Embodiment

Hebrews 10.5-10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 

“Consequently” is a rather interesting way to start a passage of scripture. It’s like beginning with “therefore.” Whenever we encounter a therefore we need to discern what the “therefore” is there for.

So, if we flip back one verse we will find these words: For it it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “sacrifices and offerings are not desired, but only the body of the One who comes to do the will of the Lord.”

Contrary to how we might feel on Good Friday, with Easter looming on the horizon, today is actually the most expectant worship service of the year. Sure, Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection no less than three times, but no one seemed to believe him. They abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied him. 

But today, we are firmly rooted between the already and the not yet. This is the final Sunday of Advent – everything about our worship (songs, scripture, sermon) is saturated with a sense that something uniquely impossible is about to happen.

You see, for centuries the people of God waited for something. That something took on different shapes and sizes and expectations. And the something had a name: Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, from the righteous branch of David, the one born to set us free.

Freedom is good and all. But freedom from what?

Freedom from tyranny? Freedom from fear and judgment? 

What about freedom from sin and death?

There have been plenty of figures throughout history who have come to bring freedom, but freedom from the great enemies of sin and death is only possible if the One born to Mary also happens to be God in the flesh.

Incarnation.

It is not yet Christmas, but here on the final Sunday of Advent, we straddle two worlds and two times. And it is from this vantage point that we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What child is this?”

All Christian worship is an attempt to answer that question.

Was Jesus like God? Was Jesus a prophet of God? Was Jesus merely a good ethical teacher?

The fundamental Christian proclamation is that Jesus is not like God, Jesus is God, light from light eternal.

Everything depends on this being true; otherwise the nativity story is just another tale of no real importance.

And here is the challenge set before us today: the child we come to worship on Christmas is, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the very body that is sacrificed for us.

We don’t talk much about sacrifice in the church these days even though we’ve got plenty of the “bloody hymns” in our hymnal. If we do sing those songs at all we usually save them for the season of Lent during which we’re supposed to feel bad about our badness.

But it’s almost Christmas Eve! Nows not the time to talk about blood and sacrifice!

We are surely ready for that cute little baby to be born for us in the manger – it’s another thing entirely to be prepared for that baby to be the One born to die on the Cross.

Let alone to prepare our hearts for his return to judge both the living and the dead.

And yet, to ignore the language of sacrifice, the shadow of the cross in the manger, is to deny the truth of the strange new world of the Bible.

In the ancient world sacrifice was at the heart of all religious practice. Israel might stand apart in how the God of Abraham did not require human sacrifices (save for that incident with Isaac, but that’s for another sermon). But there are plenty of sacrifices expected by and through the Law for the people of God. For, to sacrifice is to admit there is a need for it. The only way to be holy is to remove sin altogether, and no one can do that.

Sacrifice, therefore, was offered on behalf of God’s people in order to be made right.

However, over time, the sacrifices themselves became empty signs of an empty faith. Again and again the prophets of God rejected the blood spilled by the people when injustice continued to reign. What good is it to sacrifice a bull or a goat when widows, orphans, and the outcasts were ignored?

Therefore, as Hebrews puts it, Jesus’ death is a single offering for all time for those who are sanctified.

There is no holiness without sacrifice. In fact, the very meaning of sacrifice is “making holy.”

Of course, there are some of us who would like to believe that we are beyond the need and the time of sacrifice. That, because of the Cross, we have left sacrifice behind.

But that only betrays how essential sacrifice is to our daily lives.

We sacrifice the land and the lives of animals that we might live.

We make sacrifices in the name of love that we feel for others.

We sacrifice those who serve in the military that we might feel safe.

Sacrificing is part of who we are, and we do so because we often think it is the only way we can make up for the wrongs we have done.

And yet, that feeling of guilt, the knowledge of what we have done and left undone, important as it may be, is in contradiction to the work of Christ who was offered as a single sacrifice for all time. 

There’s an unbelievable story that happened on Christmas a little more than 100 years ago, and perhaps some of you have heard about it. It took place in and among the trenches of World War I in 1914. All across the western front there were unofficial ceasefires to observe the holiday that were also due to limited ammunitions along the front. Halting fire for a period of time was nothing special, and has been part of warfare for a long time. But it’s what happened during the cease fire that boggles the mind.

