Archives For Revelation

maxresdefaultIn this episode, Teer and Jason talk with Joseph Mangina. A professor of theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto, he is the author of Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness, a great intro to Barth for all you newbies out thereas well as the recent Brazos Theological Commentary on the Book of Revelation. He also serves as the editor of Pro Ecclesia, a journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology.

We’re rapidly approaching our 50th Episode!

Who knew we’d make it past our crappy pilot episode or that early installment where Teer didn’t realize his mic wasn’t muted to become one of the fastest growing, Methodist-flavored theological podcasts on the interwebs.

For our 50th Episode, we’d like to do a special Listener Call-in/Fan Q& A episode.

We’ll respond to any questions you’d like the C&GJ Team to address. We’ll respond to any feedback about the podcast or our guests that you’d like to offer. Here’s how you can participate:

  1. Go over to the new brand spanking new Crackers and Grape Juice website Teer built for us and click on the SpeakPipe widget on the right side of the homepage. It will let you use your computer to leave us a voicemail message.
  2. Go over to Facebook Page and leave us a written question or feedback. You can do so on Twitter too.
  3. Email me directly at jamicheli@mac.com
Okay, here’s the episode:

IMG_1680 (2)  In July we’re tracking our way through the lectionary epistle, Colossians. The text this Sunday was Colossians 1.15-29.

It happened over a month ago, but I haven’t preached in a while and it’s stuck in my craw this whole time the way sunflower seeds leave little nagging cuts in your gums.

The night after the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, a baptist preacher all the way on the other side of the country, in Sacramento, California, stood up in a pulpit just like this one, in a sanctuary just like this one, and he preached an impassioned sermon (just like this one).

A sermon praising– praising- (I’ll repeat it again just so you don’t miss the tone: praising) the brutal massacre of gay nightclubbers in Florida.

Preaching, the “Reverend” Roger Jimenez exhorted his congregation of bible-believing baptists that “Christians should not mourn the death of 50 sodomites.”

“No,” he qualified, “I think that’s great. I think that helps society. I think Orlando is better off tonight.”

“The tragedy in Orlando,” I’m still quoting here, “is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is that [the shooter] didn’t finish the job.”

I’ll let you all swallow the vomit I pray is now creeping up the back of your mouths.

The problem is that his sermon wasn’t just impassioned. It wasn’t just red meat for a particular nasty tribe. It wasn’t just ugly and hate-filled and merciless in its stunning lack of empathy. The problem with his sermon, for you and for me, is that it was biblical.

It was biblical. It was biblical. It was biblical.

Leviticus 18.22.

Leviticus 20.13

To name two but not the only two biblical texts.

In the wake of the violence in Nice this week, when many are rushing to condemn Islam and the Quran, perhaps it’s important that we acknowledge that we’ve got texts in our own scripture that endorse, proscribe, and justify violence and terror. Plenty of such texts.

While “Reverend” Jimenez made the front page of the Washington Post, we all have that family member, that coworker, that neighbor who shares a perspective that’s substantively no different than that pastor in California.

And, chances are, that family member, that coworker, that neighbor believes the bible is on their side.

So what do we do with them? Those texts?

YouTube removed the video of that California pastor’s sermon so I haven’t watched it, but he could have easily turned to page whatever of his King James Bible (I’m sure it was King James) and he could have easily concluded his preaching by saying:

‘The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.’

But, that’s the problem isn’t it? It doesn’t settle anything because the Bible says lots of things. Lots of contradictory things.

And that can lead you to believe lots of things. Lots of contradictory things.

So that doesn’t settle it. It doesn’t settle anything.

Just take John 8 as Exhibit A. In John 8 the Pharisees haul an adulteress up the Mt of Olives and throw her at Jesus’ feet.

She’s guilty.

The Pharisees remind the rabbi how the Bible clearly commands that they stone this woman to death for her sin.

And certainly any rabbi, who can quote scripture chapter and verse like Jesus, knows they’re correct.

Leviticus 20 commands it.

Deuteronomy 22 commands it.

Numbers 5 commands it too.

Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 22, Numbers 5- these aren’t just random, man-made laws. They’re commands, given to Moses on Mt Sinai by God.

It’s easy to forget that after God gives Moses the 10 Commandments, the ones we like and want to nail on walls everywhere, God kept on talking, face-to-face, with Moses. Giving Moses 623 additional commandments. Including those ones in Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 22 and Numbers 5.

The Bible says it.

A rabbi should believe it.

So they ask Jesus to settle it.

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

Jesus chooses mercy not sacrifice.

In this instance where the Bible is clear and unambiguous, in this instance where the crime and the commanded punishment are spelled out unequivocally in black-and-white- in this instance, Jesus chooses grace and mercy.

And by choosing grace and mercy, in this instance Jesus chooses to violate the explicit command of God.

The Bible says it. They all believe it.

But in this instance belief in the Bible does not settle it for Jesus.

 

I wonder though- is this just an instance?

Would Jesus say stone her next time? Sure, he tells the woman to go and no longer sin.

But what if she did? What if the Pharisees caught this woman again in adultery a few months later and again brought her to Jesus, how do you think Jesus would respond the second time? Or, say, the fifth time?

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

Doesn’t feel like it jives with the Jesus story does it?

Of course, the woman at Jesus’ feet on the Mt of Olives- she’s just one example.

Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus trespasses upon the clear, black-and-white, face-to-face commandments of God.

God commanded Moses to stone Sabbath-breakers. And Jesus heals so many people on the Sabbath it’s like he refuses to do anything but.

God promised to Moses that he would visit the sins of the parents upon their children to the 4th generation. And Jesus says to a man born blind that God would never punish him for his parents’ sin.

God commanded Moses to exact vengeance upon enemies, to take an eye for an eye taken. And Jesus refuses to take up the sword, giving up his life rather than take one.

And then when you get to the end of the Jesus story, it’s those most committed to the Bible who conspire to kill Jesus. The Bible tells them to.

In Leviticus 24 and Deuteronomy 13.

God told Moses, face-to-face, to do that very thing to blasphemers and sabbath-breakers and false prophets.

The Bible said it. They believed it. So that settled it.

Saying ‘The Bible said it’ doesn’t settle anything because, let’s be frank- the Passion story makes clear- the Bible can lead you to carry a cross or to build one.

 

Of course, that’s only a problem if you confuse the Bible for the full revelation of God.  It’s only unsettling if you think the Bible is the capital -W- Word of God.

Now, I know when we read scripture in worship we’ll say ‘This is the word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.’ And you hear all the time that the Bible is infallible or inerrant or inspired by the Spirit.

Except, notice:

The claims we so often make about the Bible, the Bible makes about Jesus.

Now that couldn’t be more important so let me repeat it:

The claims we so often make of the Bible, the Bible makes of Jesus.

That’s how you heard Paul proclaim Jesus today in Colossians 1:

Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the one in whom all things hold together.

Jesus is the one in whom the fullness of God dwells.

     Jesus is the one through whom the totality of who God is is revealed. What Paul proclaims about Jesus in Colossians 1 is what John proclaims in chapter 1 of his Gospel. John make this audacious claim:

‘Scripture was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.’

And then John doubles-down on that claim in his first letter:

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

With those verses, Paul and John deliberately up-end the entire way we read the Bible because, according to the Bible, lots of people have seen God.

A former Pharisee like Paul would know that Adam and Eve and Enoch walked with God. A bible-believing Pharisee like Paul would know that Abraham and Sarah ate with God by the oaks of Mamre and that Jacob freaking wrestled God by the riverside. A rabbi like Paul would know that Moses saw God on top of Sinai where he received from God the 633 commandments that comprised Jesus’ Bible. And Paul would know that Moses wasn’t alone up there either. Scripture says 70 Elders of Israel ate with Moses and God on top Sinai.

So they saw God too. As did the prophet Isaiah in the year King Uzziah died. So did Daniel and Ezekiel. According to the Bible lots of people, patriarchs and prophets, saw God so what could John possibly mean by asserting that no one has ever seen God? What could Paul mean when he proclaims that Jesus, only in Jesus, is God made visible, that only in Jesus does the fullness of God dwell?

Listen up-

This couldn’t be more fundamental. They mean that Jesus, not the Bible, is the full revelation of God.

Paul means that the Logos, the capital -W- Word of God became flesh; the Logos did not become a book.

He means the Bible is not perfect, Jesus is. The Bible is not the redemptive mediator between God and humanity, Jesus is.

The Bible is not infallible or inerrant but what it can do is reliably point us to Jesus Christ.

The claims we so often make about the Bible the Bible makes about Jesus.

Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible. Jesus is what God has to say to us. Jesus is the fullness of God made visible.

Compared to Jesus, you might as well say ‘No one has ever seen God.’ Because all those patriarchs and prophets who saw God, they saw God only partially. Only imperfectly. At most incompletely.

Only Jesus has made the Father known. Only in Jesus does the fullness of God dwell. Only Jesus is the image of invisible God.

And that means, as Brian Zahnd likes to say: “God is like Jesus.”

And more importantly, it means “God has always been like Jesus. It means there has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.”

It means that we have not always known what God is like— Moses, Abraham, the prophets…they caught only glimpses.

We didn’t see God fully. But now, in Christ, we have.”

And that means if there’s one calibrating principle of Christian belief, one grammatical rule for Christian speech, one foundational posture we present to others, it’s this from Tripp Fuller:

     “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”

     I know that sounds like the bare minimum but, given the world we live in today and the preachers who make the front pages of the Post and the Christians who comment on CNN and social media, I’ll take it.

     God is at least as nice as Jesus. Because Jesus, not the Bible, is the fullness of God revealed.

 

When it comes the character of a congregation, I think there is no more important distinction to draw than that one.

Because, let’s be honest, it would be much easier and would require much less of us to be a community based on the Bible, a community devoted to the Bible, a community that believes in the Bible and believes it to be the full revelation of God.

A community that makes the Bible an end in itself can find within the Bible justification for all sorts of attitudes and actions that came naturally to sinners like us.

A community can be based on the Bible and be angry and judgmental and holier than thou.

A community can be based on the Bible and be hateful and homophobic; a community can be based on the Bible and be sexist and self-righteous. It can be a community that condemns sinners and cast stones and convinces itself that God blesses their violence.

A community that treats the Bible as the capital -W- Word of God, the fullness revelation of God, can find within the Bible justification to believe in all sorts of contradictory, callous and un-Christlike ways.

But a community based on Jesus Christ, a community devoted to Jesus Christ, a community that believes Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, that believes Christ to be the fullness of God, the full revelation of God- that community has no choice, no excuse, no leeway.

It has to be a community characterized by love. Humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, enemy-forgiving, sacrificial, merciful, gracious love.

The kind of love defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

 

The Bible says that Jesus- NOT THE BIBLE- is the Word of God, the fullness of God, the image of the otherwise invisible God.

And that’s our answer to fraudulent Christians like that pastor on the front page of the Washington Post.

Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what the Bible says about this or that because what some claim about the Bible, the Bible claims about Jesus.

     Jesus Christ is the Word God speaks to us.

     So we cannot speak anything of God that we cannot imagine Jesus saying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It happens all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

·        all the abuses committed in the name of religion

·        how it catalogued the many sins of the Church

·        skewered Christianity’s historic fear of science

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

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

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

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

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

‘Neither could I’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t answer him. I was too tired.

Tired of being put on the defensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I told him:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I guess you’d say I’m lost’ he said.

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

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

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

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

Portrait Karl BarthReading Karl Barth is like chewing sunflower seeds. It’s salty and hard and it cuts you in little ways that hurt and linger for days. The past couple of weeks I’ve posted some critical reflections on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. The church that first made me a Christian was Wesleyan, United Methodist. The theologian who made me a nominally interesting Christian, however, was not John Wesley but Karl Barth.

I’ve taken some shit for those previous posts from other Methodists wondering why I’m exalting Barth at Wesley’s expense. It’s true they make queer (don’t worry, I don’t mean gay!) theological bedfellows; in fact, Barth had Methodism particularly in mind when he brutally attacked the pietism of his day. Nonetheless, I think Barth is a helpful voice for Methodists in the 21st century as Barth’s eyewitness stand, in both World Wars, against the dangers of cultural Christianity makes him a prescient guide in post Christendom. What’s more, Wesley himself looked well outside of his own Enlightenment Anglican tradition. Those of us who just parrot Wesleyan theology and stay within our particular denominational stream are doing something very un-Wesleyan.

Still, if there’s a discontinuity between Barth and Wesley on anything it’s the fourth vantage point of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Experience. I hardly need to link to any stories about the issues presently dividing the larger church and point out how Experience is given a priority in negotiating those debates. Experience is often the primary perspective at odds with Scripture and Tradition. Beyond these debates, for many in our post-everything world our personal experience is the only authority to which we’ll submit. The primacy of Experience is undisputed in our world today and in Wesleyan theology it’s validity is unquestioned. Barth however would challenge us to consider whether our Quadrilateral should not instead be a Triangle, doubting that our personal experience is even an appropriate vantage point from which to receive revelation, the Word of God.

Barth takes a dim view of Experience in general, believing that the subjective turn to the individual’s experience of God obscures the objective, once-for-all, reality of Christ. We believe in Jesus Christ, Barth says over and again, not in our experience of Christ. Our experience is not salvation; salvation has been achieved through cross and resurrection quite apart from any experience we may have of it. It’s true- you’re saved, in other words, whether you ever believe it and experience it personally or not. This, I digress, is what allowed Barth to have such a hospitable and non-anxious presence towards unbelievers.

Barth does not share the sunny Wesleyan assessment of Experience, for it implies, more generally, that an encounter of God is somehow given in human nature, that we are, as creatures, wired to apprehend our Creator. For Barth, it’s true we’re predisposed to long for and apprehend the divine and, to him, nothing could be more idolatrous. Barth nods along to Fuerbach’s critique that most of our theology is only anthropology. Our ‘experience’ of God, Barth judges, is most often only an experience of ourselves projected onto god; therefore, the only true experience we can have of God is the experience God gives to us. Experience of God is received it is not self-derived.

And this is where it gets tricky for the Quadrilateral because, as scripture attests abundantly, the experience God gives us of God frequently contradicts our personal experience of the world.

Think Saul on the way to Damascus or Peter receiving a mystical Spirit-given dream that upends his religious categories.

Our experience in and of the world is not a reliable means of discerning and illumining revelation because revelation is most often received as an intrusion upon our world. Grace does not confirm our experience of the world; it disrupts our experience of the world, and because we’ve made a world that pretends Jesus is not King that grace is most often felt as a kind of violence to our world and our experience of it.

The Spirt seldom confirms our personal experience of the world; it instead convicts it and sometimes condemns it.

For Barth, any appeals to ‘the Spirit led me to…’ should be met with skepticism if they do not lead the led to tears.

karl_barthDuring Lent, as many of my professional Christian colleagues were forsaking sugar, shots, and selfies, I was instead taking on an additional discipleship discipline:

Reading Karl Barth’s Dogmatics.

After a year of stage-serious cancer, I shouldn’t have to give up shit for Lent, for I’d already suffered longer than Jesus did in the wilderness. I theologized. Plus,  reading Barth is not penitential at all.

Last week, on a whim, I brandished my reacquaintence with Barth against that most cherished of United Methodist idols, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. Through a Barthian lens, I suggested that the Quadrilateral inevitably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense and that, according to Barth, Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

But, from Barth’s perspective, that’s hardly the only problem with the Quadrilateral that we attribute to Wesley. Saying, as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does, that the Word of God can be illumined by our Tradition, Reason, and Experience suggests that Scripture’s address to us is lying there in the text, waiting, for us.

Not only does this construe Scripture as the texts in which God once spoke rather than the medium by which God speaks today, it falsely promises that God’s Word will be heard in Scripture so long as we approach it with faithfully our Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

Or, to put it differently, Experience, Reason, and Tradition are the means by which we get God to speak to us through Scripture.

For Barth, though, Revelation by its very nature- no matter how many prayers for illumination we utter- cannot be guaranteed precisely because Christ is Risen.

God is not dead, and Jesus is a Living Lord; therefor, the Word of God is no less free today than in the pages of scripture. Just as with Hannah and Sarai, just as in Mary’s womb or Christ’s empty tomb, God is always free to surprise and reveal in ways we’re not expecting and, in this case, God is free NOT to reveal in ways we’re expecting.

God is free to show up, as to Moses at the Burning Bush, and God is free not to show up, as in the 400 years preceding the Burning Bush.

It’s no accident that when God condescends to us in the logos, Jesus Christ, we push him out of the world on a cross. The Word of God intrudes upon our world, as almost a kind of violence, and so is not tied to it. It cannot be calendared or calibrated for it never ceases to be grace, a gift we can neither earn nor expect.

Too often the Wesley Quadrilateral implies that revelation is latent within the text of scripture and that our use of Reason, Experience, and Tradition are the keys by which we unlock it. Barth however insists that the God we find pursuing us in scripture is self-objectifying. God seeks after us; we cannot seek after God- any god we discover in our seeking is not God but a god. There’s no such Christian thing, in a Barthian sense, as a Seeker Service. All of us are only and always the sought.

