Archives For New Creation

 

nt-wrightDelicately: “None of us conform to what Genesis 1 says about us.”

Here’s the second installment of the Crackers and Grape Juice interview with NT Wright wherein Morgan delicately tries to ask him about gender binaries and homosexuality.

Here’s some of the nerdy text messages Morgan and I exchanged after we talked with him and with Fleming Rutledge:

Morgan Gunton:

So what do you make of the debate over apocalyptic?

Jason Micheli:

I’ve never been convinced by NT Wright’s ‘this is what God was up to all along’ angle. I think it ignores, like Fleming said, the shock of the cross, and the theme of discontinuity in Paul. Wright too often brushes critiques aside by saying his critics or the reformers et al just don’t know 1st c Judaism as well as him.

Morgan Gunton:

I feel like he makes Paul into a default first century Jew

Jason Micheli:

It’s stretches credulity to suppose that the fathers and reformers, and were completely wrong in all their impulses. Marcionism is a heresy obviously and the law wasn’t as bad as Luther made it out to be but still those sentiments are not without a textual grounding. It’s not a little thing, as Fleming Rutledge mentioned, that Paul doesn’t speak of the covenant- esp when NT would have us think that that’s the whole arc of scripture.

Morgan Gunton:

Yeah it was really eye-opening for me when Fleming said that because the whole reformed theological system is built upon covenant.

Jason Micheli:

Of course, I freely admit NT’s criticism in his most book- that those who espouse apocalyptic do so bc it’ll preach in a way that doesn’t force preachers to be fundamentalists. That’s me I know.

Morgan Gunton:

How is that though?

Jason Micheli:

It allows room for God to be the acting agent, for the world to be a dark place, for the church to be a pilgrim people living according to a diff time…all without being literalists. Basically, Barth and Hauerwas.

Morgan Gunton:

Yeah I guess it seems to me like NT Wright over-historicizes his theology if that’s the right terminology.

Jason Micheli:

It’s hard to put a finger on, but it’s def true that I don’t think he ‘preaches’ like Kasemann and Martyn. Nor do I think his own sermons are urgent enough but he is English so…

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Here it is:

Rubens-adoration_des_magesFor the 4th Sunday of Advent, we did something a little different. The text was Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, a song Mary takes from the Old Testament Matriarch, Hannah, and makes her own. A cover song so to speak. A sample.

With Mary as my muse, I decided to prepare 5 different beginnings to a sermon.

We spun a wheel to choose a beginning at random. I preached that introduction and then tagged in to Dennis Perry who, like Mary, had to take my words and make them his own and then I finished up where Dennis leaves off.

I’d almost forgotten, but here’s the video from the 4th service that weekend. The theme chosen at random was ‘virgin birth.’

 

5127ee0225791.preview-620If you read this blog then you already know that I’ve spent the last four days at a Taize Pilgrimage gathering at Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I’m writing this on our trek home. I calculated the time and the mileage- the journey here took me just as long as it took me get to the Taize community in Burgundy, France and it will take just as long to return home.

The same is true for hundreds of the others who gathered this weekend and that should tell you all you need to know about the power of the Taize community and the grounding, foundational role it plays in the faith of Christians all over the world. I’ve met pilgrims who came here from Poland, France, Spain, Korea and Italy.

I’m too tired to write much now- especially on my phone of all things- and I’ll reflect more later, but I wanted to take a moment to share a few observations on the nature of the event itself.

As I posted earlier, the Taize community understands its mission to be a ‘pilgrimage of trust on Earth.’ All of life, the brothers believe, is a pilgrimage wherein we embody our trust in the Creator by extending trust (in the form of hospitality, listening and reconciliation) to others. In their community in France, this mission gets realized in how the brothers welcome 5K pilgrims every week from places around the world- places, it should be noted- that often have nothing in common and much in dispute once you extract Christ from the equation.

