Archives For Sin

Glawspel

Jason Micheli —  November 13, 2017 — 2 Comments

I continued our fall lectio continua series through Exodus by preaching on God giving the Law to Moses in Exodus 20.

Thou shall have no other gods but me.

Thou shall not make for yourself any idol.

Thou shall not invoke with malice the name of the Lord, your God.

Thou shall not commit murder.

Thou shall not commit adultery.

Thou shall not steal.

Thou shall not strip to thine mighty whities and kiss a 14 year old nor touch her through her…No wait, that’s not in there. It’s not in there!

Nor is it etched in the 5,280 pound granite statue of them that Roy Moore installed in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001. It’s not in the 10 Commandments so the 10 Commandments Judge (if he’s guilty) must be in the clear.

According to Sean Hannity, if the 10 Commandments are at all relevant to the allegations against Roy Moore then it’s because Leigh Corfman, Wendy Miller, Debbie Gibson, and Gloria Deason are all guilty of breaking the 9th Commandment.

They’re all lying, Hannity promises. They’re bearing false witness.

Here I was in the middle of the week wondering what I would preach this Sunday, knowing that Exodus 20, the giving of the Law to Moses, was our scheduled scripture text. I didn’t know what I would preach. I was wracking my brain. I even prayed, as I always do, sending up on SOS for God to give me something to say.

And then on Thursday afternoon my iPhone chimed with breaking news from the Washington Post about the allegations of sexual assault (or, according to Breitbart News: “Dating”). My iPhone dinged with the allegations against Roy Moore, the self-proclaimed 10 Commandments Judge and now Alabama Senate candidate.

With Exodus 20 on the preaching calendar, Roy Moore fell into my lap like icky manna from heaven.

I know, it’s not funny.

It’s NOT.

But, if there’s anything funny at all about the sad, sordid story it’s the irony that Roy Moore, the 10 Commandments Judge, doesn’t appear to have read what Jesus and the Apostle Paul say about the fundamental function of the Law of Moses.

Turns out, finger-wagging fundamentalists like Roy Moore would do well to spend less time defending the bible and more time reading the bible because, according to Jesus and St. Paul, the commandments are not meant to elicit positive, public morality.

That’s not their purpose.

I’m going to say that again so you hear me: according to Jesus and the Apostle Paul, the commandments are not rules to regulate our behavior. They’re not a code of conduct.

The primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John chapter 5 and Paul says in the Book of Romans chapter 3, is to do to us what it did to Roy Moore this week.

To accuse us.

The mistake Judge Roy Moore makes, in wanting to post the 10 Commandments in public spaces, is that the primary function of the Law is not civil.

The primary function of the Law is theological.

It’s primary purpose is to reveal the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven and meet a holy God, blameless and justified.

But because we’re self-deceiving sinners, we delude ourselves.

And we rationalize- that because we keep 6 out of the 10 without trying and because we’ve got a little bit of faith and because we sing in the choir or because we took a casserole to the sick lady down the street – we deceive ourselves. And we tell ourselves that we’re good, that we’re righteous, that we’re in the right with God, that we didn’t do what Louis CK did. We’re not like Roy Moore at all.

To keep us from deceiving ourselves, to keep us from measuring our virtue relative to Roy Moore’s alleged vice, in his sermon on the mount, Jesus recapitulates the 10 Commandments and he cranks them up a notch.

To the 6th Commandment, “Do not commit murder,” Jesus adds: “If you’ve even had an angry thought toward your brother, then you’re guilty. Of murder.”

To the 7th Commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus attaches: “If you’ve even thought dirty about that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Supermodel, then you’ve cheated on your wife.”

He didn’t say it exactly like that. I have a friend who put it that way.

And Jesus takes the Greatest Commandment, the Golden Rule- our favorite: “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” and Jesus makes it less great by trading out neighbor for enemy.

“You have heard it said: ‘You shall love your neighbor.’ But I say to you, you shall love your enemies.”

Whoever breaks even one of these commandments of the Law, Jesus warns, will be called least in my Kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter Heaven.

     Jesus exposes the Law’s true function by moving the Law and its demands from our actions to our intentions. The righteousness required to acquire heaven, says Jesus, is more than being able to check off the boxes on the code of conduct.

Do not commit murder, check. Do not steal, check. Do not covet, check.

I didn’t sleep with her, I must be Kingdom material.

No.

The righteousness required to acquire the Kingdom is more than what you do or do not do. It’s more than posting the 10 Commandments in courtrooms; it’s more than obeying the 10 Commandments.

It’s who you are behind closed doors. It’s who you are backstage in the dressing room. It’s not who you are when you’re shaking hands and popping tic-tacs; it’s who you are on the Access Hollywood bus when you think the mic is turned off. It’s what’s in your head and in your heart, your intentions not just your actions.

That’s what counts to come in to the Kingdom. That’s the necessary measure of righteousness, Jesus says.

And then, Jesus closes his recapitulation of the Decalogue by telling his hearers exactly what God tells Moses at the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy:

     “You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

When it comes to the Law, Christ’s point is that we should not measure ourselves according to those around us. I’m no Kevin Spacey.

No, when it comes to the Law and our righteousness, Christ’s point is that we must measure ourselves according to God. There’s no cutting corners. There’s no A for effort. “I tried my best” will not open the doors to the Kingdom of Heaven for you.

It doesn’t matter that you’re “better” than Harvey Weinstein. It doesn’t matter that you never did what Mark Halperin did.

     “Nobody’s perfect” isn’t an excuse because perfection is actually the obligation.

     Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will NOT enter heaven. 

You see, Jesus takes the Law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and on a different mount Jesus exposes the theological function of the Law: You must be perfect. You must be as perfect as God. You must be perfect across the board, on all counts- perfect in your head and perfect in your heart and perfect in your life.

How’s that going for you?

Jesus takes the Law and he ratchets the degree of difficulty all the way up to perfection- it’s not just your public self; an A+ score for your secret self is a Kingdom prerequisite too.

Jesus takes the Law and he cranks its demands all the way up to absolute in order to suck all the self-righteousness out of you.

Jesus leaves no leniency in the Law; so that, you and I will understand that before a holy and righteous God, we stand in the dock shoulder-to-shoulder with creeps like Louis CK and, as much as them, we should tremble.

You see, that’s the mistake Judge Roy Moore makes in wanting to post the Law of Moses in courtrooms and public spaces.

     The primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much what the Law says. 

     The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law are not principles by which you live an upright life.

The Law is the means by which God brings you down to your knees.

In his statement to the NY Times on Friday, comedian Louis CK said of his own aberrant and sinful behavior toward women:

“…I wielded my power irresponsibility. I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. And I’ve tried to run away from them. Now I’m aware of the extent of my actions.”

Louis CK’s apology leaves a lot to be desired.

As Stephen Colbert tweeted, it leaves him with the desire for a time machine to go back and tell Louis CK NOT TO DO THAT TO WOMEN.

His statement is wanting in a lot of ways; nonetheless, what he describes (deceiving himself, then running away from the truth about himself, then being made to see what he had done) is the Law.

The theological function of the Law is stop us in our scrambling tracks and to hold a mirror up to our self-deceiving eyes; so that, we’re forced to reckon with who we are and with what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.

     The theological function of the Law is to get you to see yourself with enough clarity that you will ask the question:

“How could God love someone like me?”

     When the Law brings you to ask that question, you’re close to breaking through to the Gospel.

Martin Luther taught that God has spoken to us and God still speaks to us in two different words:

Law and Gospel.

And Luther said the necessary art for every Christian to learn is how to distinguish properly between the first word God speaks, Law, and the second word God speaks, Gospel.

Learning how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel is what St. Paul describes to Timothy as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” 

It’s a necessary art for every Christian to learn, Luther said, because if you don’t know how to rightly divide the word, if you don’t know how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel, then you distort the purpose of these two words.

And distorting them- it muddles the Christian message.

Distinguishing properly between these two words God speaks is necessary because without learning this art you will end up emphasizing one of these words at the expense of the other.

You’ll focus only on the Law: Be perfect. Forgive 70 x 7. Love your enemy. Don’t commit adultery. Give away all your possessions. Feed the hungry.

But to focus only on the first word God speaks, Law, takes the flesh off of Christ and wraps him in judge’s robe.

Focus on Law alone yields a God of commands and oppressive expectations.

The Law always accuses- that’s it’s God-given purpose.

So Law alone religion produces religious people who are accusatory and angry, stern and self-righteous and judgmental.

And because the Law demands perfection, the Law when it’s not properly distinguished, the Law alone without the Gospel, it cannot produce Christians.

It can only produce hypocrites.

That’s why none of us should be surprised to discover that the 10 Commandments Judge may in fact be a white-washed tomb. A hypocrite.

On the other hand, a lot of Christians and churches avoid the first word, Law, altogether and preach only the second word, Gospel, which vacates it of its depth and meaning.

Without the first word, Law, God’s second word evaporates into sentimentality.

“God loves you” becomes a shallow cliche apart from the Law and its accusation that the world is a dark, dark place and the human heart is dimmer still.

Of course, most of the time, in most churches, from most preachers (and I’m as guilty as the next), you don’t hear one of these words preached to the exclusion of the other.

