Archives For Grace

Captive Captivity

Jason Micheli —  August 12, 2018 — 1 Comment

I continued our summer sermon series through Ephesians by preaching on Ephesians 4.1-14. 

“He didn’t realize the war was over, his battle posture in vain, and that what he thought was reality had been a fiction.”

Pay attention to the passive voice there- “…what he thought was reality had been made a fiction.” 

In January 1972, 2 American hunters encountered Shoichi Yokoi in the jungles of Guam. Yokoi was setting one of the fishing traps that had kept him alive for 30 years when the hunters happened upon him. A sergeant in the 38th regiment of the Imperial Army of Japan, Yokoi had been stationed on Guam in February 1943. When American forces captured Guam a year later, Yokoi and a handful of other Japanese soldiers resisted surrendur and retreated deep into the jungle whence they would emerge on occassion to attack their (former) enemies. 

The 2 American hunters who happened upon Yokoi 3 decades later marched him at gunpoint to the nearest police station where the sergeant told incredulous cops his story. 

Turns out, Yokoi knew all along Japan had surrendured to the Allies in 1945. He knew the war- it was finished. 

He knew he was free to live in a new world. 

He just didn’t want to. So he resisted.

Instead he hid for 30 years, living in a cave in the jungle and surving on fish and fruit, snails and frogs. A tailor by training, Yokoi wove clothes from tree bark. “I chose to live,” he told police, “as though the hostilities were still raging.”

Yokoi was returned to Japan, but what was meant as a hero’s welcome for him was marked instead by ambivalence. Many Japanese were embarrassed by him. Younger Japanese in particular saw him as pathetic and mocked him for stubbornly sticking to a false reality. 

Yokoi himself, though he lived until 1997, was never at ease in the new, changed world. 

Again and again, he returned to Guam, visiting the cave in which he’d hid for decades. He even took visitors to see it. Back in Japan, Yokoi taught survival lessons. He taught others how to live in the world as he’d chosen it. 

The discovery of Shoichi Yokoi in 1972 sparked a Pacific-wide search for other soldiers who either hadn’t heard that the war was over or who, like Yokoi, hadn’t accepted that it was over. 

A couple of years later another soldier in the Imperial Army, Hiroo Onoda, was found living in a cave in the Phillipines. 

Onodo had just turned 83.

Unlike Yokoi, Onodo hadn’t heard the happy news that the war was over. 

As a Manilla newspaper said of him: “He didn’t realize the war was over, his battle posture in vain, and that what he thought was reality had been a fiction.” 

Onoda had such a difficult time believing the news and adjusting to it that, rather than return to a home he no longer recognized, he emigrated to Brazil where he lived out his last few years.

———————-

Our arranged marriage called Methodist itinerancy is a month old this Sunday. I’ve been here long enough now to know what you’re thinking at this point in the sermon. 

What does this have to do with the scripture text, Jason?

I’m glad you asked. 

In order to understand what Yokoi and Onoda have to do with what the Apostle Paul tells us today about Christ making captivity itself a captive and what he tells us before that in verse 3 about “maintaining our unity in the bond of peace,” you must first understand what Paul means by the s-word. 

Sin. 

Only when you understand that s-word can you begin to appreciate what St. Paul means by that other s-word, salvation. If your understanding of the former s-word is too small, your awe over the latter s-word will be too slight. Now, the rap against St. Paul, as everyone already knows, is that the dude talks a lot about sin. It’s true. Paul talks about sin more than anybody else…except Jesus. 

Everyone knows Paul spills a lot of ink on sin, but few stop to notice the way in which Paul writes about sin. Few notice how Paul conceives of sin. Across his letters, approximately half the time Paul uses the word sin, hamartia, he does so as the subject of verbs. 

I’m going to say that again so you get it:

Paul makes sin the subject of verbs.

He makes sin not the verb we do. 

He makes sin the subject of verbs. 

He makes sin the doer of its own verbs. 

Listen:

“Sin came into the world…”

“Sin increased…”

“Sin dwelt…”

“Sin produced in us…”

“Sin exercised dominion…”

And the word Paul uses there for ‘dominion’ in Greek is the same word Paul uses later for Jesus, kurios. It means ‘lord.’ 

“Sin exercised lordship over us…”

Despite how we most often think about it and speak of it, in the New Testament sin does not primarily describe human behavior. 

Sins, scripturally speaking, are not  misdeeds or misdemeanors- sin is not missing the mark. 

In the New Testament, it’s Sin. 

It’s singular, and you will understand it best if you give it a capital S. 

In the New Testament, Sin is not a problem we possess. 

Sin is a Power that possess us- a hostile Power.

 A Pharaoh, that stands over and against God, enslaving us in captivity. 

If I teach you anything in my time at Annandale Church, then let it be this interpretive key. In the New Testament, all our little s sins- our avarice and our rage, our begrudging and our deceit, our violence and our self-righteousness and our racism- are but ways our captivity to the Power of Sin manifests itself. They’re the ways we clank the chains to which a Power who is not God has clasped us.

As my teacher Beverly Gaventa puts it:

“Sin is an anti-God Power, synonymous with the Satan, Death, and the Devil, whose defeat the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated.”

The cross, as St. Paul understands it, is not just about Christ bleeding and dying for your little s sins. The cross, as Paul sees it, is a cosmic battle- a battle God wages for you against the Power of capital S Sin. This is why Paul so often uses militaristic imagery, especially at the end of Ephesians where he talks about the armor of God. 

Sin isn’t just a mark on your rap sheet. 

Sin is an Enemy with a captial E, an Enemy with a resume all its own. 

If you don’t get this you don’t get it:  If you think of sin as just your problem instead of an Enemy from whom God in Christ rescues you, then it’s easy for you to end up with a god who seems to have a forgiveness problem. 

Sin isn’t just a mark on your rap sheet. Sin is an Enemy with a resume all its own, an Enemy that ensnares even God’s own Law, has taken God’s own commandments hostage, so as to enslave us. No matter what we’ve done to soften it or obscure it: the love of God in Jesus Christ, as scripture testifies, is not sentimental. It’s a love that invades enemy territory to rescue you from captivity to a Pharaoh, a Caesar, called Sin. 

It’s this understanding of capital S Sin that St. Paul has in mind when he tells us, earlier in Ephesians, that in Christ God has put an end to the hostilities between us. 

And it’s what Paul means here in verse 8 when he says that Christ our King has made captivity itself (i.e., the Power of Sin) his captive. 

Paul means here what Christ says from the cross: “It is finished.” 

Paul means here what St. John says in Revelation: “Jesus Christ has thrown the dragon down.” 

Paul means here…the war is over, the battle’s won, the enemy has been defeated- like Pharaoh and his army, the Enemy has been drowned in the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Listen- here’s the shock of the Gospel Paul’s proclaiming: all the ways our enslavement to the Enemy still exhibits itself, the hate and the hostilities between us, they’re not really real. 

They’re not really real.

———————-

What we take to be reality, the hostilities and acrimony among us, has been made a fiction, which makes us who choose to live abiding that fiction as tragically comic as those Japanese soldiers hiding their heads in caves. 

“He made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”

The Apostle Paul is quoting there from Psalm 68- that’s why he introduces it with “Therefore it is said…” Psalm 68 is a processional hymn, a victory song, the bookend to the Song of Moses. Psalm 68 sings of Yahweh the King taking up residence in the Temple as the culmination of the Exodus. They sang Psalm 68 because the goal of God redeeming his people from captivity had been accomplished. 

Only, Paul changes it. 

He changes it, Psalm 68. 

The original line doesn’t read as it does here in verse 8: “…he gave gifts to his people.” The original line in Psalm 68 instead reads: “He made captivity itself a captive; he received gifts from among his people.” 

Paul changes it from God receiving gifts from us to God giving gifts to us.

What gifts? 

You’ve got to go back to the top of the text. It’s not just that God has redeemed us from our captivity to the Power of Sin. It’s that God has replaced our bondage to the Power of Sin with bonds of peace. 

“…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Maintain, Paul says. Notice the admonition. 

It isn’t to work for peace and unity in the name of Christ. It’s to maintain it. It’s not to advocate on behalf of, build towards, strive for peace. It’s to preserve it. The exhortation is not to aspire for that which is not yet. It’s to abide by that which is already: Peace and unity among us is not the fiction. 

Martin Luther King Jr famously said: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” 

But St. Paul today might tweak MLK to say instead: “The love of God in Christ Jesus is the force that has transformed enemies into friends.” Maintain, Paul says to the Ephesians. Hold onto what is already true.”  

And actually maintain is a bit pedestrian a word by which to translate it. In Greek, the word is axias. It means “to safeguard” or “to treasure.” 

It’s the word the chief steward says to Jesus at the wedding in Cana: “Everyone else serves the good wine first, and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten drunk. But you have axias the best wine for now.” 

Axias, treasure. 

It’s the word Jesus uses about his own words: “Very truly I tell you, whoever axias my word will never taste death.” 

Axias. 

It’s the word Paul uses in another letter for how we should regard our betrothed: “…treasure her…” Paul says. 

Alright- 

I realize I’ve already devoted more attention to the scripture text than your average United Methodist can tolerate so if you’re about to nod off here’s the quick Cliff Notes version to Paul’s Gospel:

By the cross and resurrection of Jesus Chrsit, we have been redeemed from bondage to the Power of Sin, and God the Holy Spirit has replaced those bonds with bonds of peace between us. 

Axias it. 

Safeguard it. 

Treasure it. 

Maintain what the “real world” will tell you again and again is a fiction. 

———————-

     I know what you’re thinking- 

     What does this have to do with real life? 

     What does this look like lived out?

     I’m glad you asked. 

Daryl Davis lives just up the beltway near Bethesda, Maryland. I met him at a conference last fall. By trade and training, he’s a rock-n-roll piano player. He’s toured with Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

He’s acted too, on stage and on TV, in Roseanne and the Wire. 

In addition to music and acting, for 30 years Daryl Davis has had an odd hobby. 

     Odd for a black man. 

     For 30 years, Daryl Davis has befriended high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

In his memoir, Daryl Davis explains how it all began. He’d been playing a gig at a honky tonk night club when a fan from the audience came up to him to strike up a conversation during which the (white) fan volunteered that he was a member of the KKK. 

And Davis recalls responding to this revelation with (pay attention, now): “How can you hate me?” 

     How can you hate me? 

     In other words: 

     We’re free. 

     He’s made that captivity his captive. 

     You hating me is impossible now. 

     Daryl Davis resisted. 

     He refused to believe in the reality of hostility between them. 

     He resisted. 

     He insisted on axias-ing the peace and unity that was between, already.

So that night in the honky tonk, Daryl Davis decided he would make friends with the klansman, and, in the weeks and months following, he’d call up the klansman and say things like “I’m headed to Home Depot, you want to come with me?” 

And the klansman did and would. 

Believing that the peace between them was not aspirational but had been accomplished aleady- it afforded Daryl Davis the patience to discover it and to give grace in the meantime along the way.

Again and again, Daryl Davis would just make up reasons for them to spend time together so that “the reality of their friendship could be revealed.” 

That friend, the klansman from the honky tonk, eventually became the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, the national leader of the klan, but today- his white robe and his hood, they’re just down the beltway from here. In Daryl Davis’ guest room closet. The racist gave all his robes and hoods and paraphenalia to Daryl Davis when he quit the klan.  

     -Play Video: 

There’s a reason there’s documentary about him. 

After that night in the honky tonk, Daryl Davis has since converted something like 200 racists- racists of the worst kind- out of the klan

He was down the road in Charlottesville too, a year ago this weekend, wandering around the other side of the barricade, walking right up to racists and saying ‘Hey, how can you hate me? Want to talk?’ 

One news story from Charlottesville showed Davis being screamed at by nearly everybody: white progressives with their hate has no home here signs and anti-fascists and cops calling him crazy stupid and bigots calling him boy. 

You tell me who’s living in the real world. 

All of us who scream at each other with signs and social media, who hate on each other with hashtags, who nurse grievances and grudges by getting up when a preacher we don’t like speaks.

-or-

Daryl Davis and his slow, gentle, patient insistence that the hostility between us, is in fact, a fantasy. For all of us with privilege, maybe it’s a tempting Westworld sort of fantasy but a fiction nonethless. 

You tell me who’s living in the real world. 

Because when I think about Daryl Davis and then catch my own reflection in a window, you know who I see staring back at me? 

     Shoichi Yokoi. 

     Someone who’s heard the news but refuses to abide by it. 

     As Daryl Davis says:

The peace between us, already

The unity between us, already

The absence of hostilty between us, right now

It’s like Jesus say it is-   It’s like a treasure, an axias, hidden in a field, buried in your backyard. Just because you don’t realize it’s there. Just because you refuse to believe it’s there. Just because you won’t risk looking like a fool and go digging up your yard

It doesn’t mean it’s not there. It doesn’t mean it’s not real and true. It doesn’t you’re not already sitting on a fortune and could be living out of those riches.

Right now.

If you would but trust Paul’s Gospel promise that what you think is the real world- it’s been made a fiction, and the resentments between us- in our politics, all over your marriage, at your office, on your Facebook feed, across the pews- no matter how loud our chains sound, the hostilities between us are his now. 

His captive.

And our trust- our faith, alone- in the Gospel is the only key we need to unlock the handcuffs with which we bind ourselves.

Let me make it plain-
A lot of people like me will like someone like Daryl Davis because not only does he inspire, he let’s us off the hook (we think).

If only African Americans could be as amiable to oppressors as Daryl Davis, then all our problems would be solved (we think). What’s a little slavery between friends, right? I mean, come on Chenda- why can’t you be more like Daryl?

But to hear it that way is not to have heard St. Paul’s Gospel announcement this morning.

Daryl Davis doesn’t let us off the hook.

He compels us to come out of hiding in the comfort of our caves.

He compels us to come out into the real world and say to whoever we need to in our lives: How can you hate me? Or, more likely: How can I hate you?

The war is over, the battle won.

Not a New Moses

Jason Micheli —  August 5, 2018 — Leave a comment

Ephesians 3.14-21

The first sermon I ever preached I preached behind bars.
While I was a student at Princeton, before I ever worked in a church, I served as a chaplain at Trenton State, a maximum security prison in New Jersey.

I had no idea what I was doing when I began my ministry there, but by the time I left there I’d learned that the freedom of the Gospel, what St. Paul refers to today as the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, is a message best heard- maybe, only heard- by those who know they’re in captivity.

———————-

My first sermon-

I’d only been there a couple of weeks. It was a morning service in July, and it was held in a prison gymnasium. For an altar table, I had an old, metal teacher’s desk, and instead of candles on either side of the table there were two rusting electric fans. Greasy strings of dust clung to the blades as they kneaded the thick summer heat.

I counted them as they shuffled into the sanctuary, some bound hand to foot. Out of about 75 worshippers only 3 of the faces were white, and 1 of them was mine.

No one wore their Sunday best in that congregation. The men all had their state—issued beige jumpsuits. “We all look like Winston that worthless Ghostbuster in these,” Barone, one of the inmates who worked in the chaplain’s office, had joked to me when I met him. Barone was a heavyset Italian chef doing time for dealing cocaine out of his kitchen.

Sister Rose, the nun who was the Chaplain Supervisor, wore not a habit but her order’s plain gray pants and plain white shirt. No one wore their Sunday best that morning.

Except me.

I didn’t wear a robe because I wasn’t an official minister yet and, at that point in my life, still had some serious misgivings about ever being one. So I wore a suit with a pink shirt and a flowery pastel purple tie.

Let me just say that again so I’ve set the stage clearly: I was going to preach to prisoners (some in for life, some on death row, all hardened criminals) wearing a pink shirt and pastel purple tie with flowers).

My wife that morning had said I looked “handsome.” When the inmates saw me, they said I looked “pretty.” At least the word “pretty” is how I chose to translate the kissy noises they made.

“Do we have two lady preachers this Sunday?” one of the men asked from the back row.

It went downhill from there.

Sister Rose tried to begin the worship service with singing.
I say tried because the music was played on a cassette player (children, you can ask your parents what those are later) and because Sister Rose was one of those worship leaders who mistakenly believed that adding hand motions to the singing would somehow make the songs more “contemporary.”

It’s not easy to do something even more white than a pink shirt with a flowery pastel purple tie, but Sister Rose managed to pull it off, insisting that we all do what looked like jazzhands as we mumbled our way through “Trading My Sorrows.”

The Hispanic innmates who all spoke perfect English when bartering cigarettes, snacks, and Playboys all pretended, suddenly, not to know a lick of it.

So, despite being prisoners, they were about the least captivated audience I’ve ever seen at the start of a sermon.
Because Sister Rose was a Shiite Catholic and insisted that I preach from the lectionary, the readings assigned according to the Christian calendar, my passage that summer morning was this morning’s text from Ephesians 3.

I was both a new preacher and a new Christian. I hadn’t yet taken any homiletics classes so I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to talk about the scripture straight away. I hadn’t learned that I was supposed to sneak up on my listeners, slant-wise, with a personal story, disarm them first with humor, and thereby trick them into giving a crap about the text.

So I tried to keep it simple and give it to them straight up. I took it from the top.

