I’m a contributor to the Apocalyptic section of Eerdman’s book Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives coming out next winter and edited by Scot McKnight. Here’s a look at the working cover and the list of contributors.
I’m a contributor to the Apocalyptic section of Eerdman’s book Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives coming out next winter and edited by Scot McKnight. Here’s a look at the working cover and the list of contributors.
A year ago this past Thursday a couple asked to meet with Dennis and me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently. Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced.
Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.
When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.
The husband, the Dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the Mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives. You baptized and confined our daughters so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.”
Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.
“What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.
And then she told us something else entirely. Something surprising.
She told us their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.
“They’re both gay” she said.
“Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”
They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.
“This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.
“But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here, that there’d be a place for them.”
“Of course. Absolutely.”
I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”
“You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.
“Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be just as true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners. It’s pious types he’s got a problem with.”
We talked a bit more.
About how this “issue” was playing out now in the larger United Methodist Church. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.
“You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’ve always pictured them having a place here.”
As Dennis broke down for you last Sunday, the United Methodist Church stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed impasse over the issue of human sexuality.
The Council of Bishops earlier this year received a report from a special 30-person global commission called “The Way Forward,” and on Friday the Council of Bishops released the broad strokes of what will be their recommendation to the larger Church next winter at a special session to decide the matter.
And on Friday night Dennis called me to tell me to talk about it in my sermon. “I’ll be away for the weekend,” he said before disappearing in a cloud of sulfur.
The Council of Bishops weighed 3 options put forward to the them.
Two of the options, on either end of the spectrum, could be termed the conservative and progressive options. The former option would keep our church polity and discipline as it is now where homosexuality is described as being contrary to Christian teaching and openly gay Christians are kept from serving in the ministry. The latter option, meanwhile, would liberalize the Church’s language on sexuality.
The challenge for a global Church, of course, is that there are many churches, especially in the developing world, that insist on the conservative option while there is a growing cultural consensus in North America towards flexibility on our views of sexuality.
What the Council of Bishops recommend is a middle way, a compromise called the “One Church” Model where the United Methodist Church doesn’t fracture and schism into pieces yet would allow churches and jurisdictions to decide for themselves, based on their mission field and cultural context, how they will interpret and enforce teaching on human sexuality.
In other words, it would allow the Church in a place like Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle to look different than the Church in Mississippi or Ghana.
Let me repeat that so you’ve got it:
The mission field would determine our position on sexuality and enforcement of it not our differing interpretations of what scripture says about sexuality.
And just in case the term “mission field” conjures up exotic images of sun-swept savannas, by mission field we’re talking about places like Aldersgate and 22308 where, for my kids and their peers, it’s strange-to-the-point-of-archaic that Christians are even still having this argument. Like it or not, Will and Grace settled this question for the culture years ago. In such a mission field, the question is do you care more that people have the right position on sexuality or do you care that they know Jesus is the friend of sinners?
If the recommendation is approved next winter (long odds still), then the best case scenario is that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexuality will be peace amidst difference. So, it’s much too early to know what will come of this issue in the larger Church but Dennis thought we owed it to you, as pastors of this particular church, to articulate why we endorse something like this middle way.
What the “One Church” model gets right that both of the other options get wrong, in my view, is that our mission to proclaim the Gospel to our community is more urgent than our being the Church with the right position on sexuality or the right interpretation of scripture on it.
Put another way, nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.
I have no interest in being a part of the Church-of-the-Correct-Opinion, whether that Church is traditional or progressive. I want to be a part of a Church that makes the Gospel what St. Paul says it is: the most important of our concerns.
And, notice in 1 Corinthians 15, in his definition of what is supposed to be our chief concern, the Gospel, the only sins Paul mentions in the Gospel are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them.
It seems silly to the point of missing the plot to spend time and treasure ($2,000/minute when the global Church gathers for days to debate this issue- I don’t want to put a damper on your generosity, but for every dollar you give to this church pennies to a nickel of it go to fund this argument)- it seems silly and sinfully wasteful to me to argue what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying.
Once for all.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.
The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:
Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification.
Therefore- by your baptism- there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?
If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?
Look, don’t let the earring and tattoos mislead you.
Theologically-speaking, I’m the most conservative pastor you have on staff. That’s not even a joke. Theologically-speaking, I’m so hyper-Protestant our DS accuses me of being Methodist-in-name-only.
So I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I really do. In the wake of #MeToo and this current administration, I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies and of women, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.
Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.
I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we mean by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood.
And I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the Gospel of Christ and him crucified.
I get it. I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, those parents who came to Dennis and me last spring grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such traditionalism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.
So I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate. But, I find other issues, other biblical issues, more urgent. Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.
In all our arguing about getting it right on this one issue- I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news.
Take today’s text:
His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin.
This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. Because by baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his).
And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).
You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness.
So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed?
Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.
To be blunt about it-
Whether you’re progressive or conservative- it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it- none of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism.
I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel, says St. Paul, frees us from the Law.
The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies you before God not at all. And because by your baptism you’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, the opposite is also true. Having an “impure” sex life effects your justification before God NOT AT ALL.
The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex. Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification.
In fighting over who has the righteous position, left and right, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of self-righteous works of the Law that prompted the Protestant movement exactly 500 years ago. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture about sex- they’re the Law: Do this…don’t do this.
The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.
The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.
I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sexuality debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.
You’ve fallen short of traditional biblical teaching.
You’ve fallen short of being open and affirming and inclusive.
You’ve fallen short.
I care about scripture and tradition, sure.
But I care more about the Gospel.
And the Gospel, as Jesus says, is good news. It’s for sinners and scoundrels and phonies not saints. It’s for those who are sick and know their need not for the show-offs with their claptrap about holy living.
I care more about the Gospel.
I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree. I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in Christ’s perfect righteousness. More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of your lives.
God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.
But here’s the thing about holiness-
Holiness, as Martin Luther said, doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness.
The former is to love God for what he has done for you.
The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do.
Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone.
Back to those girls-
And, since you baptized them, they’re your girls as much as they’re their parents’.
If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone UNLIKE them, then all our fighting is costlier than $2000 per minute.
If our ecclesial brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.
And if my kids’ peers are any indication, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this impasse.
Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Velma on Scooby Doo was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. Admit it, Anderson Cooper is the only member of the media you actually trust.
Our culture- this mission field- has moved on whether we like it or not. Queer Eye seems passe at this point.
If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel.
Why would he?
The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture.
Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough.
The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.
THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.
I don’t know what will come of the Bishops’ recommendation and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us; nonetheless, we’re in favor of a middle way because it seems that a middle way which leaves everyone slightly teed off is exactly how God works.
Such a middle way allows good people of faith to keep on discussing who it is those girls- your girls- can love but such a middle way does so without jeopardizing the Church’s primary mission to make sure those girls- your girls- know who loves them.
Know who loves them.
To the grave and back.
Who takes us into himself in our baptism and who gives himself to be taken into us through the wine and bread that is his body and blood.
All of us baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us; such that, not one of us can say to the other, no matter what we think about scripture or who we sleep with- not one of us can say to the other, I have no need of you.
I pitched in for our lectio continua series through Exodus this weekend by preaching on Exodus 5. In advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (and possibly because we spent so much time this summer in Romans), I’ve been rereading a lot of Luther and it shows. In a good way, I think.
Back in the halcyon days of the 2012 campaign, poor Mitt Romney caught flack for suggesting that “illegal aliens” self-deport. In-artfully put perhaps but at least Mitt Romney never suggested enslavement as an option.
And sure, Donald Trump’s proposed border wall is cost-prohibitive and deeply unpopular but, give him some credit- everyone’s always piling on the Donald, he had the decency to insist that Mexico pay for the wall.
Donald didn’t say the dreamers should build the wall, brick by brick, and now that Steve Bannon is out of the administration it’s highly unlikely that drowning baby boys will be proposed as possible immigration policy though, admit it, if you saw that floated as an idea on Breitbart later this afternoon it wouldn’t surprise you.
I’m going to get emails about that.
My point is-
It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture text.
It would be easy to preach a certain kind of sermon on this scripture. If you were draw a Venn Diagram between our world today and Pharaoh’s world, there’d be a lot of uncomfortable overlap in the middle. It’s hard to read the first chapters of Exodus and not hear the contemporary resonance.
This is important: the Israelites didn’t begin as slaves in Egypt; they became enslaved by Egypt. Pharaoh’s quandary wasn’t what to do with the dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants. His quandary was what to do with the children of the dream-reader, Joseph.
Between the Book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, famine- which in an agrarian society meant not only hunger but economic hardship- forced Joseph’s people, the Israelites, to migrate, as refugees, crossing over the border to their north in search of opportunity.
Sound familiar? Like I said, a certain sort of sermon almost writes itself.
When the Book of Exodus opens, Joseph the dream-reader has died and with him the favor he curried with Pharaoh. It’s not long that Jospeh’s in the ground before there’s grumbling about his people:
Those immigrants…they have so many kids…they’re overrunning the place.
That’s Exodus 1.9
Those illegals…they don’t assimilate…they should learn the language… they’re a drain on the system…they’re changing what made Egypt great.