Nor do you hear them rightly divided.

Most of the time, you instead hear them mashed together into a kind of Glawspel where, yes, Jesus died for you unconditionally but now he’s got so many expectations for you- if you’re honest- it feels like its killing you.

     Glawspel takes amazing grace and makes it exhausting.

Jesus loves you but here’s what you must do now to show him how much you appreciate his “free” gift. 

Compared to the Law-alone and Gospel-alone distortions of these two words, Glawspel is the worst because it inoculates you against the message.

Glawspel is like Joe Cocker, fooling you into thinking that you can get by under the Law with a little bit of help from your friend Jesus.

Glawspel is like an infomercial product- that with a dash of grace and a splash of spiritual transformation added to awesome you, Shazaam, you too can forgive 70 x 7.

No.

The point of a Law like “Forgive 70 x 7” is to convince you that you achieve that much forgiveness; so that, you will no other place to turn but the wounded feet of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness God offers in him.

The point of overwhelming Law like “Love your enemies” is to push you to the grace of him who died for them, his enemies.

The reason it’s necessary to learn how to distinguish properly between these two words God speaks, Law and Gospel, is because the point of the first word is to push you to the second word.

The first word, Law, says “Turn the other cheek” so that you will see just how much you fail to do so and, seeing, hear the promise provided by the second word, Gospel.

The promise of the one who turned the other cheek all the way to a cross.

For you.

The reason it’s so necessary to learn how to divide rightly these words that God speaks is because the point of the Law is to produce not frustration or exhaustion but recognition.

The Law is what God uses to provoke repentance in you. The Law is how God drives self-deceiving you to the Gospel.

And the Gospel is not Glawspel.

The Gospel is not an invitation with strings attached.

The Gospel is not a gift with a To Do list written underneath the wrapping paper.

If it’s exhausting instead of amazing, it’s not the Gospel of grace.

If it asks WWJD?, it’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel simply repeats the question:

WDJD?

    What DID Jesus do?

———————-

     He did what you cannot do for yourself.

Because the whole point of the Law is that, on our own, we can’t fulfill even a fraction of it.

Because behind closed doors

When we think the mic is off

In the backstage dressing room of our minds

And in the secret thoughts of our hearts-

Each and every one of us is different in degree but not in kind from Roy Moore and Louis CK and the avalanche of all the others.

Each and every one of us is more like them than we are like him, like Jesus Christ.

The point of the Law is to drive you to Jesus Christ not as your teacher and not as your example.

     If Christ is just your teacher or example, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven.

Because the whole point of what Jesus did is that he did what you cannot ever hope to do for yourself.

Be perfect. He took that burden off of you.

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of HeavenHe took that fear from you.

He did what you cannot do for yourself. He alone was obedient to the Law. He alone fulfilled its absolute demands. He alone was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect.

His righteousness not only exceeds that of the Pharisees, it overflows to you; so that, now you and I can stand before God justified not by our charity or our character or our contributions to the Kingdom but by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.

His perfection, despite your imperfections, is reckoned to you as your own- no matter what you’ve done or left undone, no matter the bombs that voice inside your head throws down, no matter the dark secrets in your heart- that’s what’s more true about you now.

Don’t you see- Roy Moore is right about one thing.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your sin because all your sin is in him and it stayed stuck in the cross when he was nailed to a tree.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your goodness because in the Gospel you’re free to admit what the Law accuses: you’re not that good.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your works of righteousness because they’ll never be enough and they’re not necessary.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It is inclusive of nothing else but his perfect work.

And you in it.

On Tuesday a 30-something journalist from Redskins country, Danica Roem, defeated, soon-to-be-octogenarian, Robert Marshall for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly. Marshall has served as a Delegate for decades and has done so, in his own self-indicting words, as “Virginia’s Chief Homophobe.”

As with male pattern baldness- apparently there’s a club of which he’s not only a member but it’s president.

Marshall represents a district of the Northern Virginia exurbs sufficiently conservative as to make the Ayatollah seem middle of the road; nonetheless, on Tuesday they handed Marshall an embarrassing drubbing at the hands of Danica Roem who, it’s not incidental, is transgender.

Take it from me, Gainesville, Va is not San Francisco.

Turns out, regardless of their views on sexuality and identity most ordinary voters don’t care all that much about issues of sexuality and identity. They care more about the concrete, literally; as in, tolls and transportation.

Caveat Ecclesia 

As Gainesville, Virginia goes likely so will go the Church of Jesus Christ in all but the flyover states.

My United Methodist tradition stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed, butt-cheeks-tight- and-nervous impasse over the issue of sexuality, awaiting a recommendation from a special 30-person commission on a “way forward” that will inaugurate what may be the United Methodist Church’s final debate over the issue. The result will either be peace amidst difference, agreeing to unity generally amidst our disunity particularly on this topic, or the result will be for us to contribute (at least) two new denominations to the carnage created by the Reformation’s rupture with Rome (40K+ denominations since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses).

The election of Danica Roem, I suspect and fear, reveals how the very fact we’re even having this all-consuming argument is evidence that we’ve already wandered too far down the mineshaft holding hands with the likes of Robert Marshall.

Look- I get it.

I really do.

I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. 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 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 meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

On the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.

I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, the election of Danica Roem grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

Like those NOVA voters who cared more about public works than Danica Roem’s privates, as much as I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate, I find other 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 issue-

I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:

everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel 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 us 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. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.

As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder shouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.

In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.

Like those voters this Tuesday who cared more about the tolls and transportation of their daily lives than transgenderism, I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law.

And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law.

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 sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.

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 his perfect righteousness.

I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.

Every last one of us.

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 their lives. God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing.

If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone unlike them, then the fighting isn’t worth it.

If our leveraged-future 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 the election of Danica Roem is any indication, to say nothing of the confused look on my 15 year old son’s face that I’m even writing this post, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this debate.

Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Daphne was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. The culture has moved on whether we like it or not. This isn’t a hill the Apostle Paul would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel.

So, given the missional context of the culture in which we find ourselves, I offer this modest proposal for the Way Forward. 

I’ve read reports that the UMC’s Special Worldwide Sex Conference (my name for it) in 2019 will cost the UMC approximately $11 million dollars. 

Given that this issue of sexuality was already settled for most potential converts to Jesus Christ  back in 1996 when Robin Williams starred in the Bird Cage, I propose:

We, the United Methodist Church, instead invest that $11 MILLION DOLLARS until the day, say, when my son is my age, 2050.

On that day, sex will be even less the issue for his children as it is for his peers, but- I’m betting, broken world as this is- they’ll still be hungry for grace.

And- unless the Donald or Skynet screws things up-

At 3% interest that $11,000,000 will be worth close to $24 MILLION DOLLARS.

I know, like Solomon and the baby, it’s an incredibly difficult choice to weigh.

Do we spend $11M now for the same people who couldn’t reach a decision 2 years ago to argue it again and hope for different results?

Or, do we invest for the future so that we have 24 million dollars to proclaim the good news that God in Jesus Christ is for sinners?

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

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

But necessarily so, I’d argue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

God, Christ, Humanity.

And the Enemy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

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

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

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

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

Some of these Christians Pliny punished.

Some he tortured and executed.

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

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

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

————————

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

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

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

To profess: “Caesar is Lord.”

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

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

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

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

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

Pliny saw with cold clarity what many Christians today miss:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul gives an altogether different kind of altar call.

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

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

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

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

He is. 

     Now. Lord.

     “If you confess…

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

Rome helps us see that Christianity is about choosing.

Choosing between rival claims upon us.

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

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

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

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

The word allegiance is unintelligible without an enemy.

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

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

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

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

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

The Power of Sin, that’s who.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re not rhetorical questions.

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

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

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

Kurios.

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

————————

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

But Pliny did not understand what Paul saw.

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

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

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

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

Hardship

Injustice

Persecution

Famine

Nakedness

War

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

Separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, that’s a lie.

Paul’s right, Death is an enemy.

The Enemy.

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

———————

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

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

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

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

It’s trash-talk.

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

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

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

It’s trash-talk.

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

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

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

It’s trash-talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Feel the Bern

Jason Micheli —  June 19, 2017 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

———————

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

Bernie asked.

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

the answer is ‘Yes.’

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

And so do I.

I stand condemned.

(And so do you.)

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

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

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

All have sinned.

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

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

All stand condemned.

————————

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

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

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

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

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

Sin is instead the subject of verbs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.

But we’re accomplices too.

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

We’re culpable too.

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

Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.

Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.

Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London

A Power that is not God has got us.

But we’re guilty too.

All of us. All stand condemned.

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

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

————————-

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

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

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

Disciplines we use to connect to God.

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

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

Yes, you stand condemned.

And so do I.

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

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

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

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

That’s good news.

But it’s only part of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By faith.

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

You will never be a new you on your own.

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

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

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

You can be re-made.

Not just forgiven but set free.

Not only justified but rectified.

     Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.

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

Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jazz vocalist Darden Purcell and Eric Sabo’s trio provided our music for the first weekend of Lent. Because they were there and because I’ve always been a fan of So I Married an Axe Murderer I decided to write my sermon on Psalm 51 as a beat poem with the band underneath me.