In certain areas along the trench lines, soldiers left the safety of their barricades and met in the middle of No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas.

There was one area where the ringing of church bells gave certain soldiers the courage to bravely enter the disputed space between the trenches.

In other places the soldiers saw Christmas trees being hastily decorated on either side and ventured out for a closer look.

But my favorite miracle took place when a group of German soldiers started singing Stille Nacht, and when they came to the end of one of the verse, the English soldiers on the other side took it up and started singing it on their own.

It sounds too good to be true, but all the best stories are like that. We have letters from soldiers who expressed total surprise by what they experienced on that Christmas Eve. How, they exchanged gifts and food in the middle of No Man’s Land with the very people they had been trying to kill.

There were even football (soccer) matches that occurred in various locations that Christmas Eve.

One soldier later recalled that, at the end of the celebration, they returned to their respective sides and woke up on Christmas morning to a dead silence. He said both sides shouted merry Christmas back and forth, but that no one felt particularly merry anymore. And then, the silence ended in the early afternoon of Christmas Day and the killing started again.

He said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”

Sacrifices were made in the name of peace, just hours after they were singing together about the dawn of redeeming grace.

Throughout the great collection of scripture we are told again and again what we can, and what we can’t do. Thou shall not and all that. And, if thou hast done something, this is how thou shall atone for what thou has done.

But, the primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in John 5 and Paul says in Romans 3, is to accuse us. That is, the Law exists to show us who we are in relation to it – we’re sinners. The Law reveals the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we might meet the Holy One of Israel blameless and justified.

The only problem is, none of us can do it. 

We’re all on the naughty list.

We delude ourselves, we self-rationalize all sorts of behaviors, we feel as if we can justify all sorts of things, so long as we feel like we’re growing closer to God.

But the truth is that God is the one hellbent on coming to us.

Contrary to how we so often talk about it, the Law doesn’t bring us to the mountaintop of God’s domain.

The Law, instead, bring us down to our knees.

Or, to put it another way, the Law gets us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we can ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”

Ask that question and you are not far from the kingdom of God.

In theological and ecclesial circles, there is a lot of talk about the atonement – what is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross? 

There are an array of ideas about the work of cross – we owed a debt to God via our sins and Jesus paid it all, or the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrathful anger against us.

That have all the makings of seminary basement debates.

But the theologian Gerhard Forde dispenses with all of those theories in favor of seeing the cross simply as our being caught up in a murder. He argues that any theory that tidily explains the death of God’s Son pales next to the great Good News that the One we tried to do away with on the cross speaks a surprising word of reconciliation int he resurrection.

When the incarnate God in Jesus Christ comes to us, we nail him to the cross. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.

Which is just another way of saying: Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that prove’s God’s love toward us.

And perhaps that’s why we read these words from Hebrews just shy of Christmas Eve; they forever and always declare the very same thing declared in the incarnation: God is for us. There is therefore literally nothing on earth or in heaven that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

In the full knowledge of our sins, past/present/future, our propensity toward violence, even against those who worship the same baby in the manger – God joined our lives to be life for us, becoming one of us, to free us from the attempt to be more than we were created to be.

Jesus arrives, fully God and fully human, down in our miserable estate and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, to end forever any sacrifice not determined by his cross.

Consequently, Christmas comes with a cost – the baby born for us is the God who dies for us. God is the dawn of redeeming grace. God is our peace. God is the one who sanctifies us.

Come, thou long expected Jesus! 

Born to set thy people free; 

From our fears and sins release us,

Let us find our rest in Thee!

The Season With A Reason

Luke 3.7

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John the Baptist is one wild guy. He shows up in the gospel story with some questionable attire (camel fur) and dietary habits (locusts), he proclaims a new baptism alongside the repentance of sins, and his first recorded words in the Bible are, “You brood of vipers!”

Advent is the season during which the church makes a serious and concerted effort to faithfully proclaim the oddity of the biblical witness. In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, John the Baptist (or as I like to call him: J the B) gets two Sundays to shine and he is not an easy figure to handle. 

While we might want to rest our eyes on the glistening lights of the Christmas tree, or lift our voices with a cheerful carol, J the B shows up with a finger in our faces about who we are and who we pretend to be. 