———————-

“To understand the reason Paul is praying here, I said, you have to go back to what Paul said before this in chapter 3 and before that even in chapter 2.’

“I thought what you read to us was plenty long already, preacher,” one of the inmates joked.

I could feel my skin blushing a darker shade of pink than my ill-chosen shirt.

What prompts Paul to pray, I doubled down, is what Paul calls the Mystery of Christ.

“Mystery?” a 40-something inmate in the front said, “Speaking of mysteries, what’s this Paul got to say about the mystery of why I’m in here when I’m an innocent man?!”

“Amazing, everybody’s innocent here,” Barone laughed and others followed.

I looked up from my notes and, with the zeal of a recent convert, I said to them: “Actually, Paul does have something to say about it. He said it earlier in chapter 2.

He said that in the supermest of supreme courts not one of us is innocent, and the sentence we all deserve is death.”

And I flipped back in my bible to the chapter prior and read it to them: “You who were dead through in your trespasses and sins…by grace you have been saved.”

Then I turned the page: “You who were once far off from God in your trespasses and sins have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

“Amen!” some of them responded.

“Preach it! Preach it!” some others encouraged me.

“That’s the mystery that makes him pray,” I said. “That’s the mystery: that the Judge has been judged in our place, that the sentence gets served not by us but by a substitute, by the very object of our sin.”

“Come on now,” a few listeners shouted. I was finding my stride.

“The Mystery of Christ is what makes Paul pray. The mystery that by his bleeding and dying the Son has purchased peace between us and the Father.”

“Amen” an elderly inmate covered in faded out tattoos yelled from the back. “Shush!” Sister Rose whispered with a finger over her lips, “Inside voices!”

“The Mystery of Christ is what prompts Paul to pray.

The mystery that we are justified before God not by any good work we do but only by the work of Jesus Christ in our stead- even the best good works done by the very best people do not justify them before God- and this is ours soley through the gifting of God. By grace- alone.”

I noticed then that those who’d refused to show any rhythm at all during the singing were nodding their heads.

“By grace, your rap sheet is Christ’s now and his perfect record is reckoned to you as your own.

By grace, though not one of you is innocent or pure all of you are counted as such on account of Christ.

By grace, you are reckoned in the right by the only Judge that ultimately matters.

All of us, every last one of us, religious or not, it doesn’t matter because God has gone and done it for us entirely apart from religion.

God has gone and done it by the most irreligious means possible, by a cross.”

Some of them were squinting at me now, not sure if they were following me.

“In fact,” I said, “the mystery that makes him pray is that God has gone and done away with religion altogether.

Religion- what we do to get right with God; what we do to our neighbors to get God on our side- God’s gotten rid of all of it. He’s forsaken it in his own forsaken body.”

———————-

I still have the moleskin in which I wrote this sermon all those years ago. In it, I’d double- underlined the next part of my maiden sermon.

“The Mystery of Christ, Paul says, is that God has abolished the very commands God gave to us.”

And then I read to them the money line from Ephesians 2: “Christ has abolished the Law and the commandments that he might create a new humanity in himself.”

“It’s like what Paul tells the Galatians,” I said to them, “If we can be made right with God through good works or commandment-keeping then Christ came and died for absolutely nothing.”

“You shall love God with everything you are, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, you shall care for the poor and the stranger among you, forgive 70×7, turn the other cheek, love your enemies and pray for them…

All of that- Christ has abolished all of it, all of the Commandments, even the commandments he taught us; so that, all those do-good pious types who secretly insist on thinking God will grade them on a curve- they’ll have no where else to turn but to him and his mercy.

Like Jesus tells the rich young ruler, the only works of ours that are truly ‘good’ are the ones that come as a consequence of knowing that not one of those good works is necessary; otherwise, the bible says, even our best deeds are no better than filthy rags.”

I looked around the room at these men more acquainted with their bad deeds than their best deeds.

“That only sounds harsh if you think you’re free,” I said, “but if you know what the bible says about you to be true, that you are a captive to sin, then it’s the very best news you’re ever going to hear.

Because it means the Law is now and forever a rap sheet that the Judge refuses to read because Jesus Christ, by his perfect faithfulness, has fulfilled the Law for you and, by his bruised body, he has born for you your failure under the Law.”

All the Law talk was losing them, I could tell.

So I said-

“Look, this is what it means: everything God commands you to do in scripture has already been done for you by Jesus Christ and every sin you have done has been undone by his death for you.

Christ has set you free from any anxiety or burden you might feel over keeping his commands or following his teachings and if you but trust this news you might be behind bars but, trust me, you are more free than almost everyone outside these walls sitting in churches this morning.

They’re all in cages they can’t see.”

But they looked confused, like I’d just told them the opposite of everything they’d ever heard about Christianity.

So I changed tack.

“Hang on,” I said, “what’s Paul doing praying on his knees? Jews like Paul didn’t pray on their knees.”

“Except, after Job loses everything, he kneels down to pray. He gets down on his knees and, on a heap of ashes, prays.
And Stephen, before he’s executed, he bows down on his knees and prays.

And Jesus, before he’s arrested by the authorities, he gets down on his knees and prays.

Prayer was done standing up except when you were at the end of your rope.

Paul’s on his knees, praying, because he’s behind bars.”
And notice what he prays for in prison- he prays that Christ would dwell in your heart by faith so that you may comprehend the scope of his love.”

I got some amens.

“The Mystery of Christ, your redemption from sin and your reconciliation to God, it’s yours,” I said, “if you just have faith.”
“It’s yours,” I said, “if you have faith.”

“God’s gift of grace. It’s yours,” I said, “if you have faith, if you invite him into your heart.”

———————-

“Hold up, preacher” one of the inmates, Victor, raised both of his hands.

Victor’s wrists were bound together and chained to his ankles. His jumpsuit was starched and unwrinkled and buttoned neatly all the way up to his collar. His long black hair was pulled tightly into a ponytail.

“Um…okay…what?”

“What do you mean if?”

“Um…I don’t follow…”

“You said everything’s already been done by Christ,” Victor said.

I nodded.

“But it sounds like there’s more to be done if I gotta have faith in it.” Now everyone else was nodding, even Sister Rose.

“I mean, Jesus- he said ‘It is finished,’ right? But how is it finished and done if you need faith first?”

“Uh…umm…look, I’m not a real preacher…”

“And you said that Paul says we’re justified by his work of grace not by any good work we do.”

I nodded, nervous knowing that Victor liked brag about representing himself in court.

“Well, if the gift isn’t really mine until I have faith in it doesn’t that make my faith just another good work?”

“Maybe we should sing another song,” Sister Rose suggested.

“No,” this is good, Barone laughed, “Look at the preacher sweating it like a defendant.”

“Say it again,” I said to Victor.

“You said we’re saved by grace, by the gift of God, but how is it a gift if we gotta do something to get it?”

“Yeah,” someone said, “grace isn’t amazing at all if we’ve got to earn it with our faith. And how is that a mystery anyway? There’s nothing mysterious about that. Everything in the world works by earning and deserving.”

I’d lost the room completely. It was distracted chaos, like when Peter preaches here. They all turned away from me and towards the middle to each other, talking out the scripture themselves:

If God doesn’t grade on a curve then why is faith the one test we gotta pass?
If you have faith- that sounds like a plea deal not a promise. And some of them laughed.
Yeah, it sounds like a negotiation not news.
If it has conditions it’s a contract not a gift.
And it ain’t free either because it puts the burden back on us to believe.

“Look at the bible passage,” Barone said, “It doesn’t say Paul’s praying for them to get faith so that they can invite Christ into their hearts.
He puts it the other way around. He prays that Christ will dwell in their hearts and the way Christ will dwell in their hearts is through faith. In other words, faith is what Christ does. We’re not the ones getting faith. Christ gives us faith.”

Someone from the back row jumped in:

“Then that means whatever faith we have, whether it’s a lot or a little…” his voice trailed off, puzzling it out.

“It’s Jesus’ work in us; it’s not our own,” Barone finished, “That’s how it fits in with what Jason was saying before he messed it all up. From beginning to end, it’s Jesus’ work- that’s what Paul means by height and length and breadth and depth. Every bit of it is Jesus. Faith doesn’t change anything but our perception. Faith is just what Christ gives us so we can see what’s already true.”

———————-

“Is that right, preacher?” the inmate named Victor asked me. He sat up straight in his metal chair and put his chained hands on his lap, suddenly serious. “Is that true?”

“Um, well, yes.”

“So, if there’s nothing we need to do for this to be true for us, then if someone asked you what they had to do to become a Christian…what’s the answer?”

I thought about it. I thought about how to put it without using any ifs. “I guess I’d tell them just to enjoy the gift.”

“Enjoy the gift?” Victor said, “How do you start doing that?”

“Well, I guess you’d start by receiving baptism.”

“Ok,” he said, “That, I want that. I want to be baptized.”

“Alright,” I said, “Sister Rose and I can talk and look at the calendar and talk to a pastor…”

“I want it now,” Victor said.

“Well, I’m not really supposed to do that sort of thing,” I said. “I’m just a student. I don’t have the proper credentials. I could get in trouble.”

“Your bishop would never even know,” Sister Rose giggled. “Besides, you just said Jesus freed us from the Law.”

“Um, okay,” I said.

“You know how, right?” Victor asked.

“Sure. I mean, I’ve seen it done.”

“You’ll need water,” Sister Rose pointed out.

“Right, water- can you get us some water?” I asked one of the guards.

“And a bowl,” Sister Rose said.

The guard was gone for a moment or two and then came back with a big clear bowl from the staff salad bar and a dripping water pitcher.

Sister Rose pulled an old donated worship book off the wheeled cart of worn bibles and, as Victor shuffled forward, his chains clinking quietly, Sister Rose turned to the baptismal prayer.

Sister Rose handed me the prayer book. I didn’t ask him any questions.

I just poured the water into the bowl like the italicized directions told me, and I read the prayer on the water wrinkled page: “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and Victor who receives it to clothe him in Christ’s righteousness that, having died and been raised with Christ, he may share in Christ’s victory.”

After the amen, I used my hands and I poured the water over his pony-tailed head.

The congregation all hooted and hollered.

“I never got baptized before because I didn’t think I could live the Christian life,” Victor said. “I didn’t think I could have that much faith, and I knew I wasn’t very faithful.”

“Dude, didn’t you comprehend anything we just said?” Barone laughed:

“There’s no such thing as the Christian life.

There’s just getting used to the mystery that his life has been credited to you.

Gratis.”

And Victor beamed and Barone laughed some more, one of them in chains but both of them free.

———————-

I never got to finish that first sermon of mine.

It got interrupted by a question and then a baptism, and by the time Victor had shuffled back to his seat Sister Rose had started the cassette player for a closing song.

It was all for the better.

The conclusion I’d written- I’ve still got it in a moleskin; it’s as embarrassing as an old yearbook photo- It was all about you coming to Christ by having faith. But that just made faith another work. And it turned the Gospel back into the Law. Or, at best, it muddled the Gospel and the Law into a kind of Glawspel.

The Gospel is not exhortative: here’s what you must do to come to God- have faith, give to the poor, stand against injustice, serve the church.

The Gospel is declarative: here’s what God has done to come to you in Jesus Christ.

And God comes to us not with a prescription of what we must do for him- that’s Law (which Christ has abolished).
God comes to us with the promise of what he has done for us.

Christ is not a New Moses, I would’ve said if I’d gotten the chance. Christ is not just an example, teacher, or law-giver. If Christ is just another Moses then his life is no different than the saints. His life is his life, and your life is still in its sins.

Thinking of Jesus as your example or your teacher or law-giver, in the end, will just make you a hypocrite not a Christian because only he can fulfill the Law and live up to its demands.

Before Christ is your example or your teacher or your law-giver, he must be your gift.
He’s not a New Moses.

He gives himself for all your failures to obey Moses and with his perfect love he fulfills the Law of Moses and that fullness of his love is poured out on you at your baptism and it’s fed to you in wine and bread.

I never got to finish that sermon, but it’s just as well. I was just a student. I didn’t  have the authority to end the sermon the way I should’ve ended it: with an invitation.

Come to the Table.

Come and receive the One who has come to you.

 

Starting in a new congregation in a denomination that stands at the precipice of schism, I sense a lot of anxiety from the laity I meet. EVERYONE wants to know what their new pastor thinks about homosexuality, the Church’s ‘position’ on gay Christians, and what I view as the “Way Forward” through this ecclessial impasse.

In all our arguing about the way forward, I can’t help but wonder if what the Church needs most is to go backward. St. Paul writes to Timothy about the urgent need for interpreters of scripture to be able to divide rightly the Word of God, and the Protestant movement began 500 years ago largely as a preaching movement that had at its core the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Echoing the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther said there is no other higher art than making that distinction between the two words with which God has spoken and still speaks to us.

When it comes to the debate about sexuality in the Church, not only do I not hear alot of nuance I don’t hear much distinction being drawn between God’s two words. Instead, what I hear from both conservative and progressive sides is a lot of Gospel-flavored Law laying the net result of which is a muddled message, Glawspel, rather than the grace-centric proclamation that is our reason d’etre as Protestant Christians. Anything goes in this debate, the stakes are so high, because, as advocates on both sides often insist “the Gospel is at stake.” For conversatives, the Gospel is at stake in the sense that the authority of scripture is up for grabs. For progressives, the Gospel is at stake in that the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians is a justice issue.

The Gospel is at stake, I think.

Just not in the way either side imagines.

Look-

I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church. Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ. In the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.

I’m just aware that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

On the other side of the debate, frankly it makes no sense to me to baptize babies if the Church is not prepared for them to exercise their Christian vocation once they’re grown, and ordained ministry and marriage are but two forms that Christian vocation takes. If we’re not prepared for gay Christians to live into their baptism as adutls we shouldn’t be baptizing them as babies, which means we shouldn’t be baptizing any babies.

Nonetheless, I think progressive Christians who insist that their fellow Christians see this as exclusively as a justice issue make the same mistake their conservative counterparts make.

Namely, they tie our righteousness as Christians to being ‘right’ on this issue.

It’s in this sense that I believe the Gospel is at stake in this debate because, thus far, the debate has obscured our core message that our righteousness comes entirely from outside of us by grace alone through faith alone. Put another way:

You would never come to the conclusion from how both sides engage this debate that grace gives us the right to be wrong. 

To the extent that is obscured, the Gospel is at stake in this debate.

The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

In all our arguing about getting it right on this issue-

I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:

everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel frees us from the Law.

The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies us before God not at all.

The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex.

Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification. Almost by definition then, it’s a stupid issue with which to obsess. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.

As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder, Bill Clinton and Donald Trumpshouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.

In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.

I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law. The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law. The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.

I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in his perfect righteousness.

I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.

Every last one of us.

More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of their lives. God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys the same message the sale of indulgences did on the eve of the Reformation: that God’s grace isn’t costly. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing. Maybe the way forward is the backward.

 

 

Digression to Doxology

Jason Micheli —  July 30, 2018 — 2 Comments

I continued our summer sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians by preaching on Ephesians 3.1-13.

     You might’ve seen the story in the Washington Post yesterday. 

     About Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, and the allegations against him. 

     Cardinal McCarrick is yet another cause for shame in the Catholic Church’s clergy scandal. 

     Ever since November before last, opinion writers in the press have given evangelical Christians (or, at least a certain percentage of them) grief. 

     But it’s not really fair to single out conservative evangelicals as a cause for embarrassment because, as Christians, we already have ample reasons to be ashamed. As Christians,we already have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed over being Christian. 

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

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

     Speaking of Left Behind, did you know former disgraced televangelist Jim Baker is not only back on TV but he’s hawking 100lb flood buckets filled with freeze-dried food so that you can weather the apocalypse without cutting calories. 

     Nose around long enough and you’ll find a reason to be embarrassed about being a Christian. 

     Don’t believe me?

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

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

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

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

     From climate change deniers to thanking the Almighty for every touchdown and goal-line stop to the #Blessed license plate I saw on a Tesla yesterday to Red and Blue Jesuses in the social media scrum- we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian. 

     Christians executed Galileo. 

     Christians excommunicated Graham Greene. 

     Christians excuse Franklin Graham. 

     The reason so many insist on protesting that Black Lives Matter is because Christians for centuries pimped out their bibles to join in the chorus of those who said they don’t. 

     Matter. 

     We should be ashamed. 

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

     We Christians have plenty of reasons to be ashamed. 

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

     Don’t even get me started on 19 Kids and Counting.

     We have ample reasons to be ashamed. 

     But I digress.

—————————-

     I digress. 

     So does Paul.

     If you were paying attention to today’s passage, you may have noticed that the Apostle Paul loses his train of thought right here at the top of chapter 3: “This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash”

     Check your bibles if you don’t believe me. The dash is really there. 

      Paul gets sidetracked at the start of his first sentence: This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash

     And notice, that dash is 13 verses long. 

     The whole passage today is a parenthetical comment. 

     In Greek, it’s called an anacoluthon; meaning, it’s an interuppted sentence that consequently lacks a verb to complete it. Paul doesn’t finish his first sentence until he gets to verse 14. Paul doesn’t get around to putting a verb on verse 1 until he gets to next Sunday’s passage where he writes about bowing his knees in worship. 

