Archives For Paul

Feel the Bern

Jason Micheli —  June 19, 2017 — 1 Comment

 I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on Paul’s ‘mythological’ apocalyptic text in Romans 5.12-21.

     I know most of you don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit. As one of you commented in all-caps hysteria about one of our dialogue sermons this spring: “KEEP POLITICS OUT OF THE PULPIT. STICK TO THE GOSPEL!!! :(“

Look, I get it. But what the Hell am I supposed to do when Politics and the Gospel collide through no fault of my own?

For example, the otherwise low-profile confirmation hearing on Capital Hill last week for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of something-something.

A sleepy session on CSPAN raised eyebrows and spawned social media memes when Sannders turned the Bern on Russell Vought and, literally wagging his finger, shouted: “Do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?

Sannders did not relent his inquisition: ”Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?”

Russell Vought, repeatedly, responded: ”I’m a Christian.”

To which Bernie raised his voice and bellowed at the nominee: ”I understand you are a Christian, but there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?”

Behind Bernie’s soapbox assault was a blog post Russell Vought wrote a year ago in support of his evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College.

Wheaton had suspended a tenured professor whose views contradicted the school’s statement of faith and, during the ensuing controversy, Vought weighed in that “all are condemned apart from Jesus Christ.”

After wagging his finger, Bernie threw up his hands at Vought’s professed belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation and declared that his faith claims disqualified him from serving his country through civil service.

Now I’d be a liar if I said the prospect of someone being disqualified from serving in the Trump administration because they were too Christian didn’t amuse me. I think it would be hilarious if more Christians were disqualified from serving the Donald because they were too Christian.

But my delight in that prospect aside, Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith isn’t substantively different than the confessions of any other Christian tradition.

Wheaton College might put differently than the United Methodist Church, but neither Wheaton nor Vought said anything contrary to what we say when we recite in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…who will come again to judge…”

Look, I admit I’m no fan of Bernie Sannders. When you’re a pastor in the United Methodist Church you’re already exposed to more self-righteousness than you can take.

     I’m not a Bernie fan; I only have room in my life for one socialist Jew.

I’m no Bernie fan but what caught my attention about this story wasn’t what Saunders said to Vought but what Christians said in response to Sanders, to Bernie’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention pointed to the Bible: “Christians don’t believe that we are constructing our faith. We believe that it’s been handed to us by God.”

Okay. That’s true.

Still Christians bypassed the creeds and pointed to the Constitution and the manner in which Bernie’s religious prejudice violated the Constitution’s religious protection.

Again, that’s true even if it’s a tepid Christian response.

Vought himself said he believes “that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”

That’s vanilla and generic but still, it’s correct.

But I’m surprised those were the only types of answers offered by Christians.

———————

     “Do you think that people who are not Christians stand condemned? I’m a Jew, do you believe I am condemned as well?”

Bernie asked.

And of course, the simple answer, the straight-up answer, the direct and unambiguous answer, the Gospel which Russell Vought and Russell Moore and Pope Francis and Mother Theresa and the Apostle Paul all proclaim-

the answer is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned. Yes, they stand condemned.

And so do I.

I stand condemned.

(And so do you.)

     These days there’s a lot of talk about the decline of churches in America.

But maybe we should be more concerned with the decline in church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel.

Or maybe the latter produces the former. Maybe the church has waned alongside church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel message that all of us- all of us- stand condemned.

All have sinned.

Not one of us is righteous- Jew, Muslim, Christian; Religious or Secular- not one of is right in God’s eyes by anything we do or believe.

No matter what Bernie thinks, that’s not an exclusive belief; you literally cannot get more inclusive than the Gospel message that all of us are sinners.

All stand condemned.

————————

The Apostle Paul continues his argument by widening his frame here in Romans 5.

In order to comprehend fully that your justification is not about anything you do, Paul needs you to understand that ‘sin’ is about more than something you do and accrue.

Sin, Paul wants you to see, is a Power with a capital P.

It’s Sin, Paul wants you to grasp, with a capital S.

Paul doesn’t use the word sin as a verb, as something we do.

Sin is instead the subject of verbs.

Paul speaks of Sin not as something we do but as a Something that does- not simply an act we commit but as an Agency that conscripts. and implicates every last one of us, religious and irreligious.

First, Paul personifies all of us, the entire human community, as Adam, but then notice how Paul mirrors that by personifying Sin and Death- personifying them as reigning monarchs:

Sin won lordship over all humanity and Death came through Sin, and so Death advanced through all the world like an invading army.

You see, Death for Paul is not natural nor is it the punishment that follows Adam’s sin.

Death, for Paul, is a partner with Sin- Sin with a capital S- and it’s not until the end of his letter to the Romans that you discover both Sin and Death are synonymous for him with the Power of Satan.

Sin, Death, Satan- they’re all interchangeable terms.

Death, for Paul, is a rival anti-god Power that snuck into God’s creation through Adam’s disobedience.

Sin and Death, for Paul, are Pharaohs that enslave us.

Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.

It’s the same word Paul uses to refer to Jesus here in Romans 5:

Just as Sin exercised lordship in Death, so Grace might also exercise lordship through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Kurios.

The lordship of Sin and Death vs. the lordship of Jesus Christ: it’s an intentional contrast.

What Paul wants you to see is that the Gospel is about a battle between contending Powers, a Power that would bind us versus a Power that would set us free.

And if that language sounds primitive and mythological to you, then talk to an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs or porn or racism.

Talk to someone whose family is stuck perpetuating generations of abuse and antagonism.

I’ve been here long enough to know there are folks like that all around you this morning.

They’ll tell you: Paul’s ‘mythological’ language matches real world experience.

You don’t even need to believe in a literal, historical ‘Adam’ to nod your head to Paul here because the truth of what Paul writes here in Romans 5 is all over the headlines: from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Steve Scalise this week.

What better way to explain it than to say, like Paul, Sin is an enslaving lord that holds all of us captive, such that we cannot improve ourselves much less deliver ourselves.

When Christ comes into the world, he comes into occupied territory, and when you come into the world you do too.

All of us are sinners because none of us can choose to live elsewhere.

We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.

But we’re accomplices too.

We’re captives, that’s true, but we’re culpable as well.

We’re culpable too.

Again, the truth of that is all over the headlines:

Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.

Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.

Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London

A Power that is not God has got us.

But we’re guilty too.

All of us. All stand condemned.

Just so it sinks in, Paul repeats it 7 times in chapter 5.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over: one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all. 

————————-

During Russell Vought’s Senate confirmation hearing, Bernie kept getting on his soapbox to ask Russell Vought what he believed about other religions, as though Christianity is but one religion among many in America.

But there’s where Bernie’s wrong because if you understand Paul’s message, then you understand that Christianity, at its core, is not religious at all.

Look it up in the dictionary. The definitions of religion are all about us. The definitions of religion are all about what we do to seek God: belief and prayer and practice.

Disciplines we use to connect to God.

But Paul’s message is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Paul’s whole irreligious point here is summed up in God’s first words after Adam’s sin: “Adam, where are you?”

The simple answer to Bernie’s question is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned.

And so do I.

As all are in Adam, under the lordship of Sin and Death, all stand condemned.

But to leave the answer there is to mistake Paul’s message of justification for something we do.

Because of one man’s sin, all stand condemned…But, Paul says- Paul’s big buts always signal the good news- another man’s rectification of that sin means life for all. 

In Adam all stand condemned, but through the obedience that is the blood of the New Adam, God declares all of us ‘Not Guilty.’

That’s good news.

But it’s only part of it.

The Christian hope, Paul’s Gospel, the good news of justification is even bigger.

It’s the news that in Jesus Christ God has appeared in enemy territory not simply to forgive but to free.

Not only does this free gift of God in Jesus Christ make you no longer culpable, if you trust it- if you but put your faith in it- it can make you no longer captive as well.

     “Not guilty” are just the first two words of this good news.

     Because the righteous blood of Jesus Christ exchanged for your own not only acquits you of your culpability in the ultimate courtroom.

It can, if you put your trust in it, set you on the path to be freed.

Freed from the bonds of the Captor, whom Paul calls here: Sin and Death.

The Gospel isn’t just that in Jesus Christ you have been declared “Not Guilty.” The Gospel is that you can be declared Not You.

The Gospel is that in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, in Jesus Christ our only Savior, you can become a New You.

By faith.

And that’s where Bernie might not like my answer, but I know it to be true, not only because the Bible tells me so but because I’ve seen it for myself.

You will never be a new you on your own.

On your own, every new you will turn out to be another old Adam.

Jesus Christ is the only New Adam able to create a new humanity, in his story your stories of guilt and shame, your cracks and your captivity can be re-narrated. Re-told.

Receive this free gift in faith and the other half of the Gospel is yours:

You can be re-made.

Not just forgiven but set free.

Not only justified but rectified.

     Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.

     But there is only one Savior because there is only one- only one- who was not born into the dominion of Adam, into the lordship of Sin and Death.

Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

David King was about 7 when I came to Aldersgate. He’s interning for me this summer. He preached this past weekend and did a great job. Everyone told me how much he preached like me. Preaching is only learned through apprenticeship and imitation so I suppose, the extent that it’s true, that’s exactly as it should be.

Here is the sermon. His text was Romans 4.1-8.

Would you all pray with me?

Lord, you are faithful to us.  In this time of learning, reveal that faith to me, and preach to me so that you might preach through me.  Let these words not be mine, but yours.  Amen.

[Thank you] [Jason joke]

Fair warning, this is a little bit of a personal story.  By the time this is over, you’ll know a little bit more about me, and hopefully, God-willing I don’t severely screw this up, you’ll know a little bit more about faith.

Those of you that know me know that I have been doing service trips since, well, since I was considered old enough to endure the cultural shock that lies just three hours southwest of here.  The summer after the 6th grade, I was signed up to go on the Jeremiah Project.  It was Andrew DiAntonio’s first week on the job, and I wrecked a bathroom while sleepwalking, so it’s no wonder to me that he decided divinity school was probably better suited for him.

After three years at JP, as those close with the program fondly called it, I began going to Guatemala, doing my due diligence as a Christian to my one week of good deeds for the year.  Granted, those good deeds were interspersed with a fair amount of tourism, so I’m not really sure how much they count for.

Those of you who know me well know that I spent the majority of my summer last year actually living in Guatemala, working HSP.  I could tell you all about how this time of a little over a month was so transformative and blessed and wonderful and [insert your own favorite good adjective here], but if I did that I’d be lying, which I hear is a bad thing to do in church, especially if you’re preaching.

I’d be lying if I told you it was all great, because it was in Guatemala that I first really “lost contact” (emphasis on those scare quotes) with God.  One could say I had a reckoning of faith, lowercase f.  You see, from almost every single one of my standards, my life fell apart in my tenure in Guatemala, and all within about a week.

My sister had broken her arm.

My best friend’s boyfriend had just committed suicide.

My godmother, whom I love dearly, was daily sitting at the bedside of her dying friend, while her sister battled cancer in the same hospital.

So it’s only reasonable that I have one of these moments where I ask, do I really have the faith to get through this?

It was only reasonable that I realized that for several years, I’d been wearing a cross around my neck, but never believing in it.  Belief in Christ was something I realized I well and truly did not have.  High school has that effect on people.

This led me to the realization that the way we speak about faith is so vastly different than how Paul conceived of faith.  You see, we think about faith with a lowercase f, as something very personal to us.  The most radical conception we ever use to speak about faith is by saying that “God has endowed us with faith,” or we use the language of the born-again Christians, which is dangerous in its own right.

We speak of faith as though it is something we own, something we have, something that is completely of us and our volitions.

We talk about faith with a lowercase f, but we never talk about the Faith, uppercase F, of God.  Faith, with a capital F, is the faith of which Paul speaks in Romans 4.  Our grammar has simply abandoned this for a syntactic structure that places the onus of faith on us, fallible humanity.

Just as I experienced in Guatemala, a human-based methodology of faith was, is entirely insufficient.

 

Now, Paul’s main example for faith is the story of Abraham’s obedience to God.  But nothing prepares us for how Paul describes Abraham.  For Paul, Abraham is ungodly.  Not only does our translation say that he is ungodly, the word in the Greek, asebē, also translates to unholy, sacrilegious, impure.  More to the point, the word asebē used as a descriptor of Abraham is the only time that word appears in the Bible, New Testament and old, Hebrew and Greek.

Just to put that in perspective for you, the King James translation of the Bible has 774,746 different words in it.  For you truly Methodist folks, the New Revised Standard Version has 895,891 different words.  Hundreds of thousands of different words, and this is the only time anyone uses the word asebē to describe anyone.

Abraham, this revered, patriarchal figure, a pillar of the Old Testament and the grounding for our faith, is declared by Paul ungodly.  This man who almost kills his son in reverence and obedience to God is ungodly, sacrilegious, unholy.  None of us are like Abraham.  He was the pinnacle of obedience for the Hewbrew scriptures.  And if Paul is calling him ungodly, then that should say something about us.

Point being, Paul’s discussion of Abraham is never about Abraham’s faith in God.  And that’s the key point of God’s agency in imparting faith on Abraham.  Abraham was not good at faith, in fact, he did not have faith.  It was not until God invited Abraham to participate in a full communion with him that Abraham was ready to receive the covenant.

The metaphor Paul uses to describe the relationship Abraham has with God is a legal one, and purposefully so.  Works, and thus wages, are not the reason for Abraham’s justification.  “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”  Paul takes on legalism, and for us modern readers, he takes on the entire structure of law, payment, and transaction theology.  The structure of interaction, this idea that we get only what we deserve, that we must work for our wages, is Paul’s way of illustrating for us that the love and faith of God to humanity is so fantastically different than any relationship we conceive of.  You see, God takes us.  That’s it.  That’s the message, that’s the faith Paul’s talking about.  The discrepancy between God’s Faith, capital F, and our faith, lowercase f, is an abyss we cannot bridge ourselves.