To say God is self-objectifying is to assert, against so much of our liturgical assumptions, that God wills at specific times to be the object of our speech, eating, and prayer, but other times God wills not to be our object, which means a more proper response to scripture in worship is to say: ‘This is the Word of God for the People of God. We pray. Thanks be to God.’

Likewise, the great thanksgiving is not a magic incantation recited by a shaman that guarantees God’s presence in the eucharist. The Holy Spirit is invited to pour out upon the table; the Holy Spirit is not compelled to condescend. The Great Thanksgiving and the Prayer for Illumination are just that, prayers, pleadings, petitions for God to reveal God’s self. They are not methods but practices of faith. Hope and trust.

For Barth, we cannot approach, apprehend, know, or even believe in this God through any means other than God’s own present and ongoing revelation. God must elect to come to us in our speech and bread, as in Mary’s womb it is no less in the pulpit or at the table. God doesn’t always elect to reveal himself to us for when God does reveal it is always necessarily a miracle.

I suppose some might see in this bad news, that revelation isn’t 100% fool-proof predictable, but I think Barth would point out that good news of this free, electing, self-objectifying God is so much better; namely, that God does not consider it beneath God to rest on the lips and in the hands of creatures, like us, of such low estate. 

We’re only yet into Eastertide, the season where for 50 days Christians remind ourselves that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead once for all, is, despite the Church’s best efforts to render him otherwise, a Living Lord.

There’s no better time than the season of resurrection to wonder if the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can bear the weight of our Easter God.

For those of you who have not had to pledge allegiance to it for Methodist ordination exams, the Quadrilateral describes how Wesleyans conceive of the doctrine of revelation. Calling it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an anachronism but we can attribute it to him honorifically for Wesley did practice the methods of the Quadrilateral in his preaching and teaching. It’s popular to analogize the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to a three-legged bar stool, an ironic analogy for a people who once foisted tee-totaling upon America.

3-legged-stoolImagine Scripture as the seat of the stool, on which we/the church/the world (it’s never clear) rests. The three legs of the stool, which equally support and balance it, are Tradition, Reason, and Experience. In other words, we Wesleyans deploy the creedal tradition, our mental faculties, and our experience of the world to illumine the bible.

It’s common today to praise our particular Wesleyan approach to scripture as a perspective perfectly suited for the contemporary world; in that, it avoids the dangers of fundamentalism on the one hand and an unmoored mysticism about the bible on the other.

Having recently dipped back in to Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth, I’ve wondered what sort of theological Kung Fu Barth might wreak upon the Quadrilateral.

The tendency in United Methodism to remodel the stool so that Scripture becomes no longer the base but a fourth leg equivalent to Tradition, Reason, and Experience, underscores, I think, a latent deficiency in how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral treats scripture and, more importantly, the Living God who freely chooses to speak through it.

I expect Barth, whose massive Church Dogmatics are best understood as a theology of revelation, would object to our Wesleyan Quadrilateral on that specific ground. We Methodists, reared on Enlightenment liberalism, approach scripture not unlike archaeologists armed without excavation tools, Reason, Tradition and personal Experience, in order to extract some meaning or truth from the text. Such a posture, Barth would argue, unavoidably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense. We ask with Experience, Tradition, and Reason what the biblical text meant in its original context, what God said, and it’s up to us, using those same tools, to infer an application for today.

Contrary to the Quadrilateral, Barth insists that scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself. John Wesley was an Enlightenment era priest so it’s not surprising perhaps that the Quadrilateral attributed to him reflects the modernist tendency to begin with ourselves instead of God. If he was feeling punchy, I imagine Barth might imply that we Wesleyans with our Quadrilateral actually betray docetic tendencies with scripture. It only ‘seems’ like revelation but isn’t really to us for it requires us to yield any word.

Against us, Barth proclaims again and again that Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. And, I wouldn’t have admitted this when I applied for ordination, I think this is the view of revelation the contemporary world- or, at least the mainline church- needs today.

For Barth, Jesus is not only a Living Lord but he’s free. Our knowledge of God, our faith in God, is in God’s hands not ours.

Our Tradition, Reason, and Experience will deliver us nothing of God unless God so elects.

The word of God, for Barth, isn’t waiting in the pages of scripture, dead and dormant, waiting to be sought. You can only seek a god who is dead. The Living God seeks after us.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive and discovering us. Truth isn’t just sitting there in the pages of scripture waiting to mined by our lights; Truth is a resurrected person moving outside of scripture, encountering us, calling us, transforming us.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ.

Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

IMG_1680 (2)

My wife complains that I have too many mistresses.

At the beginning of Holy Week this year, Ali and I snuck away to Quebec City for a romantic getaway at the Frontenac, overlooking the icy St. Lawrence river. Just the two of us…and Karl Barth.

…and Brian Zahnd’s new theological memoir, Water to Wine: Some of My Story

Ali says she’s tired of sharing our bed with Barth.

I could be watching Tiny House Hunters instead, I tell her. She was watching Jessica Jones.

In Water to Wine, full-time pastor, sometime author, and frequent voice in my earbuds, Brian Zahnd, describes three dreams God gave him during his mid-life theological crisis. Each dream, Zahnd believes, revealed a further step along his theological journey out of the shallow, ‘cotton-candy’ Christianity of his upbringing and success and into the rich, robust vintage of the ancient Church fathers and mothers.

Like the patriarchs of scripture, Zahnd received a dream communique from the Almighty, not of ladders traveled angels but of shoe shopping- yes- in Zurich with the late Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Zahnd takes the dream to mean that God encourages him to try on the different shoes available to him in the Zurich marketplace; that is, God blesses his quest to move beyond the thin choices of his American pop-evangelical tradition to taste and see (and try-on) the living tradition of the global faith.

This dream of shoe-shopping with Karl Barth piqued my interest, for, as it happened, during our romantic getaway, I had returned to Karl Barth’s Dogmatics even while reading Water to Wine.

Hearing of Zahnd’s dream I wondered, for the first time, how Barth, on whom I cut my theological teeth, might respond to Zahnd, the preacher most often in my head while I exercise.

No doubt Barth would approve heartily of Zahnd’s emphatic insistence that ours is a God who speaks. In the present. For Barth and Zahnd, the God of Israel is not the moribund god of modernity but a Living God who reveals himself.  On the loquaciousness of this God, I expect Barth would fist bump Zahnd against the settled nature of so much Christianity in the West. Indeed I suspect both share more in common than either do with my own Methodist, mainline tribe where God is most often either a character in an ancient text, from whom we can by our own light and volition derive practicable principles for daily living or is the object of our own subjective, emotional feelings. In neither case is God a living, active subject of verbs that work on, move on, and sometimes include you and me.

On the talkativeness of God, I think Karl Barth would commend Brian Zahnd for retrieving wine where so many Christians are sated by the water of mission trip ‘cry nights’ and 3-point sermonic slides.

Still, reading some of Zahnd’s story I couldn’t help wonder how Karl Barth would respond to the quote most often attributed to Brian Zahnd, and truly it’s a frame of reference, a precis, for all of Zahnd’s theology. I’m not judging. I’ve cribbed from it myself in plenty of posts and preachments:

“God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.”

On the one hand, I’d wager that Karl Barth would find much to affirm in this slight but bold assertion. Barth, I’m sure, would raise his pipe or brandy in approval at the conviction that God is revealed most decisively in Jesus Christ, that in Jesus we discover all of God there is find. Jesus Christ, as Barth says, is the one Word God speaks. Even on Zahnd’s suggestion that ‘God has always been like Jesus’ Barth would concur, for Barth went further than Zahnd, positing that the very ontological nature of God was/is determined by the incarnation such that Barth could speak of the ‘humanity of God’ and argue, accordingly, that Jesus Christ is the only sacrament of God, the absolutely singular visible, material sign of God.

On the other hand, I suspect Barth would pushback that Zahnd’s thesis statement is not sufficiently dialectical. Barth would caution Zahnd against any easy or obvious correspondence between God the Father and Jesus, God made flesh. Perhaps, the word ‘obvious’ is most important in reflecting upon the correlation between the Father and the Son.

For Karl Barth, our ability as (sinful) creatures to apprehend or know God is not available by any innate aptitude in human nature nor is derived from anything in the created world. Quite the opposite, our ability to know God is always- always and everywhere, as we say at the Table- a gift of God. This isn’t only a past gift given, as in the incarnation happened 2,000 years ago, but it’s always a present and future gift. We literally cannot know God apart from God revealing himself. Any God discovered apart from present revelation is a god not God and belongs to what Barth derides with a prophet’s anger as ‘religion.’