‘It works.’ It works, indeed,

It’s more buttoned-down

Than ‘Christos Anesti!’

But such were the first

Easter words pronounced

Over the new heart

Of-

Louis Washkansky.

Louis-

A Lithuanian Jew

Was born in 1922.

Louis fought Mussolini.

Having seen El Duce

Strung up by his heels,

(like a fascist pig at the butcher)

Louis Washkansky

Settled down in Cape Town

And opened a grocery.

Until-

54 years

Pricks to the finger,

And shots to the guts,

Up and down sugar.

Then-

Pain down arms, elephant on chest,

1, 2, 3 cardiac arrests

Rendered him habeus corpus

For an experimental test.

Louis Washkansky

The first person after 50

Dogs before him to

Another’s heart receive

(Man’s best friend, indeed).

After 9 hours under,

60 attending,

Louis Washkansky

Of the green grocery

Opened his numb eyes

-delivered-

With the heart of a

Girl, 20-something girl

Beating inside his

Bruised and cracked chest.

His heart’s former owner-

She had been struck by a driver

Who’d had one too many.

It’s always 5…somewhere.

The girl with the heart

Was on her way

To buy tea.

And cake.

Yeah.

From her local grocery.

By fate or by lots,

Her heart became another’s to bear:

Louis Washkansky’s.

When-

Louis Washkansky

First fluttered his eyes,

His chest beating fresh

And faithfully as

The checkout on aisle

Number 5,

“It works”

Said-

The doctor, a preacher’s kid

From Cape Town,

Like God b’fore the new hewn

Grave: ‘It works.’

In Afrikaans,

Said: ‘It works.’

The girl’s grief-blind Father,

The doctor’s trial and error,

Had given the the grocer

Exactly what each of us

Would gladly broker:

A new- a different- heart.

If we had the hearts

Sufficient to tell

The truth to each other:

My need is as great as that grocer’s.

My desire to back trace my steps

Just as desperate

As his donor.

What the doctor concluded

of Louis Washkansky.

What You first declared

About Adam and Eve

Is what my heart longs to hear

You pronounce over me:

‘It works.’

My heart, it works.

But for that to happen

I too first require

Some kind of surgery.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

What harm could it be?

I’ll just repeat:

mercy.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

That’s what I most need.

Without one, the best I

Can do is plead for

Your, on your mercy.

Which is, perhaps, the

Ultimate, stinging

Irony

In a life that hides

Behind them

Trades in them

Thrives on them.

What I’m so stingy to bequeath

Is the one thing I’m starving to receive.

Mercy.

I’m not talking about the one an’ done

Caught red-handed, get out of jail free-dom

Sort of mercy.

Not the snake-oily, Holy Ghost, Fatherweejus mercy.

Not the hair-sprayed preacher’s mercy.

Not the jury of your peers’ mercy.

I’m talking about the mercy that’s weighted down

By hard and heavy consonants that break bonds

Cut oceans in two

Crack water from rock.

Hesed.

Steadfast.

The

No matter what.

You do despite what I do

Mercy.

Have that kinda on me.

But even this plea of mine

Points out my problematic plot line

It’s alway all about

Me, me, me.

You upstairs

The man down the street

She across the bed

I’m like a dyslexic St Paul:

The one thing I ask of you

The one thing I want?

I do not do.

The one thing I ask of you

Is the last I’ll offer you.

When it comes to mercy,

It’s better to receive

Than it is to believe

You must give

It.

When it comes to mercy?

I am reticent.

I am hesitant.

I am no better than Maleficent.

Grace is less amazing

When it’s another’s song.

Trust me-

‘Tis better to be found

Than to get up and to find.

But You already see my blindness

Know my mind, know,

Know that what I solicit

I so seldom show.

I need a Billy Mays magic miracle.

Shazamm!

Over my sin-stained self.

Not 3 Hail Marys, nor alms for the poor

Costlier even than

Easy installments of $19.94.

More chi-chi than gold

Or frankincense and myrrh.

Like Nathan to David,

Like Nicholson to Cruise,

The truth about me

I can’t handle it.

Because I’ve exercised so much equity

With my iniquity

My sin is in me,

Ground down deep-like wine and dirt and blood-

To the fibers and sub-flooring

Of my soul and my Being.

If I were a suit you took the cleaners

You’d get charged extra

And told not to expect me

For at last 3 business

Days- you’d hear her disgust in Korean

As she wondered to the woman

With pins in her teeth

Exactly what you’d done in me.

Mercy is what  I need.

My sin is ever before me .

Like grace’s doppleganger

In, with and under

Just say the words, no reply

I am not worthy

Of your mercy.

My sin is ever before me

Every pair of eyes

The most unflattering of mirrors

Revealing not the extra 2-inches

Or the male-pattern baldness

But the mystery that we’re

The only members of your handiwork

Who know not how

To be creatures.

Behind my every offense-

If I take measure,

That’s what I should confess:

Thinking the world here for my pleasure

Not me made for my Creator.

Failure to be human:

I’m guilty as charged.

And it’s crime that moves all the rest of you

To the back of the line.

Because against You

You Alone

Have I sinned.

To you I gave the finger.

And uttered ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it.’

To you I sent the all CAPS email with the

!!!

I unfriended You.

For your Tea Party bat crazy,

Your Moveon.org rant.

And hung up when You picked up.

To You I told the

Little white lie

and the outright one.

To You  I raised my voice for no good reason.

And said ‘Yes Dear, I’m listening.’

To You, I said ‘Sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

up here

It was Your eyes I forgot were

To You I was a noisy gong, a clanging symbol

Neither patient nor kind

Keeping track of Your trespass

Just as I expect You to forgive mine.

Every sin I’ve committed

Every person I’ve harmed

Count them together

It adds up to one:

You.

Against You alone have I sinned.

Your ledger longer than any other’s.

You’ve seen my worst, every inward part

So You know better than me

How sorely I need

A new and clean heart.

A clean heart!

I’m so far removed

From my mother’s womb

I cannot imagine

What possessing said heart would mean for my other organs

For my ears and my tongue and my mind.

Louis Washkansky knew.

For a time- well, if not clean-

At least more innocent than mine.

The grocer from Cape Town survived

With the unlucky girl’s inside

Him for 18 short days.

But 18 days!

For 400 hours

Louis Washkansky

The grocer who’d seen horrors

The battles and blood

Trenches and marches

Of war.

The camps, the mass graves, the ovens.

For 18 days-

Louis Washkansky

Found respite inside

an innocent’s heart.

Do the memories recede?

Does the mind forget?

What the heart never learned?

For 18 days

A war-jaded vet

Quickened with her pulse-

Her naiveté-

That still more days lay

Ahead of her.

Had she had her first kiss?

Been spurned by a friend?

Acquired the scars

Which always become

our kids’ first  lessons?

With her’s beating inside him

I wonder-

Louis Washkansky-

Did he love his wife, finally

With a love she’d always fancied?

Did he hear what she left unsaid?

Did he show his children

Her love and attention?

Did he sashay around

And leave the toilet seat down?

Did he listen and feel

And, for once, find the right words

To: Honey?

What are you thinkin’?

With her inside him

Was it freeing?

To finally, truthfully, be singing:

‘I’m every woman.’

Or was it just enough for the grocer

To hear

What we’d mortgage heaven to broker

What we’d plead for You to impart:

‘It works’

A new, a clean, heart.

Louis Washkansky

His new heart, her old one

Beat for only 17 days longer

His/her doctor, the Cape Town preacher’s kid

Could not give

What only You can offer.

But still-

I’ve got to wonder

Can even You impart

Such an illogical grace

As a new, clean heart?

I mean-

How can what is Yours only

Be mine?

Without it being less than You?

How can the infinite

Lodge

In this small space I’ve carved for it?

Given what impossible surgery

A new, a clean heart would require

The metaphysical

To say nothing of the biological

Might it be sufficient to desire

Not what in me You must do

A new heart to own

But just You.

You alone.

If so, then the point

Is not a doctor

To bind us

To extend us 18 or 15 or a few more days

But to break our spirit

So that, broken, our

Lips may proclaim Your

Praise.

          Here’s my Ash Wednesday sermon. The texts were Psalm 51 and Luke 15.11-24.

Since Ash Wednesday is a day for confession, I suppose an apology is in order.

Dennis and I- we should say we’re sorry. It’s our fault.

After all, every year, every Ash Wednesday, we make you flagellate yourselves with King David’s hyperbolic guilt and indulgent self-loathing: “My sin is ever before me…Against you, you alone God, have I sinned…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner since my mother conceived me.” 

It’s our fault.

Every year, every Ash Wednesday, we drag you through this liturgy that, no BS,  derives, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists and conquistadors.

And then every year, every Ash Wednesday, we invite you forward to receive ashes to remember that from dust- by God’s grace- you came but to Death- by your sin- you deserve to go.

So I apologize. We’re sorry. It’s our fault.

If you’re one of those people who think that when we do good God will reward us, if you’re one of those people think that when we do evil, when we sin, God will punish us, if you’re one of those people then maybe it’s our fault.

I mean, it’s freaking strange that Christians of all people should think this way about God, think that God doles out what we sinners deserve but maybe it’s our fault.

Maybe we’ve let the sackcloth and ash mislead you.

