The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

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Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. 

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On Being Nice

Devotional:

Luke 19.39-40

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered 74 years ago today.

Many Christians know of his life and work, particularly his outspoken preaching against the nationalistic leanings of Germany that led to the rise and power of Adolf Hitler. Many Christians know that he was arrested for his work and was executed one month before the surrender of Nazi Germany. And because Christians know of his harrowing bravery and conviction his life is often displayed as this quasi unattainable example.

The challenges faced by Bonhoeffer are very different from those faced by Christians today. The primary conflict upon which Bonhoeffer worked was against Hitler and the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine such a profoundly clear example of evil. It was dangerous to speak against the status quo in his home country, so dangerous that it got him killed, but as a Christian Bonhoeffer had little choice but to say and do what he said and did.

Today we live in a very different world and we are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have one. 

Everything is far more complicated.

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During Bonhoeffer’s life, part of the problem stemmed from the church’s desire to be everywhere which led to it being nowhere. It stretched itself so thin and became so common place that it no longer stood for anything. Moreover, the desire for the church to be everywhere led the church in Germany to turn into the world without the world looking more like the church.

Which is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the only German pastors who spoke out against what was happening – the church was so intricately tied together with the nation-state in which it found itself that the two largely became one.

In August of 1933, 12 years before his death, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his grandmother. In it he opined that the church was changing so rapidly that it could no longer be reconciled with Christianity. He then suggested to her that “we must make up our minds to take entirely new paths and follow where they lead. The issue is really Germanism or Christianity, and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better. The greatest danger of all would be in trying to conceal this.”

When the crowds cheered for Jesus during his entry in Jerusalem the Pharisees begged him to quiet them down. To which Jesus memorably replied, “Even if they were silenced, the stones would shout out.” 

At the heart of Christianity is a willingness to speak, and in particular to speak about Jesus. 

So too, in Bonhoeffer’s life he reminded those who follow Jesus again and again that the preaching of Christ and the celebration of his crucifixion and resurrection makes possible lives that can point out and identify the the lies that threaten our lives.

One of the greatest temptations in Christianity today (particularly in America) is the desire to appear nice. We avoid saying anything of real consequence out of fear that too many feathers will be ruffled – such that we are stretching ourselves so thin that we’re no longer know what we stand for. 

So perhaps as we prepare to follow Jesus’ on his way into Jerusalem, it is good for us to be reminded that Jesus wasn’t killed for being nice, and neither was Bonhoeffer. 

Ending With A Promise

Devotional:

Isaiah 12.2

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

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Today, thanks to Tommie Marshell’s excellent devotional for the Advent Begins In The Dark series, I was reminded of some words from the phenomenal preacher Fleming Rutledge:

“The sermon should end with a promise because God’s purposes cannot be defeated; that’s God’s promise. So that if we have received the gift of faith, we need to know that God is present in that gift of faith and even when we think we are losing our faith, God is still there.”

God is still there…

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I used to run the sound system at my home church. Every Sunday I could be found in the back of the sanctuary tinkering away with all the knobs and slides so that everyone could hear whatever it was the preacher was saying. And, on Christmas Eve, I would do the same.

On one particular Christmas Eve I drew the short straw and was asked to run the board for the 11pm service. The preacher that night was exhausted by that point, having already preached at 3, 5, 7, and 9pm services, and the sanctuary was not as filled as it had been earlier in the evening. But nevertheless a faithful remnant stood vigil and offered the hymns with gusto. To be honest, I don’t remember much from the service that night except that the sermon ended with a promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

After we blew out the final candle and turned off all the lights, I got in my car and drove home to my parents’ house. Longing for the warmth of my bed, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, I drove with anticipation. 

Until I saw the fleshing red and blue lights ahead of me.

My home was down the street from an old stone bridge that runs across the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, VA and as I pulled up to the bridge I went into Boy Scout mode without really thinking about what I was doing. And before I knew it I had parked the car and ran down to the road offering to help in any way that I could to the first police officer I encountered.

He looked up from the road and said, “Son, go home and forget that you saw any of this. Merry Christmas.”

And I wish that I could forget what I saw.

But I can’t.