     Next week, verse 14 begins a doxology, 7 verses of praise over the height and depth and breadth and length of the love of God revealed to us as for us in Jesus Christ. But that long doxology in the second half of Ephesians 3 is preceded by an even longer digression. 

      This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash…

      And then St. Paul digresses for 13 verses about the grace of God and the mystery of Christ and how that grace for them has made him a prisoner. 

     And not only a prisoner, a doulos Paul calls himself- a word your bibles translate as servant. 

     It means slave.

     The doxolgy to follow is preceded by a digression about how- why- Paul is a prisoner. 

     A slave. 

     A digression which ends with his plea to them not to lose heart over his suffering. 

     Do not be ashamed of my suffering, Paul writes. 

     In other words, what provokes this long digression is what prompts his epistle to the Ephesians in the first place. Paul knows that, in a place like Ephesus, a ministry pockmarked by suffering and shame undermined his message of salvation.  

     As St. Luke reports in the Book of Acts, the Christians in Ephesus worshipped in the shadow of the temple of Artemis Ephesia. The temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the world. At 70 x 130 meters square, it was 4 times larger than the Parthenon in Athens. It was made of marble, latticed with 127 columns. Outside in front of the temple was a horseshoe shaped altar with a statue of Artemis at its center where worshippers would offer sacrifices to petition Artemis to intercede on their behalf, to rescue them from whatever suffering had befallen them. 

     Artemis’ power was such that Ephesus was the one city in the Greco-Roman world without any imperial cult, without any statues or altars to the Emperor. You see, even Caesar showed deference to Artemis Ephesia. She was a god who delivered the goods. 

     And then here’s Paul, in prison- again, writing to a tiny church worshipping in the shadow of a god against whom not even Caesar will step.

     Paul doesn’t appear to have been on the receiving end of any divine intercessions.

     He’s no better off than a slave. 

     His God hasn’t delivered him from suffering- Artemis’ forte.

     His God has delivered him into suffering. 

     And where Artemis was symbolized by raw, visceral power- those aren’t breasts on that statue, those are bull…nevermind, you can look it up when you get home- the Christ that Paul proclaimed had none, had been emptied of power. 

     The Christ that Paul proclaimed had only a cross. 

      It wasn’t just his ministry, pockmarked as it was by suffering and shame, that Paul had to double-back on, digress and explain. 

     It was his message. 

     It was his message of the cross.

     Just -pas we have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed about being Christian, St. Paul assumed it was obvious why his hearers in Ephesus (and elsewhere) would be ashamed of the Gospel. 

     Paul digresses on his way to doxology because Paul knows that what is shameful and embarrassing about his Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus.

     I’m going to say that again in case I lost you in all my digressions:

What is shameful and embarrassing about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus..

—————————-

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

      A disgrace. 

     Do not be ashamed of my suffering for the cross, Paul essentially says here in his letter to the Ephesians. Do not be ashamed of this shame, Paul says in his letter to Timothy. Do not be ashamed of the Gospel, Paul says in his letter to the Romans. 

     He has to say it again and again, in different ways and digressions, because to the Romans, crucifixion was shameful- so shameful that until Christianity converted the heart of the empire, nearly 300 years after Paul, the word “crux” was the Latin equivalent of the F-bomb. 

     Crucifixion was so degrading and dehumanizing- designed to be so- you weren’t permitted to speak of it, or use the word ‘cross’ even, in polite society. 

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

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

     Paul digresses here in Ephesians 3 over the words that mark his ministry, words like prisoner and slave and suffering, because of the one word at the heart of his message.

     Crucifixion.

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

      That’s why Christ’s disciples flee from him in the end. 

     It isn’t because they believe his mission ended in failure. 

     No, they flee from him because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness. 

     They abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. 

     They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him. 

     To Jews and Romans alike, Paul’s Gospel about a crucified God was a tougher sell than Facebook stock. No one in Israel expected a crucified Messiah and nothing in Caesar’s empire prepared Romans to pledge allegiance to a man who had met a death so shameful they dare not speak of it.

     Paul’s message and his ministry in service to it were scandalously and profanely counter-intuitive. 

     By any standards, Jewish or Roman, you would’ve had to be insane to worship a crucified man, much less suffer yourself for one. 

     Which- pay attention- I believe remains the strongest argument for the truth of the Gospel. 

——————————

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

     Religion, Freud critiqued, is but the projection of humanity’s hopes and desires.     

     Religion is the product of our deep (and maybe insecure) longing for a loving Father Figure. 

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

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

     About religion. 

     I know the Apostle Paul would agree with him. Religion is man-made. We make God in our image, not vice versa, and then we project all our aspirations, assumptions, and prejudices on to him. 

     That’s why so often God sounds like an almighty version of ourselves. 

     That’s why so much of the “Christianity” out there in the ether shames and embarrasses us. The plastic pop songs and the Christian kitsch; the Self-Help and the Civil Religion and the Red and Blue hued Jesuses. 

     It’s all what Freud and Paul call ‘religion.’ It’s all just a means of helping us endure life and advance through it. 

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

     And every religion has the Law. 

     Every religion tells you what you ought to do for God. 

     Every religon tells you what you must do for your neighbor. Every religion has the Golden Rule.

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

     The Gospel, our testimony about the crucified Jesus, is not religious at all. It’s irreligious, Paul writes to the Corinthians. 

     It’s a disgrace. 

     It’s so shameful that Paul calls it a stumbling block for religious people.  Freud was right about religion, but he didn’t understand that Paul’s Gospel is something else entirely. 

     It’s not religion at all.

It’s news. 

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

      Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment. 

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

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

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

—————————-

      If you read my blog, then you already know that I spent my final day in my last congregation burying a boy the same age as my youngest son, Gabriel. 

     He was the fifth child I’d buried in that parish. 

     And his was the third five foot long coffin I’d buried because of suicide. 

     Peter, Jackson, Neil. 

     I wish I could forget their names.

     Since I’m new here, you should know: I hate my job sometimes. 

     And since I’m new here, you should know too, just as often, I doubt the existence of the One from whom my vocation supposedly comes. To be honest, I don’t take seriously the atheism of anyone who has not thrown dirt on a child’s casket. 

     And you should know, I do respect the atheism of anyone who has.

     Peter. 

     The boy last month- his name was- is- Peter. 

      Peter had been fighting with his mom about doing his homework. 

      He was dyslexic and ADD and homework had always been hard. 

      Peter was fighting with his mom about doing his homework, the kind of fight I’ve had with my own kids a thousand times. The kind of fight, I’m sure, you’ve had with your kids. 

     Just go do your goddamned homework, Lisa had yelled at him. 

     Fuck you, Mom, Peter shouted back already climbing the stairs, I’m going to go and kill myself instead. 

     And, he did. 

     A panic rushed over his mom a few moments later. She screamed at her oldest daughter to check on him, but it was littlest sister who found him and, too late, tried to untie his belt.

     Maybe he meant to do it. 

     Maybe it was an impulsive way from an impulsive kid to win an argument. 

     Maybe he was standing on the chair waiting for his mom to rush in through the door and he just lost his balance. 

      His mom, Lisa, was stoic when I met with her, as strong and self-possessed as a statue, until she told me how she used to write letters to Peter whenever he was about to go on a trip. She’d write it and then hide it in his bag for him to discover later. 

     Her Artemis-like artifice fell apart in front of me as she sobbed: “Now he’s gone on a trip to God and he’s never coming back AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE TO HIM!”

     Watching her powerful facade crack in my lap, I felt righteously PO’d. 

     Your heart would have to be made of stone to hear a mother’s spleen-deep sobs and not feel furious.

      At God. 

      Or, 

      Feel foolish for believing in the first place. 

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

      And I don’t know how to say this with the force with which I feel it (maybe that’s why Paul digresses so often and for so long) but every time- those moments where I despair that Freud’s right and we’re all just deluding ourselves; those days where I feel the faith is as unconvincing as Paul preaching in the shadow of the Temple of Artemis- it’s the shame of the cross that saves me from unbelief. 

      The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief. 

——————————-

       The disgrace of our Gospel, that which prods Paul to digress before his doxology, it’s my hedge against unbelief. 

      The shame of the Cross, the embarassment that prompts Paul’s digression, at the end of the day I am persuaded it’s the only thing that makes doxology- praise, possible. 

     Flip the channels, thumb through your paper, scroll down your Facebook feed; fact is, you have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed and ashamed about being Christian. We’ve got hucksters like Joel Osteen and Jim Baker. We’ve got hypocrites like Cardinal McCarrick and Franklin Graham. 

     The truth of the matter is- we’ve got plenty of reasons to doubt and think Freud was right that it’s all so much fantasy.

     But in the amazing dis-grace that is the cross we have one reason to believe.

     And I believe that one reason is the only reason you require to believe. 

     Look, you know as well as I do that there’s more people not here this morning than are here. Don’t lie and tell me you’ve never wondered if maybe they’re all right and we’re wrong.

      So, here it is, just so you know we’re not all deluding ourselves:

 #1- 

The shame of the cross is such that no one- no one, certainly not a Pharisee like Paul; certainly not a Roman citizen like Paul- would’ve projected their religious wishes upon a crucified Jesus.

And, #2 –

The Judaism to which Jesus belonged did not have as a central part of its beliefs any hope in the resurrection from the dead. 

Take those two together and I am convinced that we never would’ve heard of Jesus Christ crucified for our sin and raised from the dead for our justification unless it really happened. 

      The Sunday before last when I preached I told you that I believe here in the Church the main thing needs always to be the main thing. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified for your sin and raised for your justification, can never be assumed, I said. It needs always to be our main message and it must always be at the heart of our every ministry. 

      I said.

      And I said it for a reason. 

      Maybe this is a lowkey note with which to end, but if it’s enough to warrant Paul’s long digression then it’s worth me putting it plain today. We can save the doxologies for another day. 

     Here it is:      

      I don’t believe the Gospel is a guarrantee to make your life happier. 

      I don’t believe the Gospel is necessarily helpful- either for you or our society. 

      But I do believe it’s true.

I do believe it’s true.

Because for years, it didn’t.

Brian Stolarz is one of my best friends. I’d do anything for him and he’d take a bullet for me. Brian worked for years to free Alfred Dewayne Brown, also a friend now, from death row in Texas after Dewayne was falsely accused of a cop-killing, his IQ test ginned up, and exculpatory evidence withhold by the prosecution and police. You can read Brian’s story in his book Grace and Justice.

Brian recently preached a sermon on Ephesians 2 based on his experience. Here it is:

Thank you for giving me the amazing opportunity to be here today.  I’m honored.
I’m also not a professional pastor so please excuse me if I mess up. Just know that my heart is in the right place! You are blessed to have a guy like David here. He is a true rising star.
I love this church and all it stands for. I love it so much that I slept on the small couch in the office  last winter during hypothermia season and it was the best night sleep I’ve had in a long time because I felt the love from this place.
So I’m here today to tell you about a personal story that showed me what God’s grace is all about and what today’s sermon is all about.  I’ll also let you in on a secret.
So I’m a criminal defense lawyer.  I used to be a public defender.  I’ve defended hundreds if not thousands of people charged with crimes from stealing a pack of gum from a store to murder.  Some were innocent some were guilty and I learned some very important lessons – no one is as bad as their worst act and and everyone is worthy of redemption and a second chance.  And everyone is entitled to a strong defense.
Let me tell you about one of my favorite clients – Bike.  I was hooked from that day on.
I left the public defenders office and worked for a large firm in dc.  I got a call one day from a senior partner asking me to handle a death penalty case pro bono.  I jumped at the chance.  And I met the client who changed my life, Alfred Dewayne Brown.
Dewayne was convicted of capital murder of a Houston police officer and was sentenced to death.  He professed his innocence the first day I met him and despite the fact that most of my clients lie to me I believed him.  I felt it way deep down. A truth I felt deeply.
I want to say out front that I’m against the death penalty.  One of my personal heroes is Sister Helen Prejean. She taught me that every life is sacred even those on the Row.  I am glad that the Pope has taken a strong stance against the death penalty.  It’s not for the state to kill a person.
Not only am I opposed to the death penalty for religious reasons but also for legal ones.  I didn’t see a lot of wealthy white people on death row or that many white people for that matter.   Most were minorities and didn’t have the funds to pay for counsel.  Sister Helen says those without the capital get the capital punishment.
Many are wrongfully convicted like Dewayne.  Some have died at the hands of the state and later found to be innocent.  It is a disgrace.
Today’s scripture says that we were dead by our trespasses.  And the death penalty is one of those trespasses.  Those who support the death penalty are supporting a system that is unfair and unjust and against the teaching of Jesus to forgive 70×7 and to forgive those who trespass against us.  Killing someone to say that killing isn’t right would make Jesus shake his head.
Fortunately after 8 years of work and 12 years and 62 days of Dewayne being confined he was released.  And how was he released? The prosecutor and the police officer in the case hid exculpatory evidence which was found in all places in the homicide detectives home garage.  Not kidding.  He walked out a free man on June 8 2015. One of the best days of my life after the day I met my wife and the birth of my kids
I wrote a book about it.  Entitled Grace and Justice on Death Row.  For those who have the means you can buy it.  For those who don’t I’m donating a copy to the church for anyone to read and experience.
The case changed not only Dewayne’s life but it changed mine.
 Folks say I saved his life but he saved mine.   He showed me Gods grace. He forgave his captors.  He forgave his trespassers.  He said on the courthouse steps that he has no hate in his heart for what the state did to him.  He is moving forward in his life and doing great.  He taught me so much by this.
He also taught me the value of perseverance even when times are hard.  I was not sure I was going to be able to get him out and I worried I would watch him die.  The testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Dewayne wrote in the book I’m donating to the church – keep going when times get hard.  How beautiful of a lesson is that?
 Galatians 6 says “let us not grow weary of doing good.  For in due season we will reap if we do not give up.”  I didn’t give up.  He didn’t give up.
And here’s he secret I was telling you about.  And turns out the secret has to do with roller coasters.
I love theme parks.  My wife thinks I’m dumb but put me at Busch Gardens or Hershey Park and I feel like a kid again. And last year when I took my middle kid we bought a “fast pass” so that we could cut all the lines. It was awesome.  We rode the log flume 6 times.
You see I thought growing up that I thought I had to store up a bunch of good deeds so when I walked into the pearly gates of heaven I could show my good deed resume and would be a shoo in for the eternal life in heaven.  I even had that thought when Dewayne was released.
I was so wrong. Couldn’t be more wrong actually.  I have and you have already been saved.  We all have a fast pass to heaven already.  We are saved by grace through faith. And the good works we all do or aspire to do? We don’t do them to get into heaven or get God to like us. We are already in his favor-we are as the reading says Gods handy work.  Created in Christ Jesus to do good works. Which God prepared in advance for us to do. He set the stage for us to do good works.
I read recently that grace isn’t grace if its earned. Grace is always free.  Always.
So do good works. Answer the call to do good when the call comes.  Not to get into heaven but to what god has made each and everyone to do and to praise his glory. And preservere when times get hard because grace wins every time.
So it turns out I already I have my fast pass to heaven.   I pray that you do too.
I just hope heaven has cool roller coasters.
May God Bless you today and always.
Brian

”There ought to be a streak of antinomianism in every Pauline soul.” 

– Gerhard Forde

For those of you scratching your heads at the stained glass lingo:

an·ti·no·mi·an
ˌan(t)ēˈnōmēən

adjective

relating to the view that Christians are released by grace from the obligation of observing the moral law.

Now that you’ve got the defintion under your belt, Forde’s point about the stress in Paul about the radical and absolute nature of grace (“If righteousness can be attained through the Law then Christ died for nothing.”) led me to a syllogism of sorts.

Premise:

Authentic New Testament Christian Faith is close to antinomianism- it’s why, for example, Paul must repeatedly deny and demonstrate how he’s not nullifying the Law entirely.

Premise:

Most contemporary Christianity is not in any way close to antinomianism.

Conclusion:

Much contemporary Christianity is not authentic New Testament Christianity.

Sometimes, as Flannery O’ Connor wrote, you’ve got to exaggerate the point to point out the problem.

Not Cheap, Free

Jason Micheli —  July 16, 2018 — 1 Comment

     This Sunday the Sonshine Choir from Brentwood UMC in Nashville were our musical guests. Given the Nashville theme, I couldn’t help but weave two Nashville denizens into my sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10: Carrie Underwood and Carl Sr.

Here it is:

     I barely need to preach today. 

     I certainly don’t need to wile you with any pop culture references, funny videos, or moving personal stories. I know what you all started to think about as soon as you heard our text read this morning. 

     I know what’s on your mind.      

     That’s right, “Jesus Take the Wheel.” 

     Don’t lie. You’re singing it in your head right now. 

     So you probably already know: “Jesus Take the Wheel” was the first single released on Carrie Underwood’s debut album Some Hearts. It was Billboard’s #1 hit for 6 straight weeks. It reached #20 on the Pop charts. It won the former American Idol star 2 Grammys, one for Best Female Vocal Performance and another for Best Country Song. It won her 4 trophies at the Country Music Awards. 

     And 

     It was a cross-over hit on Christian radio. It climbed all the way to #4 on the Contemporary Christian Music charts. It took home trophies at the CCM awards too. 