Sure, it’s not really odd that other people should think of God this way, think of God rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we sin. It’s probably the most common way of thinking of God.

Freud was dead-on right: for most people God is just a great projection out onto the sky of our own interior. Our own feelings. Especially the guilty ones.

But if that’s who God is, rewarding us when we’re faithful and punishing us when we’re sinful, then I don’t believe in Him. And neither should you.

I mean if you think God is like Santa, forever auditing us to reward the nice and punish the naughty, then you better wipe your ashes tonight because you’ve lost the plot.

God, Jesus preaches again and again, isn’t like that all.

——————————

     Just take the parable.

The prodigal son goes off to a distant country, far off from his father, and goes on a Tinder binge. Only after he’s penniless and debauched as Tiger Woods, does the prodigal see himself for what he is.

 “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” 

     Here’s a question for Ash Wednesday:

Where did the son get the idea that his father would ever treat his children like hired hands? Where did he ever get the idea that his father gave his children what they deserved?

Notice- how the prodigal son’s sin- his sin– alters his whole relationship with his father.

Alters how he sees his father.

Instead of seeing himself as his father’s beloved son, the prodigal sees himself as one who gets the wages he’s earned. Instead of seeing his father as someone who loves without condition, he now sees his father as someone who doles out to his children what they deserve.

Notice, and this is everything tonight, seeing his father as someone who doles out what his children deserve- that isn’t who his father is. That is what the son’s sin has done to how he sees his father.  

His father hasn’t changed.

His sin has changed how he sees his father.

Seeing his relationship with his father this way, it’s what his sin has done, and just so you see it too, Luke repeats it twice.

The prodigal son’s sin- it’s something that changes God into a wage-master, into a judge, into a father who doles out what his children deserve.

You see-

     Sin turns God into exactly who Freud said God was: the projection of our feelings of guilt. Sin turns God into the projection of our shame so that we no longer see the real God at all.

‘God’ isn’t a proper name, don’t forget. It’s an answer.

Fundamentally, ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ a question to which there is never any other answer but grace and love.

But instead, according to Jesus here in Luke 15, our sin turns God into an accuser, a wage master, a judge who weighs our deeds and damns us.

Maybe tonight, more so than any night, when we put forth confession and put on ash, it’s crucial that we stop and notice how so much of our Christian speech and thought is in fact a kind of Satan worship.

It’s worship of an Accuser.

Which can never be motived by love or joy.

     Maybe tonight of all nights, instead of confessing, we should be lamenting, lamenting how for many of us, because of our sin, the only glimpse of God we ever see is how God looks from Hell.

That’s what Christians means by ‘damnation’- it’s self-imposed exile.

To be damned is to be fixed forever in this illusion about God. It’s to be so stuck on justifying your self, so shut-eyed towards your sins that you end up seeing our Father as your Auditor in Heaven.

——————————

     Don’t let the ash get in your eyes and blind you to the real God.

The real God isn’t a kind of Satan, an accuser, weighing your sin to dole out the wages you deserve. The real Father is like this father. And this father, Jesus says, his heart towards his son is no different on the day his son forsakes him than on the day his son returns home to him.

The real God doesn’t mete out reward or punishment according to our merit. Freud was right- that god is a caricature drawn by sin. Our Father in Heaven is like this father, Jesus says, always helplessly and hopelessly loving.

     God is like a father whose love without condition.

Because God- pay attention now- is without change. God, by definition is immutable.

God doesn’t mutate. God doesn’t change.

Therefore-

If God does not change, your sin cannot not change God’s attitude towards you.

Your sin does not change God’s attitude about you.

No, what sin does- it changes your attitude about God.

Sin blinds us, distorts our vision, so that the Father we see is a punitive paymaster, an angry judge, a kind of satan.

Just look at all the trouble we’re going to tonight. We’ve carved out a day on to the calendar. We’ve mixed oil with ash- who would ever think to do something like that? You’re skipping Tucker Carlon’s show on Fox News.

Look at all the trouble we’ve gone to tonight- sin matters enormously… to sinners.

Sin matters enormously to us if we’re sinners.

But it doesn’t matter- at all- to God.

God doesn’t change. Your sin cannot change God.

God, literally, does not give a damn about our sin. It’s we who give the damns. We wish our father dead. We hate our brother. We give the damns.

And then we justify ourselves for having done it.

Until finally all we can see is a Hell’s eye view of God.

——————————

     Before I graduated, my Jedi Master at Princeton, Dr. Robert Dykstra, a counseling professor, told me that it’s not until year seven in a congregation that the curtain comes up, the pretenses fall away, and you see who your people really are.

“You need to stay in one place long enough,” he said, “so that they no longer have the energy to keep their secrets.” 

Well, this is my twelfth Ash Wednesday here. And, by now, I’ve worn you down.

I know a lot of you pretty well. I know who’s cheated on their taxes and who’s cheated on their husbands. I know which husbands were on the hacked Ashley Madison website I know who used to hit their wife and I know the friends that pretend they didn’t know it happened.

I know the fathers who refuse to welcome their own prodigal sons home. I know the children who can’t forgive their parents. And I know who fills a hole in their marriage with stuff or drugs or drink.

After all this time, I know a lot of you pretty well.

And I know a lot of you see God as angry. At you.

As judging, damning. You.

I know a lot of you worry about getting from God what you have coming to you.

I know some of you are here tonight, hoping that if you muster up enough contrition, kneel in penance, pray for forgiveness, and bear your ashes then maybe, just maybe, God will forgive you.

Listen up-

You see God the way you do because of your sin.

Freud’s right, you’ve made that god in your image. Or your sin has.

God’s not angry at you because of your sin. That’s not how it works.

Rather, because of your sin you see God as angry.

God doesn’t give a damn about your sin.

Rather, it’s because of your sin that you see God as damning.

God doesn’t mete out what you deserve.

Rather, because that’s the currency you pay others, you see God as a merit-weighing, sin- auditing, wage-master.

     God doesn’t mete out the punishment you deserve.

If you think that then you’ve lost the plot.

God responds to the crosses we build with empty tombs.

After all this time I know you pretty well. I know the damns you’ve given to others in your life. So on this night of sackcloth and ash I want you to know:

God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do or who you’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make the Father love you more and there’s nothing you have done to make the Father love you less.

Our heavenly Father doesn’t care whether you’re a sinner or a saint, a prodigal or a self-righteous elder brat.

It makes no difference to our Father because nothing can make our Father different.

Your sin doesn’t do anything to God, but it can distort everything about you.

It can ruin your eyes even, to the point you don’t recognize your own Father anymore.

——————————-

     Don’t let all this talk tonight about sin mess with your sight.

Don’t let your sin change how the Father’s seen by you.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you have contrition, if you confess your sins, if you bear your ashes with the proper penitence then God will come and forgive you, that God will be moved by your heartfelt apology, that God will change his mind about you and forgive you.

Not at all.

God never changes his mind about you.

Because God doesn’t change.

No, what God does do- over and again, as long as it takes- God changes your mind about him.

If you’re sorry for your sin, that’s why. If you’re contrite over your sin, that’s why. If you want to be forgiven of your sin, that’s why.

It’s the unchanging God, at work, in you. To change you.

It’s God changing your mind, helping you to see your sin, and see how your sin has changed how you see him.

You are not forgiven because you confess your sin.

You confess your sin, see yourself for what you are, because you are already forgiven.

Forgiveness is not the product of something we do to change God.

Forgiveness is the product in us of what God does to change us.

God’s forgiveness always precedes our confession and contrition.

That’s why when you come forward for a smear of ashes, you are not coming forward in order to have your sins forgiven. You’re coming forward to celebrate that your sins are forgiven.

Which means-

    These ashes are not a sign that we are the people who have changed how God views us.

     These ashes are the sign that we are the people whose vision God has changed.

Sure, these ashes are black and gritty and oily but you should bear them as though you are wearing the finest robe and gaudiest ring, as though someone has kicked on the turntable and set out the flatware and linens, killed the fattest calf, and invited you to get drunk out of your mind because you once were blind but finally you see.

See-

The God you thought was an angry judge.

An auditor.

An accuser.

He’s just a Dad on a porch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


img26064

The problem with many theories of the atonement, which imply that God ‘can’t’ love us- sinners that we are- until someone dies for the infinite offense, is that they neglect to notice how the gulf between Creator and creature is already so inconceivably severe that…

God can’t love us anyway.

Not if ‘love’ is to have any meaningful definition.
As Herbert McCabe argues:

One of the primary characteristics of any definition of love is equality between the lovers.

Love entails a recognition between two of the other’s existence as as valid as one’s own existence. To put the point more clearly, says McCabe, just consider how ‘fostered inequality’ registers with us as the opposite and enemy of love.

If equality is an essential attribute of a loving relationship, then it becomes evident that ‘whatever relationship there may be between God and his creature it cannot be one of love.’

The relationship is instead as unequal as it can possibly be.

We might think of God as caring benevolently for his creatures or as the Source of all value in them or as a Master rewarding/punishing them, but we can’t, McCabe argues, ‘think of God has giving himself in love to a creature.’

The gulf between Creator and creature is such that to say God loves me is on par with saying that I love yeast creature that made my beer possible.

