On Working The Crowd

Matthew 21.8-9

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Romans 8.31-39

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 up 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.

 

Working a crowd can be an art form. Comedians walk back and forth casually across a stage making the crowds feel relaxed and ready to laugh. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly punctuated and staccato’d his refrains like the rhythm of a song to get the people connected to the message. Even our President, Donald Trump, knew how to work the crowds at his rallies leading up to the election. You don’t win elections by laying out the step-by-step plans to make economic, ethical, political, and militaristic changes. You don’t win elections by calmly reflecting on the days of the past and a desire for simpler times. You don’t win elections with PowerPoint projections of pie-graphs and political policies.

We all know you win elections by firing up the people with a litany of complaints about what has gone wrong. You win elections by throwing gasoline onto the fire. You win elections by working the crowd.

And Jesus, like Donald Trump, knew how to work a crowd.

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You spread the word and get thousands of people outside to hear the message, you keep them on the edge of their, you know, ground area, and then wait for them to salivate with under the sun and then transform a loaf of bread and a couple of fish into a buffet the likes of which had never been seen.

You get the crowds riled up about working on the Sabbath, even quote some of the prophets from the past, and then heal a cripple man and leave everyone with a rhetorical question: Is it better to heal someone on the Sabbath or let them continue to suffer?

Walk into the middle of an angry mob about to stone a woman to death and quietly write a couple choice words in the sand to let them peer deeply into their own sinful souls and then empower the woman to live a new life.

Jesus knew how to work the crowd.

And Palm Sunday, this strange occasion where we pass out palm branches at the beginning of the service, is perhaps the best example of Jesus’ perfect political ability to work the crowd. We read that many people spread their cloaks; they literally take the clothes off their backs, and placed them on the road. And still yet others even cut down palm branches to prepare the way for the king who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

We know the story. We can imagine ourselves there on the side of the road with the dust hanging in the air. We can feel the buzz of expectation around the one who will come to change it all. We can feel within ourselves that same desire to scream out “Hosanna!” “Save us!”

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

But, unlike the crowd, we know how the story ends.

We know what awaits us this so-called Holy Week. We know what will happen in the temple when Jesus flips the tables. We know what kind of strange sermon Jesus will offer from the mountain. We know that Jesus will get down on the floor and wash the feet of his disciples. We know that Jesus will gather his friends around a table to share bread and wine. We know that Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross. We know that before the end of the week, Jesus will die.

And because we know how the story ends, it becomes clear to us that may not have known what we were doing by joining the crowds along the road, or by joining the crowds in a place like this one that we call church.

The crowds who gathered to sing their “hosannas” wanted a king, but the only people who continue to admire him as a king at the end of the week are the sadistic soldiers who made him a crown of thorns and drove it into his skin.

Jesus, it seems, was not the right kind of king. He was not the one they, or even we, were hoping for.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t all that gifted at working the crowd. After all, it took less than a week for the shouts to go from “Hosanna” to “crucify.”

Jesus is a King unlike any other king. Other kings, who are also at times called presidents, know they have to work and manipulate the crowd to bend them according to the desires of the powerful. Kings and Presidents may even rely on the power of the sword to control and handle the crowd to bring forth their hopes and dreams.

Such is the reality of worldly power.

But Jesus, our King, does not take advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm. Rather than a call to arms to storm the city gates or to murder the ruling elite, Jesus suffers humiliation, abandonment, and death.

Do you still want to be part of the crowd by the side of the road? Do you want a place in Jesus’ kingdom? Do you want to follow the suffering King?

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Don’t be mistaken; Jesus is as political as they come. But he rules not at the head of an army, but from an old wooden cross. He rules not by filibustering particular Supreme Court nominees or demanding democratic political policies, but by laying it all down for the ungodly. He rules not by ordering his troops to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians or even sending tomahawk missiles to destroy a military base, but mounting the cross and saying, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In America, we pride ourselves on being the ones who can defy the whims of the crowds. Freedom! We think for ourselves! Or at least, we think we can think for ourselves. But here’s the irony: The moment we are so sure that we have thought something up for ourselves, the moment we believe we are most free, is really when we’ve been co-opted by the powerful.

I know that we like to think that if we had been there, we would’ve been good disciples and that we would’ve stayed with Jesus to the very end. I know we like to think that if we had been there in Germany all those years ago, that we would’ve protected the Jews and rallied against Hitler. I know we like to think that if we had been involved in politics at the time, we would’ve voted against going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the truth is a whole lot harder to swallow: We are easily manipulated.

Which is precisely why we sing awful songs like “Ah Holy Jesus.” God will not allow us to get away with perennial self-deception and arrogance. We killed Jesus.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

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We know who we want Jesus to be. We want Jesus on our side in our petty arguments with friends and neighbors. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to disagreements in the community. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to the trajectory of our country. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to politics, and Syria, and Healthcare, and Immigration. We see ourselves as Jesus in the story of his entry into Jerusalem, when in reality we are far more like the fickle crowds on the side of the road than anyone else.

And that brings us to Romans 8.

Romans 8 is an unsettling text. Sure, we’ve heard it and used it at funerals; it offers us comfort and hope in the midst of sorrow and loss. It is important for us to declare over and over again that death will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We know this passage. We know it just like we know the story of Palm Sunday. In fact, if you can remember, months ago I asked the congregation to imagine what scripture you would use to comfort someone on death row, and this was the overwhelming favorite.

