Archives For Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice this with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

It insists upon a Church where there is no distinction between us. 

Because not a one of us is righteous. 

We’re all the ungodly. 

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading is Paul’s great text on the necessity of the resurrection for Christian confession. At the top of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes his hearers back to the Gospel he delivered to them. The Gospel, Paul reminds this unholy lot, is “our most important urgent concern.” It’s an important text not only for thinking through the logical necessity of the resurrection for Christianity but also for reflecting on the current divisions in the United Methodist Church over the issues of human sexuality. 

Just shy of two weeks from now United Methodist leaders, clergy and lay, from around the globe will gather to debate whether “it” is or isn’t a sin and what implications that should have for our polity, which currently labels homosexuality a lifestyle “incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

Side Note for Later:

Does the justification of the ungodly make the very concept of  “the Christian lifestyle” a non-sequiter? Or, is a better construal of “the Christian lifestyle” the everyday ways by which Christians prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt “Yes, Christians also, in fact, require Christ to be crucified in our stead?”

Given our denominational bickering over “holiness” I think we United Methodists would do well to notice that in Paul’s rundown of the Gospel the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them.

As Robert Capon says, throwing mud in the eye of all of us woke and pious types:

“The only people in heaven will be sinners made safe in his death, gratis.

And the only people in hell will be sinners, forgiven free of charge as well.” 

As I make plans to journey to St. Louis for the UMC’s Special Sex Conference, I can’t help thinking we’ve jumped the Jesus shark, arguing to brinksmanship just what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. Once for all.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave, we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

Though, red-handed and pants-down, sinners we remain.

Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. Therefore— by your baptism— there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

Or, are we instead implying that we’re in Christ not by way of Christ’s doing for us but because of our own holy living and righteous doing?

If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin— their every sin too. This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his).  And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed?

Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

Jesus was stipped naked to clothe you, in your naked and ugly sin, with his own righteousness.

By fixating on the sin in another you’re just giving Jesus his clothes back— but he doesn’t want them returned.

In fact, he left them in the tomb.

And when he returned, a new Eve found him in a garden as naked as Adam. 

To be blunt about it- 

Whether you’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it. None of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. And if you’re tempted to interrupt now and say something along the lines of “Yes, but as baptized Christians declared righteous for his sake we should live according…” I’ll insist, as Paul does in Romans 6, that the introduction of any “shoulds” eliminate the Gospel of grace altogether. 

If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself, then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

Holiness doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then— in our post-Will and Grace culture, this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. Why would he?

The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there STILL IS CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.

THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

I don’t know what will come of the Special Sex Conference, and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us. Nonetheless, the Church’s primary mission remains unchanged even if our denomination— and, as a consequence, our church— changes. Our mission is to proclaim to sinners that God in Jesus Christ loves ungodly them.

To the grave and back. 

To be a Virginian

Jason Micheli —  February 7, 2019 — 2 Comments

This one comes from my friend and colleague, Reverend Drew Colby.

There’s an anonymous quote which gets recited on occasion in Virginia that goes like this:

“To be a Virginian either by birth, marriage, adoption, or even on one’s mother’s side, is an introduction to any state in the Union, a passport to any foreign country, and a benediction from above.”

This week we are reminded that to be a Virginian is also to be acquainted with the disease of racism. As revelations about our governor and attorney general have surfaced, many of us Virginians are honestly unshocked; but not unmoved.

For white Virginians there are likely a spectrum of reactions to the news. Mine was, in part, to reflect on my own racism. I’ve never painted my face black. I’ve never worn a KKK hood. But I do remember the first time I said the N-word. I didn’t say it as a put-down or epithet. I said it the way my black friends seemed to say it.

I went to a predominately Black school and so I had heard the N-word used commonly by my Black classmates. Like all middle schoolers I was trying on new identities to fit in. I even loosened my West End of Richmond braided leather belt and pulled down my pleated khaki shorts once I got on the bus each day so I could “bust a sag” like the cool kids. I ended up just choking off my husky rear end half-way down so I looked like I had two buts.

It was in 6th grade gym when we were playing basketball and I thought I’d try to fit in by talking like the cool kids too. A classmate made a three pointer and that’s when I said it.

“Nice shot nigga…”

I know, it’s cringy on so many levels.

The room went silent and frozen except for the slow bounce of the basketball coming to a stop.

“What did you just say?” asked my classmate.

Another long silence.

Then my friend Ricky spoke up:

“He didn’t say nothin’. Come on let’s play.”

Ricky checked the ball and we moved on. With those words “He didn’t say nothin’,” my sin was blotted out. I had been given mercy. I had been saved. And I believe that Ricky offered me that day is, unfortunately, one of the only things that can save Virginia.

As my friend Jason Micheli once said on his podcast, these days:

“Those who want to expose privilege often do so in finger-wagging ways; and those like me immediately get defensive.”

That’s a good part of what we’ve seen in the last week, and in many ways it’s something we see everywhere these days. As famous people are “found out” to have made major mistakes, intentional sins, and horrifying yearbook photos, they’re called out and, rightfully, exposed as unworthy of the position and prestige of the office they occupy. What seems to happen in the aftermath is a variety of forms of self-preservation, particularly a stance of defensiveness with an excuse-laden apology that no one is really eager to accept.

What I haven’t seen much of, but what I regret to report may be the only way to get from the feigned racial reconciliation we have had thus far in Virginia to actual reconciliation, is some version of what post-apartheid South Africans called amnesty. Perhaps if these politicians were told they would be permitted to stay in office if they were willing to give a full account of their racism, they would have the space necessary to actually, honestly, confess and repent.

The absolution in our liturgy always comes after the confession of sin, it’s true, but if every Sunday is a little Easter then the confession is only made possible in light of the mercy made known to us already in Christ and him crucified.

The Law, Paul says, not only accuses us but exhortations from the Law elicit the opposite of their intent.

Thus, call-outs in our culture, as appropriate and righteous as they are will only exacerbate racism not eliminate it.

Amnesty Mercy is what we need.

Mercy is what all of us need.

To be a Virginian is to be acquainted with the disease of racism. Not just acquainted, afflicted. To be a White Virginian is to have inherited the legacy of slavery like a gene, to have been born into it like, well, like sin. To be a White Virginian is to have a particular version of Psalm 51 to pray, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a racist when my mother conceived me.”

In Virginia our racism is so pervasive and thorough that the only way through it is to seek and swallow the good but grueling declaration “your sins are forgiven.”

The alternative, shame, is too much to bear.

And, as a future post about post-apartheid South Africa will suggest, I really believe it is only in the context of unmerited forgiveness that we can truly know our sin, have the space to face it honestly, and repent.

Maybe that way we could one day say “To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side is, by the grace of God, to be acquainted with both the sin of racism and the joy of reconciliation.”

You know a denomination is in trouble when they dispense press credentials to a podcast where “without stained glass language” is a disclaimer about blue humor as much as it is an aspiration for plain talk. Regardless, the posse at Crackers and Grape Juice will be your correspondents at the UMC’s SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE (my name for it) in St. Louis at the end of the month.

Thanks to the United Methodist Church, sex hasn’t been this uninteresting since 7th grade Health Class.

What it doesn’t have in titillation, it does have in waste— the SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE will cost the United Methodist Church approximately $11 MILLION DOLLARS. That’s right, $11 MILL. I’d honestly rather spend that to build a little patch of steel slats somewhere down south. Not really, but I hope you get my drift. And for the record— yes, I’m aware that as a straight white guy and so I’ve got a privileged position from which I opine. Still, as someone who counts LGBTQ people and very conservative people among my friends, it does not cost $11 MILLION dollars to discover that people on both ends of this debate come to church for the same reasons.

This:

People need Jesus and his grace, straight or not straight.

The Church is an ER for sinners.

The Church is not a graduate program for do-gooders looking to learn how to straighten up and fly right.

And every ounce of air we spend talking about sexuality and numbered parapraphs in the Book of Discipline Bureaucracy is air we’re not using to tell prodigals that the fatted calf has been slain and the party’s already started.

For them.

Its not that I don’t think the authority of scripture, for example, is important or that amending the BOD isn’t a serious topic; it’s that neither is a local church’s raison d’etre.

A Global Methodist Conference on Sex Costing $11 Million Bucks…nevermind what I said above. Such a conference almost begs for a snarky, cynical theo-podcast to follow after it like TMZ muckrakers. The team at Crackers and Grape Juice— well, me and my minions— will be on hand at the colesium, up in the press box, to give you our play-by-play. Look for it here, at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, and our Facebook and Twitter pages.

In the meantime, I thought I’d try to offer something constructive:

My teacher, Nancy Duff, in her essay, How to Discuss Moral Issues Surrounding Homosexuality When You Know You Are Right, defers to the philosopher John Stuart Mill to explain why it is important for Christians to dialogue with Christians of differing views. Long after the $11 MILLION SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE is over, these are incredibly helpful reminders for Christians on every issue, especially in a culture choking on self-righteousness and caught in an endless loop of indictment and recrimination.

1. Mill reminds us that because we are fallible (Paul would say we’re all sinners, among us there is no distinction), if we ignore an opposing opinion we may in fact be ignoring the truth. 

2. Mill  points out that even if another’s opinion is in error, it may still contain a portion of the truth.

3. Lastly Mill reminds us even if we are entirely correct in our position that position risks becoming simple prejudice if we cease to be in conversation with those who would disagree with us.

So, as we begin our journey to the most expensive least exciting time spent on sex EVER remember that you are fallible (sinful) and that to ignore one of your peers may be ignoring truth that the Spirit is trying to speak to you. 

Remember that even if you think one of your peers is wrong, it’s not likely they’re absolutely wrong. Listen for what you think is true about their perspective. And do not forget that even if you have no intention of ever changing your mind on these issues, you owe your peers your conservation

The Alien Word

Jason Micheli —  February 4, 2019 — 2 Comments

James 1.18-25

True story— I heard it on NPR:

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

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

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

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

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

And he kept repeating it, louder and louder. 

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

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

But then—

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

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

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

According to Michael— 

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

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

The trespasser drank his wine. 

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

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

First Michael’s wife embraced him. 

Then his friend Christina embraced him. 

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

The Good News is better than that!

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

Not by faith alone. 

Through faith alone. 

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

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

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

Faith comes by what is heard. 

Not inside of you. 

Extra nos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith is a gift. 

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

You need Jesus Christ for both. 

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

This cacophony of anxious, angry chattering. 

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict over politics. 

Conflict over worship traditions. 

Conflict over leadership. 

Conflict over how they allocated their time and their resources. 

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

In gratitude. 

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

Faith in Jesus Christ

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

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

Faith in Jesus Christ is never not a miracle. 

And don’t forget—

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

Don’t forget—

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

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

Because the wine? It’s really good.

Jesus doesn’t do miracles in John’s Gospel. He does “SIGNS.” And his first sign is an abundance of choice wine for a bunch of party-goers who are on a three-day bender, probably yakking in the outhouse. And as an aside, do you think the disciples thought Mary was a drag 3rd-wheeling with them to the hoe-down in Cana?

This week Jason and Johanna talk about the importance and significance of Signs. Listen in as we work our way through the alphabet one stained glass word at a time.

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The Bottomless Glass

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2019 — 1 Comment

John 2.1-11

Were you all paying attention? 

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine for them to drink. 

Listen to the story again:

Jesus doesn’t just top off their glasses. Each of those stone jars held atleast 25 gallons of water. That’s 150 gallons. 

I did the math: 

4 quarts to a gallon

1 quart equals roughly 6 glasses

Giving you a minimum grandtotal = 2160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water.

I mean, unless Pat Vaughn is at your party that’s a prodigal amount of booze. 

And Jesus makes not 3 Buck Chuck, Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink. 

He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it. He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too far gone even to notice what he’s gone and done.As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten hammered, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re sloppy drunk.” 

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” 

Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And come morning— with the hangovers they’re going to have— you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it. They won’t remember what you’ve done. 

For them. 

It’s wasted on them, the maitre’d says to the bridegroom. 

Your gracious act, it’s wasted on them.

There’s more going on here than just a miracle. 

————————

In fact, the word miracle isn’t even the proper word to use about today’s Gospel text. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t do miracles. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, performs signs— only seven of them. Each of these seven signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s hour of glory. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is his humiliation when he’s hanging naked and accursed on the cross. 

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection: 

        • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day. 
        • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
        • Jesus calls his Mother Woman, which sounds like he’s backtalking his Mom until you remember the only other time he’ll similarly address his Mother: Woman, behold your Son. 
        • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All seven signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign— its intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law. Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you— he telegraphs it: “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus pitches his Temple tantrum, flipping off the moneychangers and hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. 

And Grace is not the Law. 

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the six stone water jars. 

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame. 

But it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. So if the abundance of wine signifies our salvation, these six stone water jugs signify our sin. 

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted seven days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests. 

This wedding is only on day three. They’ve got four more days to go. There’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon. 

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to fulfill their duty under the Law, which is to say their shame is deserved. Which is to say, they do not deserve what this other Bridgegroom, Jesus Christ, does for them. So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is what the Apostle Paul tells you. The Law (commandment-keeping, rule-following, morality, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes. It cannot make us righteous. 

