Archives For Judgment

S.O.S from the Outer Darkness

Jason Micheli —  September 5, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s the sermon from this weekend from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.

     Hey-

Hey, you got a flashlight? Or even a match?

Yeah, I figured as much.

What about ear-plugs? I’d give a kidney and my last pair of clean undies for some ear-plugs. I mean that gnashing sound is one thing. If you’ve ever been married, then it doesn’t take too long to used to that gnashing of teeth sound.

But the weeping? The weeping can mess with your head after a while. And because of the darkness, because you can’t see anyone, after a while you start to think the weeping is in your head. That it’s you. That you’re the one weeping.

You know that Groucho joke about how I’d never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member?

Yeah, that’s this place.

With the weeping and gnashing, you’d expect it to be a lot louder than it is. Instead it’s just creepy quiet. And even though it’s dark, you can just feel it- there’s a lot of people here.

A lot of people, though not the ones you’d expect. I haven’t bumped into one atheist, adulterer or TMZ reporter. Neither the Donald nor Hillary is here.

Other than Justin Bieber, nobody here are the sorts of people you’d expect to find here.

Mostly, they’re all people just like me. Just as surprised to be here as me.

I suppose that’s the money question isn’t it? Why am I here?

So-

Just before my Master went away, he tells us this story- my Master was always telling stories. To people who weren’t his servants, he never spoke in anything but stories.

He told this one story about a kid who wished his old man dead, cashed in his inheritance, and then left home and blew all the money. And when the snotty kid comes crawling back home, what’s the father do? Blows even more cash on a welcome home party.

I know, right!?

My Master told this other story about an idiot shepherd who had 100 sheep and goes off and abandons 99 of them to search for the one sheep too dumb to stay with the flock. It’s like that Woody Allen joke. Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, shepherd.

My Master was always telling stories like that.

And just before my Master went away on a journey, he tells us this story about another master who had 3 servants.

The master gives the first servant 5 talents, and the master gives his second servant 2 talents- and 1 talent is worth about 20 years’ income so we’re talking a crazy, prodigal amount.

Even the master’s third servant, who gets a single talent, gets more cash than he’d ever seen in his life, more than he could possibly know what to do with.

And that’s the thing, that’s what I’m thinking as the Master is telling this story about a master. What kind of fool would risk wealth like that on…nobodies…like them? I mean, at least Lehman Brothers knew how to handle money.

And what kind of bigger fools would take that master’s treasure and jeopardize it? Gamble on it?

But in the Master’s story that’s what the master’s first two servants do, and lucky for them (or lucky the master came back when he did) because they managed to double their investment. 5 talents becomes 10 and 2 talents becomes a fourscore gross.

And their master praises them for it: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

The third servant though- the one with the single talent that was still worth a fortune- he does the prudent, responsible thing.

He buries his master’s talent in the ground, which is what you did in those days when you didn’t have a bank or a safe, especially when it’s not your money to risk. Plus, interest is forbidden in scripture so by not investing his master’s money I’m thinking this third servant’s doing the faithful, biblical thing.

No.

Wrong.

In my Master’s story, when the master returns he calls this third servant wicked.

And lazy.

Wicked and lazy.

Pretty harsh, right?

That’s what I thought too. Then this master ships his servant off to the outer darkness where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

At the time, I thought outer darkness was just a rabbinic euphemism for Cleveland, but it turns out I was wrong.

So just before my Master went away he tells this story, and, sure, it didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s how it was with most of his stories.

Still, because it was one of the last stories he told before he went away, I figured it was important so I tried to live my life according to it.

I tried it produce with the financial blessings the Master gave me.

I didn’t try to hide my stinginess behind caution or prudence.

I took some risks for a higher yield, and other than a Bowflex and Redskins season tickets I never wasted the wealth God gave me.

I earned as much as I could so that I could give as much as I could. That’s the point of the story, right? A rising tide lifts all boats?

But then-

When I saw the Master again?

No gold watch.

No ‘My servant is good and faithful’ bumper sticker.

Not even a Starbucks gift card.

No, instead I end up here, which I assume is the outer darkness. If there’s a sign, it’s not like I can read it. But there’s definitely weeping and if that sound’s not teeth gnashing then someone should call a plumber.

I guess this beats being cut up into little, tiny pieces- that’s what happened to the fall guys in one of the Master’s other stories.

And maybe it’s better than what I would’ve guessed it be like, fire and brimstone. But it’s God-awful cold here in the darkness.  And, for as crowded as it is, it’s terribly lonely.

What day is it anyway? Or year even?

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it’s still hard to believe I ended up here.

Or not hard to believe at all I guess.

The truth is-

How I heard my Master’s story reveals an awful lot.

About me.

It shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money. If it’s possible to see anything clearly in the dark, it’s obvious to me now.

I really believed the only real, realistic wealth in the world was cold, hard cash. Not only did I believe it made the world go around, made me ‘successful’ and made my family secure; I believed you needed it to change the world.

That you can’t fill the poor with good things if you’ve got empty pockets. That before you can give gifts you need to earn money to buy them. That you can’t make a difference in a life, in the world, without investing aggressively the financial blessings God gives you.

Like I said, it shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money.

Now, in the darkness, I can see the light. Or, see how stupid I was.

Why would I think he was talking about money? As though my Master was some sort of economist. He didn’t even HAVE money!

This one time- right after he told this story actually- some hypocritical clergy (which might be redundant) tried to trap my Master with a question about taxes. And he tries to answer them with an illustration. So he asks them if any of them have any money on them…as a sort of visual-aid.

He asks them if they have any money on them. Because he doesn’t. Doesn’t carry it. Doesn’t have it. Doesn’t have anything positive to say about it at all for that matter.

So why- how could I be so dumb- would I ever think my Master’s story was really about money?

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story like that? What does it say about greedy, unimaginative me that when I heard this story I just assumed it was about money? And making more of it. And being rewarded for it. And being encouraged to go make still more of it.

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story that just reinforced all the other stories we tell ourselves?

How could I be so blinded by greed that I didn’t see the obvious? The master in this story is supposed to be my Master.

And money- talent- that’s not the treasure he gave us before he went away.

I don’t know how I missed it before. He wasn’t vague or coy.

The gifts the Master left us before he went away weren’t cash and coin or CODs.

No, he gave us bread and wine. He left us water, for baptism. He taught us how to pray and interpret scripture. And he showed us how to reconcile and forgive.

Before he went away, he gave us wisdom and knowledge and faith and prophecy and healing and miracles and love. Which is just another way to say that the gift he gave us, to each of us his servants, is the Holy Spirit.

And, sure, that gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough.

More than enough-

To shape communities of mercy.

More than enough-

To bring his healing grace to conflict and suffering.

More than enough-

To set captives free and to lift up the lowly and bring down the proud and the powerful.

It’s more than enough to bring about forgiveness and redemption and resurrection.

The gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough for each of us to do everything that Jesus did, which includes training others to do the things that Jesus did.

Even the servant with 1 gift- the ability to pray or receive the sacrament or forgive- even that servant is sitting on a fortune large enough to change the world. That’s what my Master wanted us to know before he went away.

Should, woulda, coulda.

It wasn’t until I was shocked to wind up here that the shock of my Master’s story finally hit me.

Think about it:

After spending so much time with his master and then being given a life-changing, world-redeeming treasure, one of the master’s servants still don’t know how to do the things the master had done.

One of the master’s servants acted as though the gift they were given still belonged to someone else, as though it were someone else’s job to do something with the gift.

After so much time and such treasure, one of the master’s servants somehow thought their relationship with the master was just between them. Personal. Private.  Which makes the gift about as useful as hiding it under a basket or flushing it down the toilet or hiding it in the ground.

Here’s the punchline:

There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 servant like that. There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 disciple like that. There’s not. Or else I wouldn’t be here, rubbing my teeth down weeping. The joke’s on me.

In the story, the master says to his servant:

 “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own plus some.”

But what the Master says in real life sounds more like:  “After all the time you spent following me? Worshipping me? Learning from me? Listening to me? After seeing how I share food with the outcast and bring all sorts of sinners around my table. After seeing the way I transform people and heal brokenness and refuse to condemn. After seeing how I forgive. How I invite people to follow me and how I challenge them to lead an eternal kind of life. And then after I give you all the gifts you need to do everything I’ve done…you don’t?! You don’t!? What were you thinking!? Whose job did you think it was?! My Kingdom isn’t just good news; it’s responsibility. You can’t accept my Kingdom without being enlisted by it. And don’t I say I didn’t warn you, didn’t tell you that my disciples will be held accountable. Therefore, for a worthless disciple like you it’s outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

You’re sure you don’t have any ear-plugs you could spare?

No?

Well, make sure you pack some for yourself.

I mean, obviously I’m not a gambling man, but if I had to make a bet…you’ll be here too someday.