But these words from Paul can tempt us to forget that it is not just death that threatens to separate us from the love of God. Instead, we imagine the other things in the list to be good: life, angels, rulers, powers, things present, things to come. But all of them can threaten to come between Christ and his church; between God and us.

When we are comfortable, when we can’t imagine our faith requiring us to suffer, the list remains easily ignorable. However, we become true disciples of Jesus when we are willing to take risks, when we are prepared to go against the flow, when we resist the manipulation of those in power. And risks are called risks for a reason: following Jesus is a risky thing to do because it always involves the possibility of rejection.

Many of us know that this week marked the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firm while the waves of the status quo crashed around him. Dr. King called out the principalities and powers for being wrong. Dr. King worked the crowds to a belief in non-violent resistance. And it got him killed.

Here in Staunton, like I said last week, we don’t feel very revolutionary, we don’t equate our faith with taking risks, and we can’t even imagine having to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel. We can’t imagine ourselves being like Dr. King or questioning what our country is doing in Syria. But if we are serious about following Jesus, we will suffer; it’s just a less glamorous and more mundane form of suffering.

You know, like being mindful of other people; not getting stuck in our own unending bubble; asking hard questions that other people would rather ignore; acting like Jesus; sacrificing our wants and needs; calling someone in the midst of grief; showing up for a funeral when we might have other things to do.

Following Jesus in this place these days might not get us killed. But it might mean reaching out to someone who is totally unlike us. It might mean having a conversation with someone who voted for the other candidate. It might mean asking our spouses to forgive us for what we did. It might mean repenting for the way we spoke to our children or our parents. It might mean confronting our friends about their addictions. It might mean asking for help regarding our addictions.

And in so doing, we will suffer.

But nevertheless (!) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ! Not a bitter parent who refuses our apology; not an angry child who resents us for a past decision; not a nation who indiscriminately persecutes the poor and the marginalized; not a king or a president or a politician; not standing against the powers that be; not going against the current for a strange and more loving way of life; not anything now; not anything in the future.

We will surely suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but we will never be divided from the Lord. Amen

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Long Live The Revolution!

Romans 8.12-17

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

 

I love going home to visit family. There is just something special about visiting the old haunts and showing off a baby to make me really nostalgic for the past. Last week Lindsey and I spent some time up in Alexandria with my family, and it felt like nothing, and everything, had changed. For instance: When I went to the grocery store I bumped into a couple people I used to go to church with, but then when I drove out on Route 1 all the old buildings were gone and were replaced with town homes. Time, like a river, moves and though it looks the same, everything changes.

But perhaps the thing I enjoy most about going home is spending time with my grandmothers; Gran and Omi, both of whom are now great-grandmothers to Elijah. I know I’m biased, but I do have the best grandmothers in the world. One represents all the good southern hospitality that Petersburg, VA has ever had to offer and the other represents the refined qualities of old Europe with her charm and presence. They could not be more different from one another, and yet they are incredibly close.

Anyway, whenever I head home, whether it’s for a day or a week, I always plan on swinging by both of their homes unannounced. And last week was no exception.

Both visits were similar – we had the usual chit chat, we caught up on all the other family members, we shared stories about Staunton, and then we watched Elijah crawl all over the place. During our time together we learned about different health concerns, new aches and pains, and were unable to confront the reality that one day, perhaps not for some time, but nevertheless one day, they will no longer be here.

Each visit ended with both of them asking us to stay longer, while Elijah fussed for food or for a nap. And both visits ended with the exact same words from both of my grandmothers: “I just wish I had something to give you.” To which one looked around the room as if to give us something off the coffee table, and the other went upstairs and literally took a painting off the wall and put it in our hands.

I just wish I had something to give you.

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

Inheritance, being an heir, is always a complex matter. I wish it wasn’t true, but I’ve helped families prepare for funerals when more of the conversation around the table was focused on who was receiving what than what hymns or scripture would their now dead loved one want in their Service of Death and Resurrection. At the moment when a family needs to be together almost more than ever, they were already marking the territory of their hopeful inheritance.

Most of the time, we can’t choose what we inherit. Our parents or grandparents might think something has special significance for us, and therefore leave that item for us in the will, but rare are the times that we get to declare what we shall receive.

And there are others things that we have no choice about inheriting. We get the good and the bad, the responsibility and the privilege, the shame and the pride.

Frankly, three of things that determine our lives more than anything else come to us without a choice at all: We do not choose the family we are born into, we do not choose the color of our skin, and we do not choose the economic status of our families. We inherit all three without any action of our own, and those three things set us on a trajectory that we can rarely alter.

And of course there are things we inherit through the sands of time that we’d rather erase; like the celebrities who get their DNA tested for television shows about genealogy only to discover that their ancestors were part of the Nazi regime, or were slave owners, or participated in the near-eradication of the indigenous peoples in this country.

Inheritance is a complicated and confusing thing. Are we nothing more than the genes and the history we inherit? Can we break from the tyranny of expectation and what it means to be an heir? Who are we really?

St. Paul says that we are children and heirs of God!