“For God has done what the Law could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” 

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and morality— the Law—  “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter two that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter two he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law. He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these six stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then he tells them to fill the jars with it. To fill them to overflowing. 

Do you see? It’s a sign not a miracle. 

It’s meant to help you see— see that Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faithfulness.

When they draw out the wine-that-had-been-water, it’s not any of that Yellow Tail swill. It’s vintage, already aged, all from the very best year. And there’s an abundance of it.  It’s a sign not a miracle. You’re meant to see— see that out of the Law is drawn the Gospel of Grace, the wine of salvation. 

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood shed out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Here at Cana, he transforms what we do to make ourselves righteous before God into a sign of what God does to make us righteous.

Christ’s sign shows what Paul says. 

The Law— all the thou shalts and thou shalt nots in and out of the Bible (and scripture says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone but on every human heart, believer and unbeliever alike, so the Law also includes all the shoulds and musts and oughts we hear in our society and in the back of our heads)— all of it is the Law. 

And all of it is powerless to produce in us what it commands. 

That’s what you’re supposed to see in this sign.

The Law can charge us to give thanks, but it cannot make us grateful. 

The Law can exhort us to offer hospitality to the Other, but it cannot make us more hospitable. 

The Law can command us to love the stranger who is our neighbor as ourself, but it cannot make us loving. 

    ———————-

Fifty-five years ago Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-five days ago I took my son, Alexander, to the DMV in Lexington, Virginia to get his learner’s permit. 

We have a house in Lexington and the DMV there is small so I thought it’d be quicker than waiting all day at a DMV up here. 

Sure enough, we got there and our number was called in less than a minute. My wife Ali, who is an attorney mind you, had already made sure she sent us off with all the requisite documents per the DMV’s website. 

We stepped up to the counter when called and handed over the goods. AM talk radio was droning on in the office behind them. 

Sorting through the documents, the woman at the counter— without even looking up at us— announced: “There’s no birth certificate. He needs a birth certificate to get a learner’s permit. It’s the law.”

“He has a certificate of foreign birth,” I said, “the same as any kid born on a military base overseas. That certificate says he’s as American as you.” 

“I don’t think,” she said, still not looking at us, “I need birth certificate. It’s the law.”

“Not according to the DMV website,” I said. 

She looked up from her clipboard. She sighed like we were a colossal waste of her time. And with blank contempt on her face she said: “Well, if he wasn’t born here in America, then how’d he get into the country? Legally?”

“What?” I said. 

“I’m adopted,” Alexander replied, “from Guatemala.” 

I could tell from the epiphany that spread across his face that he was piecing together her insinuation. 

“Who are you?” she asked, looking at me.

“What?” I said again. “You’ve got my license and the application right in front of you. I’m his Father.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, sorting through the documents again like I was putting one over her. “I’m going to need to see your passport and birth certificate too.”

“You absolutely don’t need to see either of them. We’ve already given you more than your own website says you require.”

She sighed again: “Let me talk with my supervisor.” She walked to the other end of the counter, two stalls away, maybe ten feet. And I heard her say to her supervisor: “That’s the problem with letting them into the country. We’re so much busier now.” 

She came back to the counter and said to me: “We’re going to run this situation by our main office in Richmond. You’re free to wait here but it could take all day to hear back from them. It’s only right and proper,” she said, “that we make sure everything is according to the law.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. 

“You’ve been a complete waste of our time!”

Alexander didn’t get his permit, but turns out it didn’t take that long to get a response. Turns out when you’re a white guy with a large social media platform and you tweet at the DMV about a Civil Rights violation…turns out they call you back pretty quick.

Fifty-five years ago Martin Luther King preached about a dream, and fifty-five days ago my son tried to get his permit and failed not because of the contents on his clipboard but because of the color of his skin. 

I think we can measure the progress we’ve made on King’s dream by the fact that I’ve got more leeway to tell a story like that from the pulpit than does a preacher of color, Peter or Chenda for example. 

And sure, I have a different style. 

Maybe I told the story differently than the way they’d tell it. 

But, to be honest, if I had that DMV day everyday, or even once a year, I probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to begin this sermon with a silly Mr. Bean clip.

   ———————-

Jesus Christ died not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improveable. 

Jesus Christ died for a drunk world. 

That’s what this sign shows us: that if Jesus Christ makes the very best wine for drunk people to drink, then Jesus Christ in his hour of glory shed the wine of salvation, wasted the wine that is his blood, poured out himself— particularly so— for that prejudiced paperpusher at the DMV. 

That’s the promise we call Grace.  

And sure, it’s offensive. 

By defintion, grace only begins where and when you think it should end.

But grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. The message of Grace, the Bible says, is the power of God unto salvation. Grace alone has the power to produce in people what the Law commands of them. In other words, the way for that woman in the DMV to be made less prejudiced isn’t the Law. It isn’t by telling her that she ought to be less prejudiced. It isn’t by exhorting her that she should love her neighbor as herself. 

No— pay attention to the story: THE STONE JARS DON’T WORK.

The way for her to be changed (and the passive voice there is everything), the way for her to be transformed like so much useless water into topshelf wine, is to give her not the Law but to give her the Gospel of Grace and to give it to her over and over again, as long as it takes. 

The way for her to be changed is to give her the news that while she was yet a sinner, God in Jesus Christ became her neighbor and loved her as himself. 

Grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. It is, as the Bible says, God’s weapon in the world. 

And this is why, as your pastors, we may preach out of our stories differently from one another, but we will always proclaim the Gospel of Grace to you because the message of Grace is the power with which God has armed his Church. 

So as your pastor, I pledge that you will never leave here on a Sunday morning not having received the Gospel goods. I promise you’ll never go home not having heard the good news of Grace. 

But that’s not a guarrantee you’ll always leave here happy.

Or comfortable. 

We will always proclaim to you Christ’s punch-drunk love, but the bottomless glass of his Grace isn’t the whole story. 

The six hundred quarts of wine is not glad good news apart from you knowing about the six stone jars and the water that does not work. 

Grace is unintelligible apart from the Law. 

And what the Law does, Paul says— the Law accuses us. It exposes our sin. It reveals how far we fall short. 

So hearing the Law, even in the context of Grace, can make us uncomfortable and worse. 

It’s why Martin Luther said the Gospel is a promise that kills before it makes alive. 

You’ve got to swallow the bitter pill of the Law before you can taste the goodness that is the wine of grace. 

So I promise that you will always leave here having heard the Gospel of Grace, but you will not always leave here having been made happy or comfortable. And that’s okay. Because by your baptism, you’ve been given something better than comfort.

Notice in the story—

The bridegroom and his family who failed to do their duty under the Law, who deserve their shame. Not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves. The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance. They get the credit that is Christ’s credit alone.

You can hear about the unrightousness in our world. You can even hear abour your part in it, witting or unwitting. And you can do so unafraid and without anger. Because the Bridegroom who died for a drunk world— he has gifted you with his own righteousness. 

Are you paying attention? 

It’s what we say at every baptism. 

More importantly, it’s what was said at yours:

“Clothe her in Christ’s own righteousness, that dying and being raised with Christ she shares in his final victory.”

Nothing can threaten that so nothing should threaten you.

The credit of Christ’s permanent perfect record is yours by grace. 

You can be made uncomfortable some Sundays because what’s better even than comfort is the news that God has given you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit that Christ our Bridegroom deserves. 

As John shows us here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.” 

Or, as we say over a different barrel of water: “Remember your baptism, and be grateful.”

   

    

A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2019 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, which I never got to preach since snow shut us out. It’ll go in the locker for another time.

Luke 3.15-22

I realize this will come as something of a shock to many of you, but I can be an acquired taste for some people— like black coffee, dark beer, or the music of Coldplay. But, believe it or not, though I am an acquired taste, eventually (like hair on moles, like skin fungus, like the music of Coldplay) I grow on people. 

One such person with whom I went from skin fungus to simpatico is my friend CJ. Years ago CJ and her son came to a bluegrass Easter sunrise service where I was preaching. She loved the music, but she thought I came across as something I can’t say in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, this bottle of dark beer— this handsome, charming, witty, brilliant bottle of dark beer— convinced her to come back to church. And she did, and she kept coming back to church. And we became friends. 

Her initial assessment of me notwithstanding, CJ is a genius, a legit DoogieHowser type genius. She enrolled in Harvard as she was entering puberty. She’s got multiple degrees and juggles diverse careers. Her most recent— she does GoodWillHunting type stuff for the NSA, keeping us all safe with math I don’t understand. Last fall, at the end of the early service, she came up to me. With her arms crossed and wearing a wry smile, she said:

“You know, I used to be grateful for you. But now I’m not so sure.” 

“You didn’t like the sermon?” I asked, smiling back.

“Didn’t like the sermon?! I’m not sure I like any of your sermons NOW!”

“What do you mean?”

And then she told me what I had done to her. Or, as I prefer to think about it: what God and God’s Gospel had done to her.

“I had to reup my security clearances, same thing every few years. They sifted through all my bank statements and tax returns, interviewed all my old roommates, talked to my old boyfriends. It’s hairy harrowing stuff and all of it was FINE until I had to do the polygraph at the end. A polygraph— it should be a piece of cake, right?”

“Let me guess,” I guessed, “it wasn’t a piece of cake?”

“It was at first— until you messed it up.” Only, she didn’t say messed. She said something I can’t say here in the sanctuary. And then she punched me in the shoulder.

As I rubbed the bruise, she told me. 

“They started out asking me my name, address, job— piece of cake, just routine stuff. I rattled them off calmly, no problem.”

“But?”

“But then they asked me— get this— the guy asked me: “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

I could already fill in the blanks, but I played dumb: “What’s the problem?” 

“What’s the problem? What’s the problem?! The problem is that I said ‘yes’ and then they moved on to the other questions, yet even as I answered those questions I sat there with probes stuck to my temple and my chest and my fingers and I thought about you and your sermons and that question Do I consider myself a good person? and it hit me, like an epiphany, and I knew. I’d lied.” 

I didn’t say anything. It’s best to stay quiet when you’re creeping up on holiness.

“All my answers to all the other questions were off,” she said, “because I’d lied on that one question and I knew it. I failed the polygraph because of your preaching!? What do you have to say about that?!”

“Um…see you next Sunday?”

And she punched me in my other shoulder. 

———————-

The truth that revealed itself to my friend in the polygraph test is the same truth— the epiphany— disclosed to us in the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus dips his toes into the Jordan, John protests: 

“What are you doing Jesus?! I need to be baptized by you. I’m not even worthy to untie your sandals, Jesus (which was the job of a slave). I need to be baptized by you not you by me.”

All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire— a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them. You think Chenda’s a heavy preacher. John the Baptist wouldn’t last two Sundays here.

All four Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism.  In fact— pay attention now— the only two events mentioned across all four Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross. That’s because they’re connected.

The baptism by fire predicted here by John the Baptist is the fire of God’s judgment— judgment that falls, once for all, upon Jesus in our place on the cross. The water John plunges Jesus down into here at his baptism is the water that pours out from Jesus’ wounded side, baptizing us into his death. Just as Christ’s ministry begins here standing along the Jordan amidst sinners counted as a sinner, Christ’s work ends— it is finished— hanging amongst sinners, thieves, treated as a sinner just like them. 

And just as they heavens tear open here at his baptism, on his cross the temple veil is ripped (it’s very same word in Mark’s Gospel), torn in two, tearing heaven open to you and to me and making you, who once was a slave to Sin and Death— making you a beloved child of God.  All four of the Gospels tell us about the baptism of Jesus and the passion of Jesus. 

The two stories, they’re connected. Therefore, the meaning of the Gospel lies in that connection.

———————

Luke leaves out what Matthew tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions. Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?

The connection between his baptism and his cross, the epiphany to be discovered in today’s text, lies in John’s question: “Jesus, how can I baptize you? Jesus, you don’t need the baptism with which I baptize.”

  “How can I baptize you?”

It’s a good question. Maybe, it’s the most important question. You see— John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. For sin. And Jesus is without sin. He’s perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect. He’s the only one of us who doesn’t need John the Baptist’s baptism, yet he insists upon it. By objecting to baptizing Jesus, John distinguishes for us between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and our baptisms into Jesus Christ. 

Again, this is important so pay attention: 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT Christian baptism. 

If you miss this distinction, you’ll miss how these two stories, baptism and cross, are connected and if you miss this connection, you’ll miss the central claim of the Gospel promise. 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT the Christian baptism performed by God in his Church. John’s baptism was a work we do— a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy. John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness).

     The water was an outward visible sign of your inward admission of guilt. 

     But the water did not wash away your guilt. 

    John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. 

     But it could not make you righteous. 

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism— not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do. John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God. 

By being plunged down into John’s baptism, Jesus condescends—Jesus goes down into the very depths of our unrighteousness. As Martin Luther said:

At Christmas, Christ becomes our flesh but at his baptism he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. As the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians: “He who knew no sin becomes sin so that you and I could become the very righteousness of God.”

That’s the connection between the two texts, baptism and cross. And it’s why they’re the only two texts all four Gospels give you. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with sinners beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with every sin all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism— the baptism of his death and resurrection— we may be made what the former baptism could never make us.  

Righteous.

As the Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

At Christmas, he takes on our flesh. 

