They said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
I know of a Bishop (thankfully from another denomination) who used to be in charge of recruiting candidates for a local seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to ministry and he would end each and every single interview the same way: with a role play.
He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now… tell me why I should go to church…”
Throughout the years every candidate would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.”
Then the candidates would bring up something about reaching out to those in need. But the Bishop would say, “I’m an active member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”
Finally the candidates would make a comment about the power and priority of music in the church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”
He recruited for a long time and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.
Contrary to how we might imagine it, the church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the community’s musical prodigies. We may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Which is just another way of saying: the only thing we have to do is trust (believe) Jesus.
If the church is a business, then it is in the Jesus business. That is: we exist to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all we have wronged, that we are loved in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be, and that, in the end, we know how the story ends.
And that last claim is important. For, if we already know how the story ends, then we are freed from whatever fears and faults that terrify us.
We are not the main thing in the church. The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified, God in the flesh born to live, die, and live again. And Jesus comes to do for us what we can’t, and won’t, do on our own.
It’s why we can call the Good News good. Thanks be to God.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 4.32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1.1-2.2, John 20.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including hymnody, getting burned, newlywed Christianity, radical belief, first things, faith failures, reconciliation, the condition of our condition, and doubting Tommy. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The First And Last Word
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
What do you all think?
There’s this guy with two kids and there’s yard work to be done. So he wrangles them out of bed and says to the first, “Hey, grab a rake and start working on the leaves.” The kid pulls the covers over his head and says, “No way Dad.” But later he changes his mind, and goes outside to rake up the leaves.
The father also tells his second kid to get out on the lawn and the kid responded with a, “Yessir” but as soon as he got outside, he got on his bike and spent the day riding through the neighborhood.
So, which of the kids did what the father wanted?
The first who, though the call of the bed seemed so strong, actually went and raked leaves?
Or the second who, though he said he would do it, actually spent the day doing whatever he wanted?
Truly I tell you, the people begging on street corners, the economy stealing stockbrokers, the pregnant teenagers, and the squanderers of inheritance are all going into the kingdom God ahead of you.
Ahead of us.
What must we do to be saved?
It’s an interesting question, particularly for those of us habituated in a world of meritocracy.
Do we have to be baptized?
Is there a certain percentage of Sundays that we have to be engaged in worship?
What amount of money demonstrates a salvific commitment to Kingdom of God?
How many wrongs do we have to right to wind up in the right place, in the end?
That question, for some, lingers above most of what we do whether its a truly theological reflection, or we’re merely thinking about how good we have to be in any given moment.
And, in some places/churches, the question is answered with a list of things to do and a list of things to avoid.
Preachers may or may not speak about it explicitly, but it definitely shows up in preaching and teaching and also on our individual Facebook statuses and our trite little tweets – we implicitly affirm a whole host of expectations.
I’ve said it before, but the church has become a version of the next best self-help program where people like me say to people like you, “Hey, the mystery of the Kingdom isn’t nearly as mysterious as we make it out to be, and if you want to be part of it, there’s some things you all need to start working on.
“Now, you might want to write all this down, because it’s important: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, and STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”
And, at first glance, this brief little parable about who actually does the work of the father seems to support a view in which we have work to do.
God in Christ has given us commandments and, well, we better follow them accordingly.
Doing, then, is the end all and be all of a life lived in Christ.
But, what if that’s actually wrong?
And by wrong, I mean dead wrong.
Notice – Jesus tells his story, dangling it out for the scribes and Pharisees and us, and then he ends with a reference to the salvation of tax collectors and prostitutes. And, by doing so, Jesus seems to be saying that salvation comes not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding and even good, but simply because they believe.
Salvation, according to Jesus here in his little aside, comes only by belief, by faith, by trusting in someone else to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own.
But, that’s exactly the problem because it all sounds too easy – it sounds too simple.
Is Jesus telling us that anyone can just stroll through the pearly gates just for having a little faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed? They don’t have to do anything else? They don’t have to right all the wrongs and only make good choices and be perfect all the time?
That sounds a little unfair doesn’t it? I mean, what about all of us who have worked so hard, and done all the right things, and followed all of the important rules?
Everybody getting in gratis feels so wrong – it runs counter to everything the world runs on.
Which, in the end, is exactly what makes it right.
No matter how much we talk about grace in the church, and no matter how much we sing about it in our hymns, we don’t really like it. It’s too… free. It lets squandering sons and delinquent daughters get into the Kingdom for nothing, all while disregarding the good people.