So God does it for us.  That’s his covenant.
When Paul’s talking about Abraham, he’s specifically talking about the man with whom he drew the first covenant.  The instance that Paul is referring to, when “Abraham believed God,” he never says he had faith.  Belief and faith are so often conflated that the latter has lost most of its substantive meaning.

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Reckoned, says Paul, to him.

And we have to remember that when Paul speaks about righteousness, it’s not a value or a set of morals to which he is referring; righteousness is a gift of the covenant, which means it’s a gift that is completely and utterly of and from God, just like faith.

For two weeks, I did not go a day without crying, without feeling utterly set apart, disjointed and broken.  I was surrounded by people on service projects, experiencing the joy of humility, but I could not participate in their ecstasy.  I could not think of anything other than going home, being with my godmother, sitting with my sister, and holding my friend.  I could not think of anything other than their pain.  By all accounts, I was lost.  Lost in a foreign country, with a foreign people, in the mountains where even the air was different.

It would be a cliché to tell you that I had a revelation, and to do that would make it seem like I had done something to deserve that.  I’m a sinner, and by all worldly accounts, I don’t deserve a revelation.

But I was sitting outside of the community center in Chiucutama one night when it dawned on me that I’d been thinking about it all wrong.  I’d been thinking about faith, about Christianity, as something I chose, something I elected.
I had disregarded the Faith, capital F, of God to us.

In fact, if that weren’t true, if God were not ever there for us, in the covenant fulfilled and revealed in Christ, we would have nothing to turn to once we’ve turned away.  You know, sitting there in Chiucutama looking at the hills under the moonlight, if God was not faithful to us forever, I would’ve realized the opposite.  Nihilism would’ve reigned, and I would not be in the communion of Faith, capital F, that I am right now.

God is faithful, to us.  Faith, capital F, is never ours, never something we do.  It is a gift, of the eternal sort.

Abraham wasn’t good at faith.  Neither am I.  But that’s because the kind of faith that really matters, the kind that counts for something, is not a kind of faith I could ever embody.  Nor could you.

We come to church thinking that we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts for Jesus, who we have faith in, but really, and if we are thinking about this in the way Paul thinks about it, coming to church is not about our faith.  It is about us participating in God’s faithfulness to us, through Christ.

When we talk about faith in the possessive, we reduce God to something we can manipulate, to something we can use and disregard.  Faith, lowercase f, reduces God to god, lowercase g.

Faith comes easiest to those who come into church, sing about Jesus, and go on their merry way.  We have to understand that to be a Christian means, uniquely, to be bad at faith.  Being bad at faith is part of our relationship with God, because if we were good at faith, his faithfulness to us would not be unique and unquestionable and beautiful.  God’s faithfulness to us would not have changed the world in Christ if we were “good at faith.”

During my last week in Guatemala, I walked into the cathedral in the square in Xela, where HSP is located, right in the middle of mass.  I know, that’s a cringeworthy word here, but everyone in Guatemala is either Roman-Catholic or some form of evangelical, and frankly, I prefer the former.  As I was walking in, the priest had just risen and spoken four all too important words.

“The mystery of faith,” he pronounced, just as I sat down in the back pew, across from a family of four.

In retrospect, the priest was right.  We call it the mystery of faith for a reason:  precisely because it is not ours to command and possess, but a given gift.

I have never been so comforted by a mystery than I was in that moment.

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I Like Big Buts

Jason Micheli —  June 5, 2017 — 1 Comment

I led with finding out I’m Jewish.

This weekend we celebrated Pentecost as well Confirmation across 4 services. Over the last 12 years, Aldersgate has confirmed 500 into the faith. My texts were all of chapter 2 of Acts as well as Paul’s big “But now” passage in Romans 3.21-26.

     After a recent cataclysmic national event that I won’t specify, I was speaking on the phone with my mother who, like many of you, had fallen into a despondent, black malaise.

“Maybe I will move to Canada” she said and sighed.

“Canada! They eat ketchup flavored Doritos in Canada- how is that a thing?! And Canada is responsible for Celine Dion and Nickelback. Think about that, Mom: Justin Bieber and Tom Ford don’t even crack the Top Ten of Canadiens for whom Canada should have to issue a global apology.

Though, Canada did give the world that babe who played Kim in 24.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, she is…” I said and immediately my mind wandered to the film in which Kim costarred with Raylan Givens, The Girl Next Door.

“Jason? Jason, are you still there?”

“Huh? Yeah, I’m still here. I was just…thinking. Look, forget this Canada nonsense. Mom, you hate the snow and no matter how much I begged you as a kid you never let me grow a mullet.”

“I hate mullets.”

“See, forget Canada. I’ll tell you, though, if I just had a Jew in my family tree I’d move to Israel, at their least president is actually a conservative.”

“But my grandparents were Jewish.”

“But what?!”

“My grandparents…they were both Jewish. “

“But…but…but…that means my great-grandparents were Jewish.”

“Uh, huh” my mother said blankly, clearly not registering that this was a seismic revelation for someone like me who, let’s just say, is salaried and pensioned NOT to be Jewish.

“But…but…but…that means I’m Jewish” I whispered while turning down the volume on my iPhone.

“Yeah, I guess it does.”

No joke, my next thoughts, in rapid-fire succession:

1. Holy bleep, how have I not heard about this before?!

2. No wonder I’m so funny.

3. Thank God I’m already circumcised.

4. I could spin this into a book! Christian clergyman discovers his previously unknown Jewish identity. It practically writes itself.

As for the screen, it’d be the perfect follow up to LaLa Land for Ryan Gosling.

As soon as I got off the phone with my mom I pitched the book idea to my editor. I’d even come up with some snappy titles such as: Riddler on the Roots, Goy Meets God, and, my personal favorite, Trans-Gentile.

Nevertheless, my editor replied that until I actually convert and move myself and my family to the Promised Land, what I had was a good idea for a sermon.

Not a book.

Of course, that same editor came up with a terrible book title like Cancer is Funny so I figured what the hell does he know. Besides, I’ve always acted as though I’m God’s gift to the world and now, as it turns out, I really am- I’m chosen!

I’ve got to find out more about what that means! I thought.

In the weeks and months that followed, I studied up.

I researched the State of Israel’s Right of Return rules. I qualify.

I tested my DNA through ancestry.com, the results of which bore out what my mother had told me, that I am of Jewish lineage by way of Austria.

And thanks to Ghengis Khan raping and pillaging his way across Europe I also have some Mongolian in me too, and, according to the customer service person at ancestry.com, chances are, you have some Mongolian in you too.

Let that sink in for a moment.

DNA in hand, I consulted with Rabbi Hayim Herring about what books he recommends to potential converts. At his advice I read the Tanakh, Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas by Arthur Green, and To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner.

And, because Rabbi Herring explained to me that Judaism is a religion that developed out of its celebrations, I read The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg, a book about the Jewish holy days.

Including the holy day of Pentecost.

Or, as my people say, Shavu’ot.

——————————-

     Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, five weeks, Penta-cost, after Passover.

Shavu’ot- the Jewish holiday that brings Peter and the disciples and a crowd of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem to celebrate.

They’re not there waiting for the Holy Spirit. They’re gathered to celebrate Pentecost, the holy day when they remember God giving to them on Mt. Sinai the Torah, the Law.

If Shavu’ot is the day when the Spirit descends upon the disciples, then Shavu’ot is the day by which we should interpret the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.

As a Gentile, I’ve always preached Pentecost straight up and simply as the arrival of the Holy Spirit, or, to be more exact, as the arrival of a previously not present Holy Spirit- as though, ascending in to heaven, the Risen Christ, like Jon Cena, tags in and the Holy Spirit takes over.

But with my new Jew eyes, I see that that can’t be because the Spirit is everywhere all over the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, doing and moving.

Not to mention, Luke- the author of Acts- has already told us that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, compelled Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, and baptized Jesus into his baptism of vicarious repentance.

So if the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not the point of this Pentecost passage in Acts 2, then what is?

——————————-

     When the Holy Spirit descends upon the Pentecost pilgrims, the crowd becomes bewildered.

But Peter, Luke says, stands up and proclaims the Gospel to them. And that phrasing, that odd way of beginning a sentence “But Peter…” is Luke’s clue for you that Peter is not deciding on his own to stand up and preach, that an unseen agency is working upon him, that he is being compelled by God, by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim what God has done in Jesus Christ.

And at the end of his preaching, Luke tells us, Peter’s listeners are cut to the heart- note the passive. They’re acted upon.

An unseen agency is working upon them too, compelling them to believe.

Then Luke concludes by telling us that on that Pentecost 3,000 were added to the People of God.

Maybe you Gentiles don’t know this- in the Bible numbers are always important. Numbers are always the clue to unlocking the story’s meaning.

It’s not incidental that Luke ends his story of this Shavu’ot with the number 3,000 being added to God’s People because on the first Shavu’ot 3,000 were subtracted from God’s People.

On the first Shavu’ot, while Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God, the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Israelites were busy down below making God into an idol- which is but a form of making God into our own image.

When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, he sees them worshipping a golden calf, and Moses responds by ordering the Levites to draw their swords and kill 3,000 of the idolators.

So when Luke tells you that 3,000 were added to God’s People on that Pentecost day he wants you to remember the 3,000 subtracted from God’s People that Pentecost day.

Where 3,000 committed idolatry, 3,000 now believe.

Those in the crowd, listening to Peter, they’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

They’re every bit as susceptible to worship any god but God, every bit as prone to unbelief and unfaithfulness. They crucified God just over a month ago.

They’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Sinai that first Shavu’ot.

What Luke wants you to see in this Pentecost story is the undoing of that Pentecost story, and he wants you to see that it’s God’s doing not our own- God’s faithfulness to us despite our unfaithfulness, God graciously overcoming our unbelief, our proclivity to idolatry and sin.

Luke wants you to see that this new 3,000- it’s the Living God’s doing. The Holy Spirit’s doing. The Spirit of the Crucified and Risen Christ’s doing, compelling Peter- who before could never get his foot out of his mouth- to proclaim.

It’s God’s doing, calling out of, creating in, Peter’s hearers, out of nothing, faith.

——————————-

      Luke shows us in the beginning of Acts what the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans.

After announcing his thesis- the good news- at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul braces us with the bad news.

For the rest of chapter 1, all of chapter 2, and the beginning of chapter 3 Paul bears down with white-knuckles and surveys the extent of our captivity, our bondage to Sin.

He says our every sin starts with the same sin as at Sinai on that first Shavu’ot: our failure to worship God, giving up God for other gods.

Our first sin also begets our wickedness and our malice. It gives rise to our greed and our lust and our violence. It spawns our slander and our deceit, our hypocrisy and our infidelity, even our gossip and our haughtiness and our hardness of heart.

Over almost 3 chapters, Paul unrolls the rap sheet of our sin until not one of us left un-indicted.

All have sinned, Paul says, religious and unreligious alike.

No one is righteous, Paul laments, not a single one of us.

No one seeks God. No one desires peace.

Our mouths are quick to curse, our hands are quick to stuff our own pockets, our feet are to quick to shed blood, Paul says.

None of us is any different than those 3,000 at the foot of Mt Sinai on the first Shavu’ot  worshipping anything other than God.

There is no distinction between any of us- we’re all ungodly.

Paul’s relentless litany of our sinfulness goes on and on for almost three chapters, an overwhelming avalanche of awful truth-telling and indictments.

For almost 3 chapters, Paul keeps raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our crimes, implicating each and every one of us.

     Until, what you expect next from Paul is the word “if.”

——————————-

     If.

If you turn away from sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you…plead for God’s mercy…

If you seek God’s forgiveness…

If you believe…

If you put your faith in him…

     If

Then

God will justify you.

Paul relentlessly unrolls the rap sheet until every last one of our names is indicted. Not one of us is righteous and every one of us is deserving of God’s wrath, Paul says.

This sounds like an altar call coming, right? And the word you expect Paul to use next is “if.”

If you repent and believe.

Instead of if but:

     “But now” Paul says.

“But now, apart from the Law (apart from Religion) the rectifying power of God has been revealed…the rectification by God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ..”

There couldn’t be a bigger but.

Martin Luther says that “but now” is a fish-hook shaped word that catches us all.

     There couldn’t be a bigger but.

It’s the hinge on which the Gospel turns:

We’re all unrighteous.

We’re all entangled in Sin.

But now- God.

The rectifying power of God has invaded our world without a single “if.”

The rectifying power of God- the power of God to make us right and to put our world to rights- has invaded in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ upon the Cross.

The grace of God has invaded unilaterally- without prior condition or presupposition.

Without a single “if.”

There is nothing you need to do for it to be true for you.

Our justification is not God’s response to us; it’s God’s gracious initiative for us.

     As far as God is concerned, true love doesn’t wait.

If you repent, then I’ll…

     If you seek forgiveness, then I’ll…

     If you believe, then I’ll…

     If you have faith in me, then I’ll…

     No. 

     No ifs. No conditions. 

“But now…” Paul announces.

God’s love doesn’t wait for us. To rescue us.

All have sinned.

All fall short of God’s glory.

But now-

All are being rectified by the uncontingent grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There are no ‘ifs” just this big but: “But now…” God has done this. It’s gift. Sheer un-contingent, irrevocable gift.

It’s just like the song says.

You once were lost BUT NOW you’ve been found- note the passive again.

You didn’t find. You’ve been found not because you went searching for God, but because God in Jesus Christ has sought you out and bought you with his blood.

—————————-

     During Lent I gave up bacon.