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Because that night, shortly before I arrived in my car, a man from our community had been standing on the edge of the bridge for a long time waiting and waiting. He waited until he saw a large SUV coming down the road, and when he felt that it was the right moment, he jumped.

The SUV was carrying a family on their way home from their own Christmas Eve service, a family ready for the warmth of their beds, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, a family that would be forever changed.

In the many years since that night I have tried my best to forget what I saw on the road. I’ve tried to fill that memory with the light and the glow of the sanctuary instead of the red and blue lights. 

But I can’t. 

And that’s okay; this world of ours is broken and flawed and people are hurting. It doesn’t do any of us any good to sugar-coat this season like the candy-canes we have displayed in our homes. But we mustn’t forget the promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

For me.

For the man who jumped.

For the family in the car.

And for you.

Lettuce Sermons

Devotional:

Hebrews 10.14 

For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 

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Every sermon runs the risk of becoming a “Lettuce” sermon. A “Lettuce” sermon is one that ends with a final, and resounding, paragraph about what we are now supposed to do:

“Let us (get it?) now go forth to collect as many jackets as possible to cloth everyone in our community.” // “Let us remember Jesus’ words about feeding the 5,000 as all of us register to serve at the soup kitchen this week.” // “Let us rejoice in the gifts we’ve been given by committing to tithe to the church for the next year.”

This temptation runs deep in the heart and soul of preachers because we too fall prey to the expectation that people come to church in order to “get something out of it.” And there is a fear that without providing some sort of assignment or expectation, people will receive nothing and are free to leave without any responsibility at all.

Now, to be clear, clothing others, and feeding the hungry, and tithing to the church are all good things – things that we should be doing in our community and in our church. However, ending the proclamation from the pulpit with a call to action implies that we are to act in order to earn our salvation or redeem the world.

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But the message of the gospel is that we have already been saved and that the world has already been redeemed!

Jesus as the single and perfect offering has perfected, for all time (!), those who are sanctified. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reconciled all that was lost in the Garden such that we have been freed from our bondage to sin and death and have been freed for life and joy in the kingdom. 

The distinction that is often lost in the church today is that we do good and wonderful things for the people around us not because we have to, but because we want to. Clothing others, feeding the hungry, and giving money to the church doesn’t help us and it certainly doesn’t earn us anything. They are simply our natural responses when we encounter the immense generosity of the Lord who gave us the greatest gift of all: Jesus.

The (Christian) Problem With Elections

Devotional:

Psalm 146.3

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

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We’re often told to not mix politics with religion – political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere and therefore they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.

Except the world interferes with both all the time! We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back their role in politics, and I even get letters in the mail from political parties asking me to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit!

Whether we like it or not, the so-called “separation of church and state” actually looks more like a very complicated marriage where neither partner is sure why they are still together.

It then becomes remarkably difficult for Christians to think theologically about what it means to be political, and we wind up privatizing whatever it is we do on Sundays at the expense of letting it influence how we behave Monday-Saturday. 

However, as Christians, we believe that our truest citizenship does not lie in our geography, or our nationstate, or even our socio-economic bracket. Instead, we believe our citizenship is in heaven.

We follow and worship a Lord whose kingdom is very different from the one that surrounds us in the world. All of our assumptions about what it important, who we are to be, and what we are to care about are changed by Jesus Christ who is our Lord of lords.

But then a question naturally follows: If our truest citizenship is in heaven, should we still participate in the forms of citizenship made manifest in something like an election?

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The answer, of course, is yes. By all means we can participate in the political process of our country and we can certainly vote in something like an election.

And yet, the Lord cautions us with a very particular and poignant word: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

Today we tend to throw all of our eggs in our respective political baskets and we, foolishly, believe that so long as our candidate gets elected everything will be fine for us. But politicians and political ideologies have come and gone, people have rejoiced and people have wept, and many things have remained the same. 

The democratic practices we hold so dear are very important, but they will not bring us salvation.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Stanley Hauerwas says:

“I think voting is way overvalued. We forget that voting is inherently a coercive activity – its where 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do! People forget that voting is not an end in itself… Democracy, in its fundamental form, is patience; it requires us to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser member. And we have to wait, oftentimes, if the lesser member isn’t convinced.”