You know, people like us. People who drove to a church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon.
So, we continue to offer words of encouragement about how much God loves everyone and forgives everyone, but then, for some reason, we make it good and clear that the aforementioned everyone have to clean up their act before God will do all the loving and forgiving.
We do this because we want to make it abundantly clear that church is for good people, and the world is for bad people.
Which only goes to show that we, sadly, have more in common with the Scribes and the Pharisees and than we do with those who are getting into the kingdom first.
We’ve confused the Good News of Jesus Christ for the bad news of works-righteousness.
We’ve failed to see the how offensive the Gospel is, because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing in ourselves rather than believing in Jesus.
The problem with grace is that it doesn’t sell – it doesn’t give us a list of things to do to fix all of the disappointments we feel here and now. It’s not a Peloton that promises to slim our waistline, it’s not a mindfulness technique that guarantees to lower our anxiety, it’s not a book that insures we will feel happier on the other side.
Grace works for losers and only losers, and no one wants to hang out with losers.
No one, that is, except for Jesus.
The world of winners, people like us, will invest in myriads of moral absolutes, and truck loads of self-improvement seminars, and heaping baskets of do-goodery.
But the world of winners, people like us, refuses to opt-in for free forgiveness because that threatens to bring in all of the disreputable types.
Thankfully, however, the Holy Spirit has a knack of reminding us, all of us, that we’re all unworthy, that we’re all up the creek without a paddle, that we’re all in need of some saving.
And we can’t save ourselves.
God’s plan of salvation is that we trust Jesus. That’s it. God has already forgiven us, God has already reconciled us, God has already raised us up with Jesus. And, to make it even better, God has thrown away the ledger against us forever.
Our sins were nailed to the cross and God left them there.
If we want to keep believing the kingdom works on works, that there’s something we have to do to get what God is offering, we can absolutely believe that. But that’s not the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection.
In the end, we are saved by grace for free. We do nothing and we deserve nothing. It is all one huge and hilarious gift. Thanks be to God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.
Everything happens for a reason. We say something like that to bring comfort to people in the midst of uncertainty, or tragedy, or difficult circumstances mostly because we don’t know what else to say. It is a remarkably common expression among Christian-types and it’s not in the Bible.
Years ago I received a phone call that a woman in my church was in her final moments. She had been suffering from a great number of chronic problems for the better part of two decades and most of her family had not expected for her to live as long as she did. We all stood around her bed together praying and sharing those final moments before she died.
A few days later, on the eve of her funeral, her now widower husband fell down the steps in front of their house after returning from the wake and was rushed to the hospital. He needed a few days to recover and we delayed his wife’s funeral until he was better. Eventually he sat in the pews with surrounded by his family and worshipped with the rest of us as we gave thanks to God for his wife.
After the burial and reception he returned to his now empty house complaining of our tired he was and after he went to bed, he never woke up again.
A husband a wife dead less than a week apart.
When I got the call about his death, having only seen him the day before, I rushed to the house to meet with the family who were still in town from the wife’s funeral. And one by one I watched and listened as every single family member exchanged a version of “everything happens for a reason.”
“God just needed another angel in heaven.”
“God wanted them to be married in heaven just like they were married on earth.”
“This was all part of God’s plan.”
And the more I heard it the more my blood boiled. But before I had a chance to blurt out something pastors aren’t supposed to say, one of the couple’s daughters beat me to it.
“That’s BS” she stammered.
Though she didn’t use the acronym.
“If this was all part of God’s plan, then why did God take away my Mommy and Daddy so quickly? Why would God do that to me?”
And that’s when the whole room turned to me, the pastor, the so-called expert on God.
So I said, “If there is a reason for everything, if God killed both of them on purpose, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.”
When we throw out trite and cliche sentences like, “everything happens for a reason” it puts all of the responsibility of every single little thing entirely upon God.
It makes God into a monster.
The author of car crashes, incurable childhood cancers, and unending wars.
And yet, more often than not, it is our go-to expression when we don’t know what else to say.
If there are two things that we, as human beings, just can’t stand they are mystery and silence. It’s no wonder therefore that when we face a situation that has no explanation we get as far away from mysterious silence as we possibly can by saying something we think is helpful. We both want to have an answer for every question and we want to be able to get out of uncomfortable moments when we don’t know what to say.
The problem with all of that is we think we’re helping someone when we’re actually making things worse.