This same emphasis on ‘trust’ has been paralleled by the pilgrimage gathering here at Red Shirt, as we (and that ‘we’ is mostly very white and across the board Christian) are only here because of the trust and hospitality extended to us by the Lakota. No small thing when you consider we’re the only outsiders of this number gathered in this part of the reservation since the “Incident” at Wounded Knee in the 1970’s.

This pilgrimage weekend was the initiative of Robert Two Bulls and his Father, both Episcopal priests. It’s their land we camped on. It’s their bulls we ate.  And it’s their trust in the possibilities of Christ’s reconciling work that has brought us here. 5127ee0433ed6.preview-620

When it comes to reconciliation, the Two Bulls and the Taize Brothers see eye to eye on methodology. Or rather, you might say, theology. That is, they both share the conviction that the everyday, simple practice of Christian faith is itself an act of and means towards reconciliation.

Christians need not defer to the more ‘professional’ realms of politics, economics or social science (none of those disciplines have been particularly benevolent to the Lakota in the past anyway). Instead, the Two Bulls and the Brothers share the belief that the historical issues here are complex, the politics messy and the solutions seemingly elusive but, in the meantime, people of faith- no matter how different- CAN sit down and share a meal together, open their home to strangers, share stories and prayer and listen.

And that’s all this weekend has been about. There’s no ‘work project’ or charitable, mission activity- reservations have enough of those and seldom do they yield any sustainable good.

There’s no issue advocacy, passing around of petitions or voting on resolutions- which surely would have dominated this weekend had it been sponsored and run by a denomination (UMC) like my own.

And what teaching there has been about the history, culture and suffering of the Lakota has been first-person, told unrehearsed in small groups or around a meal.

In a culture where Christians of both liberal and conservative stripes defer to politics for hope and change, the Two Bulls and the Brothers would remind us that, for Christians, real change comes through our solidarity in Christ. Indeed a few hours in a place like this and you realize, given the tragedy that is omnipresent, Christ is the only bridge, the only common ground, upon which we have any hope of meeting.

And I think that’s where Taize (here at Pine Ridge or in Burgundy, France) intersects with Emergence Christianity: the conviction that everything must begin with the Gospel authentically embodied and practiced in community.

I’ve always like the rhetoric of Stanley Hauerwas’ maxim: ‘The Church doesn’t have a social ethic. The Church is a social ethic.’

Liking that rhetoric and understanding it are two different things because I think this is first time and place I’ve had any real notion what the hell Hauerwas means.

As Brother Alois, the prior of Taize, said:

“In going to Pine Ridge we want to listen carefully to the story of the Lakota people, and listen together to what the Spirit is saying to us all in our attempt to create a world of solidarity and peace. Only by coming together beyond our differences in a climate of prayer and sharing can we find new ways forward.”

5127ee036396c.preview-620Or as Brother John put it in a bible study Saturday morning;

“Forgiveness is God’s act of New Creation performed on the relational level.

Saying ‘I’m willing to listen to you or I forgive you’ is one of the ingredients that ultimately culminates in what Isaiah describes as a New Heaven and a New Earth.’

The surprising thing for me in all this is how disempowering and ennobling an experience this has been.

The Rule of Taize spells it out like this:

‘It is Christ himself whom we welcome as a guest. So let us learn to be welcoming; our hospitality should be generous and discerning.’

White Christians from the States aren’t usually in the objective part of sentences like that one.

We typically think of ourselves as welcoming people in Christ’s name and chiding ourselves- sometimes a bit self-congratulatory- to see Christ in the stranger. But here, we’re the ones being welcomed by people- Americans…more so than us even- who’ve gotten the shaft from my people at nearly every turn, past and present. And that is a humbling (in the sense of stripped bare) experience.