Advent, like J the B, is peculiar. It’s out of phase with our surrounding culture and witness. Advent beckons us to look straight into the darkness, into our sin, whereas the rest of the world spends this time of year pretending as if everything is exactly as it should be. 

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For those of us still suffering under the weight of the pandemic and all of its uncertainty, for those of us worried about what tomorrow will bring, for those of us who will see an empty chair for the first time during our Christmas dinner this year, the joy of the season might be exactly what we need. Perhaps we should delight in driving around to look at the Christmas lights, and cranking up the radio to 11 every time “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” comes on, and purchasing all sorts of presents for all sorts of people. 

And yet, to skip over Advent is to deny the strange and wondrous delight of Christmas.

That is: without coming to grips with the darkness we are in and the darkness we make, we have no need for the light that shines in the darkness.

J the B stands on the precipice of the times. He has one foot squarely placed in the ways things have always been, and one foot in the incarnate reality of time made possible in and through Jesus Christ. And it’s from that bewildering vantage point that J the B declares the Lord is going to prepare his own way – every hill shall be made low and every valley will be lifted up.

Therefore, Advent is the time in which we prepare ourselves for God’s great leveling work – the already and not yet of the coming of the Lord. It means opening ourselves to the ways God works in the world, it means laying aside the works of darkness that we might put on the armor of light, it means rejoicing in the great Good News that God’s power is changing you and me in ways seen and unseen.

J the B shines in the gospel story not because he is the light but because he points to the light. He draws our attention toward the darkness so that we can begin to see the beauty of the light who is Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, including ours. He reminds us that this season has a reason and that reason’s name is Jesus. 

The King of the Kingdom

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the Reign of Christ [B] (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including liturgical history, DUNE, soundtracks, last words, running with the sun, the undoing of death, clean hearts, righteous clothing, atonement, the already but not yet, contrasting kingdoms, the son of the father, and lives of reflection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The King of the Kingdom

The Death of Death

Revelation 21.1-6a

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

What frightens you more – the hospital or the cemetery?

We have an aversion to death in our culture. We take pills that promise to make us look, or feel, younger even though they don’t. We listen to doctors tell us about our need to reduce sodium or sugar but then we find ourselves coming out of the Drive Thru lane with a super sized soda and a mountain of French fries. We read the numbers and the statistics of those who die, but we assume that the same fate can’t, or won’t, befall us.

When death rears its ugly head, we do everything we can to run in the opposite direction. 

I meet with families to prepare a service of death and resurrection and I am told that they don’t children present for fear of frightening them about the finality of death. In the days before COVID, I would visit people in the hospital who told me how bad they wished others would come and sit with them, but they understood the reluctance – no one wants to get too close to the truth.

When I was in seminary, we were required to tour a funeral home in order to learn everything that happens to dead bodies from arrival until burial or cremation. We were escorted through the embalming process, shown the vast array of color coordinated coffins, and we were even shown the inner workings of the crematory which had to get hot enough to turn bones into ash.

And then, shortly before it was all over, we were shown the viewing room in which a recently dead woman lay in her coffin, ready to receive her friends and family that evening. We paid our respects, but more than a few of my peers stood frozen in their tracks – it was the first dead body many of them had ever seen, and it shocked them so much they couldn’t move.

Death has an ugly color. I have seen it more times than I can count. Rare are the calls to a pastor when something has gone well. I’m the one they call when death shows up. 

Why are we talking about such things today in church? Why are we talking about death?

Well, for one thing, today is Halloween. What better day could there be to talk of death? Tonight, scores of children will dress as super heroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, defenders of peace and justice from the Galactic Empire, and even extinct creatures that used to roam the earth. And, of course, there will be some who dress as more frightening figures, those who straddle the thin line between life and death.

Halloween forces us to confront death in an odd way – through children. I’ve come to rejoice in this strangest of holidays not only because I already get to dress up in somewhat of a costume every week in church, and not only because I have an unhealthy appetite for KitKats, but because it is a necessary opportunity for all of us to come close to an inconvenient truth – no one makes it out of this life alive.

And yet, this year, I’m not sure how badly we need the reminder… Every day we are bombarded with the statistics about COVID19 and its disregard for our pretensions, we are met with masks on the young and old alike making it impossible to deny the gravity of our situation. Even with the vaccine on the imminent horizon for 5-12 year olds, death keeps rearing it ugly head.