Anyone who claims that everything happens for a reason are those who believe God wills every single horrific death, every incurable diagnosis, and even something like the Coronavirus. They see and imagine God as some great puppeteer in the sky instituting every possible contingency such that it must be this way at all times no matter what.
And if that’s true, then every rape, every murder, every act of child abuse or neglect, every war, every storm or earthquake, are all part of God’s plan.
To those who believe that is the case, the response from the daughter whose parents died should suffice.
In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart recalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the unimaginable tsunami that wrecked South Asia back in 2015. The article was focused on a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of all his efforts, which included swimming in the rolling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to save his wife or any of his four children from drowning in the waters. The father recounted the names of his children and then, overwhelmed by his grief, sobbed to the reporter, “my wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here… he will save us” but I couldn’t do it.”
David Hart wonders, in his book, If you had the chance to speak to the father in the moment of his deepest pain, what would you say? Hart then argues that only idiots would have approached the father with trite and empty theological expressions like: “Sir, your children’s deaths are part of God’s cosmic plan” or “It’s okay this was God’s design” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Most of us, Hart believes, would have the good sense not to talk like that to the father. And then he takes it one step forward. “And this should tell us something. For if we think is shamefully foolish and cruel to say things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”
And to take it one step even further, if we mustn’t say things like that to such a father, then we ought never to say them about God.
St Paul wrote to the early church in Rome: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Which, for many, justifies the desire to say “everything happens for a reason.”
And yet we so often forget that this verse is the beginning of Paul’s big crescendo to one of the texts we use most often at funeral – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
What we miss in that profound and powerful declaration is that there are powers and principalities contending against God in this life.
That is, death is something that is trying to separate us from God, but God wins in the end.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated in Christ Jesus, and will ultimately destroy forever in the New Jerusalem.
That is, to put a fine note on it, the whole point of the Gospel in the first place.
It would then be nothing but ridiculous for God to delight or even ordain the deaths of those whom he loves for it would run counter to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
God does not want bad things to happen to us. But bad things do happen in this fallen and fallible world we find ourselves in. We, all of us, make choices we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. We contribute in ways both big and small to the tremendous suffering in the world. From delighting in being able to purchase a banana whenever we want from the grocery store (a banana that requires low waged work, an absurd amount of fossils fuel, and harmful chemicals to make it to our plate) to texting while we drive (which distracts us from the kid running into the street to grab his wayward basketball) to a great number of other scenarios.
Some of the suffering of the world is willed, but not by God. It is willed by us in our relentless pursuit of whatever we think we deserve.
And yet a fair amount of suffering in the world exists not because of us or God, things just happen without explanation.
And when those things occurs, whether willed by human beings or random events in creation, we do well to close our mouths and rest in the knowledge that God has defeated death.
Does that erase death’s sting here and now? Of course not, death always hurts.
But as Christians, we know how the story ends, we know that those we lose in life will be waiting for us at the Supper of the Lamb surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us.
The “for good” that God works to achieve is the proclamation that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That even in our suffering, even in our deaths, God is with us.
Look, I hear it a lot in my line of work, people showing up at the church or calling me on the phone to ask, “Why is God doing this to me?”
The loss of a child. The loss of a job. The loss of health.
And for as many times as I have heard questions about God’s purposes behind the purposeless moments in life, I’ve heard from just as many people wondering, “What can I possibly say to someone in their suffering, in their loss?”
Sometimes the best thing to say is absolutely nothing. As hard as it might be to sit with someone else in their pain and in their suffering, just listening to them is far better than trying to fill the time with trite and meaningless aphorisms. At the very least, it’s the most faithful thing we can do.
Life is hard and all sorts of things happen without explanation. I know that might not sound very pastoral, but it’s true. Can you imagine how you would feel if you came to the church one morning in your grief or suffering or pain, and you got down on your knees to pray to God when all of the sudden you heard a voice booming from the heavens declaring, “I”M DOING THIS TO YOU ON PURPOSE! THIS IS PART OF MY PLAN!”
If that’s who God is, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
Thankfully, that’s not who God is. God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. God is the author of salvation and not the dictator of death. God is the one who would do everything, and already did, to make sure that nothing, truly nothing, could ever separate us from the his divine love.
Our hope is not contingent on finding reasons to explain everything that happens – instead our hope is built on Christ who shows us in his life, death, and resurrection that God is with us, always.
And there’s nothing we can do about it.