It also means that in some way I am Christ to/for them and maybe that’s the greatest leap of faith of all, for being welcomed here to Pine Ridge by the Lakota leaves me feeling not a little like a blinded Saul being welcomed, nursed and cared for by Ananias, Saul’s former victim.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeI’ve been married nearly a dozen years. I’ve performed I don’t know how many weddings, presided over even more pre-marital counseling sessions and refereed an equal amount of relationships as they were coming to an end. So I’m not Dr Phil but I’ve learned a thing or two. Or ten.

#6: You Don’t Love Your Spouse For Who They Are

As a pastor I’m often in the position to ask couples: ‘Why do you want to get married?’ You’d be shocked- then again, maybe not- how few people can answer that question beyond some vagueness about how ‘we’re just so deeply in love’ or how the other person ‘completes me.’

The answer I get most often though is this one:

‘He/she loves me for who I am.’

To be fair, I suppose I couldn’t articulate much more than that when Ali and I got married.

Just as often as I get that response, I do my best to quash it:

 ‘Well, that’s no good because once you’re married it’s going to be his/her job

to make sure you don’t stay who you are.’

 

That comment usually meets with equal parts confusion and disgust. But dammit, it’s honest-to-goodness bible true. Pop culture has convinced us that true love accepts us exactly for who we are and- goes the rest of the unspoken assumption- leaves us exactly who we are. Pop culture has convinced us that true love doesn’t expect us to change.

That may be love as Taylor Swift defines it but it couldn’t be more different than how Jesus loves people. Yes, Jesus accepted everyone for exactly who they were: Zaccheus, Matthew, the Rich Young Ruler. But accepting them as they were, Jesus’ style of love never left people as they were. Never left them unchanged. 

And, don’t forget, married love is meant to be sacramental. We’re supposed to love each other in a way that makes visible and tangible the way Jesus loves people.

Therefore, marriage is all about changing the other person. 

And it’s not simply a by-product of marriage. It’s the vocation of marriage. It’s what marriage is for. 

St Paul wrote to the Corinthians that anyone ‘who is in Christ is a new creation.’ Anyone who’s a Christian can tell you that doesn’t happen in an instant or even very quickly or easily. It’s a long, hard, slow process of throwing off sin and growing into who God intends us to be, who God has always intended us to be, who we will be in God’s New Creation.

The purpose of marriage- it’s Christian calling if you like- is to offer the sort of friendship that helps your spouse grow into their best self. Their future, new creation self.

 

It’s the vocation of marriage to see in your beloved the work God is doing in them, the promise in them of new creation, and to join God in that work.

 

Put another way, marriage- Christian marriage- is analogous to how Michaelangelo described the craft of carving David: ‘I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.’ 

 

Marriage is about trusting another to see and notice how God is taking away the bits in you.

It’s about trusting another to join God in taking away those bits, to help turn your raw material into something magnificent.

 

#6: You Don’t Love Your Spouse For Who They Are.

You Love Them For They Will Be(come).

This week for our sermon series, Razing Hell, we’ve been deconstructing the popular misconception of our souls going off to heaven when we die and reclaiming the biblical hope of eternal life being marked by resurrection and new creation.

In response, someone asked me:

Rev19CLambWhat difference does it really make in this world and life whether I believe in one or the other? Does it make any difference what I believe will happen after I die? Isn’t really just about what brings someone comfort?

Here are my thoughts in response:

I spent the week before Christmas in a small mountain village in Guatemala with twenty other adults and students from my church. It was our fourth time in that region. We were building a ‘center,’ a building that can be used to teach health clinics and other workshops and also to lodge future service teams like ours.

It’s easy sometimes spending the week before Christmas in an impoverished place to be struck by a sense of hopelessness. It can be difficult to see how a voiceless people, a people whose own government has a long history of trying to ‘pacify’ and assimilate, have any real hope of freeing themselves from victimhood. Seen in such a light, it also can seem a weak and ultimately meaningless gesture to be doing a building project for such people. Why bother if it doesn’t remedy their pressing and urgent situation?

That’s just an isolated example of a despair that could creep over any Christian for any act of mercy we do in the world.

