Archives For Romans

     “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord…you will be saved”

– Romans 10.9-10

     As Matthew Bates points out in his great book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means “a public declaration of fealty.” In other words, what Paul says will save you for God is the equal and opposite expression of what Rome said would save you from its wrath by confessing “Caesar is Lord.”

Notice:

Paul doesn’t say “If you confess that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to David (or Abraham), then you will be saved.”

Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God incarnate then you will be saved.

Nor does Paul say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins.

When it comes to salvation and the necessary confession of faith for it, Paul focuses squarely on one specific stage of the Gospel: the Lordship of Jesus.

Why?

Why does Paul fix our participation in God’s salvation to the confession of Jesus as Lord? Why not confess that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; believe and be saved? Why not while we were yet sinners…put your faith in what he’s done for you and you will be saved?

Why does Paul say that in order to be saved we must confess Jesus not as Savior or Substitute or Sacrifice, not as Son of Man or Son of God, but as Lord?

Because, for Paul, the incarnation and crucifixion, the resurrection and reconciliation- those are all past perfect events.

     The present Lordship of Christ is the stage of the Gospel we now occupy.

What Paul summarizes as the Gospel in Romans 1 he spells out in 1 Corinthians 15. The Gospel he receieved which he in turn handed to the Church in Corinth has 8 parts to it or stages. Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus:

  1. preexisted with the Father
  2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promise to David
  3. died for sins in accordance with the scriptures
  4. was buried
  5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
  6. appeared to many
  7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord
  8. and will come again as judge.

Note the shift, both in Paul’s Gospel and in the Apostles Creed, from the past tense to the present tense. Paul says that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus is Lord because that’s where we are all at in the story.

It’s a non-negotiable part of the Gospel. Jesus is Lord right now, currently in residence as Lord and King to whom God has given dominion over heaven and earth.

To accept that present-tense point in the Gospel is to acknowledge the other parts of the Gospel that preceded it; likewise, to deny Jesus’ Lordship is to devalue the Gospel that precedes it. The enthronement of the crucified and risen Jesus to the right hand of God to be Lord isn’t ancillary to Paul’s Gospel but is the climax of it. The cross and resurrection aren’t ends in themselves; they are the means by which God establishes Jesus as the Earth’s true and rightful Lord.

As Abraham Kuyper said:

“There is not a square inch now in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ who is Sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!””

     When we deemphasize the Ascension of Jesus, we immediately neuter the Gospel of the only present-tense element to it.

All that remains is the Gospel’s past and the future tenses. We demote Jesus from Lord of the cosmos to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs, which produces a false distinction between Jesus as a personal lord and Jesus as Lord of the Cosmos.

Salvation then becomes the promise of a future reality we access by agreeing to propositions about what Jesus did in the past rather than salvation being a present reality into which we’re incorporated by baptism and in which we participate already as subjects of the Lord who reigns now.

If this sounds like a picayune grammatical distinction, then consider the qualitative difference for discipleship:

“Jesus taught 2,000 years that we should love our enemies.”

   Versus:

“The one who taught us to love our enemies 2,000 years ago is, this very moment, Lord of heaven and earth.”

Without Ascension, the Sermon on Mount can remain safely in the past, leaving us free to argue with it or agreed to it. If the Preacher on the Mount is right now Lord, suddenly his sermon becomes less about assent and more a matter of obedience.

     Some folks have commented about our summer sermon series and how they’re surprised that the Power of Sin/Death/Satan has figured so significantly into my preaching.

It seems awful old-fashioned and superstitious, the obvious implication conveys. Maybe so.

But necessarily so, I’d argue.

Lordship, which Paul highlights as the climax of the Gospel and identifies as the necessary confession for faith, is also the most frequent self-attestation Jesus makes in the Gospel narratives. By my count, at least 26 times in the Synoptics Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man prefigured in Daniel 7.13-14.

In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, it’s Jesus’ declaration that he’s the promised Son of Man that provokes the plot to undo him, and it’s at the end of Mark’s Gospel- at his trial- that Jesus, alluding to Daniel 7 and Psalm 110, refers to himself as the Son of Man again, causing the chief priests to tear their garments and accuse him of blasphemy.

They condemn Jesus to death for claiming that God soon would install him at God’s right hand as the King and Lord of the cosmos.

Two features emerge from the Son of Man texts Jesus cites.

1. ) The scope of the Son of Man’s Lordship will be cosmic and universal: “…to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion…” 

2.) Also, the Son of Man will establish his dominion as Lord by wresting dominion from God’s enemies: “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool at your feet. (Psalm 110.1)”

     Caesar understood what Christians so often forget even though it’s obvious in the scriptures Jesus applies to himself: to be allegiant to one Lord is to content against another Lord.

When Paul tells the Romans that in order to be saved they must confess that Jesus is Lord, Paul leaves unsaid the necessary correlative confession: to name Jesus as Lord is to name the Enemy from whom Jesus has delivered you. If we contribute anything to our salvation, perhaps it’s only our knowledge of the one against whom the battle we call salvation is fought.

Christ’s Lordship is cosmic in terms of the universal, creation-vast scope of his reign.

Christ’s Lordship is cosmic because it’s a dominion being wrought in opposition to alien Powers that are themselves cosmic.

 

What God has done in Christ, enthroning Jesus as the Lord prophesied by Daniel, becomes unintelligible if we reduce the dramatis personnae of the salvation story to 3: God, Christ, and Humanity.

To understand the cosmic claims of Christ’s Lordship, the Gospel story requires 4 characters:

God, Christ, Humanity.

And the Enemy.

Whom Paul calls variously Sin, Death, the Powers, and Satan.

The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him; you certainly can’t confess “Jesus is Lord” in the fullness meant by the church fathers. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.

To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them, as the Enlightenment has taught us to do, is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”

     As much as he was a teacher or a wonder worker, a prophet or a preacher or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.

And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary without who there is no Gospel. Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us. It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.

According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.

It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another.  We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

It’s true that when we call Jesus ‘Lord’ we confess he’s Lord of all creation, but the underside of our confession, the necessary correlative to it, is that the creation of which Jesus is Lord is held in bondage by a Captor.

To confess Jesus as Lord of Creation is to profess that Jesus will free the creation from the Powers that contend against him and hold creation in captivity. 

As Paul himself points out at the end of his summary of the 8 part Gospel: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the Kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15

The place in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul most often confesses Jesus as Lord, the Letter to the Romans, is also the place where Paul devotes the most attention to the anti-god Powers that would rule in opposition to God. As the ancient commentator, Ambrosiastor,  observed about Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “The entire letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.”

 

     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on one of Paul’s most famous (and most significant) passages, 7.14-25:

“For I know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under Sin. I do not understand our own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things we hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the Law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me. 
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a Law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the Law of God in my inmost selves, but I see within me another Law at war with the Law of my mind, making me captive to the Law of Sin that dwells within me.
Wretched creatures that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death? Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!”

     “I’d seen women who admitted to having an abortion receive forgiveness, and I’d noticed how women who had kept their babies seemed somehow harder to forgive. But the more I thought about abortion, the more I knew I couldn’t go through with it. 

     In my view, abortion is taking a life that belongs to God alone, and I couldn’t do that. I chose what I believed to be the good; I didn’t know all this would follow from my decision.” 

Maybe you read the story in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. Or maybe you caught it on CBS, Fox, or CNN (FAKE NEWS).

Maddi Runkles, soon to be a freshman at Bob Jones University, is an 18 year old graduate of Heritage Academy, a private Christian high school in Frederick, Maryland.

She’s also in her second trimester and due in the fall.

According to her own first-person account in the Washington Post, Maddi Runkles was a straight A student at Heritage Academy. She sported a 4.0 GPA and she played forward on the school soccer team. She was president of the Student Council and vice-president of the Key Club.  She volunteered every Sunday in her Baptist Church’s nursery and taught at Vacation Bible School every summer. Maddi was by her own testimony an over-achieving, brown-nosing, not just a good but a perfect student.

She out-Wobegoned all the children of Lake Wobegone. She was successful at everything except thing.

She failed to keep her chastity pledge.

She was born again and soon to give birth.

When Maddi Runkles confessed her secret to her parents late this winter, they bucked the stereotype of conservative Christian parents. They did not scorn their daughter. Her Dad even told her: “God is in this somewhere with you and we’ll be with you too.” 

Before you smile and tear up, let me tell you about her school.

As word of Maddi’s sin got out, Heritage Academy convened their school board for an emergency meeting where they moved to strip Maddi of all her leadership positions in the student body. They kicked her off the soccer team. They suspended her. They even told her she could not attend her younger brother’s baseball games.

They didn’t hand her a big, fat red A for her letter jacket, but they did they ban her from campus until after she delivered her baby.

The school board even called a school-wide student assembly where Maddi confessed her transgression to her peers, expressed repentance, and asked for their forgiveness.

Nevertheless, the school board informed Maddi that while they would permit her to receive her diploma, they would not allow her to walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony.

That was the straw.

The board’s decision to exclude Maddi from her graduation provoked a public outcry, which emboldened Maddi’s family to fight the graduation ban. When Maddi’s story went viral and the school started to receive mocking press coverage, her community’s reflex was to protect the school.

Eventually, her community turned on her, making the Runkles family the object of nasty emails, inflammatory social media posts, rude remarks in public, and dangerous threats in private. Some of Maddi’s friends from Heritage Academy, seeing their school in danger, said she was spoiled and seeking publicity.

They slut-shamed her.

They attend bible class at Heritage Academy for an hour every school day.