Church, oddly enough, is one of the few places where, even though the rest of the world actively engages in the denial of death, we stare into it week after week.

We put up crosses, we sing songs about those who from their labors rest, we even occasionally feast on the Lord. We are compelled to face the truth that we would rather avoid. 

Death is ugly. 

And it is here, squarely staring death in the face, do we dare to proclaim the Gospel of God:

There is a new heaven, and a new earth! A loud voice shouts from the throne, “See, the home of God is among the people! God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more! Mourning and crying and pain will be gone!” And the one seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new!”

Do you have goosebumps?

Did you hear the Good News?

In the end, death is no contest for the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Death is defeated by the King of kings who comes to die in our place. The death of death is made possible by the One who broke forth from the tomb in resurrection.

Revelation is a wild ride, one worthy of Halloween worship. The whole book contains these fantastical images and scenes that go beyond our ability to comprehend. They point to God’s cosmic victory over the cosmos. The vision granted to John boldly proclaims that no amount of pain, no number of graveyards, no heap of hospital hallways have the final word.

Sure, they will sting like nothing else on earth – they might even derail everything we think we know to be true – but they are not the truth.

There’s a reason that this text, this vision, has been associated with Christian burials since the very beginning. There’s a reason that we read these words when we bury our friends, our families, and even our children. 

They are words of hope for a people who feel no hope in the world. Whether it was the earliest Christians suffering under the weight of the Roman Empire, or someone who just said their final goodbye, these words mean something.

These are the words that guide, shape, and nurture the saints.

Today, in addition to Halloween, is when we celebrate All Saints. We read and remember the names of those who have died in the last year. It is a somber and holy moment in which we pause to reflect on how God worked in and through those now dead. It is an opportunity to imagine what God might even be up to with us.

And the “all” in “All Saints” is important. Lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that saints are only those perfect Christians – Saints are just sinners in the hands of a loving God. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, it is merely the admission that we are not yet what we can be. It’s about coming to grips with the condition of our condition all while holding fast to the wonderful Good News that Jesus does his best work with people like us – Jesus deals in the realm of impossible possibility – Jesus is in the resurrection business.

John sees the New Heaven and the New Earth and notice, they are not replacements for the old ones. In our deaths we are not beamed away to some distant realm of existence. God does not reject the created order. The New Heaven and the New Earth are transfigurations of what we have right now – they are the created order raised and glorified.

Which means that wherever we find brokenness today – in our lives, in our families, in our institutions, God is actively working to rectify those wrongs right now. God calls us, even us, to live into the reality of all things being made new.

Do you see? What John sees has already happened, it is happening, and it will happen.

God made all things new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes all things new whenever one of us is in Christ (there is a new creation), and God will make all things new in the Eschaton.

All Saints, what we do today, allows us to be re-communed with every saint that has come before us, with the saints in our midst now, and strangely enough with the saints who will arrive long after we’re gone. 

We belong to and believe in the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, past, present, and future.

The church is a peculiar thing – we move forward by looking back and we live now because of death. We are what we are because of what we’ve inherited, but we are also who we are because, in baptism, we’ve died with Christ in order that we might live, truly live.

There is, of course, a lingering question – How can we know this to be true?

None of us know the writers of the scriptures, we don’t know the authors of the hymns and songs we’re singing today, we don’t even know the names of the people who adorn our windows in this sanctuary.

We, I, can’t prove any of this. The resurrection of the dead, the communion of the saints, the great cloud of witnesses, is not that kind of knowledge. It is a gift of faith, of trust.

I know it to be true because my grandmother told me its true. I know it to be true because I’ve had countless individuals, saints, who lived lives according to that truth, people who showed me the way. I trust the witnesses, because that’s what we all are, in the end. We testify and listen to those who testify to the truth. 

On this spookiest of holidays, as we prepare to look death squarely in its face, as we take time to give thanks for the saints, we do so in the light of this news, this truth:

Descending from the realm of light and life, invading the horrid darkness of the kingdom of Death and destroying it forever, comes One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. To us he speaks the enduring words of the Gospel: “I am the resurrection and I am life, whoever trusts in me shall live.” He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Church Is Good For You

Psalm 34.8

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. 

