podcast where “without stained glass language” is a disclaimer about blue humor as much as it is an aspiration for plain talk. Regardless, the posse at Crackers and Grape Juice will be your correspondents at the UMC’s SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE (my name for it) in St. Louis at the end of the month.

Thanks to the United Methodist Church, sex hasn’t been this uninteresting since 7th grade Health Class.

What it doesn’t have in titillation, it does have in waste— the SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE will cost the United Methodist Church approximately $11 MILLION DOLLARS. That’s right, $11 MILL. I’d honestly rather spend that to build a little patch of steel slats somewhere down south. Not really, but I hope you get my drift. And for the record— yes, I’m aware that as a straight white guy and so I’ve got a privileged position from which I opine. Still, as someone who counts LGBTQ people and very conservative people among my friends, it does not cost $11 MILLION dollars to discover that people on both ends of this debate come to church for the same reasons.

This:

People need Jesus and his grace, straight or not straight.

The Church is an ER for sinners.

The Church is not a graduate program for do-gooders looking to learn how to straighten up and fly right.

And every ounce of air we spend talking about sexuality and numbered parapraphs in the Book of Discipline Bureaucracy is air we’re not using to tell prodigals that the fatted calf has been slain and the party’s already started.

For them.

Its not that I don’t think the authority of scripture, for example, is important or that amending the BOD isn’t a serious topic; it’s that neither is a local church’s raison d’etre.

A Global Methodist Conference on Sex Costing $11 Million Bucks…nevermind what I said above. Such a conference almost begs for a snarky, cynical theo-podcast to follow after it like TMZ muckrakers. The team at Crackers and Grape Juice— well, me and my minions— will be on hand at the colesium, up in the press box, to give you our play-by-play. Look for it here, at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, and our Facebook and Twitter pages.

In the meantime, I thought I’d try to offer something constructive:

My teacher, Nancy Duff, in her essay, How to Discuss Moral Issues Surrounding Homosexuality When You Know You Are Right, defers to the philosopher John Stuart Mill to explain why it is important for Christians to dialogue with Christians of differing views. Long after the $11 MILLION SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE is over, these are incredibly helpful reminders for Christians on every issue, especially in a culture choking on self-righteousness and caught in an endless loop of indictment and recrimination.

1. Mill reminds us that because we are fallible (Paul would say we’re all sinners, among us there is no distinction), if we ignore an opposing opinion we may in fact be ignoring the truth. 

2. Mill  points out that even if another’s opinion is in error, it may still contain a portion of the truth.

3. Lastly Mill reminds us even if we are entirely correct in our position that position risks becoming simple prejudice if we cease to be in conversation with those who would disagree with us.

So, as we begin our journey to the most expensive least exciting time spent on sex EVER remember that you are fallible (sinful) and that to ignore one of your peers may be ignoring truth that the Spirit is trying to speak to you. 

Remember that even if you think one of your peers is wrong, it’s not likely they’re absolutely wrong. Listen for what you think is true about their perspective. And do not forget that even if you have no intention of ever changing your mind on these issues, you owe your peers your conservation

The Alien Word

Jason Micheli —  February 4, 2019 — 2 Comments

James 1.18-25

True story— I heard it on NPR:

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

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

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

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

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

And he kept repeating it, louder and louder. 

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

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

But then—

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

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

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

According to Michael— 

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

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

The trespasser drank his wine. 

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

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

First Michael’s wife embraced him. 

Then his friend Christina embraced him. 

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

The Good News is better than that!

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

Not by faith alone. 

Through faith alone. 

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

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

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

Faith comes by what is heard. 

Not inside of you. 

Extra nos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith is a gift. 

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

You need Jesus Christ for both. 

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

This cacophony of anxious, angry chattering. 

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict over politics. 

Conflict over worship traditions. 

Conflict over leadership. 

Conflict over how they allocated their time and their resources. 

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

In gratitude. 

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

Faith in Jesus Christ

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

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

Faith in Jesus Christ is never not a miracle. 

And don’t forget—

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

Don’t forget—

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

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

Because the wine? It’s really good.

Jesus doesn’t do miracles in John’s Gospel. He does “SIGNS.” And his first sign is an abundance of choice wine for a bunch of party-goers who are on a three-day bender, probably yakking in the outhouse. And as an aside, do you think the disciples thought Mary was a drag 3rd-wheeling with them to the hoe-down in Cana?