For I am convinced, like Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.
That’s the gospel.
Jesus is the reason that even when things happen, we are not abandoned.
I was a young and naive pastor. In fact I still am. But at the time it was worse than it is now. I decided to dedicate a sermon series to doubt and encouraged the congregation, anonymously, to submit anything they were wrestling with regarding their faith. The idea was to compile the doubts and preach a series on the respective topics in such a way that people could sit in and with their questions, rather than trying to make their doubts vanish into thin air.
I prepared myself for some of the doubts that would no doubt come across my desk. I assumed there would be questions about the resurrection from the dead, and the walking on the water, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. And I got a few of those, including some questions about whether heaven was real and debates about the existence of the devil. But as the doubts came in, and I started tallying them all up, there was one biblical component that people struggled with more than anything else, by a long shot – The Virgin Birth.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
Mary will receive unbelievable news from the divine messenger that she, of all people, will be the one to bring the Lamb of God into the world and that she will do so as a virgin. Thus the incarnation of God takes place in a virgin’s womb against all odds and against all the rules of the universe.
We don’t hear much about the virgin birth in the mainline protestant church today, perhaps out of fear of sounding too Catholic. We’ve relegated Mary to being a bystander throughout the whole ordeal and though we might lift up her Magnificat, she is not the main character in the story as we tell it. But her birthing the Messiah into the world as a virgin is biblical, it is true, and it makes all the difference.
Years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was invited to preach at a wedding during the season of Advent. As someone committed to the great breadth of scripture, Hauerwas preached on the assigned lectionary texts for the following Sunday which included Mary’s remarkable “Here am I” to the news from Gabriel.
In it Hauerwas says, “When I first began to think about this sermon, I kept thinking, ‘If I am to be true to the text I ought to start with an announcement: Scott, old buddy, I have some astounding news – you are pregnant, and Demery is going to take care of you anyway.’ Not a bad way for us to begin, if we are to have some slight appreciation of what it meant for Mary to say, ‘Here I am.’” (Hauerwas, “How The Virgin Birth Makes Marriage Possible” Disrupting Time)
In this rather jarring remark Hauerwas points to that which is essential, particularly for those of us for whom the virgin birth is something we don’t want to think about or even believe – Mary shouldn’t have believed it either! It’s impossible for a virgin to become pregnant, and even more so for one of the least of these to be the one to bring God’s Son into the world! And yet, Mary doesn’t receive the news as such. Instead she, without having any real reason to, believes that God does God’s best work in the realm of impossibilities.
Again Hauerwas notes, “For us, that is, us moderns, the virgin birth is often used as a test case for how far we are willing to go in believing what most people think is unbelievable.”
This is a strange and notable case to make considering the fact that the Bible is one big impossible reality: God makes everything out of nothing. God floods the earth and then promises never to do it again. God guarantees an elderly woman that she will finally have a son, and then she does. God divides the sea to save the people Israel. God brings victory to a nation time and time again even though they should’ve lost. And that’s just a sampling from the Old Testament. Time and time again, God does what we could not and would not do and it comes to a beautiful and wondrous fruition in the womb of Mary.
The one knit together in her impossible belly is the one whose life will be defined by impossibility – he will preach and teach and heal and save in ways that people couldn’t wrap their heads around. And then, in the end, he will do the most impossible thing of all – rise from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the foundation upon which everything else is made intelligible about our faith. If Jesus is not raised from the dead then we are wasting our time and we are fools. But we Christians, each and every one of us, are tiny testaments to the power of the resurrection for our lives have been changed forever and we had nothing to do with it.
Which is all to say, if God could raise Jesus from the dead then God could certainly make a virgin pregnant. God loves to work in the realm of impossible possibilities and upend everything we thought we knew. So perhaps the best way to approach the virgin birth isn’t by making scientific claims or qualifications, it’s not about pointing to differing translations about what it all really means. Instead, maybe we do as Hauerwas notes in another place, we come to the virgin birth in silence. For “by learning to be silent we have learned to be present to one another and the world as witnesses to the God who has made us a people who once were no people – such a people have no need to pretend we know more about our God than we do.” (Hauerwas, “The Sound of Silence” Preaching Radical & Orthodox)
In the end, the best news of all is that the virgin birth is not contingent on our believing it. Even if we struggle with the idea, even if we doubt its rationality, God is in the business of making a way where there is no way. Like a virgin who brings a baby into the world, God raises Jesus from the dead, and that’s the best news of all.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s the scene:
A group of people from different backgrounds, ages, races, socio-economic statuses, marital situations, and countries of origin are sitting around a folding table in a dimly lit basement. Just taking a look around the room, it’s clear these people have nothing in common with each other, and the silence is palpable as they occasionally take turns refilling their sub-par coffee in their too-small styrofoam cups.