Our inheritance, unlike that which we receive from our families, is totally different from anything that has ever existed. Moths and rust do not corrupt it; thieves cannot break in and steal it. It cannot be lost in the fall of the stock market, or burned in the night, or taken by the government in the so-called death tax.

Our inheritance is our hope while everything else appears to fail. It promises a future when we cannot imagine there being anything left for us in this life.

            It is nothing short of the glory of the Lord.

However, and this is a big however, there is more to this inheritance than smiles and rainbows and resurrection. It comforts AND it afflicts.

We receive something so remarkable and inexplicable as heirs with Christ, but it also comes with a cost. Receiving this gift puts at risk our financial security, our reputation, our social position, our friends, our family, our everything.

This is the revolution of faith.

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We are fellow heirs with Jesus Christ, we shall receive resurrection, but we also suffer with the Lord.

The time is coming, and is indeed here, when the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be raised high. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and do not put your trust in things that will fade away with the blowing of the wind. You need only faith the size of a mustard seed. Ask you shall receive. Those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will live.

Have you ever heard anything more revolutionary in your lives?

Everything about our existence changes with the inheritance of the Lord: Our finances change when we realize that all we receive first comes from the Lord. Our families change when we realize that all who do the will of God are our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. Our worldviews change when we realize that God is contending against the powers and principalities here and now.

All that we held so near and dear before will wash away when the tide of life comes in. Moths will eat away at the fabric of our perspectives, thieves will steal the wealth that we think determines everything, but there is one thing that endures forever: Jesus Christ.

This is nothing short of revolutionary. And to be honest, it’s gotten a lot of people killed throughout the centuries, including the One in whom we lie and move.

That’s one of the things we struggle to remember, here in our comfortable Christianity; Jesus was a revolutionary. He was not killed for loving too much. He was killed for calling into question who was really in charge, for confronting the elite about not taking care of the poor and the marginalized, and for telling the truth.

Jesus was a revolutionary and calls us to join the revolution.

            But here in Staunton, we don’t feel very revolutionary.

We like what we have: good schools, perfectly manicured lawns, children that come home to visit, vacations, golf courses, solid retirement portfolios. We can’t imagine being called to leave our families, or go to prison, or even lose our lives for the sake of the gospel. Why do we need to risk anything when we already have everything we want?

We, the people who have this remarkable inheritance through the Lord, can take all kinds of risks that the rest of the world fears. We know where all of our gifts really come from and that we can give them away, we know that our time is a fleeting and precious thing that we can give away, we know that even our lives are worth giving away because they were first given to us.

We can, and should, be reckless with our lives because we can afford to be. We’ve been given the greatest inheritance in the history of the world. Why aren’t we doing anything with it?

There was an uncle who had amassed a great fortune throughout his life, he started his own business and invested wisely, but had no children to leave his wealth to. However, he did have a couple nieces and nephews who patiently waited with baited breath for him to die so they could reap the benefits of the inheritance. While they should have been committing themselves to their educations and their careers, they just daydreamed about what they would do with the money as soon as their uncle died.

And then he did.

The siblings all met with the family lawyer after the funeral, trying their best to appear mournful while hiding smiles of utmost glee. The lawyer took his time reading through the important legal jargon until he came to the inheritance: To my nieces and nephews I leave… they gripped the leather chairs with anticipation… my library.

“Library?” they all thought silently though one of them accidentally shouted it out loud. “What about our money?!?!”

They all left in a storm of rage angered beyond belief, but the youngest nephew waited behind, and he signed for the inheritance library, and gave the lawyer the address of his house.

For days he unpacked box after box of books and started stacking them wherever he could. It began feeling like the books were becoming the new wallpaper, and for years they just sat their collecting dust. And the longer they remained, the more the man resented the books.

His life continued on, he got married, had a few kids, got divorced, lost the job, and started spending all his time at home. As he aged he felt like the books were there to taunt him, mocking him from every corner. And then one day, it a fit of built-up rage, he ran to the nearest stack, grabbed the top-most book and threw it across the room.

WHAM! The hardback left a perfect rectangular indentation in the wall from the force of the throw while the aging man breathed heavily with his hands clenched tightly together. He then slowly walked over to the wall to pick up the remaining remnants of the book to throw them away when he noticed something strange on the floor: a couple $100 bills.

It only took a moment, the slightest measure of time, before he realized what he had just discovered. The missing fortune of his uncle was in the library of books, hidden in between the covers, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

We are joint heirs with Christ, and have received an everlasting inheritance that is our present and future glory! Are we letting this inheritance gather dust on the bookshelves of our lives? Do we know what we’ve received?!

God is bold and generous with reckless abandon to the point of giving his only begotten Son so that we might have eternal life. God is concerned with the cries of the needy and plight of the marginalized. God brings down the mighty and raises the lowly.

And so should we.

            Long live the revolution! Amen.

Stuck In The Bushes

Romans 5.12-21

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned – sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in the life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I take a lot of pride in my ability to communicate with people of different age groups. On any given week I will spend time explaining theology to five year olds in our preschool, fifteen year olds in our youth group, 50 year olds in our bible study, and then the rest of you on Sunday morning. It is definitely a challenge taking ideas from the likes of Paul and proclaiming them in a way that can be appreciated for the here and now for the young and old.

But sometimes, I fail.