Here at the Jordan River, he takes on the curse; so that, the curse hanging over us is carried in him unto the cross.  And there, by the baptism of his once-for-all death for sin, he completes the joyful carol we sang at his nativity. He makes his blessing known as far as the curse is found— the gift of his own righteousness, his own permanent perfect record. 

As Paul writes to the Colossians: “You who once were estranged from and hostile to God Christ has reconciled to God in his body through his death, so as to present you to God as holy, blameless, and irreproachable.”

   ——————-

 “All your CrossFit sessions really work,” I said to CJ, rubbing the burgeoning bruise in my other shoulder.  

“Sorry I keep hitting you” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, “they don’t warn you in seminary but working with church people is a contact sport most days.”

“It just goes to show,” she said, getting serious, “how secular, how post-Christian, unChristian, anti-Christian is our culture that a question like “Do you consider yourself a good person?” isn’t considered in any way a problematic way of putting the question.”

And I couldn’t help but smile at the number this dark bottle of beer, yours truly, had done on her with God’s Gospel help. 

“Look, I get it,” she said, “Most people— cognitive dissonance and all— probably do think they’re basically good people, but Christians at least— at the VERY LEAST— should understand that as soon as you’re considering yourself a good person you’re no longer speaking Christian.”

She didn’t say so and probably she wouldn’t put it like this, but the confusion is a confusion between these two baptisms, Jesus’ by John in the Jordan and ours by God into Jesus. 

     John’s baptism was a work we do— we’re the active agents in John’s baptism. 

    John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism is a work God does. 

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism incoporates us into the work God has already done to pardon us. 

     Once. 

     For all. 

     For everything you’ve done and everything you’ve left undone.  

     Our baptism is not an act of repentance.

Our baptism incorporates us into Christ’s act of redemption by which God declares you (though a sinner you are and a sinner you remain) his beloved son…his beloved daughter… to whom heaven will always be open not because you’re good but because he is gracious. 

It’s John’s kind of baptism— the work that we do— that misleads us into thinking that we’re basically good people because, according to the rules of John’s Old Age— and that’s what scripture calls it, the Old Age (even though most of us insist on living there still)— you and I have to be good. 

Perfect even.  As perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect— perfection, according to the rules of the Old Age under the Law, is actually the expectation. Yet the Law came with Moses, the Gospel promises, but Grace has come with Jesus Christ and in Christ the perfect righteousness required of us has been fulfilled by his own faithfulness for us.

In other words, our baptism into Christ—the work of God and his grace— frees us to admit that we’re worse than good. Those of us who are baptized into Christ— we should be the freest to admit our brokeness, to be vulnerable about our sinfulness, to be authentically imperfect. 

Baptized Christians should be the least defensive people.

I mean— I don’t know what newspaper you read, but the world could certainly use Christians who are quicker to confess their own sins rather than castigate others for theirs.

John’s baptism leaves you in your sin. 

And left in your sin, you’ll either refuse to admit the truth about yourself or you’ll be anxious about whether or not God will forgive you. But your baptism is not John’s baptism. By your baptism you are not in your sin— though a sinner you are— because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.  That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism. In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. 

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says. Your sin and your old self— it’s left behind, Paul says. Buried with him in his death, Paul says. Your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.  And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his perfect record. Permanently. 

No take-backs. No do-overs. No need ever to earn or deserve it. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

Notice—

The Gospel of Grace is not God loves you just as you are and accepts you just as you are.

No, that’s liberal sentimentality.

The Gospel of Grace is that God the Father loves Jesus Christ the Son.

And God loves and accepts you— just as you are— not because of who you are but because of where you are.

In Christ. 

By your baptism, you are in him.

He is your new you. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

And if you add anything to it at all, a single footnote or condition (especially a qualifier like “I’m basically a good person”) you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens. 

Grace can only begin where you (and all your pretensions) end. 

Put it this way— 

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own by our own initiative. I’m going to be more grateful today— go ahead and try it; it won’t work— the Bible tells me so (Romans 7). It just turns gratitude into another Law.

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own. 

Gratitude is the spontaneous response elicited in us by a message that comes from outside of us, by something surprising and undeserved that has been done by another for us. 

Christianly speaking, what has been done for us in Jesus Christ has no content apart from the why: what it is about us such that it had to be done for us. In other words, Christianly speaking, people who insist that they’re good, people who refuse to live into the freedom that their baptisms gives them, the freedom to be honest about their own sin or the societal sins they’re complicit in, such people can never be grateful. 

And without gratitude you cannot be a gracious, grace-giving person. 

Gratitude can only begin where you end. 

Of course, I’m not saying anything here we don’t already say with bread and wine. This Table of Thanksgiving— that’s what the word Eucharist means— is also at the same time a table for traitors. To deny or ignore the latter is to foreclose the former from you.

Don’t take my word for it. 

Check out the first two questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer:

That I am not my own but I belong by baptism—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful savior and substitute Jesus Christ.

Question 2:

What must I know to live and die in this comfort?

Answer :

1. The greatness of my sin.

2. How I’ve been forgiven and set free from all of them.

3. The gratitude that comes from such a redemption.

———————-

I followed up with CJ later, over black coffee. 

“Do I consider myself a good person?” she dwelled on the polygraph question like it was a missing button on her blouse. 

“The trouble is— it’s a lie detector test, right? You can only give Yes or No responses. How am I supposed to respond when the answer is ‘No, but…’?”

“No, but?” I asked.

“Yeah, no, but: ‘No, I’m not a good person, but at once and the same time, I’m something better than good. I’m righteous.’”

“If you really want to mess with him,” I said, “you could just say that ‘I’ve been baptized.’”

 

 

While We Were Yet Naughty

Jason Micheli —  December 26, 2018 — 1 Comment

Christmas EveGalatians 4.47

The Etta James at the end of the sermon got cut off from the audio, but we got the rest…

Due to the #metoo movement, this year everyone has been up in arms about the Christmas standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I get it. 

Though, I’m not so sure— as Christians, that that is the song that should bother us. As Christians. We listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants. 

I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine— a voice so manly it practically comes with chest hair— disc jockeying was a natural part-time job to which I was the only applicant. I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home. 

     In my apartment. 

Every last album.

     ‘Every’ except Journey and Kenny Loggins. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people, but maybe— maybe on a night celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, maybe Kenny Loggins is exactly who we should be talking about?!

I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. My wife Ali and I first kissed to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’

     You have be on the hopeless downward slope of 40 to know how much that’s a cliche.

Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’

     I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than the Washington Redskins have holes in their starting lineup.

     We love music in my house. 

     We love Christmas carols too.

     We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year. 

     My boys and I— our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ 

     Favorite because it drives Ali crazy— nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.

     Seriously, nothing fills Ali’s eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song. 

     Now, I know what some of you might be thinking— compared to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” what’s the matter with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?” 

     I mean— what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?

     If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be the true miracle of Christmas. 

And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little consumers but— don’t mishear me— I love Santa.

I do— in fact, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith.

     So I’ve always loved Santa Claus.

     Until…

     Until one day— this was a couple of years ago. 

     We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. 

     And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, my son Gabriel said— to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about?’ I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa if  we’re good.’

IF.

     ———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

I know it sounds like I’m just being silly, but I’m not. 

I’m not. 

For goodnesssake, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace. 

Our cultural myths and holiday songs are just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions. 

     Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian myth wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children. 

     Gifts if you’ve been good. 

     A terrifying demonic goat creature if you’ve been naughty. 

     Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.” 

     In Holland, according to a Dutch myth, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat, accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men— I’m not making this up.

     Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends. 

     I’m no expert, but I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.

Nonetheless, in Holland, Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine. 

     In any case, it gets worse— Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad, then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men… don’t spare the rod…and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and abscond away with him. 

     Gifts if you’ve been good. 

     Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad. 

     That sounds amazingly like grace. 

     It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shame you by asking you to raise your hands if you’ve bought one (Pat Vaughn). 

     According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, watching and judging and keeping score of your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick. 

     It’s like St. John says in the Gospel: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…

———————-

     You better watch out, Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf- it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the other 364 days of the year. 

     The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus and songs like “Santa Claus is Coming” are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe. 

The balance sheet of everything you’ve wrought wrong in your life has been reckoned right— not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace— but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church. 

  Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup, the word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.

God forgives all your sins but first you must have faith. 

     That’s not a promise. 

     That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.

     How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice, if/then conditionality— it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat. 

No wonder people don’t like coming to church. 

We offer them an unconditional promise with one hand, and then we take it away with the other hand.

If you repent…then God will love you. 

If you believe…then God will have mercy on you. 

If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you. 

     And if you don’t? 

     Krampus. 

———————-

     “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots. 

     You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness. 

     I’m only half-joking.

     In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, drug addiction, war, health insurance companies, Daniel Snyder, or Verizon wireless.

     No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it— until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and an unconditional promise called Gospel that is all conditions and obligations. 

      If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise. 

     But I’m not joking—

I do know— getting us to believe that God’s grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work. 

     Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. 

“If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”  

     Boom. 

     We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert. 

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.

     It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.

     It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave— tonight and on a Friday afternoon—- his only begotten Son…’

     This can be your Christmas gift to me:

When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan. 

There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached. 

     There’s just the unconditional promise that- 

Yes, you’ve been naughty. 

No, you’ve not been nice. 

No matter, all the naughty marks on your list have been wiped clean.

     “You better watch out?” 

No—because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock. 

     The gift of God given to you tonight and completed on Golgotha, the gift of God given to you in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness— upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.

     By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift. 

     The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness. 

     Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it. 

     By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one. 

     In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives in Jesus Christ, the complete forgiveness of all your sins— as far as the curse is found— the gift of Christ’s own permanent perfect record reckoned to you as your own— like every other gift underneath your tree tonight, this gift is true. 

For you.  

Whether you ever open it or not. 

     The gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good. 

———————-

        For goodness sake, this is important to remember— pay attention now— because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better. 

Most people think that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life and that the Church is here to help you become good. 

     Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many. 

     You don’t need the Church to become a better you. 

Joel Osteen can make you a better you. 

Soul Cycle can make you a better you. 

Your New Year’s resolutions can make you…no, they won’t. 

     You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel— to be saved. 

     Your therapist can repair your life, but your therapist cannot redeem you.

     Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that.

     The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process).

     We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we’re here, as Paul’s Letter to the Galatians puts it, to hear that we’ve been rescued from our inability to be good: 

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the commandments, in order to redeem those who were under the commandments…”

And speaking of Galatians— just as an aside, I chose this passage tonight because I know there’s a lot of you grown-ups out there who basically think of our Christmas story (with the wise men and the angels and the virgin birth) as just another myth, like Krampus. 

I know there’s plenty of you who think the nativity story is just another myth added to the Jesus story later. 

But tonight’s passage from Galatians shows you that you can tell the Christmas story without the magi or the shepherds or the inn with no room. 

Indeed Christians were telling the story that way from the very beginning. 

Tonight’s passage from Galatians is dated by historians to less than a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion, making it almost 100 years older than Luke’s Christmas story— riddle that. 

Combine that with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death. 

Take all those facts together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of the Christ child born tonight.

This isn’t a children’s pageant. 

We’re not messing around. It’s not a myth. 

Christmas is not Krampus. 

We’re not here tonight because it’s an uplifting, sentimental story.

We’re here because it’s true.

The Apostle Paul was encountered by Mary’s crucified Son risen from the dead, and according to the message given to the Apostle Paul by the Risen Christ, what you and I need- isn’t a life coach. 

We don’t need a teacher or an example, an idea or an inspiration.

We need a savior. 

     Even if it’s what you came here looking for tonight, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of St. Paul, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together. 

Not one of us— there is no distinction, scripture says. 

None of us can get our act together— not one.

     That’s why the Apostle Paul and the angel Gabriel describe Christmas as a one-sided, God-sided offensive invasion of our present evil age. God comes to us when we would never come to him, first in a creche and then on a cross. 

The cultural myths get it backwards:

God comes to help those who cannot help themselves.

The Christmas Gospel according to St. Paul is that our salvation is not found within us. 

That’s why the Bible’s language is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! 

     The language the Bible uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been rescued! 

     Christ is not born to Mary to show us the way to a holy God. 

     Christ comes to be the way to God. 

As St. Paul says: 

“God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might have the righteousness of God.” 

He’s taken our naughty list onto himself, once for all. 

And his permanent perfect record has been reckoned to you as your own. 

And all this is yours by grace. 

Gift. 

And it’s not a cheap gift. 

It’s not even an expensive gift. 

It’s free. 

It’s free. 

     No matter what your life looks like, whether you think deserve coal or a Krampus,  how good or bad you, what you’ve done with your life or what you’ve left undone with those in your life. 

His goodness is yours. 

By grace. 

     ———————-

     

So it’s too late this year, but next Christmas— just a piece of advice—

     If you put your kids on Santa’s lap next season: 

     Stand your ground. 

     Convince old St. Nick to fess up and tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong. He’s not like Sting, watching every move they make, and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows those kids are sinners like him. 

     And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.

     And next year tell that little Judas on your shelf to pack it in early. 

     When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little whistle-blowing rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so— like Christ crushing the head of the serpent— you interceded for them. 