There’s a man, prematurely balding with an unkempt beard sitting at the far end of the table and he seems to be in charge. In front of him is a simple plate with a dried out piece of bread and a half-consumed bottle of merlot that seems to glow in the candlelight.
“Welcome everyone,” he begins, “Welcome to the first meeting of the gathering.”
“Oh, is that what we’re calling ourselves?”
“Of course it is. We are the gathering. We are a people who gather together. Simple enough. Now, before I jump into the first bits of information, are there any lingering questions?”
“Yeah, who died and made you king?”
“Um, Jesus I guess. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Anything more substantive?”
“Aren’t we going to lay out some ground rules about who is in and who is out?”
“Ohhh, that’s a juicy one. The answer is yes.”
“What do you mean the answer is yes? That doesn’t answer my question at all. Who is in and who is out? What are the requirements for people to gather with the gathering? I think we should expect people to give up certain sins before ever being welcomed like, no more alcohol, certainly no smoking, and absolutely no tattoos.”
Another man chimes in, “I agree, and while we’re at it, lets make sure that only people in happy and healthy marriages are allowed in – no divorced people, we don’t want them screwing this up for the rest of us.”
And another person chimes in, “Absolutely, but why stop there? Now, I mean no disrespect to other people at the table, but its clear that some of you haven’t bathed in some time and we should have some expectations of cleanliness.”
This goes on and on with the list of who could be in getting smaller and smaller while the list of people out got longer and longer. And all the while, the man at the end of the table slowly takes swig after swig from the bottle of wine until it empties and he merely reaches under the table to pull out another and is about to start in on that bottle when they all turn their attention back to him.
“So what’s it going to be?” They say in unison.
“Look,” he begins while wiping his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve, “I’m coming to this just like the rest of us. I thought I had my whole life figured out. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I had all the benefits and all the privileges of the world until my world got turned upside down. And now I’m here with all of you, and there’s no going back. But it seems to me all of our squabbles about the in crowd and the out crowd have to stop.”
“Why? Don’t we want to make sure that only the best of the best get to be part of the gathering?”
“Well friends, that’s the whole thing right there. We are all here because we are not the best of the best, in fact there’s no such thing. It is our undeserving that brought us here to this place at this time and the sooner we own that the sooner we can get down to business.”
“Which is what exactly?”
“I’m getting there, hold your horses. God doesn’t just tell us what to do and that’s it. It’s not about having a set list of what’s right and what’s wrong and then living accordingly till the end of our days. God gives us something incomprehensible, in order that all of our differences, which are clearly manifold, and in all of our brokenness, again pretty obvious, that we might find some harmony.”
“Have you not been listening? We can’t even agree on whose allowed to join us or not and you’re already talking about harmony?”
“Yes, there will always be disharmony in our new budding community, but in our divisions we might start to discern the wonderful unity in plurality of the Trinity.
But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let me try to come at it from another angle: God sees things that we cannot. That’s the message of the scriptures, all those who came before us in the people Israel, over and over again God found strength in the weak, and weakness in the powerful. God saw impossible possibility in the people God created and in their brokenness he brought them into new life.”
“But if we’re just a bunch of broken people, won’t the gathering be… broken?”
“Exactly! That’s the whole point. We can only welcome one another because Christ welcomed us. We’re all here because of him! Whether we’re weak or strong, young or old, good or bad. To him all of our voices have worth and value. To him, it doesn’t matter one bit whether we’re standing on the highest step or the lowest step of life, we are bound together by him. Forever.”
“Okay, I think I’m starting to see your point. So we’re like the band of mis-fits toys?”
“Sure, if you want to put it that way. But remember the way Jesus put it: We are his body. And a body has lots of parts all working together, and sometimes not together. It’s about figuring out how we all fit together and can work together to build one another up while also seeking the good of those who are not with us.”
“Okay, I’m with you, but are we seriously not going to set up any expectations or requirements to join?”
“Let me try to come at it one more time. How did Springsteen put it? ‘You don’t need no ticket – you just get on board.’”
“Fine, we’re open to anybody. But what are we going to do once all the ragamuffins join us?”