      Which is odd- 

     It’s odd that it would be a hit on Christian radio because the chorus to Carrie Underwood’s single (“Jesus take the wheel, take it from my hands ‘cause I can’t do this on my own…”) is not the Gospel. 

      It is not the Gospel as the Apostle Paul gives it to us this morning. 

     I’m sorry, Peter, I know how much you love Carrie Underwood and how if Carrie were Korean she’d already be Mrs. Kwon, but, as Gospel, Carrie’s song is about as on point as that other hit single from 2005: Snoop Dog’s “Drop It Like Its Hot.”

     Despite how far up the Christian charts Carrie Underwood took the 2005 Brett James-penned country single, the Apostle Paul tells us today that our condition before Almighty God is both more helpless and more hopeless than our requiring a co-pilot who takes over when times get tough. 

———————-

     “Jesus take the wheel, take it from my hands ‘cause I can’t do this on my own…”

     Translation: I was doing life on my own, Jesus, but now I need some help.   

          No. 

     We don’t need help. That’s Americianity. That’s not Christianity. That’s not the Gospel. According to the Apostle Paul, we don’t need help. We need an embalmer. We don’t need an instructor. We need an undertaker. 

     Or 

     We need someone who can raise the dead. 

     The Gospel does not begin with us already behind the wheel, on our own, with Jesus, like a genie in a lamp, ready to tag-in whenever life gets tricky. 

     The Gospel is not that Jesus will do the rest if or after you’ve done your best. No, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism, and, while it might be the most popular religion in America, it is not the Gospel. 

     You do your best and Christ will do the rest. 

     No. 

     A corpse can’t cooperate with God. 

     A stiff can’t set out to improve itself. 

With rigor mortis, you can’t even repent.

         Apart from the unmerited, uninitiated, one-way work of Jesus Christ for you upon you- applied to you at your baptism- you are dead in your sins. 

     The Gospel begins not with you behind the wheel of life.

     The Gospel begins with you dead in the grave. 

     Carrie Underwood is the product of Oklahoma Public Eduction so maybe it’s not her fault. Still, you’d think it would’ve occurred to at least some of those Christians who shot her single up the CCM charts that, according to the Gospel, we’re not behind the wheel, with Jesus ready to help. 

    We’re rolled up inside a rug, a dead body, in the back of the car. Jesus doesn’t help us steer our lives. Jesus takes our sin-dead corpses out of the trunk of the car, and he makes us alive again. That’s the Gospel. 

     He makes us alive for him. He makes us alive for good works, Paul says. 

     But notice- not good works that we choose. Christ makes us alive for good works he has chosen from beforehand. We do not pursue good works for God. God places us into good works for himself. 

     So that- 

     From beginning to end, the Gospel is not about what we do but about what God has done and is doing. By grace, Paul says, you have been saved. 

     G.R.A.C.E: God’s redemption at Christ’s expense. 

     By grace you have been saved. 

     Not- 

     By grace you have been helped. 

     Not by grace you have been enlightened or encouraged or improved. 

     Not by grace you have been made a better, happier, or holier you. 

     We are not the servants he inspires or the enlistees he exhorts. We are the sinners he saves, the dead he drags out of the grave back into life. 

     By grace you have been saved.

     Note the tense. 

     Paul puts it in the perfect. 

     Meaning, it’s once for all. It’s a past act with endless effects into the present so you don’t ever have to worry about your future. Because- pay attention- it’s only when you’re un-anxious about your future with God that you’re truly free to serve your neighbor in the present. 

     By grace you have been saved, and this is not your doing, Paul says. 

     Despite the popularity of the expression-

the Gospel is not something you can do. 

     The Gospel is not something the Church can be. 

     The Gospel is not something we can put hands and feet to. 

     It’s a gift, Paul says.

     And a gift can only be received, celebrated, shared. 

     The Gospel is not your doing, Paul says, nor is it reducible to the good works you do.

     And just so you don’t miss this, Paul structures his sentence in Ephesians 2 to make his point obtrusive and unavoidable. 

     Where Ephesians 1 contains the longest sentence in the New Testament, Ephesians 2 contains the densest sentence in the New Testament.  

     Paul arranges the rhetoric of his sentence to emphasize his argument. He begins, in the Greek, with you and me in verse 1. Actually he begins with the word “dead.” We’re there at the top of the sentence, dead in our trespasses. 

     And there Paul leaves us, in the grave. 

     Then Paul fills the rest of his long, complicated sentence with compounds and clauses about what God has done in Jesus Christ.   

     He starts with us not behind the wheel of life but dead in our sins, and then he fills his sentence with God’s doings for us. Only at the end, after clause after clause after clause, after 9 1/2 verses, in the last and tiniest clause of the sentence, is there any positive mention at all of our doing for God. 

     The construction of the sentence echoes the content of it. The rhetoric reinforces the point. Paul summarizes the Gospel with this massive sentence about God’s doing for us in Jesus Christ and only at the end is there this little mention of me and my doing for God.

     The medium here is the message:

Christianity is not about what you do. 

For God. 

Or your neighbor. 

It’s about God becoming your neighbor in Jesus Christ and, just as he did with his neighbor Lazarus, making you, who were stinking and dead in your sins, alive again. 

———————-

     Martin Luther said that the Gospel of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith- not good works- alone condemns everything that we think is right and good in the world. 

     The Gospel of grace, which begins with us in the grave, offends our high anthropology, our high assessment of our goodness and abilities. 

     The Gospel of grace enrages us who are addicted to doing and using our doings as a way to elbow ourselves a notch or two above our neighbors. 

     The Gospel of grace upends the comforting system of merit and demerit by which we arrange our lives, navigate our relationships, and make sense of the world. 

     Think about it. 

     The Gospel of grace means you’ve been handed Christ’s own permanent perfect score, which makes all of our scorecards obsolete, which is offensive if you think you’ve earned a high score all on your own. 

     And it’s even more worse if you’re convinced someone deserves a low score because of what they’ve done to you. 

     Since most of us don’t really believe we’re sinners- We don’t really believe we’re greedy. We don’t really believe we’re unforgiving or inhospitable. We don’t really believe we’re racist or prejudiced or liars and hypocrites (even though Chenda keeps telling me I am).

Since we don’t really believe we’re sinners, the Gospel message that you are not what you do is rude. It’s rude if you’re proud of the good you do. 

     As Robert Capon said:  

 God’s grace in Jesus Christ isn’t cheap. It’s not even expensive. It’s free.

Now that’s offensive to any of us who measure ourselves according to merit. It’s offensive to us who define ourselves by what we do. 

     And so it’s no surprise then that the future Mrs. Kwon and her chart-topping 2005 single is just one example of how we invert Paul’s Gospel. We shift the weight in his sentence. We tell Jesus to scoot on over, and we put ourselves in the driver’s seat. 

    Here’s the thing- 

     When we unroll ourselves from the rug in the trunk of the car

     When we put our sin-dead bodies behind the wheel

     When we invert the Gospel

     When we make our Christianity mostly about the good works that we do for others

     When we shove and squeeze the work God has done in Jesus Christ into the tiniest clause at the end of the sentence almost as an afterthought- or as something we think we can assume- the Church, what Karl Barth called “the herald of the Gospel,” becomes like Carl’s Jr.  

———————-

     In case that’s not self-explanatory, roll the video:

 

If you’re getting this by email and the video doesn’t pop up, here’s the link:

———————-

     A little context:

     In the early 2000’s Carl’s Jr began a marketing campaign featuring supermodels like Kate Upton in swimsuits and lingerie eating greasy, juicy hamburgers while riding on mechanical bulls, washing muscle cars, and sitting in a hot tub. Picture Bill Clinton and Donald Trump going out for burgers and a night on the town and you have an idea what those commercials contained. 

     They gave the expression “food porn” a reference point it had been missing since George Constanza tried to combine his afternoon delight with deli meats. For you kids, that’s a Seinfeld reference. 

     On the face of it, you might assume a barely-clad Padma Lakshmi eating a bacon cheeseburger would be a brilliant advertising strategy to reach the purient, adolescent minds of men between the ages of 13 and, oh let’s say, 97.  

     But actually, Carl’s Jr’s business declined, precipitously so, even among horny teenage boys and dirty old men. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing. 

     And their business suffered. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing, and the number of repeat regulars and first-time customers coming in through their doors dwindled. 

     According to a Harvard Business Review article, after Carl’s Jr. launched that advertising campaign back in the early 2000’s their corporation suffered internally too. Members and share holders became beset by division and factions. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing, and they got stuck. 

     In conflict. 

     You don’t really need me to connect the dots for you, do you? Well, maybe Peter does, but not the rest of you, right? 

     For Pete’s sake- I’ll do it anyway. 

     Much of what passes for and is practiced as Christianity today bears no resemblance to the Gospel of grace as Paul weights it and orders it here in Ephesians. 

     A lot of churches are like Carl’s Jr of the early aughts. They’ve made something other than the main thing the main thing. 

     They’ve made their main thing something other than the Gospel, salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone.   

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It doesn’t have a half-naked Kate Upton eating a messy pile of meat (though that would make for a surprising church flyer), but it does package and sell Christianity in terms of its utility (practical advice, spiritual practices to relieve stress, biblical principals for daily living, how to be a Christian parent, how to have a happy Christian marriage). 

     There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, per se. 

     They’re just not the main thing. 

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes tradition and custom the main thing so every church becomes afraid of change and repeats at every occasion “We’ve always…done it this way.” 

      A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes partisan politics the main thing. 

     Rather than the Gospel news that though you are unrighteous, dead in your sins in fact, God has reckoned Christ’s righteousness to you as your own- rather than that Grade A, All-Beef Gospel a lot of Christianity out there wants you to prove your righteousness based on where you stand on a particular political issue. 

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes social justice the main thing. 

     It makes community building the main thing.

     It makes serving the needy and the neighbor the main thing. 

     Again, not that social justice isn’t worthy and urgent. Not that building community isn’t part of the church community’s task. Not that serving the needy and loving our neighbor aren’t works that God puts before us and places us into. 

     They’re just not the main thing. 

     The Gospel is not a blank screen on to which we can project whatever Jesus-flavored thing we wish. 

     You were dead in your trespasses. By grace you have been saved. It’s all Christ’s doing such that there’s nothing now you must do- just receive it in trust. 

     That’s the Gospel. 

     It’s our Carl Sr. 

     And everything else is Jr. 

     In that Harvard Business Review article, an executive from Carl’s Jr. offered a “post-mortem” on their advertising campaign from the early aughts. 

     “We realized,” he said, “that if you’re looking for sex and sensationalism then you’ve got plenty of other options out there; we have one unique product to offer.”

     Do I need to connect the dots?!

     Look- 

 If most of what we do as a Church could be done (and done better) by most other secular programs, self-help groups, counseling centers, social justice agencies, political activists, music programs, or TED Talks, then some of you all might as well strap on a bikini and start riding a mechanical bull because we’ve forgotten we’re in the Grade-A, All Beef Gospel business.  

————————

     Heads up, mood change: 

     

     A couple of years ago, I spent the year on medical leave following emergency surgery and 8 rounds of stage-serious chemo for a rare, incurable cancer with which I’d been diagnosed. A cancer- you should know- that afflicts me still. While I’m still more fit than your average United Methodist pastor, I’ll never be in remission and I still do maintenance chemo a day a month. Like the text today says, we’re all dead men walking but me a little bit more than most of you.  

     Anyways, at the end of my medical leave my oncologist asked me if I wanted to return to work, to ministry. “If you want,” he said, “I can make it so you never have to work again.” I considered it, sure. Turns out, not only do I like my job, I believe in our job. 

     I’m not here because it’s a career move. I’m not here for a salary. Whatever you pay me, it’ll never be more than my medical bills. Fact is, I don’t have to be here. I don’t need to put up with Peter much less Chenda. I don’t have to put up with any of you.

I’m not here to be the concierge of a club. I’m not here to be a social worker or community organizer. I’m not here to maintain a denomination. I’m not here to opine on politics.

     I’m here because I believe in the Gospel, and I believe in the power of the Gospel to change the world by changing lives (lives like mine) a life at a time. 

     I’m here because I believe the main thing should be the main thing. 

     Not to be melodramatic but I live with my death. I know firsthand the difference between the Church as Carl Sr. and the Church as Carl Jr. 

     The Church is not a social program. It’s not a charity. It’s not a fellowship group. 

     It can include all of those things, but the Church, as Paul tells the Corinthians, is an embassy of the Gospel. We’re the only business, the only institution on earth given the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. And we do so by our worship. We do so in wine and bread. We do so in bible study with our children. We do so by serving our needy neighbors. Work that isn’t “help.” Work where we are ambassadors for the Gospel.

     It’s not that all the other good we can do isn’t. 

     Isn’t good. 

     It’s that none of it can make the dead live. 

     

Ephesians 1.15-23

     Many of you have asked me questions about where we’re living so I thought I’d let you know that my family and I moved into the neighborhood on Tuesday. 

     I think we can all agree it was perfect weather for grinding manual labor, as hot and moist as the devil’s undercarriage.  

      About moving- let me tell, it’s exhausting… 

     ….watching my wife haul and unpack all those boxes. 

     Since last Sunday’s sermon, many of you have asked me other questions too. 

“You seem so dignified- was that really you dancing in the picture?” 

      

“Are you always sarcastic?”  

“Does it usually take you so long in your sermons to get to the point?”  

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a dead-ringer for Ryan Gosling?” 

 

     

 

     The best question I got from a few of you. 

     It’s a question that gets right to the heart of the Apostle Paul’s rhetoric here in the first chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians. 

     In so many words, the question you asked me was this one: 

            If God chose us from before the foundation of the world

If everything has already been done- everything for your redemption, everything for your justification, everything   for your salvation- by Christ for you

Then why bother?

     In other words: 

If you’re already and always forgiven in Christ, then why bother with Christianity?

     Doesn’t that strike you as superfluous as purchasing the service plan at Best Buy?

     If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow? 

     Because you don’t you know- have any reason to fear. 

     Fear God or fear for your salvation. 

     As St. Paul says here in verse 20, Christ has sat down at the right hand of the Father. 

     As the Book of Hebrews puts it, Christ’s sitting down marks the cessation of God’s judgement, for Christ our Great High Priest has offered himself as a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for your every sin. 

     Christ has sat down from his work. 

     Never to get up again.

     And though we still like to the play the judgement game with each other, he’s taken a seat from it and put up his feet, with all our sins forgotten underneath his heels, like a father waiting for his prodigal child to come home.

     You are forgiven. 

     You have no reason to fear. 

     Because, as Paul says here in verse 23, the pleroma, the fullness, the plentitude, the whole reality of God (without remainder), dwells in Christ Jesus who bore your sins in his body upon the tree.   

       Pleroma 

     You’ve been incorporated in to Christ fully, Paul says, and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Jesus Christ in whom God fully dwells. 

     Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word here at the end of Ephesians 1. 

     Fully: there is no lack in your relationship with God. 

     At least- 

     From God’s side there’s not. 

     No other book of the New Testament stresses the completeness of what Christ has done like the Book of Ephesians. 

     There is no tension in Ephesians between the already and the not yet. 

    In Ephesians, it’s all already. 

    It’s all been done. 

     What he has done for you- it’s fact. 

     And it has nothing to do with how you feel about him.

     Christ’s incorporation of you has happened- literally- over your dead body, your sin-dead body, when you were buried with him in your baptism.

     From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved- already- in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you. 

     Because you are fully in him. 

     And in him, you are forever safe from the wages of your sin.

     He has sat down from his work with all our sins beneath his feet- that’s a sign as obvious as an empty tomb. 

     A sign that God forever rejects our rejection of him. 

     God literally does not give a damn anymore. 

     But, that begs the question, your question:

     If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all 

     If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God

    If God’s grace is not transactional

     If there’s no work you must do to merit it

     Then, why bother following? 

Why bother giving up your time on a Sunday morning?

Why bother forking over your hard-earned dough into the offering plate?

Why bother entangling your life with someone as crazy Peter or as challenging as Chenda?

————————

     If we have no reason to fear God, if we are in him and all our sins sit forever underneath his feet, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ? 

     Why would you bother? 

     Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7 times? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?

     Why bother arguing about welcoming the stranger and caring for the immigrant in your land?

     Why all the heartache and anxiety about it if, when you don’t welcome or care for them, Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you? 

     What’s the point? 

     What’s the benefit to you? 

     If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’ve nothing to earn from him that isn’t already yours, then why bother following the hard and peculiar path laid out by Christ?

————————

      We don’t have the cable hooked up at the new house yet; however, I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone. 

So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 8 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos or Westworld right there on my phone. 

     Or, if I want to see more of Matthew McConaughey than I need to see I can rebinge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles; it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism. 

     Earlier this week, while Ali was busy hauling and unpacking boxes, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral wake make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual purient interests, I rewatched this little documentary from 2011 about Delores Hart.  

     

      Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago. 

     Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinseltown dreams. 

     After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole. 

     She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in the Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961. 

     Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelley. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous L.A. architect. 

     But then- 

     In 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her- called her- to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat. 

     After the retreat, she returned to her red carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence. 

     Emptiness.   

      “I had it all, everything really, but my life wasn’t full,” she says in the documentary.

