Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“The first thing you say and the last thing you say matter far more than everything in between.” So spoke one of my preaching professors in seminary and his advice is applicable for preachers and non-preachers alike. It is a great challenge in our frenetic and fast-paced world to hold anyone’s attention. Therefore, we must be particularly mindful of the first thing we say, and the last thing we say, in any conversation.
I have had a long-standing habit of starting Sunday worship with the same words every week: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I also use those words to start every congregational letter, every pastor’s pen, and a handful of other communications.
I do so because, as my professor noted, first things matter. And I also do so because Paul begins his letters to the various churches in the first century with a similar salutation!
Which is just another way of saying: we begin with grace.
What is grace? Grace is one of those grace churchy words that we throw around all the time and it’s not altogether clear we know what we mean when we say it.
Robert Farrar Capon defined grace as “the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding on every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
In a similar vein, Frederick Buechner described grace thusly: “Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.”
Whatever grace is, it is a gift given to us by God. And, a crucial eccentricity of our faith is that we are saved by grace.
It’s not an easy thing to admit, particularly with the way that our wider culture emphasizes meritocracy at all times, but there is nothing we can do or accomplish in this life that can make us worthy of standing as justified in God’s sight. We, to use the language of the old Prayer Book, are miserable offenders. We follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Even the best of our good works, whatever they may be, are tainted with self-interest, pride, and a whole host of other problems.
God is perfect; we are not.
God is holy; we are not.
We can’t earn our righteousness or save ourselves. It is by grace, and only by grace, that we are saved by God.
And, thankfully, grace is God’s first word toward us. Grace is the fuel that makes possible and intelligible the gift that is the church. Grace is what beckons us to the table with the bread and the cup. Grace is co-mingled with the waters of our baptisms. Grace is the reminder that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Grace is the beginning and grace will lead us home. Thanks be to God.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Isaiah 12, 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13, Luke 21.5-19). Mikang is the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including itinerancy, the prophet Isaiah, pandemic preaching, joy, skepticism, Pauline discomfort, deadly sins, apocalyptic imagery, ecclesial hatred, and the difference Christ makes. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Chosen By The Word
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Joel 2.23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18, Luke 18.9-14). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Gospel according to Paul (McCartney), restoration, patient prayers, honesty, reading backwards, scriptural sommeliers, the Gospel diet, agency, the crown of righteousness, and the most important parable. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Startling Nature of Scripture
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
We’re all constantly caught up in the business of self-justification. It happens in ways big and small and in ways seen and unseen. We self-justify grabbing that one extra cookie (or drink) because we had a tough day at work. We self-justify our imperfect families with perfectly coordinated family portraits on Instagram. On and on and on.
Everyone is trying to earn their salvation with what we in the church call works-righteousness. Whenever we face a dose of the truth about who we are, we desperately desire to make it right. The problem lies in the fact that no matter what good we do, we can’t actually justify (make right) who we are. Every person knows (at least in some way) what he or she should do, from keeping up with the dishes to not having an affair, and we fail to do it.
A long time ago there was this really great guy who was a model citizen, he worshiped regularly, and he followed all the rules. His rule-following was such that, whenever he encountered those who broke the law, he put them in their place. And then, one day, he was traveling to a nearby town to continue a campaign against a new, irreverent, and even dangerous religious sect, when he was encountered by its founder and blinded for his inability to see the truth right in front of him.
His name was Paul.
After a particularly moving moment with a man named Ananias who, through the power of the Spirit, restored Paul’s sight, Paul was set on a trajectory that changed everything.
He met with other Christians, was compelled to spread the Good News, and eventually helped to start Christian communities across the Mediterranean. Through prayer, the Spirit, and perhaps a love of the scriptures, Paul discerned a few things about the faith: The message of the Gospel is meant for all people, our sins really are forgiven by the only One who can forgive them, and we have new lives to live because we have been set free from all sorts of things including self-mastery, moralism, and even death.
The majority of the New Testament is, in fact, Paul’s letters written to the early Christian communities outlining what this faith is all about. However, it is always worth nothing that Paul is not Jesus. And yet, perhaps it is helpful to note that Paul taught what Jesus did.