 

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

My point:

We are who we’ve loved.

From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:

Hell for some would be Hell for all.

If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

My teacher David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trumping Our Fears

Jason Micheli —  August 7, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the lectionary Gospel reading from Luke 12. I wish I had a recording of the band’s rendition of ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ that accompanied the reading. Shout out to my friend Andrew DiAntonio for the collage art for the August Luke series.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a two hour class every day at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission for about thirty licensed local pastors from all over the country.

I can only imagine how much it tightens some of your sphincters to think of me shaping and influencing other pastors into how to do ministry.

Lest you worry, I taught them the basics for success:

  1. Get yourself a past-his-prime, passionless, shoot-from-the hip senior pastor who can serve as the straight man to all your jokes.
  2. If your bishop ever calls at 10:00 PM to ask if you think the word ‘Toilet’ is appropriate for conversation, then- like Peter Venkman Advises Ray Stantz in the only good Ghostbusters movie, Say No.
  3. Despite #2, Nothing you say will ever offend your congregation like preaching what Jesus preached. Straight up.

Teaching these last two weeks reminded me of when I was a licensed local pastor 16 years ago. Believe it or not, Aldersgate is not the church where I made all my first mistakes.

One of my first mistakes, in fact, was attending my first clergy meeting.

I had just started my first semester as a student at Princeton, and I had just been licensed to pastor a small congregation outside of town when I received an email notifying me of that month’s clergy meeting.

I was only a rookie, a licensed local pastor. I didn’t know any better. So I actually attended the meeting.

It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained glass windows.

A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a dreadlocked man praying. The banner read: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.’

An ironic slogan, I thought, when you considered the four cameras mounted on the corners of the building and how to get into the church you had to go around to the back, ring a security buzzer on a steel door— the kind you see on Orange is the New Black. From there, some faceless person buzzed you into a foyer where you first had to show identification and submit to a cavity search.

Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so mostly older pastors. And when I say old, I mean like you-know-who-old: like, our wizened, vacationing (I mean, sabbath-taking) Dennis Perry.

After a perfunctory devotional time and the obligatory announcements, the agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.

She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.

The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar Igniting Ministry advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members. Today our advertising campaign is Rethink Church. Same pig, different lipstick.

The woman was dressed like a Lululemon mannequin. Her eyes were lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials this side of Billy Mays’ sham-wow. .

She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado in her body language, she pressed play on a VCR which, even in the year 2000, felt antiquated.

The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voiced-over narrator said: ‘Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.’

And then some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. And then it said: ‘Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.’

When the commercial was over, she pressed pause.

I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads. Nearly all of them were smiling.

‘That’s great,’ some of them said.

‘That will really speak to young people.’

‘This will revitalize the Church.’

The woman from UM Communications was beaming.

‘Any other thoughts?’ she asked.

You’ll be happy to know the people of Aldersgate are not responsible for making me the way I am. Even then, only ankle deep in my first month of ministry, I was cynical and contrary.

‘I don’t get it’ I said.

And everyone turned and stared at me.

‘What don’t you get?’ she asked with a frown.

‘Well…I mean…the commercial doesn’t mention…you know…like…Jesus.’

‘Young man,’ she said through a forced smile, ‘these commercials are designed to appeal to the unchurched, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.’

‘But what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?’ I asked.

She bit her bottom lip and said: ‘Our research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less appealing.’

I suppose she had a point.

Maybe it’s better to lure people to church with promises of giving their lives meaning and significance.

Maybe it’s better to hook people with the promise that God can quell all your fears and anxieties. Solve all your problems.

Maybe it’s better to do that than just dump Jesus on someone all at once.

Take today’s Gospel- not the tiny little snippet the lectionary thinks you can handle without freaking out but take all of Luke 12. Take the whole passage, what provokes and what proceeds what the lectionary allows you to hear today.

First, in verse four, Jesus warns not the masses but his disciples- warns them:

“Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more to you. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after you have died, has the power to cast you into hell. Yes, fear that One.”

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

And then, right after today’s little lectionary snippet about not being afraid, Jesus tells a white-knuckled, Wes Craven parable about a Master who returns home after a long absence, and when the Master discovers his servants have not done what he commanded them to do, the Master- get this, you’re going to love this– cuts them into pieces and casts them off.

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

What do you do with a Jesus like that?

A few weeks ago I preached that “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”

But if Jesus is God in the flesh, then a correlative truth is:

“God is at least as scary as Jesus.”

Just think: how would you turn a Luke 12 Jesus into an effective advertising campaign?

Instead of rain dribbling down a window, would you maybe film the forsaken fiery garbage dump that Jesus calls Gehenna and we call Hell? ‘Come to the United Methodist Church,’ the ad could say, ‘where Jesus promises to come back and cut you into pieces if you don’t do what he commanded.’ 

An ad like that would break the internet faster than an Orlando Bloom, in full bloom, vacation photo.

Or what if you kept the footage of the rain dribbling down the window. ‘Are you afraid in these uncertain economic times and in our terror-filled world?’ the narrator- who in my head has to be Ed Harris- could query. ‘Come to the United Methodist Church and let Jesus give you something much, much bigger to fear.’ 

Just before today’s passage, a Pharisee invites Jesus and the disciples to dinner at his house. The appetizers aren’t even on the table before the Pharisee rebukes Jesus for sitting down to eat without washing up first as both courtesy and commandment require.

And Jesus, ever the delicate dinner guest, shouts back at his host: “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cups and dishes, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” 

That is, Jesus calls them hypocrites- of pretending to be something they are not. Jesus accuses them of pretending to be different when they are just like everyone else, of pretending to be holier in order to put themselves above the crowd.

After they leave the Pharisee’s dinner table, a crowd of thousands- a mob, really- starts to tag along after Jesus and the disciples. And there’s no other provocation. No one says anything or does anything. There’s no other provocation than that the disciples now find themselves among this crowd, this mob.

And Jesus turns to them, to his disciples standing there among the mob, and he warns his followers away from a different kind of hypocrisy.

A different kind of hypocrisy:

“…my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. Fear him who, after you have died, has authority to cast into hell.”

      Where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of pretending to be something they’re not, Jesus warns his disciples against pretending not to be something they are.

Disciples.

Where the Pharisees’ hypocrisy is meant to elevate them above the crowds in order to make them superior, Jesus warns his disciples against an hypocrisy that would blend them into the crowd in order to make them safe.

     Do not pretend not to be the disciples you are, Jesus warns. Do not pretend not to have heard what I’ve taught you. Do not pretend not to know what I’ve commanded you. Just because you fear what the crowds might say about you or do to you, do not pretend you’re not who you are, who I’ve called you to be. Just because you’re afraid, do not pretend that you’re not different from the crowds. 

Yes, following me in a world like ours might be scary, Jesus says, but it’s not as frightening as me. The worst the world can do to you is kill you. I have the power, after death, to throw you like so much rubbish into a dumpster fire.

And just in case his warning isn’t clear, Jesus then tells not the Pharisees, not the crowds, but tells his disciples- tells us- a parable about the Second Coming.

A story about a Master who comes back and finds that his servants have not done what he told them to do.

When the Master returns, he cuts his servants into pieces, for to those who have been given much responsibility much is required.

Jesus says.

Right after telling us, his little flock, not to be afraid.

 

She pressed ‘Play’ on the VCR and sampled a few more of the dozen or so Igniting Ministry commercials.

One had a woman sitting down against a soft-focus background. She was bent over, her elbows leaning on her knees. Maybe she’d been crying or just pondering. The commercial was again filmed in a depressing kind of grey, gloomy palette.

And then came the voiceover: ‘If you’re searching for meaning in your life, we invite you to join us this week. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.’

She pressed ‘Pause’ after that one and the comments that followed were every bit as euphoric as they’d been in the beginning.

Now, far be it for me to be argumentative, but she’d called me young man and that got my blood up. So I raised my hand.

She looked long and hard over the pews before finally calling on me.

‘So, do any of these commercials mention Jesus?’

She took a deep breath and explained all over again the marketing strategy of targeting people who fear their lives lack meaning, direction, significance.

‘Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?’ I wondered aloud.

She just looked at me, confused.

‘What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little comfort in their lives and what they end up with instead is Jesus?’

Some of the pastors chuckled.

They all thought I was joking.

 

The Book of Common Prayer contains an old litany that guides us to pray “Lord, save us from a sudden death.”

Where most of us hope to die suddenly, painlessly, and in our sleep, the Christians before us dreaded the prospect of dying before they had the opportunity to confess their sins and reconcile with those they’d sinned against. Where we fear meeting Death, the Christians before us feared meeting God, having not done what God commands us to do.

I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it before, but maybe that’s what we mean when we sing that God’s amazing grace not only relieves all our fears it also teaches our hearts to fear.

