Archives For Works

Down the Up Staircase

Jason Micheli —  February 11, 2019 — Leave a comment

James 2.1-5, 8-10

Along the way and over the years there have been certain game-changing moments that have forever altered how I’ve understood and performed my ministry. 

For example, there was the time when I decided to preach off-the-cuff, without notes— just shoot from the hip. And I got animated and agitated and argumentative—as I’m wont to do— and what shot out of my hip and into my congregation’s earballs was a certain four-letter word. 

Let’s just say the word was not YHWH. Nor was it— as the bishop made clear to me— holy. In order to tame my tongue, I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.

For example, there was the Holy Thursday at my first parish in Princeton. When kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insisted on filling those ridiculous little personal-sized communion cups themselves and when they then insisted on carrying those stacks of tiny cups in their kindly but shakey hands from the basement sacristy to the altar table the night before, I said “sure thing, ladies.” 

I didn’t realize that the grape juice would spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the heavy brass trays of cups. Neither did I realize that when I presided at the table the next evening and solemnly attempted to lift the lid from the blood of our savior, for a chilling second or six, I would lift the lid along with all five of the brass trays. 

Locked by the sugary seal of the spilt grape juice, they all came up together— lid and brass trays— in one terrifying motion. 

Then, just like that, the seal broke, the trays fell, the off-brand generic Welch’s grape juice poured out like that elevator in the Shining, and, though Good Friday was still another twenty-four hours away, the table suddenly looked like I had just desanguinated Jesus Christ on that very altar. 

Let’s just say that was another time a certain four-letter word escaped my lips. I’ve double-checked the Lord’s Supper before the worship service ever since. 

For example, there was the Lent when I thought it would be a good idea as fundraiser for the church’s mission project (a sanitation system in Latin America) to shoot a series of videos of me wearing my clergy collar sitting on a toilet talking about the importance of sanitation in rural villages. 

We’ve go to make sanitation sexy, I told our mission committe. 

Let’s just say I went from safe anonymity to the bishop’s doodie list so fast you’d swear I had a flux capacitor strapped to my back. I’ve kissed the bishop’s ______ ever since. 

Along the way, there have been moments that have hijacked me and changed how I understand ministry.  

For example, there was the Atlantic Monthly article I read a while back. It was the article’s headline that grabbed me: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.”

In it, the author, Larry Taunton, described how his non-profit organization, the Fixed-Point Foundation, conducted a national survey of college students. 

They canvassed students from campus groups like Secular Student Alliance and the Free Thought Society— atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade for Christ. 

To the Foundation’s surprise, thousands upon thousands of students from all over the country volunteered to share their journey into unbelief. Almost of all of them, the author noted, were former Christians. 

Let’s just say the findings from the survey surprised the Fixed-Point Foundation. 

According to Larry Taunton, the Foundation’s director, the overwhelming majority of those young people who now identify as former Christians attribute their lost faith to the fact that the teaching of their churches was soft and vague:

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the necessary relationship between that message and Jesus Christ or the Bible. They didn’t see why the church was necessary for those messages which they heard echoed everywhere else in the culture. This is an incisive critique. These young atheists— former Christians— seem to have intuitively understood what the church often doesn’t understand about itself; namely, that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim a message, Jesus Christ— his death and resurrection. Because that was missing in their churches, they saw little incentive to stay.

The church does not exist to address social ills, but to proclaim a message, Jesus Christ— his death and resurrection. “We would hear this response again and again,” Larry Taunton writes— in the Atlantic, which is not a Christian or even a religious magazine.

Let’s just say the article convicted me. 

And now ever since I’ve been a lot more cognizant of how I speak Christian. 

———————- 

When it comes to the Letter of James, everyone always wants to rush to the end of chapter two where James writes to the church in Jerusalem that “faith without works is dead.” 

Clearly, you can see from today’s passage at the top of chapter two that the church in Jerusalem needed to be convinced that faith without good deed doing is dead. The church in Jerusalem needed to be convinced. But do we? 

According to the survey in the Atlantic Monthly, not only does the church in America not need to be convinced about the goodness of good deed doing, no one in America needs to be convinced. Social justice, community involvement, doing good— it’s in the ether. 

Even secular schools require community service hours. 

Not only do we not need convincing about good works, survey says our always rushing to the end of James chapter two has undone God’s work of faith in young people. 