Like the time I tried to address the moral and ethical dilemmas of Capital Punishment to our youth group one night, to the times I’ve tried to proclaim the strange complexity of confronting our finitude on Ash Wednesday to our preschoolers, to the times I’ve told some of our much older adults that one must have the faith of a child to inherit the kingdom of God.

Communicating the gospel, sharing the Good News, is a challenge, and I definitely failed once when we were on our mission trip to West Virginia a couple summers back. Picture it, if you can: It is hotter than blazes outside, and I’m stuck in a tiny kitchen surrounded by teenagers who would rather be instagramming and snap chatting one another than cleaning a floor or painting a ceiling. And it was silent.

So I did what I do: I started asking questions…

“What’s your favorite story from the bible?”

One of our boys immediately said something about David defeating Goliath. The Davidic story will forever rest in the hearts of prepubescent boys who struggle with how rapidly the girls are growing while they remain the same.

A boy from another church said, “Well, I kinda like the one about, you know, Jesus feeding people?” while saliva poured out of his mouth as he stared at the cooler in the corner filled with our lunches.

A girl from a different church said, “I’ve always been rather captivated by Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee.” To which I made a mental note to bring this up with her youth group later in the evening. No sensible teenage girl should be thinking about water turning into wine, and certainly not when Jesus has anything to do with it.

We went on and on, and then it was my turn to answer. “Well” I said, “It’s not my favorite story, but I’ve always loved this little detail at the beginning of the bible, in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden with a choice. They could choose to live in perfect harmony with God and God’s creation, with each other, free from sin and free from death. But Adam and Eve made the wrong choice, they wanted to be like God, and as soon as they tasted the fruit from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked.

“But here’s the part that gets me every time. Almost as soon as they sin, they heard the sound of God walking in the garden and they both sprinted for the bushes. But God called out, ‘Where are you Adam? Where are you Eve?’ After waiting for a few moments, Adam popped his little head out of the bushes, and told God that he was hiding because he was naked and afraid.”

To which God said, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’

“Isn’t that hilarious?” – The teenagers had all stopped working while I was sharing the story, and now they were all staring at me with eyebrows askew. I could hear the paint dripping off their brushes onto the floor as if even the crickets were too concerned to chirp. One of the boys finally broke the silence to say, “Um… I don’t think it’s very funny. If I were naked and God came looking for me, I’d run for the bushes too!”

Do we know this old, old, story? Do we know what sin is? Do we know what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

What kind of stories and habits and beliefs do we want to pass on to the coming generations? I feel like I am forever hearing about the good ol’ days when “we knew our bibles” and “we would’ve gone to school with snow like this when I was a kid” and “we entertained ourselves with our imaginations and not a screen in our pockets.”

Do we wish that things could go back to the way they were? Are we worried about the future that we are handing to our children?

We can talk and talk about what we want to pass on, what we hope to engender, but if we don’t know our story, if we don’t know where we came from, how in the world can we even hope to take a step in the right direction?

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Just as sin came into the world through one man… Paul assumes that we know the story, that we know the details of the Garden. He does not waste lines in his letter rehashing the characters and the questions, he gets right to the point: Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve. They, and therefore we, broke the covenant with God. The transition from God’s rule to the rule of sin and death came into the world because of our rebellious and disobedient desires.

This is our condition. There is no going back. Fear and shame and anger and disappointment are our lives. We are, in a sense, stuck in the bushes for good, hoping that God will not come looking for us.

We are in the bushes. And Lent is a great time to ask the question: Why? Which of the commandments have we broken? Did we work on the Sabbath? Have we hated our mothers or our fathers? Did we covet something that did not belong to us? An object, a job, or God forbid, a person?

How would we respond if we heard God walking toward us in the middle of our sin? We, like Adam and like that boy on the mission trip, would run for the bushes.

Paul assumes that we know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden because it is OUR story! Adam’s sin is our sin, and it not only divided us from God, but also brought death into the world, which spread like a disease. This is Paul’s point, and he says it in these few verses over and over again.

We are trapped in sin and death and we are stuck in the bushes. That’s the story of the Garden. Is this what we want to pass on?

Truly I tell you, we cannot know who we are to be, if we do not know our story. This inexhaustible, unexplainable, indescribable moment from the beginning is who we are. It is the story of how the life of order fell into disorder. But, thanks be to God, it is not the end of the story.

Adam brought the entirety of humanity down, down to the depths of death and destruction. Jesus, however, is the new way who is able to create a new humanity.

The promise of a good and remade and hopeful future comes from the old story that is forever new. The story of our death, and then the death that freed us from sin and death.

In Jesus Christ our stories are made new; God, as the author of salvation, takes up the pen and starts a new chapter through the life, death, and resurrection of his son. This is the story that those who are coming, the one who will follow us, need to hear. This is the story we need to share. We need to pray for the courage to shout this story from the rooftops as if our lives depended on it, because they do.

The only way to victory, the way to upend what was done in the Garden, is through the cross. We might think of a different way, a more efficient and less taxing way, but the way of the cross is the WAY that Christ defeated death.

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But this is not an easy story to tell. The message and value of the cross comes with a cost. It is difficult, it is selfless, and frankly it is un-American. Today, we would rather surround the young with lessons that teach very different values: get the job, earn as much as you can, find the right spouse, buy the car, lose the weight, invest in the right companies, bring 2.5 children into the world, purchase the perfect house, and you will be free and life will be perfect.