     And you tell them you found that elf a job as acting secretary at one of the many vacancies in the Trump administration. Tell them you sent that elf packing for DC because you love them and the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness. 

The gift of Christmas it’s yours regardless of your goodness. 

It’s yours. 

Gratis.

And next year—

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9…

     You could use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Enemy and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Prince of Darkness will hear it and come for them. 

Or you could just play them a different song, one not obviously about magi or mistletoe, but one that is absolutely about Christmas because it’s about no-matter-what, while-you-were-yet-naughty, blindsiding, one-way love that we call grace.

At last my love has come along

My lonely days are over and life is like a song, oh yeah

At last the skies above are blue…

     

     

Not Empty Away Forever

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2018 — Leave a comment

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 35.1-10

     I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from my previous congregation, in a poor community near the mountains called Chicutama. 

     I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home for Christmas. 

     Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. 

     And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be snap-chatting and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too. 

     While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear. 

     It was a one-room home, paid for by a relative who worked illegally here in the states. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. 

     In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic. 

     Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor. 

     The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old boy named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their sister- were sitting on the bed. 

     Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and they looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and mites in his hair and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. 

     They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos, and soda in a baby bottle.

     Because that was the only thing they had to eat. 

     Because junk food is cheap. 

     And clean water is not and thatʼs all they could afford. 

I know it’s lame. 

In my pride, I was determined to take a picture of them— determined to take a picture of high and mighty do-gooding me with them. Because what says I’m better at putting Christ back into Christmas than you than a Facebook profile picture of you with some poor Save the Children children? 

I was virtue-signaling before our President made it trendy.

I’d been blind to it. I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t noticed the calendar that hung in their cinder block wall above the bed— not until I turned my back to the children and pulled out my iPhone and stretched out my arm to take a selfie of the four of us. 

I’d been blind, but then I saw. 

Staring back at me from the glass screen of my shiny new phone. 

The calendar on the wall— it was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The straw in his manger looked gilded, and in his tiny right hand he held a cross no bigger than a baton. 

At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse from the prophet Isaiah:

“Be strong; do not fear! Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

      I looked at their reflection on the screen of my iPhone, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. 

      I looked at them there with the baby Jesus hanging above them on the wall along with the prophet Isaiah’s words in gilded italics as though to say to someone like me that Jesus Christ had come for them.  And them only. 

      ———————-

     Staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose whilst I wondered what altruistic-Instagram picture I’d post of myself when I retuned home, it finally scattered all the ways I’d always imagined this season and its story. 

Looking at those three little children with Isaiah’s promise above their heads, it struck me: when I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men. 

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful. If I have a place in this story— let’s be honest— my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.  Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.  I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father. Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news. 

    But what I realized that Advent years ago is thatʼs not my place in the story. 

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire. 

     Iʼm well-off. Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. 

     I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that plenty would call a palace. 

     Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day. In other words, I’m not the poor who hungers for good news. I’m not. I’m not the captive who cries for liberty. I’m not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, but no thank you).

     That Advent in Guatemala- 

     That’s when the truth stung me:  Iʼm not sure I like my place in the Christmas story. 

————————

     According to the prophet Isaiah- 

     Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me. 

     As the Messiah’s mother sings: 

      “He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats; and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

     I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but that’s most of us. Just by virtue of living in the Empire Called America, that’s you and me. 

We’re rich. 

     Just listen again to today’s text: 

The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone. 

        Today’s text actually begins in chapter 34 where the prophet Isaiah says: 

“The Lord is enraged…he has doomed the greedy and faithless nations. The Lord has a sword to be sated with blood…and a coming day of vengeance.”

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

    I mean you have to give King Herod credit. 

     Herod was not stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. 

         Herod knew enough of his Bible to know the prophet Isaiah had promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides: 

With those on margins.  

With the people working the night shift.

And with those working out in the fields.

With those stuck in detention centers (and those who die in them.)

    For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire— the coming of Christ was bad news not good news. 

     And they were smart enough to know it. 

John the Baptist riffs on Isaiah’s image of the Highway that the coming God will clear for God’s put-upon People.  He riffs on it right before he condemns the likes of us as a brood of vipers and warns us, in our affluent indifference, to flee from the fire of Christ’s coming wrath. 

Maybe we should think twice before moralizing about putting Christ back into Christmas. Maybe we should be careful what we wish for.

Here is your God. 

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. 

     Show of hands— how many of you put that on your Christmas cards this year?

Every year, just like King Herod, we try to do away with Jesus— not by the sword but with sentimentality. 

    I wonder if it’s because we don’t know how the Christmas story can be good news for people like us.  

If it’s good news of great joy for people like Isaiah and Mary, John the Baptist and shepherds, then how is it good news for rich people like us? 

————————

Remember—

The word our Lord gives to the angel to announce is that the invasion of Christ into the world is good news of great joy not for some people. 

Not good news of great joy for the poor alone. 

Not good news of great joy for the oppressed exclusively. 

Not good news of great joy just for the humble or the hungry. 

The word God gives Gabriel to deliver is that the arrival of Christ among us is good news of great joy for all the people. 

Pas. 

All the people.

So, if Isaiah is right and Mary is right and John the Baptist is right, then how is the angel Gabriel right too? 

How is Christmas good news for rich, proud, powerful people like most of us?

  ————————

A few years ago the New York Times did a story about a black pastor named William James in East Harlem. The pastor, the article noted, was famous in his community for his work on behalf of the destitute and the downtrodden. The author of the article writes:

“The streets of the neighborhood are lined with storefront churches, as many as five on a block, and some of the ministers said it was difficult to get across the Christmas message of hope, joy, and celebration to those who have so little. But Reverend James disagrees. ‘The Christmas message,’ he said, ‘the good news to the poor, is that ‘you’re not going to be poor anymore.’ ‘That message is a lot easier,’ the pastor said, ‘than trying to get across the Christmas message to the rich that they’re not going to be selfish anymore.’

Notice what the pastor didn’t say to the Times reporter. 

He didn’t say the Christmas message to the rich is “You shouldn’t be selfish anymore.” He didn’t say: “Empty your pockets, or else. Make yourself low lest you who are first be lost forever.” He didn’t even say: “Sinner, repent of your selfishness.” 

He just said: “You’re not going to be selfish anymore.”

You’re not going to be like that anymore. 

As though, it’s not up to us what will be done to us. 

As though, you are at best a bystander to what will be done upon you. 

For you.

What is promised by God through the prophet Isaiah, what prompts the God-bearer Mary to sing— it’s not simply a rearranging of the old order of things, with the poor and the rich changing stations in the old creation. 

The Gospel is bigger and more radical than shuffling up tax brackets. 

What the prophets promise and what Mary extols is God’s work of a New Creation begun in a New Adam born to another Eve. That’s why the angel Gabriel is the one to announce the news. Gabriel is the one who showed the First Adam and Eve the exit from Eden and stood guard by the entrance. Now, at the opening of a new testament, he announces the news of a new creation through a New Adam.

What the prophets promise and Mary praises is not condemnation for some (the rich and the powerful) and consolation for others (the poor and the powerless). 

It’s not condemnation for some but consolation for others; it’s the transformation of all. 

Just as God did at the Tower of Babel, the scattering of the proud and the powerful from their high places— the emptying of the rich— it is for their blessing. It is the work of God’s grace.

That’s what the prophet Isaiah is getting at in our passage from chapter 35 today. 

Just as the desert will one day no longer be dry, just as the wilderness shall blossom and thirsty ground will become springs of water, so too the proud will become humble and the mighty will lie down with lambs and the rich will be made selfish no more. 

The coming of God’s justice in Jesus Christ who is our Judge is not for the sake of revenge. It’s for the sake of the righteousness of God.  

 ————————

The prophet Isaiah’s poetry is unparalleled in scripture, maybe in all of literature. 

Luke and Matthew have written us luminous nativity stories with which we love to costume our kids, yet neither the Christmas stories nor the prophets’ poetry are self-interpreting. 

The meaning of Isaiah’s prophecies, the meaning of Luke’s nativity— it’s not self-evident in the poetry and stories themselves. 

The creche by itself does not communicate the meaning of the Christmas manger. 

And without the meaning of it, we’re just like the ladies in the hoop skirts at Mt. Vernon. 

We’re just dressing up and rehearsing an old, old story once a year. 

That’s why, historically, every Advent the church listens not only to the prophets and to Mary and John but to the Apostle Paul as well. 

In other words, we need the Apostle Paul to tell us what the poetry and story mean. 

And when Paul gathers up these images from the prophets, from Mary and John the Baptist— Paul announces that in the coming of Jesus Christ the righteousness of God has been revealed. 

I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy, for in it the righteousness of God is invading, Paul says. 

The free gift given in Christ Jesus to all is for the sake of God’s righteousness for all, Paul says. Even for the ungodly.

Justification— the righteousness of God— that’s what’s missing when we reduce the Gospel to a cliche like “God is love” or to a cliff note like “Christianity is about forgiveness.” 

God is love and Christianity is about forgiveness, but love and forgiveness are too weak of words for what God does. 

For St. Paul, and for Isaiah for that matter, the righteousness of God is absolutely central to their message, but it’s easy for us to miss the radicality of it. 

I’ve told you all this before but Pat Vaughn swears you weren’t paying attention. 

So, listen up: in Hebrew and in Greek, righteousness and justice and judgment and justification and rectification are all the same word. 

Dikaiosoune.

It’s all the same word, and it functions as a verb.

God’s judgment is God’s justice, and God’s justice is God’s righteousness and God’s righteousness is God’s justification— it’s all God’s rectification; it’s all God’s work of right-making. 

So when we profess in the Apostles’ Creed about Christ coming again “…to judge the quick and the dead…” we’re saying that he will come again to rectify not only the wrong in us but the wrong we have wrought in the world. 

And when Paul declares: I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, he’s saying I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the right-making work of God is revealed. 

And when Paul preaches that we are justified by the free gift of the blood of Christ through faith alone, he’s saying that Almighty God is able to do mighty acts to make right in and through the one who trusts in the cross of Christ alone. 

You see— the Gospel is about more than love and forgiveness. 

God has forgiven all your sins, yes. 

God loves you just as you are, double true. 

But the God who comes among us as we are, who loves you as you are— he loves you too much to leave you as you are.  He loves you too much to leave you forgiven and forgiven alone. Thanks be to God that God loves me as I am, but, God, I don’t want to remain as I am— my wife certainly doesn’t want God to leave me as I am.

I don’t want to be selfish anymore! 

The righteousness of God— that’s the meaning behind the manger. 

The God who already declared you righteous at your baptism is yet at work to make you what he has by grace called you. 

God has been and God is and God will make right all that is wrong in his creation until all things are made new and one day even ungodly people like you and me are remade in the image of the New Adam, Jesus Christ. 

That’s what that pastor in Harlem was getting at— the hope of the rich is not the rich person’s capacity to humble himself and make himself unselfish. 

His only hope— our only hope— is that the God who justifies us will also one day rectify us. Make us right.  And not only us…the wilderness and the dry land, the streams and the desert.  All of creation. 

For people like us, our hope— our only hope— is not that we will make ourselves humble and unselfish because someone exhorted us: Be more like Mary! 

Our hope is that the God who invaded our world by an incarnation is a God who is advancing even now, determined not to let me have my own way forever. 

God is at work— in the church. 

God is at work, opening our blind affluent eyes to the need around us. 

God is at work, unstopping our deaf ears to the cries of the oppressed. 

God is at work, loosening the paralyzing grip greed has upon…me at least.

 ————————

That Advent in Guatemala, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us. 

     These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich. These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states or are being held in detention centers. 

     And there I was. Neither poor nor oppressed, already filled with good things. 

         Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. Out of her poverty, she gave me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn. Then she embraced me and she said into my ear: “Merry Christmas.” 

I opened the tapestry and looked at it.

She’d stitched the words to Mary’s song on it, including that last line about the rich being sent empty away. The tapestry shook in my hands. My knees suddenly felt feeble. 

Like I’d just been swept off my throne. 

A friend griped at me recently that my preaching on grace alone was “peddling afterlife insurance” rather than “preaching what Jesus preached.” 

Let’s set aside for a moment the latter clause and ignore that Jesus preached what Jesus preached because Jesus was— is— Jesus. And you, dear friend, are manifestly not Jesus. On the other side of Good Friday, Jesus was just another first century rabbi, teaching teachings that were not all that novel. What makes Jesus’ teachings unique and worth our attention is that God vindicated them by raising the teacher of them from the dead. Therein lies the rub.

What makes Jesus’ teachings compelling, cross and resurrection, is the very event that requires us not to preach— at least not primarily so— what Jesus preached but to preach Jesus.

To preach about Jesus. The word that ignited the early church was what the Apostle Paul calls the “word of the cross.” The task of the preacher— and, by your baptism, you’re all preachers— is to proclaim not what Jesus did as teacher but what God did with that teacher:

Made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. 

Raised him from the grave for our justification. 

The Gospel, by defintion, is the announcement of news. It’s not news if it’s directions about what you ought to do. It’s news only when it’s the proclamation of what the Father has done in the Son and is doing now through their Spirit.

Back to the former clause in the accusation, the one about peddling afterlife insurance. 