This week Jason and Johanna talk about the importance and significance of Signs. Listen in as we work our way through the alphabet one stained glass word at a time.

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The Bottomless Glass

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2019 — 1 Comment

John 2.1-11

Were you all paying attention? 

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine for them to drink. 

Listen to the story again:

Jesus doesn’t just top off their glasses. Each of those stone jars held atleast 25 gallons of water. That’s 150 gallons. 

I did the math: 

4 quarts to a gallon

1 quart equals roughly 6 glasses

Giving you a minimum grandtotal = 2160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water.

I mean, unless Pat Vaughn is at your party that’s a prodigal amount of booze. 

And Jesus makes not 3 Buck Chuck, Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink. 

He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it. He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too far gone even to notice what he’s gone and done.As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten hammered, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re sloppy drunk.” 

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” 

Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And come morning— with the hangovers they’re going to have— you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it. They won’t remember what you’ve done. 

For them. 

It’s wasted on them, the maitre’d says to the bridegroom. 

Your gracious act, it’s wasted on them.

There’s more going on here than just a miracle. 

————————

In fact, the word miracle isn’t even the proper word to use about today’s Gospel text. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t do miracles. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, performs signs— only seven of them. Each of these seven signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s hour of glory. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is his humiliation when he’s hanging naked and accursed on the cross. 

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection: 

        • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day. 
        • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
        • Jesus calls his Mother Woman, which sounds like he’s backtalking his Mom until you remember the only other time he’ll similarly address his Mother: Woman, behold your Son. 
        • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All seven signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign— its intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law. Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you— he telegraphs it: “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus pitches his Temple tantrum, flipping off the moneychangers and hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. 

And Grace is not the Law. 

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the six stone water jars. 

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame. 

But it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. So if the abundance of wine signifies our salvation, these six stone water jugs signify our sin. 

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted seven days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests. 

This wedding is only on day three. They’ve got four more days to go. There’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon. 

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to fulfill their duty under the Law, which is to say their shame is deserved. Which is to say, they do not deserve what this other Bridgegroom, Jesus Christ, does for them. So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is what the Apostle Paul tells you. The Law (commandment-keeping, rule-following, morality, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes. It cannot make us righteous. 

“For God has done what the Law could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” 

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and morality— the Law—  “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter two that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter two he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law. He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these six stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then he tells them to fill the jars with it. To fill them to overflowing. 

Do you see? It’s a sign not a miracle. 

It’s meant to help you see— see that Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faithfulness.

When they draw out the wine-that-had-been-water, it’s not any of that Yellow Tail swill. It’s vintage, already aged, all from the very best year. And there’s an abundance of it.  It’s a sign not a miracle. You’re meant to see— see that out of the Law is drawn the Gospel of Grace, the wine of salvation. 

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood shed out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Here at Cana, he transforms what we do to make ourselves righteous before God into a sign of what God does to make us righteous.

Christ’s sign shows what Paul says. 

The Law— all the thou shalts and thou shalt nots in and out of the Bible (and scripture says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone but on every human heart, believer and unbeliever alike, so the Law also includes all the shoulds and musts and oughts we hear in our society and in the back of our heads)— all of it is the Law. 

And all of it is powerless to produce in us what it commands. 

That’s what you’re supposed to see in this sign.

The Law can charge us to give thanks, but it cannot make us grateful. 

The Law can exhort us to offer hospitality to the Other, but it cannot make us more hospitable. 

The Law can command us to love the stranger who is our neighbor as ourself, but it cannot make us loving. 

    ———————-

Fifty-five years ago Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-five days ago I took my son, Alexander, to the DMV in Lexington, Virginia to get his learner’s permit. 

We have a house in Lexington and the DMV there is small so I thought it’d be quicker than waiting all day at a DMV up here. 

Sure enough, we got there and our number was called in less than a minute. My wife Ali, who is an attorney mind you, had already made sure she sent us off with all the requisite documents per the DMV’s website. 

We stepped up to the counter when called and handed over the goods. AM talk radio was droning on in the office behind them. 

Sorting through the documents, the woman at the counter— without even looking up at us— announced: “There’s no birth certificate. He needs a birth certificate to get a learner’s permit. It’s the law.”