To fear God.

It’s become cliche but no less true to observe that ours is a culture captive to fear and the ugliness fear exudes.

Fear of eroding values and traditions.

Fear of dim economic trends.

Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims.

Fear of terrorism and violence.

Look- I’m not suggesting those fears are all illegitimate, but- for Christians- those fears are all misplaced.

     Those fears are all misplaced because- as Christians- we ought not to fear those fears more than we fear our Master, Jesus Christ.

I wish as much as anyone we had a Master who told us “Do not be afraid little flock” and left it at that. Unfortunately Jesus Christ seems less interested in comforting us in our fears than in giving us all new fears to deal with, fears we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t met Jesus.

Fears we wouldn’t have if we could just blend into the mob and pretend not to be who we are. His disciples.

And Christ’s disciples are those people who are not more afraid of immigrants strangers, not more afraid of enemies and the Muslim Other, not more afraid of violence and Death, hardship and harm- not more afraid of those fears than we are afraid of him.

For Christ commanded us- he didn’t suggest to us-

He commanded us:

To welcome the Other- that’s Matthew 25.

To show hospitality to the immigrant- that’s one of the Sinai

commandments.

To not obsess over our pocketbooks and portfolios but trust that the Lord will take care of our tomorrow – that’s Luke 12.

To love your enemy and pray for them because while you were his enemy, Christ died for you and Christ has given you his ministry not of retaliation but reconciliation- that’s the Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul in sum.

Christ has commanded us, his servants, to live in this sort of love. Not because it makes sense. Not because it’s good red or blue politics. Not because it’s a strategy to make our world more safe. But because this is how he first loved us- says the Apostle John.

Of course, the bad news is that we believe he’s coming back to judge how well we’ve done what he told us to do.

The Master’s standards for his servants is higher than for anyone else, Jesus says. To know the Lord’s will and NOT do it is far worse than not knowing the Lord at all.

     You see, it’s not that Christians are unafraid.

     It’s that we have a fear others have the luxury never to know.

    We have a fear that trumps all our other fears.

We have the fear of the Lord. Or, we should.

The good news in that is that you do not get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid.

Trust me, take it from someone who was afraid he was going to die a year ago. You don’t get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid. That only makes you more fearful.

The only way NOT to fear

The only way NOT to fear is to realize Jesus Christ would have us fear him. And, by fearing him, we can begin to recognize how finite and sometimes even foolish are the fears that the crowds give us.

Look, I’m not an idiot.

It’s natural to fear the Other.

It’s natural to fear the immigrant. It’s natural to fear the enemy. It’s not natural to welcome them. It’s not natural to show them hospitality. It’s not natural to pray for them and to try to love them.

We need to be formed, re-formed, into something so unnatural.

We need this Table. We need to come to this Table where Jesus Christ is host and invites Judases like us to be his guests. We need to come to this Table where Jesus offers undeserving us his broken body and his poured out blood and gives us again his unnatural, catch-all commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

 

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4It was my fault. I knew I should’ve carried on something by John Grisham or David Baldacci or maybe, like everyone else on the plane, The Kite Runner. Instead I’d fallen asleep with the evidence right there on my lap: a theology book, thick and unambiguous, with an unexciting orange cover that plainly, if obscurely, said Church Dogmatics II.1 by Karl Barth.

I’d just woken up after almost an hour not sure if we’d landed already or if we’d not yet taken off. I was out of sorts, my clothes were disheveled and drool was running in a thin, clear line from the corner of my mouth. The motionless plane was as hot and still as a subway car and damp from the rain that was still pelting down on the wings and the runway outside. I was hot and thirsty and stressed, knowing that I would now definitely be late, and, on top of all that, there was this question: ‘So, are you a priest…or a professor?’

It was my fault. I’d initiated conversation. I was the one who made first contact. ‘When she comes by again can you ask her for some water?’ I’d said. And the man in aisle seat said‘Sure’ and then pointed with his eyes at the boring-looking book that had slid off my lap into the buffer seat between us and with a raised brow he asked: ‘So, are you a priest…?’

I was not long into my ministry when I first discovered that there were simply some occasions in life that my job changed irrevocably for the worse, certain occasions when the disclosure ‘I’m a Methodist minister’ either stops conversation cold or else starts other unwanted conversations.

At parties, for instance, no one wants to find out you’re a minister. People don’t know how to talk to a minister or what to talk about and everyone looks painfully awkward when the minister sees them with a drink in their hands.

And when you’re a minister getting a haircut can be more time-consuming and far less predictable than it is for the rest of you. It’s not uncommon that before my sideburns are trimmed or neck shaven, I’m hearing a confession or offering consolation or sinking into the quicksand of some philosophical bull session.

One such haircut at my last church ended up with me sitting there in the barber’s chair with the apron around my neck and little clipped hairs stuck to my nose and forehead and eyebrows and with the barber sitting in the chair next to me, leaning over with his hand on my knee while crying and telling me about the wife who’d left him years ago.

It happens all the time.

On such occasions I’ve considered that it would be easier if, when asked what it is that I do, I instead, like George Costanza, simply made things up: ‘I’m an architect’ I could say. ‘I’m a marine biologist’ I could tell the woman at the Hair Cuttery. And that would be that. To this list of awkward occasions, I can now add Riding on Planes.

‘So, are you a priest…or a professor?’ It was my fault. I was flying Southwest so I’d chosen my seat. I had no one to blame but myself. I’d chosen to sit next to him: a business-looking type, someone with lots of files and a laptop and blackberry, someone who wouldn’t want to pass the time making conversation with a stranger.

On that weekday flight he looked like half of all the other passengers: forty-fifty, graying neatly-parted hair, blue suit and red tie loosened around his white collar. It was last October and I was flying from Baltimore to Ohio for a conference that concerned Aldersgate’s ministry in Cambodia.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said, kicking myself for not buying a copy of the The Kite Runner. ‘Really,’ he said in a less than impressed tone, ‘my sister-in-law’s still a Christian.’Thus implying that he’d been inoculated against whatever superstition still infected his sister-in-law.

From there the conversation began as these conversations always do: ‘You look so young to be a minister’; ‘How did you decide to do that with your life?’; ‘Did you always know or did you have an experience?’

And after these questions were answered, those parts of my story vaguely answered, he asked me if I read the recently released book Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. I said that I had not but that I knew of it. I’d read a review or heard some NPR chat about it. With sudden vigor, he told me what a ‘powerful’ book it was.

Then, in the urgent rhythms of a beat poet, he told me how effectively Sam Harris’ book documented:

·        all the abuses committed in the name of religion

·        how it catalogued the many sins of the Church

·        skewered Christianity’s historic fear of science

·        revealed the inconsistencies in scripture and the often violent portrayals of God.

For what seemed like forever and with judgment in his voice, he shared these ‘insights’ with me. At some during his diatribe I realized that he was actually angry at me- that I was to him not a person but a symbol, a reminder of something he’d closed the door on long ago.

When he finished his book review, he took a breath and cast a glance  down at my book,Church Dogmatics, and he said in a woebegone way ‘But you probably wouldn’t like it. My sister-in-law didn’t.’   

‘Actually, I’m an architect’ I thought about telling him.

‘It’s not that I’m an atheist’ he said almost like a peace offering, ‘I just couldn’t believe in a god who sends all but a few of his creatures to Hell.’

‘Neither could I’ I said.

The captain’s voice crackled over the speaker, informing us that our delay would last a bit longer. ‘Do you though…believe in hell?’ he asked.  And what I thought was: ‘Yes, I do. Hell is being asked questions like these while sitting captive on a hot, motionless plane.’

But I said was: ‘I don’t preach much about it or the devil either. They always end up sounding more interesting than God. And that can’t be true.’

He looked at me skeptically. ‘At my parent’s church, growing up, that’s all I ever heard,’he sighed, ‘fire and brimstone, judgment and hell, that sort of thing.’

To be honest, I didn’t really believe me at first. It sounded too cliché.

‘When I was finally done with all that,’ he said, ‘we had a youth rally at the church one night. We were supposed to invite all our non-church friends. The pastor came and he told them that if they were all to die that night all of them would be going to hell forever. The pastor said the ultimate question was whether you would spend eternity in heaven or in hell. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I just decided then that I couldn’t believe in a god who would do that.’

‘When I was in college I was rejected as a Young Life leader,’ I told him, ‘the director made that same sort of comment in my interview, and I questioned him on it.’

The man in the aisle seat looked at me, like I had surprised him. It was quiet for a few moments. ‘We’re not all like that you know, fire and brimstone’ I offered.

‘But it is part of your bible’ he hit back, waiting for a response.

‘Well, if the universe is moral, if God is just, then it makes sense that God punishes sin’ I argued, proud of my fortress-like logic. ‘But eternal punishment seems excessive don’t you think? Even for the worst of sins.’