     So, she quit her acting gigs. 

     She got rid of all her baubles. 

     And she broke off her engagement. 

     She renounced all of her former dreams- and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.

     What’s more remarkable- 

     What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it. 

      This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, postChristian, purient and radically secular. 

     Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it. 

     They’re drawn into it.

     They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by her life. 

    Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation- her life in Christ- is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, they think her life is captivating, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life not just captivating but beautiful. 

     You can tell these Hollywood have-it-alls, they suspect that maybe she is somehow more human than they are. 

     More fully human.

————————

     That’s why- 

     Why we follow even though there’s nothing for us to fear. 

     Why we bother even though there’s absolutely nothing we need to earn we’ve not already been given by grace. 

     We are fully in him, that’s true- fully forgiven, with no more we must do, with no reason we ought to fear. 

     We are fully in him. 

     But we are not fully like him. 

     I know I’m not, and I’ve only been here a week but I know- neither are you, not by a long shot.

     We are fully in him but we are not fully like him.

     And if he is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble him. 

     The image of God is not ours innately, by nature; it’s ours by imitation.

     If he is the first born of creation, the first fruit of the new creation, as Paul says in Corinthians, then what it means for us to be a human creature is for us to look like and live like him. 

     If he is the Second Adam, as Paul names him, then he is who we were meant to be all along from Adam on down.

     If the fullness of God fills Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God fills our flesh with himself and becomes fully human- totally, completely, authentically human- then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven one day but because we hope one day to become human. 

We do the things that Jesus did not because we’re commanded to do the things that Jesus did. 

No. 

The Gospel, declares Galatians, is that Christ has set us free from the Law. 

His obedience has freed us from the burden of obeying the commandments, even his commandments. 

     So don’t you dare give me that verse about the sheep and the goats because the Gospel is that the Good Shepherd became a goat so that a goat like you might be counted among his faithful flock. 

     Christ has set us free from any anxiety about obeying the commandments, even his commandments.

     We do the things that Jesus did not because we’re commanded to do the things that Jesus did. 

    We do the things that Jesus did because Jesus did them. 

     And his is what a fully alive life looks like. 

     The reason Christ’s yoke does not feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7, and intimidated by a love that washes the feet of strangers and enemies is that we’re not yet, fully, completely human. 

     As human as…God. 

     We get it backwards. 

     It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be. 

     Before it’s anything else, the Church- it’s the ultimate recovery program. 

     It’s a community for all of us addicts hooked on the highs of our un-human habits. 

     And just as in AA, the first step is admitting you have a problem. 

     Or, as St. Paul puts it: “While we were yet sinners…”

     The Church- before it’s anything else, it’s a recovery program. 

     Where once a week we’ll hand a self-involved narcissist like yourself a cup of coffee and force you (with hymns and stained-glassed language) to confront the fact that you are not the center of the universe. 

     We call that step “worship.”

     The Church- it’s like a 12 step recovery program. 

     Fo you with your log-jammed eyes, content to let the sun go down on your anger, we have a step called “confession and pardon.” Don’t kid yourself, it’s not for God to forgive you- you’re already forgiven. It’s for God to make stubborn unforgiving you a more forgiving person; that is, more fully human.

     For you addicted to the tit-for-tat way of this un-human world, we’ll force you to do something odd called passing the peace. 

     For you who is a junkie to the delusion that what you have is yours by your own doing, we’ll pass you not the peace but a plate where you will recover a creature’s sense of gratitude to the Creator from whom all blessings flow. 

     For you who are anxious about accruing not just for tomorrow but for the next day and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that, we’ve got a prayer (not about serenity) about daily bread. 

     For you hooked on the high that comes from the illusion that you are responsible for this world, we’ve got the same prayer. 

     It goes “Thy Kingdom come…” in order to teach thou that its not your Kingdom to bring. Or, even, to build.

      For you used to using your talents to take and make, we have this table of wine and bread, where all you can do is receive. 

      And by the way, it’s a table reserved not for the best and the brightest but for betrayers- learning that is a hard step on the path to recovery too. 

     We’ve got other steps too, like rolling up your sleeves and serving your neighbor so that you can no longer convince yourself that God is the stuff of idle, pious speculation because you’ve met Him in them, just as He promised you would.

     Before it’s anything else, the Church is a recovery program where you learn through word and sacrament and service to say “Hi, my name is Jason and I’m a sinner which is to say I need to find my humanity.” 

———————

     When Delores Hart took her finals vows as a Benedictine nun, 7 years later, she wore the dress she’d bought for her red carpet Hollywood wedding.

 

     She thought the wedding dress was the perfect sign to others that fullness of life comes not from the things with which we so often try to fill our lives: career, children, relationships, riches, reputation, success. 

     She thought the wedding dress was the perfect sign for others of where- in whom- fullness of life was to be found. 

     And were that it, it’d be a nice uplifting story, right? 

     The perfect sort of slice of life story to end a sermon. 

     Except, St. Paul says that at your baptism you were clothed in the wedding garment of Christ’s own righteousness. 

     And here in Ephesians Paul says not only that Christ was fully God and that you are fully in him but that you are fully him. You are his Body. 

     He has no other Body but you the baptized. 

     In other words- 

     By virtue of your baptism, you’re wearing Delores’ wedding dress. 

     Which makes you not just an addict in recovery. 

     It makes you a sponsor. 

     For the sake of others. 

     For the sake of them finding their full humanity. 

     And that’s my final answer. 

    

     

    

     

     

     

      

In this episode I talk with Ken Jones, the pastor of Glendale Missionary Baptist Church in Miami, Florida and the co-host with Michael Horton and Rod Rosenbladt of the radio show and podcast The White Horse Inn.
Ken was formerly the pastor of the large racially diverse Greater Union Baptist Church in Compton, California, a fact which leads to one of the conversation topics we cover; namely, how diversity, according to St. Paul, is the fruit of clear and urgent Gospel proclamation but it is not to be confused, as happens often in the mainline churches, with the Gospel itself.
In the conversation, we also discuss the Scofield Bible, grace over race, serving a church in Compton, peculiar speech, Christian posture towards the U.S. government, and unhealthy alliances.

As always –

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Ken is an e-friend, fellow Dylan lover, and a great encourager of the podcast so I hope you enjoy this conversation.

‘Nomos’ is the Greek word for ‘Law,’ one of the two words, according to Luther reading St. Paul, by which God has spoken to us and still speaks to us. In this episode, we talk about the Law, it’s uses, and its fundamental purpose to drive us to the Gospel of mercy and grace.

Along the way, we talk about Romans 13, proof-texting, Jeff Sessions, and MSNBC. Is the take away ‘its okay to suck’ or is it, as Dr. Johanna insists, that we should have some shame?

As always –

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

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

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

If you’re getting this by email and the show doesn’t pop up, you can listen at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

Pentecost marked my final sermon after 13 years at Aldersgate. A fitting holy day to close out my time given that I’m a flawed vessel of the message relayed to us by the Holy Spirit that God justifies flawed people. The texts were Acts 2 and Romans 8. The article I reference below can be found here. Her memoir here.

    “Suddenly from the skies there came a sound like the rush of a strong wind and fire fell and all of us were filled…with terror, but it’s given me the power to proclaim.” 

     You’ve seen the picture, the image of a girl about the age of our confirmands. It’s a picture that made the world gasp and groan with sighs too deep for words. In the grayscale foreground she’s stumbling down a puddled road that cuts through rice fields. 

     Soldiers carrying guns in their arms but no expressions on their faces amble behind her- one solider looks like he’s checking his watch. 

     Four other kids are running alongside her, their shrieking faces match hers. She’s the only one who’s naked. You can see the tan line at her waist. She’s running with her arms out, like her body is playing hot potato, like she hurts all over. 

     In the background, across the entire horizon, there are billows, wind-filled clouds, of fire fallen from bombers in the sky, fire that had incinerated her village, then her clothes,  and then her skin from her scalp to down to her heels. 

    The photo, titled “Napalm Girl,” was taken 46 years ago next month. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The AP photographer who snapped the picture, Nick Ut, took her to a hospital where he insisted that reluctant medics, who were convinced she was a lost cause, treat her. 

    The little girl, Kim Phuc, lived along trade routes traveled by Viet Cong rebels and bombed by the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. She wasn’t a target. 

     She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, collateral damage captured for all time on film. 

    The Napalm Girl. The Girl on Fire. 

     She’s a woman now, still being treated for her burns after 4 decades and 17 surgeries. 

     Everyone has seen the picture, the shrieking snapshot and the confused agonized speech on the children’s lips, but the fiery wind is only part of the story. What the picture doesn’t show, what the Pulitzer committee doesn’t have time for is what Kim Phuc calls “the mountain of rage” that followed in the days and months and decades later. In a first-person essay in Christianity Today, she writes: 

“[I bore a] crippling weight of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward those who caused my suffering—the searing fire that penetrated my body; the ensuing burn baths; the dry and itchy skin; the inability to sweat, which turned my flesh into an oven in Vietnam’s sweltering heat. I craved relief that never would come. And yet, the most agonizing pain I suffered dwelled in my heart.

“I could not turn to a friend, for nobody wished to befriend me. I was toxic, and everyone knew it. I was alone, atop a mountain of rage.”

     Everyone knows the image, the billow of fire falling from the sky but the fire is only part of the story. 

     The fire, Kim Phuc writes, brought more than rage and confusion. Years later, she writes, she found herself in a little church not a mile from where that photo was shot. 

     Though she had been raised a pagan, she found herself sitting in a church. 

     And pay attention to the passive voice- she didn’t go to church (like maybe you did today); she found herself sitting in church (like maybe you did today). She found herself at church. There’s an unseen agency at work. 

    The tinsel and the lights and the calendar said it was Christmas but it was for Kim Phuc a Pentecostal moment because that night, she says, she “was given Christ in word and wine and bread,” and she “put on Christ with water.”

     She said yes to the Christ who had said yes to her. 

     And what she received in Christ, she writes, was a peace that moved her mountain of rage. It razed her mountain of rage into a mustard seed. Such that now, she writes, that image of the fire that fell like a mighty rushing wind symbolizes not only the sin and evil we do to one another, but also it symbolizes the opposite of sin. 

    The fire is only part of the story. 

     The real story, she says, is that “the fire brought me Christ.”

———————-

     And that’s my first point- 

     When it comes to Pentecost, the medium is not the message. 

     Don’t get distracted by the imagery in the familiar picture of Pentecost: the fire, the ecstatic speech, the diverse crowd, and the understanding amidst such difference. The medium is not the message. 

    Just as the image of fire is inseparable from Kim Phuc’s story but it is not the point of her story, so too the fire and ecstatic speech and the diverse crowd are a part of the Pentecost story but they are not the point of the Pentecost story. 

     The message of Pentecost is not their experience of the Holy Spirit when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The message of Pentecost is the message the Holy Spirit empowers them to proclaim: the mighty acts of God. 

     Every Pentecost we zero in on how they speak in tongues and how they each hear in their own language, but Luke, the author of Acts, zeroes in on the message they speak and hear. 

     The message about the mighty acts of God. 

     And the mighty acts of God, as Peter makes clear in his sermon in the very next verses, are what God has done in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     The point of Pentecost isn’t the experience the Spirit brings. 

     The point of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit brings the work of Christ for them to them. 

     The Holy Spirit comes so that we will not focus on the Holy Spirit. 

     Rather the Holy Spirit comes so that we will know, through the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ is for us, which is exactly what Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would do the night before he died:

“When he comes, the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned…He will glorify me and declare it to you what I’ve done.” (John 16)

     We get hung up on the imagery of it, the wind and the fire and their experience of the Holy Spirit, but those who experienced the Holy Spirit at Pentecost didn’t dwell on it at all. 

     Luke doesn’t mention Pentecost again Acts. 

     Peter never mentions his experience of the Holy Spirit in either of his letters.

     Paul, who writes about the Holy Spirit than anyone in the Bible, never writes about this experience of the Spirit at Pentecost- evidently the apostles didn’t think it worth mentioning to him. 

     In fact, nowhere else in the New Testament does anyone recount the events at Pentecost the way the New Testament constantly recounts the exodus and the cross and the resurrection. 

     Those who had the Holy Spirit poured out on them at Pentecost never talk about their experience of the Holy Spirit. 

     The speaking in tongues, the seeing visions, the strangely warmed hearts- they don’t describe it or dwell on any of it. Nor do they even anticipate anything like it again after Pentecost. 

     Peter in his Pentecost sermon that follows our passage today does not exhort his hearers about what they must do now to get this experience for themselves. 

    He proclaims only what Christ has done for us, once for all of us. 

     The medium is not the message. 

     Because the message is the Gospel. 

     Not what you must do for God but what God has done for you. 

———————-

     Kim Phuc was raised in the Cao Dai religion. In her memoir, Kim Phuc compares the religion of her upbringing to a charm bracelet, something they’d turn to whenever times got tough, a talisman to handle in order to manipulate god’s favor towards them. 

     In such a religion, “the burden,” Kim Phuc writes, “was all on me to get in god’s good graces.” 

     In the religion of her parents, “the burden of success, the path to holiness, the way to salvation,” she writes, “all of it rested on top of my weary, slumped shoulders. I realized later the religion of my parents was what St. Paul calls the Law, what we, weak in our weakness, can never fulfill and so it only accuses us.” 

     And that brings me to my second point – 

     Because the Gospel is not the Law, this Pentecost in Acts is the fulfillment of the first Pentecost. 

     Even though we celebrate it every year by breaking out the red paraments 50 days after Easter, the New Testament doesn’t mention this Pentecost again because this Pentecost fulfills the first Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     Literally, in the Greek, Luke tells you as much at the beginning of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled…” 

     Don’t forget- 

     All those pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora gather in Jerusalem at Pentecost because it’s Pentecost. 

     Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover, when Jews would remember and celebrate 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.” 

     The Holy Spirit was present at the first Pentecost as well in fire and thunder and lightning and smoke. So much so that Moses described Mt. Sinai as a kiln covered in billows of smoke.

     And the people on that first Pentecost act drunk as well, drunk not with ecstasy with terror. So much so that they beg Moses to go before God instead of them. 

     When Moses returns to them from Mt. Sinai with the Law, Moses first sacrifices oxen and pours half their blood into buckets. 

     And then Moses reads the Law to the people, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. And the people respond to the Law by promising: “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.”

     And then Moses dashes them with the blood from the buckets. 

     Blood being the penalty if they fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     Of course they do. 

     We do.

     Fail. 

     Fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     No sooner did Moses go back up to Mt. Sinai after giving them the first commandment than they start to worship not God but a golden calf, and in the fullness of time our worship of false gods becomes our murder of the true flesh-bearing God. 

     Because the Law, St. Paul says, only increases the trespass. Even a Law as obvious and good as the Golden Rule- it just increases our trespasses, such that we’re captive to doing exactly what we don’t want to do and captive to not doing what we want to do. 

     And that’s why the Gospel is not the Law. 

     The Gospel is not more of what we must do for God, the 613 plus our Jesus-flavored additives. The Gospel is what God has done for us despite our failures at doing. 

     And that’s why- notice- on the first Pentecost the people promise: “All this we will do.” 

     But on the final Pentecost that promise gets turned into a question: “What must we do?” 

     Answer, nothing. 

     Not a thing.

     Peter doesn’t invite them to make any promises about what they will do. 

     He invites them instead to trust the promise of what God has done. 

     Peter tells them not to do the Law but to trust the Gospel, to trust this news that, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, another Pentecost passage: 

“The Spirit has set you free from the Law…for God has done what the Law could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just demands of the Law might be fulfilled in us.”

     This promise is yours, Peter and Paul promise. Not as your wage- something you must earn. But as your inheritance- something earned by another, something given to you by by way of death. And this inheritance is bestowed on you, St. Paul says, at your baptism into Christ’s death, which Peter then invites his Pentecost hearers to receive. 

     This Pentecost fulfills that first Pentecost because Christ has fulfilled the Law by his perfect faithfulness and by his blood he has suffered the penalty for all our failures to be faithful. 

     And because his perfect righteousness according the Law is reckoned to you as yours by your baptism, now baptism is Pentecost. 

     That’s why you don’t hear any more about Pentecost in the New Testament.

     Now, pentecost is baptism. 

     The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out henceforth not by fire but in water. 

————————

     Before she was baptized on Christmas Eve, Kim Phuc was browsing in Saigon’s central library when suddenly, she writes, “something compelled” her (again, pay attention to the passive voice) to pull the library’s religious books off the shelves. 

     The Koran. 

     Books on Hinduism and Buddhism and Baha’i. 

     And finally a New Testament. 

     An hour later, she writes, I’d picked my way through the Gospels and I was bowled over by the straightforward claim of the New Testament: that the Gospel is not religion at all. 

     Religion is what we do for God. Religion is what we do for ourselves, really, to get right with God and get God on our side, but Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as the opposite of religion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the one who takes us to God in his own scarred body.

    Hers point is my final point- 

     This Pentecost in the Book of Acts isn’t just the fulfillment of that Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     It’s the end of religion. 

     It’s the end of religion

     Which maybe sounds like an odd thing for a minister in a robe to preach from a pulpit in a sanctuary on Confirmation Sunday, but the oddness is exactly why you can trust it to be true. 

