Archives For Martin Luther

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.