Our words have consequences, James tells us in his letter. All our words about good works, the survey says, have had consequences for faith. The survey says that by stressing the effects of the Gospel (good works) rather than the Gospel itself we’ve starved people’s faith on the vine. 

The survey says we don’t need to remind anyone that faith without works is dead. 

The survey says need to remind Christians that Christ is not dead. 

Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins, is not dead; he has been raised for your justification—  for you to be in the right with God, there is therefore now no condemnation— that is the faith.  That is the faith whose fruit is good works. 

Follow the logic: if the former dies, the latter disappears. 

If he is the Vine and we are the Branches and good works are the Fruit, then works without faith— they’re like apples on the ground; they’re not going to last long.

So I don’t want to rush to the end of chapter two today. I want to point you to the very top of chapter two. And I don’t want to exhort you to do good works. I want to make an argument to strengthen you in the faith.. 

———————-

In the first verse of chapter two, James refers to his half-brother Jesus as “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the translation you heard this morning. Except, in the Greek, it’s not adjectival. 

In the Greek, what James writes is “our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory.”

In Hebrew it’s called shekinah. 

James, who’s Mary son also, a good Jew, would know that “the glory” is what appeared to the Israelites as a pillar of cloud and fire and accompanied them along their exodus from Egypt. James would know that “the glory” is what Moses had to hide his face from in the cleft of a rock as God passed by him. It’s what resided behind the temple veil in the holy of holies.

Jesus is that, James is saying so simply you run right past it to the end of chapter two.

The reason James here at the top of chapter two asserts that God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the Kingdom is because James believes God chose Jesus to be the heir of his Kingdom. And James knew better than anyone that Jesus was poor. 

The reason James is so hot and bothered here about Christians making distinctions between rich and poor is that such partiality lures us into forgetting that the glory of God has come down the up staircase and disguised himself in the poverty of Jesus Christ. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory. 

Don’t forget— James was not his brother’s disciple. James thought his brother was a nut job, but here in chapter two James is quoting his brother almost verbatim about the Law of God. “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point of it becomes accountable for all of the Law,” James says, just like his brother said in the sermon on the mount right before he said “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” 

James, who did not believe in his brother, here at the top of chapter two quotes his brother. 

And we know from the Jewish historian Josephus that  James was executed by order of the very same Sanhedrin that sent Jesus to a cross. That is a FACT of history.  The charge against James? Blasphemy. James, who had not believed in his brother, was executed for worshipping his brother as the Christ, the Messiah.

It’s a claim of faith that Jesus is worthy of our worship, but it’s a fact of history that James worshipped Jesus. 

Of course, as a good Jew, James would know that even messiahs do not warrant our worship. It’s in the Top Ten. Even a bad Jew would know it, would know that the first and most important commandment is “you shall worship nothing but God.” 

And here at the top of chapter two, James calls his brother not only Lord and Messiah he refers to him as the Glory.   He’s the blaze that did not burn up the bush before Moses in the desert, James all but spells out for you. 

James wasn’t the only one. 

Think about it—

What would it take for Jews, virtually overnight, to worship Jesus as Lord, which they’d never done for any previous messiah? What would it take for Jews, almost overnight, to start worshipping on Sundays, which violated the fourth commandment? Don’t forget as well that if they just made it up— well, that’s false witness; that’s the ninth commandment. And probably if anything qualifies as taking the Lord’s name in vain it’s called Jesus God, that’s commandment number three. 

What would it take? 

What would it take for Jews almost immediately to begin breaking four of the ten commandments?

By definition, the resurrection is beyond reason. 

But belief in the resurrection is not unreasonable. 

Christianity is the only movement in history that began after the death of its leader. 

Riddle that. 

There’s an argument for the resurrection right here hidden like an Easter egg in the top of chapter two. Think about it— James is still so Jewish he refers to the church in chapter two as a synagogue, but the One whose name Jews will not even utter aloud James calls by his brother’s name. 

Think about it—

What would it take to convince you that your brother is God?

The resurrection is beyond reason— yes—but belief in the resurrection is not unreasonable. 

———————-

In the Young Atheists article in the Atlantic Monthly, Larry Taunton quotes one former Christian who says: 

“I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he or she isn’t trying to convert me. I don’t respect Christians who don’t evangelize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s resurrection and eternal life, but you think that it’s not really worth telling someone about because it would might be socially awkward for you…How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that something as good as the resurrection is true and never tell them about it?

Christians talk about good works all the time, but how could you be good and never share something so good?