“He has a certificate of foreign birth,” I said, “the same as any kid born on a military base overseas. That certificate says he’s as American as you.” 

“I don’t think,” she said, still not looking at us, “I need birth certificate. It’s the law.”

“Not according to the DMV website,” I said. 

She looked up from her clipboard. She sighed like we were a colossal waste of her time. And with blank contempt on her face she said: “Well, if he wasn’t born here in America, then how’d he get into the country? Legally?”

“What?” I said. 

“I’m adopted,” Alexander replied, “from Guatemala.” 

I could tell from the epiphany that spread across his face that he was piecing together her insinuation. 

“Who are you?” she asked, looking at me.

“What?” I said again. “You’ve got my license and the application right in front of you. I’m his Father.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, sorting through the documents again like I was putting one over her. “I’m going to need to see your passport and birth certificate too.”

“You absolutely don’t need to see either of them. We’ve already given you more than your own website says you require.”

She sighed again: “Let me talk with my supervisor.” She walked to the other end of the counter, two stalls away, maybe ten feet. And I heard her say to her supervisor: “That’s the problem with letting them into the country. We’re so much busier now.” 

She came back to the counter and said to me: “We’re going to run this situation by our main office in Richmond. You’re free to wait here but it could take all day to hear back from them. It’s only right and proper,” she said, “that we make sure everything is according to the law.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. 

“You’ve been a complete waste of our time!”

Alexander didn’t get his permit, but turns out it didn’t take that long to get a response. Turns out when you’re a white guy with a large social media platform and you tweet at the DMV about a Civil Rights violation…turns out they call you back pretty quick.

Fifty-five years ago Martin Luther King preached about a dream, and fifty-five days ago my son tried to get his permit and failed not because of the contents on his clipboard but because of the color of his skin. 

I think we can measure the progress we’ve made on King’s dream by the fact that I’ve got more leeway to tell a story like that from the pulpit than does a preacher of color, Peter or Chenda for example. 

And sure, I have a different style. 

Maybe I told the story differently than the way they’d tell it. 

But, to be honest, if I had that DMV day everyday, or even once a year, I probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to begin this sermon with a silly Mr. Bean clip.

   ———————-

Jesus Christ died not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improveable. 

Jesus Christ died for a drunk world. 

That’s what this sign shows us: that if Jesus Christ makes the very best wine for drunk people to drink, then Jesus Christ in his hour of glory shed the wine of salvation, wasted the wine that is his blood, poured out himself— particularly so— for that prejudiced paperpusher at the DMV. 

That’s the promise we call Grace.  

And sure, it’s offensive. 

By defintion, grace only begins where and when you think it should end.

But grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. The message of Grace, the Bible says, is the power of God unto salvation. Grace alone has the power to produce in people what the Law commands of them. In other words, the way for that woman in the DMV to be made less prejudiced isn’t the Law. It isn’t by telling her that she ought to be less prejudiced. It isn’t by exhorting her that she should love her neighbor as herself. 

No— pay attention to the story: THE STONE JARS DON’T WORK.

The way for her to be changed (and the passive voice there is everything), the way for her to be transformed like so much useless water into topshelf wine, is to give her not the Law but to give her the Gospel of Grace and to give it to her over and over again, as long as it takes. 

The way for her to be changed is to give her the news that while she was yet a sinner, God in Jesus Christ became her neighbor and loved her as himself. 

Grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. It is, as the Bible says, God’s weapon in the world. 

And this is why, as your pastors, we may preach out of our stories differently from one another, but we will always proclaim the Gospel of Grace to you because the message of Grace is the power with which God has armed his Church. 

So as your pastor, I pledge that you will never leave here on a Sunday morning not having received the Gospel goods. I promise you’ll never go home not having heard the good news of Grace. 

But that’s not a guarrantee you’ll always leave here happy.

Or comfortable. 

We will always proclaim to you Christ’s punch-drunk love, but the bottomless glass of his Grace isn’t the whole story. 

The six hundred quarts of wine is not glad good news apart from you knowing about the six stone jars and the water that does not work. 

Grace is unintelligible apart from the Law. 

And what the Law does, Paul says— the Law accuses us. It exposes our sin. It reveals how far we fall short. 

So hearing the Law, even in the context of Grace, can make us uncomfortable and worse. 

It’s why Martin Luther said the Gospel is a promise that kills before it makes alive. 