Understood only in terms of cold realism, all the soup kitchens, malarial nets, wood stoves and rice banks in the world won’t undo poverty. 

Individual congregations praying for peace on Sunday mornings won’t eliminate violence and war. Christians witnessing to racial reconciliation won’t erase the stain of racism in our country, and to think otherwise is to fall victim to naive utopianism

But neither cold realism nor naive utopianism is Christian hope in Resurrection and New Creation.

What I realized once again in Guatemala this December: we weren’t there working with block and mortar because we thought we were going to permanently solve a social ill. We were not building for poor, persecuted Mayans because we had foolish illusions about what the immediate future might hold for the indigenous villages. The stakes are high for those people and, seen only from a finite point of view, our acts of service might prove meaningless gestures.

But we weren’t there to be realistic.

And we weren’t there to be idealistic.

We were there doing what we were doing because what we were doing was in harmony with what God will do in the End. 

Christian service isn’t an idealistic stab at trying to make the world come out right.

Rather, Christian service is anchored in the faith that God alone makes the world come out right. No matter how things look on the ground in the ‘real’ world, one day God will get the world God wants and that world is one where the hungry are filled, the mourning stop their crying and the poor are lifted up.

Far too many Christians, by adopting a spiritualized notion of our souls going off to heaven when we die, take a laissez faire attitude to this world. Overly spiritualized notions of eternal life too often underwrite a politics that couldn’t have less to do with the God of scripture. 

But if the End isn’t our souls going off one day to a disembodied heaven and casting this world into the rubbish bin, if the End, as it’s seen in Revelation 21-22, is this creation renewed then everything we do today in this world as Christians we do, as Paul says, in anticipation of that End. We work, as Paul says, as ambassadors of the Christ who will come again when Heaven comes down. This is truly what it means for us to have our citizenship in heaven: to live in this world in such a way that things on earth are as they are in heaven and will one day be finally in the New Earth.

Christian service isn’t a solution to the present problems of the world. Christian service is a sign, a gesture, of what we believe God will do.

If the future is one where God comforts and lifts up indigenous Mayans then we anticipate that future with our actions in the present- no matter how ineffective or meaningless other might judge them.

Christian service isn’t our attempt to fashion a world we think God wants from us nor does it idealistically put band-aids over top systemic issues. And it certainly isn’t deeds we do in the vain hope they’ll earn us gold stars from God so one day we’ll be able to walk the streets of gold in heaven.

 No, Christian service, by being rooted in our hope of the End, is done with the confidence that it’s action done with the grain of the universe. 

 

Sunday’s sermon for our  series Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Second Coming included two audio clips of me talking about last things with my two sons, Gabriel and Alexander who are 7 and 10. 

You can find those audio clips, here, are by clicking on the links as you get to them in the text below. They’re also in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

——————————————–

Heaven: It’s Not Forever

Sermon on Isaiah 65, Revelation 21

When we first announced that we’d be doing our January sermon series on heaven and hell, I received a handful of emails from you, all asking roughly the same question:

‘How do I explain heaven to my kids?’ 

Evidently some of you see me as a model of child-rearing and maturity. Which just shows how little you know me.

Now, because I’m a pastor, many of you assume that I sit around with my family and, like, talk about God and read the bible every second of the day. But that’s not the case.

My boys do stare at their comic book bibles as if they were Playboys, but as a family we probably spend more time talking about The Lord of the Rings and making fart jokes.

My boys have attended funerals and burials and even prayed next to an open casket, but to my recollection I’ve never actually talked with my kids about heaven- not in any formal or deliberate way.

So this week, over dinner, I decided to talk to my kids about heaven:

– Audio Clip-

Is there an age when your-anus stops being funny?

I can see several of you nodding your heads so I guess so.

Not that I need to but, just for the record, my wife insisted I be clear about who’s responsible for the potty humor in my family.

It’s easy to laugh at how kids talk about heaven.