Therefore, we hold the example of Christ’s life and ministry in the Gospels with Paul’s epistles so that we might begin to understand how the Gospel is, oddly enough, a person.
In his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul spends the first four chapters outlining the human condition and our need for God’s divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ. And then, right at the beginning of chapter five, he drops the hammer of the Gospel: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”
It’s a scandalous proclamation.
What makes it scandalous is that the Gospel has nothing to do with our morality or our goodness or our virtue. Paul shouts across the centuries that the Gospel, Jesus, is something that is done to us. But, for people who live and breathe in a world run by meritocracy, we scarcely know what it means to receive something like grace. That’s why the parables always pop the circuit breakers of our brains.
Grace really is scandalous because it, to use Jesus’ words, pays the early bird just as much as the perennially late fool. Grace runs into the streets of life toward every prodigal reeking of their mistakes and throws a party no matter what. Grace is the terrible shepherd who leaves behind the well-behaved and good-listening ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who got lost.
We stand in scandalous grace not because we earn it or deserve it but because God delights in giving it to us. It is one hilarious gift that we can never ever repay, and it also happens to be the reason we can call the Good News good.
Or, as Martin Luther so wonderfully put it: “The Law says ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe this’ and everything is already finished.”
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
When I was in seminary I made myself available to friends who were serving churches if they ever needed someone to preach on a Sunday morning. I wish I could say the offer was purely altruistic, but it was mostly born out of a desire to get some experience before serving my own church one day. It was always exciting to arrive on a Sunday morning, to a church full of strangers, and stand up to preach the Word.
But it usually went poorly.
On one occasion I forgot to take up an offering and the congregation was more than happy to not pass around the plates. I preached at one church that had no bathrooms and I was encouraged to “use a tree out back” so I bounced back and forth behind the pulpit until the end of the service and quickly drove to the nearest gas station. And there was one particular Sunday when I got lost on my way to the church, and by the time I arrived they had already gone through two hymns and I was told they figured someone would show up to preach eventually.
But perhaps the most indelible memory took place one Sunday after worship during which a man in a handsome business suit approached me in the narthex and declared, “That Paul sure was in a heap of trouble. It’s a good thing Jesus was there to set him straight!”
The conversion of Saul, the so-called Damascus Road Experience, has penetrated the thoughts and imaginations of Christians for centuries. It’s one thing to question Jesus’ decision to enlist the help of a bunch of (not even very good) fishermen to spread the Good News, it’s another thing entirely to consider the Lord choosing Saul, the persecutor of the faith, to become the chief evangelist for the faith.
I cherish that narthex comment about Paul because, up to that point, I always thought of Paul being good and fine until Jesus showed up to complicate his life. Which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily wrong. He had power and prestige, he even had a calling in his life, and then everything got flipped-turned upside down. It’s also true in our lives that things seem to be well and good until the Lord encounters us and we cannot remain the same.
But, as that man so wonderfully put it, Paul was in a heap of trouble until the Lord changed him. Things might have felt and looked good in life, but what kind of life is it to spend all of your time persecuting others? Jesus said, “I have come to give life, and to give it abundantly.” Whatever Paul’s life was before Damascus, it could not compare at all to what it was after.
And so it is with us.
For some the Lord uses a bright wake up call to the life of faith. For others we know no other way because we’ve been part of the church for as long as we can remember. And for others it’s somewhere in between. But the Lord gets what the Lord wants. God is in the business of transformation. We, all of us, were in a heap of trouble until the Lord came to set us free. And now, like Paul, we live in the world turned upside down.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including seminary salutations, campus ministries, silent retreats, the call of Saul, humbling humility, praying the psalms, divine anger, hand motions, nooma, the eschaton, choral singing, good worship, and texts for tweenagers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Trading My Sorrows
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.
Years ago, on one particular Good Friday, I took a large cross, lifted it onto my shoulder, and I walked around town for a few hours. It has been a habit of mine ever since I entered the ministry and it is part of my desire to bring the Lord to the people outside the church. I want people to see the sign that we see every Sunday morning in order to be reminded about what we did, and what the Lord has done for us.
Anyway, on that Good Friday I set out for my cross carrying venture and I received a variety of reactions. Some people honked their horns as they drove past. There was a man who offered me water because it was a particularly hot spring day. I even had someone spit at my feet. But mostly, people just stared at the strange sight of a man in all black carrying a cross around town.
I had almost finished my loop when I spotted a woman on the other side of the road with a perplexed look on her face. She was glaring at the cross and then she inexplicably crossed the street and demanded to know what in the world I was doing.
I calmly explained that I was carrying the cross because that’s exactly what Jesus did on Good Friday before he was crucified. And then she said something I, sadly, was completely unprepared to hear: “Who in the world is Jesus?”
I know that I, for one, take for granted the ubiquity of Christianity. That is, I assume that even people who never step foot in a church have, at least, some semblance of an idea about Jesus. But there, on that Good Friday, I encountered someone who knew nothing of the Lord.
Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Even on the other side of his Damascus experience, his desire to know the Lord was at the forefront of the apostle’s heart and mind. Even for as much as I know the Lord, from encountering God in the strange new world of the Bible, in the sacraments, in the still small silences, I too desire to know the Lord and the power of Christ’s resurrection. At the heart of the church’s gathering is a willingness to proclaim the wonders of God so that all of us come to know who Christ is and who we are in relation to Christ.
But what about those outside the church?
Or, to put it another way, how would you respond to someone who said, “Who in the world is Jesus?”
Faith is an exciting adventure not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. Here, at the tail end of Lent, with the cross hovering on the horizon, we are compelled to confront the incarnate truth. That truth has a name: Jesus. Jesus cannot be explained from a pulpit or from a book. Jesus defies all of our expectations and often leaves us scratching our heads.
But that’s the point. God is God and we are not. The best we can do is tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that we’ve been telling throughout the centuries. The rest is up to God.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed it’s own body. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus is is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
A United Methodist Bishop received a chain saw one Christmas and quickly went to work with it. And then, on New Year’s Eve, the chainsaw slipped, grabbed ahold of his sleeve, threw him to the ground, and in a matter of seconds did some serious damage and he was rushed to the emergency room.
The bishop later reflected that, while riding in the back of the ambulance and the sirens were ringing, if he died because of blood loss, he hoped that his wife would be smart enough to tell everyone that he died chopping firewood for poor orphans.
While in reality he was really just trimming some hedges that weren’t yet in need of trimming.
However, he didn’t die.
Though at moments he wished he did.
He went through serious surgery and was stuck in the hospital for quite some time while he recovered.
And, it was during this time that a well intentioned chaplain entered the room and offered “pastoral presence.” The bishop had enough pastoral presence in his life, but he motioned for the young man to come in. The chaplain looked over the bandage wrapped around his arm and asked, “Are you a Christian?”
The bishop replied, “Sometimes.”
“Well then,” the chaplain intoned, “I suppose your accident caused you to do a lot of praying?”
And that’s when the bishop realized that throughout his whole ordeal he hadn’t felt moved to prayer in the slightest. He shared, later, that his lack of prayer was not due to a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal. The bishop was quick to note that there are scores of healing stories in scripture, that Paul considered healing a sign of God’s active grace, that the book of Acts points to the power of Christ working to heal through the disciples, and that even James the brother of Jesus calls for the people called church to pray of the sick that they might be healed.
Why then was he, a bishop in the church, so reluctant to pray?
At first he wondered if his lack of prayer could be attributed to the fact that God had better things to do with more people in need than his little chainsaw accident. But the more he thought about it, the more he thought about his aversion to the regular prayer requests he had received countless time before throughout his ministry.
That is, he was sick and tired of everyone being sick and tired in their prayers.
We’re at the tail end of what we call the season after Epiphany. Transfiguration is coming. Ash Wednesday is coming. Lent is coming. We will shortly make the journey inward to confront the condition of our own condition leading up to the cross on Good Friday, and yet, we’re still dealing with the shock of the incarnation.
Sure, most of us have packed away all the Christmas decorations weeks ago. Though, if you drive around the neighborhood around the church, you’re still likely to catch quite a few Christmas lights dangling from gutters.
But the proclamation of Christmas is one that lingers even when we move through different liturgical seasons. God, bewilderingly, refused to stay above and instead got down and dirty with us, in the flesh, and moved in next door, as it were.
Jesus, fully God and fully human, chose to be a people, a family, what we now call church.
We are the body of Christ in the world.
And how is our body faring?
Some of us we are tracking our calories constantly, or our exercising doesn’t count unless we can post it somewhere on social media. Some of us are struggling to fall asleep at night as we run through the list of things that terrify us. Some of us are making plans for the next degree, or the next job, or (heaven forbid) the next spouse.
We’re obsessed with our bodies and our physical well being. It dominates our prayers to the degree that if we ever ask someone to pray for us there’s a better than good chance that our request has to do with our, or someone else’s, body.
It dominates our waking, and sleeping life, so much so that many of us have devices strapped to our wrist that not only tell us if we move enough during the day but also if we’re getting the right kind of sleep at night.
And for those of you keeping score at home, I’m wearing one of them right now!
Our health and well being, or lack thereof, is constantly being reinforced through commercials designed to sell us on bodies that we will never have and beauty magazines that will only ever make us feel ugly.
And here’s the Christian message in the midst of all of it: it’s not up to you.
Your salvation isn’t up to you.
You can’t earn it through perfect church attendance on Sunday mornings.
You can’t earn it by giving more through the offering plate than the person next to you.
You can’t earn it from developing an 18 pack of abs.
You can’t earn your salvation because it is a gift given by the only One who can: God.
And yet, the gift of salvation, our very resurrection from the dead, means that our bodies matter today. It means that, once we come to grips with what God did and does, our being in the world changes.
The Corinthians to whom Paul writes his epistles, the Christians he derides for their foolishness, were living as if their bodies no longer mattered – they were giving in to their desires to such a degree that it was harming themselves as individuals and as a community. They were getting drunk on the wine from communion, they were trading bedfellows, they were letting their flesh and blood dictate everything about who they were.
And Paul says, “No! Listen: we’re not there yet. We’re still in our bodies in this mortal life, but the resurrected life is coming.”
Our bodies are important. As I’ve noted before – Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one. It’s why we baptize with water, and we share bread and cup. It’s why we take seriously the needs of the hungry, and the poor, and the outcasts. And it’s why we are bold to pray for the health and well being of ourselves and others.
But all of that is a long cry from the obsessiveness that we have with our own bodies today.
None of us have the body that we really wish we had. And if we do, we resent how much work it takes to make our bodies look and feel that way. And the older we get, the more we discover that our bodies are not as trustworthy as we thought they once were.
Certain foods don’t sit like they used to. It’s harder to lose the holiday weight. No amount of lotions and creams can make our wrinkles disappear. And that’s not even mentioning the inability of our bodies to ward away sickness.
The bodies we are in can’t be, and won’t be, perfect.
Paul puts it this way: the flesh is weak.
That’s why he admonishes the Corinthians to not give in to each and every little desire while, at the same time, he reminds them (and us) that we need not beat ourselves up over whether or not we look and feel like we want to look and feel.
Certainly, there are moments during Jesus ministry when he healed those in need, but those moments are remarkably ambiguous. He didn’t heal every sick person in Judea, and even when he did heal he often told people to not tell anyone about it.
Whatever Jesus’ mission was, it was about more than physical restoration.
Consider: Each and every person that Jesus did heal eventually died.
Even Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again.
Outside of scripture we should note that churches were the location for, and eventually created some of, the very first hospitals because taking care of the last, least, lost, little, and dead is part of the work of God.
But only recently has our obsession with our bodies come to dominate just about every aspect of life.
Including our prayers.
That’s not how Jesus prayed, nor it is how Jesus taught us to pray. Bread and trespasses are mentioned in the Lord’s prayer, but our illness and discomfort are not. I have heard prayers and I myself have prayed prayers about every medical diagnosis you can imagine, but I rarely pray for God’s strength to help me love my enemies, I’m not often asked to pray for someone to have the courage to actually forgive the person that harmed them.
Prayer is, and must be, more than bringing our wish lists to Jesus, asking him for occasional help when our bodies are no longer functioning the way they are supposed to.
Prayer, instead, is the risky attempt to let Jesus speak.
That bishop, the one who nearly cut his arm off, the one who didn’t pray in the hospital, he said he was ultimately reluctant to clasp his hands together in petition because the last thing he wanted was to risk a visit from Jesus, who usually shows up making our lives harder and not easier.
The bishop also said that one of the joys of following Jesus (and he used joy sarcastically) is that Jesus usually shows up even when we don’t pray, and sometimes because we don’t pray.
He experienced Jesus in learning how to be dependent on someone else in his healing, something that most of us avoid at all costs – we never want to be a burden.
He experienced Jesus in the reminder of his own fragility, and his destiny to return to the dirt from which he was created.
He experienced Jesus as the only hope in the world he really had, because were his salvation up to himself, he really would be a lost cause.
There was a time when health didn’t mean just freedom from pain and physical discomfort – health meant wholeness, even holiness. And sometimes holiness is nothing more than coming to the realization that what makes the Good News good is that it isn’t up to us – it’s up to God.
Which is foolishness according to the world. The world bangs us over the head every chance it gets about the need for us to be self-made creatures, to make our own destinies, to pull ourselves up by our boot straps.
Grace, from that perspective, is complete foolishness. It is everything for nothing. It is a divine lark in the midst of overwhelming frustration. It is the only thing we need and the only thing we don’t deserve.
Our bodies will fail us, but God won’t. Maybe some of us will be fortunate enough to experience some divine healing in this life, but all of us have already received the greatest healing of all – the gift of salvation.
In the end, the only thing we have to do is trust God. And when we do that, well, then we’re living in grace and by grace.
No matter what happens to us in the course of that trust – no matter how many things we do or leave undone – if we can trust that God, by death and resurrection, has made all things new, then we can rest in our gift and relax.
The whole diorama of all our mediocre performances (which is all we can ever really offer anyway) can’t stop the Love that refuses to let us go. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our works were rotten, then he certainly isn’t going to flunk us if our bodies aren’t perfect.
Do you see? That means we can fail again and again and still live in the life of grace.
Because, at the very worst, all we can be is dead and for the One who is Alpha and Omega, that’s no trouble at all. Amen.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not be raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ — whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
He boarded the plane, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs during the flight. He was a pastor and a professor of theology and he knew better than to tell people, on a plane, what he did for a living.
He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at his average sized seat, and squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.
The preacher stuffed another small bag under his seat, and closed his eyes.
“Is that a Bible?” His seat mate intoned.
The preacher looked down and saw the spine of the Good Book sticking out for all eyes to see.
“What are you, a preacher?”
“Something like that” he responded while crossing his arms and closing his eyes, again.
“Well, I’m not a believer” the man said.
“That’s fine,” the preacher said without opening his eyes, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference what you do, or don’t believe. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The preacher thought that would keep his seat mate quiet for the remained of the flight. But he was wrong. Even though he sat there with his eyes clothes and arms crossed, the man started talking, and he didn’t stop.
First it was just the usual flying-next-to-a-stranger chit chat but eventually it turned serious, and the preacher’s seat partner started talking about Vietnam.
That’s when he opened his eyes and really listened.
The man went on and one, talked the entire flight, describing all the terrible things he did and how, went he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about what he was told to do.
Eventually, the man said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What you mean ‘confessed’? I ain’t confessing!”
“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to had over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”
And suddenly, he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plane, and said, “But I already told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt, and stood up over the man and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what’s inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one person to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign lit up and dinged for the whole cabin to hear, and a steward came over and asked the preacher to sit down. However, he ignored it, and placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”
“But you can’t do that,” the man whispered, while his eyes watered up.
“Oh yes I can, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.” And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for all the other passengers to hear it, and the man became a puddle of tears and he wept over himself like a child.
The rest of the plane was silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.
When the plan finally landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the good news. So the preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.
He said, “If what you said is true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I can believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed too, and said, “It takes a miracle for all of us. It’s too true to be good. That’s why we call it the Gospel.”
That’s a true story and I love it. I love it because its so good and true.
Notice, the preacher didn’t sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the sadness with talk of duty or responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead, he offered absolution.
He, to use the language of Paul, took the man out of his sins.
It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
Paul is worried about his friends in the faith, his Corinthian Christians – that’s what the whole letter is about. They’re drifting away from the path of the truth and the life and the way that Paul first shared with them.
He catches wind that they are no longer sharing the eucharist together, so he writes about the body of Christ having many members.
He learns that they are fighting constantly over who is the best and who is the worst, so he writes about Christ alone being the head of the body.
And here, in chapter 15, he gets to the heart of the matter – the resurrection of the dead.
Paul, if you can’t tell, is spitting logic through the pages of his epistle – “This is it you Corinthian Christians! It’s this or nothing! Everything, and I mean everything, depends on the truth of the One who is truth incarnate.”
He writes first of the story that he shared with them – Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.
It’s an announcement about things that happened – not a collection of generic religious principles, not a list of things to do or not to do.
The heart of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So Paul doesn’t pull any punches – If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools, and we are still in our sins.
It’s hard for us Christians, today, to hear the radical nature of Paul’s proclamation. We forget that this letter was written, sent, and read by Christians before any of the gospel stories were written down. We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, there’s a good chance that the Gospel would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to Gentiles like us.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been in vain, and Christian preaching is nothing more than wishful delusions and empty gestures.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with our faithless worship all while expecting people to live into a new world order that doesn’t really exist.
If there is no resurrection from the dead, then the only thing we can offer the world is a pious lie that leaves us completely and utterly hopeless.
But, let us remember: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.
And yet, the desire for proof remains. We’re addicted to certainty, us moderns. We want clarity above all else, and we can’t imagine a world outside the binaries of our distinctions.
But what is life if not a mystery?
I can’t prove the resurrection. No one can.
Believe this, believe that, we say in the church. And somehow the genuine character of one’s belief has become the litmus test for Christianity. Which is made all the more strange when we consider the amount of doubt right smack dab in the Bible!
My former professor Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “What a lost people we must be to think that God really cares whether we believe in Him or not.”
You see, one of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not continent on our belief. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still Lord.
We can’t prove it; we can only trust it – we can only point to it, and to the results of it around us.
Consider – Mark’s gospel tells us that, on Easter, the women fled from the tomb and told nothing to anyone because they were afraid.
But they told somebody something, otherwise, none of us would be here.
We experience Easter even now, all these years later. Some of us rejoice in the Good News, and some of us are terrified by it. And yet, Easter is why we are here. We’re here because, one way or another, we have heard the call of the Risen Christ, even when we may not have known that was what we heard.
Maybe some of us are here because we’re looking for proofs. I say look around, and you will begin to see it.
The women who went to the tomb that Easter morning were looking for and expecting a dead Jesus. And the angel says, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead. He ain’t here! He’s in Galilee. Go!”
When Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross, when he drew all things unto himself, he took all of our sins, past, present, future, he nailed them to the cross and left them there forever.
Therefore we are no longer in our sins, they do not define who we are, we have been set free forever and ever.
In church speak we call that absolution.
It is the proclamation of the promise that Christ made to us through his death and resurrection.
It is the declaration that even though Paul has a lot to say about sin, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – namely all of the them.
It is the conviction that Christ will keep coming back to us, banging us over the head if necessary with the only thing we really need – forgiveness.
God so loved the world that God got down from the throne and condescended to our miserable existence to reduce us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.
God so loved the world that God broke forth from the tomb and left behind the chains of death so that death will never be the final word.
God so loved the world that God died and lived again in order that we might do the same and no longer live lives defined by our sins.
The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their encounter with the Holy One of Israel. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow, or the next day, or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you trust it.”
The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. And later, when asked why he kept answered the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you — unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
I passed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received.
Jesus died for our sins.
He was buried in the tomb.
He was raised on the third day.
He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once.
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me – the least of all the apostles.
And he called me (me!), the one totally and completely unfit for the church because I persecuted the church.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace for me has not been in vain. And all that I have done, it’s not me, but the grace of God that is with me.
To Paul, this was of first importance.
Not a list of required behavioral attributes of the people called church.
Not a top ten list of the most important beliefs to affirm if you want to join the club.
Not a dress code of what you can, or can’t, wear to church.
Not a political party’s ideologies you must identify with.
Not even a vision of how to make the world a better place.
For Paul, a story was of first importance – the story.
Jesus lived, died, and lived again and then he appeared to the disciples.
Chances are that you’re here because you have heard this story. More often that not we discover our faith not because someone gave us a list of things to believe in, but because in receiving the story we discover ourselves within it.
And let me tell you, it is one crazy story.
I mean, what was Jesus thinking?
Jesus does the most remarkable thing to ever happen in the history of the cosmos, resurrection from the dead, and what does he do first? He goes off to find Peter, you know, the one who denied him no less than three times prior to the crucifixion!
Jesus surely would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective. If Jesus really wanted to spread the Good News, he should’ve gone straight to the movers and shakers – the ones who get things done.
If Jesus came to turn the world upside down, then why in the world did he start with the people at the bottom?
Our Lord, the one we love and adore, the solid rock upon which we stand, didn’t knock on the doors of the emperor’s palace with holes in his hands, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple and wait for the crowds to bow in humble reverence.
The resurrected Jesus appeared first and foremost to the very people to abandoned him.
Let us rest in that bewildering proclamation for a moment – Jesus breaks forth from the chains of death and shows up for the ragtag group of would-be followers who failed him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.
Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his betrayers.
Jesus returns to us.
This is why the Good News is something that has captivated the hearts and minds of many for centuries. Jesus sees us more in us than we see in ourselves… Jesus does his work, his very best work, through people like us!
People who don’t deserve it one bit.
Think about Peter and Paul – Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer – a denier of the faith and a killer of the faith.
And even before all that, Peter was nothing but a dirty rotten fisherman, and he wasn’t even very good at it. Out all night and not a single fish to show for his efforts. And Paul? Paul was a tentmaker! How could that possibly help in spreading the Gospel?
It would’ve been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but it’s Good News because he rose for them.
The church can be a lot of things. Depending on which one you enter, it can be a safe space for spiritual reflection with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows and incense. It can be a transformative assault on the senses with a Technicolor light show and a bumping praise band. And yet, regardless of the trimmings and the trappings, the outward appearance and the theological architecture, the church usually falls into one of two categories:
A group of good people who weekly pat themselves on the back for being gooder than everyone else.
Or a group of people who come together to cope with their failure to be good.
The first group sounds nice, and it can even be nice, but only for a short time. Because, eventually, all the shiny proclamations about all of our goodness fades away when we come to grips with the condition of our condition. One day all of the things that used to bring us comfort no longer ring true because we know ourselves and we know the world.
Basically, we discover that our goodness isn’t good enough.
We need something (read: someone) to do for us what we can’t do on our own.
The second group however, it doesn’t sell.
What do you think would happen if we put this on our church sign: “Raleigh Court UMC, we’re bad and we know it.”?
That doesn’t compel people to wake up early on a Sunday morning, and it certainly doesn’t drive people to knock on the neighbor’s doors with invitations to worship.
And yet the story of Jesus Christ, the one Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians, is that God comes to us not because we are good, but because we aren’t. And when we start to see that, not just in the strange new world of the Bible, but in our very lives, it is the difference that makes all the difference.
For a long time in the church there was an aspect of testimony, of witness. After all, that’s what Paul is doing in the letter. He shared with them how God had worked in his life. Therefore Christians, for centuries, have carved out time and space to proclaim the wonderful works of the Lord by pointing to the ways in which they had experienced the remarkable love and work of the God who refuses to abandon us.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.
I know this might be a tad uncomfortable – We’re Methodists. We like to talk about the Spirit moving, but it’s another things entirely to give ourselves over to see what the Spirit can stir up from within us.
Nevertheless, of first importance is the story that is our story. So, if you feel comfortable sharing how you have experienced the story of Christ in your life, how Christ has been the difference that has made all the difference, if you have something to share, I encourage you to come up to the microphone and proclaim that Good News…