Because knowledge of God depends upon present, ongoing revelation by God, belief in the incarnation for Barth is not as simple as supposing that “God is like Jesus.”

For Barth, incarnation names not the obvious 1-1 correspondence between the Father and the Son but the mystery that God is both unveiled and veiled in Jesus Christ.

Even in the act of revealing himself most decisively in Jesus Christ, Barth says, God simultaneously conceals himself.

While affirming the identification of Jesus with God all the way down- the humanity of God, as Barth puts it, we cannot say that there is no God to be known behind the Jesus of the Gospels because, as Christ, God was never self-evidently God.

As Jesus, God was never in any obvious way, to any one anticipating his advent, the Messiah. And God still is today this God-for-us; therefore, God comes to us yet in the selfsame counterintuitive, revealed-but-concealed ways. God was always veiled in Jesus and, as Will Willimon admonishes, we ought not tear away this veil in our preaching or theologizing lest we imply there’s any way to approach this God other than by God’s gracious gesture towards us. Even in the Gospel scripture itself, says Barth, we can only know this God who comes to us as Jesus not by the text itself by the present day proclamation of it, and then only if such preaching is ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit.’

I suspect Barth would rebut Zahnd’s summary statement that “God is like Jesus.” Such a clear equation obscures how, for Barth, the unveiling but veiling of God in Christ is the revelation we call incarnation. God is absolutely vulnerable before us in the incarnation; God’s absolute otherness, as in the burning bush, remains. For Barth, the pattern of revelation revealed in the passion abides today. God’s unveiled yes to us in the incarnation is at the same time God’s no. As Barth says: ‘The Yes itself means a No, that in the very closeness to God our distance from him is disclosed.’

Barth’s dialectic of veiled/unveiled secures a continuity to the Old Testament’s depiction of God that I think Zahnd’s thesis statement at best elides and at worst supersedes but also I believe it allows a place, where Zahnd doesn’t, for those moments in the Gospels when Jesus comes across more like the angry God of Hosea than we like to countenance.

The very point at which I think Barth and Zahnd would agree provides their point of departure: God speaks still. For Barth, this means that revelation is always a gift. It’s always God’s act. As in the incarnation, God’s revelation remains opaque to us, unveiled but veiled still, far off from our expectations. Only by grace do we apprehend.

What held true at Calvary holds true today, even in revelation:

God comes to us but, as the spiritual sings, ‘we didn’t- we don’t- know who you was.’

Knowing God is like Jesus, we still don’t know who God is.

It has to be that way, Barth might say to Brian.

Otherwise, we no longer require God to know God.

rainbow-cross_aprilQuestion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, let’s say, the fifth time?

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

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

Doesn’t jive with the Jesus story does it?

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

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

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

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

Or do passages like John 8 reveal God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to the bible.

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

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

Moses saw God in a burning bush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation: Jesus is what God has to say.

image001I continued our Leaving Left Behind Behind series this weekend by talking about the rapture. Since the rapture is a topic over which many Christians disagree I thought a faux debate would be appropriate so this sermon follows our Au Contraire Mon Frere format.

I had friends of a theological bent send us eschatological assertions. We spun a carnival wheel and whatever number we landed on we took a pro/con position on the statement.

Facing off against for au contraire was Marco Santangelo, the chief librarian at the George Washington Presidential Library and Princeton Seminary grad. My lemming, Teer Hardy, MC’d the event.

If you like what you hear here, check out Pub Theology this Thursday night at Forge Brew Works when Marco will be our special guest for ‘How Do We Live in American When We have a King?’

You can listen to the rapture edition of Au Contraire below or on the sidebar to the right.

You can download it in iTunes or through the free mobile app.

 

image001We’re continuing our Leaving Left Behind Behind series this Sunday by talking about the rapture.

One of the dangerous delusions suffered by biblical literalists is the fantasy that their reading of scripture is one shared by the historic Church.

In case you’ve been spared the straight-to-video, Kirk Cameron Left Behind films, the rapture is the belief that prior to the last judgment the saved will be taken up in to heaven by Christ, leaving all the other unlucky bastards behind to deal with the mess that the PO’d returning Messiah will dole out.

Unknown-1Kirk Cameron’s not the only reason the Left Behind movies are terrible. As far biblical doctrines go, the rapture is thin, ridiculous and contrary to the larger biblical narrative.  The rapture might make for good pulp fiction but it’s antithetical to the greatest story ever told. After all, scripture begins with God declaring his creation ‘very good.’ It continues with God promising to Abraham to make it so again. Israel, Christ and Church are all links in the scriptural chain the ends, in Revelation, where it all began: in a Garden. New Creation.

Escape from creation doesn’t fit the story.

Worse, the rapture is a belief premised exclusively upon an almost willful misreading of a solitary text:

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” 

– 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17

The allusion St Paul makes here is to the arrival of a victorious, conquering military leader. Those who wished to celebrate the victory would rush out beyond the city to greet the coming hero. Think: Palm Sunday.

This would not have been unsubtle allusion to the Thessalonians who in Paul’s lifetime had experienced such entrances (invasions) by Pompey and Augustus.

The rapture mistakenly supposes that the coming Jesus has some other destination in mind.

Another leg of the journey.  A connecting flight.

But the ‘cloud’ imagery is a clear echo of Daniel’s vision in which the Son of Man comes on the clouds when God has given him dominion- not of heaven- but the Earth. Christ returns not to whisk souls away to heaven but to rule the New Creation.

On earth as it is in heaven.

As Brian Zahnd points out to read this text as a rapture of believers to heaven is like waiting at the airport terminal for a returning soldier- waiting with your own bags packed as though as soon the solider arrives home you will all be hopping on another plane for another destination.

UnknownNot only is the rapture of biblical literalists a willful misreading of the text, it’s an unhistoric reading of the text. Credited to John Nelson Darby, the rapture dates only to the mid-19th century.

It’s a modern belief.

Guess what else dates to the same approximate time period?

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Contrary to popular belief, Christians did not initially have a problem with evolution. Few Christians in the historic tradition ever held to a literal reading of the creation story. That God would use evolutionary means for the process to which Genesis gives poetic expression wasn’t a hard pill to swallow.

Natural selection was a different animal. The notion that violence and suffering was woven into the very fabric of existence seemed to contradict the most basic conception of God as Love. No longer was it axiomatic for believers to see the world as a sacrament to God’s loving glory.

‘Creation’ thus became ‘nature.’

Nature that was, Darwin had pointed out, red in claw and tooth.

No longer charged with God’s grace, the world came to be seen in the 19th century as a closed-system of purely mechanical, material processes.

It was in this new zeitgeist that Darby’s rapture theology took off in American Protestantism. Around the same time God had been vacated from the earth, Protestants started looking for the day when they would be evacuated for heaven. The core biblical theme that God through Christ will redeem this world gets lost when you no longer see this world as ‘creation.’

So not only is the rapture unbiblical and unhistoric, it turns out that the rapture is also a ‘liberal’ belief.

Rapture theology accepts the basic assumption of liberal modernism:

God is fundamentally absent from the present world.

Of course, by ‘creation’ the ancient Christians never meant the processes behind the world’s beginnings. Rather Creator is our answer to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ A question no species’ origin can ever answer.

The rapture may be bulls$% as theology, but it does point out one needful lesson: the bible’s primary plot of creation-redemption-new creation falls apart once you stop seeing the world around you- even the reddened claws and teeth- as charged with the glory of God.

image001I continued our Leaving Left Behind Behind sermon series this Mother’s Day weekend by examining the antichrist. Perfect timing huh?

The text was 1 John 4.1-12. You can listen to the sermon below or in the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus has come in the flesh is not from God…this is the spirit of the antichrist.”

     Some churches today will pass out corsages to all the Mothers in the house.

Other churches today will read from a scripture like Proverbs 6: ‘Children do not forsake your mother’s teaching.’ 

Some preachers will use today as an occasion to preach about the holy vocation of parenting and motherhood.

But not this church, not this preacher.

Today, for Mother’s Day, you get to hear about the antichrist.

     I know I’ve been accused of being cynical before, but- let’s be honest- doesn’t this seem like a no-brainer bible verse for Mother’s Day?

I mean, when thinking about their mother who doesn’t have a word like antichrist come to mind?

Who doesn’t free associate a mental picture of their momma with the mark of the beast or the 7-headed Leviathan from the sea?