So this election day, as we wrestle with the call to be both faithful and political, let us pray that the Lord might grant us the patience necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that whomever is elected will not bring us salvation, but that we wait with hope and joy for the Lord of lords, Jesus the Christ, whom we did not elect. 

Instead, he elected us. 

We Definitely Need To Talk

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The midterm elections are coming up.

Do you all know what those are?

I’m sure you haven’t heard of them. I’m sure that you’ve been able to watch your favorites shows on television, and listen to your favorite radio station, and even get on the computer without hearing about who is running and where.

All of us here don’t care about politics. And we certainly never talk about politics. Not here at church when we’re milling around before the worship service. Not at work when we’re sitting around at a common table with fellow employees. Not at home when we’re catching up with a neighbor over the fence.

No. Politics are a rather boring endeavor these days. It’s just too bad that we don’t care about our politics enough!

So, for the vast majority of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about (read: sarcasm), the midterms elections will be taking place on November 6th. They happen every four years, and they always fall during the mid-point of a president’s four-year term in office. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, and there are 33 being voted on in the Senate. 

In certain places there will also be state governors on the ballots in addition to ordinances that pertain to the local community.

All in all, it is just another voting day.

Yet, in all of its regularity and perfunctory nature, all the research and data made available points to the conclusion that more than 4 billion dollars will be spent on the elections by election day, with at least 1 billion of that being spent on television ads alone.

4 billion dollars for an election.

Now, don’t get me wrong – elections are important, they are part of the fabric of our country, and they represent a freedom many people in other parts of the world will never know. And, of course, not all politicians are bad or evil or corrupt. Some of them feel called to run for office because they want to make things better.

But, at the same time, I want to just say again… 4 billion dollars!

That’s more than what it cost to make every single Marvel movie, combined!

What does it say about those running, and those of us financially supporting those who are running, that we are willing to spend 4 billion dollars on an election?

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James and John were two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and he referred to the sons of Zebedee as the sons of thunder. Why? We don’t really know, but if it was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us.

The thunder brothers were pretty self-absorbed.

Jesus has just predicted his passion for a third, and final, time. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and I will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn me to death; then they will hand me over to the Gentiles; they will mock me, and spit upon me, and flog me, and kill me; and after three days I will rise again.”

And what happens next? The thunder brothers approach Jesus, immediately after he told them for the third time what was to happen. Like the children they were, they said, “Hey Jesus, will you do whatever we ask you?”

“What do you want?!”

“Allow us to sit at your right and left in your glory!”

They wanted all the power. They wanted to be Jesus’ Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense. They wanted to be the junior and senior State Senators. They wanted to be the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate of whatever Jesus’ kingdom would be.

And yet, their question comes on the heels of Jesus laying it all out for the disciples. So either they were not listening to what their Messiah said, or they were just plain dumb.

Which makes me wonder how people reacted to this story the first time they heard it. Did they laugh? Because it is laughable.

Did the other 10 point their fingers and ridicule the thunder brothers for their idiot question? Well, apparently not. Because, lest we bash the thunder brothers alone, the rest of the disciples fared no better. Hearing Jesus’ utter rebuke of their request, the rest of the disciples got angry. 

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture these would be rag-tag followers of the holy one bickering with each other about who was the best, and who would get the authority, and who held all the power.

It was such a squabble that Jesus had to respond with his teaching about true greatness and true power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The whole story reads like a comedy. We have the benefit of knowing the end of the story, we know that the tomb is empty, but did any of us feel like laughing when the text was read today?

We, for some reason, feel either defensive about their behavior, or we’re apathetic. 

We might not like to admit it, but we can feel for the thunder brothers; maybe they just want to make sure they’re protected should anything serious happen to Jesus, or perhaps they’re just seizing their moment and shoring up future opportunities…

It’s far too easy to bash the thunder brothers across the sands of time, because all of us here have a little bit of that same thunder in us, and maybe our thirst for power and security has us asking for things that we do not really understand.

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Surely, we know better than to make outlandish and insensitive requests like the thunder brothers did, but most of us still want to be first in line at the grocery store, we want our children to go to the very best schools, we want to pay the lowest amount of taxes possible. 