“It’s clear we need to move on, but I want to say something about that word you just used – Open. The gathering is not an “open” endeavor. Sure, in a sense, we are open to everyone. But it’s more than that. We welcome because we were welcomed. And when I say welcome I don’t mean the innocuous, “Anyone is welcome to join us” that we post on Facebook for a neighborhood barbecue, I mean the verb of the word – actually meeting people where they are and welcoming them into something that will radically upend everything they think they know. Isn’t that why all of you are here right now? You could be anywhere doing anything else, but instead you’re here with all these other people with whom you have nothing in common except Jesus.”
The table nods silently in affirmation as everyone considers the truth of the statement. If pressed most of them couldn’t answer exactly why they were there but they knew that they had to be. The different shapes and sizes and histories of the people around the table start to fade away as they start to see one another through the eyes of the one who came to change everything.
The mood has changed since the debates about expectations and without being told they start passing around the communal bottle of red, each tearing small pieces off of the loaf of bread.
“By the way,” the leader says, “I forgot to introduce myself earlier. My name is Paul and I’m glad you are here. I’m glad you’re here because this is kind of what it’s all supposed to look like. The gathering is a Spirit infused, multi-cultural, outwardly focused group that can bear with one another in love. It’s Christlike in the sense that we have our arms outstretched to those we know and those we don’t know. It means, on some level, that we see more than the world sees, and the last, least, lost, little, and dead are precisely the people for us.”
A woman sitting across the table is fidgeting with her fingers and says, “But, how are we going to organize ourselves? Don’t we need some structure?”
Paul thinks for a moment before saying, “Well, I guess we will have to institutional to some degree, but we have to avoid the many trappings of institutions. We have to steer away from self-preservation and move toward people-preservation. It’s not easy, but the gathering is a fellowship of people who are bound together by our faith in Jesus, and not an organization that exists for the sake of the organization.”
“So, we’re not a club and we’re not a civic organization?”
“As far from those things as possible. Ultimately one of the strangest things about who we are and what we’re doing is that we’re not really called to do much of anything at all. If anything, the only thing we have to do is celebrate that we don’t have to do anything. That’s the message of Jesus and his cross. God came to do what we could not and would not do. No amount of belief, or money, or morals can give salvation to us nor take it away. It is simply a gift for those who want it. No catch and no fine print involved whatsoever. If you want to know what the gathering looks like, save for a bunch of people hanging out in a basement, its like an outdoor wedding reception that refuses to stop on account of rain.”
“Paul was it?” A quiet woman speaks for the first time, “Do you happen to have any more wine? We seem to have run out. And, while you’re at it, is there any leftover bread?”
“No time like the present I guess. You see this bottle, and you see this bread? All of what we do and what we say and what we believe are caught up in these ordinary things that aren’t very ordinary. You see, when Jesus was still together with his friends on their final earthly evening together, after years of teaching and preaching and healing, he looked out at that ragtag group of would be disciples and knew that each and every one of them wasn’t good enough. He knew that, when the time came, they would either betray him, deny him, or abandon him. And instead of writing out all the expectations for their meeting, instead of holding them accountable to their inevitable sins, he threw out the whole ledger and said, ‘I love you no matter what.’”
The table grows remarkably quiet as Paul motions for the wine and the bread to be brought back to him at his end of the table. And he says, “Listen carefully. Because what I’m about to say will save your life.”
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
The whiteboard behind me was covered in names, dates, and an assortment of arrows connecting them all together. After a few weeks of Sunday school classes on the early history of the church I was trying my best to bring us up to the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 CE. The room had quieted to frightening degree and the look of glazed eyes told me that I had lost the class. So I did what any good teacher would do – I asked if there were any questions.
For a moment the silence continued as the participants looked across the room at one another wondering if anyone would be brave enough to say what they were all thinking, “What in the world have you been talking about?” But instead someone sheepishly raised their hand and simply intoned, “What percentage of church folk know any of this stuff, and what difference does it make?”
I appreciated the question. I can remember sitting in the basement of my Divinity School doing my best to commit to memory those same names and dates on the board for a Church History final exam asking basically the same question. What does Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea and Polycarp and Constantine’s conversion have to do with what we do today?
The answer: Everything.
We are the stories we’ve been told, whether we know the stories or not. The witness of the Christian Church is the diachronic (through time) sharing of a tradition that keeps on giving. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t matter how many people know the stories of the ancient church because we are still telling them in different ways. Just take a look around the church sanctuary the next time you happen to be in one or look closely at the church bulletin – we adorn our sanctuaries and liturgies in particular ways because of what was done before us.