You’ve got to swallow the bitter pill of the Law before you can taste the goodness that is the wine of grace. 

So I promise that you will always leave here having heard the Gospel of Grace, but you will not always leave here having been made happy or comfortable. And that’s okay. Because by your baptism, you’ve been given something better than comfort.

Notice in the story—

The bridegroom and his family who failed to do their duty under the Law, who deserve their shame. Not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves. The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance. They get the credit that is Christ’s credit alone.

You can hear about the unrightousness in our world. You can even hear abour your part in it, witting or unwitting. And you can do so unafraid and without anger. Because the Bridegroom who died for a drunk world— he has gifted you with his own righteousness. 

Are you paying attention? 

It’s what we say at every baptism. 

More importantly, it’s what was said at yours:

“Clothe her in Christ’s own righteousness, that dying and being raised with Christ she shares in his final victory.”

Nothing can threaten that so nothing should threaten you.

The credit of Christ’s permanent perfect record is yours by grace. 

You can be made uncomfortable some Sundays because what’s better even than comfort is the news that God has given you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit that Christ our Bridegroom deserves. 

As John shows us here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.” 

Or, as we say over a different barrel of water: “Remember your baptism, and be grateful.”

   

    

A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2019 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, which I never got to preach since snow shut us out. It’ll go in the locker for another time.

Luke 3.15-22

I realize this will come as something of a shock to many of you, but I can be an acquired taste for some people— like black coffee, dark beer, or the music of Coldplay. But, believe it or not, though I am an acquired taste, eventually (like hair on moles, like skin fungus, like the music of Coldplay) I grow on people. 

One such person with whom I went from skin fungus to simpatico is my friend CJ. Years ago CJ and her son came to a bluegrass Easter sunrise service where I was preaching. She loved the music, but she thought I came across as something I can’t say in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, this bottle of dark beer— this handsome, charming, witty, brilliant bottle of dark beer— convinced her to come back to church. And she did, and she kept coming back to church. And we became friends. 

Her initial assessment of me notwithstanding, CJ is a genius, a legit DoogieHowser type genius. She enrolled in Harvard as she was entering puberty. She’s got multiple degrees and juggles diverse careers. Her most recent— she does GoodWillHunting type stuff for the NSA, keeping us all safe with math I don’t understand. Last fall, at the end of the early service, she came up to me. With her arms crossed and wearing a wry smile, she said:

“You know, I used to be grateful for you. But now I’m not so sure.” 

“You didn’t like the sermon?” I asked, smiling back.

“Didn’t like the sermon?! I’m not sure I like any of your sermons NOW!”

“What do you mean?”

And then she told me what I had done to her. Or, as I prefer to think about it: what God and God’s Gospel had done to her.

“I had to reup my security clearances, same thing every few years. They sifted through all my bank statements and tax returns, interviewed all my old roommates, talked to my old boyfriends. It’s hairy harrowing stuff and all of it was FINE until I had to do the polygraph at the end. A polygraph— it should be a piece of cake, right?”

“Let me guess,” I guessed, “it wasn’t a piece of cake?”

“It was at first— until you messed it up.” Only, she didn’t say messed. She said something I can’t say here in the sanctuary. And then she punched me in the shoulder.

As I rubbed the bruise, she told me. 

“They started out asking me my name, address, job— piece of cake, just routine stuff. I rattled them off calmly, no problem.”

“But?”

“But then they asked me— get this— the guy asked me: “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

I could already fill in the blanks, but I played dumb: “What’s the problem?” 

“What’s the problem? What’s the problem?! The problem is that I said ‘yes’ and then they moved on to the other questions, yet even as I answered those questions I sat there with probes stuck to my temple and my chest and my fingers and I thought about you and your sermons and that question Do I consider myself a good person? and it hit me, like an epiphany, and I knew. I’d lied.” 

I didn’t say anything. It’s best to stay quiet when you’re creeping up on holiness.

“All my answers to all the other questions were off,” she said, “because I’d lied on that one question and I knew it. I failed the polygraph because of your preaching!? What do you have to say about that?!”

“Um…see you next Sunday?”

And she punched me in my other shoulder. 