We want, we want, we want…

We actually want a whole lot of things that we’d never actually admit out loud.

But maybe the thunder brothers were just desperate. And then, could we really blame them? Here they are, getting close to the end of the gospel, Jesus has thrice told them about his impending death… Maybe the thunder brothers just wanted to make sure their pension was going to be okay. 

So, perhaps it was just pure desperation that propelled them to ask for such a crazy thing – and therefore their desperate clutch for power blinded them from the truth of the Messiah they were following.

But desperation, particularly in the face of the cross, is a strange thing to experience in the kingdom.

And we really are no better. Each of us, in different ways, are desperate for our own power. From the frightening ways that we are so gripped by the politics of our time (4 billion dollars!) to the strange ways we isolate ourselves from experiencing anything other than what we might deem as normative. 

We are a people hell bent on securing our futures, rather than risking the way of the cross.

Even the church itself is guilty of the thunder brothers temptation. We water down the gospel and present it in bite-size pieces in order to appeal to as many people as possible. We want all the grace without all the transformation. We want Jesus to fix our problems, but when someone else is in need, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.

We, sinners and saints, are all filled with insecurities and fears that drive us toward greed and covetousness. As individuals, and families, and communities, and political parties, and even as the church, we do it all the time. 

Overcoming these deep seated insecurities is no easy thing, and it certainly can’t change overnight. But it does start to transform into something else through service, whatever that might mean. Because it is in serving those we might otherwise deem unworthy, that we are confronted with the profound truth – we are unworthy.

In the other we see the sin of our desire for power.

But serving others, putting others’ needs first, doesn’t “fix” us. It’s not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. All serving does is reorient our perspective, while transforming the world for someone else. Serving the other helps us see how often our thirst for power is what drives us away from the cross instead of toward it. 

Jesus’ rebuke of the thunder brothers, and the rest of the disciples, might sound harsh to our modern and prejudiced ears, but it’s actually a promise. Jesus promises that we need not live in fear, we need not wake up every morning worrying about our security, we need not scheme to accrue as much power as possible. But Jesus doesn’t promise our protection, or our safety, or even our power – Jesus promises us the cross!

The way of prosperity and power, though decisively tempting in a time like ours, is but a shadow and shallow promise of what the empty tomb ironically contains. Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, is a way of resistance to the dominating systems that are all around us, and are within us. 

Those domination systems are those that do whatever it takes to maintain and exert power dynamics that keep the weak weak. From politics, to families, to churches, the thirst and hunger for power lives and breathes by controlling people, subordinating the marginalized, and further dividing the weak from the strong, the powerful from the powerless, and the rich from the poor.

But the way of the cross is the ultimate alternative to the domination systems that plague our existence. Jesus lived and breathed not by amassing power and prestige, but by bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus regularly resisted the kind of power that is still all too present in the world. From being tempted with ultimate power in the wilderness, to the temptations of the crowds jeering while he hung on the cross – Jesus always believed in something that we often forget.

True power comes through weakness, true power comes through service, true power comes through sacrifice.

We know that among others those whom they recognize as their rulers, the politicians and the powerful, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it not so among us; whoever wishes to become great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all. 

For Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

For us.

And that changes everything. Amen.

The Wrong Scripture – A Baptism Homily

Romans 12.9-13

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

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Dear Jacoby,

You’re not going to remember today. 

If he had it his way, and by he I mean your uncle, and by uncle I mean someone who wishes he was your uncle, and by all of that I mean Jason… If he had it his way, I wouldn’t baptize you.

It’s not because you don’t deserve it, or that you’re not the paragon of cherubic cuteness.

It’s because he believes baptizing babies is an inherently problematic theological adventure.

And, though it deeply pains me to admit it, he’s got a point.

Jacoby, in time you will come to know the stories of Jesus – in fact your parents have already started telling you about the man to whom they committed their lives. And as you come to know Jesus more and more you will discover that baptism in the bible, whatever it may be, never happens to children. 

It’s reserved for adults.