(I know, you saw that transition coming a mile away.)

Just to see, you know, in case the UMC ever folds, if I could hack it as a Hebrew (I made it 3 days).

During Lent I also read the The Jewish Way where I learned that if I ever did convert to Judaism, then I’d need to choose a Hebrew name.

“What’s the name of that talking donkey in the Old Testament?” my wife asked pointedly.

The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg also reminded me what I’d forgotten since seminary: that the covenant (berit as my people say) God makes with Moses on Mt. Sinai on that first Pentecost, the promise God makes to Moses on Mt. Sinai, is conditional.

“You will be my treasured People” God promises “but you must keep all my commandments.”

It’s conditional.

“You will be my People, but you must be faithful to my commands.”

It’s conditional.

“I will be your God, but you must remain faithful and obey.”

It’s contingent.

If you keep faith in me, then I will be your God and you will be my People.”

It’s not just on Sinai. So much of our lives and our relationships are littered with ifs.

If you make it up to me, then I’ll take you back.

If you promise not to spend it on drugs, then I’ll give you a handout.

If I’m just a better wife, then he’ll love me/then he’ll stop drinking/then he won’t abuse me anymore.

If I just get better grades, get into that college, get that job, then they’ll be proud of me/then maybe Dad will finally tell me that he loves me.

If/then conditionality is hard-wired into us.

     I forgive you, but I won’t forget. 

Paul would say that’s how captives speak.

We do it with God too.

     We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences.

You are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, but first you must believe, we say.

      We move Paul’s big but to the end of our sentences.

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

The balance sheet of your life has been set right- not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace, but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.

We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences. We turn it around and make it conditional: If you have faith then you will be justified.

     Not only is that conditionality not Paul’s Gospel, it contradicts what Luke shows us at Pentecost and what Paul tells us here in Romans.

The whole point of Paul’s big “But now” is that by yourself, on your own, by your own power, you don’t have the capacity to fulfill any of those conditions.

Your faith, your belief, your repentance, your service- none of it is a prerequisite for God’s grace because all of it is a product of God’s gracious doing.

“But now,” Paul says, God has acted for us “apart from the Law,” apart from any of our religious doing.

Just like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost undoing the unbelief of the first Pentecost, God acts for us in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and his faith, Paul says, has the power to elicit our faith.

Jesus’ faith isn’t just prior; it’s causative.

As Paul says in another letter, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by his Holy Spirit.

As Paul puts it in this letter, in the next chapter, God calls into existence the things that do not exist- meaning, our faith.

Luke says that nothing is impossible for God, but the whole point of Paul’s big “But” is that faith is impossible for us without God.

Your faith is not the exercise of your free will.

Your faith is a sign that God has freed your will from the Power of Sin.

Which means-

Whatever measure of faith you have, whether your faith is as tiny as a mustard seed or as massive as a mountain, it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing not your own.

It makes you proof of the God who invades our world without a single “if.”

Such that now- now as a person of faith, as a person in whom the unconditional grace of God has created faith, there is nothing you must do.

You don’t have to do anything.

The balance sheet of your life has been set right not by anything you’ve done, by what God has done.

You have been justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There’s not a but at the end of that sentence. There is nothing now you must do.

Rather, as a person in whom the unconditional love of God has created faith, there is now so much you are set free to do.

 

Immortal Combat

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2017 — 2 Comments

     Here’s my sermon from Ascension Sunday, kicking off a series on Romans.

     You probably saw the story in the Washington Post this week. I blogged about it too- as it turned an unwise move that netted me 73 colorful comments from all over the interwebs most of which contained too many four-lettered words to publish.

I didn’t know they had emojis for some of the acts critics suggested I do to myself.

You probably saw the article about how the Alexandria chapter of Washington Sport and Health this week cancelled the gym membership of Richard Spencer, the president of the Alt-Right/White Nationalist ‘National Policy Institute’.

Spencer was pumping iron in safe anonymity, when C. Christine Fair, a Georgetown University Professor, recognized him and then confronted him. At first he denied his identity. But she was sure it was him. According to the other patrons, the professor lambasted him, yelling:

“Not only are you a Nazi — you are a cowardly Nazi… I just want to say to you, I’m sick of your crap — that this country belongs [to people like you]. . . . As a woman, I find your statements to be particularly odious; moreover.”

The gym cancelled his membership after the altercation.

I doubt Richard Spencer was surprised at getting the heave-ho. The episode this week was only the latest in a string of ugly confrontations.

He was punched in the face on Inauguration Day by an anti-Trump protestor.

The chocolate shop on King Street near Spencer’s rented town house went bust after boycotters assumed both spaces shared the same owner.

Before he was working out at the gym this week, Spencer was leading a march of demonstrators in Charlottesville, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Perhaps it’s because we’re kicking-off a summer long sermon series in Paul’s Letter to the Romans- the most important book of the New Testament- but reading the article in the Washington Post this week, my first thought was:

“That’s what makes the Church different than the gym.” 

     I don’t know Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, and I wouldn’t disagree with her characterization of Richard Spencer as a repugnant, cowardly Nazi. I’d even go father than her. I don’t know Dr. Fair but- if she’s a Christian- rather than agitate for his removal from a club her first response to Richard Spencer should have been to invite him to the club we call Church.

———————————

      Now, hear me out. I’m NOT suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to whatever beliefs he wishes to hold. 

I’m a Christian. I don’t believe we’re entitled to whatever beliefs we wish to believe.

After all, today is the holy day we call Ascension, when the creeds shift from the past perfect tense to the present tense. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father who has given Jesus dominion over all the Earth.

Because of Ascension, because Jesus is Lord and King over all the Earth, it now makes no sense whatsoever for us to say “As a Christian, I believe ______ but that’s just my personal belief.” The language of personal beliefs and private faith is unintelligible in light of the Ascension.

Jesus is Lord- that’s a public, all-encompassing claim so, no, we’re not entitled to believe whatever we wish to believe. We’re required not only to believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus, believe what Jesus says and does, and what Richard Spencer believes grossly contradicts much of what Jesus says and does.

I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to his noxious views nor am I minimizing the sort of person Richard Spencer appears to be in public.

By all accounts Richard Spencer’s awful hipster side-part comes accompanied by monstrosity.

He’s racist. He’s anti-semitic. He’s xenophobic. He’s an America First nationalist, which- by the way- is idolatry. Given that string, he’s likely homophobic and sexist to boot.

During the campaign he provoked audible revulsion in the NPR reporter who was interviewing him. Atlantic Magazine posted video of him leading a conference room full of disciples in the Sieg Heil salute.

In response to getting booted from Washington Sport and Health, Spencer tweeted: [Does this mean] “we can start kicking Jews and coloreds out of our business establishments?”

He has a knack for inducing revulsion.

I can think of no one who fits the definition better:

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

And that’s my problem- and your problem.

Because the Apostle Paul says it’s exactly someone like Richard Spencer for whom Christ died (Romans 5.6).

———————————-

     Obviously private gyms can do whatever they wish. And if it was a gym to which we all belonged then I’d be the first to say kick him out on his a@#.

But we’re not members of a club.

We’re members of a Body, a Body created by a particular kerygma, a particular proclamation: the Gospel proclamation that on the law-cursed cross God in Jesus Christ died for the ungodly and that that death defeated the Power of Death.

Christ didn’t die to confer blessings upon good people like you. Christ didn’t die to make nice people nicer. Christ died so that ungodly people might become a new humanity. Richard Spencer is precisely the sort of ungodly person we should invite to Church.

Where else could he go?

This is the only place. This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

I chose that last sentence with care:

This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

“Bondage to the Power of Sin,” with a capital P and a capital S, is the only way to speak Christianly about Richard Spencer’s racism; in fact, the Power of Sin with a capital P and a capital S is the only way to speak Christian.

———————————

     Despite what you may think, the letters of Paul are not secondary to the Gospels, they are the means by which we read the Gospels, for the Gospels are not self-interpreting nor is their meaning self-evident.

No matter how your New Testament is ordered, Paul’s Gospel message predates the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1.16-17).

This is Paul’s thesis statement and from it he unwinds a single, long, non-linear argument. The argument itself is odd.

Like Paul’s other letters this one is addressed to a particular people but unlike Paul’s other letters this one continuously shifts focus from the congregation to the cosmic, that what concerns this little house church in Rome somehow also concerns all of creation.

The letter is also odd in that Paul sticks the salutations along with the introduction of the main theme not at the beginning of the letter but at the very end. The introduction of the main theme doesn’t come until the very end of the letter, like a final, it’s-all-been-building-to-this reveal:

  “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet” (16.20).

This whole letter, all 16 chapters of it, all the pretty parts we like to read at funerals and to stick onto Hallmark cards, all of it is driving towards this: “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.” 

     This whole letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.

That’s why throughout Romans Paul’s focus keeps shifting from the congregational to the cosmic and why the language he most often uses is martial language, the language of combat and battle and powers and invasion (4.25, 8.32 et al).

The theme of this whole letter is the defeat of the Power of Satan, and Paul’s thesis here in Romans 1 is that the Gospel is the Power by which God defeats that Power: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed…”

———————————

     Trouble is-

Paul’s thesis statement doesn’t much sound like its about the defeat of anything much less the Power of Satan.

That’s because the English language lacks any equivalents to the Greek word Paul uses here, the word that gets translated throughout Romans as either “righteousness” or “justification.”

It’s the same word: dikaiosyne.

When it gets translated as “righteousness” we hear it as an attribute or adjective of God, as God’s holiness or perfection- the arrival of which to us doesn’t sound like it would be good news.

When it gets translated as “justification” we hear it as our acquittal, as God declaring us something we’re not: justified.

Neither is correct, and the problem is with the English translation. In the Greek, dikaiosyne is a noun with the force of a verb; it creates that which it names.

The only word in English that comes close to approximating dikaiosyne is rectify-rectification.

So “righteousness” here in Romans 1 isn’t an attribute or adjective. It’s a Power. It’s a Power to bring salvation to pass. It’s God’s powerful activity to make right- to rectify- what is wrong in the world.

To say that God is righteous is that God is at work to make right.

And the way God is at work in the world, rectifying what is wrong in the world, is the Gospel, the Word of the Cross. Through it, God’s rectifying power is revealed.

That word revealed– in Greek it’s apokaluptetai: Apocalypse. Invasion. 

     Literally, Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…” 

Note the present tense.

    ——————————-

     “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…”

     You can only invade territory held by an enemy.

The language of invasion is the language of liberation.

For as much as we think Christianity is about forgiveness, the Gospel of John uses the word forgiveness only once and Paul never does- nor does he use the word “repent.”

Repenting is something we do.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans isn’t at all about anything we do. It’s everywhere about what God does.

It makes no sense to forgive slaves for their enslavement. Captives cannot repent their way out of bondage. Prisoners can only be freed. Liberated. Delivered.

You see- if you think of sin as something you do, then you cannot understand what the Son of God came to do.

Only at the end of his long letter does Paul finally reveal the Enemy as Satan.

In chapter 3 he names the enemy Sin with a capital S and calls it an alien, anti-god Power whose power we are all under and from whom whom not one of us is able through our own agency to free ourselves (3.9).

In chapter 5 he make Sin-with-a-capital-S synonymous with Death-with-a-capital-D (5.12).

In chapter 8 he identifies the forms that the Power of Sin and Death take in our world to contend against us (8.35, 38) then he widens the lens to show how it’s not just us but all of creation that is held in captivity to the Power of Sin and Death (8.21).

And in chapter 13 he tells the Christians in Rome that they should put away the works of darkness and put on the “weapons of light” (13.12) which 7 chapters earlier he calls the “weapons of rectification” (6.13).

Then, finally at the end, he reveals the Enemy as the Power of Satan.

Cliff-Notes Takeaway:

Only the faithfulness of Christ unto the cross is able to rectify what the Power of Sin has broken in God’s creation.

And only the power of this Gospel can free us from our bonds to a Power that doesn’t yet know its been defeated.

    ——————————-

     Outside the Church this weekend it’s Memorial Day when we remember those who’ve fallen in war.

But inside the Church we’ve not remembered.

We’ve forgotten that salvation itself is a battle. We’ve forgotten, such that this all probably sounds strange to you.

We’ve forgotten that God has a real Enemy God’s determined to destroy (1 Cor 15.24-26).

We’ve forgotten that the cross of Jesus Christ is God’s invasion from on high and that our proclamation of his act upon the cross is itself the weapon by which the God of peace is even now rectifying a world where Satan still rules but but his defeat is not in question.

We’ve forgotten that the language of salvation is itself the language of war.

Salvation isn’t about individuals going to heaven when they die.

Salvation is cosmic because all of creation is in captivity to the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, the Power of Satan whom Paul finally names at the end of his letter.

     Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God.

     Salvation is God’s invasion of earth, in and through the cross of Jesus Christ, the Power that looks like no power.

Only when you understand scripture’s view of Sin as a Power and our sinfulness as bondage to it can you understand why and how Paul can claim something as repugnant as there being no distinction whatsoever between someone like you and someone like Richard Spencer (2.1).

That’s not to say you’re all as awful as Richard Spencer; it’s to say that all of us are captive, because all of creation is captive.

We’re all captives to a Pharaoh called Sin, which is to say, we’re all ungodly (5.10).

And not one of us is safe from God’s rectifying work.

To invite Richard Spencer to Church then isn’t to minimize or dismiss his noxious racism or odious views.

It’s to take them so seriously that you invite him to the only place where he might by assaulted by the only Word with the Power to vanquish him and create him anew.