Christianity is the medium for the message about what God has done in Jesus Christ in whom there is now and forever no condemnation. 

And this work of Christ is given to us by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Therefore, Pentecost is the end of religion. Christianity is the medium for the message that religion’s days are over.

     As Robert Capon says:

“Christianity may use the forms of religion, but it does so only to proclaim not a new religion, or even of the best of all possible religions, but the end of religion. The cross is the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring single human being to do a single religious thing.”

     What’s that mean?

     It means you’re free. As St. Paul says in his Pentecost passage: “The Spirit of Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law.”

     It means you’re free. Free to doubt God’s done any of it. Free to question all of it. 

     But before you do so, realize- 

     It means you’re free too to take off the masks you wear. 

     And you’re free to let go of your pretense that you have your shit together. Because it means you’re free to be imperfect. Because if there’s now no condemnation then all your sins are free. There is no cost to any of them (other than what they cost your neighbor).

     And if you’re free to be imperfect, you’re free from regret. 

     And you’re free from anxiety, free from worrying that you should believe more, have more faith, give more, serve more, pray more….you’re free from being anxious over any of it. 

     You’re free from anxiety because, really, you’re free to forsake to God even. 

     Go for it. Try it out and you’ll find out: 

     He won’t forsake you. 

There’s no condemnation, remember.

He’s taken away the sins of the world- and he didn’t miss any. 

 He’s chosen you, in fact, from before the foundation of the world.

So how are you going to gum that up?

     You’re free. 

     You’re free to be as faithful as you like in whatever way suits you. 

      Because your good work and your pious believing doesn’t get you a key to heaven nor do any of your bad deeds get you locked out. You see, you’re free to be every bit the hypocrite as all the rest of us. Which means- pay attention, now- you’re also free not to judge others.

     You’re free.

     You’re free from keeping score. 

     The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the Greatest Commandment- because the Gospel is the news that God is not in the religion business the Law is an exam that God doesn’t grade. 

     You’re free to honor your Mother and Father. You’re free to serve the poor. You’re free to forgive 70 x 7. 

     But doing it doesn’t get you any credit. It doesn’t get you even extra credit because, by your baptism, you already have all the credit that is Christ’s own. 

     Not even your faith can add to that credit given to you already. 

     Which means- 

     You’re free from measuring your faith against another’s.

     Because your faith, your belief, your trust- it doesn’t earn you this gift. It doesn’t even enable you to access this gift. The gift is yours already and it’s irrevocable. 

     All that your faith does is let you enjoy the gift. 

     All your faith is- is the way you enjoy the gift. And this gift of grace, this Gospel of no condemnation- it’s freaking fun, people. Sure, it’s crazy, but God forgive us if we’ve made anyone think it’s anything but crazy-good fun. 

     In a world where everyone is counting, keeping score, measuring, judging, telling you what you must do and who you aren’t but ought to be, in a world of “forgiveness” without forgetting- in such a world this gift of grace, the Gospel of no condemnation is fun. 

     And your faith in it is your way into the fun. 

     Your faith doesn’t change anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t add anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t access anything extra that isn’t yours already. 

     Which is good news on a day when our confirmands make a profession of faith in God and make promises to be faithful to God.

     Because, brass tacks time confirmands: 

     Your faith will ebb and flow. 

     You’re going to fail at these promises as often as not. 

     Don’t let anyone here fool you. 

     The Church is a fellowship of failures and frauds, hypocrites and haters, liars and louts, deadbeats and dolts and drinkers, sinners not saints. 

     And that’s just the people on staff. 

     And it’s MORE THAN OKAY because, in this case, the medium-that-is-us IS the message. 

The message that your success as a Christian has NOTHING to do with your loyalty to Jesus Christ or his Church. Your success as a Christian has EVERYTHING to do with Christ’s loyalty to you. 

     Really, at confirmation, on Pentecost of all days, instead of asking you all to make promises, we should just read at you Christ’s unconditional promises to you: 

“I am with you always to the end of the age.”

“I am the resurrection and the life whoever trusts me will never die…”

“Come to me all of you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

“Take and eat. Drink. This is my Body and Blood given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” 

“I am the Bread of Life whoever feasts on me will live forever.” 

      “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 

     Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl, she says in memoir that, upon discovering the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, she held Christ’s promises in her mind like holding a gem in her hand, relishing the light they cast from all sides. 

     Instead of asking our confirmands to make promises, we should present Christ’s promises to them like the light-casting, life-giving gems they are. 

     And all they’d need to do is all any of us need to do. 

     Say“Amen” to them.  

      

     

     

     

     

     

This Sunday I preached on my denomination’s proposed “Way Forward” through the impasse over human sexuality. My texts were 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8.

     A year ago this past Thursday a couple asked to meet with Dennis and me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently. Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. 

     Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

     When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

    The husband, the Dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the Mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives. You baptized and confined our daughters so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.”

     Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

     “What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

     And then she told us something else entirely. Something surprising.

     She told us their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

    “They’re both gay” she said.

     “Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

     They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

     “This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

     “But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here, that there’d be a place for them.”

     “Of course. Absolutely.”

     I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

     “You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

     “Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be just as true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners. It’s pious types he’s got a problem with.”

     We talked a bit more.

     About how this “issue” was playing out now in the larger United Methodist Church. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

     “You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’ve always pictured them having a place here.” 

——————

     As Dennis broke down for you last Sunday, the United Methodist Church stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed impasse over the issue of human sexuality. 

     The Council of Bishops earlier this year received a report from a special 30-person global commission called “The Way Forward,” and on Friday the Council of Bishops released the broad strokes of what will be their recommendation to the larger Church next winter at a special session to decide the matter. 

    And on Friday night Dennis called me to tell me to talk about it in my sermon. “I’ll be away for the weekend,” he said before disappearing in a cloud of sulfur.

     The Council of Bishops weighed 3 options put forward to the them. 

     Two of the options, on either end of the spectrum, could be termed the conservative and progressive options. The former option would keep our church polity and discipline as it is now where homosexuality is described as being contrary to Christian teaching and openly gay Christians are kept from serving in the ministry. The latter option, meanwhile, would liberalize the Church’s language on sexuality. 

     The challenge for a global Church, of course, is that there are many churches, especially in the developing world, that insist on the conservative option while there is a growing cultural consensus in North America towards flexibility on our views of sexuality. 

     What the Council of Bishops recommend is a middle way, a compromise called the “One Church” Model where the United Methodist Church doesn’t fracture and schism into pieces yet would allow churches and jurisdictions to decide for themselves, based on their mission field and cultural context, how they will interpret and enforce teaching on human sexuality. 

     In other words, it would allow the Church in a place like Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle to look different than the Church in Mississippi or Ghana. 

     Let me repeat that so you’ve got it: 

The mission field would determine our position on sexuality and enforcement of it not our differing interpretations of what scripture says about sexuality. 

     And just in case the term “mission field” conjures up exotic images of sun-swept savannas, by mission field we’re talking about places like Aldersgate and 22308 where, for my kids and their peers, it’s strange-to-the-point-of-archaic that Christians are even still having this argument. Like it or not, Will and Grace settled this question for the culture years ago. In such a mission field, the question is do you care more that people have the right position on sexuality or do you care that they know Jesus is the friend of sinners?

     If the recommendation is approved next winter (long odds still), then the best case scenario is that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexuality will be peace amidst difference. So, it’s much too early to know what will come of this issue in the larger Church but Dennis thought we owed it to you, as pastors of this particular church, to articulate why we endorse something like this middle way. 

———————-

     What the “One Church” model gets right that both of the other options get wrong, in my view, is that our mission to proclaim the Gospel to our community is more urgent than our being the Church with the right position on sexuality or the right interpretation of scripture on it. 

     Put another way, nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

     I have no interest in being a part of the Church-of-the-Correct-Opinion, whether that Church is traditional or progressive. I want to be a part of a Church that makes the Gospel what St. Paul says it is: the most important of our concerns.  

     And, notice in 1 Corinthians 15, in his definition of what is supposed to be our chief concern, the Gospel, the only sins Paul mentions in the Gospel are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them. 

     It seems silly to the point of missing the plot to spend time and treasure ($2,000/minute when the global Church gathers for days to debate this issue- I don’t want to put a damper on your generosity, but for every dollar you give to this church pennies to a nickel of it go to fund this argument)- it seems silly and sinfully wasteful to me to argue 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. 

     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?

———————-

     Look, don’t let the earring and tattoos mislead you. 

     Theologically-speaking, I’m the most conservative pastor you have on staff. That’s not even a joke. Theologically-speaking, I’m so hyper-Protestant our DS accuses me of being Methodist-in-name-only. 

     So I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I really do. In the wake of #MeToo and this current administration, I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies and of women, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.

     Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

     I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we mean by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. 

     And I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the Gospel of Christ and him crucified.

     I get it. I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, those parents who came to Dennis and me last spring grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such traditionalism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

————————

     So I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate. But, I find other issues, other biblical issues, more urgent. Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

     The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

     In all our arguing about getting it right on this one issue- I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news.

     Take today’s text:

     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. 

     This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. Because 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.

     To be blunt about it- 

     Whether you’re progressive 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. 

     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.

———————-

     Look-

     I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel, says St. Paul, frees us from the Law.

     The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies you before God not at all. And because by your baptism you’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, the opposite is also true. Having an “impure” sex life effects your justification before God NOT AT ALL. 

     The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex. Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification.

     In fighting over who has the righteous position, left and right, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of self-righteous works of the Law that prompted the Protestant movement exactly 500 years ago. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture about sex- they’re the Law: Do this…don’t do this.

     The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.

     The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ. 

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sexuality debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

You’ve fallen short of traditional biblical teaching.

You’ve fallen short of being open and affirming and inclusive.

You’ve fallen short. 

    I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

    But I care more about the Gospel. 

    And the Gospel, as Jesus says, is good news. It’s for sinners and scoundrels and phonies not saints. It’s for those who are sick and know their need not for the show-offs with their claptrap about holy living.

     I care more about the Gospel.

     I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree. I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in Christ’s perfect righteousness. More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of your lives.

     God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free. 

     I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly.

It’s expensive.

Paid in the hard-to-obtain currency of your right-believing and your-interpreting and your holy-living. 

    But here’s the thing about holiness- 

Holiness, as Martin Luther said, 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. 

———————-

     Back to those girls- 

     And, since you baptized them, they’re your girls as much as they’re their parents’.

     If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone UNLIKE them, then all our fighting is costlier than $2000 per minute.

     If our ecclesial brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

     And if my kids’ peers are any indication, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this impasse. 

     Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Velma on Scooby Doo was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. Admit it, Anderson Cooper is the only member of the media you actually trust. 

     Our culture- this mission field- has moved on whether we like it or not. Queer Eye seems passe at this point. 

     If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then 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 is STILL 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 Bishops’ recommendation 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, we’re in favor of a middle way because it seems that a middle way which leaves everyone slightly teed off is exactly how God works. 

     Such a middle way allows good people of faith to keep on discussing who it is those girls- your girls- can love but such a middle way does so without jeopardizing the Church’s primary mission to make sure those girls- your girls- know who loves them. 

     Know who loves them. 

To the grave and back. 

     Jesus Christ. 

     Who takes us into himself in our baptism and who gives himself to be taken into us through the wine and bread that is his body and blood.

     Honestly, there is no way forward other than a middle way.

Because all of us who are baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us.

All of us baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us; such that, not one of us can say to the other, no matter what we think about scripture or who we sleep with- not one of us can say to the other, I have no need of you.

    For our Saturday Service, I wrote a letter to Noah on the occasion of his baptism. The texts were 1 Corinthians 15 & Romans 6

Dear Noah,

Mark this day down- May 5, 2018.

This is the day you died.

The story that is your namesake, Noah, should’ve been my clue. The first Noah’s story isn’t all rainbows and two-by-two teddy bears. By so naming you, I should’ve known that one day, before you were old enough to protest or have any say in the matter for yourself, your doting parents would prove to be happy and willing accomplices to your death.

Your grandpa is obsessed with his Go-Pro so just check the pictures, Noah. Your parents stood right next to me, wearing grins, and acquiesced as we drowned you in water.

We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Noah. We baptized you.

By ‘we,’ I mean the Church. No, that doesn’t get it right either.

God baptized you, Noah.

 God baptized you.

That’s why it doesn’t matter you were still in diapers, still smelled like a baby, and couldn’t yet muster a single yay or nay for or against Jesus.

Your cooperation mattered not at all because God was the one who baptized you.

You in your bonnet and sucking on your fingers were no different than the rest of us grown ups in that the only thing we contribute God’s salvation of you is our sin.

And our resistance.

God baptized you Noah. The Church was just his ark from which we watched as bystanders and then dragged you on board after it was all over. Actually, Noah, your name is perfect for a baptism- it’s perfect for a Christian- for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns (Willimon).”

Take your name as a clue, Noah, the life of the baptized Christian is not about turning over ever more new leaves in your life. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. What we’ve committed you to with water, by killing you and making you alive, is nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death.

Who knew your parents, the shy and awkward high school kids I met my first day here at Aldersgate, would one day make me an accomplice to something so macabre. That was so long ago, Noah, my wife still let me get away with wearing cargo shorts, and back then it was still funny to make fun of Dennis Perry’s age.

Back then, I often crossed lines and offended people. For instance, shortly after I arrived at Aldersgate the youth director asked me to come to your future parents’ youth group to talk about a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.

Asking your pastor to come talk to teenagers about sex is about as enticing as inviting your plumber to a nude photo shoot so, wanting to puncture the awkwardness which overwhelmed the room, I resorted to a bit of wisdom from Woody Allen and I told them: “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.” You can ask your grandma to explain that to you sometime, Noah.

I like to think that wasn’t the only lesson on love and marriage your Mom and Dad gleaned from me and my beloved. When they college students, your parents traveled with Ali and me to Taize, a monastery in the French countryside. During the day we prayed and we played, and at night we camped out on the monastery grounds in tents.

Your Dad hid in one of those tents one night, specifically our tent, and scared the piss out of Ali. And from their (separate) tents your future Mom and Dad heard my wife in our tent foreshadow the married life with nuggets of advice such as: “Get that thing off of me (ie, my book)” and “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger; stay up and fight.”

Not long after, Noah, I married your Mom and Dad, which makes your baptism a fitting bookend to my time at Aldersgate. They were the first two people I met at Aldersgate. I celebrated their wedding, and now what we do to you with water, St. Paul says, is itself a betrothal. When you’re married one day, Noah, you’ll not think it odd that the two chief metaphors for baptism are death and marriage.

Ironically, the scripture passage from which I preached at your parents’ wedding was itself about baptism. In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

    You are dressed, in other words, Noah, in Christ’s perfect score.

     Permanently.

Permanently. No amount of prodigal living can undo it. You might keep your grandmothers awake at night in high school, Noah, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God does here with water and his word. You are now clothed with Christ, and, as such, will always forever be regarded by God as Christ. The Son’s righteousness, not your own goodness, has betrothed you forever to the Father.

This is why St. Paul in his grand argument on the resurrection is so adamant about the absolute necessity of Christ’s empty grave otherwise, Paul insists, our faith is futile and our hope is pitiful.

Pay attention Noah-

 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.

And by your baptism, Noah, the Bible promises that you are in Christ.

You’ve not only been crucified with him in his death for sins- all sins, all sins, once and for all- you’ve been raised with him too. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).

What God does to you with water, killing and making alive, the Church has called it the great exchange, and it is great, good news. But despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, Noah, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered pious types who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.

Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.

“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Noah (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and obedient. If that strikes you as cognitive dissonance then your mother, a school psychologist, must’ve taught you a thing or two.

You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon you feeling sorry for your sins and, even then, as my mother used to say, saying sorry doesn’t cut it, they’ll say. No.

Noah, laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.

The Gospel of total, unconditional freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is. 

Christ died for all your sins. All of his perfect record has been reckoned as your own- all of it is yours.

Hell yes, the wages of sin is death.

But today, May 5, 2018 in shallow water, you died.

Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No condemnation.

     Think of it this way, Noah:

All your sins from here on out are FREE.

All your sins are free. There is no cost to any of your sins other than what they cost your neighbor. You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.

Such a life has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him. Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.

“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear it as Jesus intended for the baptized to hear it: God will bless you even if you’re bad.

    The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our anxious hearts and fearful imaginations

I thought it important to write to you, Noah, because soon I’ll be gone, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.

They’re easy to identify, Noah. Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot. They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind or the social justice kind, making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to be a better you and build a better world.

Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water. Someone named Noah should know better.

Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to convince us that this or that sin we’ve committed- or are committing- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.

If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.

In the face, of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.

Remember-

You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore no condemnation for you. All your sins are free.

Noah, to those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.

Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.

As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.

Speaking just from my own experience, most of the damage I do to myself and to others isn’t because I’m convinced God doesn’t condemn me for my sins but because I fear- despite my faith, I still fear God will condemn me for my sins.

And so I do damage, making others the object of my anxious attempts to make myself look better and be better than I am, in other words, to justify myself. I think this explains why the people against whom we sin the most are the people we most love. They’re the ones we most want to impress so they become the ones against whom we most sin.

The hilarity of the Gospel, Noah, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. Skeptical? Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.