The theological rationale is that only adults have the wherewithal, the ability, to comprehend the immensity of what is about to be done to and for you. Only adults have the maturity and the agency to commit their lives to the death made manifest in the water, and the new life that comes from emerging out of it.

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And that’s our problem little Jacoby you’re too young and you’re not going to remember any of this – which is why I’m writing you this letter. The hope is that when you look back at this decision that was made for you, you can at least to some degree appreciate how strange it all was, that your parents and the rest of your family agreed to make a covenant that you cannot.

I mean, we’re pretty good people – you’ve got an aunt who can dance like there’s no tomorrow while also writing in iambic pentameter. You have an uncle who can literally fix anything, literally. You have another aunt who can listen to 5 podcasts in a row while throwing on the wheel without missing a beat. You’ve got an uncle with such good taste in music that other people are often green with envy. You have an aunt who is so dedicated to the needs of others than she often forgets to think of herself (she’s also gorgeous). You have an aunt and uncle who have more scholarly education than most of the rest of the world. And you have an uncle who can marry, bury, and baptize anyone. 

But the really funny thing about putting all of the responsibility on the adults in the room is that we have no greater role in any of this than you do. Whether we have the proper frame of mind or not, your baptism is not about us. 

And that’s why it doesn’t matter what Jason thinks – baptism isn’t really about adults or babies. Not even you Jacoby.

It’s about God.

Jacoby, one day, if we actually live up to the covenant we are about to make, you will see the similarities between baptism and marriage. In both, individuals make promises they cannot possibly understand in the hopes that God will make something of their nothing. And in both circumstances, I often encourage those involved with the service to choose the scripture passage that, to them, best suits the moment.

When I married your aunt and uncle they, strangely, thought it best to proclaim the story of David’s anointing when being joined together. I have to admit that I scratched my head in the days leading up to their backyard wedding as I struggled to make some theological sense out of kingship in the midst of marriage.

The stories we gravitate to in scripture tend to define us. I could make the case that your uncle David wanted to hear about the story of the biblical David because he likes to think of himself as a king, or at least a king when it comes to chess.

But, of course, there’s also more to it than that. Like the biblical king with whom he shares a name, your uncle has lived a life whereby looking at the content of one’s heart, rather than their outward appearance, has defined much of his personality in all of the best ways possible.

Similarly, your parents chose the passage about the threefold cord not being easily broken as their wedding passage. And, to be honest Jacoby, that was so them.

They humbly know and recognize that their marriage will require more than just themselves, and they pray regularly for God to be the third part of their cord that binds them together through better and worse. Moreover, as you grow older and older you will come to find that your parents love to make friends of strangers, particularly when it comes to inviting others to the tables. And thus the threefold cord grows and grows.

Which makes what I’m about to say all the stranger: your parents picked the wrong passage for your baptism. 

And, to be clear, this is even more bizarre when you consider the fact that your parents are much better Christians than I am, and I am paid to be a professional one. 

The passage is okay, in the church we call Paul’s list in Romans 12 the marks of being a true Christian. But here’s the strange, dark, and even terrifying truth of reading this passage, a scripture all about being the best you, is that you will never do it.

You might try. Hell, I hope you do. And maybe you’ll even be good at some of it for awhile, but ultimately laying out a list like this one, on the day we kill you and resurrect you to new life here and now, is like telling you to climb a mountain that has no peak.

Let your love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to the good. 

Jacoby, your grandmothers are salt of the earth Christians. They earnestly pray for others, they show up when few others do, and they understand the virtues of active listening. But even they fall short of the expectations of Paul’s list. But Jacoby, for as faithful and flawed as your grandmothers are, they know that reading this list immediately before your baptism, like they are commandments from the Lord, is to confuse what we in the church call the law and the gospel. 

Or, to put it another way, reading this list implies, to some degree, that you are only worthy of the water to which I will pour on you if, IF, you do these things.

But the truth I hope you come to discover in your parents, your family, and your church, is that there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

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In no way shape or form is the love of God almighty continent on our willingness, or our ability, to actively live a life according Paul’s list. So, Jacoby, you can hang these words above your door frame, you can write them on your heart, but don’t you ever believe that God’s love for you is dependent on your love for God.