     ‘Christians have different understandings’ I said. ‘Some think hell is a finite time of punishment or refining. Others think of it as annihilation- you just cease to exist.’

     ‘But what I’ve never understood… if God is all-loving and all-powerful why would things turn out differently than he wanted?’

That’s when I began to suspect he was a lawyer and not a businessman.

I didn’t answer him. I was too tired.

Tired of being put on the defensive

Tired of having to represent all of Christianity-good and bad

Tired of fielding arguments he’d obviously decided before he ever sat down on the plane

And I was tired of trying to wrap my mind around what the bible says about judgment and what it says about the love and mercy of Christ.

He just shifted his legs and took a breath, and I could tell he wasn’t finished yet.

One of the other things I learned early in my ministry is that the fastest way to shut down these sorts of conversations is for me to start talking like a pastor, in a probing, overly empathic way. ‘Tell me,’ I said, ‘what does give your life meaning? Are you satisfied? Is your life worthwhile? Or is just for you?’

And all of a sudden he look frightened- like I was about to proselytize him.

And that could’ve been the end of our conversation.

But instead I sat up in my too-small seat and picked up my orange theology book, and I explained to him that the mistake preachers and others make is thinking hell is God’s last word on sin. ‘The Cross is God’s last word’ I said, ‘the Cross really does reconcile everything that’s wrong between God and each of us.’

He was about to argue with me, I could tell. But I didn’t let him. I went on and told him:

 •    that whatever distance there is between God and us that it’s distance we put there ourselves

•    that ‘Hell’ is the Church’s name for that distance and that you can suffer that in this life as easily as in any other

•    that ‘Hell’ is not so much God’s unchanging decision about us as much as it is our self-imposed exile from the life that God makes possible.

And he looked at me as you all do when I’m preaching: a bit dazed and not quite tracking.

So I told him:

That when Jesus talks about hell, he does so by comparing heaven to a wedding feast to which everyone is invited. The problem isn’t with the party or the party-giver or the number of invitations sent. It’s with our unwillingness to come.

And even at the very end of the bible, in the very last chapter, after the Last Judgment has already happened and all the wicked and sinners and unrighteous and unbelievers have all supposedly perished in the Lake of Fire, even after all that- the bible gives us this last picture of the saints of God staring through heaven’s open gates at those still on the outside and along with the Holy Spirit they sing: “Come.”

Hell’s not so much a place we’re sent; so much as it is a place we refuse to leave when we’ve been invited to something more beautiful.

He smiled slightly, and I knew he thought that I was soft-selling the whole fire and brimstone thing. ‘My parents’ preacher would say the ultimate question is whether you’ll spend eternity in heaven or hell’ he countered.

I told him that actually I tend to think the ultimate question is: ‘Are you thirsty? Or, are you hungry? Are you lost? Or, are you empty? Because God doesn’t just offer eternal life, he invites us to live this life abundantly.’  

I thought that was that, that he was done, that I’d left him tired or confused or disappointed.

He turned to face forward and he looked up at the air vent and the seatbelt sign above him.

And after a few moments he told me that he was divorced. That at first he was just trying to build a career but that his work had killed his marriage and that now he let it keep him from his children too.

He told me that he traveled all the time but that his life had no direction, that it was true that he no longer believed in his parent’s faith, but that he hadn’t found anything else in its place either.

‘I guess you’d say I’m lost’ he said.

He then looked over at me as if for a response. ‘Maybe, but if Jesus really is the beginning and end of everything, then his mercy is everlasting and  he’ll never stop looking for you.’

‘Thus endeth the sermon’ I said and closed my eyes.

And he didn’t say anything for a long while.

And somewhere, the Spirit and the bride said: ‘Come.’

hell-5-views-3-638I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they simultaneously assume that belief in the biblical account of creation requires images of brontosauruses reclining with Adam in the peaceable garden of eden. I wonder, that is, if believing in a fiery fate is part and parcel with affirming scripture’s aging of the earth. Certainly I think Christians can only insist that the story ends this awful way for some of us- or, to listen to them, a great many of us- because they mistakenly read its beginning in a particular way.

Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the  term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.

To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.

When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one- that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.

For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.

Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though- really, because– Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.

Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.

Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart argues:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”

God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. Perfection.

God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story. Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.

Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.

It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification.

Perfection.

Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.

Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.

 

 

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4I’m no aficionado of the Oxford Comma, as my friend Tony Jones knows,  so I can appreciate, I suppose, the way a sober dose of grammatical clarification can provoke patronizing tones. Last week my post on how Paul, once he’s properly translated, believes it’s the faithfulness of Christ- not our faith in Christ- that justifies us before God, inspired many a breathless rebuttal. According to the many rejoinders I received, to place “too much stress” upon God-in-Christ as the acting subject of salvation leads to an “abyss of false teaching” where it becomes necessary to affirm that which the New Testament already (inconveniently) does; namely, that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4

Apparently, if my critics, clergy and lay, are to be heeded to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.

Their sanctimonious caveats took me aback, warning me that my logic- which is but the logic of the New Testament’s witness- “could lead down a slippery slope” to (gasp) “universalism.” It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by my teacher, David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 3 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.

47 vs. 3

What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.

A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence I daresay logic permits us to say more.

If God desires the salvation of all it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.

The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.

Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.

Consider the counter:

If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.

Evil would God.

Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.

Just days after the slaughter in Orlando, it’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include the shooter too.

To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32

Bigger than Burning

Jason Micheli —  April 18, 2016 — 1 Comment

 

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_n     This weekend I preached on John’s Easter story as part of our ‘Building Lives’ capital campaign. For the first time since planting a church I preached with a screen and projector. Here’s the PDF of my manuscript with the slides included for those dying to see: Sermon with Slides

Attachment-1     Um, excuse me.

Eyes up here.

Look at you. Put a screen in front of your faces and you’re as glued to it as my kids do when they watch Game of Thrones.

Anyway-

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So I figure a picture as sexy and impressive as this one has to be worth at least, what, three thousand words? In which case, thus endeth the sermon. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This picture was taken three weeks ago on Easter Sunday when, in my sermon, I noted how in Matthew’s resurrection story God’s angel doesn’t bother reassuring Caesar’s people to be not afraid. Maybe, I preached, for people like us, people like Caesar’s people- people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty darn well- the proper response to the news of resurrection is fear.

Maybe we should be scared, I concluded.

To which, one of you primped and seersuckered listeners, was later overheard from two tables down at River Bend Bistro excoriating my sermon, complaining that “his point was absurd and insensitive and he was even vulgar in getting to it.”

And while stabbing his breakfast sausages with feral glee, this Easter brunch begrudger was overheard griping “It was almost like he didn’t care whether his sermon hurt our feelings or not.”

Fair enough. Both my spouse and my Strength Finders report rank me low in the sensitivity department. Fine. Whatever.

But then, from across his two top bistro table, his wife, reportedly threw up her hands over her french toast and groused aloud: “Easter’s supposed to be comforting not upsetting.” And then, as if polling the brunch crowd, she asked: “What’s so scary about Easter?”

Obviously it didn’t take long for my post-cancer honeymoon to end and things to settle back to normal. Don’t worry, though, I’ve since reconciled with Dennis and Sharon and I got their permission to share that anecdote so no harm, no foul.

I’ll you tell though that question still sticks in my craw “What’s so scary about Easter?” because “Sharon” wasn’t the only one who asked me it on the way home Easter Sunday.

(It wasn’t Sharon, but it did happen.)

What’s so scary about Easter? Isn’t it obvious?

I mean, you don’t even have to turn to scripture to realize what’s so scary about Easter. Clearly, Exhibit A is the Easter Bunny. At least Santa lets you sit on his lap. Has anyone ever come across a single one of those little rodents who would let you hold them without nicking up your arms?

And as soon as my youngest began Family Life at school this spring, he started asking me where the Easter Bunny gets these eggs? Does she baby-snatch them? Is she in a close, committed relationship with a rooster? Is she even a she? He wondered while riding shotgun in my Bronco.

The Easter Bunny is creepy scary.

I mean-

Have you seen the 2001 film Donnie Darko?

Frank

In that movie the Easter Bunny managed to come across as even creepier than Patrick Swayze playing an oily self-help guru-

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That’s even more terrifying than Patrick Swayze singing “She’s like the Wind” all the way to the top of the charts in 1987.

That’s scary stuff. And as Bodhi says in Point Break:

     “Fear causes hesitation and hesitation causes even your worst fears to come true.”

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     And, we all know, nobody puts Bodhi in a corner.

It’s not just Patrick Swayze and the Easter Bunny that are flesh-crawling frightening.

     Mark and Matthew, Luke and John- the Gospels all agree: the very first reaction to news of the resurrection is fear.

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear.