That Jesus was without sin was the consequence not of his goodness and perfection but of Jesus’ perfect trust in the goodness of his Father.

Still not buying it?

Your Dad is an engineer, Noah, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do? Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.

Your Mom the psychologist, though, would tell you it’s more likely that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others.

You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them.

You’d stop pretending.

And you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you.

Such a scenario, Noah, isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into. All your sins are free. Don’t get me wrong, Noah.

It’s not that the good works you do for God and for you neighbor don’t matter. Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word. 

Look kid, brass tacks time:

Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (and I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church.

The world is a wicked and hard place.

And, in it, sorry to disappoint, you will fail as many times as not.

 You need only read the story that is your namesake, Noah, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. It doesn’t make you nice and clean. It makes you new. After first making you dead.

As you grow up, Noah, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really kill all those people in the flood long ago?”

And you, Noah, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly:

“God kills with water all the time.”

Sincerely,

Jason

My friend David Zahl and the folks at Mockingbird Ministries have been gracious enough to invite me to be a part of their NYC conference later this week where I will do a dialogue with Fleming Rutledge. As readers of the blog and listeners to the podcast already know, Fleming Rutledge is both my preaching muse and my back-up wife.

Taking the theme of the conference as my cue, I’ve chosen the following as springboard quotes off of which I’ll dialogue with Fleming. Thought I’d share them here as they’re golden.

Here they are:

“Religion does not define all human beings on the same level of need before God. Religion may see everyone on the level of spiritual potential, yes; but this is precisely what the gospel does not, because the gospel is not about human potential.”

 

“For all their various biblical resonances, there is something missing in the social justice gospel and its close cousin, liberation theology…they’re not inclusive enough.”

 

“The destructive separations and divisions among us…demand an apocalyptic interpretation of the Bible…for it, with its stress on the common plight of all humankind, is the one thing that unites scripture and binds us together.”

 

“The radicality of the statement ‘circumcision is nothing’ is almost unthinkable…the end of the Law is as close as anything to the revolutionary leveling of all human social organizations.”

“We must not let the idea of inclusiveness be wrested away from us. The gospel of the justification of the ungodly is more inclusive than anyone who does not know scripture could imagine.”

 

“Christian social action arises out of the radical breaking down of distinctions, not the introduction of new distinctions. This radical breakdown is expressed most succinctly in Paul’s crucial words: ‘Christ died for the ungodly.’”

 

“God loves everybody…the Golden Rule… no one who cares about God’s justice can be satisfied with those. Nothing will do but this Word: Christ died for the ungodly.”

Alex and Kim’s Wedding – 4/21/18

What kind of wedding sermon do you write for two video-gaming nerds? This one.

Galatians 3.26-29

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

 

“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”

– Robert Capon

Alex and Kim,

You two still haven’t gotten back to me with the results of your Meyers- Briggs personality tests like I asked, but you’ve obviously spent too much money for us all to be here this afternoon so I’m going to let that one slide. Nonetheless, just because you’re tardy with the test results doesn’t mean I’m all done posing my pre-marital questions to the two of you.

I’ve got one question left: What are you thinking? Are you crazy?

How can two video gaming nerds like yourselves get married today? It’s only been a week since Billy Mitchell, the erstwhile record holder on both Donkey Kong and Centipede, not to mention his perfect Pac Man game, was found out to be an 8-bit fraud and sinner just like the rest of us. Are you guys up for getting married given the dark news about the King of Donkey Kong?

Billy Mitchell was once celebrated by a documentary film, The King of Kong, but last week he was the subject of an NPR investigative report of how he’d lied about his record-setting score all these years- a record around which he’d defined his entire life and identity.

How can two gamers like yourselves celebrate a wedding at a time like this? Shouldn’t you be mourning for Billy’s sake? Or, at least, trying to take his place on the leader board?

I think we can all agree, given the King of Kong’s fall from grace, that this is a bold leap of faith you take today. After seeing Billy Mitchell run out of lives, revealed as fraud not only to the world but to his wife, most gamers would get skittish about moving on to the next level called marriage.

Frankly, even before Billy Mitchell, I didn’t think we’d get to today. I suspected the two of you would never decide on the songs with which you would process in and later dance to today. You couldn’t make up your minds. I remember one of you mentioned something about Etta James’ “At Last,” and instead I suggested the theme music from Legend of Zelda.

I’d also suggested Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” but then you both informed me that Kim’s dress would be coral not white. Now that the Big Day is here, I’m glad I finally get to learn coral is closer to orange than turquoise. Hey, how should I know what color coral is? Like George Constanza, I only pretend to be a marine biologist when I’m at parties or wedding receptions.

The truth is- just as Billy Mitchell’s score has no bearing on us, we don’t need Billy Idol today either because Kim’s wedding dress doesn’t matter.

     What matters- The garment that matters for their marriage is the garment we are given by our baptism.

You are what you wear, the clothes make the man, go the cliches, yet they’re not true. My robe and stole don’t make me any more pious than you, and you all dressed to the nines today doesn’t change anything true about you.

The only clothes that make you who you are- and make you into someone you are not yet– are the clothes given to you by water and the word.

What’s the mean?

In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

We are dressed, in other words, in Christ’s perfect score.

And, unlike as happened to Billy Mitchell, nothing- can undo Christ’s high score that is reckoned to you as your own score.

I’m not an idiot. I realize this may sound like religious hokum, but I’m not just a professional Christian. I’m also a full-time sinner and a husband of 17 years, and I can vouchsafe that what St. Paul says about your true wedding garment- the one given to you in baptism: Christ’s own perfect score- they’re not just words to live by; they’re words that give life. 

Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to improve each other (because, no matter what you see or suspect, the other already has a perfect score).

Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to try and control the other. We don’t need to treat each other as an improvement project or as an investment we hope will pay dividends later.

     Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to keep score.

And that’s good, grace-giving news because in a world where we count and score everything (steps, calories, sleep rate, heart rate, interest rates), if you’re not careful, marriage can become a crucible of score-keeping.

 Am I a good enough wife? Am I the man of her dreams? Am I interesting enough? Does she really still like playing Zelda with me? Am I still attractive enough? Are we making enough money? Is this house big enough? Will our kids get into the right schools? What will be the photo on our Christmas card? Whose parents are we spending Thanksgiving with? Didn’t I do the dishes last night? This is the third time he’s done that since promising not to do it.

Marriage can become a crucible of score-keeping that quickly turns into a mine-field of score-settling. But St. Paul says all our score-keeping has been buried in the grave we call baptism. All our heretofore high scores by which we try to justify ourselves are forgotten in Christ’s death and all of our low scores- all of our sins, all of our mistakes and misdeeds, all of our grievances- are covered over by our wedding garment.

The two of you today promise to love one another according to the folly of God’s grace. You’re promising to love one another without keeping score. You’re pledging to love with a love that goes beyond deserving.

No matter what Kim does, no matter what Alex has done- the two of you promise to give the other the opposite of what they deserve.

And, as potentially costly as that sounds, you can afford it because you already possess a perfect and permanent score.

     You’ve got nothing to lose.

I realize, practically-speaking, this can sound like bad advice. Not keeping score- it can leave you vulnerable. You can get hoodwinked. You can get hurt. That’s the leap of faith you two take today. In scrapping the score-keeping ledger, you’re each giving over to the other an enormous power to do damage to the other.

But today isn’t about practicalities. As much as you might like it or need it, today isn’t about you two getting good advice. Let’s face it, there’s not a married person here who knows what they hell they’re doing.

Today isn’t about you two getting good advice for how to love one another.

Today is about the two of you becoming a parable of how God loves each of us.

By giving each of us a perfect score- by clothing us in Jesus- God calls our sin by another name until our every sin is named out of existence. By giving us this wedding garment by which we are all betrothed to him, God credits to us a goodness that isn’t there until, over time, one day all that is there is the goodness that God only at first declared.

Today with vows and rings you two promise to regard each other according to the perfect score the Game Designer has already reckoned to them, to give to them a love beyond their deserving, trusting that one day, through the foolish wisdom of God’s grace, all that will remain of the other is that perfection.

Marriage will afford every opportunity for your badness to be uncovered by the other, but, by regarding each other according to the wedding clothes with which you’ve been covered, even that badness will be transformed into the likeness of the Beloved.

And when the game is over and you’re all out of lives and it’s time for you both to level up, you will be able to look back on your marriage together and say you both enjoyed a love that was more than any of us deserve.

Only then, by the folly of God’s grace, will the cliche prove true: You are what you wear.

 

 

 

Rev. Sarah Condon joins the podcast to talk about progressive Christianity, hitting television preachers with cafeteria trays, and explains how she’s experienced God’s grace while serving as a hospital chaplain. Along the way she dispenses hilarious but helpful advice for female clergy and clergy spouses (she’s both).

We thought Sarah had stood us up for the interview (time zone mix-up) and Teer and I were just bs-ing with each other when all of sudden Sarah appeared, catching us by surprise. The spontaneity made it a fun, irreverent conversation. We say our “without stained glass language” tag line refers to our trying to avoid jargon. Really, it’s a caveat that sometimes we say @#$%.

Sarah is an Episcopal priest at St. Martin’s in Houston. She is the author of Churchy, and a frequent contributor at Mockingbird Ministries.

Speaking of Mockingbird, Sarah will be (with me) at the Mockingbird NYC Conference next week. Check it out.

She also has a piece (with me) in the latest Mockingbird Magazine, the Humor Issue.

I think you’re going to enjoy this conversation.

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Joke:

What did the guy say after being hit by a Prius?

I didn’t hear it coming.

Actually, it doesn’t work as a joke because we all know the guy would’ve heard, if not the engine, then the Prius’ radio tuned into NPR.

Until very recently, my wife and I were the doting owners of 2 Ford Broncos, which collectively got about 11MPG. We’ve only got her superior, classic Bronco now.

It’s not only kick-ass awesome, as a classic car, it’s also culpable for less of a carbon footprint than all those shiny new silent Priuses churned out every week by factories; nonetheless, driving the Bronco around on a Sunday afternoon is a reliable way to elicit self-righteous jeers from the electric car crowd. So, admittedly, I approached the question from a jaded place when a friend recently asked me for my thoughts on how we, as Christians, should reflect on Earth Day this coming Sunday.

My first thought:

Earth Day this Sunday? No, I’m sorry but according to my calendar, the one marked by colors (white, green, purple, and red) and cross and creche, this Sunday isn’t Earth Day it’s the Fourth Sunday of Eastertide- also known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

The takeaway for this Sunday is that we’re just sheep in desperate need of a Shepherd to take care of the verbs in our world; therefore, it’s not our job to make the earth come out okay anymore than it’s the sheep’s job to landlord the Shepherd’s estate.

I was only being slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Obviously the Principalities and Powers who put Earth Day on a different calendar did so for very understandable reasons. It’s freezing 3 weeks into the baseball season. I don’t really care about polar bears but I do care about Ryan Zimmerman’s On Base Percentage: climate change is real (sorry, Donald). Obviously, its good to recycle, invest in renewable energy, make the world a better place, leave no trace, yada yada yada. You’ll hear no quibble from me. We try to do all that in our house.

Recycling, reusing, reducing waste-

Those are good things to do.

But doing them does not make me or you ‘good.’

Or (sorry) godly.

According to my calendar, more important than what we do with our aluminum cans is the message (and unlike Reduce/Reuse/Recycle, it’s a message available nowhere else) that Jesus is the Good Shepherd crucified for your sins and raised for your justification whether you separate your paper from your plastic or not

All the ways we construct sentences with imperatives like “faithful Christians must_______” obscure the irrevocable indicative of our justification.

It’s true, as Christians are quick to point out, that God gave Adam (i.e., all of humanity) the role to tend the garden that is God’s creation. Christians are less nimble in noticing, however, that Jesus is called the Second Adam not you or me. The stewardship role over creation given to Adam belongs to Christ the New Adam now not to us. We’re sheep ‘in’ the Good Shepherd not ‘next’ to him; the tending role that was the Old Adam’s is Christ’s now. By our baptism, we are not the New Adam but we are in the I Am who is.

Stanley Hauerwas argues the United Methodist Church’s position against nuclear armament, in its (understandable) haste to rescue the Earth from destruction betrays a lack of eschatological conviction in Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord. Hauerwas’ point is that a correlative of our confession that the Risen Jesus is the present Lord, who has promised to return in future glory, is that it’s not our calling to make the Earth and its history come out right.

Indeed, as Christians, we believe by Cross and Resurrection the Earth and its history already have come out right. The same argument Hauerwas makes about nuclear weapons could be levied against those Christians who construe Earth Day in apocalyptic dimensions.

According to the Eastertide calendar, God has erased all our records by Christ’s death and raised us all by grace with nothing but Christ’s perfect record. By baptism, in other words, we’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness. We’re justified by Christ alone through faith alone.

In other words:

What we do with our paper or plastic-

It can never chip away at the perfect score we permanently possess in Christ.

Ergo-

A proper understanding of Earth Day has nothing to do with our “Christian” responsibility to God (such hortatory only renders the Gospel the Law) but to our neighbor in the form of our children. What bin into which we drop our bottles and cans has nothing to do with our status as “good” Christians (the only goodness any Christian possesses is the alien goodness of Christ’s goodness reckoned to us) but it has everything to do with our status as good neighbors.

Honestly, one of the reasons people hate Earth Day is that it becomes but another occasion for self-justifying sinners like us to keep score over and against our neighbors, to practice our spiritual but not religious piety before others. Isn’t it telling how the shame-based, Law-laying language we once used for sex has just been transferred to how we speak about food and fitness and creation-care? For Christians, though, Earth Day isn’t an obligation of the Law. It’s an invitation that follows from the Gospel.

Knowing there’s nothing we “have” to do, no position we “have” to hold, to be counted as “authentic” Christians (because the only righteousness we possess is Christ’s own gratuitously imputed to us) we’re free to care for creation for the sake our neighbors and children.

Punch Drunk Love

Jason Micheli —  April 15, 2018 — Leave a comment

We’re doing a sermon series through John for April. Here’s my sermon on John 2.1-11.

Ali had texted me, asking me to stop on the way home and pick up a package of necessaries.

So naturally, I did what any mature, poised, self-confident man would do. I texted back: “Sure honey, no problem at all. Need anything else while I’m there?”

And then I drove to the grocery store, driving past the little Soviet Safeway just down the street, driving an extra 4 miles and through 1 cellphone dead zone and 2 red lights, in order to get to the BIG SAFEWAY at Belle View because the BIG SAFEWAY HAS SELF-CHECKOUT.

What am I, an idiot? I’m not going to risk some checkout clerk announcing into that little microphone “We need a price check…..” I’ve seen Mr. Mom. No thank you. the self-checkout was designed for the expressed purpose to spare husbands like me exactly that sort of shame.

Is it any coincidence that the increase in protected, safe-sex among young people coincides with the creation of self-checkout by Howard Schneider in 1992 for Price Chopper Supermarket in NYC?

     You think Magic Johnson made a difference in the fight against AIDS?

He’s got nothing on Howard Schneider whose invention gifted the world with a less awkward way to buy prophylactics.

So there I was at the BIG SAFEWAY, standing in the self-checkout queue, like a dutiful knight securing his queen what she requires, the feminine hygiene products discreetly hidden in my basket underneath a 6-pack, the latest issue of Garden and Gun, and a bag of potato chips.

Sure enough, as if to prove my hypothesis about Howard Schneider and the purpose of the self-checkout, I watched as the guy at the front of the line scanned and beeped from his basket the following items:

1 jar of kosher pickles

1 bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos

2 boxes of “Protection” and

1 package of Vermont Maple Syrup-Flavored Breakfast Sausages.

 “If you can do that after eating that more power to you,” I said, not as quietly as I’d intended judging from the look he shot me. 

As he did, the cart behind me hit me in the ankles for the third time. The cart belonged to that lady who dresses as Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon.

I know it was her because she was dressed like Martha Washington, her hoop skirt that would make Sir. Mix-A-Lot salivate knocking into the candy bar rack.

I turned around and glared at her again and then looked down into her cart. She had berries and sugar and flour and butter. She’s making a pie, I thought to myself, of course she’s making a pie.

What else would Martha Washington being doing besides white-washing indentured genocide?

Baking a pie- how wholesome is that?

And then I noticed that underneath the berries and the flour and the sugar and the butter, Martha Washington was also buying a copy of the National Enquirer. And, Star Magazine.

Martha caught me looking into her cart, like a Peeping Tom.

“It’s bad manners to be nosy.”

“Lady, people who live in glass houses with slaves shouldn’t throw stones.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

The guy in front me had started to scan and beep the items from his basket. He was wearing khakis and a distressed blue blazer. Standing out against his ruddy complexion was a neatly trimmed white beard.

Sunglasses were perched on top of his curved orange Orvis cap, and his feet inside his boat shoes were bare.

Basically he looked like someone who stills shells out money for Jimmy Buffet concerts.

He had a sticker stuck to the end of his finger.

It caught my eye, and I watched him. He pulled a package of steaks out of his basket, stuck the sticker on it over the one that was already on it, and scanned the steaks, a package of 4.

$4 and change appeared on the screen.