Jacoby, your name is a cooler version of one of the most important people in all of scripture: Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Jacob, the heel-grabber who swindled the birthright away from his older brother Esau. Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder that stretched into the heavens. Jacob, who married the wrong sister. 

But Jacob’s name eventually changed. He wrestled with the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and when they came to a stalemate, Jacob was renamed Israel. 

Israel means, “You have striven against God and humans and prevailed.”

You, Jacoby, share a name with a man whose life was turned upside by God and a man who walked with a limp for the rest of his life after his name was changed.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that you would be so blessed as the one from whom you received your name.

Because Jacob, the biblical Jacob, stands as a shining example of what it means to be baptized by the Lord – whatever your life was, whatever it could have been, will be destroyed forever; in the water you will find the same Lord that changed Jacob into Israel, the same Lord that will grab hold of you throughout your life, the same Lord who will refuse to let go whether you do or not.

What we do in your baptism has almost nothing to do with any of us – but it has everything to do with the God who chose to come as close to us as a baby boy, a baby named Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Which brings me back to the list from Romans. I would love to spend even more time lambasting your parents for picking the wrong passage, there is some wisdom in choosing it for today. 

But the wisdom comes in the recognition that the list, though meant for us, is actually about Jesus.

Jesus’ love was genuine as he marched to the margins of life bringing hope to the hopeless, joy to the joyless, and voice to the voiceless.

Jesus hated all things evil particularly when it came to the powers and principalities that preyed on the weak.

Jesus held fast to the good in the moments of fear and frustration, like kneeling in the garden, and mounting the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus’ loved those around him with mutual affection, particularly when he removed his outer robe and used it to wash the feet of his disciples.

Jesus outdid everyone in his life by showing honor, though he did so in recognition that the least of these are the ones who will be first in the kingdom.

Jesus did not lag in zeal, and was remarkably ardent in spirit, as he served the Lord every day of his earthly life.

Jesus rejoiced in hope, hope for a day when weeping, and crying, and death would be no more. 

Jesus was patient in his suffering, even in the midst of death.

Jesus persevered in prayer, regularly retreating from the crowds to places of solitude to commune with the Lord.

Jesus contributed to the needs of the saints, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, befriended the lonely.

Jesus extended hospitality to strangers, particularly those forced to the edges of society and those who were far too often forgotten.

Jacoby, this list was meant for us, but it’s ultimately about Jesus. Which actually makes it the perfect passage for the day of your baptism, because you have done nothing to deserve it – and you never will.

That’s why we call it grace.

Though, lest you read this as a middle schooler and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that doing the things on Paul’s list don’t matter. Instead, it’s that even if you lived according to it and were considered a saint by all your friends, your life would still pale in comparison to the work of God made manifest in Jesus Christ made available to you by water and the Word.

We will make a covenant to love you, and pray for you, and raise you in the faith that was first handed down to us. But following Jesus is not simply about people like me telling someone like you that God calls you to do nice things and live a life with genuine love.

The world is a mixed up, topsy turvy, broken place filled with messed up, upside-down, sinners like you and me.

And, you will absolutely fail to follow the commands of Romans 12.

You only need to think about the story of the biblical Jacob, the one whose life reads like a roller coaster, to know that in our heart of hearts we often make the wrong choice, we hurt the people we love, and we think we deserve more than we receive.

But your baptism, Jacoby, is something you do not deserve. You have not, and you cannot, earn it.

It is offered to you in spite of you.

It’s grace.

My beloved nephew, you are about to be baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, nor will you ever be able to. In the water offered to you God will incorporate you in to a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

I hope you come to discover, with each passing day, that God exists neither next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

God is great! God is the one who created the heavens and the earth, who entered into covenant with his servant Abraham, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, who called Moses from the burning bush, who delivered the people Israel from captivity in Egypt, who sustained the nation through the judges and the prophets, who anointed kings to lead, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who saved the world through a cross, who was resurrected three days later.

In baptism, God’s story becomes your story.

So welcome dear Jacoby, welcome to the story that started long before you arrived. Welcome to the life where in spite of our best intentions, and even our worst, God will refuse to let us go. Welcome to baptism made possible by Jesus. Amen.