The women, come to anoint the body, run away. Terrified.

The disciples lock the door and cower in the corner.

The first response to the news “Christ is Risen” is not “He is Risen indeed!”

It’s panic.

Fear.

Terror.

Why?

—————————————

Why are they so scared?

Are they afraid that what Caesar did Jesus might still be done to them?

Or do they fear the news that this particular Jesus has come back? This Jesus who harassed them for three years, who called them to abandon their family businesses and complicated their lives with talk of cross-bearing.

Are they afraid that they’re not finally rid of this Jesus after all? Is Jesus what’s so scary about the news “Jesus has been resurrected!”?

Or-

Is it the word itself that makes them white-knuckled afraid?

Was that word, resurrection, enough to provoke not just awe but frightened shock?

—————————————

Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in Daniel 12.

Not only was Daniel the last book added to the Hebrew Bible, it was the most popular scripture during the disciples’ day.

For their entire history up until Daniel’s time, the Jews had absolutely no concept of heaven. When you died, you were dead.

That was it, the Jews believed. You worshipped and obeyed God not for hope of heaven but because God, in and of himself, was worthy of our thanks and praise.

But then-

When Israel’s life turned dark and grim, when their Temple was razed and set ablaze, when their Promised Land was divided and conquered, and when they were carted off as exiles to a foreign land, the Jews began to long for a Day of God’s justice and judgement.

If not in this life, then in a life to come.

     And so the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection.

Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God.

But for those who’ve committed suffering, they might be on top now in this life but one day God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to everlasting shame and punishment.

So, in the only Bible those disciples knew, that word ‘resurrection’ was a hairy double-edged sword, even scarier than Patrick Swayze and the Easter Bunny. Resurrection wasn’t about lilies and cloud-wisped harps.

Resurrection was about the justice owed to the suffering and the judgment that belonged to God.

     In the disciples’ Bible, if you were long-suffering, resurrection was good news.

If you were good.

If you weren’t, resurrection was hellfire and damnation.

You can imagine, then, how those disciples heard that first Easter message. If God had raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus who was the only Righteous One, the only Faithful One, as St. Paul says, then that must mean God was about to judge the living and the dead.

The disciples are afraid of the Easter news not because they fail to understand resurrection but because they do understand. They knew their scripture, and they knew they’d abandoned Jesus.

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail, turned a blind eye, washed their hands of his blood. They’d scapegoated him into suffering, and stood silently by while others mocked him and taunted him.

They’d let the world sin all its sins into him and then left him forsaken on a cross.

For sinners like them, resurrection could only mean one thing: brimstone.

What’s so surprising about the Easter news isn’t just that the tomb is empty but that hell is empty too.

It’s shocking that the Risen Christ doesn’t encounter his disciples and indict them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me.

I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink.

I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending to know me not.

I was hungry for justice, wretched upon the cross, and I remained a stranger to you.

The shock of Easter isn’t just the empty grave it’s that God comes back from the it and doesn’t condemn the unrighteous ones who put him there.

All of them- while they were yet sinners, God comes back from the death they’d consigned him to and he doesn’t pay them the wages their sin had earned. He forgives their sin. He spares them the everlasting judgment and shame they had every reason from their Bibles to expect.

What should’ve been terrifying news becomes good news.

But-  pay attention now, that good news- that isn’t the Gospel.

     The Gospel is bigger than the forgiveness of our sin.

The Gospel is bigger than our being delivered from damnation; it’s bigger than burning.

Because when the Risen Christ slips behind our locked doors on Easter night, the first word he says to his disciples is “Peace.”

————————————-

And that word “Peace” it’s not the first century equivalent of “S’up.”

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Or, “Howdy.” Jesus isn’t like “Hey, how’s it going guys?”

John renders it into Greek, eiríni. It comes to us through the Latin, pax. Jesus would’ve spoken it in Aramaic, ܫܠܡ, which the disciples would’ve received from the Hebrew: שָׁלוֹם.

And in the Hebrew Bible, shalom doesn’t mean simply “peace.” It’s a thick, pregnant word that means health, prosperity, wholeness, restoration, and repair- all of it. Literally, shalom is “the state where nothing is broken and nothing is missing.”

“Why have you forsaken me?”

“Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Those are the last words of the Old World, and peace, shalom, is the First Word of the New World, and it’s not an incidental salutation. It’s the word that summarizes what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Practically everyone in the world can recite John 3.16 by heart.

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But even though Tim Tebow has plenty of time on his hands now he, like everyone else, forgets the very next verse:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that through him the world might be healed.”

     God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it but to heal the world, to repair the world, to restore the world, to shalom it. That’s what the Easter Gospels want you to see.

The judgement that word ‘resurrection’ signaled comes not to us but to our Judge, who was judged in our place and who comes back from death and forgives us.

And the life with God that word ‘resurrection’ promised is a life here, now and forever, where the Kingdom comes- just as he taught us to pray. The life promised by that word ‘resurrection’ isn’t an evacuation but a restoration.

It’s not about a new location; it’s about a new creation.

New Creation- that’s why John gives you the otherwise embarrassing detail that Mary took Jesus, wearing only his birthday suit, to be the gardener.

John wants you to see that Mary is right. He is the Gardener. He’s a New Adam for a New Creation. The Old World died with him in the Good Friday night- he put Sin to death- and now God walks in the garden not in the cool of the evening but in the dawn of a new day.

John wants you to see that just as the Old World had been born in a garden, on Easter a New World is inaugurated in a garden where Jesus, like a Second Adam, walks with another Eve, naked and unashamed.

You see- don’t you?

See that what John wants to show you through story is what Paul proclaims in his preaching:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the New Creation has come: the Old World has gone, the New World has arrived.”

“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself and Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

The ministry of restoration. The ministry of healing and repair. Of שָׁלוֹם.

It’s our work now- that’s what John shows you next, when a presumably still naked Jesus breathes on to them.

Weird- unless what John wants you to see is that just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, and breathes into it the breath of life and from it brings forth life, Jesus takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.

He reconstitutes them. He shaloms them, as a new humanity, and then he gives to them his new creation work of makings things on earth as it is in heaven.

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The Gospel- the message we proclaim- isn’t that Christ died for you. No, that isn’t the Gospel because judgement is only one half the meaning of that word ‘resurrection.’

And our message isn’t that God loves you. I wish it were that easy, but the other half of that word, resurrection, asks so much more of us.

     The Gospel isn’t just that you’ve been saved from burning.

     The Gospel is that you’ve been saved for something.

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If that’s the whole Gospel, if that’s both sides to that word “resurrection,” then the question we need to ask isn’t “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

The right question to ask is “Is anything keeping us from entering Christ’s New Creation work fully?

Does anything prevent us as a community from living a life worthy of our Easter commissioning?

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Perhaps you’ve heard already during this capital campaign that the debt we carry costs us about $22,000 per month.

You heard that right: $22,0000 every month. More than Aldersgate pays its pastors in a year, it gives to BB&T for a debt it has carried longer than it has had Dennis leading it.

So let me rephrase that Gospel question: could we fulfill more of our New Creation calling without that debt?

Before you answer, consider:

In 2012, we raised money for and we built a kitchen for an elementary school in Chikisis, Guatemala, a community where that school provides the only hot, healthy meal those hundreds of kids will eat during the day.

That kitchen cost us about $15,000 or about 3 weeks worth of debt payments.

In 2013, we raised money for and we built a clinic in the neighboring village of Chuicutama because those highland communities are too remote for easy access to medical care.

The clinic cost us about $35,000, a little more than what we pay out in 6 weeks to BB&T.

Next, we fundraised and we built a complete sanitation system for Chuicutama. We worked our tails off, and I got in all kinds of trouble with the bishop for using the word ‘toilet’ in church because when you’re lucky enough to take toilets for granted you’re lucky enough to judge the word toilet inappropriate

That project took 2 years and cost about $50,000. It was the biggest project we’ve ever done and it still only cost us 9 weeks of debt payments.

This summer we’re building a high school in that community and an irrigation well in Ft Apache, Arizona. The well costs less than a month’s worth of debt payments.

Does anything prevent us as a community from living a life worthy of our commissioning? You tell me.

Already this year Aldersgate helped a woman, with two young children, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer and unable to work for a few months.

We assisted a nurse whose teenage daughter was the victim of violent, physical abuse by her boy friend and unable to work.

We paid rent for a young mother whose husband had lost his job. They have a 3 month old boy, a 3 year old boy, and a 1 yr old daughter with Downs Syndrome.

And none of it comes close to what we give BB&T in a month.

On Sundays we make dinner, go into DC, turn on soul music, set out tables and chairs, and sit down for a meal with not for the homeless, treating them like people not charity cases, like they are the brothers and sisters that Jesus Christ has in fact made them to us.