Or, to put it Paul’s way plainer:

 “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

For in the Gospel the rectifying work of God is invading the world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who was obedient all the way to the cross, a faithfulness which has power to create faith…’”

“[A Power]…that will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

——————————

      During their confrontation at Washington Sport and Health, Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, yelled at Richard Spencer: “I find your presence in this gym to be unacceptable, your presence in this town to be unacceptable.”

The gym later terminated his membership without comment.

In all likelihood inviting him to church would be as bad for our business as the management of the gym judged it to be bad for their business.

But maybe ‘bad for business’ is what Paul means by the scandal of the Gospel.

You haven’t really digested the offense of the Gospel until you’ve swallowed the realization it means someone like Richard Spencer might be sitting in the pew next to you, his hand out to pass the peace of Christ, the weapon which surpasses all understanding.

You haven’t really comprehended the cosmic scope of God’s salvation until you realized it includes both you and Richard Spencer, both of you potential victims of the awful invading power of the Gospel of God’s unconditional grace.

I haven’t actually invited Richard Spencer to this church.

Yet.

But I did leave a copy of this sermon in the door of his townhouse yesterday.

I don’t know that he’d ever show up.

But I do know- I’m not ashamed of it- I do know that this Gospel is powerful enough to defeat the Powers of the Enemy that enslaves him.

 

Here in Alexandria this week the local gym made news by canceling the membership of Richard Spencer, leader of the Alt-Right (racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic) movement. Identified by a Georgetown Professor, the gym cancelled his membership after a confrontation provoked by the professor.

Maybe it’s because we’re about to kick-off a summer long series in Romans, but reading the article in the Washington Post recently, my first thought was “That’s what makes the Church different than the gym.” I don’t know Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, but if she’s a Christian rather than agitate for his removal from a club her first response to Richard Spencer should have been to invite him to the club we call Church.

Of course, I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to whatever views he wishes to hold. As a Christian, I don’t believe we’re entitled to whatever beliefs we wish to believe; I’m required not only to believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus and what Richard Spencer believes contradicts much of what Jesus says and does.

So I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to his noxious views nor am I minimizing the sort of person Richard Spencer appears to be in public. By all accounts Richard Spencer’s awful hipster side-part comes accompanied by monstrosity. He’s racist. He’s anti-semitic. He’s xenophobic. He’s nationalist, which is idolatry. Given that string, he’s likely homophobic and sexist to boot. He is exactly what that professor called him: “a Nazi, a cowardly Nazi.”

I can think of no one who fits the definition better:

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

And St. Paul says it’s exactly someone like him for whom Christ died (Romans 5.6).

Christ didn’t die to confer blessings upon nice people like you or me. Christ died for the ungodly so that they might become a new humanity. Richard Spencer is precisely the sort of ungodly person we should invite to Church where the Word of the Cross might work mightily upon him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

“Bondage to the Power of Sin,” complete with capital letters, is the only way to speak Christianly about Richard Spencer’s racism; in fact, I believe someone like Richard Spencer calls attention to the ways both progressive and evangelical Christians minimize, and thus miss, what the New Testament generally and what St. Paul particularly mean by ‘Sin’ and ‘Salvation.’

Liberals tend either to eschew all talk of sin and focus on (our building) the Kingdom or imitating Jesus or they preach against (systemic) sin with which their listeners already concur. Conservatives meanwhile tend to reduce sin to the vices of individuals and salvation to that individual going to heaven. Neither is big enough.

If you think of sin as something we do, then you cannot understand what the Son of God came to do.

For the Apostle Paul, sin isn’t primarily something we do. We’re not free to choose to do the sins we do.

Sin is an alien Power- synonymous with Death and Satan- we are all under (Romans 3.9) from whom not one of us is able through our own agency to liberate ourselves. Only the faithfulness of Christ unto the cross is able to rectify what the Power of Sin has broken in God’s creation, and only the power of the Gospel proclamation of this work of God, which is itself the working of God, can free us from our bonds to a Power that doesn’t yet know its been defeated.

Salvation for Paul isn’t about individuals going to heaven when they die; salvation is cosmic because all of creation- that pretty passage we read at funerals- is in captivity to the Power of Sin. Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God; salvation is God’s invasion of earth in the cross of Jesus Christ, the Power that looks like no power.

Sin isn’t just something we do; it’s a Power to which we’re all captive such that it makes no Christian sense to distinguish between good people and evil people. We’re all captive such that good and evil runs through each of our hearts.

Only when you understand scripture’s view of Sin as a Power and our sinfulness as bondage to it can you understand why and how Paul can claim something as offensive as there being no distinction whatsoever between someone like you and someone like Richard Spencer.

We’re all captives to a Pharaoh called Sin, which is to say, we’re all ungodly.

To invite Richard Spencer to Church then isn’t to minimize or dismiss his noxious racism or odious views. It’s to take them so seriously that you invite him to the only place where he might hear the only Word with the Power to free him and create in him a new humanity.

Likely inviting him my church would be as bad for business as the gym here judged it would be bad for their business. Maybe ‘bad for business’ though is what Paul means by the scandal of the Gospel.

You haven’t really digested the offense of the Gospel until you’ve swallowed the realization it means someone like Richard Spencer might be sitting in the pew next to you, his hand out to pass the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.

 

Here’s my sermon from this weekend.

The text was Luke 10.27-35. I got several anonymous complaints (from both conservatives and progressives) in the offering plate so maybe I was tracking with Jesus.

In front of a crowd of 70 (Or 140, who’s to say how big the crowd really was?) this lawyer tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him:

“Who is my neighbor?” he presses. 

     It’s the kind of bible question they could’ve debated for weeks.

Read one part of Leviticus and God’s policy is Israel First; your neighbor is just your fellow Jew.

Read another part of Leviticus and your neighbor includes the illegal immigrants and refugees in your land.

Turn to another bible text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Your neighbors might really only be the people who believe like you believe.

Read the right psalms and ‘neighbor’ definitely does not include your enemies. It’s naive, sing those psalms, to suppose your enemies are anything other than dangerous.

So, they could’ve sat around and debated on Facebook all week.

Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.

About a man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked, in a ditch on the side of the road.

A priest and a Levite respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.

Like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.

For the man in the ditch.

Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2 verbs:

He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else.

14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’

Not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan, don’t you?

You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.

I mean, show of hands:

How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?

How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote?

An anecdote like…

On Friday morning…

I drove to Starbucks to work on the sermon. As I got of my car, standing in front of Starbucks, I saw this guy in the cold.

I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.

And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the cold, I thought to myself:

‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’

I admit, I’m not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.

‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out? 

     I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool. 

     You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic. 

     Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’ 

     I thought to myself.

But mostly, I was irritated.

Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.

I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.

I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.

And passed by.

Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.

And passed by.

Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.

And passed by.

When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.

‘I don’t have any cash on me.’

I lied.

I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’

Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’

And then we stood in the cold and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.

After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.

It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.

And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.

And then I took his picture.

Tacky, I know, but I figured otherwise you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven.

I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.

See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?

A predictable slice-of-life story for this worn-out parable right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’

And, I expect, you would go.

Feeling not inspired. But guilty.

Guilty knowing that none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.

     If 14 verbs x Every Needy Person We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all. It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford. 

     The good news- and the bad- there’s more to the story.

I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.

Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said: ‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’

Then it hit me.

‘Say that again’ I said.

‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’

And suddenly it was as if he’d smacked me across the face.

We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.

It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered ‘round to hear about their Kingdom work.

Every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew.

And so when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.

When Jesus says ‘So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,’ NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’

When Jesus says ‘There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch so he crossed to other side and passed on by’    EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘What’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’

Ditto the Levite.

No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.  No one would’ve been outraged.

As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.

The priest had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest.

Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then (according to the Mishna) the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as contrary to everything we know of God.

But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.

As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

So-

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then- no matter how many hospitals we name after this story- the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.

If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.

     Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.

     A little context-

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. Looted it.

And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just strangers. They weren’t just opponents on the other side of the Jewish aisle.

They were Other.

They were despised.

They were considered deplorable.

Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And the disciples’ antipathy towards them is such that they beg Jesus to call down an all-consuming holocaust upon the village.

In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’

‘The one who showed mercy’ is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.

The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

We’ve gotten it all backwards.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need.

It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.

The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.

The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.

Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need.

You don’t need Jesus for a lesson so inoffensively vanilla.

     No, Jesus is saying that even the most deplorable people- they care for those in need.

Therefore, they are our neighbors.

Upon whom our salvation depends.

I spent last week in California promoting my book, which if you’d like to pull out your smartphones now and order it on Amazon I won’t stop you.

On inauguration day I was being interviewed about my book, or at least I was supposed to be interviewed about my book. But once the interviewers found out I was a pastor outside DC, they just wanted to ask me about people like you all.

They wanted to know what you thought, how you felt, here in DC, about Donald Trump.

And because this was California it’s not an exaggeration to say that most everyone seated there in the audience was somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. Seriously, you know you’re in LA when I’m the most conservative person in the room.

So I wasn’t really sure how I should respond when, after climbing on top of their progressive soapbox, the interviewers asked me “What do you think, Jason, we should be most afraid of about Donald Trump and his supporters?”

I thought about how to answer.

I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.

Turns out I managed to be both.

I said:

“I think with Donald Trump and his supporters, I think…Christians at least, I think we should be afraid of the temptation to self-righteousness. I think we should fear the temptation to see those who have politics other than ours as Other.”

Let’s just say they didn’t exactly line up to buy my book after that answer.

Neither was Jesus’ audience very enthused about his answer to the lawyer’s question.

As bored as we’ve become with this story, the irony is that we haven’t even cast ourselves correctly in it.

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. I wish. How flattering is that?

Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the man in the ditch and to see a deplorable Samaritan as the potential bearer of our salvation.

Jesus isn’t saying that we’re saved by loving our neighbors and that loving our neighbors means helping those in need.

No, Jesus is saying with this story what Paul says with his letter:

   That to be justified before God is to know that the line between good and evil runs                                                      not between Us and Them but through every human heart.

   That our propensity to see others as Other isn’t our idealogical purity. It’s our bondage to Sin. 

“All people, both the religious and the secular…Paul says

All people….both the right and the left- Paul could’ve said- both Republicans and Democrats, both progressives and conservatives, black and white and blue, gay or straight, all people are under the power of Sin.

“There is no distinction [among people], Paul says, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None is righteous, not one.”

“Therefore, you have no excuse…In judging others, you condemn yourself…you are storing up God’s wrath for yourself.”

Paul says.

“No one is righteous, not one.”

So,

     if you want to be justified instead of judged…If you want to inherit eternal life instead of its eternal opposite…

     Then you better imagine yourself as the desperate one in the ditch… and imagine your salvation coming from the most deplorable person your prejudice and your politics can conjure. 

Don’t forget-

We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.

Maybe now you can feel why.

Especially now.

Into our partisan tribalism and talking-past points, our red and blue hues and social media shaming, our presumption and our pretense at being prophetic-

Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-

Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant or a Muslim is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.

Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.

Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed- mustached hipster.

Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.

A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.

When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we encounter.

He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.

And more counter-cultural.

He’s telling us to see that even the deplorables in our worldview, even those whose hashtags are the opposite of ours, even they help those in need.

Therefore-

They are our neighbors.

Not only our neighbors.

They are our threshold to heaven.

Jesus says.

Go and do likewise?

It’s no wonder- I suppose- why we’re still so polarized.

After all, we only ever responded to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:

Wanting nothing to do with him.

Or, wanting to do away with him.

 

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteSome of you have expressed chagrin that I’ve not been blogging as much of late. Partly that’s due to work demands but mostly it’s because the podcast has taken up the free time I’d normally give to the blog.

I don’t regret that or apologize for it, however, because the podcast has allowed me to develop some surprising and life-giving relationships, most notably with Fleming Rutledge. I’m not full of shit at all when I say that I thank God the podcast brought her into my life, and I know from her that she’s equally grateful to have a new usefulness and audience at this season in her vocation.

So here’s our latest Friday’s with Fleming. We recorded it several weeks ago and it was the first time we’d gotten to connect since July. While you’re at it, you can check out Teer’s post, reflecting on our conversation with Fleming.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve got lined up with Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Danielle Shroyer, Ephraim Radner, William Cavanaugh et al.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

PLEASE HELP US REACH MORE PEOPLE: 

GO TO OUR PAGE IN ITUNES AND GIVE US A REVIEW AND RATING

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

The Gospel in Strings

Jason Micheli —  October 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dFor the text this weekend from 2 Timothy 2.8-15, I invited a string quartet to participate in the sermon. It was a craptastic disaster in the Saturday evening service, but I think it could turned out nicely by Sunday morning.

I owe a debt to John Nugent for his podcast with me recently and for his new book Endangered Gospel. Both the categories the quartet helped me explicate as well the bite at the end I owe to him.

     I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation who was so kind and so thoughtful, so considerate, to add my name and my contact information to the mass email list of Donald J. Trump.

Thanks to you, ever since last Friday’s hot mic Access Hollywood video, I’ve received approximately 7 emails a day imploring me to do my Christian duty (in $50 installments) to bring America back from the apocalyptic precipice on which it stands and make it great again.

I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation was kind enough and thoughtful enough, considerate really, to add my name and my contact information to the “Christians for Hillary” distribution list.

Thanks to you, ever since the convention, I’ve received approximately 12 emails per week rousing me to my Christian responsibility to protect the greatness of America from the apocalyptic specter of Donald Trump occupying the White House.

This sermon is for you too.

This sermon is for that precious parishioner here in the congregation who, every day, forwards me exhortations and editorials from Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, articles arguing that as a Christian I have an obligation to seek social justice, fight poverty and fight for a fair wage, combat racism and xenophobia, protect the rights of women and homosexuals, and reverse global warming.