Does every Christian need to know that the Nicene Creed came out of a council of bishops who met in the year 325 who fought (literally) tooth and nail over what would unify the early church? Probably not. But at the very least Christians should know that what we say when we proclaim the creed (whether Apostles’ or Nicene) ultimately shapes how we behave.
Does every United Methodist need to know about John Wesley’s conversion moment at a meeting house on Aldersgate Street that eventually led him to theological proclamations about the totality of God’s prevenient grace? Probably not. But at the very least, the people who call themselves Methodists should know that we practice an open table at communion because we believe that God’s grace, like the bread and the cup, are given to us whether we deserve it or not.
Today, we stand firm and hold fast to the tradition of the church not because it is particularly rigid and unmovable, but precisely because it opens up for us an understanding of God’s wondrous works in our lives even today.
Or, still yet to put it another way, tradition doesn’t have to be a four-letter word, even though some people treat it that way.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
We will be watching you.
This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
For more than thirty years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away. And come here saying that you are doing enough when the politics and the solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You say you hear us and understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and kept on failing to act then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe.
You are uncomfortable with all the figures because you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generation are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.
16 year old Greta Thunberg addressed the UN Climate Action Summit this week and spoke those words to leaders from across the globe. She did so passionately and unflinchingly for all to see and hear.
The next day Robert Jeffress, a megachurch pastor in Texas, got on the radio to express his disappointment in Thunberg’s address. He said, “Somebody needs to read poor Greta Genesis Chapter 9, and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps will never melt and flood the world again.”
The text read to us today from the prophet Jeremiah is long and full of interesting details. There is a lot regarding the legal rights to property to be held within families, there’s the proper procedure for procuring said property, there is even the naming of particular places and people that feel almost too specific, even for the Bible.
But the entirety of the passage boils down to one simple thing: Jeremiah was a foolish realtor.
I mean, the whole scripture is bizarre. Jerusalem is under siege, and Jeremiah has already noted that Jerusalem will fall to Babylon and that King Zedekiah along with the people will be exiled as strangers in a strange land. Also, for what it’s worth, Jeremiah is in prison! He got locked up for declaring the time had come to put down the weapons and surrender to Babylon. Which, when the ruler was as megalomaniacal as Zedekiah was, was treated as treason. And Jeremiah chooses this moment, weird as it may be, to buy piece of land that is quite literally in the process of being taken by someone else.
So, I guess it really isn’t all that simple.
Jeremiah for reasons often beyond our ability to understand maintains a tremendous faith in the God who first called him to the task of being a prophet. While everything screamed the contrary, Jeremiah declared the steadfastness of God and implored people to see what exactly was going on.
What Jeremiah could see, and what so many others couldn’t, was that while the destruction of Jerusalem would mean the end of all they knew and understood, it did not mean that God had abandoned them or that God had lessened God’s connection with God’s creation.
They would always be God’s people no matter where they were and no matter how bad things became. Later Jeremiah will write a letter to the exiles as they begin seeking out what it will mean to live in a strange new world and the prophet will give them simple instructions: till the soil, marry and bear children, worship the Lord and celebrate together, for God is still God no matter what.
But what about the land that Jeremiah bought? What good was his money on wasted soil?
Redeeming the land, as scripture puts it, was not an act of foolish hope or ignorance of the obvious. Procuring the land was a sign act to the faith Jeremiah had for the future of God’s people and God’s promises. And that even in the present, God is present in catastrophe.
Which, in the end, is what the life of faith is all about. It’s about believing in impossible things, and then seeing they weren’t really impossible to begin with. It’s about believing in things not yet seen and being part of something that helps those unseen things become seen.
In short, it’s being able to look out at a bunch of powerful and wealthy individuals knowing that their own interests have led to the imminent destruction in their midst and hoping against hope that they will hear what you are trying to say, that they will begin to shift their lives around, and that something new and beautiful can come out of their nothing.
Faith gets knocked around in the world a lot, and often for good reason. Christians have, at times, acted in ignorance of facts and figures to be moved instead by charismatic individuals who, notably, Jesus warned about during the gospel narratives. Christians have absolutely been responsible for reprehensible behavior in the world and we often brush it aside as if nothing happened.