First—

Go back and read the Gospels straight through from front to back. I dare you. Better yet, just choose one Gospel— John, say— and read it. Actually read the damn thing. 

If you’re coming from a mainline Protestant tradition where the accepted wisdom is that Jesus was concerned with bringing the Kingdo to the here-and-now, showing solidarity with________, and standing up to empire and its oppressions and “those other Christians” (ie Catholics and/or Evangelicals) have ruined it all with cross talk and obsessions with heaven, then you’re likely going to be surprised. 

Jesus talks about his death for sins literally all the time. 

From the get go.

As both Karl Barth and Robert Capon point out, every parable he tells is about it.

If Jesus was really about bringing salvation in its “healing” varietal (a popular stress point in the mainline), then he was a crappy doctor indeed to the poor bastard on the mat.

“Your sins are forgiven.”

Likewise, if the feeding of the 5,000 was really about Jesus showing solidarity to the poor and the hungry and standing up against the oppresive economics of empire, then no one appears to have told Jesus that was what he was supposed to be up to. As soon as he begrudingly feeds the crowd, he’s back to talking about himself (again):

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

We’re lucky Jesus doesn’t shout ‘Get behind me, Satan’ to all of us too.

In our determination to have any other Jesus but the one who dies for sinners, we’re no different than Peter.

But is it afterlife insurance, preaching about what God has done by grace through this Jesus who died for our sins and was raised for our justification? Is it a pie-in-the-sky promise that neglects to change the here-and-now? It’s interesting that the early Christians, comforted as they were by the promise that they were safe in Christ’s death for them are the same Christians who built the first hospitals and, for that matter, changed the character of an empire. Look, like any good mainline liberal, I used to hate questions like: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?” I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers. I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

But something is missing in all of our “Blessed to be a blessing” and “We have been changed to bring change” sloganeering. 

The agency of God. 

All our urgent talk about changing the world for God ignores— or, has forgotten— how the God we claim to believe in brings change. 

It’s fine for us to think of ourselves as his hands and feet in the world but not if it’s at the cost of forgetting that he doesn’t need our hands and feet to be at work in the world.

It’s not proclamation is ancillary to the real work of change in the world. The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us. The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did. The Gospel is what God does. 

Is the proclamation of the Gospel the only means by which the Living God works change in our world? Certainly not— the Spirit blows where it will and Jesus is Lord. 

But the proclamation of the Gospel is the particular means of change God has bestowed upon his particular people called Church.

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

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel of grace alone is the means by which the Living God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient. 

In other words— and, after sitting through a hortatory-heavy community Thanksgiving service (“Be grateful!!!”), this is evidently a forgotten bit of Christian wisdom: 

You cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. 

Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect. Thus, we’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus. I left the Thanksgiving service feeling less grateful than when I entered it.

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

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

To put it in churchy terms, our sanctification does not come by being told that we need become sanctified. Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves. Period. 

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

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful. The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it. That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free for freedom from him even.

This Gospel- admittedly, it’s odd. 

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive. 

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible. 

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural. Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. What we think Jesus is saying about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25– that’s fair. There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy. No wonder we, like the Galatians, trade it out constantly for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts. 

The Law which tells us that the Gospel of grace must be a hustle to get suckers to buy bunk real estate in the great bye-and-bye.

Only by faith do you know the opposite to be true. 

We’re not peddling the promise of heaven. 

Rather the promise of grace, by way of him who is the Kingdom of Heaven, is the only word that frees us for our neighbor in the here-and-now.

Nude Faith

Jason Micheli —  November 12, 2018 — 1 Comment

Galatians 3

He’s a lumbering giant of a man.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’d been an infantryman in the war. 

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

Jim said: 

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

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

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

And notice—

Jim used the language of confession and sin. 

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

No, he offered him absolution. 

He offered him the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You— you can’t do that.” 

He whispered to me. 

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

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

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

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

He said:

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The burden is back on you. 

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

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

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

But the Gospel—

The unconditional promise that you are justified. 

You are in the right with God. 

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

In Christ alone. 

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

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

Faith alone. 

Nude faith.

Trust and nothing else. 

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

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

Alone. 

Who could believe that?

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

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

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

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

Christ + Anything Else at All = Nothing at All.

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

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

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

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

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

It would take a miracle to believe it. 

———————-

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

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

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

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

In other words—

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

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

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

They experienced the Holy Spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

I know what some of you are thinking: 

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

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

It’s odd. 

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

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

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

How could there be nothing to do?

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

HOW COULD THERE BE NOTHING FOR YOU TO DO?!

YOU HAVE ONE VERY BIG THING TO DO!

Bear witness. 

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

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

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

This one thing—

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

It’s odd. 

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

That is—

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

 

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

It’s the one thing.

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

And then He breathes his Holy Spirit out upon them. 

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

 

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

He said and paused, before adding through his tears: 

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

———————-

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

. 

Addison Hart joins the podcast to talk about his latest book, ‘The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary’.

https://www.amazon.com/Letter-James-Pastoral-Commentary/dp/1532650140

From the back cover: The Letter of James is perhaps needed more than ever today. In this commentary, Hart argues that the epistle is indeed the work of James of Jerusalem, “the brother of the Lord,” that it was an encyclical letter, and that its chief concern was to combat a distorted version of Paul’s gospel. It is a work with a singular purpose: to bring the churches back to the most basic teachings of Jesus. In its defense of orthopraxy as the primary Christian standard, its denunciation of those with wealth who exploit or neglect the poor, its hard words for those who have taken on the mantel of “teacher” without first learning to restrain their tongues, and above all its exhortation to relearn the truth that “faith without works [of love] is dead,” James could be talking to churches in our own time. This commentary presents James afresh, as a living guide with a perennial message for those who seek to follow Jesus. It is pastoral in intent, written for those who teach and preach, those who desire a more authentic discipleship, and those who practice lectio divina—the meditative reading of Scripture.
_____________________
Addison Hodges Hart is a retired priest (of both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches, M.Div.), former college chaplain for Northern Illinois University, teacher, spiritual director, and former ecumenical/interfaith director (for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois). He is the author of six previous books, published by Eerdmans, the most recent being The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd: Finding Christ on the Buddha’s Path (2013), Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World (2014), and The Woman, the Hour, and the Garden: A Study of Imagery in the Gospel of John (2016). He currently lives with his wife in Norway, along with two Newfoundland dogs, a herd of cats, and some goats.

Here’s a letter I wrote to my congregation reflecting on tomorrow’s election:

Hi Friends,

This Sunday, we celebrated the feast of All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ Day is an ancient in the church. It was first celebrated around the 4th century in order to commemorate those who were martyred and died clinging to the promise of Jesus’ righteousness gifted to them at baptism as their hope to attain resurrection after death. Not only is God’s grace in Christ alone through faith alone alone sufficient for how God regards us, Paul says in our scripture for November, God’s grace is consequently the great leveler of all distictions we place around ourselves. To add to the Gospel is to anul the Gospel, Paul tells us in Galatians, including— he might caution us— modifiers like progressive and conservative, Republican or Democrat.

Christ has set us free for freedom from any of the obligations by which we might otherwise attempt to impress God or get a leg up on our neighbors. Grace, in other words, sets us free for our neighbor— to engage them simply as a fellow neighbor. 

And grace likewise sets you free to disagree on how best to help and serve your neighbor in the neighborhood we call America. 
 

If you’re like me, you’re getting bombarded from all sides by political messages. I don’t want this note to be counted among those. As your pastor, however, in a hyper divided partisan culture,  I thought it appropriate to help you think Christianly on the day before Election Day.

It’s hard to imagine 1st century Christians caught up in whether Nero or Britannicus was the better successor to the Emperor Claudius. I recognize how many of you have strong opinions about the current administration while others of you have strong opinions on the alternatives— realize Nero was the emperor under whom the first Christians worked out their faith. Nero was so awful a persecutor of the faith he inspired the Book of Revelation.

We may love America, but America’s politics is not the lever that turns the designs God has for this world; the promise of the Gospel of grace (for the ungodly), which scripture calls the power of God at work in the world, is the design God has for the world.
Paul goes in his letter to the Galatians to write about how the doctrine of grace forms the character of Christian community. Diversity of views in our congregation— it turns out according to Paul— is not an obstacle to be overcome but is itself a sign of the Gospel. As Paul tells a congregation every bit as heterogenous as you “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female, and neither is there Republican nor Democrat, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.”

I think it speaks to the power of the Gospel that yesterday in worship immigrants lit candles for saints alongside a Republican campaign manager.
I do not believe this diversity of views is to be lamented, for in a time when our culture is so Balkanized by labels and loyalties we are a community where those worldly distinctions can exist in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
 

If the Gospel creates communities where there is neither Republican nor Democrat, then to say we must be a community of only Republicans or only Democrats is to place party over Christ’s Lordship. Such a move is what the bible calls idolatry. The Gospel instead creates community that is a “fellowship of differents.” The Church is political in that it subverts the politics of the day by refusing the either/or dichotomy so often found in our politics. Indeed in such a partisan, divided culture I believe this is a gift AUMC can offer the wider world.
 

However you vote tomorrow, remember there’s a place for you in this community and a way to practice your faith. Frankly, I believe the mission of the Church is more important and too important to let (non-eternal) elections divide us and thus frustrate our effectiveness for Christ. As I mentioned in a recent sermon, it should give all of us pause in our political pride that the only democratic election in the New Testament is when we choose Barabbas over Christ. The election that truly matters, Paul says, is the one by which we are incorporated into Jesus Christ through baptism.

 

Faithful Christians cannot disagree about the politics of Jesus— care for the poor, vulnerable, and the common good; however, faithful Christians can disagree about the best means to achieve those ends. 
All of us fall short. Not one of us is righteous, which means, on both sides of the issues there will always be scripture that challenges us:
Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, commands us to care for the poor (Matthew 25).

Scripture also commands us “to honor and pray for the emperor” (1 Peter 2.17).

Remember, too, that when Peter issued that command he had in mind Nero–whom Revelation marks with the number 666.
Christians are called not simply to make the world a better place; Christians are called to be the better place God has already made in the world. In our time and place, I believe what it means for AUMC to be that better place is to be a place where all our differences about the kingdom we call America are transcended by the Kingdom to which we’re called in Christ.
I believe we are that better place God has already made in the world when we balance–in tension–those two scriptures, Matthew 25 and 1 Peter 2.

Grace and Peace.
Jason

Better Than Deserving

Jason Micheli —  November 4, 2018 — 1 Comment

We started a new series through Galatians for November. Here’s my sermon for All Saints Sunday on Galatians 1.3-9.

You could call him a saint, hang a halo around his head. 

He’s a hero of the faith— and isn’t that what we mean by that word we celebrate today? Saint, a champ of the faith. 

Maybe you saw the story. A little over 13 months ago, Albuquerque police officer Ryan Hollets responded to a routine call reporting a convenience story robbery.  As Officer Hollets later told journalists, he assumed it was a “mundane assignment I could quickly clear from the call log.” 

Officer Hollets dealt with the dispatch, exited the convenience store, and walked out into the parking lot to his squad car to leave. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw a ragged-looking couple sitting down in the grass, up against a cement wall, near a dumpster. 

As Officer Hollets approached the couple, he noticed they were shooting up. 

Heroin. 

In broad daylight.

And as he crept up closer to them, he saw something that shocked him. The woman who was shooting up herself and her companion— she was about 8 months pregnant. 

The junkie mother-to-be looked up, dazed, at Officer Hollets. A needle in her hand, not yet high, she grew agitated. When prompted, she told Officer Hollets that her name was Chrystal Champ and that she was 35 years old. 

At first, seeing her there pregnant and shooting up, Officer Hollets started to scold her. Or, as St. Paul might put it, Officer Hollets started preaching the Law at her: 

“What are you doing?! You’re going to kill your baby! You shouldn’t do that. Why do you have to be doing that stuff. It’s going to ruin your baby.” 

The Law, as the Apostle Paul says, only (and always) accuses us, and that’s what it did to Chrystal Champ too. Initially she responded to Officer Hollets scolding and lay-lawing by getting defensive and angry: “How dare you judge me. I already know what I should and shouldn’t do. I know what a horrible person I am and what a horrible situation I’m in.”

Officer Hollets had turned his body camera on as he left the convenience store and approached the couple. The video footage shows him scolding Chrystal Champ and interrogating her— preaching the Law at her— for over 10 minutes. 

Until—

Chrystal Champ starts to weep. 

And then she confesses. 

She tells Officer Hollets that she has prayed desperate prayers for someone to come along and adopt her baby. And you can watch it all on the body-cam footage— something about that word adopt triggered a change in Officer Hollet’s countenance. 

Officer Hollets later said it was like something compelled him: all of a sudden he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and pulled a picture out of his wallet and showed Chrystal Champ a photograph of his wife and his 4 kids, including a 10 month old baby. 

And crouching down in front of her, he said to her, to this helpless junkie mother-to-be: “I’ll adopt your baby.”

You can see it in the footage. 

Chrystal Champ looks up at Officer Hollets, absolutely stunned at his risky, gratuitous gesture to rescue her and her baby. 

I’ll adopt your baby. 

Officer Hollets forgot to shut off his body camera. 