In a letter to the parents, the principal of Heritage Academy wrote that Maddi was “being disciplined not because she is pregnant but because she is immoral…the best way to love her- (pay attention to the words) the good we can do for her right now- is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.” 

     The best way to love her…the good we can do for her.

According to the New York Times, Maddi Runkles keeps an ultrasound photo of her baby on her nightstand. It’s a boy. She refers to him as a “blessing.”

Nevertheless, Maddi confessed to the reporter:

“I chose life. I chose (pay attention to the words) the good, but now that I see what my decision has produced…sometimes it feels like it wasn’t worth it.”

For that very reason, that Maddi Runkles would even entertain regret over what she believed had been the good and right act of not seeking an abortion, pro-life organizations like March for Life and Students for Life rallied to her side.

As Jeanne Mancini, President of March for Life pointed out to the Post:

“In the manner they held Maddi accountable, Heritage Academy, a vigorously anti-abortion school, has made it more likely that future students like Maddi will choose to have an abortion.”

     The theologian Karl Barth said that preachers should approach the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. What Barth meant was that the world, as its described in the Good News of the Gospel- becomes clearer to see when you find it confirmed by and corroborated in the pages of your newspaper.

    Here’s what readers of both the newspaper and today’s scripture text should ask:

In choosing the good of carrying her baby to term, did Maddi Runkles seek to split her school and community apart?

In holding Maddi accountable did Heritage Academy mean to shame and stigmatize her? Was it their goal to encourage other students to opt for abortion in the future?

Did the Heritage school board intend to undermine their school and do its reputation damage by enforcing what they took to be the integrity of the honor code?

Of course, the answer to all of the above is “No.”

The bitter irony- the bitter biblical irony- is that everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good. Everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good.

But through them…

     Through them, a different outcome entirely was worked.

     And the passive voice there reveals everything.

——————-

     If the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans was a play instead of an epistle, it it was a script with a Dramatis Personnae at the beginning, then it would be obvious even before you read it that in Romans Sin has a starring role.

Now, I know, if you all wanted to hear about sin, you wouldn’t have fled your Baptist and Catholic upbringings for a denomination where our only strong conviction is that ‘God is nice.’

You all don’t want to hear about sin; no one wants to hear about sin anymore.

But the drama of Paul’s Gospel story of rectification by grace is unintelligible without Sin as a primary cast member. Paul’s plot is incomplete without Sin as a main character.

Don’t buy it?

In all of his letters, Paul uses the word sin (hamartia) 81 times, more than he uses any other word. Of those 81 times, 60 occur in his Letter to the Romans. Over 2/3 of those usages occur right here in this chunk of Romans, chapters 5-8.

I realize you don’t want to hear about sin in church, but you need to realize the sin you don’t want to hear about in church is not sin as Paul most often uses the word in Romans.

Sin, for Paul, is not primarily a behavior. Sin is not something we do. Sin is not pre-marital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or self-righteously slut-shaming a teenage girl.

Sin is not something we do; Sin is a Something that Does.

Sin is not a lowercase transgression. Sin is an uppercase Power. A Power that ensnares and enslaves and stands over and against God. Sin is a Power whose ultimate defeat the cross and resurrection portend. Sin is an Agency- a Power synonymous with the Power of Satan. It’s Sin with a capital S.

Just notice how Paul here in Romans 7 doesn’t use Sin as the verb we do but as the subjects of its own verbs: “…it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.”

And again in verse 20: “…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that dwells within me…” 

Literally, in the Greek, it’s:

“…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that has set up a base of operations within me.”

It’s a military term. Just as he has in the preceding chapters, the language Paul uses here in Romans 7 is the language of battle and war.

Sin isn’t an attribute of us; Sin is an Antagonist against us.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you- that’s the sin no one wants to hear about in church.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you. Sin is cosmic terrorist that can invade even you.

Sin is an Enemy that can set up a base of operations within you.

  ———————

     Notice what Paul doesn’t say in Romans 7.

     Notice that Paul doesn’t say he is unable to do the good that he wants to do.

Paul doesn’t say he is incapable of willing the good he wishes to accomplish.

The problem isn’t that he’s impotent to will the good. The problem is not that he knows the good in his head but he can’t bring his heart or his hands to choose it.

No, that’s not it. The problem isn’t that he’s impotent. The problem is that he is not.

He wills the good that he wants to do- he is able. He does the good he wants to do, but, in doing the good, what he produces, what his good act accomplishes is unrecognizable to his intention.

No good deed goes unpunished, we say. But what Paul is saying: every good deed turns out as a kind of punishment. Every good deed ends up destructive.

     “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I accomplish.” 

     Don’t let the switch to the first-person singular in chapter 7 fool you. Paul hasn’t changed the subject. Paul’s not describing his inner conflict; Paul’s describing an invasion.

His problem isn’t a divided self but a self enslaved to Another. As he says plainly in verse 14, he’s talking about the Self bound to a Slave Master.

Paul’s not narrating shock at seeing what he has done despite his best intentions. He’s narrating the shock at seeing what Sin has done through him, disguised in his best intentions.

William Faulkner said the theme of all lasting literature is the human heart in conflict with itself. Faulkner may be right about literature, but Paul is not writing fiction.

Paul isn’t writing here about the human heart in conflict with itself. Paul doesn’t mean that there is an alter-ego within each us, contending against us. No, Paul means that there is an Antagonist at work in the world, contending against God, an Alien Power that can reach as far down as into us and twist even our good works to evil.

We can will Life, Paul says, but through us Sin can will Death.

And not just through us- Paul says the contagion of Sin’s reach extends even into God’s own Law:

“The Law is holy and just and good. But Sin, seizing an opportunity in the Law, deceived me and through the Law killed me.”

     You see, this is why Paul argues so aggressively against requiring Gentile converts to obey the Jewish Law. It’s why he’s so adamant that requiring Gentile converts to follow the Law is in fact a false Gospel.

It’s not because the Law in and of itself is bad or evil. And it’s not simply that Paul wants to lower the bar for admission because adult circumcision is a tough sell.

It’s that the Law has been taken hostage by the Power of Sin such that the faithful religious person in their service to God actually serves the Lordship of Sin.

That’s the awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here in Romans 7.

It’s not the mystery of the human heart in conflict with itself.

It’s the mystery of God’s Law and God’s People twisted, unwittingly, into conflict against God.

It’s the horror that the Power of Sin can co-opt and contravene even the religion God gave us; so that, the outcome of our faithful actions ends up in contradiction to their intent.

     The awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here is that even in serving God the religious person can in fact be serving God’s Enemy.

And if you need an example of what Paul has in mind by this awful mystery, Exhibit A is hanging on the altar wall.

Look at that and listen to Paul again:

      “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I produce.” 

     Evil is not it’s own agency. Evil is what the Power of Sin does through the minions it fools and conscripts as accomplices. Through the Law, through Religion, through People of Piety.

For 6 chapters, the Apostle Paul has been narrating Sin’s long resume. He’s called it a Power. He’s called it a King. He’s called it a Wage-Master and a Slaver-Taker. He’s given it adjectives like Dominion and Lordship. He’s given it synonyms like Death and Satan.

But on Sin’s resume, Paul saves this talk of the Law and the Enslaved Self for last.

Paul saves the worst for last.

He saves the Law and the enslaved “I” for last because for Paul there is no more awful accomplishment of Sin, no grosser testament to the demonic Power of Sin than Sin’s ability to pervert even the best of our piety, to make a wretch of the most sincere religious person, to take even our godly obedience- even our obedience– and twist it to ungodly ends.

Paul saves the worst for last. The Power of Sin is so insidious that the biggest threat to your soul…is you.

     Show of hands-

     Heritage Academy’s Principal, David Hobbs- how many of you think that he heard about Maddi Runkles’ pregnancy and said to himself “I think I’m going to shame and stigmatize a student today.”

Do you think Principal David Hobbs woke up one morning and said to himself “I think I’d like to drag my school’s reputation through the mud, make its leaders look like hypocrites, and make our religion look ridiculous and shallow.”

Do you think he and his school board members put their heads together and chose to be the bad guys in the story?

If your reaction to this newspaper story is to villainize the principal and the school board members as stigmatizing, self-righteous, slut-shaming sexists, if your immediate impulse is to judge them, then you’re not hearing the Apostle Paul today.

     It’s only in comic books that villains choose to be villains.

And only in comic books do the villains know they are villains from the get-go.

     The rest of us, St. Paul says, we set out to serve the Good.

We set out to serve God.

And only later discover ourselves to be serving his Enemy.

By all accounts Principal David Hobbs is a much experienced and much more beloved educator.

He and the school board reached their decision to discipline Maddi only after “much prayer and scripture-study and spiritual discernment.”  In an interview, Principal Hobbs said:  “We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there is no accountability.” 

And guess what? He’s right.

Forgiveness is not the opposite of accountability; in fact, forgiveness without accountability is what the Church calls cheap grace.

In that same interview, Principal Hobbs explained: “We teach our students about the beauty of marriage and that sex inside marriage is what Christians believe God desires for marriage and is one of the attributes that makes it beautiful.” 

Again, he’s right. That is what the Church teaches, what all Christian traditions teach.

     The good that David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board pursued is a godly good.

     And yet- and yet…through them…

As Kristen Hawkins, President of Students for Life, said to the Washington Post:

     “What this school is doing in advocating for Christian morality is the antithesis of being Christian.”

What they’ve done is the antithesis of what they sought to do.

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it: “Sin, seizing an opportunity in their Religion, deceived them and through them…” 

Maddi Runkles and Heritage Academy Christian School- that’s just one small story ripped from the newspaper.

Never mind what Karl Barth said, you don’t need the New York Times. 