But one of the things about the life of faith we often ignore or forget about is the willingness to open our eyes, as Jeremiah would have us do, to what has happened and is still happening with a willingness to accept responsibility. We can, of course, always look to the past and deny any wrongdoing on our own part. It’s become an all too common refrain these days, “It’s not my fault that my ancestor owned slaves,” Or, “I shouldn’t be punished for what happened to the native peoples in this country.” And yet scripture reminds us again and again and again that we, today, are not paying for the sins of our parents but for our own. This problems of the world are as much on us as they are on anyone else, now or ever.
And that is why Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet. He knew and saw and believed the truth about the people in his midst in ways that we still deny and ignore and disbelieve. It brought him to tears knowing that the people willfully choose to disobey the one in whom they moved and had their being. He wept as mothers and fathers and children were dragged off into exile leaving behind the city of Jerusalem in ruins. He wept because they refused to believe the truth.
For many years I affirmed the common expression “Seeing is believing.” And why not? I wanted proof and evidence before and prior to making an assertion of something’s relevance. And for most of my life that’s been fine to some degree. But we are all now living in a time when seeing isn’t even part of the equation.
People and pastors like Robert Jeffress can speak of people like Greta Thunberg as if they are the ones who are ignorant of God’s movements and motives in the world. And people lap it up! They show up week after week to receive more of it because it grants them permission to keep closing their eyes to the truth around them. They are like staff on a boat telling everyone they have nothing to worry about even though there’s a gaping hole in the bottom of the boat taking on water.
And then people like Greta Thunberg stand with the courage like Jeremiah to say and do what others can not and will not. When I watched her speech this week, with all of her passion and energy and conviction, the thing that stayed with me most was her unwillingness to see others as evil. Talk about faith!
Because many of those people, and the people they represent, are categorically evil! They choose profits over people, they care about the short-term instead of the long-term, and they have drunk themselves silly with deniability about what they have done to the world.
Greta Thunberg knows what those people do and what they care about. She knows they’ve denied the truth going on 3 decades, she knows that their interests and beliefs do not match her own, and she knows that many, if not most, of them will return to business as usual as if nothing happened.
She, like all prophets, know what we human being are really like. We choose the things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing the things we know we should. At the end of the day, for most of us, it doesn’t matter how many numbers and figures are placed in front of us, whether it has to do with racial profiling in this country, or the overwhelming advantage of white privilege, or CO2 emissions, we will continue to see whatever it is we want to see.
Or, to put it another way, we will act according to whatever narrative requires the least of us.
But Jeremiah believed what he could not see! He didn’t wait until the people changed their behavior, he didn’t delay until the right statistics started showing up. No, Jeremiah believed in impossible things. He believed that God would make good on God’s promises. He believed that when the time came the people would see how far they had strayed from the Good News of God’s purposes and would return to the Promised City a renewed people.
That’s the difference between the prophet Jeremiah and someone like Robert Jeffress. Jeffress believes that God will not flood the world again like God did during the days of Noah. And we shouldn’t either. God hung up that rainbow as a promise that God would never do that to God’s creation again.
But that’s exactly the problem! God isn’t doing this global warming to us, we are doing it to ourselves! We’re drunk with petroleum and fossil fuels and unmonitored emissions. We’re writing checks that our ecosystems can’t cash. We’re walking around blind to how much our actions are fundamentally rewriting the very fabric of the planet.
But God has not and will not abandon us. God lifts up ordinary people like Greta Thunberg and speaks a prophetic word through her to all with ears to hear. She has no reason to believe that the people listening will heed the call and change their ways. But she keeps going anyway. Christ too had no indication that the words he used and the actions he offered were dramatically reshaping the lives of the people who followed him. In the end he was all alone. But Christ still died for the ungodly.
Faith is believing in things you cannot yet see, and then one day seeing what you believe.
For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.
While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.
Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.
Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.
The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered.
There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.
And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.
The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death.
And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.
And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.
Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.
Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.
The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.
And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.
We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.
We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.
We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.
One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.
The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?
The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.
That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system.
For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.
But we are murdering people for murder.
Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”
Violence only begets violence.
An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.
God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.
And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.
So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [C] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.14-17, John 14.8-17 (25-27)). Jason and Teer are both United Methodist Pastor and part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The World’s Largest Man, chronicling The Chronicles of Narnia, church birthday parties, the Nicene Creed, good harmonies, inheriting death, the unchurched, drunk disciples, and being convicted by the Spirit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: All Sin Is Unbelief