The rest of the footage shows him driving frantically to find his wife, who was at a party, walking up to her and telling her: “I just met a pregnant woman shooting up heroin, and I offered to adopt her baby.”

And, on camera, without hesitation— as though compelled by something— his wife said: “Okay.”

Chrystal Champ gave birth to a baby girl last October 12. 

Officer Hollets and his wife Rebecca— they named her Hope. 

Today— All Saints Sunday— seems as good a day as any to tell you his story, right?

Surely he’s the sort of Christian we’re talking about when we talk about saints. He’s got everything but the stained glass. He’s a modern day icon. What he did for Chrystal makes him a champ. 

Of the faith.  

He’s a saint. 

———————-

The problem though:

Singular stained-glass heroes— that’s not how the New Testament understands that word saint. 

We think of saints as persons of exceptional piety. We think of saints as examples of extraordinary virtue. We think of saints as role models of righteousness. And in medieval Catholic paintings artists always gilded the saints with bigger halos. But in the New Testament, saints are not examples of godly living. They’re not honor roll students in the school of holier than thou. 

That’s why, beginning 501 years ago this week, Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers tore down all that artwork from church altars. 

If saints were role models for right living and righteous doing, then you can be damn sure St. Paul never would’ve called the Christians in Corinth saints. 

Saints would be the last word you’d use to describe the Corinthians— that would be like calling Chrystal Champ instead of Ryan Hollets a saint. 

But that’s exactly how the Apostle Paul addresses his letters to the Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those saints in Christ Jesus…”

Read the rest of those letters. 

The church at Corinth was more messed up (in a bible-bad kind of way) than a Bill Clinton-Donald Trump sponsored bachelor party in Vegas.

And yet Paul calls them saints. 

Congregants at Corinth— these supposed saints— were having sex with their mothers-in-law. These so-called saints were getting drunk at the communion table, and they were mean drunks too because they kept the poor from sitting at the communion table with them. 

Saints?

There’s a reason Paul had to lecture them that love is patient and kind. They weren’t any kind of either. 

Yet Paul calls them saints, holy ones. 

And not just the Corinthians:

The Ephesians— despite being one Body in Christ, they persisted in treating strangers and immigrants as strangers and immigrants,. And yet, even though they did not practice what he preached, Paul calls them saints too. 

And the Christians in Rome— Paul didn’t even know them; he only knew they had a serious problem with making distinctions between good people and bad people, but despite their behavior Paul calls them saints. 

Same goes for the Philippians— Paul calls them saints from his jail cell, all of them. 

No remainder. 

And the Galatian Christians, Paul calls them— no.

Nada. 

Not a one.

———————-

When it comes to the Galatians, Paul is all piss and vinegar. Have you read it? Galatians reads more like an angry election-season Facebook rant than an epistle. 

Not only does Paul refuse to call them saints, he completely skips past the customary salutations. He grabs them by the collar and gets right down to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4: 

…the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free according to the will of God our Father.

By the time you get to verse 7, Paul’s calling them perverts, cussing at them and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them. Why is Paul so torqued off at them? 

Why aren’t they saints?

The Galatians weren’t sleeping with their in-laws. None of them were turning the eucharist in to a keg stand. They weren’t neglecting the poor among them. They weren’t treating strangers and aliens with suspicion. As far as behavior goes, the Galatians were better than all the rest. 

The Galatians were role models of right living and righteous doing. They were singular stained glass do-gooders. The Galatians were so hard core about being Christ’s hands and feet to the world for the sake of the least, the lost, and the left behind that they exhorted one another to be super-disciples. 

How can super-disciples not be reckoned saints? 

If anyone should get gilded with bigger halos it should be the Galatians. 

Yet somehow holy scripture does not call them saints. 

Why?

———————-

The Letter to the Galatians is proof that deep-down, despite what we sing and say on Sundays, we’re addicted to bad news not the Good News. 

Like a lot of Christians today, the Galatians assumed they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ and him crucified every week. 

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

The Galatians insisted. 

The Galatians took the Gospel for granted. 

They turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all, Paul says, for it nullifies the Gospel. This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us. 

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

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands.

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

As Paul goes on to say in chapter 2: If God in any way regards us based on our obedience to his teachings and commands, then Jesus Christ came and died and was raised for absolutely nothing. 

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

There can be no middle ground at all between: “Christ has done everything for you” and “This is what you must do.” There’s no reconciliation between those two. 

Scripture doesn’t say: While were yet sinners, Christ died for us, on the condition that eventually we would become the kind of people no one would ever have had to die for in the first place. Otherwise the whole deal is off.

No.

Jesus Christ came and Jesus Christ yet comes— in word and water and wine and bread— not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improvable. 

Christ came and Christ comes still to raise you who are dead in your trespasses. 

And— I do more funerals than you all, I can testify firsthand— corpses don’t contribute anything to their resurrection. 

Thus Paul’s emphatic point in Galatians: 

There are irreconcilable differences between “Christ has done everything necessary for you” and “This is what you must do.” 

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in 6 words is this: 

Christ plus anything else is nothing.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it. The way to annul the unconditional promise of the Gospel is to add obligation to it:

This is what you must do now— as a Christian. This is who you must be now. This is the lifestyle you must have now. This is how you should spend your money now.  This is who you’re not allowed to love now. This is how you must vote now. This is the issue you must advocate now. This is the candidate you must resist now. 

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add extras to it, modify it:

progressive Christian, conservative Christian, social justice Christian, family values Christian, inclusive Christian, traditional Christian.

No.

The Gospel message is not the Army’s message. It’s not Be All You Can Be. You don’t need to die to self or do anything because the promise of the Gospel is that you have already died with Christ.  You have been crucified with him for all your sins.  And by your baptism, all of you, warts and all, is in him. You don’t need to become anyone else.

The easiest way to erase the Gospel is to add to it. Be better, do better, build a better world. 

The Gospel message is something else entirely. The Gospel message is not Here is what you must do. The Gospel is Everything has already been done. By another. For you.

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

     He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly. When it comes to the Law— the teachings and commands of God— you can’t pick and choose.

You can’t say I’ll advocate for the poor and oppressed but protecting the unborn—- really not my issue. 

Likewise, you can’t say I’m for protecting the vulnerable in the womb but when it comes to the vulnerable at the border— not my problem.

I’m not trying to be political; I’m trying to point out how when it comes to our obedience under God’s Law there is no distinction between any of us. 

All of us fall short. Not one of us is righteous, not one. 

When it comes to the teachings and commands of God, there’s no A for effort. 

It’s all or nothing, God says.  

And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed. Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high. This other gospel in Galatia, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly. 

But Christ already fulfilled the Law perfectly.  

He was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

For you.

His perfect record— it’s your inheritance, scripture promises. 

Notice, scripture doesn’t call it your wage. Something you earn. Something you deserve. Scripture says it’s your inheritance. 

Something gifted to you freely by way of another’s death. 

Something better than deserving. 

Something you need only receive in trust.

Trust— faith, alone— that’s why Paul doesn’t call them saints. 

———————-

The word saint, sanctus, simply means “holy.” 

As the theologian Robert Jenson says, what makes the God of the Old and New Testaments holy, in distinction from us, is God’s ability to make and keep unconditional promises. Only God can make and keep unconditional promises because only God is not bounded by death. 

What makes God holy is God’s ability to make and keep an unconditional promise.

Therefore, what constitutes God’s People as holy is not decency, cleanliness, propriety, temperance, civility, or sobriety. The God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, eating and drinking and befriending scoundrels and sinners, was in no wise “holy” and Jesus had harsh words for those begrudgers who presumed to be so “holy.”

If what makes God holy is God’s ability to make and keep an unconditional promise, then what makes us holy is how we relate to God’s unconditional promise. 

Holiness is not about behavior.. Holiness is about belief— trust— in the promise of God.

Holiness is not about being good or doing good. Holiness is about trusting the good work God has done for you in Jesus Christ.

The unconditional promise we call the Gospel.

If holiness is about trust— faith— then:

The opposite of vice is not virtue. 

The opposite of sin is not sinlessness. 

The opposite of vice and sin is faith. 

Which means:

Saints are not those who’ve managed to live their lives carrying around their necks bigger and heavier millstones than the average rest of us. 

Saints are just sinners who know— by faith— that they’ve been rescued. 

Adopted undeservedly into Christ.

They’re not so much champs of faith like Officer Ryan Hollets. 

They’re more like…well, they’re more like Chrystal Champ.

———————-

Chrystal Champ had been homeless for over 2 years when Officer Hollets encountered her. She’d been battling a heroin and crystal meth addition since she was a teenager, scraping up $50 a day to score hits. She’d tried before, multiple times, to get clean. 

She told the press: “I’d tried before to do good, to be good, to change. Every time, I failed. It had me captive. Every time I tried to save myself it just kept coming back to ruin my life.”

Not incidentally, Chrystal Champ has been clean and sober nearly a year this week. When asked what made this time different than all the others up and down the wagon, Chrystal Champ chalked it up to her rescue.

She chalked it up to the nature of her rescue.

Remembering the change in Officer Hollet’s countenance, how he’d crouched down and condescended to her with his offer (I’ll adopt your baby), Chrystal Champ said recently: 

“It was like, all of a sudden, he became one of us. A human being. Not high and mighty, a police officer, but one of us…The way he rescued me…I didn’t deserve it…I guess it’s just changed me.”

The good news— 

If super-disciples like the Galatians are not saints, then saints are not sinless stained-glass heroes. 

Which is how on All Saints Sunday, you all get to light so many candles today for so many imperfect Christians. 

We can light those candles for them without lying about them. 

The crazy fun and folly of the Gospel is that when it comes to holiness— 

Thanks to the cross, the bar ain’t that high. 

Saints are just sinners without a trust problem.

     

 

     

 

Sunday coming we’re kicking off the annual pledge campaign in my new parish. 

The church suffered an exodus of pledgers prior to my arrival. Approximately 53 giving “units” (lack of incarnational lingo, noted) left the church last year for various sundry reasons, totalling over $200K in giving. The church’s revenue through the 3rd quarter of this year is off by over $100K against an average of the past three years. 

If ever there was a time to double-down on the Bible’s talk of dollars and cents, it would now, right? I should whip out the good book and leverage Deuteronomy’s commands about first fruits and prescribe some portioning. I ought to lay down some lawI know from my church-planting days, for example, that the tithe is one of the benchmarks by which funders at the denominational level asses a new congregation’s vitality— by which they mean viability. Church planters therefore experience pressure to produce not only butts in the seats but people committing 10% of their income to the brand new endeavor.

Because a tithe, offering 10% from the top, is what the Bible commands.

Grace may not be cheap— it’s free, in fact— but running God’s grace-giving business is expensive.

Not only do you have to pay for your local forgiveness person, she’s pensioned too. 

Thus, God’s church is transactional even if his grace is something else entirely.

I suspect so many pastors avoid the subject of money is because they assume 10% is the scriptural obligation, yet they do not pastor a congregation that takes the Bible with enough seriousness even to warrant mention of something called a tithe. In my experience, it’s the IRS code not the mosaic code that most often provokes financial gifts nearing double-digit percentages.

And maybe it’s a function of not having taken the Bible seriously enough— at least, not taking the Gospel seriously enough— that we seldom ask if the tithe has been crossed off the list of God’s commands by the cross of Christ.

Just as a refresher:

The Lord commands the 11 tribes of Israel to give out of their first fruits an offering of 10% (in addition to all the other offerings prescribed to them) for the care of tribe number twelve, the Levites. As the priestly caste in Israel, from which the high priest was conscripted, the Levites were forbidden from possessing personal belongings of their own. God mandated the tithe as the means by which Israel would support those who mediating the atoning work for them before God. In other words, the purpose of the tithe was to fund the high priest who mediated atonement, year in and year out. If that doesn’t immediately ping your Gospel radar, you’re likely in the aforementioned group of folks who need to read their Bibles more. 

In particular, it would help if you read the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. 

In exhorting church members to give the “biblically-mandated” tithe, preachers effectively draw an analogy between the tribe of Levi and their atoning office of the high priest and the work of the church.

But— and here’s where Hebrews is a help— scripture insists that the office of the high priest is closed for Christ is our Great High Priest.

Interestingly enough, Jesus, being from the tribe of Judah wasn’t even qualified to be any kind of priest much less the ultimate and final one, which not so subtly implies the whole religion business the tithe funded in the first place was designed from our end not God’s. 

The original justification for the command about tithing is gone because Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest and, what’s more, his office has closed sign hanging on the shop door. Our priest, the Book of Hebrews says so plainly it’s a wonder we persist in not believing it, has finished forever his mediating work of atonement. The Great High Priest made an offering of himself and in his body born by a tree he made a perfect sacrifice, once-for-all. 

The purpose of the tithe has been perfectly fulfilled by our completely unqualified priest, Jesus Christ.

Because we’re justified in Christ alone by grace alone, the apostle Paul proclaims, we are now and forever free from the Law, including it would follow from the law which commands us to give 10%. Indeed, Paul insists, were we not free from the Law then Christ died for absolutely nothing. Likely, this is why there is 0% of the New Testament that instructs Christians to offer a 10% tithe. Jesus himself refers to the tithe 3 times in the Gospels and in 100% of those situations he doesn’t mention it in a good way, condemning the prideful hypocrisy of the Pharisees whose giving masks their begruding another mercy. Instead, the New Testament more often commends giving generated by gratitude and joy (2 Corinthians 9.7). Ironically, by Paul’s foolish Gospel logic, the message that you have been set free by grace from the demands of the commands, including the command to give a tenth, generates generosity. 