But let’s be honest.

And this is the part where I insult you to try and get your attention.

I’ve done enough funerals. I’ve sat with enough dying people- Christians and non. And I’ve counseled enough grieving families to know that virtually every one of you think about heaven and life after death just like my boys do.

And to be totally honest: in most cases your thinking isn’t much more sophisticated than my boys’ thinking.

If I asked you the same questions I asked my boys then, with few exceptions, you’d picture it this way:

There’s a God in Heaven above.

There’s the Earth below, which God has created along with each of us.

We live our mortal lives on the Earth, but, as the bluegrass song says, ‘This is world is not our home. We’re just passing through.’

And when we die, our soul- that eternal, immortal, spiritual part of us- leaves our material bodies and goes up to heaven to live eternally with God.

We fly away, as that other song says.

photo

And maybe you’d add a variation or two, like:

If you believe in God

Or if you believe in Jesus

Or if you’re a good person

Then your soul gets to go to heaven when you die.

But basically you picture it the same way my boys do.

And you assume that’s what the bible teaches.

You assume this is what the Church preaches.

You assume this is what Christians believe and always have; in fact, it’s what atheists think this is what Christians believe and always have.

But it’s not.

It’s NOT.

Just to make sure you heard me, I’ll say it again: It. Is. Not.

It’s actually what any Jew or Christian, until recently, would have called, without flinching, paganism.

Preachers like me can’t say that at a funeral. I’ve learned that the hard way. Deathbeds and gravesides are not the proper or pastoral place to deconstruct someone’s piety.

It only upsets them.

But, we’re not at a funeral today.

So I’ll just say it: there is nothing in scripture about our souls going up to an eternal home in heaven after we die.

Christians only started talking this way a couple hundred years ago, starting in the Enlightenment when people started disavowing the Resurrection and after the Civil War when this world did seem to be a wicked place that should be abandoned.

The reason so many of our hymns get scripture exactly wrong on this point is that they come out of that very time period.

What we take for granted about heaven and life after death- you won’t find that way of thinking anywhere on the lips of Jesus.

You won’t find it in the words of Paul.

And you do not find it in the vision given to Isaiah.

Or to St John at the very end of scripture.

What we take for granted as biblical, Christian teaching is actually a mishmash of pagan superstition that’s been superimposed on scripture to the point where we no longer notice what scripture repeatedly and unambiguously teaches.

Now that I’ve kicked over all your mental furniture: what is the ancient, biblical understanding of heaven and the life to come?

If this (our souls going to heaven when we die) isn’t what scripture teaches, then what is?

What do we tell our kids about heaven?

I tried with my boys this week. You can have a listen.

-Play Clip- 

When you turn to the very first page of scripture, you read that in the beginning God created Heaven and Earth.

Both of them.

A better way to think about that is in the beginning God created the Spiritual and the Material. They’re both part of God’s creative design and NOT to be distinct from one another or in contradiction to each other.

What God intends in the very beginning is this unity, this overlap, this marriage of the heavenly and the earthly.

And this marriage- and that’s an important word- of the spiritual and the material is present in the humanity God creates too.

Genesis 2 says God created adam, which is Hebrew for the Man, from the adamah, which is Hebrew for earth.

Then after God pulls up the adam from the adamah, God breathes into adam his ‘ruach’ his Holy Spirit.

So in the beginning, God doesn’t just create Heaven and Earth. God creates this marriage of the spiritual and the material within humanity.

And in Hebrew this marriage of the material AND the spiritual that God creates in humanity is called our ‘nepesh’ and that’s the word your bibles misleadingly translate into English as ‘soul.’

But what happens?

Through the catastrophe of Sin, Heaven and Earth, the spiritual and the material, are pulled apart. They’re torn asunder.

Death enters God’s creation, and that curse- as we sing in Joy to the World– comes not just to Adam and Eve but to all of creation.

Everything God created and called very good suffers because of this breach between Heaven and Earth.