And in a year we do that for less than we spend on 1 week’s worth of debt.

It’s not that buildings are bad. No, I taught confirmation in Shepherd Hall just last Sunday. It’s the space where we shape our kids’ character. It’s not that the building is bad; it’s that the debt is sinful.

Aldersgate is changing lives around the world and not too far from here.

But we could be doing so much more.

That Toilet Project- it’s so desperately needed in the surrounding communities in Guatemala we literally could build 1 sanitation system per year until I’m older than Bernie Sanders.

We could do so much more.

In our own neighborhood even. Just think- at Stratford Landing Elementary there are 200 kids living in poverty. 100 of the kids there have no father in their lives and all but 3 of them live in poverty too.

And, it’s not just about spending money. It’s about whether we want to keep expending so much of our church’s time and energy and so many of our most talented lay people on debt work instead of on Gospel work.

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You know-

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced I was wrong this Easter. What’s really frightening about Easter, scarier even than the Easter Bunny and Patrick Swayze, is the fact that the Risen Jesus believes we’re capable of more than we think we’re capable of.

It’s unnerving to think that Jesus thinks we can accomplish more significant things than the the status quo we settle for, that we’re capable not just of charity but his shalom.

When you think about Easter in those terms, you’ve got to wonder if, subconsciously at least, our debt isn’t like that locked door the disciples try to put between them and the Risen Christ.

Maybe it’s our way of keeping Easter at a comfortable remove from us.

If so, it should scare us that the Risen Jesus apparently has no trouble slipping past the doors we try to close against him.

 

 

 

 

In Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault reflects on Bentham’s image of the panopticon as the ideal prison. Prisoners constantly under the gaze of a lone guard in a central tower, Foucault argued, is an image of pure- and ultimately degrading-power and, for that reason, worse than torture.
For Sunday’s sermon I tried to apply Foucault’s argument to the 3rd servant’s confession ‘I know you’re a harsh Master’ in Matthew 25. I did so by way of Bette Midler.
You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or in iTunes here. I broke the mic Sunday so you’re going to have to turn it up!
 
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     I didn’t always know Him. Thought I did.

And before that, for a long time, I didn’t know him at all.

God, that is.

 

I mean, I wasn’t always a disciple, a ‘servant of the Lord.’  I didn’t even attend a regular worship service- ever- until about the same time I was attending Driver’s Ed. My excitement for the latter was in inverse proportion to the former.

I didn’t make God the Master of my life until around the same time I was teaching life-saving at the neighborhood pool.

In other words, I didn’t grow up in a religious home. We didn’t intone His name at suppertime. We didn’t invoke His fickle nature when we stubbed our toes or languished in the Brew-Thru line or came up nada on the Pick 6.

For a long time, I didn’t know Him.

Before I was a teenager, I graced the doorway of the Master’s house only once, for my Aunt Lisa’s nuptials to a guy whose name I was convinced must be a joke: ‘Chet.’

I was a part of the Master’s ‘Dearly Beloved’ that day, but more so than the grim, gothic sanctuary or the ancient smells and bells or the priest’s alien incantations, what I best recall from that ceremony was the unfortunate Val Kilmer/‘Iceman’ haircut my mother imprudently allowed me to bring to the wedding.

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I didn’t always know Him; I didn’t grow up in a religious family.

We never thought to begrudge the talent or treasure He had given us because He wasn’t really a part of our lives. Nor was Jesus (as in: Jesus H. Christ!!!) even a word in our vocabulary.

We were neither a spiritual nor religious family.

I never flannel-graphed the Good Shepherd in Sunday School. I never fell asleep during gassy, finger-wagging sermons. No one ever taught me to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for that unread book tells me so.’

In fact, I only knew who Jesus was because my Italian Grandmother, who had a pasta-maker’s forearms and a steel-worker’s mustache- it’s true, I look just like her- she had what must’ve been a 5×6 foot Harvey Keitel-kind-of-crucifix with blood and nails and a ‘You did this to me, bastard’ look on his face.

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The crucifix loomed over the head of the pine guest room bed where I slept whenever my mom worked the night shift at the hospital.

I remember-

When I first saw that crucifix, I asked my grandma ‘who did that to him?’ And she replied without ambiguity: ‘I did.’

(‘What in the _________. You did? That’s crazy!’) I thought to myself.

And looking for solace, I asked her: ‘Well, he’s dead now, right?’ But she calmly replied: ‘No. No, he’s alive.’

And again I thought to myself: ‘Wait, you did that to him and he’s still alive? That does NOT sound good.’

So, needless to say, on those sleepover nights at her house I’d cover the crucifix as best I could with a pillowcase. Elementary-me thought something that looked like a ghost on the wall was less terrifying than this guy named Jesus that my paisano  grandma had apparently failed to whack.

But that freaky, torture-device, 5×6 foot roadkill Jesus above the headboard of my bed was as close to meeting the Master as I ever got. We weren’t a religious family. We didn’t pray or worship. If we had a Bible it stayed in mint condition.

I was never exposed- introduced- to Him, the idea of Him; that is, not until 1990.

I was in Jr High, still playing with GI Joe after school but newly in the throes of ‘the puberty’ as it was called in gym class.

1990- it was the year Nelson Mandela was released from Robbin Island, the year Saddam was roused from Kuwait.

1990- it was the year the Simpsons first aired on TV, the year Driving Miss Daisy fooled everyone and somehow won Best Picture and the year Milli Vanilli did NOT sing ‘Girl, You Know It’s True.’

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But what is true, no doubt, 1990 that was the year someone first told me about Him.

God, the Lord, the Father…the Master. 1990 was the year someone got through to me, the year someone got me thinking long and hard and always about Him.

1990- the year John McEnroe’s god-complex got him banned from the Australian Open was the same year I became God-obsessed. All because of the revelation I received from one ginger prophetess:

From a distance I just cannot comprehend

what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,

and it echoes through the land.

And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,

it’s the heart of every man.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.

This is the song of every man.

And God is watching us, God is watching us,

God is watching us from a distance.

Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.

God is watching us from a distance.

1990- that year, like a chanteuse evangelist, Bette Midler’s hit song ‘From a Distance’ lodged in my brain where it haunted me in a way that her overacting in Beaches never could.

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Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ from the album Some People’s Lives went all the way to #1 on the adult contemporary chart. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 100.

In 1991 it won a Grammy for Best Song of the year, which meant the song was everywhere, always as near as its subject was allegedly far. Omnipresent.

Everywhere, anywhere, I went in 1990 Bette Midler and Him were there, like the prodigal parable in reverse. What was found couldn’t be shaken.

Not just on my mom’s cassette tape in her maroon Honda Accord, but wandering around the mall as an awkward adolescent, sipping an orange julius and spying on the girls shopping in Claires and- for a brief moment- thinking life looked not too bad…I heard Bette Midler pipe on the PA: ‘…God is watching us…God is watching us…’

At the Friday night skate party at the roller rink, as I took my first ever stab at talking to an actual human-style girl, I heard Bette’s voice cut through the humid darkness: ‘…God is watching us…’

Pushing the cart behind my mom at the grocery store, I even heard a muzak version of it, no words. But it didn’t need any words because by that point in 1990 I’d heard ‘From a Distance’ so many times I’d started making up my own words to it:

‘God is watching you.

God is watching you.

God is watching you, Jason- from a distance.’

Despite its commercial success- or maybe because of it- ‘From a Distance’ met with much critical derision.

VH1 ranked it #37 on its 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of All Time list. A critic at Rolling Stone reviewed that, even from an eternal distance, Bette Midler’s drum machine FX would sound too loud, while still another critic speculated that if God does exist then surely God hates cliches and forced rhyme schemes.

So as popular as it was on the charts, a lot of critics and aficionados hated Bette Midler’s epic, monster ballad cover of ‘From a Distance.’

Middle school- me hated it too.

Not because of the drum machine FX. Not because I was still in my Phil Collins stage and liking Bette Midler would’ve felt like a betrayal. No, the song terrified me.

Or rather, the assertion in the song terrified me: that every moment, all the time, no matter what I say or do (or 100x worse: think!), no matter where I go- that every move I make, God- like that lover in Sting’s superior song, will be watching you. Me.

Which means that with God my heart is always an open book, all desires are known, no secret is hid.

No. Secret. Is. Hid.

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I don’t know what becoming a teenager was like for you, but this was NOT good news to me.

I mean-

The same year Bette Midler’s ‘From a Distance’ was topping the charts and dominating the play lists of low impact aerobic studios everywhere, I was conscripted into selling chocolate bars as a fundraiser for my school.

I was gunning to hawk enough chocolate to earn the Rickey Henderson rookie card, but it turns out I’m not much of a salesman. The prize I did earn initially struck me as a little lackluster, a Sports Illustrated subscription. I like sports and all, but I didn’t think it was anything to get excited about.