A friend of mine from seminary just co-authored a piece in Christianity Today that should drive people in droves to local churches. Even though only 36% of Americans view religion with a “great deal of confidence” (down from 68% in 1975), and even though only 29% of Americans say they go to church every week (down from 43% in 2011), regular corporate worship attendance strongly promotes health and wellness.

The article points out that “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.”

Literally: church is good for you.

Now, of course, the point of the Good News isn’t to lower our cholesterol, or to add years to our lives, but there is something about the gathering of people for worship that makes things better for people. 

The psalmist writes, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” When we gather in worship together, we enter the strange new world of the Bible only to discover that it is, in fact, our world and that God delights in being made known to us in the breaking of bread and the waters of baptism. These sacraments are the activities that make our lives intelligible in which we are told/reminded that we belong to God and that despite our best (and worst) efforts we are a people who live in the light of forgiveness.

Which is all just another way of saying: when the Good News actually sounds like good news then it can make all the difference in the world.

To be clear: just showing up Sunday after Sunday won’t make us happy; it’s not some magic flourish of the wrist that makes all the bad things go away. But, at the same time, being part of a community of faith means that we’ve been incorporated into something such that, when the bad things happen, we know we will not face them alone. 

I had the opportunity last year to lead a short online class with the theologian Phillip Cary and I asked him during the final session to make the case for why people should go to church. He said, “People should go to church because it is true, it is beautiful, and it makes life better.”

He was right.

And now we have the research to prove it!

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological insights than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to be part of something that makes life better:

The Westerlies are a brass quartet from New York whose sonic ventures would do well in sanctuaries, concert halls, and living rooms. Their music has hints of jazz, chamber music, and even rock and roll. “Robert Henry” is a foray into pulsing trombone rhythms with stylized trumpet syncopation that is sure to get stuck in your head and bring a smile to your face.

Mia Gargaret is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer from Chicago. While she was in the midst of a tour in 2019 she lost her singing voice due to a sickness and retreated to her synthesizer for comfort. She began creating ambient meditations that drew inspiration from philosopher Alan Watts lecture “Overcome Social Anxiety.” Her song “Body” samples the lecture with a synthesized assortment of arpeggios. 

The British band Bombay Bicycle Club released a 16 minute cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” back in May in honor of “World Turtle Day.” The song is nothing short of a sonic journey. I invite you to sit back with some good headphones and enjoy the ride.

Kids Will Be Kids

Mark 10.15

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

It was a few Christmases ago when a daughter asked her father what the holiday really meant. He explained that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and the more they talked the more she wanted to know so the father purchased a children’s Bible and began reading it to her every night.

She loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of Jesus’ sayings like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And the father said, “Jesus teaches that we are supposed to treat people the way we want to be treated. And with each passing story, the daughter became more and more enamored with Jesus.

They were driving around town a few weeks later when they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix on the front lawn. The giant cross and it’s dying figure were impossible to miss and the daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how the person on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, so they did.

The daughter was silent for the rest of the drive.

A few weeks went by and when his daughter had the day off from school in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr the father decided to take the day off as well and treat his girl to lunch. And while they were sitting at a table waiting for their food, his daughter reached for the local newspaper, pointed at the figure on the front-page and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”

It was Dr. King.

“Well,” the father began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher”

And she said, “For Jesus?!”

“Yes,” he said, “But there was another thing that he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat one another the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about that for a minute and said, “Well Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but it is just like what Jesus said.”

The daughter was silent for a moment or two, and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and she said, “Did they kill him too?”

There’s a reason Jesus said that unless we receive the kingdom like a child we will never enter it. Kids get it. If only the same could be said about us adults. 

To Hell And Back

Mark 9.38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?

Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith! 

So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?

Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.

We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject. 

And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.

The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.” 

We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big   columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?

Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”

And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”

But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”

But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”

This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school. 

Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.

A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.

Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.

To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident. 

Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.

Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna. 

Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again. 

That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps. 

We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.

It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now. 

And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna. 

It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.

One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.

Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners. 

That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.

Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!

Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.

Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.

The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity. 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. 

And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.

Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins. 

Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.

Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.

Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.

We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.

The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.

But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.

All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition. 

Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.

In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.

Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.

Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.

That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.

Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.

Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen. 

Beginning Again

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.

It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.

I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.

Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”

I was hooked.

“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”

“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”

Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?

We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.

We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.

And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.

Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means. 

Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.

God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.

Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.

This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.

And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!

Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.

Put simply: It’s all about God.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.

Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.

We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them. 

We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.

To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith. 

Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.

Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”

That’s some pretty good theology!

And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”

You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.

It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.

We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. 

But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.

That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own. 

God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around. 

Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.

Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.

Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.

And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free. 

God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”

The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.

The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!

For us, by the cross.

And through us, by the Spirit. 

In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.

If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.

Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.

And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.

There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand. 

Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.

Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.

He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.

I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.

And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.

In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.

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

“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”

“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”

“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”

“Well, that’s certainly one way…”

“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”

“Uhh, that might’ve been…”

“Well then so be it!”

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

Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense. 

But that’s why God is God, and we are not. 

We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.

The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.

Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things. 

Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”

That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things. 

Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

The End Is Where We Start From

2 Corinthians 5.6-17

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Most stories follow a common structure.

Or, to put it another way, they share similar shapes.

And all stories with shapes can be drawn out on a piece of paper or, for the sake of preachments such as this, demonstrated by hand.

All stories have a beginning and an end. And all stories, one way or another, deal with good news and bad news.

Allow me to demonstrate (show beginning on the left, end on the right; good news going up, bad news going down):

There’s a girl, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, and her life is garbage. Why? Her mother died. Now, that would be enough but then her father went off and married a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters who treat our heroine terribly.

And then, wonder of wonders, there’s a ball to be held at the castle, and all the daughters are invited. Do you know the story? Our soot-covered protagonist is left behind while everyone else goes to have a good time.

But that’s when the story gets good. Lo and behold: The Fairy Godmother. She bestows gifts upon the girl better than her wildest imagination: clothes, transportation, and even glass slippers. And she goes to the ball. And she dances with the prince!

But then the clock strikes twelve and all of her magical enhancements disappear. Back to square one, or perhaps a little higher. At least now she can remember her one night of fun. 

Narrative angst ensues until a specter of a missing shoe is used to identify the mystery woman, who then marries the prince, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts.

Now, the rise and fall of Cinderella might, at first, appear unique. It is, after all, this indelible story of bad news turning into good news, but it’s just like all the rest.

There’s a travel bookstore owner and operator. He lives in a rather posh area of London but sales are miserable. One day, miraculously, a beautiful and famous actress enters his shop and purchases a book. Later, however, he spills orange juice all over her in a chance encounter on the sidewalk and invites her to his flat to get cleaned up. The chemistry crackles on the screen, hijinks ensue, they become a couple, but then it is too much and they break it off. The man is down in the dumps, until he realizes the error of his ways, makes a public declaration of affection, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts. [Notting Hill]

There is a meta narrative to these stories and you can apply the same charted rise, fall, and rise again to a great swath of stories including, but not limited to, Toy Story, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Moana, Romeo and Juliet (though that one ends with a major bummer).

There’s a beginning and an end; there’s good news and and bad news. That’s how stories work.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote some of the most memorable stories in the 20th century including Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His writing is a mess of paradoxes and contradictions, both science fiction and biting contemporary criticism, dark and funny, counter-cultural and sentimental.

Here are some of Vonnegut’s tips for the creation of a story:

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Every character should want something even if it’s only a glass of water.

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 

Start as close to the end as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I love all of those tips but the one that, to me, is the most fascinating is the bit about starting as close to the end as possible.

Let’s apply that tip to, say, the story of Cinderella.

Rather than starting with a depressed young teenager stuck with two terrible step sisters and an even more horrific step-mother, we begin with her dancing around the palace, moving to and fro in the arms of the prince. As far as anyone can tell, this woman has always been in places like this, she’s supposed to be in places like this except, you, the reader or the viewer, notice that amidst all the perfection of the scene that this beautiful young woman has soot, cinders, clinging to her nylons.

How did it happen? Who is she, really? What’s the story?

Now, that’s an exciting beginning.

You see, we might think we care about how things conclude. But how we get to the conclusion is far more interesting and compelling. 

TS Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

The end is where we start from.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith and not by sight”

Paul, in a sense, was saying: “Look: We already know how the story ends. We need not fret about what happens on the last page because that’s up to God! The only thing we have to concern ourselves with is this: what are we going to do until we get there?”