And so the plot of scripture- and, yes, scripture is a book comprised of many books but, like any good book, scripture has an overarching, unifying plot to it- the plot and promise of scripture is God’s work to restore what God creates in Genesis 1 and 2.

To undo Death.

To reunite the Heaven and Earth.

Salvation, Eternal Life, is about the reclamation and permanent restoration of God’s creation; it’s not about our disembodied evacuation from God’s creation.

It’s about Heaven coming down to Earth and the two becoming one, once again and forever.

That’s Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah doesn’t see our souls going up, up, up and away to Heaven and leaving behind everything else that God called very good.

It’s about Heaven coming down to Earth so that what God created is restored. That’s what we pray every time we pray the prayer Jesus taught us: ‘Thy Kingdom come…on Earth…’

Jesus gives us that prayer because Jesus is at the center of what God is doing to heal his creation.

Dennis said it on Christmas Eve. In the Incarnation, in Jesus’ own body, is this marriage of Heaven and Earth. He’s our future made present.

Jesus is the beginning of a New Creation- that’s how Matthew and John begin their Christmas stories.

And in his life, his teaching, his faithfulness all the way to a Cross Jesus undoes the curse of Death.

What we call Eternal Life- begins in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit of God’s New Creation. He’s the Second Adam, scripture says.

If it’s just about our souls going off to heaven when we die, then why didn’t God leave Jesus in the tomb?

And just take the spiritual part of him up to heaven?

Why bother with a Resurrection?

As St. Paul says, Jesus isn’t the first fruit of anything if that’s not also what God will do with each of us.

The plot and promise of scripture, from the first page of scripture to the last,  is that what God did in Jesus Christ, on the last day God will do for us.

And what God will do for us, God will also do for all of creation.

The promise of scripture is that one day Heaven will come down and be made one with the Earth. That’s why the very last image in scripture is of a wedding, a marriage, between Heaven and Earth. And on that same day all who have died in the Lord, all who are resting in the Lord, will be Resurrected and Restored just like Jesus on Easter morning.

photo-1

‘Heaven,’ wherever or whatever happens to us right after we die, is not forever.

Heaven is not forever. When I first became I pastor, back before I was the sensitive and pastoral person you know now, I actually said that to a grieving widow. She asked me if I thought her husband was in heaven, and without thinking I replied: ‘Well sure, but he won’t be there forever.’

And she then started sobbing. And, maybe it wasn’t the best moment say it, but it’s still true.

Heaven- what we think of as heaven- is not forever.

When Jesus promises to the thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ The word ‘paradise’ in scripture refers to a temporary state of bliss.

And when Jesus says to his disciples ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms…’ The word Jesus uses is ‘tent.’  A temporary structure.  That’s not what we usually think of when we think of Eternal Life. But according to scripture, we have a life after life after death.

What scripture means by Eternal Life isn’t whatever happens to us right after we die.

What scripture means by Eternal Life is our resurrected life in God’s New Creation where Heaven and Earth are made one, once and for all.

That’s the work God began in Jesus Christ, and that’s the work God is doing today in history through the Holy Spirit.

And that’s the work God enlists us to join in today. Now. Through baptism.

That’s what we do here.

If it’s just about our souls going up to heaven, then you don’t need to be here.

Sleep in on Sundays.

But if it’s about God one day reconciling Earth and Heaven, then what we do here as Church,

learning to love,

learning to hallow God’s name,

learning to be satisfied not with our desires but with our daily bread, learning to give and forgive,

learning to recognize and resist temptation,

learning to forgive those who trespass against us.

If it’s about God one day reconciling Earth and Heaven, then the work of reconciliation we do here, as Church, is forever.

Because it’s what God will do when his Kingdom comes to Earth…

That’s what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

And that’s what we pray at the end of the communion prayer: ‘By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back.’

And his Kingdom comes.

On earth.

As it is in heaven.