That’s the story we tell. And it’s a lie! It’s all a lie! None of these things can give life. They cannot give us the identity and purpose and hope we so desire. The job will change, the money will disappear, the spouse will grow old, the body will too, the companies will falter, the car will rust, the children will not listen; Sin and Death corrupt them all.

But there is nevertheless Good News, there is a way out of the bondage that was brought into the world by the one we call Adam. We are freed through the one we call Christ.

We are stuck in the bushes of our own sin and shame. But Christ comes to us in the Garden of our own demise without a question, but a call. Jesus does not ask us who told us we were sinning, Jesus says follow me. Follow me to Galilee, follow me to Gethsemane, follow me to Calvary.

Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. Sin has increased in this world and in our lives, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ has abounded all the more.

The story, our story, began in the Garden, but it did not end there. It continued through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, weaved through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph. It rose through the power of David and Solomon, and fell through the failure of God’s people worshipping idols. It danced through the prophets who remained faithful to the Lord, it endured droughts and famines, it saw suffering and sadness. It connected the lives of the powerful with the powerless, it brought down the high and lifted up the lowly.

It was born again in a manger in a small town called Bethlehem; it trudged through the towns of Galilee and sailed over the sea. It walked through the streets of Jerusalem and turned over the tables at the Temple. It was dragged before the council and the ruling elite. It was marched up to a hill and nailed to a cross. It was silent in a tomb for three days. And it broke free from the chains of sin and death.

That is the story. It is a story worth telling over and over again; because in it we discover who we are and whose we are. In it we see ourselves stuck in the bushes being beckoned by Jesus to follow him. And in it we realize that it is not just a story, nor even our story, but THE story. Amen.

 

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The Elephant In The Room

Romans 5.1-11

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. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

 

Sometimes I’ll be running at the gym, or walking the dog, or just sitting in my office when an idea will pop into my head. The idea starts like seed and then it germinates throughout my mind into sermon topics and bible studies and blog posts. The idea grows and grows and before it disappears into the gray matter of my brain I make sure to write it down.

And, (would you believe it?) an idea is coming to me right now! But I don’t have any paper up here so I need you all to write this stuff down (seriously).

Okay, we are justified by faith, God’s faith in us. That’s what we talked about last week. And because we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus. And, I mean, not only that, but we are bold to boast of God’s grace in our worst moments, because we know that our suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Yeah, that’s good.

We arrive at hope because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit. And we know that God loves us because while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. Right? Like, how often will someone die for a righteous person? Though, I guess for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love to us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us!

Still with me?

Okay, and its even more than that, now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood we will be saved from the wrath of God. Through Jesus’ death we were reconciled back to God, and through Jesus’ life we will be saved! This is worth boasting about!

Did you get all of that?

Let me try to simplify in case I lost any of you: We are justified by God’s faith in us. Suffering leads to endurance, endurance to character, and character to hope. We arrive at this hope because we know God loves us. And we know God loves us because Christ died for us while we were yet sinners…

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Paul is hard to take from the pulpit. Give me one of the stories of Jesus’ healings, or any of the parables; they preach themselves. Sometimes I even think it would be better to just read the scripture and not preach anything at all. But with Paul it takes on a new and strange and difficult dimension. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes in a form of rhetoric almost lost to the sands of time. In our current age of 140 character tweets from our President, frenetic television shows, and fast-paced YouTube videos, we no longer have the minds, nor the time to hear Paul’s theology.

A theology that was probably dictated to someone else to write down while Paul was thinking it up.

You can almost hear that in the reading can’t you? It’s like he remembered something from a few sentences back and wants to clarify it.

The Epistle to the Romans is not a perfectly crafted sermon meant for pulpit proclamation. Instead, it’s practical theology dictated from the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

Paul begins this section by addressing suffering; it’s the part of the passage that is most often mentioned. And he’s not just talking about some esoteric understanding of suffering. Paul is talking from experience! At the time of this letter, Paul was not a young, pre-maturely balding, healthy pastor standing in a pulpit telling his worn and suffering congregation to keep their chins up. No, this is entirely different. Paul suffered for the gospel, was arrested and persecuted, and yet he continued on. That’s why he can say that suffering leads to hope. For Paul it’s not a false and empty promise, it’s what he has experienced.

And then we come to the section about dying for others.

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Dying for others, for one’s country, for our families, these stories captivate our hearts and our emotions. The thought of all the firefighters courageously rushing into the World Trade Center buildings on September 11th, or the countless volunteers who went to the other side of the world to fight in World War II, or just hearing about a mother who sacrifices herself to save her children, these stories really pull our heart strings.

But here, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, this is even more radical than any of those stories. We have to try to put aside the emotional waves of grief and reverence for the stories of modern sacrifice for one’s friends, family, or country. Paul does not say that Jesus died for his friends or his family or even his country.

            Christ died for the ungodly!

Paul says that Christ died for us while we were his enemies!

Talk about an elephant in the room… While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We hear it in Romans, we hear it every time we come to the table for communion, but do we believe it?

We don’t like talking about sin, we good Christian folk. We want to hear about love, peace, joy, hope, and happiness.