Neglect of the Gospel of grace and the freedom it has given, then, produces exactly the sorts of people who require an exhortation like the tithe.  

Certainly a 10% gift remains a command to which a believer can aspire but, just like love of enemy, the way towards it is in trusting that it’s all already been fulfilled for you by Jesus Christ.

Given the shape of my church’s budget, I realize how this little exegetical detour could prove bad for business (I don’t have to give that much!? Woohoo!). Then again, the product we’re selling is free. Business will always be a bad way to frame it.

The Right to be Wrong

Jason Micheli —  October 22, 2018 — Leave a comment

I continued our fall series on the Questions God Asks Us by looking at Mark 12 and Jesus’ question to our question about money and politics.

This question about taxes to Caesar and the Law of God itself violates the Law of God, Jesus implies.

Jesus responds to their question about the commandments with another commandment, a commandment given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai: “Do not put the Lord your God to test,” the same commandment Jesus recites when tempted by the devil in the desert. In other words, our question to Jesus about Caesar’s claim on our stuff makes us sound like satan.

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?

“But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them: ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’”

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Should we or shouldn’t we, Jesus? Yes or no?”

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. And the Gospel story ends with Pontius Pilate killing Jesus— on what charges? On the charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen.

Incidentally, this same tax where we get the word gospel from in the first place.

In ancient Rome, that word gospel referred to the announcement that Caesar had conquered you and now he was not just your salad he was your god and now you had the awesome privilege of paying taxes to cover the cost of his having colonized you.

The Roman head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint. The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter— just a quarter, less than a cup of coffee. So it’s not that the tax was onerous. It was offensive.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: “Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.”

Carrying the coin broke the first and most fundamental Law: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

And because it broke the Law of God, the coin rendered anyone who carried it under God’s wrath.
The coin made anyone who carried it ritually unclean; therefore, it couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped. You see how the system works?

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

You see— what they’re really asking here is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that— in order to see what they’re really asking— you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place during Holy Week, on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies. On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome.

On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus pitches a temple tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip.

And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.

Why?

To answer that question, you need to know a little history. 200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer. The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.”

So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.

Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. The Sledgehammer traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before he becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.

That was 200 years before today’s passage.

About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean— he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax. With an armed band Judas the Galilean rode into Jerusalem to shouts of what? Hosanna. Judas the Galilean cleansed the Temple. And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King.

Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.

You see what’s going on?

Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years just like. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers. The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is to declare a revolution, to stand up to injustice, to deliver the oppressed, to cast down the principalities and powers from their thrones.

To take up the sword.

That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax: Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? That’s the real question.

Come down off the fence, Jesus. Which side are you on, Jesus? And Jesus responds, “Why are you putting me [the Lord your God] to the test?”

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like the Republicans nominating a lifelong Democrat to be their president. Wait, bad analogy. For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like Ted Cruz asking Donald Trump to stump for him. Wait, that doesn’t work either.

You get the picture— the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.

The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus. But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties. This is important. If you don’t get this, you don’t get it. The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options. And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.

The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought the adminstration was making Israel great again. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and— even if it took a sword— Rome had brought stability to the tinderbox called Israel.

The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.

On the other hand, the Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. They were the resistance movement. The Pharisees were bible- believing observers of God’s commandments. They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and Son of God printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.

The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a grass-roots, righteous revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.

And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff. They’ll write him off and walk away.
That’s the trap.

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’

If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.
If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?
Which is it going to be?
The Sword or the Sledgehammer?
Which party do you belong to?
You’ve got to choose one or the other.
Check the box, Jesus.
What are your politics Jesus?

Jesus asks for the coin.

And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’

And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is eikon, the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be eikons of God.

Eikons of Caesar.
Eikons of God.

Jesus looks at the coin and he says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.”

But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for give isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question.

When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means give, as in “to present a gift.”

But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.

Instead Jesus uses the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier.

Jesus says:

“Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.”

You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is? What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him. But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.

And what does God deserve from you?
Everything.
Everything.

Jesus is saying is: “You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.”

Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation, you mustn’t give to your Tribe—

You mustn’t give to those things, what they ask of you:
ultimate allegiance.

You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question.

The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.

They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different just of a different hue. They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.

But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise. He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides.

Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

His movement was about defeating his opponents by dying for them.
His movement was about overcoming their sin by suffering it in their stead.

That while we were yet his enemies, Jesus the Galilean took up not a sword or a sledgehammer but a cross.

And that qualifies all our politics.

If you’re like me, then every election season social media proves to be a good and uplifting use of your time.

The Bible has a word for the red and blue rhetoric post and tweet and like and share this week; the Bible has a word for how we scream at each other with our signs and fence ourselves off with hashtags and draw lines always with ourselves on the faithful side of the righteousness equation.

Idolatry— that’s the Bible’s word.

And for some, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan election season prescription. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.

Don’t put Jesus in a box.
Don’t make Jesus choose sides.
Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.

Don’t say Jesus is for this Party.
Or against that Party,

Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue.
Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda, should support this issue.
Don’t insist that this or that Christian value ought to have only a one-party solution.

Don’t demonize those with whom you disagree.

I mean, it should chasten all of us in our political pride that the only scene resembling anything like a democratic election in the Bible is when we shout crucify him, casting our vote on Good Friday for Barabbas rather than Jesus Christ.

So that’s my election season exhortation to you:
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.

You’ve been stamped with a different image.

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself— that’s my prescription for you.

Considering the supposed stakes this election season, I realize how that probably sounds like a modest prescription. But maybe modesty is the best policy. Given what the Gospel reveals about us and what was required for us— for our redemption— maybe modesty is the best policy.

Don’t do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself.
Of course, as much as you might like me to do so, I can’t conclude there.

If I left it there, if I ended only on Do or Don’t Do, I’d leave you having just given you moralism pimped out in theological drag. The fact is— what I’ve given you thus far doesn’t even qualify as preaching because— modest or not— prescription is not proclamation. Exhortation about what you need to do for God is not the same thing as the announcement of the news of what God has done for you.

The Law, as the Apostle Paul says, is not the Gospel, and the Gospel message points always to God’s work in Jesus Christ for us not to our work for God.

The Gospel message points always to God’s work in Jesus Christ; therefore, the Gospel stories are not primarily collections of teachings Jesus taught about this or that topic.

They’re stories about Jesus, about his work for us. Indeed the entire Bible— it’s not an encyclopedia of the universe; it’s about Jesus, from first to last.  The center and circumference of all of scripture is Christ and his grace given to you freely by his bleeding and dying and rising.

Which means— our passage today ultimately is not about us or what we should do or not do this election season. It’s about Jesus Christ and what he has done to elect us for himself.

To turn today’s text into nothing more than a teaching on how we should regard our money or our politics or our relationship to the state, as Gerhard Forde says, it’s to misuse the very best thing in the worst manner.

It’s to turn the Gospel back into the Law.

Because notice— notice the Gospel promise in this passage:

‘“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denariuus and let me see it.””

And they all reach into their pockets to produce one.
But notice— Jesus had to ask for one.

The coin that condemns us under the Law— Christ isn’t carrying one.

His pockets are empty.

He alone among us is fully faithful.

He alone among us is obedient.
He alone is blameless.
He alone is righteous.

Just as Jesus tells his cousin John the Baptist at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus says that he’s come in the flesh— not to judge and condemn sinners, not to turn sinners into non-sinners, not to set sinners straight so they’ll fly right— in order to fulfill all righteousness.

For us.
In our place.

Jesus is our substitute not only on the cross but in his faithfulness.

He comes in order to fulfill all the righteousness required by the Law.

And that righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect score, the Bible promises— it’s gifted to you, gratis and forever, at your baptism.

The currency exchange that matters in Mark’s Gospel isn’t what happens with the moneychangers outside the Temple; it’s what the ancient church fathers and mothers called the Great Exchange wherein our unrighteousness is imputed to Christ, as though our sin was his own, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as though it were our own.

Christ isn’t carrying the coin that condemns. His pockts are empty. He alone among us is righteous. But in taking the unclean coin from our hands, Christ takes our sin into his own hands. And then two days later takes our sin in his body to a tree.

The baptism of his death and resurrection is a refining fire that has rendered all of you purer than silver and more precious than gold no matter what you render to Caesar.

You see, it’s a snapshot of what St. Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, sinners like us might become the righteousness of God.”

That’s the Gospel promise hidden in this Gospel story, like a seed sown in a field.

What is yours is his now, your sin.
And what belongs to him is yours always, his righteousness.

Where we worship idols at the altar of politics, he loved God with all of his heart and all of mind and all of his soul and all of his strength— and all of his faithfulness is as good as yours by grace through your baptism.

Where our pocketbooks prove that we have no King but Caesar, he brought down the mighty from their thrones by being lifted up on his cross— his victory, by grace through your baptism, it’s as though you had won it by your own obedience.

Where we fail to render to God the everything that belongs to God and give a lot more heartburn and bother to the Rome we call America, by grace through your baptism you are credited as blameless as Jesus Christ himself.

You bet your ass that’s too good and too prodigal (and too offensive maybe) to believe.

Of course it is— that’s why you need a preacher.

That’s why you need the church, that’s why you need water and wine and bread.

You need tangible, audible reminders of the Gospel promise that you need not worry— ever— because your ledger will never run red because you’ve been washed in his blood.
Maybe that’s why Jesus implies we sound like satan when we ask him our questions about what we should do.

With our money.
With our politics.

Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet or what you do with it— for that matter, it doesn’t matter what skeletons are in your closet; for that matter, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the closet— or out of the closet— because by your baptism you’ve been clothed irrevocably with Christ’s own righteousness.

To get hung up on another’s unfaithfulness or sin— to get hung up on your own sin— it’s like stealing from Jesus.

All of it belongs to Christ now.
Cling instead to what Christ has given you.

What justifies you before God is Christ’s faithfulness and death not your faith in his death, and your not faithful doings in response to his death.

By grace, through your baptism— your credit score is always now Christ himself.
His permanent perfect record is yours, and there’s no take-backs or do-overs.
God is not an Indian Giver.
There is therefore now no undoing it.
So there—
There’s the Gospel promise attached to the modest prescription I gave you.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Don’t insist that Jesus fit into your red or blue box.

You don’t need to.

Because you’ve been gifted Christ’s own righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.

When it comes to politics or your marriage or anything else— there’s no pressure, no stakes, no score-keeping.

You’re free to fail.
You’re free to make foolish choices.
You’re free to make sinful ones.

You have the right to be wrong.

Because you already have Christ’s perfect righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.

And here’s the rub:
So does your neighbor. They have the right to be wrong too.

“The Gospel gets a bad rap sometimes because it says you have to die before you can live. That can be a bitter to swallow when you didn’t want to take a pill in the first place.”

After getting lost at sea— I mean, stuck in editing queue— two longtime Mockingbird writers, Charlotte Getz and Stephanie Phillips, have written a book that features a patchwork of personal essays, pocket liturgies, and pseudo-fictional plays, and not a dull moment between them.

Sisters from a different mister, Stephanie Phillips and Charlotte Getz never expected to raise their families anywhere but home, in the American South. But then…life happened.

Quirky, hilarious, and (mostly) true, UNMAPPED is the tale of two long-distance friends who found home—together and apart—in unexpected exile. This spiritual memoir duet is unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Stephanie and Charlotte had the misfortune of being interviewed on the night I packed up my office to move to a new church. Do not take the delay in releasing the podcast as a sign of what to expect. I thoroughly enjoyed their book and their candor and wit in the conversation about it.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Happy Baptism Day, Elijah—

Other than giving you verboten soda when your Mom isn’t looking, my role as your godfather appears to come down to these daft, dutch-uncle letters, explaining once a year what the hell we did to you by drowning you with water and word. 

I saw you just the other day, little man, and I was blown away by how much you’re talking now. Per your age, you’ve advanced from saying our names to attaching demands and imperatives to our names: JasonAliIwantmoremacuncheeeese.  I suppose, given the locquaciousness of your Dad, that you’re fated to talk people’s ears off. Your Dad will want the previous sentence to be a lesson to you. That was an example of the pot calling the kettle a motormouth.  

Before the macuncheese, you were playing with a toy car at my house, a Lightening McQueen I bought Gabriel back when he was your age. Telling me about it, you showed it to me. Unwisely, I grabbed it from you. I wanted to appear as though I was appraising what you were apprising me of.

JasonJasonJasonthat’sminegiveitbacktome—-please. 

Your Mom corrected you (that’s what they do, little man). 

You said IsorryJasonhereyoucansee.

And I replied: “I forgive you.”

I said it matter-of-factly, Elijah, but now, considering the anniversary of your baptism, it occurs to me that it was really a matter of faith, the matter of faith. Strip away the lace gowns, ornate liturgy, and lukewarm water, the faith into which we baptized you all boils down to how you receive the selfsame promise: you are forgiven. 

It’s a promise with your name attached to it: Elijah, you— your sins— are forgiven.