     Just think about your own daily domestic destruction- we do the most damage to the people we love most and, most often, the damage we do we do in trying to do them good.

Or rather, we don’t do them damage.

But through us…through us…

The Power that has set up a base of operations within us…

Can pervert even our best and most faithful and loving intentions.

——————-

    Christians like Principal David Hobbs, Christians like the school board members at Heritage Academy, Christians like Maddi Runkle’s slut-shaming friends- they’re all the kinds of Christians who make Non-Christians write off Christianity.

Let’s face it-

That’s how Maddi’s story made it into outlets like the New York Times; it’s a salacious story that undermines Christianity in the public eye.

But frankly, I’m sick and tired of people who try to dismiss Christianity because every Sunday Christians like you are just as petty and racist and passive aggressive and sexist and corrupt and apathetic and hypocritical and greedy as everyone else.

Really, Christians like Principal David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board members and the straight A, born again slut-shamers…

Imperfect and immoral and hypocritical Christians like you-

You’re not an argument against Christianity

You’re the best argument for Christianity.

Because if St. Paul is right

If the Power of Sin is so insidious it can pervert even the best of our piety

Twist our most godly acts to ungodly ends

Then that means absolutely NO ONE

No one can claim that they do not need Jesus Christ.

If the Power of Sin is such that it can turn God’s saints into unwitting servants of God’s Enemy, if even the best of us cannot be good, then nothing you do can be relied upon to make you right with God, to rectify the balance sheet of your life, to justify you before the judgement of God.

If Paul is right about the Power of Sin, then nothing you do- not your piety or your prayers, not your religion or your resume, not your good deeds or your good name, not your charity or your character or your career or your church attendance, not your beliefs or your bible study- nothing you do can be relied upon to justify you before God because in all of it, Paul says, you could just as likely be serving God’s Enemy.

If Paul is right, if the Power of Sin is such that it can pervert what we do for  God for the Enemy’s own ends, then we can never trust what we have done.

We can never trust what we have done to justify us.

We can only ever trust what God has done for us.

Imperfect, impatient, petty, immoral, hypocritical Christians- you’re the best argument for Christianity because if the Power of Sin is such that it can corrupt even you then NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE, NOBODY can say that they do not need the justification that God offers us by grace alone in Jesus Christ.

No one-

No one here

And no one who would never be caught dead in here

No one

Religious or Irreligious

Secular or Spiritual

Christian or Non-Christian

Sinner or Supposed Saint

     No one can say they do not need the grace offered in Jesus Christ.

Because no one can say for sure that in serving God…

They haven’t actually been serving Another instead.

The fact is- you don’t need to believe Paul.

The truth of it is all over the newspaper every day.

We can never be certain which Lord we’re really serving.

Which makes you- me- the perfect argument not against the Gospel but for it. Because the Gospel message is that no matter what you have done, because of what Christ has done, regardless of what Lord you have served, our Lord declares you in the right. As a gift.

That’s good news.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     My colleague Karla Kincannon lost her Dad late Saturday morning. I filled in for her at the last minute, continuing our summer series in Romans with 8.32-39.

I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Caesar not only knew how to dig a sewer, pitch an aqueduct, and make a killer salad, Caesar knew better than most of you the fundamental claim of Christianity.

Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Caesar of his day, the Roman Emperor Trajan.

In the letter Pliny sought to offer explanation to Caesar for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he had encountered. These people called Christians.

Some of these Christians Pliny punished.

Some he tortured and executed.

Still others, those who were Roman citizens, like Paul, he transferred back to Rome.

But not every Christian kept the faith. Not a few offered to go cold turkey and give up the faith in the face of persecution. What about them?

What did Pliny do with them? What did Rome require of them?

————————

     You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.

To prove to Caesar that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense- in other words, a sacrifice of worship- before a statue of the Emperor.

And while you did so, before the image of the Emperor, you needed to confess.

To profess: “Caesar is Lord.”

And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renunciants to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private.

Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession.

Pliny didn’t invite them to close their eyes, bow their heads, and raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar in their hearts.

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

    What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to it.

Pliny saw with cold clarity what many Christians today miss:

that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as sovereign Lord is not only the climax of what God has done in cross and resurrection, confessing Jesus Christ is Lord is also the fundamental claim of Christianity.

So it’s not just roads and sewers and salads Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding:

The core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

What Rome required for Christians to exit their faith is exactly what St. Paul says is required for Christians to enter it.

Two chapters later in his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord…you will be saved” (10.9-10).

And the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means, literally: “a public declaration of allegiance.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say If you confess that Jesus fulfills the promise to Abraham, then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God in the flesh then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as your Substitute. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as Sacrifice, Savior, Son of Man, or Son of God.

Paul gives an altogether different kind of altar call.

When it comes to salvation, Paul focuses squarely on a single, specific confession: the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Because, that’s the chapter in the Gospel story we now occupy.

That’s the point in the Apostles Creed where we all live. The incarnation and the crucifixion, the resurrection and our reconciliation to God- those are all past perfect events.

But right now, present-tense, Jesus sits at the right hand of God and to him the Father has given dominion over the earth.

He is. 

     Now. Lord.

     “If you confess…

“If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord…then you will be saved” Paul says.

Rome helps us see that Christianity is about choosing.

Choosing between rival claims upon us.

If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is Lord was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then the logic follows:

to repent and confess that Jesus is Lord was to reject and condemn other lords.

And Pliny points out, you cannot offer allegiance in a vacuum.

To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Like we rehearse in baptism, affirmation is always a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes other powers contending and vying for your loyalty.

The word allegiance is unintelligible without an enemy.

     If God is for us, who is against us? Who will bring any charge against us? Who will condemn? Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?

     No matter how you’re accustomed to hearing this crescendo in Romans 8, Paul’s not asking rhetorical questions. It’s more like a fill-in-the-blank. The Apostle Paul has already supplied you with the answers.

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

Come on, that’s not even a Tuesday crossword kind of question.

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

The Power of Sin, that’s who.

Sin with a capital S, an alien, enslaving Power, whose power, Paul has already told us, we are all under and from whom not one of us is able to free ourselves.

    Who will bring any charge against us? Who is to condemn us? 

Again, they’re not rhetorical questions. The answer is obvious to anyone who’s been listening to Paul.

The Law will bring charges against us. Or, if it’s easier to understand, instead of Law call it Scripture or Religion. Scripture will condemn us.

Religion, the Law, which, Paul has already told us, the Power of Sin has hijacked and now wields like a weapon against us, so that now the very gift God gave to make us righteous only indicts us, all of us- all for short- as unrighteousness, indicts us, even, as ungodly.

    Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? 

The answer, obvious to anyone who’s been following Paul’s argument thus far: Death.

Death will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Death with a capital D, a Power, Paul says, that from Adam onward advanced through all the world like an invading army.

Death with a capital D, a Power that Paul makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, both of which, Paul reveals at the end of his letter, refer to the Power of Satan, whom Paul calls at the end of his summary of the Gospel the Last Enemy.

“For Christ our Lord must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15

     Who is against? Who will condemn us?  Who will separate us?

They’re not rhetorical questions.

The very reason Paul testifies that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers in the world at work against us to do just that.

The Power of Sin. The Power of Death. The Law.

     All of whom- pay attention now- Paul personifies as reigning monarchs, as exercising dominion, as lords.

Kurios.

The same word Paul uses when he says: “If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as kurios…then you will be saved” Paul says.

————————

     Pliny understood that to pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord was to be against another lord, that to accept Jesus’s Lordship was to reject another’s.

But Pliny did not understand what Paul saw.

Caesar, Rome- they’re manifestations of a bigger, more cosmic enemy contending against God to separate us- indeed all of creation- from God.

Here at the end of chapter 8, after Paul has been speaking of life in the Spirit and the freedom we have in Christ, after Paul has led you to believe all this talk of the Power of Sin and the Power of Death is behind you-

Here at the end of Romans chapter 8 Paul doubles back again.

But this time spins it out onto a wider horizon, naming the circumstances where the lords of Sin and Death manifest themselves in our world:

Hardship

Injustice

Persecution

Famine

Nakedness

War

Paul asks ‘Can these separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?’ because Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen- they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death work to do just that.

Separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Because it’s easy to look at Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and become disillusioned.

It’s easy to look at unending war in Afghanistan and terror in Europe and another shooting- this time in Little Rock- the opiod epidemic, hunger in school kids not two miles from here, homelessness no further, the Washington Nationals Bullpen.

     Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War-

They are the ‘statues of Caesar’ before whom a Power who is not God would us bow in allegiance.

Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen, Paul says- instead they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death tempt us to break faith.

To break allegiance. To become loyal to them.      On Thursday, I went with my good friend Brian Stolarz, a member here at Aldersgate, to the steps of the Supreme Court for a teach-in against the death penalty.

There I listened to Brian agains the story he’s told here of getting an innocent man, a mentally handicapped man, a black mentally handicapped man, it usually goes without saying, off of death row.

There was a crowd of exonerees gathered there in front of the Supreme Court with stories similar to Brian’s, stories of persecution and racism.

There was a petition passed around to stay the execution this coming week in Virginia of a mentally ill man.

It’s hard to go to an event like that, where the injustice seems rampant and the odds for change seem long indeed, and not feel disillusioned.

Not feel like you’ve pledged allegiance to the wrong Lord.

On Friday, Dennis and I went to Mt. Vernon Hospital to be with Karla Kincannon and her family as Karla’s Dad slowly died.

We talked and we prayed and we kept quiet as Chuck’s wife of 70 years whispered to him and caressed his cheeks and kissed his forehead.