Only the converted, those whose lives have been truly captivated by Christ, think of themselves as sinners. Others won’t have anything to do with it. That, my friends, is why we so seldom read from Paul’s letters in worship; we don’t like the idea of ourselves as sinners, as ungodly.

“Preacher, can’t you just give us a little more grace and love from the pulpit? Nobody wants to come to church to hear about sins!” And yet, we enjoy reading in the gossip columns and watching TMZ to learn about other people’s sins, but that’s their problem.

We don’t like admitting our shortcomings, our faults, and our helplessness. We reject that gospel and substitute our own, one we talked about a couple weeks ago. We’d rather believe the American gospel: God helps those who help themselves. Actually, Paul tells us quite the opposite: When we could not help ourselves, when we were stuck in the shadow of sin, Christ died for us.

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In our current age of tweets, twenty-minute TV shows, and traffic filled websites, we want everything compartmentalized as much as possible. Instead of reading a newspaper we want a short and brief email every morning that tells us only what we need to know. Instead of buying the latest hit book and spending an afternoon in our favorite chair, we read a summary online so we can talk about it with our friends. And instead of coming to church for an hour a week to experience the presence of God, people read the sermon online and check off the box on the Christian list of to-dos.

We, whether we admit it or not, are consumed by a desire to compress as much as possible into something as small as possible. Paul completely rejects this desire and notion that we can limit the gospel to any particular sentence or paragraph. The Gospel, the Good News, is nothing less than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of Man, and Son of God.

But, if we cannot resist the temptation, if we have to have something small, something we can keep with us at all times to know what the gospel is, this might work: While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

            This is crazy stuff people! Our Lord and Savior, the one in the stained glass window behind me, he died for the ungodly!

Who is the ungodliest person you can think of right now? I know some of you will immediately think of the members of ISIS who are terrorizing regions under their control. Others of you will immediately think of the leaders in North Korea who are trying their best to develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Some of you might think of Donald Trump and the seemingly endless Executive Orders streaming out of the Oval Office these days. Some of you might even be thinking about the person sitting in the pew next to you.

If it’s too hard to think of someone ungodly, just think about one person you’re angry with right now…

Jesus died for that person. Whoever you’re thinking of, whoever that completely backwards and horrible and disappointing person is that’s bouncing around in your mind right now, Jesus died for them.

That’s the real elephant in the room. Jesus died precisely for the sort of person that would crucify him and mock him while they were doing it. People like us.

These things we call faith and discipleship are not very religious in the sense of being pretty and easy to handle. They are not something we can carry around in our pockets during the week only to show up when we need them. The cross of Christ is far too offensive to be religious.

The cross and the death of Christ shatter our expectations given to us by the world. They, in all their strangeness, reorient us back toward the radical nature of God’s love. The offensive and scandalous cross is our paradoxical hope and joy. Because in and through the cross, God did something that none of us would do.

            As the old hymn goes, the immortal God hath died for me.

God’s love in Christ is so comprehensive and so bewildering that it is able to wash away even the greatest of sins.

We started this sermon with a dictation, an imaginative way to reimagine the writing of Paul’s letter to the Romans. If you wrote down anything I hope you wrote this: While we were yet sinners God died for the ungodly, for us.

Now I want you to write down the name of the person you thought of just a moment ago, the person who you’re angry with. Write his or her name at the top as if you meant to send this letter to them.

Now you know that I’m going to ask you to send it. And I know that you probably won’t. You won’t for the same reason I wouldn’t; it’s offensive and it’s uncomfortable. We won’t send this affirmation of God’s unnerving love to someone else because it would force us into an area we’d rather avoid; we don’t want to come off as too evangelistic, or too churchy. We don’t want to admit our sin.

Can you imagine the shock on the person’s face if they received your dictated letter from the adapted words of the apostle Paul? Can you picture how bewildered they would be by something Christians say all the time? Can you imagine how it would change the way you look at them for the rest of your days?

While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. In our weakness we reject the challenge to confront our sins and we reject the forgiving nature of God’s love for the world. We forget that Christ died for our shame and our sin and our sadness. We forget that Christ died for our disappointment and our degenerate derelictions and our deficiencies. We forget that Christ died for us and for the people whose names’ are at the top of our letters.

And yet Christ still died for us! What wondrous love in this that that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul! To God and to the Lamb who is the great I am, we shall sing! And when from death we’re free, and through eternity, we shall sing.

For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Amen.

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

Romans 4.1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

 

There are many many many versions of Christianity. And not just denominations like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists; even within something like the United Methodist Church there is a great myriad of ideas about what it means to be the church. For instance: There are 7 UMCs in Staunton, and we could all use the same text on Sunday morning, and just about everything else would be completely different from one another.

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

All you need to do is check a church website, or bulletin, or marquee and you can find a self-made description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. Or just try asking someone about their church and you’re likely to hear: “we love everybody!”

In the United Methodist Church, we like to say we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

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What a righteous slogan.

Inclusivity, being open, they’re quite the buzzwords these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know that they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want to the world to know that we care about the content of one’s character.

But the truth is, there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive (including our own).

A couple weeks ago I preached a sermon on the mission of the church. I made the claim that instead of being consumed by a desire to fill the pews, instead of trying to make the world a better place, the church is called to be the better place that God has already made in the world. And as the better place, church should be the one place where no one is ever lonely. I must’ve said that last part no less than three times from the pulpit.