Actually, the promise goes all the way back to your name Elijah. Folks in the Gospels mistook John the Baptizer for the prophet by whom you are named.

The difference between the baptism with which John baptized and the baptism into which you’ve been baptized is often misunderstood in churches or missed by Christians altogether, but the distinction couldn’t be more critical, Elijah. 

John invited people to repent of their sins, get their act together, turn their lives around, and be baptized. 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. John’s Baptism was a baptism of repentance. Our baptism is a baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, it’s a baptism of righteousness— a gifting of righteousness not a giving of repentance.

Let me put it another way, little man. 

To answer the rich young ruler who queries, now that you’ve died with Christ, Elijah, here’s what you must do in your Christian life: _______________.  

Nothing.

As Paul insists in Galatians— and give it time, Elijah, you’ll soon enough discover we’re all Galatians deep down: Christ + Anything Else = No Gospel at All. 

We’re all born lawyers, Elijah. We do better with conditions and contracts. We’re not good at remembering such math. Like lawyers, we’re better with contracts. Conditions make sense to us not the unbalanced equation called grace. We prefer to parse our piety in if/thens, not realizing that, in doing so, we sound like satan in the wilderness. 

Because God baptized you in to what Christ has done— his death (for sin) and resurrection (for justification)— there’s nothing you need to do now Elijah. In Christ, everything has already been done. You are forgiven, it’s full and finished— full stop. In that same letter to the Galatians, Paul says that in dying with Christ by our baptisms we have also died to the Law, to our religious doings. The good news, Elijah, is that you are not the good news. Because Christ won, you can never lose the freedom to lose. 

But the same letter to the Galatians amply illumines our proclivity to confuse this crazy good news for a bitter pill we refuse to swallow. 

Just wait until you have a truly close friendship, Elijah, or a lover or spouse. You’ll find out soon enough: to have your debt paid, gratis, is to grapple with a different kind of owing. Forgiveness is not a monotone word. Forgiveness is a word that kills as much as it makes alive, for accusation always precedes pardon in our ears. To hear “I forgive you of your sins” is to hear that you’re a sinner. We rush to respond to our forgiveness-ness in order to right the scales and to restore the balance of power. The Old Adam in you, Elijah, supposedly was drowned and killed in your baptism, but the Old Adam, as the adage goes, is a mighty strong swimmer.  And a system of merits and demerits, a quo for every quid, comforts the Old Adam in us who is addicted to control.

The Word who takes flesh gives himself to our flesh in particular words. The presence of the Word is in the words of grace promised to us. Instead, like Eve and Adam, we go looking for other words to trust. They’re usually the ones we tell ourselves with forked tongues: Do your best and God will do the rest. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Forgive but don’t forget.

Look it up in the Action Bible we gave you, Elijah. Looking for other words to trust is the very heart of sin.

Since I worry that your Dad is a closet pietist, let me make sure you’ve got the necessaries down, Elijah. Only after 15 in the years the pulpit did I realize I’d assumed the main thing— grace— and instead had been majoring in the minors every Sunday. Turns out, most church folks love singing “Amazing Grace” and will surely sing it with gusto at funerals but ask them to articulate the doctrine behind it and their music-making will turn to mumbling. Forgiveness, Christians say, comes to us solafide, by faith alone.We receive God’s forgiveness not by anything we do but by (not so) simply trusting God’s declaration that everything has already been done. We’re justified as a gift from God, Paul preaches.

God’s non-accusation of us is actual. 

It’s not something we achieve. It’s already been accomplished by Jesus. We only apprehend it by faith. 

Alone. 

What the Church has called the Great Exchange, Elijah, Luther compared to the exchanging of rings at a royal wedding where by her “I do” all that belongs to the bride becomes the groom’s possession, fully and irrevocably, and by the groom’s unconditional “I do” all that is his becomes the bride’s. The bible refers to the Body of believers as Christ’s bride; therefore, as Paul puts it, our sin becomes Christ’s irrevocable possession and his righteousness becomes our irremovable wedding garment. Jesus is the fattest groom ever having ingested all our iniquity and imperfection. There is nothing you need to do for this to be true of you. 

Like your Dad at a wedding, it’s simply pronounced, declared true of us, and not one of us nor any of our sins can tear it asunder. 

Nor can any of our our right-doing improve upon it. 

And very often our right-doing can tempt us to forget our perpetual need for it.

Despite all the evidence otherwise available to your eyes, Elijah, you are not only forgiven, you are perfect in God’s eyes because your imperfect record has been reckoned onto Christ— your rap sheet, however long or short it is by the time you read this, is forever his and his perfect record has been credited as yours. There is nothing for you to do to improve your relationship with God. 

Your trust is all you have to offer. Now, at first, this sounds like a crazy lopsided deal, right? Christ gets all the bad shit we’ve pulled and all the shit we ever will pull; meanwhile, we get all the good he accrued. And all we’ve got to do is trust that it is so?! 

It’s not called good news for nothing, Elijah. But the rub about “news” is that news necessarily comes from outside of you. News is a report of what another has done that impacts your life without you having done a thing. News might effect you but it isn’t about you, and if you’re not the content of the news then neither are you in control of it. As much as the ticker tape headlines that scroll across the CNN screen, this news of your forgiveness that’s received by nude faith— it can leave you feeling vulnerable. 

It’s no wonder Christians are never satisfied with the answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” There is now no condemnation, the Apostle Paul promises. Nevertheless, to trust that promise alone is an enormous risk because it requires you to take the giver of that promise at their word. If there is any possibility of condemnation whatsoever, then nude faith, trust alone, is an outrageous, irresponsible gamble. 

Frankly, little man, it’s not until you’ve had this sort of free forgiveness practiced on you by another in your life that you realize how the forgiveness offered by God leaves you naked and utterly empty-handed.

To receive forgiveness by trust alone is to shove all your chips to the center of the table, go all in, betting not just the house but your eternal home, wagering that the one offering you free forgiveness is trustworthy. 

To do nothing but trust another who tells you your ledger is in the black is to trust that tomorrow or the next day or the day after next Wednesday, depending on what you do or what you leave undone, they’re not going to waylay you with a red ALL CAPS past due notice. Like Lady Justice wearing her blindfold, to receive free forgiveness by trust alone requires you to shut your eyes to the gauge on the scales and believe that the forgiving one will be faithful to their word. 

Free forgiveness can cut us down to a size we spend our whole lives posturing against. To be in the right with another you’ve got to do right by them- seek restitution, make reparations, repair the damage you did— that makes sense to us. It’s how we’ve arranged the world. It actually gives us more control than does the free offer of forgiveness. To be in the right with another is to do right by them might put you on somebody’s shit list but it at least leaves you in the driver’s seat for what will follow. Whereas to be in the right with another is to be declared right by them takes away everything from you and leaves you empty-handed. 

Faith alone in your promise of forgiveness is a total and complete disavowal of your own performance to merit it. 

If I have to earn your forgiveness, for example, then at least I’ll accrue evidence external to either of us to which I can point and justify myself later that I did all I could or which I can use as leverage against you should you withhold forgiveness. Look at all that I did to make it up to you and still it wasn’t enough, I’ve griped to more than just my wife. If forgiveness is free though then, like on my wedding day, I’ve got absolutely nothing to hold onto but you. I’ve got nothing to hold on to but my trust in you. To trust that you forgive me is to have faith you won’t use my debt later to burn me. 

Forgiveness isn’t cheap. 

It’s free. 

Yet, the bitter irony is this free forgiveness could cost you everything. 

Your Dad preaches about holiness often so I’ll end there. 

We are made holy, Elijah, we become more nearly the creatures God originally intended, not by ascending up to God in glory by way of our spiritual progress or pious practices or right-making doings. We do not grow closer to God or grow more like God through improvement. The language of spiritual progress implies a gradual lessening of our need for grace the nearer and nearer we journey to God. 

Yet the God who condescends to us in the flesh of Christ is not ever a God waiting for us to make our way up to him. The God who came down to meet us in crèche and cross continues to forsake his lofty throne and comes down still, hiding behind ordinary, unimpressive words like “I forgive you.” 

The words which justify us are the very means that sanctify us. 

God does not change us by means of our religion. 

God changes us- makes us holy- through these particular words.

We never advance beyond being sinners who are declared by God to be forgiven, gratuitously so. Holiness is our getting adjusted to our justification. By returning daily in myriad ways to this news of our abiding sinfulness and God’s free forgiveness, we become holy. 

Or Paul puts it in a different letter, the holiness we already possess in Christ’s gift of perfect righteousness— it’s unveiled to us one degree at a time as we trust those words: you are forgiven. All is forgiven.

Your Aunt is an artist so she probably knows how Michelangelo famously said of his David statue: I just chipped away all the stone that wasn’t David. 

Likewise, God is the Artificer who, by his justifying word that convicts and forgives, blasts away all the bits of you that do not conform to the blueprints. 

For my money, though, Ali and I think you’re perfect.

Love,

Your Godfather

God’s Behind

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

It’s not one of the scriptures for our fall series, but this week’s Gospel lection is one of the questions God poses to us: “Who do you say that I am?” In short order, Peter screws the pooch over the answer.

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

– Mark 8

Like Peter, we’ve been determined ever since to get a God by any other means than a cross, a savior who meets us through any other medium than suffering and shame.

“The cross alone is our theology,” Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation. Notice, Luther didn’t say, “The death of Christ alone is our theology.” The distinction determines our theology. To say the cross alone is the core of our God-talk is to make the awful and audacious claim that the glory of God meets us not in our strivings up towards glory but in our suffering and humiliation. The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Christ never chooses any other avenue by which to meet us than condescension into suffering, or, as Chad Bird writes, “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility, anonymity and even foolishness, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.” 

If the cross is God’s attack upon sin, as scripture sees it, then the particular sin revealed in Christ’s crucifixion is our dissembling.

The cross outs all our spiritual pretension as a sham.

It’s our affectations at virtue, not our vice, that abandon God.

It’s our “goodness” that pushes him out of the world on a bloody tree.

In the name of godliness we drive nails through his hands and his feet; in homage to wisdom and justice we reason it’s better for this innocent one to die. God hides behind the mask of a cross in order to reveal the masks we wear to play-act the role of a righteous alter ego. Like Jekyl’s Hyde, this alter ego is as much a killer as it is addictive, for if, as St. Paul insists, God’s righteousness has been gifted to us in Christ apart from any of our religious doings, then our goodness itself- or, our pretense at goodness- is the problem Christ kills by his cross. 

Our goodness itself, and it’s attendant self-deceptions of self-sufficiency and shit-togetherness, is the sickness from which we requiring saving. Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, Christ condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine parts of our lives in the steaming piles of shit in our lives.

Wherever shit happens, grace does too.

God meets us in our shame and in our suffering because only when we’ve been reduced to nothing do we know our need and you can’t receive a gift in joy if you’re determined it’s unnecessary. It’s why God must kill the patient before he can live again. As Luther continued in thesis 18 of the Disputation: “Man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is ready to receive the grace of Jesus Christ.” Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give. It’s only when shit happens that you see you need a savior.

In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy.

Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self: “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.

The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses: 

All at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with God. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

The glory of God always shows forth in Jesus stooping over to kiss the shameful scabs and weeping wounds of lepers like us.

During their sojourn in the desert, still waiting on God to deliver the goods in the milk and honey department, Moses asks God to disclose his glory. No one can see God’s face and live, the Almighty explains to Moses before instructing him to hide in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by the rock, God covers Moses’ eyes, permitting Moses only a glimpse of God’s backside. God is the one who prevents Moses from seeing his glory. Whether from the cleft of a rock or upon a cross, God refuses to be seen in glory. To Moses, God gives only a peek at his behind. To us, God responds to our taunts at glory (“If he’s the Christ let him save himself!) by bleeding and dying. 

“If he’s the Christ let him save himself” echoes an ancient addiction. From Adam onwards, we are addicted to the “glory story;” that is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way. It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?” The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches because it gets God’s directionality backwards.

The Gospel is a one-way story that goes down.

The story of the Cross is not the story of our journey up to God but God’s journey down to us. The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension to us not our ascension up to God. Addicted to the glory story, we’re reliably liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction when we cry out to God for help. Up into glory rather than down in to the darkness we’re in and out into the nothing and shadows that surround us. 

How preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient. In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed.

By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer.

No, God is to be found in our suffering.

God refuses to be seen in any other way in our world than in how he appears when Pontius Pilate declares of him, crowned with thorns and his cloths and skin in tatters: “Ecce Homo.” Behold, the man. Behold the man reduced to nothing; so that, man will know this man is to be found in our nothing. Gerard Manley Hopkins got it half-wrong: God only plays in ten thousand places if those ten thousand places are places of suffering and humiliation, crosses and conjugal beds. If the sin revealed by the cross is our spiritual pretension, then when the dying Christ declares

“It is finished” he ends any of our self-congratulatory projects that would have God be seen in any other way but in our need and by any other means than the cross.

While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” any who insist that God isn’t in suffering. Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering God is hidden, present, there. Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel. Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace.Where is God in my suffering?” just may be exactly the worst question to ask- even if it is an unavoidably natural cry- because the God who shows his ass to Moses shows himself no more clearly than in our suffering.