This sermon is for all of you who’ve made it possible that not a day goes by in the life of your pastor that you don’t share something on my Facebook Timeline about Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Chris Christie, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell Jr., Planned Parenthood or the NRA urging me, as a faith leader, to fulfill my role to better society in blue or red hues.

This sermon is for that generous congregant who last fall, when I was still on medical leave, snagged me and my plus-one an invitation to an all-expenses-paid, clergy-only weekend retreat with Ted Cruz where, the invitation explained, we would strategize to restore God’s will for the nation.

And even though that sounds about as much fun as taking a bus full of 1st graders to Great Wolf Lodge for an alcohol free weekend- it was a thoughtful gesture. So this sermon’s for you too.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our democracy is hurting, our society is in danger, our nation in decline and believe that it’s our job as the Church to fix it.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our world is broken and think that it’s our responsibility as Christians to change it. To change the world, to make it a better place.

This sermon is for you.

Because when you think it’s our job as Christians to change the world, what’s really in danger isn’t the world, what’s in danger- what’s endangered- is the Gospel.

——————————

     Paul defines the Gospel in verse 8 of today’s text.

“Remember,” he says, “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David- that is my gospel.” 

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

Each of those elements in Paul’s definition of the Gospel they’re like instruments in a string quartet.

“Jesus” [Play Briefly]

     Jesus is the instrument that plays the salvation strand of the story; the name “Jesus” is shorthand for God takes flesh in Jesus and on the cross rescues us from captivity to the Sin of the world.

“Christ”  [Play Briefly]

     Christ means ‘Anointed One.’

In Hebrew, it’s Messiah. Rome used the word ‘Caesar.’ We translate it ‘King.’

“Christ” here in Paul’s definition of the Gospel is the instrument that plays the Kingdom strand of the scripture story, how God comes to us in Jesus as our rightful King and teaches his followers what it means to live as subjects of his Kingdom.

“Raised from the dead”  [Play Briefly]

     Raised from the dead is the instrument that plays the finale strand scripture, the New Age of which the New Testament says Christ’s resurrection is the first sign.

And the final instrument in Paul’s Gospel Music is“A descendant of David.”  [Play Briefly]

     David is the instrument that plays the Old Testament strand of the scripture story. David echoes how the Gospel is the outworking of God’s purposes first promised to the People called Israel.

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

The Gospel is like a piece of music.

The reason there’s so much confusion over who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do is because for so long Christians have been fiddling with the music.

We turn some of the instruments way up and turn others way down, mute some and distort others to the point where we can no longer hear how, so often, the music we’re performing is something different from what the Author intends.

——————————

     One of the primary ways we distort the Gospel Music- we make it Heaven-Centered.

We turn the volume way, way up on Jesus and we turn the volume way down on Christ and David to the point that it throws Resurrection out of time with the others.

[Play]

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the Gospel Music is so loud it sounds like the entire composition is about nothing more than God taking flesh and taking our sin to the Cross.

The only notes anyone can hear from the David part of the music are the ones that show how Jesus’ death for sin fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

But if that’s all you hear from David, you can no longer hear that even larger theme of how God desires to have a People here on Earth who would live with God as their Sovereign instead of following a king like all the other nations.

And you forget that that’s really what the 1st Commandment is all about: “You shall no other kings before me.”

And then you fail to notice that our rejection of Christ comes not on the Cross but when we declare to Pontus Pilate: “We have no king but Caesar.” 

When you turn Jesus way up and David way down, you no longer know why Jesus bothered to spend 3 years before his death and 50 days after it teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God.

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the music blares so loudly, all you can hear is the noise about the world’s sinfulness. In such a world, what sense does it make to say that Jesus is King?

That’s why the Heaven-Centered Gospel turns the Christ part of the music so low it sounds like Jesus is just a King enthroned in our hearts.

Which distorts the fourth part of the music: Resurrection.

The Heaven-Centered Gospel so cranks up the volume on the fallenness of the world and so mutes God’s determination to rule this Earth, it makes the world sound disposable instead of a world where God is determined to have dominion.

And that distorts the Resurrection part of the music.

Because now, in the Heaven-Centered Gospel, what we hear isn’t that God will make this world a better place, body and soul. It’s the signal that God will take our souls from our earthly bodies and take them away to a better place.

This confused Gospel leads to confusion about who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this Gospel, who we are- we’re sinners redeemed by his death who will be rescued from this world upon our own.

We’re not called to fix society’s ills or change the world or make it a better place because the reality of Sin is such that only God can overcome Sin.

And, according to this distorted music, God’s way of overcoming the world’s Sin is to rescue the faithful from it to a better place.

All we’re called to do as Christians is to give people Jesus so that they too can go to a better place when they die.

——————————-

     Another way we distort the Gospel Music- instead of Heaven-Centered, we make it Human-Centered.

We keep David so it’s barely audible still, but we fiddle with the music so that now the volume on Jesus gets turned down low until all that noise about the sinfulness of humanity and the fallenness of the world fades away. And instead we ratchet up the Christ and Resurrection parts of the music.

[Play]

     in the Human-Centered Gospel, because you can barely hear the Jesus music, you forget that constant refrain of scripture: that our situation as sinners is such that only God can rectify what’s broken in us and in the world.

So Christ, in the Human-Centered Gospel, is no longer a King who triumphed over Evil, he’s a King who taught us how to eradicate evil in the world.

And with the Jesus music and all its noise about sinful humanity and a fallen world muted, it begins to sound as if we’re capable of making the world a better place.

Jesus’ Kingdom teaching begins to sound like a description of God’s politics, like it’s God’s blueprint for us to usher in the New Creation.

In the Human-Centered Gospel, the Kingdom, becomes our job. Christ began the work of the Kingdom and now it’s our task to bring it to completion.

Of course, you can’t fiddle with the Gospel Music this way without, again, neglecting the David part of the music. In the Human-Centered Gospel, the only audible notes from the David part of the music are those from the prophets, who preached about justice and mercy and learning war no more.

The problem with the Human-Centered Gospel is that it relies on an optimism about human progress that is contradicted by the violence of the last century and the first part of this one.

Again, confusion over the Gospel leads to a confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re agents of God’s Kingdom, partners with God.

And we’re called to fix the problems of the world, to make the world a better place according to God’s Kingdom vision.

——————————

     A third way we distort the Gospel music- we make it World-Centered.

In the World-Centered Gospel, we balance the Jesus and the Christ parts. But we turn the Resurrection part of the music so that it’s loudest of all and we make the David part of the music play only the first measure of its music over and over, the creation story.

[Play]

     In the World-Centered Gospel, you can finally properly hear about Christ’s Kingdom in tandem with the reality of Sin and how God is the only agent who can overcome it to fix this broken world.

In that regard, the World-Centered Gospel sounds better.

But because the World-Centered Gospel makes the Resurrection part of the music loudest of all, what we hear is that God made this world. God cares about this world. God will redeem this world and God’s People can play a role.

In the World-Centered Gospel, the Jesus music is loud enough that we don’t lose sight of our sinfulness or the world’s fallenness. So the World-Centered Gospel doesn’t tell us that it’s our job to build God’s Kingdom.

Only God can make this world a better place and that renewal began in Jesus Christ and God is, even now, bringing it to fruition.

We can’t bring the Kingdom of God or make this world a better place, but what we can do, according to the World-Centered Gospel, is go out into the world to join with God in what God is doing.

We can join movements and causes. We can work for justice and advocate for change, and wherever we participate in such work we point to the day when God will, once and for all, make this world a better place.

Confusion over the Gospel Music leads to confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re witnesses who point to what God is doing out there in the world.

And what we’re called to do is roll up our sleeves, get out from behind the walls of the Church and join God in making this world a better place.

The World-Centered Gospel sounds better, no doubt.

But there’s still too many dissonant notes.

For example-

Jesus never tells his disciples to venture beyond the walls of their community, Israel, and work to transform pagan society or make pagan governments more just.

And in Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament, God commands Israel to care for the needy within Israel not outside of it.

Even in the Sermon on the Mount, with a crowd gathered to listen to him, Christ isn’t talking to the multitude. He’s speaking to his disciples. He’s not describing how the world is to live. He’s describing how they’re to live among the world.

Obviously, as good as the music sounds, it’s still not quite Gospel.

——————————

     The Gospel Music Paul wants you to hear is Kingdom-Centered.

David provides the music’s bottom.

[Play]

     David is the foundation but finally all four of the instruments play equally and together to create a single composition.

[Play]

     In the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.

So- this is the part you need to listen for- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People.

God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel.

God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King.

And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.

God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.

God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.

God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.

What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that the other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People.

And according to the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, this is the plan God continues in Jesus. God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.

Jesus takes on the sin of humanity not to judge humanity or to forgive humanity but to restore humanity because redeemed creatures are the first step in a renewed creation. As St. Paul says if anyone is in Jesus, he or she is part of a new creation.

Because the Kingdom-Centered Gospel remembers that those baptized into Jesus are new creatures for a new creation, it knows how to play the Christ part of the music correctly.

Because Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts.

Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future.

Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.

No, what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel is able to hear in the music is that

from the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.

So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom.

The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom.

They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.

Like salt on food, like a pearl among swine, like a mustard seed on a mighty mountain, like a light among nations Christ’s People are in the wider world his Kingdom come on Earth, living as is in Heaven.

And that’s what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel gets right about the Resurrection part of the Gospel Music.

Because it’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.

New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait. New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve. And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.

The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.

The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.

——————————

      That’s the Gospel Music.

And today, I want to dedicate this song to all of you who forward me your political action emails, all of you who put Christian voter guides in my inbox, every one of you who make exhortative editorials on my Facebook Timeline, tweet me your take on the debate, and tell me in breathless tones that if we don’t support this agenda or back that candidate all hope for changing the world and making it a better place is lost.

This Gospel Music is for you.

Because if you listen close you’ll hear-

     As John Nugent says:

     The Gospel does not call us to change the world.

     The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.

     The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.

     The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.

Or we’re supposed to be.

But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our candidate than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture.

We can’t be who the Gospel say we are when we can recite the latest Real Clear Politics polling average but if someone called upon us to pray out loud we’d blush and stammer.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we can argue for or against the ins and outs of HR Bill 501, but we aren’t prepared to tell someone else what difference Jesus makes for how we live their lives.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we’re willing to go door-to-door for Donald or Hillary but haven’t ever once invited someone to Church.

Now that I’m Executive Pastor and know what everyone gives, I know it’s a safe bet that the Democrats and Republicans get more of our money than does Christ’s Church.

And nothing reveals more where we think the stakes lie.

So I dedicate this Gospel Music today to you.

(And to me).

Because if, as the Gospel says, we are the change that God has already made in the world.

Then that means when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.

When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the red and blue means- we get in God’s way.

Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world.

We are the change God has already made in the world.

Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.

Rather than arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.

While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.

Neither gay nor straight for that matter.

And, for that matter, rather than waging war for a seat on the Court we’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage.

Instead of stalemating over economic policy, we should be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community.

Let others debate our nation’s Defense policy and let us Christians be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.

I dedicate this Gospel Music to all of you who think we’re called to make this world a better place.

Listen to it again-

We’re not.

     We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.

This song’s for you.

      [Play Whole Song]

 

icons-10

(The Harrowing of Hell)

Here’s the sermon from this weekend based on the lectionary epistle from Colossians 2.6-15.

If you’re receiving this by email, you can find the audio by clicking here.

 

Today’s passage begins the heart of the apostle Paul’s argument in his letter to the Colossians, and it’s a passage that begs an obvious and inescapable question.

Not- “Why are there so few praise songs about circumcision?”

That’s not the question.

     It’s this one: If you’re already forgiven, then why bother following?

If you’re already forgiven by Christ of every sin you’ve done, every sin you’re sinning this very instant in your little head, every sin you will commit next week or next year- if you’re already and for always forgiven by Christ, then why would you bother following him?

If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow?

Because you don’t, you know- have any reason to fear. Fear God or fear for your salvation.

That’s the lie, the empty deceit, the false teaching, Paul admonishes the Colossians against in verse 8 where Paul warns them against any practices or philosophy that lure them into forgetting that Christ is Lord and in Christ God has defeated the power of Sin with a capital S and cancelled out the stain of all your little s sins.

You are forgiven.

You have no reason to fear.

Because the whole reality of God (without remainder), dwells in Christ Jesus and, by your baptism, you’ve been incorporated in to Christ fully and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Christ in whom God fully dwells.

Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word- there is no lack in your relationship with God.

At least, from God’s side there’s not.

And for Paul-

Your incorporation in Christ, your restoration by Christ to God, it’s objective not subjective. It’s fact not foreshadowing. It’s an announcement not an invitation.

Christ’s incorporation of us has happened- literally- over our dead bodies, our sin-dead bodies.

And it’s happened perfectly. As in, once. For all. It’s not conditional. It’s not an if/then proposition. It’s not if you believe/have faith/roll up your sleeves and serve the poor/give more money/stop your stupid sinning THEN and ONLY THEN will God forgive you.

No, it’s not future tense. It’s past perfect tense.

It’s passive even. You have been reconciled by Christ without qualification. It’s a finished deed and no deeds you do can add to it or- or– subtract from it.

From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved- already- in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you.

It’s as obvious as an empty tomb: God forever rejects our rejection of him.

What circumcision was to Israel, Christ is to us. He’s made us his Family, and, just as it is with your biological one, as much as you might like to you can’t undo family.

You once were lost, dead (to sin), but he has made you alive in Christ, raised you up right along with him; so that, you can say he’s forgiven all your trespasses. Your debt of sin that you never could’ve paid, it’s like a credit card Christ has cut up and nailed to the cross.

And it’s not just your little s sins he’s obliterated, it’s the Power of Sin with a capital S. He’s defeated it forever. He’s brought down the Principalities and Powers, Paul says.

He’s thrown the dragon down, as St. John puts it. He’s plundered Satan’s lair, as St. Peter puts; he’s descended all the way into Hell to liberate the condemned and on his way up he hung a condemned sign on the devil’s doors. Out of business. God literally does not give a damn anymore.

Your sin. Our alienation and guilt and separation from God. Humanity’s hostility and divisions. God’s wrath and judgment. All of it, every bit of it, the fullness of it-it’s just like he said it was. It is finished.

But, that begs the question:

If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all

If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God

If you’ve no fire and brimstone to fear

Then, why bother following?

————————

     If you have no reason to fear God, then why would you upend your life, complicate your conscience, career, and keeping-up-with-the-Jones? Why would you invert the values the culture gives you and compromise your American dream by following the God who meets us in Jesus Christ?

If Christ has handed you a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ? Why would you bother? Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7 times? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?

Why bother giving water to the stranger (who is Christ) when he’s thirsty or food when he’s hungry, why bother visiting Christ when he’s locked away in prison or clothing Christ when he’s naked or sheltering Christ when he’s homeless?

Why go to all that trouble if Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you?

You know as well as I do-

It feels better to leave the log in your own eye and point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye instead. It feels better.

It feels almost as good as not walking a mile in another’s shoes, nearly as good as not giving them the shirt off your back, as comfortable as not giving up everything and giving it away to the poor.

And none of that feels as right and good as it does to withhold celebration when a prodigal comes creeping back into your life expecting forgiveness they don’t deserve.

So why would you bother doing all of what Jesus commands if you’re already forgiven for not doing it any of it?

Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Easy and light my log-jammed eye.

Not when he says the way to be blessed is to wage peace and to show mercy and swallow every insult that comes your way because you hunger and thirst for justice.

Easy and light- have you been following the news lately? You could starve to death hungering and thirsting for God’s justice.

So why? What’s the point? What’s the benefit to you? If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’re already forgiven by Christ, then why bother following the peculiar path laid out by Christ?

————————

  I don’t have cable on my TV. Instead I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone. So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 6 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos right there on my phone.

     Or, if I want to see more of Matthew Mcconaughey than I need to see I can rebinge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles; it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism.

     Earlier this week, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral wake make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual purient interests, I happened upon this little documentary film from 2011 about Delores Hart.

Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago.

Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinseltown dreams.

After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole.

She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in the Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961.

Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelley. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous L.A. architect.

But then-

In 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her- called her- to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat.

After the retreat, she returned to her red carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence. Emptiness.

So, she quit her acting gigs, got rid of all her baubles, and broke off her engagement- renounced all of her former dreams- and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.

What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it. This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, postChristian, purient and radically secular.

Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it.

They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by her life.

Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, she is somehow more human than most of us.

You can tell that they think her life is beautiful, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life beautiful.

————————

     That’s why-

Why we follow even though there’s no fire and brimstone to fear, even though we’re already and always forgiven.

Because if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says here in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble Jesus, to look and live like Jesus.

If the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God puts on skin and becomes fully human- totally, completely, authentically human- then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human.

We follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human too.

Fully human.

The reason Christ’s yoke does not feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we prefer our log-jammed eyes, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7 and intimidated by a love that washes feet is that we’re not yet. Human. Fully human. As human as God.

It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be.

We get it backwards: it’s not that Jesus presents to us an impossible human life; it’s that Jesus presents to us the prototype for every human life. For a fully human life.

So we follow not to avoid brimstone in the afterlife but to become beautiful in this one.

———————-

     That’s the why, so what about the how?

How we become as fully human? How do we become beautiful?

If Jesus is the prototype, then it begins for us the same way it begins for Jesus.

And for Jesus, according to the oldest of the Gospels, Mark- the story of Jesus’ fully human life begins not with his birth but with his baptism:

With Jesus coming up out of the water and God declaring like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved. In you I delight.’

It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, but it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life all the way to a cross believing it.

What sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or his preaching. Or, even, that he died on a cross.

No, what sets Jesus apart is his deep and abiding belief that he was God’s beloved.

Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s ever been since Adam.

Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved, a delight to God.

And knowing, all the way down, that he was beloved, set him free to live a life whose beauty renewed the whole world as a new and different creation.

When Delores Hart took her finals vows as a Benedictine nun, 7 years later, she wore the wedding dress she’d bought for her red carpet Hollywood wedding.

She thought it was the perfect thing to wear because the most profound love in our lives isn’t the one that sends couples down the aisle to altar. It’s the love that God declares to all of us from the altar.

If Jesus is the prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human, it begins not with believing in Jesus and not with believing certain things about Jesus.

If Jesus is God’s prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human begins with believing like Jesus.

Believing like Jesus believed. Believing what Jesus believed.

You are God’s Beloved. In you, in you, God delights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4131253271_64251f8068For Episode 14 of Crackers and Grape Juice, Jason and Teer are joined by Dr. Johanna Hartelius as they check in with Fleming Rutledge. Johanna is one of Jason’s best friends and is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s almost as much of a fan of Fleming’s as Jason.

This is part 1 of a 2 part conversation. If you notice some sighs or scoffs, that’s just Teer & Johanna noticing how much Jason is kissing up to Fleming.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, so spread the love.

If you appreciate this as much as you tell us, give us a rating and review here in the iTunes store.

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Here it is:

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

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

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

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

47 vs. 3

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the counter:

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

Evil would God.

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

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

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

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

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

nt-wrightThe Crackers and Grape Juice Team interviewed NT Wright for a couple of hours. We wracked our brains to come up with good questions and in between stammered plenty to collect our thoughts. ‘Tom’ on the other hand spoke as though he were in his kitchen, making a sandwich, and had a ready-made recorded answer for any question we posed to him. The dude never said ‘Um’ once.

You should listen to him.

In a few hundred years from now, he’ll be a bold-faced term in a church history book.

For those of you not in the know, NT Wright is the former Bishop of Durham. He is the author of popular works like Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope as well as paradigm-shifting professional books like The Resurrection of the Son of God and the recent Paul and the Faithfulness of the God. Without exaggeration, NT Wright is the primary influence on preachers, mainline and evangelical, of the New Testament today. In this particular episode Wright eviscerates the ‘apocalyptic reading’ of Paul espoused by my paramour Fleming Rutledge in her new book The Crucifixion (see previous C&J Podcast episodes).

Not only that but he squashed (a few weeks too late) the premise of my Eastertide sermon ‘Bigger than Burning.’

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, so spread the love.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

rp_lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517-300x200.jpg

“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?”

Here’s my sermon this Memorial Day weekend on the Sunday’s lection from Galatians 1.1-12.

When I returned initially from medical leave, I was so excited over coming back to work and I was happy because (most of) you all seemed excited to have me back at church. At least, I thought that was the case.

But then, one morning while I was unpacking and organizing my new office, I heard a soft rap on my door. I looked up and my illusions of happy homecoming burnt away like so much dross. There they were, Murice Kincannon and Marcie Bowker, with a question in their eyes so obvious it bore like a bullet hole straight through me.

“We were just discussing after our meditation group,” Marcie Bowker began “innocently,” “and we thought we’d ask you.”

“Ask me what?” I said as though I was curious but I could already smell sulfur in the air.

Marcie leaned in, wraith-like, through my doorframe and with a ghoulish smile she asked me: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with having an American flag in the sanctuary?” 

And that’s when I knew not everyone was happy to have me back, at least not Marcie and Murice because why else would they have pulled the pin on a query like that and thrown it at my feet?

“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” That question- it’s like the theological equivalent to when your wife asks you “Does this dress make me look fat?”

There’s no good way to answer because you can tell from the way the question is put to you that there’s no way to slip loose of it without causing offense.

“Not that dress honey.”

There’s no good way to answer especially when you consider that, with Shirley Pitts’ passing, Murice Kincannon is now Aldersgate’s token liberal and Marcie Bowker is most definitely not so I felt trapped. Entrapped.

“Did the Bishop put you put to this?” I asked.

Murice and Marcie- they didn’t catch my meaning. They instead asked me their question again: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” At least, I think they asked me it again. It was like that scene in Teen Wolf when an underage Michael J. Fox tries to buy a keg of beer and the crotchety guy at the counter asks for his ID. All I could hear was my own heart beating in my forehead as I watched their lips forming the question.

It was like that scene where Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye send a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder crashing into a ravine and they see their entire future destroyed with it.

It’s the kind of question churches have split over, the kind of question theologian bloviate over, the kind of question that preachers get fired over and after my vacation called cancer I’m sort of attached to my health insurance.

So I didn’t answer their question.

Instead I did what I only do in the case of emergencies like when my wife asks me if this shade of makeup makes her look old or when son asks me if he can ask a girl out on a date. I just laughed this high-pitched, manic and hysterical, eye-twitching laugh like a Disney Store worker on an acid trip.

When I regained consciousness and picked myself up off the floor, Murice and Marcie had snuck away like ninja assassins presumably waiting, like the devil himself, for another opportune time to undo me.

So I never answered their question.

But I didn’t forget it.

—————————————

I thought of their question again a few weeks later, a few weeks ago, when Ali and I took our boys to the Nationals Home Opener.

Before the game, the entire outfield was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. The colors were processed into the ballpark with priestly soberness. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung and silence for the fallen was observed. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes.

And it struck me that it felt like a kind of worship service. I mean, there was even organ music and a young family being shushed by an elderly curmudgeon, which is as close to a worship as you can get.

And that’s no great insight on my part because after the silence my oldest son, X, said to no one in particular “that was just like church.”

If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up might have been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of liturgy in that we were celebrating what’s been done for us and offering gratitude. It was a kind of liturgy in that it was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular story. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if and when called upon.

To be honest, looking up at the scoreboard at the pictures of fallen men and women- kids really- I even had tears in my eyes. And here’s the rub- I don’t know that I’ve ever once teared up during a Christian liturgy. Realizing that in Section 136, I thought of Marcie’s and Murice’s question again.

———————————-

Though we haven’t changed out the parament colors to observe it, Memorial Day is a delicate time for Christians. It’s a day that requires discretion not because the valor of fallen soldiers lacks honor- not at all- but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.

As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.

Now, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with any of the baseball park pageantry. I’m instead suggesting that, like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.

Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.

If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.

Except

People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

This is hardly the fault of our troops but why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?

When engaged couples tell me they plan to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions for which they might have to suffer.

How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?

But if what it means to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved how could our children ever make up their own minds, choose for themselves, until after they’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Quite literally, they don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve had their minds shaped by Christ. I know my kids still don’t have minds worth making up for themselves.

Western culture teaches us to think we should get to choose our faith story for ourselves, but notice how that story (the story we should get to choose our faith story) is a story that which none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.

It’s a lie that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ 

And its just such nonsense that should make Christians wonder if the Church is really the who the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as our faith is relegated to the private then Jesus is necessarily demoted from Lord and King to Secretary of After Life Affairs.

And that’s no small thing, for as Paul argues angrily in our text from Galatians today to alter the Gospel is no Gospel, to revise the Gospel is to reverse the Gospel.

—————————————

Look-

The Church is called to reframe everything in our lives in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Christ’ of course wasn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It was a political word.

It’s a title: King.

     The King who elects.

Us.

To be a light not to our nation but to the nations.

And so on Memorial Day that call upon us- it doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of those who’ve laid their lives down for their friends.

It instead means we remember that that love is not how Jesus loves us. Jesus laid his life down not for his friends and countrymen but for sinners, for his enemies. For the ungodly, as Paul puts it.

Our call as Christians is to remember that it’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for us, we Christians, that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1.4).

That call upon us- it means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on our national calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen, though significant, was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death- it’s always good to point out- that was delivered up by the best and brightest of both Church and State.

     The ultimate sacrifice, we proclaim, was made God.

For the ungodly.

Jesus made/Jesus is the Ultimate Sacrifice.

He is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including- in a way we don’t yet understand- the sacrifice of war), and Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

     Maybe that just sounds like a slight linguistic matter to you, but for Christians such matters matter, for as Paul warns us today in Galatians 1 to get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

To get the world wrong, which correlatively is to get our nation wrong too. To get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

So much so that even Paul says he should be accursed if he communicated any Gospel other than the Gospel of how Jesus Christ has freed us (past perfect tense) from the present (tense) evil age.

—————————————

Such linguistic matters matter for Christians.

They do so because they help us answer questions like that question Marcie and Murice asked me: ‘Is there anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?’

Or rather, they help us to see that such a question is the wrong question. I mean, sure, if you’re more moved by the flag than you are by the cross or the cup then it might be an idol, but it’s still the wrong question.

The question about the flag is the wrong question because as Paul says here in Galatians the spatial metaphors the question relies upon (church vs. country, sanctuary vs. America)- the spatial, place-oriented categories get the Gospel wrong.

According to Paul, here in Galatians, if we’re going to remove anything from the sanctuary it should be the clock.

     We should tear down the clocks in our sanctuaries.

Because according to Paul the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.

The trouble is so much of the world doesn’t yet know it’s been transitioned into a new time.

The dichotomy that matters for Christians, the dichotomy we should be concerned with, isn’t God or Country it’s Before and After.

Before and After- Between the old age and the new.

    Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation.

     Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time.

The New Age inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And we can live according to that time in any place.

So don’t worry about the flag, get rid of that clock because it lures us into forgetting that Christians are called by God to be the People who know what time it is. It lures us into forgetting that the time we call the Kingdom isn’t something we await far off in the future. It’s now.

And it’s here whenever we gather together to do the things that Jesus did and to proclaim what God did through him.

And that’s why what Christians do in here is the most important thing to do on Memorial Day weekend. We worship the One who sits on the throne.

If the Gospel is true, if the old age has been invaded and destroyed, if we’ve been set free into a New Age then worship is the most important thing we can do because, if the Gospel is true, then that means what’s wrong with the world (the sin that leads to war that leads to Memorial Day) is that it fails to acknowledge that God is God.

The world doesn’t know what time it is, but we do. So come, let us worship God.

 

 

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nWe’re heading towards the end of Eastertide.

I get tired of how the burden of proof is always on the Christian to prove resurrection rather than on the skeptic to posit a more plausible explanation for the resurrection profession. The standard, skeptical explanation for the resurrection message goes like this:

The disciples, being ancient 1st century people, were superstitious people who didn’t understand biology etc like we do today. 

And the disciples either had visions and hallucinations of Jesus after he died and they called that Resurrection, or wanting people to think Jesus had been resurrected, they stole his body and claimed he’d been raised. 

That’s the standard skeptical explanation, and I’ve heard it from a lot of you.

The problem with the standard, skeptical explanation- other than it’s complete ignorance of first century culture. And history. Not to mention Judaism. And Greek philosophy- is that it does not account for the fact that Resurrection was a brand new idea.

Resurrection was not conceivable to a 1st century Jew and it was not desirable to a 1st century Greek. Resurrection belonged to neither worldview; it just appeared overnight. A brand new species in the religious world.

If the disciples had had visions or hallucinations or if they’d stolen the body, they would never claim it had been Resurrection.

They had no motive to make it up because Resurrection was not a belief anyone would hear. If they made it up, they chose the wrong message. Because for Jews, the bodily resurrection of a single man was unthinkable. And for Greeks, the bodily resurrection of anyone was unattractive.

The standard, skeptical explanation fails to remember that the entire religious worldview of Greeks centered around escaping this material world, which is finite and corrupt, and moving on to the spiritual realm, which is eternal and pure.

The whole trajectory of salvation was for your eternal soul to be freed from your mortal body. Resurrection was not only an impossible belief to a Gentile, it was objectionable. Repulsive. No soul, having escaped its body, would ever want to go back. If you had told a Gentile that a guy from Nazareth had died and 3 days later was resurrected, they would’ve said:

‘That’s terrible! I’ll pray for him!’ 

If the disciples made it up, they chose the wrong message. Because for Jews, Resurrection wasn’t a generalized term. It didn’t refer to feelings in your heart or visions in your head. For Jews, Resurrection very specifically referred to what happened NOT to one man in history but what will happen to all of God’s People at the end of history.

Resurrection referred exclusively to a future event, when God restores his creation, when wolf and lamb lie down together, when nations beat their swords and spears into plough shares and pruning hooks, when mourning and crying and pain are no more.

If you had told a 1st century Jew that one man, a failed Messiah no less, had been resurrected, they would have responded:

“What are you? An idiot? Resurrection hasn’t happened. Caesar and Herod are still in their thrones. Israel is still not free. War and pain and suffering and injustice still abound.”

If the disciples made it up, they chose the wrong message.

There was too much built-in resistance to the idea of Resurrection, from Jew and Gentile. That’s why the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen Christ are so important for the Resurrection. You couldn’t have had one without the other. You’d would’ve needed one to substantiate the other.

If the tomb had just been empty, but no one had seen the Risen Christ, then everyone would’ve concluded that the body had been stolen or scavenged. No one would’ve concluded Resurrection from just an empty tomb.

And if followers had seen the Risen Christ but the tomb was not empty, then everyone would’ve chalked it up to the ordinary visions people have after a loved one dies. But no one would’ve concluded Resurrection from just visions of Jesus.

You would’ve needed both.

Because no one had Resurrection in their worldview.

So where did it come from? You see, you can dismiss the Resurrection. You can refuse to believe it- fine- but that doesn’t get you around the fact that they did. James and Paul believed it. Something happened to them. Something that caused them to believe something for which their Jewish and Greek world views had no previous category.

You can dismiss the Resurrection.

You can hold up your hands and say ‘Look, I don’t believe that dead bodies come back to life.’

You can say that, but realize: you’re missing the whole point if you don’t understand that that’s exactly how people like James and Paul felt.

 Until something happened to them.

What? And that’s where the burden of proof shifts to you.

Because you can say you don’t believe in the Resurrection as an historical event, but that doesn’t get you around the fact that the resurrection claim is a part of history. And so if you dismiss the Resurrection, then you’re left with some explaining to do.

 Just how is it that an entirely new, distinct and divergent worldview emerged virtually overnight?

How is it that virtually overnight Jews were worshipping Jesus as Lord, which they’d never done for any previous Messiah and which violated the 1st commandment?

How is that virtually overnight they started worshipping on Sundays, which violated the 4th commandment?

How is it that virtually overnight Jews were proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus which violated everything their scripture told them?

How is it that virtually overnight they began living in such a way that violated everything the real world told them?

If you dismiss the resurrection, you still must explain how this resurrection worldview sprang up out of nowhere immediately after Jesus’ death.

As any scientist will tell you, new species of animals do not appear overnight.

That would take an act of God.

God Became Sub-Human

Jason Micheli —  February 17, 2016 — Leave a comment

I’ve long been a fan of Athanasius’ catch-phrase ‘God became human so that we might become God.’ I’ve relished the precision with it captures the plot of the scripture story; however, reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, I’m now convicted the summation is too cute by half because, of course, God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.

God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God. 

Athanasius’ quote, if unexamined, bypasses the peculiarly godawful mode of death by which we are incorporated mysteriously into God’s own life. To say, as Athanasius does, that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhite

As Rutledge points out, the common way of interrogating the atonement ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.

The better question to ask, Rutledge counters, is:

‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

The merit of any atonement theology must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.

Often critics of substitutionary atonement will cite the four evangelists’ own reticence in describing crucifixion as evidence that the cross is not as significant as claimed. Fleming Rutledge cites the evangelists’ same spare narration of the crucifixion to argue the very opposite point: little is said in the gospels about the cross because little needed to be said in the ancient world. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, and the very opposite of what we take it to be: irreligious.

Consider the way Paul consistently modulates his rhetoric to emphasize the shameful manner of Jesus’ death: ‘…even death on a cross’ or ‘…and him crucified.’ The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure; they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.

The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him.

They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

God, so far as the disciples could surmise, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment:

“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

-Deuteronomy 21.22-23

Paul takes up this law stipulation in Galatians 3.10-14, a passage which, tellingly, the lectionary can find no room for in its 3 year calendar. Only this particular method of death does the torah identify as being godforsaken. On this insight, Rutledge quotes Jurgen Moltmann:

“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”

Again, it’s not sufficient to ask why Jesus died.

To take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law, a manner that signaled the ultimate shame before God and marked one out under God as accursed.

Rather than asking ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder:

‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’

And just as important a question to ponder, what does such a death say about the gravity of our condition?

images

Spitting in Sin’s Face

Jason Micheli —  February 15, 2016 — 6 Comments

12717854_788080527962884_3405228416105050791_n
     This past weekend was my official return to Aldersgate after a year on medical leave. Returning meant more to my family and me than we could have anticipated, and we’re grateful for the warm welcome the congregation showed us.

     Kevin Spacey, as Keyser Soze, says the greatest trick the devil played was convincing us he doesn’t exist. I think the greatest trick Sin plays on us is convincing us that it still has power over us. Here’s my sermon from the first Sunday in Lent, in which I attempted to underscore our liberation from Sin by first laughing at the power of Death and then spitting on Sin. The text, as if there could be another, was Paul’s baptismal passage in Romans 6.1-11.

     ‘Whoever has died with Christ [through baptism] is free from sin.‘      

Speaking of death-

A year ago this week, I woke up from abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. You can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting. When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this room is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon, like each and every one of you took out a line of credit at FTD.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream you all send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like American Pharaoh exploded all over it.

And back in the narthex, for one last prank on the 8:30 service, Hedy sets up a toilet and, next to it, a roll of appropriately mournful black toilet paper. So in my daydream there’s flowers up here and a toilet back there and in here the pews are packed.

Its standing room only in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Cindy Crawford.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the organ Liz plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar table, He Who Must Not Be Named kneels before my casket and quietly confesses his many sins against me and begs me not to haunt him like Jacob to Ebenezer.

Then, he’s followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the bishop slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late and second-guessing his decision to show solidarity with me by wearing a bandana and booty shorts.

But as he squeezes into a spot in the back corner, Stephen Hawking assures the bishop in his Speak-N-Spell voice that the booty shorts look quite nice with his clergy collar.

After the opening hymn, Andreas plays my favorite Old Testament song, ‘Female Bears are Eating My Friends.’ As he strums somberly with his eyes closed members of the Journeys Band notice that for the occasion of my funeral Andreas has bought a brand new pair of dutch boy clogs. Plus, he’s wearing his very best Cosby sweater.

When Andreas finishes, Dennis gets up to preach. And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Hedy and Hedy stands up in the pulpit and, first, she reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then she looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, the choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the choir veers off key because Ernest Johnson’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it. So the choir’s singing their heart out even if they’re singing off key and, while they sing, Scarlett Johansson leans over to Dennis to ask why Terri Phillips is wearing a Cinderella costume.

‘It’s what Jason would’ve wanted,’ Dennis whispers to Scarlett and Penelope Cruz just as the choir belts out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me. She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

As God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved Jason in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to Wesley Hall where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture. Of me.

——————

But I digress.

My point is- For a long time, I thought I was going to die.

When I realized I wasn’t going to die, when I got my bone marrow results back a few weeks ago, and I realized the inevitable wasn’t yet, I was so freaking grateful.

Bowled over with gratitude. To God.

I felt so thankful that I promised a vow to God. I swore an oath to God. For the gift of my life, I would offer the gift of my faithfulness. It’s true. I stared at myself in the mirror at my oncologist’s mens room right after I received my results.

I splashed water on my face to make sure I wasn’t daydreaming. I stared at myself in the mirror and I swore, from here on out, I would be a perfect Christian.

No more snark or sarcasm. No more dark cynicism. No more cussing or anger. No more can’t be bothered apathy or little white lies.

 God had rescued me from death so I promised to the mens room mirror: ‘I will never sin again.’

And I meant it. I was doing a pretty job with it until I walked out of the bathroom and over to the elevator. The elevator at my doctor’s office, no matter the time of day, it’s like the DMV was outsourced to supervise the Final Solution. It’s a constipated, huddling mass of people frantic with their self-importance.

So I waited and waited, as the elevator would come and close, come and close, each time too crowded for me. But I was a good Christian. I kept my vow. I was patient. I did not think any dark thoughts in my heart. I did not sin.

So I was doing pretty good, and my turn was next. I was right there at the front of the line.

But as soon as the elevator doors opened, this old guy with wispy white hair and an oxygen mask, out of nowhere, wedged a walker in between me and the elevator doors and, like he was Patrick Ewing, he threw a varicosed elbow at me and pushed me out of the way to wait longer for another elevator.

Patrick Ewing looked at me as the elevator doors closed between us. And he smirked!

And if anyone had been able to read my mind in that moment I would’ve been whistled for a flagrant foul.

On my way home from the doctor, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. I was standing at the counter about to pay. Next to me, in front of the other register, a homeless man poured coins out of an empty Cheetos bag and, coming up short, he looked over at me and asked if I had any money.

Without thinking about it, without meaning to, just reflexively (which says a lot about me), I said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

My words were still hanging thick in the air when I looked down at my wallet in my hand, which had a wad of wrinkled 5’s and 10’s sticking out of it like a bouquet of dirty green flowers.

Not only had I lied, not only had I refused charity, Jesus says whatever you do to the poor you’ve done it to him so 20 minutes after my I’ll-never-sin-again-oath to God, I’d managed to lie to and stiff Jesus. Not to mention swearing false oaths is one of the 10 Commandments so that was a sin too.

And leaving Starbucks, I accidentally cut a guy off in traffic. It was an accident, not a sin.

But then when he rolled his window down to offer his opinion of me (at the traffic light), and when he offered his opinion of my mother (at the next light), and when he described everything he thought I deserved to do to myself (at the light after that), did I turn the rhetorical cheek? Did I forgive his trespass against me? Did I forgive him 70 x 7 times? Did I offer to walk a mile in his jerk shoes?

No, I said goodbye to him with a sarcastic smile and a one-fingered wave.

When I got home, I watched a clip of Joel Osteen, America’s favorite preacher, that one of you was kind enough to share with me on Facebook. I listened as Joel Osteen talked about how he doesn’t like to preach about the cross or other ‘depressing things.’ He prefers to keep it positive and uplifting.

Jesus says if you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery. By that same moral logic, if you’ve thought about killing someone, knocking in their toilet lid teeth, punching them in their vacant, Botox eyes, pulling out their mousse-hardened hair and turning their syrupy smile upside down- if you’ve thought about it, you’ve committed murder, Jesus implies. Guilty.

After I broke that commandment, I made the mistake of going to the Soviet Safeway just down Ft. Hunt.

I was in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 15 Items or Less Line.

I was in line behind this blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 15 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I kept my vow. I was Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Syrian Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

‘Oh my Lord! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!’ I didn’t say to myself.

If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, and so the opposite of all that produce must be sin, right?

God rescued me from death, and still my new life of sinless perfection was shorter lived than Lincoln Chaffee’s presidential campaign.

—————-

     ‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?’ 

     Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6.

I know our teachers all lied to us and told us there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there is and this is one. The answer is not only obvious it’s ubiquitous. How can we go on sinning? Uh, very easily, Paul. I can do it without even trying.

‘How can we go on sinning?’! The better question is how can we not go on sinning? It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?‘ It’s a rhetorical question. Paul obviously thinks its not only possible but expected for those who’ve been buried in baptism to live free of sin.

According to Paul here, roughly 93% of my waking life should be impossible. I’ve been baptized. I’ve died to sin- Paul means that literally not figuratively- so my sinful life should be impossible. Your sinful life should be impossible.

Maybe you’re different, to me it’s Christ’s life that feels impossible.

But if Christ died to sin and we with him then why? Why do we so often and so easily sin?

So what gives?

What’s the disconnect between what Paul assumes to be true and what we assume to be obvious?

Who’s wrong?

Are we wrong? Is sin really easier to shake than everything in our lived experience leads us to suppose?

Or is Paul wrong? Have we not really died with Christ, died to sin, so that we can live free of it?

But if Paul’s wrong, then that means the Gospel’s wrong too. Christ, good dude though he was, did not set his people free by overcoming the pharaoh of Sin. And we who have been plunged under with him in baptism have not died with him so we have no share in him.

How can we go on sinning?

How can we not go on sinning?

The assumption are not compatible. So who’s wrong? Paul? Or you and me? What’s the disconnect?

     It’s almost as though when we talk about Sin, Paul and you and me, we’re talking about two different things.

—————

     In the ancient Church, baptism would be performed almost exclusively on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus is as dead as you will one day be, when, as the Church says, Jesus is our Passover, passing over from Death to Life.

The baptismal ritual wasn’t a sentimental one with babies and lacey heirlooms. Instead it was imagined and staged like a funeral. In the middle of the Easter vigil, after the Exodus story was read, the worshippers would move outside to the baptistry.

Often those to be baptized were carried in caskets.

When they reached the flowing water, before they stripped naked to shed symbolically their old self and before they were plunged into the water just as the sea drown the chains of Pharaoh’s army, those to be baptized would face West, the direction where the light of the sun sets and the darkness rises.

They would face West and they would renounce Sin.  They would declare their independence from it.

And then, they would spit.

They would spit in Sin’s face. They would spit on Sin. They would draw up all the disgust and anger, all the self-loathing and pain, they could muster in their mouths and then they would spit in Sin’s face.

Here’s the thing-

You can’t spit in the face of a behavior.

You can only spit in the face of a person.

And really, it only has righteous power if you spit in the face of a person who thinks they control you. In the face of a Master.

—————

     When it comes to Sin, Paul and you and me, we don’t mean the same thing.

We think of sin as behavior. We think of sin as something we commit, like lying or cheating on your husband or lusting in your heart to do grave bodily harm to Joel Osteen.

We think of sin as behavior, but Paul thinks of Sin as a Power.

You can think of it as Darkness with a capital D. You can call it Satan if you like. If you’re a nerd, you can compare it to Sauron’s ring of power.

But to understand Paul you have to understand that he understands Sin not as our behavior but as a Power outside of us, as a Pharaoh, as a Master, whose will it is to have dominion over us, to bind us.

Our little ‘s’ sins are just signs and symptoms of our enslavement to the power of Sin with a capital S.

So for Paul, sin isn’t about our behavior. Sin is about our status, which Master do we believe we belong to?

For Paul, sin isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It isn’t about who we are on the inside or behind closed doors. Sin is about where we are.

Do we believe we’ve made an exodus in Jesus Christ? Or not? Do we believe we’ve passed over from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God?

We think of sin as things we do that disobey God’s will and provoke God’s anger.

But not Paul.

Paul doesn’t think of sin as disobeying God’s will for you.

Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

     Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

That’s how Paul can ask a rhetorical question like ‘How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’

It’s ridiculous to him that we would go on living under sin because we’ve been set free from the Power of Sin.

Sin’s let God’s People go. That Master no longer has any dominion over us or claim to us. That’s not who we belong to anymore. And Paul’s not being metaphoric.

     Paul believes emphatically that when we are joined in baptism by faith to Christ’s death something objective happens.

    We are moved, transferred, from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God, and it’s a 1-way, once for all, no going back, nothing you do can undo it, kind of journey.

As we say with bread and wine, Christ has set us free from slavery to Sin.

That’s why Paul’s question is rhetorical, and rightly so. Why would you live your life as though the Power of Sin had any claim on you? That’s like obeying a Master who no longer owns you, submitting to a Ruler who’s already been deposed, fearing an Enemy that’s already been defeated.

Why would you want your life to be a prison when you’ve passed over with Christ from Egypt to freedom?

Paul doesn’t mean that baptism is a magical inoculation that makes it impossible for us to sin. He means to it’s impossible for us to see ourselves as slaves to it, to our sins.  We’ve been set free. That doesn’t mean we’re free of sins. It means we’re free from Sin. We’re free to choose a different story for ourselves. We’re free to turn from our sin, and we’re free to turn away the sins of the world. We’re not powerless against the sins in our lives nor are we excused to be passive about the sins in the world.

We’re free.

—————

     Okay, but that just leaves a big, fat question on the table: How?

How do you do it? If we’re free from Sin, how do we live free of sins?

Chances are, you didn’t hock many loogies at your baptism, and even though you can’t be rebaptized, it’s never too late to take a page from the wisdom of the past and spit in Sin’s face. Renounce it.

Look in the mirror even and pretend its Sin with a capital S staring back at you and spit in its face. Announce your rebellion.

Maybe you were abused. Stare that sin down and spit in its face and announce to it: ‘I don’t belong to you.’

And how about that anger you can’t keep from spilling out onto the people you love- look it in the eyes and spit in its face and tell it what my kids tell me: ‘You’re not the boss of me.’

The prejudice you try to justify, the spending that fills a hole no one can see, the resentment and regret that’s crippled your marriage, the callousness that’s grown up over your wounds- give it all the dead-eye stare.

Spit in its face and say to it: ‘You have no claim on me.You’re not my Master.

I don’t even live in Egypt anymore.’

Spit in its face. Stare down your shame, and declare your disobedience. Say to your shame and self-loathing:

You may call me a slut

You may call me an addict, a freak, a loser, a disappointment

You may tell me I’m a failure, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m old, I’m whatever

But just as God declares of Jesus at his baptism so God declares of me because I’m in him and he’s in me and so I’m a beloved child of God and with God’s only Son I’ve passed over from captivity.

The only chains on me are the ones I put on myself.

Stare Sin down. Spit in its face. Laugh at it.

And say to it: Why would I obey you? I’ve been set free.

—————

      This time last year I thought I was going to die.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought the good news was that I wasn’t going to die. And I’m not saying I’m not happy about it…but in this place, the good news is that with water and promises by people like you I’ve already died.

With and in Christ.

So I don’t need to make any promises, take any vows, or swear any oaths to become a completely different person.

No, I only need to learn how to become who I already am.

Free.

 

 

 

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.

IMG_1315

Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.

12039337_10207483077297320_6129263937925447291_n

Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.

Unless-

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

Hickman_line_catheter_with_2_lumens

When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

12079519_748698361925930_5533243575993323503_n

* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s a Memorial Day weekend sermon from the vault. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in the sermon.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

chagall

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill.

For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not– that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

lightstock_128163_small_user_2741517

Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died– making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen– to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again– when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

SONY DSCAnd you and me too…

This Sunday we continued our sermon series on Richard Stearns’ book Unfinished. My intern, Jimmy Owsley, preached the sermon on Acts 9.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

So our reading today is from Acts, the 5th book of the New Testament. Acts is the follow-up to the Gospel of Luke–it’s the Gospel-writer’s retelling of the story of the beginnings of the Christian church. Our reading, from Acts Chapter 9, is a piece of the author’s introduction to the Apostle Paul (known at the time of this story as Saul). The other part of the introduction happens in Chapters 7 and 8, where we see him oversee the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

At this time according to the author, Saul is said to be actively “trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women,” and imprisoning them for their beliefs.

Saul, a Pharisee, is threatened by this new religious movement within Judaism.

And he is trying to coerce Jesus’ followers in submission through violence.

Basically, Saul is a first-century terrorist.

As some of you know, this Saul, who later comes to be known as Paul, becomes the hero of the Book of Acts, taking the good news of Christ’s new kingdom to far reaches of the Roman Empire. He also becomes the writer of much of our New Testament, giving us theological lenses for understanding the life and work of Jesus. While I would disagree, some historians say Paul has had an even greater effect on the Christian church than Jesus himself.

As for these passages about Saul’s conversion, scholars more knowledgeable than me say that in them Luke is setting up a portrayal of Saul/Paul as the ideal Christian convert. And this isn’t just because Saul is a high-ranking Jewish religio-crat, whose textbook conversion could woo Jewish inquirers into a deeper Christian faith. Although that may be part of it.

Deeper than that though is the fact that Saul’s conversion exemplifies a particular theology of conversion which would come to be one of the central facets to the Christian faith. The story goes like this:

First of all, Saul is a sinner. “The chief of sinners,” as he would later describe himself. He’s done everything wrong. He’s on the wrong page, playing for the wrong team. He is an enthusiastic participant in a system of violence which stands directly and explicitly opposed to the way of Jesus Christ.

And so it is that while Saul is on his way to terrorize Jewish followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus, Jesus himself appears in a flash of light and speaks to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This personal face-to-face encounter with Jesus blinds Saul completely and shatters his will to continue what e was doing.

Then Saul acts in obedience to Jesus. He continues on his way to Damascus, where, instead of inflicting terror, he fasts and prays in visual darkness for 3 days. That is, until the scared and reluctant disciple Ananias shows up.

Now, Ananias has also seen Jesus recently, as we learned in the reading this morning. And he acts obediently, too, despite his qualms about Saul’s shady reputation. Jesus has told him:

“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”

Thus Saul the terrorist, the least likely to be a disciple of Christ, is a chosen instrument of God’s will.

The inflictor of suffering upon those who follow the way of Jesus will now live a life enduring suffering in Jesus’ name.

When Ananias arrives, he touches Saul and prays over him. Saul is changed in that interaction and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Ananias introduces Saul to the rest of the disciples at Damascus, among whom Saul lives and learns how to be a disciple. Community is central to Saul’s transformation.

From there, he departs eagerly to do the work the Kingdom of God. He begins utilizing his God-given skills of preaching and teaching for his new Kingdom, proclaiming the grace he received throughout the Empire.

So what does this have to do with us? If Luke is telling us that Saul/Paul is the model convert, what does that mean for you and me?

Well,

  1. Saul is a sinner through and through. Just as each of us is a sinner in need of repentance. Before his encounter with Jesus, he is working completely against the kingdom of God. In some way we all have done and continue to do this. Repentance is an ongoing process.
  2. Although Saul has misused his capabilities, Jesus recognizes in him both the wrongs that he has done and the gifts that God has given him. Jesus comes to Saul personally, just as he does with each of us here this morning.
  3. Jesus calls Saul his “chosen instrument,” a phrase that applies as much to Saul as it does to each of us is. It is in his the midst of his evil intentions that Christ comes to him, sheds light on his wrongdoings, and offers peace.
  4. Next, the personal encounter with Jesus demolishes Saul’s previous worldview and sense of purpose. It realigns his life, as it should ours.
  5. Saul acts in obedience to the One he has encountered, and becomes a disciple of Jesus through the community of faith in Damascus. In order to live as disciples, we must be discipled by someone. We are all called to be in active community with other disciples.
  6. Finally, his transformation doesn’t stop there. And this is the point of the book study Unfinished that we are going through as a church. Through his conversion and discipleship, Saul jumps into a new mission. Rich Stearns describes conversion as change of allegiance–Saul leaves his old allegiances behind and becomes a member of a new Kingdom. He has joined “a new army.”

If we follow this model of discipleship, you and I are called also to be part of a new Kingdom and a new army, whether we thought we were a part of an old one or not.

Our faith in Jesus doesn’t end with his forgiveness or our community, as necessary as those are.

The fulness of Saul’s faith comes when he begins to act on it–to live it out. Saul was given gifts of leadership, eloquence, and a brilliant mind. Maybe those gifts lie in you too–or maybe you are gifted at teaching, or have the mind of an engineer, or a keen sense for justice. Maybe you are gifted at what you do for a career, and maybe your gifts point elsewhere.

But as you and I discover the skills and capabilities we have been given, and as we continue to encounter Jesus in our daily life, we will learn more and more about how we can put those gifts to work for his kingdom.

Now, I have two caveats here:

  1. One is that you don’t have to take off and leave everything you know to fulfill God’s purpose in your life. Saul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him. And after that encounter he didn’t decide not to go to Damascus. Rather he did something different when he got there.
  2. The second is that we are called to act on our gifts not as an obligation or something we have to do. Although there will be suffering along the way, using our God-given gifts for the purposes of his kingdom is something that we get to do which gives us meaning and fulfilment.

Like Saul, each of us is a chosen instrument. You have a gift and a calling and a role to play in this story.

You have potential, I have potential, and terrorists like Saul have potential. And there might not be any terrorists here. At least I hope not, unless some of you were the ones who hacked Jason’s blog a week and a half ago. But no matter who we are or what we have done, we are all chosen instruments in the grand vision of God’s kingdom.

And I know that’ll make some of you feel all warm and fuzzy–like kids in my kindergarten class when Mrs. Yani told us we were each special in our own way. To which the cynics of us respond– “if everyone is special, is anyone REALLY special?”

The point is not that we as disciples of Christ are chosen by God above or before anyone else. In fact, some of us are the least likely disciples. The point is that we are each chosen by God for a unique, particular purpose in God’s grand mission of redeeming the world.

Saul encountered Jesus in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. This Sunday morning we encounter him in bread and wine and in one another. Let us each hear what he has to say and discern how he would use us for his mission in the world.

Which is the idea I want to leave you with today. It’s a particular understanding of salvation, which is that:

We are all saved for a purpose.

And as Rich Stearns says, that purpose lies Unfinished.