And when we finished worship, most of us walked up the stairs to the Social Hall for a time of food and fellowship. Like we usually do, a long line was formed and one by one we filled our plates and sat down.

The time difference between proclaiming the sermon and sitting down to eat could not have been more than 30 minutes. And yet there was a young family who were here with us in worship for the very first time, who sat alone in our social hall the entire time. And there was an older gentleman, who has served the needs of this church longer than I’ve been alive, who sat by himself for nearly the entire time.

It is not possible for any church, even St. John’s, to be “inclusive” of everyone. And not necessarily for the reasons we might think. We might not judge others for the stereotypical ways often publicized about the church like being homophobic, or racist, or elitist (though there is plenty of that). No, we also reject others for mental illness, politically different or incorrect views, or for poor social skills and status.

We reject people for all sorts of reasons.

Years ago, when I first entered seminary, I went on a bike ride with some friends to another house full of seminarians. We represented the great mosaic of mainline protestant Christianity and we quickly began addressing why each of us was attracted to the particular church we would serve in the future. The Episcopalian talked about her love of the Book of Common Prayer and being united with Christians all over the world who say the exact same words whenever they get together. The Baptist talked about the beauty of believer’s baptism and getting to bring adults into God’s flock.

One of the Methodists, me, talked about the wonder of God’s prevenient grace, a love that is offered to all without cost or judgment. But then I went on to express my chief disappointment: Our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors. I joked about how many Methodist churches regularly lock their doors, how many of them are filled with people whose minds are already made up about God and others, and how many of them have people with hearts that have no desire to be open to the strange new reality of God’s kingdom.

To be honest, I got pretty fired up about it. After all, it was the beginning of seminary and I was trying to show off.

But I meant what I said. Our slogan is something we can strive for, but it is not a fair description of who we are. There will always be a newcomer who sits in a pew by herself without anyone coming over to say hello. There will always be a family that risks being ostracized by coming to church only to being judged from afar. There will always be sermon series that make people feel like they are not welcome into the fold of God’s grace.

So I went on and on about this until I looked at the other Methodist whose face had turned bright red. “Is everything okay?” I asked. He paused and then said, “My Dad was on the committee at General Conference that created our slogan. I think it’s the best thing about the United Methodist Church.”

We have a slogan, a nice and pretty slogan that we should strive for, but oftentimes we fall short. When we fall short, we do so because of sin. Sin captivates us in a way that makes it virtually impossible for any church to “unconditionally accept” everyone who comes through the door.

We judge others based on physical and outward appearance. We make assumptions about families for a myriad of reasons. We shake our heads in disgust about couples that do not fit the normative mold that society has established.

And we should be cautious about advertising or describing ourselves as such. We might think we’re righteous enough to live by the slogan, we can even hope for it, but we are far from it.

Only Jesus, the one in whom we live and move, is capable of a truly open heart, open mind, open door ministry because Jesus was God in the flesh. Jesus was righteous.

But what about Abraham? Paul uses this part of his letter to the Romans to use Abraham as an example of righteousness. Abraham was the one who was called to leave the land of his ancestors and family to go where God called him. Abraham was the one in whom the covenant between God and God’s people was made. Abraham was the one who was promised to become the father of many nations. Abraham was the one who believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Should we follow Abraham’s example? Would that make us more inclusive and righteous? Could we keep our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors?

Here’s the thing: Abraham did nothing to earn this honor and distinction from God. As Paul puts it, Abraham has no ground for boasting.

Whenever we read about the story of Abraham, whether in worship or in a bible study, he is often lauded for his journey into the unknown, for his faith and steadfast commitment to the Lord, and for his perseverance through suffering and tribulation. But his relationship with God, his faith being reckoned as righteousness, is only possible because of God’s faith in him. Abraham is righteous because God called him and empowered him to go into a strange new world.

Abraham, rather than being the perfect model for inclusivity and righteousness and faithfulness, is an example of a justified sinner. Abraham is one of many unlikely individuals whom God reshapes for God’s purposes. Abraham is chosen not because of anything he has done, but because of God who can do anything.

God is the one who worked in and through Abraham’s life, and not the other way around. Abraham does not justify himself, or transform himself, or redeem himself. That’s what God does.

And the same holds true for us today.

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We can have the perfect advertising campaign, with our slogan in big capital letters, but that does not redeem our sinful actions and behaviors. We might think we are righteous and that we are “color-blind” or “LGBTQ affirming” or “economically transparent” but we are nevertheless sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can even leave the church doors unlocked all week long, but we will still be broken and in need of God’s redeeming love.

This passage, this beautiful piece of theology from Romans, is about more than the example of Abraham and why we need to have faith. Paul’s emphasis is on the fact that God made Abraham righteous. That God has freely poured out grace on the ungodly, people like us. And that God’s gift of Jesus Christ to us and to the world is grossly unmerited and undeserved, and yet it is given to us.

She came to church pretty regularly but she kept to herself. She’d sit off at the end of a pew and keep her head down so as not to attract too much attention. Whenever it was time to sing, she would stand up with everyone else but her voice never made it higher than a whisper. When it came time to say the Lord’s Prayer she would properly bow her head and mouth the words. But whenever the congregation was invited to the front to receive communion, she never left her seat.