Just kidding.

My mother and I, we don’t have a perfect relationship, but I don’t really think of my mom as the antichrist- at least most of the time.

And I’m sure none of you think of your mother as the antichrist either.

Nobody thinks of their mother that way.

Of course, many of us have mother-in-laws…that’s a different story.

I haven’t spoken to my mother-in-law in 18 months because I don’t like to interrupt her.

Most husbands complain about their mother-in-laws, but not me. Mine is different. Mine even lets me call her ‘Mrs Keller.’

And the love between us is mutual.

My mother-in-law, she likes to say that having me for a son-in-law is liking having the little boy that she…already had, the little boy whose juvenile bathroom humor she already endured 20 years ago.

My wife and I started dating when we were 15 years old. I’ve known my mother-in-law over half my life. I’ve grown up with her as a part of my life.

Thanks to her I was never in any danger of going through life thinking I had no faults.

As you might know, I grew up in a broken home. I didn’t know what a healthy marriage looked like. I got to learn that first-hand by watching my mother-in-law’s marriage to my father-in-law.

Without my mother-in-law, Ali and I wouldn’t have discovered early on what was the source of conflict in our marriage. It’s me.

And it was my mother-in-law who gave me the best marriage advice of anyone.

She said: ‘Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.’

Just kidding.

 

I love my mother-in-law and I’m grateful for her in ways that I’m too cool and emotionally guarded to share. She is a mother to me.

I don’t think my mother-in-law is the antichrist.

But she could be.

She could be.

And so could yours.

And so could yours.

And so could you.

You might be an antichrist. No more jokes, all kidding aside- you might be an antichrist.

You might be.

     If we take St. John seriously, then it’s easier to be an antichrist than Kirk Cameron has led you to believe.

     Identifying the antichrist doesn’t require reading the signs of the times or breaking any biblical codes. It doesn’t even require you to ever turn over to the Book of Revelation.

     It just requires a little self-reflection.

     Because, take it from St John, you might be an antichrist.

You might be an antichrist if…

If you think Christianity is about ‘spiritual’ things- or timeless ‘truths,’ then you might be antichrist.

If you think that salvation is what happens to us after we die, if you believe that our soul leave our bodies and go off to heaven when we die, if you think the goal of Christianity is to go to heaven when you die, then you might be an antichrist.

If you have ever sat next to a bedside or a graveside and said something like: ‘Her body, his body, that’s not really him, that’s not really her. It’s just a shell’ then you might be an antichrist.

If you ever used that poem for a funeral, the one that goes:

Do not stand at my grave and weep            

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on the snow.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there. I did not die.

If you ever used that poem at a funeral, then chances are your undertaker was an antichrist.

If you believe that Christianity teaches the evacuation from creation (ie, the rapture) instead of the redemption of all creation (New Creation) then I hate to be the one to break it to you but you might be an antichrist.

If you think God does not care about the Earth or that the physical, material things in your life are not good gifts from God thus means of grace to God and from God then your belief is what St. John calls antichrist.

If you know someone who insists that they ‘can worship God better in nature’ (ie, play golf) then the next time that someone says that just calmly but convincingly call them the antichrist.

Because you could never find something as counter-intuitive as Jesus in nature and God, the fullness of God, didn’t take spirit. It took flesh. And God dwelt not in the mountains or the trees but in Jesus. So don’t be shy call them as you see them, call that someone an antichrist.

Don’t be shy about calling them an antichrist because you might be one too.

If you dismiss Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (love thy enemy, turn the other cheek, bless those who curse you) as naive or hopeless ideals rather than imperatives from the incarnate God, to-do’s straight from the lips of the eternal God, if you dismiss Jesus’ be-attitudes as unrealistic for your life then you might be an antichrist.

If you think religious people are all basically the same because ‘we all believe in the same God after all’ you might be an antichrist. Because that generalized God took very particular flesh and became a very specific first century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who taught some very peculiar things.

You see, Kirk Cameron with his vacant Growing Pains cuteness has us all fooled. It’s not that hard to be an antichrist.

I mean, if you think Christmas, when we celebrate the immaterial becoming material, the eternal becoming mortal, the infinite becoming finite, the omnipresent taking up residence in Mary’s womb- if you think Christmas is less important than the Cross you might be an antichrist.

If you believe that the ‘Gospel’ is about Jesus’ death and that Jesus’ life- his words and wisdom and welcome of sinners- is somehow extra or unessential to the ‘good news’ then you might be an antichrist.

No, no ‘might be.’

You are. You are an antichrist.

And you are too if you’re uncomfortable with the idea that God ever burped, farted or hit puberty. I know it might sound silly but you don’t really believe that God became fully human if you don’t believe he was at least as human as you or me.

And that way of thinking- John calls that antichrist.

If you spend more time standing up for Jesus in the culture wars than you spend time sticking up for the kinds of people that Jesus stood up for, then I’m sure it will come as a surprise, a shock even, but you might be an antichrist.

Likewise, if you spend more time arguing for the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus than you do actually trying to live a redeemed, risen life then take this as a warning: you might be an antichrist.

Ditto if you think you got right with God because you once came down during the altar call, invited Jesus into your and got born again and now it matters not that in your life you resemble Jesus not at all, then you are an antichrist.

You’ve taken the incarnation and turned into an idea.

You’ve made the incarnation a belief in your head rather than a blueprint for your life.

You see: the more you pick at it, the more you pull on the thread, the more you see that St John is right. The spirit of the antichrist is everywhere.

     You don’t have to read Dan Brown, go looking for black helicopters or study the headlines in the Middle East.

     You don’t have to listen to any street corner evangelists or cable TV preachers.

     You just have to ask yourself:

     Do I think Christianity is about beliefs instead of discipleship, do I think ideas are more important than character, do I think the right doctrines in my head are more important than the cruciform shape of my life?

Because if so…antichrist.

You don’t have to predict any dates for armageddon. You just have to ask yourself:

Do I believe that God is like Jesus, that has always been like Jesus and God will always be like Jesus?

Or do I believe that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New, do I believe the former is angry and vengeful and the latter?

Because the only way to hold the two testaments together is to believe the God of the first took flesh in the Christ of the second.

And if you don’t believe that then you are an antichrist.

But don’t beat yourself up. It’s not your fault. Our culture conditions us to be antichrists.

I mean just think: if St John is right then our caring more about our ‘faith-based’ values or political principles than we care for a brother or sister in Christ who disagrees with us- that makes us antichrists. And practically all of us are like that.

Our culture dupes us into following antichrists all the time.

Just think: If you spend more time bemoaning the decay of American culture than you do pursuing the 21st century equivalent of ‘eating and drinking with sinners’ then you are, by definition, an antichrist.

You’re going against the grain of God’s incarnate life.

If you think the letter of scripture or your political platform deputizes you for ugly, un- Jesusy, Pharsaic behavior towards another (‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’) then you are an antichrist.

You’ve removed the mode of Jesus’ earthly, fleshly life from your message about Jesus.

And, look, pot- meet kettle. I’m guilty too.

    Because honestly, it’ll come as no surprise, I spend more time polishing my theological ideas than I do in prayer. I spend more time preaching the Gospel than I do practicing it. I’m amazed that God is gracious to a sinner like me, but I’m annoyed whenever God does the same for a sinner worse than me.

     And with Christ, in Christ’s life, it all worked the other way round.

     Which means my way goes against the grain.

     Which makes me- you guessed it- an antichrist.

You might be one too. And my mother-in-law? Maybe.

Maybe yours too.

And that surprises us.

It surprises us because Kirk Cameron, with his vapid Huey Lewis-like expression, has convinced us all that the antichrist is an auspicious figure marked out by the number 666, a fantastical, future political leader who will lure people’s loyalty away from God before ushering in a time of terrible tribulation which itself will usher in the Rapture, the Last Judgment and the ultimate- very unJesusy- destruction of God’s creation by God himself.

He seemed so innocent on Growing Pains that we’ve let Kirk Cameron convince us that the antichrist is the one who will wreak all that scary stuff near the end of your bibles.

And it’s true-

The prophetic book of Revelation does foresee a ruler who will persecute God’s People, a prophecy which the Emperor Nero fulfilled a just generation after Jesus.

But what Kirk Cameron and Nick Cage don’t tell you, what the street corner evangelists and the cable TV preachers don’t tell you, what the whole end-times, Left Behind industry doesn’t tell you is that the word ‘antichrist’ does not occur anywhere- anywhere– in the Book of Revelation.

Not once.

The word ‘antichrist’ (which is the complicated Greek word αντί  Χριστός, ‘anti-Christos’) occurs nowhere in scripture, nowhere in the Bible except here in St. John’s first 2 letters.

The word ‘antichrist’ occurs just 5 times in bible in only 4 verses in no more than these 2 letters from John.

And in these letters from John the word ‘antichrist’ is not a title, it’s not a proper name, it’s not a specific individual person who portends tribulation.

In John the word ‘antichrist’ refers to those people, any people, who deny that God had a real blood and bones body, that God took flesh in Jesus, that God became fully human.

You see, it’s not nearly as fantastical as Kirk Cameron would have you believe but it is more damning: the word ‘antichrist’ refers to people who deny the incarnation.

     Who John had in mind specifically were the Gnostics, an ancient heresy that still pops up all over the place today in both pews and popular culture.

The gnostics believed that the physical, material world was corruptible and thus inherently imperfect. They believed that what was eternal was the spiritual.

And therefore the gnostics believed that ‘salvation’ was about your spiritual soul escaping your physical body, escaping this physical world for the spiritual one, for heaven.

Not surprisingly, then, the gnostics took a dim view towards the God of the Old Testament, the God who not only made this physical world and our embodied selves but declared it all ‘very good.’

Even less surprising, the gnostics refused to believe that ‘God’ would ever leave the perfect, spiritual world and take up residence, take flesh in Jesus.

And so the gnostics were left two alternatives, the two alternatives that are still with us everywhere.

You could believe that Jesus was human, as human as you or me, but just human, just another teacher, a teacher you can follow as far as you want but dismiss whenever you want.

Or, if you were a gnostic, you could believe that Jesus wasn’t just another teacher but neither was he just another human. Because he wasn’t fully human like you or me because God would never debase himself to become like you or me.

John pulls no punches. He warns us away. He calls all that ‘antichrist.’

And it is.

     To deny that God became fully human is antichrist because it leads us to stop seeing the world as Jesus saw it, to stop living in the world as Jesus lived in it, to stop heeding the words that the Word made flesh spoke into it.

     To deny that God became fully human is antichrist because it leads us in no time to live our lives against the grain of the way he lived his.

     The bad news this Mothers’ Day is that Kirk Cameron couldn’t be more wrong.

     The bad news this Mothers’ Day is that my mother-in-law just might actually be the antichrist. Who knows?

But you might be too.

I know on any given day I’m in danger.

The bad news today is that it’s actually pretty easy to be an antichrist.

But the good news?

The good news is that the remedies for being an antichrist are many and they’re just as easy.

For example:

Pour a glass of good wine, roast a chicken, hold a baby or have sex. Because the sacred became physical in Jesus Christ and therefore all physical things are sacred.

The remedies for being an antichrist are easy.

Here’s another:

Find a sinner- trust me, they’re not hard to find. Find a sinner, preferably someone who’s wronged you, and say to them:

‘I do not condemn you.’

‘I forgive you you know not what you do.’

‘Even though you curse, I will bless you.’

And when they ask you why you’re doing this or who told you to do this, just say: ‘God himself told me…in the flesh.’

You might be an antichrist, but trust me the remedies are so easy and every day.

Just hold someone’s hand or embrace them even or try thanking your mother-in-law for everything she’s meant to you, every kindness and genuine curiosity, because we believe that God fully human and therefore the people in your lives are not only gifts from God they are sacraments that connect you to him.

 

 

 

Brian BlountThanks to logistical wizardy of Teer Hardy (Ryan to my Michael Scott) we’ve started to do a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

For this installment, we’ve got the President and Professor of New Testament at Union Seminary, Brian Blount.

Dr. Blount was my teacher when we were both at Princeton. His work has focused on the Kingdom of God, the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation. His new book is Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection.

For this podcast we discuss resurrection, revelation, zombies and whether contemporary Christians should preach what Paul said or do what Paul did. 

Come back to check out future installments. We’ve got Stanley HauerwasBrian Zahnd and Robert Two Bulls in the queue.

You can listen to the interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

Barth_WritingIn §16.1 Barth pointed out relentlessly that Jesus, the God-Man, is the singular revelation around which all Christian speech of God must cohere. Nevertheless God’s revelation also comes to people who receive and respond to it.

The question asked by Barth in §16.1 is this:

Just how is it that people hear the Word of God (Christ) in the word of God (scripture)?

How is it that some hear God speak?

In §16.2 Barth turns to the question begged by those former questions:

Why is it that others do not hear God speak?

If the whole ball of wax- our fulfillment as creatures of God, our salvation and our being caught up in the redemptive story- hinges on our hearing the Word of God then how come some hear but some do not?

Is it their fault for not hearing? Their hardness of heart, to use scripture’s language?

Or is their not hearing God’s choice? Does/did God harden their heart, to use scripture’s language?

In my own Anglican/Wesleyan tradition, the salvation made possible through Christ’s atoning work is freely available to all. We’re all able, to use Barth’s terms, to hear God speak.

In the Calvinist tradition, towards which Wesley felt little sympathy, this question is answered by the ‘L’ of TULIP: Limited Atonement. That is, Christ died for some, not all. And thus with floral imagery, Calvinists skirt the logical problem of why some do not believe, do not hear God speak: Christ didn’t die for them. They do not belong to the eternal elect.

And if God didn’t choose you for salvation- the pretty flower imagery runs out of gas right about here- God chose you for damnation.

Don’t believe? Scratch your head when your religious friends share how God spoke to them in prayer last night? Wonder what the catch is when everyone responds ‘Thanks be’ to the churchy cue: ‘The Word of God for the People of God?’

Don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s God.

He chose you for damnation.

Before the foundation of the world.

A Swiss Reformed pastor, Barth’s tradition was steeped in Calvinism, but in §16.2 Barth again charts new ground.

As he did in §16.1 Barth responds by way of the Holy Spirit.

Too often the question is posed rigidly (and simplistically) by both Wesleyans and Calvinists, as though it’s an either/or dichotomy of ‘free will’ versus ‘predestination.’ Either we’re free to choose or not choose God or God chose for all of us before all time.

Barth pushes back by arguing that any freedom we have to hear or be for God is a freedom that God gives to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We’re free says Barth only because God the Holy Spirit makes us free, which is Barth’s way of channeling Luther who himself channeled Paul: it’s only in slavery to God that we’re ever really free.

It’s what Paul means when he speaks of Christ transferring us from one kingdom to another Kingdom.

It’s what Paul intends by marrying language of our submission to Christ as a consequence of Christ having set us free from the powers of Sin and Death.

What the typical ‘free will vs predestination’ debate misses is the New Testament belief that we are free only to the extent that we participate in the freeing work of Christ. We need to rethink what sort of freedom we do and do not have inside and outside of Christ. Too often Wesleyans overestimate human freedom while just as often Calvinists do away with it altogether, as though all of life were an episode of Lost.

Those who follow Wesley need to hear Barth’s reminder that the freedom that comes to us through the Spirit is a freedom that comes to us from outside ourselves.

It’s not something which we’re naturally imbued.

We’re not all born free, theologically speaking.

Those who follow Calvin, on the other hand, need reminding that this freedom from outside ourselves does actually to us.

In the end, Barth doesn’t really answer the question (Why Do Some Not Hear God Speak?) so much as he muddles it. With Barth, human freedom (or lack thereof) is such that you can’t easily accuse someone of being hardhearted. Then again, with Barth, the Spirit does give freedom to hear so it’s not simply that God has hardened every unbeliever’s heart.

The answer, as it should, is more mysterious.

Barth_Writing

‘The Word of God for the People of God’

‘Thanks be to God.’

That’s the usual response after the reading of scripture in my church’s worship as it is most congregations.

And whenever I read scripture during the liturgy, I preface the reading with the invitation ‘Listen for the Word of the Lord’ rather than the imperative, common in many churches: ‘Hear the Word of the Lord.’

I prefer the invitation over the imperative because, as we all know, not everyone within hearing of the scripture reading has actually heard the Word of God.

To hear the Bible read is not to have heard the Living God speak.

It’s not so simple or so easy. I like to invite people to listen for God’s Word in much the same manner as I’ll shush my boys while we’re hiking in the mountains. Be quiet, still yourselves, the scripture reader is telling the congregation. Listen for God’s Word because it might just pass you by.

When it comes to God’s Word, active discernment not passive reception is required.

One of the old confessions of the Church acknowledges as much by professing:

‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.’

That is, the word of God (scripture) is not a living, active witness to the one Word of God (Christ) until it’s been faithfully read, faithfully proclaimed and faithfully received by its hearers.

(That’s how you can disqualify preachers who use the Bible for other ends, i.e. Joel Osteen)

The scripture reading then is as mysterious as any other part of the liturgy, eucharist included, because to hear the Word of God is not merely to hear God’s previous revelation read it’s to participate in God’s ongoing revelation in the present.

This the mystery Barth tackles in §16.1 of the Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s already wrapped together as diverse topics as Christology, Pneumatology and the Trinity under his Volume 1 heading ‘The Word of God.’ Now Barth applies the doctrine of revelation to God’s revealing of himself to humanity.

As Barth points out relentlessly, Jesus, the God-Man, is the singular revelation around which all Christian speech of God must cohere. Nevertheless God’s revelation also comes to people who receive and respond to it.

Just how is it that people hear the Word of God (Christ) in the word of God (scripture)?

How is it that some hear God speak?

Which begs another question: Why is it that others do not?

To answer the former question, Barth turns to the Holy Spirit. Barth is often accused of being so radically Christo-centric that he has no place for the Holy Spirit in his theology, but here in §16.1 Barth points to the Holy Spirit as the agent through whom God reveals today.

Not only is it a deep mystery that God speaks; it’s as deep a mystery that we hear.

For Barth the human response ignited by the Holy Spirit is part of the same “revelation” as Christ himself. Every worship service in a sense is still a part of the very first Christmas Eve. It’s part of the same unfolding of God’s Word taking flesh.

This is not unlike what Paul tells the Corinthians: that God was in Christ reconciling the world and now this ministry of reconciliation has been given to us. We’re the extension of Christ, God’s revelation, to the world.

Anyone who accepts the invitation to listen for the Word of God is accepting a summons.

 

zipperEarlier this week I posted a red-faced reflection on having liturgized for an entire service with my fly down. Not the glimpse of glory one hopes to give a congregation.

My most recent Sunday-morning gaffe reminded me of another, equally-horrifying worship experience.

I preached the following sermon 6 years in the Aldersgate hotbox, aka: the Fellowship Hall sans AC. While my unzipped zipper may have escaped most folks’ notice this Sunday, what wasn’t missed 6 years ago was the egregious, child-molestor amount of sweat dripping off me, everywhere, even on to the communion bread…giving new, gross meaning to the words of institution: ‘This is my body given for you…’

The last thing you want is people to say ‘the communion bread was moist’ and have it be your fault.

Revelation 4.1-12

Too often we make God smaller than He is- we try to prove He exists, explain away evil, make our beliefs sound reasonable, turn mysteries into how-to’s. Maybe it’s enough to experience God’s presence and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest. 

We’d left the ‘real’ world behind with its honking horns, neon lights and newspaper headlines, and we’d entered a celestial world punctuated by the smells, sounds and secrets of heaven. Pungent clouds of incense hung heavily in the air. The slow, ceaseless echo of a choir wound its way through the room, bouncing off the stone walls and mixing with the whispered prayers of the gathered faithful.

The room itself was in the shape of a Cross. Its dark candle-lit corners housed a rainbow of painted images of Jesus and Mary and the Saints before which some knelt in quiet adoration. At the head of the sanctuary, an opaque curtain was stretched taut from wall to wall, intentionally obscuring our view of the large altar table in the middle.

In the center of the curtain were two great doors, painted the colors of jewels. The doors stood closed, as if to guard us from the thunderous mysteries behind it. Not seeing any pews for us to sit in, we stood surprised on a cold, stone floor that was as smooth as glass.

I glanced down at the half-sheet of manila paper in my hand and read one of the footnotes: “The faithful stand and move freely in the church, feeling at home in God’s house.”

The twin towers had fallen only weeks before and, with them, a good many of the casual certainties of our faith. The world seemed to be spinning out of control. God seemed an absentee landlord at best and here we were training to be religious professionals at a time when faith appeared to wield woefully little power against the Powers of the world.

That fall, my seminary classmates and I were enrolled in a mandatory course on ‘Worship’ and a requisite of that class was that we visit other churches to experience a variety worship traditions: high-tech bible churches, traditional Catholic masses, and unadorned Calvinist preaching services.

Our visits had unwittingly made us combatants in the worship wars that currently rage in church denominations. We fought over familiar turf: contemporary vs. traditional worship, hymnals vs. PowerPoint projections, and the power of ritual vs. the sufficiency of scripture.

But it was the specter of the twin towers that loomed large over all our scrutinizing debates. ‘How do you convince people that God is not distant or far-removed?’ We wondered.

     ‘How do you reassure them that God is in control when God appears anything but? What sort of sermon do you preach? What music do you sing?’

One of the churches we were to visit was St. Gregory’s Orthodox Church. For the field trip, our teacher had provided us with liturgical cliff-notes- footnotes typed on a half-sheet of manila paper to explain the service and spare us embarrassment.

He’d given them to us with the warning that providing guide notes to an Orthodox worship service was like explaining a work of art. ‘Some things resist explanation,’ he said.

So, my friend and I, we stood on the stone floor of the sanctuary clutching our manila half-sheets and wondering how long this worship service would last. And, more importantly, for how long we’d actually have to stand on our feet.

At a side altar to the left of the opaque curtain, an old white-bearded priest stood in a long black robe and prayed aloud for the forgiveness necessary to fulfill his duties. Sounds of a choir were already coming from somewhere when he purposefully entered the sanctuary and put on his brightly colored vestments. The priest then soberly held up a large, round loaf of bread.

The bread had an elaborate seal impressed on the top of it. In the center of the seal was a square with a Lamb in it along with the Greek verb ‘Nika’ meaning “is victorious.”

Our manila cheat-sheet told us that the large triangle we saw imprinted on the bread was for Mary, the Mother of God, and that the 9 smaller triangles represented the People of God.

In one fluid motion, the priest laid the bread down and took what looked like a spear, and he cut the lamb out from the bread and he placed the lamb on a gold dish. He then poured water and wine into a single chalice. When he was done pouring, the priest took the spear and cut from the bread the ten triangles.

As he did so, he held each one up to offer a prayer for the living and the dead before placing it on the gold dish around the Lamb. And when he’d prayed ten prayers for the ten triangles, the priest placed two large strips of silver-bound together- on the gold dish so that the strips of silver hovered above the Lamb and Mary and the People of God.

‘It looks like an asterisk’ I joked to my friend. ‘No,’ he said in hushed seriousness and motioned with our manila notes, ‘it’s the Star of Bethlehem.’ The priest then draped the bread with cross-shaped veils and blanketed all of it with a thick cloud of incense, praying that the sweet-smelling smoke would carry the prayers of the faithful to heaven.

My feet were starting to get cramped, but at that very moment, the choir began to sing louder. Even my Methodist ears could make out their words: ‘Kyrie Eleison,’ ‘Lord have mercy.’

The priest held up a gold-plated bible and, with it, made the sign of the Cross. And with seven altar boys in white robes carrying seven lamps, he marched the gold-plated bible to the front of the great altar doors and rather than ask politely for the Holy Spirit’s blessing he shouted demandingly: ‘Wisdom, Arise!’  

With the promise of illumination thus assured, scripture was read, and a sermon was preached. As soon as the priest finished his sermon, almost like they’d never stopped, the choir began to sing: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’

While they sang, the priest processed around the sanctuary with his brass censer and engulfed the congregation in the sharp-smelling smoke of the incense. The doors to the altar table were opened and the gifts of bread and wine were processed through them and placed on the table.

From there, the worship service settled into a somewhat familiar rhythm. The Creed was confessed and we began to pray the Great Thanksgiving.

Now up until then, my friend and I had both been distracted and surprised by the number of people walking around the sanctuary, praying to icons, lighting candles, quieting babies. For stretches of the worship service, it felt like we were the only ones standing still or paying attention.

But when we got to the conclusion of the Great Thanksgiving and when the priest turned his hands down towards the Table and prayed: “Pour out your Holy Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine…” every single person in the sanctuary immediately threw down their heads and bowed down on their knees as if the King of Creation had just entered the room.

Because, of course, he had.

With everyone kneeling, the choir sang ‘We praise thee.’ The priest held up the bread and the wine and he declared:

“Holy things are for the holy. With fear of God and faith and love, draw near.” 

We’d been caught off guard, and we were the only ones not kneeling in adoration. Embarrassed, I looked down at the final footnote on my crinkled manila cheat-sheet and I noticed that Jason was doing the same.

‘Orthodox Christians,’ it said, ‘consider worship to be Heaven on Earth.’ 

How do you convince people that God is not distant or far-removed from them?

How do you persuade them that there is a Power above all the frightening powers of the world?

How do you reassure them that no matter what is to come, God is in control, that the true course of history resides with the One who is, who was and who is to come?

If you’re St. John of Patmos, writing to Christians who have by turns suffered for their faith or compromised their faith or had their faith ground up by the callousness of the Empire….

If you’re St. John of Patmos, writing to Christians who have become convinced that the situation of their lives in no way substantiates their claim that Jesus Christ is Lord….

If you’re St. John of Patmos, you give them a picture of heaven.

You paint a picture of an outsized royal throne and at the foot of the throne you scatter crowns and jewels so that, next to it, all the power and splendor of the earth looks like pocket-change.

And beneath the throne you draw the sea as still as glass so that people will know that in heaven and one day soon on earth all chaos and evil will finally and forever be subdued by the glory of God.

If you’re St. John of Patmos, you paint thunder and lightening all around so that people will remember the terrible, holy presence of Yahweh, who rescued them in the past.

And above the throne, where the seven archangels stand guard, you sketch a rainbow just like the one that streaked the sky after the great flood so that everyone will know that no matter what’s to come God’s judgment never comes without God’s mercy.

You paint the creatures of the earth and the people of Israel and the fathers of the Church bent down in adoration.

And you add in music, lots of music, ceaseless singing, because, if you’re St. John of Patmos, you want the faithful to know that heaven is worship.

You want them to know that the centrifugal force of the whole universe is directed towards praise and worship of this God.

You want them to know, that no matter what the evidence of their lives may imply:

  • whenever they join in heaven’s song
  • whenever they bow down in adoration
  • whenever they gather around the throne of God’s presence

They are, in fact, pulling back the curtain to expose the true power of this world.

The twin towers had fallen only weeks before and later, the next week, we sat in class dissecting our experience at St. Gregory’s. ‘It was too long’ some judged. ‘It was too foreign, too confusing. It wasn’t practical. No social issues were addressed.’ The verdict was overwhelmingly negative. But my friend, whose impending marriage was forcing him to revisit and wrestle with his own father’s suicide, he disagreed:

Too often we make God smaller than He is- we try to prove He exists, explain away evil, make our beliefs sound reasonable, turn mysteries into how-to’s. Maybe it’s enough to experience God’s presence and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest. 

Friends, the Table is set. Heaven’s Door is about to be thrown open and True

Power’s Curtain pulled back. With fear of God and faith and love…draw near.

 

§1.14 Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics concerns Revelation.

Not the last book of the bible (which is NOT called Revelations in the plural, one of my pet peeves) but revelation in the sense of God revealing God’s self to humanity.

How is it, in other words, that the Eternal, Unknowable, Wholly Transcendent God can be known in space and time?

Predictably- or I should say reliably- Barth has one simple answer to that question: Jesus Christ.

Jesus, as the one Word of God, is the revelation by which we know God.

The only revelation.

This is one of Barth’s constant themes in all his work not just the CD. For example, its’ the motivating assertion in the Barmen Declaration, the confession of faith Barth wrote in opposition to the Nazi’s nationalizing of the German Church.

Barth insists: We do not have abstract, universal ideas of “god” which we can deduct from logic or the natural world and which then correlate to the true God.

Abstract, universal concepts of god only lead an abstract, universalizing deity ready-made for idolatry, Barth believes.

They do not, could not, lead you to the very particular God of Jesus and Israel.

As is often the case, it’s theological liberalism that provokes Barth’s arguments.

Barth is wary of the tendency in theological liberalism to see the particularity of Jesus Christ as merely a cipher for more universal principles which we can adhere to apart from Jesus Christ. That is, Barth wants to avoid liberalism’s tendency to say ‘once we get past the particular forms and practices of our religions, we all really believe the same thing.’

While I concur with Barth’s concerns and while I normally enjoy his ballsy rhetoric and sweeping generalizations, in this instance I part ways with Karl.

On the most elementary and obvious level, the assertion that God cannot be known apart from the revelation of Jesus Christ is demonstrably false.

People knew God prior to Jesus Christ, and people do know God today apart from Jesus Christ. A whole lot of people, actually. I’m friends with some of them.

One could argue, I suppose, that such people worship this God wrongly if they do worship in the name of Christ, but if there is only one God then its logically impossible that they do ‘know’ him.

On another, more problematic level for me is that by suggesting the revelation of God happens only through Jesus Christ, Barth disconnects creation itself from God.

Creation for Barth isn’t really any different than how the Deist understands creation:

something which God made at some discrete point in the past and which God now stands distantly apart from or above.

And for Barth, you get the impression that God’s been so long away from his handiwork it no longer bears his fingerprints.

As Barth puts it in this section, Jesus Christ is the ‘light that shines in the darkness’ and the darkness is not revelation the light is revelation.

This world = darkness.

This is where Barth diverges from the ancient tradition and I don’t think I can go with him.

For the ancient Christians, creation itself, including us in it, are expressions of God’s revelation (or contained within it, so to speak).

All the universe, as Isaiah says, is full of the glory of God. Present tense.

Accordingly, said the ancient Christians, to know anything-

1+1 = 2

the wing speed of a hummingbird

hitting a ball on the sweet spot of a bat

the feel of my son’s hand in my own

the scent of my wife’s hair-

is already to know, however partially, God.

Barth’s understandable emphasis on the particular revelation of Christ unfortunately comes at the expense of transcendent reality.

Rather than saying, as Barth does, that Jesus Christ is the only revelation by which we know God, I think it better to say that Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation by which we know God.

Christ is not so much the singular revelation of God but he is the summary of the fullness of God.

That in him is the totality of the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

 

 

 

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

In response, someone asked me:

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

Here are my thoughts in response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we weren’t there to be realistic.

And we weren’t there to be idealistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kirk-Cameron-Mike-Seaver-growing-pains-2It will surprise about no one, I expect, that I loathe those Left Behind novels, the serial fiction that imagines the Rapture (while simultaneously imagining it is in any way a Christian reading of revelation).

Besides the terrible theology of the books, the films are guilty of reviving Kirk Cameron’s acting career, a sin by itself for which the authors should be left behind to perdition.

Even though the books are wrong in their interpretation of scripture, they are-surprisingly to you perhaps- appropriate to this Advent season. 

At the end of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer I pray over the Eucharist, it says: ‘By this meal, make us one in Christ and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back and we feast at his heavenly banquet.’

Whether we know it or not, every time we share communion we’re praying for Jesus to come back.

The direction of our hope is not our departure, it’s his return. 

A major theme of our Christian hope centers on the ‘parousia’ (the second coming) of Christ. It’s this second coming that Revelation prays for when it says ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (22.20).

Traditionally, the season of Advent- the season before Christmas- is about the parousia, the second coming of Christ, not the first.

This is why the assigned scripture for Advent worship is so often taken from Old Testament apocalyptic passages and harsh passages from John the Baptist.

To many modern Christians, a hope in Christ’s return seems antiquated and irrational. Too many Christians do not know what to make of this hope if it’s not to be cast in the fantastical way contemporary apocalypticism paints it.

But as theologian David Tracy rightly warns: ‘Without the hope of the Second Coming, Christianity can settle down into a religion that no longer has a profound sense of the not-yet, and thereby no longer has a profound sense of God’s very hiddeness in history.’ To lose hope in the Second Coming, in other words, is to accommodate the faith to the world’s status quo.

It’s to grow complacent with the way things are and lose our faithful restlessness with what can be because it will be. 

So if it’s an important hope, as Tracy suggests, what does it have to teach us? The doctrine of the Second Coming first of all grounds Christian hope as hope in someone

We don’t hope to ‘go to heaven’ when we die if what we mean by that is a vague, billowy by-and-by. Confronted by the problems of the world, we don’t hope in abstractions or concepts like justice or freedom or peace. We hope in Jesus. Our hope for things like peace and justice and freedom only find their coherence in our hope for Jesus’ reign.

The doctrine of the Second Coming means our hope for the future is not an unknown hope. The future is not totally unknown to us. Because the future is Jesus’ return, we’ve already seen it in Jesus’ life and death.

If Jesus is the fullness of God revealed in the flesh, then there is nothing about the future we haven’t been given glimpses of in the Gospels. The future will not be at odds with the forgiveness, grace and mercy already shown to us in Christ. 

The doctrine of the Second Coming affirms that God’s final purposes will be consistent with what God has already done. Jesus Christ, who was perfectly faithful unto the Cross, will not abandon us or creation in the future.

We need not fear judgment because the Judge is the Crucified Jesus.

And that Judge has already been judged in our place. 

IMG_6036