That’s Exodus 1.10 (Anne Coulter Paraphrase Edition)
So what’s Pharaoh do?
He doesn’t ask them to self-deport. He enslaves them.
He doesn’t build a wall. He forces them to build pyramids and cities.
Again- the Israelites didn’t start out as slaves in Egypt; slavery was a strategy to slow their birth rate. Having recently discovered I’m Jewish, I can tell you- it’s hard to keep our libido down.
Enslavement didn’t work as population control so then Pharaoh tries infanticide, ordering the abortion of Israelite boys mid-delivery- that’s how baby Moses ends up in an ark on the Nile.
And when abortion didn’t work, Pharaoh resorted to making their work cruel and arbitrary, forcing them not only to make bricks but to gather the materials for them without adjusting their quota a single brick.
A certain kind of sermon almost writes itself.
It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture.
I could easily unpack the context beneath this text, and I could connect it in an obvious intuitive way to contemporary issues from DACA to the wall to the refugee crisis, from sex-trafficking to the slavery stitched into your clothes to the number of black men killed by cops without a conviction.
And I could localize it for you, telling you about the dreamer in our own congregation or about the woman who worships here who works for the International Justice Mission fighting slavery and sex-trafficking.
It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on a scripture like this, and the imperative in that sort of sermon is obvious too: God is for them.
The oppressed, the enslaved, the marginalized; the immigrant and the refugee- God is for them.
In the Catholic Church, it’s called God’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, God is on the side of the least, the lost, and the left behind. God does not forget them. God hears their cries. God does not forget them.
God is for them and- here comes the imperative- as God’s People you have a duty.
You have a duty to be for them too.
You have a duty to stand up, to speak out, to resist, to persist against systems of inequality and exploitation and oppression.
You have a duty to stand up and, like Moses to Pharaoh, say: “Thus says the Lord: Let my People go..”
It would be an easy sort of sermon to preach.
And if I did, some of you would complain that I was preaching politics. You’d feel judged for being on the wrong side of the issues.
Others of you would congratulate me for preaching your politics. You’d feel justified that you’re on the right side of the issues.
Of course, it’s not your politics or your politics but God’s politics.
It’s God’s Law, God’s commands.
It’s God’s Law that we are to treat the illegal immigrant on our land as a native born. Love them as yourself, God commands, for once you were an alien in Egypt. It’s God’s Law that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s God Law that we forgive the debts of the poor. And Jesus gives us his own Law. Jesus commands us to work for justice. If someone asks us for a handout, Jesus commands us to give them that and more. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry as though the hungry were hm. And what’s even worse, Jesus doesn’t just command those actions. He commands that you do them for the right reasons. God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intentions in your heart, Jesus says, right before he says “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”
It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on this scripture.
God is for them.
You have a a duty to be for them too.
Like Moses to Pharaoh, go and do likewise.
It would be easy to preach that kind of sermon and back it up with a list of God’s Laws. It wouldn’t be wrong to preach that sort of sermon- that sort of sermon gets preached in churches every Sunday.
It wouldn’t be unbiblical to preach that sort of sermon- God’s commands are clear and uncompromising.
Would it turn the Gospel into a work of forced labor that leaves you exhausted and full resentment?
Would it leave you thinking of God as a kind of Pharaoh, with the same complaint for him on your lips as Moses: “Why have you brought this trouble in my life, Lord?”
In “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” an article in The Hedgehog Review, Wilfred McClay, who is a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, argues that the modern world prophesied by the Friedrich Nietzsche has not obeyed the script written for it.
Nietzsche, McClay reminds us, was confident that once God was functionally dead in western civilization and western culture was liberated from the slavey of religion then the moral reflexes we’d developed under that system of oppression would disappear.
We would be free, Nietzsche predicted.
After the West’s exodus from religion generally and Christianity particularly, all would be permitted as the bonds of the old morality were broken, especially, Nietzsche predicted, the bonds of guilt.
With the West’s exodus from Christianity, guilt would disappear.
Nietzsche believed guilt was an irrational fear promulgated by oppressive systems of religion and erected in the name of a punitive taskmaster God, McClay writes.
The modern secular age, Nietzsche promised, would usher in freedom, freedom from guilt.
He was wrong.
Strangely, McClay says, guilt has persisted as a psychological force in the modern world. Guilt hasn’t disappeared as Nietzsche augured. Guilt hasn’t even lingered. It’s metastasized, McClay writes, “into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary west.”
Guilt hasn’t disappeared with the rise of secularism; it’s gotten worse. It’s metastasized because of what McClay calls “the infinite extensibility of guilt, which is a byproduct of modernity’s proudest achievement: it’s ceaseless capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.”
In other words, McClay is saying what Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
And in the modern world, we have more power over the physical world than we’ve ever had and, with it, we’ve discovered what Uncle Ben didn’t bother to mention to Peter Parker: “With great responsibility comes great guilt.”
McClay puts it more eloquently than Stan Lee: “Responsibility is the seedbed of guilt.”
And this sense of responsibility and accompanying guilt, McClay argues, is exacerbated by a connected, globalized, 24/7 world. In such a constantly connected world, he writes, “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore our potential guilt, steadily expands.”
What Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t foresee is how the interconnectedness of all things- available to us at our fingertips- means there is nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.
It’s not just that you can’t go to Costco without getting hassled by the panhandler at the light; it’s that now in this constantly connected world you can’t swipe your debit card at Safeway without the screen asking you to give money to end childhood hunger.
“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could…
Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.
Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless…
In a world of relentlessly proliferating knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough, and how much is too much.”
McClay goes on in his article to suggest that the reason our collective fuse is so short, the reason we’re so quick to blame and scapegoat and demonize and point the finger and virtue-signal, the reason we’re so easily outraged and offended, the reason we’re so eager to hide in like-minded tribes and jump down the other side’s throats is because we’re sick.
We’re burdened down with guilt. We’re pervasively desperate “to find innocence through absolution.”
As a culture, we’ve lost the means to discharge our moral burden. We’ve lost the means to find forgiveness.
If McClay is correct- and I think it only takes a few seconds on social media to confirm that he is- then the sermon that would be easy to preach today is not the sermon you need to hear.
The other sort of sermon, the go and do sort of sermon-
It wouldn’t be wrong; it just wouldn’t be the Gospel. It would be the opposite of the Gospel. It would be the Law not the Gospel, what the Book of Romans calls the way of death because it ends in guilt and frustration and, ultimately, despair because you can never do enough.
God’s Law commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, no matter their skin color or immigration status. God’s Law does command us to love the refugee among us. God’s Law does command us to love our enemies and pray for them, to treat the poor and the desperate as through they were Christ, and to welcome the stranger.
And some of you live up to those commands better than others, but do you do so all the time?
For the right reasons? Because Jesus says if you’ve done his commands without your heart in it, it’s no different than not having done it all.
St. Paul says the purpose of the Law, the purpose of all those expectations and exhortations in scripture, is to shut your mouth up (Romans 3.19), to convict you that you are not righteous and on your own you cannot stand justified before God.
Martin Luther paraphrased that part of St. Paul as lex semper accusat:
The Law always accuses.
That is, the purpose of the Law is to convince you that you’re a sinner in need of a savior. The oughts of the Law (you ought to love your neighbor as yourself) are meant to reveal are all your cannots, that no matter how ‘good’ you are you fall short fall short.
The reason Jesus adds intention to action (God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intent in your heart), the reason Jesus ratchets up the degree of difficulty all the way to perfection (Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect) is so that we’ll have no other resort but to throw ourselves on the mercy of him who was perfect in our place.
“Christ,” Paul says, “is the end of the Law.”
The Law’s obligations have been fulfilled by him. By his faithfulness all the way unto a cross. And there on the cross, your failures to follow the Law have been paid by him.
The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure.
The Gospel is the good news that on the cross God has met you in your failure and forgiven you.
You don’t need Christ to tell you that you should love your neighbor as yourself. Every religion tells you that you should love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s not news. That’s moralism.
What is news; what is unique to Christianity alone; what is the Gospel- is the message that in Jesus Christ God became your neighbor and loved you as himself even though you loved him not.
The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure. The Gospel is the news that God has met you in your failure.
God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself.
God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.
God has met you in your failure to be a good mother.
God has met you in your failure to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister or a compassionate son, or an understanding daughter.
God has met you in your failure and God has forgiven you.
This never stops being true for you.
No matter how many times you drive past the panhandler on the Costco corner. No matter how many times you press ‘No’ on the Safeway screen. No matter how many times you click through the latest outrage you know you should care more about.
God has met you in your failures and by his own blood said “I forgive you” so that your sins become his and his righteousness becomes yours, permanently and forever.
Your sins and failures of faith- they’re not just forgiven, they’re erased. “Your slate is more than clean. It’s brand new, perpetually so” (Law and Gospel).
It’s true that God hears the cries of the oppressed and the exploited. It’s true that God does not forget them. But the Gospel is that when it comes to your sins, God does forget.
The absolution that is in Christ’s blood is a kind of divine amnesia, Paul Zahl says, a forgiving and forgetting of all your failures to be faithful.
This is true for Moses, who killed a man and buried him in the sand. And it’s true for Pharaoh, whose heart was already hard on his own. And it’s true for Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. And it’s true even for you.
Professor McClay concludes his essay with this assertion:
“For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for.
And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight that seeks opportunities for release but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation.
Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution. What is to be done?
One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the exodus of religion as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Indeed, the persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claim of Christianity.”
That’s a history professor, not a preacher.
The certain sort of sermon that would be easy to preach on a scripture like today’s text- it’s not the message the modern world needs to hear. The world doesn’t need more moralism. The world needs the Gospel.
Standing up, speaking out, resisting systems of injustice and oppression- those are needful, noble acts but they are actions that don’t need the Church.
The Church is not the only people standing up and speaking out for social justice.
By contrast, the Church is the only People on earth commissioned by God with the authority to announce, to victims and victimizers alike, “Your sins are forgiven.” That’s our unique vocation.
Just as the Old Testament declares that God called Moses to be his ambassador to Pharaoh to announce “Let my people go,” the New Testament declares that God has called you and I, by our baptisms into his Holy Church, to be ambassadors of the Gospel.
And the Gospel is not the Law.
The Gospel is not a list of demands you have a duty to follow but the news, the good news, that in Jesus Christ you have been delivered from what you deserve.
Your slate is isn’t just clean; it’s new every morning.
The God who does not forget his People does forgive and forget their sins.
The Gospel is not “Go and do…”; the Gospel is “It has been done.”
This news of what has been done, this news of the free gift of God- this alone makes the “Go and do” possible.
You can go and do only when you know it has been done (because no one deserves for you to go and do to them out of guilt).
This news alone liberates us to stand up for justice and work against oppression, for, as the closing hymn says, only the Gospel has the power to transform duty into choice and slaves into children.
I cannot exaggerate the influence Dr. Gaventa’s work has had on my preaching as well as my faith. A former teacher of mine at Princeton, Beverly Gaventa opened up Paul’s letters to me, which in turn opened up the Gospels to me and also gave me the lens through which I could read the Old Testament.
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Having received a steady diet of Gospel from our summer sermon series through Romans, I stumbled upon Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners and Saints by David Zahl et al. I encourage you to check it out. It’s slim and digestible.
The book concludes with a spot-on, convicting (for me), and helpful guide to distinguish whether what you’re hearing in church is Law or Gospel.
The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
“A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines.
This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:
1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.
2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.
3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.
4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.
5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.
6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.
7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:
Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)
If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.”
I preached this Sunday at my good friend Todd Littleton’s church, Snow Hill Baptist, outside Oklahoma City. Todd followed the same schedule through Romans this summer as my church. My text was Romans 14.1-12.
If you’re all caught up on Game of Thrones
If, like Todd Littleton, you’ve already watched every episode of all 4 seasons of Bachelorette in Paradise
If Donald Trump’s tweets have lost some of their luster, but you’re afraid to tell your friends you’ve turned to Rachel Maddow
If you’re looking for something new to watch, then I suggest you check out Stalker, a dark, dystopian science fiction film from the 1970’s. I discovered it on Netflix after I’d binge-watched all 7 seasons of Californication.
Stalker tells the allegory of 3 men who journey across a post-nuclear wasteland.
Shrouded in mystery, the character called Stalker guides two other characters, who are cryptically named Writer and Professor, across the burnt out remains of a devastated civilization.
Stalker is leading them to an apocalyptic oasis called the Zone. Stalker has promised them that at the center of the Zone is a place called the Room.
In the Room, Stalker tells them, they will achieve their hearts’ desire. In the Room, their dreams will come true. In the Room, you will get exactly what you truly want.
Initially, it sounds like a promise worth a journey.
Only, when they arrive at the threshold of the Room, Writer and Professor get cold feet. They’re overcome with second thoughts as the frightening thought occurs to them: What if we’re stranger to ourselves?
‘What if I don’t know what I want?’ Writer and Professor, in turn, ask Stalker.
‘Well,’ Stalker explains to them, ‘that’s for the Room to decide. The Room reveals you, it reveals all, everything about you: what you get is not what you think you wish for but what you most deeply wish for.”
At the edge of the Room, what had sounded like a dream starts to feel like a nightmare. Rather than escaping the ruins of God’s apocalyptic judgement, it feels like they’re about to enter into it.
Anticipation turns to dread as Writer and Professor both have an epiphany that terrifies them: What if they don’t want what they think want?
In other words, what if they’re not who they think they are?
In a book about the film, critic Geoff Dyer says:
“Not many people can confront the truth about themselves. If they did, they’d take an immediate and profound dislike to the person in whose skin they’d learn to sit quite comfortably for years.”
Eventually, Writer and Professor run away, terrified at the prospect of standing before the Room and having their true selves laid bare.
Watching Stalker this dark, dystopian sci-fi flick from the ’70’s, you’d never close out Netflix, check it off on your queue, click off the clicker, and say to yourself That was a happy story.
You’d never leave a review on Rotten Tomatoes to evangelize strangers You’ve got to check out this story about the Room “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid…”
You might say it’s a good story, a good flick, a good scare.
But you’d never say it was good news.
So how is this passage next up in Paul’s queue, “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God,” how is this good news?
This sounds like bad news.
But the Apostle Paul left the bad news behind back in chapter 3.
Back when he said that “…all are under the Power of Sin…there is no one righteous; not one…all have turned aside and stand condemned.”
That was 11 chapters ago. The bad news was 11 chapters ago.
Since then, the Apostle Paul’s message has been Gospel- the good news that we are justified not by anything we do but by what Christ has done.
That what matters is not our faith (or lack thereof) but Christ’s faithfulness.
That what counts- what God reckons- is not our unrighteousness but Christ’s righteousness.
It has been good news for 11 chapters.
Paul’s apostolic announcement has been about freedom:
Freedom from the Law.
Freedom from having to do right.
Freedom from the burden of human performance.
For 11 chapters, it’s been the good news of our freedom:
Freedom from judgement because, Paul told us, “…while we were yet enemies of God, God in Christ died for the ungodly.”
Freedom from guilt because, Paul told us, “…Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; we are now justified by his grace as a gift.”
Freedom from condemnation because, Paul promised, “…There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
If nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus
If nothing we do can separate us from the love of God- nothing:
Not our participation in persecution or war
Not our habits that lead to hardship or distress
Not our apathy that enables nakedness and peril and famine
If nothing we do-
If nothing we turn a blind eye to-
Can separate us from God, in whom there is now no condemnation, then how is this good news: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God?”
Now, I realize this is a Southern Baptist Church in a state redder than the Ayatollah, which means, chances are, this is your second favorite scripture verse after John 3.16.
But I can tell you nothing tightens the sphincters of east coast liberals quite like a verse such as this one: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God.”
Still, even if the verse doesn’t make you fret with holy fear or sweat with sudden self-awareness, even if this verse doesn’t bother you, you still have to square it with the 11 chapters that have come before.
You still have to square this “…everyone will come before the judgement seat of God” with what Paul said 4 chapters earlier that “…everyone who confesses with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved.”
Which is it? Everyone will be judged? Or everyone will be saved?
How does “…all will stand before the judgement seat of God…” square with chapter 11 where Paul said that all will be saved, that God will be merciful to all.
Which is it, Paul?
It can’t be both/and can it?
That everyone who confesses Jesus Christ will be saved and everyone will stand before the judgement seat of God?
How do we square it?
Because you have to do something with it.
You can’t just dismiss it as a throwaway verse because the Apostle Paul doubles down on it in verse 12: “…each of us will be held accountable before God’s tribunal…”
In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of God.”
And you can’t dismiss this verse about judgement because the Apostle Paul here sounds like Jesus everywhere- all over the Gospels, Jesus warns of the Coming Day of Judgement.
As in his final teaching before his Passion, Jesus promises that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, gathering all before him.
unbelievers and believers
unrighteous and righteous
the unbaptized and the born again
All- not some- all, Jesus says, will be gathered for judgement.
The “saved” are not spared.
And all will be reckoned according to who fed the hungry and who gave water to the thirsty and who clothed the naked and who welcomed the immigrant.
And who did not.
“All shall stand before God for judgement,” Paul says.
Just like Jesus said.
And according to Jesus’ Bible that reckoning will be a refining.
A refining fire, says the prophet Malachi, where our sinful self- even if we’re saved- will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still in us will be burnt away.
The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed.
The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed.
The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed.
The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self-righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God who is a refining fire.
Now, keep in mind- purgation is not damnation.
Purgation is not damnation.
But neither is it pain free. Neither is it pain free.
Again, how is this good news?
What’s Paul doing saying this here, in chapter 14?
Paul left the bad news behind, back at the beginning.
But the promise that you will stand before the judgement seat of Almighty God- stripped and laid bare, all your disguises and your deceits revealed, naked wearing nothing but your true character- admit it, it sounds awful.
It doesn’t sound at all like anything to which you’d say: ‘Amen! Me first.’
A couple of Fridays ago, my oldest son and I milled around Charlottesville. I went to college there and now we have a house nearby.
Alexander and I walked around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and UVA’s Grounds just before the tiki-torch-bearing scare mob descended from the Rotunda shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
“Dad, don’t make any jokes about discovering you’re Jewish” Alexander whispered to me. I laughed, not sure if I should be laughing.
We saw the empty Emancipation Park snaked with metal barricades and draped with police tape.
We saw homeless men looking dazed and curious about the stage craft and street theater setting up around them.
We saw the lonely-looking white men- boys- wearing white polos and khaki cargo pants, whose faces, illumined by flame and fury, we’d later recognize in the Washington Post.
We grabbed a coffee and a soda just off the side street where Heather Hoyer would be murdered the following day.
Meanwhile, some of my clergy colleagues were in an adjacent church training for non-violent protest, learning how to lock arms, how wash away tear gas, and how roll over to protect your liver when you’re being kicked or beaten.
There’s an elementary school near the park there in Charlottesville, most African American kids. I used to work there in their after school program, Monday through Friday, when I was an undergraduate.
Walking around the park with my son, I thought of Christopher Yates, the boy who had no father at home, whom I took to Long John Slivers on occasion.
Back then, he had no idea there were people in the world who looked like me who hated people like him simply because they looked like him.
Walking around that park on Friday with my son, who is not white and is growing into an ugly but necessary awareness of that fact, I thought of Christopher.
And I got angry- righteously angry- at those who would fill the park the next day.
“God damn them all,” I whispered, making sure my son could hear.
That Sunday I led the long pastoral prayer in my congregation.
And what I prayed…I prayed about them.
I prayed about them, those whose thoughts and actions betray allegiance to the gods of bigotry.
I prayed about them, those whose apathy and excuses and silence tolerate hate and harm.
“Bring your judgement to them, O God,” I prayed.
“Bring judgement to those who embrace terror, racism, and violence…” I beseeched.
Bring your judgement I begged.
Bring your judgement- upon them.
God damn them all.
It was a good prayer, I thought.
Not everyone agreed.
One man, whose mother I buried and whose kids I confirmed, fired off an email complaining about “the Stalinist regime of [my] ministry.”
“Please don’t use this event as an excuse to ram progressive orthodoxy down our throats. More religion and less politics!!!!!!! Please!!!!
At least he said the magic word.
I read his email and sighed and, under my breath, I said “Bless his heart,” which you might not have here in Oklahoma- it’s a southern euphemism for “@#$% @#$”
Still another worshipper took me to task for my prayer that Sunday.
Frank is in his 80’s, a retired Old Testament Professor from Greenville College. He and his wife moved to my parish a few years ago to be near his daughter.
After the final Sunday service had finished and the crowd had petered away and the ushers were cleaning up the pews, Frank shuffled up to me.
He was hunched over as he always is, a knobby cane in one hand and a floppy bible in a carrying case in the other hand.
He stopped, I noticed, to face the altar wall and, with his cane in his hand, genuflected the sign of the cross, tracing it across his lips and then his chest.
Almost always Frank has nothing but unfettered praise for me, which makes him not only the President of the Jason Micheli Fan Club but it’s only member.
Almost always Frank has nothing but praise. Not this time.
Shaking my hand, he shook his head in a ‘there you go again’ kind of way.
And he said: “Well, Reverend, you certainly were bold to pray for judgement on them.”
I was already beaming.
Ignoring my self-satisfied smile, he added: “You just weren’t nearly bold enough.”
“Professor, I don’t know what you mean…”
He cut me off with a “Tssskkk….” sound between his teeth.
“You only prayed for them. You didn’t pray for our judgement.”
“But…” I started to protest, “I was there. We weren’t the ones with hoods or tiki-torches.”
“Everyone in this country is sick with judging- judging and indicting, posturing and pouring contempt and pointing the finger at someone else,” he said, pointing his finger at me.
He raised his voice a little as well as his hunched-over posture: “As Christians, we’re supposed to put ourselves first under God’s judgement…”
“…Because we’re the only ones who know not to fear the Judge…” I completed his sentence for him.
He smiled and nodded, like I’d just passed his exam.
“Christians like to say that every Sunday is a little Easter, but, every day- every day is Ash Wednesday where we bear the judgement of God on behalf of a sinful world.”
He tapped his cane on the carpet and lifted up his bible by the straps as if to say: It’s all right here if you’d just read it.
And it is- all right here.
The Apostle Peter makes Paul’s same point when he writes in his letter that “Judgement begins with the household of God.”
The household to which Paul writes, the church in Rome, was divided against itself over issues of food and worship.
It reads in Romans like an obscure, arcane issue, but wipe the dust off their dispute and you discover it’s really the same debate you see spun out all over social media, on CNN and Fox News, and across the front page of your newspaper (if you still trust them enough to read them).
It was a debate over politics and identity.
It was an issue of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’
The community in Paul’s Rome had split into factions, drawn lines, created competing tribes whose divisions had calloused and calcified into contempt.
Sweep the dust off this argument and you see that the community in Paul’s Rome was no different than the community in the Rome we call America.
Carnivores vs. Vegetarians.
It’s different in form but not in function from Democrats vs. Republicans.
Meat-Eaters vs. Non-Meat-Eaters – it’s the same dynamic as Black vs. White, Conservative vs. Progressive, Racist vs. Righteous.
Every time, in each instance- it’s like Pink Floyd said; it’s Us and Them.
And to them all, the Apostle Paul admonishes: “Do not judge…for we will all stand before the Judgement Seat of God.”
“Judgement begins with the household of God.”
Pay attention now-
Paul isn’t arguing (a la The Donald) that there are “many sides” to every issue. Paul isn’t asserting that every possible practice or perspective is permissible. Paul most certainly isn’t urging acceptance for acceptance’s sake or tolerance for tolerance’s sake.
No, when Paul implores the Christians in Rome not to cast judgment, he’s instead instructing them to bear it.
To bear judgement.
When Paul reminds them that we will all stand before the judgement seat of God, he’s not warning them of coming condemnation. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Paul isn’t preaching fire and brimstone. Paul’s pointing to their baptisms.
He’s reminding them of their calling, their commissioning.
He’s exhorting them to imitate Christ.
Frank smoothed his tie underneath his jacket but it flopped out again as he hunched back over and shuffled out of the narthex.
He turned around a few steps later, pushed his glasses back up his nose, tapped his cane on the carpet, and then pointed its end at me.
“We talk all the time about imitating Christ, about being his hands and feet, and doing the things Jesus did. Most of the time we’re talking about serving the poor, forgiving another, or speaking truth to power.’
“But if the most decisive thing Jesus did was become a curse for us, taking on the burden of judgement for the guilty, then the primary way Christians imitate Christ is by bearing judgement on behalf of the guilty.”
The primary way Christians imitate God-for-us is by bearing judgement for others.
Don’t you see- that’s how this is good news.
It’s us. We’re the good news.
We’re the good news of God’s judgement. We’re the followers of Jesus Christ who, like Jesus Christ, mimic his willingness to bear the judgement of God on behalf of the guilty.
We’re the good news in this word of God’s judgement.
In a world sin-sick with judging and judging and judging, indicting and scapegoating and recriminating and casting blame- we’re the good news God has made in the world.
We who are baptized and believing, we who are saved and sanctified- we who should be last under God’s judgement thrust ourselves to the front of the line and, like Jesus Christ, say “Me first.”
Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat.
Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess.
We listen to the guilty. We never stand self-righteously at a distance from them. We never forget that ‘there but for the grace of God’ we’d be just like them, and that them not us, them- the ungodly, are the ones for whom God died.
We bear judgement rather than cast it.
We confess: our own sinfulness and guilt, our own racism and violence and pettiness, our own apathy and infidelity and failures to follow.
Knowing that there have been plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus thirsty and not given him a drink, plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus an immigrant and not welcomed him.
Knowing that even when we have seen Jesus hungry and fed him that doesn’t change the fact that even our good deeds, our best deeds, are like rags, for not one of us, really, is righteous and there is no distinction, really, between any of us.
We bear judgement rather than cast it.
Because we know we can come before God’s Judgement Seat expecting to hear the first words spoken when God came to us: “Do not be afraid.”
We’re the good news in this word of God’s Judgement.
Stalker, that dark, dystopian sci-fi flick from the ’70’s about a Room to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid…” it’s a disturbing, unsettling, thought-provoking film.
It received hundreds of positive reviews.
It helped inspire HBO’s West World.
The British Film Institute ranks it #29 on its list of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time.
It’s a good movie.
But you’d never call it good news.
You’d never call it good news.
Not unless the cast included a few more characters, people who thrust the terrified Writer and Philosopher aside at the threshold into the Room and said to them “Me first.”
David King is a rising sophomore at Haverford College and served as my intern this summer. He’s the sixth intern I’ve had in my time at Aldersgate, presently four of the previous five are engaged in ministry.
Here’s his final sermon for the summer on Romans 15.14-21
Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching. I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content. I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness. I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as our country is torn. But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I lack hope. I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.
I would be remiss to talk about something other than the events that occurred last weekend just three hours south of here, in the valley town of Charlottesville, where the home of local slave-owner and founding father Thomas Jefferson overlooks the campus of one of the bastions of higher education in America.
On Saturday morning, just last week, a group of clergy from around the Charlottesville area and the broader Virginia community, led by the Rev. Dr. Cornel West, marched in silence through the streets of that American town, leading towards a confrontation with the largest nationalist gathering, to put it lightly, in two decades.
They marched, in silence, towards a herd of gun-carrying, Kevlar-vest wearing, pepper-spray boasting group of people who are perhaps more than ever responsible for bringing to the forefront the American plague.
They marched, in silence, towards a group of people possessed by a disease, a plague. Perhaps, one might even call it a demon. Or, if you are really bold enough, if you are Pauline enough, you might call it The Demon, The Devil, Satan.
When those clergy met with protestors, it was not vitriol that came forth from their mouths. They did not spew hatred and lies. They did not confront the Enemy, capital E, with the sword. No, rather, what sprung from their lips was a song, one that I think you would all be familiar with.
[Sing “this Little light of mine”]
Indeed, what rang across the streets of Charlottesville in rejection of the Demon they confronted was that song, a song of resistance, a song of children, a song of innocence and beauty. It was a song I learned in Sunday School, one that I’m sure you and you children did too. It was a song sung for decades in resistance of the hatred our society has propagated. And that morning in Charlottesville, it was song sung univocally, with no quivering in their voices.
In a word, it was a song sung boldly.
Or perhaps, boldly is the wrong word. Perhaps we should rather say that it was kauchesin, the Greek word found in verse 17 of today’s scripture. Translated in our text as boasting, it should rather be translated more accurately as “glorying.”
That’s what that song was. And the fact of the matter is, that’s what Paul’s writing has been about. His writing to the Romans, to the Church in Rome that he has never seen or visited, is glorying. It is that because, just like every other word in Romans, his writing is centered on the work of God in Christ, not his own. Paul’s work is always already not his own, but it is work through the strength of Christ and to the glory of his name.
[Sing second verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]
If you pay close attention to what Paul says in today’s scripture, you cannot help but notice that in every sentence, virtually every verse, there is some note that what he does, he can only do through a given grace, The Given Grace, of Christ.
Look at verse 15: “because of the grace given me by God.” And verse 16: “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (note it is not Paul’s Gospel, but God’s). And verse 17: “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason.” And verse 18, “What Christ has accomplished through me.” And pay special attention here, note, the subject of that sentence is not Paul! The actor, the person that the verb is referencing, it’s Jesus!). And verse 19, “by the power of the Spirit of God.”
Paul cannot escape the fact that he can do nothing to spread the Gospel except through Christ. In fact, it’s a reality he does not want to escape, and neither did the clergy in Charlottesville last weekend. For while they were attacked, the attention was not on them. While they were hurt, the song continued ringing.
And while one might think that it was the strength of the individuals there, the song coming from their mouths, that sustained them, I’d wager that every clergy member there would vehemently disagree with you. I would even venture to say that they would use the very same language Paul uses in verse 18: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.”
In fact, they might use an even stronger translation and say this: “For I will not DARE to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me,” for those clergy know much better than you or I that we are nothing, we have nothing, we can only be nothing, if we do not have Christ. If Christ did not die for the unworthy, for the most ungodly, then we have nothing.
But this is not bad. We cannot be anything without Christ because Christ was, is, our everything. I do not mean that in a cliché or meaningless way; that statement is the very thing we confess when we are baptized into the Church. Jesus is our everything, and it is only through him that we can speak, live, breathe, and have our being.
Those clergy knew that. And so did Paul, walking the roads of an all-too familiar empire 2000 years ago.
[Sing third verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]
“It is my ambition,” says Paul, “to proclaim the Good News.” The Greek word, “philotimoumenon,” which here translates as ambition, more directly means “to prosecute as a point of honor.” To proclaim, and to take honor and joy in that proclamation, is Paul’s missionary journey – and it’s ours too.
It is our missionary, apostolic vocation to walk the roads of the American Empire, and proclaim a different Lord, the only Lord. But the effectiveness of that message, as Paul knew all too well, has little to do with us and all to do with, in the words of Karl Barth, “the strange awareness of the presence of a wholly different and incommensurable factor – Jesus Christ.”
We are remiss to forget the strangeness to which we are called, as Christians. The strangeness of singing in the face of violence, of laying down the sword in the face of the barrel of a gun, of echoing the harmony of the heavenly chorus in the face of the Demon himself.
And let us not forget the power of this message. Let us not forget the power of this vocation. Let us not forget Paul. Before he started walking, neither Asia Minor nor Greece had heard of this radical Jew from Nazareth called Jesus. And when Paul set down his pen and joined his Lord in heaven, little communities had appeared all over Caesar’s empire, proclaiming and confessing the Risen Christ, the suffering and strange servant the prophet Isaiah foretold.
Listen closely to the passage Paul quotes here:
“Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”
Something’s not right here. The parallels do not add up. They do not make sense. Those who haven’t been told will see? Those who haven’t heard will understand? Listening and seeing don’t match; hearing and understanding don’t match. It doesn’t make sense.
It does not make sense, that is, if we think that our first mission as Christians is to tell and force understanding. It doesn’t make sense if we think that our first mission as Christians is to do something at all.
Let’s look at this again: “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.” You will notice that there is no 1st person tense in this sentence. There is no “I.” It is all 3rd person. So when we interpret and read Paul, we have to also understand that our first mission, as Christians, is to let God do the work. We are not called to tell the Gospel, but to show it; we are not called to teach the Gospel, but to be a living witness to it. And that, my friends, is where the work of God becomes most clear. When we remove the first person, when we remove ourselves and our inevitably large egos, that is where the Gospel shines through, and where the work of God is apparent.
You know, that’s why the grammar of the song the clergy sang is so important. When their voices rang through the streets of Charlottesville, when they rose a song in the face of Nazis, the most venerable “I,” the individual, was shut out and shut away. It was there that the work of God became clear in the midst of the Clergy. For they knew, better than you and me combined, that they had neither lit the light nor provided the candle. They knew that all they needed to do was “let it shine.”
But do not mistake this for a passive stance, an allowance of the virulent violence that pervades and manifests our world. To speak of God, to sing of God is a bold stance to take, and one that glorifies the empty tomb.
Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching. I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content. I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness. I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as this country is torn. But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.
No, hope isn’t the right word. In the midst of the pain, anger, suffering, despair, brokenness, shame, disgust, and guilt, in the midst of it all, I stand here boldly. Or as Paul would say it, I stand here glorying.
I offer to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
Cue the candidate’s response: “I do.”
Recently I presented on the Lordship of Christ at a retreat for ordinands. A friend presented on the sacraments. When she got to discussing the rite for baptism she mentioned how this second vow from the United Methodist liturgy about our freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression meant a lot more to her of late.
In the wake of The Donald’s election, she didn’t need to add.
Afterwards, as headed home, I half-joked to her that “I don’t think the Apostle Paul was quite as sunny as our Book of Worship about our power and potential to resist.”
“I’d like to talk more about that sometime,” she replied.
I shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t much matter though since we’ve excised Satan from the baptismal liturgy anyways. That we might be wrong about our power isn’t a problem if the Power of Satan is no longer the problem.”
I was only half-joking.
J. Louis Martyn writes that for the Apostle Paul:
“The Church is God’s apocalyptic beachhead and Paul sees in baptism the juncture by which the person both participates in the death of Christ (Romans 6.4) and is equipped with the armor for apocalyptic battle (Romans 13.22).”
Baptism, for Paul, is both a being put to death and an ongoing empowerment by God the Holy Spirit. Through baptism and the baptized, God contends against Another: Satan, whom Paul variously makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, and the Principalities and Powers.
Not only does God put us to death in Christ through baptism, transferring us from the Lordship of Death to the Lordship of Grace, prior to baptism we are slaves to Death and after, Paul says, slaves to righteousness. Or, as Paul puts elsewhere, apart from the righteousness of God in Christ, Sin is a Power who we are all under and from whom not one of us has the freedom or the power to liberate ourselves.
Christians then have peculiar definitions for freedom and power, and we have a more specific set of names for evil and injustice. Prior to our baptism in to Christ, we have no freedom or power at all, as we are captives to the anti-God Powers, and proceeding baptism freedom is slavery to the righteousness of God. This is why Paul doesn’t use the language of repentance, as the baptismal liturgy does. It makes no sense to tell prisoners to repent their way out of captivity; they can only be delivered.
While God has defeated the Power of Satan through Cross and Resurrection, once for all, this defeat, though real, is not yet realized. God is yet contending against a Power whose defeat is sure if not surrendered. Thus Paul reveals the theme of his letter to the Romans only at the very end: “The God of Peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”
In the sacraments, says theologian Joseph Mangina in Baptism at the Turning of the Ages, “the apocalypse (invasion/irruption/revealing) of God in Jesus Christ becomes an apocalypse now.”
Baptism and Eucharist, in other words, are means (for Paul, in Romans, the Gospel kerygma itself is the primary means) by which God invades territory held by an Enemy, a world that, as the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal service once put it: “…is the realm of Sin and Satan.”
Note how different that is than today’s baptismal question:
“…evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
Here, evil, injustice, and oppression present themselves in varying forms in our world. There is no acknowledged agency behind them.
In the older liturgies (and Romans 8) evil, injustice, and oppression are the forms by which the Power Sin/Satan/Death manifests in our world.
What’s critical about the apocalyptic character of Word and Sacrament in Paul is the active agency of God. When it comes to resisting evil and injustice, God never stops being the subject of the verbs. Even our growth into Christ likeness Paul casts in the passive voice: “…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed…”
It is not that God begins this process of transformation in Christ and then hands it off to us to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Indeed apart from the activity of God in and upon us, we cannot be trusted to identify evil or rightly to resist injustice for the insidious Power of Sin is such that in can corrupt even our best religious impulses.
God is the acting agent of our transformation into conformity to Christ from beginning to end, acting against the agency of the Enemy.
In much of our liturgical practice today, we’ve demythologized the rites such that Satan becomes vague, as in, “spiritual forces of wickedness” or, worse, vaguely anthropocentric, as in, “injustice and oppression.”
Even worse is the example in the present Book of Common Prayer: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
As Joseph Mangina notes: “Striving for justice and peace, respecting human dignity- these high, humanitarian aspirations are as generic as they are idealistic. It is not clear what they are doing in a Christian baptismal liturgy…for only by the agency of Christ can we grasp the true contours of ‘justice’ and ‘peace.’ “
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the baptism ritual asks the candidates questions such as “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching…will you persevere in resisting evil…will you seek and serve Christ…?”
In each case, the requisite reply is “I will, with God’s help.”
In the previous iterations of the Book of Common Prayer, similar questions required a much stronger affirmation of God’s agency (and betrayed much less interest in our own potential): “God being my helper.”
The prescribed answer in the United Methodist Book of Worship: “I do.”
Note the (only) subject of the verb.
God’s agency is assumed to the point of obscurity.
Compare this to the Tridentine rite- if you’ve seen Godfather I you’ve seen it.
Salt is placed on the infant’s tongue to protect it from corruption by the Power of Sin. The priest performs an exorcism, blowing 3 times, on the child. The confession of faith is followed by a robust renunciation: Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his pomps?
Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer kept the exorcism as part of the baptismal rite but it disappeared as the biblical worldview waned and the modern liberal world waxed. In fact, the shift from God as acting subject responsible for faith to acted upon object of our faith, from theology to anthropology, in modern Enlightenment theology is mirrored in worship.
Ludwig Feuerbach famously (and correctly) diagnosed most Christian speech about God as really being speech about ourselves. We could not turn to some of our liturgical texts to disprove him.
Compared to the Tridentine rite and the Book of Common Prayer of John Wesley’s day, the emphasis, intentional or not, in our contemporary liturgies is on human promise-making at the expense of God’s singular action in Jesus Christ. This sole agency of God is itself the foundational principle of baptism’s un-repeatablity. In the act of baptism and in the life of the baptized thereafter, God is the acting agent, overturning the world.
“That a Christian has been baptized should be nothing less than a cause for astonishment,” Joseph Mangina says, for it is the work of the Living God.
Such astonishment at the agency of God is either muted or altogether missing in any question where we are the answer: I do.
Pay attention to the passive voice:
“Our society is broken, pretty much, but there will be a time when these times will be made right.”
“…these times will be made right” said the principal of Goose Creek High School in Charleston, South Carolina.
“…these times will be made right” he said just days after Dylann Roof stormed into Mother Emmanuel AME Church and shot 9 parishioners gathered for bible study. One of the nine victims was the track coach at Goose Creek High School.
“…these times will be made right.”
Which is to say, despite the brokenness we can see everywhere an unseen agency is at work, making right. Or as Paul would say, rectifying.
Only four days after Dylann Roof stormed into Emmanuel AME and left six black women and 3 black men in a bloody pile in the church basement, the leaders of the congregation concluded the only way to press forward was for them to go back to exactly what they’d done before, to do the Sunday after that shooting what they had done the Sunday previous.
Worship the Lord Jesus Christ.
Proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel which Paul says is the rectifying power of God unleashed in our world (1.16-17).
Preaching that Sunday at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Reverend Norvel Goff, an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed: “through our proclamation of the Gospel on this day a message will be sent to Satan.”
Note the passive voice again: “through our proclamation…a message will be sent.”
The worshippers at Emmanuel Church were not the ones sending the message.
Later in his sermon, his voice roaring, Reverend Goff added: “Something wants to divide us- black and brown and white- but no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”
Notice- he didn’t say Dylann Roof wanted to divide us. He didn’t say racists and bigots want to divide us. Something wants to divide us– there’s another agency at work in the world.
Speaking of that other agency, that same Sunday, outside the church, the Reverend Brandon Bowers, who is white and the pastor of Awaken Church, said: “What the Enemy intended for evil, God is using- God is using us- for good.”
He said Enemy with a capital E- even the NY Times caught it.
And he did not say we’re using this for good.
Pay attention to the passive: “God is using us for good.”
We’re being used by God for good.
The service at Mother Emmanuel AME Church began with a hymn: “You are the Source of my strength, you are the strength of my life.”
Meanwhile, while they sang at Emmanuel AME, the family of 21 year old Dylann Roof worshipped at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
The pastor of St. Paul’s read the names of the victims and the congregation prayed for them and their families. The victimizer’s family prayed for the victims and their families.
About the victimizer’s family, the pastor of St. Paul told his congregation later: “They are shattered but through their faith they are being made strong.”
“…they are being made strong.”
“…these times will be made by right.”
Pay attention to the passive:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…do not be haughty…do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…overcome evil with good.”
“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed… but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
If you don’t understand what the therefore is there for, not only do you miss Paul’s point here you mishear this passage as bad news instead of good, as burdensome rather than freeing.
Because, let’s face it-
Genuine, 100% of the time, love
Patience in suffering
Perseverance in prayer
Feeding your enemies
I’ve been here coming on my 13th year and I don’t know any of you who score better than a D on this long list of attributes of what transformation looks like. I’d bet the house that behind closed doors Pope Francis doesn’t do better than a B-.
I mean, half of you can’t even get along on Facebook, let alone blessing those who curse you. This is DC- a lot of you make your livelihood claiming to be wiser than you really are.
“Do not be haughty?” So long as Donald Trump is in office that’s an impossible command for some of you.
Assuming it’s a command, that is.
If you don’t know what the therefore is there for, you’ll mishear this passage.
You won’t hear it as Gospel. You’ll hear it- if you’re honest enough to admit it- as a guilt trip. You’ll hear it as a To Do list of musts and shoulds, as a prescription of what we have to do.
Without the therefore there, you’ll hear Paul saying: A real transformed Christian looks like this…a genuine Christian must do this…must love enemies, must bless those who curse them, must be patient in suffering and ardent about their faith.
That’s what the therefore is there for.
The therefore signals that what comes next depends upon what came before.
The therefore signals that what proceeds is possible only because of what preceded.
The therefore signals that what follows is a part of everything prior.
Or, in other words, chapter 12 comes after chapter 11.
Chapter 12 comes after chapter 8 and chapter 6 and chapter 5 and 3 and 1.
The therefore is there for you to remember that what comes next here in chapter 12 continues and concludes what has come before.
Just before this, the verse that sets up this therefore- it’s a doxology. It’s a song of praise, thanking God for the work of God to save all of God’s creation (11.33-36).
And before that, Paul has said that even the disbelief of some is a part of God’s work to show mercy to all. Before that, Paul has said that the all-ness of God’s saving work includes not just creatures like you and me but all of creation.
All of creation because all of creation, Paul has said before, is in captivity to the Power of Sin with a capital S. A Power that, just before, Paul made synonymous with the Power of Death with a capital D.
A Power, Paul said before that, whose power we are all under such that not one of us can free ourselves. We have no power against this Power. We’re prisoners, Paul has said before.
Which gets back to what Paul said just before that, at the very beginning of his argument (and remember, it is all one, long argument). In his thesis statement at the beginning, before the therefore and everything else, Paul announced that his letter is about what God is doing:
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for in it the rectifying power of God is invading [the world].”
You can only invade territory held by an Enemy.
The Gospel is the Power of God to take God’s world back from the Enemy who binds it. The Gospel, Paul has said, is the means by which God takes God’s world back from the One who holds it captive.
Pay attention to the present tense.
The Gospel isn’t about what God did.
The Gospel is what God does.
Everything that has come before the therefore has been about God’s doing.
You didn’t invite Jesus into your heart. God has poured God’s love into your heart through the Holy Spirit, Paul has said.
You didn’t journey to God. God has transferred you from the dominion of Sin into the dominion of grace.
You didn’t decide to become a new you. God killed off your old self- you have died with Christ- and now you are in Christ.
You didn’t sign up to serve God. God has set you free from slavery to Sin and Death and made you instead a slave of righteousness.
It’s all been about what God does.
So, why should we suppose that when he gets to this point in his letter Paul is suddenly talking about us, about what we do?
What the therefore is there for is to remind you that what comes next describes what God is doing not what we do.
It’s proclamation not exhortation.
It’s indicative not imperative.
The therefore is there so you don’t mistake this as a prescription of what we must do: We must be genuine in love. We must be patient in suffering. We must be zealous for God all the time. We must bless those who curse us and love our enemies.
If there’s a must or a should or a have-to in your sentences, you’re not speaking Gospel.
The therefore is there for you to know this is not a prescription of who you must be or what you must do. It’s a description of who Jesus Christ is and what God is doing.
Pay attention to the passive: “I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
We’re not the ones doing the transforming.
The therefore is there for you to see that this transformation isn’t up to us. You’re not left to your lonesome to live up to impossible ideals. The point of this passage isn’t that you have to become a new you; it’s that you are being made new.
By the mercies of God, Paul says.
That’s not a throwaway religious cliche.
The word Paul uses there, dia, refers to the instrumentality of God, i.e, what Paul is saying: Only by the merciful activity of God upon you can you be conformed not to this world but transformed into conformity to Jesus Christ.
That’s different than Paul simply telling you to emulate and imitate Jesus. Jesus didn’t even have an easy time being Jesus; how could you possibly emulate and imitate him? No, Paul’s not exhorting you to imitate Jesus.
Paul’s already told you before, back in chapter 6, by faith and by baptism- by God- you NOW are in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t mean that as a metaphor.
You are in Jesus Christ.
And now- therefore- Paul is telling you, God is shaping you into Christ likeness.
Patience in suffering. Blessing those who curse you. Perseverance in prayer. Genuine love. This isn’t a To Do list or a Christian Code of Conduct. They’re not exhortations or expectations. They’re attributes of Christ.
He’s describing the mind of Christ.
The mind according to which God is at work to conform us.
“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Pay attention to the language.
That word renewing- it’s anakainosis. It means literally “completely taken over.”
God is at work to transform you. To conform you to Christ.
To completely take over your mind with the mind of Christ.
What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no sin (why?) so that (therefore) we might become the righteousness of God.”
What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Philippians: “…the God who began a good work in you will in the fullness of time bring it to completion.” Not, you now have to bring it to completion. God will bring it to completion.
What Paul says here is what Paul said at the very beginning of this letter:
The Gospel, what we announce in Word and Sacrament- it is the power of Almighty God to invade, to completely take over, until you are rectified, put right, according to the mind of Christ in whose image you are made.
And through you…the world.
“…these times will be made right.”
Pay attention to the passive.
Last May, Dennis and I attended Hedy’s graduation from Wesley Theological Seminary, held at the National Cathedral.
The pastor of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, killed by Dylann Roof, would’ve been in the graduating class.
They awarded his degree posthumously, and when it came time for Reverend Pinckney’s name to be read, they invited his wife Jennifer forward to receive his diploma and to speak.
She acknowledged that the ceremony was a bittersweet moment for her. She painted a picture of her husband asleep in his man cave, his coursework still on his lap. And then she confessed that she’d had no idea what to say to those gathered there in the cathedral.
She’d had no idea what to say.
‘But then,’ she said, ‘I was hit with the words to share.’
I was hit.
By God. By the Holy Spirit.
And what followed was plain and unremarkable, but it was powerful- more so than the sermon that had come before, a sermon that had been all exhortation, an exhausting litany of musts and shoulds.
But what Jennifer Pinkney from Emmanuel AME Church said was powerful not because of the pathos of the moment nor for the profundity of her words.
It was powerful because she had reminded us- testified to us- that God is real.
God is living.
At work: “…I was hit with what to say…”
You can’t become unflagging in your zeal by exerting more zeal.
You don’t persevere in prayer by practicing prayer.
Your love doesn’t become genuine through effort.
You don’t achieve patience in suffering by enduring it.
Blessing those who curse you doesn’t come about by you biting your tongue.
You can forgive 70 x 7 times but if it takes in your heart even 1 of those times it’s not your own doing.
You don’t walk in newness of life because you set out to do so.
You don’t become lovers of enemies by trying- neither will they cease to be your enemy because you’ve attempted to love them.
The therefore is there for you to remember that the Christian life is pointless if the God we serve is not a Living God.
The therefore is there for you to remember that Christianity is bigger than simply doing the things Jesus did because you can’t do any of the things Jesus did if God did not raise him from the dead to conform and transform you.
And sure that takes different kind of patience, sure that sounds messier and slower and more frustrating than if Paul just handed us a simple To Do List of Musts and Shoulds.
But our understanding of the Gospel, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian, should at least require that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the world.
The Sunday after Dylann Roof shot nine at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston members of Citadel Baptist Church, a white Southern Baptist Church with a long and complicated relationship with racism, walked the mere steps from their church to Emmanuel Church and they placed purple daises around the front of Emmanuel.
The Reverend David Walker, pastor of Citadel Baptist, explained the gesture thus.
Pay attention to the passive: “Something compelled us to do this…”
Christ is Risen indeed.
Here’s my sermon from this weekend, continuing our summer series through Romans. The text was Romans 11.25-32.
Back in the day, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you, I worked for a couple of years as a chaplain at the maximum security prison in Trenton, New Jersey.
I enjoyed it.
In a lot of ways, the Gospel makes more sense in a place like that than anywhere else. Not to mention, preaching is different when the men hearing you aren’t there because their wives or mothers have forced their attendance.
So I enjoyed the prison, but I didn’t enjoy everything about the job.
Part of my routine, every week, was to visit and counsel the inmates in solitary confinement. It was a sticky, hot, dark wing of the prison. Because every inmate was locked behind a heavy, steel door with just a sliver of thick plexiglass for a window, unlike the rest of the prison, the solitary wing was as silent as a tomb. Whenever I think of Hell, I think of that place.
But not for the reasons you might expect.
Whenever I visited solitary, the officer on duty was almost always a 50-something Sergeant named Moore.
Officer Moore had a thick, Mike Dikta mustache and coarse sandy hair he combed into a meticulous, greased part. He was tall and strong and, to be honest, intimidating. He had a Marine Corps tattoo on one forearm and a heart with a woman’s name on the other arm.
Whenever I visited solitary he’d buzz me inside only after I refused to go away. He’d usually be sitting down, gripping the sides of his desk, reading a newspaper. I hated going there because, every time I did, he’d greet me heated ridicule.
He’d grumble things like: ‘Save your breath, preacher, you’re wasting your time.’
He’d grumble things like: ‘Do you know what these people did? They don’t deserve forgiveness.’
He’d grumble things like: ‘They only listen to you because they’ve got no one else.’
Once, when we gathered for a worship service, I’d invited Officer Moore to join us.
He grumbled that he’d have ‘nothing to do with a God who’d have anything to do with trash like them’ and he refused to come in.
Instead he sat outside with his arm crossed. The locked prison door between us.
About halfway through my time at the prison, Officer Moore suffered a near fatal heart attack; in fact, he was dead for several minutes before the rescue squad revived him.
I know this because when he returned to work, he told me. Tried to throw it in my face.
‘It’s all a sham’ he grumbled at me one afternoon.
‘I was dead for 3 minutes. Dead. And you know what I experienced? Nothing. I didn’t see any bright light at the end of any tunnel. It was just darkness. Your god? All make believe.’
Back then- at the beginning of my ministry, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you- I tended towards sarcasm. So even though I don’t put much stock in the light at the end of the tunnel cliche, that didn’t stop me from saying to Sergeant Moore:
‘Maybe you should take that as a warning.
Maybe there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for you.’
He grumbled and said: ‘Don’t tell me you believe in Hell?’
‘What makes you think I wouldn’t believe in Hell?’ I asked, playing with him.
‘Oh, since I don’t believe in your Jesus, I’m going to Hell? Is that it?’
Officer Moore pushed his chair back and fussed with his collar. He suddenly seemed uncomfortable. His eyes took a bead on me. ‘So what the Hell’s Hell like then?’ he asked, smirking. ‘Fire and brimstone, I mean, really?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘fire, brimstone, gnashing of teeth, those are probably all metaphors.’
He let out a sarcastic sigh of relief. So then I added: ‘Metaphors for something much worse maybe.’
That got his attention.
‘Your loving God sends people to a place worse than brimstone just because they don’t believe in him?’ he asked.
Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and mature pastor you see before you, so I didn’t mention to him that I’d plagiarized that line from C.S. Lewis.
Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside.
But is it?
Is that even possible?
“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks 3 chapters prior to today’s text.
If God is for us- all of us
If God is determined to reconcile and redeem all of us
And not only us-
If God is determined to rescue and restore all of creation from its bondage to the Power of Sin, then what could stand in God’s way?
“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks back in Romans 8.
If God made each of us and all that is and called it very good- that’s Genesis 1.
And if God is determined to make each of us and all that is beautiful again- that’s Genesis 12.
If God in Jesus Christ came for all- that’s John 1.
If Christ died for all- that’s 2 Corinthians 5.15.
If Jesus the Judge was judged in your place, once for all- that’s Hebrews 10.
And if God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit, the first sign, the harbinger of what God intends to do for all of creation- 1 Corinthians 15
If that’s what God intends, then what is to stop God from getting what God wants?
Because by definition NOTHING can deny God what God desires.
That’s 2 Timothy 2.13.
Or, as Paul frames it back in Romans 8: ‘What can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? What, in the end, can separate us from God?
And one by one Paul proceeds to eliminate the possibilities:
Hardship. Check. Injustice. Check. Persecution. Famine. Check. Check.Nakedness. Nope.War. Not it either. It can’t separate us from the love of God. None of them. Not Death. Not Rulers. Not Powers. Neither things present nor things to come. Not anything in all of creation. Nothing can separate us from what God wants to do with us.
The Apostle Paul does leave one possibility off his list: Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. War. Death. Rulers. Powers.
There is one possibility missing from Paul’s list.
One potential disqualifier remains: Us.
Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. Sword. Not any of them can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but what about us?
What about us? Can we separate ourselves from the love of God?
Can we separate ourselves from God through our unbelief, through our lack of faith, through our disobedient refusal to accept the grace of God in Jesus Christ?
Do we possess that power? Do we possess the ability to separate ourselves forever from the love of God? To slam the door and throw the lock?
Can we really run away and hide forever from a God who’s so determined to get us he chases us all the way to a cross and back? If Nakedness and Famine and War can’t do it, can we? Can we separate ourselves from God so that the God who desires the salvation of all only ends up with some?
Do we have the capacity to keep from God the everything God wants?
That’s the question Paul takes up next in Romans 9-11 and he does so by turning to the most obvious example available to him.
The Jews- those who’ve received the message of the Gospel and not responded in faith and obedience.
When it comes to unbelievers like them, has the Word of God failed? Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 9.
How are they to be saved by him in whom they have not believed? Paul asks in Romans 10.
It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it? Paul asks at the top of today’s chapter.
And just the grammar of that last question gives away the answer. As soon as Paul refers to Israel as God’s People he’s already shown his tell: “By no means!” Paul answers immediately in verse 1.
By no means! God has not rejected God’s People. His chosen People. The People he’s promised, no-strings-attached: “I will be your God and you will be my People.”
It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it?
By no means – for if God will break his promise to them, then Paul could’ve ended his letter back in Romans 8.
And his list could’ve been a lot shorter.
Who can separate us from the love of God? Well, Paul, it turns out God can separate us from God. God can break his no-strings-attached unconditional covenant promise. God can reject God’s People.
Has God rejected God’s People?
By no means! is the only possible answer for Paul.
God has not rejected God’s People because they reject God’s Messiah.
Or rather, in rejecting God’s Messiah they have not separated themselves from the love of God. Because Israel- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.
Paul’s whole letter to the Romans has been about what God does not about what we do, and Paul’s focus on the agency of God doesn’t change when he turns to God’s People in chapters 9-11.
God’s People- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.
They’re not the acting agents. They’re not behind their lack of belief. Their failure of faith is not their fault. They’ve not decided to disobey. No.
If God cannot break a no-strings-attached promise, if- by no means- has God rejected his People, then that leaves only one possibility for Paul.
Israel’s rejection of Christ and God’s apparent rejection of them- it’s God’s doing, not their own.
And, Paul says, it fits a pattern of what God has always done:
God choosing Abel over Cain. God choosing Jacob over Esau. Moses over Pharaoh. God choosing David over Saul. God choosing Israel over all the other nations of the earth. What looks like God’s rejection of some in scripture always serves God’s election of all. Even the Father rejecting the Son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” even that forsaking is for all.
Have God’s People stumbled so as to fall away forever from God? Paul asks in verse 11 before he answers in the very same breath: “No!”
Instead their stumbling, their rejection- like Abel instead of Cain, like Sarah instead of Hagar, like Isaac instead of Ishmael- their stumbling is for the reconciliation of the whole world, Paul says in verse 15.
The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.
Let me say that again because it’s so paradoxical it can only be Gospel:
The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.
The failure of some to believe is in fact the means by which God is working even now to show mercy to all.
Paul calls this means a “mystery.”
“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon some of Israel, until all [the world] has come to God.”
Only, in the New Testament, the word mystery doesn’t refer to something still unknown to us. In the New Testament, a mystery isn’t something that leaves you still in the dark scratching your head. In the New Testament, a mystery is a secret that’s been revealed to us by God- a mystery is a secret that can be told.
As when the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery…” and then Paul proclaims the secret that’s been revealed to us: “We will not die…we will be changed…for on the day of Resurrection we will be raised…that which is perishable will become imperishable.”
Likewise, here Paul writes to the Church at Rome: “I want you to understand this secret that’s been revealed to us…”
The mystery- the mystery is that God has chosen some for disobedience so that others might obey.
The mystery is that God has chosen some for disbelief so that others might believe.
The opened secret is that God has chosen ungodliness for some so that others might find God.
“…a hardening has come upon them…” Paul says.
Note the passive voice. Notice, it’s not: “They’ve hardened their hearts.” It’s come upon them. God is doing it.
Just as you believe in Jesus Christ solely by the gracious work of God upon you, so too they disbelieve because of the work of God upon them.
A hardening has come upon some so that all might come to God, Paul says.
And then in the next verse, Paul declares: “…so all Israel will be saved.” Pantes is the word and Paul doesn’t qualify it all. It means all.
Notice what Paul doesn’t say-
He doesn’t say all Israel will believe. He doesn’t say all Israel will confess Jesus Christ and thereby be saved. He just says all Israel will be saved. Your belief, their unbelief- it’s a mystery.
It’s all God’s doing.
Your belief is not your doing. Their unbelief is not their doing.
It’s all God’s doing.
Those who reject the love of God in Jesus Christ, those who reject the Gospel, they’re not enemies of God. God has made them enemies of the Gospel for you.
For your sake: “…God has imprisoned some in disobedience so that God might be merciful to all.”
You see, for Paul the danger isn’t that unbelievers could ever separate themselves from the love of God in Christ Jesus; the danger is that believers like you will draw that conclusion.
A few days after our conversation about Hell, I left in Officer Moore’s mailbox a copy of a book, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
It’s a fable about the residents of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven. They’re given the option to stay but, one by one, they choose to turn and go back.
I had dog-eared some pages and highlighted some text for Officer Moore, hoping we could talk about it the next time I saw him.
Specifically, I highlighted these words:
It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’
I left the book in his mailbox.
A week later I went to solitary to see if he wanted to talk.
As always he refused to buzz me in but this time when I mentioned I was there to talk to him, he didn’t give in. He wouldn’t let me in.
I asked if he read the book. Not saying anything, he got up and walked to the entrance door, his body was one big snarl. He slid the book between the bars.
‘A whole lot of nonsense’ he grumbled at me. And then he told me to go the Hell away.
Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and quick-witted pastor you see before you today. To be honest, back then I hadn’t ever read the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Because if I had I could’ve told him.
You’re right, I could’ve said to him. It is a whole lot of nonsense. C.S. Lewis might’ve known a lot about lions and wardrobes and Turkish Delight, but he didn’t know jack abut this secret that’s been revealed to us: the mystery.
The mystery of our disobedience.
You’re right, I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve said to him.
Hell is where the door is locked from the inside by us?! That’s a whole lot of nonsense.
Not only is it idolatrous, for it imagines a Self who desires are stronger than God’s desire.
It completely misses the mystery that’s been revealed to us: that salvation is the work of God where even our ‘No’ to God serves God’s ultimate ‘Yes’ to us. Even our ‘No’ to God is itself the work of God working towards what God wants for all.
You’re right, I could’ve shot back at the Sergeant.
It is a whole lot of nonsense.
How could we ever separate ourselves forever from the love of God in Jesus Christ when even the disobedience of some is part of God’s plan for all?
God is bigger than our badness.
We can’t lock Hell’s doors from the inside because ultimately the work of God is going to make even our disobedience and disbelief work in our favor because of his favor, his unmerited favor, which is his grace.
The disobedience and disbelief of some is only temporary.
God will banish all ungodliness.
God will turn disobedience to obedience. God will turn disbelief into belief.
God will transform unfaithfulness to faithfulness as surely as he can bring life from death.
And in the meantime- I could’ve told him.
There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord- whether you like it or not.
There is nothing about you that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
There is nothing in all of creation- not war, not famine, not powers or persecution, not even you- there is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God because everything in creation in is a work of God’s grace.
Even your disbelief.
Maybe you can lock the door for a time, I could’ve said to him, but forever? In the end God will raze even Hell to get what God wants.
Of course, if I had told him all that back then, he would’ve just grumbled some more.
If all are saved, no matter what, then what’s the point? He might’ve replied.
Why should I bother following your Jesus?
Back then I wasn’t the wise and seasoned preacher you see before you. I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to say to him what I’d say today:
What’s the point if all are saved?
What’s the point of being first rather than last?
Why be found rather than lost?
Why know the truth rather than live in ignorance?
Why be fully human?
What’s the point?
To ask the question is to miss the point.
– 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.”
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 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.
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:
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!””
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.”
“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.
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.
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…”
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.”
“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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 here
And no one who would never be caught dead in here
Religious or Irreligious
Secular or Spiritual
Christian or Non-Christian
Sinner or Supposed Saint
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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?”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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…
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, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
“You will be my People, but you must be faithful to my commands.”
“I will be your God, but you must remain faithful and obey.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.”
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.
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.