That is, not until that fateful February day when I discovered, like Charlie’s golden ticket, that that Sports Illustrated subscription had hidden inside the fine print the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

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One winter day there they were.

Elle McPherson, Rachel Hunter, Kathy Ireland (I had to look up their names because I don’t remember them) waiting in my mailbox, with my name on them, hours before my mom would come home.

In that revelatory moment, turning each diaphanous page, what middle school-me should’ve heard ringing in his pubescent head was Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus or maybe the Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m So Excited.’

But no.

Thanks to Bette Midler, all I could think, hear, was that little voice inside my head. In her voice actually: ‘God is watching you…God is watching you, Jason.’

1990 bled into 1991and, after enduring 3 semesters of shame and abuse, I finally stood up to a bully named Frog, getting off at his bus stop and pummeling him like a 7th grade Joe Pesci, I didn’t hear the cheers erupt from the steamed-up bus windows. I didn’t hear ‘Eye of the Tiger’ start to play as the soundtrack of my life kicked-on.

No, I heard her.

Sing about Him. The Master. Watching me.

And it was the same when I knowingly ripped off my friend Jim in a baseball card trade that would make Fannie and Freddie proud, giving him my Chris Sabo (!?) for his Roger Clemens rookie card.

And when a woman in the neighborhood paid me and a friend to pull down a rival politician’s campaign signs in the cover of darkness- even in the darkness I was convinced that we were being watched. Thanks to Bette Midler.

And when I refused to accept the apology of a girl in my class, Kathy, for intentionally embarrassing me in class Bette’s chorus came on in my head and in anger I grumbled to her: ‘You should be apologizing to God, Kathy. He’s watching you.’

Which…made her cry.

That song was still everywhere in 1991 when I watched my grandmother disappear behind an Alzheimer’s fog and then what I took issue with was His Distance. His watchful but ineffectual Distance.

In 1990 Bette Midler became the first person to implant the idea of Him in my head- the Source and Sustainer of all that Is, the Master of all our lives- and for that you might think I’d consider her the wind beneath my wings.

But no.

Because behind the saccharine, synthesized pop idioms and pre-K poetics, her song haunted me.

From a distance…God is watching us. Me. Big Brother is watching me. Like Dr. TJ Eckleberg, the Master’s eyes are always on me. Watching.

Checking to see if I’m nice or naughty.

Like a guard in a prison tower.

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‘From a Distance’ was originally penned in 1985 by Julie Gold, a songwriter who was working as a secretary for HBO at the time.

When Nanci Griffith covered the song and made it a moderate hit in 1987, Julie Gold told a reporter that her song was about how the way things are is not the way things appear, that God is watching us.

‘But,’ she added, ‘listeners can find whatever meaning they want in the song.’

Well, I can tell you and Ms Julie Gold exactly what meaning I took away from it.

You’ve got no place to hide, no place to hide the parts of you you should hide.

He is always watching us.

Which means He must always be evaluating us. Judging us.

Marking our mistakes in His ledger like an absentee landlord.

Checking to see what we’ve done with what we’ve got every moment.

Like He’s in the tower in the center of a prison, and- if He’s always watching us- that’s where we belong, right?

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When Nanci Griffith first received a demo of Julie Gold’s song in the mail in 1986, the singer told the songwriter she thought the idea of God always watching us was beautiful.

My takeaway in 1990?

That if He’s always watching us, then He must be a hard, harsh Master.

It didn’t take long after I first heard Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ on B103.7 (the Best Mix of Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow) for that song to change me.

Here’s the thing, here’s everything-

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Who you think you are.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master, you’ll be hard on and harsh to others.

If you believe God is angry watching us, you’ll get angrier towards others.

If you think He’s always watching, always judging us, you’ll be quick to judge.

If you think He’s constantly gazing upon the sins we can’t hide, you’ll surely start to point out the logs in others’ eyes.

If you believe He’s stingy with grace and mercy after looking at a lot like us, then you be ungenerous with the same.

If you think God is like a guard in the tower at the center of a prison, then you will internalize that gaze, seeing yourself every bit as worthless as you imagine you’re seen.

You’ll want to hide from Him. You will hide your true self from others.

You’ll want to bury every good thing about you down deep because you won’t trust that it’s good.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- always watching, always judging- you’ll soon resent Him, begrudging how He harvests where He does not bother to grow, gathers where He hasn’t bothered to lift a finger and sow and how He’s never given you your fair share in life.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- never near but always spying- then eventually (take it from Middle-school me: it doesn’t take long) you’ll hate God.

And (take it from Middle School-me) hating yourself will soon follow.

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Conversely, or consequently:

You can’t ever really become who you truly are, until you see who the Master really, truly is.

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I didn’t always know Him.

In 1990 Bette Midler introduced me to Him, got me thinking about Him. And, for a while, I thought that meant I knew Him.

But I didn’t.

And truly that’s the scary thing: you can think you know Him, serve Him even, and never actually know Him.

That way is Darkness. Teeth-grinding darkness.

For me, by the time I finally got to know Him, really know Him, was years later. By then, Bette Midler was doing guest slots on Seinfeld and re-packaging covers of ‘From a Distance’ for Christmas albums.

I didn’t come to really know Him until much later.

I won’t go into all that now. Not every parable should on a happy note.

Suffice it to say:

The story involves a church. Bread and wine. And brilliant teenager with a sexy physique.

And a guy named Dennis in a robe repeating S. Paul’s #1 hit: ‘While we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

Which of course is like an old school rap for saying that worse than any of our sins- worse than any of your sins- is thinking God a hard, harsh Master who doesn’t forgive them.

 

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 

rainbow-cross_aprilQuestion:

If the woman caught in adultery got caught again, would Jesus this time say ‘stone her?’

The other day I posted a tongue-in-cheek, redacted version of John 8, the passage where the Pharisees haul an adulteress up the Mt of Olives to Jesus.

Pointing out how the bible clearly mandates that this woman be stoned to death for her sin, they ask Jesus for his judgment.

Jesus responds with the brilliant but now cliched parry ‘whoever is without sin cast the first stone’ and, seeing no one left to condemn her but himself (who is indeed without sin) Jesus tells her ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’

Now my intent in the original post was to point out how I think conservatives read scripture in such a way that mutes the revelation of Christ, particularly when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. Emphasizing the bible’s language of sin, holiness, judgment and wrath on the subject they inadvertently (or not, perhaps) obscure the revelation of God in Christ, for here in John 8 is but another instance of Jesus, when faced with the clear, black and white command of scripture, choosing mercy.

For the post last week, I received the expected amount of pushback, including several breathless emails desiring to enlighten me to the fact that Jesus does conclude their exchange by telling her ‘Go and sin no more.’

He wasn’t giving her carte blanche to keep on committing sin nor was he declaring sin no longer to be sin.

Said one respondent: ‘Jesus chooses to show he can be merciful in this instance but sin is still sin and God is still holy.’

In other words, Jesus’ opting for mercy not sacrifice in this episode does not negate the command of scripture nor does it-evidently- reveal God’s holiness.

Said another, in what I take to be an unintentionally revealing comment: ‘Jesus tells her to go and sin no more. It’s not as if Jesus would keep on forgiving her if she remains in sin. That would be cheap grace.’

Translation: If they catch her again in her sin, she’s a goner.

All cheek aside, I think that begets a fair (and fairly significant) question.

If the Pharisees caught this woman again in adultery a few months later and again brought her to Jesus, how do you think Jesus would respond the second time?

Or, let’s say, the fifth time?

Do you think Jesus would say to the Pharisees ‘You’re right guys. The bible’s black and white on this. Stone her. Since I’m without sin, I’ll throw the first one?’

Do you believe Jesus would say to the sinner ‘I showed you mercy and told you to sin no more but because you’ve continued sinning and because I’m holy…?’

Doesn’t jive with the Jesus story does it?

To read the bible in such a way that your logic would have Jesus casting stones is biblicism not Christianity. It privileges scriptures over and against the revelation in Christ.

Biblicism, not so ironically, turns Jesus into a Pharisee.

You can draw out the contrast by asking a more general question:

Are passages like John 8 just revealing episodes on Jesus’ way to placate an angry, holy God upon the Cross?

Or do passages like John 8 reveal God?

Is scripture the full revelation of God? Or is Jesus Christ the full revelation of God?

If the former then, whether it jives or not, we’ve got to swallow a logic that eventuates in Jesus casting stones. If the latter then we can confess that the identity of God is revealed more fully in this refusal to condemn a sinner on the Mt of Olives than to Moses on Mt Sinai.

Insisting on the latter doesn’t make me a Marcionite. It makes me a reader of the New Testament, of John in particular.

In his first chapter, John frames his Gospel to come with this audacious claim:

‘No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.’