And watching her cry it became obvious what a lie we tell when we call death ‘natural’ or when we try to label a funeral a ‘celebration of life.’

No, that’s a lie.

Paul’s right, Death is an enemy.

The Enemy.

And it surrounds us such that it’s easy to lose heart.

———————

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 33Who will bring any charge against us? It is God who rectifies. 34Who is to condemn? 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If you just stick this passage from Romans 8 onto a Hallmark card, if you just gild it with sentimentally at a memorial service, you completely miss Paul’s point.

As my New Testament teacher at Princeton, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, points out, these verses here in Romans 8 it’s trash-talk.

It’s Paul trash-talking the Powers. It’s Paul talking smack against the Power of Sin.

It’s trash-talk.

Paul widens the horizon to encompass all of creation and there Paul sees all the tragic circumstances in which we live. And he sees behind them not the work of enemies like Caesar or Trajan or Pliny but the Enemy. And against the Enemy, the Power of Sin and Death, Paul musters up as much confidence as he can for his Roman Church and he declares defiantly that God will have the last word.

It’s Paul encouraging allegiance to Christ the Lord in the face of rival lords who would lure away your loyalty.

Because, let’s face, it seems like they’re in charge.

It’s trash-talk.

It’s Paul shaking his fist at the Power of Sin and Death.

It’s Paul talking smack at Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War.

     It’s Paul staring them all down, thumbing his nose, and giving them all the finger.

It’s trash-talk.

None of you- not Death, not Famine, not Racism, not War, not Poverty, not Addiction- has the power to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

“No power has the power like Christ’s power!” Paul says literally in the Greek.

Or, as we might say, you’re going down.

You see, if Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and all the rest- if they’re the ways that Sin and Death seek to lure your loyalty away from Jesus the Lord-

Then that means that to give in to despair or disillusionment, to lose heart, is to give your allegiance to rival lords who have been working against you for that very outcome.

You pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, therefore, not with your head looking up but with your eyes fixed straight ahead at the world as it really is.

And you pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ not with your hand over your heart but with your fist shaking at the sky and your middle finger sticking straight out.

Flipping off the Powers and trash-talking all the other lords who would pull you away from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

Feel the Bern

Jason Micheli —  June 19, 2017 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

———————

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

Bernie asked.

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

the answer is ‘Yes.’

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

And so do I.

I stand condemned.

(And so do you.)

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

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

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

All have sinned.

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

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

All stand condemned.

————————

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

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

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

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

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

Sin is instead the subject of verbs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.

But we’re accomplices too.

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

We’re culpable too.

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

Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.

Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.

Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London

A Power that is not God has got us.

But we’re guilty too.

All of us. All stand condemned.

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

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

————————-

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

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

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

Disciplines we use to connect to God.

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

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

Yes, you stand condemned.

And so do I.

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

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

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

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

That’s good news.

But it’s only part of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By faith.

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

You will never be a new you on your own.

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

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

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

You can be re-made.

Not just forgiven but set free.

Not only justified but rectified.

     Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.

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

Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Would you all pray with me?

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

[Thank you] [Jason joke]

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

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

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

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

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

My sister had broken her arm.

My best friend’s boyfriend had just committed suicide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reckoned, says Paul, to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Like Big Buts

Jason Micheli —  June 5, 2017 — 1 Comment

I led with finding out I’m Jewish.

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s beautiful.”

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

“Jason? Jason, are you still there?”

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

“I hate mullets.”

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

“But my grandparents were Jewish.”

“But what?!”

“My grandparents…they were both Jewish. “

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess it does.”

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

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

2. No wonder I’m so funny.

3. Thank God I’m already circumcised.

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

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

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

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

Not a book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let that sink in for a moment.

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

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

Including the holy day of Pentecost.

Or, as my people say, Shavu’ot.

——————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one seeks God. No one desires peace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————-

     If.

If you turn away from sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you…plead for God’s mercy…

If you seek God’s forgiveness…

If you believe…

If you put your faith in him…

     If

Then

God will justify you.

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

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

If you repent and believe.

Instead of if but:

     “But now” Paul says.

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

There couldn’t be a bigger but.

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

     There couldn’t be a bigger but.

It’s the hinge on which the Gospel turns:

We’re all unrighteous.

We’re all entangled in Sin.

But now- God.

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

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

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

Without a single “if.”

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

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

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

If you repent, then I’ll…

     If you seek forgiveness, then I’ll…

     If you believe, then I’ll…

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

     No. 

     No ifs. No conditions. 

“But now…” Paul announces.

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

All have sinned.

All fall short of God’s glory.

But now-

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

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

It’s just like the song says.

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

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

—————————-

     During Lent I gave up bacon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s conditional.

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

It’s conditional.

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

It’s contingent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If/then conditionality is hard-wired into us.

     I forgive you, but I won’t forget. 

Paul would say that’s how captives speak.

We do it with God too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your faith is not the exercise of your free will.

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

Which means-

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

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

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

You don’t have to do anything.

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

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

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

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

 

Immortal Combat

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2017 — 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gym cancelled his membership after the altercation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He has a knack for inducing revulsion.

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

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

And that’s my problem- and your problem.

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

———————————-

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

But we’re not members of a club.

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

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

Where else could he go?

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

I chose that last sentence with care:

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

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

———————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————

     Trouble is-

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

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

It’s the same word: dikaiosyne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the present tense.

    ——————————-

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

     You can only invade territory held by an enemy.

The language of invasion is the language of liberation.

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

Repenting is something we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cliff-Notes Takeaway:

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

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

    ——————————-

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

But inside the Church we’ve not remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, to put it Paul’s way plainer:

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

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

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

——————————

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

The gym later terminated his membership without comment.

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

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

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

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

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

Yet.

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

I don’t know that he’d ever show up.

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

 


In Episode 96, author Matthew Bates joined me to talk about his book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. This is a timely interview as we approach Memorial Day Weekend.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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Clay Mottley will be playing tunes for us and Jeffery Pugh is our special guest.

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Romans 5.1-11 which begins thus:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…”

The question is- or should be- by whose faith are we justified? Ours? Or Christ’s? By faith here in Romans 5 is an echo of an earlier theme Paul picks up from Romans 3:

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23.

Sometimes a preposition can make all the difference.

I remember my first theology course as a freshman undergraduate, Elements of Christian Thought, with Euene Rogers. I’d just become a Christian as a Junior in High School and was only beginning to become acquainted with the actual content of our faith. The topic one week was Justification & Salvation, and I remember another student asking the TA:

‘If Christians believe we’re justified by faith in Christ, then what about people like me who don’t have faith, who’d maybe like to have faith but can’t seem to find it?

Is it our fault then if we’re not saved? Why faith is essential why is it so hard?

That seems like a pretty limited God.’

It hit me then and still does as a very good question. Not only does it make essential something that is sincerely elusive for many people, it also turns faith into a kind of work- the very opposite of Paul’s point- in that we’re saved by our ability to believe.

Justification by (our) faith (in) Christ turns faith into the very thing Paul railed against: our work.

That is, religion

The irony of the historic Faith vs. Works, Gospel vs. Law debate among Christians, however, is that the very idea of justification coming through faith in Christ is premised on a bad translation of scripture. 

Almost everywhere, other than the King James, that is written in English it is a wrong translation. In Greek, the actual wording is  that we’re justified “through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”

Grammar Lesson: 

It is a possessive or genitive phrase. Now a genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. In other words, it is like the phrase, the Love of God. That is either our love for God, or the love that God has. In one case it is objective (love for God), in the other subjective (God is the subject) and it describes the love that belongs to God, or God’s love.

In Greek, the faith of Jesus Christ is also a subjective genitive, but has been interpreted as an objective in almost every translation.

Why is this important?

Because it is not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us.

Faith isn’t a work.

Isn’t our work at least.

The faith that saves us and justifies us is the obedience of Christ.

In other words, it is his faith at work in us and in our hearts which produces righteousness and the God kind of life. This explains why faith is a gift and why we are saved through faith by grace and not as a work of our own. It is not our faith which justifies, but the faith of Jesus given to us, which resides in us.

The good news is, it isn’t my faith that matters. It is the faith OF Jesus Christ given to me, that when God regards you or me God isn’t measuring our feeble attempts at faithfulness. In other words, when God looks upon us God chooses not to see us but to see Jesus.

 

This upcoming Sunday’s lectionary passage from Romans 5 includes verse 9:

“Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.”

Like many upper middle class mainline Protestants, which is to say white Christians, I’ve long taken issue with the concept of divine wrath, believing it to conflict with the God whose most determinative attribute is Goodness itself. Whenever I’ve pondered the possibility of God’s anger I’ve invariably thought about it directed at me. I’m no saint, sure, but I’m no great sinner either. The notion that God’s wrath could be fixed upon me made God seem loathsome to me, a god not God.

We commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross. 

The cross is more properly about God working justice. 

The most fulsome meaning of ‘righteousness,’ Fleming Rutledge reminds readers in The Crucifixion, is ‘justice’ understood not only as a noun but as an active, reality-making verb. Though righteousness often sounds to us as a vague spiritual attribute, the original meaning couldn’t be more this-worldly. Justice, don’t forget, is the subject of Isaiah’s foreshadowings of the coming Messiah. Justice is the dominant theme in Mary’s magnificat and justice is the word Jesus chooses to preach for his first sermon in Nazareth.

To mute Christianity into a message about forgiveness is to sever Jesus’ cross from the Old Testament prophets who first anticipated and longed for an apocalyptic invasion from their God.

And it’s to suggest that on the cross Jesus works something other than how both his mother and he construed his purpose.

Rather than forgiveness, we see on the cross God’s wrath poured out against Sin with a capital S and the upon the systems (Paul would say the Powers) created by Sin. On the correspondence between Sin as injustice and God’s wrath, consider Isaiah’s initial chapter:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt-offerings… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow…

Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you…

Christianly speaking, forgiveness is a vapid, meaningless concept apart from justice. The cross is a sign that something in the world is terribly wrong and needs to be put right. The Sin-responsible injustice of the world requires rectification.

Only God can right what’s wrong, and the cross is how God chooses to do it. God pours out himself into Jesus and then, on the cross, God pours out his wrath against Jesus and, in doing so, upon the Sin that unjustly nailed him there.

Summarizing the prophets’ word of divine wrath in light of the cross, Rutledge writes:

Because justice is such a central part of God’s nature, he has declared enmity  against every form of injustice. His wrath will come upon those who have exploited the poor and weak; he will not permit his purpose to be subverted.’

Despite the queasiness God’s wrath invokes among mainline and liberal Protestants, it has been a source of hope and empowerment to the oppressed peoples of the world.

The wrath of God is not an artifactual belief to be embarrassed over, it is the always timely good news that the outrage we feel over the world’s injustice is ‘first of all outrage in the heart of God,’ which means wrath is not a contradiction of God’s goodness but is the steadfast outworking of it.

The biblical picture of God’s anger is different from the caricature of a petulant, arbitrary god so often conjured when divine wrath is considered in the abstract. ‘The wrath of God,’ Rutledge writes, ‘is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right.’ Put so and understood rightly, it’s actually the non-angry god who appears morally distasteful, for ‘a non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.’

Maybe, I can’t help but wonder, we prefer that god, the one who is a passive accomplice to injustice, because, on some subconscious level, that is what we know ourselves to be.

Accomplices to injustice.

 

Perhaps that is what is truly threatening to so many of us about a wrathful God; we know that the bible’s ire is fixed not so much on the hands-on oppressors as it is against the indifference of the masses.

As Rutledge points out:

 ’,,,in the bible, the idolatry and negligence of groups en masse receive most of the attention, from Amos’ withering depiction of rich suburban housewives  (Amos 4.1) to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13.34) to James’ rebuke of an insensitive local congregation (James 2.2-8).

As Brett Dennen puts it in his song, ‘Ain’t No Reason,’ slavery is stitched into every fiber of our clothes. We’re implicated in the world’s injustice even if we like to think ourselves not guilty of it. Rutledge believes this explains why so much of popular Christianity in America projects a distorted view of reality; by that, she means sentimental. Our escapist mentality protects us not just from the unendurable aspects of life in the world but also from the burden of any responsibility for them.

Such sentimentality, however popular and apparently harmless, has its victims. I’m convinced we risk something precious when we jettison God’s wrath from our Christianity. We risk losing our own outrage.

Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion might’ve convinced all on its own:

 ‘If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not  yet understood the depths of God. It depends on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one’s own group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ.

To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God.

Here’s my sermon from this weekend.

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

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

“Who is my neighbor?” he presses. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.

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

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

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

For the man in the ditch.

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, show of hands:

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

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

An anecdote like…

On Friday morning…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     I thought to myself.

But mostly, I was irritated.

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

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

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

And passed by.

Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.

And passed by.

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

And passed by.

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

‘I don’t have any cash on me.’

I lied.

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

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

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

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

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

And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.

And then I took his picture.

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

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

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

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

And, I expect, you would go.

Feeling not inspired. But guilty.

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

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

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

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

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

Then it hit me.

‘Say that again’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

Every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew.

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

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

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

Ditto the Levite.

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

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

The priest had no choice- for the greater good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So-

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

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

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

     Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.

     A little context-

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

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

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

They were Other.

They were despised.

They were considered deplorable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve gotten it all backwards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therefore, they are our neighbors.

Upon whom our salvation depends.

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

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

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

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

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

I thought about how to answer.

I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.

Turns out I managed to be both.

I said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul says.

“No one is righteous, not one.”

So,

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

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

Don’t forget-

We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.

Maybe now you can feel why.

Especially now.

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

Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-

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

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

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

Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.

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

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

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

And more counter-cultural.

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

Therefore-

They are our neighbors.

Not only our neighbors.

They are our threshold to heaven.

Jesus says.

Go and do likewise?

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

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

Wanting nothing to do with him.

Or, wanting to do away with him.

 

9781501824753Bishop Will Willimon, author of Fear of the Other, was our guest preacher the Sunday after Trumpocalypse. His text was Romans 5. Not only is the book dedicated to Donald Trump (…without whose xenophobia ‘I wouldn’t have been asked to write this book.’) it’s an incredibly timely book for those who are repulsed by Trump and how we’re to love the ungodly which surely includes even Donald Trump.

“We’ve got to love the ungodly…even an ungodly liar like Donald Trump.”

Listen to it.

 

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517When I was about to begin serving as a pastor for the first time over a dozen years ago, I decided to ask one of my seminary professors, Dr Jim Stewart, for advice on what to do when starting out in a congregation- something for which seminary doesn’t actually prepare you.

Dr. Stewart looked top heavy with his mop of curly white hair on top of his short, heavyset body. He wore thick brown glasses, which when removed revealed that Dr Stewart was a dead ringer for the actor Charles Durning who played Doc Hopper in the Muppet Movie.

After class one day, I walked up to Dr Stewart as he was stuffing papers into his leather satchel and I asked him for advice on beginning in my first congregation.

He answered so quickly I almost thought he was responding to someone else’s question:

“Don’t change ANYTHING for the first 6 months. Earn their trust. Don’t do or say anything provocative. Don’t ruffle feathers. Don’t upset anyone. Don’t rock the boat. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.”

He slid more papers into his satchel as I processed what sounded to me like an insult in the form of advice. Dr Stewart looked up and smiled and said:

‘Don’t worry, that’s a comment about you. I give the same advice to every new pastor.’

I can’t speak for the other denominations whose clergy Dr Stewart has advised, but I can say that his words are frustrated by the fact that United Methodist bishops appoint their pastors to churches during the last week of June/first week of July.

So, in the United Methodist Church new clergy are making just their first or second impressions over Independence Day weekend, a time when most folks are not in church and others come to church with a diversity of expectations.

I packed Dr Stewart’s advice along with my books and my belongings and I took it with me to my new church.

On Day 1, my secretary first walked me through the church directory. Second, she gave me the skinny on church gossip, and third she informed me that, as the new pastor in town, I was scheduled to preach the sermon at the annual, ecumenical Independence Day Service.

‘But Independence Day isn’t even a Christian holiday.’

My secretary just stared at me, saying nothing, as though she were a soothsayer foreseeing the self-destructive implosion that would be this new pastor’s Independence Day sermon.

Like all things 4th of July, the ecumenical service was held outdoors, in a city park. I arrived early. Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ was booming through the speakers as I parked my car.

When I got to the pavilion area, I spotted a large, wooden cross in the center of the stage- the kind of cross you’d see on the side of the highway.

Only this cross had a large, car dealership-sized American flag draped over it.

And I swear, in that instant, Dr Stewart appeared to me like Yoda to Luke Skywalker. And starting at old glory covering up the old rugged cross, I heard Dr Stewart’s advice ring in the air:

‘Don’t ruffle feathers. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.’

I walked up to a guy who looked like the master of ceremonies- a Pentecostal preacher, it turned out. I introduced myself and then I said:

‘Say, maybe we should take the flag off the cross before people show up for the service and get upset.’

The Pentecostal preacher just stared at me- the same soothsaying way my secretary had- and then he said: ‘Why would anyone get upset? This is the Independence Day Service after all.’

And I was about to respond at least as colorfully as the stars and stripes, but then I saw Dr Stewart appear in an angelic haze, like Obi Wan to young Luke, and I heard Dr Stewart say:

‘Don’t upset anyone.’

So I said nothing.

Cross-Wooden-with-Draped-American-FlagA couple hundred people gathered for the ecumenical Independence Day Service, which began with a greeting by a Brethren pastor.

Before we realized what was happening, the Brethren pastor had slid from words of welcome into a ‘Fatherwejust’ prayer. His prayer was a confession, a lament, of all the ways America has absconded from the Christian values of its founding.

His lament was exhaustive and exhausting, and all the while I gripped my bible and sighed, trying to conjure the image of Dr Stewart.

After the fatherwejust prayer, we sang ‘America’ and the ‘Battle Hymn,’ which in hindsight were the high points of the service. And after the ‘glory, glory, hallelujahs’ the local Episcopal priest got up and offered another prayer- this one thanking God that we live in a nation where we’re free to pursue what sounded to me like positions from the Democratic Party platform.

Again, I sighed and death-gripped my bible, waiting for some mention of Jesus to make its way into the prayer. But it never did.

Next, the Master of Ceremonies, the Pentecostal preacher, stood in front of the flag-draped-cross and read the Declaration of Independence, and when he finished, he said:

‘I’d like to invite the new Methodist pastor, Rev James MacChelly, to come up and preach for us.’

I’d come that day armed with a few pages of a sermon on serving your neighbor, a harmless, vanilla homily I could’ve easily delivered at a Kiwanis meeting as at a worship service.

But walking up to the flag-draped-cross, I decided a different message was needed. I decided to change gears and improvise. I decided I should trust the Holy Spirit not to let me crash and burn.

And I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.

First, I read not from the Golden Rule as I’d planned, but from the Apostle Paul- not today’s text but one just like it, where Paul writes:

God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and exalted him to sit at the right hand of the Father and given him the name that is above every name; so that, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

When I finished reading the scripture, a few people said ‘Amen,’ which I erroneously took as a promising sign.

And then I began:

I know a lot of you are expecting me to speak about America or politics or patriotism. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. But I’m a preacher. The bishop laid hands on me to proclaim not America but the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

I looked out in the crowd and saw Dr Stewart sitting on a lawn chair near the 3rd row. He was shaking his head and mouthing the words: ‘Don’t rock the boat.’

But I ignored him.

     The bishop laid hands on me to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     The Gospel isn’t Jesus is going to be Lord one day; the Gospel isn’t Jesus will be Lord after he returns to Earth to rapture us off to the great bye and bye. 

     The Gospel is that Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is Lord. The Gospel isn’t that Jesus rules in heaven; the Gospel is that Jesus Christ rules the nations of the world fromheaven. 

     You see, I said, to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that something fundamental as changed in the world, something to which we’re invited to believe and around which we’re called to reorient our lives and for which, if necessary, we’re expected to sacrifice our lives. 

     To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that at Easter God permanently replaced the way of Caesar, the way of the world with the way of Jesus, a way that blesses the poor, that comforts those who mourn, a way where righteousness is to hunger and thirst after justice and where the Kingdom belongs to those who wage…peace. 

Dr Stewart sat in his lawn chair, giving me a sad, ‘it’s-not-too-late-to-turn-back’ look. But it was too late.

I was commissioned to preach the Gospel, I said.

     And the Gospel- the Gospel of Paul and Peter and James and John and Luke and Mark and Matthew- is that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     And in their day the Gospel announcement had a counter-cultural correlative: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. 

     I could tell from the crinkled brows in the crowd that they could yet tell if or how I was subverting their expectations.

So I decided to make it plain.

     And in our day, the Gospel has a counter-cultural correlative to it too. 

     Jesus is Lord, and ‘We the people’ are not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and the Democratic Party is not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and the Republican Party is not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and America- though it’s deserving of our pride and our commitment and our gratitude- is not Lord. 

     As wonderful as this nation is, we are not God’s Beloved because Jesus Christ is God’s Beloved and his Body is spread through the world. 

The crinkled brows in the crowd had turned to crossed arms and angry faces, and a few people got up and left.

Dr Stewart was now sitting in his lawnchair mouthing the words ‘I told you so.’

I’d lost them, all of them, and I knew if any of them in the crowd were members of my new congregation they wouldn’t be for much longer. I knew I had to steer this wreck of a sermon off the road as quickly as possible.

So I said:

Independence Day Weekend is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians we carry 2 passports. We have dual citizenship: 2nd to the US of A and 1st to the Kingdom of God. 

     Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians, our politics are not determined by Caesar or Rome or Washington. As baptized Christians, our politics- our way being in the world- are conformed to the one whom God raised from the dead. 

     Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that you can be a proud American. You can be thankful for your country. You can serve your country. 

     But if you’re baptized, then you’ve pledged your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and your ultimate citizenship is to his Kingdom, and even as we celebrate the 13 Colonies’ independence we shouldn’t forget that our primary calling as baptized Christians is to colonize the Earth with the way of Jesus Christ. 

     That’s what we pray when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come…’ 

I thought that sounded like a good place to end the sermon so I said: ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

And the gathered crowd responded with ‘harummphhhhhhhhhhhhh…….’

I looked up in the crowd and saw that Dr Stewart was no longer there, which wasn’t all that surprising because neither were several dozen other people.

Though its harder to decipher, in Romans 6 Paul makes the same point as that passage I read a dozen years ago.

Paul builds on his argument by showing you how Jesus is the 2nd Moses, how Christ has delivered us from the domain of Sin and Death so that we might walk in newness of life.

And that word ‘walk’ is key. It’s ‘halakah.’

It comes from the Exodus, when God- through Moses- rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and delivered them to a  new life by parting the Red Sea so that they could walk across it on dry land.

 Paul’s point is that through our baptism we leave the old world and we are liberated into God’s new creation; so that, as baptized Christians, we live eternity in the here and now.

That’s what Jesus means by ‘eternal life.’

For Paul, the resurrection inaugurates a new reality in the world; so that, baptism is for us what the Red Sea was for the Israelites: a doorway into a new Kingdom, a new and different and distinct People in the world.

That’s what Paul means when he says elsewhere that all the old national and political and ethnic distinctions do not matter because the baptized are now united in Christ.

     For Paul, baptism isn’t so much the outward symbol of a believer’s faith. Baptism unites into Christ so that what is true of him is now true of us, and what’s true of him is that he has been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God where he is the Lord over the nations of the Earth.

 

You see, for Paul, baptism is our naturalization ceremony in which allegiance and loyalty is transferred from the kingdoms and nations of this world to the Kingdom of God.

After the service ended, the pastors formed a receiving line to shake hands with folks as they left. I was at the far end of the line. Not wanting any guilt by association, the other pastors had left ample buffer space between them and me.

Most people just walked by me and glared at me like I was a wife beater.

A few people joked: ‘I wouldn’t unpack my new office just yet if I were you Rev. MacChellee.’

 Finally a man in his 50’s or 60’s came up to me.

He had a high and tight haircut and was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and a Marine Corps tattoo on his forearm.

And he said: ‘Preacher, I just want to thank you.’

‘Thank me? For what exactly?’

     ‘I never have understood how Paul got himself executed, but listening to you preach I finally understand why people would want to kill him.’

‘Look, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I admit it. It wasn’t a good sermon for a new guy to preach.’

     ‘No, I’m dead serious. I always thought being a Christian was about believing in Jesus so we can go to heaven when we die and in the meantime we’re supposed to be kind to our neighbors.

‘But that doesn’t make Christians much different than the Rotary Club or any other American.’

‘As stupid as your sermon was, it helped me see that being a Christian is a whole lot more complicated than I thought, but maybe a lot more interesting too.’

     12 years ago, Independence Day Weekend- that was the wrong sermon to preach. I know that now.

It ruffled feathers.  It sounded offensive. It upset nearly everyone.

They didn’t know me. They didn’t know if I was serving up flip opinions or speaking out of a sincere faith. I hadn’t earned their trust.

It was the wrong sermon to preach.

For them.

     But I’ve been here 8 years.

You do know me. You’ve learned how to listen to me. You know that even when I sound flip my faith is sincere.

I’ve been here 8 years and I think I’ve earned at least a little of your trust.

So trust me when I tell you that I’m grateful to live in a nation where I am free to irritate you every other Sunday.

But hear me when I tell you:

as baptized Christians, we are a People who carry 2 passports, who have dual citizenship but only 1 allegiance.

 

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our American identity; I am saying that our primary identity should come from the Lordship of Christ.

(And in too many cases, it doesn’t.)

I’m not saying our independence isn’t something to celebrate; I am saying that our dependence on God, which we’ve been liberated into by the resurrection of Christ, should be a greater cause for celebration.

(And very often, it isn’t.)

I’m not saying that the flag shouldn’t be a powerful symbol for us; I am saying that the Cross and the Bread and the Cup and the Water should be more powerful symbols.

(And, let’s be honest, most of the time they’re not.)

Because as baptized Christians, we belong to a different Kingdom, a Kingdom that can’t be advanced by force or political parties or legislation or constitutional amendments- we belong to a Kingdom that can only be advanced the way it was advanced by Jesus Christ.

Through witness. And faithfulness. And service. And sacrificial love.

9781501824753Several years ago the church I serve opened the doors of its youth wing to welcome the members of a local mosque. Their own facility was undergoing construction and they needed a place to offer their Friday Jummah prayers. Even though many of the Muslims who came to pray in our building were the same people who drove cabs in our neighborhood, owned the service stations that inspect our cars, cared for our aging parents in the nursing homes, and cleaned our locker rooms at the gym, many from the community greeted the worshippers with fear.

As the Other.

The members of my church council voted unanimously to show hospitality to our Muslim neighbors; the gesture was not so unanimous in the larger congregation. Many church members and families left over the decision. Few of them spoke with us before leaving. I can say confidently that we are a stronger congregation for having shown such hospitality to our neighbors not only because it taught us, as a congregation, how to experience conflict and work through it together, something our United Methodist itinerant system too often prevents, but also because it reminded us as Christians that, no matter what the church vitality books tell us, not all congregational conflict is bad. By many measures conflict should be an expected consequence of working with Jesus in a world that still seeks to operate as though Christ were not Lord.

I believe our church is stronger too because, with hindsight, we know it was the right, faithful step to take. We’re stronger as a church because we showed courage, which, as Will Willimon writes, “…is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear- fearing, revering, and honoring something more than safety.” In my sermon the Sunday after we decided to welcome our neighbors-who-were-taken-to-be-Other, I said:

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant. Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us. Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one. We do this because this is the labor Christ has commanded us.

Admitting how the concerns around global terrorism were real and the policies with which to address it best were vague, we attempted to stress that the command of Jesus was stark and clear. We’re to welcome the Other, and, as Christians, we take our marching orders not from our Party’s talking points or Fox News but from the Risen Lord who warned us that one day we’ll judged on just this count.

Will Willimon, in his new book Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, expresses the same sentiment but frames it better than me: “Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls…we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others.” In a political culture marked by pervasive and often nasty fear, Christians instead should be afraid that we’re ignoring God, who took flesh, got uncomfortably particular in Jesus of Nazareth, and commanded us very specifically to love our enemies and welcome the stranger.

Says Willimon:

Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls…we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others. Our problem, in regard to fear, is that we fear the Other more than we fear the God who commands, “Love each other.”

If we are not sure that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I am certain that we cannot worship God who is Jesus Christ without also being under compulsion to encounter and embrace [the Other].

Willimon begins Fear of the Other with a characteristic theme; namely, the peculiarity of our baptismal identify in Christ and the distinctiveness of Christian discipleship. Like Stanley Hauerwas, Willimon reminds his readers that the American We in “We must build walls along our borders” and “We must keep Muslims out of our country” is not a ‘we’ that can include the followers of Jesus Christ.

Keeping the linguistic metaphor, Willimon observes the simple and obvious fact that Christian speech will not allow us to say certain things about strangers, aliens, or enemies. In a climate of fear Christians have no recourse but to remember that the only One whom we’re called to fear, the Lord, commanded us repeatedly “Do not fear.” Accordingly, in the very first paragraph of Fear of the Other, Willimon aims his little book at those presently stoking our fears to their own advantage and to our own tribal satisfaction. Almost as a dedication, Willimon writes:

Thanks to fellow Christians Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. If not for them, I would not have been asked to write this book…Let the politicians do what they must to be elected by people like us, though I think they are selling us short. My job is not to worry about opinion polls or what nine out of ten Americans can swallow without choking. My peculiar vocation is to help the church think like Christians so that we might be given the grace to act like Jesus.

From that TNT of an opening salvo, Willimon approaches Fear of the Other from a Barthian angle, arguing that as residents of the Far Country, the would-be-judged were it not for the Judge judged in our place, we are the Other to God. And by concealing himself in the flesh of a carpenter from Nazareth, God comes to us as the Other. Our posture of welcome and hospitality towards the Other is rooted in the Gospel awareness that apart from Jesus Christ we are all enemies of God.

As Willimon puts it: “Any Christian move toward the Other is based upon Jesus Christ’s move toward us: ‘We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies.’”

That the prejudice towards Other love is incontestable in both testaments leads me to wonder if the fear and xenophobia so rampant today, where majorities of evangelical Christians support Ted Cruz and Donald Trump whose policies defy the very commands of God to Moses on Sinai, is due to a lack of Gospel proclamation in our churches. Are we in the fearful, ugly state we’re in now because we long ago traded the kerygma for an individualized therapeutic gospel for survival in Christendom?

Willimon hints at a connection:

An important function of Christian preaching and church life is to render me into the Other. I am the enemy of God. I am the one who by my lifestyle and choices make myself a stranger to my sisters and brothers. I’m free to admit that because, in spite of my hostility to God, Jesus Christ has received me as friend.

Something must account for the disconnect between what scripture compels of Christians and how how so many of us Christians feel compelled to act in the public square. Unlike so many of the hot-button political issues that divide us, on this issue scripture is univocal. We can honest about the practical challenges our enemies and the Other pose to our society, but “Christians ought to admit that in debates about the Other Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ.” 

In what I take to be the most delightful passage in the book, Willimon skillfully exegetes the word for stranger in scripture, xenoishowing how the New Testament reports Jesus warns us that we will be judged according to how well we welcome and care for xenoi, how Judas, according to Matthew, was buried in a field reserved for xenoi, and how Paul in Ephesians proclaims that what has been accomplished through cross and resurrection is that xenoi are no longer xenoi but family in the household of God.

Only when we recognize ourselves as a Judas at the Table of our Lord can we welcome the xenoi amount us. And that’s a recognition we cannot accomplish by our own lights. Only the Risen Lord’s own work of revelation can so transform us that we see ourselves as a fellow betrayer of Christ. That the welcome we’re commanded to extended is likened to someone such as Judas is echoed by Paul in Romans, the point with which Willimon concludes Fear of the Other.

In Romans 11; Paul uses the phrase para phusin to describe God’s radically offensive act of adopting Gentiles in to the household of Israel. God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God, Paul says, is “against nature.” God’s grace is such that Christians owe their salvation to God’s extravagantly unnatural hospitality.

Christians have been adopted so unnaturally we must be a people of hospitality to both Jews and the Other. Because we are saved by such a strange grace, the welcome of strangers is a necessary posture for Christians. The salvation of Gentile Christians by the God of Israel proves that no work of welcome towards the Other is beyond this God’s unnatural grace.

Willimon’s a hard, needful word in an election season where many Christians seem more captivated by their Party’s story of America than by the Gospel story. Fear of the Other thus strikes the very Barthian chord that not only are Christians required to forgive and love our enemies, we’re expected, by our faithfulness to this Gospel, to create enemies who are worth forgiving and often those enemies will not be the Other outside of the church but those of us inside it.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgFrom the button down mind of Rev. Jason Micheli…

We continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this past weekend with a look at Paul’s claim in Romans 8 that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought…but that the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words.’

To bring Paul’s point home, I tried to imagine just what prayers prayed by people who know not how to pray sound like to God, who alone knows how to speak to God.

Here’s the sermon text: What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God?

Here’s the audio from the middle service and the video from the (stoned-faced) early service. You can download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ here. You can also listen to it on the sidebar widget to the right on the blog.

If you’re receiving this by email, you may need to go to www.tamedcynic.org to view the video of the sermon.

 

 

rp_lightstock_486_small_user_2741517-2-1024x682.jpgLast Sunday two friends from my congregation capped off our summer sermon series by tag-team preaching on Romans 15.18-24.
Here is the initial reflection from Marco Santangelo.
Presently, Marco is the Director of the George Washington Presidential Library; however, Marco is also a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary as well.
M_Santangelo-1
The alarm went off at 3:15 in the morning.
I was disoriented.
Not just because of the time.
Or the fact I had only gone to bed 3 1/2 hours earlier.
It was not my bed, I wasn’t home. I had never been here before and it took some time to recall my location and what I was doing.

I dressed, quickly, stumbled out the door, & walked through a long, dark corridor,  down two flights of stairs, and into the main sanctuary.

Where 52 men -robed in white- were already singing psalms to God.

 I was late.
It was my first experience on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani: a monastery in Central KY known for being the home to a famous Christian writer, Thomas Merton.
The monastery was located 30 minutes from Asbury Seminary, where I was a student.
I wanted to learn about how best to synchronize my Words about Jesus,  with my daily Actions. I was a Leader on campus and wanted that Leadership to be Christ-Centered.
The Apostle Paul makes it seem so easy. . .
photo
My professor recommended a 5 day monastic retreat, as a good place to start.
After the 3:15 morning worship service I was escorted to a coffee station where I fueled up before beginning my first day of work at 4am. The monks have a motto: “Pray & Work,” whether they are assigned at the Mill, the Farm, or in their Cheese Factory, they have created an environment where words and deeds exemplify Christ; and they are known for their Christ-Centered Leadership.
They assigned me to the cheese factory. Apparently, I look like the cheese-making type. I was okay with that and I worked hard. There were several other retreatants, like myself, working alongside the monks. But we couldn’t get their same rhythms.
And as hard as we worked, they worked even harder, but in a joyful, peaceful manner, singing psalms and hymns.
It was evident that Christ’s presence was among us.
I felt something sacred in the middle of a cheese factory. And nobody explained a single word, they all lead by example.
At the end of the week I realized that my words and my actions didn’t exemplify Christ in the same way as the monks. I was unaware of my role in the Body of Christ;  How was I to reach out to the Asbury community, as I hoped?

I had compartmentalized so many aspects of Me and I did not know how to combine my spiritual life with my work life; or, with my social life, academic life or dating life (at that time).

Whereas the monks had only one life, a Spiritual One centered on Christ, and everything else wrapped around it…. I heard their silent example at full volume.

 

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On the last day of the retreat,  it just-started to make sense.  I asked one of the monks, “how can I  take this spiritual exercise back home and make Jesus the center of my Words & Actions?
He said,
“First of all, I’ll be honest, this is a monastery. It’s not easy to replicate this outside of a Christ centered environment. So, don’t treat it like something you conquer. It’s part of your daily spiritual growth.

You may want to start by Stop speaking so much, open your heart and your ears.

Turn off the outside chatter and the inside chatter. Think of your favorite scripture. Recite it to yourself once in a while throughout your day.”
That’s a good place to start.
Wow, A practical, powerful answer; More than I ever received at Seminary.  I was looking for a way to make a spiritual difference in my community, and he told me to start with my own heart.
As I stand before you, today, I wish I could tell you how I have done this successfully, but I haven’t.  I wish I could tell you how I practice this regularly, but I don’t.  But I can say that the more we think about God and His Word throughout our day, the more our faith is expressed through our Words and Actions, and the more we understand our role in the Body of Christ.
And that will affect our community.
But to be frank, between those Seminary days and today I often say to myself, “Oh, I express my faith, ‘Leading by Example.’”  And ‘Leading by Example’ is a fantastic beginning but it’s not everything. If faith is expressed by example, alone, then it might be unclear that we are followers of Jesus. We could be following anyone. We don’t live in a Monastery, and our compassionate behavior can be interpreted in a number of philanthropic ways, including making tax-deductible gifts, to off-set taxes, when it really comes straight from the heart.
This morning’s scripture reading from Romans not only has meaning for our individual lives, but also draws a parallel to what we are building here at this satellite church. In the scripture reading from Romans, Paul summarizes his methods of evangelism. He is aware of his role as a leader-of-a-young Christian movement, and the fruitfulness of his work is solely dependent upon God. So, he leads by both word and action:
“I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me by my words and actions.”  Then he continues, “it has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
Paul knows his role, and his goal is to preach the gospel where it has not been heard…. What is our role to this community with the establishment of this church? There are many living in the area who are unchurched or who have little experience of Church in their lives.
This Church Is an Instrument of Christ’s love and we, too, must act by Word and Deed to reach others for the Gospel.
And, it starts with our own hearts.

lightstock_486_small_user_2741517-2Here’s my final sermon for this summer’s series through Romans. My texts were Romans 12.2, 13.7-11 as well as Mark 10.17-30. I’ll post the audio when it becomes available.

“Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

This is St. Paul starting to turn towards the finish line in his Letter to the Romans. After long eleven chapters, this is Paul reaching his conclusion.

This is Paul culminating  his dense argument on righteousness and justice and the faithfulness of God with a few sleeves-rolled-up, go-now-and-do ‘therefores.’

Paul has already answered the question that animated his argument from the get-go: Has God abandoned his People?

No, Paul has determined, leaving no room for ambiguity.

No.

No, God has not- God would not, not ever- abandon his promises to his People; so, do not be conformed to this world.

So live now as if the answer is no, as if God will never, could never abandon you.

Live as if God will always be with you. Live as if God never cease being for you.

Do not be conformed to this world.

In other words: live in the likeness of the Kingdom.

Everything in Paul’s letter has been building to this point.

From ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for the ungodly’ to ‘nothing- nor height, nor depth- nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

From ‘for I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it is the power of God for salvation’ to ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ to ‘there is therefore now no condemnation in Christ Jesus.’

Everything. Every memory verse has been building to this point: Do not be conformed. To the world. This world.

Of course, that just begs the question: What’s that look like? To be not conformed?

What’s it mean exactly to live in the likeness of the Kingdom?

So Paul begins to spell out in Romans 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

     Sounds simple enough, right?

     That is, until you remember- as I’m sure Paul wants you to remember- that when Jesus gave the same advice it came with a very big asterisk:

‘Go, sell everything that you own and give the money to the poor.

Then come and follow me.’

     Jesus said to the rich, young man in the Gospels, who had insisted he’d been keeping all the commandments his whole life.

     Sell everything you own. Give it to the poor. Then follow me.

     (If you want to make it to heaven.)

     Is that the kind of commitment Paul has in mind when he says we should not be conformed to this world?

     Now that we’ve heard his argument, now that we know God does not abandon his People, does Paul expect us to be able to do what the rich, young man could not do?

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A couple of years ago, I was invited to serve as the guest preacher for West Potomac High School’s Baccalaureate service.

There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd.

Because it was an interfaith ceremony the program didn’t even refer to me as a preacher. Instead it called me an ‘inspirational speaker.’

Now I warned them how I felt about that title; I told them how ‘inspirational speaker’ makes me think of guys on TV with capped teeth, hair plugs and seven steps to something.

The story Paul echoes in Romans 13, the story about Jesus and the rich man- that’s the passage I chose to preach on for the Baccalaureate.

I did so because in Matthew’s Gospel the rich man is said to be ‘young,’ which makes the rich man the only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels. So I thought it was an appropriate scripture given my audience.

To all of those seniors setting off for college where they would continue to be conformed to the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about the rich, young, religious high-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.

And in telling them about the rich young man, I also told them about a young woman I knew in a previous church. A young woman who was a straight-A student at an Ivy league school, who was nearing graduation, whose parents were anticipating her career and six-figure salary.

I told them how Ann, that young woman, threw them all for a loop one day and announced that rather than doing anything they had hoped she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in South America.

All because Jesus ‘loved’ her.

I thought the sermon went alright. I got a few laughs. I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling.

All in all, it seemed like it went okay.

Then I made the mistake of walking into the fellowship hall for the reception. All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.

At first, I didn’t even make it through the double doors.

     ‘Do you always preach like that?’ 

The question was barked at me in a hushed, let’s-not-a-make-a-scene tone of voice. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, and his bald head was flushed red with bulging out everywhere.

‘Do you always preach like that?’ he questioned me.

‘I guess you don’t go to church here?’ I said.

‘No, and we never will.’ 

     ‘I guess I don’t understand.’ 

‘My daughter has worked hard and I’ve saved so she can go to the best college and law school. And you’re telling her she should just throw all her ambition away to go help the poor? That’s irresponsible. You call yourself inspirational speaker?’  

And, okay, maybe I was in a contrary mood that day.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘it sounds like your problem’s with Jesus not with me. Maybe you should take it up with him.’ 

He stormed off with his family in tow.

Next, I tiptoed up to the punchbowl hoping nobody would notice me, and thought I was in the clear. But then a different Dad, this one in a yellow polo shirt and khakis came up to me.

He had a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus didn’t really mean sell EVERYTHING and give it to the poor.’

‘He didn’t?’ I asked.

And he smiled at me like I was no older than the high schoolers and he said: ‘Of course not. Don’t you see he just meant we should keep things in their proper perspective? That money and possessions aren’t problems so long as we put God first in our lives?’ 

And like I told you- it’s possible I was just feeling contrary.

I took a sip of lemonade and replied: ‘Proper perspective, huh? I like that. That sounds good. That sounds a lot more manageable. I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say that, but I like that a lot better.’ 

I left him there at the punch bowl not sure whether I’d just agreed with me or not.

I almost escaped the fellowship hall. I made it to the door by the kitchen, when a Dad, a church member here, stopped me.

He shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus just told that one man to sell everything and give it to the poor, right?’ 

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

     ‘Jesus didn’t ask anyone else to do that did he?’ 

And I thought about it and replied: ‘Well, the disciples weren’t rich but, yeah, they gave up everything too when Jesus called.’ 

I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.

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I walked down to my office to take off my robe and go home but lingering outside my office door was a mother with three embarrassed-looking kids loitering near her.

‘Can I help you? The ladies’ room is right there if that’s what you’re looking for.’ 

She blushed but didn’t smile.

‘I was just confused by your message’ she said.

‘Oh, well, don’t worry. That’s how my congregation feels most of the time.’ 

She shot me a perplexed look and motioned to her tallest girl standing to her left: ‘My daughter invited Jesus into her heart when she was fifteen. She’s saved. She doesn’t have to change her plans, give up her dreams or DO anything.’ 

‘You must be Baptist,’ I said.

She nodded but she didn’t laugh.

And I might’ve mentioned I was kind of feeling contrary that day.

‘Lady, whenever Jesus talks about salvation he seems to want a lot more from us than just our hearts.’ 

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     ‘Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’ 

      That’s the question the rich, young man asks. It’s basically the same question as the one provoked by Paul’s ‘Do not be conformed to this world’ conclusion: What’s it mean to live in the likeness of the Kingdom.

Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich guy from the suburbs comes up to him with a question.

And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the spiritual questions of these well-to-do, upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.

       ‘I do all those things already. What else? What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

Then the Gospel says: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’ 

This is the only place in all of the Gospels where it says Jesus ‘loved’ somebody. Jesus talks about love all the time but this rich, young man is the only person in the Gospels Jesus loved as an individual.

     ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’ 

He’s the only one Jesus loved, and Jesus asks everything from him.

They watch the rich man walk away, depressed and grieving.

And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s just about impossible.’ 

 

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I left that baptist mother looking confused outside my office. I actually made it to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible story yourself?‘

I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: ‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’ 

‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.

And I did a double-take and squinted at him: ‘Are you jerking me around?’ 

‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that Jesus believed in that rich man enough to ask him to give up everything. Jesus must’ve thought he could make more of his life than what the world tells us to settle for.’

He was about to get in his car when I said: ‘Hey, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’  

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When it comes to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, we get so jacked up worrying that Jesus might expect us to do what that rich young man could not.

     We get so preoccupied rationalizing ourselves free of the story that we completely miss- don’t even notice- how, in the story, Jesus is the one who loves.

     Jesus is the one who loves God.

     Jesus is the one who loves his neighbor, literally, as much as he loves himself.

 

So then-

What it means to love God

What it means to love your neighbor as yourself

What it means to live as if God could never, would never abandon us

     What it means to be conformed not to this world is to be like Jesus.

And what it means to be like Jesus is to love your neighbor the way Jesus loved his.

Did you catch that?

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

     And that means to love our neighbors requires that we not let the world conform our neighbors to itself.

To love our neighbors requires that we not let the world convince them that happiness can be bought, that truth is in the eye of the beholder, or that possessions do anything for us other than weigh us down like a fully-loaded camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle.

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To love our neighbors, the way Jesus loved them, requires that we not let the world seduce our neighbors into thinking that they are not their brothers’ keeper, that poverty is a problem that should cost us nothing, that those who live by the sword will live by the sword, that salvation is an individual enterprise.

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

To love them enough to tell them that Jesus thinks they’re capable of more than just a successful or happy life. That Jesus thinks their life can be significant, that Jesus even believes they’re CAPABLE of giving him everything.

What it means to love our neighbors is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

To love them with active verbs like GO, SELL, REPENT. CONFESS. COME, FOLLOW. FEED. SERVE. GIVE. FORGIVE. MAKE PEACE. SHOW MERCY. MAKE DISCIPLES.

     What it means to love our neighbors is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

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To teach them to love their enemies.

To tell them they’re meant to be like light to the world.

To exhort them to turn the other cheek and forgive 70 x 7.

To point to the one ditch, to the one in need, to the one in shame and remind them that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

     What it means to love your neighbor is to make sure they know that God’s plan is to change the world, to remake the world, and he chooses people like you to be that change.

     What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his. 

     And that doesn’t sound like good news because no one wants a neighbor who’s up in their business like Jesus is up in ours.

But given the news this week from Ferguson and Palestine and Iraq and fill in the blank…maybe that’s exactly the type of neighbor the world needs.

 

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

When you really stop to think about what Jesus and Paul would have us do, it begins to sound a lot easier to just sell all our stuff and give it away to the poor.

I mean to love our neighbors the way Jesus loved his sounds…impossible.

     But I suppose nothing’s impossible with God.

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rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.