The Scandal Of Grace

Romans 5.1-2

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 

We’re all constantly caught up in the business of self-justification. It happens in ways big and small and in ways seen and unseen. We self-justify grabbing that one extra cookie (or drink) because we had a tough day at work. We self-justify our imperfect families with perfectly coordinated family portraits on Instagram. On and on and on.

Everyone is trying to earn their salvation with what we in the church call works-righteousness. Whenever we face a dose of the truth about who we are, we desperately desire to make it right. The problem lies in the fact that no matter what good we do, we can’t actually justify (make right) who we are. Every person knows (at least in some way) what he or she should do, from keeping up with the dishes to not having an affair, and we fail to do it.

A long time ago there was this really great guy who was a model citizen, he worshiped regularly, and he followed all the rules. His rule-following was such that, whenever he encountered those who broke the law, he put them in their place. And then, one day, he was traveling to a nearby town to continue a campaign against a new, irreverent, and even dangerous religious sect, when he was encountered by its founder and blinded for his inability to see the truth right in front of him.

His name was Paul.

After a particularly moving moment with a man named Ananias who, through the power of the Spirit, restored Paul’s sight, Paul was set on a trajectory that changed everything.

He met with other Christians, was compelled to spread the Good News, and eventually helped to start Christian communities across the Mediterranean. Through prayer, the Spirit, and perhaps a love of the scriptures, Paul discerned a few things about the faith: The message of the Gospel is meant for all people, our sins really are forgiven by the only One who can forgive them, and we have new lives to live because we have been set free from all sorts of things including self-mastery, moralism, and even death.

The majority of the New Testament is, in fact, Paul’s letters written to the early Christian communities outlining what this faith is all about. However, it is always worth nothing that Paul is not Jesus. And yet, perhaps it is helpful to note that Paul taught what Jesus did.

Therefore, we hold the example of Christ’s life and ministry in the Gospels with Paul’s epistles so that we might begin to understand how the Gospel is, oddly enough, a person.

In his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul spends the first four chapters outlining the human condition and our need for God’s divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ. And then, right at the beginning of chapter five, he drops the hammer of the Gospel: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

It’s a scandalous proclamation.

What makes it scandalous is that the Gospel has nothing to do with our morality or our goodness or our virtue. Paul shouts across the centuries that the Gospel, Jesus, is something that is done to us. But, for people who live and breathe in a world run by meritocracy, we scarcely know what it means to receive something like grace. That’s why the parables always pop the circuit breakers of our brains.

Grace really is scandalous because it, to use Jesus’ words, pays the early bird just as much as the perennially late fool. Grace runs into the streets of life toward every prodigal reeking of their mistakes and throws a party no matter what. Grace is the terrible shepherd who leaves behind the well-behaved and good-listening ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who got lost. 

We stand in scandalous grace not because we earn it or deserve it but because God delights in giving it to us. It is one hilarious gift that we can never ever repay, and it also happens to be the reason we can call the Good News good. 

Or, as Martin Luther so wonderfully put it: “The Law says ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe this’ and everything is already finished.”

The Politics of Pentecost

Acts 2.17-18

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old mens shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 

When I first started in ministry I received my first office visitor before I preached my first sermon. There were still boxes upon boxes of books scattered across the floor when a well dressed gentleman gently knocked on the door. I remember being lost in thought about what to say from the pulpit on my introductory Sunday when the man offered his hand and said, “I’m your local state representative, and as one of our community’s leads I want to welcome you to this place we call home.”

I was flabbergasted. What a remarkably kind and thoughtful thing to do! Here I was, a 25 year old freshly graduated seminarian and he took the time to find me and welcome me. 

We talked for a few minutes about the town before he announced that he needed to return to his own office. I thanked him profusely for the visit and just before he walked down the hall he said something I’ll never forget. With a casual grin he looked over his shoulder and said, “I always appreciate my pastors putting in a good word from the pulpit if you know what I mean.”

And with that he walked away.

Here in the United States we operate under the auspices of the (so-called) separation of church and state. It is certainly a worthy goal, but it is not necessarily present in reality; the church and the state are forever getting intertwined.

In most communities church fellowship halls are voting locations, political candidates are often quick to share their religious affiliations, and we put all sorts of theological language on political items like currency, legislature, and judicial proceedings (to name a few).

Even though the country was founded on a separation of church and state, Christians in the US have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between the country and the Lord, something that scripture (and Jesus) calls idolatry.

We might not like to think about the church as a political entity, and we might even lament those moments when the church hedges a little too close to the supposed line, but the church is a politic. And it’s Jesus’ fault.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he has the gall to say, “This scripture is being fulfilled in me.”

This first century wandering rabbi starts it all off with promises about prison reform, political liberation, and economic redistribution!

Later, Jesus enters the holiest of cities on the back of a donkey like a revolutionary. The crowds welcome the King of kings with songs and shouts of resistance to the powers that be, expecting him to lead an armed rebellion against the empire. 

The following day Jesus strolls through the temple courts and drives out the merchants for their economic chicanery. Next he condemns the tax system, ridicules the abuses of the religious authorities, and predicts the destruction of the indestructible temple. 

For this, and more, he is arrested, condemned, and executed by the religious authorities and the political authorities together. Moreover, the sign adorned on the cross, Jesus’ instrument of capital punishment, reads: “This is the King of the Jews.”

And then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh filling the people of God with a bold and wondrous hope for things not yet seen: a strange new world. A strange new world in which slaves are set free, outcasts are summoned home, and everything is turned upside down. 

It might seem banal to confess Jesus as Lord, but it is not just a personal opinion. Confessing the lordship of Christ is quite possibly the most political statement a Christian can ever make. For, if Jesus is lord then no one else is.

Every year we mark the occasion of Pentecost in worship because the political ramifications are still echoing across the centuries. The same Spirit poured out on Pentecost fills us today with the strength and the wisdom and the grace to be God’s people in the world. Without the church, the world cannot know how beautiful things could be

On Pentecost we are reminded that before we are anything else, we are Jesus people. No matter how much we think we are bonded by the names on our bumper stickers or by the animals  (elephants and donkeys) of our political persuasions, nothing can hold a flame to the bonds formed in the waters of baptism and by the most political animal of all: the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Which is all just another way of saying: On Pentecost things get political, and it’s all Jesus’ fault.

Strangely Warmed

John 17.23

I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Why the United Methodist Church?

This is a question that I receive fairly often throughout the comings and goings of my life. I’ll be sitting in the stands watching my son play tee ball when the subject of employment comes up which inevitably leads to why I serve in the UMC. Or, I’ll preside over a wedding with lots of strangers only to be bombarded with questions about denominational affiliation as soon as the service ends. Or someone will see me working on a sermon at a coffee shop with my clergy collar on and they walk over to ask, “So what kind of Christian are you?”

For what it’s worth, I am a Christian before I am a Methodist. Or, put another way, I’m a Christian who happens to be a Methodist.

I follow Jesus, not John Wesley. 

And yet, I find that Wesley’s understanding of the Gospel to be spot on. 

There are a great number of moments from his life, and even more from his sermons, that resonate deeply in my soul, but nothing quite compares to his Aldersgate Street experience when he was 35 years old. This is how we wrote about it in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley, May 24th, 1738

What makes his experience all the more profound is how little he felt an assurance before that moment, even though he had been ordained for a number of years!

I love the hymns we sing in the UMC, I love the connectional nature of our church and how we are bound together with other churches, and I love the incarnational focus of our ministries going to where the Spirit moves. But more than anything, I love the relentless proclamation of prevenient grace; God’s love precedes all things. 

While sitting at the society meeting at Aldersgate Street, Wesley experienced what I have experienced and what I hope every person will come to experience: There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love except trust that it is true. And when we live into that trust, we are living in the light of grace which changes everything. It changes everything because it means all of our sins, past/present/future are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more. 