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Most of the church was preoccupied with thoughts about their own sins or about where they would eat lunch after the service to notice the woman who remained in her pew while they were feasting on the body and the blood. But the pastor noticed.

After a couple months he caught her after church, and wanted to know why she participated in almost every part of worship, but not in communion. She said, “I don’t feel like I deserve it.”

That, my friends, is the whole point. We don’t deserve it. You don’t, and I don’t. None of us have earned God’s salvation, there’s no list of things we can check off in order to get into heaven. This bread and this cup, the cross and the empty tomb, they are unmerited and undeserved gifts from God to us.

We cannot have a church that is open hearts, open minds, and open doors because we are already in it. Our presence, our sinfulness, makes it impossible to be a totally inclusive community.

Only Christ, only God, only the Spirit have open hearts, open minds, open doors. Only the triune God opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. Only the triune God opens up our eyes to view others without judgment or wrath or fear or anger. Only the triune God opens the doors of the church to the faithful community, to feast at the table that gives us a foretaste of heaven on earth.

Only the triune God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. To God be the glory. Amen.

 

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On How To Read Barth or: Why The Tamed Cynic Is Wrong

Back in February of 2013, Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) proposed an invitation to read Karl Barth’s writings over the following two years. Throughout this time Jason periodically reflected on what he read for the whole world to read on his blog. I like Jason a lot. I’ve written about him here on the blog, I’ve used him as an example in a number of sermons and devotionals, and I genuinely believe he is one of the most faithful followers of Jesus I’ve ever known. Because I like Jason, and I grew up listening to his sermons, I like Karl Barth.

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Barth is most well known for his writings in the theologically shattering Epistle to the Romans and his dialectical approach in his Church Dogmatics. Reading his work over the last few years has profoundly shaped the way I understand what is means to be a Christian and how to read scripture.

When Jason invited me to start reading Barth from afar I was already familiar with The Epistle to the Romans, I had read sections from Church Dogmatics, and had read a number of his sermons from other compilations (Deliverance to the Captives and The Early Preaching of Karl Barth). Though relatively familiar with Barth’s style and larger project, I was excited to read Jason’s “Tips for Reading Karl Barth”:

  1. Barth is the opposite of the social media, fast food age. Read slow. Barth’s thought frequently unfolds in long clauses and sentences that double back almost like music. It’s better to focus on a page or a long paragraph and understand it than try to read everything I’ve scheduled in the given week.
  2. Barth uses the term “being” a lot. IT’s a freighted philosophical term that would be better translated for you as “character.”
  3. Whenever Barth speaks of the “Word of God” he’s usually referring to Jesus NOT scripture. This will be obvious in the next sections.
  4. The footnotes. Skip over them. You can read them if you want but don’t let them slow you down or intimidate you.

 

Jason’s “tips” are on point when the daunting task of reading Barth is open on the table. Barth’s Church Dogmatics is divided into fourteen volumes and takes up the entirety of one of my bookshelves. I fully agree with his first three “tips” but I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with the fourth: “The footnotes. Skip over them.”

If theology is like jazz, then Barth’s footnotes are his greatest improvisational work over the larger melody.

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Reading Barth is challenging and requires patience. There are times when you will come to the end of a long paragraph and have no recollection of what you just read. There are times that you are sure you know what he is driving at only to have him turn the whole topic upside down and address it from a different angle. But it is in his footnotes (or excurses) that he exegetes the biblical texts that brought him to the conclusions in the rest of the text. The excurses are where Barth does the true work of theology.

For example, in part III.1 The Doctrine of Creation, Barth makes the claim that “Creation is the external basis of the Covenant.” He breaks down arguments for the watchmaker analogy as if God created the Earth like a watch and is not sitting back and watching the hands go round and round and instead posits that God, as the divine creator, created freely in love and is forever bound with creation. This is all good and true, but it is the long excurses on Genesis 1 that the brilliance of Barth’s theology comes to light.

In it he goes through the scripture with a fine-toothed comb and provides reflections on each day of the creation story. He looks at the presence of light and darkness: “The best analogy to the relationship between light and darkness is that which exists between the elected and the rejected in the history of the Bible: between Jacob and Esau; between David and Saul; between Judas and the other apostles. But even this analogy is improper and defective. For even the rejected, even Satan and the demons, are the creation of God.”

He spends a great amount of space analyzing the power of created water and its relevance throughout the entirety of scripture: “The Old Testament ranks a sea voyage with desert-wandering, captivity and sickness as one of the forms of extreme human misery; of the misery from which it is the gracious and mighty will of God, which we cannot extol too highly, to redeem us. It is thus the more note-worthy that the most striking Messianic deeds of Jesus are His walking on the sea in royal freedom, and His commanding the waves and storm to be still by His Word.”

All of this and much more can only be found in the places that Jason suggested skipping over. The more I have read Barth, the more I am convinced that the most important parts to read are his footnotes where he dives deeply into the strange new world of the bible.

Therefore, over the next few weeks, I will be posting reflections on some of my favorite excurses from Church Dogmatics including Barth’s thoughts on Creation, the Tower of Babel, and the Doctrine of Election.

Jason’s proposal to read Barth was a great challenge, and I am grateful for his “tips”, but the ripe fruits of Barth’s work should not be skipped over.

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