Next, he took out a can of off brand coffee, scanned it, and set it not in the bag but on top of the candy bars and instead from his basket he drew out a bottle of red wine and put it immediately, unscanned, into his shopping bag.

I looked over at the self-checkout clerk who appeared to have the mental acuity of R.P. McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

He was oblivious; meanwhile, I was transfixed, staring like you do at a car accident or the Trump White House.

Next, he took out a package of shrimp, a couple of pounds it looked like, and he didn’t scan it. He set it down it on the scale instead and then he entered the code for bananas. He did like that for a number of other items too- let’s just say he bought a lot of bananas. Then he clicked “Finish and Pay.”

And, as he pulled out his wallet, he looked sideways at me and he winked: “Surf-and- Turf.”

“That’s the most affordable surf-and-turf I’ve ever seen,” I replied.

He shrugged his shoulders and gestured at the self-checkout machine: “If they’re going to make me work at their store, then I deserve to get paid, right?”

And no joke, my first reaction, my immediate reaction (I’m not proud; I’m a sinner) was: “Huh, that’s a good point.”

———————-

     This happened several months ago. I’d forgotten all about it until I read an article entitled “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft.” Apparently using the code for bananas or a bunch of grapes and then socking a more expensive item of similar weight into your shopping bag- apparently that’s a thing, people.

Apparently that’s such a thing, so common a thing, the entire supermarket industry has a name for it: The Banana Trick.

The industry has other names for other ways customers con the self-checkout. There’s the “Pass-Around,” the “Switcheroo,” and the “Illy” (named for the expensive brand of expresso…basically a version of the Banana Trick).

According to the article: “Beneath the bland veneer of your friendly neighborhood supermarket lurks something dark and ugly.”

It’s you.

The industry estimate is that over 20% of all self-checkout customers shop-lift. Steal.

Actually, the supermarket industry prefers to call it “External Shrinkage,” which sounds like what happens to me after I go swimming in a chilly pool but never mind.

20% steal. 1/5 of you all.

And of those 20% over 50% do so because it’s unlikely they’ll get caught.

What’s revealing is that most of these people aren’t thieves (ordinarily) nor are they so much thrill seekers. They’re just ordinary people like you. Says Barbara Staib, the Director of Communications at the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, most self-checkout shoplifters:

“are in fact law-abiding citizens. They would chase behind you to return the $20 bill you dropped, because you’re a person and you would miss that $20. A robot-cashier, though, changes the equation. It gives the false impression of anonymity.”

In other words, the anonymity afforded by the self-checkout reveals our true selves. Without the threat of consequence (or the promise of reward- being thanked for returning that $20) even the best of us do not reliably obey the law.

For this very reason, police departments, such as the Dallas Police Department, now refuse to respond to self-checkout shoplifting calls.

“Of course people steal when they think no one is watching,” one cop commented.

“The Law,” the cop said- pay attention now, “doesn’t change us. The Law can’t change our human nature. The Law can keep us from doing bad, but it doesn’t make us good.”

———————-

And that brings me to my first point. See, you were starting to worry I didn’t have any point. I’ve actually got 3.

What the cop says in that article is what John wants you to see in this sign at Cana: that the Law cannot change us. This wedding shows us what the Apostle Paul tells us about distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel. Jesus in John’s Gospel doesn’t do miracles. Jesus in John’s Gospel performs signs- only 7 of them.

Each of these 7 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 paradoxically his humiliation, 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” just like he will- the only other time he will- from the cross: “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 7 signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign is 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 cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, 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, the Gospel, is not the Law.

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the 6 stone water jars.

There amidst the wedding finery and the china and everyone dressed to the nines and filled with dreams of happily ever afters, the water jars are a reminder of the “dark and ugly truth” about us.

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. As the wedding guests would arrive, the servants would cleanse the guests’ hands with the water from the stone jars; so that, the wedding festival would not be sullied by sin or shame.

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 6 stone jars, and 6 (being 1 less than 7) is the Jewish number for imperfection.

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out, and, in an honor-based culture like first century Judaism, running out of wine was more than a party foul. It brought great shame upon the bridegroom and his family.

So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is that the Law (commandment-keeping, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes.

The Law might give you clean hands.

The Law might compel you to charity.

The Law might keep you from stealing.

But the Law cannot free you from sin and shame nor can it make your heart glad.

And the problem, St. Paul says, isn’t with the Law. The Law, Paul says, is holy, righteous, and good. Love thy enemies, do not steal, forgive those who trespass against you. Those are holy and good commands. The problem isn’t the Law. It’s us. The dark and ugly truth about us, our sin, is deeper than where water can wash it away.

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and rituals, all the ways we try to be all we can be for God, “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 2 that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter 2 he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law.

He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then, the One who a few chapters later will call himself Living Water, he tells them to fill the jars with it.

To fill them to overflowing.

In other words:

     Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faith and life.

When they draw out the wine that had been water, it’s no 3 buck chuck. It’s top shelf and it’s already aged. And there’s an abundance of it. I did the math. At a minimum, it’s 2160 glasses of wine- that’s more ridiculously extravagant than a Scott Pruitt pool party.

See what John wants you to see in this sign:

Out of these stone jars

Out of the means by which we attempt to cleanse ourselves of sin and make ourselves right and good and acceptable before God

Out of the Law is drawn the Gospel: the wine of salvation.

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

     He transforms what we do for God into a sign of what God does for us.

This sign shows what that cop says.

The Law doesn’t change us because the Law cannot take away our sins. Only the Lamb of God can take away our sins, as John the Baptist declares at the very beginning of John’s Gospel.

     ———————-

You’d never know it from the prodigal way he doles out salvation that Jesus is about the only person NOT drunk at this party.

And that’s my second point-

Just as Jesus distinguishes the Gospel from the Law, so too his grace, his gift of salvation, is not karma.

Grace is not karma.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted 7 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 3. They’ve got 4 more days to go. Unless Steve Larkin was at the party, there’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon.

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to do their duty under the Law. They deserve the shame in which they stand under the Law. They do not deserve what Christ does for them.

And notice, 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.

Grace is not karma.

Karma says that what you put in is what you get out. Karma says that as you give so shall you receive. Karma says that what goes around is what will come back around. Karma says that what God does for you is based on what you do for God.

     Karma is how most of you try to speak Christian.

It’s karma not grace that says this horrible nightmare in my life must be happening to me for a reason.

It’s karma not grace that says God must be doing this to me- this diagnosis, this disease- because of that sin I did.

It’s karma not grace that says if I just do my part (pray, serve the poor, go to church, give to the church) then God will do his part and bless me.

Karma is not Christianity.

When all is said and done, there’s really only been 2 religions in the history of the world.

On the one hand, there’s all the religions that tell you what you must do for God and for your neighbor (or else). That’s Karma.

And on the other hand, there’s the Gospel of grace, the news of what God has done for you and your neighbor despite your failures to love him or them.

You can’t speak Christian with Karma because God doesn’t give you what you deserve. God gives you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit Christ alone deserves. Or, as John puts it here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.”

———————-

     And that brings me to my final point-

     This grace

This gift of salvation is true for you

It’s true about you whether you appreciate it or not.

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine. And he makes not Boone’s Farm but he makes the best wine for drunk people to drink.

    He makes the best wine for people already too drunk to appreciate drinking it.

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 drunk, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re 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 you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it come morning.

    His punch-drunk love is such that he sheds his wine for people too far gone to appreciate it.

If this at Cana is the first sign of his hour of glory, and if his hour of glory is when we behold him bleeding and dying on his cross, then his grace, his one-way love, his gift of salvation it’s yours.

     Whether you appreciate it or not.

Whether you give him thanks and praise for it or not.

Whether you know about it or not.

Whether you change your ways because of it or not.

None of that changes what he has done: He has drunk from the cup he prayed would pass him. He has poured himself out to give you the wine of salvation.

     He’s served salvation up for a world too far gone to give two rips about it.

But whether you do or whether you don’t, what he has done- it’s as real and undoable as a hangover.

All is forgiven. Salvation is served. You don’t need to come up here in an altar call for it to be true for you. And you can’t backslide your way out of it either.

We forget-

The rich, young ruler who asked Jesus “What must I do to be saved?” asked him that question before his hour had come.

But the hour has long since passed.

And now, thanks to his punch drunk love, the answer to that question (“What must I do to be saved?”)…the answer is “Nothing.”

You don’t have to do anything.

Because everything has already been done.

The wine’s been served.

The party’s already started.

And the music has been raging since the first third day.

The only thing there is for you to do is what those disciples in Cana do.

Trust and believe.

———————-

     According to the article, “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft,” the Criminology Department at the University of Leicester audited self-checkout cameras where, over a year, the transactions totaled $21 million, a million of which, they found, left the store without being scanned or paid for.

As a result, the article noted how many stores, such as Albertsons and Big Y Supermarkets, are cancelling out their self-checkout programs.

They just can’t afford the loss, the article says.

The economy of Easter, though, is different.

As Frances Spufford says, grace, the gift of God to us in Jesus Christ, is “love without cost-controls engaged.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was a guest on Scott Jones’ Synaxis podcast to talk about the lectionary scripture texts coming up for the 2nd Sunday of Lent. During the conversation, we reflected on using the Romans 4 lection, where Paul talks about faith being worded (‘reckoned’) to us as righteousness, to rethink Jesus’ command in Mark 8 to take up our cross and follow him.

If the only righteousness we possess comes to us as Christ’s own, by imputation not sanctification, then perhaps the mortification of self that Christ commands looks more like a continual revisiting of our justification. We take up our cross, in other words, by remembering, in word and sacrament, that on our own we have neither the desire nor the capacity to follow Jesus.

Here it is:

 

A Hole in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2018 — 3 Comments

Here’s my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent where I was the guest preacher at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, Va. The lectionary text is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John but I chose to lean on Matthew’s fuller version of it.

Even though Blades of Glory is one of my favorite movies, I’ve steered clear of the Winter Olympics ever since my second year at UVA when, during a Halloween party, I was mistaken not once, not twice, but four times for Brian Boitano.

On the prowl for girls, I didn’t think I could afford for girls to confuse my costume for that of a gay figure skater. I had thought my purple crushed velvet tights and loose, flowing shirt- the sort worn by Meatloaf in the Bat Out of Hell video- gave me away as a dead-ringer for Hamlet, which, it occurs to me now, is just as gay.

But no, I got Brian Boitano. I didn’t have a sword.

And South Park had just gone viral the year before with an episode of the animated Olympian refereeing mortal combat between Jesus and Santa Claus.

What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?

Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.

But this Winter Olympics a headline in the Washington Post grabbed me:

“She killed 115 people before the last Korean Olympics. Now she wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The Post article tells the story of Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korean spy, who, 30 years ago, boarded South Korean Flight 858 and got off in Baghdad during a layover, having left a bomb, disguised as a Panasonic radio, in the overhead bin.

All 115 passengers and crew were killed when the plane exploded over the Andaman Sea.

Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.

Recruited by the Party as a student, she received physical and ideological training for 10 years before she was given orders to disrupt the Winter Olympics in South Korea by blowing up a plane full of energy workers on their way home to Seoul to visit their husbands and their wives and their children.

The cyanide cigarette she bit into when she was caught didn’t work, and she woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with machine guns pointed at her.

Kim Hyon- hui attempted suicide again during her interrogation, and a year later a South Korean judge sentenced her to die.

But she didn’t die.

Today she’s a 56 year old mother of 2 teenage girls. She’s married to the agent who first apprehended her, but she’s never escaped the guilt and the shame of her trespass.

She escaped execution and, as she puts it, “escaped the wrath of the South Korean people when she offered them her repentance” but she still wonders if she’ll escape the wrath of God.

Kim Hyon-hui lives an ordinary life cooking and cleaning, raising her kids and going to church. She was pardoned by the South Korean president for her crimes, yet she remains haunted by the question: “Can my sins be pardoned?”

     “They probably won’t be,” she confessed to the reporter, “My sins probably won’t be forgiven. By God.”

The headline is what grabbed me. It could’ve been a different story, still with a similar headline. The headline could’ve read:

“He killed 17 people at Douglas High School. Now he wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The headline could’ve read:

“They watched apathetic as 122 children got shot since Columbine (home of South Park) and they did nothing. Now they wonder: ‘Can our sins be pardoned?’”

     The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:

“Through hole in heaven, Father declares love with a dove. Wild-eyed prophet asks: ‘Can I baptize you?’”

‘Can I baptize you?’

The answer to all our questions about pardon come by noticing John the Baptist’s question: “‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’

All 4 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.

All 4 Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism; in fact, the only 2 events mentioned across all 4 Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross- they’re connected. Mark doesn’t have an Easter encounter. John doesn’t have a Christmas story. But all of the Gospels have got a baptism story. Mark leaves out what Matthew and Luke 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?’ 

John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. John’s initial objection to baptizing Christ is important because it reminds us to distinguish between Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. John’s baptism was 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 a visible sign of your admission of guilt. But the water did not wash away your guilt.

John’s baptism did not make you righteous. 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. It’s not because Jesus needed to repent. Jesus is without sin, as such, he’s got no reason to be baptized. No, Jesus insists on 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.

“It is necessary,” Jesus tells John, “[not for me or my repentance] to fulfill all righteousness.” 

In other words, the winnowing fork judgement that John the Baptist had preached, Christ takes on in his baptism. The winnowing is in the water. With his baptism, Christ isn’t acknowledging his unrighteousness. He’s entering into ours. He’s not repenting. He’s repenting us.

     By plunging himself into John’s baptism-

Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.

As Martin Luther said, at Christmas, he 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. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with thieves beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with thieves 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- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.

Right before God.

Justified.

As the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” And as Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

Either headline could work as an alternative for what God declares with a dove through a hole in heaven.

     “Can my sins be pardoned? Probably not.” Kim Hyon-hui told the Post.

Probably not? Probably not!?

Look, I get the offense, I really do, but obviously that’s her shame talking because she’s not speaking Christian.

You only get an answer like ‘Probably not’ when you don’t understand the distinction between Jesus’ baptism by John and your own baptism by Jesus into him.

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.

     It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us.

Once.

For all.

For everything.

Our baptism is not an act of repentance. Our baptism incorporates us into the act by which God repented us into righteousness.

“Probably not?”

It’s John’s kind of baptism that produces “probably not” because John’s baptism is just a token of your contrition. It’s not a visible pledge of your pardon. John’s baptism leaves you in your sin, hoping that 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.

Probably not– NO.

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.

And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.

And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.

His perfect record.

His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.

There is no place on that record for our “Probably nots.” Because if you have been baptized into this baptism, then you are in Christ. And if you are in Christ, then there is now no condemnation.

No matter who it is who is in Christ, there is for them no condemnation.

No matter what you’ve done it cannot dilute what God has done.

In Christ.

And it cannot dilute what God has done to you by drowning you into him.

The answer to Kim’s question about her sins being pardoned- it requires another question: ‘Have you been baptized?’

Because if so, whether as a baby or a born-again, your sins have already been pardoned. Because by your baptism you are in Jesus Christ, who is himself the pardon of God. At his baptism, a hole in heaven declared him to be loved. And by your baptism into the holes of his hands and his side, heaven is opened to you- you, though you belong to a brood of vipers, are beloved.

     “Can his sins be pardoned?”

     Surely not. 

One of my friends, a member of my church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

He was on a group text thread with his runners as they fled.

And bled.

He messaged me that night to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery and asked me to add them to the prayer list.

“Pray for Maddie. She has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.

I’m not in denial or shock. I’m not depressed. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did.

If this is blasphemy so be it:

Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

     Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.

     What we do with water is not sentimental.

     It’s outrage-ous.

Our reconciliation by grace through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection- it can’t be reconciled with any of our notions of right. What we mean by what we do with water- it’s not sentimental nonsense (though it may be nonsense). A message that makes sense, message that squares with the headlines, would be:

Your sins are forgiven if

Your sins are forgiven provided that…

Your sins are forgiven as long as…

You repent. You make amends. You pay back what you’ve taken.

But the promise of the Gospel that comes attached to water and wine and bread is that because you have been baptized in to Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, your sins are forgiven.

The grammar of grace is Because/Therefore not If/Then.

It makes no sense, but if you add anything to the forgiveness of sins, a single qualifier or condition, you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens.

Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-

It isn’t expensive. It is even cheap. It’s free.

     And grace begins exactly where we we think it should end.

———————-

Can his sins be pardoned? 

Has he been baptized?

———————-

     You can object. It is offensive. It is outrage-ous. After this week it sticks in my mouth too. I’m right there with you. If God’s grace for sinners offends you, if his pardon seems awful instead of amazing, I’m right there with you. It’s just, we should notice where we are in our indignation:

We’re standing outside the party our Father’s decided to throw for our rotten, wretch of a brother.

It’s offensive, I know. And not to take the edge off of it, but I wonder if maybe the offense is also the antidote.

In a different interview, Kim Hyon-hui reflects on how overwhelmed she felt by the gratuitous (her word) pardon she received from the people of South Korea:

“As a spy in North Korea, I was brainwashed. I was a robot. The only thing that might have been powerful enough to prevent me from committing my trespass would have been to know the possibility of such a pardon.”

Maybe the possibility of a pardon so gratuitous it offends- maybe that’s the only antidote powerful enough to stop us in our trespasses.