———————-

As much as we muddle Easter with metaphors about springtime renewal, we forget that the first Christians did not think it a myth or a metaphor. As the Apostle Paul puts it in the Book of Acts, “these things did not happen in a corner.” In other words, Christ’s empty tomb first was proclaimed to the very people who had seen him die and who could have gone to his grave with a wheel-barrow and brought back for themselves his nail-scarred bones. If they’d been there.  

Paul and James didn’t think resurrection revealed a timeless truth. They believed it was true, something that made Paul, an Ivy League Pharisee, call all of his good works no better than a four-letter word. 

Paul doesn’t make metaphors.  Paul names names. Paul names more than 500 people. He appeared to these people, Paul says, go ask them. It’s intellectually dishonest to turn the resurrection message into a myth. A myth is something that could happen anywhere or nowhere, at anytime or no time. A myth is Once upon a time. But the first Christians didn’t give you A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They gave you: It happened, in history, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, at Jerusalem, on the Sunday morning after the Passover when he died between noon and 3:00 in 33AD.  Around tea time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it.

They didn’t believe the resurrection was a metaphor. They didn’t believe it was a myth. They believed it happened. An event. In real history. 

Which means those young atheists in the survey, the ones who left Christianity, they’re not wrong about Christianity. They’re absolutely right that Christianity is not primarily about doing good or correcting social ills. If the resurrection of the crucified Christ is an event, if it happened in history, then they’re absolutely correct— Christianity isn’t about the good you must do for God. If the resurrection really happened, then Christianity— it’s about the good God has done.

If the resurrection isn’t a timeless truth, if the resurrection is true, if it happened, then Christianity— before it’s anything else— it’s news. 

It’s news. 

And what is there to do with news but trust it and tell it?

———————-

Along the way, over the years, there have been moments that have grabbed me and changed how I understand our ministry. 

For example, there was the service just a couple of years ago, a funeral for a woman about my age. She left behind two kids and a husband who was shell-shocked by grief. 

The man and his wife were every Sunday types. 

I stood in the front of her casket, my hands outstretched, and I delivered my lines memorized from the prayerbook— Jesus’ lines from his friend’s tomb: “ I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks his dead friend’s sister.

At that point, I’d buried probably four hundred people and two dozen kids. But never once— never a single instance— had anyone engaged my memorized Jesus lines as anything but a rhetherical question. “ I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 

“No.”

“No,” the deceased’s husband said from the front pew. 

“ I am the resurrection and the life…do you believe this?”

“No,” he said. 

Let’s just say he looked as surprised as me at his answer, and neither of us was the same afterwards. Let’s just you’d never dare suggest that faith in the resurrection had nothing to do with this life if you could see the expression their Dad’s “No” left on those kids’ faces. 

The survey says we’re all bound and determined to rush to the end of chapter two and hear James tell us that faith without works is dead. Okay— here’s a good work you can do.  Get someone like that Dad to “Yes.”

Because resurrection might be beyond reason, but it’s not unreasonable.

It’s not unreasonable.

 

 

The other night I came home late, feeling tired and grumpy. The boys had already gone to bed and Ali was nearly asleep. I sat down to read in bed, still feeling tired and grumpy. I’d read only a few pages when Gabriel got up and stumbled, half asleep, into the bathroom to go potty. After he was done, he stumbled into my room, still half asleep, to give me a hug and a groggy smile. Hugging me, he rubbed my back gently, mumbled ‘I’m glad you’re home Daddy’ and then stumbled half asleep back to his room.

This week we continue our sermon series on ‘Christianity’s Dangerous Ideas’ with the familiar (tired?) debate over Grace vs Works. Typically, the argument via Paul gets framed in terms of our sinfulness and Christ’s awesomeness. There’s nothing we could ever do to earn God’s pardoning love. To think so only leads to more sin and a kind of idolatry. Instead we’re saved purely by the gift of what God has done in Jesus Christ, a gift we don’t deserve (grace) that we can respond to only by faith.

What I’m wondering in the wake of G’s gesture the other night is if the Grace vs Works dynamic need not apply only to God’s gift in Jesus but also all the other gifts God gives to us every day during the day and night: a child’s smile, a friend’s ear, just the right song on the radio when you need to hear it.

If so, then perhaps the reason we’re not, could never, be saved by our works is because if we thought so then we’d be so focused on ourselves that we’d stop looking for or noticing the gifts of God all around us.