And again, John doubles-down in his first epistle:

‘No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other (as Christ loved) then God remains in us…’

Those aren’t just pious sounding asides- that’s John up-ending the entire way we read the bible because, of course, it’s not true.

According to the bible.

According to the bible, lots of people have seen God.

Adam and Eve and Enoch walked with God. Abraham and Sarah ate with God by the oaks of Mamre. Jacob freaking wrestled God on the shores of the Jabbok.

Moses saw God in a burning bush.

And Moses saw God again later on top of Sinai where he received from God that very law (and the 632 others) which commanded that woman on the Mt of Olives be stoned to death.

Moses encounter with God on Sinai was such that Moses’ face was left shiny and glimmering. Moses wasn’t alone up there either. Scripture says 70 Elders of Israel ate with Moses and God atop Sinai so they saw God too.

So did the prophet Isaiah in year a king Uzziah died; he saw God enthroned in the Temple.

Daniel, meanwhile, in his vision of the Son of Man saw the throne room of heaven, which is but a reverent way of saying he’d seen God, and Ezekiel’s long book of prophecy begins with a God sighting.

The Old Testament is replete with patriarchs and prophets seeing God so what could John possibly mean by (falsely) asserting that no one has ever seen God?

He means Jesus, not scripture, is the full revelation of God. Jesus is the one in whom we believe. The words, work and witness of Jesus are not secondary or subsidiary to scripture; rather, scripture must now be read in submission to Christ.

If we want to know what God’s holiness looks like, we look to Jesus.

If we want to know how God judges sinners, we look to his suffering because of them and listen to him say ‘…forgive them…for they know not…’

If we want to know how God feels about war and violence, we look to the sermon on the mount.

And if we want to know how God treats sexual sin, we go up to the Mt of Olives and listen to this exchange with a woman caught in adultery because God is more fully revealed in that moment than God was in giving of the law which condemns her.

‘No one has ever seen God. God the only Son…has made God known.’

Translation: Jesus is what God has to say.

IMG_0516I spent the last week in the Highlands of Guatemala, working on a sewage system for a Maya village in the mountains. I’ve heard it before but the numbers still have the power to shock:

75% of the children in the Highlands under 7 years old are critically malnourished.

Hearing that stat my first thought, perhaps oddly, was peace.

The scriptures declare that God’s vision and promise to us is shalom, which is usually translated as “peace.”

It’s meaning, however, is much richer than what is conveyed by our English word.

Shalom means wholeness, healing, justice, and righteousness, equality, unity, freedom, and community. Shalom is a vision of all people whole, well, and one, and of all nature whole, well, and one.

According to United Methodist Bishops it is “the sum total of moral and spiritual qualities in a community whose life is in harmony with God’s good creation.” They specifically relate Jesus’ ministry to the gift of shalom and affirm, “New Testament faith presupposes a radical break between the follies, or much so-called conventional wisdom about power and security, on the one hand, and the transcendent wisdom of shalom, on the other.”

The book of Revelation imagines the completion of human history and the full realization of God’s redemptive purpose for the world in terms of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Its visionary author, John of Patmos, described when God would be with and among human beings.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ [Revelation 21:1-3].

John seems to have in mind the words of Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind… I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; …They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well…

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord [Isaiah 65: 17-25].

10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_nOne can only imagine how these words must sound to the millions in our world today who labor to build houses for others, but whose earnings enable them only to live in homes of scrap metal and cardboard.

Who work fields owned by others, the harvest of which is shipped to another, wealthier land while they most scavenge for food in landfills.

Whose children will die with bloated bellies before they see adulthood.

The gospel of the Kingdom of God, the gospel that proclaims the promise of shalom, is surely good news for the poor.

But what is it for us? Is it message one of woe?

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep [Luke 6:21-25].

It need not be.  Matthew 25: 31-46 is typically identified as “the judgment of the nations” or “the last judgment.” It speaks of “the Son of Man” coming in glory with the angels, sitting on his throne with all the nations gathered before him.

It is judgment because it envisions sheep being divided from goats. The sheep will go to the right, the goats to the left. To those on his right, the King says,

““Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  But those on the left: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  

And what was the difference between the sheep and the goats, those who gained entrance to the kingdom and those shut out?  Simply, their response to the poor and oppressed determined the judgment.

Of course, the judge first expressed the matter in terms of their response to his need.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”   Both the saved and the damned professed ignorance.  ““Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?”  

His response:

““Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

Is it a mistake to suggest that our salvation hinges on our response to the crises like the aforementioned stat?

 

 

20121222_XHE004_0Some of you asked me that very question after my Hell sermon for our Razing Hell series. I didn’t have time to write up a response and, lucky duck, Scot McKnight beat me to it:

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The almost universal traditional view of hell in the Christian church is that it is a lake of fire, that it will last forever and ever and that the wicked will be conscious and tormented endlessly. So Edward Fudge, in his Hell: A Final Word , sketches what we find in the lake of fire text in Revelation.

The Lake of Fire in Revelation in Revelation 20:14-15

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

First, the lake of fire is probably related to Daniel 7′s river of fire, a fire that destroys evil world leaders (the Beast and the False Prophet).

Second, in Revelation the Beast, the False Prophet and Satan/Serpent are thrown into the Lake of Fire. The place for the unholy trinity of evil. They are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Only they are said in the Bible to be tormented endlessly.

Comment: Yes, Fudge is right; no one else is said to be tormented forever. But wicked humans are tossed into the same Lake of Fire in the next chapter. But Rev 14 has humans with much the same finality — humans, the smoke of their torment, endless.  More importantly, God is thereby now theologically and logically connected to endless torment. The unholy trinity may be upgradings of sin and evil and wickedness but they are still said to be tormented endlessly. Fudge appeals next to a human — Hanns Lilje — but this is an argument from a human or an authority or an experience. It doesn’t for me wipe away the glaring reality of an endless torment administered by God. The problem of endless torment is now officially connected to a theological problem.

Death is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14). Hades is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14).

The Lake of Fire is the Second Death. The death of the age to come. Lake of Fire is defined by Second Death, meaning that Second Death is the ruling image.  The two options are life (eternal, city of God) and death (final, second death, Lake of Fire). Humans enter the Lake of Fire, the Second Death: Rev 21:8.

So for Fudge all texts dealing with endless torment are explained, destruction is seen as the ruling image, Death is the outcome, and the absence of life is the outcome for the wicked. For Fudge the emphasis — undeniable — in the Bible is a fire that consumes or destroys, not a fire that purges or that torments. Edward Fudge makes the best case of anyone alive today for the annihilationist viewpoint.

This week for our Razing Hell series we’re descending into Hell. Why not? Jesus did, right?

Here’s a send up of God, Mr Deity, talking about Lucy’s (Lucifer) preparations for the grand opening of Hell.

The Case for Hell

Jason Micheli —  January 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

The-Sopranos-Season-1-Bios-Tony-3I’ve confessed here before that I have what my wife calls ‘man crushes.’ Russell Crowe, Cormac McCarthy, Jim James (from My Morning Jacket) and also Ross Douthat, the author of Bad Religion and a writer for the NY Times.

This is an old article and a shortened version of a piece he did for First Things longer ago. It’s a cogent summary of both the (often) sloppy thinking of the Universalists, who disbelieve in ultimate judgement without first taking a sober account of human sin and a sound statement of the traditional view of the doctrine of Hell.

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Douthat_New-articleInline-v2Here’s a revealing snapshot of religion in America. On Easter Sunday, two of the top three books on Amazon.com’s Religion and Spirituality best-seller list mapped the geography of the afterlife. One was “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” an account of a 4-year-old’s near-death experience as dictated to his pastor father. The other was “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” in which the evangelical preacher Rob Bell argues that hell might not exist.

The publishing industry knows its audience. Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer. But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated. Near-death stories are reliable sellers: There’s another book about a child’s return from paradise, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just a little further down the Amazon rankings. But you’ll search the best-seller list in vain for “The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”

In part, hell’s weakening grip on the religious imagination is a consequence of growing pluralism. Bell’s book begins with a provocative question: Are Christians required to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being Hindu? The mahatma is a distinctive case, but swap in “my Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist neighbor” for Gandhi, and you can see why many religious Americans find the idea of eternal punishment for wrong belief increasingly unpalatable.

But the more important factor in hell’s eclipse, perhaps, is a peculiar paradox of modernity. As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well. The argument that a good deity couldn’t have made a world so rife with cruelty is a staple of atheist polemic, and every natural disaster inspires a round of soul-searching over how to reconcile God’s omnipotence with human anguish.

These debates ensure that earthly infernos get all the press. Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary “hellmouths” (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet. And if it’s hard for the modern mind to understand why a good God would allow such misery on a temporal scale, imagining one who allows eternal suffering seems not only offensive but absurd.

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

You can view the article here.