———————-

The truth that revealed itself to my friend in the polygraph test is the same truth— the epiphany— disclosed to us in the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus dips his toes into the Jordan, John protests: 

“What are you doing Jesus?! I need to be baptized by you. I’m not even worthy to untie your sandals, Jesus (which was the job of a slave). I need to be baptized by you not you by me.”

All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire— a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them. You think Chenda’s a heavy preacher. John the Baptist wouldn’t last two Sundays here.

All four Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism.  In fact— pay attention now— the only two events mentioned across all four Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross. That’s because they’re connected.

The baptism by fire predicted here by John the Baptist is the fire of God’s judgment— judgment that falls, once for all, upon Jesus in our place on the cross. The water John plunges Jesus down into here at his baptism is the water that pours out from Jesus’ wounded side, baptizing us into his death. Just as Christ’s ministry begins here standing along the Jordan amidst sinners counted as a sinner, Christ’s work ends— it is finished— hanging amongst sinners, thieves, treated as a sinner just like them. 

And just as they heavens tear open here at his baptism, on his cross the temple veil is ripped (it’s very same word in Mark’s Gospel), torn in two, tearing heaven open to you and to me and making you, who once was a slave to Sin and Death— making you a beloved child of God.  All four of the Gospels tell us about the baptism of Jesus and the passion of Jesus. 

The two stories, they’re connected. Therefore, the meaning of the Gospel lies in that connection.

———————

Luke leaves out what Matthew tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions. Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?

The connection between his baptism and his cross, the epiphany to be discovered in today’s text, lies in John’s question: “Jesus, how can I baptize you? Jesus, you don’t need the baptism with which I baptize.”

  “How can I baptize you?”

It’s a good question. Maybe, it’s the most important question. You see— John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. For sin. And Jesus is without sin. He’s perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect. He’s the only one of us who doesn’t need John the Baptist’s baptism, yet he insists upon it. By objecting to baptizing Jesus, John distinguishes for us between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and our baptisms into Jesus Christ. 

Again, this is important so pay attention: 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT Christian baptism. 

If you miss this distinction, you’ll miss how these two stories, baptism and cross, are connected and if you miss this connection, you’ll miss the central claim of the Gospel promise. 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT the Christian baptism performed by God in his Church. John’s baptism was a work we do— a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy. John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness).

     The water was an outward visible sign of your inward admission of guilt. 

     But the water did not wash away your guilt. 

    John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. 

     But it could not make you righteous. 

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism— not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do. John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God. 

By being plunged down into John’s baptism, Jesus condescends—Jesus goes down into the very depths of our unrighteousness. As Martin Luther said:

At Christmas, Christ becomes our flesh but at his baptism he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. As the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians: “He who knew no sin becomes sin so that you and I could become the very righteousness of God.”

That’s the connection between the two texts, baptism and cross. And it’s why they’re the only two texts all four Gospels give you. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with sinners beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with every sin all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism— the baptism of his death and resurrection— we may be made what the former baptism could never make us.  

Righteous.

As the Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

At Christmas, he takes on our flesh. 

Here at the Jordan River, he takes on the curse; so that, the curse hanging over us is carried in him unto the cross.  And there, by the baptism of his once-for-all death for sin, he completes the joyful carol we sang at his nativity. He makes his blessing known as far as the curse is found— the gift of his own righteousness, his own permanent perfect record. 

As Paul writes to the Colossians: “You who once were estranged from and hostile to God Christ has reconciled to God in his body through his death, so as to present you to God as holy, blameless, and irreproachable.”

   ——————-

 “All your CrossFit sessions really work,” I said to CJ, rubbing the burgeoning bruise in my other shoulder.  

“Sorry I keep hitting you” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, “they don’t warn you in seminary but working with church people is a contact sport most days.”

“It just goes to show,” she said, getting serious, “how secular, how post-Christian, unChristian, anti-Christian is our culture that a question like “Do you consider yourself a good person?” isn’t considered in any way a problematic way of putting the question.”

And I couldn’t help but smile at the number this dark bottle of beer, yours truly, had done on her with God’s Gospel help. 

“Look, I get it,” she said, “Most people— cognitive dissonance and all— probably do think they’re basically good people, but Christians at least— at the VERY LEAST— should understand that as soon as you’re considering yourself a good person you’re no longer speaking Christian.”

She didn’t say so and probably she wouldn’t put it like this, but the confusion is a confusion between these two baptisms, Jesus’ by John in the Jordan and ours by God into Jesus. 

     John’s baptism was a work we do— we’re the active agents in John’s baptism. 

    John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism is a work God does. 

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism incoporates us into the work God has already done to pardon us. 

     Once. 

     For all. 

     For everything you’ve done and everything you’ve left undone.  

     Our baptism is not an act of repentance.

Our baptism incorporates us into Christ’s act of redemption by which God declares you (though a sinner you are and a sinner you remain) his beloved son…his beloved daughter… to whom heaven will always be open not because you’re good but because he is gracious. 

It’s John’s kind of baptism— the work that we do— that misleads us into thinking that we’re basically good people because, according to the rules of John’s Old Age— and that’s what scripture calls it, the Old Age (even though most of us insist on living there still)— you and I have to be good. 

Perfect even.  As perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect— perfection, according to the rules of the Old Age under the Law, is actually the expectation. Yet the Law came with Moses, the Gospel promises, but Grace has come with Jesus Christ and in Christ the perfect righteousness required of us has been fulfilled by his own faithfulness for us.

In other words, our baptism into Christ—the work of God and his grace— frees us to admit that we’re worse than good. Those of us who are baptized into Christ— we should be the freest to admit our brokeness, to be vulnerable about our sinfulness, to be authentically imperfect. 

Baptized Christians should be the least defensive people.

I mean— I don’t know what newspaper you read, but the world could certainly use Christians who are quicker to confess their own sins rather than castigate others for theirs.

John’s baptism leaves you in your sin. 

And left in your sin, you’ll either refuse to admit the truth about yourself or you’ll be anxious about whether or not God will forgive you. But your baptism is not John’s baptism. By your baptism you are not in your sin— though a sinner you are— because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.  That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism. In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. 

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says. Your sin and your old self— it’s left behind, Paul says. Buried with him in his death, Paul says. Your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.  And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his perfect record. Permanently. 

No take-backs. No do-overs. No need ever to earn or deserve it. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

Notice—

The Gospel of Grace is not God loves you just as you are and accepts you just as you are.

No, that’s liberal sentimentality.

The Gospel of Grace is that God the Father loves Jesus Christ the Son.

And God loves and accepts you— just as you are— not because of who you are but because of where you are.

In Christ. 

By your baptism, you are in him.

He is your new you. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

And if you add anything to it at all, a single footnote or condition (especially a qualifier like “I’m basically a good person”) you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens. 

Grace can only begin where you (and all your pretensions) end. 

Put it this way— 

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own by our own initiative. I’m going to be more grateful today— go ahead and try it; it won’t work— the Bible tells me so (Romans 7). It just turns gratitude into another Law.

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own. 

Gratitude is the spontaneous response elicited in us by a message that comes from outside of us, by something surprising and undeserved that has been done by another for us. 

Christianly speaking, what has been done for us in Jesus Christ has no content apart from the why: what it is about us such that it had to be done for us. In other words, Christianly speaking, people who insist that they’re good, people who refuse to live into the freedom that their baptisms gives them, the freedom to be honest about their own sin or the societal sins they’re complicit in, such people can never be grateful. 

And without gratitude you cannot be a gracious, grace-giving person. 

Gratitude can only begin where you end. 

Of course, I’m not saying anything here we don’t already say with bread and wine. This Table of Thanksgiving— that’s what the word Eucharist means— is also at the same time a table for traitors. To deny or ignore the latter is to foreclose the former from you.

Don’t take my word for it. 

Check out the first two questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer:

That I am not my own but I belong by baptism—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful savior and substitute Jesus Christ.

Question 2:

What must I know to live and die in this comfort?

Answer :

1. The greatness of my sin.

2. How I’ve been forgiven and set free from all of them.

3. The gratitude that comes from such a redemption.

———————-

I followed up with CJ later, over black coffee. 

“Do I consider myself a good person?” she dwelled on the polygraph question like it was a missing button on her blouse. 

“The trouble is— it’s a lie detector test, right? You can only give Yes or No responses. How am I supposed to respond when the answer is ‘No, but…’?”

“No, but?” I asked.

“Yeah, no, but: ‘No, I’m not a good person, but at once and the same time, I’m something better than good. I’m righteous.’”

“If you really want to mess with him,” I said, “you could just say that ‘I’ve been baptized.’”