Think about Paul, the person. But, in keeping with the theme, let us begin at the end. This evangelism traveling the greater Mediterranean with a desire to do nothing but preach Christ and him crucified. Imagine him, if you can, walking the streets of Corinth and you overhear murmurs from the crowds: “Wasn’t he the one who killed Christians?”

Wow!

That’s a crazy beginning! How did he get there? What set him aflame for the Gospel?

Or, we can do the same thing to the story of Jesus.

We start not with a manger in the middle of the night but instead with the tomb of Easter from which the resurrected Christ departs. A dead man resurrected!

Boom! That’s a way to kick off a story! Who is this guy? What happened to him? On and on and on the question go.

The end is where we start from. 

That’s what Paul did in every town he shared the Good News. Can you imagine if Paul entered into Corinth with a list of ten reasons to believe Jesus was the Son of God? Can you imagine him passing out tracks about why you need to accept Jesus so that you won’t burn in hell? Can you imagine him picketing various community events with big signs and slogans with various moralisms?

No. Paul told the story and he started with the end.

If we are beside ourselves, he writes, if we appear wild and off our rockers it is because Christ has grabbed hold of us and refuses to let us go. This Christ loves us, loves us so fervently for reasons we cannot even fathom, and it has set us aflame for the Gospel. Hear the Good News, Paul declares, because one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died that his resurrection might be our resurrection. So we need not live merely for ourselves alone. If we live for Christ we live for all!

We, unlike the world, do not regard one another from a human point of view. 

That’s the end which is our beginning. 

Paul was writing to an early church community that was wrestling with all of the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Want to get a taste of a very early soap opera? Read 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The community was divided over eating habits, clothing options, and moral behavior. They were falling apart before they even had a chance to really come together.

And its in the midst of all the friction that Paul drops this remarkable bombshell: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

We might rejoice in viewing one another through our mistakes and our shortcomings, but in the kingdom of God we are viewed only through what Christ did and does for us.

We might enjoy holding our judgments and prejudices against one another, but in the kingdom of God Jesus knows none of deserve anything, and yet we receive everything.

We might love propping up all of our good works for everyone else to see, but in the kingdom of God there is a judgment that comes for each and every single one of us.

Contrary to how we so often imagine Jesus in our minds, or present him in church, he’s not some do-gooder wagging his finger at every one of our indiscretions. Jesus is actually far more like that wayward uncle who shows up at a funeral with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And, while everyone else is dabbing their eyes, Jesus says, “Why are you weeping? Don’t lose heart! This is not the end!”

The promise of the Gospel is that our end is, in fact, our beginning. 

And here’s the bad news: no amount of good works, of fervent prayers, of regular and weekly attendance in worship will put us into the category of the good. Not a one of us is truly good, no not one. We do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should do. If some young writer we to analyze our lives in detail, if they wanted to display them like I did earlier, the things we do and the things done to us, in the end, put us down at the bottom.

But, there is Good News, very good news: Even though all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, Jesus has come to be the judged judge in our place. He takes all of our sins and removes them from the record, forever. He, in a way that we never could on our own, makes us new. And not just us, but the entire cosmos as well. 

That’s the beauty and the wonder of the Gospel: the end is already decided. 

The couple lived right next to the church in a nursing home: Howard and Ruth. I tried to visit as often as I could, I got to learn their life story, how their relationship came to be. I learned about their children, their grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren. We shared lemonade and laughter, we prayed and pondered. And then Howard took a turn. I saw less and less life in his eyes with every passing visit. Our time together became far more quiet.

And then Ruth called one day. She said, “Preacher, I think Howard isn’t long for this world, and I thought you ought to know.” I packed up my bag, went across the yard to the nursing home, and by the time I got to their room Howard was dead in bed.

Ruth, however was sitting calmly on the couch, drinking some lemonade.

“I’m so sorry Ruth,” I began, and she waved it off and invited me to come sit beside her. We sat in silence for awhile, and every time I tried to start a conversation she lifted her hand as if to say “shh.” 

Until, finally, when I could no longer stand it, I said, “Ruth, you have to say something. You husband is dead over on the bed.”

And she smiled and said, “Honey, everything is okay. I know where he really is, and I know who he’s with.” Amen.

The Way Things Can Be

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace. 

But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus is alive! 

Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be. 

Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:

Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now. 

Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends. 

Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy.