Archives For Martin Luther

      The 500th Anniversary coincided this Sunday with our trek through the Book of Exodus. The text for the day was Exodus 16.

“You’ve brought us out here to kill us!” I grumbled to my wife a couple of weeks ago when I realized what little water she’d packed to hike Joshua Tree National Park.

So I can empathize with the recently-rescued Israelites who lodge the same complaint against God.

Still, it sounds a little ungrateful considering they’re still damp from the Red Sea through which God FREAKING DELIVERED THEM FROM CENTURIES OF SLAVERY. Really?

All it takes is the munchies for their Bob Marley Exodus song to turn Janet Jackson circa 1986: “What have you done for me lately?!”

Ungrateful or not, it’s a fair gripe because they’re not lost. No one took a wrong turn into the desert. It’s not Siri’s fault.

From the Red Sea forward, God guided them, appearing in a pillar of cloud and fire, straight into godforsaken-ness.

They’re there because God has led them there.

And not only is it a justified complaint, it’s correct.

God has brought them there to kill them.

     (You won’t hear that from Joel Osteen! You’re welcome.) 

———————-

     God has brought them to the desert for the desert to be the death of them, for their hunger to be the hospice through which God kills off their old selves. That they recall their bondage to Pharaoh fondly is proof that they’re not yet free. So God brings them to the desert for a different kind of deliverance. God answers their nostalgia for Egypt’s stewpots by upping the ante and providing quail every evening.

Quail was considered a delicacy and according to Moses every evening at twilight this abundance of expense, quail, covered their camp. Wherever they were in the wilderness, it was there. God responds to their petty, ungrateful griping with a gesture of unmerited extravagance. Even though they begrudge him their deliverance, God gives them the opposite of what they deserve.

Every day a feathered two-part message: 1) Lose your illusions about Egypt and 2) I, the Lord your God, am not a Pharaoh.

“Quail covered the camp” Moses writes. Every evening, fancy 5-Star fare.

And every morning, under the dew of the desert, the opposite of extravagance: manna.

Bread. From Heaven.

Because we put the loaves on the altar table instead of smearing the dough on foreheads at Ash Wednesday, it’s easy for us to forget.

Bread, in the Bible, is not quail. It’s not food for a fancy feast.

Bread, in the Bible, is a token of the Fall.

Bread is a symbol for original sin. 

After Adam and Eve distrust God in the Garden and disobey God’s only law, God shows them the exit to Eden and God’s parting words to Adam: “Because you have disobeyed…by the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread until you die.”

That comes right before the Ash Wednesday warning: “…for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Garden.

After the Fall, bread becomes a kind of sacrament of their estrangement from the Garden.

And it’s work that requires work: harvesting and grinding and mixing and kneading and rising and waiting and folding and rising and waiting and folding and baking. Bread is the work that marks their sin and fall from grace but now, in the Desert of Sin, God gives it to them as grace. Their work- the wages of their sin- becomes grace.

And it’s all God’s work. There’s no harvesting or grinding or mixing or kneading or rising or waiting or folding or rising or waiting or folding or baking. There’s nothing for them to do but receive it. Every morning, what had been their work to perform is God’s grace to provide. Not on any morning is there anything for them to do except trust that wherever they are it will be there and it will be enough.

God takes their work and God makes it grace because God has rescued them from Egypt in order to return them to Eden. God has delivered them from the despot Pharaoh and delivered them into the Desert of Sin in order to undo their original sin.

Our original, originating sin- it wasn’t disobedience. It wasn’t picking the fruit of the tree in the Garden. That would be a stupid story. Our original, originating sin wasn’t disobedience; it was disbelief.

Did God really say?

Our original sin was unbelief, not our failure to obey God’s law but our failure to trust God’s promise, to trust God’s promise that avoiding the tree in the Garden was for our good. And so in the Desert of Sin, every morning God gives them manna according to his promise. The work that had been theirs to do becomes God’s work alone.

The symbol of their unfaithfulness becomes a sign of God’s faithfulness. And God gives it to them as grace.

There’s nothing for them to do but trust God’s doing. Anything other than trust alone in the doing of God and the bread of heaven breeds worms. From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.

Whether they knew or not- the grumblers were absolutely right. God has brought them there to kill them, to exterminate the old, untrusting Adam in them. God has gotten them out of Egypt and now, in the Desert of Sin, God is getting the Egypt out of them.

     Because it’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”

It’s slaves who ask “What do I have to do now? What should I being doing, Lord?”

But it’s children who trust their Father to do everything for them.

It’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”

It’s children who trust their Father’s promise that it is done.

It’s children who trust when they’re told “It is finished.”

They might be cranky with the munchies and ungrateful as all get out, but the Israelites- they’re right. God has led them there to Sin to kill them.

     Nude faith-

Faith clothed only in the grace of God, trusting that there’s nothing for us to do but believe and receive, for those of us whose self-image is so determined by what we do, faith alone in the grace of God alone- don’t lie- it isn’t just offensive; it feels like dying.

———————-

     BJ Miller is a palliative care doctor at a facility called Zen Hospice in San Francisco. I heard Miller give a TED Talk a couple of years ago, and this winter I read a story about him in the NY Times.

When BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, one Monday night, he and two friends went out drinking. Late that night, on their way back, drunk and hungry, they headed to WAWA for sandwiches.

There’s a rail junction near the WAWA, connecting the campus to the city’s main train line. A commuter train was parked there that night, idle, tempting BJ Miller and his friends to climb up it.

Miller scaled it first.

When he got to the top, 11,000 volts shot out of a piece of equipment and into Miller’s watch on his left arm and down his legs. When his friends got to him, smoke was rising from his shoes.

BJ Miller woke up several days later in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital to discover it wasn’t a terrible dream. More terribly, he found that his arm and his legs had been amputated.

Turmoil and anguish naturally followed those first hazy days but eventually Miller returned to Princeton where he ended up majoring in art history.

The broken arms and ears and noses of ancient sculptures helped him affirm his own broken body as beautiful.

From Princeton, Miller went to medical school where he felt drawn to palliative care because, as he says, “Parts of me died early on. And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around my death, and I can tell you it has been a liberation. I wanted to help people realize the shock of beauty or meaning in the life that proceeds one kind of death and precedes another.”

After medical school, Miller found his way to Zen Hospice in California where their goal is to de-pathologize death; that is, to recover death as a human experience and not a medical one.

They impose neither medicine nor meaning onto the dying. Rather, as Miller puts it, they let their patients “play themselves out.” Whomever they’ve been in life is who they’re encouraged to be in their dying.

For example, the NY Times story documents how Miller helped a young man named Sloan, who was dying quickly of cancer, die doing what he loved to do: drink Bud Light and play video games.

Talking about Sloan’s mundane manner of dying, Miller said this- this is what got my attention:

“The mission of Zen Hospice is about wresting death from the one-size- fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse: our need for death to be a transcendent experience.

Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.”

     Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.

They’re going to feel like there is something they must be doing that they’re not doing. They’re going to worry that they’re doing something wrong or they’re going to fear that they’re not doing enough.

———————-

     In the Gospel according to John, no sooner has Jesus fed a hungry crowd of 5,000 with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish than some grumblers in the mob start to measure this Messiah’s manna-hood.

“5 loaves and 2 fish…that’s a nifty trick, Jesus. Good for you! Now Moses…he was something else. Moses fed all of Israel every morning with manna for 40 years.”

And Jesus replies (in my Southern paraphrase edition): “Bless your heart.”

No, Jesus replies: Moses isn’t the One who gave you manna. I AM the Bread of Life. I AM the Bread of Heaven, Living Bread. Manna is me, come down for you. 

And then Jesus shifts metaphors: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life and whoever does not will not. 

Those who ate manna in the Desert of Sin, Jesus points out, still died of sin. So Jesus warns them: “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

     Do not work for the food that perishes. 

     And what comes next in the Gospel according to John- it’s only 2 verses, it’s just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.

It’s the sum of St. Paul’s message. It’s the core of the Protestant Reformation. It’s the reason we’re not worshipping at Good Shepherd Catholic Church this morning.

It’s only 2 verses, just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.

It’s the Gospel.

First, they ask Jesus a question. They ask Jesus the question, the question that captives like us are always asking: “What must we do?”

     “What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?” 

Should we…and you’ve asked the question enough yourself that you can fill in the blank for them. Should we pray more? Should we study the scriptures more? Should we serve the poor more? Spend less at Christmas?

“What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?”

And Jesus answers by correcting the grammar of their question. He changes the subject of their sentence, from us to God: “This is the work of God…”

     What we think is our work, our burden and obligation, to get right with God, to be reckoned to the good, to be justified before God-

it’s the work of God.

That’s not a ‘we’ kind of question, Jesus says. It’s a God question. It’s the work of God. Alone.

Jesus doesn’t just change the subject of their sentence. He changes the object of their sentence too. We put the question in the plural: “What should I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

What stuff should we be doing? How much do we have to do?

But Jesus answers in the singular: “This the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.” 

There isn’t any stuff we have to do.

We do not have to do several things, or even one good thing, to be justified before God. There is only 1 thing to do, 1 work: your trust.

     Like manna under the desert dew, all you have to do is believe and receive.

Trust.

All you have to do is trust that it’s all already been done. All you have to do is trust what he has done.

Jesus Christ, this manna made flesh, has finished what the Father started in the Desert of Sin. He’s killed off the Old Adam in you, once for all, by drowning him in the baptism of his death and resurrection.

The old untrusting Adam in you has been crucified in him; so that, now, in him, in the New Adam, (present-tense, no conditions or qualifiers) the Gospel promises that you are a New Creation.

Where bread was given to the Old Adam as a sign of sin and punishment, this New Adam, the Living Bread of Heaven, has taken on all your sins and suffered punishment in your place; so that, the curse you deserve becomes the blessing you do not.

     Don’t just do something, Jesus all but answers, stand there.

Stand still- all you have to do is believe and receive.

Trust.

Like manna in the morning, there’s nothing left for you to do but eat.

Eat this promise.

Trust.

Trust that you are the pearl of great price that the King has bought by giving away everything. Trust that you are the prodigal child for whom the Father did not wait to come home to him but has sought you out in his only Son.

All you have to do is trust the doing of God.

Trust that God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, you might become the righteousness of God. Trust that you who were dead to your trespasses have been made (past perfect tense) alive in Christ. Trust that your slate is wiped clean because your sins have been washed in the blood of the lamb. All you have to do is trust.

Trust that in all the ways and places you’ve been unfaithful, your manna molding, the Bread of Heaven has been faithful. He has done what you could never do.

He alone is righteous and by grace alone God reckons his righteousness to you. He credits your account with Christ, such that there’s nothing left to do but trust that it’s all been done.

Faith alone- that’s all there is for you to do because the righteousness of Christ imputed to you is already and will always be overflowing.

Faith alone is the only work you must do.

And it’s not even your work to do because, notice, Jesus changes the verb of their question: “What should we be doing…?” they ask.

And Jesus responds: “This is the doing of God…”

This is the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.

It’s God’s work. The one and only work we must do, God does in us: trust.

God works faith into us.

The one work we must do to respond to what God has done in Jesus Christ, God also does in us.

It’s just 2 verses in John’s Gospel: 6.28 and 6.29.

It’s just 30 Greek words in John’s Gospel, but it’s the Gospel:

You are saved by God’s grace alone

By Christ alone

By the blood of the Living Bread of Heaven

Through faith alone.

It’s only 2 verses, 30 words, but it’s enough to puncture what BJ Miller calls the competing impulse within us.

“The dying are still very much alive and we are all dying,” BJ Miller tells the Times writer, “we die the way we live.”

We die the way we live.

He means-

Just as many die thinking that there’s something more spiritual or profound or meaningful they’re supposed to be doing and worry that they aren’t doing it or aren’t doing it right or doing it enough, we live with that same anxiety: “What must we be doing so that we’re doing the works of God?”

     We think that Jesus came down from Heaven, cancelled out our debts upon the cross, but now it’s on us to work our way up to God.

     The Golden Rule may not justify us before God but we sure think it makes a good ladder up to him.

And we’re forever anxious that we need to climb it.

Or that we even can.

The Book of Exodus says that way of thinking- it breeds worms.

What’s miraculous, BJ Miller contends, more miraculous than empty, contrived spiritual gestures- more miraculous, I’d argue than 5 loaves and 2 fish or manna every morning- is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.

      What’s miraculous is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.

“My work,” Miller says, “is to unburden them from the crushing weight of unhelpful expectations.” 

Today is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

And it says a whole lot about how far we’ve drifted from it that it takes a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast to point it out to us, BJ Miller’s work-that’s the work of the Gospel too- to unburden you from the crushing weight of expectations.

The Gospel is that you are saved by God’s grace alone by Christ’s atoning blood alone and that is yours through faith- trust- alone. The Gospel is like palliative medicine for the died in Christ. The Gospel is that you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.

The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful.

This question:

     What are you going to do with this faith of yours?

Now you have the freedom not to do anything?

Love Notes

Jason Micheli —  October 16, 2017 — 1 Comment

     Here’s my sermon on Exodus 12.1-13 from Sunday.

On the night we betrayed him, Jesus’ Passover table in the upper room would’ve been set according to the Seder instructions in the Haggadah from the Book of Deuteronomy.

The reason the disciples fall asleep later that night in the garden is because the Haggadah requires enough wine for 4 cups for each of them. 4 cups of wine not 1.

4 cups, each of which represents one of the promises God makes to Israel about their deliverance:

Cup 1: ”I will take you out of Egypt…”

Cup 2. “I will save you from Pharaoh…”

Cup 3. “I will redeem you from captivity…”

Cup 4. “I will take you as a People…”

Along with the 4 cups, at the center of Jesus’ Passover table would have been brick-shaped mixtures of fruits, nuts and vinegar symbolizing the bricks that Pharaoh forced them to build, a plate of bitter herbs and a bowl of salt water symbolizing the bitterness and tears of their captivity, unleavened bread, symbolizing the urgency of their escape, and the lamb itself which the head of the household, the host, would’ve taken home from the Temple to skin it and then roast it for the feast.

Presumably Jesus is the one who kills and skins and roasts the lamb as he’s the host who leads the script that night.

According to the Haggadah, that night in the upper room Jesus blesses the first cup of wine and invites them all to drink.

Then the bitter herbs, which Jesus blesses and invites them to eat with the salt water. Then comes the bread and the dried fruit and the lamb. Next, Jesus the host would have poured the second round of wine, retelling the story of the Exodus, before inviting his disciples to drink. Then, according to the script, Jesus breaks the bread. And according to the script, according to the Haggadah, what Jesus is supposed to do next is bless the bread, mix it up with some of the herbs and fruit and lamb and say to his table mates: ‘This is the body of the Passover.’

But Jesus changes the script.

He inserts himself into it. He doesn’t say ‘This is the body of the Passover.’ He says ‘This is my body.’

He connects the body of the Passover Lamb to his body and then he connects it to their bodies by saying‘Take and eat.’

Jesus changes the script.

Jesus takes the symbolism and promises behind the herbs and the fruit and the bitter herbs and the bread and the lamb and he ties them not to his teaching or his preaching, not his miracles, not to his compassion for the poor or his prophetic witness against power.

Jesus changes the script.

     Jesus takes the symbolism and promises of the Passover meal and ties them to his body. To his death.

‘Take and eat. This is my body broken…’

As the host of his last Passover, Jesus doesn’t just change the script. He adds to it.

According to the Haggadah, after they feast on the meal, Jesus is supposed to pour and bless the third cup of wine, and invite the disciples to drink it. Then, according to the script, they’re supposed to sing from the Book of Psalms before blessing and drinking the fourth cup of wine.

Except, after they feast on the meal, when the time comes, Jesus takes the third cup of wine, the cup symbolizing God’s redemption promise (“I will deliver you from captivity”,) and Jesus says: ‘This is my blood…drink from this all of you…’

     Hang on. Drink what? What’s blood doing on our table? 

     Leonardo DaVinci didn’t quite capture it in his Last Supper but if there was a WTF moment in the upper room it went down right there and then. They’d be better off going back to eating and drinking with hookers and thieves. Blood shouldn’t be anywhere near their table. You didn’t need to be a rabbi like Jesus to know that according to the Law it was verboten to consume blood much less drink it.

The law stipulated that “anyone of the house of Israel who eats any blood, I the Lord will set my face against that person who consumes blood, and will forsake that person as accursed…”

Blood is forbidden. Anyone who consumes it in any way is accursed. That’s why verse 9 in Exodus 12 commands Israel to roast the Passover lamb over a fire not boil it or consume it raw. None of the blood of the lamb can end up on the table.

And this isn’t an arbitrary law designed to bless the world with Jewish delis and kosher hot dogs.

Blood was forbidden because blood symbolized life.

As the Law says: For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be accursed.”

Blood was forbidden because blood symbolized life.

As such, the blood belonged to the Giver of Life alone. The blood belongs to God. Blood can’t be on your menu because it’s not yours to serve.

And because God is the giver of life to every creature the blood of every creature, in fact, represents God’s own life. What makes it a sin to take life, to shed bled, is what makes rabbis give life, sacrifice the blood, back to God.

But now, this rabbi is once again breaking the law of the covenant by inviting them to drink it: “Drink from this all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for deliverance from sins.”

You don’t need to be a rabbi to know.

According to the Law, the blood on the table makes him forsaken. Which is to say, to obey him and drink his blood is to disobey the Law and share in his forsakenness. To share in the curse he will bear.

You don’t need to be a rabbi to know.

He’s offering them what belongs to God alone. He’s offering them his life. Which is to say, he’s offering them his death. He’s offering them a share in his death.

We got a puppy last month. So now we have two Australian Shepherds in the house. If you’re not familiar with Australian Shepherds then just imagine that you’re in the ocean, just barely treading water, drowning really, and then someone hands you a baby.

I’ve been walking the puppy a lot around the neighborhood, which means I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately.  I listened to an old episode, a rebroadcast, from the NPR program Snap Judgement recently about a rabbi.

A rabbi named Michael Weisser who moved his family from New York City to a synagogue in Lincoln, Nebraska of all places.

No sooner had the rabbi arrived when he gets an anonymous phone call from a voice that says simply, “You’ll be sorry you ever moved into that house, Jew Boy.”

A couple of few weeks later a package arrived at the rabbi’s house filled with racist tracts and a business card from the KKK (apparently they have business cards) that read, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”

The rabbi called the police who quickly figured the perpetrator was Larry Trapp, a man who was notorious in the Lincoln community as a white supremacist. The police suggested to the rabbi that his daughter not walk the same way home from school every day.

This is where the story gets good, Jesusy good: What the Rabbi did next- he figured it be a good idea to reach out to Larry and see if they could talk.

Seriously.

And so every week, right before he taught Bar Mitzvah lessons, this rabbi, Rabbi Michael, would call Larry and leave what the rabbi called “love notes” on Larry’s answering machine.

No BS.

This rabbi would call and say things like: “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there and you’re not getting any of it. What’s wrong with you?”

This rabbi kept at it, kept calling for months, and one day Larry finally picked up the phone.

“Why are you calling me? You are hassling me!” Larry griped.

“I just want to talk to you,” said Rabbi Michael.

“What do you want to talk about?”

And this rabbi says: “I hear you’re disabled and you might need a ride to the grocery.”

“I’ve got that covered, don’t call me anymore” Larry snarls and hangs up.

But this rabbi- he kept calling, week after week, month after month. Love notes on Larry’s answering machine.

Like signs.

Then one evening, on the sabbath, Larry Trapp calls the rabbi back.

Larry tells the rabbi he wants out. He tells the rabbi he is done with his life and he wants to escape. He asks the rabbi to come over, to his house.

And Rabbi Michael and his wife do. When Larry opens the door, he’s holding a gun and you can guess what the rabbi’s thinking.

But Larry hands the gun to this rabbi.

And then he tells the rabbi that he wants to take down all the racist crap he has hanging in his home but he can’t do it himself because he’s in a wheelchair.

So this rabbi helps him take it all down and while they do Larry tells the rabbi about his (unsurprising) childhood history of abuse.

Before they finish, Larry weeps and confesses to the rabbi that he doesn’t want to be who he has been.

This is where the story made me cry on Culver with a sack of dog doodie in my hand.

Larry wasn’t just disabled. He was sick, chronically so. His kidneys were failing. So this rabbi and his wife they decide to welcome Larry into their home, to take care of him.

They invited him to sleep in the bed of the daughter he’d once threatened.

Rabbi Michael’s wife, Julie, gave up her job in order to take care of Larry full time.

During the months the rabbi and his wife cared for him, Larry, the former Klansmen, started talking about becoming a Jew. And, eventually, he did right before he died.

In the podcast, this rabbi observed that it wasn’t enough to say that Larry Trapp had changed or improved or repented or become a different person.

The old Larry Trapp had died, the rabbi said.

When Larry’s kidney’s finally failed, Rabbi Michael told NPR that it felt like he had lost a member of his family.

“This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the deliverance from sins.”

Not only should the blood of the lamb not be in the third cup or even on the Passover table at all, what’s left of the lamb’s blood Jesus should’ve smeared across the door to the upper room.

The blood-smeared door will a sign, God promises; so that, when Death- God’s angel of Death- passes over, God’s People will be spared the wages of Pharaoh’s sin.

The blood- it will be a sign, God promises.

But hold up, God doesn’t need a sign!

The Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, doesn’t need an SOS streaked in neon blood. God found Moses in all of Midian and met him in a burning bush.

God doesn’t need a sign like the Bat Signal to find his People.

No.

From God’s side, the blood is superfluous.

From God’s side, the blood is absolutely unnecessary.

God doesn’t need a sign.

We do.

Even before he’s delivered them through the Red Sea, even before he’s drowned us in the baptism of Christ’s death and parted the way through Christ’s grave- before we’re freed God makes sure we won’t forget to remember.

He gives us a sign. A love note- the blood: on the door, in the cup.

If God goes to all this trouble before our rescue to make sure we’ll remember, then if the blood is a sign of anything, it’s a sign of our propensity to forget.

When it comes to God’s grace, we can talk a good game.

We can talk about how Jesus Christ has offered his life in your place.

We can talk about how you have died with him and how through him God has redeemed you of all your sins because in him- in his body- all your sins have been nailed to the cross, once-for-all, such that now there is now no condemnation because of Jesus Christ.

No condemnation. The message of grace is the message that God is not in the judgement game.

But we forget.

We talk a good game about what God has done for us, but then we turn around and we act as though our relationship with God depends not on what Christ has done for us but on what we do for God.

We talk about unconditional grace but then we turnaround and we act as though there’s fine print we must meet in order to merit it.

We’ve got to pray. We’ve got to give. We’ve got to serve. We think.

     We talk a good game about how God in Christ loves you despite who you are, but then we turnaround and we act like you must become someone other than who you are.

You must become more virtuous. You must become more spiritual. You must become more compassionate and generous and justice-minded. We say.

We talk about grace, but then we act like what makes us right isn’t Christ’s own righteousness but our works.

A “faithful” Christian must oppose this agenda, we tweet. A “real” Christian must conform to these politics, we comment on Facebook. A “righteous” Christian must stand up for that issue we forward an email to our friends.

     We can talk a good game when it comes to grace, but all the time we forget.

We act as though the cross isn’t effective for us until we do something about it: repent, believe, find faith, get saved, go inward.

     But grace isn’t all that amazing if it’s just available.

Grace isn’t amazing if it isn’t actual until we act to access it for ourselves.

Not only is that not very amazing, notice- it makes us the way, the truth, and the life instead of Jesus Christ.

It puts faith not in Christ and what Christ has done; it puts faith in what we do; in fact, it puts our faith in the very doing of our faith.

It relies on us to make our way up to God rather than trusting that God has come down to us and by the blood of the lamb delivered us.

Martin Luther put it thus:

“The Law of the Old Covenant says ‘Do this and you will live, but it is never done.’

Grace in the New Covenant says ‘Trust. Everything is already done. Live.’”

Everything is already done. It’s all been done- that’s the New Covenant Christ pours into the cup. That’s the unthwartable promise of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Our memory though is more easily thwarted.

Including my own.

I forget.

For example, I was tempted to share that Snap Judgement story about Rabbi Michael with you and then to use it to exhort you to go and do likewise: Love your enemy. Forgive your trespassers. Welcome the outcast. Care for the sick.

‘Go and do like that rabbi’ I was tempted to exhort. And it would be good if you went and did like that rabbi. No doubt, the world would be a better place for it but– I forget, I’ve got to remind myself- that’s not the Gospel.

I forget too.

I forget that Jesus Christ is not a new Moses.

Christ does not come to give you a new way to try to become righteous; he comes to give you his own righteousness by his broken body.

He’s not a new Moses. Christ does not bring a new and different Law; Christ brings something new and different.

He brings a promise.

He brings the Gospel- the good news of God’s grace.

The promise that even though you do not love your enemy, despite your failures to forgive your trespassers, whether or not you welcome the outcast or care for the sick, no matter how much or how little you perform your faith like that rabbi in Nebraska, a different rabbi has already forgiven all your trespasses.

     A different rabbi has already shown compassion on your sin-sickness.

A different rabbi has already loved you, his enemy.

This rabbi has loved you enough to welcome you into his home, to share his family with you, to adopt you as his sons and daughters.

This rabbi has done it all.

Everything has been done by him. He needs nothing from you.

Well, except your need. He needs nothing from you but your need.

Before the Passover, Jesus gets up from the supper table, he sets aside his robe, and puts on an apron.

Then he pours water into a basin, stoops over onto his knees and one-by-one he begins to wash his friends’ dirty feet.

When he gets to Peter, Peter starts arguing, “You’re not going to wash my feet-ever!” And Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you can’t be part of me or my kingdom.” And Peter replies: “Not only my feet, then. Wash my hands! Wash my head! Wash all of me.”

We forget how the rest of that story goes. We forget how Jesus says to Peter and his disciples “Now, I need only to wash your feet- I will make the rest of you clean forever.”

I’ll make the rest of you forever clean.

We forget how that story goes.

We forget how no sin we do can stain us because, by his broken body, he’s in us and we’re in him and in him, through the waters of baptism, we have died with him.

He’s rescued us from our sin into his own righteousness. Our exodus is over. No matter how far you wander in whatever wilderness you find yourself, you’re never lost and you will never be forsaken.

No matter what you do or do not do it cannot undo what God has done for you.

Everything. Everything has been done.

We can talk a good game when it comes to grace, but we’re so prone to forgetting.

So Jesus gives us a sign. A love note.

And he puts your name on it.

He takes the promise of the Gospel and he gives it a pronoun: ‘Here, take and eat…drink from this…it’s for you.’

The bread on the table. The blood in the cup.

God doesn’t give you these signs as ways for you to earn forgiveness. That’s not the proper application of the pronoun.

God gives these signs for you- for you to remember:  God has already forgiven you.

Once. For all.

No sin you do can undo that because you are forever stained by the blood of the lamb.

 

 

 

 

 

Most Common Heresies: #2

Jason Micheli —  August 31, 2016 — 2 Comments

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #2: Protestantism* 

What Is It?

Protestantism is the 16th century heresy espoused by a wide variety of ever-splintering Christian denominations which emphasizes that ‘scripture alone’ (not tradition, reason or scientific investigation) is sufficient for Christian belief and reflection and that God justifies sinners on the basis of ‘faith alone’ (not works of mercy).

At it’s root, Protestantism heretically prioritizes the individual believer over and against the authority of the historic Christian community, reducing Christianity from a corporate, public, faith committed to mirroring the City of God on Earth to a private, subjective experience which eschews this fallen world in anticipation of a Gnostic escape to the afterlife.

Protestantism’s vaunting of individualism leads to the heretical- and distinctly modern- presumption that each individual believer can interpret scripture for themselves in the privacy of their own home or interior reflection. Such interpretation occurs independent of the historic consensus of the Christian community.

By violating 2 Peter 1:20 in this manner (“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.”) Protestants make scripture vulnerable to abuse, fitting scripture to their constantly changing cultural, political, and economic norms rather than repentantly conforming their latter to God’s former.

In addition, by emphasizing scripture as the sole source of Christian belief and reflection, Protestants make of scripture an idol, transmitting to it the fidelity and reverence owed to Christ alone while erroneously limiting the mediation of grace to scripture rather than the sacraments of the community.

By (mis)reading Paul and emphasizing ‘faith’ alone as the grounds of justification, Protestants severed the historic connection between one’s confession (as in belief) with one’s character (how one embodied that belief in life). Without any external indicators, ‘faith’ then became purely subjective, either in the form of intellectual assent (as with modern Methodists) or emotional experience (as with the original Methodists).

By rejecting the authority of a ‘teacher among teachers’ Protestant Christians instead de facto defer to the authority of their nation while simultaneously enthroning their own individualistic prerogative.

By rejecting the mystery of God’s actions in the sacraments, Protestants de-sacralize all of material creation, failing to see in even the smallest, most ordinary of things conveyors of God’s love and presence. This in turn leads to a loss of ‘beauty’ as a Christian value, and renders the faith prey to the reductions of Enlightenment-bound rationalism.

Most tragically, by severing from the Church rather than reconciling disputed issues, the first Protestant heretics guaranteed that the churches they birthed would forever solve their own disputes by breaking away to form a more ‘pure’ church.

Who Screwed Up First

Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, whose own guilt-ridden conscience repeatedly kept him from hearing the simple declaration of the Gospel spoken to him in the confessional: ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven.’

Martin’s inner turmoil was exacerbated and eventually alleviated by the co-incidence of much ecclesial abuse at the time. This led Martin Luther to project onto the letters of Paul his own critique of the church and led him to assume, wrongly, that Paul’s critique of Pharsaic Judaism was analogous to Luther’s own critique of the abuses of Medieval Church. In Martin’s day this led to anti-semitism. In our own, this leads to anti-Catholocism.

Luther announced his critiques of the Church 1517 in his 95 Theses, a publication which happened to co-incide with the fomenting of a German middle class and the modern nation state both of which were happy to find in Luther theological justification for breaking from the Church.

Thanks to Luther, there are today approximately 30,000 Christian denominations with 270 new ones being formed every year and with only a few being at all comprehensible to the average non-Christian.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you see the Eucharist as a memorial rather than a great mystery reminding us that God can inhabit and transform anything in this world and in our lives, then you are a Protestant.

If you think of Christianity as the spiritual arm of your particular nation rather than as a global, transnational Body that transcends all other loyalties, then you exemplify the heresy Martin Luther probably couldn’t see coming.

If in times of war you’re more concerned with promoting the national interest than in protecting the lives of your fellow Christians in another part of the world (say Syria) then you’re probably a Protestant.

If you would use the words ‘private’ or ‘personal’ to describe the Christian faith, then you’re most definitely not a Catholic. Actually if you assume anything is private or personal and none of the Church’s business then you’re definitely a Protestant, and probably an American one.

If you think baptism- like voting- is a matter of you choosing God rather than an ineffable sign of how God chooses us eternally in Christ then you are a Protestant.

If you believe you can interpret the Bible for yourself, if you think you don’t need to be held accountable by another in order to confess your sins truthfully, if you imagine that serving the poor is an optional but not necessary for discipleship then you’re a Protestant.

If you insist the Church should make major cultural shifts quickly rather than over time (to insure that change is truly of the Spirt) and in consultation with your fellow global brother and sisters in Christ, then you’re most certainly a Protestant.

If you value your particular and, relatively-speaking, not very old brand of Christianity more than you lament that Christ’s Church is not united and whole- indeed if it doesn’t even occur to you that such division should be a cause for lament and reconciliation- then you are a Protestant.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Bill Maher

Everyone else besides Catholics

Home Remedies

Celebrate Reformation Sunday in October as though it were Ash Wednesday or Good Friday.

Read a passage of scripture, assume there’s something you don’t understand, and then go read what one of the Church Fathers said about it.

Befriend a Christian in another part of the world. Learn to what extent your ‘Christian’ beliefs are actually ‘American’ ones.

Serve the poor as though your (eternal) life depended on it.

Hold the bread of the Eucharist as though it contained God’s very presence- then treat the whole world that way.

  • I had to throw my Catholic friends a bone. I can’t do a whole series on heresies (literally ‘choices) and not refer to what they take to be our very big, bad one. 

zipperSimul iustus et peccator fatue

Reformation Day is upon us that so-called ‘holiday’ when some Christians celebrate the fact that some other Christians split Christ’s Body in half. Martin Luther, founding padre of the Protestant Reformation, insisted that God’s grace is a declaration announced to us. From outside us.

     God’s grace is a promise to which we can only respond with trust.

     There is no discernible interior change in us.

     We essentially remain the same d*&^%$-bags we were before.

     Only now, we know in faith, when God regards us, he graciously chooses to see Jesus instead of the a#$-clowns most of us are most of the time.

Says Luther: Even after we’ve responded to the promise of grace, we never cease to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

     This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ 

     It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’

Or as the contemporary paraphrase edition puts it: ‘Being loved by God doesn’t stop us from being a Frodo D*&^%$- Baggins.’

     Case in point: the other Sunday morning.

Contemporary worship service.

Unlike most Sunday mornings when I roll out of bed straight into my car with last night’s toothpaste slobber still crusted on the side of my mouth and then conceal most of the evidence from having pressed snooze 33 times behind my Luther-like alb, this Sunday I actually put on a tie.

And a blazer.

And combed my hair.

After first having showered.

Truth be told, this humble man of the cloth thought he looked pretty damn good.

Definitely more Palmer Joss this Sunday than rugged Rev Maclean.

Palmer

1276-3

That I thought I looked pretty damn good was reflected in my gosh-aren’t-I-hilarious banter during the announcements. An ecclesial Ryan Gosling, to be sure, I stood in front of several hundred worshippers and welcomed them in the name of Christ.

In between opening praise songs, I seamlessly slipped onstage to offer an opening prayer, gelling the words of the songs with the upcoming message. To chuckles, including my own, I gave the announcements for the day (if you see him, please tell Rev Perry the Gov’t Shutdown doesn’t apply to him and he should return to work…HAH!)

I then celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, pouring water over little Charlotte while a baker’s dozen of her cousins snapped pictures. Later in the service I stood front and center up by the altar to lead the pastoral and the Lord’s Prayer. And then we closed the service with ‘Forever Reign.’ A praise # from Hillsong United, the Walmart of contemporary Christian music.

Imagining my voice to sound as good as I looked, I sang:

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

     On display.

Damn.

Some synapse fired in me, triggering an almost primordial, survivalist self-awareness.

Holding the manilla worship bulletin in my left hand, I lowered my right hand down.

Slowly, as to be imperceptible to the band and singers standing 5 feet straight in front of me.

All the while still singing:

You are peace, You are peace

When my fear is crippling

My hand did a too-subtle-to-be-noticed reconnaissance.

Fly down.

Thinking myself cooler than 007, I’d instead been X,Y,Z during the entire service.

And while some worshippers in that moment had their eyes closed in enthused praise and worship, I closed mine, mentally weighing my options:

Do I suck it up and just zip it up right now?

What if the band sees me or the worshippers to my left or right?

What if it gets stuck and I look like I’m playing with myself while the band plays their last number?

What if Karli or one of the other singers sees me and snorts into the mic?

Should I just leave it, offer the benediction and hope no one sees?

Definitely the last, I decided, all the while singing:

The riches of Your love

Will always be enough

Nothing compares to Your embrace

Song ended, an ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit’ served up, I sheepishly waited for everyone to ‘go forth in the name of the Lord.’

Coast clear.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then… a youth grinned at me knowingly (because of what I didn’t know).

“Hey man, did you know your fly was down through, like, the entire service?”

    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

     ‘At once justified and an idiot’ God’s grace always remains outside of us, apart from us, Luther says. It’s a promise announced to us not an attribute original in us.

We are always at once graced by God and the same a#$-clown we were before.

When you think about it, it must be so.

Lest we ever forget that God’s grace is exactly what it is: an undeserved gift.

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

Barth_WritingIn his crackling defense of how Christianity makes sense of this ‘cruel world,’ Unapologetic, Francis Spufford writes that what Christians name by that stodgy old world ‘sin’ can be abbreviated- ‘HPtFtU.’

‘The Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up.’

Unbelievers of the most sneering variety often preen about with the suggestion that their believing counterparts prefer to live in a fantasy world rather than the world that is. Those who’ve bravely shorn themselves of the dross of myth and faerie are the only ones sufficiently sturdy to take measure of the world- the not so subtle implication goes.

But knowing how many billions of years old is the world is hardly the same thing as knowing how the world is.

Knowing that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’ does not necessarily acquaint one with any personal knowledge of where the wounded world bleeds red.

Or who is doing the bleeding.

Though atheists often surmise that theirs is the most ‘realistic’ take on the world, Spufford argues that the opposite is most often the case.

Whereas atheists lack anything that narrates the human experience as reliably as HPtFtU so too do they fail to contend with the cruelty on our little piece of the universe.

Far from being fantastical or unrealistic, Christians are those people who’ve heard the bad news about themselves and thus are free to frankly assess the truth all around them.

Where atheists too often treat ‘god’ as a piece of outdated mental furniture, it’s most often believers who wrestle again and again with the question of what sort of God is conjured by the innumerable suffering in the world (see: Job). Just as often it turns out that such wrestling compels one to take some small measure against it (witness the fact those serving in the most wounded places in the world are overwhelmingly believers).

6a00d834515f9b69e2019b00771a43970b-800wiAs Spufford puts it:

“Some people ask nowadays what kind of religion it is that chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol, as if the cross on churches must represent some kind of endorsement…

The answer is: one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.”

In §17.3 of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth assesses the human dimension to religion quite seriously.To take a look at life in this world is to confront the sinfulness of humanity seriously, our HPtFtU as Spufford calls it- and I think Barth would approve.

Given the (bad) truth about ourselves, Barth says that the only way for us stand before God is to do so justified, forgiven, and en route to sanctification in Christ.

Christianity is ‘true’ not only in the sense that it truthfully narrates the world in all its cruelty and beauty, ditto us; Christianity is true, says Barth, because God adopts it, sanctifies it and speaks thru it.

Christianity is true because it’s been graced by God and is thus a vessel of God’s grace.

But when Barth speaks of Christianity as being ‘true’ don’t mistakenly think Barth excludes Christianity from the world under judgment.

Hardly. It’s the nature of HPtFtU that we’re all equally culpable. Far from being prized, saved or excluded, Christians might better refer to themselves as ‘the international league of the guilty’ (Spufford again…and again I think Karl would tip his cigar).

Christianity then is not a source of confidence, Barth argues, so much as it’s a source of honesty. And thus hope. This is but another reason why Barth is so allergic to apologetics, the rationally ‘proving’ Christian belief.

To suggest by way of argument that Christianity is somehow ‘the best’ religion or worldview is to grab hold of a tree at the expense of the forest, for Christianity is the announcement of grace in the face of the bad news about ourselves.

To apply a category like ‘best’ to such a declaration is to make a tonal error.

Nonetheless, permit me such an error. Consider these two catchphrases and tell me which is the most honest, realistic summary of life in our world. The first is the popular atheist bus advertisement and the second is Martin Luther’s Gospel in condensed form:

“There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

(Enjoy?)

simil justus et peccator” 

Which means (roughly):

We are always at one and the same time and never cease to be hobbled by HPtFtU but we are also always at one and the same time and never cease to be loved.

 

martin-lutherI’ve got to confess.

And I’ll do it publicly here.

Because, after all, I’m a Protestant and- on paper at least, even if its seldom practiced in most congregations- I believe in corporate confession.

I don’t need to duck inside a little private booth (note to Protestants: most Catholics haven’t used those in a long while, no matter what you saw in Keeping the Faith) to have a priest mediate my confession and prayer for absolution to God.

I can do it all by myself. With and in front of others.

There doesn’t need to be anyone who comes between me and God (note which noun comes first in that subordinate clause).

Which just nicely guarantees that very little communication, to say nothing of confession, passes from me to God.

While famous corporate confession from the Book of Common Prayer:

“…We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders…”

is incredibly pointed and powerful, I daresay it’s salvific sting would be felt more keenly if I had a confessor forcing me to own up and articulate exactly how what I’ve ‘left undone’ in my life and relationships that’s deserving of the label ‘sin.’

I’ve already shown my hand without actually fessing up:

I’ve got to confess.

I’ve got a serious case of Catholic-envy.

A virus that was perhaps latent within me since John Paul but has flared up to near-fatal levels by the arrival of Pope Francis.

While my own denomination continues to sever itself over North American issues of homosexual ordination, I’ve got to admire (if not agree) with a tradition that at least has the logical consistency to demand celibacy of all its clergy, gay or not. In a denomination severing itself over issues of homosexual marriage while about 1/2 of its members- let’s not talk about its clergy- divorce, I’ve got to admire (if not agree) with a tradition that has the logical consistency to teach that marriage is a lifelong covenant. In a denomination that is inescapably ‘American’ I’ve got to admire a tradition that is thoroughly ‘universal’ even while it universality means its rate of change seems incredibly slow to this American.

But really, like so many others, Pope Francis is the reason for my Catholic envy.

How I wish my own tradition had a globally recognizable leader in whom the life and teachings of Jesus were so palpably and incarnately demonstrated.

Just check out this picture. If not worth a thousand words, it def rates a short homily or a Broadway billboard:

Screen-Shot-2013-11-08-at-7.26.28-AM

The other Francis was right.

You don’t need evangelism when you’ve got leaders like this who are like a flesh-by-numbers display of the Gospel.

Had I not already signed on to a particular Jesus tribe and were, right now, ‘seeking’ a place to follow him, I gotta confess I’d give our Romish brothers and sisters a try.

Which but leads me to another confession that IS corporate for most my Protestant tribe:

Why are we not Catholic?

Or rather, in what ways are we still meaningfully Protestant?

I don’t know what church you attend or denomination you belong to but, chances are, you’re not ‘protesting’ anything anymore. Even if you are protesting things, odds are good it’s got more to do with ‘social justice’ or ‘the conservative agenda’ and little to do 16th century theology.

After all, the main points of contention that compelled Martin to post his 95 Theses have long since been reconciled.

Abuse of indulgences? Check.

Scripture and liturgy in the vernacular? Check.

Justification by faith alone? Double Check.

Every year it strikes me as odd that Protestant churches actually celebrate Reformation Sunday.

Even if you agree with Luther’s vision of Christianity, schism isn’t something to celebrate. That’s like celebrating your parents’ divorce- I know firsthand that even when the separation is necessary it’s still tragic.

You’d think it strange if I offered prayers every late October celebrating the rupture of family wouldn’t you?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America, a region where the United Methodist Church is all but unknown so small is its population share. There, the Jesus family is divided into 2 homes, Catholic or Evangelical (usually meaning ‘Pentecostal’). Truth be told, I’ve got a lot more in common with the former there than I do the latter. In terms of worship, theology and how mission and service are to be done.

I wonder, given the changing contours of post-Christian America, if our future is to be found in Latin America?

Do our increasingly diverse cultural options make it necessary to winnow down the Christian options to two basic choices: Catholic or Pentecostal?

Could it be the Protestant affection for Pope Francis is a harbinger of things to come?

By the way, here’s a great article from First Things that echoes.

Queen’s to you:

Why are you Protestant?

Why are you not Catholic?

And does your reason trump the cause of Christian unity?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

zipper    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

Martin Luther, founding padre of the Protestant Reformation, insisted that God’s grace is a declaration announced to us.

From outside us.

     God’s grace is a promise to which we can only respond with trust.

     There is no discernible interior change in us.

     We essentially remain the same d*&^%$-bags we were before.

     Only now, we know in faith, when God regards us, he graciously chooses to see Jesus instead of the a#$-clowns most of us are most of the time.

Says Luther:

Even after we’ve responded to the promise of grace, we never cease to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

     This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ 

     It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’

Or as the contemporary paraphrase edition puts it: ‘Being loved by God doesn’t stop us from being a Frodo D*&^%$- Baggins.’

     Case in point: Sunday morning.

Contemporary worship service.

Unlike most Sunday mornings when I roll out of bed straight into my car with last night’s toothpaste slobber still crusted on the side of my mouth and then conceal most of the evidence from having pressed snooze 33 times behind my Luther-like alb, this Sunday I actually put on a tie.

And a blazer.

And combed my hair.

After first having showered.

Truth be told, this humble man of the cloth thought he looked pretty damn good.

Definitely more Palmer Joss this Sunday than rugged Rev Maclean.

Palmer1276-3

That I thought I looked pretty damn good was reflected in my gosh-aren’t-I-hilarious banter during the announcements.

An ecclesial Ryan Gosling, to be sure, I stood in front of several hundred worshippers and welcomed them in the name of Christ.

In between opening praise songs, I seamlessly slipped onstage to offer an opening prayer, gelling the words of the songs with the upcoming message.

To chuckles, including my own, I gave the announcements for the day (if you see him, please tell Rev Perry the Gov’t Shutdown doesn’t apply to him and he should return to work…HAH!)

I then celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, pouring water over little Charlotte while a baker’s dozen of her cousins snapped pictures.

Later in the service I stood front and center up by the altar to lead the pastoral and the Lord’s Prayer.

And then we closed the service with ‘Forever Reign.’ A praise # from Hillsong United, the Walmart of contemporary Christian music.

Imagining my voice to sound as good as I looked, I sang:

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

     On display.

Damn.

Some synapse fired in me, triggering an almost primordial, survivalist self-awareness.

Holding the manilla worship bulletin in my left hand, I lowered my right hand down.

Slowly, as to be imperceptible to the band and singers standing 5 feet straight in front of me.

All the while still singing:

You are peace, You are peace

When my fear is crippling

My hand did a too-subtle-to-be-noticed reconnaissance.

Fly down.

Thinking myself cooler than 007, I’d instead been X,Y,Z during the entire service.

And while some worshippers in that moment had their eyes closed in enthused praise and worship, I closed mine, mentally weighing my options:

Do I suck it up and just zip it up right now?

What if the band sees me or the worshippers to my left or right?

What if it gets stuck and I look like I’m playing with myself while the band plays their last number?

What if Karli or one of the other singers sees me and snorts into the mic?

Should I just leave it, offer the benediction and hope no one sees?

Definitely the last, I decided, all the while singing:

The riches of Your love

Will always be enough

Nothing compares to Your embrace

Song ended, an ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit’ served up, I sheepishly waited for everyone to ‘go forth in the name of the Lord.’

Coast clear.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then… a youth grinned at me knowingly (because of what I didn’t know).

 “Hey man, did you know your fly was down through, like, the entire service?”

    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

     ‘At once justified and an idiot’

     God’s grace always remains outside of us, apart from us, Luther says.

It’s a promise announced to us not an attribute original in us.

We are always at once graced by God and the same a#$-clown we were before.

When you think about it, it must be so.

Lest we ever forget that God’s grace is exactly what it is: an undeserved gift.

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

 

UnknownBecause today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of atonement, I thought it appropriate to offer this reflection on the cross wherein Christians believe Yom Kippur gets worked out perfectly for all time.

Here’s this piece from J.R. Daniel Kirk, who takes a second look at the historic Christian interpretation, with deep roots in Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’ that God suffers on the cross.

Since my piece last week on patripassianism generated so much pushback and head-scratching, this is a worthwhile essay.

Kirk points out how often our theologies of atonement leave the text and its context behind.

On Sunday we were listening to Nadia Bolz Weber doing her “Lutheran theology rocks” thing in an interview at Wild Goose. (Seriously, folks, she is living out the law/gospel, simul justus et peculator thing better than anyone else I’m familiar with in 2013.)

At one point she started talking about the atonement. So much of what she says is so great. She talks about how grace works in a community where we experience brokenness not just in community, but just because the community has wounded us.

Then, circa minute 37:45 or so, she starts talking about God in the midst of tragedy. And, again, she does such a great job because she brings people to Jesus, and God bearing our suffering on the cross.

Then she says this:

… that’s not “God’s little boy, like God is some kind of divine child abuser sending his son (and he only had one!).” Come on, give me a break! “God’s little boy and he only had one, and as this divine child abuser and as this cigar-chomping loan shark demanding a pound of flesh, sending his little boy…” What hogwash, right? That actually is God on the cross, God saying, “I’d rather die than be in the sin-accounting business you’ve put me in.”

I love the theology of this: it’s not God sending some other to die, but Godself doing it. And, I know that there is good, strong Trinitarian theology behind this. The eternal Son who is God dies upon the cross.

The problem I keep coming back to is that everywhere and always in scripture, the son who dies is precisely the son who is not the father, and is nowhere the God who, as Godself, is dying to save us.

There is always the son who is not the father who is dying out of obedience to the father.

There is always the father who is not the son who is not sparing his son but delivering him up for us all.

And… “He only had one!”

I don’t dislike the divine on the cross interpretation, but I’m not exactly sure where it leaves us. The only way to get there is to abandon the theological logic of the NT writers and replace it with a particular way of working out the later theological logic of the Trinity.

Is the need for it to be God as such who dies so profound that we simply have to abandon the suffering Human One of the Synoptic Gospels, or the obedient Second Adam of Paul? Or do we simply need to return to the question of why Jesus died to shore up a better answer of why this man, man I say!, goes the way of the cross?

And if we put it all in the divinity, what then of the calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus? Does God love us less than the Son because what God would not call another to do, but does Godself, God nonetheless demands we do?

And what about this bit of the father not sparing? Do we chunk it? What about, “Not what I will but what you will?” do we chunk it?

But if we don’t, how do we articulate atonement in way that doesn’t leave us with a child-abusing loan shark?

I’d love to hear how folks are thinking about what the death of Jesus might teach us about God and/or how you’re working out atonement to deal with the scriptural tradition and concerns such as those NBW raises.

Parents: Echoing Back

Jason Micheli —  August 23, 2013 — 1 Comment

luthersockeLike I do every August, I’m busy preparing for the kick-off of our year long confirmation program for 6th graders and our nascent year long catechism for graduating seniors. Throw in there plans for a class on Mark I’ll be teaching.

Meanwhile our youth and children directors are getting ready for their years and the hundreds of kids who will come through the doors after Labor Day.

Throw in all the admin time such time requires.

And here’s the bitter, ironic but abiding reality:

NONE OF WHAT WE DO MATTERS

NONE OF IT MATTERS

NO SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASS, CONFIRMATION RETREAT, YOUTH GROUP SESSION CAN MAKE YOUR KID A CHRISTIAN IF NOTHING WE DO WITH THEM AT CHURCH IS ECHOED BACK AT HOME.

WHERE THEY SPEND 98% OF THEIR LIVES.

Martin Luther, the Reformation theologian who spent his whole life embroiled in matters involving the institutional church, was convinced that Christian formation actually happened in the home not in the Church. It happened in the family.

If ever the People of God are to flourish, Luther believed, if ever people will be capable of believing in God’s love it will be because of what happens in the home, in the family, and not in the Church. For Luther, teaching about God’s love had less to do with the official words of the Church and more to do with the love shared in the home.

Luther called it ‘echoing back.’

It’s the kind of teaching that happens in families- around dinner tables and shared struggles, in conversations and in ordinary moments.

Echoing back: it’s where the words of scripture and the words Church are made visible in the lives of the people who love us. In other words, our ability to understand Christ’s love for us depends on whether we see that love, experience that love, through the lives of those who love us.

According to Luther, the words of the Church alone can’t do it because God invites us not just into believing in him but into a way of life. And for a way of life, we need more than words; we need guides, mentors, friends.

If it’s true that the laos have abdicated the ministry to the cleros, it’s also true in too many cases that families have abdicated Christianity to the Church, leaving it to pastors and badly paid staff to Christianize (or at least inoculate them against the corroding effects of secularism) them.

The one bright side is that if kids and youth don’t grow up in homes where the Church’s message is echoed back by their families, then they’re still ripe and vulnerable to an anti-family, fight-the-Man-renegade like Jesus of Nazareth.

 

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Here’s this weekend’s sermon from Romans 4.1-5 for our series, JustifiedYou can also download it in the iTunes store under ‘Tamed Cynic.’Or, you can listen to the sermon here: 

      1. The Stars are the Light of the World

photo-4     Over Memorial Day Weekend I joined 1,000 people from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Taize is a monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to their monastery in France to participate in the rhythms of their communal life.

Once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.

This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota Nation to welcome pilgrims to Pine Ridge.

Just as pilgrims do at the monastery in Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge worshipping 3 times a day, sharing simple meals, and sharing our faith stories in small groups. photo-3

On Saturday of the Pilgrimage Weekend, after morning prayer and breakfast, we were assigned small groups to reflect on the morning scripture lesson.

I was told our small groups were assigned according to the order in which we’d registered for the Pilgrimage, but I swear it was due to some some cruel, cosmic joke I can’t be sure.

The seven of us in my small group sat down in a circle in the dry, prairie grass.

     Directly across from me in the circle sat a white-haired, tie-dyed Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California.

     Next to the lady bishop sat a gay Episcopal priest from San Francisco.

     Next to him sat a Unitarian lay person from Boulder, Colorado.

     Next to him, a Catholic civil servant from Paris, France.

     Next to her, a women’s studies PhD candidate from Barcelona, Spain.

     Next to her, on my left, was a man who looked like a shorter, plumper, balder, older version of me- except he was dressed sloppy and had an unkempt beard.

     His green Velcro sneakers, red tube socks and Trotsky eyeglasses screamed ‘European Socialist.’

     And finally in the circle, there was me.

We began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves.

     I went second to last. As I’m want to do, I tried to charm them with self-effacing, sarcastic humor.

‘I’m a Methodist pastor from Virginia,’ I began, ‘and I just gotta say my congregation back home would be shocked to hear that I could be the most conservative person in any group.’

No one laughed, which, I suppose, just proves how liberal they all were.

‘You didn’t tell us your name,’ the Bishop said with a tone of voice that suggested what she really meant was: ‘I’d prefer not to make your acquaintance.’

     ‘Sorry, my name’s Jason’ I said, ‘Jason Micheli.’

And when I said ‘Micheli,’ the shorter, plumper, older, balder version of me shouted: ‘Micheli! Italiano!’

He shouted ‘Ciao!’

And then got up and embraced me like Gepetto rescuing Pinocchio from the Island of Lost Boys.

He rubbed his sweaty beard across my face as he man-kissed me on both my cheeks, and then he began ticking off the names of people he insisted I must be related to back in “Roma.”

Wiping his sweat from my face, I gestured for him to introduce himself.

He adjusted his glasses and said in a thick accent: ‘My name is Tomaso.’

Tomaso told us he was a scientist, a geologist, from Rome. And then he laughed nervously and said: ‘I am not a Christian. I am not a person of faith.’

Both times the accent landed heavy on the ‘not.’

5127ee0225791.preview-620Our bible study felt forced. Everyone in the group kept deferring to the bishop and, being Episcopalian, the bible was an unfamiliar to her.

The bishop said the types of knee-jerk things you’d expect an Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California to say.

And- you’d be proud of me- initially, at least, I bit my tongue and didn’t respond with any snarky comments.

That is, until I remembered she wasn’t my Bishop- at which point I started to interrupt her with thoughtful, sober comments like:

‘Of course, you think that. You’re a tree-hugging, liberal, Baby Boomer Episcopalian from California.’

In truth, I wasn’t really interested in our bible study- because, really, I was dying to ask Tomaso, the paisano to my left, why he’d flown all the way from Italy, driven all the way from Denver, agreed to sleep in a horse pasture and go without running water and spend 4 days with Christians and celibate monks if he was NOT a person of faith.

When our bible study wrapped up, I grabbed Tomaso by the elbow and I said: ‘Tomaso, call it professional curiosity, but what are you doing here if you’re not a person of faith?’

And, a bit anticlimactically, he said: ‘Because my wife made me come.’

‘Well, that’s nothing new. Half the men in my church are there because their old ladies force them to come.’

Tomaso chuckled and grabbed his book- a science fiction novel- like he was about to leave, but I said: ‘Tell me- why don’t you consider yourself a person of faith?’

He smiled like a professor who’s not sure how to water down his material for a freshman class, and then he launched into what sounded like a well-rehearsed litany. His reasons against faith.

‘I am a scientist’ he began, ‘and there is no scientific explanation for a 7 day creation, for an incarnation, for a resurrection.’

    ‘Gosh, there isn’t? I guess it’s a good thing scripture doesn’t try to explain them scientifically then, huh?’

My sarcasm apparently didn’t translate because he just kept ticking off his reasons for not believing:

How the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation.

How faith is just a psychological crutch.

How the Gospels don’t always agree with one another.

How the Church has been responsible much evil and injustice.

How it’s superstitious to think bread and wine can become anyone’s body and blood.

How St Paul endorses slavery and sexism.

How Revelation is about Rome not the Rapture.

How scripture is not the literal Word of God but instead bears all the messy fingerprints of people like you and me.

His list was surprisingly long and surprisingly unoriginal. And when he got to the end, he held out his hands like a magician, whose just disappeared his assistant, and he said:

‘See, mi amico, there’s nothing left for me to believe. There’s nothing left for me to be a person of faith.’ 

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‘Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ 

     There may be no other sentence in the Old Testament that has been more significant to followers of the New. And more misleading.

     God told Abraham that he and his wife, Sarah, would have millions of descendants- as many as the stars in the sky.

     Abraham believed God and that was enough for God to credit Abraham as ‘righteous.’

Ever since Martin Luther, the Founding Father of Protestantism, Father Abraham has served as Exhibit A for what we think it means for us to have faith:

Abraham did not lift a finger to be saved. 

Abraham did nothing to earn or deserve it. 

Abraham simply believed in God. 

Abraham was saved by faith alone. 

At least that’s what we think Paul means in Romans 4.

But here’s the problem:

When we reduce Abraham to an example (for us) of someone who has faith in God and is rewarded accordingly- we lose the biblical plot of what God is doing IN and THROUGH Abraham.

And when we lose that plot, the seam Paul’s entire argument in the Book of Romans unravels.

Because the argument Paul is weaving from Romans 1 to Romans 16 is that what we discover in Jesus Christ is God making good on a promise first made to Abraham.

Because when you go back to the Book of Genesis, you notice:

It doesn’t say Abraham believed IN God.  

It says Abraham believed God

It doesn’t Abraham accepted God as his personal savior. 

It says Abraham believed God

That is, Abraham accepted something God said. 

Abraham believed a single thing God said. 

A very specific thing God said. 

Abraham believed the promise: the promise that his children would be like the stars in the sky. 

But this promise, it isn’t about God providing Abraham with progeny.

The promise is that THROUGH Abraham God would create a new and distinct People in the world.

The promise is that the way God would pick the world back up from its Fall, the way God would heal the world’s sin, the way God would bring forth a New Creation would be by creating a New People.

The promise is that through Abraham God would create a People who would do what Adam failed to do, a People whose trust in God and trust in one another would provide an alternative to the ways of the world.

abramThe stars God promises to Abraham- they’re meant to be a light to the world.

That’s the unconditional commitment God promises and that’s what Abraham believes.

And God, scripture says, reckons that to Abraham as ‘righteousness.’

Now if, as I told you weeks ago, ‘God’s Righteousness’ is a specific biblical term that refers to God’s commitment to undo the injustice of the world and usher in a New Creation, then Abraham being ‘reckoned righteousness’ means Abraham was credited, acknowledged, signed up as a participant in God’s New Creation work.

Abraham didn’t believe everything he could possibly believe about God; in fact, plenty remained that Abraham still struggled to believe:

Abraham lacked faith that he and his wife’s old bodies could produce new life.

Abraham doubted the events in his life would pan out as God had predicted.

Abraham questioned God’s justice and mercy.

But despite his doubts, despite his questions, despite those parts of God’s Word he scratched his head at and crossed his fingers through- what Abraham always believed, what Abraham always had faith in, what it always meant for Abraham to be a person of faith, the person of faith, was his faith in this single promise:

    The promise that God so loved the world, God would not give up on what he had made.

     That just as God’s first creation began with God calling into the void ‘Let there be light,’ God’s New Creation would begin by God calling a People who would be a Light to the world.

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Sunday afternoon, a group of us there for the Pilgrimage weekend made another pilgrimage.

To Wounded Knee.

The place where the US Army, without provocation, slaughtered over 300 Indians, little more than a hundred years ago.

2/3 of the victims were children…with their mothers.

In 1973 Wounded Knee became the site of a standoff between Lakota Indians and the Federal Government. Resulting in more violence.

Wounded Knee remains a festering reminder of suffering and injustice that persists to this day.

So on Sunday afternoon, in reverent silence, we loaded on to 3 school buses.

And silently we rode the 30 minutes to Wounded Knee, riding past shacks and trailers and the kind of poverty that seems to fit a 3rd world nation better than this one.

When we arrived at Wounded Knee, the brothers put on their gleaming, white-as-light, monastic robes and then they led us all, silently, down the road and up the hill to the graveyard. photo-2

Some locals from the reservation were there, loitering, sitting on top of rusted, broken down cars and squinting at us with justifiable suspicion.

There’s a church there by the graveyard. It had ‘Fuck you white people’ spray-painted on the sanctuary doors.

An old woman was in the graveyard planting flowers by an old tombstone while a young woman tamped down the dirt of a freshly dug grave.

The mass grave, the hole where the victims bodies had been dumped, is at the center of the cemetery.

Brother Alois, the head of the monastery at Taize, motioned silently for us to make a circle around the mass grave.

I glanced around the circle at all the people, literally, from all over the world, from as many nations as there are stars in the sky.

Then Brother Alois held out his hands for us to take hold of one another’s hands.

Then Brother Alois bowed his head and so did we.

And then we prayed. Silently.

For a long time.

Silently- because how else do you pray when some of the people you’re holding hands with share the same names as the bodies you’re standing on top of and still suffer the consequences of so many empty words?

As Brother John, another monk, had told us the previous morning, we were going to Wounded Knee:

‘as people of faith, to a place of broken promises, to be a silent, visible sign of a different promise, the promise that the God who made the world in love will, with us and through us, redeem it.’ 

Many of us kept the silence as we rode the way back from Wounded Knee. After we’d returned to our campsite, I ran into Tomaso. Both of us were coming out of adjoining Port O’ Johns and reaching for the hand sanitizer.

     ‘If it isn’t Doubting Tomaso’ I said.

‘Mi amico, how are you?’

     ‘I’m not sure. I just got back from Wounded Knee.’

‘How was that?’

     ‘Did you not go?’

‘To pray?’ and he laughed like it was a ridiculous notion. ‘No, I stayed here and read my book.’ And he held up his sci-fy novel.

     ‘Like I tell my wife: faith is the easy way out in this world.’

‘Easy? How can someone with a PhD be so stupid?

Jesus has done a lot of things in my life but made my life easier is definitely not one of them. Faith hasn’t been my way out of the world; faith has thrust me into the world: to places I’d rather not go, to pain and poverty I’d rather not have weigh on my conscience, to people towards whom I’d be happy not to feel any responsibility. 

Easy way out? Are you a complete idiot?

Most of the time, to believe in God is to feel heartbroken over all the places you see God absent in the world. I just watched and prayed as a 20 year old Indian girl wept over a mass grave beneath her and a hopeless future in front of her. Faith isn’t an escape from the world’s problems; it’s a summons to wade waist deep into its problems.

I know you’re a geologist, Tomaso, but does that mean you have rocks in your head?’ 

     I thought to myself.

But instead I squirted some Pure El into my hands and I said- the only thing I said:

‘Easy way out? That’s and  interesting indictment coming from someone who spent the afternoon relaxing in his tent, reading a trashy novel.’

Doubting Tomaso laughed and said: ‘Like I said, there’s too many things I don’t believe ever to be a person of faith.’

‘Tomaso, you don’t seem to understand that, being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.’

‘Why do you care so much about me anyway?’ Tomaso asked, ‘Do you care about ‘my salvation’?’ he said with sarcastic air quotes.

     ‘That’s just it- it’s not about you and your salvation. Ever since Abraham, it’s never just been about you, you selfish coward. It’s about God calling- God needing- people to be light for the world’ I wanted to scream at him. 

But I didn’t.

And he finished wiping the Pure-El into his hands and said ‘Ciao.’

And then he walked back to his tent, and with the world just a little bit darker for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Who I’m Voting For…

Jason Micheli —  November 6, 2012 — 2 Comments

Yeah, sorry for the tease, but I don’t think so.

I posted this last week but the WordPress analytics tell me not enough of you took a gander. So with the polls closing soon here’s some pastoral, Kingdom-focused wisdom from yours truly….

 

Every now and then I flirt with the belief that Christians should opt out of campaigns and elections, let the chads and voting booths, the empty soundbites and inane talking points lie fallow for a season.

It’s not that I don’t think certain issues are important. It’s not that I don’t think Christians should be engaged in the concerns of their given context. It’s that I suspect a mass Christian opt-out on Election Day might be a helpful and cleansing reminder to our politicians that A) the means by which they engage political conversation couldn’t be more divergent from our faith convictions and B) the notion that the teachings of Jesus fit perfectly into either party is what the Church has usually referred to as heresy.

After all, issues and elections may be important, but only Jesus will bring the Kingdom and Jesus’ plan to heal the world is neither the Democratic or Republican platform but the Church. The extent to which that notion scares you or strikes you as naive exposes both Jesus’ unreasonableness and your own lack of faith.

Every election year when well-meaning Christians either ask me voting advice or just post their silliness about ‘voting the bible’ on Facebook, I’m reminded of Martin Luther’s maxim that he’d rather have an effective pagan leader than an incompetent Christian at the reins of government.

When it comes to me, I’ve got conservative Tea Party types convinced I go to sleep at night beneath a portrait of Che, Mao and Jesus arm-in-arm. And I’ve got liberal Democrats who think I’m raging right-to-lifer. There are military folks who think I’m a Mennonite in name only and left-leaning activists who think my reluctance to believe in ‘rights’ language is proof I’m a backwards fascist.

Without trying to sound self-congratulatory, such ambiguity makes me, I think, a Christian. Or at the very least, a pastor.

As examples like Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams point out, Christian convictions do not easily lend themselves to party affiliation despite those parties’ drooling eagerness to adopt ‘God language’ into their platforms.

Which is to say, as a follower of Jesus, you shouldn’t really care for whom I vote just as I, frankly, do not care for whom you do.

As Jesus might say, ‘render unto Caesar …’ or maybe he would say…’the law and the prophets do not hang on…’ or maybe he would say…’put away the sword…’ or how about ‘the Kingdom of God is like a tiny-not-as-significant-as-your-paid-advertising-mustard seed…or might he warn ‘you cannot serve God and Mammon…’?

This screed was prompted and brought to you by Jonathan Martin’s Election Day Communion meme:

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

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Grace Alone?

Jason Micheli —  September 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This week we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs Works) Alone.

The usual way Christians talk about being saved by faith owes to Martin Luther.

For much of his monastic career Martin Luther was plagued by the question ‘How can I get a gracious God?’

The question began to crystalize for Luther thanks to the help of a mentor, the abbott of his monastery.

The abbott, knowing Luther well, believed (correctly, I think) that Luther’s relentless introspection and agonizing over his contrition was, in a fundamental way, in conflict with the simple, gracious message of the Gospel.

Luther had an epiphany. He attributes it to close readings of Paul’s letter to the Romans. At some time, in confession, Luther heard the priest offer the words ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven’ and his experience was to stop focusing on the authenticity of his contrition and to listen to the priest’s words and to trust them.

And when he trusted that, Luther’s world changed and it had a ripple effect through his whole understanding of the Gospel.

For Luther, what became critical was that the priest said something. This is essential- for Luther now the Gospel is a word that gets said. The Gospel isn’t dormant in the pages of scripture. The Gospel is a promise that is proclaimed.

Fundamentally, what Luther came to understand is that the Gospel is a statement. It’s a spoken word that takes the form of a declaration: ‘Martin, for the sake of Jesus Christ, your are forgiven.’

The Gospel is a declarative statement. It’s not a command (‘Go and do…’). It’s not horatory (‘Let us…’). It’s not an imperative (‘We should…’).

It’s critical to see this because it leads Luther to ask: how can you respond to a promise? You can’t obey a promise. All you can do is trust it or not trust it.

What Luther realizes in the confessional is that God doesn’t ask anything of us. God makes a declaration to us.

This is what Luther meant by ‘justification by faith alone’ which gets clarified later as ‘justification by grace through faith alone.’ It’s not the case, as is often misunderstood, that our faith justifies us. Luther instead means that God has declared us forgiven, we’re justified. (Indeed John Calvin and Karl Barth will say this declaration happened on the cross and is perfect, meaning it applies to you whether you want it to or not.)

‘By faith alone’ means that the only possible response to God’s declaration is faith, which Luther understands as trust.

Once Luther comes to this understanding of justification the entire foundation of the medieval church becomes useless to him, making a collision with Rome inevitable.

 

Okay, the title is just an exaggeration to get your attention.

Matthew Husband is a recent Va Tech grad, known to many of you. Matt leaves for Africa this Wednesday to volunteer for a year in AIDS prevention and treatment. Matt is a Baptist (sigh) but he has been involved with Aldersgate in such things as our mission in Guatemala. Here’s the last few lines of Matt’s post about his trip:

“This line of crazy circumstances has proven to me that this is where the Lord is leading me this next year. I continue to pray that the Lord use me the way he intends and that my own selfish desires never interfere with his plan. Although, I am excited beyond belief for the next year, I am still scared to death on how to the Lord is going to use me and mold me….”

Matt’s departure, as well the week I spent last month in Guatemala with some college students and college grads, got me thinking about God’s calling.

As a pastor, perhaps the thing I love most about my relationships with students is how I get to hear them constantly wrestling with and asking about God’s call in their lives. It’s natural they would, I suppose, given their stage of life. By and large, old people (and by old I mean anyone my age and up) have already made their choices- or compromises- and settled into their lives. That’s why, for people my age, the question is more often how they can fit God into their busy lives, but young people, with their lives ahead of them, more often ask how can God use them and their life.

The word we use in church, ‘call,’ comes from the Latin word, vocare, meaning ‘to call.’  It refers to God’s call or Jesus’ ‘come and follow me.’ What’s exciting for a pastor is how young Christians, especially if you get enough Jesus in them, are always responding to that ‘follow me’ with questions like ‘How?’ ‘Where?’ ‘To do what?’

If that’s the upside of ‘call’ and ‘vocation’ then preaching on Isaiah this weekend got me to thinking about what we miss, young and old, about God’s call.

Typically, the way we use the word, ‘vocation’ refers to someone’s career, to their paid work. Some Christians use the word even more narrowly, referring specifically to a subjective ‘feeling’ that calls them into religious work. It’s no wonder then that many assume God only calls people like me, priests and pastors.

Here’s the problem:

Our careers, our work, what we do to pay the bills- none of it is anything Jesus ever says anything about.

The vocation = career equation we’ve set up isn’t a biblical equation.

What’s more, thinking vocation = career is bad news to anyone who is retired, out of work or just hates their job and does it only because they have to.

The earnestness with which Matt wants to be used by God makes me wish that we as the Church could recover an authentically Christian concept of vocation.

Because the biblical equation looks more like this:

Vocation = Each of Us Doing…Anything

God calls each and everyone one of us. Anything we do, in whatever role we have, if it’s done in faith and done to glorify God, then it’s a holy calling. A vocation.

While it’s wonderful (and energizing for me) for young people to struggle with their place in the world and how God can use them, it’s equally true that whether we’re working or volunteering or (grand) parenting you can practice a vocation.

As Kenda Dean says, ‘what matters for Christians isn’t the work we do but the lives we live.’

Or, as Martin Luther said a bit more vividly: God is just as pleased when a father changes his daughter’s diapers as when a priest celebrates the Mass.

So I wish Matt well and I pray  for what I already know he’ll be praying for: that he would let God use him and that we would glorify God both in the amazing and in the mundane experiences he encounters.

PS: You can read more of his post here.