The work of Christ frees us from the law of sin and death so that we might live abundantly for God and for others. It is, quite literally, the difference that makes all the difference. 

If you want to know more about how God works in the heart through faith in Christ, you can check out the Strangely Warmed podcast which I host. Every week we bring you conversations about the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and we do so without using stained glass language.

A Dangerous Adventure

John 14.27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.

His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Translation: tell the truth.

But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface. 

All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.

When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.

Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering. 

Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.

Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.

We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.

Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth. 

What’s Wrong With The World?

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” and they asked for answers to their query. Hundreds of individuals responded with hundreds of examples. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”

There are many versions of Christianity in the world. And not just the different denominations you can find throughout your neighborhood like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, etc. Even within “one” church like the United Methodist Church there is a great diversity of opinion about what it means to be a United Methodist. 

But the one thing that might unite all churches, even more than our commitment to baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website, or a front lawn marquee, and you can find a self-imposed description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. 

In the UMC we like to say that we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

What a righteous slogan.

The only problem is the fact that we regularly close off our affections toward certain people, we are clearly cemented in “the ways things were” rather than the way things can be, and more often than not the doors to the church are locked.

Inclusivity is the buzzword among most, if not all, churches these days. Though, we are not altogether clear about what it really means to be inclusive. True inclusivity, after all, is not just a matter of having different kinds of people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning; true inclusivity means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us: love.

I know that might sound strange: the impossibility of love in the church. But it is, in fact, against our nature. We can’t, or at the very least don’t, love everyone.

It’s like those churches with signs on the front lawn proudly claiming: “Hate Has No Place Here.”

That’s a worthy hope, but it isn’t true.

All of us have hate in us whether we like to admit it or not. And, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in church affirms that the church hates people who hate!

It is true that we are commanded, by God, to love one another just as Christ loved us. And yet, sometimes, I fear we confuse the two. That is: we assume that we have to love one another in order to get God to love us. When, in fact, the opposite is true: God loves us, and when we come to grips with how strange it is to be loved by God, we are then freed to love one another with the same reckless abandon that God loves us.

Notably, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another (as Jesus loves them) right after the foot washing. It’s this remarkable moment that encapsulates the humility (read: humanity) of God). And then, shortly thereafter, the disciples betray, deny, and abandon God to the cross. 

If the story ended with the cross, none of us would have ever heard about Jesus. But the cross is just the beginning because three days later Jesus is raised from the dead. And not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he returns to the same disciples who failed to respond to the commandment of love!

We worship an odd God. Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of unloving disciples to be the people through whom the world is turned upside down. In short: there is nothing that can ever stop God from loving us.

Therefore, if there is anything truly inclusive about the church it is not our love for one another, but God’s love for us. It is the triune God who opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. It is the triune God who opens up our eyes to view others in ways we never have before. It is God who opens up the doors of the church to be a new community where strangers now are friends.

The proclamation of the Gospel is that God loves us even though we are what’s wrong with the world. But, at the same time, the Gospel is an adventure in which God’s love actually changes us so that we might begin to love one another. 

Years ago I was asked to preside over the funeral for a man who drove me crazy. He was older than dirt and he treated people like dirt and just about once a week someone from the church would wander into my office in tears because of what the man had said to them.

And then he died.

In the days leading up to his service of death and resurrection I lamented the fact that hardly anyone would be coming. Even though he pushed all my buttons, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church in my robe ready to begin the service for a small scattering of people when, all the sudden, cars started streaming into the parking lot. One by one church members who had been so wronged by the man during his life paraded into the sanctuary for worship. 

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the now-dead man’s insults and I grabbed her by the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him.”

To which she replied, “Preacher, don’t we worship the God who commands us to love our enemies? Didn’t you say, just last week, that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died? Don’t the scriptures remind us there is nothing that can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus? Then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary for worship.

Love one another just as I have loved you – easier said than done. But without love, we have nothing. 

To The End

John 13.1

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) treat us to the scene of Jesus’ final evening with his friends as they sit around a table sharing bread and wine.

John, however, takes the scene a little bit further.

While eating at the table, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around himself. He begins washing all of the disciples’ feet and wipes them off with the towel around his waist.

Peter, of course, objects to the humble (read: humiliating) act of his Lord, but Jesus hits him hard with, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Only after every disciple’s feet are washed does Jesus arise, and begins to teach:

“Listen, you call me Teacher and Lord which is good and fine because that is who I am. But check this out: If I, your Lord and Teacher, am willing to get down on the floor to wash your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about – the first being last and the last being first. Things are getting flipped upside down right here and right now. And I do and say all of this knowing that one of you will betray me, it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.’” Shortly thereafter, Judas leaves and sets in motion the world turned upside down. In mere hours the guards will arrive in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial, sentenced, beaten, and left to die on the cross.

The foot washing has always been a little strange and a little weird to the people called church. For one, as mentioned, the other Gospels don’t include it, and for another, it reveals the heart of God in a way that feels uncomfortable.

Not only does Jesus, God in the flesh, get down on his knees to wash the dirty feet of the disciples, one of whom will shortly betray him, another will deny him, and the rest will leave him hanging to die on a cross, but then Jesus has the gall to command us to do the same for one another.

And yet, in a way, more than being told what we are supposed to do, the whole message of this final moment is, again, about what Jesus does for us.

In the foot washing, Jesus repeats in himself the great lengths to which God was willing to go for a people undeserving – how far God was willing to go to wash us clean from our transgressions.

This moment, one that might make us cringe or, at the very least, furrow our brows, it reveals to the disciples and to us that the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, is about to suffer and die just to rid us of the stench and dirt of sin and death that latches onto us.

And, notably, this is the final act of Jesus toward his disciples before Easter and, as John so wonderfully notes, Jesus loved his disciples to the end. Including Judas.

Do you see what this means? Even the worst stinker in the world, even the one who betrays his Lord to death, is someone for whom Christ died. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus, bewilderingly, loves us to the end, loves us so much that he was willing to take our sin upon himself, mount the hard wood of the cross, and leave them there forever. Thanks be to God.

Who In The World Is Jesus?

Philippians 3.10

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. 

Years ago, on one particular Good Friday, I took a large cross, lifted it onto my shoulder, and I walked around town for a few hours. It has been a habit of mine ever since I entered the ministry and it is part of my desire to bring the Lord to the people outside the church. I want people to see the sign that we see every Sunday morning in order to be reminded about what we did, and what the Lord has done for us.

Anyway, on that Good Friday I set out for my cross carrying venture and I received a variety of reactions. Some people honked their horns as they drove past. There was a man who offered me water because it was a particularly hot spring day. I even had someone spit at my feet. But mostly, people just stared at the strange sight of a man in all black carrying a cross around town.

I had almost finished my loop when I spotted a woman on the other side of the road with a perplexed look on her face. She was glaring at the cross and then she inexplicably crossed the street and demanded to know what in the world I was doing.

I calmly explained that I was carrying the cross because that’s exactly what Jesus did on Good Friday before he was crucified. And then she said something I, sadly, was completely unprepared to hear: “Who in the world is Jesus?”

I know that I, for one, take for granted the ubiquity of Christianity. That is, I assume that even people who never step foot in a church have, at least, some semblance of an idea about Jesus. But there, on that Good Friday, I encountered someone who knew nothing of the Lord.

Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Even on the other side of his Damascus experience, his desire to know the Lord was at the forefront of the apostle’s heart and mind. Even for as much as I know the Lord, from encountering God in the strange new world of the Bible, in the sacraments, in the still small silences, I too desire to know the Lord and the power of Christ’s resurrection. At the heart of the church’s gathering is a willingness to proclaim the wonders of God so that all of us come to know who Christ is and who we are in relation to Christ.

But what about those outside the church?

Or, to put it another way, how would you respond to someone who said, “Who in the world is Jesus?”

Faith is an exciting adventure not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. Here, at the tail end of Lent, with the cross hovering on the horizon, we are compelled to confront the incarnate truth. That truth has a name: Jesus. Jesus cannot be explained  from a pulpit or from a book. Jesus defies all of our expectations and often leaves us scratching our heads.

But that’s the point. God is God and we are not. The best we can do is tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that we’ve been telling throughout the centuries. The rest is up to God. 

Transformation By Disruption

Jesus was nothing if not zealous.

Jesus sees possibilities where we, too often, see failure.

Jesus believes in those who have quit believing in themselves.

Jesus makes a way where there is no way.

That’s exactly who Jesus is!

And, lest we ever forget, God is at least as nice as Jesus which also means that God is at least as zealous as Jesus. Because Jesus, as Paul reminds us, is the fullness of God revealed.
God is not merely sitting idly by watching the world spin down the toilet – God is showing up in places, flipping the tables of complacency, and is probing us to wonder about the ways things are so that we might move to where things can be.

Taking at step back from Jesus’ temple tantrum, with the tables overturned and the money-lenders cowering in the corner, it’s not hard to imagine the headline in the next issue of the Jerusalem Times: Jesus – The Disturber of the Peace

There have always been disruptors of the peace, those zealots who shake up the status quo.

And yet, the peace disturbed by Jesus that day, and still disturbs today, was no real peace. The weak and the marginalized were getting abused and forced into economic hardships all while God’s blessing were being construed as something to be purchased or earned.

And then God in Christ shows up to remind us there is no real transformation without disruption. Faithful following is only every possible because of disruption and dislocation – otherwise we are doomed to remain exactly as we are.

And, for some of us, that doesn’t sound too bad. Some of us would do quite well if things remained exactly as they are. But God is in the business of making something from nothing, of taking us from here to over there, of deliverance.

Change, real change, good change, is never painless. It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries, an ever present reminder of what happens should any of us start asking all of the right questions.

We have a method for dealing with disturbers of the peace.

And yet, it only takes a quick glance at the great stories of history to be reminded that the most important shifts from one thing to another have always come because of disruption.

We can point to the real change makers of the world, those who refused to accept things as they were, but Jesus, whether we like it or not, is the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo. Ever since he showed up we’ve never really be able to return to normal because God in Christ is marching on, all while bringing us along for the ride.

“Zeal for your house will consume me,” the psalmist writes and the disciples apply to Jesus. And they were right – The zeal Jesus had for a new day did consume him. So much so that we killed him for it.

But even the grave couldn’t stop our disturber of the peace.

Ambassadors

2 Corinthians 5.20

So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 

I love and loathe wearing my clergy collar when I’m out and about in public. I love the way it forces me to act like a Christian and the ways in which the faith breaks out from the walls of the church. And I loathe the awkward encounters it produces and the times in which I am compelled to defend the church from her detractors.

More often than not I don’t give much thought to what day I wear the collar or where I will be.

And sometimes I wish I was smarter about it.

When the time came for my second COVID vaccination shot I drove over to an abandoned department store and waited in line with hundreds of other people from the community. And it was only after I received the shot and sat socially distanced from the aforementioned crowds did I realize that I was wearing the collar.

And what made me realize my attire was the line that started to develop right in front of me of individuals who mistook me for a Catholic priest and asked if I would hear their confession.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth: “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” We, therefore, represent Christ and his church to those outside the church; we are strangers in a strange land.

And yet, with the privatization of faith, with faith often being something we do on Sundays and Sundays alone, there’s little reason to concern ourselves with ambassadorship. Unless we wear a cross around our necks, or a white collar around our throats, no one might ever know of our discipleship.

But then Paul has the nerve to remind us that some people will never see God except through us and the ways in which we exist in the world.

I have the benefit of representing the church not only because I am the pastor of one, but also because I walk around with my clergy collar. And when I dress that way I am forced to act like a Christian whether I want to or not. It is a constant and ever-ringing reminder that I am called to act, think, live, speak, and behave like a Christian.

And, though it pains me to admit, sometimes I need to wear the collar in order to live out my faith. 

Without it hanging around my neck it is all too easy to fade in among the crowd and pretend like I’m not an ambassador for anything but myself.

So when I sat in the post-apocalyptic department store and the line developed in front of me, I listened to each person rattle off their sins. I watched their eyes while they offered their pleas for pardon and assurance. I wanted to be like everyone else minding my own business. I wanted to flip through my phone for the required ten minutes of observation and then leave. But instead, I handed over the goods to each of my fellow Christians: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

Does that make me a better Christian than other Christians? Definitely not. “Reluctant” doesn’t do justice to the way I felt that day. And sadly, I know that, in large part, the only reason it happened and the only reason I responded was because of my outfit.

Which makes me wonder: What would it be like if all Christians in all places wore little white tabs around our necks? I mean, scripture does talk about “the priesthood of all believers.” Imagine how different the world would be if each and every Christian walked around knowing that everyone else had certain expectations about who we are and what we do.

It might just be the difference that makes all the difference. 

The Good News(paper)

Luke 13.1

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do preacher, but I don’t come to church to hear about what’s going on in the world. I come to church to hear about God.”

I received that comment after worship one Sunday many years ago and I will never forget it. I can’t remember what exactly I preached about that day, nor do I remember what hymns we were singing, but I remember that comment. 

It’s a notable one. On one hand, the admission that the church exists to proclaim who God  is and who we are in relation to God is remarkable and downright faithful. But on the other hand, the dismissal of the world in the church is a denial of the very reality of reality.

Preaching is never done in a vacuum. A time and a place are always present in a preacher’s work, but that does not mean that the preacher notices or recognizes where they are. Even preachers who try to do the work of preaching without acknowledging their time or place cannot help but reflect time and place in their work. We preachers are reflections of the world around us whether we like it or not. 

The theologian Karl Barth is known for noting that preachers should work with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That surely sounds like good advice: what we experience helps us to understand the scriptures and the scriptures help us to understand our experiences. The only problem is the fact that the newspaper is just as likely to mislead us regarding our time and place. And that’s not even mentioning the question of which newspaper we should be reading. We, indeed, live in a strange new world, made clear to us by various headlines, but when it comes to the life of faith, the strange new world of the Bible is our world. 

An atrocity has taken place in the holy city, it’s the front page headline of the Jerusalem Times – Pilate Cuts Down Galileans In The Temple. We don’t know why they were killed, or even how they were killed, only that in their executions their blood was mixed with the sacrifices they brought to the Temple. 

You can imagine the commotion this caused among the faithful.

So much so that some in the crowd approached Jesus and demanded to know why such a thing took place among God’s chosen people: What had they done to deserve such an awful fate?

“Nothing,” Jesus says, “They were not greater sinners than any other Galileans.”

And then the Lord pulls out another headline, another catastrophe on the hearts and minds of the people. A tower had fallen in Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of Siloam, just south of the Temple. 18 people died in the incident. And Jesus says, “They were not greater sinners than others either.”

How pastoral.

The rain falls on the good and the bad alike, as do famines and other such things, Jesus says in another part of the Gospel. Which can sound like unmitigated bad news. And yet, it is strangely Good News. It is Good News because God is not keeping some great ledger book in the sky and then raining down blessings or curses accordingly. God is not a warden watching over the prisoners to see how well, or how poorly, we behave. 

If God punished us according to the choices we make, not one of us would be left around to make any choices at all. 

Instead, God arrives in the world in a totally fragile and vulnerable way so that even if a tower falls on our heads, or if our lives are taken by a dictatorial political emissary, or if we die peacefully in our sleep, that it will not be the end for us. 

What we believe shapes how we behave. The cross and empty tomb give us the freedom, here and now, to live bold and faithful lives for the Lord and for others because the most important thing in the history of the world has already taken place. No headlines, bad or good, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.

So, sure, take the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, but never forget that the former is far more determinative than the latter.