Those hackneyed Christian songs might speak of the singer being in love with God, but it’s even more ridiculous to suppose the singer could sing about God being ‘in love’ with us.

McCabe, the philosophically trained might notice, takes with complete seriousness Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian God. Nietzsche didn’t argue that God was evil, wicked Boss in the sky; Nietzsche resisted because the relationship between God and us could never be anything other than Boss to slave.

That is, to Nietzsche the relationship between God and creatures could never be a relationship of love (between equals).

Nietzsche, in other words, did not disbelieve God; he rebelled against God. God in his estimation was not worthy of worship, for why would I care if the yeast creature in my beer worshipped me?

McCabe takes Nietzsche’s critique with seriousness and in turn laments how many have reacted to Nietzsche:

‘with a deplorable and idolatrous tendency to diminish God. In order that God may stand in relationship with his creatures, God is made one of them, a member of the universe, subject to change and even disappointment and suffering. Even the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is interpreted in these terms.’

God CAN’T love us, McCabe (a Dominican priest, no less) argues.

And this is where Herbert pivots to scripture:

“The most important thing Jesus said (and he does not only say it in John’s Gospel but shows it and implies it in a thousand ways) is something about himself: the Father loves him.”

Italics all McCabe all the way.

To sing ‘Jesus loves me for the bible tells me so’ is to miss the point in McCabe’s mind. We should be singing: ‘God loves Jesus…for the bible tells me so.’

For Jesus to claim the Father loves him is itself to announce equality with God, that sort of equality implied by and required for love.

Jesus, the Incarnate Logos, is the (only) One who makes it possible for God the Creator to love his creatures. And we Him.

It’s not just Sin that separates us- of course Sin doesn’t help.

God, McCabe, says, loves Jesus and loves him from before all time as his co-equal Son, ‘owing his existence indeed to God though not created but, as I suggest, loved into existence.’ 

Regardless of what went down in the Garden, the Son would’ve still come down to be Mary’s son because:

‘it is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love that we call the Holy Spirit.

And this means, of course, that we are taken up into equality, the equality demanded by and involved in love.’

Nietzsche was right.

God could not love creatures. God still cannot.

What did Nietzsche miss, according to McCabe?

We’re no longer just creatures. Because the Son became a creature, we creatures now share in the Son.

God can’t love us, but God loved the Son.

And in the Son, through the Spirit, the Father loves us.

We who were once creatures have been made children of God.

img26064At-One-Ment

It was the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-5th century that hammered out the Christology (‘speech about Christ’) that became orthodox for Christians everywhere. According to the Chalcedon formula, the best way to refer to Jesus Christ is as ‘the God-Man.’

Makes him sound like a super-hero, I know, which is unfortunate since that’s the last thing the Church Fathers were after. Their formula was just the best way to insure that latter day Jesus-followers like us didn’t forget that Jesus the Son is true God and true Man, without division or confusion between his two natures.

He is fully both God and Man.

And, in a latent sense, he has always been both.

Eternally.

In other words, the Son who is the 2nd Person of the Trinity was always going to be the eternal Son who became incarnate and thus the son of somebody like Mary.

According to Maximus the Confessor– indisputably one of the greatest minds in the history of the faith, someone who could even out smoke, out drink and punch out Karl Barth:

the Chalcedonian formula necessitates that we affirm that the incarnate Logos is the elect unifier of all things that are separated.

Whether- and this is key- by nature or by sin.

We all know Sin separated us from God. That’s an every Sunday, altar call kind of presumption- so much so, in fact, that we neglect to remember or notice that less nefarious but even more fundamental fact separates us from the infinite.

Our finitude. Our createdness. Our materiality.

That the son of Mary is the eternal-eventually-to-become-incarnate Son of the God we call Trinity shows, says Maximus, that the Logos is the One through whom all things physical and spiritual, infinite and finite, earthly and heavenly, created and uncreated would be united and made one.

Union, says Maximus, was God’s first and most fundamental aim.

At-onement of a different sort.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins. Because if Christ is the God-Man, then everything goes in the other direction.

Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him. By him.

We are the ones with whom, through him, God wants to share God’s life.

It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas; it’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.

We’re the extravagance the superabundant love of Father, Son and Spirit gratuitously seek to share with one another.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but the reason for Jesus is that before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed God’s deepest desire is, was and always will be friendship. 

With us.

A Sermon for Every Sunday

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

adcfd2d05c188b8c49c4a8f5f709e357Jim Somerville, the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, founded A Sermon for Every Sunday a couple of years ago with David Powers, President of Belltower Pictures (check out Shooting the Prodigal) as a way to help churches that didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, a regular preacher.  They recorded sermons in high-definition video that could be projected during worship. Now they are being used by small churches, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Sunday school classes, and for individual viewing on laptops, tablets, and smartphones all over the country.

Their preachers include the likes of Brian McLaren, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, and Lauren Winner.

Jim invited me to participate recently and below is my sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent.

Not only am I thrilled to be counted among the other preachers on this roster, I was grateful to make the acquaintance of Jim and David, the former is a homiletics nerd like myself and the latter is the kind of lay person who makes you happy to be a preacher in the first place.

I encourage you to check out A Sermon for Every Sunday‘s website. On most Sunday’s they’ll deliver you a better sermon than I will!

Advent for Average Sinners

Isaiah 11.1-10 

Matthew 3.1-12

Maybe its my Contrary Personality Disorder, but am I the only one at Advent who hears a fire and brimstone indictment like ‘…you brood of vipers…even now the ax is lying near to cut you down and throw you into the fire…’ am I the only one who hears that and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know much about you but does God look at this face that any woman could love and just see a sinner? Chaff to burn up in God’s unquenchable fire?

Does God look at you with a broom in one hand and a match in the other, ready to strike at the first sign of your sin?

I mean- am I even allowed to ask the question:

Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but does my sin really make me no better than a fruitless tree to be tossed into the fire?

Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?

Does my sin so inflame God that God would just as soon sweep me into the rubbish fire? Does yours?

And I don’t know if my sinfulness extends all the way back to the womb like David indicts himself in Psalm 51- seems awfully grim to me- but I do know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I deserve to be cut down by God’s holy hatchet and thrown into fire sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath?

With the Feast of the Incarnation only a few weeks away, shouldn’t we all agree that God is at least as nice as Jesus?

Shouldn’t we concur that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same as the God who came to us in Christ?

—————

Since John the Baptist isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep, you probably noticed how Christmas begins in the dark.

With the season of Advent, a season when we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity because the world is filled with people like you and me.

And that it’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again.

And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming.

Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.

We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who, just before this pastoral image in chapter 11 of wolves making nice with sheep, promises that the destruction of sinners has already been decreed, that God’s hatchet- guess where John gets his imagery- is raised ready to lop off all the unfaithful.

And every Advent the first character to step onto the stage is John the Baptist, whose lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”

The Medieval Church, taking their cue from Malachi, spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and- the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Eternal Hell.

No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.

Denial that we are sinners.

Okay.

But, since Advent is a season for honesty-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae– which means, the Day of Wrath.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but our Advent hymns are so filled with the world’s depravity, there’s no room in them for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ 

     It’s over the top.

It’s a bit much even for these Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.

I mean, the average American Christian is willing to drive through no more than 3 traffic lights to go to church on a Sunday morning.

Yet these Pharisees and Sadducees hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to check out John and be baptized with his baptism of repentance.

To call us, much less them, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems like overkill.

You all come to church during Advent to anticipate the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and maybe you come to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you secretly voted for Trump or Hillary and what do we the Church do?

Bam.

We hit you over the head with a winnowing-fork. 

And we holler through our bullhorns, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.

     What? 

No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.

     You listen to John’s brimstoney bullhorn long enough, Advent after Advent, and you can start to hear some crazy things.

For example, it can start to sound like your sins anger God.

—————

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.

So let’s be honest: when it comes to you and me, a lot of this Advent language- it misses the mark.

As an almost English major, I gotta say a lot of this Advent language is bad language.

It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial. So here, of all seasons, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.

I mean, I’m a United Methodist, and I can tell you the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like, say, King David, but I for one don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners.

I mean- you’re listening to a sermon on a computer screen. You’re not a great sinner.

We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  Church people have made passive aggressive behavior an art form, sure, but seldom do they rise to the level of brood of vipers.

We certainly haven’t been sinful since our birth. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on our skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.

Most of us, we’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or oppressors. Advent is a season that forbids denial so forget the Baptizer’s brimstone and bullhorn for a moment and let’s be truthful.

Your sins do not offend God.

There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.

John’s brimstone bullhorn and winnowing fork make it sound like you’re a Game of Thrones-level sinner, but let’s be honest: most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.

No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.

You’re not worthless, burn-worthy chaff to God- that’s insanity. No, you just block your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.

But brood of vipers? Don’t flatter yourself. I don’t know you, but I know enough church people to bet on it: you’re not that much of a sinner.

No matter what you hear in the hymns and liturgy, your sins do not- your sins can not- provoke God’s wrath.

I know it’s Advent, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.

—————

Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.

They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you.

They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear:

Sin is about where your love lies.

Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite- God’s love doesn’t change.

Because God doesn’t change.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.

God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.

So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you.

Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love for you is unconditional- unchanging- because God is unchanging.

Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay.

Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor.

Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No.

When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him.

God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

Who the heck are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?

You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love.

You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics.

Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.

And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers.

Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them.

And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

You listen to John’s brimstone bullhorn long enough and the honey sticks in your ears. You can start to hear the wrong message.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.

Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to die. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.

Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.

Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

My point:

We are who we’ve loved.

From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:

Hell for some would be Hell for all.

If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

My teacher David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Are What You Love

Jason Micheli —  July 29, 2016 — 1 Comment

political-conventionThese next two weeks I’m teaching a class for licensed pastors at Wesley Theological Seminary. While reading the participants’ papers in the evening, I’ve been listening to bits and pieces of both parties political conventions. Every now and then a social media notification from a Facebook Friend or Twitter Follower will flash across my laptop screen. When it’s not an invitation to play Candy Crush Saga, it’s most often yet another tweet or post perpetuating the culture war antagonisms in our country.

Convention season has me thinking not of The Donald or Hillary but Augustine.

St. Augustine of Hippo was the kind of dude whose pre-Christian biography The Donald and Bill Clinton could resonate. In other words, he was a narcissistic horn-dog. But that’s not why I’m thinking of Augustine.

I’m thinking of his long work of theology entitled The City of God, written in response to the fall of Rome.  In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city (God’s Kingdom).

What distinguishes citizens of the two cities, Augustine argues, is not beliefs but love.

The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God.

For Augustine, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs.  As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.

Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.

For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me; it’s what I love.

Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).

We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.

The ancient Christians had a way of stating what Augustine is after:  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

It means, literally the ‘rule of prayer, the rule of belief.’ This was their of remembering that our worship- the practice, disciplines, and habits of worship- do not flow out of our beliefs and faith feelings but determine them. They shape them.

What we do forms what we think, believe, and feel. The way to our heart, recalls lex orandi, lex credendi, is through our bodies not through our heads. Our worship precedes our beliefs. What we think and believe about God flows from, not to, our love God.

For Christians at least, the caveat embedded in lex orandi, lex credendi is that our hearts aren’t just shaped by Christian liturgies they’re shaped by every sort of liturgy. All of our embodied practices and habits shape our hearts. What we do daily, in everything we do, shapes our desire. In other words, if our habits do not calibrate our hearts for God they will draw hearts towards something else.

Our hearts will worship, desire, want, and love.

Our heart, Augustine says, needs a lover.

But it doesn’t have to be, and most often is not, God.

Our habits determine who/what we worship, desire, want, and love. Correlatively, our habits reveals who/what we ultimately worship, desire, want, and love.

So listening to the conventions the past two weeks, I can’t help but wonder if what Christians should be concerned about is not The Donald vs. Hillary winning in November nor which issue is the issue over which Christians must distinguish one another. I wonder if the danger is how the practices of our U.S. politics, the habits of our election seasons, the pageantry of our political conventions shape our hearts more. Because, of course, if so then, as James KA Smight says, we just might not love God as much as we think we do.

160706064731-baton-rouge-police-shooting-alton-sterling-cell-phone-video-polo-sandoval-dnt-nd-00010108-large-169“What’s happening to America?”

I’ve overheard such comments, exasperated and worried, frequently of late. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge again: “Has the world lost its mind?”

I sympathize with the sentiment; nonetheless, it betrays a naivete of which Christians, of all people, should not be guilty precisely because Christians, of all people, are those people who know we’re guilty. Sinners, that is.

Christians do not have the optimistic assessment of human nature or romanticized visions of our societal institutions such that we could be shocked or surprised by news stories of police corruption, racial furor, and terrorism.

During World War II, the Catholic worker Dorothy Day based her advocacy for Christian nonviolence not on utopian delusions about the Church or upon Christians’ distinction apart from the common lot of sinners but on a deep penitential awareness of Christians’ solidarity with all other human beings in sin. Day believed nonviolence was the mandate upon Christian practice not because Christians are fundamentally peaceful creatures but because we’re not at all. We’re sinner; that is, Day preached Christian nonviolence not because we’re a people who know peace is the better way in the world but because we’re a people who know we cannot be trusted with violence.

Rather than asking “What’s happening to America?” (Because, of course, the correct answer is that nothing new is happening to America, it’s just being videoed with greater frequency today), Christians should be pointing out- confessing- that it’s not just that we’re all individual sinners. We’re sinful creatures who create sinful, sin-prone institutions. Of course police departments and justice departments can be corrupt and, even, racist. Of course movements like Black Lives Matter can be not entirely innocent or have members whose motives are pure. Of course America continues to reap what it sowed in the antebellum south.

A woman who worships at my church, who’s obviously a skilled writer in addition to being a gardener, put it this way to me:

“Gardeners understand original sin because the weed seeds are already in the soil – they’ve been there for years. In fact, the work you do to break up the soil, to prepare it for something good, brings weed seeds up to the surface. All the compost and aeration you put in the soil makes it prime real estate for weeds as well as for your plants.”

Christians have a language to describe what video and social media expose with alarming regularity these days. The language of Sin. We’re all captive, as St. Paul says, to the Principalities and Powers, and we’re all from time to time, unwittingly even, in service to them, aiding and abetting, despite our best intentions, whom Paul calls the “prince of this world.”

It’s a language I hear almost no one speaking, possibly because you cannot speak it without also simultaneously confessing your own complicity. Even I, for example, perpetuate a racism that my own boys, who are not white, will inevitably be effected by one day.

Sin is the reason why appeals to unity (“We’re all Americans”) ring false and hollow. As the theologian William Cavanaugh argues:

“our mysticism of nationalism tends to occlude our class divisions such that those who point out the class divisions in American get accused of waging class warfare, which is analogous to arsonists complaining that the fire department keeps reporting to the blazes they’ve set.”

You can replace “class divisions” with “racial divisions” and Cavanaugh’s point still holds. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas et al- when so many are shocked and anxious these days, Christians should be those people who are not surprised at all that another fire has come ablaze, for only through such an unsurprised people will others hear the news that we cannot, even in America, save, redeem, heal, or even better ourselves.

Gardening and fire-fighting are apt metaphors for the work Christians call confession, for Christians know that we’re seldom in a position to know the truth about our sin until we have made our lives available to others in a way that we might be shown the truth about ourselves, especially in matters where the wrong cannot easily be made right, which, as Stanley Hauerwas says, “is the character of most matters that matter.”

In other words, making confession is not possible apart from making the relationships necessary to expose the extent of our sinfulness. Black lives matter for, without them, white Christians cannot know ourselves sufficiently to confess our sin.

 

officer-involved-shooting1I’m not preaching today. It’s the last day of my vacation.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not preaching today. In light of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas murders and Micah Xavier Johnson’s rage, it would be hard to stick with the biblical text. I’d be torn. I’ve always admired the way Karl Barth preached in Germany throughout the rise of Nazism and then in Basel throughout WWII without nary a mention of either in his sermons.

I agree with Barth that to comment too much on current events in the sermon risks making the event at hand seem more determinative to our lives than the gospel event.

It risks luring us into amnesia, forgetting that, no matter how grim the world appears, it’s not our calling to save the world. Rather, the Church is called to witness to the news that it’s already been saved in Jesus Christ through cross and resurrection.

My admiration and agreement with Barth’s homiletic notwithstanding it was difficult for me to notice this Sunday’s assigned lectionary readings and not grasp at the convicting connections.

In the Gospel lection from Luke, Jesus tells the almost hackneyed parable about the ‘Good’ Samaritan.

Here’s the point about the parable that gets missed in most sermons on it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

When Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, what’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’ Ditto the Levite. They had had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes. The tithes are for alms, which means that for a week or more the distribution of charity to the poor would cease.

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

Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic and contrary to everything we know of God. But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

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

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they looted it. And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized. They were a lot more than heretics. They were Other. Less than human.

Just a chapter before this parable, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’ The shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.  So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to rescue every needy person we encounter. I wish. Unfortunately, he’s telling us to go and do something much worse.

Jesus is saying that even those we regard as Other care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.

No, even more so, Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch and to imagine our salvation coming to us in the Other.

And if they are potentially the bearers of our salvation, then we have no recourse but to love them at least as much as we love our more proximate neighbors.

Like you, all week long I’ve watched Americans choose the hashtag that most represents their tribe and communicates their worldview. I’ve read the social media shaming accusing those who are silent about these complex issues as being no better than the perpetrators. I’ve seen white friends post pictures of cops being ‘nice’ to kids in their community (as though that nullifies systemic racism and does anything but inflame those angry at our ignoring it) and I’ve read exhausted, rage-filled posts from black friends. I’ve noticed the NRA being slow to defend 2nd Amendment rights when a concealed-carry permit carries a black man’s name on it and I’ve listened to (white) opinion writers naively wonder what is happening in America that so many black men are gunned down by police- as though it’s the occurrence of such violence and not the videoing of it that is the new development and as though such violence was unrelated to the scores more black men wasting away in our prisons.

My point is that all of us- white, black, and blue, left and right, pro-gun and pro-gun control- have a propensity to see others as Other.

This propensity is what scripture calls Sin and it is what Paul, in today’s other lectionary reading from Colossians, refers to as the “darkness” from which Christ has transferred us but to which we are all still stubbornly inclined.

Speaking of Sin, it wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’ listeners that when it came to #jewishlivesmatter and #samaritanlivesmatter neither party was without sin. All had done something to contribute to or exacerbate the antagonisms between them.

All were sinners because all are sinners.

Into our tribalism of hashtags and talking past points, Jesus tells a story where we’re forced to imagine our salvation coming to us from one who is absolutely Other from us, from one we would more likely see as less than human. Jesus would have the Black Lives Matter protester imagine their salvation coming to them in the form of a card-carrying NRA Member. Jesus would invite the white cop to envision Alton Sterling as the one coming to his rescue and the finger-wagging liberal to see salvation coming to them from someone wearing a Make America Great Again cap.

Jesus tells this parable about people like us to people like us and if he were telling it to us after this week,  I wonder if instead a general ‘Go and do likewise’ he would challenge us to go out into our local communities, seek out someone who is Other, and learn their freaking first name. For as long as the Other remains a general, generic category to us these issues of racism and violence and ideologies will persist. We need to take this story and make it for us the “Parable of the Good Samaritan named __________”

Such concreteness of relationship- of listening, of naming sin as sin, of repenting and reconciling- is the only thing that will lead to peace precisely because it is the way of the One who has already brought peace by his cross and resurrection.

officer-involved-shooting1“The assumption that a black man suspected of a robbery is dangerous enough to be shot is the heart of the issue. The inability of the black community to trust that police offers will not see them as immediate threats and act accordingly is the heart of the injustice involved.”

 

What’s called ‘partisanship’ in politics becomes something worse in a Christian forum: tribalism. Seeing another as Other. Dividing up the perspectives into Us and Them and then quickly looking around for a scapegoat.

Generally, white Americans identify with the white police officers who kill blacks while black Americans identify with the seemingly innocent victims.

Whenever a story like Philander Castile’s or Alton Sterling’s, hit the news, we choose sides.

Rally behind our tribe.

Keep our feet planted in our shoes’ perspective and see ‘them’ as ‘other.’

In other words, we violate the first commandment.

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Yep, you read that right.

Herbert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, followed Thomas Aquinas in arguing that it’s not so much that God reveals the 10 Commandments to us but rather the 10 Commandments reveal God to us.

McCabe notes how the commandments chief purpose is to distinguish God from the gods.

The gods of the nations in the Old Testament, McCabe argues:                                                   “represent a settling for a partial local identity.”

In giving the first commandment, God identifies himself not as a god but as the God who liberates from the gods: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of slavery in the house of Egypt. You shall have no other gods but me.” McCabe notes the irony of a God who identifies himself as a Liberator but quickly sets about giving us rules. This is because the 10 Commandments also reveal a bitter truth about ourselves:

“One of the peculiar things about humanity is that when we are left to do exactly what we like, we straight away look around for someone to enslave ourselves to, and if we cannot find a master nearby we will invent one.

The true God reveals himself as the One who summons humanity out of this degradation we cling to, who summons us to the painful business of being free.”

It’s only when read against the backdrop of the many police shootings and the comment threads it provokes that it becomes clear what McCabe means by the painful business of being free.

For its our own preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, nations, _____________ from which the true God seeks to deliver us.

The avoidance of such gods is, the Old Testament makes clear, the basic distinguishing demand made of God’s People.

timothy-radcliffeSays McCabe:

“The important thing is not just to be religious, to worship something somehow. The important thing is to find, or be found by, the right God and to reject and struggle against the others. The worship of any other god is a form of slavery.

To pay homage to the forces of nature, to the spirit of a particular place or people, to a nation or race is to submit to slavery and degradation.

The Old Testament begins by saying to such gods ‘I do not believe and I will not serve.’

The other gods make you feel at home in a place or tribe or group or the country you grew up in and love, with them you know where you are.

But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring.

This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the devotions to your native place and people, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way. You are to have no image of God because the only image of God is humanity.”

When you realize, as McCabe does, that the gods of the Old Testament represent our normal proclivity to root our identity in our preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, or nations, you realize why it was so hard for Israel to journey out of Egypt and why it was so tempting for them to return there.

As McCabe points out, whenever you hear a tribalistic comment like ‘I guess people only care about crime when it has a white face’ you’re hearing the rattling of very old chains.

You’re hearing the echo of Israel’s lament to return to Pharaoh.

It’s the sound of exactly the sort of bondage from which the true God frees us, a point Jesus reiterates when he takes bread and wine and declares himself our Passover.

Prayer for Omar Mateen

Jason Micheli —  June 23, 2016 — 8 Comments

2016AC-logo-color-with-UMC-flameI’m recovering from 3 plus days spent at my little nook of Methodism’s Annual Conference. Given that nearly a quarter of every dollar a United Methodist gives goes out the door of his or her congregation to the larger Church, there’s many structural and strategic critiques I could offer about how we spent our time (and I’ve already seen many of my younger clergy colleagues doing so on social media).

I won’t belabor the organizational beef. I do want to address what I took to be both a grave theological error and a personal one too. During the proceedings we debated- debated- a resolution recommending that we pray for the (gay) victims of the Orlando tragedy. We actually debated it. Christians debated praying. Full stop. For victims of murder. We eventually did so and in it we prayed for the victims and their families and, if I recall, there was verbiage spent on gun violence and gun legislation and hateful ideologies.

What was missing, I noticed immediately, was a prayer for the perpetrator. We didn’t prayer for the shooter. And that wouldn’t be odd in any other context except for a Christian one, for we are the people who believe the cross erases any meaningful distinction between victim and victimizer.

I noticed the lack in the prayer and in our debate about it, but I was too afraid to step up to microphone 10 to say anything about it. For that, I am ashamed. It’s little recompense but I offer this prayer here that I should’ve offered there:

Slaughtered Yet Risen Lord-

You forgive us from the cross with which we push you out of the world, invoking to the Father that we do not know what we are doing. Perhaps we know ourselves better than you know us, for surely we knew what we were doing.

We confess.

And, we presume, Omar Mateen knew what he was doing too by murdering out of hate (and it seems self-hate too) by wounding just as many, and, in so doing, wreaking violence on his family and any who cared for him. We presume he knew what he was doing, and so not one of us has any natural inclination to forgive him or, even, to pray for him.

We confess.

Actually, Lord Jesus, we’d rather pray for you to punish him. We’d prefer the assurance of his eternal torment, and we don’t know how to square that desire with the news that you’ve already suffered hell for us, once for all, and that you died- accursed- not for people like us but the wicked. Like Omar Mateen. We desperately do not want him to be counted among that ‘all’ for whom you died.

We confess.

We don’t want to pray for him, Lord. Maybe it’s because we don’t think he deserves it, or maybe it’s because we suspect it will prove hard to hate someone for whom we pray. We don’t want to pray for him, but you queerly command us to love enemies and trespassers and to pray for them. So we do- not because it’s a strategy to make the world more peaceful and not because we believe that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. We do so, reluctantly, only because you commanded us, and as dumb and offensive as praying for him strikes us, you’re still the only one whose character God has vindicated by resurrection. And if you can raise the crucified from the dead, then perhaps you can raise up a People whose hates are not more precious to them than their faith.

We hope.

So against our better judgment but towards our Easter hope, we pray for Omar Mateen and any and all who, in the mysterious complexity of life, loved him. We’re told he killed in the name of righteousness; help us not shirk your command to pray for enemies in the name of righteousness. Give us grace, Lord Jesus, that in the fullness of time we may see in him, and him in us, thieves welcomed by you undeservedly into paradise.

Help us to pray for Omar Mateen and those like him. Help us to believe the Gospel that its through such practices and the communities constituted by them that you have chosen to redeem this sinful and violent world. Amen.

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4If it’s true, as the many earnest and somber admonishments I’ve received in response to my recent infernal posts testify, that God consigns or consents his creatures to an eternal hell then, begs the question, is God evil?

Simply because God (allegedly) does it, doesn’t make it good or just or, even more importantly, beautiful. So we should muster up the stones to ask the obvious question to such a grim assertion: is God evil?

Our concepts of goodness, truth, and the beautiful, after all, emanate from God, who is the perfection of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; therefore, they participate in the Being of God and correspond to the character of God. Sin-impaired as we are, we can yet trust our God-given gut. Again then, the question- and forget that it’s God we’re talking about- is God evil?

If the calculus of God’s salvation balances out with a mighty, eternally-tormented, remainder, then is God the privation haunting the goodness of his own creation?

The panting sanctimony in my Inbox suggests that eternal hell is the cherished, sacrosanct doctrine of a good many Christian clergy, which, I confess, makes me suspect the decline of the Church is a moral accomplishment. I frankly can’t think of a better descriptor than evil (or maybe monstrous) for a being who creates ex nihilo, out of love gratuitously for love’s sake, only to predestine or permit the eternal torment of some or many of his creatures. Grace is more grim than amazing if its constitutive of a being who declares “Let us make humanity in our image…” only to impose upon them an inherited guilt which leads inexorably, except for the finite ministrations of altar calls and evangelism, to eternal hell.

The inescapable moral contradictions and logical deficiencies of belief in an eternal hell led to the rise of voluntarism, a theological strain that insists there is nothing more determinative than God’s absolute, spontaneous exercise of his will. God’s essence, his very nature, is secondary to his will. Something is good, then, not because it corresponds to the Goodness that is the nature of God, who can only do that which is Good because he is free and perfect to act unconstrained according to his nature. Rather, simply because God does it, it is good. In other words, it is good for God to consign scores to an eternal torment because God does it. Any sense of justice we have that would cause us to recoil is only a human category, voluntarists would speculate, and has no corollary in the character of God.

Which, of course, is utter bulls#$%.

A popular (and ostensibly more civilized) perspective on hell attempts to remove the nasty veneer by replacing God as the active agent of damnation.

Excusing God from culpability, which is but a tacit acknowledgement of hell’s Christian incoherence, many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to our human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity.

God does not consign creatures to Hell.

God, like the parentified child in an abusive family, merely consents to Hell.

God consents, so the argument goes, to the risk inherent in any loving relationship, which is the possibility that his creatures will reject his love and choose Hell over Him.

Despite its tempered, rational appearance, this is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s privileging of it, it sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage.

Captivity.

Slavery to Sin and Death.

The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks is that it employs an understanding of “freedom” that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear. The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom.

For the Church Fathers- indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is NOT freedom but a lack of freedom.

It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin not our liberty from it.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

  • Galatians 5

For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will. Freedom is not the ability to choose between several outcomes, indifferent to the moral good of those outcomes. In other words, freedom is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well.

You are most free when your will more nearly corresponds to God’s will.

Because we are made with God’s creative declaration in mind (“Let us make humanity in our image…”) the freedom God gives us is not unrestrained freedom or morally indifferent freedom. It is not the freedom to choose between an Apple or a Samsung nor the freedom to choose between Hell or Heaven.

The freedom with which God imbues us is teleological freedom; that is, our freedom is directed towards our God-desired End in God. As creatures, oriented towards the Good, our freedom is purposive. Freedom is our cooperating with the grain of the universe.

We’re free when we become more who we’re created to be.

As Irenaeus says, the glory of God is human being fully alive. Only a fully alive creature in God’s glory is truly free. Freedom, then, is not the ability to do what you want. Freedom is to want what God wants: communion with Father, Son, and Spirit. You are most free, Christians have ALWAYS argued, when your will becomes indistinct from God’s will.

“The will, of course, is ordered to that which is truly good. But if by reason of passion or some evil habit or disposition a man is turned away from that which is truly good, he acts slavishly, in that he is diverted by some extraneous thing, if we consider the natural orientation of the will.

  • Thomas Aquinas

Christian grammar insists that you are most free when you no longer have any choice because your desire is indistinct from God’s desire. You’re willing and the Good are without contradiction. Nothing, no sin or ignorance, is holding you back. You’re no longer in bondage. Janis Joplin was nearly correct. Freedom is nothing left to lose choose.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart writes:

“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

And just in case you can’t connect the dots to perdition, he continues:

“It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”

The creature that chooses not to enter into God’s beatitude is by definition not a free creature but captive.

Captive still to sin.

If it’s true, as I’m told by clergy in all CAPS in my Inbox, that we can choose Hell rather than God, forever so, then for those who do Christ is not their Redeemer. And if not, then he was not. If not for them, then not for any of us and the god who purportedly took flesh inside him for the redemption of ALL captives is a liar and maybe a monster. In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.

Guyton-bookMorgan has been hounding my ass for weeks for a review of his new book, How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity and I still have not done it. I’ve reviewed other books for other websites. I’ve written blog posts several times a week and composed sermons. But I haven’t been able to write a review of Morgan’s book. Since he sent me a galley of it this fall, his book became for me like the girlfriend you don’t know how to break up with because you don’t want to hurt her.

And by that, I don’t mean that his book sucks. It doesn’t.

I think it’s because I care for Morgan too much (and I respect him too much) to do a shitty job of it. I’ve had book reviewers block. And we have a history together that is more substantial than the rather spare amount of time we’ve spent together.

So it’s about time to do a quick review for you of Morgan’s book.

A handful of years ago I was asked by Beth Downs, the Ms McGonagall of the United Methodist Church, to lead a class on preaching to a group of ordination candidates. Of course, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in the classroom anymore than I do in the pulpit but I said yes. My first session, attempting to be too clever by half, before opening with prayer I opened with a scripture reading. An auspicious one: Numbers 22. For all these earnest preachers of the word, who elbowing each other out of the way to impress members of the Board of Ministry, I offered a reading where an ass- a donkey- is able proclaim a word from the Lord.

I was met with confused, silent, stares. Except one- a nasally sort of chuckle. I looked over towards it: ‘Morgan?’ I asked ‘Is that you?’

I first Morgan Guyton when we were first years- not freshman- at the University of Virginia during a gathering of the First Year Fellowship, which was a college extension of Young Life’s para-church ministry. I’d only become a Christian maybe 18 months before coming to college and, having found the local Methodist churches ‘sleepy’ at best, I’d decided to check out First Year Fellowship. Initially, it seemed awesome. It was on campus. Everyone was my age,  looked like me, thought like me. It was led by a few charismatic older students armed with acetate overhead sheets, acoustic guitars, and Jesus in my pants praise songs.

In hindsight I can say that First Year Fellowship was a tribe of evangelical students of a particular Calvinistic strain but I did not have such categories at the time. I only knew after a few gatherings that I did not belong. The performance of my worship was not demonstrative enough. My certainty was short on such things as substitutionary atonement. My questions about unbelievers, my gay friends, and prayer were not welcomed. My pushback was push-backed. The Christianese slang and idioms felt ill-fitting on me. Having come to the faith in a United Methodist New Church Start, Woodlake UMC, a seeker sensitive church,  I was not prepared for Christians who took their beliefs seriously enough to stigmatize other Christians.

The usually unspoken exclusion I felt at First Year Fellowship eventually kick started a long running commentary in my head that I was not a good enough Christian which inexorably led to unproductive and even shaming attempts on my part to justify myself before God rather than rest in Christ’s justification of me.

What I know now was that I was a victim of a form of toxic Christianity. And it was, toxic. It made me feel physically ill. It made me ashamed, physically and emotionally, of who I thought I was as a Christian.

I met Morgan at that First Year Fellowship- at a fall retreat, actually, in which we all went skinny dipping, and Morgan sports a bear suit underneath his clothes so you can imagine that left an impression- and my first impression of Morgan was how I thought he’s so completely different from me but the two of us are completely different from this group. The thing we have in common is that we have nothing in common with this gathering of Christians. Neither of us belonged.

I count it is a source of pride that, though Morgan and I agree on very little or, rather, we disagree on much, he and I were the only two disqualified by the Young Life Organization from being leaders of First Year Fellowship. Given my experience, I’m not sure why I applied- whether it was masochism or infiltration. I was blackballed because I would not concede to my interviewer that his deformed and useless hand had been ordained by God for a higher purpose.

I’m not sure why Morgan was rejected, but I suspect it’s because, as a Christian, he can be hard to take. During First Year Fellowship gatherings, Morgan would frequently raise his hand and stand to share what Jesus had compelled him to do or say, or whom he was called to love, this week, or what he was wrestling with in the Spirit at present. Honestly, listening to Morgan in those moments was exhausting.

In other words, Morgan was the kind of guy that made you realize why people wanted to kill Jesus.

There’s only so much urgency of faith that sinners and almost Christians can tolerate before they respond with a cross.

If Morgan wears his heart for God on his sleeve, then there’s a piece of it on every page of his book, which is better understood by the title he originally gave to it Mercy Not Sacrifice, for Morgan’s refrain is the prophets’ own reminder that God does not desire the practices and gestures by which we try to ameliorate our situation vis a vis God rather God wants a beautiful, poured out life from us. In How Jesus Saves Us, Morgan uses his own story, revealing some of his own saddness, insecurities, and shame along the way, to expose the ways in which our piety and practices mask the very sorts of ideologies from which Jesus has already saved us.

I’ve no doubt that Morgan’s book will be life-giving because his oddness in a way all those years ago helped to save me from the self-loathing that self-justification inevitably begets. He was part of God’s antidote for me of the toxic Christianity which had infected my newly chosen faith.

If prophets are not welcome in their hometowns, it’s understandable that we’d be uncomfortable at times with them in our pulpits. I’m not sure I possess the truthfulness, spiritual energy, or courage of my conviction to ever want to be a part of Morgan’s congregation (and I mean that as the highest compliment), but I’m grateful that Morgan is a leader in my Church with a capital C and that though this book his voice will afflict many with the right kind of nightmares.

Buy the book here.

hell-5-views-3-638I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they simultaneously assume that belief in the biblical account of creation requires images of brontosauruses reclining with Adam in the peaceable garden of eden. I wonder, that is, if believing in a fiery fate is part and parcel with affirming scripture’s aging of the earth. Certainly I think Christians can only insist that the story ends this awful way for some of us- or, to listen to them, a great many of us- because they mistakenly read its beginning in a particular way.

Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the  term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.

To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.

When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one- that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.

For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.

Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though- really, because– Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.

Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.

Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart argues:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”

God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. Perfection.

God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story. Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.

Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.

It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification.

Perfection.

Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.

Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.